Unearthing Choral Gems

four videos attached ~

We don’t always have to have the newest, latest piece of music to introduce to our choirs. Sometimes, the restriction of a budget can send you to the pieces that have collected dust in your choral library or are in the public domain. Sometimes, you just remember what has always been beautiful and will always remain so.

There is poignant poetry scored for choir in madrigals and folk songs from around the globe. These are not necessarily easy pieces and the text is profoundly meaningful and often times words we unfortunately no longer use in our everyday conversations. These pieces are ideal for not only increasing vocabulary and one’s ability to articulate more precisely our thoughts, but for teaching scales, unpredictable rhythms, asymmetry, and patterns.

Our Purcell ensemble for novice singers ages eight through twelve has just performed John DOWLAND’S Come Again, Sweet Love. The text is beautifully depicted with the pattern of rising intervals of a fourth beginning on the dominant note and climbing to the octave. Written in the key of F Major it is easily singable for almost any choir since it is only the octave range. After the interval of a fourth ascent, the C is sustained not for four counts but for five and one-half counts which helps choristers the pulse of the downbeat without accentuating it.

The piece itself does not begin on the tonic, rather on the third. This is another great teaching tool. It can also be an etude used to practice tuning intervals of the fourth as well as understanding use of a sustained pentascale that is also used for phrasing and text imagery. Mature singers and novice singers love how the voice sounds when singing this piece and the chance to expressively sing of an unrequited love. Children and adults alike will love be dramatic with it for love comes in many different forms.

Diagnosing the difficult areas first is the best prevention tool to mixing a healing balm later!

If you plan to use it, teach the section that includes the interval of a fourth with the sustained C for mor than five counts first. It can be used as a tonal memory exercise on a neutral vowel before even looking at the music. The tied C sustained across the bar should be introduced through count singing only with a kinetic gesture on the downbeat preceding the descending pentascale. Singers can never sing this one phrase if the count singing does not happen every rehearsal. When the count singing is removed, adding the crescendo while using the full sweep of the arm and hand to gesture will help in finding where the emphasis of the down beat happens as the text continues. Likewise, the sixteenth notes at the end of the phrase will need an appropriate gesture to end the musical thought gracefully.

Purcell Choir singing Come Again, Sweet Love:  https://youtu.be/jJeL-BHXc-4

Another great piece for your choir’s repertoire is SCARLATTI’S O cessate di piagarmi.

Purcell Choir singing: https://youtu.be/gCsTI-oK-wU

Aside from the obvious help singing Italian vowels brings to any singer, the placement of the grace note in the same phrase but on different syllables and beats in bars nine and eleven. Again, writing this rhythm on the board with the counts under the notes is the initial way to teach this. Treat the grace note as if it divides its successive eighth note into equal parts. Teach bar eleven first! Clap the rhythm as you speak the counts. Then, move that rhythm to the feet as you speak the counts. Follow that with a neutral but percussive syllable “ta-ta-ta” applied to the rhythm. After bar eleven has been successfully achieved, teach bar eight in the same manner.

The six-eight time does not have to be explained in six equal parts, but through the use of body swaying to and fro or front to back much like the movement found in skipping. Since the rhythm and phrasing is repetitive in the A section, applying the text will come quickly.

The only other difficult place in the piece is bars fifteen and seventeen. Again, the rhythm is different, but the text and melody the same. This differentiation can be easily remedied through the use of a true ritardando et poco crescendo and kinetic gesture in bar fifteen. Also, please have the accompanist use ritardando assai with a slight lift before bar sixteen as the A section is re-introduced.

Diagnosing the difficult areas first is the best prevention tool to mixing a healing balm later!

Other lovely pieces found on imslp.org to try with two part treble chorus and piano accompaniment: Henry PURCELL:

My Dearest, My Fairest                                                                                                                     
Sound the Trumpet
Shepherd, Shepherd Leave Decoying                                                                                        Let Us Wander

Keep Singing and Carry on!

Two videos [instructional and performance] attached ~

How well do you know your singer’s voice?

How do you know if each singer is really prepared for their upcoming performance?

