The Art of Coarse Choral Singing
In our latest blog we look at ‘The Art of Coarse Choral Singing’, inspired by Michael Green’s wonderfully insightful 1964 book, The Art of Coarse Acting (or how to wreck an amateur dramatic society). Michael Green describes a coarse actor as:
“…one who can remember his lines, but not the order in which they come. An amateur. One who performs in Church Halls. Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the Church Hall may fall down. Invariably his tights will fall down. He will usually be playing three parts – Messenger, 2nd Clown, an Attendant Lord. His aim is to upstage the rest of the cast. His hope is to be dead by Act II so that he can spend the rest of his time in the bar. His problems? Everyone else connected with the production.”
I’m sure you can come up with your own definition of a ‘coarse chorister’ (I think I might know a few) although I have to say (mainly in case of litigation) that no tenors were harmed in the writing of this blog, and that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Coarse Choral Singing – An Idiot’s Guide
Singing in a choir is an unnatural pastime in which individuality is terribly undervalued and sadly, discouraged. Some musical directors even have the misguided idea that a choir should sound like a ‘single instrument’, in which case, what is the point of having so many singers? The aim of the coarse singer should be to upstage everyone else and provide the audience with a memorable performance, and in particular, aim to be the stand-out chorister that made it so. (Compare with The Art of Coarse Acting where the coarse actor’s aim is to upstage everyone else). As a singer, you may have worked very hard to learn the notes and words, and it would be a real pity if the audience did not appreciate your abundant talent. But f you haven’t learnt the notes or words, don’t despair: you can still be the star of the show. There’s always hope, even if, in the words of the immortal Eric Morecambe, you know “all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”, you can still shine.
It should be remembered that dynamics are purely advisory. (pppfff! Indeed!) Quiet singing is especially dangerous because it bottles up a singer’s natural energy. It is as unhealthy as not going to the toilet. You should only ever sing really quietly if you don’t know the words or tune, and even then, it would probably be better to mime the words or make up your own instead. If you’re uncertain of the lyrics, hold back at the start of phrases until someone else has come in with the words. The pleasing swell of sound as the rest of the choir remembers the words and joins in creates a fabulous effect – a sort of natural crescendo that has a life of its own. If you still can’t remember the words, try singing just vowel sounds. You have roughly a one-in-five chance of getting the right sound (unless of course you’re singing in Welsh). If you consider yourself an ‘advanced singer’, it is important to ensure that your part is clearly heard, especially when another section has the tune, otherwise the all-important harmonies can go almost unnoticed. Remember, if you can hear your neighbour’s voice, you are almost certainly not singing loud enough, and you risk being put-off by actually having to listen to other choristers. Treat every song like a solo.
‘Blend’ is another dangerous concept that results in mediocrity: it is an unnatural and unhelpful idea that results in the better singers in the choir (such as yourself) being held back by those less able. Singing louder than everyone else in your section marks you out as the most talented singer in the section. If you have a really loud voice, see if you can make nearby choristers wince with pain as their ear-drums rupture. If you are a less able singer however, don’t despair: you can still gain plenty of attention by use of extreme gestures, facial expressions, or clowning around (see also ‘Star Quality’). Often, grinning disconcertingly in very serious passages (or appearing stony-faced during joyful ones) can let the audience know that you have guessed the composer’s true intent and you alone have sensed the deeper meaning of the piece being performed. If you are uncertain about using extreme facial expressions, you can still make your mark on the performance by using a musical technique known as ‘singing into the gaps’, which involves holding notes longer than anyone else at the ends of phrases. This takes a great deal of practice, but is well worth the effort in terms of getting noticed. A variation of this is confidently starting phrases half a beat early, but this is advanced technique that generally requires you to learn the words and so is not recommended.
Algernon always wanted to be different….
Star Quality (or ‘The Ego Has Landed’)
You will have noticed that many pop stars wave at their adoring fans. It would be heartless to ignore loyal supporters (especially if they are your family), so ensure that when entering or leaving the stage, or even between numbers, you wave graciously at them. The epitome of good taste is the ‘Royal Wave’, which also helps to establish your superiority among other choristers. It is surprising how even in some supposedly ‘top notch’ professional choirs, the singers are too stuffy to acknowledge their fans. To make matters worse, some choirs have a uniform which makes it even harder for individuals to stand out. There are a number of ways to circumvent this stupidity to ensure that your adoring public can easily recognize you. Wearing additions to your surplice or uniform is a great way of doing this – a different coloured scarf or handkerchief, some ostentatious ‘bling’ (generally only if you’re a soprano or top tenor though). Badges, funny hats, red socks, rotating bow-ties, Dame Edna Everage glasses, visible Union Jack underwear, outrageous make-up, massive ear-rings, fluorescent hair or large wigs are all effective means of identifying yourself as the star act. If you have to wear a tie, wear it differently to everyone else. Remember, people haven’t come to see a choir…they have come to see YOU and you owe it to them to stand out!
