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!

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.

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!]

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.

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.

I hope this has been helpful.

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.

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 [an ensemble] we began work on a new selection. 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. [The director] 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 a neutral syllable 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.

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:

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 — When an ensemble is singing in perfect vocal unity, without the pitch variations inherent in vibrato, the united voices can generate a shimmering cloud of overtones. In some cases, this has been the composer's intent, and can be achieved only with clear, unwobbled sound.

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 — In [a fairly good ensemble], the director 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 — [re: rehearsals for a performance of] choral music by Felix Mendelssohn … much of it in eight parts (SSAATTBB), with complex polyphony and rich harmonies, including a wealth of wonderful dissonance. For the most part, [the ensemble] sang nearly the entire program with little or no vibrato, introducing more “color” judiciously for selected passages. The sound was really remarkable, with stunning pianissimi and amazing fortissimi, and everything in between. Our clear tone helped with text projection, too, ensuring that we could 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:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Finding the Right Voice – Vibrato in the Choral Ensemble, Part 1

Yesterday I wrote about how we hear vibrato in the singing voice. You can read that essay here. Today I’ll share my thoughts about the use — and mis-use — of vibrato in choral singing.

We’re used to hearing vibrato in trained solo singers. Properly produced and appropriately employed, vibrato is useful as one of the many vocal ornaments in the soloist’s repertoire, and its use by the soloist is not at issue here. But does vibrato have a place in choral singing? This question has always been of interest to me, perhaps because I’ve sung so much early music where vibrato is seldom used, and because I’ve sung in choirs where vibrato ist verboten.

And yes, singers are able to sing with or without vibrato, and most singers can control, to some extent, the speed and amplitude of the vibrato oscillation. Whether or not a singer is willing to modify the vibrato, or to sing without vibrato at all, generally has less to do with skill and more to do with ego — whether the singer is willing to leave his or her ego at the door of the rehearsal room. A choral rehearsal is not the time or place to show off your voice. (You can read my essay on this issue here.) True story: One soprano I know, having been asked by the director to sing senza vibrato (that is, without vibrato), replied testily, “I worked years to learn how to sing with vibrato and I’m not going to take it out now!”

There are many factors that the choral singer must consider when choosing whether to add, remove, or modify the vibrato, including harmonic and melodic texture, repertoire, composer’s instructions, and the taste of the choral director.

HARMONIC AND MELODIC TEXTUREPolyphonic music — that is, music with several overlapping or intertwining melodic lines — demands clarity and precision in performance. In choral polyphony, clarity and precision can be attained only if vibrato is kept to a minimum or eliminated altogether. Even in slow-moving passages, vibrato will obscure and muddy the textures and harmonies. Of all the choral repertoire, it is the polyphony of the Medieval and Renaissance periods that is most often sung without vibrato; however, the same principle may be applied to polyphony of any period.

Let’s consider harmonic and melodic dissonances, moments when voice parts clash closely against each other. In tonal music, dissonances often occur in cadential passages or in settings of certain types of texts. In these passages, the composer wants us to hear the teeth-on-edge clang of competing tones and their harmonics (overtones). Every note deserves to be heard! The use of vibrato in these passages obscures the clashing notes and eliminates the overtones which should add “zing” to the clash. The result is blander and less interesting. Much contemporary music is also dissonant by design, and here, too, choral clarity must take precedence over individual tone.

Let’s also consider melismatic passages, where several notes are sung for one syllable of text, such as in this passage from the choral bass part of Bach’s Cantata BWV 11, Ascension Oratorio “Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen” (1735):

Here, the basses must eliminate all vibrato in order to be able to sing this passage quickly and cleanly. Vibrato will slow them down, obscure the already-tricky pitch sequence, and muddy the complex polyphonic texture. Every note of every melisma deserves to be heard! There’s simply no time to add vibrato, yet some singers will try, anyway!

CHORAL COLOR, TIMBRE, AND BLEND — The presence of vibrato affects the color, timbre (the quality of a sound independent of its pitch and volume), and blend for the entire ensemble. If a cool, clear sound is desired, the conductor may ask singers to sing with little or no vibrato. If warmer sound is called for, then the conductor may permit the controlled introduction of moderate vibrato.

