TOGETHERNESS – The Team Work of Good Ensemble

roof pattern-1Ensemble means TOGETHER, as in a unified or coordinated whole.  We hear the word pertaining to clothing, as in a coordinated outfit that works together in terms of color and pattern, etc.  In music, it can refer in the specific sense to a group that performs together, i.e., a vocal ensemble, wind or string ensemble.  In the more subjective sense, “ensemble” is the quality of togetherness, relating to the coordination of various elements of performance (outlined below), seemingly minute factors that can make the choir sound either neat, polished and professional, or sloppy, careless and amateurish.

What may be surprising is just how little it takes to upgrade or degrade a performance just by focusing on, or neglecting, one or more of those elements.

As you might guess, good ensemble demands, first and foremost, two important skills:  watching and listening – the discipline to watch the conductor, and the discipline to listen, to tune in, to your neighbors and yourself.  Together they comprise an acute awareness that must be maintained at all times when we are performing, even in rehearsal.  Most of us don’t have these skills naturally – they must be developed with practice, and if we make a point of thinking of them whenever we sing in a group, they’ll develop all the more quickly for us.

Don’t be the weak link!  Remember that all the things we think about in good ensemble can end up being for naught unless everyone is concentrating on them.  All it takes to destroy good ensemble is one singer out of sync with the group.  And once you have tuned in to the ensemble, never let your concentration flag even for a second, for that is where most mistakes happen.

Here then are some of the basic components of good ensemble, many of which we will explore in more depth in upcoming blog posts.  Although they should be addressed at each rehearsal, be careful not to let them become tedious.  Devise a short but purposeful warm-up regimen that includes exercises conducive to these elements – and especially to the overall skill of “tuning in.”

Singing “in tune” is of course crucial to good ensemble, and potentially problematic since some of us have a better natural sense of pitch than others.  But for nearly all of us, it’s a skill that can be learned and honed with a little practice and concentration.  And in order to “tune up,” we each must “tune in.”  Practicing intervals, both individually and as a group, can help us develop this skill.

Unification and refinement of vowels is an important but usually neglected part of achieving good ensemble.  Here are some things for every choral ensemble, and its conductor, to think about.

Avoid “spreading” the vowels – that wide, horizontal mouth shape that most of us just naturally do.  Besides sounding outlandish and uncultured, spreading our vowels has the effect of damping the resonance in our sound, making it weaker, less vibrant, less warm, and more strained.  Not mention, it often adversely affects pitch.

Try this exercise:  Have your mouth closed in a fully relaxed, neutral position (“lips together, teeth apart”).  Gently hold your two index fingers pointing up, at each corner of the mouth (but not touching the face).  Practice singing or speaking (in varying order) the 5 vowel sounds:
Ah (as in father)
E (as in take)
Ee (as in free)
Oh (as in go)
Oo (as in true)
Do this without letting the mouth exceed the width between your two index fingers, and without tension anywhere.  Impose this width limitation in all of your singing and your sound will improve noticeably!

Modify vowels in the higher range – Don’t let anyone tell you you must approach vowels literally in your high range.  For example, it is no use trying to sing a pure AH up there.

  1. Remember these two important rules about high notes:
    It’s especially important not to spread – think tall and narrow in your mouth shape (but without forcing); and
  2. Whatever the “true” vowel is (even if it’s E or EE), think of injecting it with a little UH (as in love).  While you may think it feels weird, have complete faith that it won’t sound weird to the listener.

Agree on dealing with diphthongs – On sustained notes, diphthongs (where necessary) should normally come at the very end.  Until that time, the first vowel sound should be pure and constant.

Where diphthongs are unnecessary:
Learn pure (non-diphthong) vowels – For example, a simple E (as in take) should be pronounced not with two vowels EH and EE, but as a single constant E (think of that stereotypical Canadian “E?” sound).   These pure vowels are especially essential in languages French, Italian and Spanish (among others), but they are called for in any language.

Correct faulty vowels – For example, many of us naturally pronounce AH too widely (spread).  It should be narrower and with a tiny bit more AW in it.  Another common issue is learning to sing a pure OOH.  The correct mouth shape for OOH takes more muscular effort than most other vowels – a pointed, forward pucker of the lips is needed here.  And finally again, get rid of unnecessary diphthongs.

Uniform arrival and departure – Getting on and off of consonants together is key to good ensemble.  

Anticipatory consonants – Consonants must not happen on the beat.  If they do, every entrance will be late.  Make a point of putting the vowel right on the beat, and the consonant will find its proper place before. 

Bring out consonants! – A common shortcoming of even highly accomplished vocal singing is unclear diction.  Think of overdoing those consonants, of propelling them forward, and it will probably be just enough for the audience to understand you.  There’s also the added benefit of an energized breath, and vowels will be more vibrant.

Everyone must execute a crescendo or diminuendo, or any other change in volume, at the same rate.  When the group can feel the expressive purpose and power of a dynamic together, the effect is all the more compelling to the listener.

Everyone singing the same line must begin and cut off at the same time.  Rhythms must be felt and executed in perfect unison.  For rehearsing complex rhythms, try subdividing everything in the smallest note unit of that passage.

Everyone must observe and execute these things in the same way at the same time.

This is one of the real tests of good ensemble, especially given the tendency to assume that singing in unison is easy.  It is easy to sing in unison, but not so easy to make it sound good!  Here’s where all the units of ensemble must be perfectly aligned and coordinated.

There is the sense of ensemble that only comes from conductor and each singer feeling the music in complete sympathy.  To some degree this is indefinable – it just happens.  But it can only happen with everyone’s total concentration on tuning in, both by listening to one another and by watching the conductor.
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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