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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Intonation XI - Tonal Memory--A Two-Edged Sword

John Goldsmith's two guest posts (here and here) demonstrate a wonderful way to train your choirs to remember and audiate patterns, shifts of tonality, accurate half and whole steps, scales, etc. He creates ways to train the tonal memory in a positive way, which will help your choir in reading as well as to sing better in tune. It's a learnable skill.
 
Tonal memory can work against us as well, however. Singers have impressive abilities to memorize where pitches are.
 
On the positive side, Robert Fountain used to do an exercise in tonal memory with an Eb Major chord (from the bottom up: root, 5th, root 3rd), asking his choirs to be able to produce it from memory at any time. I've known other conductors who've worked on that kind of memory (not perfect pitch, but to develop a memory for a particular chord or pitch).
 
When I'm working on a piece intensively, I almost always find that if I don't think about it, but simply begin singing it, I'm almost invariably in the correct key (I don't have perfect pitch). My choirs can often do this as well.
 
But it also takes little time to memorize pitches incorrectly. An example:
 
With my PLU choir I did John Gardner's wonderful and dramatic, A Latter-Day Athenian Speaks (published by Oxford, now available only on rental, it's a fabulous--and difficult--a cappella setting ca. 13 minutes long). We'd been working on it, preparing for a January-Term tour to the mid-west and east coast. The end of the piece has a dramatic double-choir fugue and, even though we'd been singing it well in tune through the rehearsal process, when we got to the first performance, the choir (with all of the energy and excitement that goes with a first concert) drove that section of the piece a half step sharp. After that, we always sang it sharp. I'd rehearse it with some reference pitches from the piano and they'd lock it in, but in concert they'd be a half step sharp within very few bars. In essence, they now memorized going sharp there, heard the opening of the fugue that way, and no matter what I did, that's what was going to happen.
 
The power of tonal memory is just that strong.
 
It's one of the reasons that you have to be very careful not to allow your choir to flat or go sharp early in the learning process--it quickly becomes a part of how they hear the music and tonality. It's a reason to listen carefully early in the process. It's also why rehearsing well, not trying to do too much too soon, or using Robert Shaw-style count-singing/rehearsal techniques, etc., can make a huge difference in whether your choir stays in tune or goes flat (more usual than sharp, of course).
 
It's also the reason why, if your choir has been going flat in a particular key, if you suddenly raise the pitch by a half-step, they may be able to keep it in tune: you've moved out of the tonality where they've memorized going flat. They can now approach it with a fresh sense of where those pitches belong.
 
It's not about listening! Sometimes we say, "Listen!" . . . well, how could they go a quarter-step flat, exactly together, unless they were listening to each other?!
 
I'll write next about some ways to rehearse to avoid these kinds of problems. The use of the piano in rehearsal is a part of that.
 
Until Saturday!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Intonation X - Calibrating the Ear II - John Goldsmith

This is the second part of John Goldsmith's Calibrating the Ear warm-ups. To understand this, you must first read Part I! The singing of chromatic and whole-tone scales will be done every day, along with the earlier exercises. The more advanced exercises can be added later if you wish.
 
These are great exercises which will vastly improve the ability of your choir to sing accurately and in tune--but only if you do them regularly!
 
Singing chromatic and whole-tone scales (the ultimate test for accurate chromatic calibration!)
By concentrating on the ear rather than the voice, you accomplish much more than simply warming up!  After the minor melody exercise have your singers ascend the chromatic scale a cappella singing "doo-doo" while you conduct quarter notes in an Andante tempo.  Ask them to sing the octave up and down first (or a 1-3-5-8-1 arpeggio), to establish the aural destination (I suggest the "D-D" or C#-C# octave - relatively comfortable for all voice parts).  
 
The first time they will over-shoot or under-shoot the octave after those twelve notes! Sing the octave again. Repeat the chromatic scale up in quarters. Work until they can sing an accurate chromatic scale up and down, ending on the same pitch with which they began.
 
Remind them to sing softly (mp dynamic).
 
When they can sing the chromatic scale accurately up and down at a steady tempo (all quarter notes) have them sing up with quarter-notes, down the chromatic scale in 8th notes, then back up in triplets, and down again in 16ths.  Don't change the tempo - make the singers do the subdivisions with good ensemble. It's not easy to do the chromatic scale accurately at a rapid tempo, but they will get it.
 
