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(An excerpt from the Choral Journal article, “Instrumentation of the Basso Continuo in Early Seventeenth-Century Vocal Music,” by Steven Zopfi)
       During the first half of the seventeenth century, composers created enormous quantities of vocal music employing the new basso-continuo method. Inherent in this new method was a flexibility of instrumentation. Composers rarely specified which instruments were to be used in the performance of the basso continuo, because they and their contemporaries were familial- with the conventions of continuo instrumentation. Modem musicians, until recently, have lacked that first-hand knowledge, and have had much less upon which to rely when making instrumentation choices. Recent research, however is beginning to shed light on the continuo practices of the early Baroque era, and can provide important guidelines for modem choral performances of this repertoire.
       A useful place to begin discussing continuo instrumentation is with Agostino Agazzari's Del sonore sopra iI basso (1607), by far the most informative treatise on continuo instrumentation in early seventeenth-century Italy. In it, Agazzari lists a rich variety of continuo instruments, describes the manner of playing them, and suggests ways in which they might be used. Agazzari classified instruments as either "foundation" or "ornamental." Foundation instruments are those that "guide and support the whole body of the voices and instruments of the consort: the organ, harpsichord, etc.," while ornamental instruments are "those, which in a playful and contrapuntal fashion, make the harmony more agreeable and sonorous, namely the lute, the harp, lirone, etera, spinet, chitorrino, violin, pandora, and the like." In other words, foundation instruments are chord-playing instruments that provide harmonic support for the other voices, while ornamental instruments are mainly melodic instruments that are capable of melodic ornamentation and harmonic filler.
READ the entire article.
Over the course of an education, a choral singer could spend a decade singing daily in a school choir.  Then, with the pomp-&-circumstance of a graduation ceremony, that same singer passes from the educational system into the demands of the workaday world.  For the vast majority of those singers, that means leaving choral music behind.
There are precious few workplaces that would allow their employees to take off an hour a day for a choral rehearsal (though the world might be a better place if we had choirs at work).  In England, there are several outfits offering workplace team-building workshops that use choral singing to enhance business productivity.  The BBC has also produced a string of reality TV shows about choirs being started from scratch in unlikely places.
The singer eager to continue their choral life must look to church choirs and community choruses for their continued musical edification.  The positive effect of singing on the life of an adult chorister cannot be overstated, and the ensembles themselves offer a valuable artistic component to the life of any community.  Church and community choirs are a vital part of the choral landscape.
One has heard the concern that more church and community choirs are not heard performing during ACDA conferences.  The reason of course is really quite simple: their singers all have day jobs.  It would be tough to convince 50 people to burn three or four days of their precious vacation time and then pay for expensive travel to a conference city for a 25-minute performance.
That said, enjoy this example of a community choir from an ACDA divisional conference.  Note the wide spread of adult ages and the artistic caliber of this performance.
Graduate.  Keep singing!
VOCAL ADVANTAGE: BREATH (part 3), by Dina Else
Now that we’ve ensured the proper body alignment is well underway and have established the basics of breath intake, let’s journey a step further.
As we wrap up our discussion of breath intake, I would like to point out that we don’t think about breath in our everyday-normal breathing.  The muscles just automatically take the breath in, similar to how they do when we are sleeping.  For singing, however, we have to breathe when the music tells us to; we breathe at specific times according to the phrasing and rests in the music.  This is why it’s necessary to train yourself to be aware of what the natural action is.  Once you have heightened your awareness of the natural action you can learn to trigger it.  A singer’s goal is to take the automatic action and turn it into a conscious process.  You still breathe when you want and need it, but you are doing so along natural lines.  
Speaking of taking a breath when we want or need it…similar to speaking, the breath should be inspired by the thought about to be communicated in the music.  The breath for singing should be a natural response to the musical phrase the singer is about to sing.
Noisy versus silent breath intake.  I’ve come to realize this is a more controversial topic than one would think.  My two cents worth is to aim for silent.  The silence indicates that the root of the tongue muscle is out of the way, the soft palate is raised and the pharyngeal space is nice and open.  Silent breath also encourages the singer to ‘allow the air to drop in-down-and out’.  Noisy breath is usually associated with a high, clavicular breath. 
I was recently working with a colleague whose college voice teacher had taught him to audibly breath in on the vowel.  I don’t have a problem with most of this concept and I’m fine with the idea of breathing in on the vowel you are preparing to sing.  What isn’t okay, in my humble opinion, is the ‘audible’ part.  That constriction of the airway is an unnecessary step that will ultimately affect the tone being produced. 
Join me next week as we discuss the conductor’s gesture in regard to breath intake!
(original posting: September 23, 2013)
None of us in the choral profession have ever been tempted to do this when a singer pulls out a cell phone in rehearsal.  Noooooo.
1. “All That Hath Life & Breath Praise Ye the Lord!” Rene Clausen. Mark Foster Music MF0223
A vibrant, celebratory treatment of Psalms 96 and 22, which transforms into the beloved “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” hymn featuring the Lobe den Herren tune, before ending with a poly-tonal, rhythmic final Alleluia!
