Date: May 23, 2013
John Goldsmith is a terrific musician, directs the Heinz Chapel Choir at the University of Pittsburg, and teaches the musicianship courses for the Music Department. He was a member of Chanticleer and sang with Robert Shaw in France. If you wish to reach him directly about his workshops, contact him through his email address at the University of Pittsburg.
I first came across John's Calibrating the Ear--Developing Tonal Memory workshop material through Simon Carrington, requested a copy (which John gladly gave), and then met him briefly at a NW ACDA Conference. I've used these exercises with my choirs at PLU and found them valuable. I haven't used them since coming to UNT but, now that I'm reminded about them with this blog series, plan to this fall! I highly recommend them. This is the first of two parts:
From my experience, this is a demanding exercise, but the singers will improve rapidly (wait until you see part 2!). It will make a huge difference in the ears of your singers and, therefore, in their intonation. Many thanks to John for being willing to share this Ear Calibration routine!
Date: May 22, 2013
(An excerpt from the article, “Unprofessional Airmanship Redefined” by Robert Mark on May 6th, 2013
Though the following comments are from an article on professional aviators, they are applicable to professionalism in every walk of life – including choral conductors.
Professionalism is a way of thinking about your work. Professionals don’t just understand the tasks they’re being paid to complete, they understand how all the pieces of everything in their profession fit together … and why. A professional (at least to me) understands the subtleties that produce a near perfect product or experience, whether that’s installing new carpeting in a home — clean up after yourselves and make sure everything fits before you leave — or flying an airplane near Virga — slow the airplane before you get too close since significant turbulence is highly probable.
And professionals wear their label proudly because they don’t need someone to tell them what to study next or what rule to follow. They care enough to dive into their careers and learn because they want to be the best.
It’s not a surprise to me any longer that young workers require more precise instructions than we did growing up. I’ve seen it in my graduate students at Northwestern too. But why? Where did we fail them?
Is this need to hold their hands and to be told what to do and what not to do simply fallout from too much technology or is it decades of lousy, indulgent parenting skills coming back to roost?
Date: May 21, 2013
(Monday, May 20, 2013, 4:00 p.m. CDT) Despite massive devastation in various areas of the Oklahoma City metro area over the past 24 hours from a series of tornadoes, the American Choral Directors Association reports that the members of the staff and their families are safe. The ACDA national office in downtown Oklahoma City did not experience any damage.
Thank you to the many members of the choral community who continue to text, e-mail, and call out of concern.
Date: May 20, 2013
One of the greatest benefits of ACDA membership is the opportunity to hold appointive or elective leadership positions in the Association. There are currently three openings within ACDA's national Repertoire & Standards structure:
Children's & Community Youth
Ethnic & Multicultural
Those interested in applying for these positions should submit a brief Statement of Intent outlining a vision for the future of the respective R&S area a résumé. Only electronic applications are being accepted. Send materials to Amy Blosser, National R&S Chair at firstname.lastname@example.org. Applications are due by JUNE 1, 2013.
Date: May 18, 2013
A few other vocal issues to consider in terms of intonation:
These are specific issues, but a reminder that intonation problems have many (and sometimes, multiple) causes. Don't forget to consider all the vocal issues in both the training of your choir or in your diagnosis of why the choir's singing out of tune in a specific place in the music.
Date: May 17, 2013
As conductors, both we and our ensembles generate a tremendous amount of information - some of it in aural or visual performance, some of it in our research and program notes, and some in our presentations, journal notes and articles for professional organizations. In the past, we had only two options when it came to our own intellectual property: copyright it, in which case nobody could legally share it, or throw it to the winds without restriction, in which case it could be freely distributed, modified or copied. While these copyright options served an era in which copying, editing and redistributing were time- and resource-intensive work, computers and the Internet have made it much easier for our work to spread the world and influence others in a variety of ways. The Creative Commons organization has developed and supports a method of intellectual property that's much more nuanced and appropriate to the digital sharing age. If you or your ensemble generate intellectual property, the Creative Commons system may give you more options to share and control your hard work.
What is Intellectual Property? What can I claim?
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and none of this should constitute legal advice.
