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Intonation IX - Calibrating the Ear--John Goldsmith

John Goldsmith is a terrific musician, directs the Heinz Chapel Choir at the University of Pittsburg, and teaches the musicianship courses for the Music Department. He was a member of Chanticleer and sang with Robert Shaw in France. If you wish to reach him directly about his workshops, contact him through his email address at the University of Pittsburg.
 
I first came across John's Calibrating the Ear--Developing Tonal Memory workshop material through Simon Carrington, requested a copy (which John gladly gave), and then met him briefly at a NW ACDA Conference. I've used these exercises with my choirs at PLU and found them valuable. I haven't used them since coming to UNT but, now that I'm reminded about them with this blog series, plan to this fall! I highly recommend them. This is the first of two parts:
 
Definition: Tonal memory is the ability to accurately sing back long phrases of melodic line after one hearing. This ability develops into the skill of singing in tune and maintaining a stable key center in a cappella singing.
 
Premise: Most choral directors do vocal warm-ups with the choirs prior to beginning rehearsals. The most common method is to sing five-note scales or arpeggios up and down, possibly while playing along on the piano. The exercises are usually done in major mode and all tonal shifts are given to the singers with the piano. This type of warm-up actually prevents the development of tonal memory because: 1) no one really "listens" when singing in the major mode, 2) singers go on "automatic" and simply match pitch without thinking if the piano plays along, and 3) singers are not asked to engage their intellects or use their ears.
 
The Ear Calibration Warm-up system is an a cappella warm-up which utilizes patterns in the minor mode (which is so odd that singers actually pay attention), thus turning on that illusive "listening switch" in the brain. By teaching the fundamental skill of being able to hear and sing the difference between half and whole steps, tonal memory is developed and expanded, parts are learned more quickly, unisons are beautiful, and singing in tune becomes automatic. 
 
At first the routine may take 8-10 minutes. Don't be impatient--tonal memory takes time to develop and the initial investment will be well worth it! Furthermore, the calibration rolls over from year to year, and new singers catch on quickly.
 
The Calibration Routine pre-supposes that the conductor can sing the given 5-note scale minor patterns, chromatic and whole-tone scales up and down, a cappella, in tune, and can demonstrate it.
 
Rehearsals are begun with a couple minutes of relaxing exercises (backrubs; shoulder rolls; movement of shoulders, arms, and face; yawns (raise the soft palate); and sprechstimme imitation (raise the soft palate). The Ear Calibration warm-ups must be done in an environment of silence. If there is a band playing next door your singers will not have enough quiet to hear that inner voice.
 
The First Step for Turning On the Brain's Listening Switch:
In a medium-high tessitura, using a neutral vowel (nyah, nyoh, nyoo) with no vibrato (you cannot tune vibrato!) in a soft dynamic, sing a five-note melody using the notes of the minor triad (e.g. mi-Do-re-ti-la) and ask your choir to sing it back to you. Then ask them to shift down one-half step and sing it again.  Even if the singers accurately shift down a half-step (not likely), the exercise will fail the first time because they will sing the melody back to you in major.  
 
Stop them . . . tell them what happened . . . say: "we are in minor, not major . . . make the 2nd note lower (i.e. "Do") - demonstrate.  Start over.  Sing the melody to them again and ask them to sing it back.  Pause.  Forbidding your singers to sing or hum, ask "can you still hear the first note (i.e. "mi") in your head?"  (If anyone sings or hums the pitch the entire exercise is ruined for everyone else . . . tonal memory gets exercised in silence!)  
 
Then ask them to silently shift down one-half step (NOBODY is allowed to sing or hum the new starting pitch!) and sing the melody back in the new tonality.  Chances are they will have shifted at least a whole step.  Repeat all this until they catch on to what a half step sounds like!.  At consecutive rehearsals change the order of the minor melody always beginning on the fifth (e.g. mi-ti-re-Do-la; mi-re-ti-Do-la; mi-la-re-ti-Do . . . etc.)  NOTE: by beginning in medium high tessitura and shifting down by half-steps the voice relaxes, and singers spend their concentration on the pitches rather than trying to sing higher and higher (and getting tighter and tighter).
 
