Thursday, February 26, 2009

CONCORA Sings Bach!

The next performance of Connecticut Choral Artists (CONCORA) will be our immensely popular annual all-Bach collaboration with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra. The performance takes place on Sunday, March 22, at 4:00 p.m., at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford (corner of Woodland and Farmington). Plenty of parking is available.

If you've never been to a concert in this church, do come to enjoy the stunning architecture and savor the lovely acoustic, both perfectly suited for Bach's choral and orchestral music. (Read more about ICC’s wonderful building here: Here's a photo of CONCORA presenting its 2008 Bach concert at Immanuel, with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, with Rick Coffey at the podium:

In these annual performances of Bach’s music, CONCORA generally sings one of the six motets and two larger vocal works, usually two cantatas. The program is further enriched by a work for organ or orchestra.

This year, in addition to a motet (“Fürchte dich nicht,” BWV 228) and a cantata (the mighty Reformation Cantata, “Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott,” BWV 80), CONCORA will sing one of Bach's rarely heard Latin Masses (yes, the good Lutheran wrote several Masses), the Missa Brevis in G Minor, BWV 235. (Read my essay about Bach’s Latin Masses HERE.) Ed Clark will play a chorale-fantasia on the newly-restored organ, and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, in a Bach-sized ensemble, will accompany the choral music. CONCORA's artistic director Rick Coffey will conduct.

I'll be singing in this concert, and I'm also preparing the program notes for this terrific music. Over the next few weeks, I hope to post some short essays about the program here, so be sure to stop in for updates.

It would be lovely to see you in the audience on March 22. This concert sells out quickly every year, so purchase your tickets soon! Group discounts are available for groups of 8 or more, and CONCORA often offers discounts for seniors. Call the CONCORA office at 860-224-7500, or purchase tickets at CONCORA’s website,

Hope to see you there!
On the program for CONCORA's all-Bach concert on March 22:
Motet IV, “Fürchte dich nicht” (BWV 228)
Missa Brevis in G minor (BWV 235)
Chorale-Fantasia for Organ on “Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 720)
Cantata BWV 80, “Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress is our God)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Peanut Recall: What Role Did PCA’s Insurer Play?

Primary responsibility for the recall of contaminated peanuts and peanut products processed by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) lies with Stewart Parnell, owner of PCA. Mr. Parnell, who knowingly manufactured contaminated food products and distributed them to hundreds of food makers and distributors, has resisted FDA’s investigation, has refused to answer questions before a Congressional hearing, and did not even issue a general recall until a few days ago. (Click on the “Food” tag at lower right to read earlier posts to read more about what happened.)

Mr. Parnell’s criminal negligence was aided and abetted by the Food and Drug Administration, which lacks the enforcement power to shut down a company, or force a recall, even when the company and its products pose an immediate threat to the health and safety of the nation’s food supply. (Read more about the FDA’s role HERE.)

There’s a third player who had a moral and ethical responsibility to take action in this case. Who is it? Why, PCA’s business insurer, of course. This aspect of the story has not been reported, nor is it ever likely to be covered in the mainstream media.

I don’t have specific knowledge to share about how PCA's insurer might have been involved in this situation, but I can offer some conjectures based on my knowledge of the property-casualty insurance industry and how it selects and evaluates its customers. For nearly 15 years, I was head of research for the loss control division of a major property-casualty insurer, assisting safety engineers with technical and business research to support their work in evaluating, selecting, and safeguarding business customers. Technical research on topics like this was at the core of my work there.

Before insuring a large business like PCA, a property-casualty insurer will typically send safety professionals (called “loss control consultants”) to inspect the prospective customer’s facilities, looking for anything that would make the business an undesirable (i.e., risky) account for the insurer. This would be especially important for businesses that manufacture, package, distribute, and sell consumer products, particularly foods, medicines, and the like.

In the case of a food product company like PCA, the insurer’s loss control consultant would have asked a lot of questions to determine exactly what products were made; if and how they were monitored and tested for quality and safety; how they were packaged, stored and shipped; and — important! — how widely they were distributed. The insurer would use the information to determine the riskiness of the business, anticipate potential claims, and calculate the premium.

When a loss control inspection reveals unsafe work practices, shoddy facilities or equipment, or poor record-keeping — poor practices which increase risk, such as were found at PCA’s plants — the insurer will usually decline to insure the business, knowing that costly claims will probably have to be paid in the future. In some marginal cases, the insurer will agree to provide insurance coverage, on condition that the prospective customer brings the operation into compliance with safety and health regulations or the insurer’s own risk management standards. The insurer usually makes its safety professionals available to assist the client in improving conditions and coming into compliance with applicable regulations. Loss control professionals have deep expertise in technical standards and regulations that apply to our nation's industries and manufacturers.

If PCA’s insurer did indeed send its loss control professionals to inspect the facilities, the deplorable conditions — mold, vermin, filth, animal excrement — must have been evident. What obligation did the insurer have? In my opinion, it is unethical and immoral to provide insurance coverage (and take premium payments) for a business that is clearly 1) in violation of the law and 2) inherently dangerous to the general public. And if the insurer conducted an inspection and did not report the dangerous situation to the FDA or to state authorities so that the danger to the general public could be curtailed, well, what sort of business ethic does that represent?

I wonder if the loss control consultant(s) who might have visited PCA's plant tried to convince the insurer to decline PCA's business?

Two kinds of selfishness caused this public catastrophe: monetary greed and a self-centered disregard for human life.

PCA was greedy. Mr. Parnell chose not to make needed investments in facilities, product testing, and safety training; his emails tell us that he resented spending money to ensure product safety. With a supreme disregard for human life and health, he instructed employees to re-package products contaminated with salmonella and ship them to customers.

Our business community, which has pressured our elected officials and regulatory agencies to weaken safety and health regulations, was greedy. In allowing business owners to increase profits at the expense of safety and health, our elected officials have displayed a disregard for the very people they are supposed to protect.

PCA’s insurer was greedy if it accepted money from PCA. And if it conducted safety inspections, found life-threatening conditions and/or violations of federal regulations, and failed to report them, then it, too, chose profit over life.

Their collective greed and callousness have endangered us all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If you still haven’t checked your pantry for contaminated products, do it today!

