Beyond notes & lyrics: focusing on dynamics with your choir
Some time ago after working on a new piece, I listened to my choir sing through it. Having grasped some tricky timing and rhythms they were pleased as punch with it and sang the whole thing at the top of their voices. While they had delivered the song correctly in terms of lyrics, tune and timing, it made me realise just how important dynamics are for a polished performance. I asked them what they thought of their rendition. They instantly identified that the whole song had been loud because they had felt more confident with it.
I then asked them what the song was about (something I think as singers, we often forget to consider). We needed to make dynamic changes, otherwise we risked losing the meaning and emotion at the heart of the song. Here are my top tips for working on dynamics and involving your choir in the process.
Get the choir thinking
We often talk about involving your choir in the creative process of crafting a performance. It helps them to feel a part of the choir and teaches them to be better choral singers. Make sure you have done your homework and understood the piece yourself, then talk to the choir about what the song is about and how its meaning can be communicated to an audience.
It’s really important that you consider the meaning of your piece, is it light and uplifting? Is it powerful and poignant? Sad and emotional? By thinking about this with your choir, you will find singers naturally start to change the dynamic rather than just going through the motions. Explain that it’s not necessary that the song speaks to them individually. Often, delivering a song requires getting into its character and ‘acting’. By considering the meaning and adding dynamic interest, you will soon find a piece comes to life.
Finding a balance between and within sections
The most important skill when we’re dealing with dynamics is, of course, listening. Our singers can’t know how loud or soft to sing if they’re not listening to what’s going on around them. We often rehearse sections a cappella so that we can adjust the blend between sections and so that individual singers can monitor their voice within their section.
We have a rule of thumb: if you’re singing ‘ooh’ or ‘ah’, you’re probably not the main event. In other words, think about which section of the choir has the melody and keep this at the front of the piece volume wise. SOmetimes I play a game with my choir to get them thinking about the dynamic layers in a song. As we sing through the piece, if they think their part is the most important in the mix, they stand up. If not, they sit down. It’s great fun and really gets everyone thinking about the structure of the song and the dynamic blend.
This goes hand in hand with delivering meaning through dynamics. It’s really important that diction is clear and sympathetic to the piece. Do a run-through thinking purely of diction. People often hold back, so ask them to really ‘ham it up’. Often, we find that by asking them to go over the top, we get a result that is just right.
Let the choir hear the results
When I run a rehearsal and I feel a song is really coming together, I like to choir to experience the sound that I hear when I’m standing at the front. We rehearse in a room with very little extra space, so ten minutes before the end we sometimes pack away the chairs and stand in one large circle with all the sections mixed up. We then have a sing-through and this enables the choir to experience the full effect of the choir’s performance.
All these techniques help the choir to stay aware of the dynamics of a piece and not sing on ‘autopilot’, which in my experience is the key to achieving a subtle, nuanced performance.