Additonal notes:
  • do the entire calibration warm-up routine at every rehearsal
  • always entirely a cappella! never play the new shifts on the piano--insist that the singers remember (wihout humming) the first pitch of the previous tonal center, and make the half-step shift down without help (coach them and demonstrate it)
  • begin the descending five-note pattern moderately high--by using descending patterns the voice will relax as you go rather than tighten up, as it inevitably will if you begin in ascending patterns
  • make sure your singers are aware they must raise the soft palate!
  • with whatever vowel you choose:
    • watch their mouths for uniform shape
    • demand perfect unisons (say, "make unison")
    • soft dynamic with no vibrato
  • be extremely picky about pitch accuracy, and be specific about which pitches are not accurate (e.g. "the fifth note is low because the fourth note was too low")
  • when the five-note pattern becomes easy for the choir, change it
From my experience, this is a demanding exercise, but the singers will improve rapidly (wait until you see part 2!). It will make a huge difference in the ears of your singers and, therefore, in their intonation. Many thanks to John for being willing to share this Ear Calibration routine!
 
on May 23, 2013 4:10am
Thank you for sharing this!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 23, 2013 8:21am
Intonation has different meanings perhaps. I have been studying and rehearsing some of Palestrina's minor-mode 1593 offertories, and I am interested in intonation appropriate for this diatonic harmonic language. Specifically, I'm finding that it really seems to matter that the mediant be a wide minor third above tonic (and a wide major half step above supertonic, and a narrow minor whole step below subdominant). Is the exercise above typically done with 12-tone equal temperament as the reference? If so:
—Is equal temperament specifically desirable? Does it matter?
—Does the choir trained by this method have more (or less) trouble adjusting the size of melodic steps and thirds, consciously or otherwise, to make chords ring?
Thanks!
Josh Perry-Parrish
Baltimore, MD
 
 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 23, 2013 9:30am
Hi Josh,
 
Thanks for your question. I agree totally with your conclusion about the intonation in Palestrina.
 
The exercise above can certainly be done with just intonation (your higher 2nd and minor 3rd scale degree). You'll see in the next exercises (out Saturday) that a chromatic scale will be sung, which DOES need to be in equal temperament. However, in my experience, this doesn't make it difficult for the choir to adjust the size of melodic steps and thirds to make chords ring--if you've seen some of the earlier posts on just intonation, you'll know I use that.
 
What these exercises do is to increase the skill of the singers to "audiate" ("inner hearing" -- the term invented by researcher Edwin Gordon -- the wikipedia article gives some background on it and Gordon has many articles) clearly what they are going to sing. The ability to sing an accurate (equal tempered) chromatic scale doesn't interfere with the singers ability to sing a slightly larger half-step when, for example, in just intonation, they sing the (lowered) leading tone (of a dominant chord) and have to sing a slightly larger half step to get to the tonic. I have found that they increase their skill in both audiation and accuracy, which can then carry over to intervals that aren't in equal temperament.
 
And, of course, I train the choir to sing pure major thirds at the same time I'd be doing these exercises.
 
For example, with my PLU choir, I used John's exercises during the year I met him (and he heard my choir) at NW ACDA. So they'd done a lot of John's exercises by this point. One of the pieces we were doing was the Lauridsen O Nata Lux. I worked with my choir to tune the opening chord with just intonation, meaning a lower major third and higher major 2nd. In that way, to my ear, it tunes beautifully--and once my choir was used to doing that I played the chord on the piano after they'd sung it and they couldn't believe how out of tune it sounded to them. Of course, when working with them, I never played the full chord but had them sing (audiate!) the chord just from the root, D. When we first did this, I would have them sing the chord minus the 3rd, then sing the 3rd for them, then have the part(s) (sorry, don't have the score in front of me) with the 3rd match my pitch. I'd do the same with the 9th, until they could clearly hear that chord with just intonation, and produce it at any time just from the D.
 
