THE CASE FOR MORE APPROPRIATE SHUL MUSIC

Hallelujah - Psalm 150 by Winikoff

Dignified Joy in Music

Contrary to what many rabbis, cantors and synagogue boards might choose to believe, not every congregant really cares to come to services and sit through endless repetitions of simplistic “chassidic” melodies, clapping, drumming (using actual or makeshift drums) or a faux party-like atmosphere.

Contrary to what they might believe, most congregants don’t come to services to “have fun.”

Contrary to what they might believe, not every congregant believes that pop-style music is appropriate as mainstream worship music.

Contrary to what those who (understandably) fret about declining shul attendance might be dying to believe, pandering with pop music is not a wise approach in attempting to lure more attendees to services.

Contrary to this misguided mindset, is the well-known Jewish principle of dignity, modesty and respectfulness in worship.  Hence the customary and powerful motto found over many synagogue pulpits, serving to remind us of this tradition:  “Da lifnei mi atah omeid – Know before Whom you stand.”

We all love fun, even if we might each harbor varying ideas of what constitutes fun.  Be let’s ask ourselves:  Is shul really supposed to be fun?  Are we confusing the sort of regenerative (and under ideal circumstances, transformative) joy we are to experience on Shabbat or Yom Tov with fun?  And aren’t there ample opportunities in our secular lives for fun?  Hence another Jewish principle –separation of the sacred from the secular.

Shouldn’t worship should be a unique and elevated experience in our lives, rather than just another manifestation of our broader culture?  Shouldn’t it harbor a higher spirituality rather than a spirit of simple hedonism.  Should it not reflect our tradition of dignity and respectfulness “before Whom we stand?”

The Schtik Factor.  Sometimes, I think we Jews have never quite separated our illustrious secular American pop cultural legacy of “showbiz” from what should be the loftier realm of our spiritual practice.  In doing my own rather thorough survey of American Conservative Jewish congregational websites, I’ve noticed something reflected from time to time in the contents of most of these sites:  a sensibility of schtik – of comedic silliness embodied, for example, in clever plays on words to describe events – for example, the commonly coined “Friday Nite Live,” which seems to evoke the spirit of that long-running late-night Saturday evening comedy series which is the very embodiment of adolescent “fun.”  Or the many too-clever-by-half plays on words used to describe a congregation’s musical or choral ensembles.  All of which contributes to an air of Jewish cultural self-parody.  There should be more to Jewish culture than Henny Youngman.

The “Cool” Factor.  One suspects the new obsession with the pop idiom in worship music might be partially rooted in our deep-seated and often subconscious need to feel “cool” or “hip,” or at the very least not to appear passé or out of step.  Trouble is, what’s considered cool or “happening” now will almost certainly be passé before very long.

The pop-music-in-shul phenomenon may also be simply a manifestation of an out-and-out ignorance of other better types of music, or perhaps a misguided fear or loathing of anything too closely resembling “church” music.  Through this ignorance and this fear we have limited our choices.

We Jews must stop feeling apologetic for our good and honorable religious life in all its rich complexity, stop feeling the need to hide behind the schtik, and learn to embrace and celebrate the great moral dignity and beauty of Yiddishkeit by treating it with dignity and beauty.  Too often I sense even from rabbis a kind of reluctance to recognize these qualities in some of our rituals, a kind of shame or embarrassment about them.  Our rituals, if they are to be effective and inspiring, must be taken seriously as the wonderful high theater that they are, and the music – whether congregational, cantorial or choral, should reflect this.  It’s time to raise our standards of what we consider appropriate music in shul.

To begin to accomplish any of this requires, first of all, knowing and appreciating the meaning and tenor of our liturgy and the rituals it supports – the sublime beauty and grace of L’cha Dodi, the grandeur of K’dushah, the mystical drama and power of Hashkiveinu, the pathos of Havein Yakir Li, to name a few examples.  And by extension, it points to the need for better understanding and appreciation of our nusach, our musical chant, which is perhaps the most authentic embodiment of our worship music tradition – the better to sense what is appropriate music for these prayers.