Simply put, intellectual property ("IP") covers information, art or products of your creativity and hard work. In the digital age, intellectual property is data. Your program notes are a result of your intellectual work, so they are your intellectual property. Likewise, your ensemble's performance of a piece is that group's IP - a result of that combination of performers and your vision for the particular performance. You can record and distribute that performance and claim it as "yours"-- just as I could perform the same piece 2 months later and claim that performance as "mine."
That's broad strokes-- there are some essential details to consider. First, you can't claim something which is already out in the public sphere. I can perform the Verdi Requiem, record it, and distribute it as my performance. I can't claim the Verdi Requiem as mine, though, since it's already out in the sphere and obviously isn't my work. Second, copyright rolls uphill and starts with the original creator of the work. In other words, I own the copyright to any of my compositions. If a choir purchases one piece from me (I wouldn't recommend it-- they're terrible), then I give them the right to perform it. That's why octavos often have something written on them like "for non-commercial performance only." My copyright as creator of the piece supercedes yours as the "purchaser."
So what does the creator of an IP have in their copyright? The big ones that apply to us most often are distribution, commercial performance and derivative works. Distribution means that when I buy 80 copies of a piece, I can neither copy those to distribute to 100 singers, nor can I resell them. The issue of "selling used works" is actually much murkier than most people realize, but it's way past the scope of this article. Commercial performance means that I can't perform it for profit without royalties going back to the original copyright holder. Derivative works means that I can't create a work that is "obviously derivative" (i.e. directly derived from) somebody else's IP. There's one more wrinkle to consider: copyright is automatically awarded to the first person who can claim ownership/creation of an idea, whether or not they display the copyright logo or fill out the legal paperwork. In other words, this article is already copyrighted by virtue of my name being on it and there being a date at the top.
This means that technically speaking (again-- not a lawyer):
The Creative Commons
The idea of the Creative Commons is two-fold: first, to identify restrictions to IP that are more in line with the digital sharing age, and second, to allow people more specific choices than "on-or-off" for their own IP.
All quoted directly from http://creativecommons.org/licenses/ :
You can see how these licenses give a wide range of settings for your IP. Artists, scientists and educators are turning to the Creative Commons to be able to share each other's works more fluidly. As creator of a piece of intellectual property (again, even if it's just a recording of a performance of a work that's not currently under copyright), you can choose any of these levels to reflect how you'd like the piece to be shared.
The Creative Commons website has links to many people who are using the Creative Commons "in the wild" as a form of protection, including the White House. Would you consider using any of these for your works? Have you come across people using the Creative Commons licenses? Would this offer you the ability to share things in a way that traditional copyright doesn't? Comment below!
Date: May 16, 2013
While I haven't exhausted the topic of voice and vowel, another area that intersects with intonation is that of rhythm/ensemble. As I mentioned early on, poor (or excellent) intonation has many potential causes. That's why we have to diagnose correctly what the underlying problem is and help the singers solve it, rather than just saying, "You're out of tune!"
Because of the way that unified vowels affects intonation (see this earlier post), chords won't tune as well if the rhythm of the choir isn't crisp and together--because the vowels happen at different times and don't "line up" in such a way that all the overtones/partials line up as well.
There are two parts to this: understanding diction and that we don't really deal (technically) with words, but the sounds that make up words. "My country 'tis of thee" has five words, six syllables, but seven vowel sounds. The diphthong in the word, "my" means there are two vowels--if those vowels aren't together, the intonation won't line up either. This is the genesis of Fred Waring's "Tone Syllables" (if you've seen the old Shawnee Press editions, you know what I mean!). Robert Shaw was brought to New York by Waring to help prepare his new radio choir and Shaw certainly learned those lessons. To get the best diction, the best unification of vowel (and best unification of pitch), the choir has to be able to sing all the sounds precisely together. I remember watching/hearing the King's Singers in concert quite a few years ago from the first row, dead in front of them. The unanimity with which they closed through every single dipthong was amazing--you could literally see their mouths closing through the "oo" as the vanishing vowel of the diphthong "oh" exactly at the same time.
