Thursday, September 24, 2009

Trendy Choral Pieces

At my first choir rehearsal of the year, my conductor presented us with two c.d.'s that she had received from the National Music Festival here in Canada. My choir, Belle Canto, made it to Provincials where we won both our classes and a recording of that performance was sent off to represent us in the National Music Festival against other choirs who competed in the same categories. Something new this year is that they provided all competing choirs with c.d.'s of all the other choir performances. I am happy to inform you all the Belle Canto won the National Music as well :)

I have been profusely listening to all the tracks and I am sure they will inspire many blog entries to come but one thing that came across was the thought of trendy choral pieces. I just want to make this clear from the beginning, I have nothing against trendy choral pieces, but I do believe choirs have to tread carefully when they wish to tackle popular pieces in the modern choral world. Of course, the definition of what is chorally popular is subjective as well, but this piece in particular caught my attention: Mata Del Anima Sola by Antionio Estevez.

The Surrey Youth Chamber Choir as well as the Take Note Jazz Choir chose this particular piece as their class entries, even though they were not competing directly against one another, it is interesting to hear just how different two choirs can sound with the same piece. The reason I believe why Mata Del Anima Sola has a... choral hook I shall say is because it is extremely catchy and has a sensual Venezuelan beat that runs through the first and end sections of the song. However, this raises some more issues since it is extremely difficult to find a comfortable tempo setting for a song. South American music requires a sensual innate metronome within every chorister in order to feel the pulse and move of the piece. I have sung percussive Spanish choral songs in the past, Hatfield's Las Amarillas comes to mind, and more often than not, these pieces can feel like they're going to derail when everybody has a different sense of time. I took my theory to Youtube and searched for choral performances of Mata Del Anima Sola. Most of the videos I saw had decent soloists, but as soon as the choir comes in with their swinging percussive lines, it feels like the solid foundation that the soloist has built up begins to ripple and dissemble as the piece progresses.

After listening to the Surrey Youth Chamber Choir, I appreciate their vowel purity and phrase shaping, but they sounded more like a proper English church choir than a fiery Venezuelan ensemble. It was just lacking that South American heat that this song is supposed to have. Also, after hearing performances on Youtube, their tempo is too slow for it. However, I feel that they decided to slow it down because that was what they could manage. I suppose it is better to sing it slow and accurately rather than being a jumbled acoustic mess. But it is tough to find that balance since you can hear in the Take Note Jazz recordings that they clearly could not agree on a tempo either.

I wish I could provide some fail safe techniques to overcome this tempo issue in choral pieces, unfortunately, I cannot, but what I did find helpful while rehearsing the Hatfield piece was silently tapping out the pulse with two fingers in the palm of my hand as I sung. It is also crucial that your conductor keeps a steady beat and refuses to go ahead even if the rest of the choir is rushing. I always knew it was a bad sign when I looked up and saw that we were a few bars ahead of the conductor; however, it is hard to fix when no one else is looking. Thus, leading me to my final point: these types of pieces must be memorized. These types of piece are never the same if they aren't memorized. However, singing from memory doesn't automatically resolve tempo issues but at least you can guarantee that everybody is watching the conductor.

I had some trouble posting the clips of the choirs I was speaking about specifically in this post (Does anybody know of a free audio hosting site that has an embed link where it will comes up as a little player on my blog entries? The other one I was using is not working for me anymore). But in the meantime to give you an idea of the song sung in two different ways here are Youtube videos:

Excellent soloist but a tad slow.

University Singers of UNC: A faster tempo... if they could only have more control over it.

Coro de Maracay from Venezuela. I feel like this have the spirit of the piece spot on but there are some things that could be vocally cleared up.

All in all, when tackling choral pieces that are popular, you can bet adjudicators and singers have all heard a recent version of it. Thus, it important to approach the piece after some research to find your own unique interpretation of it to set yourself apart. Of course, this goes for any piece but when you enter a festival, and there are multiple other choirs singing the same piece as you, it is even more important to stand out.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Do you love musical theatre?

Do you wish your life was a musical sometimes?

You must watch Glee.

Alright, so this post is somewhat related to choral music but I just wanted to gush about, Glee, a new t.v. show I was introduced to.

A fellow student of mine enthusiastically told me about the plot line where the show follows a vocal show choir within a highschool that is ripe with stereotypical cliques. My interest was instantly sparked; however, I was kind of afraid it was like Highschool Musical. Although Highschool Musical songs are catchy, the fromage of the show often makes me cringe while watching it. Glee is more like the popular teen movie, "Bring it On," but instead of focusing on cheerleading, it is centered around a group of lovable artsy outcasts. Ever since "Bring it On" came out, I wished there was a film that depicted the wonderful world of choral singing and the funny and strange things choristers do when they are competing against one another. Also, the show does a great job at not taking itself too seriously and pokes fun at the quirky characters found within any musical group.