Fulfillment of these needs ought to be preached and validated by our cantors and rabbis, taught and touted as a vital resource for composers of serious, authentic, appropriate and substantive Jewish sacred music.

The desperate pandering to popular taste that is currently happening may be great fun for some of us, but it’s not likely to work for long, and it carries a high price tag:  the mortgaging of our musical heritage.  Let’s leave the “fun” for its appropriate occasions, and strive to bring a higher sense of beauty and joy to shul.    Join Email List

CLASSICAL SINGING TECHNIQUE – Part II: THE BASIC ELEMENTS

POSTUREi-love-to-sing

Standing Tall. The singer might imagine being suspended from the top of the head by a string, maintaining a feeling of tallness so that it’s almost as if the feet are just barely touching the floor.  Feet are about shoulder width apart, with one foot slightly in front of the other.  One knee should remain unlocked (for one thing, to avoid the risk of fainting).  Wth arms loosely hanging at the sides, rotate the shoulders forward, then up, then straight back, and finally straight down to a resting state.  This final position will render the chest in a relaxed state of height.  This should be the default singing posture, and is especially important to maintain on exhalation or phonation.

BREATH SUPPORT

Inhalation is received not in the chest, but in the area just above the pelvis and all around the back just above the buttocks.  Think of an inner tube which inflates with inhalation.  Ideally after weeks, months and years of practice, such an inhalation will seem to inflate the lowest part of the rib cage and the area below it, and during exhalation/phonation, this inflation will be at least partially maintained.

Exhalation/Phonation – The Tube of Toothpaste.  Here’s a mental image often proffered by voice teachers, and one I have found invaluable:  When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste from the middle, the middle section deflates, much the way the chest will deflate if we try to expel the breath from our chest or upper abdomen – this is not conducive to good singing technique!

On the other hand, if you squeeze the tube from the very bottom, the entire portion above this inflates and maintains inflation.  Think of expelling your breath during singing in this same way:  All of the outgoing breath energy should originate from your pelvis, with a constant sense of sure and steady motion.  (Singing is always about motion, never about locking anything).  I especially find it helpful as I produce sound to think of this contracting motion from each side (above each hip) rather than from the center front or center back.

Freedom from Tension.  When you support your breath in the way I’ve described here, it will be easier to think of everything from above the pelvis to the top of the head to be as loose and tension-free as it can possibly be and still function as it needs to.  This includes all the muscles of the chest, shoulders, neck, throat, tongue, face and head!

The tongue and the lower jaw are two especially common sources of undue tension for singers.  Remember that the tongue musculature extends all the way back into the throat.  Think of muscular freedom all the way back, letting the tongue lie flat in the mouth, with the tip resting against the back of the lower front teeth.

As for the lower jaw, it should be loose and capable of mobility at all times when singing.  You can test this periodically.  Try gently moving the jaw inward or sideways while phonating.  If it moves freely and easily during phonation, it is tension-free, ideally with proper breath support allowing for this freedom everywhere.  But this will take some consistent practice and patience – keep at it!

With a little practice in mental pictorialization, you’ll soon be able to sense that freedom of tension as you allow the sound to resonate in its own way through your upper body.

RESONANCE AND ROUNDNESS – ACHIEVING THE BALANCE

Resonance alone, without roundness, will result in a nasal sounding tone – all in all, not the most damaging kind of singing, but not a pleasant sound either.  Conversely, roundness alone without resonance will be apt to sound woolly, swallowed, muffled and rather lifeless.  When we achieve just the right balance between the two, the resulting synergy can be spine-tingling for the listener.

Resonance of Tone – Resonance is what gives our singing tone its carrying power.  Any great opera or classical singer must be able to carry their sound, acoustically and unmiked, over a full orchestra, to be audible throughout the theater or auditorium.

If we imagine singing tone as a knife blade, we may think of two components of tone: resonance and roundness.  Roundness is analogous to the size of the blade, and resonance to its edge.  Resonance is the sharp “cutting edge” of the sound, the element that allows the voice to cut through an orchestra, for example, and soar over it to the ears of the audience.

