Even More Thoughts on How to Play a Bach fugue
A.B.’s playing of the first fugue of book one of the Well Tempered has improved by leaps and bounds. Due to the high quality of his mind he can contemplate and at the same time be in wonderment at the amazing things, small and large, going on in the piece.
Here is what arose on Thursday, May 16, at his latest lesson.
When he is physically tense, the first place it shows up is in the form of movements with his lips and mouth. He usually makes one such motion per note .
Last week we worked on doing away with these mouth motions. Sometimes such motions help generate pulse and flow but just as often they force the piece to come out uttered in little tiny pieces. A phrase cannot flow through time if it is comes to a stop and then resumes with each new note. Frequent mouth motions can cause unintentional separations between one note and the next. A note should be like each new bead on a necklace. Without gravity and the string holding the beads together the necklace looses its shape and meaning.
He was able to control this for a measure or so before the mouth motions obstinately crept back in.
We worked out a compromise. If he is to make a separate mouth motion for every note, let that motion be that of the expelling of puffs of air. Later on the air can be let out more continuously. The continuing flow of air is the physical equivalent of the flow of sound in a phrase – just ask any singer. The piano, and many other instruments, model their flow and expressivity on the human voice.
Joe: If you think of the physical actions you make while playing, now that they are not the cause of the sounds. Nor are you yourself the cause of the sounds. Sounds just “pass you by”, flowing by your consciousness.
The general question arose of how do we stay on course if we make a mistake and deviate from the printed score. We have to find a way of getting back on track as rapidly as possible – hopefully the the next note. An important component of the alacrity with which you get back on track lies in the answer to the question: how do you react, both morally (I’ve made a mistake and a mistake is bad thing) as well as emotionally (what does it to our self confidence , our self worth). Any negative reaction of either type makes it more difficult to find your way back onto the tracks, and makes it harder, in space-wise in terms of finding where we are in the score, and time-wise, to resume the correct flow.
Here is another way of stating the problem of getting back on the tracks. How quickly can we begin at any random point in the piece (whether at the beginning of a measure or even at an arbitrary point within a measure) and resume the ease and flow that we have at the place if we started the piece from the beginning.
It is good to lard the piece with a plethora of random spots from all of which you want to learn to be able to start up the piece, and ideally take no time to get on board the moving train and flow ahead with the correct notes and rhythms.
Just like coming in at the middle of a conversation and quickly figure out what is being talked about, every note in a piece is (or can be) the beginning of that piece. B.A. summarized how hard this was for him to do: sometimes when I start from a random point in a piece it doesn’t even sound like it is from the same piece. And, where did these notes come from and where are they going … how quickly can one become aware of the answers to these. The answer to the last part: as instantaneously as possible. This reminds me of the famous Gauguin painting “D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” (Where are we coming from, what are we, where are we going?”. To put it in another way: how very important it is to spot the common character and individuality of a piece even just within a single minute detail from that piece.
When you practice starting the piece from a random point, just play until you are back on track, don’t keep playing to the end. You want to leave practice time for starting from other points in the piece.
Fingers getting tangled:
There are times when the hands draw very near to each other, touching, overlapping, interfering with each other. In particular the thumbs (and even the second fingers) will cross over each other and afterwards uncross. This situation must be coordinated down to tenths of a second. It is a “pas de deux” between two fingers / hands, wherein the bodies of the ‘dancers’ need to fuse as much as possible into one entity that is constantly changing shape as a whole. Every motion on the part of one dancer must be fused with a simultaneous motion from the other dancer. It is as if there is a common consciousness among the two.
The general question arose as to where does one phrase ends in a Bach fugue and another phrase begins.
This can become marvelously complicated because, in a fugue, two or more voices may be in the process of sounding the main theme, yet, at a given moment one of these voices may be at the beginning of the architectural shape of the theme through time, while another somewhere in the middle of the architecture of the theme, and a third voice might be in the midst of concluding the end of its theme statement.
How does the pianist simultaneously make one voice sound like it is ending while another is beginning when the two voices are clearly both stating the same theme. B.A. had a nice way of putting this: how does a voice say that it’s ending.
