FOUR PREREQUISITES TO AN ENHANCED JEWISH CHORAL CULTURE

instruments-1In our Jewish community, we are desperately seeking something to enhance the beauty and interest in our services.  Those of us for whom instruments in shul are not permitted under the laws of observance, the only real way to add dimension to our music is choral singing. Choir music in the synagogue is by no means new, and in fact there is a long history of it throughout Europe going as far back as the late Renaissance with the likes of Salamone Rossi.

But we have a lot of catch-up work to do in our choral singing compared to the church community, from which we can gain some valuable perspective on music making.  Here are some general areas we might concentrate on.

Improved Musicianship.  When it comes to fundamental musical skills, a little improvement can go a long way toward enhancing our realm of repertoire possibilities, for we will use these skills endlessly.  When we speak of cognitive musical skills, we are referring to such abilities as reading music, specifically sight-singing (which, incidentally, isn’t necessarily possessed by even skilled instrumentalists who read music).  Good sight singing requires the further skill of hearing and recognizing in our ears the various tonal intervals, as well as seeing and recognizing these intervals on the printed page, and ultimately correlating the audial with the visual.  The same is true of the rhythmic element of music.  Of course all this means also knowing our way around a printed score, gaining the acquaintance with the beautiful language of written music.

Improved Vocal Skills.  Vocal ability – singing ability – means being able to produce the tone beautifully and efficiently, and with enough control to execute changes in dynamic and articulation, as well as produce beautifully shaped line.  These are largely skills of physical coordination related to the physical act of producing sound.  Again, as with musicianship, a little skill enhancement can make a big difference here.  See the post on singing basics.

Team Work/Ensemble.  Choral music and choral singing are nothing if not about unity – unity of tone color, vowels, consonants, dynamics, tempo, rhythm – in short, a closely-knit team effort in regard to every aspect of the music.  This is the art of ensemble (meaning “together”), and it requires learning how to listen even as we are singing, being perfectly tuned with the rest of the group, and being able to adjust and change course in a split second as necessary.

Improved Musical Knowledge & Taste.  In our wider secular culture these days, there seems to be a narrow (and continued narrowing) sense of what constitutes good, or indeed great, music, with more and more of us shunning higher musical culture as something we are not worthy of, that we should be intimidated by, or that we owe our disdain due to its elitist trappings. Worst of all, for an apparently increasing number of younger people  there is an out-and-out ignorance of this higher musical culture, a completely deprived sense of what truly great music is,

One can sense this even within the pop realm, with the music displaying less and less melodic, harmonic and formal (not to mention literary) substance. Let’s ask ourselves:  how many pop songs of the past 20 years have endured as standards in the way many of the songs of Lennon-McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan or Burt Bacharach have endured?  Those artists were still operating under an awareness (even when they outwardly rejected it) of the fundamentals of substantive music.

This cultural void is, if anything, more pronounced in the Jewish community, which has had a long history of being excluded, and excluding itself, from the higher culture of whatever wider community has surrounded it.  For a Jew to be included individually in this higher culture, historically, has often required assimilation and/or renunciation of one’s Jewish faith and culture. Such requirement may have receded, but the Jewish sense of obligation to it doesn’t seem to have faded completely.

Given the glorious legacy of Jews in American popular culture through much of the 20th Century, it isn’t surprising that this first real era of Jewish inclusion and importance in a broader culture should hold such a perpetual and affectionate attachment to Jewish self-identity in America. One senses a great jealousy and need for such a legacy of inclusion, and its attendant sense of identity, in the British or French Jewish communities, to name two.

All of which is to say, we American Jews revere our pop culture – so much so that we may not think twice anymore about elevating it to the level and status of high culture.  But at the very least, shouldn’t we be more willing to explore other territories which carry much higher and historically much longer reputations for quality and substance?  And in our efforts toward enhancing our worship and ritual, shouldn’t we be aiming as high as possible?  And if we’re being elitist, isn’t this entirely appropriate for our musical offering to the ultimate Aristocrat, the Object of our awe and reverence?

As we discussed in the previous post, pop music is fun, and occasionally may rise to a level approaching that of high art,  But even at its best, pop music will almost always be about romantic love and courtship, and will therefore have an element of the secular, and even the sexual, in it.  Let’s therefore be careful not confuse our attachment to popular music with a misperception of its appropriateness in the sacred realm.  And more subjectively, let’s be cautious in assigning it more qualitative status than it might deserve.

In all of these areas, we can and must learn a lot from outside the Jewish realm, and yes, this includes the church community.  If nothing else, we can prosper from seeing what is possible (and necessary) qualitatively in terms of singing and musicianship, qualitative taste and standards, and in terms of the power and effectiveness of well-chosen worship music.    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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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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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

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

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

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

Some things to keep in mind when leading song: 

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

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

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ENERGY IN PERFORMANCE – Engaging Your Audience

Photo of candle flameHave you ever gone to a concert – any kind of concert – and felt completely “underwhelmed” by the performers even though they were performing competently, doing everything right as far as the music itself was concerned?  What was it that struck you as less than engaging about the performance?