The most important skill for singers is the ability to sing and hear the difference between half-steps and whole-steps . . . which leads to the next step: the whole-tone scale. This scale has only six tones.  Sing the octave again, then repeat as above . . . up the whole tone scale in quarters, down in 8ths, up in triplets, down in 16ths.  The Whole-tone scale takes a bit longer to learn, but you will be surprised how quickly it sinks in!
 
Singing minor and major arpeggios:
Conclude with singing minor arpeggios up and a major arpeggio down (start around B, since it's easy for all voice ranges). Remember, you must be able to demonstrate this! Each shift up a half-step must be done without the piano.
 
If this becomes easy, you can work on arpeggios with all minor thirds (diminished) or major thirds (augmented).
 
Some Advanced Techniques:
 
Once your singers can sing the minor melodies shifting down by half-steps accurately, the chromatic and whole-tone scales, and minor/major arpeggios, challenge their tonal memories as follows:  Sing to them a different five-note minor melody, ask them to sing it back . . . then ask them to "audiate" the melody (i.e. hear it silently in your head), then say "OK, sing the 3rd note when I conduct it."  Might not work at first . . . try again.  Then try shifting the five-note down by a whole step, or up by a half-step.  Then "audiate in that tonality, and sing the 4th (or 2nd) note on my cue."  You can also create five-note melodies based on the whole-tone scale using these tonal memory exercises.  Even more advanced: sing a 5-note melody, have them sing it back, then - in silence - ask them to shift down a whole step plus a half-step and audiate in that tonality . . . then "sing the 3rd note when I conduct you!"  If they can do this their tonal memories are STRONG!
 
Again, my huge thanks to John for sharing with us!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Intonation IX - Calibrating the Ear--John Goldsmith

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:
 
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!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Intonation VIII - A Few Other Vocal Issues

A few other vocal issues to consider in terms of intonation:
  • Extremes of range - moving to the top of any singer's range will be a challenge--vocally and therefore for intonation as well. This is an area that needs the kind of long-term vocal work that I've already described: vocalizes that help singers learn how to sing high notes well and modification of vowels, especially for sopranos as they move to the top of the staff and above (closed vowels will need to be more open) - these aren't short-term fixes (although if you've already been working on these techniques, sometimes a reminder is all that's needed)
  • Music written in the passaggio or break -- this is too complex a topic for a brief blog, but we're speaking of the transitions from one register to another -- suffice it to say that you need to learn how to help your singers deal with this issue and it's always an area to consider when diagnosing intonation problems -- all singers will find it challenging to sing with consistent resonance in this area (well-trained singers might not) and therefore to sing in tune as well
  • Sustained or repeated notes - this is both a vocal and mental/ear issue: when a singer has to sustain a long note, it's easy to 1) fail to keep a constant flow of air/let energy flag 2) fail to keep a pure vowel sound or 3) the singer fails to listen or pay attention to pitch -- any of these mean that sustained or repeated notes can easily go flat unless . . . attention is paid to air flow/energy, mentally "repeating" the target vowel, and the singer listens for sustaining the same pitch and not allowing it to change
  • "Placement" of vowels - Mike mentioned in his post on barbershop the importance of vocal resonance and placement, much as I did when discussing vowels and teaching concepts of "bright" and "dark" (which one could also consider "forward" and "back," although that's a simplfication) - in general it's easier to keep a forward, brighter vowel in tune, compared with one that is placed further back or is darker (if these terms don't mean much to you, then we may need more discussion) -- really well-trained singers will be able to sing a much richer, "darker" tone without it affecting pitch
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.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Intonation VII - Rhythm & Ensemble

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.
 
Well said!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Intonation VI - More on Voice and Vowel

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:
  • good singing posture
  • managing breath (I tend not to use the term "support")
  • learning to phonate (initiate tone, "onset")
  • creating a good resonating space ("tall vowels," raised soft palate)
  • getting a good balance between "space" and "ring" (it's possible to have too much vocal space and no ring to the sound, or all ring and no resonating space--Willie Nelson, anyone?) (and don't get me wrong, I like listening to Willie Nelson! But there's little choral repertoire where I'd want my choir to sound like him!)
  • learning to find the best resonance for each of the vowels
  • learn maximum vocal efficiency (the least physical effort to create the best sound you can make--learning not to tense muscles that are not necessary . . . which connects up with many of the previous steps)
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.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Intonation V - Voice and Vowel

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 principals 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.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Teacher Appreciation Day

Thanks to my teachers on Teacher Appreciation Day: Of course, my parents for everything they gave me--unconditional support throughout my life. Mr. Wilson in 7th grade in Florissant, MO--he told me I should sing in the A Cappella choir next year--we moved back to Seattle, but I DID join the choir. I also started singing in the youth choir at Haller Lake Methodist (we sang for the early service every Sunday) and Helen Pedersen was a wonderful influence.

