Questions of Blend

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A recent comment on a post from last year asked the following question:

I have tried twice without success to join choirs that do 3 and 4 part harmony. I get rejected after a few sessions as i am told my voice does not blend. I know I have a good singing voice and i am very motivated, although I do not understand very much about music theory

The last attempt did not lead to any criticism from the coach but from the other singers near me. I am puzzled as to the possible cause of non blending. Any advice?

I felt it was one of those questions that deserves a post (or possibly a book) in its own right.

I should say from the get-go, that the whole question of choral blend can be a bit vexed. There is a running conflict in the literature going back at least 60 years. Some choral practitioners see the presence of solo-quality voices in a choir as not only an obstacle to a unified sound but a sign of a lack of team spirit. Others see the urge to blend voices together as an attack on the individuality of the singers, as a power-hungry director forcing natural beauty in all its variety into a uniform mould. So it is a question that carries quite a lot of ideological baggage.

But for Helen, who asked the question, it is a practical problem. She finds herself wanting to participate in groups that value blend, and the question is how to do this.

Now I’ve not heard her voice, so this is guesswork, but it quite often happens that the very qualities that give individuals the confidence that their singing voices are good are the ones that are perceived by others as getting in the way of blend. If it’s a strong voice, for instance, or if it has a bright, twangy tone, or vibrato. So the challenge can be not just how to blend, but how to blend without feeling you are losing your own sense of identity as a singer.

I think the trick mostly involves not actually focusing on your own voice very much, but trusting it to deliver the goods while you focus on the voices around you. When we sing by ourselves, our attention is inevitably given to self-monitoring, to making sure the sounds we are producing keep on the same track as the desired performance playing in our heads. But when the task is to integrate with other voices, you can be best off just letting your own voice get on with it, and turning your attention to the voices around you.

Make a point of listening to the person to your right as you sing, and aim to join in in a way that supports them. Some people like to think of singing through their neighbour's mouth; other people prefer imagery like riding a tandem, with the neighbour at the front steering, and you matching and reinforcing their speed and power as needed. After a while, switch your attention to the person on your left. Later on, when you’ve got the hang of vocally affirming the people immediately around you, pay attention to the sound as a whole. Think of it as a wave, and as your own voice as a surfer – this allows you to keep your own sense of vocal identity, but keeps you connected with all the other voices.

This kind of imagery doesn’t work for everyone, so it’s worth underlining what the point of it is. It allows you to connect vocally with other people in a way that creates a meaningful relationship with them. If the blend problem is that your voice is too loud and too bright compared to those around you, you could try and fix it by singing quieter and darker. But that would just damp down your vocal contribution, giving you less personal satisfaction and probably introducing vocal strain. And you’d still be focusing primarily on your own voice – indeed probably even more as you tried to make it do things it wasn’t used to doing.

But by making other voices the centre of your attention, and forming intentions as to what the combined effect should be, you not only get your ears and your brain focused where they need to be to get to make blend possible, you also take the pressure off your own voice. Your brain will make all the adjustments needed to the vocal mechanism intuitively in response to your new focus of attention.

The other thing to notice as you sing (and indeed interact socially) with the other singers is body language. How do they stand? How do they smile? How do they express the music as they sing? If you can start to coordinate to the group’s shared ways of being at a general level, you’ll find it easier to get into both their heads and their voices.

Sometimes, as people go through the process of adjusting their listening focus to sing in a group, there emerges a lurking resentment: ‘Why do I have to adapt to everyone else? we think, ‘Why aren’t they also adapting to me?’ But they are, they will. Each new member of a group changes the overall flavour subtly. But if you’re focused on integration when you join, you won’t notice the difference that you have made until a year or two later.

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