2. “Is any afflicted?” William Billings. CPDL
This very easy and approachable anthem showcases William Billing’s raw genius, capturing the mood of the epistle text with harmonic and melodic shifts over changing choral texture.
3. “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230.” Johann Sebastian Bach. Edition Peters No. 6106
Bach’s stunning motet setting of Psalm 117 showcases his young talent with beautifully executed fugal themes and boundless energy.
4. “How Can I Keep from Singing (My Life Flows on in Endless Song).” Robert Lowry, arr. Davis. MorningStar Music Publishers MSM-50-2545
A gorgeous version of this beloved text and tune highlighted by an oboe and violin duet.
5. “Let Everything That Hath Breath.” Jeffery L. Ames. Earthsongs S-248
A perfect gospel concert closer with well-written piano, bass, and solo. A true crowd (and choir!) pleaser.
(“Five from the Folder” provides brief, text-length reviews of vocal works currently in the folders of choral directors throughout the United States.  To share five from your folder, contact Scott Dorsey at
(An excerpt from the Choral Journal article, “Choral Flatting: Sometimes it’a a Matter of Register Transition,” by Mel Unger)
       Have you ever wondered why it is harder to sing some pieces in tune than others? And why, when these pieces are raised a semitone, the problem disappears? Flatting seems particularly problematic in F major. Why? At least part of the answer to these questions lies in the relationship between vocal registers and tuning.
       Admittedly, the subject of vocal registers is a controversial one. Experts do not even agree on how many registers there are, let alone the proper pedagogical approach to take for their development and coordination. Some divide the vocal range into three registers, some into two, and some avoid the term altogether or suggest that trying to understand the vocal range in terms of registers is to take a negative, problem-oriented approach. Thus, for instance, Victor Fields writes, "reference to vocal registers and register breaks should be avoided. The prevention of a 'register break' is more important than its cure.' Nevertheless, since many singers complain of such "breaks" or "changing spots," a realistic approach requires that choral directors recognize their existence and teach singers ways to deal with them.
       As for the relationship between register shifts and tuning, a little experimentation with singers who have difficulty making the transition from one register to the next reveals an interesting connection.
READ the entire article.
Read this line aloud:  “The President conferred with congressional leaders this afternoon on matters of global importance.”
Now, read it again, placing stress on the capitalized syllable:  “The  Pres-I-dent  CON-ferred  with  CON-gress-i-onal  lead-ERS  this  af-TER-noon  on  mat-TERS  of  glo-BAL  im-por-TANCE.”
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?
In any language, syllabic stress is a critical component in understanding what is being said.  Similarly in music, certain beats within a measure are stressed, which gives the line a sense of equilibrium, thus understanding.  Try singing “Happy Birthday” with the stress placed on beat three (your head will spin).
For centuries, composers have struggled with the issue of text versus music.  A composer may have a preconceived notion, but their musical vision does not fit a particular text.  The results can be awkward, at best.  Many composers have strived to set wonderful music to beautiful texts in such a way that the two work together seamlessly.  The history of our art is replete with shining examples of their accomplishment, while those works that fail in this area seem to disappear.
Current-day composers continue to struggle with this matter.  Recently, on the ChoralNet Composer’s Forum Joy DeCoursey-Porter posed this question anew, saying:
In short-- As a singer I have sung beautiful pieces where conventional word stresses are definitely not the priority, yet somehow they have made it into the publishing and performance world. Admittedly some have annoyed me and others have worked well. As a composer I sometimes- not often- struggle with preferring the unconventional word stress for the sake of other musical or metric priorites. So I guess my question is of a purely subjective nature: How important are these conventions to you all?”
With that in mind, let’s evaluate a composition performed during a recent ACDA divisional conference.  In this excerpt, two contrasting settings of the “Salve Regina” text are paired; one from the 11th century, the other quite current.  While bearing in mind that the musical language is separated by 1,000 years, listen to the manner in which two different composers treat this important poetry. There are some striking differences in word stresses.
VOCAL ADVANTAGE: BREATH (part 2), by Dina Else
(During our last discussion, we shared an instructional yoga video that has a great image of the diaphragm in action that I show my students:  I turn down the volume to avoid the yoga lesson but the visual is awesome!!.  For those having difficulty opening it, you can also find it HERE.)
Young singers need to look at the breath as their friend.  More often than not, they view breath as something they are fighting or gasping for.  In my experience, left to their own devices, most of my younger students will ‘tank up’.  I refer to it as the ‘get ready to blow out all the candles on your birthday cake’ breath!  I think the origins of the ‘tank up’ breath could be traced back to everyone’s 2nd birthday.  J
Let’s pull apart the idea of ‘tanking up’.  When you try to inhale all of the air in the room you overcrowd the lungs, which induces a faster rate of breath expulsion. Simply stated: When you ‘tank up’, you trigger the muscles of exhalation.  Often, when students take a breath in preparation for singing, they instill tension.  Instead, try thinking of the inhalation as a release of the tone, and not necessarily as a preparation.  G. B. Lamperti’s advice is also helpful: “Breathe to satisfy the lungs, not to overcrowd them.”
When I teach the initial breath intake, I explain to the students exactly what the action of the diaphragm muscle is.  I explain that the all-around expansion that is felt at the back, sides and front is the result of the dissension of the diaphragm as it pushes, or crowds, the internal organs alongside the expansive movement of the intercostals. 
When I am teaching this sensation I will ask my singers to exhale all of the breath and wait until their body tells them that air is needed.  I encourage the singers to trust their body and not ‘take a breath’ but instead ‘open their throat and allow the air to rush in.’ This usually takes a few tries…as we’ve established in our body alignment discussions, habit is a formidable force. Eventually they realize that if they create the right environment, the lungs will fill up. 
Cynthia Hoffman puts it this way. “When breath is taken in without pushing for a result—when the air dropping to the bottom of the lungs is allowed to create the expansion—there is a natural filling out of the front, back, and sides of the body, centering around the waist, but also radiating down from there.  It might look the same, but it isn’t.  The breath itself must ‘inspire’ the fullness and expansion, and the body needs to be in an optimum position to receive it.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself!
In two weeks we will be moving on to the ‘inspired breath’, noisy vs silent intake, and continuing to unpack the ‘how-tos’ and benefits of correct breath intake. Meet me back here next week as we touch base with body alignment now that your rehearsals are in full swing!
(original posting: September 9, 2013)
Frank Sinatra sings a little vocal ensemble music with the Hi-Lo's. (Oh, and it's a love song, which works today since it's Vanentine's Day.  You forgot, didn't you?)
1. “Spirited Light.” Jake Runestad. JR Music 0041
Inspired rhythmic writing meets kaleidoscopic harmony as a sonic depiction of the title. Runestad employs various compositional and vocal techniques to create a constant sense of upward motion.
2. “Remember Not, Lord, Our Offences.” Henry Purcell. CPDL
This dark and pleading prayer fits Purcell’s gruff polyphony well. His spicy harmonic cross-relations and angular motives amplify “Spare us, good Lord,” and “be not angry.” A great opportunity for choirs to sing in mean-tone tuning.
3. “My Flight for Heaven.” Blake Henson. GIA G-7189
A mature setting of Robert Herrick’s classic poem. Changing vocal textures, soaring vocal lines, and moving harmonies play with images of thoughtfulness, struggle, lifting up and falling away, and the final release, and peace, of death.
4. “Der Abend.” Richard Strauss. CPDL
Choral tone poem for sixteen part mixed chorus. Virtuoso vocal writing, wrenchingly beautiful motivic writing, and waves of harmonic progression.
5. “Villarosa Sarialdi.” Thomas Jennefelt. Gehrmans Musikforlaget WCM 1600254
Jennefelt sets his own language utilizing favorite sounds of numerous languages to create an “instrumental” work with no direct meaning. A minimalist, lush and rhythmic setting for 8 part divided chorus, creates an almost hypnotic effect, and inspires imagination.
(“Five from the Folder” provides brief, text-length reviews of vocal works currently in the folders of choral directors throughout the United States.  To share five from your folder, contact Scott Dorsey at
(An excerpt from the Choral Journal article, “What If . . . ? Dealing with the Unexpected in Tour,” by Nina Gilbert [p.55])
       Debbie Coleman, now at Bonaire Middle School, Georgia, shares her bad driver story from her years at Warner Robins High School, Georgia. “At Six Flags, we instructed our students not to go back to the buses without a chaperone. A group of seniors broke that rule. As they approached the bus, they noticed our two drivers, along with three or four others, sitting outside our buses drinking from brown bags. Our seniors found me, confessed that they had gone to the bus, and told me what they had seen. A park security person called local law enforcement and we went together out to the buses." Coleman concludes, "Seven bus drivers lost their licenses that day. I never did punish our students for disobeying."
       Lynne Bradley, now director of music ministries at the United Church of the Valley in Murrieta, California, after many years with high schools in La Grange, Illinois and Fallbrook, California, recalls a two bus adventure between Austria and Germany. In the process of giving instructions as her group reassembled after a shopping stop, she got on one bus while while her baggage and passport were on the other. "When we got to the border," she says, “our other bus was nowhere to be seen. It took a different route, arriving about four hours later than we did." Separated from her passport, 'All I could think to do was pretend I was asleep. The guard who went through the bus didn't disturb me."
       Sally Braswell Murphy, choral teacher at Oak Bay Secondary School in Victoria, British Columbia, recalls a nighttime bus adventure: "One of our two buses ran out of gas at night on the way from Jasper to Karnloops. When the bus drivers had expected to stop for dinner and gas, the administrator chose to have us drive on. We loaded all of the kids onto one bus and drove to the hotel while several people stayed with the other bus till help arrived. Legally this was a really bad choice by the administrator, as the bus driver could have lost his license for exceeding capacity limits."
READ the entire article.