Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tonal Tuesdays - Satisfying the Singers

Whenever there is an artistic endeavor, there will be divergent opinions.  A choir is no exception. As a choir member, it is not always easy to be positive about each and every piece you get to sing.  We all have songs we like better than others for many reasons.  Sometimes we don't know what that reason is.

The only time I had to use music I wasn't always pleased to do would be for music festivals with set pieces.  I helped alleviate that problem by volunteering to be on the music selection committee.  That turned out to be myself and the Festival Secretary.  Darn.  Then I didn't get to grumble.

That reminds me of the story of the fellow who opened his lunch box every day and declared, "Peanut butter again." After weeks of this, one colleague suggested perhaps he ask his wife for a different kind of sandwich to which the chap replied, "Oh, I make my own lunch."  You see some of us grumble just to hear ourselves grumble.

As a director, how do you keep everyone happy.  The short answer is that you don't but you can make everyone comfortable with the music.  Our choir often makes suggestions for selections we could use.  I think at one point or another, we have used all.  I truly believe in a collaborative effort in a choir.  If you have a set agenda or style for your choir, that may be harder to accomplish.  Eclectic choices really float my boat.

The way that choir directors I have had over the years got me on side was to tell me WHY we were singing that song.  Sometimes, it fits a theme.  Other times it is perfect to show off one section or another.  I also loved hearing historical facts about the music which put it in context or information about the composer or lyricist that made the music more meaningful,

As directors, we must do our homework and try to choose music that fits our singers.  Sometimes, the words are a challenge like Purple People Eater or the harmony.  You must have challenges but never so much that the choir feels defeated.  It is a fine line but worth exploring.

Above all, HAVE FUN.  Love the music and enjoy your singers and together you will create music that will please your audiences.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tonal Tuesdays - A Song to Sing

If you have ever participated in music festivals, you know that the adjudicators can be - well let's say - interesting.  I remember so clearly my sister and I getting ready to leave for a Music Festival Competition and Mum saying that it was important to make our best effort and that winning was not as important as feeling good about our singing.  My sister took it all in and simply said, "---but mummy, I'd rather win."  And of course, she did.

However much positive thought you use, adjudicators are very subjective in their judging.  One year, my choir was up against some particularly fine choirs.  One of my rules has always been that the choir watch me and sing what I directed.  If a mistake was made, then it would be mine.  The piece we were singing had 3 verses and wouldn't you know that I went right into the 3rd verse after the first.  It had different accompaniment and harmony, the works.  Oh dear.  Well we had an amazing accompanist who took all of 3 seconds to realize where we were and the choir followed with only a raised eyebrow or two to show their discomfort.

The dear adjudicator in his summary said that our choir was amazing.  The only critiscism he had was a few words were indistinct and went on to point out 3 words that were in the missed 2nd verse.  Now, my eyebrows went up to warn the students to stay mum.  You guessed it, we earned first place.

We were lucky that the adjudicator hadn't picked up on our mistake.  However, I am convinced that he was enjoying the music and thus, not tied to the copy.  The song choice in this case kept the interest high and let us perform well if technically somewhat deficient.

Another year, I had a 12 and 13 year old boys in a choir.  As you know, changing voices are fun to work with because what you have today is not what you may have tomorrow.  I had to choose something that would keep the boys' interest, remain possible for them to sing in 3 part harmony no matter what their voices did, and create a fun performance.  The song was a medley of television commercial jingles.  We had such fun and yes, they aced it.

In the adjudication, we were told that the choice of song was a dangerous choice.  He felt that such popular songs could be hard to present as the audience would have a mind set as to what they should sound like and the performance might not be able to replicate that sound.  The headline in the paper was, "Teacher Makes Dangerous Choice to Sing".  Really.

Chris Rowbury has a great article on why singing "pop" music is not a good idea. He feels strongly that most popular music isn't worth considering. I agree that you do have to be careful that the songs you choose have good musical qualities.  We in ETS have sung some fun popular songs including Purple People Eater.  It is repetitive but it is the story that is the point of this song.  We didn't wear costumes but we really worked to get the words clear.  It was suggested that we play kazoos at the end in place of the saxophone.  It was fun.  Sha Na Na does an acceptable job and the words here are the focus as well.

I think you can severely limit our options when you make pronouncements such as "no pop music" or conversely "no classic music".  There is good and bad in all musicial genres.  Like the adjudicators, conductors get to use their subjective judgement in music choices.  Personally, I like a wide range of musical styles and eras.  Try it, you'll like it - or not.  Like Mum always said about your veggies, "If you don't taste it, how will you know you  don't like it."  She was so right.  So go ahead and "taste" lots of kinds of music and see what kind of sound banquet you can create.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Tonal Tuesdays - Accompaniment for Singers

In 2009, my hubby and I were celebrating our 40th anniversary.  Our wonderful daughter,Colleen, and much loved son-in-law were coming to Canada for Christmas that year and we were asked to meet them in Toronto. Upon arrival, our car was whisked away by the valet at the hotel and then later off we went in a taxi first to our surprise, dinner at the   Wayne Gretzky Restaurant.  Even if you don't follow hockey, it has great food and a fun atmosphere.

