Category Archives: Conducting

Techniques in conducting and leadership of an ensemble.

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

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

 

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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TOWARD AN EFFICIENT, PRODUCTIVE & HAPPY CHOIR REHEARSAL

rehearsal still life 2-1Nothing is more frustrating than a chaotic, poorly organized rehearsal session.  It is a waste of our valuable time, and quite frankly, kind of an insult.  Whether the disarray comes from leadership or rank-and-file (or both), it seems to make the statement that our time and effort are not worthy of consideration.

There is work to be done, music to be learned and refined, and the more efficiently we can do it, the better our results will be.  Having sung hundreds of choral rehearsals (some well-run, some not so) over the years, and having run quite a few myself, here some things I have learned, from both the leadership and the rank-and-file perspectives.

IF YOU’RE RUNNING THINGS –

Positive, relaxed energy equals vocal freedom.
Overall, the less stress and irritation you foster in your choral leadership approach, the better the singing you may get from your choir.  This means better vocal health.  Even a little tension can immediately be sensed, so keep your attitude, and your actual conducting, relaxed and positive.

Know the music you’re going to teach.
When a conductor shows up unprepared, not only is everyone’s time wasted and their efforts hampered, the conductor’s credibility and authority with the choir are diminished.  Set a proper example.  Have at least a practical, working knowledge of the text, notes and rhythms, and be able to convey to your singers a sense of what the piece is about.

Communicate.
When announcing the next piece, starting places, and any and all other information, be loud and clear with it, making it less likely you’ll have to repeat things.

Rehearse no more than two hours, and take a break.
For an extremely dedicated choir, perhaps two and a half hours of rehearsal is do-able.  That is about as much singing at a stretch as is healthy for any singer.  Plus, after this much time, concentration begins to flag.  Either way, plan on a 10-minute break.

Be organized.

  • Make and distribute an agreed-upon schedule of choir rehearsals, and stick to it.
  • Learn new repertoire over a long period and several rehearsals.  Time (along with repetition) helps to solidify new ideas.  Try to avoid cramming new things into just 1 or 2 sessions.
  • Have your sheet music organized for easy distribution.  Keep a few extra copies of each piece.  Make sure each score you are working with has clear page and rehearsal numbers.
  • Have a supply of pencils in case someone needs one.
  • Plan out your rehearsal agenda.  Here’s a suggested general plan:
    1.  Start with 5-minute choir warm-up, including training execises in vocal technique and musicianship.
    2.  Sing through and work on one familiar major piece.
    3.  Move on to new or challenging music.  Think of this as the core of the rehearsal.
    4.  10-minute break.
    5.  Spend the remainder of time with other familiar music, and to rehash new pieces.

Keep the rehearsal moving along.
Work diligently on each trouble spot, but don’t beat a dead horse.  If it doesn’t work after a few tries, come back to it later.  Try to minimize tedium.  If possible, avoid working only on new pieces, and work on those new things earlier rather than later in the evening, while minds and concentration are still fresh.  Try to intersperse easy, familiar, well-liked pieces with new music to keep the session fun and gratifying for your singers.

Be gracious.
I always try to remember this valuable principle of interpersonal relationships:  Preserve and enhance the dignity of others.  Avoid humiliation, embarrassment, shaming or being patronizing – which are never helpful or constructive.  A good thing to remember in all of our interpersonal dealings! 

Be patient, encouraging and positive; be exacting, but avoid brow-beating.
More than likely, your rehearsal is happening on a weekday evening, and the last thing anyone is in the mood for after a long work day is unnecessary abuse.  And it’s not likely to foster vocal freedom.  Stick to the goal of making your rehearsal a fun, positive, challenging and gratifying experience.  When the choir does something well, reward them with an honest, but not overdone, compliment.  When you hand out constructive criticism, precede it with a “good work!” and then tactfully communicate your concern.

Accept and answer questions gracefully, and don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know the answer.  And even as you are the leader, make it feel like the collaborative effort that it is.

Get it right first time every time; avoid mislearning.
Take it from me, it is much harder to re-learn something previously learned the wrong way, than it is to learn it correctly the first time.  It’s like a stain on white fabric — much easier to avoid it in the first place than to try and completely eradicate it afterward.  Make sure to be correct from the outset.  And when something does get mislearned, make sure to correct it without delay.

Where are you starting?
This is an essential example of good rehearsal communication.  Nothing wastes more time at a rehearsal, with all of its starting and stopping, than unnecessary confusion about where you’re resuming from.  It’s important to communicate loudly and clearly to the choir, each time you resume singing, the following:

  1. which page
  2. which system
  3. which bar
  4. which beat – you’re starting at.

