(You can all thank Sara in Sweden for her request for this long, long, long tome)
Here is a case where the Barbershop world is way out in front of the Choral world.
The learning sound files available to Barbershop choruses are of a very high quality – whether they’re from Sweet Adelines, Harmony Inc., or the Barbershop Harmony Society there are many excellent products that you can purchase to make the learning process incredibly easy.
From Harmony Inc. there’s Anne Bureau – http://www.queenannerecordings.com/
From Sweet Adelines there’s my new personal favourite – Jennifer Cooke
And from the Barbershop Harmony Society – Tim Waurick’s sound files are fantastic (though there are many other learning sound file virtuosos that you can contact through the Barbershop Harmony Society http://barbershop.org/who-is-making-learning-tracks.html )
Many of the Barbershop tracks use Autotune, which although it can sound a little artificial, means that your group is internalizing consistently clean pitches. (I figure that when all my groups can sing perfectly in tune using Tempered Tuning, we can begin to have the conversation about Just Tuning – but that degree of sophistication requires a very high skill level, pitch-wise)
When my women’s chorus began using the tracks done by Anne Bureau, their tuning magically and drastically improved overnight.
By comparison, the learning tracks available for SATB choirs…well, for the most part, they leave much to be desired.
They’re usually thin, tinny midi sounds – with no lyrics, and absolutely no modelling of stellar singing. And I find that some of the ‘instrument’ sounds used do not have accurate tuning. This is also true of the voices in the version of Finale, the music writing program that I use. (Guess they figured that it wouldn’t sound like real singers unless it was out of tune)
Ok, I’ll admit that it’s better to have something like Cyberbass (http://www.cyberbass.com/ ) than nothing at all – but I suspect that it’s only the most dedicated or terrified singers who’d subject themselves to these sound files. The one upside of most of the midi sites is that they’re free.
Another wonderful thing about sound files by actual singers is that there’s no need to have the sheet music in front of you in order to figure out how the lyrics fit with the music – so it’s highly portable as a learning tool. I know that my Barbershop chorus members learn their parts in their cars, at their computers while working on something else, and when they’re exercising. When the lyrics are part of what’s being heard, it’s being learned by two different parts of the brain – the part that processes melody, and the part that processes language. The two together complement each other and help to anchor the piece more securely in the body – for faster and easier retrieval at the next rehearsal. (Directors – doesn’t this sound like MUCH more fun than bashing the same notes week after week?)
The one high quality Classical Choral exception that I’ve found online is these folks: “Single Parts – with study spots”
They use professional singers, so the notes and lyrics can be learned at the same time, and correct technique and singing craft is being modelled consistently. The tracks can be purchased as CDs or downloaded as sound files.
The top level learning track providers will send you, or have you download the files which usually comprise of:
All parts together
Each singer’s part completely by itself
The singer’s part predominant in the mix
The singer’s part absent from the mix
But what about the average church choir – that has to be able to perform something new every week, and can’t necessarily afford top of the line learning tracks? In addition to this, our church choirs are not generally performing large choral classics or Barbershop songs, so our outsourcing options are limited.
I’ve heard some church choir learning resources that just demonstrate what the piece sounds like in its entirety, but have no single part sound files.
The ones I’ve heard are sung by truly well meaning choirs, but I’d really rather that my choirs not believe that they should settle for the demonstrated tuning and choral technique that they’re hearing. In fact – it’s worse than that. Once a singer has been imprinted by a learning track with bad tuning, poor vowels or heaven forbid – wrong notes – it’s almost impossible for them to hear or understand what you’re trying to do to fix these problems.
So the moral of this story is – make your own! And it can be lo-tech and still be effective.
If you’re not comfortable doing the actual singing, you can ask two friends to come over to record the anthems for the next few weeks – a woman to sing the soprano and alto parts and a man to sing the tenor and bass. However, for the sake of your choir, please choose friends who sing dead in tune. Your choir will never sing more in tune than the sound file they used to learn the piece.
Just as you would when getting friends to help with moving, make sure to provide beer and pizza after the recording session (or of course for singers – wine and cheese!)
If your choir has a budget and can actually hire people to do this, that would be the best way to go, because it leaves you free to ask them again and again. If they’re being paid, it’s not a favour, it’s just a simple transaction.
When I do sound files myself – for my groups that have no budget – I just use my little mp3 recorder.
I make sure to practise the parts so I know them well, and can model good singing habits, and then I record myself singing while playing the piano.
Some times I also do the guys’ parts by singing them in my range and playing the single line down in their range.
One of the benefits of doing it myself is that I can build the technique and the interpretive plan right into the learning track – the louds, the softs, the legato, the target vowels and diphthong resolutions. (and of course any pathos, joy or angst)
Once I make the recording I transfer it to my computer where, because my little recorder produces WAV files, I have to convert each recording to an mp3 format – which I do with the program Audacity – a free download. (That’ll be another post – though there’s probably a tutorial somewhere on Youtube)
The files need to be converted because the WAV files are generally too big to be emailed.
Once the files are in mp3 format, I email all of them out to the entire group. Why the entire group? First of all, I’m too lazy to divide the choir list up by voice parts, and secondly, if a bass wants to sing along with the tenor part to make sure he’s in lockstep in a certain passage, he has access to the tenor part in an email from me.
Now here’s the kicker.
Your group needs to be motivated to actually use the learning tracks. And that is a subject for another day.
Learning tracks – like contraception, treadmills and cruciferous vegetables must be actually used in order to work. Just owning them is never enough.