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Basic skills for singers: Suggestions for teaching singers how to sing Melismas

Date: Fri, 18 Jul 1997 10:44:40 -0400
From: "Soniat, David"
Subject: Melisma practice techniques - a compilation

A week or so back, I asked for tips, tricks, and techniques people use
when preparing a choir for melismas (preparing to do "For Unto Us a
Child is Born" in the fall). I received many wonderful suggestions.
Thanks to everyone!
David Soniat - Tampa, FL
Here is a compilation of the responses:
============================================================a couple of ideas:
1) teach the run to the whole choir (keeps them occupied) or do
2) start with the final notes of the melisma (say the last five); repeat
several times; then add the previous four notes (now it's a nine note
group), repeat, add more notes, etc. this way they become most familiar
with the end of the run, where they tend to get confused and run out of
breath at the same time.
3) ensure that they practice the runs with a gradual cresendo to the
This forces them to conserve breath.
hope this helps; good luck

William Renwick
============================================================I take melismatic passages in several steps:

First of all, I break down the line to its principal notes. This
will be a descending or ascending scale, a sequential pattern, etc.
Then I
ask the choir to sing the passage with only these principal tones. The
singers then understand the basis of the line. Often they get muddled
by negotiating the number of notes--visually and vocally.

Then I ask the choir to sing the above primary notes with diaphram
in the rhythm of the piece. This helps to teach that support is the
in negotiating the line.

Finally, I ask for the passage as written with attention to the
of the line, focus on the important notes of the line, and clear
articulation of the line.

I don't know if this makes sense without accompanying musical examples,
I have been able to get good results at brisk tempos.

Best wishes!
Tom Remenschneider
=========================================================To teach melismas, I would split up long sections into manageable
"bites" which are usually similar 8-note figures in sequence; I call
each note on beat 1 or 3 of the measure a "target" note, and group the
three 16th-notes before it as "towards" the target (slight crescendo
into the target) and the four 16th-notes after the target as "fade"
notes which are not quite as vigorously articulated.

This allows a line to be seen as having a structure with some ebb and
flow, as opposed to a long stream of identical notes.

I think this is often referred to as "note grouping", as an aid to
stylistic choral singing for Baroque music..

Jeremy Landig
==========================================================I have done Messiah with a community choir similar to (if not as
sophistocated as) your situation. Some ideas:

1) Break it apart. Work small sections. Work on putting them
adding one section at a time. Start at the end and work backwords.

2) Slow it down. I like to use a metronome for this. Do it at a slw
until it is right, then speed it up *one notch*. Remember, the most
important thing in music is time. If the time isn't there, the artistic
stuff can't happen.

3) Show them where the stesses are. the notes in a melisma don't all
the same stress. That is boring. Find where you think the stessed
are, and make the line move to that point. This gives them a reference
point to go toward.

It's soooo good to here of directors reintroducing classic sacred
in a worship setting. All my best to you.


Mark Tuning
========================================================== I last performed The Messiah at Christmas with the Camerata Choir
Wheeling, WV, and the conductor, Al deJaager (Director of Choral
at West Liberty State College, West Liberty, WV) had the choir rehearse
melismas by singing every other 16th note. The advantage to even the
advanced singers, was that they became aware of the harmonic structure
of the
piece, and the notes that were non-harmonic were relegated to their
subservient status. After one is aware of the harmonic structure, it
easier to add the passing tones in the melismas. We rehearsed the
melismas in
this manner for several weeks, and would occasionally repeat the process
the choir "forgot" and sang sloppily again.
For example, in the first soprano melisma: B, B, B, A, G,G,G, A, C,C,
C, B,
A,A,B,D, D, D,C,B,B,B,C,E,E,E,G,F!

Valery L. Staskey
==========================================================The melismas in "Messiah" are especially teachable because they are
sequenced repetitive patterns. Break the melissmas into small sections
and slowly piece them together. To create forward motion, place
emphasis on the second and last note of each pattern rather than the
first and third.

Clell Wright
===========================================================You might want to contact or look up papers by Joy Sherman. While a
student, one of her dissertation projects was on glottal articulation in
singing melismas. Not only does she argue for using this technique, she
presents some ways to teach the technique and to teach the melismas. I
know if you'd be able to find her paper on Dissertation Abstracts or
not, but
I do know she's still on the faculty at Seattle University. She
this topic at ACDA a couple of years ago, but I can't remember if she
published an article in Choral Journal or not.

