Nuance ~ Beyond the notes and the rhythm ~

Who has the time to consider the details, much less demand them?

With enough practice, anyone can learn to sing the pitches, the rhythms, the text in the correct tempo. Is that all there is? I find that too often, we’re so focused on manufacturing the sound that we haven’t stop to consider anything else. Music that speaks to the core of the soul must also consider:

  • Silence created by the rests
  • Intonation: Relationship between pitch and harmonic structure as well as to other pitches
  • Modification of the vowel
  • Timbre of the ensemble
  • Consideration of when the note should reach its highest amplitude, the front end, the back end, the middle?
  • Syllabic stress (which most often occurs naturally from well-constructed rhythm)
  • Agogics? Tenuto?
  • Articulation – Staccato, Legato, Marcato, and everything in between
  • Geometry embedded in the crescendo and decrescendo
  • Dynamics – are all voice parts equal when f is written above the staff?
  • Ensemble Dynamics vs. Personal Dynamics
  • Vibrato cycle – more shimmer or ?
  • Placement of voices for balance and blend~ to whom is the choir listening? who is the choir hearing?
  • Arrangement of singers for maximum acoustic benefit

The list goes on.  All of these elements and more can be summed up in the meaning of nuance. If only we had the time, we would care. If only we cared, we would take the time. If we knew all of these things mattered, would we learn the notes quicker so we could delve deeper?

So much of our preparation time must be managed according to the schedule. Why! We have a performance to give! Who has the time to talk about details? Besides, all of that doesn’t really make that a big difference does it?  The Zhuhai Classical Children’s Choir is working on it. . . albeit slowly, but certainly.  Still, pretty darned impressive to be singing multiple languages not often heard or spoken, much less understood.

Don’t be a Hummer!

Don’t be a Hummer, Be an Audiator

We have established the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies in Zhuhai, China as a “No-Humming Zone”. Our Chinese character:

Rather than hum, we audiate. Audiation is a cognitive learning process by which the brain receives input , digests it, then defines it. In other words, one internalizes the pitch before one produces the pitch. Retention and production of the pitch must take place in the head before it can be accurately produced via the mouth.

There are other benefits to audiating:

+ Listening to an entire phrase with an engaged brain organizes sequences and patterns so they may be recalled with greater precision.

+ It decreases intonation issues. If you can hear it in your head, you can sing it correctly. As my colleague Dr. William Baker of the Choral Foundation always says: “Choirs that sing in tune, don’t hum the pitch!”

+ Focus is maintained. Humming along to the piano or while others are singing interrupts the audiation and production process of others. It also contributes to a noisy learning atmosphere encouraging others to hum along.

+ Sight-reading and tonal memory aptitude improves. Singing too quickly can bring about confusion with other patterns already stored in the brain. Hearing then thinking about the current intervals and rhythm will bring about more success with the initial attempt.

+ Avoids adding noise to the rehearsal room. Noisy rooms produce the Lombard Effect which has a negative impact on the singers via the instructors compensation for this situation. Any noise levels that are increased during instruction causes the instructor to increase phonetic fundamental frequencies, sound intensity, volume and overuse of articulators.  This can cause vocal fatigue and produce other negative results. 

Increase your musical aptitude by becoming a disciplined audiator.

The more you audiate the more others will audiate.

And the more pleasant our world will be.

        Don't Hum The Pitch!

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Opportunity presented ~ Opportunity pursued ~                                                                  Challenge presented ~ Challenge accepted ~                                                                          Goals accomplished ~ New doors opened ~

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Jerry (English name) flanked by the Danny Boys successfully scored an 85 out of 100 on MP3 recordings submitted of repertoire for the performance at Chinese Conservatory, Beijing, China.

Zhuhai Classical Children’s Choir                                                                                                  The Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies, Zhuhai, China.                                                Andrew Webb-Mitchell, Founder and Director                                                                                Lynn Swanson, Assistant Director                                                                                                      Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing, China. 


Please see two videos attached.

Knowing that language is a true barrier in working with our Chinese choirs, I have been forced to be more concise with my instruction! I hope I make this change permanent. The shortest explanation to our singers can either create more confusion or fall silent on their young minds. Even though I have a translator, I must wait for the translator to deliver the instruction then hope the translation was accurate.

Dr. Daugherty, Ph.D. at the University of Kansas, constantly stressed delivering remarks in seven words or less. This might be a hard fast rule for advanced or professional choirs, but it is certainly an efficient manner in which to manage rehearsals for younger choirs.

For the novice singer to the most mature singer, the use of gestures and modeling has become my modus operandi. At this stage, few of our singers actually need more explanation. They simply need to hear and see how the phrase is sung.

In the two videos attached, the Purcell Choir, 9-11 year olds, is singing Sanctus from Cornell’s Unison Mass. We added a breath mark after the highest note in the last phrase of the piece. The natural response is to clip the note while also accenting it. The only remedy was to demonstrate using the fingers of one hand to gently brush the palm of the other. Viola! The voice automatically matched the kinesthetic gestures used by the hands.

The Byrd Choir, 7-8 year olds, has been using Brahms’ Die Nachtigall to learn many elements of musicianship. It has served us well learning to:

  • count sing “1-2-3” in English
  • sing repeating pitches, rhythms and arpeggios
  • sing staccato
  • sing German text

We used the fingers of one hand to tap lightly the other in order to understand staccato singing and to understand where to put the final consonant. In this case the end of each phrase ended with a crotchet or quarter note. All the other notes in the piece are quavers and semi-quavers.

So much more can be accomplished in less time, when we apply a gesture to better understand the goal of our music making. Articulation and phrasing become instantly clear and without ever giving any verbal instruction. Accept the challenge to see how few words you can use in order to achieve amazing results.

Lynn Swanson, MME