Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Carowinds...the breath, the tone, the phrase

Marc Setzer, Me, Bob Holquist

I really enjoyed myself this past weekend. I had the privilege of listening and adjudicating several choirs at the Carowinds Festival of Music in Charlotte, North Carolina. There were several very good choirs, and I enjoyed hearing all the wonderful things going on in choral classrooms in North and South Carolina.  The adjudicating team was Dr. Robert Holquist, Professor Marc Setzer, and me. I thoroughly enjoyed working with my two colleagues, and when we began discussing generalities, I realized that we all said pretty much the same things in different ways.

I generally have mixed emotions as I adjudicate choirs. I believe that encouragement is needed in our educational system for students and teachers. I want to be constructive when I adjudicate, so that choirs can make some improvements in the future. There is a standard, and integrity demands that the standard be upheld. However, if I might suggest one thing to a choir or its director that will make a difference in their performance, I try to find that "thing" that might be most beneficial to the group as a whole.

I am reminded of a couple of things, however. I think I said the same things all day long...not because it was all I knew to say...I said the things because I heard so many of the same issues from all the choirs. They were the same things I have always heard from Solo/Ensemble performers and Festival choirs. Do any of you other choral directors have that issue? I am reminded that choirs so often have the same challenges year-to-year-to-year...choir-to-choir-to-choir...and I find that my colleagues and I often say very similar things to develop improvement. We just say things in our own ways. The good thing is that sincere interest in improvement is our goal, and we try to convey that to the choirs and directors.

In my opinion, there were three concerns regarding techniques that were consistent across the board for most choirs:

1) The breath - Our bodies are our vocal instruments. We cannot even get started until there is breath to set the entire mechanism in motion. So...how do we do this? Well, the first thing is to teach students how to breathe. Yes...that wonderful diaphragm session. In the midst of becoming familiar with this glorious muscle, we must teach students how to use it in the process of singing. That is, singers should support the sound. What should students do to support a musical tone? There are many ways to teach this vocal technique (one for every vocal instructor, I think), and I've found that it basically comes down to however the teacher might have been taught. Funny, huh? There really isn't too much that makes sense about support, but something in the body must be done so that there is some control to the amount of air that comes rushing out of the lungs. We might not be able to "see" the support happening, but we certainly know when it is not present. 

2) The tone - The good news is that once you get the breath in good working order, the issues with tone will likely be resolved as well. Without the appropriate breath support, the tone may become thin, "throaty," or "chesty." What is a good tone? Well, it is a supported tone. So...this issue is interwoven with "the breath," and the chances are...once you "fix" one, you "fix" both. That's good news!! I almost forgot...in order to get a good tone, try opening the mouth, dropping the jaw, and creating space so that the sound can resonate like the body of a guitar and its strings.

3) The phrase - Once you get a substantial breath that produces a good tone in the singing voice, it's time to sing! It is important to sing phrases musically. So...what does that mean? I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you of several considerations for singing a phrase musically. First, the phrase must begin a bit softer than its apex, grow, reach the apex, then taper off. What determines the apex? Well, sometimes it is the highest note of the phrase. Sometimes it is the longest duration. Sometimes it is the most important syllable of the spoken phrase. Sometimes it is a combination of all of those. Underneath the overall arc of the phrase is the fact that sometimes (depending on the style) each note should have the same movement as the phrase. Every note should begin, grow so that the loudest portion of the note is the middle of the note, then it should taper off (I learned this from singing with Robert Shaw). All within an 8th note?? Yes...all within an 8th note. You can hear this happening! Try it with a nice, legato piece of music. You will hear it! Yes...this is a mental thing, but it truly makes a difference in the musical direction of phrases. Okay...so....try it!

As I write all of these things, I am reminded that I am the perennial student. Learning never stops...even at my (ahem) "age." We are always looking for "the next thing" to finally "realize" in the profession of music. I love adjudicating. I love to trying to help students to sing better and feel better about their performance on the concert stage. The only bad thing? I will never get to hear if anything I or my colleagues said that made a difference in how choirs perform on Monday morning. I would love to hear that. I want to hear that something I said in some way made a student sound better in choir.

So...because I truly am interested...come back to Carowinds next year! Maybe I'll be there again! The roller coaster! The screams! The choirs! Are you kidding me? There is no way you could get me on that roller coaster...