And certainly the presence of vibrato confounds and obstructs efforts to match vowels, which is essential to achieving blend, especially in quiet or unison passages. The less vibrato is present, the easier it is to match and blend. And when vibrato is permitted, the director must ensure that the singers are not engaging in a vocal free-for-all in which individual voices may cut through the choral texture and where the presence of a wide variety of vibrato styles creates the sort of “vibrato pit” I described yesterday (read it here). A wide vibrato from even one singer can make it difficult for her or his neighbors to hear and match the correct pitch.

REPERTOIRE – Many singers and directors agree that music of certain periods or styles — for example, sacred motets of the Renaissance composers, or contemporary choral works — should be sung without vibrato. Opinion remains strongly divided on this question, however, and addressing the issue here is not my goal. The point is that a choral singer should be prepared to sing without vibrato when called upon to do so, and should be sensitive to stylistic differences between, say, a motet by Palestrina and the Brahms Requiem.

COMPOSER’S INDICATION – Sometimes a composer will specify that the chorus, in whole or in part, should sing without vibrato (senza vibrato). Of course, this instruction should always be honored. It’s instructive, too, to examine why the composer makes this indication; is it to ensure clarity for complex or dissonant passages, or to create a certain color for a particular text? Try to understand it from the composer's perspective.

CHORAL DIRECTOR’S PREFERENCE – Some choral directors espouse a strict “no vibrato” policy, some despise “straight tone” singing, and others express no preference at all. Singers will naturally gravitate toward choirs which have the sort of sound they prefer; however, every competent chorister must be able to sing with or without vibrato, and must be able to modify the vibrato according to the director’s instruction.

You’ve probably figured out by now that I generally prefer non-vibrato choral singing. Perhaps because my training is in music theory (form, harmony, etc.), I want to be able to hear the music clearly, not the individual voices of the choir. To my ear, unnecessary choral vibrato creates a muddy, unattractive texture. Some listeners will always prefer vibrato, considering a straighter tone unattractive or under-developed. But properly produced, a tone with minimal vibrato (it’s rarely entirely straight) can be full and rich and vibrant.

In my next essay, I’ll share some stories about how vibrato made a real difference in some recent rehearsals and concerts.

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

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Finding the Right Voice – How We Hear Vibrato

The vibrato pit. That’s the image that sprang to mind during a recent choral rehearsal. 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. (I’ll explain that in a moment.) 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.

The issue of vibrato in choral singing has always been of interest to me, perhaps because I’ve sung so much early music where vibrato is seldom used, and because I’ve sung in choirs where vibrato ist verboten.

What is vocal vibrato, anyway?

Vibrato, pronounced vih-BRAH-toh, means “vibrated” in Italian. It’s the “wavy” or pulsating quality that is heard in most trained voices (and in many untrained voices, too). Properly produced, vibrato can lend warmth, color, and intensity, and even a shimmer, to a singer’s tone. Used appropriately, vibrato can be an attractive ornament in the singer’s repertoire.

Note the emphasis here on properly produced and employed appropriately, meaning 1) technically correct and 2) musically appropriate. In this essay, I’ll offer my perspective on the technical (auditory) aspects; in my next essay, I'll discuss the place of vibrato in choral singing.

As would be expected, individual singers display remarkable variation in the production of vibrato. Properly produced, vibrato is a controlled, rapid, oscillation of pitch centered on a core tone:

Vibrato can also incorporate rapid fluctuations of timbre and/or intensity. These subtle oscillations are more noticeable in loud singing than in softer singing.

Vibrato can be slow or fast (this referring to the number of “beats” per second, that is, speed):

In most singers, vibrato occurs at 5-7 oscillations per second.

Vibrato can also be narrow or wide (this referring to degree to which the pitch varies above and below the central note, that is, amplitude):

In most singers, amplitude typically covers +/- 3% (+/- .5 semitone).

To my ears, amplitude is generally determined by the general voice type and weight; larger voices tend to have wider vibrato; smaller voices tend to have narrower vibrato. Speed is often a function of amplitude (larger voices have slower vibrato), but it can also be controlled by some singers, to varying degrees.