So, John's exercises and singing with just intonation are entirely compatible. Since the exercises above are all modeled by the conductor, it's up to you to model the 2nd and 3rd scale degree where you hear (and want) them.
 
I'll say more later about the use of the piano (or not!) in rehearsals.
 
Hope this helps!
Applauded by an audience of 2
on June 2, 2013 8:41am
For Josh, and others interested in Palestrina:  in reply to Richard's "Intonation III", John Cox posted what he called 'tuning exercises' by Ross Duffin: they also are a (slightly odd, but accurate, imo) way to view intonation, and the first two exercises should apply well to your work on Palestrina.  
 
I must say I feel Duffin went astray in the last two exercises, and gave some false tunings ... but it's a complicated area when you look at the very fine details, and he may have some justification for his tunings. 
on June 7, 2013 9:44pm
This sounds like really valuable material, but I have to take issue with statements like "you cannot tune vibrato!" I know vibrato is the source of an eternal choral debate, but statements like these are what really frustrate those in the vocal pedagogy world. 
on June 15, 2013 3:05am
Hi Phillip,
 
Just noticed you'd added this comment. I don't know if you'll see this, but . . .
 
John Goldsmith was speaking of his exercises in terms of vibrato, not of an approach to singing generally. In his instructions, he asks for a relatively soft dynamic and deliberately pitches it fairly high, to encourage light registration/head voice--where it's quite possible to sing without vibrato (or I should say, singers can learn to sing with little or no vibrato without vocal strain). In the exercises, the goal is to learn to sing these intervals with tight accuracy, where I think vibrato can get in the way. Outside of the exercises it's up to the conductor to decide how much vibrato (how wide the pitch amplitude) is OK.
 
I wrote about that issue in an earlier post in the series here.
 
Vibrato is very much a matter of taste (and yes, a matter that can be a debate between voice teachers and choral directors--and therefore one of concern). Here's a bit of what I said about the topic from the above linked post:
 
"My experiences with Swedish choirs, plus a long interest in early music, mean that I look for less vibrato than some, but singers still singing with full singer's formant, and clearly defined pitch. Additionally, if you are to tune with either "just" intonation or earlier tuning systems (quarter-comma meantone) with very pure thirds (lower than the thirds on the piano), you have to use less vibrato to hear the difference (too much vibrato blurs the two types of thirds).
 
"That means I want a narrow definition of what a good unison is and how much tolerance there is for chords to be in tune. Of course, that changes with style--if I conduct the Verdi Requiem, I'll expect more vibrato and the consequent widening of what is allowed in a unison on one or multiple parts. Some research shows that with vibrato, humans perceive the mean frequency as the center of the pitch. One study of modern performances of Schubert's Ave Maria showed a mean variation of plus or minus 71 cents (100 cents is a half step) and more variation in a Verdi aria. Of course, there is also a difference between the perception of a solo singer with orchestra and a group of singers. If you're like me, you've heard some performances of the a cappella quartet in the Verdi Requiem where you couldn't recognize the chords!"
 
I also gave two links to performances with one of my own groups (from two different years) at UNT, since it's difficult to talk about an issue such as vibrato without an example one can hear:
 
Handel Dixit Dominus from last Thursday: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jz4ZVusFsTo
and
Victoria Requiem from the Berkeley Early Music Festival last summer with just 14 singers from last year's group: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUBIxg6ZpKE
 
"In the Victoria, in particular, because it's a small group (3 each on soprano, 2 on other parts) singing with very minimal vibrato, you'll see that small deviations in pitch are more noticeable. In the Handel, because of the virtuosic nature of the vocal writing, my singers have freer range in terms of vibrato, although there may still be some who think I'm restricting vibrato more than their taste -- and taste does enter into it!"
 
Thanks so much for writing, Phillip!
 
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