Monthly Archives: January 2014

CLASSICAL VS POP MUSIC – A GUIDE TO THE PERPLEXED

Pop music.  Classical music.  What’s the Difference?

Quite a lot, actually!  Conventional wisdom tells us:

– One is about high culture, the other about mass appeal.
– One values staying true to the composer’s very specific wishes, while the other expects and invites alternative treatments of the material.
– One is steeped in long-held traditions of performance protocol and stage etiquette.
The other is unbuttoned and often intimate with its audience.
– Both are showcased in recordings, but while the one is straightforward in engineering and production, seeking the most representative reading of what the composer has already carefully written down, the other is all about fancy engineering and editing, turning a basic tune and its basic chords into an epic and complex soundscape, something that is typically created on the fly. 

Serious Considerations.  Then there’s the degree of artistic substance and weight that we associate with each.  While I’m not nearly as willing as some are to blur the boundaries between them, there is some gray area here.

We often think of classical music as more serious, more monumental than pop, and this is largely the case.  But as any fan of the likes of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon is aware, many such epochal moments exist on the other side as well.  The blazing final chord by the strings at the end of Simon & Garfunkel’s magnificent “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is, for me, like a clarion call signalling a new social age.

Gut Feelings.  I have a similarly visceral reaction to many passages in West Side Story (the great Broadway musical that defies easy categorization here), such as the screaming trumpets and horns in the final chord of the film’s overture.  And a finely crafted pop song like the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” with its cold, hacking string accompaniment conveying its poignant portraits of existential isolation in the modern age, can very nearly attain the level of high art.

Embracing Our Differences.  That said, there are certain valid generalizations one can make about the differences that have existed between popular music and classical music.  It’s not just about the mood, style and artistic weight of the music, but about the attitude and approach toward the integrity of the work, and toward how it’s presented to, and received by, its audience.

So with all that in mind, here is my humble guide for the perplexed, listing some characteristics of these two different approaches to this wonderful spiritual miracle we call music.

A Matter of Endurance.  But let’s bear in mind that maybe the biggest lesson about the TRUE meaning of the word “Classical” is that, at the end of the day, it’s the enduring quality of the best works in any genre (whether or not they enjoy mass appeal), and how loudly, honestly and perpetually they resound through the corridors of cultural history, that secures them a place in the “Classical” category.

And equally important, let’s embrace the notion that there is room enough for both the Popular and the Classical sensibilities, each in its most appropriate time and place, and with the occasional mingle.

TRADITION/HISTORY

Classical:  Rooted in European church and court music tradition.  Royal and aristocratic patronage was common through the 18th century – thus the culture of formality and protocol.  Vienna, Paris, and much of Italy were at various times the epicenters of classical music and opera.  Later on, Russian, Bohemian and Spanish nationalism, along with Oriental exoticism, added to the mix.
Popular:  American, and African-American folk traditions, along with classical elements, informed emerging popular, blues, jazz and rock genres.  Early on, the Broadway stage was a key incubator of popular song.  Jewish songwriters and composers played a prominent role.  Modern pop music around the world has been largely informed by America.

AUTHORSHIP/ARRANGEMENT

Classical:  Preeminence of the composer, who composes and arranges every aspect of the music, notating the definitive version specifically and exactingly in the printed score.  Sometimes the composer acts as adaptor of traditional folk tunes, the treatment laid out in similar detailed fashion as above.  In both cases, melodic material tends to be closely integrated with its treatment.
Popular:  Songs often co-written (e.g., music & lyrics) as a tune with basic chords on lead sheet, typically to be arranged by someone else.  A clear delineation often tends to exist between the song and the arrangement.

DEGREE OF COMPLEXITY

Classical:  Greater complexity of music due to the integrated treatment of basic material.  This includes harmonic parts and counterpoint, instrumentation, specific dynamics and tempo markings.  Form and effect are carefully thought out by the composer.  Such works are intended for listening by a narrower audience, rather than communal participation or mass consumption.
Popular:  Simple, straightforward tunes with immediate appeal to connect with a mass audience, though niche styles and genres for more specialized audiences have sometimes existed.  Songs are often designed for communal singing or dancing.  Complexity occurs in arrangements and engineering of recordings.

ARTISTIC NATURE

Classical:  Serious, monumental, substantive, aiming beyond entertainment, maintaining decorum.  Even lighter works are more complex than most pop fare.
Popular:  Light entertainment, generally not exceeding a certain degree of seriousness.   Notable exceptions (see introduction).  Less concern with decorum.

