Dear Do...Where are you?
The more I rehearse, the more I arrange, the more I direct, I notice a pattern in the mistakes. It’s so simple that it’s staring me in the face, and I still ignore it time and time again, because I fail to recognize that this mistake is probably the cause of every wrong note for the next few measures.
Is it because the person who sings that part doesn’t know the notes? No.
Is it because the words are tripping them up? No.
Is it because the breath is not big enough? No.
It’s because they can’t find their first note.
I think sometimes we assume too much of our singers. Let’s examine the rehearsal process.
Most likely, each section learns the notes on their own, and they learn them section by section until they believe they have the entire song down.
Then the group puts the whole thing together, and it’s a complete and total disaster.
Wait a minute…didn’t you just spend a half hour going over these notes? What happened? Did you forget them? What are you…stupid?
No. That’s not it. Your singers are not stupid. The note-learning process is probably flawed. And the reason it’s flawed is because:
1) They have no idea where “Do” is.
Most a cappella groups learn by rote. It’s rare that a member, or several members of an a cappella group can pick up a piece of music and sight-read it on the first try. And if they can, everyone stares at them as if they are radioactive.
The skill required to find “Do” (or whichever note is the “home base” for the piece) is a skill in which music educator Edwin Gordon refers to as “Audiation.”
This is not a real word. Try typing it into a word-processing program and it will yell at you.
Gordon coined this terminology to mean:
“Hearing an comprehending in one’s mind the sound of music that is not or may never have been physically present. It is neither imitation nor memorization.” (Gordon)
For our purposes, it means hearing the “home base” note, even if it does not presently exist. The key to sight reading is always knowing where the “home base” note is and being able to understand the distance between your note and the “home base” note. (assuming you are not singing the “home base” note)
I’ve found myself altering my arrangements to fit the needs of the group, because I know that some singers simply can’t find “LA” if their last note was “MI.” That’s incredibly constricting for an arranger and the arrangement doesn’t sound as exciting, regardless of how much energy the group puts into it.
The next time you encounter a section of the music that forces everyone to find a new and unfamiliar note, take a healthy amount of time to make sure everyone is comfortable with finding that note. Make them hold it. Make them sing the note before and the note after. Reset the key, start from two measures before and hold it again. Chances are, the phrase is out of tune because someone is not starting on the correct pitch.
2) Your singers are unfamiliar with how they fit inside the chord.
Here’s a likely scenario. The baritone part has three F’s in a row. It’s a really simple part and everyone feels like they should be able to sing it without any difficulty. So the first two F’s go by fine and then…all of a sudden…the third chord goes out of tune. Naturally, the music director blames someone other than the baritones, because they are singing the same note over and over, so it can’t be their fault.
Ahh…but here’s the secret…In the first two chords, the baritones were holding an F in an F major chord (so they were holding the root) and then a B-flat major chord. (so they were holding the fifth.) In the third chord, their F was actually the seventh of the G dominant seventh chord. Suddenly, their F has a completely different harmonic function and everyone was caught off guard.
Yes…chord function matters. Assuming you want your singers to sing in tune. Make sure parts that sing repeated notes know how they fit within the harmonic structure.
3) Your singers are unfamiliar with how their note clashes against someone else.
The best chords (in my opinion) are ones that have dissonant notes- extra notes that add color to a simple, boring, major chord. The problem with writing color notes, even sevenths in jazz chords, is that there will always be a dissonant, hard-to-tune, interval between whomever has the color note and whomever has the most dissonant distance away.
Adding a seventh note creates a “tritone” distance between whomever has the third of the chord.
Adding a ninth creates a “major second” distance between whomever has the root of the chord and the third of the chord. Adding a sixth note creates a “major second” distance between whomever has the fifth of the chord.
Even if you have no idea what that last paragraph meant, chances are that somewhere in your arrangement, two parts will have a difficult-to-tune interval. It’s imperative that those singers are made aware of that “clash” and focus their energy into listening and tuning it.
Music is more than just an imitation of what’s on the page and what you hear. If you are going to sing in a “group,” then you must understand that every part is just as important as yours.