Hope this helps!
Alexa Johnson
===========================================================Look at my article in the March 1985 Choral Journal entitled "Messiah
An Approach to Rehearsing" (or something like that. A lot of my
approach has
been breaking the melismas down to a skeleton--sing just the notes on
beat, then every other note, then off-beat notes. Once all those
are solid the run is much more likely to maintain rhythmic momentum. A
of staccatto rehearsal. As I said, you might find the article helpful.
also done a Messiah Handbook for singers with various exercises and
think it really helped over the months-long learning process. Good

Richard Smith
Montgomery, AL
============================================================I have conducted choral groups of various sizes of various skill
levels. I will outline my approach below, and use it accordingly :)

0. Rehearse the parts in the order of: a) separately, b) alto with
bass, soprano with tenor, and c) everyone.

1. Since the first note of every subdivision of the beat gets the
stresss, sing through the phrase using the first note of every four
sixteenth (for example). This will help the singers to hear the

2. Rehearse the groups one beat plus one note at a time. For example,
if the the beat division is sixteenth notes you would rehearse five
sixteenths at a time: 4 + 1. This will help them with the pattern of
the melissa.

3. Expand step 2. to two beats plus one note. E.g., 4 + 4 + 1.

Eventually they will be able to do the entire passage without feeling
insecure or frustrated.

Remember that melissa is a ornamented passage on simple harmonic
passages. If the singers are comfortable with the voice leading, they
will be able ornament that with greater ease.
Emerson A. Chen
==============================================================One technique that we use at UH is to break the melisma into "bite size"
pieces allowing lifts within the line usually according to sequence and
articulating the melisma with a very soft "d" made with the tongue only,
mouth movement. After awhile you can remove the "d" if you like, but
sometimes it helps to articulate the line over an orchestra and is not
descernable to the listener. You will have to make these "editorial"
decisions and the best method of translating them to the choir is by a
marking sheet we have found. Spreadsheet programs work great for this
chore and you can take lots of shortcuts like:

measure part
10 B1 lft. aft. n3
12 B2 n3 accent
14-15 S cresc.

For example in the work you mentioned "For unto us...",

bar 20, bass line, melisma on "born."
lift after note 6, F#
bar 21
lift after note 5, D
lift after note 13, g
bar 22
lift after note 5, E
lift after note 13, a
bar 23

lift after note 5, F#
lift after note 13, b
Regards, Doug Jones
=======================================================When I was in college, our director, Larry Doebler, pointed out to the
Choir the pattern of the sequences in "For unto us...." In this way we
were able to sing the pitches more accurately. Also, due to a Dalcroze
background that most of us had, we were able to feel the different
anacrusic parts to each sequence. I don't know if your group would ta,
but you
might want to show them how the composer constructed each melisma. Good

Craig Hawkins
=========================================================Here are some things I have used:

Break up the melisma into its smallest pattern.......use that pattern in
warm up.

Take the vowel that will be used over and over again and put a "d" in
of it.

(ie........For unto us a child is born = baw

Allow them to use the consonant for a long time before they have to go
to the word and its sustaining.

Accent the beats.
=============================================================Have them learn the trickiest parts of the melismas on "pah-pah-pah" --
i.e. singing syllabically on "pah." It helps a lot.

Bruce MacIntyre, Brooklyn College
==============================================================Specifically with "For Unto Us", I usually teach the first and third
notes of each group of 4 sixteenths first--eg. m,m,m,r,d,d,d;
r,f,f,f,m,r,r,r; m,s,s,s,f,m,m,m, etc. At school, we would probably
teach syllable names; with church/civic groups, probably a neutral
syllable like "dit" or "doo".

Then we sing the direction of the embellishment of the basic melodic
pattern. The direction that the embellishing note moves from the
first/third note to the 2nd or 4th sixteenth determines whether it is a
"down--ee" or an "up--ee."
"down--ee--up--ee--up--ee--up--ee; down--ee--up--ee-up--ee--up--ee",

Next, sing the melismas on doo-bee-doo-bee "a la scat". Look at each
pattern in each voice and discover that all the endings are not the
same. Have everyone sing all the melismas for the repetition, if
nothing else, like the differences in the patterns.

You could then, or at a later rehearsal, "sing only when the melisma is
in your part" from beginning to end to hear how they are a part of the
form of the piece and to practice them again.

Anybody living in Tampa should talk to Jim Leininger at Head's for
information and good advice in choral matters.

Let me know any creative ways you learn to teach this or any of the
other pieces from the Messiah, as I will soon be helping with my church
choir's preparation of Part I.

Good luck to you!
Lou Williams-Wimberly
===============================================================I've pretty much the same situation: I use 'doo-doo-doo' for melismas,
and keep it up almost to performance (at first they don't much like
that, thinking it sounds stupid to listeners. then I tell them how
Robert Shaw is rumored to have a few per section doing just that,
sometimes, IN PERFORMANCE or IN RECORDING.). Of course, I show singers
the patterns and explain where in each I want stress (DOO doo doo
doo, DOO doo doo doo)

Hope it's enjoyable for you!!! ...lwj

Lani Johnson
================================================================Hi David. Although I haven't had enough experience to be qualified, I do
have a few suggestions.