PERFORMANCE MANNER & STYLE

CLASSICAL:  Preeminence of the works, and of the composer (for newly-commissioned works).  In some instances, the artists are of sufficient acclaim that they attain greater focus.
Instruments:  Classical acoustic instruments (strings, brass, woodwinds, etc.), as specified by the composer.
Voice:  Classically trained, mostly unmannered voice production, especially in choral singing.
Direction:  Larger groups may perform under a conductor.
Sound Production:   Acoustic performance – no miking.
Stage Manner:  Formal stage decorum and protocol.  Little or no “image” conveyance by the performer(s) as the music is the focus.
POPULAR:  Preeminence of the performing or recording artist (who is often the song writer) as purveyor of songs.
Instruments:  Amplified acoustic and electronic instruments (e.g., guitar).
Voice:  Vocals consciously mannered – “scooping” and extreme liberties in expression, tempo and other elements are common.
Direction:  Performance group is typically self-conducted, with perhaps some minimal cueing by lead performer.
Sound Production:  Concert performances done with heavy, often sophisticated engineering and miking.
Stage Manner:   Casual, informal, often interactive stage demeanor.  Conveyance of “image.”

INTEGRITY OF MATERIAL

Classical:  Performed or recorded in a manner true to composer’s intentions, with no further “arrangement” or permutation.  Some margin for interpretation.
Popular:  Songs often designed for, and subject to versions, arrangements,  treatments and permutations.

PUBLICATION/RECORDING/DISTRIBUTION

Classical:   Definitive version(s) notated in detailed score and published for independent performance.  Recorded as unadulterated performance “reading,” with minimal engineering. Recordings may published/sold as audio and/or video. 
Popular:  Engineered recording conveys the artist’s interpretation of the music.  This may be considered the “arrangement” – the recording artist’s definitive version intended for entertainment listening and/or dancing, rather than for independent performance by other artists (who may, however, produce their own “cover” treatments).  Typically released only as a sound recording and/or music video, not as fully-detailed sheet music, though simplified sheet music editions are common.

ENDURING NATURE

Classical:  Historical works that have withstood the test of time, or new works that are designed with a regard to posterity, although not all are equally successful.
Popular:  Songs designed and intended for immediate and passing interest, although many do endure and become “classics” however unintentionally.

A FEW EXAMPLES

Well-known Classical Works:
– Handel: Messiah
– Beethoven: Fifth Symphony
– J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos
– Brahms: Academic Festival Overture
– Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik
– Bizet: Carmen
– Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker
– Bernstein: West Side Story
– Aaron Copland’s arrangements of “Simple Gifts”, “At the River” and other folk tunes.
Popular Song Recordings that have become “classics”:
– Benny Goodman: “Sing Sing Sing” (written by Louis Prima)
– Frank Sinatra: “It Was a Very Good Year” (written by Ervin Drake)
– Bob Dylan: “Blowin’ in the Wind”
– Beatles: “Eleanor Rigby”

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THE SCOOP ON SCOOPING: DON’T.

scoopHaving grown up, worshiped and worked as a singer/cantor almost exclusively in Conservative (i.e., middle-of-the-road) Jewish congregations, I take some entitlement to level a bit of loving critique at the current state of musical culture in the Jewish community.  A full measure of such critique I’ll reserve for a future post.

But for now, let’s discuss what may seem a rather petty complaint, one that has directly to do with something we have already covered at some length, one having much to do with the art of choral ensemble.  I speak of what I like to dub the “United Synagogue Scoop.”  I call it that because I have seemed to find it, along with the ever-present Jewish rallenando, especially endemic in the Conservative Jewish community.

Maybe the “USS” is somehow connected with our abiding affinity with ‘60s folk music, perhaps related to our illustrious “Jewish Liberal” culture.  Our United Synagogue Scoop is characteristic of that sort of music (much of which, I’ll hasten to add, I happen to enjoy as well).  From Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell to Dan Fogelberg and beyond, you’re bound to hear it, for it is part and parcel of the style.  In fact, it’s an element found throughout most pop vocal singing, especially solo.  Perhaps because of this, we might subconsciously assume that scooping makes our vocals sound “legit” or authentic, or professional.  It doesn’t.

What for some kinds of music might be a valid stylistic element, can all too easily become an unconscious mannerism, not particularly problematic in solo, congregational or otherwise informal singing.  But it will get in the way of good choral ensemble which nearly always, regardless of style, calls for clean, scoopless pitches.

What is scooping, exactly?  Typically, it means sliding to a main pitch from another shorter (and usually lower) pitch, rather like a grace note.  In some types of scooping, the lower note is only a semi-tone or whole tone lower, while in other kinds, it can be as much as an octave lower.

There’s a Time and a Place.  Now there are occasions when scoops, slides, portamento and other pop mannerisms are called for and effective as expressive devices.  But as a rule – and if you need to break a rule, there must be one to break – as a rule, it’s important to know how to sing beautifully without such tricks, especially in choral situations.  Then on those very rare occasions when we do need to scoop, slide or portamento, these can be added and carefully coordinated with the group for proper effect.  But once these things become ubiquitous mannerisms, they can be distracting to listen to and difficult to refrain from, especially in those frequent situations where they are not really appropriate to the style.

Being True to Style.  Style is an important part of musical performance, just as it is in cinema, theater and clothing fashion.  Style is made up of different elements of approach, many of which are quite subtle, all of which are crucial to the cumulative effect being striven for.  Compare and contrast different pop music genres and see if you can discern such differences.  How is Country approached differently from Grunge or Hip-Hop?  They are also to be found in the various eras of classical music.  Bach and Handel, for example, are approached differently from Brahms or Schumann.

