Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Finding the Right Voice – One Size Does Not Fit All

One of the fun challenges of singing in several choral ensembles is finding the right voice — or voices — for the varied repertoire I sing. I’ve been thinking about this issue quite a bit as I prepare for the upcoming season. I’ve long been frustrated with choral singers who produce the same sort of sound all the time, regardless of repertoire, ensemble size, and other considerations; they sing the same way for a motet by William Byrd as they do in a chorus from a Verdi opera.

Here’s a sampling of the marvelous variety of music I’ll be singing in the 2008-2009 season.

— Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Symphony No. 9 (1824)

— William Byrd (1540-1623) O quam gloriosum (published 1589)

— Henryk Mikolaj Górecki (b.1933) Totus tuus (1987)

— Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) – Early and rarely performed choral works

— Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Requiem (1873)

— At least one program of Renaissance motets (published ca. 1450 to about 1620).

I hope there will be some Bach! in there, as well.

Over the course of the season, then, I’ll be singing music from six centuries, composed for ensembles with varying sizes, genders, purposes, and audiences. What does this require of me as a singer? What must I know about each piece of music? Questions to consider:

HISTORY AND CONTEXT. What is the history and context of each composition? When was it written? What was the vocal style or technique in use at the time? What sort of sound did the composer hope for? What do I need to do vocally to produce the right sort of sound for this music? Is this music in the original language or a translation?
Preparation: Research, reading, listening, study, conversation.

SCORING. How is the music scored? Is it unaccompanied or will instruments be playing, too? Is there divisi within each voice part, which will render fewer voices on the divided parts? To which parts am I assigned? Are there solos in which I’m interested?
Preparation: Score study, editing scores per director’s instructions.
Practice: Initial practice sessions to learn the music and consider how to approach it vocally.

VOCAL CONSIDERATIONS. What is the range and tessitura for my part? Where does my assigned part “lie” in my voice? What instructions does the composer offer that might affect my vocal production (e.g., senza vibrato, mezza di voce)? Will particular endurance or athleticism be required, such as for the Beethoven Symphony No. 9? Perhaps I am one of a group of sopranos is assigned to a part normally sung by children. What do I need to do to produce the proper sound?
Practice: Continued practice sessions to work the music “into the voice” and to work through any vocal challenges.
Rehearsal: Find the “right voice” for each selection. The “right voice” is comfortable, pleasant to sing, and pleasant to listen to. If the singing is uncomfortable, or if you are straining to sing high or low notes, check with your voice teacher or vocal section leader for advice. If the part is too high or too low, consult the director to see if it’s possible for you to sing a different part. If the 75 or so high A s in the soprano part of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 are simply impossible for you to sing comfortably, then you need to change your vocal technique or perhaps sing alto for that performance. (The alto part is plenty high!) Singing should never hurt.

ENSEMBLE SIZE AND DISTRIBUTION. How many singers are in the ensemble? How are they distributed (that is, is there even coverage on all parts)? How does the number of singers on my part affect how I sing? What sort of choral sound does the ensemble typically produce? Is it light and clear, or rich and full? What are most of the voices like? What do I need to do to blend in with the ensemble’s sound?
Preparation: Take note of assignments across the entire group, especially for divisi or soli groups. Know where you fit in. Anticipate how you might need to sing differently if you are part of a smaller division.
Rehearsal: Listen carefully, making every effort to blend and balance. For example, if you are a soprano and there are four times as many sopranos as tenors, keep that in mind and sing with some restraint. If you are the only one singing with (or without) vibrato, modify your sound to be more like the others, if you can do so in a comfortable way.

DIRECTOR’S STYLE. How does the director tend to conduct this sort of music? How might his or her interpretation might affect my vocal production? For example, does the director specify when vibrato may or may not be used? Will the director expect “full throttle” in every rehearsal, or will he or she allow quiet “marking” of sustained high passages, such as in the Beethoven?
Rehearsal: Receive instruction and feedback with an open ear and an open mind, making adjustments as needed. Take careful notes to aid your at-home practice. Set your ego aside (more on that here). One soprano I know, having been asked by the director to sing senza vibrato, replied, “I worked years to learn how to sing with vibrato and I’m not going to take it out now!”
Practice: Continued practice sessions to work the music “into the voice” and to make any adjustments indicated by the director.

PROGRAM CONSIDERATIONS. What else is on the program for the performance? Is there a great deal of music that is very high, very low, or very loud? Where does this particular piece fall in the program order? If it’s first to be sung, and if it requires some special techniques or strength, do I need to do anything special to be sure I’m warmed up properly? What do I need to consider in order to sing comfortably and to produce my best sound for the entire concert?
Preparation: Score study and listening.
Rehearsal: Take it easy in the first few rehearsals as you become familiar with the vocal and stylistic demands of each piece.

PERFORMANCE VENUE. How large is the performance space? How will the chorus be placed vis-a-vis the orchestra and the audience? What is the acoustic like? How will these factors affect my singing?
Rehearsal: Listen, listen, listen, adjust, listen.

A few nights ago, I began rehearsals for anupcoming performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.The chorale finale (“Ode to Joy”) is perhaps the most taxing choral music I’ve ever sung. The soprano part has about 75 high A s (yes, someone has counted them), and many of these are sustained forte or fortissimo over many measures. Read here my insights on how I applied the questions listed above to my preparation for the rehearsals and performances of this most marvelous music.

To read all my essays on my experiences as a chorister, including more on technique, click here: http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/Chorister

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