Andrew Webb-Mitchell has created a process by which the performance will be guaranteed its greatest possible success . . .

the submission of MP3s – for each and every piece in the repertoire.

Yes! This can add an inordinate amount of time to the schedule especially for the staff that is assessing the submissions. The singers must also commit to personal practice time before submitting recordings in the hopes of scoring an 85 out of a scale of 100 on each piece.

Listening to these submissions helps the music staff understand the strengths and weaknesses of each singer as well as hear how the voice is developing. This aids in rehearsal planning, making the rehearsal more efficient for all.

If the singer does not receive a score of at least 85, the singer is not allowed to perform the piece on the concert. This ensures the performance will be presented at the highest level possible.

Five categories are graded on a scale of 1 – 5:

  • Melody (includes correct notes and rhythm)
  • Intonation
  • Diction
  • Breathing/Phrasing
  • Musicality (pleasing voice, dynamics, articulation, nuance, etc).

At least two staff members must review each submission. The average grade in each category are added together to arrive at the final grade.

Obviously, the more advanced ensembles produce the highest scores. If a score is not 85 or higher, the singers will continue to re-submit the piece. They receive specific feedback concerning the areas that need improvement. This is all conducted online.

In order to advance from chorus to chorus, a singer must submit between three and eight songs depending on the level of the singer and choir. Choristers are ranked first to last depending on the total average grade from the first to the most recent submission.

We have a few choristers that have submitted over fifty pieces. For every ten pieces a chorister scores a 90 or above, a gold star is given to be worn on the navy blue blazer which is sported at every rehearsal and performance.

Our repertoire covers periods of music from Renaissance to present day in the original language. Examples are: all movements of Vivaldi’s Gloria, Monteverdi’s O Domine Christe, Scarlatti’s O cessate di piagarmi, Beethoven’s Merkenstein, Perosi’s Ave Maris Stella, and all movements of William Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices.

All choirs are named for British composers but to reach the highest standing, one is awarded a place in Elgar Choir. Each singer in Elgar will have submitted more than forty MP3s with a grade of 85 or higher, but the singer must also have passed the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music’s level five theory which is offered at the centre by Andrew Webb-Mitchell, and assisted by other staff.

When a chorister is promoted to this level, the school will hold a small ceremony at the beginning of class. The bust of Elgar is placed on a pedestal. The singer is announced then comes forward during robust applause from fellow choristers. She or he is presented with a polished Elgar coin and given a star to add to the navy blue blazer. It is a revered and meaningful moment in the choral centre and endless praise is given to the singer. A great day of rejoicing for all!

This my comrades, is how choirs are invited to sing with the Israel Philharmonic Symphony, the Russian National Orchestra and for Princess Anne.

Keep Singing and Carry On!

To view our video “How to submit and MP3” created by choristers Erin and Lily please right click to highlight the link, then click “Go to https://v.qq.com/x/page/p05529mrhoo.html ” to view. If an advertisement appears, simply click on the “x” in the upper right corner of the screen. https://v.qq.com/x/page/p05529mrhoo.html

Photo Below: Constanze and I, our two laptops, and scores all function much better while scoring MP3s with natural light, plants and an open window to connect to the outside world.


Rehearsal Video: Britton, Elgar Combined Choirs with select members from Parry Choir and Parry + Choirs perform A Brief History of Choral Music at Central Conservatory in Beijing, November, 2017. The choir was invited to perform for the Tenth Annual International Chamber Music Festival. Portions of the concert were televised on Central Chinese Television Network. Works included compositions of Byrd, Monteverdi, Purcell, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Goodall and many more.

Britton, Elgar Combined Choirs with select members from Parry Choir and Parry + Choirs perform A Brief History of Choral Music at Central Conservatory in Beijing, November, 2017. The choir was invited to perform for the Tenth Annual International Chamber Music Festival. Portions of the concert were televised on Central Chinese Television Network. Works included compositions of Byrd, Monteverdi, Purcell, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Goodall and many more.


Laughing in Music

2 videos attached.

It never occurred to me that the singing of Fa la la could be the translation of laughing in song.

