Week 14: Friday, June 22, 2018
“Be Like The Bird” by Abbie Betinis
Text by Victor Hugo
With a beautiful minor-key melody and stunning inspirational text, this round by Abbie Betinis is a flexible and accessible selection for any women’s chorus or treble ensemble – from elementary to advanced auditioned. The term “round” is frequently associated only with simplistic texts or short melodic ditties – excellent teaching tools, but not always suited to concert performance. However, this five-part canon is much more.
In keeping with a family tradition begun by her great-grandfather in 1922, composer Abbie Betinis pens an original Christmas carol every year. [To read more on this history, please see her website.] For Christmas 2009, Betinis wrote this selection, using text from Victor Hugo. While completely feasible to perform at a holiday concert, the text is not specifically related to Christmas or the holidays at all (either sacred or secular), and thus is suitable for performance year-round.
This is one of those choral pieces that can be utilized in many unique ways, given your ensemble’s specific needs:
A beginning-of-the-year focusing piece for all choirs to learn together
The year my choirs worked on this piece, it kept coming back all year long (in a good way!). The melody is catchy, and yet haunting. They would sing it spontaneously, unprompted by me, even months after the initial performance. Students from different ensembles all knew this piece, so it connected them – in warmups, walking down the hallway, or hanging out during a dress rehearsal break. It is easy enough for beginners to learn yet nuanced enough that the advanced singers feel challenged too. My students loved the beauty of the music, as well as the moving text.
Textual and thematic through line for a concert or a whole year
The text for this piece is emotive and contemplative. It brings to bear questions of self-doubt, resilience, self-reliance, determination, and strength. These are all concepts which merit discussion and thoughtful consideration with our singers, no matter if they are young students or community adults. Particularly for singers who may struggle with these ideas, the text is a wonderful way to connect to those students and support them in their lives. These themes could be the background for a single concert, or even a whole year.
Be like the bird that, pausing in her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her — and sings — knowing she hath wings. -Victor Hugo
Teaching part independence
As with most rounds and canons, this selection can help all your singers work towards part independence. If you have less experienced singers, you can split them into large groups so there is strength in numbers, but they will still have to listen to other lines of music happening concurrently. You can even start out with a 2- or 3-part canon and work up to 5-part. For more experienced performers, you can sing it in small groups, with just one on a part, to strengthen their individual ears and accountability. This is also a great way to foster quality section leaders or student conductors – with each leading their own line of the canon, either in small groups or as a complete ensemble.
Introduction to minor
What an excellent way to introduce minor tonality to your singers! My beginning and intermediate singers were not yet familiar with minor solfege, so I opted to use this piece as a teaching tool for them. We learned the natural minor scale first, with la-minor solfege. Then we learned the intervals and motives through sound-before-sight methods (rote repetition, hand signs, solfege, visual cues, kinesthetic activities, introduction of symbols, etc.) Once they had a handle on the components, I introduced the sheet music itself, and we were able to work through and read it in a guided fashion, using the intervals and motives they already knew. For my advanced group, who already knew minor-solfege, they worked through this piece and taught the pitches to themselves, actively putting their literacy skills to work directly in repertoire.
The typical choral presentation for a round is to sing the unison material together as a full ensemble, and then break up into parts. However, other options abound. One soloist could present the initial material, with the choir then following in parts. Or you could start with a quintet of your leader-singers who present the unison line and sing the parts, incorporating the full choir after. The number of repetitions, and the variation of how the parts are assigned, are at the discretion of the conductor and your needs during a particular concert sequence.
Introduction to French diction, if you opt for the bilingual version
Since the Victor Hugo text was originally in French, Betinis has opted for two versions of her piece – one in English, and one a bilingual printing in English and French. If you are wanting to introduce French to your ensembles, would like to work cooperatively with the languages department at your school, or want to give a French major a chance to showcase her abilities as a soloist, the possibilities are plentiful.
Modeling phrasing, diction, text emphasis, and tone
As the melodic material is not lengthy, you can jump quickly to phrasing, diction, and tone. Though some rounds can be seen as childish or sing-song, this setting by Betinis demands a beautiful line, unified vowels, conscious breathing choices, and purposeful awareness of the text. After learning the notes and rhythms, you can use the round to introduce or reinforce a different musical concept each time. There are no dynamics printed in the score, so it can be a great cooperative exercise with your ensemble to determine what dynamics and phrasing fit the music best.
If you are working with a large festival ensemble (all-state, all-district, all-county, district pyramid) or otherwise putting together multiple sub-groups in a small space of time, this selection can serve as a gathering piece to start off the rehearsal process and re-focus them after breaks. The basics are easy to grasp, so the group can begin singing together right from the get-go. However, the musical nuances are deeper and more complex, providing a continuing opportunity to hone these distinctions together as a unified ensemble.
Though not your typical jaunty march processional, this round can beautifully serve as an entrance processional for your next concert. Sets of students could enter from multiple doors or aisles, creating the 5-part structure in the round with your audience. One choir could start on stage, with other choirs joining from the aisles. Each group can enter and be placed separately on the stage. The options are numerous, given your space and your imagination.
Don’t let the word “round” fool you. Because of the melodic beauty, musical nuance, and inspirational text, this piece can absolutely stand side-by-side with the other choral music on any program. You won’t be disappointed.
|Title:||Be Like The Bird|
|Date of Composition:||2009|
|Text Source/Author:||Victor Hugo|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Inner strength, overcoming obstacles, Christmas/winter holiday|
|Language:||English, or bilingual French/English|
|Listed Voicing:||5-part canon|
|Duration:||Varies, at conductor’s discretion|
|Dedication:||Dedicated to High Rocks for Girls; Hillsboro, West Virginia|
|Series:||Burt Family Christmas Carol Series|
|Publisher:||Abbie Betinis Music Co. http://www.abbiebetinis.com/|
English edition (AB-062-C9)
French/English Bilingual edition (AB-062-F9)
|Further descriptions and details, including program notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing:|
Until next week!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is associate professor of music, Director of Choral Activities, and music department chair at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.