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November 9, 2011
The choral ensemble and the purpose of high school; are we the leaders in 21st century education?

by Patrick Ryan, Past-President, MT ACDA

Wryanhat is the purpose of high school? 

If you follow education in the news cycle you would be forgiven for thinking that it is to increase our science, math, and English skills.  Or, at least to improve the test scores in those areas. 

When I ask my students the same question, they come up with a variety of interesting and thought-provoking answers:  “To help us find out what we like,”  “To prepare us for college and careers,”  “To teach us different subjects and expand our knowledge.” 

Then, I usually ask them something specific, like “Then tell me why we require you to take algebra or history.”  Personally, I like to think that we teach higher-level math to instruct our kids how to think logically and abstractly.  Algebra or trigonryanquoteometry will likely not factor into too many future careers for my students, but the ability to manipulate objects and abstract thoughts in their heads will be a daily occurrence for most of them, both in the workforce and at home. 

Everyone seems to agree on the importance of language arts.  Our students must be able to communicate effectively. 

Similarly, our society has deemed it important to be well-versed in literature, the sciences, and history.   I agree whole-heartedly! 

Our children need a broad base of knowledge in many different academic fields.  I don’t think we teach chemistry to create chemists any more than I teach choir to produce opera singers, although listening to the news, one wonders if this is so. 

Where does the choral ensemble fit into this thinking?  If we agree to the premise that the purpose of our high school system is to develop the brain’s neural networking while helping students find out who they are and what they want to do after high school, I believe choral directors are the leaders in 21st century education. 

Our classes effectively engage and develop the brain in a variety of areas, including language centers, mathematical and spatial reasoning, emotional intelligences, and psychomotor skills.  Our choirs help kids find identity and values while promoting self-confidence.  Try learning all that in a typical high school biology or geometry classroom!

Of course, if this is true, why haven’t more people recognized this?  Why are arts programs struggling to exist in a failing economy?  Why are most high school students required to take only one year of fine arts to earn their diploma? 

I believe the answer may lie in the qualitative nature of our subject.  One cannot perform a standardized test on our students to see if they are gaining in maturity, self-confidence, or work ethic, to name just a few.  Similarly, it is incredibly difficult to accurately assess individual singers’ progress in our classes.  We even struggle to assign consistent ratings to choirs at festival time – how can we measure their growth? 

Perhaps the answer lies in our embracing the fact that our qualitative art is also extremely subjective, and that is part of what makes choral ensemble singing so successful for our students.  Don’t nearly all careers (particularly those “21st-Century Careers”) center on making subjective and qualitative judgments?  Aren’t most decisions in life that way?  Isn’t that what we should be teaching our high school students?  What better way than through a medium that most of them find fulfilling and challenging, and one that taps their emotions and leads them to give great effort, and incidentally, gets them out of a desk for an hour a day.  What better subject than choral music, in which most any student can come with no experience and sing choral masterpieces in a pretty good choir by the end of the year.  Just try that in an instrumental classroom!

A few days ago, my high school concert choir experienced a wonderful rehearsal. 

It began as an ordinary Thursday, with the usual warm ups and focusing activities.  There was nothing to suggest that this hour together would be anything out of the ordinary.  We began rehearsing a new setting of “Irish Blessing” that we are performing for a PBS documentary next week. 

The kids sang through it well, and we polished a few small sections, but the whole piece needed to rise up to another level.  It needed better dynamics, more legato phrasing, increased rhythmic integrity, and an overall feel of “togetherness.” 

As I considered how to achieve this, it occurred to me that we just might achieve all those improvements without ever talking about them; instead, I focused on the text.  Students shared what they thought the text meant both to them, and from the perspective of the author of the text.  Their insight was impressive, particularly for high school students just returned from lunch!  I then shared my own thoughts, that this text (“May the road rise up to meet you…”) could be about a parting of loved ones.  I shared my own experience of saying goodbye to my grandmother, when I knew she was dying and I would never see her again.  I asked the singers to think of their own personal goodbyes, and to sing the piece about that experience. 

The next three minutes were some of the most together, musical singing I have ever witnessed.  Their focus was entire, straight from their souls.  They sang with an incredible, yearning line.  Their dynamics were hushed and intense, their consonants perfectly together and vowels beautifully aligned.  After we sang the final chord, there was a long and beautiful silence, as if our whole world was taking a collective, deep breath.

Somehow, we transitioned to woodshedding parts in Handel’s “For Unto Us a Child is Born.”  A few minutes in, one of my favorite tenors sang with a tremendous scoop up to F#.  I smiled at him, and at the next appearance of a wide, high interval, he blasted out an outrageous portamento that left all of us laughing hysterically.  Sometimes with my auditioned choirs I become so focused on making high level music that I forget to laugh.  We are all there, after all, to have fun as well as to make beautiful music.

I’m not sure I see these two examples occurring in mathematics, science, or English classes.  Our choir classes fulfill a pressing need in our educational system.  In the span of fifty minutes last Wednesday, my choir learned better how to focus, appreciate the people around them, and increased their emotional intelligence vastly.  A few minutes later they were singing Handel (that’s enough in itself, really!) and laughing with a sense of pure fun and delight.  That’s the kind of classes I want my children to participate in during high school. 

I am continually amazed by the power of music to influence and shape students’ lives. 

 

Choral Colors

by Patrick Ryan, President, MT ACDA

Iryann the last few years, I have been privileged to guest conduct and clinic for quite a few honor choirs and festivals.  I am always amazed at the diversity of sound I encounter from school to school. 

Surprisingly, there seems to me little correlation between school size and quality of choral tone. 

