Creating good Blend
Thank you all very much for a ton of good ideas! Here is part one of a
compilation for those who asked for it.
Regarding your question about rehearsing in sections vs. mixed:
I use both with my 80-member college group. In the beginning of the
year, I will set up both formations. Then, I will use both setups during
*each* rehearsal. I will plan the rehearsals in a week so that a piece
is rehearsed in each formation. Quickly, the weaker singers who depend
on hearing their own part will find the two formations nearly
I find it most helpful to first rehearse a piece in sections
(reinforces the individual part), next rehearse for balance, style, etc.
in a mixed formation, then come back to sections for reinforcement on
pitches, but now with the style added in the previous rehearsal. Then,
we simply rotate back-and-forth a few more rehearsals until it is
obvious which formation should be used in concert.
If I take the time (albeit a lot) to set up two formations in the
beginning of the term, it does not waste rehearsal time to change
around. The singers get used to it quickly. I try to move singers
between the formations with as little move across the room as possible.
After about two moves, they just accept it as part of the rehearsal. I
always make the move while I have baton up and the accompanist is giving
pitches to start. If they are slow on the first couple of moves, they
will not be ready when I start. I then "get on to them" for being late
for an entrance and the problem of moving slow is fixed.
Hope this is helpful for you.
I dont' have anything earth-shattering to say, but maybe something will be
For choir setup, you might try one rehearsasl, or a half-rehearsal, with the
basses behind the sopranos and the tenors behind the altos. Then reverse
men. They'll all still be in secitonts for the weaker singers, but they
hear differently. You can ask them whatthey thought after, and of course
you'll hear any differences. I think it would be great if you could
the men at the break, if there is one, so you'd hear differences right away.
As for balance and blend, if they need convincing, what about recordings of
balanced and unbalanced or belnded and unblended groups? A recording they
where some parts stick out, and then a professional Cd of the same piece?
I believe most blend issues (other than intonation issues) have to do with
matching vowels/vowel shapes. For quick result exercises, try something
physical, like having them all sing the same vowel and use their hands to
guide their mouths into the same shape, prefereably long and not wide!
If they are seated in a circle or semi-circle so they can hear better, you
have them modify the vowels while they hold a note or a chord or an open
fifth, from whatever they "normally" sing to the result of using their hans
their faces, and usually there's an audible change. They should like the
I have three choirs at different levels and I do these sorts of things with
all of them and the result is audible at all levels. Guiding the jaw an
cheeks gently down while singing an ah is only the first step, or
rounding the lips for an oh, or sticking them out for an ooh...
Then you can add whatever else will be helpful, like raising the palate,
moving the tongue, etc. But I find the large gestures of just general
shape to be the most immediately effective, and without the hands on
face,people don't reallydo it as much as they THINK they are. Then look at
them and be sure they really are!
Apologies if thi is simplistic. I don't mean to be insulting.
I too have a choral group of similar size and have tried the "scramble"
approach (and found the weak to fall apart when this is done). I am not
giving up though as I believe mixing up the voices creates better musicians
(if they work at being strong on their own.
My first suggestion is to know your voices - which are the ones with solid
voices and a good ear. If you choose to keep the voices in the orientation
you mentioned, I would place the solid, strong voices BEHIND those you know
Another suggestion (keeping the first in mind) is to orient your group in a
quad - with 3 of each voice together (thus allowing your weaker voices (*)
to have someone to their left AND their right. Those on the margin will
also have a good opportunity to hear their companion voices. Believe it or
not, it may even matter if that person is to their LEFT or RIGHT side.
A1 - A2* - A3 - S1 - S2* - S3
A4 - A5* - A6 - S4 - S5* - S6
B1 - B2* - B3 - T1 - T2* - T3
B4 - B5* - B6 - T4 - T5* - T6
The one big challenge to this orientation is people's height. If the better
voices are SHORT people, without a riser, they can get lost in the crowd.
