Your singers may be your harshest critics!
Writing a successful vocal part is about using the instrument well; knowing how best to approach it, challenge it and embrace it’s unique sound. With many different voice ranges to offer, how do you know when you’re writing a good part? How do you know if it’s singable? Our singers have given some of their best tips on writing for the most accessible instrument for human-kind: the voice.
Learn from the best
The performers in ORA Singers are some of the finest ensemble singers the UK has to offer. Between them they have hundreds of years of choral singing experience and are in high demand by all of the best choral groups the UK has to offer.
Here they have offer up some helpful tips to steer your choral writing in the right direction. Remember, the performers know best when it comes to writing for their instrument!
Something worth considering carefully, is the pitching notes. This means, working out where the note is that is printed on the page; how high or low the note is, and where it is in relation to the note you have sung before.
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Professional singers are very accomplished at pitching, but composers should note that singing is not the same as playing an instrument! If you see a note printed on the music, and go to find it on the piano, you are simply translating what you see on the page to the key you know belongs to it on the piano. For your voice, you need to work out where you are leaping to from the note you have sung before. Its all about relationship to the previous note.
Some singers (but not many) have what we call 'perfect pitch', where they are able to remember what a certain note is, for example they can sing a 'D' from thin air! A lot of singers will need prompting, which is why you often hear a piano giving a singer their first note. Once they have their first note, or reference point, off they go- they pitch all of the following notes in relation to the first note they have heard.
This becomes problematic when composers write very awkward or unusual leaps for the voice. If you are moving up or down by one note, this is very easy for the singers. Third, fifths and octaves are also very easy for them to pitch. More unusual leaps, particularly in music that is not very tonal (ie. doesn't follow a certain set of rules or isn't very predictable on the ear) is very difficult for singers to pitch.
Cluster chords can be very tricky for singers to find. A cluster chord is a chord (more than one note played at once) that doesn't follow a standard form (ie. a major chord comprising of root, third and fifth), but instead includes notes that do not naturally belong together and 'clash'. This is something that is particularly hard for singers to produce, especially when the people stood next to them may be singing notes that are not harmoniously gelling with theirs! If you jump to a random cluster chord in the middle of a piece, particularly without silence prior to it, you may not be giving your singers enough time for them to work out the note in their head. This is something you need to be careful of when writing atonal music (music with no tone centre, which doesn't sound as 'easy on the ear'). It is much easier for the singer to move to a note that is dissonant (clashing) with other notes when it is a note they have perhaps sung in the previous phrase, and ended on, so that the note is fresh in their head and the feel of it familiar with their voice box. Jumping around with no logical relationship, or easy to remember tune, can be very difficult and should be factored in when writing your choral work.
”It's worth bearing acoustic in mind when writing a piece, if you know where your piece is going to be performed…”
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'Acoustic' refers to the role that a building or space can play in the sound that you hear from a choir, or any noise source for that matter! Acoustics range from dead or dry, which tends to be preferred by actors and speakers (think of a theatre with plenty of red velvet seats and curtains), to lively, rich or wet, which is more the end of the scale that choirs prefer to sit at (think of almost all cathedrals). Dry acoustics are good for clarity, so actors like them for the fact that their text is clear, whilst rich acoustics add a certain warmth to sound, although at the cost of some of that clarity. Choirs tend to favour the richer acoustics because choral music is often slow in terms of text, so there's not an incredible need for clarity, and a little extra resonance around the music itself can add warmth and majesty to the sound (it also does a lot to cover imperfections!).
It's worth bearing acoustic in mind when writing a piece, if you know where your piece is going to be performed. If you want to set a lot of words, sung very quickly, then they might get lost in a rich acoustic, it might be better to go for longer, sustained chords and fewer words. Having said that, there's a lot of fun to be had playing with particular sounds, such as 's' or 't', in a rich acoustic because lots of them together can create a chattery or whispery atmosphere. Similarly, try not to have your singers holding long sustained notes if they've got no acoustic to help them, any variation in their tone will be noticeable and they want thank you for the pressure that brings!
3. Rehearsal time
So, you've written your masterpiece and now what? It's time for rehearsal of course! The only problem is that when you look at the rehearsal schedule, you see there is very little space for the choir to rehearse your piece. Alas, this is fairly common in the professional world of choral singing!
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Writing extremely complicated music might not work to your advantage. Even professional singers have their limitations and rehearsal times are usually short. If you've got a choir willing to perform your piece and you think the parts are complicated, it is worth telling them this in advance, sending out rehearsal copies of the scores, or letting them know about any problematic corners. Particularly if you are designating solos- your soloists should always be aware of this in advance!
Complicated cross rhythms, tongue-twisting texts and giant leaps in pitch can get even the most accomplished performers in a panic! For your brisker pieces, make sure that if you want to use complicated rhythms then use very simple words. If you want huge awkward leaps in the voice, ensure they're not also worrying about the rhythm. We love ambitious compositions but its also wise to be realistic! Singers need to be comfortable with the pieces they are performing and a Musical Director does not always have the time to iron out the creases in the rehearsal. To avoid disappointment, be kind to your singers and don't try to overcomplicated your piece without warning your performers first.
It may be obvious, but it's worth saying: breathing is essential for singing. If you can't breathe, you can't sing, and you'd be surprised how many composers for the voice forget this, even choral super-composer Bach!
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Be aware that the longer a phrase is, that you write for a voice-part, the more you run the risk of them running out of breath, which could result in big, loud gaspy breaths being taken in the middle of your beautiful music.
Also be aware that singers need time to breathe between phrases; you don't have to write this into the music if every voice part is finishing at the same time because any good conductor will often give an extra little moment at the end of phrases for singers to breath properly and start the next phrase. If you have your different voice parts all finishing phrases at different times then think about giving them a few beats rest (literally!) to let them re-engage with their next phrase.
Having said all this, there is a way for choirs to sing unbroken notes or phrases that are much longer than they should naturally be able to sing on one breath, and it's called staggering. When voice parts stagger, each singer within a voice part takes a subtle breath at a different time to the other singers on the part. If they all manage to do this whilst coming back in on the phrase gently, then the listener gets the illusion of a continuous line of music. If you want minutes of unbroken singing in your piece then it's worth marking 'stagger' in the score, but use it sparingly, it's not the most enjoyable or comfortable thing for a singer to do!