The second part of this fits with Shaw's development of the technique of count-singing. This is a way to get the ensemble (before they pronounce words) to find a precise rhythmic ensemble and sense of intonation (since they're all singing the same vowel: one-and-two-and-tee-and) at the same time. Once the choir moves from count-singing to text, each sound (not each word) has to fit precisely in place. Shaw said, "There is no such thing as good intonation between voice lines that do not arrive or quit their appointments upon mathematically precise, but effortless schedule."
Again, the level of your choir will determine how far you take this and how you choose to teach it, but without a good sense of rhythmic ensemble and being able to sing all the vowel sounds in a given phrase together, your choir will not sing as well in tune as they could. Building a technique/discipline (whether or not you use count-singing) of rhythmic ensemble and learning how to correctly sing all the different sounds in the words we pronounce will make a huge difference in not only diction and blend, but of intonation as well.
And when intonation in your choir seems to be fuzzy, ask yourself whether the rhythm and ensemble of your choir is fuzzy, too. Again, Robert Shaw (although probably paraphrased, since I'm doing this from memory--Howard Swan's chapter in Decker/Herford's Choral Conducting: A Symposium): good intonation and good rhythm make a pretty smooth couple.
Date: May 15, 2013
In last week's Choral Caffeine column, we commented that filmmakers are increasingly turning to choral musicians as subject matter for their films. Almost as if on cue comes this trailer for a documentary currently in production that highlights one of the choral art’s beloved figures.
AMEN: The Life & Music of Jester Hairston, pays a fond and respectful homage to a man who has left an indelible mark upon all of those who have sung his music. In announcing the dedication of the 1989 ACDA National Conference to Jester, the Choral Journal stated that he was a man whose “unwavering devotion to his art is fueled by his love for music and the joy he receives from sharing that music.”
The film is being produced by the California State University Dominguez Hills Foundation. A session hosted by the producers will be featured during the R.E.A.P.: The National Conference on the Spirituals, June 13-15 in Denver, Colorado.
Date: May 14, 2013
NO MORE STRAW HATS by Joe Cerutti
It’s time to throw away the striped vests and straw hats! Barbershop isn’t just for old folks anymore!
If you haven’t been actively involved with the barbershop art-form, you might not be aware of the renaissance that has been taking place over the last 10 years. Lately, even the simplest forms of barbershop harmony are being used in classrooms around the world to teach a number of lessons, reaping a number of exciting benefits, including improved ear training, part independence, sight reading, visual awareness, recruitment of male singers, and so much more.
Barbershop harmony in the quartet and choral setting has been blazing a new path in high schools, colleges and universities, concert venues around the world, and has even taken its own place on the internet. Don’t believe me? Take some time to look into some of the hottest barbershop groups around today, including the Vocal Majority, the Westminster Chorus, the Ambassadors of Harmony, OC Times, Vocal Spectrum, and Musical Island Boys, to name just a few.
You’ll probably wonder…“Is this BARBERSHOP?!” Barbershop harmony has been working hard to improve its craft, and today you’ll find some of the very best in ensemble singing, advanced vocal techniques, and locking and ringing of chords with the tightest tuning around.
Above all no matter your age, musical/singing experience, or geographic location, barbershop harmony is the pinnacle of lifelong healthy singing and learning long after the college experience. So, if you haven’t given barbershop a chance recently, there’s a wealth of opportunities just a few clicks away. Check it out at barbershop.org and help to “keep the whole world singing!”
Date: May 13, 2013
Concert tours are a relatively common event in the life of a college choir. The litany is familiar to many of us – long rides in a motor coach, pot-luck suppers in a church basement, warm receptions from concert audiences full of smiling alumni, and a welcome to a host home to end the day. Tours, usually the highlight of the choir’s season, last a week or two.
Imagine, if you can, a 38-day concert tour.
That’s what 40 members of the University Singers from Ohio Northern University are starting today – a singing sojourn across the U.S. that will take them through 19 states as they perform 33 concerts in five-and-a-half weeks on the road.
“They will see more of the country in these five weeks than they are likely to see for the rest of their lives,” said ONU’s choral director, Ben Ayling. “We know this remarkable trip will elevate our program to new heights. I’m looking forward to playing ‘Santa Claus’ every day as we share great music all over the country.”
