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Choral Tone Revisited

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With the proviso that this may be nothing whatsoever to do with this board...here goes. First of all, Goldsmith - you're very kind - the cheque's in the post :unsure: I have been very interested to read comments here and elsewhere about the 'parlous' state of choir training in cathedrals. What specific things - posture, breathing, vowel formation, airflow management etc - do proponents of the 'traditional' sonority think the boys should be taught to do? Richard - your letter in Choir and Organ was pretty categorical that we're mostly doing it wrong (It's a shame the sound clips of your own choristers have disappeared, apparently along with the rest of the church website, by the way). Here we teach the boys to sing in the way that any other singer is taught, with regular input from expert professional singing teachers, and the sound that results is I suppose quite 'continental' in character, whatever that means. I know that at least one person here quite likes it :ph34r: and I know exactly what I do to get it. Not that it doesn't change from year to year - it should, given that the personnel aren't the same every year - but all we do is give them sound technical infomation about their voices. The bottom line is that if I were wasting Dean and Chapter funds by wrecking the voice of every boy that came through the choir I'd have some explaining to do ....any views?

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I'm going to be offline for a week, but I'll put my cards on the table.

 

Firstly, I think it pays to be very wary before one claims that there only one right way to perform anything, whether it's a matter of choral tone, organ tone, interpretation, or anything else. More often than not it says more about the insufficiencies of one's own musical appreciation than anything else. The best organ teachers are those who can think themselves into the interpretation you are trying to give and show you how to improve it, not the ones who insist that you play the piece their way. That's not to say one should ignore what is right or wrong from the historical point of view, or that one is not entitled to have preferences. Even less is it an acceptance of "anything goes". Anyone is entitled to come to the conclusion that a particular sound or intertretation is just plain "wrong" for the music in question. My point is simply that it does not pay to close one's ears.

 

As far as choral tone goes, I couldn't give a gnat's piffle whether it's "continental" or "early twentieth-century English" so long as it's a musically satisfying experience.

 

I loved the sound of King's under David Willcocks. I have no idea whether the boys were actually trained to produce a largely head-voice sound, but it certainly sounded like it. It fitted the acoustic like a glove and Willcocks made sure his speeds and interpretations played on those qualities. It all fitted together like a glove and - with all due respect to his successors (I'd be ecstatic if I could produce results half as good) - I don't think the choir has ever been the same since. In Byrd or Palestrina, however inauthentic it may have been (and inauthentic it most certainly was), the sound of Willcock's choir could be truly magical, but it didn't work for everything: their Bach motets sounded frankly ridiculous.

 

Yet I have discs of Tudor music sung with "continental" tone by David Hill's choir at Winchester and Stephen Darlington's at Christ Church, Oxford (to name but two) that are just as awesome in their own way. The music is virile and exciting: it comes alive.

 

The traditional English head-voice production is a product of the same era that would have the lessons at Matins and Evensong read in a flat, dispassionate voice because it was thought to be no business of the reader to impose his personal interpretation on the hearer. It was an era when things were regarded as best done undemonstratively. It is a beautiful sound when done well, but it is not very effective when any sense of drama is required.

 

My principal criticism of "continental" tone is that the bright tone of the boys is apt to blend less with the men. I imagine that's partly to do with the different resonating spaces in children's bodies and adults', but there is also the consideration that most cathedral choirs are inherently top heavy in terms of numbers so that the boys inevitably stick out like a sore thumb. There's a historical reason for this and it's nothing to do with singing - it was to ensure that there were sufficient boys act as thurifers, taperers and acolytes as required by the liturgy, while still leaving some to sing the plainsong with the men.

 

So, to sum up: horses for courses.

 

I shall look forward to reading how this thread has developed when I return.

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Could we include the girls in with this too please - what with two of my own who both sing very nicely (though as yet not in cathedrals) and a day job that at present involves training solely girls voices I see them as being very much part of the equation in the 21st Century. With Salisbury, Winchester and Bath Abbey (to name but a few) within healthy distance from here one is spoilt for choice - these all have superb girl 'line ups' - likewise St Albans who I tend to hear more on CD having a very old pal in the 'back rows' who supplies the latest discs when they come out. This is by no means doing down the boys - I was one once - but the girls need to be considered too I feel.