If you’ve stopped eating peanut butter but are still eating granola bars, you’re in trouble!

Click HERE or HERE to learn what to do to protect yourself and your family.


Most major-brand peanut butter is OK!Most other peanut-containing foods are NOT OK!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Peanut Recall: Where Was the FDA?

The media continues to be flooded with news about the recall of peanuts and peanut products processed by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) in its facilities in Georgia, Texas, and Virginia. In yesterday’s post (read it HERE), I shared some news stories, which, considered in aggregate, illustrate the breadth and depth of this tragedy.

Of course, every one (including me) believes that primary responsibility lies with Stewart Parnell, owner of PCA. Mr. Parnell will long be remembered as the man who ordered employees to 1) conceal test results showing that PCA’s peanut products were contaminated with salmonella; 2) re-package and re-label those contaminated products; and 3) ship those contaminated products to hundreds of food manufacturers, retailers, and distributors, for sale to consumers. The e-mail trail that Mr. Parnell left behind him documents all this quite nicely.

PCA is the subject of a federal criminal investigation which could lead to charges against Mr. Parnell and other company officials. In addition to knowingly distributing contaminated food products, PCA has resisted FDA’s investigation every step of the way, and even failed to issue a general recall until February 23! On February 22, Texas health officials were forced to take control of the recall of products from PCA's Plainview plant, describing the company as “unresponsive.” Texas inspectors said they closed the Plainview plant after finding “filthy conditions” there. Georgia officials have already indicated that if the federal government does not pursue charges, they will move to charge Mr. Parnell with manslaughter.

[Some people have opined that as punishment for his antisocial, arrogant disregard for human life and the laws under which we agree to live, Mr. Parnell should be forced to eat his own contaminated products. But as I do not support capital punishment, I can’t endorse that suggestion, though it is elegant in simplicity and justness.]
Mr. Parnell’s criminal negligence was aided and abetted by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA’s own report indicates that the agency was aware of salmonella in PCA’s products as far back as September 26, 2008.*

Why didn’t the FDA order an immediate shutdown of the facility until it could be sanitized, inspected, and certified as safe?

Here’s the simple answer: The FDA lacks the enforcement power to shut down a company that is posing an immediate threat to the health and safety of the nation’s food supply. The FDA cannot even force a company to recall dangerous products (with the exception of infant formula). And in the event that a company does issue a voluntary recall, the FDA does not have the authority (or resources) to ensure that the recall is executed promptly and thoroughly.**

The FDA has been pathetically underfunded and cannot possibly carry out its charge to ensure the safety of the many, many thousands of foods, drugs, and medical devices that fall under its jurisdiction. The job is simply too big, and the agency has been underfunded and de-fanged in recent years by the pro-business Bush administration. Business owners like Mr. Parnell, who was annoyed to have to pay for food-safety testing, have wielded sufficient influence with pro-business politicians to weaken the regulations that keep those businesses honest.

In that context, consider the flood of peanut-related recalls that have been issued in the past several weeks. Those are all voluntary recalls, issue via the FDA but not by the FDA. How many food processors do you think might be out there who have not spent the time or money to determine if their ingredients might have originated at PCA? Or how many food processors might know that they used some contaminated products a few years back, but have decided not to reveal that information? There’s no law that requires them to do so, and the FDA can’t make them do it, either.

I have been favorably impressed, however, with the skill with which the FDA has provided information. The FDA’s website offers a huge amount of information in an easy-to-use format, making it easy for consumers to identify affected products. A 24-7 phone hotline is available for people who do not use computers, and a nice menu of updating services makes it easy to stay abreast of developments.

One more rant for tomorrow, and then I’ll be done with this topic. There’s another player who had a responsibility to take action in this case, but this very troubling aspect of the story has not been reported, nor is it ever likely to be. Tune in tomorrow.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If you still haven’t checked your pantry for contaminated products, do it today!

If you’ve stopped eating peanut butter but are still eating trail mix energy bars, you’re in trouble!

Click HERE or HERE to learn what to do to protect yourself and your family.


Most major-brand peanut butter is OK!
Most other peanut-containing foods are NOT OK!


* “FDA Inspection Report of PCA's Georgia Facility Details Lapses in Food Safety Protocols.” Associated Content, January 28, 2009.

** “Unsafe To Eat? Peanuts Highlight Problem; Food safety system hamstrung for decades.” The Hartford Courant, February 18, 2009,0,5280020.story

Monday, February 23, 2009

It Ain’t Small Peanuts: The Hidden Costs of the Peanut Recall

This is a long rant; be forewarned!

FDA inspections and reports, supplemented by investigative reports in the media, indicate that the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), under the direction of owner Stewart Parnell, knowingly:

• Failed to obtain proper licenses and inspections required for food processing facilities.
• Failed to maintain clean, safe, and healthy facilities in which to process and package food products.
• Failed to clean up filthy and decrepit facilities, even when told to do so by the FDA.
• Knew that roaches, rats, and mice (living and dead), mold, dirt, feathers, excrement, and water leaks were present in food areas, and that these conditions created a very high risk of contamination.
• Knew that peanut products had been contaminated by mold, water, etc.; instructed employees to falsify test results and to re-package contaminated products for shipment to unsuspecting customers.
Knew that salmonella was present in products that were shipped to customers for use in human food. This happened not once, not twice, but at least a dozen times, probably more. Mr. Parnell ordered employees to ship the contaminated products, complaining that safety testing cost too much money.

Any contamination in our food supply is of concern, of course, but because peanut products are used in so many processed foods, and because PCA was a major supplier for many of the largest food makers in the country, this salmonella outbreak has affected thousands of products, including cookies, ice cream, dog biscuits, and nutritional bars.

The result so far? Nine deaths and 654 illnesses documented in 44 states and Canada, all linked to contaminated products from PCA. More than half of those sickened are children. And how many mild cases have been unreported?

More than 2500 items from hundreds of suppliers have been recalled, and the list grows day by day. Because these products typically have a long shelf life, and because so few consumers seem to be taking action to identify and discard affected foods, it’s likely that we will see a steady stream of cases for a long time to come.

Our immediate concern, of course, is for the families affected by illness and death. But what about the other costs of this recall? What hath Mr. Parnell wrought?
For those who were sickened, count the cost of lost work time, either to care for one’s self or to care for ill family members. For those without medical insurance, count the cost of medical expenses; for those without paid sick time, count lost wages.

