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Reading Rhythm

Every so often you run into songs with tricky rhythms. It’s hard enough for you as the director to figure them out at home at your own pace, let alone expect your choir to pick it up on the spot. In this post I’ll discuss several strategies to help your singers more easily internalize the rhythm of a new piece of music.

Strategy 1: Say the Lyrics

Notice that’s say not sing. This enables the singers to focus on note length and leave figuring out the pitches for later. I know when I sightsing I have a tendency to give pitch more importance than rhythm, so the best way to make me concentrate on rhythm is to take out the pitches altogether, which this technique does. Saying the lyrics is particularly effective when the music is homophonic and minimally melismatic, that is all the parts have a similar rhythm and the song is mostly one word per syllable. The reason for this is that in homohponic, minimally melismatic pieces, you don’t have to worry too much about word crashing between parts or trying to say several notes with one syllable.

Now if it’s a polyphonic piece and you’re trying to figure out entrances, this technique also works because the singers can use the lyrics as an anchor for whether they are in the piece. Although you will have word crashing. This technique doesn’t work for highly melismatic or foreign language music. That’s what Strategy 2 is for.

Strategy 2: Assign Syllables to the Notes

If the song you’re singing has melismas or is in a foreign language which you’d rather not have butchered, but is still homophonic, speaking the song on a single syllable can work. That way every note of the melisma has a syllable attached to it. For songs in your native tongue and that are mostly homophonic with melismas you can combine the two strategies by saying the words when it’s one syllable per note and saying a specific syllable for the notes in a melisma.

This method is not good for singing polyphonic music though, because if you get lost it’s basically impossible to figure out where you are in the music. So lets say you have a foreign language polyphonic work. What do you do? You still have some options. You can “Solfeggify” the music, meaning make a copy of the music that has the solfege syllables written out for every voice part, and have your choir say the solfege. The syllables can then work as a fairly effective anchor. Another option is to still sing on a single syllable, but to work in small sections so that there isn’t enough time for the singers to get lost. A third option is to assign different syllables to different sections. For example, if the music has an A part and a B part, then you could sing one syllable for the A section and another for the B. That way you have a way to figure out where you are when you’re lost.

Clapping is another good technique to figure out the rhythm. You can have the singers clap instad of saying the words or syllables, or you can have them clap in addition to saying the word or syllables. I like clapping because it seems to help me and my singers feel the rhythm instead of just knowing it.

Should Rhythm Always Be Isolated Before Sight-Singing?

I think the best answer to this is, sometimes. If you think a new piece of music has a tricky rhythm, then having the choir work that out before singing it can be very effective for rapid learning. As I said earlier, when I sightsing my first tendency is to worry about the pitches and leave the rhythm for auto-pilot. Chances are you have at least a few singers in your choir that do the same thing. Working out the rhythm first can remind them just how important rhythm is and that when you actually know the rhythm, singing the pitches is a lot easier.

That being said, I wouldn’t do this for every new song. Moreover I wouldn’t do it for every song with tricky rhythm. Ideally you want your choir to be able to read the rhythm while looking over the music. So maybe with the first few songs with hard rhythms you could work them out using the above techniques. Once they start getting the hang of reading rhythms, you can have them work it out on their own.


Weekly Vocalize #11 Cadenza Variations

Remember how a couple weeks ago I promised some variations on the cadenza exercise? Well here they are, albeit, a little late. Just as a refresher here’s the basic solfege version:


The vocalize can be divided easily into 3 sections of 3 notes and one section of 4, making for many possible variations. So lets get started with something simple.

Held Syllables

Below are 12 different syllables that can be held during the vocalize. Pure vowels are held and the consonants “M”, “Z”, and “L” are put in front. You could use many other consonants too such as “V” or “H”, so don’t feel limited to the three given.

Short Syllables

Next we use the same syllables, but this time the syllable is repeated for each note, and each note is staccato (i.e. short).

Changing Syllables for each Legato Group

This variation clearly illustrates the sections of the vocalize; each section has a different syllable assigned to it. There’s no reason to change syllable, though. You could have everyone sing “Mi” for each group or whatever any other vowel you want for that matter.