 

AJJ

 

PS I thought that the Choir & Organ article on the music at the 'red brick' edifice was very good too.

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I'm going to be offline for a week, but I'll put my cards on the table.

 

Firstly, I think it pays to be very wary before one claims that there only one right way to perform anything, whether it's a matter of choral tone, organ tone, interpretation, or anything else. More often than not it says more about the insufficiencies of one's own musical appreciation than anything else. The best organ teachers are those who can think themselves into the interpretation you are trying to give and show you how to improve it, not the ones who insist that you play the piece their way.  That's not to say one should ignore what is right or wrong from the historical point of view, or that one is not entitled to have preferences. Even less is it an acceptance of "anything goes". Anyone is entitled to come to the conclusion that a particular sound or intertretation is just plain "wrong" for the music in question. My point is simply that it does not pay to close one's ears.

 

As far as choral tone goes, I couldn't give a gnat's piffle whether it's "continental" or "early twentieth-century English" so long as it's a musically satisfying experience.

 

I loved the sound of King's under David Willcocks. I have no idea whether the boys were actually trained to produce a largely head-voice sound, but it certainly sounded like it. It fitted the acoustic like a glove and Willcocks made sure his speeds and interpretations played on those qualities. It all fitted together like a glove and - with all due respect to his successors (I'd be ecstatic if I could produce results half as good) - I don't think the choir has ever been the same since. In Byrd or Palestrina, however inauthentic it may have been (and inauthentic it most certainly was), the sound of Willcock's choir could be truly magical, but it didn't work for everything: their Bach motets sounded frankly ridiculous.

 

Yet I have discs of Tudor music sung with "continental" tone by David Hill's choir at Winchester and Stephen Darlington's at Christ Church, Oxford (to name but two) that are just as awesome in their own way. The music is virile and exciting: it comes alive.

 

The traditional English head-voice production is a product of the same era that would have the lessons at Matins and Evensong read in a flat, dispassionate voice because it was thought to be no business of the reader to impose his personal interpretation on the hearer. It was an era when things were regarded as best done undemonstratively. It is a beautiful sound when done well, but it is not very effective when any sense of drama is required.

 

My principal criticism of "continental" tone is that the bright tone of the boys is apt to blend less with the men. I imagine that's partly to do with the different resonating spaces in children's bodies and adults', but there is also the consideration that most cathedral choirs are inherently top heavy in terms of numbers so that the boys inevitably stick out like a sore thumb. There's a historical reason for this and it's nothing to do with singing - it was to ensure that there were sufficient boys act as thurifers, taperers and acolytes as required by the liturgy, while still leaving some to sing the plainsong with the men.

 

So, to sum up: horses for courses.

 

I shall look forward to reading how this thread has developed when I return.

 

 

Excellent points all, Vox Humana. You've opened up one avenue which is especially interesting I think - the whole idea of chest and head voice and how those concepts have changed and developed. What my singing teacher colleagues tell me is that there's only voice - it's produced in the larynx as air passes over the vocal folds, and it resonates in and is 'tuned' by the various regions of the pharynx and the oral cavity. Chest resonance as a logical consequence can't exist - how can you have a resonator below the sound source? And head resonance - in what space exactly is the sound supposed to resonate? How is it supposed to travel there from the larynx in order that it might resonate in the head? There's no route! Sensations of vibration are one thing, but to say that's actual resonance is quite another. You can't pick your sound up and move it at will from chest to head and back again, although some awareness of how the larynx deals with pitch change makes training out nasty register breaks a lot easier and helps to avoid them developing in the first place. The point you make about balance is important - but I'd say it depends on the men who are singing, and on the ability of the director to balance the sonorities; I don't think it's a fault of 'continental' production to cause balance problems. I wonder how many boys Willcocks had to choose from for each chorister place at King's and how many arrived with vocal problems that he had to train out of them? Alastair - I'm glad you liked the article - and yes, let's include girls in the discussion, although for obvious reasons the issue of training them seems to be less emotive...we are certainly delighted to have the girls here and I do hope your two continue to enjoy their singing - good for them.

