Choir Practice (Week 3 of 10)

February 21, 2010

As an off-campus university student reading music history, this 75-minute session once a week is just about the only practical music-making I am doing at the moment! The director has to deal with a dozen adults, the majority of whom have no prior exposure to reading notation. All of us have issues about our voices, about singing, about our sense of rhythm. The concept of perfect pitch has been touched on, but not tone deafness, nor singing in public. I am enthralled, mainly from the point of view of applying what I’m seeing before my eyes and how music might have been taught ‘from scratch’ in medieval Europe. As in past weeks, I’ve tried to crystallize matters into ten or so dot points. What intrigues me so how long we might go without seeing vocal music on paper. Certainly in fluffing an exercise where crochets (without pitch) were separated by six or seven crochet rests and lamenting the absence of barlines, I’ve learned the importance of my saying as little as possible. What I say as one who knows can adversely impact on the pace of learning of the others. What I also find intriguing from a pedagogical point of view is that there is no learning from the individual’s weaknesses, just an imposition of an external standard. The time this week was equally divided between grappling with notation and half revising bel canto singing technique. Bel canto explained in Week 1 is now settling into our brains!

The main points from this week’s Lesson:

* keep away from the notes on paper till as late in the piece as possible. This is something Tobias Cole wanted the newly formed group of singers, almost entirely unknown to each other, at Armidale for the Dido. Obviously with the pressure to have the entire piece done, largely from memory, within a week precluded that. I find it intriguing though that we will do a public concert though in seven more sessions. This speaks volumes about vocal technique being paramount; the actual notes are something one can ‘throw into the mix’ at the last minute, so to speak

* reading barless music in music and rhythm practice. Having been introduced to one-. two- and three-beat notes (as well as four this week), and the one-beat rest, I’m intrigued we’re doing this all without barlines. I’m learning how important clapping rhythms without pitch really is. 

* lipless singing and poking out the tongue in time with the rhythm.  Singing isn’t done from the lips (if it was, it puts too much stress on the vocal chords). The brain tends to seize up the tongue when tackling difficult rhythms, which is fatal for voice quality.

* A brighter sound (Italianate, soft palate sound) vs (closed) English sound. What this is all about is a loose tongue, the same loose tongue required to roll “r”s in Italian spoken language and sung language. What I need to develop is a loud, raucous cockatoo sound to loosen up and re-teach my soft palate.

* relaxed opening and dropping of the jaw. And the jaw isn’t the chin, it’s the whole mechanism back to the ears. Self-esteem and a whole bunch of brain “static” help lock up the jaw when we sing. The personal psychology has to remove its hold on our bodies. Our (child) bodies actually “know” how to sing; it’s our (adult) brains which override the automatic.

* practise complex rhythms by clapping and singing “la” (or “ha” to get the diaphragm going); do it with gusto, as if public performing – not a “private” interior thing. Clapping is all about corporealising rhythm, allowing the body to absorb it. Of course, we know that singers have to be expert dancers.

* talking without lips, like Peter Cook in Cook & Dudley Moore, a strange vague ‘funny voice’ – that’s how the singing voice is liberated

* don’t think of musical rests as “rests”, with connotations of “turning off”; think of them as “silence” – active, thinking silence. Practise stopping the sung note by keeping the mouth open. Don’t associate rests with closing your mouth.

* the body knows all along how to do it. So the body has to be let free. Our bodies will tell us how high to sing, how much support to give a note. Don’t judge your singing voice by your speaking voice. Don’t sing as you speak. We have to recover childhood memories of screaming and crying and tantrums. Only then will we sing. By inference, the musician inside me may end up being quite different from what I anticipate or expect. Do I know my Inner Musician? Especially if I don’t know my Inner Singer?

*  speaking and singing are worlds apart. If you’re gagging when you touch your soft palate, you need to relax more!

Implications for Medieval and Renaissance music history

This is like being amonst the pueri at the time of Guido of Arezzo! Learning notation from scratch. The only difference of course is that instead of using a palm as a musical Palm Pilot, we’re jumping straight to notation. We noticed immediately the difference when barlines were added to our singing/clapping rhythms (suddenly providing ‘natural’ first-beat-in-the-bar-emphasis), which for me recalls both the absence of barlines in Jacobean viol consort music and the presence of barlines denoting breathing points in cantus planus.


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