Battling Choral Entropy

SBO Staff • ChoralOctober 2017The Practical Conductor • October 30, 2017

Share This:

By Brody McDonald

Entropy (plural entropies)

1: a measure of the unavailable energy in a closed thermodynamic system that is also usually considered to be a measure of the system’s disorder, that is a property of the system’s state, and that varies directly with any reversible change in heat in the system and inversely with the temperature of the system; broadly :the degree of disorder or uncertainty in a system

2: the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity

b: a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder

3: chaos, disorganization, randomness

This issue I decided to address an aspect of choral directing that lives large in my day right now. It is the battle against choral entropy. Entropy refers to the eventual breakdown of systems over time, a leveling out of… everything. It is easily understood by visualizing a glass of ice cubes melting to become room temperature water. A hot cup of coffee, sitting right next to the glass of ice cubes, will also reach room temperature.

Do you feel the effects of entropy on your music? Do your dynamics slowly erode so that the fortes and pianos all merge into a non-stop mezzo-forte? Do your staccatos and legatos all end up being some bizarre quasi-marcato (or perhaps have no articulation at all)? Do your singers want to drift back from tall, structured vowel sounds to something more spread and speech-level? These things happen in my choirs most often in the beginning part of the year, until good habits are formed. Let’s talk about how to raise our singers’ awareness and strengthen good habits. My college choir director called it “the development of choral instincts.” It is a process through which we train singers to become aggressively engaged in rehearsal by teaching them how to make the best types of mistakes. Please keep in mind that this process is not a quick fix – it requires consistent reinforcement to develop awareness in the singers and a culture of action.

Step 1 – Set Goals

Of all the habits a choir singer should have, I believe the first (and most important) one is that of singing with intention. That is to say – singing on purpose, or singing with a goal in mind. This is opposed to the “just singing through it” mentality that pervades many choristers. I described in a previous article the value of IS vs. ISN’T, meaning it is faster and more consistent only to worry about what things ARE or SHOULD BE rather than what they aren’t. We could say “don’t stand with your feet together,” and “don’t stand with your legs crossed” and “don’t stand leaning on one leg,” or we could simply say “stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.” In order to impart exactly what the music IS, I strongly suggest vocal modeling. When we model for our students, we can demonstrate the appropriate dynamics, vowel sounds, diphthong turns, consonant treatments, tuning, tone, syllable stress, phrase shape, and more – all at the same time!

Students should not just watch your demonstration or listen to it, they should analyze it. Then, they should set to work, physically mimicking you to recreate the sound. Was your jaw dropped? Theirs should be, too. Was your face expressive? Theirs should be, too. Was your breathing low? Theirs should be, too. Remind them of all the components of the demonstration, help them listen for each aspect, and make sure they understand that they should actively feel themselves creating the sound. If they don’t constantly feel active, they are likely very close to speech, which leads to under-supported, non-structured sound. Our motto: “You don’t sing like you talk, and you don’t dance like you walk.”

Step 2 – Calibrate Your Singers

I help my singers calibrate themselves by playing “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Let’s say we are working on a concept in class. Perhaps I’m trying to get the choir to sing a tall AW vowel (as in the word TALL), but they continue to sing the vowel AH (as in FATHER). I start like this (try to see this in your mind): I hold my hands out in front of me, about three feet apart, as if to show I caught a really big fish or as if to offer up a bear hug. I shake one hand and say, “This is too cold.” Then I shake the other hand: “This is too hot. Come up here and show me… where is ‘just right?’” Without fail, a student volunteers, comes forward, and places one of their hands directly in the center of mine. I thank them and begin my speech.

“John has indicated that ‘just right’ is in the middle of ‘too hot’ and ‘too cold.’ Now, let’s take the example of Goldilocks and the porridge. What is porridge? It’s like oatmeal, sort of. What temperature is in the middle? Lukewarm. Does anybody in this room like to eat lukewarm oatmeal? I didn’t think so. Oatmeal is most often enjoyed hot. Not warm, not tepid – HOT. Just not TOO hot.”

This is how I think of it. There is a target we are trying to hit, an outcome we are trying to achieve. If we miss, we must miss the right way. In the case of singing an AW vowel, I feel that AW is closer to OH than it is to AH. It sure feels that way to me. Let’s visualize this on a number line.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


When we are aiming at singing the AW vowel, what we see is that all mistakes are not created equal. Making an AW that is too round and dark begins to turn the vowel into OH. Keeping the vowel too bright leans towards AH – but at different distances. Because there is less room between AW and OH than there is between AW and AH, there are fewer wrong answers/mistakes to be made by “overshooting” in that direction.

I feel the same way about dynamics. See below:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

mf f ff

I feel this way because I tend to think of mezzo-forte as “the volume that comes out without trying to be loud or soft.” I think forte should be significantly louder than mezzo-forte. It helps prevent entropy of dynamics. So forte in my mind is closer to fortissimo than to mezzo-forte. This mental calibration helps increase the odds of tangible results. If a song jumps from mf to f, and my singers overshoot mf to ff… the effect of getting louder has succeeded nonetheless. If, however, they jump from mf to “mf +”… well… perhaps the effect of getting louder is not noticed.

Whenever I ask my singers to fix something, I make them aware this phenomenon: there might be two sides to the target, but one side is a more correct wrong than the other. All of this calibration is designed to lead us into step 3.

Step 3 – Aim Small / Miss Small

“Aim small; miss small” is a common catchphrase among gun enthusiasts. The premise is that more specific aim leads to greater results. For instance, instead of thinking “I want to hit the target,” think “I want to hit the bullseye.” Instead of “I want to hit the door,” someone might think “I’m aiming at the knothole in the door” I’ve heard of people who think to the level of “I’m trying to hit that nail head.” I even read a story about a policeman who, in a shootout, ended up sending one of his bullets down the barrel of the criminal’s gun. He was aiming for the muzzle-hole to increase accuracy and succeeded.

When we look at the examples show again below (target vowel, dynamics) we begin to see what I mean by “aim small; miss small.” Some mistakes are better than others. If our target vowel is represented by 8, then aiming at the area between 8-10 is aiming small. That is to say, when trying to make a tall vowel, it is less damaging to be too tall than to not be tall enough. If we are increasing volume to forte, overshooting is a much better bet than undershooting.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

mf f ff

Step 4 – Go for it!

At this point, I’ve encouraged you to:

1. Set the target by demonstrating for your singers

2. Calibrate your singers by showing them not all mistakes are equal

3. Encourage your singers to aim small – shooting very specifically for the smaller area where the “closest” mistakes live

Now we’re going to encourage huge action. Here are some mottos on which I rely daily. I can’t remember where I picked them up, but they aren’t mine.

“Often right, sometimes wrong, never in doubt.”

“Make it instant, and make it dramatic.”

And my favorite – which came from R.D. Mathey during my time at Bowling Green: “CIP – Consistency, Insistency, and Persistency.” By this he meant the director should be consistent in what they want from their singers. They should insist that the singing be as they want it. Because the first attempts are rarely correct, the director should persist until the result is what they desire.

Because the singers have been made aware of the goals, and also what mistakes are best, they should now swing for the fences. After all, operating in such an environment, how can they fail other than to not give great effort?

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!