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What my singing teacher colleagues tell me is that there's only voice -  it's produced in the larynx as air passes over the vocal folds, and it resonates in and is 'tuned' by the various regions of the pharynx and the oral cavity. Chest resonance as a logical consequence can't exist - how can you have a resonator below the sound source? And head resonance - in what space exactly is the sound supposed to resonate? How is it supposed to travel there from the larynx in order that it might resonate in the head? There's no route!
Well, yes, this must be physically true. Yet singers do speak of chest resonance and head resonance - at least those I have spoken to do - by which I understand them to mean the degree to which a falsetto-like quality is allowed to imbue the tone (without resorting to full-scale falsetto production of course). That is all I meant to convey by the term "head-voice". As for the resonating spaces I will have to defer to those who know what they are talking about, but again the singers I have spoken to do talk about such things and, whatever the physiology behind it, there is a noticeable difference in resonance between a singer who has had proper voice-production lessons (supported diaphragm and all that) and one who hasn't. Boys voices can develop considerable resonance when taught, but I'm not sure it can ever quite equal those of grown men (though I'm no singer, so I'm happy to be told otherwise).

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Well, yes, this must be physically true. Yet singers do speak of chest resonance and head resonance - at least those I have spoken to do - by which I understand them to mean the degree to which a falsetto-like quality is allowed to imbue the tone (without resorting to full-scale falsetto production of course).  That is all I meant to convey by the term "head-voice". As for the resonating spaces I will have to defer to those who know what they are talking about, but again the singers I have spoken to do talk about such things and, whatever the physiology behind it, there is a noticeable difference in resonance between a singer who has had proper voice-production lessons (supported diaphragm and all that) and one who hasn't. Boys voices can develop considerable resonance when taught, but I'm not sure it can ever quite equal those of grown men (though I'm no singer, so I'm happy to be told otherwise).

 

You're quite right, VH - singers do talk about things in terms of chest/head resonance - but what they are feeling is vibration. Sensation is a crucial part of singing experience but isn't necessarily a representation of the actual situation physically. Resonance in the strictest sense is of course affected by airflow (although the diapraghm, I was interested to discover from one very expert in these matters, is nothing to do with it - it's not under conscious control, and the important muscles for 'support' are actually further down the body), but how the resonator is tuned - the relationship between the tongue, lips, jaw, general head position etc etc. The most crucial element is possibly tongue position - if you say 'eee' quietly to yourself with a relaxed jaw and without a sideways grimace you'll get the best resonating space, and that's where we start from - the other vowels are related to it rather than to 'ooo' which is much more susceptible to bad formation. It's what the back of the tongue does just as much as the tip which has a material effect on the sound.

Best wishes S

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There seems to me to be much good sense, here.

 

Stephen, I agree totally with your comments concerning so-called 'head' and 'chest' voices. I remember a letter which you wrote to Organists' Review a few years ago, in which you pointed out that there is no physical connection between the larynx and the 'resonating spaces' in the head, citing Gray's Anatomy as evidence. I realise that this is not an exact quote, but I am afraid that I am too tired to search through back-issues at the present time!

 

I would also like to state a personal preference for the brighter 'continental' tone, certainly for boys' (and girls') voices. Those choirs which have been trained by David Hill, Stephen Darlington and Christopher Robinson come immediately to mind. The bright, fresh sound seems to enhance just intonation, to my ears. Allan Wicks was also an example - although in his case, I do not think that there was any conscious attempt to produce a 'continental' sound.

 

I confess that I have little time for the plummy 'hooty' sound which is occasionally produced and which can sound so dull and lifeless. I suspect that it is rather like comparing the old (1921) Gloucester organ with the new (1971) Gloucester organ.

 

What is interesting, is the number of cathedral organists who have engaged (albeit with the support of the Dean and Chapter) professional singing teachers. I would be interested to know whether the organists concerned feel that there have been tangible benefits as a direct result of this policy. Of course it depends greatly upon the choice of singing-tutor.

