TEMPO DRAGGING? DON’T RESORT TO SPEEDING!

English road into fog

Speeding into a fog.

The Cop-Out.  It’s one of the easy solutions to a dragging, sluggish tempo.  Move it along! Problem solved.

Or is it just a cop-out?  And doesn’t the easy solution merely create another problem?  What if the composer calls for a slower tempo?  “Speed kills” as the saying goes, and it’s true in music too — Nothing can kill the desired effect of a slow, deliberate tempo like the addiction to speed.  The composer likely had a good reason to specify this tempo – and it’s important to try and respect the composer’s intent.

And even when there is no specified tempo, if we always resort to this easy “move it along” solution, pretty soon all of our repertoire will begin to sound the same, no matter what the mood of the music should be.

Avoiding the Need for Speed.  Often as not, this compulsion to speed up is pushed on the conductor by singers who, feeling burdened by a slow tempo, believe that to “move it along” will make things more comfortable.  As a singer, I have been guilty of this myself.  As a composer and a singer, I will say that it’s better to respect the specified tempo and take one or two extra breaths, than to try and do the phrase in one breath by speeding up.  Respect the effect!  It’s far more important than being able to brag that you did it in one breath.  This principal holds in both choral and solo singing.

flowing river-1

A leisurely flow.

It’s Psychological.  But much of the time, the problem is really in our minds anyway.  It’s the product of a faulty or neglectful attitude toward the music.  The most reasonable and best artistic solution is to detract our attention from the unease of a “dragging” tempo by reducing the drag in our attitude, and concentrating our efforts on musicality.

Musical Energy.  This means feeling that constant sense of energy – to shape the line, to let it flow and stretch, like a lovely winding road stretching and curving through the countryside.  Give the line you sing – even through the rests – a continual feeling of forward travel.  Many other metaphorical images might apply here – a flowing stream, ocean waves, the blowing breeze, drifting clouds, even pulling taffy.

The main goal here is to avoid the feeling of stagnation, and find the climactic points of emphasis and aim for those destinations, to discover in each phrase the constantly renewing cycle of tension and release that is the essence of music, and of life.  It’s a sure bet that if you are thinking like this when you sing in a slow tempo, you won’t be thinking of the drag.  And more importantly, the audience won’t perceive the drag.

Moving the Breath.  Proper and continuous breath energy, emanating from the pelvic region through the contraction of muscles just above the waistline, is necessary to achieve this continual melodic flow.  Remember, this energy must never feel locked or stationary.  Never allow yourself to go into “cruise control.”

Crescendo, Diminuendo, Accelerando, Ritardando.  When we are shaping the phrase with this sort of energy of motion, we might feel that these dynamic and tempo changes are at work, and to a very subtle extent, they are.  But it would be painstaking and not a little tedious to try and plan out every small nuance of volume and speed in every phrase.  It’s much simpler to think of those “destination” points, those tension climax and release spots in the phrase.

Words Speak Louder.  Here’s where the text provide the answer.  We ask which words in the phrase are most important, which are of secondary importance, and so on down the line.  Find these words and use them as the points of climax in the phrase.

Expression.  Get in touch with the mood of the piece you are singing, and more specifically, the immediate melodic line.  Turn your energy to really expressing that mood or emotion.

Slow Down and Save the Music.  Whenever you find yourself thinking about how draggy the tempo is, re-focus your mind on making music.  And don’t cop out with speed!  The aesthetic police might pull you over.    Join Email List

THE BREAK-DOWN ON LEARNING MUSIC: BREAK IT DOWN

Close-up photo - string tremulosMusic consists of various elements – rhythm, pitches, dynamics, changing tempo, text – any one of which can prove tricky, challenging or downright daunting.  And once you’re combining two or more challenging elements, the challenge seems to increase exponentially.

One of the most common errors we make in learning our new music, particularly singers learning vocal music with text, is the all-too-often vain attempt to grasp all these elements at once.

Learn It Right the First Time!  For most of us at least, this all-at-once approach is bound to divide our concentration in this highly crucial first exposure to the music, and we end up learning something the wrong way.  Remember:  once something is learned incorrectly, it is much harder to unlearn the mistake than to learn the thing right in the first place!

Start With the Most Challenging Element.  Maybe there are tricky rhythms. Learn just the rhythms completely and thoroughly without the pitches or text, and in a slow, steady manageable tempo to begin with.

Subdivide.  For intricate rhythmic passages, find the smallest note duration value and sub-divide the entire passage into this value.  If, for example, it’s the 16th note, sub-divide all the rhythmic values into a continual 16th-note pulse, and practice the rhythm under the feeling of this pulse.

Tempo, Tempo.  Once you’ve learned the rhythms, this is a great time to start practicing in the indicated tempo of the piece, especially if such tempo is fast enough to present a challenge.  No matter what tempo you are practicing in, slow, fast or in between, make sure it is a steady tempo, true to the context of the rhythm.  A rhythm out of tempo is never really correct.

Here’s the Pitch.  Now go to the next most challenging thing – most likely, it’s the pitches.  Learn these at first without the rhythms.  Master those tricky intervals perfectly before combining them with any other element.

There are a variety of approaches for getting a handle on difficult intervals:

Wide Leaps – Try shifting the second pitch down or up an octave so that, for example, a 7th or 9th becomes a 2nd, or a 6th becomes a 3rd, etc.  Learn it this easy way before re-introducing the original octave context.

TritoneTritone (Augmented 4th or Diminished 5th) – try inserting one or more helper tones in between to make this devilish interval easier to grasp.  I like to think of this interval in one of two ways:  1) as two consecutive minor thirds; or 2) as three consecutive whole steps).

