“The fox has many tricks. The hedgehog has but one. But that is the best of all.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
I have a bag of tricks—I am not ashamed to admit it—to get my choirs to do what they need to do. Some are appropriate for young singers, some are appropriate for older singers and some are more appropriate for trained singers. I am not reluctant to use any of my tricks for any group if it helps them learn music.
There are groan-inducing tricks (singing everything on the vowels ONLY–which my adult choirs hate–or on solfeggio) or tricks that can’t possible work (count singing—which is also groan-inducing) or singing everything on a doo or la; all of which DO WORK in the right circumstance. Yawning, rubber bands, balloons and drinking straws are also part of my arsenal. And after years of experience, I am able to tell which of my strategies will work, where.
In the early years of my career, I was insulted I wasn’t trusted when I wanted my singers to “sing outside the box.” Getting that initial trust to try something different was difficult. I used to tell my church choir I would tap dance if I had to for them to get something…and then break into a “shuffle-off-to-buffalo” or a “step-ball-change” which always made them laugh. Only then, would they try one of “Marie’s crazy ideas”…..I had to trot out my tap dancing chops to get ‘em to try ‘em! When I left the position, that choir would try anything I suggested, even the “inside out” technique most balked at trying in the beginning.
Occasionally, I have an adult “insulted” I’m suggesting a technique they deem “below” them. Clapping a tricky rhythm or singing everything forte instead of piano or piano instead of forte makes no sense to them, until they’ve tried it. I drag them, kicking and screaming, to try whatever technique they don’t understand and then they trust me. But it is often eye rolls and exasperated sighs as I explain what I want before they do. These days, I don’t care if they think something is silly as long as they are willing to try it.
My chamber choir is preparing an unaccompanied Felix Mendelssohn part song for our June concert. It is in two large sections; the first in e minor (in 3) and the second in E Major (in 2). It is one of loveliest German part songs we’ve ever sung but it is darn difficult. Each section, separately, is ready to rock n’ roll, but together—OY VEH! There is almost no preparation for the new key, other than one beat of rest, before we not only jump into Major but into a new time signature as well. This is the time for my “inside out” technique which means practicing the four measures before the key change, then the first four measures of the new key, then putting them together, then adding a phrase or two on each side of the minor/Major sections until the piece has been sung from the middle of the piece outward, from beginning to end. It should work, since it has in the past.
Why am I blogging about this? Recently, I mentioned having a “bag of tricks” to a colleague I don’t know very well. That colleague was horrified, horrified I tell you, that I would suggest something as offensive as having “tricks” to use in a choral rehearsal. Or something like that: I stopped listening after the first few horrifieds. He talked about being a good conductor and director, as well as an excellent musician, so why would he need to stoop to “tricks?” I started to ask him what he does if his choir is singing a wimpy piano (I would have them sing the passage forte a few times, then sing it again piano as written, usually a BIG DIFFERENCE) but then stopped. Because he was rhapsodizing about music being a pure art form and should not be sullied with “tricks;” generally stating he knew what he was doing and so did his choir. Sigh. I suppose he does. As for me, I do what works for me and my choirs. And that guy can get over it!