The Heart of Vocal Harmony
Music is an emotional medium, yet we often spend rehearsal time in our choirs focused on notes, rhythms, and precision, rarely addressing the meaning of the music, says arranger and producer Deke Sharon. In the new book The Heart of Vocal Harmony: Emotional Expression in Group Singing, Sharon puts the process of delivering an emotionally compelling performance front and center.
In the book, Sharon interviews numerous directors, composers, arrangers, singers, groups, and vocal coaches to hear their perspective on how they bring emotional expression to their craft, including Joshua Habermann, chorus director of the Dallas Symphony Chorus and music director of the Santa Fe Desert Chorale; composer Eric Whitacre; and baritone Christòpheren Nomura, a frequent performer on Broadway, in opera, and on the concert stage.
The following excerpt has been reprinted with the permission of Hal Leonard Corporation.
DS: Many of the pieces you conduct are in another language, written in another era for people whose culture differed from our own. How do you make these pieces relevant and emotionally compelling for both your singers and your audience?
JH: I think in every piece there’s a story. It can be the personal story of the composer or the poet, or possibly of the occasion for which the piece was written. Then we have the text, which our singers must understand and internalize in order to project and recreate the story. Any one of these touchpoints can be a window in—a way to make the music alive and relevant for our performers and the listener. In this way choral music teaches empathy; it creates an awareness of another’s story and how it might be reflected in our own.
DS: What compels you to continue to search for new and obscure choral works and traditions?
JH: Programming concerts is one of the most important aspects of a choir director’s job. Unlike our orchestral colleagues, whose concerts most often consist of larger works (overtures, concertos, symphonies), our art form is largely made up of shorter pieces. The challenge, then, is to create a meaningful and memorable concert experience that is more than what a friend of mine calls “chicken soup programming,” in which you throw together a bunch of loosely related pieces and call it a concert.
Vocal music is an excellent conduit to explore traditions outside our own. Experiencing a wide variety of music brings us into meaningful contact with other cultural traditions. Though the languages may be unfamiliar, the themes and stories we humans sing are universal.
DS: What tips and techniques have you learned from other forms and traditions of vocal music that you’ve brought to your choruses?
JH: Some of my colleagues in the classical world lament the rise of pop music and what they perceive as the lowering of standards in music education. While I understand that point of view, I think there are things that choruses, and classical choruses in particular can and should learn from other traditions. Anyone who attends a concert by a great pop a cappella group can appreciate the communication and emotional impact that music offers. I believe the best performers are those in any genre whose authenticity helps to break down barriers between people and reveal the energy that connects us. Pop and folk performers are doing a better job of this than classical groups, and we need to learn from them.
DS: Popular music is increasingly less complex, yet your successful works are a mélange of stacked seconds and mixed meters. How are you able to make such complexity compelling to this generation?
EW: I think it’s all about context. The piece must very clearly teach its musical language to the audience and to the performers. It must be self-referential and self-contained, and adhere to its own laws. I call these pieces “snow globes,” as if the entire universe of the piece is contained within that little globe. If a piece can successfully do that, then people will be happy to listen to and perform much more challenging music than they might otherwise do.
DS: What tips do you have for writers and arrangers of vocal harmony music of all styles?
EW: I’m paraphrasing, but Schoenberg said something along the lines of “A perfect phrase is any group of notes that can be sung in a single breath.” When writing vocal lines it’s all about the breath: when to breathe, where to breathe, how to construct the perfect moment for the next breath. When I am writing I sing through every line in every part to make certain it connects to the breath and the body. If your vocal lines are natural and singable, the piece will unfold in an effortless and inevitable way.
DS: Your virtual choirs have millions of views and tens of thousands of singers. How did you reconcile the oldest form of music and the latest technology, and do you see continued successful marriages happening?
EW: There is a Native American concept that I love: use the whole buffalo. When it comes to creating things, I try to embrace this lesson. As I compose, anything I can see or touch becomes something to be used, something to be integrated into the music or work of art. With the Virtual Choir I was spending a lot of time watching choirs on YouTube, so YouTube and the Internet became a natural extension of the music and the concert hall. With my piece Deep Field, in which the audience plays apps as the orchestra and choir perform, the smartphones in the audience became part of the buffalo. I can’t wait to see what new technologies will appear, and if I can get my hands on them they will undoubtedly find their way into my music.
DS: How did your early experiences singing in choirs prepare you for life as a professional singer?
CN: My early experiences, especially with the San Francisco Boys Chorus, serve as the foundation for my work today. Reading music, ear training, vocal technique, and the discipline to continuously practice were always emphasized and stressed since I was four years old. The thing is, I loved it. It was never “work” for me and I could never understand why others would hate it.
DS: How is emotion generally approached and discussed within the world of classical soloists?
CN: Emotion has to come from within you as an artist, and it is essential in everything you do. Yes, you have to learn the words, the notes, the phrasing, but what brings that song, aria, or role to life? It should be your choices. They can and should evolve the more times you study and perform a piece. Performing in front of audiences helps you make those discoveries. You can practice forever, but until you feel the sensations within you in a concert setting, you will never really know the true emotion that a piece or role holds for you.