For all consumers, count the cost of wasted food and money as we discard contaminated foods. Count the loss of productivity and waste of time if we choose to return recalled foods to the places of purchase (if, indeed, we can even remember where we bought them!).

For consumers who sue PCA or other suppliers, count the cost of litigation and the subsequent increase in commercial insurance premiums, which ultimately comes out of our pockets.

For workers in the food industry affected by the recall, consider the cost of reduced employment. not only for the workers and their families, but for the communities which must support them.

And for all of us, count the increase in health insurance and in general product prices, as explained below.
It’s no surprise that PCA has had to close its plants, enter Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and lay off most of its employees. But countless other businesses have been affected, too, not only by the huge expenses associated with conducting recalls, but in lost sales, damaged reputation, and more.

One of the hundreds of food makers affected by the recall is Forward Foods LLC; the firm has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy so that it can continue to operate while managing the recall of several products which contain tainted peanuts from PCA. Forward Foods estimates that the recall will take 90 days and will cost the company $4 million. How many workers will Forward Foods have to lay off?

Scott’s Miracle-Gro had to recall five varieties of wild bird food because they contained PCA peanut products. Bird food included in the recall involves about $500,000 in annual revenue. Shares of Scotts Miracle-Gro fell as much as 11 percent a day after its recall. How many people lost money as a result of the stock decline? And how many other businesses were similarly affected? (See below for another way that Scott was affected.)

As fears about contaminated peanut products continue to spread, peanut farmers are already seeing a significant decline in demand for peanuts and peanut products. Orders for 2009 are way down, and farmers will plant fewer acres of peanuts this spring. More lost jobs.


These lost jobs translate into increased strain on community resources, especially food banks, shelters, and others who help people in transition.

The cruel irony here is that of all food consumers, food banks may bear the largest economic burden of this recall. High nutritional density and stable shelf storage make peanuts and peanut products staple items at food banks.. Across the country, though, food banks have had to discard thousands of pounds of potentially contaminated food products, at a time when national unemployment is rising and more people are in need. And these charitable institutions have had to devote precious volunteer resources to sorting through food inventories again and again as new recalls are issued each day and week.


It should be no surprise that lawsuits have been issued left and right:

• PCA is named in a rapidly-growing number of personal-injury suits, seeking financial compensation for those sickened or killed by PCA’s contaminated products.
• PCA will undoubtedly be named in lawsuits from its commercial customers, seeking compensation for the expenses associated with recalls, lost reputation, etc.
• Down the product chain, Scott’s Miracle-Gro is suing Cereal Byproducts Co., claiming breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation and alleging that Cereal Byproducts gave Scott's false information about the origins of its peanut products. Scott's is seeking unspecified damages, but said it expects to incur expenses of more than $75,000 for the purchase of products, recall costs, lost profits and injury to goodwill.

PCA is also the subject of a federal criminal investigation (and who pays for that?) which could lead to charges against Mr. Parnell and other company officials. Georgia officials have already indicated that if the federal government does not pursue charges, they will move to charge Mr. Parnell with manslaughter. (Interesting to note that Mr. Parnell recently pleaded the Fifth before a congressional committee, refusing to answer questions that might incriminate him.)

We all pay for litigation, since litigation raises commercial insurance rates, and businesses pass those costs on in higher product prices for consumer products.

If you still haven’t checked your pantry for contaminated products, do it today!
If you’ve stopped eating peanut butter but are still eating granola bars, you’re in trouble!
Click HERE or HERE to learn what to do to protect yourself and your family.

Remember: Most peanut butter is OK! Most other peanut-containing foods are NOT OK!

Friday, February 20, 2009

CONCORA Sings More Mendelssohn!

If you did not make it to CONCORA’s recent concert of sacred choral music by Felix Mendelssohn at historic South Church in New Britain, you missed an exceptional musical experience, a real triumph of choral artistry. (You can read my completely biased review HERE.) Many who attended this concert spoke afterward of their surprise and delight at the breadth and depth of Mendelssohn's choral music. It really is a remarkable program of rarely-heard choral music.

You have another chance to be thrilled and delighted by this program, as CONCORA repeats the concert on Sunday, February 22, in Old Lyme, CT. The program, which starts at 4:00 p.m., will be presented at the Meetinghouse of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, 2 Ferry Rd., in Old Lyme. This is a rare shoreline appearance of CONCORA, whose concerts are primarily based in the Hartford area. The chorus will swell to 80 voices when the choir of FCCOL joins with CONCORA for an excerpt of Elijah and a magnificent setting of the chorale Verleih’ Uns Frieden. Tickets will be available at the door, which will open at 3:15 p.m. A donation of $20 per ticket is suggested. Tickets can also be reserved by calling the church at 860-434-8686. The complete program is listed at the end of this posting; it includes almost all of the material we sang on February 8, plus the scene from Elijah that was not presented at the earlier concert.


Comments from some of my friends who were in the audience for the February 8 concert at South Church:

“…We couldn't have spent a finer afternoon. Sometimes we overlook the wonderful musical events in the community, but yesterday we didn't and we both noticed how the concert lifted our spirits and seemed to make the world a brighter place.”

“It was a wonderful concert — but of course no more than I expected! CONCORA is mighty good! What a lovely sound. And your solos were so professional. Excellent performance.”

“It was a very memorable concert; I felt I was seeing CONCORA at its best. The soloists (you included ;-) were all terrific, and the music... ah, such pleasure. I still think the Ave Maria was my favorite [mine, too!] … You must be so proud of having put together such a fabulous event!”

“We loved the concert, getting more acquainted with Mendelssohn, and the performers were terrific. I think it was the best so far!”



