BUILDING ENSEMBLE THROUGH CHANT & CHORALE
In the over forty years I have been leading choral ensembles in community, professional and church realms, I have seen many trends and fashions come and go, and I have seen more than a few come back and then go away again. It is not an exaggeration to say that most of the fads that have inflicted our art are best forgotten.
In recent years however, there has come a movement that I believe has already positively impacted the quality of choral performances and the health and hygiene of singers’ voices: the science-based approach to choral pedagogy that has been championed by a number of leading programs, including the VoiceCare Network based at St. John’s University in Minnesota, the Master of Music Education in Choral Pedagogy offered by the University of Kansas in Lawrence, the Institute for Healthy Singing based in the Kansas City area, and the Developing Voices blog.
[Full disclosure: Though I have no role on the faculty of the Institute for Healthy Singing (www.HealthySinging.org), the IHS is a program of the William Baker Choral Foundation (www.ChoralFoundation.org), an organization I founded in 1990.]
Not only has the work of these researchers and leaders contributed mightily to the effectiveness of choral and individual vocal training, this effort has helped choral conductors adopt methods and techniques of gesture, rehearsal pacing, teaching process, and repertoire selection that maximizes the health and expressive capacity of individual voices in the ensemble.
With the foundation well-established through the science-based approach to choral pedagogy, as a part of choral training, I would offer two suggestions to carry the benefit and training to the next step: using a) chant and b) chorale as training tools for the purpose of applying the newfound health and freedom of voices to the goal of building more sensitive ensemble unity and, consequently, stronger musicianship in every area.
I recommend devoting 5-10 minutes of the choral training session at the beginning of rehearsals to using chant and chorale for ensemble building.
Chants are found in many configurations, but I believe pointed plainsong and Anglican chant to be the most useful forms for this exercise. Over the course of a semester it could be instructive and helpful to begin taking several lines of text to chant in unison on a single tone. Though it is tempting to save time by using the unison chant exercise to work out a text issue in the repertoire scheduled for rehearsal, I recommend using words that are not being otherwise rehearsed so the full attention of the singer during the chant may be invested in the inflection of words, clarity of consonants, purity of vowels and sensitivity to articulative nuance across the entire chorus.
After unison chants are mastered on a single tone, pointed plainsong verses may be employed to carry the same principles forward into a deeper realization of text painting, natural sensitivity to dynamic and timbre, and nuance of enunciation. The less gesturing from the conductor the better. The entire exercise is intended to increase sensitivity and mutual awareness of each individual voice in the ensemble and in the ensemble as a whole. It is critical to engender a keen awareness of unison tuning through this exercise in the context of the rehearsal and performance space.
The final step in this exercise is a study of four-part chant in the Anglican tradition. All of the musical goals of single-tone chant and plainsong are present, of course, but harmonic tuning and chordal balance is added to the mix of skill sets with the study of the 4-part chant. I believe the wise conductor who approaches this process with intentionality and care will experience an amazing improvement in the tonal center, intonation, enunciation clarity, and expressive potential of the ensemble.
There are few treasures in the last 1000 years of choral expression as profoundly rich as the chorales of Johann Sebastian Bach. Not only are these works a great pillar of religious expression, they are a virtually limitless reservoir of common practice period harmonic understanding and practice. The study of Bach chorales, shamefully neglected in recent years, provides a ready resource for building harmonic understanding, balance, blend and tuning in choirs at every level.
I find it useful to choose a Bach chorale for weekly choral training. If an accompanist is available, the chorale can be sung on nonsense syllables with piano, then on nonsense syllables a cappella, and finally a cappella with texts. Because the primary focus of the exercise is musicianship building, I recommend using English texts for the chorale exercise. I also recommend building sightreading acuity by using a different chorale with each rehearsal. Fortunately, Bach left us enough wonderful chorales to provide exercises for many rehearsals without repetition.
Whether the choir is a high-functioning community chorus, a professional project choir or a developing parish choir of volunteers, I believe these exercises, patiently and consistently applied, in conjunction with a program of science-based vocal health and hygiene, will positively impact the intonation, enunciation, tone and expressiveness of every performance of the concert season.
Dr. William O. Baker, Personal E-mail Account