Gang Sing-With Quality!By Dave Gunther, editor Whittier Choralaires, "SHOWCASE"
Every week before chapter meeting, during the break, after the meeting and at the afterglow, a wonderful thing happens. Men get together and sing just for the fun of it. They are not singing under the guidance of the director or because they are part of the program. They are just singing for the pure joy of it. This type of singing often starts with a foursome and grows to include others gathered around. It is often called "gang-singing." The men of the Whittier Chapter are perhaps more prone than men in many other chapters to give in to this form of self-indulgence. It simply demonstrates our love for barbershop music.
For all its merits, gang-singing does have some drawbacks. The vocal quality most often used when we gang-sing is what I call our "default" vocal quality. That means that is the norm, what is most often practiced, the way we do it out of habit. Default singing is the singing you do when you are in the shower, in the car or walking down the street, with your friends on chapter night. It is the singing you do when you are not thinking about vocal quality. Have you ever considered the vocal quality you use when you sing just for the fun of it? Try tape recording yourself sometime and listen in. You may be surprised to find that the notes are not very accurate, the vowel sounds are off, and the intervals may be slip-sliding around. But then, this is just for fun. When you get on the risers, you won't sing that way. Right?
What happens when we stand in front of people to sing for them? Do we remember all the right vocal techniques and moves that our director has been working so hard to teach us or do we revert to our default singing quality? When a real challenge comes upon us, we typically revert to what we have practiced most because that is what is most deeply engraved in our minds. So, how do we change our default vocal quality to something more pleasant to the ear?
To form a habit takes practice, but often we do not realize we are forming a habit. One day we wake up and say, "I didn't realize I've been doing that!" Whether we realize it or not, we need to take steps to practice good vocal techniques. Is this hard? No. It wasn't hard to practice bad habits, so practicing good habits can't be any harder. It just requires us to think before we sing. There are a number of things we can practice: intonation, vowel shapes and sounds, and using our faces while we sing.
Lets start with intonation. Most of us have a pitchpipe. Take yours with you in the car. When you are driving to work or around town, or, especially on a trip, pull out the pipe and blow a pitch. Sing a major scale based on the pitch you blew (the pitch is the bottom note in the scale). When you get to the top of the scale, blow the pitch again. Did you stay in the key? If not, do the exercise again. Repeat it as often as necessary until you end up on the right pitch. When you have that mastered, Start from the top of the scale and come down. This is a little harder, but certainly not impossible. Remember to aim for the top of the pitch as you sing each note. Soon, you will find that you are staying in key with the pitchpipe. Do this exercise often. It will help you to develop the habit of singing in tune. You may even find that sometimes you end up on the high side of the pitch. That's great!
Vowel shapes and sounds require some visual assistance. A mirror is the perfect tool, and mirrors come in all shapes and sizes. Use the big mirror in the bathroom if you want privacy. Use a small hand-held mirror if you are away from home, or place a small suction-cup mirror above your steering wheel in the car that you can glance at it while driving. You laugh, but that little mirror is exactly what I use to learn how to shape my vowels correctly.
Hundreds of times you have seen our director demonstrate the vowel shapes he want us to make. Now, just practice them in front of the mirror three times a week. You will be amazed how quickly you begin to form those shapes correctly. Watch your face. While you are working on the vowel shapes, you may find that if you raise your cheeks the vowel shapes are easier to do. It's no trick. It's just good vocal technique and it isn't hard, either.
We all know that we can't smile broadly and sing good vowel shapes at the same time. What we can do is keep the cheeks raised. Just raising your cheeks gives your face a pleasant appearance even if you are not really smiling. Again, it's not a trick, just a habit. Use that mirror to practice smiling broadly with your cheeks raised, mouth open wide in a "EH" vowel shape. Hold it for about 15 seconds, then relax. Do this exercise for about 5 minutes. Sure your cheeks are going to feel sore after the first few times. But then, they aren't used to this kind of workout yet. After a while, it will become natural and they will go to that raised position without complaining every time you sing.
Earl Moon used to say that no barbershopper ever sang a wrong note on purpose. He sang it the way he thought he was supposed to. Earl also said that practice does not make perfect: it makes permanent. If we practice the correct things, they will become permanent, second nature, habit, our default vocal quality. Then, when we gang-sing, we will be doing it with quality. If we gang-sing with quality, we can't help but sing with quality when it really counts, on the show or in front of the judges.