Having 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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