Trust Your Eyes.  For less difficult intervals, let the visual movement of the printed notes on the staff be your guide – that’s what they’re there for!  If you allow yourself to go by these movements from space to line, space to space, etc. you probably can’t go far wrong.  But make sure it’s right!  Use a keyboard to play the pitches, and listen to the correct pitches and intervals three or four times before singing the pitches.  Listen, then sing.  Make sure to learn them correctly the first time.

hayom-t-2-1Know Whereof You Speak.  Things get all the more tricky with a foreign language text.  We in VocalEssence have just finished our 2014 run of holiday concerts, where fully half the program was Scandinavian music in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish.  For most of us, these languages were entirely unfamiliar, and it was especially necessary to learn the language text on its own before applying it to music.

Learn the text as a separate element first.  Get the diction down.  (Speaking the text aloud is very important because it ensures that you will train the muscles needed to pronounce it.  Mental knowledge is only half the story when it comes to pronouncing tricky words.  Once you’ve achieved perfect working pronunciation, practice the text in rhythm, without pitches.

Put It Together and What Have You Got?  Finally, add those pitches to the rhythms.  And once you’ve practiced this once or twice, begin paying attention to dynamics, phrasing and articulations.  If possible, begin incorporating these as soon as you have combined pitch with rhythm, so that they are hard-wired into your performance.

Breaking down the elements of new music in this way, whether individually or as a group, will not only ensure accuracy to what’s written, it will save a lot of rehearsal time in the long run.  It will also promote a sense of security – and more freedom for creative musicality – in performance.  Join Email List

DON’T BE TIMID! Commitment in Performance

piper 2-1At this past July’s North American Jewish Choral Festival in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York, we had the chance to hear many choirs of varying skill level.  Two of the tell-tale signs of a group’s degree of accomplishment were its degree of confidence and its energy level.

Among the very best of these choral ensembles was the select group of young singers from the International Jewish High School Choir, who performed with a degree of commitment and certainty not often encountered outside the professional realm.  These young people possessed a thorough knowledge of the music they were singing, and they gave a passionate, energized performance throughout.  This was true of all the best ensembles we heard.

The tragedy was how easily one or two hesitant or missed entrances, or lackadaisically executed soft passages, seriously marred some otherwise respectable performances at the festival.

Timid Doesn’t Cut It.  There is simply no place for hesitation or timidity in choral singing, or indeed in any sort of performance.  That awkward entrance by the basses, that lack of energy in quiet passages, and worst of all, the unnecessary sagging pitch which happens out of carelessness – these things simply don’t sell with the listener.  Effective performance, whether in concert or in worship, means being fully committed, and fully engaged in the music.

What are the causes of timidity in performance, and how can they be avoided or mitigated?

Quiet doesn’t mean weak or feeble.  It’s a natural subconscious assumption we all tend to make, that when we get soft, we can somehow relax, go on “auto-pilot,” use less energy or, in the most common phenomenon of all, slow down.  On the contrary, it is in these quiet, piano places where heightened energy is especially important.  Without it, the passage simply won’t read well from the audience.

Low Energy Leads to Flat Singing.  If we are singing without full engagement, we are less likely to be fully “tuned in” to the rest of the group, and that’s where sagging or otherwise faulty pitch can more likely happen.  Good ensemble means everyone must be singing in the same key!

Nerves Undermine Confidence.  For any performance, you must assume that you’ll be nervous – that is, unless you are such a veteran or you’ve performed the music so many times that you could do it in your sleep.  (And in that case, the danger might be low energy – see above).

While nervous energy can actually work in our favor, often with performance nerves, we become less certain of everything, such as entrances, proper pitches, correct rhythms, etc.  Our vocal abilities are also compromised – we suffer from dry throat, less solid breath support, and tension.

The best way to combat nervousness, and even use it to our advantage, is to concentrate intently on the music, on performing all the tempo and dynamic subtleties you should have learned in rehearsal, and of course, on staying scrupulously in tune.  When you’re focusing carefully on these things, you won’t have time to think about being nervous.  And this means that you must….

Know Your Music!  Perhaps the main cause of hesitation or timidity in performance is not knowing what you’re doing.  Be confident and comfortable with every note, every rhythm, every nuance of loud or soft, slow or fast, both as an individual singer and as a group.  If you can know the music well enough to look at the conductor at least occasionally, the performance will be all the more solid, and knowing the music thoroughly will make the experience far more gratifying for you, for the ensemble, and for the listener.

commitment2-1Sing Like a Leader.  Make it your business to be a strong link in the chain of your choir.  When you “own” the material you are performing, you have less need to rely on others around you, and you can make entrances and cues with authority.  Of course, this works far more effectively if everyone can sing like a leader, and there are no weak links!

He who hesitates is lost.  Chazzak, chazzak (“Be strong, be strong!”).     Join Email List

BRIGADOON IN THE BORSCHT BELT

THE 25TH ANNUAL NORTH AMERICAN JEWISH CHORAL FESTIVAL

Monday Morning Community Sing - Big Tent-1

Monday Morning Community Sing

Annual Magic.  Many have aptly compared it to Brigadoon:  A beautiful place in the lower Catskills that comes alive once a year in mid-July with musical alchemy.

It is the North American Jewish Choral Festival, a program of the Zamir Choral Foundation, and this year’s 25th annual event marked an especially auspicious, and at times poignant occasion, a time to look back on the entire history of this conclave of Jewish choral music, back to its rather makeshift, extemporaneous beginnings.  In the context of the current strife in the Middle-East (no matter what one’s political position on that situation), it was all the more powerful to see Jews coming together in musical and spiritual solidarity —  to engage in, to use founder and director Matthew (Mati) Lazar’s words, “an artistic, spiritual and unifying musical catharsis.”

