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Intonation XIII - Answering questions from comments

As I bring this (long!) series to an end, I'll attempt to answer questions or highlight comments made by others to this series--a huge thanks to those who took the time to comment, correct, or add to what I've said. I will likely say a few things more on Saturday before signing off for the summer. If you have questions, ask them now!
 
A number of people have brought up issues of singing technique. My earlier posts (here, here, and here) deal with different aspects. A few mentioned mouth position for vowels and yes, this is important. While not all singers will use the same mouth position for the same vowels (for example, I was suprised watching John Potter, a former member of the Hilliard Ensemble, to see how little he opens his mouth!), with young singers what you see can be an important clue to what they're doing correctly or incorrectly. Get out of the score and watch your singers!
 
On my last post, both Stephen Bigger and William Copper (my most prolific commenter and one of the most interesting!) offered comments. Stephen spoke of tongue position (follow the link to the comments to see the specifics). While I don't disagree with anything he said, I tend to be conservative about dealing with issues of the tongue with my choirs. Primarily, this is because I can't monitor something like tongue position very well with a large group of singers. In the private voice studio I would certainly do this, but then I can closely and easily monitor what the singer does and correct it, if necessary. It's very easy, in a large group of singers, for an individual to misunderstand what I say and for me not to notice it. Part of this, of course, is also that I've been dealing for a long time with relatively experienced singers (at PLU or UNT with singers who are almost all taking private voice). I expect that their teacher will deal with those issues, and also don't want to "step on" the voice teacher's toes! Both at PLU and UNT the relationship between voice faculty and choral faculty is extraordinarily good (not always the case, I know!) and I want to make sure that the things I ask for are congruent with teaching in the studio. If I see/hear something specific happening with one of my students, I don't hesitate to speak to their teacher and ask about it. On the other hand, if I was working with a younger group where almost no one was taking voice lessons, I'd probably do much more--as I mentioned in an earlier post, for many conductors, you are the primary voice teacher for your singers.
 
The post just before that got the largest number of comments. I responded to most of them there, so won't reproduce all of them (you can read them yourselves), but thought I'd reference solfege here, since I haven't spoken of it. I'm far from an expert in solfege, but because most of my current singers are from Texas and the UIL requirements are to read with moveable do solfege, I will sometimes have my choir either read or rehearse with solfege. In terms of intonation, solfege offers several advantages, among them: singable vowels and the singer learning where various scale degrees "belong" pitch-wise. Much as with count-singing, however, I tend to use occasionally as a tool, rather than as part of my regular teaching/rehearsal pattern. That has to do with my background and what, over the years, I've found works for me - it may be to my detriment!
 
Again, personal experience: I came to college not really reading, but having always learned by ear. I'd taken some piano lessons the summer before I started and knew note names and key signatures, but not to the point where it was  automatic. I had to work really hard to catch up since I was so far behind the other singers and instrumentalists in my theory and sightsinging classes (by the way, Joan Conlon was my freshman year ear-training teacher). We learned with moveable do (although with do-re-me minor, not la-ti-do). This was very helpful for me initially, since it did give me a reference point for where pitches were in relation to Do. However, I never became truly quick and proficient with solfege (I later worked a bit on fixed-do solfege as well, after an experience with a teacher trained that way), so can't, for example, read with solfege syllables as fast as many of my students do (although I can read far better and more accurately than they can!). It's my experience that solfege (unless you're incredibly well trained) doesn't help much with really chromatic music of the 19th century or 20th/21st century music.
 
Basically I learned to read . . . by reading. I sang in virtually every grad student's recital (Bruce Browne was one of the DMA students at the UW at that time, for example) and simply got to the place where I had enough experience to just read. With some friends I also got together regularly to read madrigals (wine was also involved!). I believe strongly that one learns to read by reading - it's one of the reasons I'll almost always let my choir read the music we're doing, unless it's so difficult that's just not possible. I encourage them to read however it works best for them, given the difficulty of the music: complete with words, with solfege, on neutral syllables--whatever's easiest--and if they get lost, find their way and jump back in, not giving up. I want them to have that experience. I also encourage them to sing in a good church choir (around here, many of them can get a position as a paid section leader), which will force them to read and learn a lot of repertoire. If you know Nancy Telfer's sightreading series, I think she makes some excellent points about reading with text.
 
When I started doing more 20th century music, particularly after I became interested in Swedish music, I worked some with Lars Edlund's classic Modus novus, which is a great primer to reading non-tonal music. And as I conducted more and more such music, my score-study and preparation made me a much better musician and reader of this music. It really is all about experience.
 
Next, choral gesture as it relates to intonation: William Copper wrote a post with a great question: WHO adjusts pitch to tune a choir? I'd encourage you to read all of it and the responses. Eugene Lysinger responds with a comment about choral gesture, referencing the work of Rodney Eichenberger (yes, my first real conducting teacher and Eugene and I sang together with Rod some 40 years ago--and I sang in at least one of Eugene's grad recitals at the time). This is to the effect of gesture on intonation (and the way singers sing).
 
I certainly still use some of Rod's concepts, although I don't conduct as low as most of his students do. But I'm concerned with getting energy where it belongs (lower, where the breath comes from) and not giving tense, high gestures that can cause singers throat tension. It's not that singers can't ignore that, but it's harder than you'd think! Even experienced/professional singers will find it more difficult and young singers will almost invariably get tension where you don't want it and cause vocal and intonation problems. 
 
I want my gesture to engender the breath flow that my singers need to sing well. It has to flow with the phrase. My sense is that gesture can be higher if there is no tension and it also depends on how close I am to my singers. My preference is NOT to be too close to the choir. That makes a huge difference. I don't want tension in my hand (thumb and forefinger pinched together, for example) or in my shoulders. 
 
