How to achieve that focused English choir sound
Several ask for a compilation of the replies I received in regards to
training a more focused sound--particularly as achieved by English Choirs.
I direct a Parish Church choir in the UK of average quality, but sing myself
in 3 other choirs of a much higher standard.
I believe that the key to the focused tone you talk of is unanimity of vowel
sounds. Much time is spent in English choirs in perfecting the correct
sounds - and these are slightly different for different styles of music -
Latin vowels being particularly pure and uncorrupted with diphthongs. Once
everyone is making the same (correct) vowel sounds, the sense of focus is
immediate. In terms of creating the volume with a small choir, it is a
developed by each sing creating the right space in the mouth to sing from -
raising the soft palate to create the resonance needed to project the sound.
Other tricks are getting the choir to sing the vowel sound "air" as in hair
instead of "e" in Amen. This is a much happier sound and one that is easier
to project; the audience cannot tell the difference.
Finally, I would say that the greatest help I have had in choir directing
has come from singing in better choirs; it stops you sinking to the average
level of the choir you are directing, keeps you fresh and keeps in sight the
goals that they should be striving for.
Dear Samuel Metzger,
I believe the "secret" of the powerful, focused sound produced by relatively
small British choirs is the impeccable intonation with which they typically
sing. Good intonation in choral singing requires that *every* singer be
listening to the whole sound, not just individual parts. Anything you do to
foster the habit of active listening and intensely "in-tune" singing will be
helpful. Insisting that singers listen and tune to one another, especially
in small groups and at low volume levels, will reduce vibrato since
individual singers are no longer pushing in order to hear themselves. In my
personal experience it's the ear just as much as the vocal apparatus that
has to be trained.
Warning: I am not a professional singer or choral conductor! I am a
keyboardist by training, and for forty-plus years I have observed and
sometimes participated in groups trying (with varying degrees of success) to
achieve this sort of sound. The conductors who just asked for "straight
tone" or even worse "no vibrato" were the least likely to get good results!
Helen Skuggedal Reed
MM AAGO ARCT
1435 Brookside Drive
Evansville IN 47714 USA
It is my opinion that the "ring" you refer to results
from really fine intonation. A straight tone seems to
produce more ring harmonically because there is less
variation in the pitch.
Flower Mound, TX
I have some thoughts on this which I think may be useful - a lot of this is
to do with dispelling the commonly taught technique which encourages the
idea that you need to open everything wide to make a loud sound!
Unfortunately this is the beginning of the semester and time is short, so
more will follow!
Director of Choral Activities
The New England Conservatory
There are several issues here which need to be addressed separately.
1. "Ring" refers to the "singer's formant," a set of overtones around
2000Hz. These are experienced by the singer as "forward resonance" or
"mask resonance." I ask my singers to vocalize on the "ng" sound to
feel the forward resonance ("buzzing") in their face, and to apply
that feeling to their vowel singing throughout their range.
2. Intonation. The reason you can hear the ringing so clearly in good
choirs is that they are singing very well in tune, so their overtones
all match up and reinforce one another. I don't have any shortcut for
this other than to work explicitly on it, taking time both during
warm-ups and during music rehearsal to listen for good intonation,
force them to tune their parts to one another rather than listen to
the piano. Learn about the difference between "perfect" and
"tempered" tuning (if you don't already know) and teach them to hear
3. Blend. I think this is maybe what you mean by "focus," a word used
by different conductors to mean different things. Part of blend is
listening to each singer and telling them what you hear in their
voice which is different from the other singers' (without implying
that theirs is wrong) and see if you can ask them to change their
production to match. Be very careful with this, especially if some
singers are taking voice lessons, because you may interfere with
their own personal voice development.
4. Vowels. People think it's easy to sing English because they "know"
how to pronounce it, but in fact everyone pronounces it differently.
Use the warm-ups to teach them what particular vowel sounds are
called, and how to sing them together, and then call their attention
in rehearsal to particular words which use those sounds. Stop to
listen to each singer sing particular words. My philosophy is that
there's no real "right" way to pronounce English, as long as they're
all doing it the same way, so I tend to go with a "majority rules"
approach. When the vowels don't match, the overtones don't either,
and the result is it sounds out of tune.
Allen H Simon
Soli Deo Gloria
Bring the sound forward. Vocalize on lots of ooooo sounds. have the kids
pucker up. All vowels have to be very north south. Long E sounds have to
be pure instead of modified as we do in bel canto. NO VIBRATO! I trained
a group of 7th graders to sound like this a number of years ago. It was a
lot of fun. Not good for art songs, though!
East Syracuse Minoa High School
East Syracuse, New York
One can start with Frauke Haasemann's book Voice Building for Choirs from
I have lived a good many times in England, and have always loved the
sound of such choirs. I work in America, however, and produce
recordings and conduct both instrumental groups and choirs on those
recordings. In some cases I have had to train the same group of
singers to sing everything from pop to renaissance. The best way to
get that wonderful "head tone", almost a boy choir sound, is to work
at placing the tone very much in that head register and, more
important, cut the vibrato down to almost zilch. It really works,
even with small groups.
Hear the music at: