Choir practice (Week 1 of 10)

February 5, 2010

I’m getting into singing a bit more so I can better appreciate a ‘singing’ tone in my viol playing. Tutors and other are always banging on about a suitable ‘singing’ tone, but I’ve always sung in a thoroughly untutored way. Viol players are far too self-conscious to put down their bows and sing at the best of times, such is the divide we’ve all created between vocal and instrumental music-making.

My experiences of church choir practice as a boy chorister seldom involved discussion of the diaphragm and the soft palate – we were too busy trying to learn enough notes in time for Sunday performance. But a huge church space and the thunderous doom-and-gloom of sermons on ripe mid-summer Sunday mornings prepared me for other aspects of Early Music and viol playing – resonance, rhetoric, etc.

Top 10 Lessons from Choir

So here are the Top 10 points from this week’s choir work (which obviously relate to my experience with Tobias Cole directing adult amateurs in Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas):

1. Deportment, posture and physical ‘preparedness’/”readiness” of the diaphragm, soft palate/head resonance: completely at odds with the way we carry ourselves in normal daily life.

2. Opening and closure of the vocal chords to permit or restrict airflow, from covering notes to full blockages. Aspects of the ‘covered’ voice.

3. Thought processes blocking ‘natural’ singing, given our natural dependencies on controlling our image of ourselves in public to others, our dependence too on sight rather than sound, etc. Part of this is linked to our perception that the lips and lip movement play the dominant role in singing; not so, it’s the diaphragm pushing air up that is the controlling factor.

4. Enthusiasm (“with God-ness”) and deportment working together to create vocal music that isn’t complacent or pedestrian. Professionals liking drawing on the natural enthusiasm of amateur community singers. By way of contrast, they easily get very grumpy at the amateur’s lack of talent or skill.

5. Stopping the vocal sound, not by closing the mouth, but via the diaphragm. “Stop” singing with an open mouth.

6. the Internal Singer who operates independently of who you are “normally”. There’s a character deep inside there quite at odds with who we are in our routine, daily life.

7. complacent, ‘narrow’, line-of-least-resistance, routine Speaking versus active Singing.

8. Bellows diaphragm, vocal chords, relaxed tongue (so you can trill the r), resonance at the soft palate, mental awareness, overall physical deportment – all working together in the singing process.

9. Putting an ‘h’ in front of the six sung vowels – ar, air, ee, o, u and er – to help with articulation and use of the diaphragm.

10. Moving through the bel canto alphabet, through the consonants and vowels, with many notes unexpectedly ‘starting’ as others (m and n in the mouth as preparation for other sounds); some consonants with interesting variations on ‘closed’ vocal chords. Consonants as important or unimportant in the vocal process – do we ‘get the consonants out of the way as quickly as possible’ concentrating instead on the vowels?

So what’s this got to do with my Medieval/Renaissance music university studies? I’m caught up with the notion that MedRen music is characterised by singing and the voice, the ‘Age of the Voice’, before the invention of printed music and the voice being overtaken by instrumental music in a major way. Patently musica humana and musica instrumentalis have always existed side-by-side, so one can’t talk about an ‘Age of Instrumental Music’ post-1600 replacing vocal music.

Implications for Med/Ren music from his week’s study:

1. Those in medieval monasteries/nunneries appear to have done vast amounts of singing every day, consistently much more than enthusiastic amateurs these days and one a par with the obligations of professionals these days, surely. So they must have developed deep and intimate appreciation and knowledge of voice and vocal music. I’ve never associated religious with being ‘full-time singers’, but ordinary work involving agriculture and household chores seems secondary to their music-making. Even in moments of weariness and complacency, they would have relied heavily on being active in their involvement, in creating a ‘good’ sound, helped along doubtless by highly-resonant architectural spaces. One hears of the Middle Ages being based on asceticism, and notwithstanding plague and pestilence and a brutishly short life, tyranny and feudalistic rule, much succour must have been drawn from the singing voice and choral music.

2. The strongly vocalic nature of the Latin language must have aided in the creation of pure, mellifluous singing.

3. Deportment is all – the importance of judicious reverence, quiet serenity, active meditation in the process of singing, being prepared before the note starts (good finishes and good starts) in religious ritual and therefore in the performance of music, religious or not.

4. I can’t help noticing the propensity for stepwise motion in medieval and Renaissance religious music and frankly right up to and including Francesco Landini Trecent ballata where his upper melodic lines have virtually no leaps at all – far from what I was taught in music composition, that a melody line had to jump all over the place to create ‘interest’.

5. Performance style. What ‘character’ would an individual singer play during performance then? What vocal ‘character’ does one adopt nowadays in re-creating this music?

6. I can’t help noticing the lack of microtones in modern performance of (Western) medieval/Renaissance music by non-Arab Westerners. I can’t help detecting lots of similarities between Arabian maqamat and the multiplicity of modes from Antiquity and Medieval periods. What is the Medieval/Renaissance concept of singing/playing out of tune? When was perfect pitch discovered and how does the possession of perfect pitch relate to MedRen music?

7. Roman and Greek architectural spaces weren’t used for singing (as far as I can tell) – the Acropolis and Parthenon being shrines not churches – so there seems to have been no development of music-friendly or vocally-resonant architectural ‘closed’ spaces, notwithstanding the very efficient outdoor spaces like amphitheatres. Can we say that churches as buildings worked hand-in-hand not only as community barns but as spaces primarily for singers? Churches as ‘closed’ spaces, sanctuaries – banning weapons, instrumental music and other features of the mundane pagan world?

What’s this got to do with viol playing?

* lips as finger tension on the bow

* pressure from lungs and action of open/closed notes is comparable to the bow stroke

* looseness of the tongue is all about looseness in the wrist. Perhaps good articulation of trilled ‘r’s in the voice is equivalent to wrist flexibility assisting bow stroke

* length of bow stroke comparable to lung capacity (baroque cellists like Tim Blomfield working the full length of the bow, all the time)

* “h” in front of vowles is similar to the bow ‘chiff’ and general attack of each note by the bow.

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