There are many rules and systems about how to sing the English language (and others), and it is a good thing to study these and become aware of the intricacy inherent in being understood as you sing. But the rules cannot teach you how to communicate the song. They are guidelines, just as notes and rhythms are guidelines to the vision of the composer. Until you translate them into living sound, they mean nothing. If the singer does not understand the text, and wish to communicate it to her listeners, the rules will make her performance sound like meticulously produced diction -- nothing more.
I hear this everywhere I go. The flow and color of speech are lost when church choirs sing, when vocal students present their recitals, when college choirs and community groups perform. Rarely do they honor the words – the poetry – in their singing. Can they explain the meaning of the text? Do they taste each successive syllable coming from their mouths? Do the words sound like what they mean? That last was Robert Shaw’s wonderful dictum: of course it’s metaphorical more than literal. But if you think HOTor COLD as you sing the word, it sounds different: more intense, more colorful. The concentration of the singer draws in the listener, who perceives the word more clearly. These are ‘color’ words – and in my mind, every single one in any text deserves this treatment.
The reason for such bloodless singing lies, I believe, in the way we teach music. If we learn the notes first, we sing the music as it looks on the page. All those equally-sized quarter notes invite same- of accent, length, dynamic level. When we add the text to this (however carefully pronounced), it comes out equal in accent, dynamic level and color.‘And’ is as important as ‘Strong’;and each syllable‘E - ter-ni-ty’ receives the same stress (unless there is extra weight on the final syllable when it comes on a downbeat).
We would never speak this way: why do we put up with it in singing? It’s as if the notes swallow up the words, robbing them of their spoken lilt as if what the poet wrote and the composer set lost all individuality when combined with music notation. Nothing could be farther from my intention as a composer. Quite the other way I want all the speech values to be present and intensified in the song. .
Here is a suggestion for a new rehearsal pattern. Let us study and teach the song beginning with the text, not the notes. Read the words aloud all the way through, thinking about what they mean, enjoying the flow of ideas and images, feeling how they are formed in our mouths. Then read again in the rhythms of the written music, first in the principal melody, later combining all the parts. How does the text change? Do accents in music and words coincide, or are there places where one dominates over the other? Can you make your rhythmic reading as natural as the spoken version? Watch particularly what happens to the ‘throw-away’ syllables: are they receiving undue emphasis? Sometimes we have to work hard to suppress the ‘ands’ and the ‘thes’ so they don’t distract from more important syllables. Maybe you need to underline the stresses in the text to make them more clear. This is the time to realize when words should be connected or separated to project the meaning.
For example: here’s a line from a Shirley Murray text we sang last week: ‘Be at peace, and simply be.’ Where are the accents? I think, Be at peace, and simply be.’ Read it in even quarter notes. Is it understandable? If you are reading legato, it’s possible to hear ‘Be at peasand sim-plybe’. That can’t be what she intended! We need to honor the comma, so let’s look at the notated rhythm.
8th quarter 8th 8th8thdotted half
Be at pea-ce and sim-ply be.
Speak non-legato don’t carry over final consonants or vowels. Place the kind of emphasis on the last word which comes when we separate it from the preceding syllable, and then gently explode the ‘b’ of ‘be’ – which brings the command to life. I want a similar emphasis on the ‘p’ of ‘peace’, with its ‘s’ sound coming briefly on the dot, with silence following.
This is complicated to write out, but easily taught by ear. When the conductor demands that singers understand the phrase in this way, and never lets them sing it any other way, a meaningful performance is assured. If they learn the notes first, it’s almost impossible to superimpose this nuanced reading at a later rehearsal.
I suggest learning the entire anthem, motet, madrigal, hymn or larger work in this way, working toward a spoken performance that includes every marking on the page in a choral(or solo) reading – everything, that is, except the pitches. Add those last, not first. You have created a web of sound into which the pitches can easily find their place. Balances have already been adjusted, along with dynamics, mood, quality of beat and meaning: the pitches are like the cherry on the sundae. If you have had a piano accompanying (lightly) the choral reading, the singers have an expectation of what those pitches will be, and the first complete reading will be amazingly good – IF the conductor demands that none of that careful preparation is lost or slighted. .
What you are teaching by this method is the whole – the song as the audience will hear it. We are recapturing the beauty of the song before it was subjected to the intolerable over-simplification of the page. This method really works. I use it everywhere I travel, and it always results in more beautiful and communicative singing. It’s teaching ear-values rather than eye-values; sound rather than sight. And that’s what music is.
Centering, text © 1992 Hope Publishing Co. Carol Stream, IL; music by Alice Parker © 2002 Selah Publishing Co., Pittsburgh, PA (#410-612).