 

In our own church choir, my boss engaged a singing-tutor for approximately three or four years - with little result, as far as I could see! I occasionally walked through the church during lessons, and was slighly concerned to discover that the girls were singing anything which they happened to bring - often 'pop' songs - why? This involves a completely different technique! (Some might argue that it involves a lack of technique.) I also discovered that the boys were often taught English songs - Quilter, etc. Again, I felt that this was inappropriate for the type of music which we wished them to sing during services. Although I did make tactful mention of it to my boss, nothing was done until he retired a few months ago. Whilst in one sense, a good singing technique may be taught through a variety of musical styles, I did feel that, since we desired a particular sound, a rather more carefully-targeted approach would have been beneficial.

 

It is to be hoped that, if we do decide to engage the services of another singing-tutor, he or she will prove to be far more useful to the cause, so to speak.

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Stephen, many thanks for your illuminating comments. There's some very useful food for thought there. As far as tone production goes, I'll know I've cracked it when I can get a choir to sing the first chord of Byrd's Ave verum with a magic pianissimo that doesn't sound as if the singers are still three-quarters asleep and hungover after a hard night's partying!

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Stephen, many thanks for your illuminating comments. There's some very useful food for thought there. As far as tone production goes, I'll know I've cracked it when I can get a choir to sing the first chord of Byrd's Ave verum with a magic pianissimo that doesn't sound as if the singers are still three-quarters asleep and hungover after a hard night's partying!

 

VH - one of the hardest things to do - you're quite right.

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There seems to me to be much good sense, here.

 

Stephen, I agree totally with your comments concerning so-called 'head' and 'chest' voices. I remember a letter which you wrote to Organists' Review a few years ago, in which you pointed out that there is no physical connection between the larynx and the 'resonating spaces' in the head, citing Gray's Anatomy as evidence. I realise that this is not an exact quote, but I am afraid that I am too tired to search through back-issues at the present time!

 

I would also like to state a personal preference for the brighter 'continental' tone, certainly for boys' (and girls') voices. Those choirs which have been trained by David Hill, Stephen Darlington and Christopher Robinson come immediately to mind. The bright, fresh sound seems to enhance just intonation, to my ears. Allan Wicks was also an example - although in his case, I do not think that there was any conscious attempt to produce a 'continental' sound.

 

I confess that I have little time for the plummy 'hooty' sound which is occasionally produced and which can sound so dull and lifeless. I suspect that it is rather like comparing the old (1921) Gloucester organ with the new (1971) Gloucester organ.

 

What is interesting, is the number of cathedral organists who have engaged (albeit with the support of the Dean adn Chapter) professional singing teachers. I would be interested to know whether the organists concerned feel that there have been tangible benefits as a direct result of this policy. Of course it depends greatly upon the choice of singing-tutor.

 

In our own church choir, my boss engaged a singing-tutor for approximately three or four years - with little result, as far as I could see! I occasionally walked through the church during lessons, and was slighly concerned to discover that the girls were singing anything which they happened to bring - often 'pop' songs - why? This involves a completely different technique! (Some might argue that it involves a lack of technique.) I also discovered that the boys were often taught English songs - Quilter, etc. Again, I felt that this was inappropriate for the type of music which we wished them to sing during services. Although I did make tactful mention of it to my boss, nothing was done until he retired a few months ago. Whilst in one sense, a good singing technique may be taught through a variety of musical styles, I did feel that, since we desired a particular sound, a rather more carefully-targeted approach would have been beneficial.

 

It is to be hoped that, if we do decide to engage the services of another singing-tutor, he or she will prove to be far more useful to the cause, so to speak.

 

pncd - thanks for your comments. We have had three really excellent singing teachers since before my time here - all of them great with the kids - and I think it was my excellent predecessor in post who introduced the idea. Our current system is that the boys and girls work on real repertoire - either from service lists or things they're preparing fro ABRSM exams. I'm doubly lucky in that my wife (a professional singer herself) is doing the teaching (boys and girls)- nearly all the boys and many of the girls have individual lessons with her away from choir time - and I discuss constantly with her what is going on with each boy, what problems need monitoring, and try to learn as much as I can about what she teaches and why. My Sub who runs the girl choristers does the same. My better half comes in once a week to rehearsals and does the warm up and often stays in to monitor the sound each boy is making in the full ensemble as well as taking individuals out. I'm sure that a unified approach works best - we use the same imagery in pursuit of the physiological things we want to happen and are pursuing absolutely the same basic ideal for the sound, so the principles we want to instil are (we hope) being constantly reinforced. Images are great in teaching singing to kids as long as you know what the images in question are trying to achieve. We talk about it constantly. Team work is the key if you're using a singing teacher I think - any success we may have here with the way the boys sing is not just my doing - I've had the benefit of the expertise of really wonderful colleagues along the way and I've been tremendously fortunate in that.

