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The Ward Music Guild 4: What Is the Matter with Our Choral Singing?

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 12, 2014

Fourth Guild Meeting: January 1944

By J. Spencer Cornwall
Director, Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir and
Member, Church Music Committee

Practically all of the faults found in amateur choral singing can be classified under some eight headings. Following is a tabulation and short discussion of each of these shortcomings:

1. Bad Tone Quality

Bad tone quality is tone quality which is not pleasing to the listener, or tone quality which is inappropriate for the character of the music. Down through the ages man has sought for beauty in tone quality both in the human voice and in the making of musical instruments. Beauty and appropriateness of tone quality are the salient elements in the enjoyment of music.

The ability to sing with good tone quality is a natural endowment of many people. It is prevalent among children, but is sometimes lost due to carelessness or neglect. The acquirement of good tone quality is largely a matter of imitation. Much progress has been made by students who have helped themselves with phonograph records of good singers.

Much can be done for a group where the tone quality is below standard. For example, harsh singing is usually the result of too loud singing. To insist that such a group sing more softly and more sweetly would be helpful. Again, strident white tones are the result of singing which is designated as too open. Here practice with the vowel “oh” and the covered tone assists in remedying this fault.

If the conductor is a voice specialist, he can bring into the rehearsal some exercises which will improve tone quality. The ordinary audience will forgive singers who fail in many of the excellencies of choral singing if their tone quality is pleasing.

2. Faulty Intonation

Faulty intonation results from tones which are out of pitch, and among singers is due to lack of sensitivity to pitches, carelessness, or to insufficient training in singing.

When one considers that the tones of the human voice are produced from two vocal chords which work in unison, and that the desired pitches are forthcoming by just the processes of will, it is a source of great wonder that inaccuracies of pitch are not the rule instead of the exception. Since among people the ability to sing varies from zero to the most astounding exhibitions, it is perfectly normal to find in almost any group of chorus members, especially if they are amateurs, a wide variation of sensitivity to pitch relationships. From the lower bracket of this ability comes our trouble. In some cases this difficulty can only be solved by eliminating the offending members.

Where faulty intonation is due to lack of training, this training must be supplied. Inattention in singing proper pitches is, of course, solely the conductor’s responsibility.

Perhaps the conductor can point out specific half steps, whole steps, major and minor thirds in the music as he finds them sung faultily. The mastery of these four intervals practically insures good intonation.

3. Failure to Blend

the phenomenon of blending in voices is an effect obtained form three elements, namely: perfect intonation, similar tone quality, and balance of voice parts. Perfect intonation is the most vital of the three. To obtain perfect blending in chorus singing it is imperative that there be perfect unisons in the various voices. This requires that little or no vibrato be allowed in the individual voices. It also requires that there be no out-of-pitch singing.

Similar tone quality can be achieved in part if the singers are encouraged to listen to and imitate each other while singing in chorus. Balance of voice parts is essential to blending because all four voice parts should be heard. Blending creates beauty.

4. Lack of Balance in Voice Parts

Numerical balance of singers does not guarantee vocal balance. When the ensemble blends perfectly there is a proper balance of voice parts. If any one voice part protrudes or any voice part is blotted out by the others there is a lack of balance.

The elements which affect balance are: size of individual voices, arrangement of the pitches of the various voice parts in the music, assignment of the melody line to the various voice parts (which must be prominent always), form of the composition (contrapuntal or chordal). All these factors must be considered in establishing balance.

The trained ear of the conductor must be the guide through which he keeps the chorus in balance at all times.

5. Imperfect Ensemble

Perhaps there is no other deficiency of choral singing which is more easily criticized than imperfect ensemble. If the chorus members fail to start together, keep together and end together, the most unpracticed listener is disturbed by it. Chorus singers must see the conductor’s signals for every attack and release of every phrase.

