Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rehearsal Technique #1 – Visual clues to the musical structure

Most Orthodox choir directors do not have the luxury of working with highly trained, and skilled musicians. Most work with folks who enjoy singing and desire to serve their church community through the singing ministry, but have varying levels of sight-singing skills and vocal technique, and most likely have no idea how to decipher music on the printed page, in terms of structure, form and shape.

One technique I like to use in rehearsal is the “look at the music and tell me what you can see, visually” technique. This is a technique I use to boost musical understanding and can help the singers focus on particular aspects of music begin rehearsed. I would begin trying this with a piece of music that they know fairly well. When first using this technique you can help guide them through what you are actually asking them to see by asking leading questions:

1. Which part has the melody? How can you tell? What visual clues are there? 

2. Which parts sing with the melody in a duet? How do you know? What visual clues are there?

3. Does only one part sing in duet or does it move around? How do you know? What visual clues are there?

4. What else can you tell about the music, just by looking? Dynamics, tempo, key?

5. What can you tell about the rhythm or meter of the piece?

Singers who have more knowledge can help others begin to see things that they didn’t previously see. There is often a smart aleck who will go way too deep by describing the harmonic structure or the way the piece ends on a half, instead of full cadence. At these moments help redirect back to the basics. Remember we are looking at what we can tell just by looking. The guiding questions that you can ask are as varied as the music. Once you have asked singers to do this a few times you won’t have to ask as many questions or your questions may become more specific:

1. What do you notice happening in the tenor part on the third system?

2.  How does the the bass part change in the cadential (ending) phrase?

3. Where do the tenors take the melody away from the sopranos, who gets the melody after the tenors?

4. And many more questions!

Let’s look at a specific example. Consider the Greek Chant, Tone 1 setting of the 1st and 2nd Antiphons. (Attached are a couple of images, the entire piece can be found in the SVS Divine Liturgy Book – the infamous “Green Book”)

1. Where is the melody? 
The melody alternates between the Soprano and Bass. Now you can have the choir sing the melody, just the Soprano and Bass, alternating back and forth so that you attain a balance in volume, flow, and phrasing of the melodic line.

2. Which part sings the “duet” with the melody?
The tenor part alternates singing a melodic duet with the sopranos and basses. Now add the tenor to the sop and bass, maintaining the balance and flow established between the bass and soprano. Note: this is often when the bass and soprano revert to their “old” way of singing the melody without balance and flow, so it may take a reminder to get them back on track.

3. So what is happening in the other parts, which aren’t a part of this melodic duet? What is their function? 
This is usually when I remind the singers the difference in how we approach singing “harmonic” lines differently than “melodic” lines. You might try having the singers sing the “harmony parts” no melody, no tenor duet. This reveals solid key of “F”. Work on how they can sing the text in order to keep the pulse moving along. Not every word is created or sung equally. Harmonic / rhythmic parts usually need to be sung lighter and cleaner, with less weight in the tone.

4. Now you can put that together with the melodic piece and most likely you and the choir will begin to hear the melody more beautifully and the pulse of the harmonic parts will be cleaner and less invasive on the melodic line. And guess what, something you didn’t even work on will shine through better – the TEXT!

5. Finally, have the choir look at the cadential phrase of the 2nd Antiphon. How does it change from the above structure? Who has the melody? The duet? What does that mean? How do we sing it? Why might the arranger have made that particular choice? 

So at your next rehearsal pick one of your regular pieces of music, perhaps a Cherubikon, and take it apart with your choir structurally. See what layers you can find. Discover what differences can be found in the structure and how they work together to create the whole.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Summer: Time to Get Back to Regular Blogging!

Well, sometimes it is amazing how time flies. Since I last wrote life has been flying by at a ridiculous rate, I’ve hardly been able to keep up … but after saying goodbye to the 2010 high school graduates at my school I believe it is time to get back to the blogging. In the time since I last wrote I have had numerous ideas for blogs but never had time to sit down and actually write them down.
When I last left you we were heading into the Pre-Lent season. Now we’ve been through Lent, Holy Week, Pascha, the Paschal Season, Ascension, and Pentecost. Whew!
I worked on two important, but related projects during Lent. The first one Anne and I began last summer, was a complete reworking and typesetting of our Holy Saturday Matins a.k.a. Lamentations service. We were determined to finish this service in time for rehearsals the 2nd and 3rd week of Lent because it also required creating new booklets for the congregation. In order to prepare those booklets in time we needed to have sung through every note of the new typesetting.
This particular service of Holy Week is one of our parish favorites. The entire service is sung antiphonally, by candlelight: the first half – thru Psalm 50 – in male / female choirs, the second half – the canon to the end – in two mixed choirs. But why did this service require the many hours of labor that Anne and I and my daughter, Juliana put into it? We have been singing this just fine for years. The initial work for this service was completed many years ago by our dear friend, Fr. David Anderson. His work included, not only a new translation, but also a setting of the Byzantine melodies to the new text. His work was done in long hand before the age of digital typesetting and we have been working off of photocopies of photocopies for years. There were also a number of awkward moments where the flow of the melody and the rhythmic accent of the text gave us trouble year after year. Remember, we are talking about almost two hundred short troparia. The original melodies were formulaic and designed to have text that just works, as I am convinced it does in the original Greek. By working to make it more consistent we knew we could sing this service more accurately with less rehearsal, not to mention simply read it more easily by being digitally typeset.
The second project, similar to the first, was to go through our Holy Weeks books and typeset the sections that were the most problematic to read. As with the Lamentations service, we have been using certain settings for years, but they were not optimally readable and contained many corrections that had been made by hand. By getting the stichera and other portions of the services properly typeset and edited, including breath marks, phrasing, etc, we were better able to sing these services with less rehearsal, more accuracy, better flow and most importantly enable peace and prayer on the kliros.
In the weeks after Pascha, Anne and I went back through all of the Holy Week services made the necessary corrections and have already recopied the pages with changes so that next year when we approach these services everything will be in place. I can’t wait.