In-house course reports…
Kentwood Show Choir training day
by Gillyanne Kayes
I first worked with the Kentwood Show Choir in November 1998, having met the director Sheila during the summer. Sheila came to me for some personal follow-up and has been implementing SATA techniques into the choir’s vocal training for several years.
The choir are renowned for their active, vibrant singing and their use of many different musical genres in one programme. So following a short vocal warm-up, my first task was to ask choir members to identify their challenges, individually and as a group.
– Breathing – controlling breath, what to do when running out.
– Choreography while singing – Sheila Harrod’s term is ‘choralography’. A unique feature of the choir is that music is performed vocally and physically.
– Performance nerves – dealing with solos under pressure, general confidence
– First notes – especially when nervous, when high, when quiet
– Range – choices for the middle of the range, dealing with the gear change, coping with big intervals, staying relaxed when singing high tessitura
– Voice quality – how to sing classically when required, how not to when required.
– Singing staccato
– Runs or passage work – how to keep the voice light
I began with a series of exercises to identify and engage the ‘diamond of support’. These included lip trills and fricatives, finding the coughing muscles, and focussing on the release of abdominal wall for recoil breath. The exercises helped the singers to control the outflow of breath, take quick and efficient in-breaths, and identify some important muscle groups used in core stability. The techniques were layered with physical tasks that might be used in choralography such as a simple shuffle step, arm swings and finger-snapping.
Next we moved to the silent laugh or silent breathing; this addresses nerves and stress as well as being a route to an open throat. We rehearsed silent singing with silent in-breaths as a preparation. It was noted that when the choir adopted this posture in the larynx they felt open and ready to engage with the audience. The choir experimented with a setting of the gospel song ‘Every Time I Feel the Spirit’, and Sheila commented that they looked and sounded ‘connected’. I recommended that this should be one of the exercises used in a 7 minute warm-up for choir members prior to starting rehearsal.
In the afternoon we worked on the soft palate. The exercises help to create a clear and resonant sound and enable the singer to feel where the vowels live in the mouth.
Finding where the soft palate lives (ing-ing-ing) was followed by the ngGEE exercise to differentiate between open and closed nasal port. Soft palate work was then used to feel the ‘lift’ as a preparation for high notes, with the choir using the Hallelujah Chorus to practise singing high passages.
Identifying and negotiating the gear changes was an almost universal challenge. I used several exercises to find thyroid ’tilt’ to thin and stretch the vocal folds. We also compared this ‘tilt’ or ‘cry’ posture with a breathy falsetto above the gear change.
Each voice group (soprano, alto etc) worked though the gear change using sliding exercises and scales. Incidentally, we agreed that this solution to the passaggio or gear change is a more classical one and that other options exist.
Finding different voice qualities was the last major topic for the day. The group wanted to clarify its practise of different vocal qualities and the set-up for each of the following:
Speech – we found it important to work on the voice-body connection in this section: stabilising the vocal tract and the body. Squeezing oranges between the armpit and torso was the favourite device for accessing the large muscles of the back – the lats!
Cry – cry was used for clear, lyric singing, and to access soft high notes, which pleased the sopranos. Child voice was the most helpful way for the choir to access thyroid tilt. Further work was done on sustaining tone in this quality. This is not just used in classical music, so the choir used a standard – ‘So in Love’ – as a practise song.
Twang – twang was accessed via the small miaow and the big miaow (cat yowling). We asked the sopranos (there are 5 in the choir) to use this quality in the build of ‘Every Time I Feel the Spirit’ as they would be competing with the rest of the choir singing in speech quality. The sopranos said that they felt like they were ‘singing in a 78 record’ but everyone else liked the effect. The sopranos agreed that it was easier to get volume in this passage using the twang and were prepared to try it again.
Operatic voice – this was an opportunity to demonstrate how twang is used in classical singing. The instructions were to begin in twang, then lower the larynx, then support the body and vocal tract. This worked well and was used for the ‘Easter Hymn’. The terms ‘warm twang’ and ‘tinny twang’ were used to differentiate between twang for Opera and twang for Gospel.
Belting – Gillyanne took first the women and then the men through her warm-up for belting. All of the women belted to the C above middle C and some to Eb. The men belted to G# and tenor high C
Since the work had progressed so fast, there was a little time left over to address this. The type of ‘staccato’ wanted was really the articulation needed for choral coloratura (such as in ‘His Yoke is Easy’ from Handel’s Messiah). We explored singing separate notes slowly in one breath, then building up speed with more repetitions on each note, and then we moved to scales and scale passages.
And to finish…
The choir finished the day with work on John Dankworth’s ‘Celebration’. This is a piece composed especially for the Kentwood Choir to perform at the Stables, Wavendon on 8th October this year. We used speech and twang qualities to achieve the exciting, Broadway-based sound required for the song.
This was a truly action-packed day with a group of highly committed singers. The choir members clearly work well together and love their singing. Sheila Harrod’s skill and joie de vivre helps make this choir very special and I feel privileged to have helped them along their path.