Always count into the entrance.
Most music exists in the strict context of time.  The choir can’t just start singing at random and hope to enter together!  So once you have established where you’re starting, always guide the choir into the entrance by loudly counting into it.  Example:  In 4/4:  “1, 2, 3, sing!” (choir enters on beat 1 of the following bar).  Of course this won’t happen in actual performance, but in a rehearsal context, it speeds things up and ensures proper learning.

Use the “Listen then repeat” method
When working out a tricky passage, be sure you and your singers use this approach.  Play or sing the notes correctly in rhythm while they listen carefully (no singing along), then have them immediately repeat.  If they are singing along (or talking), they aren’t really listening and absorbing those correct notes.

Rehearsal accompanist
If you have access to a good rehearsal accompanist, try and take advantage of this.  To make optimum use of their skills, be disciplined about communicating starting points, and about counting into the entrance.

ADVICE FOR THE GROUP –

Avoid unnecessary talking
Extraneous conversation is distracting to your conductor, and slows the rehearsal down!  If you must clarify something with your neighbor, do it as briefly and quietly as you can, then immediately tune back in to the conductor.

Listen and pay attention when not singing
These are the times when you’ll be getting important instructions.  Don’t make it necessary for the conductor to repeat information that has already been clearly communicated to you.  It’s a waste of time, and it doesn’t ingratiate you with your colleagues.

Even when other parts are singing but your part is silent, try very quietly humming your part along in the passage – you’ll end up having a head start when it’s your turn.

Organize your music
Arrange your folder or binder so you can easily locate any piece within 10 seconds.  Always bring your music to rehearsal, and don’t lose it – it’s expensive!

Know the score.
Know your way around it, that is.  You’ll find it very helpful to familiarize yourself with the overall visual layout of your sheet music, which can vary greatly from piece to piece.  You may encounter published scores, some of which are very poorly notated, or very hard to read.  Or you may have to read off of photocopied manuscript, which may be even worse.  Get to know where your voice part is, and mark it clearly on each system.  Then mark your part so you don’t get lost (as even experienced musicians sometimes do!).  When in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Mark your music.
Always bring a pencil to rehearsal.  Mark everything in pencil – breaths, breaks, volume and tempo changes –and assume you’ll have to erase it later.
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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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SING A NEW SONG – Introducing a New Tune: Part I

lyre and pitchpipe-1PART I:  CHOOSING THE TUNE

I’ll start this post on introducing a new tune by saying “don’t do it.”  At least, don’t try to introduce too many new melodies at once.  And avoid incessantly changing tunes for the same prayer or hymn in the service, unless they are all familiar tunes.  Variety is nice, but consistency and familiarity can be reassuring.

That said, it is nice to change things up from time to time with something brand new, so here are some helpful thoughts:

WHAT IS A GOOD TUNE?

Words and music.  Choose tunes that are appropriate to the text and its meaning, and especially choose tunes that scan well with that text.  Too many times we hear a tune that has been poorly “retrofitted” to the text (or vice versa), and we have to fit 3 or 4 syllables to a note.  A little of this isn’t bad, as long as the rest of the tune fits well, but remember that the catchiest and most memorable songs are those where the text and notes fit together hand-in-glove.  If they don’t fit at least reasonably well, consider not using the song.

Be apropos to the occasion.  Emphasize those prayers and tunes that are unique to the day or season.  After all, most of these observances only happen once a year – seize the opportunity.  Try to use tunes that relate to the nusach of the day.  (More on nusach in a later post, but for now suffice it to say – if you don’t have a good knowledge of our chant modes, you’re missing out on a powerful musical resource and an opportunity to help perpetuate Judaism’s great musical tradition.)

Be practical to the occasion – Consider how you’ll use a tune in the context of a service.  Remember that much of the liturgy must be done according to certain procedure, such as with responses or specific repeated verses (as in Hallel, Kaddish, or Kdushah).  When in doubt, be sure to discuss this aspect of any new tune with the rabbi or cantor before introducing it.

Make it interesting and singable.  If a tune isn’t at least somewhat intuitive to its audience, it won’t be quickly or happily received, and will be less likely to stay with them.  Some groups are more musically skilled than others.  Judge accordingly.  A good communal tune should be interesting but without too much chromaticism or too many weird intervals.

Get a round, have some fun.  For extra fun and musical substance, try teaching a 2, 3 or 4-part round.  Instant harmony! 

Quality should trump popularity.  Try to avoid choosing a song or style just because it’s in vogue.  Although chances are if it’s popular it must have something worthwhile to offer, this isn’t always the case.  Make sure it’s a good tune, appropriate to the dignity of worship.

