Shine Like a Diamond and Mind the Gap!

SBO Staff • ChoralOctober 2019The Practical Conductor • October 21, 2019

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Diamonds are valuable, cherished items… sometimes. Sometimes they are relatively inexpensive utility tools, like in the case of record needles and grinding wheels. Valuable diamonds, the kind that inspire TV commercials backed by orchestras, are priced based on what are known as the “4 C’s.”

  • COLOR – is the diamond white, off-white, yellow, blue?
  • CUT – is the diamond cut well to maximize light refraction and to maximize sparkle?
  • CLARITY – is the diamond clear or cloudy? Does it have defects?
  • CARATS – how large is the diamond?

I was recently rehearsing Michael McGlynn’s “Dulaman” with my men’s chorus. The piece is in three parts and relies heavily on a brilliant, ringing sound to exploit a combination of major seconds and open fourths/fifths. I told them I wanted their sound to “shine bright like a diamond” (hat tip to Sia/Rhianna). What are the “4 C’s” when it comes to choral singing?

  • COLOR – What tone color is appropriate to the music? Is it the rich classical tone befitting Brahms or the brassy sound of Broadway? Is it a crystalline tone appropriate to Renaissance or the powerful tone of gospel?
  • CUT – I think of “cut” as how well the singers do with rhythmic integrity. Not only in terms of note/rest values, but the cleanliness of attacks and releases.
  • CLARITY – Clarity refers to vowel purity and matching, as well as tuning (overall tuning as well as maximizing fine-tuning to make chords ring and sparkle)
  • CARATS – Dynamics – how much tone is there? Big diamonds and little diamonds can be equal in quality save for their size, and singing should be the same way. Piano and forte sounds should be equally well-produced, just different volumes.

By paying attention to the 4 C’s, we can help our singers “shine bright like a diamond!” 

On more than one occasion I’ve noticed my singers derailed by either a page turn or by moving from one system to the next. Of course, this happens more in my middle-school and lower-level choirs, but no one is immune to this issue. I call it “the gap.”

I call it “the gap” because I remember vividly my first experience on the London Underground (their subway system). There are signs posted that read “Mind the Gap.” In this case, the gap refers to the slot-shaped hole between the train and the platform of the train station. There is also an audio recording that plays whenever the train doors open: a calming British voice that repeats, “Mind the gap. Mind the gap.” Subtext: “Pay attention to the hole you are about to cross, lest you stumble or drop something into it.”

Why the signs? Why the recording? Let’s be honest – sometimes we aren’t fully paying attention. We miss a potential hazard either because we are hyper-focused on what we are doing or have lost focus and are mentally adrift. We miss a hole in the ground. A page turn or system change – a gap:

There are a few ways I condition my singers to “mind the gap.”

1) Simply write the word TURN over the last measure before a page turn. It seems obvious that the page is ending, but the act of writing it helps ingrain it and is a constant reminder.

2) In both cases of a page turn or system change, it is helpful to write the first note of the next system at the end of the previous system. Doing so (and perhaps an arrow to indicate up or down) can remind singers where they are going when they cross the gap. If a bass ends on an G and the next system starts on a middle C, writing in the note can help them prepare for that upward leap.

3) Mark each staff on which you sing. Either circle the clef or write a star next to your staff within the system. Sometimes you just need that anchor as you move from system to system, especially if the editor moves from open to closed voicing or vice versa.

What other methods do you have to help singers “mind the gap?” Please put them in the comments!

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