Though luxuries are few aboard a motor coach trundling down the interstate, there is one notable modification being made to the ONU choir’s rolling home-away-from-home: four seats are being removed and a keyboard installed so that students can practice on the road.
Date: May 12, 2013
COMPOSITION SPOTLIGHT ~ by Jack Senzig
(Each week we look at a piece of useful repertoire from the ChoralNet Community Composition Showcase. A variety of voicings and levels of difficulty will be presented. Enjoy!)
Through the Eyes of the Children SATB or SA and piano
Level: Elementary through High School
Uses: General Concert Use
Program Themes: Children, Newtown,
This Piece Would Program Well With: Let The Children Play (and Learn in Peace) - for Newtown SAB or SSA by David Avshalomov available through the Composition Showcase.
Earworm alert! Once you listen you won’t be able to forget it. This may be the most marketable piece in the Composition Showcase. Every Elementary, Middle and High School will be singing this song in the next couple years! When Daryl brought Through the Eyes of the Children to the ChoralNet composer's community for critique, it was immediately clear to me the potential it had. He has now set it for both SATB and SA. I will be promoting it for my school district's choral festival next year. The recording is another by Matthew Curtis of Choral Tracks.
This piece is available by emailing the composer dcrockford(a)shaw.ca
Date: May 11, 2013
I talked last time about vowels. So, a bit more about voice training with your choir.
All of you have choirs at a different levels, from a choir (of any age group) with no vocal training whatsoever to perhaps a university or professional choir of trained singers. While one has to deal with vocal issues with any choir, right now let's speak of choirs with little or no training.
With such choirs many of you will be the only voice teacher your choir members have. I like to develop a plan to teach the fundamentals of singing, with the following basic elements:
This blog post can't be a course in voice training (I'm not writing a book about that!), but these are the elements that I believe are most important. You can find any number of resources (books, workshops, etc.) to help with this. First, the fundamentals listed above include both concepts (where the "light bulb" can go on and the choir members now understand what to do and why) and skills (which take practice to achieve). With any group I will teach the basic concepts, but then use vocalises at the beginning of a rehearsal to build those skills--which then they must be reinforced constantly as you work on repertoire.
This is important for our discussion of intonation, because singers who have difficulties with any of the above basic elements will have difficulty singing in tune. In my first post, I mentioned that the conductor has to diagnose why the choir is singing out of tune, and one of the first potential culprits is vocal production: is the choir using good posture (which allows the breath to be used well)? Do they know how to manage their breath or is it inconsistent? Is the breath flow adequate or inadequate to good tone? Is there a lack of vocal space with a low soft palate? Are vowels produced with too much space and no sense of resonance or ring? Or are they ringing, but no vocal space? Are vowels placed too far back or are they dull? Or are vowels too bright? Is there obvious vocal tension (jaw, shoulders, etc.)?
The better vocal production the individual members of the choir have, the easier it will be to sing in tune. So your training of the choir (if you're the primary voice teacher, as well as conductor) is going to be primary in your success. I don't mean for you to turn your rehearsals into voice lessons, but that you need to find a way to teach these basics, work on skills in brief warmups at the beginning of rehearsal, then interweave work on vocal skills into the rehearsal (even including a quick vocalise, if helpful) of the music itself. If you've read my post about musicality, you know I believe in teaching phrasing and expression from the very beginning. In fact, all elements must be worked into your work on the music (but at different proportions at the beginning of the rehearsal process and near the end). My rehearsals are relatively "dense" with a fair amount of drill (see my earlier post here which speaks of John Wooden's concepts of "scrimmage" vs. "drill") and (I hope!) a high proportion of singing to talk. I will probably touch on many different things in a short time working on music, from the shape of the phrase to vowel to locking intonation on a specific chord to dynamics to rhythmic ensemble. The trick is to go very quickly from an instruction or two back to singing--the goal being as little talking as possible and as much singing as possible (they don't get better while you talk!). As my earlier series of posts on building culture mention, one of the things to work on with any group (taking into account what they can currently do) is to build their ability to focus and work with this kind of density and intensity. But where ever you are with your choir, you have to find a way to teach them to sing better.