In the Catskills-1

In the Catskills

A Nice Cup of Borscht.  This year as every year since 2004, the venue for NAJCF has been the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa (formerly the Granite), near Kerhonkson, NY.  For the first eight years, the festival was held at the Concord Resort Hotel, another one of the several fabled Borscht Belt resort facilities in the general area, most of which are no more.  Such resorts have catered to city dwellers seeking a bucolic respite in these majestic surroundings.

In an average year, the North American Jewish Choral Festival draws about 500 participants, many of whom are cantors, choir directors, composers and performers.  In this 25th year, the ranks swelled to over 600.

Old Familiar Faces.  While each annual gathering features many new faces, there are many repeat performers.  This was my fourth time at NAJCF, and the long-time choir director at my congregation has managed to attend every single year since its inception.  Our cantor and cantor emeritus also were present as they have been in other years, and two friends of mine from my years in Highland Park, NJ have also been long-time regular participants.  Then there are the new friends I have made at the Festival over the years, talented souls most of whom have returned every year of my attendance.

There are performing opportunities for singers of all skill levels, and even if one isn’t a singer, it is possible to participate in the festival as a listener.  There are a variety of workshops and seminars on many Jewish musical topics.

The Big Tent-1

The Big Tent

A Busy Schedule.  Each day of the festival begins a choice of three different minyanim  – Egalitarian Conservative, Reform and Orthodox) for morning prayers, followed by a large breakfast (all meals strictly kosher).  Promptly at 9:00 am, singers gather in an enormous tent on the grounds for the daily community sing, which begins with a short warm-up.  New pieces are presented and taught in a matter of 10 minutes, followed by a recorded reading of each.

Then follows the morning rehearsal for each of the five Instant Ensembles, which represent five levels of ability ranging from no sight-reading skill and perhaps limited singing ability, all the way to trained singers of advanced musicianship and fluent sight-reading.  With my extensive musical background, I have always found myself in the top level group, conducted by Mati.

After a similarly large lunch comes whatever seminar or workshop one has signed up for.  These include workshops in sight-singing, works of a featured historic composer or compositional school, special musical skills such as barbershop or small ensemble singing, early Jewish music, solo singing master class, songs of the Yom Kippur War, Holocaust Hymns, and many other subjects, more or less related to music.

Then comes the afternoon Ensemble rehearsals (all leading to a final festival performance on the final morning),

Hearing What’s Out There.  Each night of the festival (and this year, each afternoon as well) affords the opportunity to hear guest choirs and ensembles singing a variety of Jewish choral and sacred repertoire.  For this 25th Annual festival, no less than 19 guest choirs performed, ranging from intrepid amateur level groups plagued by faulty intonation and inconfident entrances to highly accomplished ensembles such as the Zamir Chorale of Boston, Kol Rinah (of Westchester) and Nashir (of Manhattan) which two choirs performed as a combined ensemble, and The Second Avenue Jewish Chorale of Miami, FL.  Specializing in Yiddish song is The Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, which presented a marvelous musical history of Jews in America.

For me, perhaps the highlight of all these fine performances was the Chamber Choir of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir.  These young people demonstrated exceptional vocal and musical abilities.  Their performance set, which included what was undoubtedly the most representative reading of Max Helfman’s Hashkiveinu I have ever encountered, had to be a source of great encouragement for the future to anyone (like me) hoping for raised musical and vocal standards in the Jewish choral community.

After dinner comes the evening presentation and concert, followed by an informal piano sing of old pop standards and showtunes.  At the piano for this in-the-lobby gathering is often found one Mr. Peter Sokolow, a veteran player with a vast encyclopedic knowledge of popular and show tunes harking back to the Tin Pan Alley era.

The Final Chord.  On the night of the last full day (Wednesday), we all gather in the lobby, standing before the stairway on which Mati stands to conduct us with an impromptu mass reading of Louis Lewandowski’s Halleluyah (Psalm 150), a war horse most of us know from memory.

Finally comes the big day, the culmination of our efforts – the final Thursday morning performances by each of the Instant Ensembles.  Everyone marvels at the accomplishments of his/her colleagues in just 3½ days.

All of which makes the point that this marvelous Brigadoon of Jewish music and culture, in this or any year, makes for a comprehensive experience  – of listening, of singing, of scholarship and fellowship.

Raising the Standards.  While in past years I have been a little disappointed by the lack of musical and vocal refinement in many of the choirs, and rather unhappy with the lightweight pop style of much of the repertoire, this year’s Festival seemed to signal a much higher standard in all these respects.  Yes, even this year there were occasional unfortunate experiences from my perspective.  And my abiding hope is for fully acoustic performances (presently, they are heavily miked).  But I nonetheless have come away feeling encouraged and hopeful for the future of Jewish choral and musical culture in North America.

We should all be deeply grateful for the hard work and passion of Mati Lazar and his colleagues, Rabbi Daniel Freelander and Dr. Marsha Bryan Edelman, along with the many other perennial devotees who have grown the Festival, and the burgeoning Jewish choral movement.       Join Email List

EXERCISING THE EAR – and the MUSICIAN

Ear training-1Ensemble singing is about listening as much as singing. The rule of thumb is: If you can’t hear the other singers, you’re singing to loud. But what this really means is that even as you’re singing (loudly or softly), you must be acutely tuned in to what’s going on around you. Once you have attained the habit of tuning in, it becomes easier to correct mistakes almost before they happen, to avoid the misplaced consonant, the false entrance or the faulty pitch.