Put in terms of the chords that underlie the passing notes in the voice melodies – frequently the shift from one such note governing chord in the harmony of the fugue to the next such chord, does not occur simultaneous in all the voices. One voice may enters the domain of the next chord before the others. They are harbingers of the next chord; pathfinders. Another voice may arrive into the new chord not until the other voices have clearly established the chord.
Situation: one finger is holding an extended note while other fingers in the same hand are enunciating a series of changing notes. This requires that the finger holding the note be very flexible and can change its overall stance in response to changes in what the other fingers are doing. The key to clear articulation often lies less in the equalization of the fingers playing the changing notes, and more in the ability of the finger holding its note to suddenly change it’s alignment with the keyboard, and its stance relative to the other fingers of the hand while, at no instant, losing its the overall equilibrium.
Sometimes a student is confused when the main theme starts on a different note compared to the opening of the fugue. If the change of starting note represents a change of harmonic region, then it makes makes sense to the modern player. However, it is harder situation to make sense out of when when the theme entrance is still in the original harmonic region. Thus a theme entrance, instead of starting on the original series of notes at the beginning (C D E F …) begins instead with D E F G, or E F G A, etc.. That instead of representing a modulation, it represents the desire of the theme to enter on a different note of the C Major scale but cling obstinately to the same scale. Some of us may think of this as a hark back to the Catholic Church modes of the middle ages, in which case D E F G is simply the beginning of the “Dorian” mode, E F G A the beginning of the “Phrygian: mode, etc.. But it is not always clear that this was how Bach may have been thinking. Perhaps the underlying constant is the C Major scale (or tonic of another harmonic region of the fugue) and how it stubbornly controls things even a theme entrance tries to start on a different note of the scale than the tonic.
A part of fugue technique is to instantaneously move one finger left or right, from one note to another, regardless of how far apart those notes are on the keyboard. This is not something mastered by gradually practicing such a motion faster and faster. It is more the absolute determination ahead of time to be on the second note zero seconds (zero fractions of a second) after the first note ends. In other words: for the finger to find itself already on the new note, without any travel time in between. This is quite possible. The body is capable of doing this if one insists this be the case, a determination that starts before one starts moving the finger at all. Such instantaneous change of by just one fingers promotes a greater clarity and crispness in the consecutive notes of a voice. The goal is that no connection of one note to the next be any more sluggish than any other.
This itself is a component of the general ability of the entire hand snap from one hand position to another position. Sometimes fingering alone will not provide a sense of connection (even if allows for singer substitutions). It may require an action like the triggering a mouse trap: with little or no preparation, no anticipation, and seemingly no time at all taken to make the change in position.
To achieve such alacrity in changing the shape of the hand it is necessary for the arms as well as the hands to be weightless, and the muscles in the hand being ‘at attention’ but when the moment comes for the change in the shape of the hand, offers no resistance to the onset of that motion. It as if the muscle is passive and is being moved from an external source of power. Even the forces that initially raise the arms to the keyboard can be felt in the body as if the arm was being moved not by its own muscles, but a force external to the entire body. This feeling can be induced by imagining the arm belongs to a puppet, and an unseen puppeteer moves the arms upwards by pulling on the strings that connect the puppeteer the puppet’s arms.
At a lesson the teacher can literally provide this external force. For instance supporting the student’s hands so they will feel to the student as if they are floating on the keyboard rather than pressing down on the keys. Additionally, should their be any pressure downwards (other than to activate a key) it is more easily detected by the student if they are pushing down on another person than an inanimate object like the keyboard.
We noted a connection between the technique of finger substitution on a held note (in anticipation of using a more convenient finger on the next note) and the technique exercise found, as in “Hanon”, of using the fingering 4 3 2 1 (in the right hand) to repeat the same note four times in a row, and then to do the same on other notes, throughout the exercise. Though the overt purpose of this exercise is to learn fast repetition of the same note (on the assumption that changing from one finger to the next is faster than using the same finger over and over again) it also prejudices the hand for doing a quick substitution of one finger for another on one note without re-sounding the note.