Think of singing as speaking.  The consonants especially should be delivered from the forward part of your mouth, from the lips, the front teeth and the tip of the tongue.  This is a prerequisite to resonance.  Another is freedom from tension in the muscles, bones and sinews of the skull, neck and upper body.  Tension inhibits resonance, which must emanate from everywhere, but especially from the face and head.  Just as the consonants are delivered from the forward areas of the mouth, the vowel sounds should resonate from the “mask” area of the face – nose, eyes, forehead, and even the top of the head.

Humming, the Great Resonance Enabler.  Humming should be an essential part of our warm-up, as it connects us sensorially with forward placement and resonance.  Always hum gently, with lips together and teeth apart – in other words, with an open throat and a loose tongue and lower jaw.  (And of course, remember proper breath support!)  Feel the resonance not just over the nasal area, but more broadly everywhere from forehead to chin.

Roundness of Tone.  Roundness is what gives size, color and warmth to the tone.  It defines the character of the sound, its richness and identity.

The Yawn Effect.  Roundness is essentially about openness at the back of the mouth and the throat.  Think of yawning, and especially about the feeling just leading up to an actual yawn.  It’s a feeling of expansion in progress back there.  (Even the tongue lies down in submission, as we have probably noticed when we see a dog or cat yawn.)  Such expansion must never be held or locked, but induced and encouraged.  Think of it as a process rather than a finished state.  One useful method for this is to think of inhaling the first vowel you will sing.  Inhale with an open mouth and nose, and let the vowel shape the mouth.

Gathered Vowels.  Endemic to many amateur-level choral groups (including in our Jewish choral community) is a horizontal, mouthy, “uncultured” approach to sung vowels, where the mouth opening is spread too wide.  Such vowel spreading mirrors natural speech, and most singers are quite unaware that their vowels are spread, or of how much their sound could be improved by gathering/narrowing.  Vowel spreading robs the singing tone of its potential warmth, richness, vibrancy and carrying power, and it can be unduly taxing on the voice.  Why is this so?  It is simply a reality relating to the acoustics of the human vocal structure and apparatus.  Spreading the mouth for vowels inhibits the optimum acoustical setup for efficient vocal production.

Keeping our vowels gathered means simply maintaining the mouth opening within a width roughly not exceeding that of its relaxed state.  If you have your lips closed and relaxed, with a loosely hanging lower jaw keeping the teeth apart, you can feel the width to which you’ll want to restrict all of your vowels.  But remember not to force or lock your mouth.  Practice shaping all your vowels within this width, but in a liberated, tension-free way.

Line.  Here’s where vocal technique and musicianship converge.  Musically, line is the shaping and seamlessness of the vocal phrase through both vowels and consonants, an imparted sense of constant forward movement and arrival.  Technically, it is breath energy that is the engine propelling the vocal machine.  Steady breath energy is essential to the seamlessness and shaping of a line.

If we remember the simple principle that singing is the art of inducing, never forcing, we can never go too far wrong.    Join Email List

CLASSICAL SINGING TECHNIQUE – The Best Starting Point for Choirs

vocalesePart I – Making the Case.  

In learning to sing, whether in a very serious and comprehensive way for grand career ambitions, or in simply learning some of the very basic fundamentals in order to be a more effective choral singer, or perhaps to sing folk or light pop in the local coffee house on Saturday nights, one undoubtedly encounters many different technical approaches and philosophies proffered by many different singing instructors.  Some might be tailored to a specific style of pop, religious or other genre.  But if one is seeking the most universally practical singing technique, the classical approach is ultimately the most useful for any and all styles of singing, and especially for choral singing.  Why is this so?

Before proceeding to explore the case for classical vocal technique, let’s be sure to distinguish the difference between technique and style.  Style has to do with a subjective, artistic approach to delivering a song or piece.  We are conveying an attitude by following a kind of recipe whose ingredients all contribute to the finished stylistic dish.  Some of these ingredients contribute to the general mood and attitude, others might address a broader set of cultural trappings.  Style is nearly always the embodiment of an evolved musical tradition.

