Monthly Archives: November 2013

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.”

PITCH & TUNING
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.

VOWELS
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.

CONSONANTS
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.

DYNAMICS
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.

ATTACKS, RHYTHMS & RELEASES
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.

ACCENTS, ARTICULATIONS, SPECIAL EFFECTS
Everyone must observe and execute these things in the same way at the same time.

UNISON SINGING
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.

ACHIEVING GENERAL TOGETHERNESS
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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UNDERSTANDING THE CONDUCTOR – Learning the Signals

baton-1People who follow baseball or football know the importance of signals to the successful win.  Not being one of those people, I won’t wade any deeper into it than that, except to say that conductors of music use signals that are of equally crucial importance.

You may have watched a classical performance in person or, better yet, on TV with close-ups of the conductor doing his/her thing.  Have you ever wondered what the conductor was doing, and how in the world the performers of the ensemble were able to follow?  If you have caught any such performances, did it seem to you that the conductor was effective in conveying these things to the singers or players?

(See also previous post KEEPING IT TOGETHER – The Importance of the Conductor)

Of course, every conductor is different.  Some are strict utilitarians, others are showmen.  Some are easier than others to follow, and this varies even among top-notch professionals.  And in any case, some conductors are more, some are less, demonstrative on the podium –  One may prefer economy of gesture, while another may “wear the heart on the sleeve” as it were, giving the full tilt of facial and bodily expressions, hopefully along with clarity of beat.

Speed and Attitude.  There are two basic things the conductor is supposed the convey to the ensemble:

1. Tempo – how fast or slow the music flows, and fluctuations thereof;

2. Mood and Affect – which can be conveyed in dynamics (variations in loudness/softness), accents and articulation, and other more subjective manifestations of expression.   In choral conducting, the attitude of a gesture can even be conducive to the vocal approach of the singers.

Recognizing the Basic Beat Patterns.  

Hopefully, your conductor will know the beat patterns and use them clearly and effectively.  If he/she does, and you the singer can properly discern them, you will have a powerful tool for always knowing where you are (or should be) in any given bar of music you perform.  This is really an essential skill to develop.

Here then are those patterns (customarily delivered with the right hand), each shown from both the conductor’s and the ensemble’s perspective:

The ONE Pattern:  This is basically just a repeated downbeat, creating a simple pattern that can be thought of as a vertical oval (generally wider for more legato effect, narrower for marcato), with the single pulse at the bottom of the oval.

The FOUR Pattern:

beat pattern 4 conductors view

Conductor’s View

beat pattern 4 group view

Group View

 

 

 

 

 


The THREE Pattern:

beat pattern 3 conductors view

Conductor’s View

beat pattern 3 group view

Group View

 

 

 

 

 

 

The TWO Pattern:

beat pattern 2 conductors view

Conductor’s View

beat pattern 2 group view

Group’s View

 

 

 

 

 

 

The SIX Pattern:

beat pattern 6 conductors view

Conductor’s View

beat pattern 6 group view

Group’s View

 

 

 

 

 

So what’s an Ictus?Ictus is simply a term to indicate precisely where the beat pulse falls.  In these diagrams, these pulses will occur at the arrowheads.  In sharp, angular patterns, they should be very easy to discern, but should still be clearly enough when delivered even in a smooth, legato pattern.

While the basic pattern tells you where you are in the measure, it is also important to note the manner in which the beat is delivered, which hopefully the conductor is using in an intentional way to achieve the effects desired.

Size matters – How big the pattern is beaten will indicate volume.  A small beat, as you might have guessed, indicates a quieter dynamic, while large means loud, and all the gradations in between.  If the music calls for it, one or more beats might be delivered larger than the others, indicating sforzando.

Hand shape – The conductor can convey various moods and attitudes by using, for example, thumb and forefinger touching to convey delicate precision; a flat horizontal hand to indicate broad accent; or even a fist to evoke heaviness of beat.

Beat shape – A legato (smooth) feeling will often be conveyed with a more curvy beat pattern.  A sharp, angular pattern, especially with a strong ictus, indicates a marked feel to the music.  A lack of movement between pulses might indicate a detached, or staccato approach.

Conducting in 911 – When during the course of a performance, things might begin to go amiss and the group is not properly together in tempo, the conductor might resort to an emergency procedure which I like to refer to as the white pattern.  This is a large, flat pattern of straight horizontals and verticals with a clear but unaccented ictus.  It’s sole purpose in the moment is to indicate in the clearest way possible that: 1) The group isn’t together, and 2) this is the beat and tempo that must be immediately adjusted to.  Think of it as musical CPR.  Once the crisis has passed, the pattern returns to normal performance mode.

