Singing in tune
There are at least three ways for a singer (or instrumentalist) to tell if their intonation is correct.
A system used by many singers, in lieu of any other, is to estimate the width of the interval between their current note and note about to be sung, and then to change pitch according to their sense of what this interval sounds or feels like.
This turns out to be the least reliable system. The slightest underestimation or overestimation of the ‘width’ of the interval, especially if this inaccuracy is compounded over the next series of intervals, will lead sooner or later to the singer being noticeably out of tune with the accompaniment.1 This system is too relative. Errors creep in one after another after another.
A more absolute system is to always sing into the currently sounding chord. There is always a chord happening in the accompaniment. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is more disguised, but if the singer can become aware of the presence of that chord, she can dissolve her tone into that chord and thus be perfectly in tune with the chord.2 In more modern pieces there are still chords, except that the chords are more dissonant. None the less, they are present.
The third way of singing in tune is the most reliable. It is to maintain an overall sense of the key of the piece which would thereby include all the notes in that key.
This is harder at first to cultivate. Here is how I go about it. I create a simultaneous cluster made out of all the notes in the scale of the key. Usually I create an eighth note cluster, one octave from the tonic to the next higher tonic. For example, if the key is C Major, and I’m working with a soprano (or the soprano section of a chorus), I play the eight note cluster c-d-e-f-g-a-b-c (from middle C to the octave above middle C). If I were working with a bass or choral bass section, I would do the same cluster one octave down.
Continuing with the example of C Major. I play the cluster, and hold it, and invite the singer(s) to sing just the tonic note in that cluster (middle-c if a soprano). I then replay the cluster and ask them to fine-tune their pitch until it dissolves into the cluster, I.E. it reaches a point where they cannot distinguish their voice from the sound of the cluster. To hear their voice separately from the cluster is to be out of tune with the scale.
I repeat this procedure for each ascending note of the scale. Though the singer is changing from one scale note to the next, the cluster in no way changes sound.
I have used the word dissolve a couple of times. Here is a general explanation of the principle involved.
An example. A clarinet and a bassoon have different tone qualities – until they sound the same note. When they are in unison on the same pitch we hear only a single tone quality, one different from the clarinet’s and different from the bassoon’s. The sound is more as if coming from just one instrument; we could name the instrument the ‘clarinet-bassoon’. The same goes for a clarinet and a flute playing in octaves, or a bassoon and a French horn playing in unison. There are many other such combinations among the instruments of the orchestra. In a similar manner, the goal for the singer is to have their note blend in so completely with the sounds around it that one hears something new tone-quality-wise (for instance a the ‘soprano-piano‘ instrument).3
Here is an exercise I use to achieve this blending of voice with accompaniment.
The singer holds a single note, starting quite softly; softly enough that her sound dissolves into the sound of the other instrument(s). Next, in a very controlled manner, the singer gradually increases the loudness of their note, but at all times with the goal of still feeling that their sound has dissolved in the general pool of sounds. Even at its loudest, the note should be so clearly mixed in with the accompanying sounds that the singer remains almost unaware of the separateness of their own sound.4
When working with a chorus, I use the same technique: every individual singer dissolves their voice into the pool of sound created by all their section members en masse. Sometimes I will ‘build this up’ by starting with just one singer, adding a second, adding a third, etc. The goal is to remain a single sound, with no hint (even with different rates and widths of vibrato) to suggest there is more than one singer. The result is a surprisingly pure and rich sound!
1 Let me give you an exaggerated example. In acoustics, each semitone (for instance C to C-sharp) is divided into 100 smaller units or “cents”. Consider a person singing a chromatic scale upwards starting on middle C. To get to the exact pitch of the C#, the interval between the C and the C-sharp must be 100 cents. If it is five cents short (95 cents), the pitch of the C# is going to sound fairly correct (it is off by 5 percent of a semitone). But let’s see what happens if they continue singing half steps that are just 95 cents wide. The C is in tune. The C# is five cents flat. The D is ten cents flat. The D# is fifteen cents flat. A difference in fifteen cents is very noticeable to the average listener’s ear. If they go on to E and then F, the “F” will be 25 cents flat and by the end of an octave the final “C” will be twelve times five, or sixty cents flat. Ten cents more than a quarter tone.