Mixing Legato and Staccato Groups

This variation shows different ways to combine staccato and legato practice. Use any pattern of syllables you want.

Dynamics Variations

Here are many ways to vary the dynamics. Again use whatever syllables you’d like. You can also change some of the legato groups to staccato groups, making a very comprehensive vocalize.

Weird Syllables

And here are several examples of weirder, more fun syllables you can use.

As you can see there’s a lot you can do with a vocalize, and really these variations are just the beginning. There are still many more variations for this one vocalize. Hopefully this post has inspired you to come up with your own variations on vocalizes you’ve been doing in the past or other vocalizes on this site. These techniques are fairly universal, meaning the can be applied to most if not all vocalize skeletons you’re given. The goal is to keep your choir conscious during warm-ups, and by using as many variations as you can you can get away with only having a handful of skeletons memorized. There’s no reason your choir should feel bored. Enjoy!

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My First Composition

Before I get into too much detail, a little bit of wisdom. If you plan on keeping the handwritten version of your composition, make sure you put it somewhere easy to find. I’d wanted to make a scan of the original, and when I went to go do it I couldn’t find it. I did end up locating it inside my couch (don’t ask), but by that point I needed to leave the apartment… so yeah. I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll put a scan online when I get back from Pennsic, but until then you’ll have to settle for the Lilypond version I made.

Speaking of which, Here’s my first piece, and it’s midi It’s a three part “motet”, or at least that’s that I’m calling. The bass part is drone-ish, and the upper parts are more melodic. It’s definitely polyphonic and very singable even though there aren’t any words. It’s not exactly what I’m looking for–I’ll expand on this a bit later–but I happy with it as a first attempt.

The process

For the moment, I’m composing on my Casio keyboard because my primary instrument is the piano. I’ve been playing the piano since ‘95, so when I think about music I think in terms of the piano. I suppose one day I could use recorder or some other instrument, and perhaps I will, but for now the piano, or electronic keyboard as the case may be, is the most comfortable for me.

So, when I sat down at the keyboard I had only a vague idea of what I wanted. I wanted something polyphonic, singable, motet-like, and have some interesting contrasting rhythms between parts. I also wanted the harmony between parts to sound pleasing, but I didn’t put any restrictions on what chord types to use. I had Pucelete and Can she Excuse My Wrongs in my head, and you can kind of hear a little of both in the piece.

I started with the tenor part, and played around with some melodies until I found something I liked. When I went to write it down, I first played it a couple times until I found a base beat (quarter note), and wrote down what the notes were in relation to each other. I didn’t figure out what the meter was until a little later.

Coming up with a melody isn’t that hard. Even if you have nothing in mind you can play some notes and see what happens. It’s like writing when you have no idea what to write about. If you just let yourself relax you can start writing free-form, and eventually you might touch on an idea you’d like to actually focus on. Adding more parts, though, is a little more complicated since not only do you have to come up with a pleasing melody (at least it has to be melodic if it’s polyphonic), but it has to fit harmonically with the first melody you wrote down. Not that simple, but it’s kinda fun in the same way that solving problems is fun.

Once I finished with the bass part I moved onto the tenor, and for first section of the song I played the tenor part with the right hand, and let my left hand make up a bass part. I liked the sound of the walking bass, because it’s simple and reminded me of the plainchant part of motets so I kept it. Also, a walking bass is about all I can manage when I’m improvisizing over another melody. At around this point I realized what the meter was in the tenor part, so I marked the measures out.

The rest of the bass part I figured out by just playing around with it in isolation. That is, I didn’t try to play the tenor and bass simultaneously. I found I liked the rocking quarter notes for the middle part and that the descending scale sounded neat with the syncopated tenor. Once I decided I liked the bass part I played the two together and did some minor debugging a few of the dissonant chords. Most of it I left alone.