A.B. brilliantly put many of the above points into a common perspective by saying: it is all about who is doing what to whom and when.
We concluded the same lesson by working briefly on the companion prelude in C Major from Book One.
Part of A.B.’s quest has been to play the notes in the prelude as evenly as possible. So much of this depends the balance between the notes of the common chord that is outlined by the succession of notes in each measure.
To make these chord more obvious to the ear let the player while playing, “densify” each chord. For instance, if there is an opening between the written notes for an additional note of the chord, add that note to the chord and play all the notes that now belong to the chord all at once as a vertical sonority. For instance in measure 2, there is room for an f4 between the d4 and a4, so that we create a five-note chord: c d f a d. Or taking it a step forward we can also add a c5 between the a4 and the d4, forming a six-note chord. The chord, has been a D Minor-7 chord the entire time, but the additional chord tones just make the chord stand out more clearly to the ear. This can be done, at one time or another, for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.
Note that the additional notes mentioned so far all lie in the range defined by the lowest note of a measure and the highest note of the same measure. An equally valid technique, and one more vivid to the ear, would be to add additional notes belonging to the same chord that are lower than the printed lowest note and the same for the highest note written in the measure.
This way you can generate chord of 8 or more notes, and, if you add the use of the pedal. chords of any number of notes (culling notes from the bass range of the keyboard and the high treble). If you play such a chord then play the chord made up out of just the written in the measure, you will gain a sudden sense of how the written chord is a just a part of the larger chord. And whatever the sound and mood characteristics of the larger chord, they are transferred into the more compact form of the chord without any loss resonance and character.
In terms of this grouping every note of the measure into the unified sound of a single chord (versus hearing just separate notes), it is the pinkie note in the right hand that is “furthest” from the left hand note that is the first note of the measure. And not so much in space as measured on the along the keyboard but in time that has passed since the first note. For some this creates a feeling of the pinkie being a dangling participle after the previous four notes . The feeling can occur even more so when the pinkie plays the last note of the measure prior to the unseating of the current chord and succession by the next chord. Some pianists have a tendency to have their pinkie ‘separate’ from the rest of the hand when an articulating a note that is beyond a certain distance from the thumb, with the result is that there is less rather than more control of how the pinkie notes fits together with the notes the other fingers are playing. There is sometimes a poker “tell” observable by the teacher when the student is singling out the pinkie and feeling like it is not part of the hand. It is if the pianist raises the pinkie higher off the keyboard than the other fingers before playing its note – an attempt on the student’s part to gain better physical control over the pinkie but usually with the result that the pinkie sounds disconnected from the other fingers.
Using Your Voice as a Musical Aid
Pianists are blessed by having access to the most beautiful of instruments – no, not the piano – human voice.
Things for which our voice can be used for in order to improve our playing.
#1. The voice enables us to play legato.
In the hands of a master the piano sings and a melody can sound truly legato. For the rest of us the piano resists our attempts in these directions. However, our singing voice (no matter how bad) cannot but sing legato. Our voice does not stop and then start when changing pitches, it can remain smooth throughout the change. At the piano, the beginning of a new note is always the moment that contains the greatest, sudden contrast between degrees of softness and loudness.
Just as the motions of dancers seem to us to suddenly be less fluid and continuous in space when the accompanying music suddenly stops, so the pianist who is accompanied by their own singing – whether externally audible or audible only in their imagination, nudges the recalcitrant sound of the piano over the boundary that exists between, on one the side, separate and discrete notes, and on the other, a fluid and continuous flow of sound.
#2. The voices refines our ability to play evenly.
The spoken voice can be made to speak a series of syllables that is more regular, as well as even in timbre and in duration, than can be controlled by the fingers at the keyboard. However, if the fingers are inhabited or possessed by the speaking voice they will ‘utter’ their notes as evenly as the voice. It’s just a matter of knowing who’s boss: the fingers or the voice. If the issue is in doubt, shift to the the voice quality of a Marine Drill Sergeant.