In many of our rehearsals at the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies, the singers have a difficult time moving while singing. The notion is that singers have a stance almost like that of a soldier. They plant their feet and they don’t move. Of course, no movement at all only sets up a perfect scenario for tension throughout the entire body. This in turn affects the breathing. This tension and shallow breathing will of course have an impact on intonation and phrasing.

We are working hard to add movement, even if very slight, with everything we do. Kinesthetic movement with the well- known canon Dona Nobis Pacem has become the standard way we end our rehearsals. It surely sends the ladies home completely relaxed and dreaming of the beautiful sounds they have experienced in our lovely acoustic space.

We have added many vocal exercises that move from a very bright ah to a very relaxed ah. We are working to keep the tongue down and throat open so that we may support our sound with air. We have actually gone to the other extreme in creating a very aspirate onset in the beginning of all of our phrases. It is important for our ladies to precede words beginning with a vowel with the voiceless h to remind them of the sensation of singing on the air. Aspirating the h mimics a sigh which naturally opens the throat.

While we are busy at work understanding the difference between resonators and articulators, we are also working on our musicianship. Since we have conquered learning rhythms by putting the sequences in our feet, we have moved the sensation to our voice and are applying count singing to our study.

In this video, you will see these brave, intelligent and hard-working Chinese women, transferring  rhythms from the feet to the voice by count singing on a repeating tone. Then, you will hear the lovely English tune Now Is The Month of Maying by Thomas Morley. First, we speak the English text in rhythm, then we sing it. With the singing Fa-la-la, our focus is to let the tip of the tongue do the flipping to create a light-hearted laugh with the singing of “Fa-la-la” being sure to not engage the jaw.

You will also hear the r used in the word merry. We later changed the American r to a flipped r because it was just causing too much trouble for our non-native speakers.

I highly recommend this piece as it is a great teaching piece that differentiates the articulators from the resonators. The imagery of the piece is depicted beautifully in the melodic line. The phrasing is two to four measures and the text is repetitive emphasizing the importance of contrasting dynamics. In the key of F Major, it also aids in learning to sing an ascending major scale on a neutral syllable. Of course, it’s even more fun explaining what is meant by the words lad and lass, words we don’t use much anymore.


Sequential Consonants “TH”

Please see video attached.

One of the most challenging consonants for our Chinese singers is the sequential consonants th. Quite honestly, I have found it to be difficult for many English speakers especially those that sing in English choirs.

Singers often do not put forth the effort to get the tongue between the teeth when making the th sound. Depending on the effort, the tempo and preceding consonants, the th can become a z. As the tip of tongue travels to the front teeth, it can get stuck at the alveolar.

For our Chinese speakers, the d has become the default for the th. There is no sound like the th in the Chinese language. There are however, many words that use the English d. The tongue simply does not pass through the teeth for any sound. As a matter of fact, because of the tones used in this language, the tongue is rarely in a relaxed position. The sounds must be made with an elevated and recessed tongue.

At the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies, we have created a small exercise to reinforce the placement of the tongue for th. Singing a non legato unison pitch in the mid-range we sing this-that-and-the-other. It has been an effective exercise to add to the choral training that happens at the beginning of each rehearsal.

Of course, if one is singing the word the one must also consider if the long e or short e is used. Can you imagine the confusion with Chinese speakers? For instance, the word harp technically begins with an h. But, since it is the exception to the rule, the h is silent. Mind you, they don’t necessarily understand every word they are singing, but can pronounce almost any word put before them.

In the video on this post, you will hear the Welsh tune The Ash Grove. This is a great piece for young singers especially those that need practice finding the correct articulators to clearly pronounce th and those needing to understand the long e or short e usage in the.

 The Ash Grove is written in the key of G. The range is D4 to D5. The melodic line is very tonal and pleasing to the voice and ear. The phrases are short enough for young lungs and the only leap is the initial interval of a fourth. It is repetitive in melody and rhythm, although there is a slight variety of both in the second verse. Even though it could easily be sung A cappella, the use of the piano supports the singer vocally and aurally through its pure harmonic structure.


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.