Other “emergency” gestures include:
— Pointing to the mouth – meaning “more (clearer) text”
— Pointing up – meaning “you’re under pitch”
— Pointing down – meaning “you’re sharp” (not used as frequently as pointing up)

Both hands for emphasis – One or more beats may be mirrored in the other hand, such as for a subtle cue, or for a slowing or slight holding of one or more beats.  From the conductor’s point of view, the less often this is used, the more effective it is when needed.

Cueing – Some conductors don’t do this all the time, others seldom do it at all, still others are extraordinarily skilled at it.  Cueing is especially important in music where various parts are entering and cutting off at different times.  Some cues are given right on the entrance beat, others may be given the beat before.  This may depend on how fast the tempo is – in a faster tempo, the cue is generally given earlier.  All of this will hopefully be clarified in rehearsal.

Lesson to be learned:  Don’t rely too heavily on the conductor for your cues, as even the best conductor can and does miss a cue now and again.  Know your music well enough to be able to come in properly if the cue isn’t there.

“I can name that tempo in one beat.”  Depending on how experienced you and others in your group are in your ensemble performing, you may eventually be able to make this claim.  If the conductor can do it properly, it is possible for the ensemble to begin a piece (or section of a piece) in the proper tempo with a single beat.  (This is usually the beat before the entrance of the group).  But for many non-professional level groups, such as a congregational choir, it may be necessary to have two or more beats (or a full measure) to lead the group into the tempo.  The jargon for this has customarily been something like “one bar for nothing.”

The final beat of this lead-in is really a cue.  As such, it will properly be delivered with size and clarity by the conductor, who may even mirror it in the other hand.

Performing at the speed of light.  Remember that, as we have said before, light travels much faster than sound, and while the listening method is often very useful in staying together as a performing group, it’s always best to at least combine it with the watching method.  And there are times when you must rely completely on watching the conductor.  In the recent VocalEssence U.S. premiere of  Jonathan Dove’s “There Was a Child,” our acoustic circumstances were such that this was the only reliable way to go.

Baton or No Baton – This is really up to the conductor’s discretion.   The baton customarily being white, it often serves the purpose of aiding visibility from the orchestra pit of a darkened theater.  It is less frequently used in purely choral performances, especially those without orchestra or other instrumental ensemble.  In its absence will come more opportunity for expression via the unaided hand.            Join Email List

SING A NEW SONG – Introducing a New Tune: Part II

guitar angled-1Part II:  Teaching Your New Tune

In  Part I of this post, we explored some possible criteria for choosing suitable melodies for congregational/communal singing.

Okay, so you’ve found this great new melody that you’re sure your congregation or group is going to just fall in love with.  Make sure you’re well-prepared to teach it in a fun, engaging, positive and most importantly, non-tedious way.

Mission possible.  Be quick and effective in your teaching method.  Think of it as though you were pulling a daring rescue raid – time is of the essence, and you’ve got to “get in and get out,” do your job fast and well, because before you know it, people will get bored.  This means being thoroughly prepared beforehand, knowing your material and your teaching plan inside out before you even begin.

Always be positive.  Be encouraging when you teach (but don’t overdo it).  Always make a point of complimenting them when they get it right, but even when they don’t, precede your corrections with an encouraging “great job” or “good for you” maybe along with some good-natured humor.  Never show scorn or frustration, which are as contagious as enthusiasm.

Know and understand your text – as you always should.  You need to sell the song, so be ready and able to explain and convey its meaning and significance (for example, its place in the liturgy, or informational tidbits about the poet or composer) to your group.  You’ll be amazed how much more meaningful and compelling this can make the experience for them and for you.

Break it down, put it together.  Teach a song phrase by phrase.  Sing each phrase by yourself while the group listens, then have them sing it.  Repeat this process at least twice for each phrase, perhaps even more for tricky passages, then go back and combine phrases, slowly building the tune.

If either the text or the tune is particularly challenging, start with one of these elements to get it right, then add the other element.  For example, say the text without pitches or rhythm, perfecting the diction.  Then say it in rhythm.  Finally, add the tune itself.

Use the “listen, then repeat” method.  Whether you’re the teacher or the student, remember this important learning principle, as mentioned above.  If your audience is singing (or talking), they’re not listening.  Listening means absorbing the music in one’s ear, then actively repeating it.  It is the quickest way to learn – and to teach.  Repeat again to make sure they have it.