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Stephen, thank you for your reply - I found your comments most helpful.

 

I would very much like to hear your Guildford choir - I must try to get there one Saturday - that is, if they still sing Evensong on Saturdays?

 

Regards,

 

pcnd

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Stephen, thank you for your reply - I found your comments most helpful.

 

I would very much like to hear your Guildford choir - I must try to get there one Saturday - that is, if they still sing Evensong on Saturdays?

 

Regards,

 

pcnd

pncd - it would great to see you here but I'm afraid Saturdays are no longer sung by the cathedral choir - it was a change we made reluctantly a few years back to address our particular chorister recruitment problems. Drop me a line via the cathedral website if you like - I'll let you know what's coming up. Very best wishes S

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Stephen, many thanks for your illuminating comments. There's some very useful food for thought there. As far as tone production goes, I'll know I've cracked it when I can get a choir to sing the first chord of Byrd's Ave verum with a magic pianissimo that doesn't sound as if the singers are still three-quarters asleep and hungover after a hard night's partying!

 

I was once conducting a university choir doing, amongst other things, the Ave Verum, on live radio (only local radio). I gave the upbeat to the accompaniment of a very resonant burp from a certain bass, who then apologised loudly to his neighbour for the pervading stench of curry....

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I was once conducting a university choir doing, amongst other things, the Ave Verum, on live radio (only local radio). I gave the upbeat to the accompaniment of a very resonant burp from a certain bass, who then apologised loudly to his neighbour for the pervading stench of curry....

 

There's a famous recording of a John's organ scholar breaking wind very audibly in a live R3 broadcast...wouldn't dream of saying who.

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There's a famous recording of a John's organ scholar breaking wind very audibly in a live R3 broadcast...wouldn't dream of saying who.

 

And having successfully dragged the "tone" of this discussion down to the gutter... Back to the subject of choral tone...

 

Being a parish church organist, I have to take whatever children I can find, so I have had in the past a mixed treble line, something which I plan to build up again in my new place.

 

What are people's thoughts on training girls and boys together?

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There's a famous recording of a John's organ scholar breaking wind very audibly in a live R3 broadcast...wouldn't dream of saying who.

 

Mmmm.... I have heard a recording of that one - at several speeds (including slowed down to one-quarter speed....) - very strange.

 

Was it not at a broadcast Advent Candlelight service?

 

I think that it was a result of eating too much Worcester Sauce....

 

:)

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What are people's thoughts on training girls and boys together?

 

At a parish level I can see no problem, as you say one has to take whatever one is able to encourage to join. With this in mind a mixed front row can be exteremely musical and moreover both boys and girls are able to work together successfully. Dangerous ground perhaps.. but one does perhaps have to have some sort of an idea as to how 'mature' a female sound one wants and act accordingly as far as age range is concerned. I have been involved mostly with young mixed front rows and slightly older female altos and this has worked well but there was a clearly identified cut off point for the girls (end of school age etc.).

 

AJJ

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Well, I can see some problems.

 

I have heard of situations where boys left a choir en masse, when girls were introduced, because it was then seen as a slightly 'wet' thing to do (i.e., to sing with girls). Since I do know that some of our boys get teased at school (which most just grin and bear), I suspect that in a parish situation, this can be a cause for concern.

 

At our own church, we have both a boys' choir and a girls' choir. Both sing in turn with the gentlemen and they all sing together a few times each year, at high festivals, etc. However, since the boys realise that they are generally singing separately, it has (so far) not been a particular problem.

 

No doubt there will be situations in which such a course of action is welcomed - occasionally boys can be positively thirlled by the introduction of girls. In other cases, the boys seem to be ambivalent with regard to the presence of a girls' choir in addition to their own.

 

Notwithstanding, I think that it is something which, at least at parish level, shoud not be decided without much care and thought.

