Saturday, January 14, 2012

On the Run: Melismatic Singing in the Choral Ensemble

A while back, someone posted this question to the ChoralNet forum: “Recently myself and choir [sic!] went to a Messiah sing-along. We ran thru a few movements before hand to get an idea how they felt. How can we improve our melismatic technique? It sounds now very note-by-note and heavy.”

Here are my thoughts on melismatic singing, including melismatic singing in a choir:

Practice, Practice, Practice ― Singing quick melismas gracefully and beautifully takes practice. Consider what an instrumentalist ― pianist, violinist, trumpeter ― must do to develop the technique required to execute passagework effectively. One does this work in the practice room (not in the rehearsal hall), so that when passagework is encountered in repertoire, one has the appropriate skills at the ready. I used to sing an extensive coloratura soprano repertoire in my younger days, and I can tell you that I spent as much time practicing scales, arpeggios, and trills as did the clarinetist in the next practice room. This practice must always be done with a light voice and easy approach. For most singers, coloratura (for that is what we're talking about, regardless of range or tessitura) is a learned skill. In a choral setting, a director could incorporate some scale work into the vocal warm-ups, along with good advice on how to do this gracefully and musically and with proper vocal technique. To sing melismas musically, the singers need to ...

Get the Big Picture ― In much of the vocal repertoire composed before 1900, melismas are often simply ornamental tones strung between the principal notes. Take time to master, intellectually, the overall shapes of the vocal lines and understand how the melismatic passages fill in and embellish. Most of the notes are fillers, not important parts of the melody; thus, it’s often helpful to sing the melismatic notes in groups appropriate to the passage at hand. Think Deedle-eedle-eedle-eedle, not Deedle-Deedle-Deedle-Deedle (or worse, DEE-Dle-DEE-Dle-DEE-Dle-DEE-Dle). And this approach will also encourage singers to...

Use a Light Voice ― There is no place for vocal weight or vibrato in quick passagework. There simply isn't time, and the weight will slow you down. Would you try to sprint in heavy boots? And, keeping in mind that the melismas are in themselves ornamental, there is no need to add the ornamentation of vibrato. Let the music come through. Even large-voiced soloists lighten up for coloratura passages. Heavy singing gets tiring and is, in my opinion, unpleasant for the audience. Advise your singers to...

Get Off the Voice ― Sing on the breath, and try not to focus too much on the vocal mechanism. To my thinking, the pitch changes in a melismatic passage are executed more in the ear and brain than they are in the vocal mechanism. Envision running down a track; you keep your eyes on the finish line and don't think about what each toe is doing inside your running shoe. I've found that the idea of "floating" works well for me ― I "float" the melisma on a stream of air, working hard with my lungs and brain and ears and eyes (watch the conductor!) and less with my vocal mechanism. With your singers, ...

Listen to Expert Choirs ―Listen to recordings of ensembles that sing passagework in the way to which you aspire. Note that rapid passagework is rarely sung with loud or heavy voices. Note the groupings of notes into threes or fours or other groupings per composer and music. Note the lightness of approach, the clarity of tone, the good intonation that can shine when vocal heaviness is removed.

N.B. ― Singing with lightness and clarity does not mean that one sings weakly, or even quietly. A clear voice can be powerful and strong. “Singing with lightness and clarity” simply means not adding vocal weight, particularly excess vibrato, when it is not required. Don’t get me wrong – I love a richly-colored voice, with appropriate and tasteful vibrato, and I use vibrato in my choral singing as well as in my solo singing. But too many singers do not know how to produce vibrato in such a way that ensures good intonation, nimble singing, and good choral blend. Moreover, they make the mistake of thinking that a “good” voice always has vibrato, so they use vibrato all the time. It just doesn’t work.

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

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