We have entered into the realm of musicianship – always essential, but never more so than in ensemble singing.

INTERVALS are the space difference in pitch between two notes. Practice playing, singing and recognizing intervals both alone and in a group.  It’s essential to know the names of the intervals as well as how to hear/sing them. This connection is basic to the fundamental skill of reading music.

Multi-Pronged Approach – Learn and practice each interval in different ways. Listen to and sing each one:

  1. As an ascending  line;
  2. As a descending  line;
  3. In its vertical  (chord or harmonic) form.  The ability to recognize each interval by hearing it both as melodic line and as a harmony is a useful and important skill. This third method can be practiced on your own at the keyboard if you know how to play each interval. But it is also an excellent group exercise to have one section sing a pitch while another section sings another pitch higher or lower at a given interval.
  4. Built on different notes of the scale – for example, try to hear a perfect 5th not just on E to A, but on C to F, F to B-flat, etc.  It’s good to be able to hear the interval in different various keys.

Purpose:  To build a fundamental skill in sight-singing.

Some intervals are easier than others. The trickiest one for nearly everyone is the tritone, which may be thought of in three different ways:

a.  As an augmented 4th (think of stretching a perfect 4th by adding a semitone);
b.  As a diminished 5th (think of shrinking a perfect 5th by subtracting a semitone);
c.  As 2 notes with three consecutive whole steps between them.

Tritone

Tritone – Melodic to Harmonic

HARMONIC SHIFT EXERCISES – The group interval exercise mentioned above is one of many harmonic group singing exercises. Others should involve full harmonic chords of 3 or more parts. The leader chooses a chord (one note for each part), and has the group hold the chord. From here, all sorts of exercises can happen.

For example:

– Practice shifting the entire chord up or down by semi-tones, whole tones, other intervals.
– Change from major to minor, minor to diminished, major to augmented.
– Begin in unison/octaves, then split to a semi-tone dissonance. Move to whole tone dissonance. Evolve into 3- or 4-part dissonant chords.

Purpose: To build confidence in singing harmony; to develop a sense of tonal awareness, of skill in hearing and singing subtle harmonies and dissonances; to foster an appreciation for harmonic colors; in general, to encourage and build a sense of ensemble.

As the skill level advances, progress from standard major and minor chords to more complex chords such as:

Seventh chord built on MAJOR triad –
Minor seventh – from the fifth of the chord, add another tone a minor third above.
Major seventh – from the fifth of the chord, add another tone a major third above.

Seventh chord built on a MINOR triad –
Same as above, but the sound will be quite different!

Augmented chord – start with a major triad and raise the 5th by a semitone. The augmented chord is really two stacked major 3rds.

Diminished seventh chord
Fully diminished – three consecutive minor thirds stacked vertically
Half-diminished – two consecutive minor thirds topped with a major third, stacked vertically

Ninth, eleventh, thirteenth chords in similar variation.

DYNAMICS

Believe it or not, dynamics (loud, soft, etc.) are not easy for most ensembles to achieve effectively.  For one thing, there’s the phenomenon of thinking you’re doing too much when in fact it’s not nearly enough to “read” from the listener’s perspective. Another common (and seemingly universal) syndrome among singers is the subconscious associations of louder = faster, and softer = slower.

Gradual changes in volume are more challenging than one might think to execute in an even and consistent way. Too often we peak too early or die down prematurely. And vocally, it is a challenge to pull these off with consistent support in order not to produce strident tone in crescendo (growing louder), or lose energy and vitality of tone on diminuendo (growing softer).

Crescendo – practice at varying rates and durations.

Diminuendo– practice at varying rates and durations.

Combined cresc/dim – The most common challenge here is to avoid fading too fast in the second half.

Instant or sudden changes in volume approach the realm of accent, but without the full force of an accent. They vary in degree of either the loud or the soft. In a printed score or part they are often accompanied by the word subito (sudden). Practice overdoing these – you just might discover you’re not really overdoing it, and you might not be doing enough!

Forte-piano (fp) is perhaps the most common subito change. Listen to many Mozart’s works and you’ll likely encounter this one.

Sforzando (sfz) is similar to the the forte-piano, but is rather like an accent.

Swell (<>) done with varying degrees of speed.  Try it fast, and study how this is different from an accent or forte-piano (answer: it is smoother).

Forte-piano followed by a crescendo, as well as other combinations.       Join Email List

 

EXERCISING THE VOICE – Key Drills for Better Singing

pitch pipe close-upEffective choral singing requires certain skills, both for the voice and for the ear.  Taking 10 minutes each day to do them can develop these skills faster than we might imagine.  And we owe nothing less to our fellow singers, or our audience!

In this post, we’ll explore some voice-building warm-up exercises, which are designed to help us produce the biggest, warmest, most tension-free sound for the least amount of effort and wear on the voice.  They function both as warm-up and as training for vocal development.

General Guidelines – When practicing alone, use any melodic pattern that’s comfortable in the voice, being sure to cover your range as thoroughly as possible, without ever straining.

If you’re leading the group in these drills, choose melodic patterns that accommodate everyone’s range needs – take the sopranos and tenors as high, and the basses and altos as low as necessary for a proper and thorough warm-up.

In either situation, be careful to produce every sound in a free and well-supported way, with support coming from just above the pelvic region – this allows for freedom from tension everywhere above.

Consistent discipline  over the long haul is the only way to break the old bad habits and develop the new good ones.