 

Personally, I can see advantages in both types of voice. Our girls recently sang (with the gentlemen) a Sequence for Candlemass - including such works as Hail, Gladdening Light and Bring us, O Lord. I was really rather proud of them - they did an excellent job and sounded very good.

 

As to training them together - we have occasionally done this with joint top-row practices; however, I have observed that our boys and girls need a slightly different approach. It was interesting to note that there were also different technical issues which had to be addressed between the two choirs.

 

As an afterthought, certainly with our boys' and girls' choirs, it is comparatively easy to distinguish between the sound of the two groups. Whilst this is partly due to the fact that, since I assist in the training of the choristers, I am used to the sound of individual voices. Nevertheless, this raises the interesting point that it is precisely those variations in timbre and intonation which make it easy for me to identify them.

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As to training them together - we have occasionally done this with joint top-row practices; however, I have observed that our boys and girls need a slightly different approach. It was interesting to note that there were also different technical issues which had to be addressed between the two choirs.

 

 

That has been my experience also, particularly when the girls are that little bit older that the boys.

 

However, I don't think many of us in the Parish Church arena are in the luxurious state of having a pseudo-cathedral setup such as you have - if had separated out my trebles to sing as boys and girls choirs, I'd have had 4 + 6 respectively...

 

But, maybe training them separately and running them as single sex treble lines might have recruitment benefits - as pcnd mentions, there is a lot of peer ridicule associated with boys singing in a choir, and anything we can do to minimise that has got to be a good thing...

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Yes, I would agree with these points.

 

We do occasionally have low numbers ourselves! We are in the middle of a recruitment drive - there will be a 'Come and Sing' Evensong in a couple of weeks' time and my boss is (probably even as I write) visiting local schools, in order to publicise this and other events.

 

If all else fails, we were also thinking of paying our choristers more money. In order to raise this, I am considering doing a 'Sponsored Sing' in our local big town - I shall probably make thousands in 'hush money'....

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That has been my experience also, particularly when the girls are that little bit older that the boys.

 

However, I don't think many of us in the Parish Church arena are in the luxurious state of having a pseudo-cathedral setup such as you have - if had separated out my trebles to sing as boys and girls choirs, I'd have had 4 + 6 respectively...

 

But, maybe training them separately and running them as single sex treble lines might have recruitment benefits - as pcnd mentions, there is a lot of peer ridicule associated with boys singing in a choir, and anything we can do to minimise that has got to be a good thing...

 

Our two sets of choristers are a generation apart - 8-13 for boys and 11-17 for girls - and the difference in their respective maturity makes it more of a challenge to deal with both simultaneously - there is a different psychology operating in the two groups. I do wonder what Roffensis/Richard has to say about this thread so far? It would be interesting hear his views, on the voice training aspect especially.

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Having myself been brought up in an all male choir, and having run an all male choir in my early days as a choir trainer, I shared some of the concerns expressed here about boys leaving en masse etc.. However, having run choirs with mixed treble lines for many years now it has not been my experience that this causes any problem. I have generally found that numerically the balance between boys and girls in the choir is naturally maintained and the notion that a mixed choir in fact turns out to be all girls is simply not true. Of course, if you currently have an all male choir and you change it just out of some form of political correctness you may upset the existing membership - but thats a different line of reasoning.

 

There are issues that need to be considered and handled with tact and diplomacy (not my strong points!). Especially around the age question - ie. that girls can go on singing treble/soprano for much longer than boys and without clear policies in place to allow for this it could result in Head Choristers' posititions, or similar positions of rank and responsibility, being denied to the boys.

 

Similarly, the question of whether boys get teased, or even bullied, at school because they're in a church choir is not related to whether its an all male choir. I myself tolerated a great deal of this back in the 1970's (in the context of an all-male choir) and I guess things have got worse rather than better. However, this is not a problem confined to boys. My daughters come in for exactly the same bullying and harassment as a result of their membership of the choir.

 

The all male choir is now a rarity and, as such, we need to cherish and protect remaining examples. But for most of us in the parishes we need to be inclusive and can not afford to turn away anyone who is willing to make the commitment to sing in our choirs.

 

Each choir trainer needs to know what sound they are trying to achieve and also should have themself studied voice production to know at least the basic techniques that they need to promote. It has been my experience that if you have these basic starting points you will achieve similar, and good, results whatever the mix of boys and girls in your treble line.

