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Vocal technique for Messiah Choruses with runs

My choir is singing Messiah in December and I would like advice about vocal production for the runs. So many choirs sound 'breathy', unarticulated or missing notes entirely. What's the secret to successful delivery? All advice welcome!
Replies (8): Threaded | Chronological
on September 12, 2012 6:27pm
Have the sing the melissma on a "dah" or "doh" -- which ever is the vowel.  Emphasize beats 1 & 3 as is stylistically correct.  You may want them to emphasize every beat at first.  Then beats 1 & 3.  the D is not that audible to an audience and the consonant provides the impetus for the vocal folds to come together on the vowel.  Remind them to keep it light, not heavy.  Start slowly, (MM = ng50-60) at first to hear/sing all notes. 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 13, 2012 7:56am
My answer is more about the mental than vocal dimension, since my observation is that a lot of time when people elide the detail it's because they don't have a clear mental grasp of the detail.
So, agree with Alan's point about slow singing to give them a chance to wrap their brains around every note. 
Also it can be very helpful to sing the first note of every crotchet so the singers can get a bigger-picture concept of the musical structure between which to string the 'little' notes. This helps a lot with phrasing as well, helping people form a sense of direction.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 14, 2012 4:38pm
I totally agree, Liz. Years ago, while working on "For unto us", I decided to take this approach, but I took it a bit further. The first melisma/sequence is (in soprano part) b a b c b c a b g, etc. I took the first 16th note (b), then the 5th (b) and 7th (a) and 9th (g), and then continue on with the successive sequences. It becomes b (and count the next 3 16th notes), b (rest), a (rest), g, and so on. This allowed them to see/hear the pattern/sequence, and gives them a melody to latch on to within a long phrase. It's hard to visualize on the screen, but if you took that line and circled those notes in each 8-note sequence, it's easier to grasp. 
And, as John says, taking a light and less weight-in-the-voice approach to the lines, will result in a more pleasing performance, both from the audience point of view and from the singer's viewpoint. Many amateur choirs will be pleased and they will probably be less fatigued over the course of the work.
Hope this helps!
Dr. Craig Scott Symons
Director of Music/Organist
First Congregational Church 
Old Greenwich, CT
email: craigs(a)
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 13, 2012 9:51am
Mark & Friends:  This may be worth mentioning, although it's more a matter of philosophy than of technique.
Most of us grew up saturated in 19th century music, and the 20th century legacy of it.  It is music of emotion and music of virtuosity.  The fast notes--the fast passages--are the important ones because they are difficult and allow us to show off, right?  Whole notes are boring.  16th and 32nd notes are exciting and need to be brought out.  The development of ever-larger opera orchestras required the development of ever-larger voices, to the detriment of subtlety and flexibility.  To paraphrase the Olympic slogan, "Higher, Louder, Faster!"
That was NOT the approach taken during the baroque.  Ornamentation was valued, of course, and expected to be improvised, not simply practiced over and over and duplicated in performance.  But it was seen as what it was:  ornamentation of the fundamental melodic lines which were the true important elements, not a replacement of them.  They were very much aware of strong beats and weak beats, and one function of the ornamentation was to connect, lightly, the strong beats, while emphasizing their strength.  The very best description I've ever read is to think of the strong beats and the strong notes--always the LONGER notes!--as the pillars holding up the roof, while the ornamentation was the filigrees stretching between those pillars in order to decorate and beautify them.
Handel's running ornamentation--the type of Italian ornamentation going well back into the 16th century and the earliest treatises on performance practice--was never intended to be heavy and burdomson.  It was meant to be light, flexible, and very, very accurate.  Loud, heavy vocal production simply won't allow it to happen.  In fact I'd go so far as to suggest that any singer who cannot sing a true trill, as opposed to a widened vibrato, does not have the necessary flexible technique to bring it off.  "Coloratura" was never a voice type, it was a technique, and it was quite possible to have a coloratura BASS (frightening though the thought might be!!!).
All the suggestions you've gotten are good, and you should try them.  But the bottom line is that if your singers can't make it work at the tempo of your favorite recording, don't try to push them up to that tempo!
All the best,
Applauded by an audience of 2
on September 18, 2012 6:01am
Frightening, a coloratura bass?  I seem to remember a guy in the 70's and 80's on whom such nomenclature was used: Sam Ramey.  No need to be afraid of that.  
No one can sing notes faster than they can hear them. If they notes are not correct, no amount of "da-da-ing" will make them right. (It occurs to me that Handel migh not have throught that "stylisticall correct," anyway.) If pitches are not in the correct rhythm, the values need to be learned, just as were the pitches.  Lovely, note-perfect melismas do not have to be articulated by the vocal cords, as most people do.  Coloratura can be sung full-out. I am reminded of Leontyne Price in Don Giovanni, singing Donna Anna's Act II aria, Met 1974.  (I'll send you a link if you like.)  That was not a voice known for the ability to sing flexibly, and she had been reknowned for her interpretation of big Verdi roles for more than a decade.  How did whe do it?  First, she did her homework and learned the corddect pitches and rhythms and used her legato technique; she kept the air moving.  Essentially, she slid from note to note in practice, becoming more adept at "hanging out" on the notes and shortening the slides. It works. I use it with my students and choirs.
on September 14, 2012 2:40pm
There is a very interesting article about this by Joy Sherman and Lawrence R. Brown in the August 1995 Choral Journal called Singing Passagi: Modern Application of a Centuries-old Technique.  Joy researched a Renaissance/Baroque technique called glottal articulation, although a more accurate modern description might perhaps be aspirate articulation.  It is NOT done with a glottal attack.  Joy teaches at Seattle University and I talked to her in June about this technique because I am preparing a performance of a choreographed Messiah and wanted to teach it to my singers.  Once the techniqued is mastered it works quite well, makes the melismatic passages easier to navigate.  Contact her, she'll be happy to talk to you about it.
