One of the perennial challenges of singing in small ensembles is simply singing together. It’s one of the primary marks of competence, second only probably to tuning. And, like tuning, underneath the basic observation that it is or isn’t working are a whole host of different types musical problems. I have become increasingly interested recently in listening for the details of poor coordination in an ensemble as a means to diagnose how to help them cure it.
I’m thinking here specifically of ensembles that sing without a director, I should add. In theory, having all singers coordinate with the gestures of a single individual out front should solve this problem. In practice, of course, synchronisation is an issue for choral groups, too. Sometimes this arises from the types of problem listed here, but sometimes it arises from things the director is doing, so it’s something of a separate question.
So far, I have identified the following ways of not singing together:
- Lead ahead of the harmony parts. Once you spot this tendency, you find it’s surprisingly common. It’s particularly associated with homophonic textures where one person has the melody, and the others are harmonising with the same words ostensibly at the same time, but in fact fractionally behind. You may also find a noticeable difference in vocal quality here – the lead with a brighter sound and more melodic delivery.
What is going on here is that the perceived hierarchical relationship between melody and accompaniment is being played out in the vocal delivery, with the harmony parts expressing musical subservience both in tone colour and in literally ‘following’ the lead. The cure is duetting all combinations of parts, in order to train the singers in meeting each other as musical equals by giving all combinations an equal share of attention in rehearsal.
- Different versions of rhythmic flavour Music with clearly defined rhythms is usually easier to coordinate than music whose focus is lyrical or melodic flow. This is because the rhythm provides an abstract framework that all singers coordinate to, rather than harmonising parts coordinating with the melody. So, if a rhythm song becomes unsychnronised, it’s usually because different singers are actually feeling the rhythm differently. Another obvious symptom of this is if finger-clicks or choreographed moves aren’t together.
The cure here is to physicalize the singers’ concept of the rhythm – bring it into an external gesture so that all members of the group can see and compare how they are feeling the rhythm. Once the gestures are coordinated, the voices will be too.
- Broad-brush togetherness You hear this in ensembles that have been singing together for years, and who have a lot of performance experience as well as being good enough musicians to get pretty good results without trying too hard. The basic shape of the delivery will be well coordinated, and probably very natural and entertaining, but the fine detail will be perpetually a bit sloppy.
The only way this will change is if the ensemble decides they want to aspire to more ambitious performance situations. They are perfectly capable of getting into the nitty-gritty if they want to, but have found an effort-reward ratio that serves them happily for their current audiences.
- Endemically uncoordinated This is the sign of a fundamental lack of awareness on the part of individuals of the sound of the whole. It may disguise various forms of the other types of synchronisation problem within it, but you’re not going to be able to hear those until there is a more general attempt to sing together. Again, duetting is an important tool here, as you need each singer to spend time listening to the others in order to develop their awareness of what other people are doing, and how much difference singing together tightly makes to the overall effect.