#3. The voice can determine and then create the ‘shape’ of a phrase.
Throughout our lives we have gradually learned to communicate in words with a voice that carries a meaning, and guided by that meaning are ‘shaped’, ‘inflected’, and ‘cadenced’. Without the shape given the voice by meaning, we would not be easily understood by others. Pianists need only use their own voice as a model for what a series of “sound-syllables” could “sound like” when under the molding and shaping power of a “meaning”.
Though the meaning of a musical phrase cannot truly be described in words, or vice versa, the two are not so utterly unalike that what goes on in one cannot prompt, promote, model and cajole what the other is doing. By modulating our speaking voice we can shape a phrase at the piano as long as our playing mechanism is under the control of the voice.
#4. The voice can ensure that rhythm is under the control of the meter.
If a quarter note beat is divided into a group of four sixteenths, it is not enough that the four notes be even. It is not even enough that the four notes are shaped or inflected (as by the voice) to become a unit of musical meaning in the architectonics of the of the phrase to which the notes belong (although this is important). There is still the more important demand to be made of the four sixteenths by the meter. They should clearly manifest the meter of the measure.
Any measure in 4 / 4 time should (with only rare intentional exceptions) “sound like” 4 / 4 time. This is imperative regardless of the rhythmic breakdown of the measure (what one might term the ‘modulation’ of the rhythm against the meter). The same for every other meter. The clarity of the manifestation of the meter is probably the most foremost factor in bringing notes to life.
Though ordinarily I find certain combinations of rhythm and pitches harder to play than others, my fingers have no choice but to follow my cheer leading voice as the embodies the incarnation of the meter: “one two three, one two three…”. The cheerleader does not recite the Gettysburg Address. Rather everything is put simply, emphatically, with no room left for doubt or interpretation. Meter will always shed light on rhythm. It will insure that each note in the rhythm has a meaning depending on placement in the measure. And if, momentarily, I notice that my counts are suddenly out of sync with the note I am playing, it is usually because I wasn’t feeling that note in its proper relation to the measure (I had left the decision on how the note should articulate up to the fingers alone).
#5. The voice can eliminate tension in playing.
Whatever is the mechanical effort involved in speaking, it has at least been practiced by us for more hours and years than we have practiced the piano, and therefore requires little conscious effort. The mechanical motions involved in playing piano are a more widely varied set than the postures of the mouth, tongue and lips, and often can lead us into a state of tension among the muscles. We should remind ourselves at these moments that the movements in playing piano are natural body motions and can be done without effort, and that the best form of this reminder is provided by our audible speaking voice, moving in tandem through time with the piano’s notes.*
#6. The voice can overcome the impact of the decay in a long note.
The human voice is the natural embodiment of propelling one sound forwards through time, until it spills over the brim of the vessel containing its duration, and eventuating or blossoming into the next sound. What better model to directly counteract the state of every long piano sound: by which it gets weaker and weaker moment by moment, only to have, in its old age, its pathetic life cut short by the guillotine of the attack of the next note. The voice models the result of when there is a more sustained moment to moment sound in the piano.
One may object that the voice has no power to effect the decay of a note. For more about this objection see “Rekindling A Note (geriatrics for old notes)” https://joebloom.com/3-brief-blogs-technical-situations-that-seem-the-same-but-arent-counting-out-loud-sustaining-a-dying-note/
There are many other purposes for the use of the voice in piano playing, some of which I list in brief in below, and I hope you find others and let me know.
#1 To get to the heart of the music and make it speak emotionally.
#2 To generate excitement and enthusiasm.
#3 To bring out one note (or several notes) in a chord.
#4 To bring out one voice among several or bringing out a hidden voice.
#5 To apply the brakes on a runaway tempo.
#6 To hit the energy accelerator to push the tempo out of being lifeless.
#7 To augment or create a crescendo or decrescendo.
#8. To express rising action towards a long term goal.
#9. To avoid any single note from coming out haphazardly. To “take charge” of every note.
#10. Yo raise the identity of the names of the notes to a higher level of conscious awareness.