I’ll wager it was a lack of commitment to the audience – a lapse of energy – that your were sensing.  It could stem from a few different things, such as:

  • Inexperience – Unless you’re at least somewhat experienced in the art of performing, you might have an insufficient insight as to how much you might have to do in order to have it “read” properly from the audience.  You may think you’re overdoing it, when in fact it could prove to be not nearly enough.
  • Tentative grasp of the material – Without the confidence that comes with full mastery and internalization of what you’re performing (be it music, a play, a comedic bit, etc.), your delivery might come off as tenuous and uncertain.
  • Stage anxiety – Sometimes nervousness can actually work in a performer’s favor, but just as often it can serve to quell the best aspects of delivery.
  • Fatigue or illness – Here again, nerves might prove beneficial in compensating for otherwise low energy.  Failing that, experience should tell the performer when that extra effort will be needed to make up for when we are tired or sick.
  • Lack of enthusiasm (“I’ve done this so many times….”) – This may be the most challenging barrier of all to giving the audience a scintillating performance.  If you ever acted in high school or college theatre where the production ran for more than 1 or 2 nights, you might recall that by the 3rd night, it was tough to summon the same kind of commitment onstage.  Now try and imagine yourself (as I often have) as a professional having to go on night after night for weeks or months in an ongoing Broadway production!

Regardless of the reason(s), a lack of full and complete commitment (aka “phoning it in”) will be all too apparent to the audience – as a lackluster performance, one with no “sparkle.”  Imagine whether Bruce Springsteen would be as successful as he has been without his fabled stage energy!

The fact is – whether you are singing or playing in a solo role or in an ensemble, whether popular, classical or ethnic music, whether it’s a concert or a sacred ceremony, or even a speech – energy and vitality in performance is absolutely key to engaging your audience.

Sometimes the energy lapse is limited to specific aspects such as diction, or facial expression, or musical line.   But even just one part of the performance that doesn’t quite sizzle can make all the difference between an “okay” performance and a truly exciting one.  And quite often having that sizzle can more than make up for other shortcomings.  An audience is far more likely to forgive an innocent mistake in notes or the occasional crack in the voice than they are to accept an overall tentative performance.

High Energy Doesn’t Mean LOUD or FAST.  While volume and speed can sometimes serve to convey a sense of engagement and immediacy, we can’t always sing everything loud and fast.  And yet the energy has to come from somewhere.

A classic example of this sort of challenge is in singing a very slow piece.  This often means having to sing long held notes.  You may feel it’s so slow, it’s like swimming in molasses.  The all-too-typical fix is simply to speed up the tempo.  But even this won’t make up for all of the energy deficiency, so why not deal with the problem head-on?

Listen to a good recording of Bach’s famous “Air for the G String,” or Handel’s equally celebrated “Largo” from Serse [Xerxes], two classic examples of very slow pieces which would lose their very identities if they were taken even just a little faster.  As you listen, try and notice how the initial very long notes are given life and energy, how they are made to “bloom” as they lead seamlessly into what follows.

No Rest for the Musical.  What you might notice is a feeling of crescendo without an actual crescendo, along with a sense of urgency without an actual speeding up.  These add up to a feeling of heading toward a destination.  This is the secret to singing or playing with a proper sense of “line,” of giving it shape and contour.  Although we are listening for it in those long-held notes, it must ideally be present in every note – long, short or in-between, and even through the rests!

Quiet Urgency.  This sense of constant energy is especially important when singing softly.  In fact a good rule of thumb is to increase your energy as you get softer.  Think of that urgency, that near-crescendo, and of diction, especially consonants (always important, but especially in those quiet moments).  Spit them out!

Learn to Gage How to Engage.  Energy does not mean OVER THE TOP, nor does it necessitate a lapse of dignity or good taste.  But it often does mean going farther than you as the performer might think is necessary or appropriate – exaggerating diction, facial attitude, dynamic changes, etc.  Let your conductor or other reliable advisor watch and listen from the house during rehearsals to gage what does and doesn’t work.

Put On a Happy Face (Or At Least An Engaged One).  If you’ve watched truly top-notch classical performers, they may not be putting on the smiley faces as they play or sing.  But they truly look engaged.  Solo and chamber players, and even orchestral players move and sway with the phrases.  And it’s a good bet they’re not faking this.  A solo singer communicates the song or aria on his/her face.  Choral singers should likewise be able to convey the mood and context of what they are singing facially.

In short, really get into your performing, and show the audience that you are enjoying it, even if it isn’t necessarily happy material.  If the music is sad, revel in that sadness and gloom, or whatever the mood and emotion might be.

If you want to engage the audience, be engaged.  But whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to commit the cardinal sin of performing – boredom!     Join Email List