All of which is to say, there are artistically compelling reasons to avoid doing things that don’t fit the style.  More often than not, scooping is one of those things – and it’s very obvious.

Ensemble as we have learned, means together.  In most all choral music this means, among other things, that everyone in the group approach the music in the same style, delivering each pitch cleanly, accurately, with blended warmth and richness, and without scooping, sliding or other such mannerisms unless specifically instructed otherwise.  Lack of scooping should be the default approach to choral singing.

The First Step is Recognizing We Have a Problem.  If we want to lay the foundation of great Jewish choral culture (as at least some of us do), we have to learn to lose the scoop.  You may not even know you‘re a scooper, but it may be easier to hear in others.  Be ready to practice not scooping over a period of time, until your singing is nice and straight again, unaffected by years of indoctrination into the pop music manner.

Just say “no” to the scoop.  It’s all part of the continuing process of increasing our awareness of what makes for great choral ensemble.
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STAGGERED BREATHING – A BASIC CHORAL SKILL

K'vakarat by Michael Reid WinikoffIt’s tempting to think that when you’re singing in a choir or other vocal ensemble, you’re allowed to breathe whenever and wherever you want in the course of the piece you’re performing.  The truth is that you’re not – at least not officially.

Public versus Private Breathing.  By “official” I refer to the sort of breathing the audience or congregation can hear clearly, breaths that are taken together as a group or section, that also have a discernible effect on the presentation of the piece itself – call it public breathing.  The choice of where (or if) the group breathes is determined by the conductor, since breathing choices are one of the elements of interpretation – for example, to convey the music’s phrasing – and are not just about replenishing your air.  But of course, breathing is essential to that too!  No air, no sound.  And there will be frequent occasions when you’ll need to take an “unofficial” breath – often referred to as “sneaking a breath” – what we might refer to here as private breathing.

Being Sneaky.  Private here means the sort of breathing that the audience (hopefully) doesn’t notice.  The trick is to sneak such a breath at such a time and place, and in such a manner, that it can’t readily be heard and doesn’t interfere with the musical phrase or overall effect.  That is to say, the breath you take must be as quick and quiet as possible, and it must happen at a point where it is least expected – hopefully, where no other singers in the section (or at least as few as possible) are also taking such a breath.  Thus it is also commonly called staggered breathing – the art of sneaking private breaths in a coordinated fashion where everyone is sneaking them at a different time and place in the music, and in the process preserving the seamlessness and integrity of the phrase or effect.

One of the common occasions for practicing staggered breathing is in passages where the choir is called upon by the composer or arranger to provide a sustained accompaniment under a solo.  This accompaniment may be sung on a hum, an “ooh” or an “ah” vowel.  Another apropos situation might be a long or exposed unison phrase which must be perceived as unbroken, and so where quiet furtive breathing is essential.

Be Quick.  In a long, slow passage with long, slow notes, quick might mean breathing in the middle of a syllable, either in the midst of the vowel or, if absolutely necessary, dropping the consonant at the beginning of the syllable and re-entering your sound in the middle of the vowel.  If the phrase or passage is fast, with many rapidly occurring syllables, sneaking a quick breath will more likely be a matter of simply dropping one or more syllables.

Under these circumstances, never try to re-pronounce a consonant after its time.  A misplaced “S,” for example, is bound to stick out.  If you are taking a discreet breath and leaving off the S on “sake,” the rest of the group has pronounced the word complete with that S, so you would re-enter on the vowel only, without the S.

Be Quiet.  Taking a very quick breath noiselessly takes a little practice.  But the secret here is to have an open and tension-free feeling in the throat and a relaxed mouth opening, which will minimize the gasping sound and make for a quieter inhalation.  (Think of the high dive in swimming, where a minimal entrance splash is considered one of the signs of a good dive.)  This really goes for any sort of breath in singing, whether quick or slow, private or public.  Unless it’s for a specific dramatic effect (as it often is in operatic singing), loud gasping is to be avoided.

Tempo, Tempo!  Remember, however you choose to handle your private breath, you must always be able to re-enter your sound seamlessly and in perfect sync with the rest of the group, not behind or ahead of them.  This means you must take your breaths in accurate context of the tempo.  Get out and back in quickly and smoothly, so that no one but your neighbor will be any the wiser.

Safety in Numbers.  Effective staggered breathing is, of course, easier the bigger the group is.  But it can be especially useful and necessary in smaller choirs, where planning and coordination of staggering becomes even more crucial.  Theoretically, staggered breathing is feasible as soon as there are two or more voices on a part.  For any group smaller than this, consider treating the situation like solo singing, and simply take more frequent “public” breaths.

The skill of well-executed private breathing takes practice, both individually and as a group. But it is one of the fundamentals of effective choral ensemble.  The conductor/director might introduce exercises to develop this skill, especially on how to take quick breaths quietly, and on how to coordinate the staggering with one another.
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