You’ve Got to Break a Few – For warm-up purposes, it’s wise to go a step or two higher and lower than you’ll need to sing in performance, or just to stretch your voice.  At these extremes of your range, you might crack.  It’s okay!  A cracked or broken tone, freely and properly produced, is vastly preferable to a “clean” tone achieved by false manipulation or force.  But don’t beat a dead horse – if something doesn’t work, leave it and try again later, or try a different approach.

HUMMING – How to:  Lips together, teeth apart, with the lower jaw hanging loosely down from loose lips.  Purpose:  Warm-up; vocal development.  Helps us to feel where proper resonance happens.  Don’t force the tone anywhere – let the sound find where it wants to go; it will seem to buzz across the face and into the front “brain”; if done properly as explained above, it also sets up and demonstrates the loosely gathered, narrowed mouth shape we want for all our vowels (see below).

HUMMING INTO VOWELS – The next step in our humming approach is to transfer our head resonance into open vowel sounds:  MMMeee, MMMaaaayyy, MMMaaahhh, MMMohhh, MMMooohhh, again with the 5 vowels in any order you choose.  Practice this also with N and NG initial consonants.  (See VOWEL EXERCISES below.)

Got a Cold?  The open vowels you arrive at from out of the hum should be produced with the feeling of having a stuffed nose.  As you make each vowel, imagine you have a “code id-da-doze” (where those M, N and NG consonants are impossible!), while still allowing the resonance just where you felt it with the humming.  You can test whether this is working properly – As you make the tone, use your fingers to stop and unstop the nose.  If your tone doesn’t change, you’re probably doing it right.  These open vowel tones are approaching the kind of warm, resonant tones that are the ideal of proper vocal production.  Just remember to keep a narrow mouth and good support from below!

LONG HISS – How to:  Take a full inward breath, and emit a long, gentle and steady  unvoiced “sss” sound, supported with steady breath energy from the pelvic region.  As usual, keep your tongue, lips, jaw, etc. as loose and free as possible.  See how long you can sustain it without a breath.  With practice, you’ll increase this duration.  Purpose:  Breath control and capacity.  Makes us aware of the need for steady metering of breath energy, to produce well supported sound without tension.

LIP TRILL – Very challenging, but extremely valuable:  Don’t be frustrated if you can’t do this one right away – but do take the time to master it!

How to:  For this one, don’t think of humming, but rather of producing the tone strictly through the mouth.  As you make the pitched sound through loosely closed lips, you allow  the lips to “flap” loosely without any contortion, tightening or other manipulation.  It’s about letting the lips do what they will do, propelled entirely and solely by breath support from below.
Purpose:  Warm-up; vocal development.  This exercise teaches three important concepts:  1) Loose lips, tongue and jaw; 2) proper connection with breath flow; 3) the general principal of singing – letting.  Failure in any one of these three ideas will mean failure of the exercise.  Good!  Once you master it, you’ll have gained a lot.  If you feel tired in your abdominal region and not anywhere above, you’re doing it right!  Practice this one over the long haul.

VOWEL EXERCISES – Keep the vowels from spreading.  In the humming exercise (see above), we begin to have an idea of the properly relaxed but narrow mouth shape necessary for all of our vowels.   Another method for achieving this is to gently place the back of the fingers on either side of the mouth, and gently urge the hands inward towards each other. Don’t push so far as to produce a “fish mouth,” but just enough to narrow the mouth.  Now, as you maintain this shape, sing your vowels.
How to:  Pick a pitch in the middle of your range, and sing “ee eh aah oh ooh,” or the reverse, or use any order you wish.  Keeping the same width for all vowels, practice producing each contrasting vowel sound.   You’re reshaping your lips and tongue only as much as you need (especially on “oh” and “ooh”) to produce a pure vowel.  Also practice other “in between” vowels, such as umlauts and short vowels, in this same way.  Again, try and maintain as consistent and tension-free a mouth shape as possible across these various vowels.

Remember – By properly supporting the breath from below, you’re better able to let go of everything above.    Join Email List

GOOD TASTE – Part II: DETERMINANTS & CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD TASTE

Whistlers MotherWHAT MAKES US AESTHETICALLY DISCRIMINATING (OR NOT)? 

Socio-Economic class?  Not necessarily.  It’s stereotypical to associate discriminating tastes with snooty rich people.  Well this writer (while perhaps snooty) is not a rich person, but here I am writing about good taste, and I feel at least somewhat qualified to do so!

A more accurate indicator of taste might be one’s education level.  The better a person’s education, the more likely that he’ll be equipped with an ability to discern and appreciate great works of art, literature and music, old or new, popular or classical.  Proper education will hopefully provide exposure to, knowledge and appreciation of great music, art and literature.

Unfortunately, such proper education, even in America, is increasingly tied to socio-economic status, even in the public arena.  This is to say nothing of the trend toward de-emphasizing the arts and humanities due to ideology and/or lack of funding.

But educational barriers aren’t insurmountable, especially given technology which has made art and culture more accessible to more people across a wider socio-economic spectrum than ever before.  If we’re interested and we know where to look for it, it’s there, often for free!

Age?  When we’re young – adolescent or college age, we’re living in a time of social and sexual self-discovery, and our hormones often rule the day.  And we haven’t yet achieved the world-weariness and enhanced perspective of having lived – those collective life experiences that seem to feed our appreciation of some of the subtleties and profundities of great art.  Our priorities (hopefully) change as we “grow up.”