After that I worked on the treble part. For this I didn’t even try to improvise a third part of the other two. No, I just starting playing something in the same key as the rest with the constraint that I decided to have this part be more, legato than the other parts. As I was playing I was reminded of the theme from the 60’s Romeo and Juliet, which I happen to be a big fan of, and decided to stay with that feeling. Then I played it against the other two parts, and for the most part they seemed to work. Yay!

Reflection on the Piece

Overall, for a first rough sketch I’m happy with it. The individual parts make me happy, and the first part sounds pretty good together. The second half needs some work, but I do like the syncopation at the end.

As I said earlier I didn’t have any harmonic constraints, and after listening to the midi I think it could have used some. The song to me feels a little lost. It can’t decide what period it wants to be in or what it wants to say. I think it wants to be medieval, but some of the harmony is a bit off. I’m going to fix that the next time I look at it.

Once I’ve made it more medieval-like I’m going to do a couple of things: add onto it to make it a full song and write some variations, and by variations I mean play with rhythm and with harmony and experiment with different musical styles/eras. For example I might incorporate some 7th chords or something. We’ll see. After that I may or may not add lyrics. Yes, the intention is for it to be singable, but I think of it more as an exercise than an actual work. Still, if I like it, why not add some poetry to it?

Thoughts on the Process

Writing it was fun and really intuitive and playful. I know the description sounds fairly technical, but when i was writing, I did first and only afterward did I find words to describe it later. A prime example is my late discovery of the meter. I didn’t realize what it was until I’d already written the tenor part. It felt kind of like uncovering buried treasure that I’d buried subconsciously. Strictly speaking, you don’t actually need the musical terminology to start writing music, you just need some way of remembering what you come up with. But the theory is really nice for fixing sour notes, and trying different ideas. I mean, if I’m not sure what to do I can try and arpeggio or a modified scale and see what happens. If I didn’t know even those basic ideas I’d just be adding random notes, and would probably be less likely to write
something worthwhile. Needless to say, I’m happy I paid some attention to the theory lessons while I was taking piano lessons.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be posting the original hand written version when I get back from Pennsic in a couple weeks. In the mean time I may have some time later this week to work on experimentation and extension of the piece, and if I do I’ll write about it.


Writing Music

After watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, I realized that I want to write vocal counterpoint. For whatever reason polyphonic vocals excite me more than just about anything, and is I think the main reason I’m falling more and more in love with renaissance madrigals and medieval motets. Hearing the first song in the second act (I’ve read it’s called “Misery and Harmony”) reminded me just how much vocal counterpoint moves me, and how much I want to hear it with the power of modern chords and words. And if I want something done to my taste, well, I probably ought to just do it myself. Of course before I can write anything of value I have to, like, practice, and that’s what this category–music writing–is for. In it I’m going to chronicle in every loving detail my journey into music composition.

I’ve always thought of writing music as being a kind of mystical thing. You hear melodies in your head, you write them down, do a little bit of polishing, and “Voila!” a Masterpiece! The sort of thing only composers are meant to do. Needless to say I never felt quite qualified to do it, and this series is meant to combat that mentality.

My hope is that by writing out my experience of learning to compose music I might inspire you to try your hand at it too. That the messy humanness of writing music makes it a bit more accessible. That initial failure is not a reason to give up. I’ve heard that there was once a time where music students were expected to compose music in the same way that kids learning to read are also expected to write. I’d be very happy if this .was the state of things again, and I’d like to think that this blog could be a force in that direction. And if nothing else, it should be interesting.

So, I’ll probably post about writing music every one to two weeks. Maybe more, probably not less. The first post will be on Friday about my first attempt. Should be fun!


Weekly Vocalize #10 It’s a Cadenza

This week’s vocalize is essentially a cadenza. It sounds like the end of a little piano exercise, and has nice little three note sections that can be used to practice different techniques. It’s also fairly long so breath control can be examined too. Check it out:


Here are a few ideas for how you can use this exercise. You could mix and match crescendo and diminuendo. You could mix and match staccato and legato. You could also change the tempo at different repetitions. Sometimes faster to work on intonation accuracy and sometimes slower to work on sostenuto.

