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Friday, June 14, 2013

The young conductors are at it again!

Here's the latest:

The New York Times

June 14, 2013

An Old Hand at Only 26

The precocious French conductor Lionel Bringuier, all of 26, took the podium at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday to lead the New York Philharmonic in an impressive program. It is not often that a conductor of any age can bring out the musically daring elements of a crowd pleaser like Dukas’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” To those who remember Mr. Bringuier from his New York debut in 2008, when he conducted the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, also at Avery Fisher Hall, he must have seemed almost a seasoned maestro in comparison. He has certainly been rising fast, making appearances with major international orchestras. He takes over as chief conductor of the distinguished Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich next year and is just completing his sixth and final season as resident conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Mr. Bringuier made his official debut with the New York Philharmonic in 2009, conducting the chamber ensemble in Britten’s “War Requiem,” a performance led overall by Lorin Maazel. But this was his first time conducting the full orchestra on his own.

Though small-framed, Mr. Bringuier is kinetic and charismatic on the podium. It took a kind of courage to open with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a work inspired by a Goethe ballad that will forever be associated with the 1940 Disney film “Fantasia,” with Mickey Mouse as the hapless apprentice. There was no trace of nostalgia and very little kid stuff in this compelling performance. The mysterious opening section, with the magic chords and hazy textures, seemed genuinely ominous. In the episode that depicts the walking broom carting buckets of water, Mr. Bringuier kept the tempo mostly reined in and brought out the music’s dark colorings and rhythmic relentlessness. He highlighted the buzzing inner voices and lush harmonic details in the scherzo.

Mr. Bringuier was then joined by the formidable violinist Leonidas Kavakos for a brilliant account of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor. Mr. Kavakos’s playing combines utter mastery of the instrument with rich sound and searching musicianship. He brought a questioning quality to the opening solo phrases, signaling that he was intent on revealing the complexities, both musical and emotional, beneath the Neo-Classical surface of this 1935 work.

In the first movement, when episodes of busy passagework for the violin break out, the music often sounds like an insistent toccata. But Mr. Kavakos and Mr. Bringuier brought out the uneasy restlessness of these episodes.

Mr. Kavakos also teased out the quizzical strands and shifting moods of the deceptively tranquil slow movement. And he was dazzling in the rustic, dancing finale. Mr. Bringuier drew comparably incisive and colorful playing from the Philharmonic.

After intermission Mr. Bringuier conducted an animated account of Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta” (1933). For all its Gypsy dance character and tart harmonic writing, this is a lightweight work. Mr. Bringuier’s program, which ended with Stravinsky’s Suite from “The Firebird,” would have benefited from at least one recent piece to show us how he grapples with truly contemporary music. That said, the performance of “The Firebird,” except for some occasional careless execution, especially in the brass, was lucid, urgent and exciting.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Intonation - Postscript (had to post this!)

Sorry, I really AM done with the series, but couldn't avoid posting this--credit to

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Intonation XIV - Final Thoughts

OK, no such thing as "final" thoughts on a topic as big as choral intonation! But this IS the final installation in this long series of posts. No more (unless I respond to your comments) until late August--if you have thoughts on new topics of interest, send a note!

A resource I've used is a book on choral intonation by P.G. Alldahl, a Swedish composer (and choral conductor) who followed Lars Edlund as the teacher and coordinator of ear training at the Conservatory in Stockholm. I met P.G. in 1990 when doing research for my dissertation and he's a fascinating person. I have a copy of the Swedish version of his book on Choral Intonation, which deals with ideas of just intonation, exercises of how to approach it, with examples from the literature. What I didn't realize (stupidly) until now is that there's an English version of the book. It's published by Gehrmans and the Swedish price (228 kr) is currently the equivilent of ca. $35, but I don't know about shipping. You could order directly from Gehrmans, but I've also had great luck (and quick response) from Bo Ejeby, who is not only a publisher, but a retailer. He's very quick to respond and ship and you can order with your credit card. I've just gone ahead and ordered a copy for myself, since the English version has been updated and, as you'll see from this short sample pdf, also deals with some interesting literature in terms of problems (Verdi Ave Maria, for example). So sorry I didn't think of this earlier, since it's a great resource for many of the ideas I and others discussed earlier in terms of just tuning.