2 If the chord is tonal, then it is helpful for the singer to know whether the note they are singing is the root note, the third, the fifth (or the seventh) of the chord. If none of these is the case, then the singer should be finely aware of the exact out of tune-ness of their note relative to the nearest note in the accompaniment.
3 A timbre that is that neither one nor the other but the combination of the two.
4 From the pianist’s point of view, it is often the case that they are trying to sound less like a piano and more like a human voice (singing legato).
Coaching an instrumentalist for an orchestra audition
In today’s incarnation, “Irving” is a bassoonist rather than a pianist. He is about to audition for a local orchestra. The required excerpt for the audition is the opening of the second movement of Scheherazade.
I listened to him play the solo through. The notes were there, but overall it lacked a sense of the presence in his imagination of the other instruments playing at the same time, and the effect that would have on how he sounded the passage.
He had played the same solo a year or so earlier in an orchestra. So I asked him “what instruments were accompanying you during the solo?”
He thought about and said “the woodwinds?”
I said, “No, it is actually four solo double basses.”*
He played the solo again, but this time I played on the piano the chords played by the four double basses. This caused a sudden change in his playing. One thing that happened was that he fine-tuned both the pitch and the feeling of his notes to better fit in with the chords. In tonal music, no note has a single, abstract, or ideal pitch. It varies in small amounts to best fit in with the harmonic context in the form of the chord that is sounding at that moment. Each chord in turn has a certain feeling, which if recognized and felt fine tunes the timbre or tone quality of the bassoonist’s note.
No longer was his playing an island to itself, it had a broader context. The trick, I said, is to make these modulations to the sounds even when you are playing by yourself without the other instruments, which can only be heard in your head. The person auditioning you is listening to see whether this broader musical context shines through the notes that you play.
“How do I do this,” he asked?
Let’s start with knowing when in the solo the chord in the basses changes. He didn’t know. I said: let’s play through it again, this time listening specifically for the changes in the chords. It shouldn’t be too difficult to do because, based on how he had played the passage when I played the chords at the piano, he was already subconsciously responding to them.
Next I asked him if the first chord in the basses seemed to last a surprisingly long time before changing. If so, what beneficial effect did that harmonic inflexibility have on the effect of the solo? He said that it made the bassoon solo seem more “frozen and static.” I agreed.
Was he, I asked, aware that this first chord contained only root notes and fifths and lacked the third of the chord, the note that which would determine whether the chord was a major chord or minor chord. It was incumbent on the bassoonist to make that choice clear to the listener, and to be especially aware of when the bassoon made up for the deficit of the third by momentarily playing the third himself.
Later in the session I wanted to demonstrate, in a more general way, how the ‘color’ of a note depends on the chord to which it belongs. And how this color could change, depending on whether he was playing the root, third, fifth or seventh of the chord.
I had him hold a single note for as long as he could, while I surrounded his chord with first one chord then another. I started with the three major chords and the three minor chords that contained the note he was holding. Then I went on to seven-chords that contained his note. Then I gradually shifted to chords that didn’t contain his note, which therefore caused his note to be dissonant – but always dissonant in a specific enough way to create a definite and peculiar color to the dissonance.
Though he held the bassoon’s pitch relatively constant, he instinctively changed the timbre and the intonation to reflect the way his note fit (or did not fit) in the chord.
* albeit an odd orchestration, but an inspired choice given the shape and mood of the solo.
Two thoughts on playing Legato
Both blog entries today have to do with the undefined, yet very definite influence, that sounds, as imagined in the pianist’s ears, have over the extrinsic sound coming into the listener’s ears.
Legato. Connecting a longer duration note to shorter duration note.
The connectivity of a legato melody is most often broken when a note that has been present for some time (in other words a relatively longer note) is followed by a shorter note.