Popularity?  There’s certainly something to this.  Popularity usually happens for good reason.  But it isn’t an infallible indicator.  There are plenty of musical works, for example, that are widely considered among the greatest masterpieces, and yet don’t enjoy the biggest mass appeal.  Handel’s Messiah is more well-known to most people than Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  Beethoven’s late quartets are not so widely known as his Fifth Symphony.  And yet in each case, the less popular work is at least as highly regarded by music historians and aficionados as the more popular one.

Mass appeal can be determined by many things, some of which might be deemed artificial, such as effective marketing, vogue, reputation, etc. – factors that have little if anything to do with inherent quality or substance.  The greatest music and art is that which has withstood the test of time and is above and beyond the forces of current trend or popularity – it is classic.

SOME EAR-MARKS OF GOOD TASTE

What Makes for Tastefulness?  Here are some of the principals that discriminating people pay attention to, consciously or subconsciously.

Substance, not empty showiness.  Dazzle and glitter are nice to engage the audience, in limited quantities, and when properly balanced with substance.  An over-abundance of the proverbial “Look what I can do!” factor has a cheapening effect, whereas honest, restrained sentiment is an important element of substance, and all the better if it can be presented in a unique and individual way.

Avoidance of Cliché.  While music or art of any given era will have its hallmark style and characteristics, the best works are those that, even within the rules of their era, will nonetheless avoid being governed entirely by those rules.  Most of all, they will steer clear of the most over-used clichés.  Avoiding the expected, going with the unexpected – at least some of the time – can be very effective in producing something unique, original, and even transcendent of its time.

Subtlety and Restraint.  Honesty and freedom of emotion are kept within boundaries.  There are some things in our lives that simply aren’t for public consumption.  At the very least, such things should be well-enough disguised, concealed or restrained that, although we sense their presence, they don’t hit us over the head.  This is called subtlety.  Most of the best art and music lives under this rule.

Don’t Be Crass.  In our zeal over the past several years to counteract an endemic cultural puritanism, we have tended to scorn such subtlety and restraint in the movies, TV and popular music, coming out in favor of complete openness, of “pushing the envelope” of good taste, because for many of us, good taste has been unjustly equated with cultural repression.  This over-reaction to puritanical repression is surely yet another reason to disdain that puritanism, because for all of this our culture suffers qualitatively.  It can be argued that certain aspects of life and art are more interesting and intriguing when perceived from behind the vail of subtlety.

Don’t Pander.  Treating the audience with the respect they deserve, even if they might not realize it, is always in good taste, because it helps avoid qualitative decay.  If we wish to challenge our audience, one way to do it is by refusing to cater to the lowest common denominator of taste.

Is It the Money?  It must be said!  So much of cultural degradation stems from market considerations.  Sex sells, violence sells, and there’s the infamous axiom of commercialized journalism:  If it bleeds, it leads.  Of course, it’s a lot to ask of any artist to completely ignore the marketplace, but the more you can do so, the more artistic integrity you’ll have.  It’s a balancing act.  But work that is produced or performed solely to maximize the money is almost certain to be in poor taste.

Knowing Your Audience means respecting their expectations, and avoiding unpleasant or unwelcome surprises.  We don’t try to force Mozart on a jazz or rock crowd, and vice versa.  In a worship setting, for example, dignity and modesty are the order of the day.  And if we’re going to challenge the audience, it’s wise to ensure that they want to be challenged.

Beauty.  What is it exactly?  It’s hard to describe or define.  Beauty moves us in a profound, elevated way.  So why have we become so afraid of beauty in art and especially in music?  We explored some possible reasons for this in Part I of this post on Good Taste.  We should never underestimate the value and importance of beauty.

Balance.  One of the hallmarks of beauty in art and music is the idea of balance, of restraint.  As we’ve already seen, it shows good taste to ensure that emotional expression and technical display are kept within sensible boundaries.  Maintaining balance is one of the wisest principals in life, and in art.  It’s a sure-fire method of avoiding tedium, and of keeping your audience engaged.  Emotional restraint is the mark of artistic and intellectual maturity.

It’s Not About Being Snooty.  Let us repeat that the principals of discriminating taste are applicable to pop culture as well as high culture.  The fundamental purpose or effect of pop culture may be more modest, less lofty or ambitious than high culture, but it still lives by many of the same rules of good taste.     Join Email List

GOOD TASTE – Part I

So what is good taste?  Do we as a society still think it’s important, and if so, why?  Or perhaps more importantly, if not, why not?

Montreal church & sculpture

Church & Sculpture – Montreal CANADA

We usually apply the idea of good taste to food, drink and tobacco, among other consumables.  There are those humble ingenuous souls who think of good taste simply in terms of something that “tastes good.”

The Finer Things.  But suppose we narrow our discussion of tastefulness to a loftier level.  When it comes to food and drink, many of us have developed a finely honed, discriminating sense of taste regarding such things as coffee, tea, micro-brew beers and lagers, and of course, wines.  What is it that constitutes the better examples of these things?  Often it’s the qualities of refinement, subtlety, and rarity.  (Not the case, however, with hot chilis!)  The best qualities in fine foods and wines have frequently been described as sublime and poetic, in some way surpassing the merely sensual.

But what about our sense of taste in the arts?  Are we willing to apply the same discriminating sense of taste here?

It may be more complicated here than in the case of food and wine.  It is fair to say about the visual and performing arts especially that iconoclastic upheaval and its after-effects throughout the 20th century have complicated our sense of taste in these areas.  Even the unseasoned among us have been affected, whether we know it or not.  What might have been a little daunting for the newcomer has proved that much more so for all of us.