Thinking a bit more about Eric Ericson's approach, I thought I'd offer some thoughts about what I've seen him (and other Swedes) do.

Eric's (and many Swedish) choirs have long been known for really beautiful, in-tune singing. Eric would say that the Swedish language has some advantages: all very pure vowels and a legato, connected way of speaking (he would also say that "the front side has a back side," that Swedes have to work harder for crisp rhythm or diction, for example). As I noted early on, pure unified vowels go a long way towards helping with good intonation.

But Eric always had a particularly accute ear and early on developed a keen interest in excellent intonation. Of course, Eric was trained as an organist and pianist, so came from the background of equal tempered tuning. When I was in Sweden the summer of 1990, it was he who introduced me to P.G. Alldahl and Eric was very aware at that time of just intonation and incorporated it into his tuning. I suspect it may have happened as early as his trip to Basel after World War II, when he studied at the Schola Cantorum with people such as the pioneering viola da gambist, August Wenzinger, Ina Lohr and others. He had a particular interest in early music and, in fact, his (at that time 16-voice) Chamber Choir was founded in 1945 specifically to perform early music his group of friends had studied, but had never heard. If he did not come across other ideas of tuning possibilities at that time, he certainly would have in the late 1960s when there were some notable collaborations between his Chamber Choir and Niklaus Harnoncourt's Concentus Musicus. And by the time I was in Sweden, Eric was regularly collaborating with the period-instrument Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble as well. 

In addition, to do contemporary scores (of the sort Eric conducted) justice, it required new skills with pitch for both choir and conductor. As Eric said,
The music department at the Radio had many competent people who really jumped on impulses and picked up all the big personalities of the 1950s . . . I sat there with my choirmaster position . . . and was ordered, here comes Stravinsky, here comes Hindemith, and they want to guest conduct their pieces with the Radio Choir, etc.--and I had to be able to study all that. But of course it also meant incredibly inspiring contacts and demanding jobs--"Here you go--study this Dallapiccola . . . "--and that was horrendously difficult at that time! So we stood there with our assignments, and it was exciting for us to jump into all of this modern music.
And then,
You asked how technique and proficiency developed, and I can almost mention certain pieces which were "rungs on the ladder" . . . because that's how I feel so strongly when we've learned a difficult and very good piece. I'm thinking naturally from the viewpoint of the Chamber Choir with [Lidholm's] Laudi from 1947, Fyra körer from 1953, then the big pieces of Stravinsky, Nono . . . Dallapiccola perhaps most of all, which is where we learned to read notes and rhythms. And then of course we have a Swedish piece, again by Lidholm [1956--Canto], that we struggled with for half a year. I have a certain sense that, when you "come out on the other side" after having done a piece like Lidholm's Canto, you are a better musician, a better conductor, a better chorister. Canto feels like a final exam for the '50s choral life . . . early pieces that were difficult tonally and rhythmically became less so. Canto combined all the difficulties one was thrown between.
To sing this music well requires tight control of pitch. When you sing clusters or demanding non-tonal chord constructions, too much vibrato or any vague sense of the pitch simply doesn't work. For the music to sound, the pitches have to be very precise (and more likely with equal temperament, of course). 
I had an interesting experience when doing Lars Edlund's Gloria with my PLU choir (a piece that was very effective with our audiences, once I introduced it with verbal program notes). It involves quarter steps, which are never, however, used harmonically--the choir simply "bends" a note a quarter step higher or lower, then back again--it's an ornamental inflection. In almost all performances I'd heard (including Eric's!) the quarter steps were really close to half steps. So I worked in the following way: 
  • First, we did Robert Shaw style exercises to learn how much distance there really is between a half step and worked these regularly--for example, ultimately having two parts (in octaves men/women) a half step apart gradually "change places" (the higher pitch sliding downward, the lower pitch sliding upward), but at a specific tempo and length, with the goal that half way through we'd meet briefly on the quarter tone (we weren't exact, but got quite good at it).
  • I also had our composition teacher help me program our Yamaha DX-7 to play quarter-tones. When we worked on the sections with the quarter-tone inflections, I wouldn't allow them (for quite a long time) to sing them--they stayed on pitch and I played the inflections for them, so they could hear an absolutely mathematically accurate quarter-tones.
  • Finally, I allowed them to sing the quarter-tones themselves, which they did quite well
The interesting thing was that piece never went flat or sharp during 12 or so performances on tour--other pieces did, but not the Edlund. I think all the intensive work they did on pitch in that work resulted in such a keen sense of where those pitches were (and the consequent muscle and tonal memory) that they had it totally locked and could reproduce it no matter what the acoustic or how tired they were. 