I am also amazed at the kind of quality each Glee episode contains. There is at least one huge choreographed musical number that look absolutely stunning on screen. They look like routines from a major motion picture or Broadway show so it is amazing to see that it on t.v. I also find it funny when the show picks at weird quirks and tendencies of musicians. I think one of the main things is that musicians are willing to make fools of themselves if they are doing something they love. This came to my mind when a group of male teachers have the bright idea of forming a hip-hop A Capella group and they were stoked when they decided that they should name themselves the "Acafellas." I have to admit, I have had similar experiences, but I think I will keep my nerdy stories to myself... for now...

Anyway, I have posted a video of the "Rehab" dance number in one of the first episodes. It is stunning! And you can find links to streaming episodes of Glee here.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Audiological Insight into a Choral Pet Peeve

The other day in my Audiology class my professor introduced us to a chart that outlined different types of hearing loss. Sound can be conducted either by air or bone and a blockade at any point in these pathways can lead to conductive, sensorineural or mixed hearing loss. He moved on to speak about tuning fork tests that are used to roughly determine what kind of hearing loss there might be. By no means do tuning forks rival the most advanced audiological software, but it provides a simple and non-invasive way to investigate where the hearing difficulty might lie.

The tuning fork test that caught my attention is entitled: "Bing." The reason this particular tuning fork test caught my attention is that the test incorporates the "Occlusion effect." What might this be you ask? Well, you conduct the Bing test by striking a tuning fork and placing it on your mastoid (the hard bony region behind your ear) while opening and closing your ear using your finger (by pressing on the flap of skin over your ear canal hole). If you hear a pulsating sound... congratulations! This means that the test is positive and you have normal hearing! If there is no change in loudness, this might indicate conductive hearing loss... No worries, though, I conducted all of the tuning fork tests in lab the other day and most of them suggest that I have some kind of sensorineural hearing loss... yeah, I really don't think that is the case. There is a lot of room for experimental error with tuning fork tests.

What might any of this have to do with choral singing you ask? Well, I am sure that, for those of you who have sung in groups before, you probably have come across people who love to plug one or both of their ears while singing. This is one of my choral pet peeves. Not only does it make you look elitist, like everybody is around you is singing so poorly you have to block them out in order to hear yourself, it also occludes your own hearing and actually alters the way you hear your own voice!

The occlusion effect is a low-pitch phenomenon and the reason there is a pulsating sound, as well as the perception that you can hear yourself better, is because the the long wavelengths of low pitches can't escape from the ear canal. These low frequencies are what you hear when your ear is plugged. Thus, when people are singing and plugging one ear, not only are they blocking out the people around them but they are mainly listening to their own low frequency feedback.

O.k, I understand if somebody plugs their ear for a moment to check a note (I have done it myself a few times). It's seems like a reflex to do it, since you feel like there is no other way to hear yourself, but the physics of sound tells us that it doesn't actually help. It actually might make you think you are singing lower than you actually are due to the low pitch feedback you are hearing by plugging your ear canal. I suppose the only exception is if you are a rock singer and ear plugs are necessary so that you won't lose your hearing while singing next to loud instruments. However, I do not believe that the decibels produced from choral singing are enough to cause long term hearing damage.

My worse experience one time was when I was rehearsing for a singing exam and one of our members was slightly less experienced chorister. For the singing exam, we were placed in groups of 4, one for each part, and I noticed that this particular chorister was struggling with our rehearsal piece for the exam. They found it hard to come in on the right note and sing alongside somebody who was not on the same part. Thus, this unnamed chorister resorted to plugging their ear for all the rehearsals, which, by the way, didn't help their singing or the group blend. It was frightening listening to that chorister warble off-key while keeping a solid finger lodged firmly in their ear. Needless to say, they bombed the singing exam.

Take it from me, the bad grade of the ear-plugging chorister, and my Audiology prof. Try not to plug your ears while singing! It is not helping you or anybody around you! Plus, won't you look much classier while singing when a finger isn't jammed in your ear?

Yeah, I thought so too :)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Trumpets to Tchaikovsky

Today signals the last day of ESO's Symphony Under the Sky! I was wary of the weather for the whole weekend but there wasn't any point where it just started pouring. Last night, the rain clouds were starting to come out just when Steve Lippia was telling Lady Luck to be kind while singing "Luck be a Lady", but most people were able to make it out without much trouble. Today started out chilly but it warmed up when the sun made an appearance after the intermission.

The concert began with the traditional O Canada and God Save the Queen followed by Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture. The ESO sounded extremely jovial as they played their merry way through the Berlioz. Humperdinck's Evening Prayer from Hansel and Gretel was lovely and extremely well-suited to the outdoor surroundings. Even though it was the middle of the afternoon, the music transformed the surroundings to the point where, if you closed your eyes, you would be certain that the shimmering evening was setting in.