Expert singers are noticeable by their superior singing skills. Such singers never need to look at the Musical Director (or conductor). In fact most good coarse singers learn early on that watching the buffoon at the front waving their arms around can be terribly distracting. Remember too, that singing is a form of theatre, and you can never over-exaggerate your ‘singing pose’. Even in a choir, the use of extravagant hand gestures should be your aim as it helps convey the full meaning of the piece to the audience. This is especially true for sacred music which often has dreary, archaic, or foreign words and really benefits from some lively gesturing. On the topic of foreign words, you should avoid trying to sound like a foreigner. Be proud of your heritage! If you’re a Yorkshireman, then bloody well sing that silly foreign nonsense in an honest, good, old-fashioned Yorkshire accent. Why should you change the way you sing? It’s your country after all. Sing the song in your local accent and your audience will love you for it. Expert singers should also demonstrate their superior knowledge by frequently interrupting the Musical Director in rehearsals to seek points of clarification. For example “Excuse me maestro, but do you want us to hold that semibreve for the full value? It’s just that you brought us off us off early….” (Incidentally, using the word maestro (or maestra for a female MD), clearly demonstrates to the rest of the plebs in the choir that you are a sophisticated and well-educated person, deserving of respect and admiration.) If you don’t feel confident enough to make musical points, then you can still establish your credentials by exploring pronunciation, especially in foreign language pieces. For example… “Do you want us to pronounce excelsis using the mediaeval or contemporary pronunciation? (Don’t worry, you don’t have to know what the mediaeval or contemporary pronunciation is, but everyone, including the Musical Director, will assume that you are a choral music or linguistic Ninja and will be reluctant to mess with you.) As an expert singer, you also owe it to your less fortunate neighbours to explain to them the finer points of musicianship in a piece, although sometimes, annoyingly, you will have to raise your voice in order to be heard above the musical director’s incessant chatter. Expert singers may also demonstrate their prowess and sense of humour by loudly humming their own (or someone else’s) part while another section is being rehearsed. It confuses the heck out of the MD who wonders where the stray notes are coming from and causes the MD to rehearse the section again in order to be sure they are singing the right notes! For choral concerts ‘with copies’, budding soloists should demonstrate their superiority by eschewing the use of copies altogether, even if this results in forgetting some passages. Early superiority in such matters can be quickly established at rehearsal when the musical director insists on referring to bar numbers. The soloist should remind everyone that they are ‘not using a copy’ and demand that the musical director explains in full, what bar number is being referred to. In choirs that perform without music (a dreadful idea which encourages singers to watch the musical director) always stand in the back row if you are uncertain of your words. This way, you can demonstrate your professionalism by pinning a copy of the words to the back of the chorister in front of you and you need never worry about forgetting your words. This will always impress your fellow choristers who have stupidly spent hours of their time learning the song.
There are few more impressive sights than a well marked-up vocal score: it shows that you have bothered looking at the music outside of rehearsals and that you really care about what you are singing. Colouring books for adults are all the rage, so don’t hold back when it comes to inventive colour schemes. This is the mark of a true pro. Generally, Day-Glo colours such as lime green or pink work best of all and should be used extensively to highlight your part. Any performance directions should be written boldly in ink so that they are easily read. Librarians and other petty bureaucrats can get excited about marking copies in this way, saying that the music may not be issued to you next time the piece is used, or that performance directions might be changed. Whilst they may have a point, they are overlooking your importance as a performer. It is you that has to sing this rubbish, so you have every right to do ‘painting by numbers’ on your copy if you wish.