Next week, I’ll write out a bunch of variations on this exercise to show you explicitly just how many possibilities exist.


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Weekly Vocalize #9 Raised 4th and Lowered 3rd

This week’s vocalize is fairly straightforward. The purpose of it is to get your choir used to singing non major scales and arpeggios during the warm-up session, and, again, to work on resonance.

Here we go:


Raising the penultimate note (in this case the 4th) is a fairly common occurrence, so it’s good for the choir to get used to it. Also hearing the lowered third going down can be a bit tricky, so again it’s good practice. I’ve used Mi and Ma for the syllables, and the entire exercise is phrased. You could change the syllables to Zi and Za or any combination of the four. In addition you could sing a syllable for each note. (Example: Zi Zi Zi Zi Za Za Za Za Za)

As with the rest of the exercises it can be used for going up or going down. Since it goes up first it’s easier to go up with each successive exercise, but it doesn’t really matter. Lowering the starting pitch at each repetition isn’t really all that much harder given that you start and end on the same note.



Fear: The Bane of the Choir Director

As a choir director, you’re in position of high visibility. At the very least you can expect that each choir member knows who you are and has made some judgment about you. It’s not like worrying about what other people think of the clothes you’re wearing or how clean your house is. In those cases most people probably don’t think about it very much at all, and on the off chance someone actually does think you’re a bad person for not wearing the latest fashion or not alphabetizing your bookshelf they really aren’t worth your time. As a choir director, though, you can be sure that people do have an opinion of you and that to fairly high degree, those opinions matter.

Paranoid now? Well you should be! Sort of… What I mean is you should take some time to think about it. If you’re new to directing how do you plan to deal with not meeting people’s expectations? Can you handle critiques? Can you handle failure? Can you handle people looking to you for direction when you’re making it up as you go along?

I know it’s easy to let this kind of thinking affect your directing, because I’ve had it happen to me. I’m not an expert on singing. I’ve been singing in choirs for the last eight years, but I only had voice lessons for a few months and even then I didn’t learn all that much about about extending range or safe vocal production or anything like that. At the time I wasn’t even planning to be a choir director, I was just trying to improve my own singing ability. So here I am, the choir director for the Collegium, and I want to help the choir improve their singing. How do I tell them what to do when I don’t know what I’m doing? Moreover how do I tell them what to do when some of them have more knowledge than me.

So, what did I do? I froze and didn’t really offer any actual guidance. o.O Mostly I was afraid to discuss my ideas with the more knowledgeable choir members, and rather than be called out on my ignorance opted to do nothing. What I should have done was, of course, start a conversation with the experienced people to see what they had to say about my ideas. That way there’d be no awkwardness at rehearsal, and we’d all have a greater understanding of each other. Yet, oddly enough it never really crossed my mind to try to solve the problem. I never thought to go talk to them first. I was too preoccupied with getting called out on my inequities. And that, really, is one of the bad things fear does… especially the fear of failure. It paralyzes you. It says things like “Better to do nothing than to make a fool of yourself”. It’s bad enough in general, but as a choir director it’s especially bad because it makes you ineffective.

Dealing with Fear in General: Aim and Shoot

So, you’ve decided that you don’t want to let fear keep you from being the best director you can be. Now, how do you deal with it? For me it’s a two step process: 1) determine what it is you’re afraid of and why (Aim) and 2) figure out a way to combat it (Shoot).

There isn’t one way to determine what you’re afraid of. Sometimes it screams at you–like the fear of being called out on my ignorance–and sometimes it’s a whisper–really I was afraid of talking with my singers. If something’s been screaming at you for a while and you still don’t have a solution chances are good that the problem is deeper. Start there.

If no fears are screaming at you or whispering to you, then look at areas in your directing where you’ve been meaning to improve but for some reason haven’t. If you aren’t doing what you intend to do, then something is holding you back… and if it’s a mental thing it’s probably fear.

You’ll know when you’ve correctly identified your fear because it’ll *feel* right. It’ll be a “moment of insight” type feeling…. an “A-ha” moment. A moment like in school when some concept finally makes sense.

