Practical A Cappella

How To Critique Singers

Practical A Cappella

I recently attended a seminar on how to work with different skill levels and instruct others properly. A great word of advice that stuck with me was, "Some people just suck and you have to work with them and around them." The goal of coaching positively is to use the "sandwich technique" 80% of the time while analyzing, coaching and directing people that are struggling. When I first heard about this 'sandwich', I was not feeling it. It takes up too much time, comes across as fake if I have nothing genuine to say, plus it's just sugar-coating a problem. After testing the sandwich technique, I started seeing results that changed my perspective forever; I saw consistent long term success, happy infectious energy and higher self esteem.

When critiquing a singer, always make time to tell them a positive statement first and last. Cram in the advice and edits in the middle of the statement. For example, "Lauren, awesome diction. Everyone, let's make sure we match her perfect diction, also Lauren don't belt measure 12 because it's coming across as flat & heavy voweled, your head voice is powerful and bright so aim the sound there instead." The old me would of said, "Lauren, you're super pitchy and it's throwing everybody off, try it again." The honest factual truth is that Lauren is pitchy when she sings. The problem with bluntly and harshly blurting out the truth is that it's too general, comes across as a barked command, doesn't provide a proper example and is un-motivating. Taking the unfriendly approach also leaves a sour taste in the singer's mouth, increases negativity and lowers group morale. There are exceptions to this sandwich rule. I've found that a dash of military style get's the point across quickly. If a singer is repeatedly goofing off, unprepared, not blending, late to practice or just plain sucky it's not a bad thing to be critical because it can give them a reality check.

If your a cappella group has a weak link, give that person a few tries to nail her parts. "Lauren, you're singing the intro section rhythm wrong, here is the correct rhythm. Let me demonstrate that again. Now you try it 3 times in a row to lock it in your memory." Another approach is to ask singers to verbally repeat exactly what they need to change. If I tell multiple singers to each fix different things, most likely they won't remember all the notes. Try saying, "Before we sing it again, everyone repeat back to me what you are going to work on this time around so we get it right." Making them voice it out loud and put it in their own words, it provides them control and responsibility.

My last tip is to only accept singers in your group that handle direction and constructive critiques well. During auditions and call-backs give them a challenge, "Great solo! Just for the sake of testing vocal ability, can you sing that solo again but this time do it with no vibrato, taller vowels and and faster tempo." If a singer then blurts out excuses and gets defensive, then you should beware! Singers should have the capability to hear direction, accept it and apply it. Singers must also understand if I tell Lauren to fix measure 12 it does not mean I hate her, she's a loser and her hair is frizzy. All it means is that I know she has the potential to sing measure 12 better than she's previously shown.

How To Improv a Song

Practical A Cappella

Believe it or not, you do not need to formally compose or buy sheet music for your a cappella group. The old-fashioned way is to make it up! Improv-ing songs is all about the "out-of-thin-air" singing method. This song puzzle process is the science of pulling notes out of nowhere, singing off the top of your head and jamming on your toes…whatever you want to call it, I'm here to tell you it is possible even if you don't understand a lick of musical theory. The technical, proper way to improv a song is to follow the chord progressions, then layer loops of the rhythm line. Next you add riff phrases, create harmonies and complete it with someone singing the lead. If your members do not come from extensive musical backgrounds, that procedure is too complex. My approach below will train your ears and give you the skills of reflection, mocking, matching, copying, pretending and duplicating…basically, you're about to become a professionally aca-certified kickass copy-cat.

My first rule is to know your place. If you're not the girl that normally does belty diva runs at the end of a song…then don't attempt it. Stereotype the voices in your group. Stick with what you know. So, I'm sure you are asking, "How am I supposed to figure out which part of the original song to imitate?" Read below:

-Sopranos, you lucky ones get those floaty melody lines, but don't hog all the easy stuff. Wander out of your comfort zone. Add in long vowels that stretch out over time. Also emulate the violin, cello, flute or upper pitch instruments. Stay on top of the pitch. Keep your vocal placement poppy bright so if the overall group pitch falls flat, you have the power to bring it back up. Be the rock!

-Mezzos, analyze the soloist and play a game of call and repeat or follow the leader. Echo their words, be a verbal mime, harmonize over their phrases and do dramatic riffs that are afterthoughts of their melody. Also focus on filling in the silent spaces. If the group is on the same rhythm wavelength, change it up by singing on the off-beat. Make it your goal to cover in the gaps, group breath marks and general long pauses.