Choreography and Movement
Choreography (or choralography as it is sometimes called when done intentionally or accidentally in time with the singing), provides boundless opportunities for demonstrating your individuality. Artistic interpretation is always more important than simply ‘looking like everyone else’, so strenuous efforts should be made to develop the choreographer’s ‘intent’ into something altogether more interesting. The most effective moves are often those done when the rest of the choir is standing still (even better if this involves clapping). Don’t be shy about using such opportunities: it is how most real ‘stars’ get their big break. Another sure-fire winner is ‘swaying in the opposite direction’. Never underestimate the skill required in swaying in the opposite direction to everyone else, but rest assured the effect is spectacular and well worth the effort. Be that stand-out performer you’ve always dreamt of being. However, if you are going ‘off-piste’ with movement, I advise steering clear of anything involving bodily functions. You’d be surprised how obvious a bit of surreptitious nose-picking can be. Being the choir’s ‘bogeyman’ is not the sort of accolade you really want.
Singing is a Social Activity
Never forget that the main point of singing in a choir is not the music but the social and self-promotional opportunities it presents. In mixed choirs (or indeed, in Gay Men’s Choirs etc.) there is plenty of opportunity for flirting. Singing in a choir provides the ideal environment to stand at the back of the choir and look admiringly at other choristers’ bottoms. This is particularly true of SATB choirs where women generally outnumber men, and men stand at the back. This is exactly why the choir is traditionally arranged in this way and a good reason for ignoring any attempts to get you to stand in a different, less advantageous position. Although some musical directors discourage it, chatting to your neighbour between songs is part and parcel of belonging to a choir. When on stage, it conveys to the audience how relaxed you are and how friendly the choir is. It is a real favourite with audiences who appreciate the informal atmosphere it creates. And talking of ‘atmosphere’, in men’s choirs in particular, there are few things that create bonhomie as well as an anonymous, stinky fart. It provides endless minutes of entertaining banter, facial contortions, accusations and denials. Really good ones have been known to disrupt rehearsals and even halt performances. This is always a favourite with fellow choristers despite their protestations to the contrary. Like a professional athlete who prepares for a major event, a truly spectacular stink bomb takes careful planning, usually involving curry and beer, the latter of which, has also been scientifically proven to enhance your opinion of your own singing. You can even develop your skill into a new genre, like the famous French flatulist, Joseph Pujol (aka Le Petomane – pictured mid-performance) who could play tunes, imitate canon-fire, and blow out candles from several yards away. The scope is endless.
Oh my goodness, what a lot of nonsense is talked about ‘breathing’. Most of us have made this far in life by breathing so it really can’t be as difficult as some people make out. Don’t let get confused between ‘breathing’, ‘support’ and ‘phrasing’. They are all the same thing. Some musical directors and choirmasters get very upset when you breathe in the middle of a word, but especially at the end of a phrase, it is often essential to breathe in the middle of a word if you are going to be able to give it the big finish it deserves. Breathing in the middle of words is a perfectly acceptable singing technique: watch shows like ‘the X Factor’ and you’ll see most of the singers do it and audiences go wild with appreciation. The audience will also be hugely impressed by long phrases if they can hear you drawing breath like an asthmatic vacuum cleaner just before you start to sing. It tells them there’s something really special coming and they will stop eating their crisps and pay attention. For really impressive deep breaths, raise and tense the shoulders and try to get the veins on your neck to stand out. This adds immeasurably to the drama of the performance and will impress your MD.
Advanced Coarse Singing and How To Avoid Blame
It is entirely possible to progress to an advanced level of coarse singing without ever having to become a competent singer. Indeed there are many who do. The techniques of advanced coarse singing require a little more practice and include undirected tempo changes (usually slowing down in the quiet bits and speeding up in the loud bits), and blame-shifting. The latter is only to be used sparingly when you have a made an obvious mistake. A quick ‘filthy look’ in the direction of a neighbouring chorister will usually deflect the blame and leave your reputation intact. If you are struggling with words and you have attracted the MD’s attention, then a quick coughing-fit will usually suffice to throw him or her off the trail. Undirected tempo changes can be great fun, especially if done competitively between sections (e.g. sopranos vs altos, or tenors vs basses) making it much harder or the MD to regain control. See which section can get to the end first. The audience love this one and can sometimes join in the excitement created by clapping along.
Happy Coarse Singing!
Well that’s all for now. They say that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but it is, nevertheless, still classed as wit. We hope you have enjoyed this tongue-in-check guide to the Art of Coarse Choral Singing – a sort of tribute to Michael Green. Of course, no-one in the real world behaves like this….or do they?