#11. To raise the level of conscious awareness of the order in which we use the fingers by saying these finger numbers out loud as we play each note.
#12. To give voice to the ‘whoosh’ of the pulse that propels one sound-event in time into the next.
#13. Yo make small intervals sound like, or feel like, wide intervals, and vice versa.
#14. To allow the body to figuratively take a breath before starting a new phrase by taking an audible breath with our lungs. A to make an audible and prolonged exhalation of air to keep the sound of the notes sustained so they don’t flag.
#15. To emphasize the notes that form the “sonic glue**” or the “physical glue***” in a passage.
#16. To “lasso” a group of notes so they adhere together in a melisma.
#17. To keep the pulse tight and animated.
#18. To give a clear feeling of pitch to the notes at the extreme ends of the keyboard.
#19. To mix together “pulse” and “flow”.
#20. To bring out a detail in a phrase.
#21. To play in a speed that is faster than the fingers can do alone.
#22. Yo push the phrase when the fingers are unwilling to do so.
In all of these cases the purpose is to surround the sound with a vocal ‘glow’ that causes that part of the sound that comes from the piano alone, to incandence.
*For playing a rapid series of notes, especially a prolonged series, a nonchalant and understated voice, one sounding almost apathetic and seemingly devoid of caring, is a perfect model for an absence of overexertion physically.
** Sonic “Glue”. Creating a flowing line is more than a matter of connecting each note to the next. It is also a matter of looking within a measure for repeating pitches, notes that repeat in the same or different octaves but are in a different voices, the other hand, or a different finger. And then insuring that they all sound the “same”, and create a homogeneous sound despite their individual differences.
Sometimes these notes create a separate rhythm than the prevailing melody or the rhythm of the accompaniment. Focusing some of your attention on this rhythm is another way of gluing the sound of the measure together. It can strike the ear as a ‘mysterious’ melody that seems to come out of nowhere.
*** Two complimentary examples of physical “glue”.
Ken Burns pioneered the technique of seeing an historical event refracted through the eyes of various individuals. A Civil War battle would be seen through the eyes of a General, but also through the eyes of a Private who had no special claim to fame in the battle other than they were one of many who were there.
We usually do not pay much attention to a finger that is not at that very moment pressing a key down to make a sound. However, for certain very complicated passages, there is an advantage to tracing the history of one particular finger, one “private” in the army, and noting the notes (‘scenes’) within the passage in which that finger takes action to depress a key. For example, in a certain measure, on the first beat, the second finger is playing a B. Nearer to the second beat of the measure the second finger again is used to play a G#. And so on. It gives us a thread to follow through the intricacies of the narrative. Following the history of just one finger gives us feedback, in the form of check-in points, as to whether we are still on the correct path through the passage.
Another example doesn’t look so much at which finger plays which note but which notes may be played more than once in the passage, though by different fingers (from the same or different hands). By playing just those notes, and leaving out the notes in between, we form a structural filament, as if of a spider’s web, to hold the passage together.
Sight Singing Exercises for the Obsessive: Singing Between Notes
Here is a statistically based method for practicing sight-singing. It is based less on musical, harmonic or diatonic context and more on the mathematical permutations that can occur between any notes.
Exercise one. To be done over one or more days or weeks.
Choose a scale. Choose a note from the scale. Let us say as an example you choose the C Major scale and the note E which is the third step of the scale.Sing from the E to each of the other notes in the scale:
thus: E C E D E E E F E G E A E B E C
E C E D (downwards motion)
E E (no motion)
E F E G E A E B E C (upwards motion).
Sixteen notes in all, in eighth pairs.
What was just done for the C Major scale starting always on E, can be done for the same scale starting on any of the other notes in the scale.
If you want to do this in an systematic start with lower C as the first note for a set of sixteen notes, then start with D for another sixteen notes, then E, etc.. until you start with the higher C.
C D C E C F C G C A C B C C
D C D D D E D F D G D A D B D C
Having exhausted the links between two notes of the C major, one can use the Harmonic and the Melodic minor scales in C.
The entire process outlined above can be done for other possible tonics.
Tonic C# / Db
If you sing the name of each note that you sing, then there would be an advantage in doing C-Sharp major and D-Flat major as two separate exercises.
Then proceed with tonics D, D#/Eb … B
Same general principle as exercise one, but based on the notes of a chromatic scale.
Find the lowest pitch you sing easily; the same for the highest pitch you sing easily.. An example might be from Middle-C up to the second G above Middle-C. Or, a more expansive example, might be from a low A up to the second A above that A.
The idea is to sing from one note chosen from that range up to, or down to, every other note in that range. Let us use a somewhat simple example: a lower C to the second E above that.
The first series of notes to sing would be:
c c# c d c d# c e c f c f# c g c g# c a c a# c b c C* c C# c D c D# c E c F c F# c G
* lowercase letters indicates a note in a lower octave, and UPPERCASE a note in the higher octave.
As with exercise 1, you can repeat the exercise starting on first one and then another step of the chromatic scale.
Her e is the beginning of the example of starting on “g”.
g c g c# g d g e# g e g f g f# . . .
If you choose to sing the names of the notes you are singing then sometimes use sharp names and sometimes use flat names.
Mathematical permutation of a chosen number of notes in a scale.
Consider spreading this exercise out over months to a year, so that you don’t have to spend too much time on it on any day.
3A: Choosing 3 different steps:
A good beginning would to choose just three notes from a single scale, later going on to four steps, five, etc..
The simplest choice of three scale steps would be the first three steps of a scale. In what follows we will use the numbers (1, 2 ..) and not letters of the musical alphabet. so that the examples below can be used for any scale with any tonic.
There are only six permutations of the first three steps of any scale:
123 132 213 231 312 321.
Or, three scale steps, using scale steps 1, 2, and 4.
Here are the six permutations:
124 142 214 241 412 421.
Or, three steps: 2 5 and 7:
257 275 527 572 725 752.
3B: Choosing 4 different steps:
By moving from three to four notes chosen from a scale. we significantly enlarge the number of possible “permutations”.
Here is full list of the 24 permutations of the scale steps 1 – 4:
1234 1243 1324 1342 1423 1432
2134 2143 2314 2341 2413 2431
3124 3142 3214 3241 3412 3421
4123 4132 4213 4231 4312 4321
Or, the 24 permutations of the four steps: 1 2 5 and 7
1257 1275 1527 1572 1725 1752
2157 2175 2517 2571 2715 2751
5127 5172 5217 5271 5712 5721
7125 7152 7215 7251 7512 7521
3C: Choosing additional number of steps:
Adding the number of steps chosen from the scale rapidly increases the number of permutations. Choosing 5 different steps leads to 120 different permutations. If you pick the first five steps of the scale you would get 120 permutations starting with 12345 and ending with 54321.
It doesn’t make much sense to go much beyond five steps. By the time you have considered an ample number of different groups of five steps you will have pretty much created singable phrases covering every note of the scale.
3C: Changing the step numbers of the scale into printed notes on the staff:
If I get enough requests, I am willing to create a “Finale 25” file that would flesh out all the exercise sets using each tonic and scale type. Hey, it will take a long time, but why not.
I recommend reading the blog entry “Singing in Tune” published on July 14, 2018. There it is suggested that:
…learn to play the chord that is present in the accompaniment when you are singing a single note, and learn to tune you note into the chord. Learn to do this also if the note sung is not a chord tone but a tone of embellishment.
…when you are sight reading a passage whose notes all belong to a common scale, make a cluster out of all the notes of the scale played simultaneously, and learn out to single out each note with the voice.
Additional Ear Training exercises:
Get used to hearing two notes played simultaneously and learning to sing the lower note then the higher pitch (and if you want the lower pitch again).
Same as the above but hearing three notes played simultaneously, and learning to sing the bottom, middle, top, middle bottom.
Also learn to play a note in any range on the piano, especially the very low or high range, and transpose the note up or down one or more octaves until it lies within the normal range of your singing voice.
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).