Category Archives: Performance

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

DON’T BE TIMID! Commitment in Performance

piper 2-1At this past July’s North American Jewish Choral Festival in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York, we had the chance to hear many choirs of varying skill level.  Two of the tell-tale signs of a group’s degree of accomplishment were its degree of confidence and its energy level.

Among the very best of these choral ensembles was the select group of young singers from the International Jewish High School Choir, who performed with a degree of commitment and certainty not often encountered outside the professional realm.  These young people possessed a thorough knowledge of the music they were singing, and they gave a passionate, energized performance throughout.  This was true of all the best ensembles we heard.

The tragedy was how easily one or two hesitant or missed entrances, or lackadaisically executed soft passages, seriously marred some otherwise respectable performances at the festival.

Timid Doesn’t Cut It.  There is simply no place for hesitation or timidity in choral singing, or indeed in any sort of performance.  That awkward entrance by the basses, that lack of energy in quiet passages, and worst of all, the unnecessary sagging pitch which happens out of carelessness – these things simply don’t sell with the listener.  Effective performance, whether in concert or in worship, means being fully committed, and fully engaged in the music.

What are the causes of timidity in performance, and how can they be avoided or mitigated?

Quiet doesn’t mean weak or feeble.  It’s a natural subconscious assumption we all tend to make, that when we get soft, we can somehow relax, go on “auto-pilot,” use less energy or, in the most common phenomenon of all, slow down.  On the contrary, it is in these quiet, piano places where heightened energy is especially important.  Without it, the passage simply won’t read well from the audience.

Low Energy Leads to Flat Singing.  If we are singing without full engagement, we are less likely to be fully “tuned in” to the rest of the group, and that’s where sagging or otherwise faulty pitch can more likely happen.  Good ensemble means everyone must be singing in the same key!

Nerves Undermine Confidence.  For any performance, you must assume that you’ll be nervous – that is, unless you are such a veteran or you’ve performed the music so many times that you could do it in your sleep.  (And in that case, the danger might be low energy – see above).

While nervous energy can actually work in our favor, often with performance nerves, we become less certain of everything, such as entrances, proper pitches, correct rhythms, etc.  Our vocal abilities are also compromised – we suffer from dry throat, less solid breath support, and tension.

The best way to combat nervousness, and even use it to our advantage, is to concentrate intently on the music, on performing all the tempo and dynamic subtleties you should have learned in rehearsal, and of course, on staying scrupulously in tune.  When you’re focusing carefully on these things, you won’t have time to think about being nervous.  And this means that you must….

Know Your Music!  Perhaps the main cause of hesitation or timidity in performance is not knowing what you’re doing.  Be confident and comfortable with every note, every rhythm, every nuance of loud or soft, slow or fast, both as an individual singer and as a group.  If you can know the music well enough to look at the conductor at least occasionally, the performance will be all the more solid, and knowing the music thoroughly will make the experience far more gratifying for you, for the ensemble, and for the listener.

commitment2-1Sing Like a Leader.  Make it your business to be a strong link in the chain of your choir.  When you “own” the material you are performing, you have less need to rely on others around you, and you can make entrances and cues with authority.  Of course, this works far more effectively if everyone can sing like a leader, and there are no weak links!

He who hesitates is lost.  Chazzak, chazzak (“Be strong, be strong!”).     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

 

GOOD TASTE – Part II: DETERMINANTS & CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD TASTE

Whistlers MotherWHAT MAKES US AESTHETICALLY DISCRIMINATING (OR NOT)? 

Socio-Economic class?  Not necessarily.  It’s stereotypical to associate discriminating tastes with snooty rich people.  Well this writer (while perhaps snooty) is not a rich person, but here I am writing about good taste, and I feel at least somewhat qualified to do so!

A more accurate indicator of taste might be one’s education level.  The better a person’s education, the more likely that he’ll be equipped with an ability to discern and appreciate great works of art, literature and music, old or new, popular or classical.  Proper education will hopefully provide exposure to, knowledge and appreciation of great music, art and literature.

Unfortunately, such proper education, even in America, is increasingly tied to socio-economic status, even in the public arena.  This is to say nothing of the trend toward de-emphasizing the arts and humanities due to ideology and/or lack of funding.

But educational barriers aren’t insurmountable, especially given technology which has made art and culture more accessible to more people across a wider socio-economic spectrum than ever before.  If we’re interested and we know where to look for it, it’s there, often for free!