Once you’ve identified the fear, finding a solution should be trivial. If it’s not then you need to look deeper. Going back to the example, after identifying the surface fear, the fear of being called out on my ignorance, trying to solve it just sent me in circles. I’d think things like, “If I attempt to give instruction my fear might come true. If I don’t I’ll never gain experience.” Digging deeper, I found an irrational fear, talking to my singers, which as I found it I knew how to deal with it. (I said to myself, “Clearly that’s stupid.” And started coming up with topics to discuss with my more knowledgeable singers.)

Dealing with Fear of Failure: Acceptance

A common fear for many leaders is the fear of failure. You don’t want to let your people down, yet at the same time you’re only human. Failure is inevitable. So, how do you handle the fact that you will screw up from time to time? The short answer is that you accept it.

Accept it? What? Doesn’t that mean giving up? Like “I’m a screw-up so I might as well accept it. There’s no hope.”? No, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that you acknowledge that failure is going to happen. You have to acknowledge it in order to be honest with yourself, and honesty is a prerequisite to dealing with your fears. If you skip the acceptance step you’ll have a much harder time getting over your fears. Now, once you’ve past that step, you’re free to take the failures and learn and grow from them. In committing to learn from your mistakes, you’ve taken care of most of the worries associated with failing. You’re not expected to be perfect, but you are expected to grow.

Any choir member who expects perfection instead of a commitment to improvement isn’t worth your time. (Well… unless they’re paying you… then that’s a different scenario. :-P)

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Weekly Vocalize #8 Slurs and Staccato

Here’s a vocalize I learned from singing in the Arbor consort. It uses the arpeggio in an interesting way to work on connecting notes separated by a considerable distance (a fourth) and singing staccato down an arpeggio.


The tendency will be for singers to accent or “punch” the upper c effectively disconnecting it from the g preceding it. They’ll also tend to sharply jump off the c too. If notice them doing either of these things remind them connect the notes together (i.e. sing legato) and to disconnect from the upper note gently. The second half of the vocalize can also pose problems. Intonation can be an issue because you aren’t on the note long enough to correct yourself, and articulation can be an issue in that the staccato may not be sharp enough. Alert your choir to these issues when you notice them doing them.

As a variation, you can alternate between having the descending arpeggio be staccato or legato to keep your singers on their toes. Not to mention just having the entire exercise be one long phrase or every note be staccato. As with all the exercises up till now, there are lots of options.

There’s quite a bit going on with this exercise, but one thing it doesn’t showcase is resonance due to the fact that you aren’t on the notes long enough to really feel it. I suppose advanced singers could execute resonance, but for ye average choir there are better exercises for that.

You can perform the exercise moving up or down chromatically or you can move by thirds or how ever you’d like. For example if you’re moving by thirds the next note after starting on g would be b. Experiment to see which sounds best to you.



How I Would Start an SCA Choir

When I started directing the Collegium last fall, I was taking over an already established choir, a very different task than starting a choir from scratch. It has it’s own perks (don’t have to do much recruiting) and pitfalls (high expectations), but it’s not the same thing as starting a new choir from nothing. I’ve thought about what it would be like to start a new choir quite a bit because I don’t know how long I’ll be in Ann Arbor and there’s a pretty strong chance that my new Barony or Shire or whatever won’t have a choir. So if I were to start a choir tomorrow here’s how I’d go about it.

Step 1: “Blow Thy Horn”

First I’d try to get an idea of who the musicians and singers are in the local group. If they have dancing I’d join the dancers because chances are there’d be an overlap between singing and dancing. I’d also send some feelers to the fighters and whoever else is in the group. Let them know that I’m interested in getting it started. Truthfully my minimum for starting a group would be pretty low. As long as I had two other people interested I’d probably try to start something. There’s plenty of one, two, and three part music out there… especially medieval and renaissance music, so there’s no real absolute need to have more than that. Not that I’d be complaining if we had 12 people show up to the first rehearsal, though. ^_~

Step 2: Find a Place and Time to Practice

Next I’d talk to other groups in the local chapter to find out where and when they practice. If there’s one big gathering of all the SCA activities I’d be set. We’d just practice then. If practices are on separate days, I’d see if it’d be feasible to use the same space the dancers or fighters use for choir practice. I could also try to coordinate times with those groups too. Many people prefer having only one or two nights dedicated to SCA stuff, so having choir rehearsal before dance practice can be a good way to encourage dancers to join the choir. If you’re wondering “Well don’t you need a piano?”, I’ve been using a fairly portable keyboard for the past year. It’s a lot more freeing than depending on a piano.