Vocal models are a quick way to get where you want to go. As a singer, I model a fair amount (which also has the advantage of giving them information about lots of things, not just the one I just mentioned to them), but I also use singers in my choir as models fairly frequently. If you are not an accomplished singer yourself (although hopefully you understand good vocal technique and sound even if you're not gifted with a great instrument), you can use singers in the choir to model for your singers. You can also bring in someone with skill at teaching these concepts. With vowel (last post's focus), the easiest way to get there is to model the vowel (whether you or someone else) in order to get unification (and better intonation).
Long enough for today! As you strive towards better intonation in your choir, know that their level of vocal skill and technique will make good intonation possible . . . or create problems! Seek to teach the very best vocal technique that you can, given the limitations of your choir and how much time you have to work with them.
And always remember, technique is a means to an end--we teach these things because ultimately they can lead to more successful, creative and expressive performances.
Date: May 10, 2013
As an educational technologist, I spend a lot of time working with teachers on skills necessary for teaching and learning in the "modern school environment." These skills or competencies add new tools to a professional's toolbox in order to take advantage of new resources or opportunities, engage students in their realm, or be more efficient and more effective with their work. I've never met a teacher who needed a full re-write, but rather these skills are additions to that which they already know and can do. Doing a major project on required skills and competencies recently got me thinking about what this list would look like for a modern choral conductor. Let's skip past those things upon which we all agree are the hallmarks of the trade: extensive knowledge of choral works and techniques, a strong diagnostic ear, interpersonal skills, etc. Those have been necessary to be a successful conductor at any point in time. Let's instead consider some things that might be representative of the now-- skills and competencies required of conductors in today's environment. In no particular order, I would suggest:
Knowledge of Fair Use, how it governs posting/sharing online media, and the necessary policies/waivers to share people's faces/recordings/pictures online.
Ability to use Creative Commons or "traditional" copyright methods to secure your own work.
The ability to record audio and video.
The ability to edit and distribute those recordings.
Cultivation a Professional Learning Network (PLN).
Knowledge of social networks such as Google +, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn to connect with other professionals in the field or members of your organization.
Use of RSS to subscribe to blogs.
Knowledge of how blogs or internal websites can host and distribute resources for members of your organization.
The ability to edit a basic blog or internal website, including creating links and uploading/attaching files.
Understanding of basic types of microphones.
Ability to convert files between types such as MP3, WAV and AAC.
What else would be on your list? What would you consider to be essential to success in the modern conducting field?
Date: May 9, 2013
So, away from tuning systems for a bit!
If you read Mike O'Neil's excellent guest post, you'll notice he talked about vocal production and vowels as barbershoppers are taught to work on both tuning and blend.
The basic principles are no different, no matter what the style and level of choir you conduct: to get the best intonation, vowels must be matched.
The reasons are again, scientific in nature. Given exactly the same pitch, one can tell the difference in timbre between an oboe, flute, violin, or soprano voice. The reason is that the unique way each instrument (or voice) creates sounds emphasizes different harmonics (remember them from the intonation discussion?), which we now call "partials" (if you love the science, wikipedia has a reasonable article on partials). Above whatever fundamental pitch is played or sung, the long series of partials (not normally heard as separate pitches) are each stronger or weaker, depending on the instrument or voice. There will be a similar pattern for each instrument, no matter what the fundamental pitch.
For singers, each vowel will also emphasize different partials (because of the different shapes we create in our resonanting chamber), creating the unique sound of an ah, oh, or oo.
On a practical level, then, if our singers closely match vowels, the partials (or harmonics) will be emphasized in exactly the same way, leading towards better pitch matching (as well as "blend"). And the opposite is true if our singers use different varieties of vowels that don't match very well--the differing partials emphasized will tend to "fight" and not agree.
There are some ways I begin to deal with this in any choir, no matter young or old, inexperienced or expert. But for a less experienced choir there are some exercises to help them understand how this works.
