Ach! The Noise, Noise, Noise!

ZCCC.Shanghai.Decibel.1Digital decibel sign in Shanghai, China

photos and video attached ~

One question I often get from Americans: Is China noisy? Is it noisier than living in the states?

I am amazed that even though I live in midtown Zhuhai, a city of 1 million plus residents, it is very quiet. The only sound I am hearing when the sun comes up is the rooster that lives a couple of blocks away!

As I am out and about, I see no TV monitors in waiting rooms. There are no TVs playing annoying talk shows in hospitals. There are no monitors playing loud music and commercials at gas stations or on buses. There is no Muzak playing in restaurants. One can actually have a conversation with friends, the main reason I dine out. There are large numbers of people just about everywhere I go, but comparatively speaking I experience a more quiet environment than in the states.

We often talk about keeping our voices healthy. But, we forget that this includes protecting our hearing too. Surely, all this constant over-stimulation elevates our blood pressure and causes many other unhealthy responses. For now, let’s stick to how this noise can bring about hearing loss . . .

Any sound above 85 dB (decibels) can cause hearing loss, and the loss is related both to the power of the sound as well as the length of exposure. If you have to raise your voice to be heard by somebody else you are listening to at least an 85-dB sound.

Eight hours of 90-dB sound can cause damage to your ears; any exposure to 140-dB sound causes immediate damage (and causes actual pain).

Environmental Noise

Whisper Quiet Library        30dB

Normal conversation at 3′  60-65dB

City traffic (inside car)         85dB

Jackhammer, 50′                   95dB

Subway train, 200′                 95dB

Power mower, 3′                   107dB

Rock concert                          115dB

Sound Levels of Music
Normal piano practice 60 -70dB
Fortissimo Singer, 3′ 70dB
Chamber music, small auditorium 75 – 85dB
Piano Fortissimo 84 – 103dB
Violin 82 – 92dB
Cello 85 -111dB
Oboe 95-112dB
Flute 92 -103dB
Piccolo 90 -106dB
Clarinet 85 – 114dB
French horn 90 – 106dB
Trombone 85 – 114dB
Tympani & bass drum 106dB
Walkman on 5/10 94dB
Symphonic music peak 120 – 137dB
Amplifier, rock, 4-6′ 120dB
Rock music peak 150dB

The incidence of hearing loss in classical musicians has been estimated at 4  – 43%, in rock musicians 13 – 30%.

Statistics for the Decibel (Loudness) Comparison Chart were taken from a study by Marshall Chasin, M.Sc., Aud(C), FAAA, Centre for Human Performance & Health, Ontario, Canada.

What Can You Do?

Since voices tend to produce a more pressed phonation –

  • Avoid talking over noise whenever possible. Turn off the fan, buzzing lights, computers, etc. when talking.
  • Wear an earplug in at least one ear. It can help your voice avoid speaking too loudly.
  • When you can, use sound makers (whistles, hand claps, etc.) rather than a loud voice.
  • Use personal amplification or room amplification when coaching or teaching to minimize voice overuse:  /
  • Avoid loud public spaces, especially places where amplification is over-used.
  • Search out restaurants where acoustics are kind to the ear. I find Asian restaurants to be more considerate in this regard.
  • Get intentional about it! Encourage a quiet household by lowering your voice, take turns talking, keeping the TV and music speakers at a comfortable level, schedule a silent time every day, move away from loud sounds and closer to the person to whom you are speaking.


What else can you do as a teacher?

  • Talk to your administrators about the importance of classroom acoustics adding acoustic panels to the ceiling and walls and carpeting to the floors. These materials help decrease the reverberation or echo of sound in the room.
  • Minimize the noise from fans, lights, overhead projectors, and sound coming from other classes especially while teaching.

Continue reading Ach! The Noise, Noise, Noise!

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:

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

Purcell Choir singing:

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 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

Showing Students How Classical Music is Relevant to Their Lives ~

When our students hear the words MUSIC APPRECIATION they most likely think “what a snore”. They most often will think this means listening to a lot of lectures and a lot of music they have never heard or will hear again. After all, who wants to sit and listen to someone talk about music of dead composers? Of course, as teachers we believe that just as current events are relevant to us so is the past as it has been part of the evolution that has made us who we are.

Sometimes, we are so busy preparing for the next performance and competition, we forget to talk about the global musical journey. Every great creator of music has studied the creators that lived before them and have been influenced by them in one way or another whether we believe that or not.

Have you thought of sharing an entire Beethoven symphony with your class lately? Why not? Would it require too much preparation time? Is there no room in the schedule? Might the students find it boring? The fine art of listening must be encouraged and cultivated as it’s an important element to our mental and spiritual growth. It’s critical that we help our musicians know how to articulate how the music makes them feel and why. After this, you may find that some of your students will experience classical music in a way they never have and some may be inspired to know more.

You can download entire symphonies from online sources like It is worth the time and money to print an orchestral score to share with each of them. After all, it may be the only orchestral score they ever see. It may also be the first in a long line of scores because you have inspired them. All kinds of mental floss can be exercised: really hear the music, conduct a search for which instruments have the primary theme, find where the sudden shifts in harmonic structure and tempo occur. What is the image you have in your mind when you hear this music? How does it make you feel?

Did you know the following scores can be found on and downloaded for free?