Please let me know how you make out and any successful techniques you were
able to employ.
The way in which you arrange your choir, and your reasons for it, are
already a lesson in choral blend and balance. That, combined with a
discussion about what you look for in your auditions, and why you choose
certain singers, might get you started on your lesson plan. If the members
of your choir are brave enough, using some of them as examples of voices
that blend and balance (or don't!), why that is true, and showing how you
want them to correct those problems (vowel shapes, LISTENING, balance of
registers within the voices, LISTENING, etc.) might transfer into some
exercise with all or part of the choir to try out what you have
demonstrated. The goal is to lay down some principles that you can refer to
in some sort of shorthand during rehearsals throughout the year. So less
talk and more examples that your singers can hear and feel themselves is
I find the totally scrambled arrangement, or a modified scrambled
arrangement that accommodates imbalance of numbers or weak singers, to work
best with music that is mostly homophonic. Another arrangement that can
work well with a relatively large choir that has the usual numerical
predominance of women is to divide it into 2 relatively equal choirs -
grouping the men of both choirs next to each other in the center of the
arrangement, and the women on the two outside ends - essentially a mirroring
arrangement. This opens possibilities for real double choir settings
without changing position, and also creates an opportunity (at least in
rehearsal) to play the 2 halves of the choir off against each other to make
them more aware of balance, nuance, etc.
As for the "standard" SATB arrangement, I prefer either:
S - B - T - A (if running each section all the way front to back), or
B - T
S - A with overflow of women rapping around the ends.
My principal reason for this is that I like to have the top and bottom (S-B)
close together so that the outside voices can tune and balance better.
Likewise, balance in the inner voices profits from being in close proximity.
(I know some totally reverse this setup - the principle is the same.)
In rehearsal - if the group is small enough and/or the room is large enough
- I occasionally like to put the entire choir in a circle, sometimes in
mixed voicing, but often simply working around the circle from
heaviest/lowest voices to lightest/highest.
Another rehearsal trick that I like to use on occasion is to have each
SECTION sit in a circle, separated a bit from the other sections, so they
really can hone in on blend, or simply on agreeing on the notes!
There is value in shaking the blend and security up a bit by changing the
arrangement occasionally (in rehearsal), and changes that make
musical/performance sense can add visual/aural interest (in performance).
But in general, I like to have the bodies and voices have several rehearsals
in the physical arrangement that will be used in performance. Unless you
have a ample time to actually rehearse in your performance space, the
security of familiar voices is helpful to most singers.
Charles Q. Sullivan
hecking my library I find I have several references on choral technique.
>From any of them I could create a presentation on choral blend and balance.
The topic is so significant that considerable work needs to be given to it.
If you do not have such a library of your own, visit any nearby university
and investigate the choral resources. You will find ample material on which
to base your presentation.
Now, about the seating arrangement. You have your sections spread too
thinly. Assuming that you have an even number of singers in each section
here is how I would arrange them.
As with your description, the rows are left to right and front to back.
4th row: 5 1st altos, 5 baritones, 5 1st tenors, 5 1st soprano
3rd row: 5 2nd sopranos, 5 2nd tenors, 5 basses, 5 2nd altos
2nd row: 5 2nd altos, 5 basses, 5 2nd tenors, 5 2nd sopranos
1st row: 5 1st sopranos, 5 1st tenors, 5 baritones, 5 1st altos
In this arrangement with undivided SATB you have four quartets of 5 voices
on each part. In divisi you have 5 singers on each part, women's voices on
the outside, men all together in the middle. If you make a 4x4 chart of
this seating pattern you will see the relationships of the various sections.
Admittedly, this makes cueing sections very complicated but workable because
you have small sections grouped together.