To demonstrate how vowel affects pitch I'll have four or five singers (on the same part) come in front of the choir, give them a pitch and ask for an "ah" vowel (no prior instruction). After they sing it, I'll ask one of the singers (quietly, so no one else hears) to sing the "ah" as an "uh" -- then they sing it again. I'll then ask them to sing as well in tune with each other as they can. It's rarely a beautiful unison. Then I ask the singer with the "uh" to gradually change to an "ah" and see how well in starts to tune. Finally, I'll ask all to carefully listen to the vowel they sing and unify it and the pitch as much as they can. This is all so they understand in a concrete way (not the scientific explanation above) how much easier it is to tune if they match vowels. I then extend this to the whole group and play with having them sing with a variety of vowels, then start to coalesce on a single, unified vowel. This may take demonstration from me of the vowel I want as a "target" vowel.
This assumes, of course, that you've been working (usually in vocalises) on different vowels and how to sing them already, or are about to.
Another exercise with vowels is designed to get even an unsophisticated choir to hear and understand terminology you will use, in this case the concept of "bright" and "dark" vowels. I think I stole this from Royal Stanton's conducting book, The Dynamic Choral Conductor, which is now out of print. I'll have the whole group sing a single pitch (octaves in a mixed choir) on an "ah" vowel. Then I'll ask them to sing it as if they were a country western singer (with the right age group, Willie Nelson will always bring a certain tone quality!). Then as if they were an operatic basso. Then as if they were a children's choir (you can use your creativity to come up with other examples or analogies). I then show (with my hands far apart) a continuum from bright (Willie Nelson) to dark (operatic basso) and ask them to go back and forth. Next, I ask one side of the choir to sing with a dark "ah" vowel and the other side to sing a bright one. As I bring my hands together, they're to gradually move to the center until they all find a mid-point with the same vowel that has both characteristics in it, but where they sing the same quality of vowel. I then might do the same thing again, but asking them to be very aware of how easily they agree or disagree on pitch as the move from vastly different colors to one that is unified.
This is simple, but allows any group to have a concrete understanding (not theoretical) of what you mean when you ask for a brighter or darker vowel. It also has the effect of letting individuals realize (without pointing it out directly) that they naturally may sing farther to the bright or dark side of the vowel spectrum and have to be aware of that (I will probably ask them to think if they tend towards Willie or the operatic basso!).
Assuming the group understands this, the task is now to get them to consistently work for unified vowels as we sing. This takes repetition and reminders, even with an experienced choir. More about that next time and (if I have time and space) to speak of vocal production itself.
P.S. I recommend you also read the comments (and feel free to add yours) to each post. Each writer has much to add to what I say or interesting questions. This blog will be best with interaction--additional ideas or techniques, agreements or disagreements about the way we look at these things, etc. Don't be shy!
Date: May 8, 2013
Increasingly, it seems, filmmakers are turning to choral musicians as subject matter for their films. We have shared a number of examples in this space, and several movies were featured in a film festival format during the recent ACDA National Conference in Dallas.
Here is a new short film from Michael Stillwater (producer of the award-winning documentary on Morten Lauridsen). Given that television programs and Hollywood films so often portray the choral world as some sort of circus environment, it is incredibly gratifying to see our beloved art treated with such care and respect.
Date: May 7, 2013
The choral season is starting to wind down. For some colleagues on the collegiate level, it’s already over.
We’re currently (or about to be) consumed with the performance of final concerts, the calculation of grades, the smoothing of students’ end-of-the-year emotional melt-downs, and attending to all of the miscellany associated with shuttering a choral program for the summer. Soon, the rehearsal hall will be dark and we’ll be off campus trying desperately to uncurl our toes from the daily rigors of our craft.
Now is the time to leave a message in the bottle.
At this moment, the challenges of the season are fresh in your mind. Perhaps it’s a need for some changes to your rehearsal procedures, a new series of warm-ups, a revised approach to vocal color, or some administrative matter. Whatever it might be, there is a possibility that you could forget about these concerns once you have removed yourself from the immediacy of the daily rehearsal structure.
Pour a cup of coffee, sit down, and write yourself a note; literally, a letter to your future self. Remind Future You how you are feeling and what you are thinking at this point in the season and how you would like to change a few things in the autumn. Then leave the note on your desk for Future You to find. Have a little fun and leave it in a bottle!
