Hearing and Singing – a modest musical manifesto

I am an auditory learner. Rather than reading instructions, doing something manually, or watching someone do something, I need to incorporate information through my ears and process it with my listening in order for it to be fully engrained.  You can imagine, then, what frustration I felt as a young player, relying on my eyes to determine what pitches were to be played and when.  As an instrumentalist, sight reading became a major source of apprehension and the root of my perpetual desire to quit.

Not until college did I come across my in-born understanding of music, and my most natural way of learning it – hearing and improvisation. My finest and most productive practice came when I closed my eyes, or worked in a darkened room, relying only on my ears to guide my tuning as well as my muscle memory.  After gaining the understanding of what worked for me, translating music off the page became an exercise of tying my increasing knowledge of on-paper “theory” with what my ears already told me was true.

Concerning “Theory,” it’s important not to get wrapped up in the details. I recall one choral sectional where a director tried to get the tenors – who were all adults and mostly volunteers – to use a combination of numbers and hand signs to reinforce a particular passage. When this director asked one of the older volunteer singers to utilize this method and repeat it back to him, the singer replied, “Oh no, I don’t know anything about music theory.”  I realized that this singer (and probably many like him) thought about “Theory” as a secret decoder ring without which no one can decipher the magical inner workings of the music of the spheres.  As such, it can have the power to turn people off tremendously.

I prefer the term musicianship: the knowledge and applicability of the substance of music. What is commonly referred to as ‘Music Theory’ is, in my experience, a number of rules set in place to describe processes and techniques that were developed through improvisation by their creators. Although it is necessary to acknowledge these rules, I think it is more important to dig beneath the surface toward an understanding of the fluidity of musical expression as a living, breathing creative experience.

This is where improvisation comes in.   For most of the musicians I know – highly trained, sensitive, and capable professional performers – improvisation is likened to walking a tightrope while naked before a huge audience.  It is a truly terrifying endeavor, wherein they have not the first clue of how to begin, they’re completely exposed, and they assume that one misstep is life threatening.

For jazz and pop players, Baroque instrumentalists and singers, organists, all manner of composers, and musicians, actors, choreographers, and artists of many other stripes, improvisation is simply a matter of course.  With improvisational skill comes complete freedom to utilize artistic talents, along with the freedom from the fear of mistakes. Simply put, as my Jazz teacher stated at the beginning of our first lesson, “Improvisation is problem-solving.”

Many of us are already natural improvisers. I come from a very loud family with six kids and razor-sharp wit. Getting – and retaining – attention in this mob was dependent primarily on how fast, loud and interestingly we could communicate verbally.  (After all, no one else can talk over or interrupt you if you’ve got them laughing.) This manner of speech improvisation still drives my interactions today, and it’s expected that the results will not always be perfect. There is a constant dance of language and thought, emotion, non-verbal cues, tricks and gimmicks, puzzles, wordplay, and actual meaning.  Sound familiar?

As a professional choral singer and liturgical musician for over a decade – in addition to my experience directing choirs and writing for them – I have come face to face with problems that seem endemic amongst volunteer, semi-pro, collegiate, and professional choirs alike:  Why is it so hard to sing in tune?  Why are there predictable intonation problems across choirs of all types? Why does music that is new to an ensemble face an uphill battle? Why is new music written for choirs often racked with pitfalls? Why don’t choirs read better?

In my own study and practice, I have found a link between these questions and a gap of both technical and conceptual study in choral situations. Not only is there a lack of understanding of the mechanisms of the voice, but also a deficiency in the technique of discussing these mechanisms, so as to solve such problems. There is a severe lack of understanding about how harmony operates in practice, both vertically and as a function of its horizontal components. Additionally, there is a lack of understanding of how harmony works in a choral context, which differs significantly from harmony on the keyboard, or in any other consort, or family of instruments.

For me, these all boil down to training the ears as an instrument, through which pitch and harmony become a physical experience.  Not only can you hear what it’s like to produce a perfect unison – or a rock-solid fifth, and elusive major third, a major seventh loaded with expectation – but experience the feeling of it as well.

My aim is give new tools and language to anyone who leads in a choral setting – organists, conductors, music ministers, accompanists, educators at all levels, and professional section leaders – in order to help singers understand, through their ears, the basic and natural tendencies of harmony, to become fluent in manipulating those harmonies with the voice as educated by their hearing, and to use that knowledge to interpret what’s written on the page.



4 thoughts on “Hearing and Singing – a modest musical manifesto

  1. Pingback: Why is it so hard to sing in tune? | three hundred and seventy one chorales
  2. Pingback: Talking to your choir about vowels | three hundred and seventy one chorales

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