-Altos, hit up those piano lines and chunky mid-section meaty parts. Find the measure pattern loop and stick to it.

-Tenors, mimic the guitar line. If you get bored, partner up with other voice parts to thicken up their sections. Also do some humming, show off your falsetto, echo others and jam out on those instrumental breaks.

-Baritones, keep to the time signature of the song, be the metronome for everyone else and have a consistent syllable on-top of the beat that keeps the song moving.

-Basses, I know you normally get the degradingly easy parts, therefore, you should use this creative freedom to show off your inner star! Keep to the standard resonating low end movements but also sink into those bass guitar notes while playing around with traveling walking phrases. For example, sing lines that slide up and down your register but still always consistently fall on beat count 1 so you can crisply lead other singers into those beginnings, tricky transitions and clipped endings.

-Beatboxers, just do your thang! Characterize the drums and play off the basses whenever you can. Cover up any of the group's inconsistencies or problems that arise, especially in those tricky transition sections.

The second step is to play the song over and over on very loud speakers. (Sometimes stereos have settings where you can turn bass, treble, pan, balance, fade, equalizer and sub sound volumes up or down. Mess around with those volume options so people can hear their instrument lines clearer if need be.) Let everyone jam out to themselves, no pressure. Right now, it's not about blend, dynamics, accuracy or making the song sound like the original song. It's just about getting familiar with the background instrumental lines. If you are confused about syllables, imitate the instrument sound, echo important soloist lyrics or pick up on the soloist's vowels. For example, if the lyrics are "Walk with me baby, I want ya to always laugh", then mimic a repeated "a" tone to compliment your soloist's words.

The third step is to hone in on your voice part emulations and get all your ideas out loud. When you think you have nailed down a decent loop, stop yourself and do it over and over. Engrave it in your memory. Don't get all fancy, make it simple at first; stop and rewind, go through the song in chunks. Intro, Verse 1, Pre Chorus, Chorus, Verse 2, Pre Chorus, Bridge, Finale Chorus, Outro. Sing it as many times needed with the original song playing so you can get the groove of where you belong. Singing along to the song can also cue you into the next section if you lose creativity, get lost, can't hear a certain instrument or forget stuff. Once you get confident, try it without the original song playing.

My fourth rule is to always think ahead. If you're following along with an instrument line, try to predict the transition changes (for example Chorus 2 into the Bridge).

The last rule is that you need an authoritative music director to control dynamics, nit-pick and meld the voice parts together. If your entire group chimes in with opinions every five seconds, then your rehearsal will last six hours instead of two. The icing on the cake will be the music director editing improv sections that sound junky. When there is an intricate section that is not coming together, just go back, listen to the original song and mimic it phrase by phrase. Don't make it rocket science, break it down.

Singing Technique

Practical A Cappella

If you resist learning the science of voice and singing healthy, kiss your cords goodbye and find a new silent hobby like basket weaving or snorkeling.

Warm-up like an athlete:

1. Waken up the 3 vocal channels: Jaw, Tongue and Palate. Flutter the tongue, lip buzzing, trills, stretch the mid/blade/back sections of tongue, yawn sighs, massage jaw, locate the masseter muscle and loosen up the face. The jaw must be relaxed to spit out that a cappella diction! If you have a tight jaw, sleep with a mouth guard to avoid grinding and clenching.

2. Add physicality and body motions to your scales.
3. Sing unusual scales. Get out of the boring major solfege scale routine. Try blues scales, minor scales, pentatonic scale, whole-tone scale, chromatic scale, Lydian scale, Dorian scale, Locrian scale…

Warm-up the 6 resonators:

-Create a rumbling, grounded placement. Do Tarzan pounds. Let your voice fall into the chest, not push
-Warm up: LESSAC method. Say a sentence and channel the sound to vibrate from the chest
-Benefits: Talkative position, persuasive, depth, seriousness, bottom of range, compressed tone

-Creates a roof and expansion for sound. The sound is forward and booming
-Warm up: Let your breath drop in nice and low. Say “huh”. Imagine the sound coming up from belly, flying forward, bouncing off palate
-Benefits: Direct, outward, round sound, creates space, zing factor, easy projection