When you return to your work space in the late summer, you will read the note and be reminded of where you are at this time. Given the clarity that comes from a little rest, some of your current concerns may appear to be the result of the predictable fatigue that comes at the end of a season. Others however, will continue to resonate. Those are the areas that will benefit next season from your fresh energy and renewed objectivity.
Date: May 5, 2013
COMPOSITION SPOTLIGHT ~ by Jack Senzig
(Each week we look at a piece of useful repertoire from the ChoralNet Community Composition Showcase. A variety of voicings and levels of difficulty will be presented. Enjoy!)
Let The Children Play (and Learn in Peace) - for Newtown SAB or SAA and piano
Uses: General Concert Use
Program Themes: Commemorating Loss, Community, Healing Through Music
This Piece Would Program Well With: Hands United in Peace 2-part by Irv Rothenberg available from JWPepper and Sheet Music Plus (There is an SATB version but it is out of print)
Have you used music to bring healing to your community? How do we as choral musicians balance our need for artistic expression and the needs of our singers and our audience? Did you have your choir put on a special concert after Newtown? Columbine? 9/11? Join the discussion in the Composers of Choral Music Community on this topic (must join to comment) or comment here.
This week's Composition Spotlight is shining on David Avshalomov's recent work Let the Children Play (and Learn in Peace). It was not written in response to Newtown, but as in so many creative endeavors, synchronicity had David working on the piece simultaneously. It could be used in a concert designed to give honor to those who were lost and would help audiences deal with their emotions about this national tragedy. Avshalomov sets the perfect tone with simple childlike beauty and lyrical melody.
Let the Children Play (and Learn in Peace) is available from the composer's website: http://www.davidavshalomov.com/musical-works/chorus/
Did you know you can find the Composition Showcase by adding /showcase to the base ChoralNet URL www.ChoralNet.com? The best works of over 50 composers are displayed by voicing.
Date: May 4, 2013
Here's a guest blog post on barbershop tuning from Mike O'Neil, who taught high school for five years before becoming a music educator for the Barbershop Harmony Society (formerly known as SPEBSQA). He wrote to me offering a guest post and I happily accepted. Incredibly helpful and useful information. He included a couple examples of exercises they use, but I'll let you find them on the Barbershop Harmony Society website, since I don't want to violate copyrights.
Many thanks, Mike!
As you can see, there's much to offer all of us, no matter what kind of choir we conduct.
Date: May 2, 2013
Many of us have gravitated towards a system of "just" intonation, rather than the tempered scale that's used for tuning pianos. You may not have even thought about this and simply accepted that the piano is the arbiter of what's in tune and what's not. However, equal temperament is really a compromise tuning system (and all systems will have their pros and cons). However, if one tunes according to the natural harmonics present, one gets a very different tuning for particular intervals (especially the major third) than with equal temperament.
On a keyboard, of course, one has to choose a tuning system and deal with its pros and cons, since once tuned, it's fixed (until you tune again). There are examples of organs with split sharps that allow for a different D# than Eb, for example, but that need not concern us here (you're unlikely to have one available!).
However, with a choir (or instrumental group that can be flexible with pitch) one can sing or play pure thirds, for example, no matter what the root of the chord. This is, in essence "just" intonation. This wikepedia article can give you a start if this is new. Barbershoppers use just intonation all the time and I'll have a guest post soon about that approach.
To show the differences in cents (remembering that there are 100 cents in a half step), here is a chart of chords in just intonation with the difference in cents between just and equal temperament.
As you can see, the major third is 14 cents lower in just intonation than in equal temperament. And the dominant seventh chord includes the same lower third, but 31 cents lower for the seventh (which is a chord used constantly in barbershop)!
There's much more I could say about science, but I think it's more important to get to practical matters! How do I use this in my choirs? How do I teach them to do this?
First, you have to train your own ears to hear the difference between a tempered and pure major third. This will take some work if it's totally new to you. I still remember an interview with David Willcocks, after his choir participated in the Bach cantata series on Telefunken with Gustav Leonhardt. He was asked if he accepted the lower tuning of the thirds and responded that he felt it was surely correct, but that his ear still heard and wanted a "brighter" third.