I’d also see how people felt about having rehearsal at someone’s house. When I was living in Bryn Gwalad (Austin, TX) their music guild did just that, and I must say there was something really homey and comforting about playing music in someone’s home. I’ve also had music rehearsals at my 500 square foot apartment (both choral and instrumental), and while a bit cramped it still worked. Chances are there won’t be 15 people at the first rehearsal so space probably wouldn’t be a concern. We could always look for bigger places later.

Step 3: Selecting Music

In general cpdl is your friend. You’ll find lots of public domain sheet music, and by public domain I really mean free. Just keep in mind there’s a lot of stuff on there that’s not within the SCA’s scope.

In my hypothetical new choir of 3 people, I’d probably start with the following categories:

  • Music from Carmina Burana
  • Rounds / Canons
  • Music by Thomas Ravenscroft
  • Motets (specifically ones without sharp part divisions)

There’s some music in the Choral Music Editions section of the site. Some of the songs in there aren’t really appropriate for the tiny, choir though. Here’s a short list of songs I’d start out with:

  • Summer is Icumen In
  • Five Reasons by Henry Purcell
  • Tosse the Pot by Thomas Ravenscroft
  • We Be Three Poore Mariners by Thomas Ravenscroft
  • We Be Souldiers Three
  • Bacche Bene
  • Tempus Transit Gelidum
  • In Taberna
  • Non Nobis Domine
  • Now Wolde Y Fayne

Step 4: Rehearse

After that it’s time to have some rehearsals. I’d email people some of the music of varying difficulty ahead of time and have them send me more music suggestions if they have any. Then at the rehearsal I’d assess the skill level of the choir and figure out where to go from there. And then there’s the whole having fun making music thing. ^_~

Step 5: Find Opportunities to Perform

Especially at the beginning I’d limit performances to just within the SCA so that I could make a sincere attempt to recruit people to join us. Also it gives us a chance to hone our skills before inflicting ourselves on the public. So basically I’d try to get us to sing before court or before feast or things like that. We could also hang out and sing at fighter practices. You get the idea. I’d also have the choir go caroling since it’s a low stress kind of gig.

From there it’s just sing and grow. There’s a bit of upfront work to get started, but really it’s not all that complicated or difficult. Yay Choir!


Weekly Vocalize #7 from “Now Wolde Y Fayne Sum Merthis Make”

Here’s the third “Now Wolde Y Fayne” vocalize. The other two can be found here: Now Wolde Y Fayne 1 Now Wolde Y Fayne 2

This week’s vocalize is the entire final phrase of the top line. It should all be sung in one breath, thus it’s a good exercise for breath control.


For this passage I suggest that you start at a fairly brisk pace so that your singers don’t have any trouble singing each and every note. If you find they’re having trouble with intonation either sing on solfege syllables or first work on smaller sections of the passage. The first two vocalizes in the series are essentially bitesize versions of the passage so you can start with those. If their intonation is good, gradually bring the tempo down until they aren’t able to sing all the notes in one breath. Then bring tempo back up again.

In addition to breath control you can work on dynamics: have one or more climaxes, have different dynamic levels (i.e. mostly loud, mostly soft, etc.), or have different dynamic ranges (i.e. very soft to very loud, medium loud to very loud, etc.).

The range is a little bit more than an octave, so feel free to go up the keyboard and back down a couple of times so that there’s been enough breath control practice.

And don’t forget resonance! The “e” in “Be” should be accompanied by a buzzing feeling in the face.