Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I Am A Choir Singer

In the post where I was giving a little account about my time at the Westminster Choir Festival this summer, I mentioned the need to master my voice in such a way that I could sing well with a choir. A commenter, babydramatic, said this: "Since for good or for ill, most of my singing will be in a choir (or as one of their featured soloists) I have needed to do this and have been largely successful."

"Since for good or for ill, most of my singing will be in a choir."

This could be the refrain of the avocational singer.

Most of my thrust in trying to master my singing voice has been with the idea of solo singing in mind. But more of my singing and performing time is spent singing with others in my women's choir, and now a second choir which I have just joined.

So, paralleling my work on my solo voice, has always been a gradually growing appreciation of the skills that are necessary to sing with an ensemble. Since "for good or for ill" most of my time will be spent singing with an ensemble, I have become interested in learning how to do that well and, most recently, learning how to do that well with higher level singers in a higher level choir.

To that end, after having experienced the Mozart's Requiem with orchestra in a beautiful performing space this past summer, singing alongside many experienced and professional level choral singers, I am expanding my singing realm by exploring the choral world. I have invested in a couple of books about choir: The Robert Shaw Reader -- which I am currently reading and finding quite fascinating -- and, waiting on the shelf, is Shirlee Emmons' Prescriptions for Choral Excellence. A new book I've spotted that is coming out will go on my wish list: The Solo Singer in the Choral Setting: A Handbook for Achieving Vocal Health.

I have noticed that a lot of singers who have music degrees have experienced a choir education in an academic setting along the way.  "Oh, I sang that when I was in college." This higher level choral experience has been kind of a gap in my musical education,.  As  a kind of self-schooled -- home-schooled, if you will -- musician, I have to get everything piecemeal and makeshift and I don't always know what piece of the puzzle to add next.

As much as I love solo singing, and that is my passion and first drive, reflecting over my experiences has caused me to realize that I've been conditioned to be a choral singer for most of my life.

I still remember the first moments I became enchanted by the idea that two voices could blend in harmony --   that one person could sing different tones that blended with the melody of another and add depth and complexity to the music. It happened when I was in church as a little girl, sitting beside my mother. As the congregation sang, my mother always made up a harmony, and I always thought it was so cool and sounded so nice and I wondered how she did it.

Next, I experienced harmonic singing at girl scout camp around a campfire. The counselors would teach us different parts and the music we were all able to make together was very beautiful and satisfying.

When I came home form girl scout camp, I didn't want that singing magic to end, so I would teach my three sisters all the parts and we formed our own little choir in the home. We had hours of fun on car trips harmonizing like this together.

Singing in church choirs, singing in school, being selected to go to inter-school choral events, high school choir, all county and all state choir, and finally the choir award at graduation time.

Why didn't I see it all before?  That I am a choir singer! It is part of my true singer-identity (and destiny?) I love harmonizing with others. I love music that was written for different vocal parts. It sprouted up naturally and organically and it was there all along and I hardly recognized it. It is good for an avocational singer to love singing with a choir!


  1. Thank you for quoting me! I have had to learn that there are healthy ways to "blend" and unhealthy ones, which I mentioned in a recent blog post.

    The worst thing of all is to sing with a raised larynx, in an attempt to make my voice "smaller". I used to think if I did that, not only could I blend on high(er) notes with the less trained sopranos, but I could also sing higher. The latter is absolutely not true!. If I sing with a raised larynx a G feels like a "high note"!!

    The most important skill I focus on for choir singing is learning to sing a healthy pianissimo. If Dolora Zajick can sing a pianissimo high C, I can sing a pianissimo high A or A flat, the highest I would have to sing as a second soprano. (My blog post explains why I prefer not singing alto.)

    Also we are lucky that this particular choir director has never asked anyone to sing "straight tone", something else I think is not healthy, unless that's the way you've always sung.

    I love the spiritually nourishing environment of being in a choir, even though I am not Christian, and of course I live for the solo opportunities. But even then, I have to "tone it down" because it's a church.

    Of course every now and then a Baby Dramatic has to let it rip, so I schedule concerts where I can sing Verdi or Verismo.

  2. After reading your post, I have some good news for you - in my opinion, it doesn't take very many seasons in a post-collegiate-level choir to gain the equivalent of a college-level choral background. (It depends on the choir, of course!) So you're probably already well on your way if not actually arrived! These are some of the topics and skills developed during the college-level choral experience, if you want to explore them further:

    1. Sight singing
    2. Ear training
    3. Diction
    4. Conducting
    5. Theory/Composition - harmony & counterpoint, form, analysis, etc.
    6. Music history
    7. Interpretation
    8. Performance practice
    9. Standard choral repertoire

    You probably have a fair amount of hands-on experience #2, #5, and #6 just from your past singing and piano experience and your reading interests.

    A lot of #3, #7, and #8 carries over directly from your solo classical voice training. For example, a lot of the dramatic and musical analysis process described in that Kimball book "Song" can be applied to choral repertoire too. And many of the conventions for style, notation, appoggiaturas, cadences, etc. that you probably learned in the Baird Baroque class also translate to the Baroque choral repertoire (of which there is a ton).

    #1 can be tackled with a textbook and some persistence. As for #4, I'll never be a conductor, but I found it immensely helpful just to read a beginning conducting textbook so that I could understand more about a conductor's technique, the issues they address during their prep work to conduct a piece of music, and their rehearsal techniques.

    You can get some hands-on experience with #9 by participating in sing-along events of choral masterworks. Of course it's nicer to have a longer rehearsal period to hone and polish the work to performance level, but there's still something to be said about getting exposure to a piece by reading through it at a sing-along. I'm sure that plenty of choral organizations in your area host these events. Where I live, we have several groups that host Messiah sings as well as a series of summer sings covering other choral masterworks.

    So, I guess what I am trying to say is that you may have more college-equivalent choral skills than you think, and acquiring the rest of the knowledge is a totally feasible goal!

  3. BY, that is so cool! I have some friends from my choir who go to some of those singalongs you mentioned. I should tag along.

    I think that learning about conducting, even if one is not planning to conduct, is actually very helpful. They had conducting master classes at the Westminster Choir Festival that I sat in on and I learned so much that is helpful to singing.

  4. Lovely post. Great, positive attitude. I have to admit, I looooove participating in choral music (when they let me, LOL). There are some works, like for example the Vaughan Williams Shakespeare settings, without which my life would be poorer, and which I wouldn't have discovered without being part of a choir.

    And I think ALL singers should get a grip on the basics of conducting. Beats wondering why the guy in that hole down there is waving his wand and scowling at you ;-)