How does your choir sound?  What is its tone color like?  Of course, there is no absolute “correct” tone color for a choir, and different styles demand different tonal concepts, but, couldn’t all of our choirs improve their tone color?university music service ad

Vowels are the most significant factor in choral tone and intonation.  Nearly all of our sound is carried by vowels.  To demonstrate this, have your choir sing a familiar song like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” with vowels only.  They will see that vowels carry nearly all of our sound, while consonants create meaning and rhythm. 

The bottom line – if our choirs sing with beautiful vowels, they will have beautiful sound.  The converse is also true.  Too often we hear choirs whose vowels lack integrity and their sound suffers for it.   The following paragraphs explore some common reasons for this, and present some practical solutions.

 Vowel Sin #1:  The “East-West” vowel. 
These are spread horizontally, rather than tall “North-South” vowel production.  Singers are quick to grasp this concept.   This vertical vowel production creates healthy resonance.  Nearly all amateur singers sing with less resonance than they are able. 

Ask your singers to sing a song with a country western twang, then to sing like an elementary school choir, junior high choir, high school choir, or collegiate music major (depending on the level you are teaching).  Usually, their tonal productions are marvelous case studies in contrasting tone colors and resonance.  An interesting corollary to this is that our students often know how to sing with incredible tone, but they choose not to! 

Vowel Sin #1b:  Diversity in vowels.
Not only must we have vowel depth, we must have vowel uniformity.  One tool that can be used with singers is the International Phonetic Alphabet.  Using only the IPA vowels can quickly help choristers unify their vowels.  It also helps them understand the concepts of forward and back vowels. 

If your choirs need a vowel formation refresher course, basic Latin vowel shapes can be taught, with some care taken to promote good vocal pedagogy.  These shapes should assist in creating tall vowels. 
Oo [u]  – put a finger on your nose and your lips to your finger. 
Oh [o] – make a circular shape with your fingers as you sing this vowel
Ah [a] – finger on chin, releasing the jaw. 
Ee [i] and eh  – fingers on corners of mouth, keeping the lips from spreading.

Vowel Sin #2: The diphthong (it’s not just a name you call your little brother)
Recall that a diphthong is two vowel sounds in a row.  Examples include how, I, high, like, sky.  The rule with diphthongs is to always sing the first vowel for most of the duration.  The second vowel should be a fractional percentage of the length of the initial vowel.  For example, how I should be sung “ha-------------------oo ah-----------ee.”  Our English-speaking singers usually glide the vowels together at varying rates, creating problems with pitch and timbre.  Insist that your singers sing the main vowel and don’t let the second (vanishing) vowel influence the first.   In some cases, you might instruct the choir to leave the second vowel off entirely (don’t worry, someone will sneak it in).  Don Gratz uses the analogy of a loaf of bread: the primary vowel should be the first 19 slices, and the vanishing vowel the 20th slice.

Vowel Sin #3 – The migrating vowel
Vowels are not caribou or geese: they should not migrate.  Too often our vowel purity is compromised when singers anticipate the next sound they are going to make, consequently letting the vowel “migrate.”  This becomes particularly apparent when a vowel becomes colored by an ‘r’ sound (as in “star,” “wonder,” “are”) but also can occur with such voiced consonants as ‘l’.  Vowels often migrate in the middle of a diphthong or triphthong , as discussed above. 

If you singers are guilty of this sin, use fermatas show them the error of their ways.  Remind singers to keep refreshing the vowel.  Douglas McEwen always rubbed his fingers together to remind singers to “polish” the vowel.  Frieder Bernius also does this, with the admonition “the vowel… it could be more sharp.”

Vowel Sin #4 – Vanilla Vowels
There are about 22 different vowel sounds in English!  It is enlightening to see how many your choristers can list.  While we are searching for vowel purity, we must be willing to let our singers sing all of the vowel sounds they encounter – all of the uhs, ihs, aes, and schwas included.  Too often we avoid these by saying that those vowel sounds are “ugly” or difficult to sing properly.   Really, as long as we continue to sing in the “North-South” space, all the English vowels are fine to sing, and our songs don’t sound so affected. 

On the other hand, Latin has five vowel sounds.  This is an excellent language for choral conductors to work on vowel purity!  When our singers are not familiar with the language, they will very quickly sing much purer vowels than they will in English.  The trick becomes getting them to sing with these same vowels in English. 

One tool that helps is speaking through the singing space and immediately having the choir sing after speaking.  The Italian adage is Si cante come si parle – “We sing as we speak.”

I encourage you to perform pieces in German, French, or other languages.  In these, we often encounter blended or nasalized vowels.  You may be surprised how quickly your singers can pick up these nuances.  If you are not familiar with these languages, get Pronunciation Guide for Choral Literature by May and Tolin.  It covers French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, and Spanish.

Vowel Sin #5 – The low palette
It is impossible to create uniform and beautiful vowels without raised soft palettes.  Guide your singers in exploring their palettes.  Let them feel the ridges of the hard palette, and the squishiness of the soft palette.  Then, help them feel the raising of the palette with imagery.  You can check to see if the palette is raised by having the choir sing with their noses plugged.  Nasality indicates a lowered palette; while tone that varies little means that the palettes are raised.  This is an excellent warm up, and something novel to help move a rehearsal forward.

Vowel Sin #6 – The late vowel
Robert Shaw insisted that the vowel must occur on the beat, while preceding consonants occur prior to the beat.  As usual, Shaw was correct.  When the vowel occurs on the beat, the rhythmic precision created does wonders for the ensemble sound.  It also dramatically improves blend.  So, it is not just tall, beautiful vowels we are after, but tall, beautiful, perfectly together vowels!

To summarize: let your vowels be tall, unified, pure, unmoving, flavorful, and crisp!

 

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