Old Lyme Congregational Church
February 22, 2009
Music of Mendelssohn
From Drei geistliche Stücke (Three sacred works) (Opus 23)
No. 2 “Ave Maria”
No. 3 “Mitten wir im Leben sind”

From Drei Motetten für Frauenchor und Orgel (Three motets for women's voices and organ) (Opus 39)
No. 2 “Laudate pueri” (I/5) (CD10/2-3) (5:45) (organ)
No. 3 “Surrexit pastor” (I/6) (CD10/4-6) (7:30) (organ)

From Drei Psalmen für achtstimmingen Chor (Three psalms for 8-voice choir) (Opus 78)
No. 1 “Warum toben die Heiden”
No. 2 “Richte mich, Gott”

++ intermission ++

Music for the combined choirs of First Church, Old Lyme, and CONCORA:
Scene from Elijah:
Aria for baritone, “It Is Enough”
Recitative for tenor, “See, now he slept”
Trio for women's voices, “Lift Thine Eyes”
Chorus, “He, Watching over Israel”

Sechs Sprüche für achstimmigen Chor (From Six seasonal settings for 8-voice choir) (Opus 79)
Im Advent (for Advent) “Lasset uns frohlocken”
Weihnachten (for Christmas) “Frohlocket, ihr Völker”
Am Neujahrstage (for New Year's Day) “Herr Gott, du bist unsre Zuflucht”

Die Deutsche Liturgie für 2 vierstimmige Chöre (The German Liturgy, for 2 four-part choirs)
“Kyrie eleison”
“Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe (Gloria)
“Heilig, Heilig” (Sanctus)

Drei geistliche Lieder für Alt solo, gemischten Chor (Opus 96) (1844) (Three sacred songs for alto soloist and mixed choir)
“Lass O Herr, mich Hülfe finden”
“Deines Kind's Gebet erhöre”
“Herr, wir trau'n auf deine Güte”

“Verleih uns Frieden” (with choir of OLCC)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

“An unquenchable expression of who we are”

Yesterday, a colleague sent me a most remarkable essay, the text of a welcome address to freshman at Boston Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at that institution. Please take a few minutes to read the entire speech here:

A few excerpts:

Serious music…has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. … Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. … Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.” … Music is not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

… Being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well. … Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.

These are close to the thoughts I've been wrestling with for years... and which I wrote about, inadequately, a few months ago here, especially as concerns my relationship to music after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Dr. Paulnack’s essay, perhaps in a condensed form, should be on the editorial page of every newspaper in the nation, and sent to our state and national legislators, so that every person may understand why the arts are part of our social self and why the arts must be supported and maintained and burnished with love.

We, the artists, understand what we do, and why we are compelled to do it, though I doubt that any of us has articulated our mission so clearly. Would that everyone else could understand, too.

I am reminded of my friend Laura, who told us that she was "uplifted" by CONCORA's stunning concert of Mendelssohn's choral music several days ago.

Uplifted! Raised up, buoyed, elevated!


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Why Aren’t Consumers Taking Action in Peanut Recall?

A few days ago, I wrote about why the nationwide recall of salmonella-contaminated peanut products should be taken seriously (read about it here). I’ve been surprised that more people are not taking action to protect themselves. After I posted my first comments here on February 14, I sent my note, with a link to the FDA’s searchable database of recalled products, to many of my acquaintances via e-mail. The general response? A shrug of the shoulders and an amused smile at my concern. “You read too much!” was the comment from one friend.

This lack of concern seems to be widespread. On February 14, the Associated Press reported on a survey by the Harvard School of Public Health showing that about 93% of adults are aware of the salmonella outbreak and the subsequent recall, but that many do not understand which products are affected. One in four people surveyed (25%) still think, wrongly, that the recall primarily affects major national peanut butter brands, while fewer than half of those surveyed have concerns about the items which are most affected: processed foods that contain peanut ingredients, such as snack bars, baked goods, ice cream, and dry-roasted peanuts. Many people have needlessly stopped eating major-brand peanut butter, but they continue to consume suspect processed foods still in their pantries. The recall covers products made as long ago as 2004. And since many of these foods have long shelf lives, it’s possible that a great many people are still at risk.

As of today, the FDA website dedicated to the recall indicates that “more than 2,100 products in 17 categories have been voluntarily recalled by more than 200 companies, and the list continues to grow.” And today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the CDC website dedicated to the recall, announced more official cases related to the outbreak: 642 sick in 44 states; this represents 20 new cases since February 13. More than half the cases are children, and there have been nine deaths. And there may be many more cases out there; people who have mild cases may not be aware that they have salmonella, and may not seek medical treatment. These cases will go unreported.

If you have not done so already, please check your shelves to identify and remove any products on the recall list. Here is a link the FDA's web site with more information and a searchable database of recalled products:

As an information professional, I’m thrilled at the FDA’s efficient use of the internet and social media tools to develop and disseminate useful information. But I’m also dismayed and curious that our increasingly-wired society is largely ignoring this information that’s right under their noses. Perhaps the sheer volume of information, with new recalls issued every day, has caused "news fatigue" for anything to do with peanuts. Admittedly, it does take some effort to identify recalled products from among the many items in the pantry, but the FDA couldn't have made it easier.

The Dallas Association of Law Librarians is paying attention! (Librarians are alert and thoughtful people.) They’ve kindly highlighted my recent post on their blog, Lex Scripta. Here’s the link to their note about my posting:

"Consumers not clear on peanut recall: Many don't know which products are involved, and few are confident in safeguards, survey finds."
By Mike Stobbe, The Associated Press, February 14, 2009,0,7454125.story

Monday, February 16, 2009

Choral Music Tops the List!

Public radio station WFCR recently played, in reverse order, the 100 “Best of Classical” favorites as nominated by WFCR’s listeners. I note with pleasure that top honors went to a choral work, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, op. 125 (the “Choral”), while Faure's Requiem (op. 48) came in at number three. In all, twelve of the listener-named "top 100" were choral works:

1 Beethoven Symphony No. 9, op. 125 (the “Choral”)
3 Faure Requiem (op. 48)
20 Orff Carmina Burana
27 Bach Matthaus-Passion (BWV 244)
35 Mozart Requiem (K. 626)
36 Brahms Requiem (op. 45)
41 Bach Mass in B Minor (BWV 232)
43 Brahms Alto Rhapsody (Op. 53) [that was a surprise, tho' I love this music]
45 Faure Cantique de Jean Racine (Op. 11)
52 Mozart Mass in C Minor (K. 427)
62 Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music
69 Lauridsen Lux aeterna [a surprise since he is new to the classical canon, relatively speaking!]