Certainly, I've found that work with contemporary music which requires intense concentration on non-tonal pitches gives the choir a much keener sense of intonation, which can carry over into other music as well.

To get back to Eric:

The kinds of things I alluded to (and which P.G. has in his book) about using the piano to give "pedal" reference notes for intonation come directly from watching Eric in rehearsal. So, a bit about Eric's use of the piano (whether he played or an accompanist--all of whom knew his methods quite well).

First, Eric was a superb pianist with a marvelous, light and "vocal" touch. He almost always played with the una corda ("soft") pedal down and created a transparent, non-percussive sound. Too often I hear either conductors or accompanists pound notes in a way which invites harsh attacks and sound. Never from Eric or his accompanists. I saw Eric work with his own choirs (the Chamber Choir, Conservatory Chamber Choir, and Orphei Drängar), in masterclasses with a "put-together" choir of Americans or Canadians, or at the 1990 IFCM in Stockholm, and guest conducting the first concert of Choral Arts in Seattle as well as other choirs, plus at two workshops at PLU when I taught there. So please understand that we're not talking beginning choirs!

He never simply played along with the choir, doubling what they did. Here's what was typical:
  • sometimes without the choir singing, he'd simply play (normally from memory) the music (Bach's Der Geisthilft, for example, demonstrating all important parts), saying, "I think it might go like this," giving a very complete idea of rhythm, phrasing, and shape
  • he would often play pedals (usually in the treble, above the soprano, but also bass lines) to help establish pitch (but without implying equal tempered intonation and working for just intonation)--often "rocking" an octave back and forth to keep the sound going
  • in something very slow, he would often improvise a melody above the choir in 16th notes, so there was always a pulse audible
  • if the music was harmonically complicated, he would either play (as in the first example) something for the choir, but never exactly what the choir sang--simply a reduction of the harmonic content and shifts so the choir could hear it easier
  • he would also help the choir hear the harmony when it was complicated by playing below and above  choir choir (a bass-line and treble chords), but not in their pitch area
  • and, of course, much of the time the choir sang a cappella -- he played only when it was necessary to help stay in tune, or to help with one of the musical issues listed above
Eric also loved jazz and could improvise in a jazz style rather easily. One of the things I remember from conducting classes was him having all the conductors conducting (asking them to reflect the music--light/heavy, etc.--in their conducting), beginning with the opening of the St. Matthew Passion and then evolving to a jazz version with all sorts of syncopations, etc., all to provoke the conductors to show more of the music in their conducting.

Eric had excellent ears, as I've said, but not perfect pitch. He recorded nearly every rehearsal and would listen to it afterwards--I remember my first time in Sweden in 1989, where I accompanied him and Orphei Drängar on a short tour, when after the concert in the bus, he'd put on his headphones to listen to the recording, humming and occasionally checking pitches on his little Casio keyboard to see exactly where the choir started to go flat or sharp.

An amazing man!

It's been a pleasure to write these posts--good for me to re-think what I just do and get feedback and new ideas from others. Have a great summer!

Intonation XIII - Answering questions from comments

As I bring this (long!) series to an end, I'll attempt to answer questions or highlight comments made by others to this series--a huge thanks to those who took the time to comment, correct, or add to what I've said. I will likely say a few things more on Saturday before signing off for the summer. If you have questions, ask them now!

A number of people have brought up issues of singing technique. My earlier posts (here, here, and here) [note that these links connect to my posts on ChoralBlog--that's where most the comments are] deal with different aspects. A few mentioned mouth position for vowels and yes, this is important. While not all singers will use the same mouth position for the same vowels (for example, I was suprised watching John Potter, a former member of the Hilliard Ensemble, to see how little he opens his mouth!), with young singers what you see can be an important clue to what they're doing correctly or incorrectly. Get out of the score and watch your singers!

