from GARY BOLLES, Music Specialist


The three key qualities to successful ensemble singing! As we move along the road that is excellence in...singing, we sometimes lose sight of just what it is we expect ourselves to be dedicated to and that can lead to a loss of trust in each other. Last summer, I had a long discussion with a long time friend and directing colleague about special problems of small choruses. Recently, he reminded me that I'd made the statement, "it's easy for small choruses to sing A's." and he asked me if I could explain what I meant. This is the substance of my answer to him...I hope each of us will find these thoughts and concepts useful reminders as we, together, continue toward great music.

What does it take to sing A's [High level scores in competition]?

I'm just going to fire off a few observations in no particular order:

  1. Every performer must be committed to the same goal. It is the job of the Leadership Team to establish a series of achievable objectives (build for success), which lead toward the goal and to enlist the members of the ensemble in their pursuit. The degree to which every performer accepts the goal and the objectives is the degree to which the ensemble will achieve them.
  2. Every performer must accept the fact that, in order for the ensemble to improve, he must improve. It is not someone else's job to improve - it is everyone's job. There are no exceptions.
  3. Every performer must also accept the fact that he must change in order to improve. A singer who is satisfied with the way he sings will not improve and will therefore violate #2. The same is true for every member of the Leadership Team.
  4. Improvement must be thought of as a series of small, but permanent steps toward one's maximum potential. Singing a two-octave scale with no perceptible change in vocal quality is a daunting challenge for any singer, and most amateur singer's despair of ever being able to be that good. But any singer can learn to sing two scalar notes without changing vocal quality. Once two notes are mastered, it is a small step to learn three notes. This is how we achieve improvement. And remember - any individual improvement improves the entire ensemble!
  5. Trust is a powerful ally. It is also quite fragile. When the members of an ensemble trust each other and their leadership, wonderful music results. However, even small violations of the trust can be absolutely fatal if allowed to go unchallenged.
  6. The Leadership Team must learn to reward positive behavior, no mater how insignificant, in a public manner. The ensemble must learn to regard changes they are required to make as additions rather than corrections.
  7. The components of A-level singing are relatively simple (though achieving them cam sometimes be problematic). Sing the same word sounds at the same time with the same message in the same key. That's all there is to it! Now this may seem simplistic but really that's all there is. Is it reasonable and achievable for every singer to make the agreed upon shape for every target sound? Certainly. Is it reasonable and achievable for every singer to execute the connecting word sounds accurately and in synchronization? Certainly. Is it reasonable and achievable for every singer to sing with meaning and heart? Certainly. Is it reasonable and achievable for every singer to sing in tune? Weeelllll..........:-)

    With respect to singing in tune: given an average ear and an average ability to match pitch, there are very few Barbershoppers who consistently sing out of tune. They do, however, sing in tune with what they hear, and if what they hear is a sound full of noise they are likely to disagree on matters of pitch. Noise in the sound created primarily by poor execution of word sounds, mainly target (vowel) sounds. The singer may create this type of noise himself or other singers in the ensemble. Improved target singing nearly always minimizes or eliminates out of tune singing. Other causes are out-of-balance chord voicing and just plain poor vocal production. The main concept though is that out-of-tune singing is almost always a symptom not a cause. Discover and correct the cause and good intonation magically appears!
  8. The route to A-level singing is unison singing of the SONG. This is the only texture, which consistently allows the individual singer to hear and correct his "departures." Unison singing in small groups (as few as three) is an effective technique to build trust and consistent performance.
  9. Duets of one part vs. the melody are great means of allowing performers to feel how the part relates to the song. Duets of parts on parts can also be useful to highlight points of interest in the arrangement.
  10. Practice makes permanent. If the expectation is to perform with accuracy and meaning then it must be demanded 100% of the time. There is nothing to be gained by rehearsing large portions of songs (or even whole songs) if the discipline in the execution disappears. If the ensemble can sing only four bars at a time, then rehearse in four bar passages until such time as skills and discipline allow longer passages. Assemble the whole, by developing consistently excellent execution of its parts.
  11. There is no room in ensembles for individuals. Every performer must subordinate to the ensemble. This means that everyone will need to make a change or adopt a technique that he would not otherwise choose to do for the sake of the ensemble.
  12. There is no room for ego. The music is everything - there is nothing else. One does not sing to be better than someone else - one sings to share the joy and beauty of the music. One does not sing to achieve his own agenda - he sings to share the composer's agenda:

        "You are the humble servant of the music and the faithful messenger of the composer"

  13. There are no secrets to A-level singing and most people already know them. The difference between those who achieve A scores and those who don't is merely a matter of personal execution of the things they already know. If every member of an ensemble performs at 85% of his potential, the ensemble will score a minimum of 85.
  14. Songs do not win audiences (or contests) - SINGING wins audiences. One can sing songs only as well as one sings. If the objective is to sing songs better, one must learn to sing better - the songs will follow.
  15. There is no such thing as a "contest" song. There is only good singing. To treat certain songs as deserving of less attention not only cheapens them in the performer's mind, it cheats his audience of his best efforts and causes him to practice less than optimal performance. There must be only one mode of singing, be it rehearsal, practice, performance or contest, and that is the very best the singer can do.
  16. A-level singing cannot be achieved be attempting it once a week. Each singer must realize that to be a singer is a 24-hour a day, 7 day a week, 52 week a year proposition. A singer must behave as any other musician - a daily exercise of the instrument is necessary to keep skills sharp.
  17. Anybody with an average ear and an average voice can do this. All a singer has to do is decide to do it. The good choruses out there are not made up of exceptional singers - they are made up of regular guys who have made an exceptional effort. Choose to make an exceptional effort and convince those around you to do the dame and the musical success will result.