At two choral concerts in which I participated recentlyCONCORA’s amazing presentation of the choral works of Mendelssohn (read about it HERE), and the Hartford Chorale Chamber Singers’ presentation at a combined choral concert (read about it HERE) — large and enthusiastic audiences made it clear that choral music is an important and beloved element in our community.

If you love choral music, please act now to ensure that the choral ensembles in your community continue to thrive. There are many ways that you can support the choral groups in your community.
Attend choral concerts, and bring friends and family to share the joy of human voices joined in song.
♪ Keeping in mind that ticket sales do not cover the costs of concerts, donate generously. Most donations are tax deductible.

CONCORA, the premier all-professional choral ensemble in our region, invites the public to A BENEFIT GALA CELEBRATION to be held on Saturday, February 28, 2009 from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., at Christ Church Cathedral Theater, 45 Church Street, Hartford (Corner of Church & Main Streets). More details are HERE and at CONCORA’s web site,

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Recall of Peanut Products Should be Taken Seriously

Over the past week or so, as I have been assisting a client with in-depth research on the nationwide recall of peanut products due to salmonella contamination, I have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about the issue. Please be advised that this recall is expanding rapidly and is likely to affect products in your own pantry. I receive daily updates from the FDA, and I have been shocked at the sheer numbers of recalls coming out every day, for all sorts of products, from whole peanuts to pet food. As of Thursday afternoon (2/13), the number of affected products had exceeded 2000. And now that the recall has been issued to products made as far back as 2004 (!), and considering the long shelf life of many of these products, it's only going to get worse.

I checked the contents of my pantry and found three items that had been recalled. But just today, a grocery chain in my area where I shop often issued several more recalls. So now I need to check again.

Here is a link the FDA's web site with more information and a searchable database of recalled products.

The search process is very, very easy. I urge you to check your pantries now to identify, discard, or return any recalled products. Don't feed them to the birds or to any pets. Set aside any peanut-containing products that are not on the recall list, and check them against the recall list over the next several weeks. Most jarred peanut butters are OK.

The American Peanut Council maintains a list of products not affected by the recall, which are safe to consume:

Here's a shorter link to the same site:

You can also sign up for updates via email, RSS, twitter, and other means; check the FDA website for more information.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Why I Love Count-Singing

Choral conductors use various techniques to help their choristers achieve unity of tempo, rhythm, and pitch. One of my favorite techniques is count-singing, in which the pitches (without words) are sung on the note values and sub-divisions of the rhythm. For example, in 4/4 time, a series of eighth notes would be sung on pitch with the “words” being “one and two and three and four and” in place of the text underlay.

Count-singing is most effective when it is employed very early in the rehearsal-learning process, so that we learn the right music from the very beginning. It can also be helpful as a means of review later in the process.

The great Robert Shaw summarized* why count-singing works. Here is my paraphrase:

1. Count-singing removes all doubt about when sounds should begin and end.
2. It clarifies exactly which pitches should be sung and how long they should be sustained.
3. It ensures vertical alignment for all voice parts, regardless of the pitch or duration of individual notes in each part.
4. Because it clarifies vertical alignment, it reveals harmonic progressions and facilitates clarity in polyphonic passages.
5. It offers a means by which crescendo and diminuendo may be paced over time.

I will add, too, that the nature of count-singing, with short notes prevailing, precludes the use of vibrato; thus the overall intonation of the ensemble will be better, and learning will proceed more quickly. (You can read my three-essay series-rant on vibrato in the choral singer here: Part I, Part II, and Part III .)

Some singers despise count-singing, dismissing it as amateurish and suitable only for beginning learners. Nothing could be further from the truth! Professional musicians, and amateurs who aspire to professional standards, take every step necessary to ensure accuracy and precision in notes and rhythms, so that the music may emerge.

For me, count-singing is not a childish exercise; on the contrary, I find it liberating; it enables me to master pitch, rhythm, dynamic, and ensemble-thinking early on in the rehearsal process, freeing me to concentrate on vocal, textual, and interpretive issues. I also enjoy the quick mental work required to do count-singing accurately.

Last night in the weekly rehearsal of the Chancel Choir of historic South Church in New Britain, Connecticut, we began work on a new anthem. On the page, it looked straightforward, even simple, but some unexpected rhythmic passages within a 6/4 meter presented some potential challenges for many people in the choir. Mr. Coffey started our rehearsal of this selection with count-singing; immediately, we were able to identify (an important first step!!) and master the challenges of pitch and rhythm. Following the count-singing and subsequent corrections, we sang the anthem legato (on "loo") to develop vocal beauty, and then we spoke the text in rhythm, in parts, with all the dynamics. Only then did we sing the words and text together. We polished a few rough edges, then we performed the anthem for each other. (Yes, performed.) We found that we had made great progress in a very short time.

We’ll rehearse this anthem several more times before presenting it in worship, but the important thing is that in our first rehearsal, we learned it correctly. We won’t have to un-learn wrong notes and rhythms; we’ll be able to work primarily on interpretation and presentation.

Rick tells the story of an adult singer who walked out of a rehearsal of a very popular festival workshop, announcing that “she had not paid money to do count-singing!” Sheesh! She missed the point of a choral workshop, didn’t she? And she missed a great opportunity to really get inside some great choral music. (I think it that was the year we did Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus KV618, Schubert’s Mass in G Major, D.167, and Bach’s Cantata Christ Lag in Todesbanden, BWV4.)

Count-singing is liberating. And fun!

To read all my essays on my experiences as a chorister, including more on technique, click here:

* Paraphrased from material reprinted in The Robert Shaw Reader, edited by Robert Blocker, Yale University Press, c2004.

POSTSCRIPT January 2013-- It's fascinating to me that this post still receives a lot of hits from people searching for information on count-singing - each week several new readers arrive here via this post. It's turned out to be the third most popular post on Quodlibet!

Here's a link to the blog of Paul Carey, a composer-turned-conductor who has foud count-singing useful, and kindly offered a link to this post. His insights on the value of count-singing in helping singers to achieve a "spinning" breath are very good and true.
Thanks for the link!

