To Blend or Not to Blend

To blend or not to blend, that is the question. With apologies to Shakespeare, there really shouldn’t even be a question here.   Most of us involved in choruses, either as singers or conductors, would say that of course we should blend.    Therefore, why is it that so many choirs fail to achieve a good blend?   A possible reason is that it requires a high level of concentration and commitment from both singer and conductor.   It doesn’t just happen.   So, what is blend?  One definition suggests that blend means “to mix smoothly and inseparably together.”   I think that definition works very well as a starting point in considering choral blend.  First, let’s differentiate between choral balance and choral blend.  Try to think of choral balance as being something that occurs primarily between voice sections, e.g., balance between the sopranos and basses, and choral blend as something that occurs within a section, e.g., all the tenors singing in such a way as to unify their sound and sound like one voice (this is something, by the way, that is almost impossible for tenors to achieve!).    Obviously, there can still be blend between sections and balance within sections, but for the time being I’ll ask you to accept my generalized descriptions of each.

My concept of blend includes several key points:  correct pitches and rhythms, unified and well produced vowels and consonants, and proper breathing and support.  Add to this a real desire on the part of the singer to truly have his or her voice become part of the choral sound, and be willing to be a “part of the whole.”  I mention this because we live in such a self-absorbed society today that being the “center of attention” often seems to be more attractive than being a small, though integral, “part of the whole.”  While I don’t necessarily believe that choral music holds all the answers to the ills of our world, I do consider it to be a good start!  So, as a conductor, I pledge to concentrate this year on achieving a beautiful choral blend, expecting that my singers will supply (with my help) the pitches, rhythms, vowels, consonants, breathing, and support that will make it possible.

So, what have been your experiences with choral blend?

Showing 9 comments
  • Greg Picciano

    Choral and or choir blending starts at the top and I am fortunate to sing in two of Altanta’s best groups with two of Atlanta’s best conductors(Bryan Black with the Cobb Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Michael O’Neal with the MOS) who both demand that we sing as “one voice” within in a section and as a chorus.When you hear a group that doesn’t achieve that goal that means the director isn’t hearing the whole sonic experience when he or she stands in front of the choral unit or it is not a priority.And the listener is the one that doesn’t get to enjoy what that particular chorus could offer with better
    musicianship.So even as a tenor I have always felt that
    blending is key to taking any choir or chorus to the next level of excellence.

  • Cookie

    Thanks Maestro,

    Well said (as always) and “word to the wise” put perfectly!

    Thanks,
    CSP

  • Jane Zinn

    We all learn differently and being a flutist I pick up the notes, etc. easily. I have a harder time with words so I appreciate you putting the summer music in historical perspective. That made them meaningful and easier to learn. Thank you.

  • Lilly chen

    Interesting article Dr. O. Leaves me with something to chew on. Nice crack on the tenors…funny but true. It reminds of some articles I read that the celebrated accompanist Grahm Johnson wrote on the art of Piano Accompany. First he dispel the myth that just because you can play the piano that means you can accompany. Accompanying requires a different touch. A different texture. You must have a looser weave so that the other musicians can weave their sound with, over, under, around yours. so that in the end you become this one seamless unit of one. Johnson preaches in the articles how the art of good piano accompanying is listening, and listening and more listening. Also I personally believe ensemble music making requires more of a “trust in the process” than that of solo because you have to be will to let go and surrender to someone you may not know very well and vise vera. It can be very scary and feel uncomfortable…

  • Heather Morse

    In my limited experience, one of the difficult and yet freeing parts of choral singing is listening to the voices to blend with and making those adjustments to my tone or pitch that will improve the blend. Sometimes it means dropping out and coming back in.

  • Tim Henderson

    Tenors are so use to being the “center of attention” and rightfully so! I will add one item to the list of musts – a beautiful sound or tone is necessary. Individuals and sections can ruin a piece by over singing and “shouting” as they get caught up in the piece. Listening to those around you and adjusting your pitch, tone and volume are all important. Oh yes – one other item – Watch Michael!

  • Jen Mautz

    Excellent points made. Really enjoyed this musing Michael. (Of course I completely agree that it is almost impossible for Tenors to “blend”). Jeff never did really get that point… hahaha.

  • Sean Kilpatrick

    Good blend is still the exception, rather than the rule, in my experience. I think that the time the director (or ass’t director, as the case may be) spends on tone quality is well worth it. Although it can be frustrating to sing the same line over and over, not sure what is wrong, once that vowel kicks into place, it is like the sun coming from behind the clouds.

    The concerts where the blend has been good are still some of my personal audience’s favorites.

  • Mike Hartley

    I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said in this blog. One key aspect of choral blend that, although implicit is not specifically mentioned, is dynamics. Absent direction to the contrary, I try my best to follow the dynamic markings printed in the score. This only presents a dilemma when the marking is some level of forte and the bulk of the chorus is singing at a lower dynamic. So in this case the question is, does one try to sing out and lead the pack, or just concede and re-mark one’s music mf or mp?? I confess to mostly doing the former during early rehearsals, but retreating to “sheep” status for the performance.

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