On my last post, both Stephen Bigger and William Copper (my most prolific commenter and one of the most interesting!) offered comments. Stephen spoke of tongue position (follow the link to the comments to see the specifics). While I don't disagree with anything he said, I tend to be conservative about dealing with issues of the tongue with my choirs. Primarily, this is because I can't monitor something like tongue position very well with a large group of singers. In the private voice studio I would certainly do this, but then I can closely and easily monitor what the singer does and correct it, if necessary. It's very easy, in a large group of singers, for an individual to misunderstand what I say and for me not to notice it. Part of this, of course, is also that I've been dealing for a long time with relatively experienced singers (at PLU or UNT with singers who are almost all taking private voice). I expect that their teacher will deal with those issues, and also don't want to "step on" the voice teacher's toes! Both at PLU and UNT the relationship between voice faculty and choral faculty is extraordinarily good (not always the case, I know!) and I want to make sure that the things I ask for are congruent with teaching in the studio. If I see/hear something specific happening with one of my students, I don't hesitate to speak to their teacher and ask about it. On the other hand, if I was working with a younger group where almost no one was taking voice lessons, I'd probably do much more--as I mentioned in an earlier post, for many conductors, you are the primary voice teacher for your singers.

The post just before that got the largest number of comments. I responded to most of them there, so won't reproduce all of them (you can read them yourselves), but thought I'd reference solfege here, since I haven't spoken of it. I'm far from an expert in solfege, but because most of my current singers are from Texas and the UIL requirements are to read with moveable do solfege, I will sometimes have my choir either read or rehearse with solfege. In terms of intonation, solfege offers several advantages, among them: singable vowels and the singer learning where various scale degrees "belong" pitch-wise. Much as with count-singing, however, I tend to use occasionally as a tool, rather than as part of my regular teaching/rehearsal pattern. That has to do with my background and what, over the years, I've found works for me - it may be to my detriment!

Again, personal experience: I came to college not really reading, but having always learned by ear. I'd taken some piano lessons the summer before I started and knew note names and key signatures, but not to the point where it was  automatic. I had to work really hard to catch up since I was so far behind the other singers and instrumentalists in my theory and sightsinging classes (by the way, Joan Conlon was my freshman year ear-training teacher). We learned with moveable do (although with do-re-me minor, not la-ti-do). This was very helpful for me initially, since it did give me a reference point for where pitches were in relation to Do. However, I never became truly quick and proficient with solfege (I later worked a bit on fixed-do solfege as well, after an experience with a teacher trained that way), so can't, for example, read with solfege syllables as fast as many of my students do (although I can read far better and more accurately than they can!). It's my experience that solfege (unless you're incredibly well trained) doesn't help much with really chromatic music of the 19th century or 20th/21st century music.

Basically I learned to read . . . by reading. I sang in virtually every grad student's recital (Bruce Browne was one of the DMA students at the UW at that time, for example) and simply got to the place where I had enough experience to just read. With some friends I also got together regularly to read madrigals (wine was also involved!). I believe strongly that one learns to read by reading - it's one of the reasons I'll almost always let my choir read the music we're doing, unless it's so difficult that's just not possible. I encourage them to read however it works best for them, given the difficulty of the music: complete with words, with solfege, on neutral syllables--whatever's easiest--and if they get lost, find their way and jump back in, not giving up. I want them to have that experience. I also encourage them to sing in a good church choir (around here, many of them can get a position as a paid section leader), which will force them to read and learn a lot of repertoire. If you know Nancy Telfer's sightreading series, I think she makes some excellent points about reading with text.

When I started doing more 20th century music, particularly after I became interested in Swedish music, I worked some with Lars Edlund's classic Modus novus, which is a great primer to reading non-tonal music. And as I conducted more and more such music, my score-study and preparation made me a much better musician and reader of this music. It really is all about experience.

Next, choral gesture as it relates to intonation: William Copper wrote a post with a great question: WHO adjusts pitch to tune a choir? I'd encourage you to read all of it and the responses. Eugene Lysinger responds with a comment about choral gesture, referencing the work of Rodney Eichenberger (yes, my first real conducting teacher and Eugene and I sang together with Rod some 40 years ago--and I sang in at least one of Eugene's grad recitals at the time). This is to the effect of gesture on intonation (and the way singers sing).

I certainly still use some of Rod's concepts, although I don't conduct as low as most of his students do. But I'm concerned with getting energy where it belongs (lower, where the breath comes from) and not giving tense, high gestures that can cause singers throat tension. It's not that singers can't ignore that, but it's harder than you'd think! Even experienced/professional singers will find it more difficult and young singers will almost invariably get tension where you don't want it and cause vocal and intonation problems. 