With score in hand or projected, you can study the overture to Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio. This can also be re-enacted in the classroom or viewed on YouTube. Your class will love it! Even though this opera has been around for a couple of hundred years, your students will find the story line relevant to their life. Since human behavior hasn’t changed much over the course of time, they may well find this story quite amusing while experiencing the exuberant, extreme writing that Beethoven gave us.

Fidelio: 7:05

There are countless free scores to download from including:

Mozart Symphony No. 44

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1

Ives Symphony No. 2

After this great experience, I’m sure your young but mature musicians will want to know more about Beethoven and the other great composers that have contributed to our global musical heritage over the course of time changing all our lives without even realizing it.

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 ” to view. If an advertisement appears, simply click on the “x” in the upper right corner of the screen.

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.


The Mountains We Climb Are Worth It!

Photos and video attached.

I am only now coming to understand what I wish I had known before our first women’s choir rehearsal at the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies in Zhuhai, China.

I began rehearsals with them with little to no understanding of the Chinese culture and spoken language. Before our first rehearsal in September, I only knew some women were coming to the Centre for Choral Studies to learn how to sing classical music. I assumed they could speak English since they were in a British choral setting. I assumed they had sung before and would easily model the singing I demonstrated. I assumed that my pedagogical approach in the states would transfer easily to China. What a lesson this has been! I can’t remember the last time I taught a first ever introduction to music theory to an audience that had never seen or even experienced classical music. Nor can I remember the last time I taught someone that had never sung in a choir before or studied privately. I know I have never given a singing lesson to someone that did not speak my language.

Unless you expect to have a painful go at repetitive rote singing, music theory must be a part of the curriculum even for a community choir. Repertoire must be selected that reinforces the theory. After a couple of weeks of wrapping my head around all of this, we changed our approach and began to connect the theory directly to music sight-singing exercises and then transferring that knowledge to our carefully selected repertoire. The first half hour of our rehearsal is spent understanding how the twelve-tone system is constructed and notated as written in classical music.

But, in order to be truly effective, I needed a more thorough understanding of the culture and history of the arts throughout China.  I assumed since so many Chinese children play piano, that they learn from the system that consists of staves with five lines and four spaces, treble and bass clefs, and designated note values. However, most are learning the twelve-tone system through simplified music notation called jianpu. Even children studying piano, play from these scores rather than the commonly used system in the west.

Doing a little research, I found that traditional Chinese instruments used a notation called Gongche. Many of the ancient instruments were stringed instruments and had anywhere from 4 – 50 strings.

IMG_2204(1)Yangtin, 22 strings ~ found in a Shanghai music store that leases practice/teaching space.

The Gongche notation did not mark the relative length of notes. Instead, it marked the percussion intended to be played at regular intervals, written alongside the notes. Gongche is notated in the same format as traditional spoken Chinese: top to bottom and then right to left. The rhythm marks are written to the right of the note characters and are actually left open to the artist’s interpretation. Because of this free licensing, variations among different traditions increased the difficulty of maintaining this system to present day.






Jianpu 1 2 3 (4) 5 6 (7)
Movable “do do re mi (between fa and fa♯) sol la (between ti♭ and ti)

Now, with the introduction of the violin and other stringed instruments including the piano, the numbered musical notation system jianpu is used. It is not only used in various parts of Asia but even in the United States and other European countries. If one attended a piano class taught here, you most likely would see a score that looked like this:

|1·  1·  |1  23·  |   Row, Row, Row Your Boat

|1 1 5 5 |6 6 5 – | Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

From seeing this, you would understand that 1 is do. The punctuation that follows defines the rhythm:

Whole note: 1 – – –  Half note: 1 –                   Quarter note: 1               Dotted quarter: 1·

Eighth note: 1        Dotted eighth: 1·             Sixteenth note: 1

Dotted sixteenth: 1

If a chord is notated, the numbers are stacked (lowest note on the bottom). Can you imagine how a Bach trio sonata be notated? Exactly.

Thankfully, in addition to the eight choirs offered at the choral centre, separate theory classes are made available to everyone. These theory classes use curriculum of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, levels one through eight.

About forty women in the beginning choir and eighteen women in the intermediate choir come once a week not only to learn a new musical language, but to sing in English, Latin and German. About half of the women in the intermediate choir come a second night of the week and devote an additional two hours to theory. Can you imagine committing yourself at this level to learn so much NEW? But, the singing of this music moves them in ways even they cannot articulate. You can see their hearts melt and their minds grow when they hear a piece like Franck’s Panis Angelicus, in Latin. They want to sing it over and over again.

I have to say, this is not the only mountain we climb every week. There are many vocal productions issues because of the required pronunciations of Chinese. The language wreaks havoc on the voice. Most onsets are glottal. Because of the third tone, vocal frye has a strong presence in their sound. Anyone that knows me, knows I can’t tolerate suppressed larynges! Because the four tones are used, inflection of the musical text is completely overlooked which makes phrasing, dynamics and syllabic stress non-existent.

Still, I can’t believe there are women in the south of China that love singing this music as much as I do. They learn many new concepts every week and practice in the interim so they are sure to get it right. Our steps are baby steps, but the steps are moving in the right direction. It is a pleasure to share what I know with others that are thirsty to learn.

Oh! Did I tell you we begin singing rehearsal with something we used to do in high school chorus? Line up for your shoulder massage! We make a long train and massage each other’s shoulders adding a chop at the end. I don’t think we do that anymore in the US. I know, personal space is important.


Their latest gem is John Dowland’s Come Again, Sweet Love which I hope to post soon.


Swanson, L. 10.9.2017. China Photo Library.