Be accurate the first time.  Another important learning principle, especially in music:  If you learn something incorrectly at the outset, it can be exponentially harder to unlearn the mistake than it would have been to learn it correctly the first time.  Don’t be afraid to correct them quickly and repeatedly.  But be positive and encouraging.

Start easy, get harder.  Start with simple and/or repeating parts to help them feel encouragement right off the bat, then graduate to the more challenging passages.  You’ll often be able to tell them “You’ve learned half the song already!”

Start slow, get faster.  For a fast song, start with a slower tempo for learning purposes.  Then gradually speed it up to its actual tempo.

Use it or lose it.  Once you’ve gone to the trouble of teaching the new melody, and they’ve made the effort to learn it, don’t just chuck it aside.  Even if it doesn’t seem an immediate hit, make a point of using it frequently, at least for a while.  Chances are the congregation will come around and embrace it.  Then, if it’s really worthwhile, it may become a permanent choice.
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RUMINATING ON PROMISES CUT SHORT

This last Sunday of October 2013 was yet another of many momentous communal concertizing efforts in which I’ve been privileged to participate.  It succeeded another recent such Sunday at the same venue, the stately Central Lutheran Church in the southeast corner of downtown Minneapolis.

That first Sunday was a coming together of several premiere ensembles in the Twin Cities choral community, a show of solidarity with the Minnesota Chorale, the official chorus of the long-silenced Minnesota Orchestra.  It was a wistful occasion, joyful as an opportunity for several ensembles to sing for one another, yet mournful, rankling, and frustrating with respect to the underlying events which prompted it – a protracted year-long contract dispute between management and players of our Minnesota Orchestra which has resulted in the recent resignation of its great music director Osmo Vanska, and the apparent exodus of many of the principal players.  All of this represents a promise cut short, just at a time when this orchestra had reached what was arguably its zenith of world reputation and artistic standing.  They have recently made a widely acclaimed recording cycle of the entire 9 symphonies of Beethoven.  In 2010 the MO had the honor of performing twice in London at the BBC Proms.  They were considered perhaps one of the top five orchestras in the world.

This second Sunday saw another mass gathering of players and singers, including the Northfield (Minnesota) Youth Choirs, the St. Olaf Choir, and VocalEssence Chorus and Ensemble Singers, two fine soloists, soprano Maria Jette and tenor Dan Dressen, and a fine group of orchestra players, to present the featured work, the U.S. premiere of Jonathan Dove’s “There Was a Child.”  The work, which might be called an oratorio or cantata, features vigorous cross-rhythms and other fascinating rhythmic permutations, brilliant and picturesque orchestration, and insightful settings of such great poets as Walt Whitman, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and others.  It was commissioned as a tribute to a young man whose promise was cut short. 

Third Grade Photo of Michael Reid Winikoff

Michael Reid Winikoff – 3rd Grade

Dove and his poets present many memorable musings on childhood:  the desperate euphoria of daily escape from the “prison” of school; the joys of our first fleeting independence, of first discovering and partaking of nature, of flying effortlessly over the smooth ice on blades as evening casts its spell.  When such youth is robbed in death, there is mortification on discovering the fleetingness and apparent insignificance of our lives, as we ruminate on the tragedy of “what might have been.” 

The work was not easy to learn, and it proved to be a full-throated sing.  For the rhythmically challenged like me, learning and performing it demanded great concentration and careful counting of beats.  The change of venue from what would have been the premiere performance in the newly refurbished Orchestra Hall to Central Lutheran, which was necessitated by the effects of the Orchestra’s contract dispute, proved challenging given the sheer number of performers (about 300 in all) which had to be shoe-horned into a wide, shallow space.  This configuration was cramped, hot and acoustically problematic for the performers, and the principle of light travelling faster than sound took on profound importance as we were compelled to rely (almost solely in some passages) on the able baton of Philip Brunelle rather than on hearing one another. 

All of which is to say that, as a composer myself, it was well worth such hardship to participate in mounting such a powerful work, and the promise of this performance effort was wonderfully fulfilled.  As it always has been in my 11 seasons singing with VocalEssence, there was a great deal to be learned, and I was stirred to my very core.  But this time, the resonance was even deeper.

Each time I pass by Orchestra Hall, the pangs of tragedy and loss reassert themselves.  Here is our newly refurbished venue, all dressed up with no place to go.  Of course, as tragedies go in this world, there are far bigger ones than our cultural loss.  But we feel it nonetheless.

Jonathan Dove’s “There Was a Child” is a piece that seems emblematic of this monumentally troubled era.  So much that needs to be done, so many promises cut short in such an unnecessary and avoidable way.  Dare we hope for more promises fulfilled?        Join Email List