To seat voices in each section, use Weston Noble's system. I mentioned this
in a previous message but you may not have seen it. Have each member sing
"My Country, 'tis of thee" a cappella in duet with another singer in the
section. As you do this you will hear how certain voices easily blend and
other voices do not sound good together. In each group, you will have 5
voices placed together. Try to put the singer with the best vowel
production and intonation in the center of the line and group the others
accordingly on each side.
In all matters of blend and balance you need to have an aural model towards
which you are working. I tried to find the quote but could not locate it
quickly. I thought it was Sergius Kagen but am not certain. However, when
a singer mentions the issue of blend in a choir I am conducting, I simply
tell them "Correctly produced voices blend naturally."
When I was a student I confessed to my choral methods professor that I was
overwhelmed with the issue to turning a group of singers into a choir,
especially when they were are more well trained vocalists than I. He told
me that it is necessary to teach EVERY choir to sing for me the way I want
them to sing. Whatever level of training they may bring to the choir, you
still must tune their vowels, place their consonants, make sure they match
pitch, adjust their intervals, and tell them what dynamics to use. If you
do those things, they will blend and balance.
I have since found that he was correct. Every group will have singers with
different techniques. The professional opera chorus, the volunteer
community theatre chorus, the amateur church choir, all have different
backgrounds, different strengths and different weaknesses. You must teach
them to all sing the same way. When they do that, they will blend. You
must constantly adjust the dynamics based upon such issues as temperature,
clothing, acoustical environment, audience size and so on. This results in
balance that either matches or conflicts with your aural model.
I hope some of this helps. Feel free to ask for any clarification.
Guy Hayden, Minister of Music
St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
Regarding balance and blend - one of the first things I do with my
children's choir is to "voice" them within each section. To do this, I
arrange them generally by height within their section, and have 3 - 4
singers sing "Alleluia" slowly on one pitch (usually A). We listen to
the blend, then rearrange them and sing again. We do this until we have
the matching of voices that we all like. Then I go the the next group
of 3 or 4 and do the same. Then 2 rows together, then the section, etc.
It is astounding the first time you do this, to realize how different
voices are, and what a difference it makes to the overall sound of the
section and the choir in general. My singers always listen very
attentively, and I often ask their opinion if the choices are close.
They seem very interested, and even though it takes a good bit of time,
the end result is well worth it. I should add that I recheck the blend
from time to time, especially if I have a different standing arrangement
than the one I started with.
Bel Canto Children's Chorus
Part two will follow shortly.
Here is the second part of the afore-mentioned compilation.
A small point of clarification: in both parts of this compilation, the name
of the contributor appears after the contribution.
I am still experiencing with various ways to improve balance and blend, but
it is surprising how much difference the choir setup makes. Sometimes, the
sound just doesn't mix well, and the singers notice as well. However, once
we switch to, say, an SATBSATB formation, the problems are immediately
fixed. With my top group of 20 singers, particular types of songs work well
in one formation and not another, so we shuffle around quite often to find
out what works and what doesn't.
IMHO, the 2 most important things for blend are uniform vowel shape and
pronunciation along with seating within the sections to match voices.
These two factors also greatly effect intonation.
When you start moving singers around and listening, you will immediatly
hear differences in blend and intonation, depending on the arrangement.
Others can discuss more ideas about how to go about that. It works with
all ages--Howard Swan did that with our college group always. I do it with
my children's choirs. Balance is another subject.
I try this little exercise a couple times a year-I don't know who I stole it
from. One student in a section start an "oo" vowel on a pitch all members
can sing. One by one (I point to bring them in) we add a singer their job
to join in without a noticeable entry-sneak in. The blend and is quite
remarkable and the concentration is outstanding. In my rehearsal setting of
75 I may only do a section on any given day or parts of all sections. Then
we try to begin altogether with the same sound while it is still fresh in
their ears. It doesn't take long and is great for control and listening.
Grand Island Senior High School
Howard Swann's techniques for blending..check his writings or I will do a
workshop for you...sometime....
