An excerpt from

Components Of Vocal Blend

Plus: “Expressive Tuning”

by Gerald Eskelin


Prelude


As an adjudicator of high school and college choral festivals, I’m always thrilled to hear a student group that has it all—vibrant dynamic sound, elegant phrasing, and artistic musical expression. In such cases, it is evident that the director provided an environ-ment in which the singers were able to develop excellent vocal techniques, impressive ensemble unity and expressive musicality. “Judging” such a group is largely a matter of complimenting the obvious.

On the other hand, I have heard many groups whose sheer enthusiasm for choral singing proves inadequate by itself to produce the performance level described above. Often, singers in such groups have had little or no exposure to fine choral singing. Given the meager offerings of quality choral music we find in the media, this is not surprising. And while local high school football games often appear on television, local high school choral concerts rarely do. In fact, choral music of any kind is virtually absent in the popular media except during the holiday season.

It would appear, then, that the primary responsibility for providing positive and gratifying choral experiences for singers with limited exposure rests with the choral music teacher. Playing recorded examples of fine singing is an obvious part of the solution, and is relatively easy to accomplish. More challenging, however, is teaching singers how to achieve the results they may have come to admire.

I have sometimes observed choral teachers focusing more on the imaginary music in their heads, than on the actual sound produced by their singers. They create a type of delusional “self defense” that blinds them to the actual condition of their choir.

Some teachers are in this predicament, ironically, because they themselves had excellent choral experiences. Quite likely, they were attracted to choral directing because of an inspiring music teacher. Large numbers of similarly enthusiastic future teachers flock to the best colleges to be further inspired by the finest choral directors academia has to offer. Since top-level collegiate choral ensembles normally consist of auditioned singers, there is often little need to “cover the basics.” Spoiled by their own “Cadillac” choral experiences, they are often ill prepared for the shock when they encounter the “jalopy” sounds produced by their first high school choir.

Lacking skills to improve the sound of their choirs, many neophyte directors retreat into the hallucinatory state described above. They could easily escape this condition if they better understood the elements that lead to choral success.

When adjudicating choral groups, my primary responsibility is to provide encouragement and helpful suggestions. Whenever possible, I record my evaluation “live” so the director and singers can later review the audiotape and hear the performance characteristics that prompted each comment.

It has concerned me that such brief remarks on tape may not be thorough enough to be useful or fully understood by student singers, or even by many directors. This is largely why I decided to write this book. At the very least, it will help clarify my comments to the singers and directors whose performances I have adjudicated. At best, it will interest other choral directors and singers who wish to explore every possible means to a better performance.

As one might expect, most choral festival performances fall somewhere between perfect and embarrassing. Interestingly, I find myself making similar suggestions at nearly all of them. It occurred to me that my repetitiveness might simply be a result of a need to reiterate and reinforce my particular point of view; and, to some extent, this is probably true. On the other hand, since my scores have been generally in line with other judges, it may also be due to directors’ general unawareness of certain factors that contribute to fine choral performance and how those factors can be successfully implemented.

Can vocal groups with assorted talent levels achieve a stunning blend? In my opinion, it is not differences in vocal training that prevent vocal blend, but rather an actual disregard for blend and/or the lack of awareness of the techniques necessary to achieve it. The primary purpose of this book, then, is to identify the elements that contribute to a beautiful choral sound and to provide methods and exercises by which to help actualize it.
The ideas and exercises herein are largely based on my own practical experiences working with singing groups—both amateur and professional. They are applicable to a wide variety of musical styles—from barbershop quartet to opera chorus—from the theater to the cathedral. Solo singers, as well, may find techniques here to enhance their artistry and professional cachet.

Most of the concepts in this book were originally contained in a “Read Me” supplied to singers who joined the L.A. Jazz Choir workshop, a training group that often led to a position in the professional group. Given that nearly all the members were experienced and accomplished singers, many with music degrees, their frequent remarks that these concepts were uniquely helpful to them seemed especially significant to me. It suggests that some of these views are not widely shared, in either the professional or academic world. In the event this is true, I am pleased to offer the ideas and practices that have proven helpful to my singers. I hope they prove helpful to yours, as well.

Gerald Eskelin