Junior HS and early HS was Leonard Moore, followed by Neil Lieurance. Neil student taught at Shorecrest HS my sophomore year, taught special ed the next year, but accompanied the select choir and became my voice teacher. He was the person who first suggested I major in music. Neil has been a mentor and friend ever since. Neil also introduced me to Bob Scandrett at WWU, so I went to summer workshops there during college with Gregg Smith, Günter Graulich, and Louis Halsey. In addition, Bob organized the most amazing choral study tour of England--you can find details on my blog if you're interested.

Undergrad at the University of Washington was Rod Eichenberger, my first conducting teacher and a wonderful one! There's so much I gained from Rod, much of it simply a part of me--I would say, most of all, a sense of rhythm and phrasing. Rod has also remained a friend and mentor, although we don't see each other regularly. When I took the job at PLU (where I followed Maurice Skones) he called and said he'd also followed a legend (Charles Hirt at USC) and was available for advice or just to talk any time.

During that time I also sang in almost every grad recital I could, which was where I learned to read and also learned so much from those conductors. While there are too many to mention, I'd say Bruce Browne and Larry Marsh stand out as important influences.

While an undergrad I also studied in the orchestral conducting class of Samuel Krachmalnick, a brilliant musician and conductor. Learned an amazing amount from him (and also sat in on most of his rehearsals for a couple years).

I can't help but mention Nancy Zylstra, from whom I learned (and continue to learn) an enormous amount. She was my partner in crime in starting the Seattle Pro Musica groups. Those ensembles (Pro Musica Singers, Bach Ensemble, and Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra) truly provided my REAL education--the repertoire I got to do with them taught me more than any grad school could (pace to my grad schools, who will be mentioned!). Many individuals were influential, but I have to mention Randall Jay McCarty, who was an important guide as I began to explore early music.

I also began to conduct at the Pacific NW Bach Festival in Spokane in 1978 and continued through 1985 to work with many talented period instrumentalists (Stanley Ritchie among them) and the wonderful Dutch baritone Max van Egmond. Huge thanks to David Dutton and Beverly Biggs for making that possible.

Then I taught at Mt. Holyoke College for three years and discovered I loved teaching. A return to the Northwest and Pacific Lutheran University (for 18 years!) was another amazing part of my education. My students at MHC, PLU and now UNT have again taught me more than I can possibly say (and much more than I taught them). My experiences with the Choir of the West and Choral Union were simply amazing. My various colleagues were also fantastic--many more than these were important, but I can't help mentioning Richard Nance (who just did such a brilliant concert at ACDA in Dallas) and Mira Frohnmayer (chair of the voice department for my entire time at PLU).

In the same way, the singers of the Seattle Symphony Chorale (1990-94), Choral Arts (an inaugural concert with Eric Ericson in 1993 until 2006), and Pro Coro Canada (1999-2011) also were an enormous influence and inspiration. Thank you to all my singers, board members and supporters.

Although I would never say I'm even remotely his student, a mountaintop experience with Helmuth Rilling and the Mass in B Minor in 1972 at the Oregon Bach Festival was a huge influence (I'd watched him work in Stuttgart in 1971 when I stayed in Europe after the UW Chorale tour that summer). In may ways it changed my musical life.

My MM at the UW with Abraham Kaplan was an interesting time--Abe was not so much a fantastic teacher, but I did learn much from him. He was freshly from NY and lots of work with the Collegiate Chorale, Camerata Singers and Leonard Bernstein--his rehearsal technique, in particular, at that time was incredibly efficient and a great model. And among my fellow students, Andrew Bernard and James Savage were fantastic colleagues and I learned much from them.