-Creates emotional focus, buzz. This resonator is great when saying commands or demanding things
-Warm up: Say “eeeeee” or “cookie” or “Don’t touch that!”
-Benefits: Anger, forward, creates a painted conversation, naggy, easy acting

D. BACK OF HEAD (or the “ingénue” or “damsel in distress” voice)
-The vibration is coming from behind ears and back of neck. This region is where most Americans normally talk. It’s also shelled or a bit insecure. People that talk from the back of the head get quieter towards the end of their sentences
-Warm up: Say “aahhhh” and send sound backwards
-Benefits: Not in-your-face loud, more general or nonchalant, not direct, slyly persuasive

-Massage your sinus, wiggle nose, visualize your forward frontal mask
-Warm up: Hum then slide into “Me, May, My, Mo, Moo”
-Benefits: Ping zingy tone, sharpness, aimed tone, funny, character role, youth tone, resonating bounce with little effort

-Mickey mouse voice, channel your whale blowhole, upper range
-Warm up: Say “rii” or “key” to make shooting sound. Get to know the roof of your sound
-Benefits: Round, full, sprays out of top, magically slaying notes, unique, beaming sound

Once warm ups are completed, does your throat hurt? The throat should not be hoarse after two hours of rehearsing. The cords are tiny short muscles that easily exhaust, but according to my throat doctor, “If a singer is properly accessing breath support and using the true vocal fold muscles, you could technically sing all day long.”

Do you sing properly and there is still soreness, ache and fatigue? The cords are quickly swelling and inflaming due to the vocal folds colliding or wrongly flapping. Do you also feel a throat itch, tickle or scratch? This is from the muscles overcompensating to push out sound; they easily dry out and weaken (cotton mouth). This is due to singing with the food-swallowing muscles and not using lower breath support. Another possible reason could be the over usage or forced drop of the larynx position (adam’s apple). If you rapidly have to sing a low note, avoid digging or jumping the larynx placement. Keep the larynx neutrally positioned. If your larynx slightly moves up or down, this is normal. On vowels like “ooh” and “ee” the larynx tends to rise. On vowels like “ah”, “uh”, “oh” the larynx slightly goes down. If the larynx is rising to reach a high note, this will cause the pitch to sound pulled instead of nailed. Raising the larynx higher actually means you are closing off the throat and the cords tense up. To hit a super high note, raise your soft palate and not the larynx.
The last reason you feel vocal lethargy is a physical throat unbalance (this is extremely common). Is your soft palate equally level? Try this: Look into a mirror and observe the back of the throat while singing a long sustained note. If you notice one side of the soft palate slightly quivering as the other side is steadily raised, this means you have an unsymmetrical soft palate. Correct this lopsided droop or else it will get worse overtime. Also, how is your gag reflux (the vagus nerves)? Try this: Test the gag sensitivity by sticking a toothbrush down your mouth on the back right and then back left of the tongue. Most people gag more drastically on one side. In order to even out the tongue reflux vagaltone and soft palate, get an Endo Nasal Balloon Inflation procedure. (A throat doctor will literally inflate a balloon in the nostril, which opens up passages. This allows the soft palate and gag reflux to equilibrate and lessen hypersensitivity. This procedure also helps with TMJ and headaches.)

What are the strengths in your singing toolbox? Can you easily slide between the chest, belt, mix, head and falsetto voice placement? A high note or Broadway belt is like an elevator; visualize a vocal pulley system. The weight goes down as the elevator cart rises up to a higher floor. When singing a high or loud note, there needs to be compression and balance on the lower end of your voice too. Try this: Put your finger on your larynx (adam’s apple) and yawn…notice that the larynx drops while the soft palate rises. If you are naturally a soft volume singer, do not over push your loud volume limit. When you force hard to project louder, it makes the throat smaller which sacrifices your lovely tone for a crappy strained volume. When a note is forced, the cords muffle and lock up which absorbs sound. Relax your throat so the sound waves beautifully reflect off the mouth and beam forward effortlessly.

Knowing the mechanics and physiology of singing is valuable for an a cappella group. We deal with hard rhythms, scatting, mimicking instruments, extreme dynamics, key changes, harmonizing…Please don’t overlook pitch agility, resonators and vocal health. Learning the mechanics of singing will change your a cappella life.

How To Critique Singers
How To Improv a Song
Singing Technique