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Intonation IV - Barbershop and tuning

Here's a guest blog post on barbershop tuning from Mike O'Neil, who taught high school for five years before becoming a music educator for the Barbershop Harmony Society (formerly known as SPEBSQA). He wrote to me offering a guest post and I happily accepted. Incredibly helpful and useful information. He included a couple examples of exercises they use, but I'll let you find them on the Barbershop Harmony Society website, since I don't want to violate copyrights.
Per your request, I am emailing you about barbershop tuning / methods to teach it.  Obviously, we use the just intonation system.  We feel the chords have a much better chance of creating the overtone and undertone series when tuned justly.  We teach “horizontal tuning”…that is, tuning to the key center, and we teach “vertical tuning”…that is, tuning the harmonies to the melody.  In our style, it is vital the melody stays true to the tonal center (horizontal), and the harmonies stay true to the melody (vertical).
As barbershop uses a large percentage of dominant 7th chords, one of the most important things we teach is that the root must be tuned to the tonal center, the 5th scale degree must be tuned on the high side, and the 3rd and minor 7th must be tuned on the low side (in comparison to equal temperament).  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.   
We also place significant emphasis on matching vowels perfectly within the ensemble.  We have many exercises (like the ones attached), built around the circle of fifths, in which we incorporate many different vowel sounds.  This allows the singer to learn how to tune each interval and tune to the tonal center, all the while concentrating on matching the vowels of his fellow singers.  Barbershop vowels are obviously much more vernacular and casual than those sung English vowels in choral music, but the concept is still the same.     
Vocal resonance and placement are key to tuning for us as well.  Barbershop ensembles strive to match each other as well as possible (I dislike the word ‘blend’!) from a placement standpoint.  If the lead singer has a natural, forward, bright placement, the rest of the ensemble makes every effort to match that same resonance.  If the lead singer naturally sings with an open, full, rich, resonant natural tone…the other singers have a job to follow suit.    
Finally…you will rarely, if ever, see a piano in any of our rehearsals.  We utilize justly tuned learning tracks to teach to the majority of our amateur singers, so they can get the full understanding and aural memory engrained in their brains.
We attempt to do all of these things by teaching proper vocal technique, breath support / management, posture and alignment, and free / relaxed / effortless singing.  It is quite the challenge, but once a ‘barbershopper’ hears that perfectly tuned chord and executes it a few times, he usually is able to repeat it over and over again, and is very eager to do so!  There is nothing quite like singing with three other people, but sounding like 5+ people!
Many thanks, Mike!
As you can see, there's much to offer all of us, no matter what kind of choir we conduct.
on May 4, 2013 2:04pm
Hello, All,
  Richard, I trust you are well and content. I find this interesting.
  I must speak now or, hereafter, ever hold my peace.
  Proper vocal technique, breath support/ management, posture and alignment has almost always impressed me as an intellectual approach to singing that has yet to give me the experience of free,relaxed/effortless singing that speaks to the (my) heart.  As a vocal 'technique', it makes sense.
  As a listener, it impresses me as mechanical... rather like an assembly line where each performance of a piece (that is supposed to be a living entity) is considered wonderful if it is performed exactly the same way each time.  Isn't that why we have computer programs or recordings?
  Is the intent of choral music a race to demonstrate superb (according to whom?) technique?  Is the intent to ensure survivors in a choral 'survivor' game?  I hear that 'reality television is already mining this 'techhnique' thing in ways we could never have imagined with 'judges' that defy imagination.   The prospects are limitless!
  And after more than forty years in this choral 'game' I find I now long to be 'touched' rather than 'impressed'.   My sense is that 'spirit' (or even a nod to understanding 'spirit') is missing (and perhaps a deliberately ignored) element in this art form.  Comments?
  Having to be approved for public viewing is ever so slightly amusing to me, too.  No free speech here.
on May 4, 2013 9:12pm
Dear Louise,
So nice to hear from you! I hope you are well, too.
I always want to be touched and moved as a listener to any performance. But I hope that striving after good technique, whether vocal or rhythmic or intonation or anything else doesn't mean not being able to communicate the spirit of the music, or touch listeners with what you do.
Can it mean that? Of course. We all hear performances that are mechanically sound, but don't say anything.
But I hope that good technique won't interfere what we have to say.
That requires our willingness to combine (see my series of posts on musicality and expression) teaching technique while never forgetting that we struggle to express whatever emotion or message the composer created and teach, from the very beginning, those very elements of expression and spirituality as well.
Only others can judge whether I was successful and my performances touched or moved them.
I hope that if you talk to any of my singers, they would say that the 'spirit' wasn't neglected as we work together on wonderful music.
I learned a great lesson from you a number of years ago when I was frustrated with the level of a group I was conducting. And I believe I've carried what you taught me into many other situations. No group (or person, of course!) is technically perfect (or can be)--and I it's part of my job to take what each group is able to do on a technical level and still remember--that's not the point of what we do! Even a very imperfect choir can find a way to touch and move an audience. But I hope it doesn't mean that an ensemble on a high technical level isn't able to move and touch an audience.
With much love and thanks for your gifts,
P.S. just so you know, the moderation on this board isn't to keep anyone from expressing their opinions -- it's only to keep "spam" or commercial messages from appearing. I'd never keep a comment from appearing, even if the writer violently disagreed with me.
on May 8, 2013 6:37am
Hi Louise! I wonder if you've recently been to a Barbershop International Convention? If not, you may not know where Barbershop has gone in the past few years. I'm often moved to tears, and not by the technique. Have you seen this performance? 