Another piece I enjoyed was the piece by Jia Jia Yong, a young composer chosen by the ESO to compose a piece under the guidance of the resident composer, Allan Gilliland. Her piece entitled "A Celebration of the the Solstice" was mean to explore to the balance between the the longest and shortest days of the year as well as the warmth of summer. The piece had a very delicate and gentle quality as twinkling harp melodies weaved their way throughout the piece. Her talent is enough to put other 18-year-olds to shame. I wish Yong the best as she begins her first year at the University of Alberta.

The entrance of the colorful Mr. Jens Lindemann signaled the start of Proto's Carmen Fantasy for Trumpet and Orchestra. His 24K gold trumpet ripped through the exotic melodies of Bizet's Carmen while giving the piece a jazzy sound. Lindemann's fanfares was able to transform the Hawrelak Park Amphitheatre into a Spanish bullfighting ring. His banter between songs was also comedic as he went on about how they were not able to run through the pieces earlier in the day due to inappropriate stage temperatures for their instruments, a missing E flat trumpet, and because their music was held up by customs. At any rate, a sight-reading ESO and Lindemann made their way through Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major without any major glitches. Lindemann also gave shout-outs to his old trumpet professors and other musical figures that shaped his love for trumpet in its formative years. He also played Cowell's Rollercoaster with two of his previous trumpet teachers clad in blue Hawaiian shirts. I wasn't sure if their flamboyant attire was meant to be embarrassing, however, I suppose they matched his sparkling blue concert blazer :) At any rate, Lindemann was quite the character getting the audience to shout "Olé!" with a gesture of his hand and his Carmen fanfare was often heard even after he walked off the stage. Just in case the audience forgot how awesome he was :)

The afternoon wrapped up with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. The performance of this piece is an annual tradition and it is always fun to hear the cannons go off at the end. However, I think my favorite is when audience members take out their bells and keys to simulate victorious church bells. I never seem to get tired of it even after almost 10 years of attending the festival.

I hope to blog soon (even though I have a feeling I will be engulfed by coursework as I begin my first year as a Masters student in Speech Pathology at the UofA) and take care in the meantime!

A full grass section

Intermission time

Claire checking out the crowds

Grass seating rows

Birds scatter with the cannon sounds

Smoke from the cannons used by the Royal Canadian Artillery.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Simply Sinatra

I am back from another evening out in Hawrelak Park for the Symphony under the Sky festival. Tonight's program was full of classic Sinatra tunes such as Witchcraft, I've Got You Under My Skin, The Way You Look Tonight, Fly Me to the Moon, Lucky Be a Lady, and My Way. Steve Lippia was the soloist to carry off these classics crooner ballads and you could easily tell he was in his musical niche. It was also fun to hear the ESO playing Big Band style. They were able to carry it off but sometimes it is funny to see a bunch of serious looking musicians dressed up in formal concert wear playing swinging tunes. You know that the bearded stoic-looking trumpet player is having a good time but it's not visually apparent. It also made me smile when I saw the trap set player wearing a tux. I'm used to seeing skinny boy rockers behind the drums but this player's formal look and attire seemed delightfully foreign to me.

It is hard for me to comment too much on the performance itself because it was just so... pleasing. There was nothing that really jolted and fueled me musically but it was just an enjoyable evening. It left me without much of an opinion. Please don't take this as a bad thing... sometimes it's nice not having to think too hard about music.

The banter between his songs was also cute. He remarked that on his second anniversary the couple at the table next to them were celebrating their anniversary as well, however, it was their 52nd anniversary. In addition, the man had a bit of advice for Lippia. The reason that they were still together after 52 years years is because they go out for dinner twice every week. He goes on Tuesday and she goes on Thursday. You could tell he had these stories well rehearsed. He also commented on how US Airways lost his luggage for a week of shows and how he had to rent a tuxedo that looked like it had been used for 250 proms in the past month. This was the introduction story to "Come Fly with Me." His overall particular brand of comedy... how should I say it... was definitely geared towards a more... mature demographic :)

Lippia was cheeky and charming but what really got him going was when he was commenting on how there was no more romance in music nowadays and that the era of the songwriter has been lost. I agree to some extent, but music is always continually changing and we, as listeners, have to change and recognize new forms since if we were always singing the same thing, what is the point of exploring other musical realms? Sure, there is definitely more to sift through these days and music varies greatly in quality, but is that necessarily a bad thing? I don't think so. Music should be continuously changing and we should question and challenge what our feelings towards music are at any given point. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section!