And here's another blogger, choral conductor Jeffrey Carter, who also directed his readers here:

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Choral Celebration of Black History Month

The Hartford Chorale Chamber Singers and The Vernon Chorale, both conducted by Ehren Brown, and The Alfred E. White Chorale, conducted by Ingrid Faniel, will present “A Choral Celebration of Black History Month” at the First Congregational Church of Vernon on February 15, 2009 at 4:00 p.m. The concert, which will be accompanied by pianist Kathleen Bartkowski, is scheduled to feature an original work by African American composer Peter Bagley, Professor Emeritus of Music Special Assistant to the Dean of the School of Fine Arts at the University of Connecticut. I believe we’ll hear the regional premiere of Dr. Bagley’s arrangement of Didn’t It Rain.
Each choir will sing one set of pieces, then combine — 75 voices strong! — for a finale. Among the works selected for the concert are:
“The 23rd Psalm (dedicated to my mother) -- Bobby McFerrin
“My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” -- Moses Hogan
“I’m Gonna Sing ‘til the Spirit Moves in my Heart” – Moses Hogan
“The Lily of the Valley” – Wendell Whalum
“My Lord What a Morning”” – Harry T. Burleigh
“Praise His Holy Name” – Keith Hampton
“I Need You to Survive” – David Frazier

The newly-established Hartford Chorale Chamber Singers (of which I am a charter member) had its debut in on the “Harvest Song” concert given by The Hartford Chorale in November, 2008. At left is a photo taken on that occasion in the stunning sanctuary of Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford.
Here are the details on the Chamber Singers' upcoming concert:
A Choral Celebration of Black History Month
Presented by The Vernon Chorale, The Hartford Chorale
Chamber Singers, and The Alfred E. White Chorale
Conducted by Ehren Brown and Ingrid Faniel
Sunday, February 15, 2009 - 4:00 pm
The First Congregational Church of Vernon
695 Hartford Turnpike, Vernon, CT
This concert is part of the Music @ First concert series offered by the First Congregational Church of Vernon.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Don’t Miss CONCORA’s 35th Anniversary Gala Celebration!

Please join us as we continue to celebrate CONCORA’s 35thAnniversary!

A BENEFIT CELEBRATION will be held on Saturday, February 28, 2009 from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., at Christ Church Cathedral Theater, 45 Church Street, Hartford (Corner of Church & Main Streets).

♪ Swing to the sounds of the Al Fenton Big Band while enjoying fine wine and delicious hors d’oeuvres.

♪ Bid on an exciting array of premium silent and live auction items, with all proceeds to benefit CONCORA.

♪ Join us for anniversary sweets and a champagne toast as we look forward to another thirty-five years of beautiful choral music, performed with CONCORA's unmatched artistry.

During its thirty-five year history, CONCORA has proudly presented innovative, inspiring, artistically unsurpassed performances and engaging arts education to the residents of the Connecticut community and beyond.

We hope we can count on your support so we can continue our mission to “perpetuate and perform with excellence choral music of the highest quality for the broadest possible audience.”

Your presence at our afternoon gala will be a strong signal of your support for choral music, and especially the music and mission of CONCORA. Come with friends, family, and all who share your passion for choral music.

Advanced reservations are required. Tickets will not be sold at the door. Please RSVP by February 21, 2009. For more information, please contact Cynthia Mellon at or 860.224.7500. Or visit CONCORA’s website, where you will find a downloadable ticket order form. Here’s the link directly to the order form:

Christ Church Cathedral is fully accessible. Free, validated parking will be available in the secure Hartford Stage garage. Snow date for the event will be Sunday, March 1, 2009 from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.

CONCORA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Air Fairly Shimmered: CONCORA Sings Mendelssohn

Yesterday (February 8), CONCORA offered a concert of sacred choral music by Felix Mendelssohn. The performance, held at historic South Church in New Britain, was a triumph of choral artistry. (The picture shown here was taken at Center Church in Hartford at CONCORA's "Christmas in New England" concert in December, 2008.)

As I’ve written here before, a good chorus is a miracle of cooperation and common purpose. This was especially evident in CONCORA’s rehearsals leading up to this performance, as I wrote about here. In fact, the rehearsals were so good that I was a bit concerned that our performance might be a bit of a let-down. On the contrary, the performance was wonderful in every way. In conversation among the singers and friends following the performance, it was clear that many thought this was among CONCORA's best recent performances.

Though I have performed in many, many, many choral concerts, only occasionally does a performance transport me outside the ordinary, that is, beyond time and place, outside of the here and now, outside myself, to an extra-ordinary plane, to the “beyond beyond” (Shakespeare, Cymbeline, III, ii). This performance was one of those rare, out-of-body extra-ordinary experiences. I felt this on an individual basis, of course, but I also sensed that the entire ensemble found "the zone" during the performance and that we all knew that we were creating something special.

And indeed, this was a remarkable group of musicians. At our Saturday rehearsal, during an extended passage in one piece where the sopranos do not sing, I was able to take a few moments to look at the group — at each singer, at our fine organist Jason Charneski, and at our gifted Artistic Director Richard Coffey — and to consider the extraordinary beauty of our individual talents and of our collective purpose.

A moment like this — where many individuals come together to create beauty so that others may be uplifted and enriched — is the uttermost expression of humanity.
And how extra-ordinary — beyond the ordinary! — it is, that we can recreate, here and now, the beauty of sound and felicity of thought that Felix Mendelssohn conceived more than 150 years ago. I was so moved and grateful that I was almost unable to continue singing. [It’s better to have these lump-in-the-throat feelings during rehearsals than in the performance!]

As I left the church after Saturday’s rehearsal, I looked at the singers walking to their cars. We looked so... ordinary! Just ordinary men and women, in our ordinary winter clothes, getting into our ordinary cars… But just a few minutes earlier, we had been… extraordinary! That is, we had been outside the ordinary. On Sunday, we would have the opportunity to revisit that place of wonder and to bring our audience there, too. And judging from the instantaneous standing ovation that was offered as the final notes lingered in the sanctuary at South Church, we did indeed take the audience with us on an extra-ordinary journey.

The concert was stunning from the first note to the last, in large part because we achieved the clarity of tone that Maestro Coffey had asked of us (read about it here); this clarity allowed us to create great beauty at both extremes of our dynamic range. Our lingering, shimmering pianissimi were almost visible, like the glow of phosphorescence you sometimes see in ocean waves on a summer evening. And our big moments were hugely brilliant and focused, like the beam from the largest lighthouse you can imagine. Our sound, like that light, had a solidity and clarity that lifted and lighted the very air.