I want my gesture to engender the breath flow that my singers need to sing well. It has to flow with the phrase. My sense is that gesture can be higher if there is no tension and it also depends on how close I am to my singers. My preference is NOT to be too close to the choir. That makes a huge difference. I don't want tension in my hand (thumb and forefinger pinched together, for example) or in my shoulders. 

Eugene also references a technique of Rod's using the hand (of the singer!) to lift the soft palate. I use this all the time and with groups that are fairly experienced or absolute beginners. Easy to show, hard to say in words! I turn to my left, so the choir sees me from the side. With my right hand held next to my face (like a karate chop, with the side of my hand directly toward them), I'll ask the choir to do exactly as I do. The hand is first at a 45 degree angle and very flat/straight. I ask them to sing an ah on a given pitch. While they're singing I rotate my hand forward and curve to create an arch in my hand (they copy this, of course). I then go back and forth between the two hand positions. The difference in sound is remarkable, since any singer, regardless of training, will lift the soft palate as the hand mimics the position of the soft palate. It's physiologically impossible for them not to lift the soft palate. Once they've done this a few times, I can use my left hand in this manner to remind them, even in a performance, since it will remind them of the physical feeling of lifting the soft palate. This is one of the things I said early on was an important part of vocal technique to sing in tune. Try it if you haven't before! (Rod's video, What They See is What You Get, will give you lots of ideas about this topic and lots of things to try).

And finally, back to one of my original topics of just intonation: William Copper, as part of a series of comments here said, first quoting someone else, "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." 

William then followed this with, "It becomes VERY tricky VERY fast: you simply cannot sing many chord progressions in just intonation, period.   As a very simple and ubiquitous example, the progression I vi ii V I in root position (triads in C major: C , a minor, d minor, G major, C major) is impossible to sing accurately.  Not just difficult, impossible." He then offered: "I recently posted an illustrative video-score of a four-part a cappella piece, with a tuning graph for each voice on youtube, showing just how dramatically changeable tuning must be to keep both harmonic and melodic intonation pure. Contact me for the link if interested."

I think he's dead on about the (in)ability for choirs to keep to just intonation all  the time. And I don't try to do that, quite honestly. I also work primarily by ear and demonstration. I'm always concerned with: 1) working with the choir initially so they hear and can produce good unisons, fifths and pure thirds 2) working to get pure thirds at cadences (in passing harmonies I won't be as concerned) and 3) working to stay in tune (i.e. in a cappella music, not going either sharp or flat).

One of the things one has to deal with, given pure thirds and trying to stay at the same pitch, is how to accomodate both. Oversimplifying, barbershoppers want the lead (melody) to sing in tune with the (equal-tempered) piano--then the harmony parts must sing pure intervals from the lead, no matter whether it's on the root, third or fifth. The other way to do this is to keep the roots of the chords in tune (i.e. with the equal-tempered piano) and tune purely around that. That's what I'm more likely to do. 

If you know Bruckner's Os justi (or can look at a copy from cpdl), we can use the opening as an example. It opens with an F major chord, 3rd in the soprano. I want that chord tuned purely (so will avoid giving the chord on the piano, but teach the choir how to tune "justly" from just the F)--the A will be lower than on the piano. Next the bass sings a passing tone E to D, where the chord switches to d minor. In this case, I want my basses to sing a fairly high E-natural and a D that matches the piano (it's easy to sing too wide a half step from F to E, so the D is flat--it's also a question of vowel--from the ee of justi to the eh of meditabitur the basses must concentrate on a forward eh vowel, not too far from the ee). That means the soprano A to D has to be a fraction higher to make sure the lower pitch of the A (3rd of F major) to the D that will match the basses's tempered D. In the fifth bar there's a G major chord with the 3rd in the soprano (slightly lower), but in the next bar the same B is the fifth of an e minor chord (and perhaps a fraction higher). Note that I'm not telling them to sing X cents higher, but pointing out what needs to be higher or lower, getting them to listen carefully and place the notes accordingly (I may need to demonstrate as well where the notes belong). Having "anchor" chords which must be tuned justly is part of what I figure out when learning the piece. William mentioned in a previous comment about the need to sing sometimes with equally tempered intonation, and that's absolutely true. You have to figure that out by the accompaniment (you can't retune the piano or organ, although strings, winds and brass can all play with just intonation) and by the style. If a composer clearly thinks in equal temperament, sometimes just intonation simply doesn't work (William gives a good example).