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Guest Roffensis
With the proviso that this may be nothing whatsoever to do with this board...here goes. First of all, Goldsmith  - you're very kind - the cheque's in the post  :) I have been very interested to read comments here and elsewhere about the 'parlous' state of choir training in cathedrals. What specific things - posture, breathing, vowel formation, airflow management etc -  do proponents of the 'traditional' sonority think the boys should be taught to do? Richard - your letter in Choir and Organ was pretty categorical that we're mostly doing it wrong (It's a shame the sound clips of your own choristers have disappeared, apparently along with the rest of the church website, by the way). Here we teach the boys to sing in the way that any other singer is taught, with regular input from expert professional singing teachers, and the sound that results is I suppose quite 'continental' in character, whatever that means. I know that at least one person here quite likes it  ;) and I know exactly what I do to get it. Not that it doesn't change from year to year - it should, given that the personnel aren't the same every year - but all we do is give them sound technical infomation about their voices.  The bottom line is that if  I were  wasting Dean and Chapter funds by wrecking the voice of every boy that came through the choir I'd have some explaining to do ....any views?

 

It was never my intention to decry "Continental Tone", but I was simply making the point that the old way of singing has largely disappeared. We all talk of Kings as being the finest choir, or did, but that accolade was awarded when the old sound as per Willcocks was in vogue, who did use a very full head voice and a fair old degree of vibrato. A forced chest tone will in time wreck a voice, it is really a form of shouting and the strain can be heard, and it causes a voice to break faster. The tone is not natural in the way head tone is. Nor is it simply the voice production that I find disturbing, but also the diction. We have a language that we should treasure, but all too easily this too can slip. The vowel "E" has to be carefully used (as an example), the jaw to drop rather than try to put the E out as it is, with the mouth widening. This will cause a chorister to become reedy, and the tone will sit at the back of the throat, rather than in the head. People refer to head tone as "Falsetto", and of course yes it does employ the same machanism by and large, but in a boy the tone is different to an adult, so that it cannot be truly regarded as such. Girls sometimes have almost a boys voice but are often more reedy, and there is certainly less difference in boy/girl tone now, simply by virtue of the tone used. Boys talk diffently to girls, and they sound different in singing. A "sound" yes, and a good sound when trained well, but not as pure as a boys voice. P.R. makes some almost scared to stand up for such things, but it is the truth nevertheless. We are losing fast a sound that was very English, and very unique. I do not for a second suppose that all cathedrals should go back to Ernest Lough, but I do say some should. Interestingly, the Kings carols broadcast last year was amazing, and something of the old sound had returned, not least in the solos. Of course Continental Tone has its place, but not to the exclusion of all else. The world is a big place, but this country is turning its back on a very fine tradition, and a lot are following suit. This saddens me.

The choir I run was disbanded and the boys moved with me to another, Anglican, church, and we are thriving there. This was a sideways move to give them more to do and be a better chellenge. I am still encouraging the old tone, and as a matter of interest have one boy who has a stunning voice, at only 8 (who sounds 13), who is a carbon copy almost of Lough. I hope great things for him and them all, and the reason I train the old tone is simply to keep it alive. It takes a lot of work, and it means taking every single thing, vowel etc apart and constantly having to signal for vibrato, but the results are good, and the boys love the challenge. I apologise if my letter caused any offence to anyone, it was simply a concern from a true Englishman (my family has been traced direct line to the early 16th century) who loves and is proud of his country and all of its history and traditions. That includes our choral singing!

