Kodály Meets Barbershop

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The Hayes Conference Centre: resplendent in the spring sunshineThe Hayes Conference Centre: resplendent in the spring sunshineEarlier this week I had the pleasure of delivering some sessions at the Britsh Kodály Academy’s Spring Course. I was there straddling my two worlds: delivering to singers and choral conductors from a largely classical barckground (several of whom I already knew, indeed, through the Association of British Choral Directors), but there as an expert in barbershop music.

My contributions included a lecture on the history and culture of barbershop - with the aim of helping people who had probably happened across the genre but knew little about the detail of either its craft or ethos make sense of what they heard - and two practical workshops on expanded sound. For these I stole Gage Averill’s rather wonderful turn of phrase ‘Romancing the Tone’ as my title, and focused on the lessons in practical acoustics and the kinaesthetic pleasures of harmony that barbershop has taught me and that I use with musicians from any and all backgrounds.

My thinking in taking this focus was not just that general techniques and exercises would be more useful for this constituency of singers and choral directors than very genre-specific material. I was also aware that they would have been spending much of their day in the brain-bendingly cognitive practice of Kodály musicianship. We were therefore likely to have a more productive time if I focused on other bits of their brains for this session. Training your ears to perceive overtones also takes focus, but it is experientially quite different from the analytical processes of relative solfa.

I had an interesting session of the latter myself while participating in the morning choir session led by László Norbert Nemes on my second day. Whilst the Kodály method is something I’ve happened across through educational literature and occasional workshops over the years, and which I’ve learned from considerably in developing my own ways of nurturing musicianship, I have spent relatively little time using solfege as a tool in sight-reading. I was intrigued to find out how I would get on.

As it turned out, I was initially pleasantly surprised to find myself reasonably fluent. In some ways this was to be expected - I do think tonally as a matter of course - but you don’t know until you try. And then of course, I relaxed and became complacent and made a complete pig’s ear of it all. So, this was a classic bit conscious competence - I can do it, so long as I pay attention, but it is not yet automated.

But the juxtaposition of my sessions on expanded sound with the solfege experience yielded some interesting observations. László did a lot of work on vowel shaping and fine-tuning, and when working on single parts or duets where the vowels matched, you could really hear the lock and ring when he cajoled the singers into doing it well. This in turn was really quite revealing about the internal structures of the solfege syllables.

The perfect consonances see matched vowels: the 5ths between do and so, and between mi and ti. Also, when you modulate sharpwards you get matched vowels on the ti-fi 5th and, when heading flatwards between ta and fa. So, the interval within any chord that is most likely to generate audible overtones, has that potential enhanced by sounding with the same vowel. (And the octave, of course, by definition gets the same vowel.) Also, note how the home key dyad has the middle-placed vowel ‘o’, while you get the tighter, brighter ‘i’ to modulate upwards round the circle of 5ths, and the more open ‘ah’ to modulate down a fifth. This resonates with the thoughts I was having some years ago about the musical qualities of vowel sounds and their implications for arrangers.

The next thing I noticed, though, was how, when we moved into four parts, singing to the syllables actively mitigated against lock and ring. A nice clean dominant triad would be sung as so-so-ti-re, a right old mish-mash of vowel sounds that could sound realistically triadic, but not truly consonant. We tend to think of the difficulty in overlaying different texts in a musical texture as being one of intelligibility - but this shows us that it is not only linguistic comprehension that is impaired, but also harmonic sense. Chords cohere better perceptually when they’re working with acoustics rather than fighting them.

(By the way, in case I am looking a bit hard-core here, I am not saying that homophony is essential for harmonic pleasure. I enjoy textual variety as much - in fact, in many cases more - than the next arranger. I’m just saying that it’s a shame to waste a homophonic texture on mis-matched vowels.)

The other thing I noticed during the choir session was how relaxing it then became to sing the text as written. Usually, reading words and music at the same time feels like the challenging part of sight-singing, but it’s considerably easier than singing an analysis of each note’s tonal function. An excellent example of how stretching makes the normal feel easier.

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