This may sound complicated, but it's really a matter of getting the basses to sing their line absolutely in tune with the piano, but the parts above to listen carefully and tune to it (it's one of the reasons why, if my choir is in sections, the basses are most often behind the sopranos--it makes it easier for the sopranos to tune if they hear the bass part, which often has the roots). IF they've learned what nice just major and minor chords sound like, it's not as difficult as it may seem. Of course, to do this well, they have to have all the basics down and be able to sing this with very little vibrato so the chords tune. Again, I'm not attempting to tune every single chord with just intonation, but listen for those places where it makes a difference, and particularly at cadences.

Do the basses always stick with the piano? No. In Lauridsen's O Nata Lux the opening chord is a D major 9th with the basses and sopranos on the 3rd. Here, I give a D, but want the basses and sopranos to sing a pure third (lower than the piano). In order to keep the piece in tune I may play single note pedals (usually above the soprano part, where it's more easily heard) that usually (not always) correspond to the roots of chords. 

Once again, this has gone on longer than I thought!

I'll post at least one more time and address a few more issues. If you have any final questions, ask them in the comments section or send a note.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Intonation XII - What to do when the choir goes flat?

I had no idea this topic was going to go on this long! Comments from all of you talented people (on ChoralBlog) keep new posts and ideas coming. As I said in my initial post, intonation is a complicated subject.
If you haven't looked at the comments on ChoralBlog, please do so! This community has many sharp (I don't mean pitch!) and talented people, and they've added to what I've written. My last post got a lot of excellent comments--take a look here. I gain as much as I give here.
So, now to flatting (I'm speaking here primarily in a cappella music)! What do we do about it? As with all to do with intonation, it depends on the cause. There's no one reason why the choir goes flat. I remember Michael Korn saying at a workshop one time that the proper use of the left hand was a finger pointing up, reminding the choir not to flat! I can't agree with that very much, although a gesture can help at times.
First (and sorry, this isn't the magic answer you may be seeking!), you have to work constantly on those things we've been talking about:
  • good vocal technique
  • unified vowels - good placement of vowels
  • good unisons and octaves (and perhaps a vibrato that doesn't obscure the pitch--YMWV/"your mileage will vary"--my way of saying that everyone's taste will vary here!)
  • work on whatever tuning system you choose--if it's just intonation, the choir has to learn where those major thirds belong, for example
  • good rhythmic ensemble and vowels that coincide when they should
  • tuning exercises--I highly recommend John Goldsmith's exercises!
It should be said that this is a long-term plan, not something that happens overnight. It's an important part of your training the choir and choir members to be better musicians and to have better ensemble and vocal skills. And it's work that never ends--do you think the Swedish Radio Choir never rehearses these things? Of course they do! At a different level than most of us do, but they constantly address all these issues, too.
It also means that your rehearsal plan needs to be appropriate to each stage of the choir's development on a particular program. In the early learning stages, don't overwhelm with too much at once. Work on neutral syllables or count-sing (instead of text), work at a slower tempo (so they can absorb the pitches and harmonies better). Pace your rehearsal well so the hardest work comes when they're still fresh, and make sure that demands are varied throughout the rehearsal (see my earlier posts on rehearsal technique).
Separately from this, what's the room like where you rehearse? Easy or difficult for them to hear each other? Too reverberant, not reverberant enough? Temperature relatively well-controlled, or often too hot or cold? These aren't always things you can control, but if you can, do so! I've worked in great and terrible rooms, but manage to make it work in all. But if you can work in a better room or improve the room you're in, you'll want to do it.
But, assuming you're doing the things on the list above (appropriate to the level of your choir), what goes into a choir singing flat? Back to basics first--your diagnosis has to tell you why they're going flat. Possible reasons and solutions:
  • poor breath management - remind them about proper use of the breath -- are they slumping in their chairs? Are they using enough breath energy?
  • are descending intervals too wide? If they've done exercises such as John's, your feedback will mean something to them and they can make adjustments, for example, on a descending minor third that is too wide (a common fault)
  • are the vowels dull or placed too far back? work with them on brightening and bringing vowels forward -- have them sing on a brighter vowel/syllable (tee), then go back to text -- do a quick exercise to bring the primary vowels that are poorly placed where they should be
