Monday, April 16, 2018

The 7 elements of vocal blend and how to control them

There is a balance in any choir between individual voices and the overall sound. Most choirs aim to blend voices so that there is a cohesion rather than individual voices sticking out.

photo by pinkbelt

If this is taken too far however, I believe that you lose the humanity in the choir. It’s still a good thing to aim for though. Here’s how to go about it.

what exactly is ‘blend’?

When two voices blend perfectly, they become indistinguishable. It’s something that many choirs aim for, but it’s never possible to reach perfect blend.

What you’re trying to do is to match the qualities of different voices as much as possible.

When siblings form singing groups, it’s often the case that their voices blend very well due to the similarities of their genetic make-up. That’s even more so for twins. The rest of us have to work at it!

the 7 elements of blend

There are many elements to consider when blending voices, but here are seven that I think are the most important.
  1. volume – probably the easiest to deal with. It’s all about listening. If you can only hear your voice, then you’re singing too loudly. If you can only hear everybody else’s voice, then you’re singing too quietly.
  2. pitch – seems obvious, but it’s amazing how easily it is to be slightly out with another voice. I had a friend who found it hard to pitch accurately when singing with others because she ‘disappeared’ and it freaked her out! There are plenty of simple exercises to do with the whole choir to really sort out any pitching problems. It might even involved moving individuals around, or discovering that some singers are in the wrong parts.
  3. timing – another obvious one really, but often overlooked. It’s most noticeable on long, sustained passages or very rhythmic pieces. Involving the body or adding movement in rehearsal can help.
  4. timbre – this is probably the trickiest concept to get over. Because of our unique physiology, each of us has a unique sounding voice. It can be the case that when two singers of the same gender sing the same note, one might seem to be lower than the other. That’s because of vocal timbre. It is possible to change the timbre of our voice to a certain extent, and that’s what we need to do when we try to blend.

    Stephen Taberner uses the concepts of ‘woof’ and ‘quack’ when talking about timbre. ‘Quack’ is like the sharp, cutting sound that can be heard in Bulgarian women’s choirs. ‘Woof’ is the low, resonant voices in male Russian choirs. Don’t take the terms too seriously! They are extremes and a quick way of identifying vocal quality. It is possible to be ‘woofy’ on high notes and ‘quacky’ on low notes.
  5. vowels – most of the elements of blend can be focused through vowel sounds. After all, vowels are what we sing pretty much. It’s easy to find lots of exercises which focus on mouth shape and matching vowel sounds. If you nail that, you often find that pitching and timbre issues are also solved.
  6. vibrato – basically when a note wobbles slightly around the intended pitch. The stereotype of the older lady singing in church or the over-the-top opera singer demonstrates maximum vibrato. If two singers are singing the same note, one with vibrato, the other without, they won’t blend at all.
  7. nasality – this is different from vocal timbre. You can sing in a ‘quacky’ or ‘woofy’ way with or without nasality. To check if you’re singing nasally, simply pinch your nose. If the sound stops, then you’re being nasal. Simple!
There are many other subtleties of vocal blending, but if you focus on these seven elements, you won’t go far wrong. Good luck!

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Chris Rowbury



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