My DMA at the College-Conservatory of Music/U Cincinnati was terrific with Elmer Thomas, John Leman, and Earl Rivers, plus Teri Murai in my orchestral conducting minor. Too many fellow students who were fantastic colleagues and teachers, but I'll mention Edie Copley and David DeVenney (David kept me sane during my year in residence). I also enjoyed tremendously coming back to CCM as a guest professor in 2006 and briefly in 2009. Earl is a great colleague and has been a great friend as well. And I loved working with the students--in 2006 this was what convinced me that I needed to go back to teaching.

An unexpected opportunity at the University of North Texas led to a return to teaching in 2009. Again, great colleagues (Jerry McCoy and many others) and fantastic students have made it a great learning experience.

And I can't say anything without mentioning my great mentor and model (although I would never say my teacher, since I never studied with him), Eric Ericson. I first met Eric briefly at the 1983 ACDA conference, then had the opportunity (thanks to Bruce Browne) to bring him and his conservatory Chamber Choir to the summer PLU workshop--not only once, but twice. There were other contacts, too and, as mentioned, he conducted the first Choral Arts concert. I decided to do a dissertation on some aspect of Swedish music and first visited Sweden for a month in 1989 to find a topic. I then came back for the full summer of 1990 to do my research. Eric literally opened every possible door for me--he was simply marvelous in every way. I was back again in 1996 to finish up research and finally start writing (and got to attend the 50th anniversary concert of Eric's Chamber Choir and attend the dinner). Then in 2002 I did two sessions with Eric and Gary Graden on my book at the IFCM conference in Minneapolis, then followed up with a visit back to Sweden in November for a presentation at the Choral Centre in Uppsala and a first guest-conducting experience with the Swedish Radio Choir. Other visits would be in 2007 and 2008. I have so many Swedish conductor friends that it's hard to mention some and leave so many out, but I'll mention both Robert Sund and Gary Graden anyway!

It's hard to quantify Eric's influence, but it's there in so many ways. I can only thank him for all he's meant to me and my musical life.

I'm sure I've left someone out--if so, I'm sorry! I've been more fortunate than I can reasonably have hoped in my life to have so MANY unbelievably wonderful teachers, colleagues, students and musicians to teach me.

I've been blessed.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Intonation IV - Barbershop - Guest Post by Mike O'Neil

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.
Per your request, I am emailing you about barbershop tuning / methods to teach it.  Obviously, we use the just intonation system.  We feel the chords have a much better chance of creating the overtone and undertone series when tuned justly.  We teach “horizontal tuning”…that is, tuning to the key center, and we teach “vertical tuning”…that is, tuning the harmonies to the melody.  In our style, it is vital the melody stays true to the tonal center (horizontal), and the harmonies stay true to the melody (vertical).
As barbershop uses a large percentage of dominant 7th chords, one of the most important things we teach is that the root must be tuned to the tonal center, the 5th scale degree must be tuned on the high side, and the 3rd and minor 7th must be tuned on the low side (in comparison to equal temperament).  This method becomes somewhat tricky when singing through the circle of 5ths are what was once your 5th scale degree (tuned higher), is now the root of the new key, so constant adjustments must be made.   
We also place significant emphasis on matching vowels perfectly within the ensemble.  We have many exercises (like the ones attached), built around the circle of fifths, in which we incorporate many different vowel sounds.  This allows the singer to learn how to tune each interval and tune to the tonal center, all the while concentrating on matching the vowels of his fellow singers.  Barbershop vowels are obviously much more vernacular and casual than those sung English vowels in choral music, but the concept is still the same.     
Vocal resonance and placement are key to tuning for us as well.  Barbershop ensembles strive to match each other as well as possible (I dislike the word ‘blend’!) from a placement standpoint.  If the lead singer has a natural, forward, bright placement, the rest of the ensemble makes every effort to match that same resonance.  If the lead singer naturally sings with an open, full, rich, resonant natural tone…the other singers have a job to follow suit.    
Finally…you will rarely, if ever, see a piano in any of our rehearsals.  We utilize justly tuned learning tracks to teach to the majority of our amateur singers, so they can get the full understanding and aural memory engrained in their brains.
We attempt to do all of these things by teaching proper vocal technique, breath support / management, posture and alignment, and free / relaxed / effortless singing.  It is quite the challenge, but once a ‘barbershopper’ hears that perfectly tuned chord and executes it a few times, he usually is able to repeat it over and over again, and is very eager to do so!  There is nothing quite like singing with three other people, but sounding like 5+ people!
Many thanks, Mike!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Intonation III - What system do you use?

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 wikipedia 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's 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!