Dealing with the Snake in a Choir Rehearsal

by vernsanders on October 5, 2010

I was taught in the Army that ten percent of the people never get the message.

I learned by leading workshops that the bottom ten percent of what you think is obvious, ninety percent of the people don’t know.

I’ll let you think about that for a bit.

Ready to go on?

Today there has been a bunch of chatter on one of the email lists I follow about how to deal with “the snake” in a choir rehearsal. And, no, this is not a personality type of one of the singers, but a diction problem (ssssssssssssssssssssss). Among the suggested solutions? Curtly tell people to stop hissing. Well…ok…if you have an experienced choir…

But I’ve found that it is not that easy. Particularly if you are not willing to spend time on the fundamentals of choral singing in order to establish discipline. I’ve written about that process in general elsewhere. So let’s talk about the snake problem specifically.

First, if you are a director, you need to mark your score in order to discover where problems like these are going to arise. You can figure out where the snake will be hiding by looking for an “s” in a spot where it follows a long held note, arrives just before a long rest, or starts a passage after a long rest, for instance, but there are other spots too.

When you’ve identified the problem spots, you have two choices: plan to fix the problem intentionally, or wait to see if the problem arises before you spend time in rehearsal fixing it. I tend to take the former tack if I am new with the choir, or if the group is filled with singers who have no sense of discipline. Intentionally working on the problem during a warm up session will, in addition to fixing the problem, communicate that you care about getting it right. On the other hand, if I’ve spent time on the snake and it re-appears unexpectedly, I often stop in rehearsal and do a little “touch up” work to remind the singers that I still care about getting it right.

Either way, what do you do?

Teach the singers to work together by establishing a general rule that all initial consonants come before the beat, and all final consonants are placed on the following beat.

For instance, applying this rule to a word like “step” gives this picture: st|eh|p. The “st” comes before the beat, the “eh” sustains during the duration of the note, and the “p” is placed on the next beat. How do you get the initial “s” together? By practicing nothing but the downbeat. Have the choir speak just the “steh.” The object is to arrive at the downbeat on the “eh” — that’s the first consideration. But in the process, you also need to listen (and have your choir listen) to the length of the “s” in relationship to the “t” and the “eh.” Depending upon the tempo it will be best at a certain length, and you, as the director, by isolating this problem, can teach your choir exactly what that length is.

For a final “s” (as in “hiss”) just repeat the process but from the other side of the mirror. Now the “ih” sustains as long as possible, and the “ss” comes on the following beat. By isolating this, you can teach your choir how long, at a given tempo, that “ss” sound should be.

OK, but what about a word like “mistake”? Let’s say that the first syllable is held before going on to the second. Again, approach the problem in isolation: have the choir speak the entire word in rhythm. Everyone will hear (or at least they should…if they can’t you have a different problem) the “s” arrive at a slow tempo. The object of the lesson is to teach them when the “s” is supposed to arrive, and in what proportion to the “ih” before it and the “t” that follows it.

Try it…it won’t take long for your choir to hear the difference if you isolate the problem. Spending a few minutes on snake killing from time to time will clean up the sound of any choir.

Don’t understand my explanation? Have a better way to fix the problem? Please leave a comment and let me learn from you.

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