Most of us were trained at some point to sing the third "high" because otherwise in a dominant chord (where the third is the leading tone) the tonic chord that follows will be flat. I can say that doesn't have to be the case, but can't deal with that yet--patience!
With my choirs I often do an exercise early in the year to help them hear a pure third. This requires a group who can sing accurate unisons/octaves and a room which is resonant enough to be responsive to overtones. I have them sing a chord in A or Bb with voicing B2 root (near the bottom of staff), B1 fifth above, T2 octave, T1 fifth above, A root above that, and S the fifth above that (i.e. near the top of the staff). They need to sing very pure and unified pitches with a clear, ringing fifth. I usually use an "ah" vowel and it needs to be a very bright, forward (and unified) "ah." And they need to sing senza vibrato with a fairly loud dynamic (I ask them to breathe frequently and keep the air flowing). In other words, they only sing root and fifth, no third. If they can do all of this and the room is reasonably responsive, you (and they) will start to hear the third appear in the room as a harmonic. Sometimes it takes a while, or my singing the harmonic lightly as an example after they've cut off, for them to hear it. But normally it will start to become clear and in the right room can be quite loud (you may have had the experience of a harmonic appearing that no one is singing when your group sings particularly well in tune).
If I can get them to hear this, then I can ask sopranos or tenors, for example, to match the third they hear in the room. If they can do this and learn to feel/hear the restful nature of this pure third (because it is in "harmony" with the natural harmonic system, there are no beats), I can then re-voice the chord in different ways with different parts singing the third. It's very interesting then, if they've really settled into this tuning, to play the same chord/voicing on the piano, which now sounds very "jangly" (OK, that's a vague and perhaps invented term, I know! but to my ear the beats in the thirds on the piano strike me that way!) and out of tune. I wrote something about this in my blog after the last NCCO conference in reference to how my ear has changed over time.
This is just an opening exercise, but then I have to work on tuning chords in vocalises at the beginning of rehearsals, and as we begin to work repertoire, to do the same, particularly on any chord that is held for any length of time. Most often, if they aren't tuning the third well, I remove the third from the chord (so that only parts with root and fifth sing) and then sing the third for them myself. Then I have the part which sings the third match my intonation. It takes time to do this and skill builds gradually, but it's very possible. If barbershop quartets and choirs can do this, there's no reason your choir cannot as well. But it takes consistent effort.
This has already gone on a bit too long--and might be too esoteric for some! I promise I'll get around to more basic issues of teaching good intonation and fixing various intonation problems.
Until Memorial Day I'll be posting twice a week, Thursday and Saturday, so I can cover more ground on a fascinating and important topic before the summer hiatus. Next, a guest post about barbershoppers methods of teaching tuning, then next week, how I use (and don't use) piano in rehearsals.
If you have the chance to try the exercise I give above with your choir, let me know the results!
Date: May 1, 2013
While watching a classic old black & white move recently, one was struck by the incredible changes that have taken place in the role gender plays in society. In his article, “Church Musicians and Inclusive Language: A Beginning” (Central Division Resound Vol.34, No.1), Andy Call discusses how the use of words reflects such changes:
Regardless of our personal feelings about the debate over gender-neutral or gender-inclusive vocabulary, that vocabulary is now a part of the fabric of our language. Once the scales have been lifted from our eyes, we cannot and should not replace them. Simply wishing for the world to be the way it was in the "old days" will not make it so.
We cannot and should not ignore calls for justice because they inconvenience us. We must acknowledge and respond, either positively or negatively. Inaction is not a real option. “Not to decide is to decide,” said Princeton theologian, Harvey Cox.
How do we cope with centuries of texts written before a time of gender sensitivity? First, try to avoid pronouns. “God created humankind in his image” can be replaced with “God created humankind in God’s image.” Grammatically, this may be a bit awkward, but it reflects a more faithful translation of the text than the English language affords with our limited pronouns.
(For additional articles on a dazzling array of choral topics, visit ChorTeach.)