How about trying rounds? Don't laugh, sometimes a round that emphasizes
certain musical concepts help more than isolated vocaleses/excersizwes that
"turnoff" or bore your "community chorister". (ie: "Day is Done", the old
scout song, is based on a major tonic triad, with the appearance of the
dominant only once, so you may consider this to work on getting major
5ths, etc. in tune before attempting a piece that may enphasize the same
I would recommend playing recordings, especially of the different choirs on
the same piece...it helps to hear
Perhaps having them alternate in stepping away from the choir during your
excersises would help too!
Good luck, I would love to see what else you hear.
orange, ca 1) In thirty years of community chorus leadership I have never
the word blend in a rehearsal. The concept of blend is at best a safe
shortcut to getting a unified sound--but the cost is the loss of each
singer's individuality, of the essential character of each voice.
The alternative to teaching a blended sound is to teach the choir as
a group how to sing the 10-12 essential vowels, i.e., getting them all
to conceive of each vowel in exactly the same manner while singing
with their own characteristic sound. I think of it as a group of soloists,
each employing their own unique sound but in complete accord with
regard to the pronunciation of the vowels. It takes a bit longer to
establish, but with the right vocalizes one can develop a MUCH broader
range of vocal color. The reason is because blended sound is about
holding back in order to achieve unity. The approach I advocate is
about taking full advantage of the myriad colors present in a choir
by achieving unification in their concept of the pronunciation of each
vowel. Hence there is no loss of timbre, as there is in a blended
By the way, I learned this method from Roger Wagner in the course
of preparation for a three-month Roger Wagner Chorale tour of the
U.S. for Columbia Artists.
I hope you won't consider it immodest that I have attached two recent
review of the UMS Choral Union, the group I have led for the past ten
years. I have done so only because of the reviewers' comments about
the sound of the chorus.
2) The seating which I find best suited to large group performances
is (going from left to right) sopranos to my left (firsts in back, seconds
in front), then basses (bass II in back, baritone in front), then tenors
(tenor I in back, and seconds in front) and then altos (alto I in back,
seconds in front). My teacher, William Hall, used the same setup you
mentioned, but I never liked the sound of both high voices (S/T) side
by side--it always sounded like a bright vs. dark effect (S/T vs. B/A),
sort of pitting the brighter sound on the left against the darker sound
on the right. Having the outer voices on one side and the inner voices
on the other has always sounded more balanced to my ear.
Best wishes for a wonderful concert season.
Thomas Sheets, D.M.A.
Conductor, UMS Choral Union
Music Faculty, Oakland Community College
Conductor, Jackson Chorale
Choirmaster, St John's Episcopal Church, Detroit
Quite a good opportunity for you!!
I don't use the word blend, since it encompasses so many negative and
confusing things. I talk about the separate components of choral sound,
since those are the things we must control and agree on. Good choral sound
(not "blend") is agreement of:
1. pitch ("focus" of pitch and "center" of the pitch are helpful
terms--this also encompasses vibrato, another word I don't use. Vibrato
problems are almost always pitch problems.
2. vowels--a good chance to discuss vertical shaping of vowels in general
3. dynamics (balance)--this is tied to shaping phrases together as an
4. rhythm--often overlooked, but the voice that sticks out is often late
or (less often ) early as well as too loud and wide. If that voice arrives
on time, it sticks out much less.
5. resonance--everybody making a sound that is alive--nobody hiding.
So blend starts to look like just correct musical fundamentals, and not a
restriction of individual vocal freedom.
Ann Howard Jones has a great exercise for blend awareness:
--sing an easy chord in tune
--distort it to an out-of-tune, out-of-focus sound (great fun)
--FIX it again. This always results in a much-improved sound, which
everyone notices, and provides a great beginning of blend awareness.
Sorry to go on so long and dogmatically, but I think "blend" can be better
achieved as described above.
Eastman school of Music
my biggest suggestions would be...
