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Magic Choral Trick #190 The Unconscious Upward Slide Into the Pitch

I was flipping around radio stations yesterday while I was driving and came across a soprano singing Strauss’ “Zueignung”. Fabulous song, fabulous voice. But almost every important note in verse two was approached from at least a tone below the pitch, before sliding upwards into place. I stuck around for verse three because I love the song, but also to see if she might redeem herself. It was marginally more cleanly sung – but the tuning problems had taken me out of what could have been a glorious experience, into a state of exasperation.

I had to remind myself of the translation – just to see if a desire to show more emotional intensity might have prompted the sliding – but as you see in both of these translations, the whole song is pretty ‘heart on the sleeve’.

Ah, thou knowest all my anguish,
That apart from thee I languish;
Hearts that love to woe resign,
Thanks be thine!

Once I yearned for freedom’s pleasure,
Held on high the wine-filled measure,
Thou didst bless the crimson wine,
Thanks be thine!

And thy love brought me salvation,
While I, filled with adoration,
Hallowed, found love divine,
Thanks be thine!


Yes, you know it, dearest soul,
How I suffer far from you,
Love makes the heart sick,
Have thanks.

Once I, drinker of freedom,
Held high the amethyst beaker,
And you blessed the drink,
Have thanks.

And you exorcised the evils in it,
Until I, as I had never been before,
Blessed, blessed sank upon your heart,
Have thanks.

So I’m guessing that this particular affectation on this particular occasion was probably added because of an inner thought process that went something like: “That first verse wasn’t quite heart-wrenching enough – I should add a bit more emotion”.

However, it would be unfair to pick on just the opera singers. Sliding to and from pitches to ‘demonstrate’ emotion has been a hallmark of popular music of almost every kind for more than 50 years. It’s been played as background to much of our everyday lives – from the grocery store and mall, to dentists’ offices and on the radios in our cars as we commute.

So it really is not surprising that it’s a huge job for choir directors to convince their singers that clean and accurate singing will result in a more powerful performance.

From a presentation point of view, the evolution of the theatre has shown us that ‘demonstrating’ an emotion does not engender it in the audience member.

Theatre has moved on.
Classical violinists have moved on. (Nowadays cleanliness really is next to Godliness)
Even Ballet, traditionally a very mannered art form, has moved on emotionally.

Singers, it’s time to sing in tune – and to incorporate all the other ways to give our audiences the gift of an emotionally truthful performance.

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