Sometimes the conductor is to blame for imperfect ensemble. He must make sure that his preliminary beat is timed for the attack, and that his release is clearly understood. Finally, the conductor’s part may be summed up as being a case of timing beats instead of merely beating time.

6. Imperfect Diction

Imperfect diction in choir singing results from ignorance and carelessness. The perfecting of the diction cannot be left to the individual singers any more than the setting of the tempo can be made their responsibility. The perfecting of diction is the responsibility of the conductor, who must point out the proper pronunciation of vowels and the distinct enunciation of each consonant. The conductor who desires good diction from his chorus must listen to the enunciation of words as they are being sung, and give help or corrections as needed.

7. Bad Taste in Interpretation

Bad taste in interpretation is largely the result of immature musical judgment and lack of training in traditional practices.

There are certain underlying principles of interpretation for music as it has come down to us during the centuries, which came into being when the music was composed. The composers of music, each with his own style, were the fountainhead of interpretation.

For the lesser trained conductors and also the novices, there is no better course than to imitate those who set the standards. if the imitative method is followed studiously, it will result in fostering both individuality and enterprise since it establishes a good basis from which departures may be made sensibly. Here again listening to good records would be worthwhile.

The finely spun elegances of interpretation which great conductors portray before us result from the sympathetic and masterful ordering of six seeming abstractions: tempo and its variations, dynamic levels and their fluctuations, phrasings, legato, staccato, portamento. The last three are auxiliary to the first three and function only as specialities in the great art of interpretation. Good taste in interpretation is a prize of inestimable value.

8. An Accompaniment Which Impedes

An accompanist who cannot sense and execute the intent of the conductor and singers is an impediment to the performance. An imperfect accompanist has one or more of the following deficiencies: limited technical ability, lack of skill in following a director, insensitiveness to musical nuances, cannot maintain a balance of the instrument with the voices, or failure to guide the singers when they falter, flatten the pitch or stray from the music, lack of cooperation and interest in the instructions given by the director to the signers.

The accompanist who loves his work, and will improve his technical ability by practice and by taking lessons, will nowise lose his reward.

Questions for Consideration

1. What constitutes a pleasing choral performance to the worshiping listener?

2. Enumerate from memory the factors, discussed in this article, of which the conductor must be conscious.

3. Demonstrate strident tone and “covered” tone.

4. Announcement. The subject for treatment at the fifth meeting will be “Music for Worship.” This will give an excellent opportunity for choristers and organists to exchange their views on this subject.

5. Books for consultation: Choral Conducting, by A.T. Davidson, Harvard Press, $2.00. Church Chorister’s Manual, by J.S. Cornwall, Deseret Book Company. 75 cents.



12 Comments »

  1. As long as Bro. Cornwall is shaming accompanists for all their potential faults, it seems only fair that he be chastised for the stunning lack of parallelism in that list. That “cannot” is at least as jarring as a bevy of off-key sopranos–it strikes one, as Rossini’s librettist might have said, “come un colpo di cannone.

    Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But how else could I have sneaked in a bit of Il Barbiere di Siviglia?

    Comment by Mark B. — February 12, 2014 @ 7:27 am

  2. Can’t you just hear him yelling at accompanists to get off his lawn?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 12, 2014 @ 9:19 am

  3. Mark B. that video you linked to was fantastic! I don’t know if it is better than “The Rabbit of Seville”, my favorite cartoon of my childhood (ok adulthood), but it’s a close second.

    Comment by Carl C. — February 12, 2014 @ 9:34 am

  4. I was in a ward/stake that had an accompanist who had trained specifically for that role. I’ve missed her ever since. It really did make a difference. There were better pianists in the stake, some of professional quality, but none were better working with a choir.

    Comment by STW — February 12, 2014 @ 10:29 am

  5. I’m a little sensitive about some of this. It is awkward to join the ward choir and then have the director upset because you can’t sing the high pitches she wants you to sing/sight read the music/sing a harmonizing part (I usually can only pick out the top note) etc. Of course the director doesn’t want’ you to stop coming. She just wants you to be a different person with more training and a better voice.