Then we were off again to our next surprise and I burst into tears when we arrived at the Roy Thompson Hall and found out we were going to see a Christmas Il Divo concert.  Wow!!
These four young men sing amazingly well together and their harmony and style are a treat.  We did have to remind the ladies behind us to listen during the concert.  They had come from Vancouver just to see these four handsome men and kept talking about them.  Imagine spending all that money and not taking the time to listen.
Someone else who didn't seem to be listening was the conductor of the Roy Thompson Orchestra.  There were a few times when one of the singers actually tried to get the conductor to notice that he wasn't working WITH them.  Truly this conductor thought he was the centre of attraction.  Under those difficult conditions these professionals still put on a wonderful show.
This is one of my favourite Il Divo concerts and the orchestra is such a support and addition to this concert.  See if you agree.
Accompaniment for a singing group is so very important.  Luckily, the ETS has a wonderfully talented accompanist in our Kristy VanKooten-Bossence.   She has the rare talent of being able to keep us on time and in tune without my even having to think about it.  Over the years, I have worked with many pianists who are very talented but not able to accompany.  A great accompanist works in tandem with the conductor.

Recently, I was able to see a performance by Theatre Kent, of The Sound of Music. The accompaniment was a volunteer band directed by Carol Revell.  Even though these are all amateurs, the accompaniment never overwhelmed the singers.  I happened to be sitting near the band and yet never noticed their playing but just heard the final product.  When you read the above review, Carol and the musicians go virtually unmentioned.  That is a true sign of great accompaniment.

If you would like to leave a comment, please do.  Just click on the word, 'comment', below.  It may have a number or zero beside it.  Click on it and it will open up to give you a box in which to write you own comment.  Then you will be asked to type the funny looking letters in another box.  This is just a protection from "invaders" from cyber space.  Try it with our thanks.  We look forward to hearing from you. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tonal Tuesdays - Conducting or Directing?

Mr. Bean a.k.a., Rowan Atkinson, is so creative.  His stint here as a conductor of Beethoven's 5th Symphony is funny. He really is re-interpreting the music.  You must watch.  Okay, go ahead.  Do it with him.

A conductor or director also interprets the music but all that happens long before the actual performance.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that the difference between the words conductor and director were worth discussion.  In many cases the words are used interchangeably.  However, I feel the director is as also the one who helps the group to interpret the music while they practise.  
Leonard Bernstein is my favourite director.  I loved watching his sessions with all sorts of musical groups and even on the old shaky 16 mm film and noisy projectors, you could see his passion and better yet his transference of that passion to the musicians before him.  He explained and allowed the players to explore the music.  The collaborative effort was a beautiful thing.

There are certainly accepted standards for how to move your hands and arms to express the music.  Watching YouTube sessions of conducting classes is interesting indeed.  Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner were most influential in setting modern standards for the art of conducting accepted today.  This picture of Berlioz shows how, when he started to conduct, he used overly large movements.  He worked very hard to make his future movements more understandable and less flamboyant. He and Wagner also wrote extensively about how to conduct correctly. 

Conducting can be like dancing.  You can learn the moves but until you put your heart into the movement, giving life to the music, you are just making some interesting movements.  Have you watched the movie, Shall We Dance?  Now, there are some fine dance moves and a great understanding of effects of passion. 
The musical direction part of conducting is the trickiest but to me the most fun.  One must not be so bent on having the music played or sung in a preconceived form that there is no room for collaboration. 

Bernstein famously worked with Glenn Gould whose interpretations were very different from the norm.  Although Bernstein did not agree with Gould, he was fascinated by his talent.  He accepted that Gould had a different view and his respect for that allowed them to create some profound musical moments.

You can just conduct by waving your hands in time to the music or truly direct with understanding between you and the musicians so that you create a unique musical presentation.  Then, of course, there is always the Rowan Atkinson method.  Tee, hee. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tonal Tuesdays - Vocal Fry or Just Fried

Something I have noticed for quite some time, particularly  in young females, is the use of a "raspy" style of talking.  The voice is placed at the back of the throat in many cases and to me, sounds very uncomfortable.  In fact, I can hardly stand to listen to it.  Many of these young ladies positively sound as if they have a permanent cold.

A few weeks ago, a new choir member was concerned because his voice felt scratchy after singing.  What was actually happening was that he wasn't "placing" his voice correctly.  After working on understanding of correct posture and the feeling of the voice placed "forward" as opposed to back in the throat, he was amazed at the difference.  We know that we need to use breath control to carry our voices but physical stance enhances that ability.

Let me simplify this whole idea.  When I taught young singers, I would tell them that their sound didn't come out of their mouths but out of the magic whale spout on the top of their heads.  When little hands would creep up to check I would remind them that it was indeed MAGIC and only worked when they were singing.  Of course, when I taught adults and teens, I would tell them what I told the young ones and they managed that same physical stance.

Note that even this cute little cartoon has his chin down, his eyes up and thus the back of the throat more open and less restricted allowing for greater air flow and support for sound.
This may not be scientific, but it works.  Once you feel the difference, the sound is more stable and the singer more relaxed.

The general term for that scratchy sound is Vocal Fry.  Some rock singers use it to create a unique sound.  Again, it must be placed correctly or damage will ensue.  I remember when our daughter was playing the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz in high school, she created a really nasty cackle but practised placing it correctly so that she wouldn't damage her vocal chords.  Any sound can work, but correct placement of sound is essential for the comfort of both the listener and singer or speaker.  If in doubt, read and practise or take some lessons.  The result will be more than worth it.

P.S.  Children who shout to music are not singing and it is not cute!!  Children can place their voices correctly and make a great sound.  Just let them be whales and away they go.