From the singer’s perspective, being in the midst of, and contributing to, this sort of sound sea is an intensely physical experience. For much of this program, the sopranos are divided; the two parts are braided closely together, suspending and releasing as they rise and fall around each other. I sing the first soprano part; Sarah to my left, and Jennifer to my right, sing second soprano. Allison just in front of me sings first soprano; though I couldn’t hear her directly, I could hear her voice reflected off Christine and to some degree off the organ console. Behind me, Gabriel and Ehren with their clarion voices supported our side of the chancel, and behind me I could hear Jason’s breaths and the workings of the organ through my feet and legs (oh, I love that). When we were in our fortissimo passages, especially when the sopranos were in their higher register, the air fairly shimmered as the tones pressed and beat against each other, the organ vibrating up into my spine and face... Surely when the angels sing, or beat their wings against the heav'nly air, an aural shimmer akin to this must emanate from them. It is intensely physical. And amazing. And wonderful.

During a transporting experience like this, it takes the utmost effort to maintain my concentration, to keep my place on the page, to be present, alert, looking, when Rick looks my way and when I’m lucky enough to receive a direct cue from him. With the cue comes an extra jolt of awareness, what novelist A.S. Byatt calls “the kick galvanic” (Possession, 1990), and suddenly we’re all in an expanding depth of understanding. One might picture it as the sudden zoom into hyperspace that you see in Star Wars. (I think. Or some movie like that. Ask me about Pride and Prejudice instead.)

I will be forever grateful to have been among this remarkable group of performers on this very special day.


Comments from some of my friends who were in the audience at South Church:

“…We couldn't have spent a finer afternoon. Sometimes we overlook the wonderful musical events in the community, but yesterday we didn't and we both noticed how the concert lifted our spirits and seemed to make the world a brighter place.”

“It was a wonderful concert — but of course no more than I expected! CONCORA is mighty good! What a lovely sound. And your solos were so professional. Excellent performance.”

“It was a very memorable concert; I felt I was seeing CONCORA at its best. The soloists (you included ;-) were all terrific, and the music... ah, such pleasure. I still think the Ave Maria was my favorite [mine, too!] … You must be so proud of having put together such a fabulous event!”

“We loved the concert, getting more acquainted with Mendelssohn, and the performers were terrific. I think it was the best so far!”


If you missed CONCORA’s February 8 concert in New Britain, you can hear the program on Sunday, February 22, in Old Lyme, CT. The concert, which starts at 4:00 p.m., will be presented at the Meetinghouse of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, 2 Ferry Rd., in Old Lyme. This is a rare shoreline appearance of CONCORA, whose concerts are primarily based in the Hartford area. The chorus will swell to 80 voices when the choir of FCCOL joins with CONCORA for an excerpt of Elijah and a magnificent setting of the chorale Verleih’ Uns Frieden. Tickets will be available at the door, which will open at 3:15 p.m. A donation of $20 per ticket is suggested. Tickets can be reserved by calling the church at 860-434-8686.

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Chorister’s Delight: Rehearsing with CONCORA

Since I first joined a junior church choir when I was about eight years old, I’ve always loved choral music and choral singing. I’ve sung in all sorts of choral ensembles, from one-on-a-part early music ensembles to huge symphonic choirs, and just about everything in between. I’ve had opportunities to sing under the direction of some of the world’s best choral conductors (and some of the worst!). I am fortunate that I sing now in several really fine choral ensembles, especially CONCORA (Connecticut Choral Artists), Connecticut’s premier professional choir, which is led by its founder and Artistic Director Richard Coffey. I was delighted and honored to be accepted into this fine ensemble in 2005, and the entire experience has been thrilling. Our performances are wonderful, of course (read a review of a recent concert here), but what I really enjoy are the rehearsals.

Expectations are high for this all-professional ensemble. We rehearse only a few times for each concert (depending on the program), so it’s important that our rehearsal time is well-spent. A great deal of preparation takes place well before we start rehearsing so that we can get the most out of our time together.

We receive our music several weeks before the first rehearsal, along with our part assignments, texts and translations, pronunciation guides (as needed) and all the logistical information we need. Maestro Coffey prepares edited master scores, in which he has marked all divisi assignments, breath marks, interpretive dynamics, and other important information; these are made available online. We are expected to transcribe all the edit marks to our scores, and learn all the music, diction, and translations entirely, before our first rehearsal. All solos are assigned well in advance, with auditions as needed. When we arrive at rehearsal, a seating chart is waiting for us, so we can be in our assigned places right from the start. And very often, we also receive an advance copy of the program notes, so that we can learn more about the music we are about to study together. At our dress rehearsal, we receive venue-specific instructions for where to sit, stand, process, etc.

All this preparation really pays off. There are none of the last-minute questions that eat up precious rehearsal time in most ensembles: “What part should I sing?” “Where should I sit?” “What’s the dynamic for this passage?” “Where do we cut off this note?” “Where do we breathe?” “Are we singing this in German or in English?” “How will we process and recess?” Because all these questions have been anticipated and answered before we even start, we spend nearly all our rehearsal time actually working on the music instead of talking about it.

Rehearsal-room decorum also serves to advance the music-making. We don’t chatter; we listen and sing. We ask questions only if we really need clarification. Each singer works with pencil in hand, and takes down each instruction as it is given. When any singer makes a mistake (and it’s pretty rare), he or she raises a hand briefly, to indicate “Oops, that was me, I know what I did wrong.” This simple practice saves enormous time, since Maestro Coffey doesn’t need to stop to address the error.

That’s not to say that we don’t have a good time — we laugh a lot, too! But that can only happen if we are well-prepared and working efficiently. Otherwise, our rehearsals can be fairly, um, intense. Woe to any singer who arrives at rehearsal without having edited and mastered his music!

Add to all this the solid musicianship of each CONCORA singer, the many beautiful voices, and the ensemble’s love for beautiful choral music — well, very often, the quality of the music-making in our rehearsals far exceeds what many choral groups achieve in performance, even after weeks or months of rehearsal.

