By Jaime Babbitt
For choristers, blending with their sections (and the entire choir) is as important as a sense of balance is to a downhill skier. It brings to mind the phrase, “You have one job!” Well, they actually have several jobs, but I’d love for singers to zero in on this one — and for choral directors to know how to impart the basics of good blending.
Firstly, let’s discuss the most important part of a vocalist’s body: their ears (fooled you, didn’t I?). Without the ability to truly listen to those around them (and to both the director and accompanist), the most golden pipes in the world are going to stick out like golden sore thumbs.
When a singer can hear where they are in the big picture, they’ll have a far easier time blending — even before they open their mouths to sing. I recommend that each section listen to the other sections for the length of the piece while not singing; this ‘karaoke’ approach gives them real-time insight on how to pronounce and blend, which is crucial — especially if there are no recordings to reference or practice along with. To that end, while I usually adhere to a “cellphone-free-choir-rehearsal zone”, it’s a great idea to record rehearsals once all the parts have been executed correctly. But please, aside from recording, step away from the phones. Your level of concentration and powers of retention will thank you.
Break the piece down into sections and go over all word and vowel pronunciations with precision and care. If, with regard to the name “Maria”, half the choir is saying, “Mareeah” and the other half “Mareeuh”, it’s bound to sound sloppy. Vowel pronunciations and mouth positions can vary like snowflakes, so singers need to do their homework. After rehearsal, or whenever there’s designated practice time to be found, stand in front of a mirror and be aware of what the mouth positions look like for each correct vowel sound. Be aware of any facial, neck or jaw tension and do your best to keep all the muscles loose. I recommend an exercise called, “Big Face, Little Face.” First, with Big Face, raise your brow, open your eyes, nostrils and mouth, drop your jaw and widen everything. Then, go into Little Face, where you furrow your brow, close your eyes, pinch your lips and scrunch up everything. Go back and forth between Big Face and Little Face several times. Just don’t do it in public.
When singing in a foreign language, do your best to check pronunciations. If it’s a high school or college chorus, a foreign language teacher/professor can be consulted; if yours is a community choir, someone knows a native speaker who can lend an ear. If you’re singing in Latin, best of luck! (Just kidding!) There are myriad authorities on the subject and recordings to study, so fear not. Keep in mind that singing in a language and speaking in it are two different scenarios. Still, the choir should be on the same page with respect to rolling their ‘Rs’, word endings (for example, in French, there can be an elongated “uh” syllable, as in “La Vie En Rose-uh” by Edith Piaf), or umlauts on ä (as in average), ö (as in early; yes, practice this one) and ü (as in the French word bonjour; practice this one, too.)
The second most important part of a singer’s body is—you guessed it—the voice. Singers listen up here: in order to blend well, the first order of business is for a vocalist to play around with the sounds they can make. If you take voice lessons, great; you and your teacher/coach can explore your timbre and range together. If you’re on your own, please feel free to explore but remember: nothing should hurt while singing. If you’re trying to create a breathy sound or trying to sing higher or lower than is normally comfortable and you feel any strain, stop it!
Be honest with yourself about your choices. A strident sound might be great for soloing, but you may want to keep your tone much more rounded in the group. And altos and tenors, I’m looking at you here: don’t move “down” to the tenor or bass sections because there aren’t enough males. Go because you can comfortably sing the parts and blend well there. I’ve encountered students who sang in a register that was too low for them and got themselves in a wee bit of vocal trouble, so be warned. Same for singing too high; it’s okay to know thyself. Take care of your voice and it will take care of you.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that singers can blend with their choir-mates until the cows come home, but if there’s no emotional connection to the music, the piece is going to fall pretty darn flat. Make a point to know the story and create a mood. Another pointer is to be a text detective, that is to say, let the lyrics guide you as to which emotions need to be conveyed. Be the choir that knows what they’re singing about and cares about becoming one voice together…ah, c’est magnifique-uh!