Age?  When we’re young – adolescent or college age, we’re living in a time of social and sexual self-discovery, and our hormones often rule the day.  And we haven’t yet achieved the world-weariness and enhanced perspective of having lived – those collective life experiences that seem to feed our appreciation of some of the subtleties and profundities of great art.  Our priorities (hopefully) change as we “grow up.”

Popularity?  There’s certainly something to this.  Popularity usually happens for good reason.  But it isn’t an infallible indicator.  There are plenty of musical works, for example, that are widely considered among the greatest masterpieces, and yet don’t enjoy the biggest mass appeal.  Handel’s Messiah is more well-known to most people than Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  Beethoven’s late quartets are not so widely known as his Fifth Symphony.  And yet in each case, the less popular work is at least as highly regarded by music historians and aficionados as the more popular one.

Mass appeal can be determined by many things, some of which might be deemed artificial, such as effective marketing, vogue, reputation, etc. – factors that have little if anything to do with inherent quality or substance.  The greatest music and art is that which has withstood the test of time and is above and beyond the forces of current trend or popularity – it is classic.

SOME EAR-MARKS OF GOOD TASTE

What Makes for Tastefulness?  Here are some of the principals that discriminating people pay attention to, consciously or subconsciously.

Substance, not empty showiness.  Dazzle and glitter are nice to engage the audience, in limited quantities, and when properly balanced with substance.  An over-abundance of the proverbial “Look what I can do!” factor has a cheapening effect, whereas honest, restrained sentiment is an important element of substance, and all the better if it can be presented in a unique and individual way.

Avoidance of Cliché.  While music or art of any given era will have its hallmark style and characteristics, the best works are those that, even within the rules of their era, will nonetheless avoid being governed entirely by those rules.  Most of all, they will steer clear of the most over-used clichés.  Avoiding the expected, going with the unexpected – at least some of the time – can be very effective in producing something unique, original, and even transcendent of its time.

Subtlety and Restraint.  Honesty and freedom of emotion are kept within boundaries.  There are some things in our lives that simply aren’t for public consumption.  At the very least, such things should be well-enough disguised, concealed or restrained that, although we sense their presence, they don’t hit us over the head.  This is called subtlety.  Most of the best art and music lives under this rule.

Don’t Be Crass.  In our zeal over the past several years to counteract an endemic cultural puritanism, we have tended to scorn such subtlety and restraint in the movies, TV and popular music, coming out in favor of complete openness, of “pushing the envelope” of good taste, because for many of us, good taste has been unjustly equated with cultural repression.  This over-reaction to puritanical repression is surely yet another reason to disdain that puritanism, because for all of this our culture suffers qualitatively.  It can be argued that certain aspects of life and art are more interesting and intriguing when perceived from behind the vail of subtlety.

Don’t Pander.  Treating the audience with the respect they deserve, even if they might not realize it, is always in good taste, because it helps avoid qualitative decay.  If we wish to challenge our audience, one way to do it is by refusing to cater to the lowest common denominator of taste.

Is It the Money?  It must be said!  So much of cultural degradation stems from market considerations.  Sex sells, violence sells, and there’s the infamous axiom of commercialized journalism:  If it bleeds, it leads.  Of course, it’s a lot to ask of any artist to completely ignore the marketplace, but the more you can do so, the more artistic integrity you’ll have.  It’s a balancing act.  But work that is produced or performed solely to maximize the money is almost certain to be in poor taste.

Knowing Your Audience means respecting their expectations, and avoiding unpleasant or unwelcome surprises.  We don’t try to force Mozart on a jazz or rock crowd, and vice versa.  In a worship setting, for example, dignity and modesty are the order of the day.  And if we’re going to challenge the audience, it’s wise to ensure that they want to be challenged.

Beauty.  What is it exactly?  It’s hard to describe or define.  Beauty moves us in a profound, elevated way.  So why have we become so afraid of beauty in art and especially in music?  We explored some possible reasons for this in Part I of this post on Good Taste.  We should never underestimate the value and importance of beauty.

Balance.  One of the hallmarks of beauty in art and music is the idea of balance, of restraint.  As we’ve already seen, it shows good taste to ensure that emotional expression and technical display are kept within sensible boundaries.  Maintaining balance is one of the wisest principals in life, and in art.  It’s a sure-fire method of avoiding tedium, and of keeping your audience engaged.  Emotional restraint is the mark of artistic and intellectual maturity.

It’s Not About Being Snooty.  Let us repeat that the principals of discriminating taste are applicable to pop culture as well as high culture.  The fundamental purpose or effect of pop culture may be more modest, less lofty or ambitious than high culture, but it still lives by many of the same rules of good taste.     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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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