Our recent rehearsals for CONCORA’s upcoming performance of choral music by Felix Mendelssohn have been a delight, a revelation, and a wonder of choral cooperation and mutual enjoyment. You won’t want to miss this very rare presentation of Mendelssohn’s choral music, which takes place on Sunday, February 8, at 4:00 p.m., at South Church in New Britain, CT.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Finding the Right Voice – Vibrato in the Choral Ensemble, Part 2

A few days ago, I wrote about how vibrato sounds in the singing voice. You can read that essay here. The main point: that because many choral singers do not understand the proper production and application of vibrato, they end up singing with poor intonation and muddy tone, which in turn compromise the overall sound of the choral ensemble.

Yesterday, I shared my thoughts about issues which influence the application of vibrato in choral singing. You can read that essay here. The main point of this essay was that good choral singers must be able to sing with and without vibrato, as required by the demands of the music and the choral director.

In this essay, I’ll share some anecdotes about how the presence or absence of vibrato influenced the success of some recent choral rehearsals and concerts. These are all true stories, told from my own admittedly biased perspective.

GOOD! Choral Clarity Yields Shimmering Overtones — In the 180-voice Hartford Chorale, the success of one of the warm-up exercises that Music Director Rick Coffey uses depends entirely on the entire choir’s agreeing to produce a clear, vibrato-free tone. Here’s how it goes: Basses sing a medium-low pitch, tenors and altos double the pitch an octave above, and sopranos sing the same pitch one octave higher; thus, we cover three octaves. We sing one syllable at a time — Nee, Nah, then Naw — starting softly and increasing volume without adding vibrato. If we are singing in tune (both pitch and vowel), and if we do not introduce the pitch variable that we call vibrato, then the overtone at the 12th will spring forth, floating and shimmering above our heads. When we’re really doing it well, the overtone will be so loud and clear that you would swear that there is another alto section floating up near the ceiling. It really is remarkable. Rick also uses this warm-up in the 35-voice the Chancel Choir at South Church (in which I am a section leader), where it is even more successful, perhaps because of the size of the choir (35) and the preponderance of trained singers who can control their voices.

BAD! Excess Vibrato Confounds Learning — Just last night, I was rehearsing with a 24-voice amateur choir. The director was trying to help the women master a passage written with very close harmony, including some tone clusters. About 4 of the 12 women were singing with very prominent vibrato; the presence of these varying frequencies made it almost impossible to hear and tune the tone clusters. If the director had asked us to take out the vibrato, at least for the few minutes that we really needed to hear clearly, we could have mastered it much more quickly, and perhaps would not have needed to work on it separately.

GOOD! Clear Singing is More Powerful and Resonant — When the all-professional choir CONCORA prepared for its December concert (“Christmas in New England”), Artistic Director Richard Coffey had asked the 27 singers to sing without vibrato in certain passages, so that interesting dissonances and moving lines could be projected clearly, and so that we could produce a more resonant sound. During the performance, I stood in the front row of singers, from where I could hear almost every voice behind me. As we sang, there were times when the choir “forgot” to sing without vibrato, and I was really struck by the difference in the resulting sound. With the extra vibrato, I did indeed hear all the individual voices; we were often loud, but the sound was diffuse and was oddly weakened by the dozens of different tones. When we sang senza vibrato, we produced a single clear sound and, of course, we had much better intonation and a stronger, louder overall sound. I loved the moments when we all were able to jettison the extra vibrato and produce a truly ringing sound. What a difference! It may seem counterintuitive, but it's true that when individual choristers sing with some restraint, the choir as a whole will produce a louder, more resonant sound.

BAD! Excess Vibrato Hinders ListeningThe vibrato pit. That’s the image that sprang to mind during a recent rehearsal of a large choral ensemble. I was glad I was sitting in the end seat in my row, so that at least one side of me was a vibrato-free zone. The singer to my left sang with a fast narrow vibrato, just slightly under pitch. The singer immediately behind me sang with a slow, wide vibrato, “hanging” her sound significantly under the pitch (read more here to understand what I mean by that). And behind me, a whole cloud of varying vibrati buzzed and burbled. Together, these voices created a sort of choral chaos which made it hard for me to hear the center of the pitch. I was glad that I was sitting near the piano so that I could hear the correct pitches.

GOOD! Clear Singing Elevates the Music — This week, CONCORA has its last of five rehearsals for its upcoming performance of choral music by Felix Mendelssohn These rehearsals have been a delight, a revelation, a wonder of choral cooperation and mutual enjoyment. Much of the music that Artistic Director Richard Coffey has selected for this program is in eight parts (SSAATTBB), with complex polyphony and rich harmonies, including a wealth of wonderful dissonance. For the most part, and with some reminders from Rick, this ensemble sings nearly the entire program with little or no vibrato, introducing more “color” judiciously for selected passages. The sound is really remarkable; we are achieving stunning pianissimi and amazing fortissimi, and everything in between. Our clear tone helps with text projection, too, ensuring that we can communicate music and text to our audience.

BAD! The Vocal Free-For All — One small ensemble in which I sang for many years presented real challenges for me as a singer. Perhaps because of the strictly amateur nature of the ensemble, there were no standards for vocal production, and issues like vibrato and blend were not addressed. And because the ensemble was so small — just 16 voices — the differences between individual voices were painfully apparent, especially as to vibrato in the soprano section. It was essentially a vocal free-for-all, and no matter how hard I tried, it was pretty much impossible to blend (not that it seemed to matter); I kept my voice toned down for years. During the dress rehearsal for the last concert in which I sang, by chance five of the six sopranos were not present or were not singing due to illness, leaving me as the sole soprano. This was an unanticipated treat: I was finally able to sing out with my own fairly straight voice, without having to worry about clashing with all the vibrati. It was probably the best musical experience I had had in that ensemble for many years. Later, another singer remarked to me that the entire dress rehearsal had gone unexpectedly well; we were able to sing through almost everything without problem. He observed that it was because the other singers could finally hear the soprano line clearly, instead of the usual muddy sound, and that this factor helped all the other singers hear the music and stay together. It was a bittersweet evening.

True Story: One soprano I know, having been asked by a choral director to sing a certain passage senza vibrato, replied, out loud to the director during the rehearsal, “I worked years to learn how to sing with vibrato and I’m not going to take it out now!”


What's your opinion? What's your experience? Leave a comment!

To read all my essays on my experiences as a chorister, including more on technique, click here: