Walking the Dog, and Singing Louder

SBO Staff • ChoralNovember/December 2018The Practical Conductor • December 19, 2018

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I used to have a dog. His name was Marcus, and he was a black miniature schnauzer (that’s his picture). Marcus and I got into the habit of taking long walks when he was younger, and during those walks I listened to a lot of things – podcasts, radio shows, and music on which my choirs were working. My a cappella group, Eleventh Hour, was allowed to suggest songs for consideration in our set. I loaded all those suggestions into a playlist, and when I walked Marcus, I would listen — with one goal in mind — musical intimacy.

I set the playlist so that each song would play on repeat. At the start of the dog-walk, I’d start listening to a song over and over again. If I liked the song enough that I could listen to it on repeat through the ENTIRE dog-walk, it would move into serious consideration for arrangement.

I have often stressed to my a cappella groups/choirs that if they are performing a piece of music, they need to be intimately familiar with the end product. There’s so much to be learned from listening to a polished, professional performance of the piece you are preparing. Since everyone is busy, I now suggest that my singers do what I did: build a playlist of the material on which you are working and listen to it over and over. On dog-walks. In the car. While doing homework. In the shower. I don’t care when or how or where, just listen to it a lot, on repeat.

And listen for more understanding each time. Go deep.

Form, style, dynamics, tuning, diction, rhythm, balance, and so much more become obvious when one is familiar with the polished end product. Architects not only create blueprints, but renderings of the final project so that everyone involved can see what they are building. Cookbooks contain photos of completed dishes… nailed it!

As musicians, we must become intimate with the music we are striving to create, so we know best how to direct our practice efforts. When we are intimate with the music we are striving to perform, errors of execution are much easier to spot in the crucial early stages of learning.

Like many, I struggle with trying to get my less-experienced singers to SING OUT. So many of them sing like they talk, without engaging any of the many muscles that must work in coordination to create a vibrant, healthy tone.

Today was another day of “that’s good, but could you please sing louder?” Desperate to try another angle, I realized: “I am directing from an iPad. I’m going to hit the app store and get a decibel meter.”

I downloaded a free decibel meter app, and as soon as it loaded, it was air-played to the smart board for all to see. “This is a decibel meter,” I said. “A decibel is a measurement of loudness. This app will show us how loudly we are singing.”

In order to get everyone to understand the baseline of sound, I let the meter run and we explored the following sound levels:

  • A quiet room
  • Me singing alone
  • Me singing loudly
  • The choir singing a scale together with piano
  • The choir singing a scale together without piano
  • The choir singing a scale together loudly without piano
  • The sopranos, boys, altos each singing a scale individually without piano

As they saw the decibel meter in action, they started tracking numbers, and soon a sense of competition filled the room. Who wants to be the section that is “last” on the decibel meter ranking? No one.

The result was that the singers WERE singing out, WERE singing louder. We all know that louder does not equal better, but I believe that singers must sing out before they can sing better. It’s like shooting a basketball – it has to get above the rim before we can worry about aiming the ball through the hoop!

Using a decibel meter isn’t the answer to all under-singing problems, but it’s one tool I found to be very effective in my rehearsal today. The saying holds true: Improvement doesn’t come from what’s EXPECTED, but what’s INSPECTED.

Here’s a link to several decibel meter apps, both iOS and android, free and paid: https://bit.ly/2Bpjf0k

Brody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group ever to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of a cappella studies and has partnered with Deke Sharon to launch Camp A Cappella, an a cappella summer camp.

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