Don’t give in to pandering or “selling out.”  It’s incumbent on song leaders, cantors, rabbis, to maintain and observe standards of quality, dignity and appropriateness in our Jewish worship.  Avoid the syndrome of “lowest common denominator.”  And keep in mind that for every individual you may attract to services by doing what’s popular, you’ll possibly be chasing someone else away.  Make it your business to choose and teach the most beautiful, authentic, appropriate and dignified music you can find.

Use the definitive version.  Pretty much any tune (old or new) you’re likely to be teaching has been composed by someone.  As a composer myself, I can attest that, grateful though we are that our music is being sung and enjoyed, no composer appreciates hearing his or her work devolve into a dozen permutations – an all-too-common occurrence in the world of Jewish congregational music, as tunes are often spread around like gossipy rumors.  Sometimes the damage has already been done, and may not be readily reversible.  But when introducing a new melody, be sure to rely on an authorized source, and be scrupulously accurate in transmitting it to your congregation or group.  You owe the composer at least that.

Keep the Old.  Not all our tunes have to be new or in vogue!  Occasionally it’s good to bring out an old melody that is perhaps more authentic than many of the new ones.  They are often worthy of being called classics, and they keep us connected to our history.  Hearing such old melodies can invoke memories in a powerful way, and make the worship experience more authentic and meaningful.

In PART II of this post, we’ll get into teaching the tune.

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WHERE YOU LEAD, THEY WILL FOLLOW – Tips For Great Song Leading

cong music close-up-1While most synagogues have traditionally had a professional or semi-professional cantor to conduct services, many congregations these days are encouraging lay people to participate in this capacity.  While this often involves solo singing, quite a lot of the time it means leading the congregation or group in communal song.  It’s important always to distinguish one from the other, and to approach each of them differently.  Today, let’s talk about how to be an effective leader of congregational or group singing.  Whether you’re a lay person or an experienced sh’liach, I’m sure this will be helpful to you.

In general, put yourself in the congregants’ place.  When you’re sitting out there, take note of what works for you the congregant, and what doesn’t work, and why.  Take your cues as the leader from your own experiences as a follower.  And of course, learn from the feedback of other congregants.

Some things to keep in mind when leading song: 

  • Lead so they can follow – Sitting in the pews, nothing is quite as frustrating as not being sure what the leader is up to in congregational singing.  A frustrated congregation is not a particularly happy or commited one.  A fully participatory group is one that has confidence in the leader and knows what’s going on.  And in the long run, the more comfortable and at ease they feel with you ongoing, the more secure your position will be. 
  • This isn’t a solo act – Don’t try to be the artiste here.  They’re not listening to (or watching) you as a performer, they’re trying to follow you and sing along.  Keep things simple and direct.  There are lots of chances to be the solo act, but not now. 
  • Tempo, tempo – Don’t indulge in lots of tempo fluctuations or held notes when leading.  Maintain a steady, comfortable tempo the group can keep up with – not too fast, not too slow.  
  • Rhythm – Sing in a clear rhythmic manner so the group can hear and feel it clearly.   If using a guitar, play “rhythm” guitar with solid chords. 
  • Be heard, be seen  – Don’t push your voice, as this is counterproductive.  Sing efficiently, in your most resonant and ringing tone, and well-supported, so they can hear you.  If you have a microphone, make use of it.  And even if they’re not hearing you, at least make sure they see you.  Conduct if necessary, even if it’s simply bobbing your head or other basic body movements. 
  • Choose a key most people can sing in – Judge your audience.  With young people, remember that adolescent boys especially, who are in the midst of their voice change, often sing in a different range than older adults – typically about a third or fourth removed from most of us.  If it’s mostly adults you’re working with, judge by your own comfort range and adjust as necessary.  If you call yourself a low voice (mezzo-soprano or a baritone), you are probably going to sing naturally in about the right place.  A high voice (soprano or high tenor) might adjust a little lower, while a very low voice (bass) might consider taking it up a step or so from your comfort level. 
  • Be energetic, but not sickening –  Remember, this is isn’t a nightclub act or an acoustic set at Folk City, but a worship service.  You don’t need to be an entertainer.  Simply be yourself and be enthusiastic, and you’re sure to accomplish the goal at hand. 
  • Know when to quit – Take it from experience, nothing falls flatter than a tune that “wears out its welcome.”  Avoid excessive repeats and recurring refrains that unnecessarily lengthen things.  Less is more. 
  • Success hangs in the balance! – Make sure you have a good amount of congregational participation, but balance it with moments of passive listening (perhaps with choir or solo pieces), readings, speeches, etc.  Let people rest their voices!  Let them contemplate.  If you’re in the position, impart this concept on your ritual or religious committee!

In an upcoming post, we’ll discuss how to introduce a new congregational tune.

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