R

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It was never my intention to decry "Continental Tone", but I was simply making the point that the old way of singing has largely disappeared. We all talk of Kings as being the finest choir, or did, but that accolade was awarded when the old sound as per Willcocks was in vogue, who did use a very full head voice and a fair old degree of vibrato. A forced chest tone will in time wreck a voice, it is really a form of shouting and the strain can be heard, and it causes a voice to break faster. The tone is not natural in the way head tone is. Nor is it simply the voice production that I find disturbing, but also the diction. We have a language that we should treasure, but all too easily this too can slip. The vowel "E" has to be carefully used (as an example), the jaw to drop rather than try to put the E out as it is, with the mouth widening. This will cause a chorister to become reedy, and the tone will sit at the back of the throat, rather than in the head. People refer to head tone as "Falsetto", and of course yes it does employ the same machanism by and large, but in a boy the tone is different to an adult, so that it cannot be truly regarded as such. Girls sometimes have almost  a boys voice but are often more reedy, and there is certainly less difference in boy/girl tone now, simply by virtue of the tone used. Boys talk diffently to girls, and they sound different in singing. A "sound" yes, and a good sound when trained well, but not as pure as a boys voice. P.R. makes some almost scared to stand up for such things, but it is the truth nevertheless. We are losing fast a sound that was very English, and very unique. I do not for a second suppose that all cathedrals should go back to Ernest Lough, but I do say some should. Interestingly, the Kings carols broadcast last year was amazing, and something of the old sound had returned, not least in the solos. Of course Continental Tone has its place, but not to the exclusion of all else. The world is a big place, but this country is turning its back on a very fine tradition, and a lot are following suit. This saddens me.

The choir I run was disbanded and the boys moved with me to another, Anglican, church, and we are thriving there. This was a sideways move to give them more to do and be a better chellenge. I am still encouraging the old tone, and as a matter of interest have one boy who has a stunning voice, at only 8 (who sounds 13), who is a carbon copy almost of Lough. I hope great things for him and them all, and the reason I train the old tone is simply to keep it alive. It takes a lot of work, and it means taking every single thing, vowel etc apart and constantly having to signal for vibrato, but the results are good, and the boys love the challenge. I apologise if my letter caused any offence to anyone, it was simply a concern from a true Englishman (my family has been traced direct line to the early 16th century) who loves and is proud of his country and all of its history and traditions. That includes our choral singing!

R

 

Richard - can I ask you a few specific questions? Absolutely no offence taken here, and it would never do it everyone sounded the same - but it's all very interesting and having heard your boys on the sound clips I am keen to know exactly what you are teaching them to do. What precisely do you tell your boys to do to achieve it the sound you want? Do you have a blueprint for an absolute ideal of sound which you mould each voice to fit, whatever its intrinsic qualities? How do you make a voice produce vibrato if it isn't naturally there? Can you be really specific about the training methods you use, from basics onwards - what's your regular warm up routine, for example? No one who advocates the 'older' style ever gives anything away about how they think it should be done beyond fairly vague description, and I wish they would - it would open up some useful avenues in the debate. Best wishes S

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Having myself been brought up in an all male choir, and having run an all male choir in my early days as a choir trainer, I shared some of the concerns expressed here about boys leaving en masse etc.. However, having run choirs with mixed treble lines for many years now it has not been my experience that this causes any problem. I have generally found that numerically the balance between boys and girls in the choir is naturally maintained and the notion that a mixed choir in fact turns out to be all girls is simply not true. Of course, if you currently have an all male choir and you change it just out of some form of political correctness you may upset the existing membership - but thats a different line of reasoning.

 

There are issues that need to be considered and handled with tact and diplomacy (not my strong points!). Especially around the age question - ie. that girls can go on singing treble/soprano for much longer than boys and without clear policies in place to allow for this it could result in Head Choristers' posititions, or similar positions of rank and responsibility, being denied to the boys.

 

Similarly, the question of whether boys get teased, or even bullied, at school because they're in a church choir is not related to whether its an all male choir. I myself tolerated a great deal of this back in the 1970's (in the context of an all-male choir) and I guess things have got worse rather than better. However, this is not a problem confined to boys. My daughters come in for exactly the same bullying and harassment as a result of their membership of the choir.

 

The all male choir is now a rarity and, as such, we need to cherish and protect remaining examples. But for most of us in the parishes we need to be inclusive and can not afford to turn away anyone who is willing to make the commitment to sing in our choirs.

 

Each choir trainer needs to know what sound they are trying to achieve and also should have themself studied voice production to know at least the basic techniques that they need to promote. It has been my experience that if you have these basic starting points you will achieve similar, and good,  results whatever the mix of boys and girls in your treble line.

 

You've hit the nail on the head - you can't teach people (especailly children!) to do something you haven't tried to do yourself....an empirical approach to singing technique without some sort of input from a real life singer is rarely successful.

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