Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Vocal Diagnosis

We live in a world that loves labels. We love organizing, compartmentalizing, sorting, or really, anything that gives us some semblance of structure in an unpredictable world. The musical world is not exempt from this. The issue of voice labeling is something we discussed in my studies in Salt Lake City this summer. I have even heard the term "vocal diagnosis" used, as if voice typing is some kind of diagnosis by exclusion.

"Since your breaks lie here, here, and here, and you're more comfortable in this part of the range, that makes you a ___________."

My next question is: Does it matter?

Why does it really matter if someone needs to be labelled as a soprano? mezzo? tenor? baritone? bass? a dramatic soprano? or a lyric tenor with a warm lower range? Perhaps it gives us a sense of identity. Maybe a label automatically filters out the types of roles and repertoire that are inappropriate for our vocal abilities. More likely, it is a singers response to the musical construct society has created since certain roles and voice parts need to be filled. Singers need to label themselves in order to occupy these positions. I understand that. In some cases, it's how the business works, a kind of demand-and-supply type of approach. A composer writes music for a mixed SATB choir, well, there needs to be SATB voice parts to sing that piece.

However, I feel like the issue of voice labeling can create a sense of identity displacement in a vulnerable population of voice users. Of course, many careers are built from the fact that a singer's vocal abilities casts them into different character roles, such as a "Carmen" or "Turandot". But what about singers who are in the grey? Whose voices seem to straddle many different genres? Where they're in the opera chorus one day, singing medieval chant the next, and then experimenting with ingressive phonation in a contemporary piece. What should we call these vocal chameleons?

I remember struggling, in the days of my preteen voice training, to combat an excessive breathiness that only maturation would help remedy. I dreamt of the prospect of finally finding out if I would be a soprano or mezzo once my voice finally matured, as if the label would signal my coming-of-age moment as a singer. Well, I'm at the stage at which my voice is no longer in its preteen state and I'm still not so sure. But I also realized that, frankly, I don't care.  For me, this is a healthier mental approach to working with an instrument that is always changing. In general, I think voice training benefits from an adaptive and not a prescriptive approach. I prefer not to view it not as a vocal diagnosis but a constant process of vocal experimentation and discovery. My main concern is that I have command of an instrument that can perform a variety of repertoire. Also, that I'm monitoring my vocal health and making sure nothing pathological is developing while singing. The thing about choral singing is that, regardless of your voice part, compositions demand a wide vocal range as well as diversity of vocal colors. Choristers are not type cast into iconic roles. We must be able to play a wide range of parts as per the wishes of the composer and the conductor's interpretation of that vision. No two instruments are built the same, thus, it is incorrect for them to be treated as such.

This doesn't mean I won't circle a voice part when I see "S A T B" listed on a choral application. I understand I need to fit within the musical construct. If we must have a label to belong in this musical world then we must label ourselves. However, I don't feel like this proclamation needs to dictate the mental performance range of a singer. We should not be so consumed with what we call ourselves as singers, but rather, what we can do as vocal artists to effectively communicate music. After all, labels aside, isn't that what we are all here to do?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Interview and CD Release: She Moved Through the Fair

Ilia Biziaev Photography

For most young singers, if their voice teacher handed them three books of folk music and told them to record a C.D., they may dismiss their suggestion with an air of disbelief… and question their teacher’s sanity. However, this was not the case with singer, Adrienne Findlay, when her voice teacher, Heather Johnson, made such a statement. Instead, Findlay felt another dominant emotion at the prospect of recording a C.D.: excitement.

In addition to being a Cantilon Choirs chorister for many years, Findlay was also a private voice student of Johnson’s. Findlay cycled through the typical song genres of many budding singers, but when Johnson began introducing folk songs, Findlay realized that folk music was her niche. Findlay reveals Johnson’s role in inspiring the production of this album.

“She was at the very beginning of it. From me learning how to sing in the first place and introducing me to this type of music and then to get this project started. Nothing of this would have come close to happening without her help and guidance,” she states.

Thus, after receiving those songbooks from Johnson last September, Findlay began learning folk songs leading up to December. At the start of this year, Findlay met Jia Jia Yong, a long-time student of local harpist Keri Lynn Zwicker, to begin rehearsing the songs with harp accompaniment. Findlay describes a musically generative relationship with Yong.

“We can just be sitting there and she can just play something and it works. She comes up with amazing accompaniment. She’s a great person to play with as a singer. She can tell if I’m going to be slowing down, or holding notes longer, and she can tell that with my body language and breathing. She’s as much as wrapped up in the song as I am.”

Findlay’s love of folk singing is due to the malleable nature of folk music.