An example would be a half note tied to an eighth note followed by an eighth note. The longer note (the half plus the eighth) has had more time to decrease in loudness, and so it is harder to focus the ear on the fainter part of that note that at the point i time just before it connects to the eighth note. This continuity is also broken because at the moment the eighth note begins there is a sudden change in loudness, as the fainter part of the sound that is left over at the end of the longer note tries to connect smoothly to the suddenly louder beginning, or attack, of the eighth note.
While playing a legato line it is easy to overlook moments such as these and forget that a smooth connection between notes is still required in spite of the change from soft to suddenly loud. The result, if not handled wisely, will sound to the listener like a sudden and jagged accent instead of a fluid legato.
When we are near the end of the longer sound, we must learn to focus our ear on what’s left of that sound. Curiously, just the act of becoming aware, a second time, of the same note, causes a subjective sensation of that note suddenly getting a little louder. The act of awareness acts like a re-kindling the note, like blowing on a fire. It is then easier to connect the later part of the long sound in a legato manner into the beginning of the next note.
Taking a percussion-like instrument such as the piano, and making it sound melodic (lyrical) to the listener, is a magician’s feat that involves “smoke and mirrors”. An example of this is what was just said about rekindling the sound of a note near to its termination in time.
The basic fact we are confronted with is that a note on the piano sounds much louder at the beginning than at the end. The moment of attack arouses a cluster of high overtones which might leave us confused, if all we were to hear of the note was that attack, about the identity of the intended pitch of the note. This is literally and figuratively a poor beginning to a process that is meant to link one pitch to a succeeding one in a smooth manner.
What should we do, or what can we do, when a sound begins in a chaotic cluster of higher pitches, and then, once the attack is over, what continues is a remnant of the sound that gets softer and softer until crossing over to silence?
If the effect of legato had to do with how we connect the end of one note to the beginning of the next, we would create a ziz-zag curve oscillating rapidly between very soft and very loud. We would never sing a note this way, and a violinist would never bow this way.
It would almost seem that what is needed is some magical way to connect the middle of one piano sound to the middle of the next. The middles of piano sounds are special. They are still loud enough to posses a warm resonance (which emerges out of the louder attack which has now subsided), and not yet soft enough that we would get the feeling that there was nothing left to tangibly connect into the next note. The piano will sing when we connect the middle of one note to the middle of next: one rich resonance to another rich resonance. But how would we do such a thing.
This is where the magician’s technique of sleight of hand comes into play (or is it sleight of ear). This is a reliable principle: what we hear in the sound the audience will hear. If we hear resonance connect to resonance so will they. While legato would seem to require a magical transformation of the sound of a piano note, instead it only requires a combination of memory of the recent past and seeing into the immediate future.
As the career of a note ends, we remember what it sounded like just a moment earlier when the sound was most resonant and had the clear sense of singing on a single pitch that was so hard to find in the attack.
We are jugglers of the tenses of time. Like a juggler we seem to confound the senses of the audience. We fuse into the current moment a memory of the sound’s resonance a moment or even an instant earlier, and, the anticipated resonance of the note whose attack we are about to execute. We revive the past and tell the future: at least in the small, privileged unit of time we call the present…the advancing present.*
Maybe this helps explain why the great piano composers chose to write their most lyrical pieces for the piano. By overcoming the acoustic odds, our magic leaves in its wake an impression of smoothness and consistency to the flow sound.**
In summary, we rely on the fact that the middle of the note’s duration is usually the sweetest and most melodic. By ignoring the attacks, as well as the last instants of a sound, we begin to be able to link middle to middle, richest moment of sound to richest moment of sound.**
* Most pianists start out earlier in life by being most aware of the onset of each new note: because this is the moment within the course of the sound when the most sudden and acute muscular action occurs. What we do physically during the remainder of the sound is usually passive in comparison to the beginning. But, as we have shown, this moment is also when sound is at its least pleasurable, when it is raucous and disagreeable. The result is that the pianist, usually unconsciously, switches their awareness, at just this moment, from the realm of hearing to the realm of feeling. In doing so the pianist tends to conflate one sense with the other: I think I heard it when I actually felt it.
**The audience might not be aware of this process as the piece begins, but the more the pianist continues in the piece to try to connect middle to middle in her or his imagination, the more the sound ingredients are there for the listener to believe that it is happening too.