Make sure the choristers commit the melismatic passages to memory
instead of
struggling with notes. Once they have sung the passage a few times they
not realize that they know it, so suggest that they sing without music.
Suggest that the choristers imagine the phrase flowing instead of an
technical sound. Perhaps use the hands in a wheel-like motion to get the
idea that the phrase should flow. Introduce the phrasing of the passage
while they are learning it.
Introduce the idea that the choristers shoudl just "let the notes
instead of struggling to make each note happen. This is a little hard to
explain - perhaps you could explain that idea better...

===================================================================David: Perhaps it would be more beneficial to teach them to become
readers and better singers through the basic fundamentals of singing
rather than taking a "short-cut" to the Master works---thus, not really
building a choir. Your question reminded me of the analogy of a flight
instructor talking with a classroom of crop-dusters, who have had
experiences ONLY in Ag aircraft. He informed them that they would be
flying a 747's in the morning--"but fear not, you can take the flight
with you".

I agree, this is a bit silly, but really you won't have trained singers
teaching melisma-techniques, any more than there will be 747 pilots
in the morning. As you know, it takes understanding of the "Basics of
Good Singing" before any of the frills should be attempted.

Could it be that your group is not ready for the type of literature you

Best regards,

Charles E. Ruzicka
===================================================================Frauke Haussemann, formerly of Westminster suggests and I have used with
great success:
For amateurs you are unable to do a true diaphragm matellato. Sing the
melissma on nah, with lots of loose jaw movement on the n. Once notes
and rhythms are accurate and the jaw is relaxed sing the melissma with
text. For most singers there will be a natural bounce retained for each
note and a real nice clarity. It does work.

Robert Shaw also often divided the choir with some singing the text and
others on a syllable doo.

Good luck,
"The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that
sing the best." Henry David Thoreau

Dr. Robert P. Eaton
====================================================================Practice is practice: do what you would normally do. Namely, break the
difficult passage up into smaller bits and do it slowly. I suggest four
or five notes at a time (depending on the pattern), stopping between.
(There was an important point in passing there: Baroque melismas are
frequently sequential patterns and it helps to teach the basic pattern
first.) Then put the bits together, first two bits, then three bits,
so on till they sing the whole pattern. Then gradually increase the

If keeping the melisma articulate and clear is a problem, work with
consonants (like d's) on each note. Then have half the choir drop the
d's, while the other half keeps them. Switch. Eventually everybody
drops the d's and it should be clearer (though in some cases, I've kept
this trick in place right through the performance--it helps to clean up
the sound).

Be sure you are vocalizing them from the top down to encourage lightness
in the voice. A lighter, brighter sound usually works better for
coloratura passages. Tell them to keep the air stream vigorous--even
the sound become breathy. Try doing some of the passages on lip trills.

Just some random suggestions.

Good luck!

David Schildkret
==========================================================I love this challenge! There are several tricks I use:

1. do them for a long part of the rehearsal period on dee or doo
2. Do them with dotted rhythms (usually dotted 8th note plus 16th - the
singers have to generate more energy)
3. Find the shortest pattern that repeats and have them memorize it and
its repetitions; find the next short pattern, memorize it, and
eventually and as soon as possible memorize the whole thing
4. Identify the "energy" note - the place where a surge of energy
(could be you ask them for an accent or a "lifting off" sense) on it t
propells them into the next group of notes. This note, or sometimes
pair of notes, often is the one that is at the crux of the turn of the
5. Use one of the patterns from the melisma for part of your warm-up as
a sequence during the whole rehearsal period. I also use other quick
note and staccato warm-up vocalises.
6. Have them listen to great recordings of the piece (Andrew
Parrott,Trevor Pinnock, John Eliot Gardner, Shaw alss conduct choruses
which can really negotiate these passages). Invite them to try to sing
along in the privacy of their living rooms.

Hope these help.

Barbara Hall

=======================================================For Unto Us might be too much of a challenge for the choir you
describe. Practice melismatic sections the same way you do vocal
exercises, lots of diaphragm work (like laughing) and work on nailing
each note in tune. Start slowly and increase tempo as the line comes

Have you heard of Songs My Father Taught Me? This is a collection of
sacred tunes designed for a church choir like yours.

Larry Nickel
on June 21, 2004 10:00pm
yeha I think the best idea is so take it really slow at first .. I agree completly that " for unto us " is a hard piece to learn .. ha try learnign the whole Christmas part of the Messiah it's no joke there are misemas all over the place but we get though and take them very slow and by the next two practices we have them a tempo.