Eugene also references a technique of Rod's using the hand (of the singer!) to lift the soft palate. I use this all the time and with groups that are fairly experienced or absolute beginners. Easy to show, hard to say in words! I turn to my left, so the choir sees me from the side. With my right hand held next to my face (like a karate chop, with the side of my hand directly toward them), I'll ask the choir to do exactly as I do. The hand is first at a 45 degree angle and very flat/straight. I ask them to sing an ah on a given pitch. While they're singing I rotate my hand forward and curve to create an arch in my hand (they copy this, of course). I then go back and forth between the two hand positions. The difference in sound is remarkable, since any singer, regardless of training, will lift the soft palate as the hand mimics the position of the soft palate. It's physiologically impossible for them not to lift the soft palate. Once they've done this a few times, I can use my left hand in this manner to remind them, even in a performance, since it will remind them of the physical feeling of lifting the soft palate. This is one of the things I said early on was an important part of vocal technique to sing in tune. Try it if you haven't before! (Rod's video, What They See is What You Get, will give you lots of ideas about this topic and lots of things to try).
 
And finally, back to one of my original topics of just intonation: William Copper, as part of a series of comments here said, first quoting someone else, "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." 
 
William then followed this with, "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." He then offered: "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." www.hartenshield.com
 
I think he's dead on about the (in)ability for choirs to keep to just intonation all  the time. And I don't try to do that, quite honestly. I also work primarily by ear and demonstration. I'm always concerned with: 1) working with the choir initially so they hear and can produce good unisons, fifths and pure thirds 2) working to get pure thirds at cadences (in passing harmonies I won't be as concerned) and 3) working to stay in tune (i.e. in a cappella music, not going either sharp or flat).
 
One of the things one has to deal with, given pure thirds and trying to stay at the same pitch, is how to accomodate both. Oversimplifying, barbershoppers want the lead (melody) to sing in tune with the (equal-tempered) piano--then the harmony parts must sing pure intervals from the lead, no matter whether it's on the root, third or fifth. The other way to do this is to keep the roots of the chords in tune (i.e. with the equal-tempered piano) and tune purely around that. That's what I'm more likely to do. 
 
If you know Bruckner's Os justi (or can look at a copy from cpdl), we can use the opening as an example. It opens with an F major chord, 3rd in the soprano. I want that chord tuned purely (so will avoid giving the chord on the piano, but teach the choir how to tune "justly" from just the F)--the A will be lower than on the piano. Next the bass sings a passing tone E to D, where the chord switches to d minor. In this case, I want my basses to sing a fairly high E-natural and a D that matches the piano (it's easy to sing too wide a half step from F to E, so the D is flat--it's also a question of vowel--from the ee of justi to the eh of meditabitur the basses must concentrate on a forward eh vowel, not too far from the ee). That means the soprano A to D has to be a fraction higher to make sure the lower pitch of the A (3rd of F major) to the D that will match the basses's tempered D. In the fifth bar there's a G major chord with the 3rd in the soprano (slightly lower), but in the next bar the same B is the fifth of an e minor chord (and perhaps a fraction higher). Note that I'm not telling them to sing X cents higher, but pointing out what needs to be higher or lower, getting them to listen carefully and place the notes accordingly (I may need to demonstrate as well where the notes belong). Having "anchor" chords which must be tuned justly is part of what I figure out when learning the piece. William mentioned in a previous comment about the need to sing sometimes with equally tempered intonation, and that's absolutely true. You have to figure that out by the accompaniment (you can't retune the piano or organ, although strings, winds and brass can all play with just intonation) and by the style. If a composer clearly thinks in equal temperament, sometimes just intonation simply doesn't work (William gives a good example).
 
This may sound complicated, but it's really a matter of getting the basses to sing their line absolutely in tune with the piano, but the parts above to listen carefully and tune to it (it's one of the reasons why, if my choir is in sections, the basses are most often behind the sopranos--it makes it easier for the sopranos to tune if they hear the bass part, which often has the roots). IF they've learned what nice just major and minor chords sound like, it's not as difficult as it may seem. Of course, to do this well, they have to have all the basics down and be able to sing this with very little vibrato so the chords tune. Again, I'm not attempting to tune every single chord with just intonation, but listen for those places where it makes a difference, and particularly at cadences.
 
Do the basses always stick with the piano? No. In Lauridsen's O Nata Lux the opening chord is a D major 9th with the basses and sopranos on the 3rd. Here, I give a D, but want the basses and sopranos to sing a pure third (lower than the piano). In order to keep the piece in tune I may play single note pedals (usually above the soprano part, where it's more easily heard) that usually (not always) correspond to the roots of chords. 
 
Once again, this has gone on longer than I thought!
 
I'll post at least one more time and address a few more issues. If you have any final questions, ask them in the comments section or send a private message.
 
 
 
on June 6, 2013 3:56pm
I can't resist one more comment, though you call me profligate, in response to:   " getting the basses to sing their line absolutely in tune with the piano "
 
If the composer has been so unwise as to put a major third of tonic or dominant or subdominant triad in the bass voice AND in the piano bass, then you are screwed: it's gonna be equal tempered and sound not so great.   Otherwise, let the bass singers tune and carefully avoid doubling their third in the piano.   In your following paragraph you basically say this, too: for O Natu Lux, your treatment is just right.
 
William Copper
(who has put the darn third in the bass in the piano in the past and now atones for it, having finally learned to compose)
on June 10, 2013 7:33pm
Thanks, William--no need to apologize for one last commment! Yes, with O Nata lux it's a cappella, so the bass can sing a pure third. What fun this has been!