I was there for it, and it left me breathless. Rarely will you come across a studio recording of a professional choral group with this kind of performance quality, and when you consider it is a capture of a live performance of an amateur group under pressure it's even more impressive. Now consider the loss of quality imposed by the electronics of recording and the condensing for YouTude streaming, and imagine what the live fidelity was! I think what the application of proper technique does is frees the audience from distraction. Then we can truly immerse ourselves in the music and enjoy the performance. Seriously, if you haven't been to one recently, come join us in Toronto this 4th of July!
on May 9, 2013 1:27pm
Hello everyone!
To begin, Dr. Sparks (and guest blogger), I find these articles incredibly insightful -- I always finish having learned something new! Concerning Louise's post, I understand what you mean about the "assembly line" effect, where we essentially strive to produce the same piece of art day in and day out.  I think you're right that this CAN lead to a mechanical and stale product.  However, I have to agree with Dr. Sparks on the issue that this does not mean you can't have a spirited performance with consistent technique.
In a nutshell, the reason I'm responding to this blog is to pass along some wisdom that has changed my perception on this issue.  It was either F. Melius or Olaf Christiansen (I'm thinking the latter, but obviously I did not hear this first hand), who said that "we work day in and out on technique to remove any possible distractions from the message of the song, a message of hope."  In that sense, our goal SHOULD be to have a consistent and near-perfect technical proficiency, to reach as many audience members as possible. (especially those with ears capable of discerning the difference of just and equal tempered thirds) :)  
on May 11, 2013 12:22am
Thanks, Shawn.
And Louise, as I re-read your post, I'm struck by your statement: "Proper vocal technique, breath support/ management, posture and alignment has almost always impressed me as an intellectual approach to singing that has yet to give me the experience of free,relaxed/effortless singing that speaks to the (my) heart.  As a vocal 'technique', it makes sense.   As a listener, it impresses me as mechanical... rather like an assembly line where each performance of a piece (that is supposed to be a living entity) is considered wonderful if it is performed exactly the same way each time."
Part of what I'm doing in all these posts IS an intellectual approach. Some of that's me, how I think, how I approach things. I know I'm analytical. I'm analyzing or taking apart something in order to understand it, to be able to teach it. But it's actually something I have to be aware of as a potential weakness, since it's easy for me to let that part of me rule--I have to dig deep sometimes to discover the inner part of myself.
You mention, "the experience of free,relaxed/effortless singing that speaks to the (my) heart." The problem for me is that many singers don't have the technique to sing freely, relaxed, and effortlessly. Of course there are those that do without any training--I've known some of them. But for many, it takes effort, practice, and guidance to get to the point where they can let go and sing as you describe.
In that sense, I agree with Shawn--in a slightly different way than the F. Melius quote--that for me, the work I do with technique (whether individual or with my choirs) is to get to the point that we don't have to think about technique in performance, because we've already mastered that (and yes, I know that we don't truly master anything!). Mastery of technique can, perhaps paradoxically, lead to freedom.
When we talk about an assembly line performance, I probably learned most about that on a personal level when I started teaching at Pacific Lutheran University and started taking tours every year with 12-14 performances of the same repertoire. I quickly learned that the choir could easily fall into "robot" performances. This meant that I had to (on the one hand) consciously vary what I did, so they didn't go on autopilot. It also taught me the value of feeling as if you're improvising the music, as if the for the first time, every night.
In that sense, I learned that I could "let go" and see where inspiration took me that night: sometimes from the room (acoustic or visual space), audience (how responsive they were), from something in the music that suddenly struck me in a completely new way, and from the singers themselves, whose performance or sound or articulation or phrasing or facial expressions took the interpretation somewhere else--somewhere unexpected.
And some performances have magic, plain and simple. I couldn't always predict where and why that would happen. One time we were driving (in vans--those were my first few years of tours with the Choir of the West--traveling with student drivers in 4 15-passenger vans + an equipment/luggage truck!) from L.A. to San Jose. One of the vans broke down in L.A., so we crammed everyone into 3 vans for a long, hot drive. Maybe because of the bonding that takes place with adversity of any kind, but we gave one of our best performances of the tour that night. Another time had a more obvious reason: we were performing in Memorial Chapel at Stanford, which is a fabulous space with a long reverberation time. I can still remember the expression on the choir member's faces when we cut off the first chord in our sound check and heard how long the sound lasted in the Chapel! Because of the reverb, I had to change lots of things: tempi, how much "hang time" after a fermata, etc. And the choir responded in the most fresh and creative way--of course, they, too, were inspired by this beautiful and deeply spiritual place.
But of course, the goal is for every performance to have some magic--to move both ourselves and our audience into another realm, another spiritual dimension. We can't do it every time. For me, the effort in rehearsal to get there--both technique and soul--are a large part of the fun and why I still love doing this.
In short, technique is a means to an end, but not the end. Can I forget sometimes and have the work on technique dominate? Yes, of course. But I try to make sure that my work on technique is ultimately to serve the end of being able to let go in performance because we aren't worried about being confident we know the music, we've solved most the difficulties in the music, and we've also worked enough in rehearsal on the expressive elements, the meaning of what we're doing, that we can let go and freely sing what our hearts tell us. It's not easy and we can't do this all the time or on every piece, but it's wonderful when it does!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 26, 2013 12:29pm
"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. " 
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.  

This  series of intonation postings are quite fascinating (and provoking).   

William Copper
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.