The Challenge.  For it hasn’t been as easy in this period to appreciate visual arts or music simply as beautiful or profound, as it undoubtedly was in previous eras.  It’s been an era of challenge, of obsession with the avant garde, with esthetic “progress,” with finding completely unexpected ways of challenging the audience.   If you’ve tried to go see a Shakespeare play or a classic opera during the past 30 years, chances are you have been confronted with a production that was unorthodox to say the least.  Or step into a gallery of modern art and it’s sometimes hard to see where the “modern” ends and the true art begins.

Beauty is a Pejorative Term.  Beauty often is not considered important or even desirable in modernist or avant garde works of art.  And even when a work possesses beauty and harmony deep beneath its cutting edge, its challenge may nonetheless seem insurmountable to many.

Could it be that this radical approach to art and music has won out to such a degree that over time it has chased away a large part of its audience?

Helping to fill this cultural void created by Modernism for music lovers in particular, has come a group of vibrant popular musical idioms, often rooted in African culture, but also informed, especially earlier on, by European classicism.  One of the effects of this situation has been an assumption of popular music as a direct replacement for “higher-end” music, and that therefore Elvis and the Beatles are our modern-day equivalent to the great works of the European masters.

“I May Not Know Much About Music, But I Know What I Like.”  With all due respect to Elvis and the Beatles, and indeed for all the greatest and most celebrated popular music of nearly the entire 20th century, important though it is in our cultural landscape, it can never, nor was it ever intended to, occupy the loftiest heights in the realm of music.  But the extreme Modernism of the classical music sphere has alienated and disillusioned many potential patrons of the classical world, sending them fleeing from the stuffy concert hall and toward the familiar popular music of our youth.  And this more humble and accessible body of work has been presumed by many as the only music that matters.

We all have such music in our nostalgic conscience, depending of course on the era we grew up in.  Some of it we still enjoy just revisiting every once in a while, while some of it has deeper qualities that make it endure beyond just the memories it evokes.  At its best, it can occasionally rise above the level of mere popular music.  When we actively discern this difference, we are exercising a little bit of the kind of discriminating taste we owe to all the music and art we choose to embrace.

Knowledge is Power.  When we take shelter in the familiar, we demonstrate one of the principals of artistic taste – that knowing something about the world is empowering, and potentially enriching, not just for us as individuals, but eventually for broader society, for the world itself.  To acquaint ourselves and become familiar with that which is considered at the pinnacle of human conception and achievement is to empower ourselves toward self-enrichment and, by extension, empower and enrich the society in which we live.

Power of Enrichment.  Let’s enjoy the music we love, while also taking time to broaden the boundaries of what we can love by getting acquainted with “the finer things.”  No longer are the finer things available only to the wealthy, the important, the privileged.  Never before in the history of humanity has the finest music been more readily and immediately available to virtually everyone on the planet.  It’s there for the taking, waiting for us, and our taking it may make us, and the world, somehow better!
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In our next post we’ll attempt to explore some possible elements that contribute to our sense of “Good Taste.”        Join Email List

MUSIC AS WEDDING DRESS

Pair of RosesWhat is a wedding if not an occasion to dress for?  We clothe ourselves in the most formal and dignified attire of our entire lives.  And why?  At first we might think it’s simply because we’re celebrating a joyous occasion, so why not dress “to the nines?”  But there are other joyous occasions we normally celebrate in much more casual attire – birthdays, for example.  When was the last time you dressed up in formal wear for a birthday or anniversary unless it was because you were going to a very fancy restaurant?  Even then, you might have done so only to meet the restaurant’s dress code.

How we dress can of course be a means of self-expression, of telling the world how we feel (consciously or subconsciously) about ourselves and about our lives.  But mostly it’s a way of presenting ourselves appropriately in society.

When we reach huge milestones in our lives, no matter our cultural background, it is customary to present ourselves in the most dignified light possible – not only for ourselves, not only for each other, but for the occasion itself and what it represents in our life.  Those of us who feel a spiritual or religious aspect of the wedding day might well imagine ourselves as coming before the Almighty to declare our commitment of lifelong love, to take our vows of matrimony.  If nothing else, it is to demonstrate our seriousness about such a commitment, perhaps before G-d, certainly before our family and friends, before society.  We might think of such seriousness as analogous to the sort we convey when making a profound and important speech.  We hope that our speech will not be taken lightly, and take a serious tone in order to be taken seriously.  Likewise, we dress for important occasions in order to take them, and to be taken, seriously.

Dressing the Wedding.  In the wedding ceremony, we extend such sense of dignified dress to the physical surroundings of the wedding venue.  Whether it’s a museum, conservatory, garden or other space – even a grand sanctuary, the ceremonial venue is further dressed up in lovely flowers and furnishings.

Music as Wedding Attire.  With all the time and thought we give to these various sartorial and decorative aspects of the ceremony (and the more unbuttoned reception and celebration that usually follows), it often seems surprising that the music, arguably the most important atmospheric ingredient in the wedding service, or indeed any ritual proceeding, is sometimes given less consideration than the other elements.  Lack of musical knowledge, a place to cut corners, a notion that in posterity no one will remember the sound of the music (it doesn’t really photograph well).

Serious vs Fun.  We make a distinction between the ceremonial music and the celebratory reception music.  While the latter is generally in a popular vein, typically suitable for dancing and for a relaxed and festive social setting, the former is meant to create a decidedly more formal, even sacred, mood.  Just as once we arrive at the reception, ties and jackets might come off, and even the bride removes her vail, so the music is more relaxed and fun.  We are breathing a collective sigh of relief after making it through the very solemn moments of the ceremony.