In employing vibrato, many singers focus on speed and amplitude and fail to consider the placement of the vibrato relative to the core or central pitch. In many cases where a singer’s vibrato is unattractive or distracting, it is due to inaccuracy of pitch, particularly flatting (placing the core pitch too low). The vibrato must surround and embrace the core or central pitch; that is, the high and low extremes of amplitude must be exactly equidistant above and below the central pitch:

Too many singers “hang” the vibrato on the core pitch, so that the overall tone reaches the correct pitch only at the top of the vibrato wave:

Thus, even though the upper part of the tone touches on the correct pitch, the overall effect is a flat (under-pitch) tone, because the ear perceives the overall pitch as the point midway between the extremes of oscillation. This is true whether the vibrato is fast, slow, narrow, or wide.

Some singers will add vibrato to conceal under-pitch singing, thinking that the steady fluctuations in pitch will camouflage the flat central tone. It doesn’t work; it just makes the situation worse. Discerning listeners will always listen for the central or core pitch, and no amount of vibrato can hide it. In fact, listeners with good pitch sensitivity will hear the flat central pitch and the high and low points of the vibrato, which are also flat.

We’re used to hearing vibrato in trained solo singers. Does it have a place in choral singing? That’s the topic of my next essay. You can read it here.

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

The Book in Hand – Why Re-Read a Book?

Some of the members of my book group are astonished that I would ever read a book two, three, or even four times. For example, in my perennial requests to include Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre on our reading list, I sometimes mention that I’ve read the book many times. “Why would you re-read it?” they ask. “Isn’t once enough?”

“Well,” I might return, “Why do you listen to a Beethoven symphony more than once? Or see a Shakespeare play that you’ve already seen before? Or look upon a painting, or sculpture, or vista that you’ve seen many times before?”

The answer is, of course, that great works of art and literature are worthy to be experienced over and over again, for a variety of reasons.

A really good book can be so rich that we cannot possibly perceive, understand or appreciate it in a single reading. This is especially true in great works of fiction, where a tightly-woven narrative and compelling plot might lead us to read from start to finish so quickly that we can’t really take in all the details. Hence, a second (or third) reading enables us to read more slowly so that we can appreciate language, textual construction, literary and historical references, and the like.

Because we, as readers, change over time, our understanding of the books we read also changes. I first read Jane Eyre when I was about 10 years old, and loved it then for its compelling story and characters. My understanding of the book has evolved as I have matured. When I re-read it as s a young woman, just coming into maturity and forging a life for myself, I was attracted to Jane’s independent thinking and integrity. Re-reading it now, after more than a quarter-century of marriage to a man I love and respect, I am most moved by the enduring love and mutual respect in the relationship between Jane and Rochester. So — my reading of this book has developed and matured over the years, as (I hope) I have. And it is only through repeated readings that I have been able to experience the breadth and depth of this book. How could a ten-year old girl appreciate this book with the same understanding as a 50-year-old woman?

This winter, I re-read several classics. It all started with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which I read every December. (You can read my comments on Dickens and Christmas here.) That led me to my first reading of The Pickwick Papers (delightful!) and my second reading of Little Dorritt, which I had first read about 20 years ago. High time for a re-read! I had enjoyed the story of Little Dorritt when I first read it, but this time around, I found new appreciation for Dickens’ skill as a writer, particular in his virtuosic use of motivic language and imagery. (I’m now part way through my first reading of The Old Curiosity Shop … oh, it’s just wonderful.)

By contrast, my recent re-reading of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights gave me far less pleasure than when I had read it earlier. I first read this book during my teen years, when the idea of Cathy and Heathcliff’s doomed love probably resonated with my own experiences. Though the story still moves me now, Brontë’s writing seems overwrought, and her characters behave so stupidly that it’s hard to take it seriously. Interestingly, the recent dramatization on PBS was better than the book; this film adaptation simplified the story and portrayed Heathcliff as a reasonably sympathetic character, demonstrating clearly the sense of injury that drove his revenge and retribution.

From there it was on to Thomas Hardy, with re-readings of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, and Far from the Madding Crowd (my very most favorite of all Hardy’s novels, and perhaps of all 19th-century literature). I treasure Hardy for his ability to evoke time and place, for his skill in creating realistic conversations between all sorts of people, for his ability to understand and portray the subtleties of relationships between men and women, and for his willingness to challenge societal norms through his literature. Though I do not always agree with his conclusions, I love his stories.

And just for fun, I enjoyed a re-read of The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins. Collins rivals (and in many ways, exceeds) his friend Dickens in his ability to create memorable characters, fantastic plots, and a real page-turning suspense. If you haven't read The Moonstone, give it a try.