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).