But that ceremony, even if we intend it to have a more secular feel, should always carry that sense of seriousness, dignity and pride that we hold for this major occasion in our life, and that we wish to convey to all our family, friends and community – it is the same basis for our very formal and dignified dress.  We want the world to know about our love for each other, and about the life commitment we are making.

Dignity and Beauty.  Let well-chosen music convey that mood of grandeur on your momentous occasion.  Whether you hire professional players or choose pre-recorded music, let it be commensurate with the dignity and beauty of the day.

One of my cherished tasks as a composer has been my endeavor to produce the sort of music that attains this goal.  I invite you to visit and explore my website of wedding music, written in many styles and moods, instrumental and vocal, sacred and secular.  Two video samplings of my wedding works, one for general and the other Jewish weddings, are available on YouTube.

In upcoming blog posts, I hope to share with you some insights of my wedding works and how they can help you transform and elevate your special day into an occasion you and your family and friends will remember with your ears as well as your other senses.   Join Email List

FOUR PREREQUISITES TO AN ENHANCED JEWISH CHORAL CULTURE

instruments-1In our Jewish community, we are desperately seeking something to enhance the beauty and interest in our services.  Those of us for whom instruments in shul are not permitted under the laws of observance, the only real way to add dimension to our music is choral singing. Choir music in the synagogue is by no means new, and in fact there is a long history of it throughout Europe going as far back as the late Renaissance with the likes of Salamone Rossi.

But we have a lot of catch-up work to do in our choral singing compared to the church community, from which we can gain some valuable perspective on music making.  Here are some general areas we might concentrate on.

Improved Musicianship.  When it comes to fundamental musical skills, a little improvement can go a long way toward enhancing our realm of repertoire possibilities, for we will use these skills endlessly.  When we speak of cognitive musical skills, we are referring to such abilities as reading music, specifically sight-singing (which, incidentally, isn’t necessarily possessed by even skilled instrumentalists who read music).  Good sight singing requires the further skill of hearing and recognizing in our ears the various tonal intervals, as well as seeing and recognizing these intervals on the printed page, and ultimately correlating the audial with the visual.  The same is true of the rhythmic element of music.  Of course all this means also knowing our way around a printed score, gaining the acquaintance with the beautiful language of written music.

Improved Vocal Skills.  Vocal ability – singing ability – means being able to produce the tone beautifully and efficiently, and with enough control to execute changes in dynamic and articulation, as well as produce beautifully shaped line.  These are largely skills of physical coordination related to the physical act of producing sound.  Again, as with musicianship, a little skill enhancement can make a big difference here.  See the post on singing basics.

Team Work/Ensemble.  Choral music and choral singing are nothing if not about unity – unity of tone color, vowels, consonants, dynamics, tempo, rhythm – in short, a closely-knit team effort in regard to every aspect of the music.  This is the art of ensemble (meaning “together”), and it requires learning how to listen even as we are singing, being perfectly tuned with the rest of the group, and being able to adjust and change course in a split second as necessary.

Improved Musical Knowledge & Taste.  In our wider secular culture these days, there seems to be a narrow (and continued narrowing) sense of what constitutes good, or indeed great, music, with more and more of us shunning higher musical culture as something we are not worthy of, that we should be intimidated by, or that we owe our disdain due to its elitist trappings. Worst of all, for an apparently increasing number of younger people  there is an out-and-out ignorance of this higher musical culture, a completely deprived sense of what truly great music is,

One can sense this even within the pop realm, with the music displaying less and less melodic, harmonic and formal (not to mention literary) substance. Let’s ask ourselves:  how many pop songs of the past 20 years have endured as standards in the way many of the songs of Lennon-McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan or Burt Bacharach have endured?  Those artists were still operating under an awareness (even when they outwardly rejected it) of the fundamentals of substantive music.

This cultural void is, if anything, more pronounced in the Jewish community, which has had a long history of being excluded, and excluding itself, from the higher culture of whatever wider community has surrounded it.  For a Jew to be included individually in this higher culture, historically, has often required assimilation and/or renunciation of one’s Jewish faith and culture. Such requirement may have receded, but the Jewish sense of obligation to it doesn’t seem to have faded completely.

Given the glorious legacy of Jews in American popular culture through much of the 20th Century, it isn’t surprising that this first real era of Jewish inclusion and importance in a broader culture should hold such a perpetual and affectionate attachment to Jewish self-identity in America. One senses a great jealousy and need for such a legacy of inclusion, and its attendant sense of identity, in the British or French Jewish communities, to name two.

All of which is to say, we American Jews revere our pop culture – so much so that we may not think twice anymore about elevating it to the level and status of high culture.  But at the very least, shouldn’t we be more willing to explore other territories which carry much higher and historically much longer reputations for quality and substance?  And in our efforts toward enhancing our worship and ritual, shouldn’t we be aiming as high as possible?  And if we’re being elitist, isn’t this entirely appropriate for our musical offering to the ultimate Aristocrat, the Object of our awe and reverence?

As we discussed in the previous post, pop music is fun, and occasionally may rise to a level approaching that of high art,  But even at its best, pop music will almost always be about romantic love and courtship, and will therefore have an element of the secular, and even the sexual, in it.  Let’s therefore be careful not confuse our attachment to popular music with a misperception of its appropriateness in the sacred realm.  And more subjectively, let’s be cautious in assigning it more qualitative status than it might deserve.

In all of these areas, we can and must learn a lot from outside the Jewish realm, and yes, this includes the church community.  If nothing else, we can prosper from seeing what is possible (and necessary) qualitatively in terms of singing and musicianship, qualitative taste and standards, and in terms of the power and effectiveness of well-chosen worship music.    Join Email List