Linda Gingrich
on September 16, 2012 8:05pm
When I teach runs (or when I have to learn them myself), I like changing the rhythm.  
1) Dotted: Long-short, long-short...
2) reverse dotted: short-long, short long...
3) Groups of 16ths and quarters: diddly-dum, diddly-dum
4) reverse it: dum-diddly...
5) Then I do longer patterns--maybe five notes and a pause, or nine notes and a pause...
You get the idea.  You end up singing the passage a bunch of different ways, nevery moving quickly for too many notes at a time, and always putting the pauses in different places.  
I also remind the singers to keep their voices light and easy while they're doing this "brain work."  Hope this helps!
on September 17, 2012 1:14pm
Great suggestions everyone.  These are all good tips I would recommend. 
I thoroughly enjoy teaching melismas and have found a lot of success in getting my choirs to understand, execute, and reproduce great melismatic singing.  Here's my approach in a nutshell:
Fundamental/Physiological Concepts:
1. Tempo based on average human vibrato speed (quarter note = 90 - 96)
2. Breath pulsation
3. Vowel purity (formant naturally changes slightly on each pitch, and though the vowel stays in it's purest form, singers should feel and allow flexibility of very minor adjustments of resonance through melismas.  A"resonant dance." )
4. Vocal fold connection (never encourage or allow H's to achieve articulation. Be cautious of the term "separation.")
5. Realization of, and commitment to phrase
6. Necessary energy through passagio/s
7. Necessary vowel modification through passagio/s (advanced concept, important in quality performance but not required for basic execution)
1. Ghost voice:  Encourage students to mimic the sound of the halloween toy made of a ball with cloth tied around it that shakes and lights up.  Bring one into class (fun).
 - This will naturally align melismatic action with vibrato speed, it will pulsate the breath, and keep the vocal folds connected. Occasionally alternate vowels , preceding ever exercise with a Y glide (Yee, Yah, etc.)
2. Put it into a 5,4,3,2,1 major scale decending exercise.  Then start to vary, gradually increasing complexity.  (543454321, 123454321, 1234565654321, etc.). When mechanisms are functioning properly and consistently, lightly encourage them to incorporate other concepts such as vowel purification, relaxation of the body, etc.
3. Glissando through full range (weeeEEEEEeee, woooOOOOoooo) and ask students about the following changes they notice as they gliss through their range: Mouth, vowel shape, breath energy.  They will produce all the correct answers about increased energy and vowel modification through passagio/s.  Go back to step #1 for a moment, transition into step #2 and begin extending the exercises into the upper range.  They will apply their new knowledge of energy and vowel modification to the exercises.
4.  Tell them that you are now going to sing the melisma for them - they'll get excited - and say you need their help.  Ask them to silently cheer you on with their arms in "fist pump" style as you go through the melisma (fist pump, because the new generation will eat it up, and they will be able to hear you while you're singing).  Explain that you don't need much encouragement in the beginning of the exercise, but as it goes along (don't say up) it will get more difficult and you will need their help to get you excited.  They will love this. After you're done and you successfully sang through the melisma, and they've gotten their giggles out, ask them why you needed their help.  What did it do?  (they'll get the answer: energy)
5.  Have them apply their new knowledge/skills to the music at hand.  You will notice an immediate back-slide in technique - it's the nature of the beast when you pull the music out and there are actually notes and words to follow.  Repeat steps 1-3 as needed, supplement with brief supplemental physical/technical explanations and supplemental images (bees, hamster on wheel, throwing kneenexes in the air, etc..) and BE THEIR CHEERLEADER!
* I use the other tips mentioned in this forum often, as there are a million ways to skin a cat and to be a great cat skinner, you should know all 1,000,000! I use Dahs/Dohs if I'm preparing a lesser trained choir with inadequate rehearsal time and I use rhythmic distractions to enlighten singers on the flexibility of the voice and to point out that psychology is half the battle.  Of all the great helpful tips and tricks out there though, I have found for me that a fundamental, physiological based approach is the most effective way to ensure singers will execute melismas with quality and precision, and will ensure that they will be able to reproduce melismas in the future.  My strongest recommendation for any director wanting to teach their singers how to do melismas is to practice it themselves first until they can execute any melisma they wish their singers to be able to execute.  It will greatly boost physiological understanding and will lead to a more full-proof approach; One that is unique and works for you.  Oh, and I shouldn't forget "Vaccai" exercises....  Those Italians really know their stuff.
Hope this helps, and best wishes in your continued melismatic training!
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