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:
Definition: Tonal memory is the ability to accurately sing back long phrases of melodic line after one hearing. This ability develops into the skill of singing in tune and maintaining a stable key center in a cappella singing.Premise: Most choral directors do vocal warm-ups with the choirs prior to beginning rehearsals. The most common method is to sing five-note scales or arpeggios up and down, possibly while playing along on the piano. The exercises are usually done in major mode and all tonal shifts are given to the singers with the piano. This type of warm-up actually prevents the development of tonal memory because: 1) no one really "listens" when singing in the major mode, 2) singers go on "automatic" and simply match pitch without thinking if the piano plays along, and 3) singers are not asked to engage their intellects or use their ears.The Ear Calibration Warm-up system is an a cappella warm-up which utilizes patterns in the minor mode (which is so odd that singers actually pay attention), thus turning on that illusive "listening switch" in the brain. By teaching the fundamental skill of being able to hear and sing the difference between half and whole steps, tonal memory is developed and expanded, parts are learned more quickly, unisons are beautiful, and singing in tune becomes automatic.At first the routine may take 8-10 minutes. Don't be impatient--tonal memory takes time to develop and the initial investment will be well worth it! Furthermore, the calibration rolls over from year to year, and new singers catch on quickly.The Calibration Routine pre-supposes that the conductor can sing the given 5-note scale minor patterns, chromatic and whole-tone scales up and down, a cappella, in tune, and can demonstrate it.Rehearsals are begun with a couple minutes of relaxing exercises (backrubs; shoulder rolls; movement of shoulders, arms, and face; yawns (raise the soft palate); and sprechstimme imitation (raise the soft palate). The Ear Calibration warm-ups must be done in an environment of silence. If there is a band playing next door your singers will not have enough quiet to hear that inner voice.
The First Step for Turning On the Brain's Listening Switch:In a medium-high tessitura, using a neutral vowel (nyah, nyoh, nyoo) with no vibrato (you cannot tune vibrato!) in a soft dynamic, sing a five-note melody using the notes of the minor triad (e.g. mi-Do-re-ti-la) and ask your choir to sing it back to you. Then ask them to shift down one-half step and sing it again. Even if the singers accurately shift down a half-step (not likely), the exercise will fail the first time because they will sing the melody back to you in major.Stop them . . . tell them what happened . . . say: "we are in minor, not major . . . make the 2nd note lower (i.e. "Do") - demonstrate. Start over. Sing the melody to them again and ask them to sing it back. Pause. Forbidding your singers to sing or hum, ask "can you still hear the first note (i.e. "mi") in your head?" (If anyone sings or hums the pitch the entire exercise is ruined for everyone else . . . tonal memory gets exercised in silence!)Then ask them to silently shift down one-half step (NOBODY is allowed to sing or hum the new starting pitch!) and sing the melody back in the new tonality. Chances are they will have shifted at least a whole step. Repeat all this until they catch on to what a half step sounds like!. At consecutive rehearsals change the order of the minor melody always beginning on the fifth (e.g. mi-ti-re-Do-la; mi-re-ti-Do-la; mi-la-re-ti-Do . . . etc.) NOTE: by beginning in medium high tessitura and shifting down by half-steps the voice relaxes, and singers spend their concentration on the pitches rather than trying to sing higher and higher (and getting tighter and tighter).Additonal notes:
- do the entire calibration warm-up routine at every rehearsal
- always entirely a cappella! never play the new shifts on the piano--insist that the singers remember (wihout humming) the first pitch of the previous tonal center, and make the half-step shift down without help (coach them and demonstrate it)
- begin the descending five-note pattern moderately high--by using descending patterns the voice will relax as you go rather than tighten up, as it inevitably will if you begin in ascending patterns
- make sure your singers are aware they must raise the soft palate!
- with whatever vowel you choose:
- watch their mouths for uniform shape
- demand perfect unisons (say, "make unison")
- soft dynamic with no vibrato
- be extremely picky about pitch accuracy, and be specific about which pitches are not accurate (e.g. "the fifth note is low because the fourth note was too low")
- when the five-note pattern becomes easy for the choir, change it
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!