  • are they singing with a lowered soft palate? do an exercise to get them to raise the soft palate
  • do they "scoop" up to pitches? then work with them on making sure each onset is exactly in tune
  • is the key part of the problem? Perhaps you need to try transposing up or down.
  • how about their energy on the day? or a room that is too hot? do something to bring up their energy, a physical exercise/movement, switching to a lively piece that they like, etc.
All of these are possible problems and solutions. Your experience, listening and observation (what you see in the choir can often give a clue to the items above) will tell you a lot about why they're flat and what to do about it.
But there's another issue that I spoke of last time: that of tonal memory. Patrick Taylor, in a response to that post, said that he believes it's more about muscle memory than tonal memory--and I should have mentioned that. It's certainly a combination of those elements (thanks, Patrick!). I can't say what the percentage is of each, but it doesn't really matter. If the choir sings flat for very long, or sings an interval too far down on the descending side or not far enough up on the ascending side . . . they will memorize that as correct (whether tonal or muscle memory). And once they do that, it's very hard to get them to sing it correctly.
For that reason, I don't want to allow the group to sing under pitch when they learn a piece. I will use the piano in the following ways:
  • I (or my accompanist) will play some chords or pitches to keep us in key, but not play constantly
  • we can also play pedal notes (in the bass or the treble--usually below or above where the choir is singing) that help establish correct pitch
  • it's possible to play along with them as well, but I'd try the other options first
I simply don't want them to start to learn the piece in the wrong key.
By the same token, I have to be very aware of melodic patterns or intervals that are flat (the descending minor third above is an example). The choir or section needs to be made aware of that and correct it. Again, singing that flat just a few times will make it a part of how they hear and feel that passage and it will be much more difficult to sing in tune.
There will also be difficult transitions/modulations or a difficult series of chords to tune. Special time needs to be spent here. I remember during one of the rehearsals I did preparing the Swedish Radio Choir where the accompanist (Mikael Engström, a wonderful musician!) said, "take some time and care there--it's a dangerous place." You can't gloss over these passages, but need to make sure the choir is very secure.
Chords may need to be tuned in isolation. Are unisons and octaves really unisons? You may need to point out a place where the tenors and sopranos are in octaves so they listen and tune together. There also may be dissonances that have to be pointed out--if the basses and altos sing a major seventh, but aren't aware of it, they may try to "correct" by ear to an octave. Those are places where I'll isolate just those sections of the choir. Just asking the choir to listen (unless they're very accomplished) won't do the trick--you have to point out to them what to listen to and how to correct the tuning.
Of course, I'm also aware of other causes--if it's vocal/vowel, I have to fix that. If it's poor rhythm, I have to fix that.
Additionally, when learning (and remember, more of their conscious brain power is focused on finding the right pitch, rhythm or word) I have to be aware of tempo. Music that is fast has to be rehearsed more slowly, so they have time to perceive the correct pitches, hear and reproduce them. By the same token, slow music might have to be taken faster--it's very difficult to sustain a slow tempo vocally, and when they're learning, I want it to move at a tempo that makes it easier. As they know it better and have control of pitch, then I can gradually slow down or speed up towards the real tempo.
The key may need to be changed. This can come about because you realize that the key simply doesn't work for your choir and moving it up or down makes it comfortable and they sing in tune. Or you can plan for it. I used an example of this in a response to the last blog: I know that Weston Noble was once preparing the Nordic Choir to do Bach's Singet dem Herrn, which is written in Bb, but was probably done during Bach's time at a pitch close to a half-step lower - Weston rehearsed the choir in Ab almost exclusively and then raised the pitch to A major just as they began performances . . . and apparently had no flatting problems whatsoever. Here I think he was taking advantage of the fact that the new key (A major) was a very fresh one for the choir with no memory (muscle or tonal) of any problems in the lower key. It also may have been helped by being in a sharp, rather than flat key (although we can argue about whether this is psychological or physiological!).
My mind is starting to go and I'm brain-dead, even though there is much more to say. Please add your ideas in the comments! Help us all out with your ideas!
If I have enough mind left, I'll make a couple last posts on this topic next week. Happy weekend!