Country music vocals, to take one example, are often sung in a twangy, nasal style, and the mood is often anguished and mournful, generally in keeping with the lyrics.  And of course these are routinely done in a mostly southern style accent.  There are a whole array of other carefully cultivated vocal mannerisms that contribute to this “country” feel.

Technique is the set of skills we employ to convey the style – the developed physical abilities that allow us to skillfully and effectively sing in this or any given style.  It is the machinery that produces the display, the lamp that shines the light. 

At the risk of confusing technique with style, let’s employ the term “classical” (small C) to name this technique.  Classical is also a broad style or group of sub-styles – Baroque, Classical (with a capital C, denoting an actual historic period of roughly 1750-1820, and including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven), Renaissance, Romantic and 20th Century modern.  But we’ll use the small-C term classical to refer to the singing technique that began to grow and develop in Europe during the great flourishing of opera in the 17th and 18th centuries, and continues more or less unchanged to the present.  Here technique and style evolved together, the one to serve the other.

VIRTUES OF CLASSICAL TECHNIQUE

Efficiency.  By developing a technique that maximizes the balance of resonance and roundness of tone, we are able to produce the maximum sound for the least effort.  The voice attains more carrying power, richness, beauty, versatility and longevity.

Vocal Health.  When we produce sound with correct breath support and freedom from tension, we minimize the possibility of irritating or even damaging the vocal chords, and of developing the wrong muscles in the neck, throat and tongue.  With good classical technique, our vocal endurance is enhanced, even when we’re fatigued.  Over the long haul, we might well be enabled to sing beautifully for decades rather than just years.

Beauty of Tone.  Correct technique will help us render the voice in its optimum beauty and richness, no matter the style you’re singing in.  One of the endemic issues in amateur choirs is that of the spread tone, in which vowels are approached in a shallow, horizontal way.  The resulting “mouth resonance” tone is dull, uncultivated, uninteresting, lacking in warmth, vitality and, as it happens, carrying power.  Happily, this issue is not difficult to remedy with a little of our classical technique.

Versatility.  Proper singing technique in our classical fashion is beneficial pursuant to any style of singing.  Once you have it, you can all the more easily make technical adjustments to fit the style.

Choral Technique.  In the case of choral singing, regardless of musical genre, stylistic differences must be approached with more care and restraint than with solo singing.  Remember the concept of ensemble?  Whatever style elements are applied, they must be applied together as a group, otherwise the group will not sound together, and the whole idea of choral singing goes out the window.  This means that each voice must use the same essential tone quality, the same approach to diction, attitude, mood, etc. as all the others.

This is where it becomes essential to promote at a group level the basic fundamentals (at least) of good classical vocal technique.  Even just a few of the basics, addressed to the group consistently over time, can make a noticeable difference in the basic sound of a choir.  Then every singer will be more empowered to understand how to achieve these elements of style together, and the possibilities for good ensemble are all the more enhanced.

Remember:  Just because we’re learning classical vocal technique doesn’t mean we’ll have to sound like opera singers (though we could do a lot worse!).  Classical technique empowers us with a solid foundation on which to build whatever singing style we like.

In our next post, we’ll explore some of the elements of classical singing technique.     Join Email List

 

CLASSICAL VS POP MUSIC – A GUIDE TO THE PERPLEXED

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

Quite a lot, actually!  Conventional wisdom tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRADITION/HISTORY

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

AUTHORSHIP/ARRANGEMENT

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

DEGREE OF COMPLEXITY

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

ARTISTIC NATURE

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

PERFORMANCE MANNER & STYLE

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

INTEGRITY OF MATERIAL

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

PUBLICATION/RECORDING/DISTRIBUTION

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

ENDURING NATURE

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

A FEW EXAMPLES

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

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THE SCOOP ON SCOOPING: DON’T.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CrystalCourt Tree-1

Christmas Tree – IDS Crystal Court, Minneapolis

Earlier this month, I had the privilege and honor to participate in a five-performance run of “Welcome Christmas” with VocalEssence, just as I have for over a decade.  And each year, these concerts are broadcast nationally (on a one-year delay) on Public Radio.

