The Piano Sound Board The Human Voice Box

Normally, our children rehearse in a room equipped with a digital piano. Because of our combined rehearsals in preparation for the performance at Chinese Conservatory, we re-arranged our rehearsal space. This meant three of our youngest choirs were able to practice with the Kawai grand. Not only was this good for them musically, but it also provided an impromptu opportunity to showcase how a piano makes sound and in comparison to how our voice box makes sound.

Most of our youngsters have never seen the workings of a piano much less what is under the lid of a grand piano. . .

Since the strings of a grand piano run parallel to the floor, it’s easier to imagine how our vocal folds are situated in our neck. Watching the piano hammer strike and observing the release of the damper, our youngest choirs (Byrd and Purcell, ages 8-11) witnessed the vibration that begins and heard the sound that happens. We compared this to the air pressure that causes the vocal folds to abduct and adduct in order to initiate vibration and create sound. We also noted the striking of the hammer as being similar to the collision our vocal folds make when we speak and sing. We talked about the speed of the hammer hitting the strings and compared it to the gentle or glottal onsets of the vocal folds. This also allowed us to contrast the difference between legato and staccato articulation.

They could also see the similarities between their small vocal folds and the piano strings in the treble register. Of course, their folds are not near as long or big in diameter, but they could see the difference in the size of strings at the upper end and the lower end. This helped them understand proportionally a little more about the size of a child’s vocal folds and adult female and male vocal folds.

We compared the sound board to our natural resonators, the throat, the mouth and our nose. We talked about the speed of the hammer hitting the strings and compared it to the gentle or glottal onsets of the vocal folds. This also allowed us to reinforce the difference between legato and staccato. Even though we have used kinesthetic movements to experience these elements of singing, we have now made another connection with the visual aid of the grand piano.

In our Purcell Choir the children are 9 – 11 years old. For most of them, it is their first year to sing in our choir. When asked how many study the piano privately, 14 hands shot up. That’s 60% of our class! Pretty impressive China!

I believe that by the end of our rehearsal, we made a lasting impression by pointing out the workings of the piano in contrast and comparison to our own voice box.

Just look at that shining face in middle of the frame! This is the afternoon Byrd class. . .

Teaching German text to Chinese Singers

Teaching German to Chinese Singers

In some ways, it’s easier for a choir to sing a foreign language than it is to sing in its native tongue. The reasons may or may not be obvious. Every language has socially distinct varieties that will differ from its standard language.

In the Zhuhai Classical Children’s Choir, the children sing in Latin, English, and Italian. They are now preparing two pieces in German. The first is Beethoven’s Merkenstein for alto and soprano voices. The second is Schubert’s Psalm 23 for four-part treble voices.

The two select choirs named Elgar and Britten are capable of reading English. For the most part, they have been singing Latin and English for a few years. They performed the choral score of Madame Butterfly in Italian of course, with orchestra and professional soloists this past June.

Now, we are teaching them German. Just a quick note, many of the English sounds made for our language are not a part of the Chinese language. Imagine the confusion, when after having read English for a number of years the “w” is suddenly pronounced as a “v”. Then, there is the even more explosive ending consonant necessary in the German language. “Und” must be pronounced with an exploding “t”.  The final syllable “en” becomes an “un”. Let’s not forget that singers must suddenly remember to make an “sch” sound for what is an “st” sound in English. The umlaut has not been as big of an issue as expected even though they do not encounter this production in English or Chinese. For the most part, the greater issue is the brain making the switch as to how a certain vowel or consonant differs from English to German.

They are relieved to know that the “th” sound only appears in English. I have found this sound to be by far the most difficult blend for Chinese children to produce. Of course, I believe it is a difficult blend for English speakers as well. Even in well-rehearsed English singing choirs, the “th” often comes across as a lazy sound because the tongue is allowed to remain behind the teeth.

I have included two excerpts from a tutorial session with three of the boys that sing in both select choirs.

They have only been learning this piece, notes, rhythm and now text for three rehearsals.