“Every time I sing one of the songs it’s different than the time before. You can add little ornamentations and have different musical arrangements. And it can be changing and evolving but it’s so personal. A lot of the songs are about real-life and it’s easy to put yourself in that place. I really feel it. I can then play with the songs in the way that they speak to me. And I would do that differently from anybody else. Anybody can take these songs and put their special mark on them. It makes our version different than anybody else’s version. You get this beautiful, basic, melody and you get to make it completely your song,” she reveals.
Ilia Biziaev Photography

Some of the tracks on the album particularly close to Findlay’s heart are “Rich and Rare,” one of the first traditional folk songs she has performed, and “Leaving of Liverpool,” which is one of two a cappella songs on the album, “Lagan Love” being the other. It was important for Findlay to include a cappella recordings because this is how she first began performing her folk repertoire. While she notes that it is more exposed, and naturally, more scary, she loves the vocal freedom to experiment with the song.

Rich & Rare by Adrienne.H.Findlay

As for the future, Findlay realizes that the most important thing right now is to just keep performing and moving forwards. She does reveal a future aspiration of performing at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. However, she humbly balances her expectations: “If it’s something that moves forward, great, if not, it’s an awesome project that we’ve done together and a great learning experience.”

Their C.D release party will be an opportunity for audiences to hear Findlay and Yong make their official live music debut in Edmonton. Their CD release will be a casual drop-in music event complete with food, wine, and short musical sets throughout the evening. Upon taking a preliminary listen to Findlay and Yong’s refreshing interpretations of this folk music repertoire, I am certain this C.D. is bound to be more than just another learning experience.

---This entry is cross-posted on The Sound + Noise---

CD Release Party
November 16, 2012
Daffodil Gallery (10412-125 Street)
6-9 PM
Free drop-in event
Musical sets throughout the evening at 6:30, 7:30, and 8:30 PM

C.D’s will be available at the release party, future Cantilon Choirs concerts, and on iTunes in mid-December.

Singer: Adrienne Findlay
Harpist: Jia Jia Yong
Recording Engineer: Corey Haberstock

Track List
She moved through the fair
Sally gardens
Leaving of Liverpool
Raglan road
Rocky road to Dublin
The wind that shakes the barley
Lagan love
Dear Irish boy
Rich & rare
The parting glass

Friday, November 9, 2012

Aural Deconstruction

Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Brahms, Sch├╝tz and Schein were just some of German-choral heavyweights on the program at our most recent Pro Coro concert. It is a must that professional choirs are able to perform iconic German choral standards such as Mendelssohn's "Richte mich, Gott" and Bruckner's "Os Justi." Or else, how could we compare one another?

The rehearsal experience for this concert felt very different than our first concert. Rehearsals for our first concert were centered around conquering the ambitious program laid out for us and, at times, we were caught up in the frenetic energy of presenting novel works. However, these most recent set of rehearsals were more like workshop sessions. The music served as a template for developing an important skill: a sense of ensemble. We actually had the luxury of listening in rehearsal. The focus was not on learning notes, but discussing vowel alignment, chord progressions, and textual meaning.

The best term I can use to describe the rehearsal process is aural deconstruction. We would arrive as this sonorous mass; however, throughout the rehearsal, we were separated, first by section, then by individual voices, until Zaugg found what he was looking for... whether that was a particular vocal colour or a preferred vowel formation. Rehearsals were composed of constant experimentation with degrees of lip rounding, length of initial consonant aspiration, dynamic levels, and how these details applied to the music.

In many rehearsals, we stood in different structural orientations (e.g. semi-circle vs. full circle) or in mixed voice formations. The Schein motets were performed in a cappella quintets, with one voice on each part, thus, requiring each singer to perform with soloistic sensibility. During the Mendelssohn Psalms 2 and 22, we were in a split double choir formation with soloists interspersed throughout the choir. At another rehearsal, we sat alternating between male and female voices parts (e.g. STSTSTABABAB). One of my favorite arrangements was where we stood in mini circle ensembles and each ensemble would sing only one measure. This forced us to pass along the musical momentum in the individual bars. Thus, we had to make sure to align consonants as well as dynamics. This was especially tricky at German word final consonant clusters that elided into the initial consonant of the following word. Another fun text activity was where we sang the English translation instead of the German. I could immediately hear the passionate fervor in our voices as we sang in English. The challenge was to superimpose this same energy onto the German text. All these individual rehearsal exercises were aimed, not just at developing individual voices, but the voice of the group.

The aural deconstruction process is an important one. It is a process that cannot be skipped, especially since Pro Coro is just beginning to shape its choral identity under Zaugg's artistic direction. Hearing the searing brilliance of the opening chord in Mendelssohn's Psalm 100 "Jauchzet dem Herren" at Sunday's concert indicated, to me, that Pro Coro is on the right track.