These experiences through the years with VocalEssence have by no means been the first instances in my life of singing Christmas or, for that matter, other church music and classical sacred works.  All through high school and college, I became intimately acquainted with this repertoire.  This is as it should be for any serious student of great music – and I’m deeply gratified by what it has taught me, as a singer, composer and human being.

The first half of the “Welcome Christmas” program consisted of a single work, La Fiesta de la Posada, a joyous holiday cantata by Dave Brubeck, featuring the sort of authentic mariachi music Brubeck grew up with in the small California town of Ione.  This marvelous work alternated some passages of classical grandeur with others of festive Mexican colors, and still other moments of the warm, urbane gentle jazz improv not unreminiscent of that featured in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  And I mean this in a good way.

The second half of the program featured Christmas songs old and new, including – for the 16th consecutive season – 2 new works written especially for the occasion.  We opened with a stunning Leland Sateren adaptation of a German song fitted to a holiday text, and also sang Norman Luboff’s charming “Still Still Still,”  But perhaps the highlight of this second half was Steve Barnett’s very cool arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”  Years ago, Philip Brunelle, founder and director of VocalEssence, specifically asked Barnett to come up with a new arrangement of this classic spiritual.  To hear Philip tell it, he felt that someone who grew up in the synagogue (as Barnett had) might have a fresh musical take on a song that had seen many rather routine renditions.  The notion is fully validated in this rendition.

CrystalCourt Menorah-1

Chanukkah Menorah – IDS Crystal Court, Minneapolis

Steve Barnett was, in his youth, the long-time choral conductor (and arranger) at B’nai Emet Synagogue in Minneapolis, and has since built a reputation as composer, arranger and producer.  His musical affinities seem to lie in the realm of jazz and blues, and he has done some very interesting arrangements of Jewish texts, including a couple of disarmingly jazzy settings of the Chanukkah songs S’vivon and Mi Yimalel, which I had a chance to sing years ago on a holiday program with the Dale Warland Singers.

So why is a nice Jewish boy waxing enthusiastic about Christmas music?  Because not only is it beautiful and fun (and even inspiring) to sing even for someone like me who doesn’t subscribe to the theology of Christmas, but it’s also instructive on so many levels.

And I’ll go further out on a limb and say that the Jewish musical community can stand to learn a few things from the best Christmas music (and other sacred music), about how to sell our own message both to our own people and in an educational sense to the wider world.  I would even say there’s a desperate need for this.  Great music has the power to draw people into any cause, even if it’s just to inform.

Music as a Means.  But what does this mean, exactly?  Does it mean we have to make everything sound like church music?  Of course not.  But we could take a few cues from the much higher choral standards found the churches (at least traditionally), standards of vocal ability, sight-reading and choral art in general.  Let’s begin by developing and fostering our own choral culture to the highest standards possible.  At least two reasons for doing this come to mind.

The Choir as a Musical Instrument.  First, if our Jewish tradition dictates that we use no instruments in shul, then it stands to reason that we can ill afford to ignore the choral medium or fail to develop it to the highest calibre possible.  This is because the choir is the one means available to us of adding musical dimension, color, texture and variety to our shul music, to provide a more worthy and equal complement to the cantor.  And this will certainly help to attract more people to services on a more regular basis.

It’s worth noting that much of the Christian Orthodox tradition, like ours, has also restricted the use of instruments, and those churches have developed their choral art to a very high degree.  Let’s learn something from them.

Cultural Exchange and Mutual Understanding.  Which brings us to the second point:  As we begin to find greater parity in our Jewish choral culture with that of the churches, we might open the door to their greater understanding of and familiarity with our traditions.

While we aren’t out to convert anyone, the fact is that appallingly little about Judaism is known in wider society.  This lack of knowledge and understanding is one of the contributing factors toward prejudice, even the subconscious kind that is harbored in the most open and progressive minds.  It’s incumbent upon us to foster a greater degree of such understanding to our gentile friends, especially if we want to mitigate their fear and prejudice.

Familiarity, in this case, breeds not contempt but greater comfort and less fear of the unknown.  And of course for our part, this is a two-way street.
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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