There was one song "Send in the Clowns," which definitely peaked my interest since this was the melody of one of my childhood toys. I never knew the name of the song until today! I'm sure some of you had this generic wind-up clown toy as well. You twist the dial and "Send in the Clowns" plays as the clown rotates its head. Yes, I know it sounds creepy, especially if you have a clown phobia, but it just made me happy to hear a jingle from my childhood. My dad bought the clown for me after a trip he made without me and I still have the clown today. I used to wind up the toy when he had to work late so I could fall asleep to the gentle melody. I think I will be doing the same this evening.

Take care everybody and I will report back tomorrow as the Symphony Under the Sky wraps up in the afternoon!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sparkling Classics

I am so thankful the weather held up this evening. The whole afternoon was rainy but I am glad that Symphony Under the Sky could go ahead as planned this evening. The grass was slick but refreshing and all my lawn chair neighbors were lovely and excellent company as we tucked into our blankets for warmth throughout the performance.

Delightful and pleasing Classical pieces were on the program as well as some vivacious Gershwin. The first piece was O Canada and I always enjoy how a musical audience is never afraid to step up and sing the national anthem when prompted.

A Night on the Bare Mountain by Mussorgsky was next and it was extremely entertaining to listen to. There was so much flare to the performance and it just sounded like the string players had such a colorful swagger as they were playing. There was just a vibrant quality to the whole performance which made me excited for the whole weekend and the other musical offerings I would be treated to in the next few days. The brass section was also excellent with their commanding and sparkling sound. It was also very fitting at the end of the piece, when there were echoing chimes and quiet soaring melodies to mimic the entrance of dawn, the sun also was finally emerging after the afternoon storm.

Following Mussorgsky was Mendelssohn's Italian Opera. It was delightful and my Mom was excited to hear something she recognized. By far my favorite movement was the second one, the Andante con moto, since I really enjoyed the interplay of sound between the strings and the brass. It just felt like they were engaged in a very relaxing but enjoyable dance with one another.

Of course, watching William Eddins play Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F was the highlight of the evening. Eddins naturally radiates infectious energy and this is extends to his playing. He plays with power, but with great flexibility, and it just looks like his torso is just another bodily attachment as his fingers have a life of their own. The music would send shockwaves through his body as he was just another expressive vessel for the great entity that is music. He just has so much potential energy that the kinetic explosion of stored energy fuels his power and electric stamina throughout the piece. It was mesmerizing to watch his fingers and arms move faster than my eyes could follow. His arms and hands just turned into a blur of motion. Pretty good for a man who had just finished traveling from Capetown South Africa!

Overall, I had a fantastic evening outside. Sure, the weather was a bit chill but I was bundled up and listening to some fantastic music. Sometimes when music is that good you just forget where you are and the weather doesn't feel so cold after all.

Symphony Under the Sky Preview

Symphony under the Sky begins this evening! Every year the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra puts on a set of concerts in the beautiful Hawrelak Park in Edmonton and it is an informal friendly concert setting for those who love music. They play a wide range of musical from traditional opera overtures to classical concertos and Hollywood soundtracks. Even though the weather has been looking ominous all day with scattered showers, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra twitter informs me all is going ahead according to plan. I just hope I don't get rained out... Tis' the fate of grass seating I guess.

On a slightly happier note, I am looking forward to attending and blogging about 3 of the concerts happening this long weekend. Thanks again to Phil from the ESO for setting me up with tickets! Tonight's performance is entitled "Sparkling Classics" with pieces such as Gershwin's Concerto in F and Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony. In my experience in the past years, the first evening is always something delightfully classical and pleasing to the ear. I am also a fan of piano soloists, I think piano holds a place close to my heart since I used to fall asleep while listening to my sister practise Chopin Nocturnes in the evenings as a child.

On Sunday evening I will also be attending "Simply Sinatra," and simply put, Steve Lippin will be singing some Sinatra classics. This should be fun and you can bet I will be singing along to New York, New York if Steve sings it. I remember a few years back when I visited New York I really wanted to go to Shakespeare in Central Park. The tickets were free but the catch was that you had to line up early for tickets. I remember getting up at 7am, left my mom sleeping in her bed (she was going to meet me later), bought some breakfast at the nearby deli, and took the subway to Central Park. I didn't know exactly where the line began but I just followed everybody else and found a spot. There I had little to entertain myself with so I just listened to my ipod until 12pm. I remember lying on the grass on a Macy's bag I deconstructed so I wouldn't get dirty while all the locals around me brought a chair to sit on (the little luxuries I lacked while traveling). Looking slightly homeless but overall quite content, I remember looking up at the canopy of Central Park trees and as my ipod playlist started playing Sinatra's "New York, New York." The timing was perfect. To this day that song still takes me back to that time in Central Park.

On Monday afternoon the Symphony Under the Sky wraps up with "Trumpets to Tchaikovsky." I am looking forward to hear the sparkling sound of trumpets as well at the canons which are released during Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

Anyway, I am excited for these upcoming concerts and I hope you will all check back here often as I am sure I will have exciting things to blog about!