    I have also noticed the tendency of leaders to assume that playing the organ is not a ‘demanding calling’ because it only requires an hour on Sunday. (When is the person going to practice, much less take lessons?) The instructions to the organist were to practice sight reading so as to improve. But what if you practice, but the ability does not come easily. Shouldn’t the director maybe think ahead and hand the music to the organist in advance, to avoid the sight reading issue?

    Sorry–just some of my peeves.

    Comment by LauraN — February 12, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

  6. I’m with you, Laura.

    I wonder if this would have sounded a little bit different to a 1944 audience, especially one on the Wasatch Front, which probably was all Bro. Cornwall was imagining. Generally larger wards, and a culture much more heavily saturated with music lessons may have meant a pool of accompanists and choir members much larger and more formally trained than most wards see today. More of an assumption that if Jim can’t handle it, we can call Suzy instead, I mean — so Suzy gets all the callings, and we poor Jims are glared at.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 12, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

  7. Even back in the days when I was much more in practice than I am now, it’s generally a real challenge to serve as a choir pianist. It takes someone with a lot of talent and particular gifts to be able to work with the variety of people who are called to lead choirs.

    As a long-time and long-suffering accompanist, I could easily come up with enough complaints and pet peeves about choir directors to match each of Brother Cornwall’s complaints, but it’s hard to want to be too critical of people who have been called to perform a professional function and may not have adequate training. (Unless you have to work with them, and they tend to hand you John Rutter pieces to sight read for a performance that day. But that’s a story for another time.)

    Perhaps more useful than a negative list would be a short guide to help an amateur learn how to direct a choir.

    Comment by Amy T — February 12, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

  8. I will come to Brother Cornwall’s defense here. This list, while a bit negative in tone, is a handy compilation of choral singing fundamentals.

    In real life, of course, the choral director would need to approach the implementation of these points with a whole lotta love and patience.

    But the principles are good ones! We need more of this instruction these days, not less.

    Comment by David Y. — February 12, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

  9. IMO,the biggest problem with our choral singing is that there is almost never a ward choir director who has a clue how to conduct music, how to select suitable music for the choir, or how to get the choir to sound good as outlined in Bro. Cornwall’s above directive. And there is also almost no avenue for the average ward choir director to become trained in how to do any of those things. There simply is no organized system of ongoing music training whatsoever in most of our wards and stakes.

    Comment by Lisa — February 13, 2014 @ 11:28 pm

  10. Here’s my 2 cents.

    I actually am the person that has the whole lotta love and patience to TEACH a ward choir and help them improve their fundamentals. I’m also the person who knows how to choose choir music that will flatter our amateur voices, but be challenging enough to stay interesting. I’m also a pianist, so I have mercy on the accompanist and really try not to just hand them music before rehearsal.

    Anyhoo. I am all of those things. And what is my ward leadership’s answer to having me in that calling (that I loved and the choir and ward members loved me in) for 7 years? You guessed it. They released me. So “someone else could have a turn”, and my “other talents could be used” (like playing the piano for Primary. Because that’s different.)

    Now our ward has no choir.

    Am I bitter?

    Nooooo.

    But seriously. The lack of respect for music by the general population of the church is so very discouraging in light of all of the requirements for its use in our worshiping. It’s kinda crazy.

    Comment by JeannineL/ — February 14, 2014 @ 10:52 am

  11. This series, and this installment in particular, has sparked a much livelier discussion than I could have anticipated, and from so many different angles! It’s great!

    And speaking of anticipation, besides the two last installments in this series, there’s another Music Guild series from 1944-45 to follow this one.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 14, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

  12. JeannineL said “It’s kinda crazy.”

    I kinda totally agree.

    Comment by David Y. — February 14, 2014 @ 2:03 pm

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