1. choose a simple melody with a variety of intervals (maybe two melodies)
2. begin working EVERYTHING in unison using vowel sounds
3. start with the more open vowels and move to the more closed (ah, aw, aye,
ih, ee, oh, oo) making sure the volume stays even. MAKE SURE THERE IS A
UNITY OF VOWEL SOUND... (this always steps on lots of toes... but the result
is stunning when it works) all vowels must have the same sound from each
member... . NO WARPING! (my rule is first say the word CORRECtLY, then sing
it the way you said it... identifying the longer/more important parts and
the shorter/less important parts of the words they might be having trouble
with... like... um... LORRRRRRRRRRD as opposed to LOOOOOOOrd.. i'm sure you
know that i have come to call the "horror words".
4. take major time tuning all intervals.
this does take a litle time to sink in to some folks... especially those
with bad habits and what i call "choiritis"....
move on to a simple phrase or line from an upcoming selection... or perhaps
select your simple melody from an upcoming selection... and put these ideas
tell the choir they have brought their voices not only to combine them, but
to create a "new instrument"... a new instrument with "one mind".... this is
really an exciting concept...
i'm getting swamped by the phone... gotta go.
Phil Micheal (Philm54(a)aol.com)
Director of Music
Jefferson Ave. Presbyterian Church (A great place to be!)
big thing I've been taught here at U of Miami is to eliminate the word
"blend"... and replace it with more inclusive language such as "unified."
The very word "blend" can imply to some people that the singer is to totally
give up of themselves, which isn't the idea we are after. We need all their
heart, soul, energy and voice -- just less vibrato or a better vowel! The
word "blend" can also unintentionally encourage bad vocal technique as one
singer tries to mimick another's technique to make the same sound. It's
just looking at the half-full/half-empty glass from a different angle. To
me, as singer and conductor, "unified" means same vowel, dynamic, etc. but
not the exact same sound.
One concept I try with my church choir is to have them think of "one voice."
The sopranos are all "one voice" with different colors added together to
make one beautiful color. But a section sound is like changing the dial on
a color wheel... too much of one color and it gets skewed. It's no longer
the beautiful color you once had. Now it has too much blue or red.
As far as exercises... well... one thing I observed at a festival situation
where one of the adjudicators was working with a choir with a "blend"
problem. He asked about 6 girls to stand out in front (facing the choir)
and sing a unison pitch on an "oo" vowel. Then he gave them directives
about forming the vowel, had them sing it again (and it was "blended" or
"unified"). Then he specifically asked one singer to sing "the old way"
while everyone else sang "the new way." When the rest of the choir heard
what one person could do to the sound, it was like 40 light bulbs had gone
on over their heads. Most of the time choirs don't realize they can be
better or achieve better until they hear it. I perform regularly as a
soloist with a community oratorio choir... and the members of that group
don't realize the sound they are making isn't that great. Their new
conductor played recordings of them and they thought it was fine because
they didn't really know any better. Then he encouraged them to come to a UM
concert and hear the Chorale just back from ACDA, and they realized they
could go a lot further.
I don't know if this helps at all, but it's my two cents worth. :-)
Suzanne M. Hatcher
DMA Candidate & Graduate Teaching Assistant, University of Miami
Director of Music, Christ Congregational United Church of Christ, Miami
You might read the chapter on Voice from Henry Coward's "Choral
Technique and Interpretation". He gives many comments and some
exercises to help make a good choral blend. I recently posted a link
to this book online on my website at http://www.hartenshield.com
I participated in a fascinating session with Weston Noble once, where four
singers on the same part were moved around each other to determine how to
blend our voices within a section. Having us sing beside one person or
another made a huge difference in the corporate sound of the section. Why
not take quartets of the same voices and have them sing in front of the
group (if they're not too embarrassed) and switch them around and see what
happens. You (and your choir) may be delighted at the changes!
Robert G. Boer
Assistant Professor of Music
Thanks again, everyone, for all your help.