Commissions: Part 3 (Vocal Considerations)


Another factor in writing of a commission has to do with obtaining all the information necessary about vocal sounds/ranges/abilities, etc., so that when I write, the choir’s strengths are maximized.  When possible, I want to actually hear the choir sing in performance in some manner:  Video, compact disc, formal concert, rehearsal, mp3 recording, etc.  As a composer, I need to always hear the choir in my mind’s ear.  In my opinion, the most successful commissions I have written were commissioned by choirs whose sounds were familiar.  I want to know everything about the vocal sounds of the choir.  I want to speak with the choral director in a private conversation, listening carefully as the director talks about the choir’s sound.  It is in these conversations that I can confirm or dismiss some of the vocal characteristics I think I am hearing in a recording.

Vocal considerations:

1)  Number of singers – In most choirs, there are unequal numbers in various sections.  The strengths differ:  some choirs are small, other choirs might be larger, and have a very strong men’s section (Bass and Tenor).  However, some choirs have one tenor…a very good tenor…in fact, a solo tenor that the world would be fortunate to hear, etc.  By design (audition), some have absolutely equal numbers per section.  Some have an incredibly strong soprano section, with a very marginal alto section, and a solo tenor extraordinaire, and three basses.  You get the idea…I need to know this information.

I could write a composition with a tenor solo, using the soprano section as a focal point at times in the more difficult passages.  I might focus the less challenging material in the alto section…find  a passage in the basses’ ranges that will allow them to shine forth at some point, making them “known” as a viable part of the total sound.  I would like to know the ensemble, capitalizing on strengths.

2)  Range – I need to know the upper and lower range of every section of the choir, so that whatever I decide to do with melodic and/or harmonic movement, results are artistic and vocally successful!  If there are limitations, I must look to prominent sections for the best ways to present the musical material.  Know where your “go-to” sections are located in the choir…then keep that in mind when writing the composition.  Make the piece happen!!  Make “it” happen with good decisions by the composer…good decisions that make sense!!

3)  Vocal Quality – If I find there are vocal qualities in your choir that resemble operatic voices,  I might want to write something that “showcases” their abilities.  Several solos?  Prominent sectional writing?  How can I make those voices “work” in the midst of “standard” sounding voices?  Alternating sections of chorus/solo might be another option.

Does the entire choir consist of standard-quality voices?  I might want to write a commission of primarily unison/2-part vocal voices, with a more complex accompaniment.

Is there at least one incredibly strong singer in each section?  Use those strong, gifted voices in your choir in creative ways!

As you can guess, there are a zillion ways to bring forth the strengths and abilities of an ensemble.  However, a composer must do one’s homework to listen and discuss all of these aspects with those who know the voices the best…the group’s choral director…then make a decision.

4)  Other Musical Abilities – A group’s performance can also be a window into their grasp of ideas in areas such as breath support, the production of vowels, the use of consonants, proper intonation, etc.

Breath support:  If a group has a difficult time in singing long phrases, then I would likely write shorter phrases, with definite breathing places, instead of long, arduous phrases that require a keen understanding of “staggering the breath.”  YES…we need to teach those things, but I will probably write for the things I know a choir already does well.  There is generally a reason choirs sing as they do.  Some choral techniques might have been stressed more than others.  Diction might be the primary focus of a choir director.  If the choir director is an instrumentalist, it might be that the teaching of proper vocal breath support is something that the choir might not demonstrate as proficiently as a person who actually understands more about the voice than their teacher.  My experience:  I came through the public school ranks as an accompanist, and when I finally wanted to audition for Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, I knew I needed help!  “Thank you, Betty Jane Grimm at Florida State University!”  She agreed to assist me in getting prepared for that audition, and I made it!  Singing is not my strength, but I am a choral director.  I had to really “dig” for any vocal knowledge obtained in the area of vocal technique.

Vowels:  What about vowel production?  Pleasant?  Unpleasant?  I would need to keep this in mind when considering range.  Taking the basses too high on closed vowels would likely not be beneficial in creating a warm, beautiful tone.  There is no need to write such that a singers’ limitations are propelled into the forefront.  I try to write commissions with weaknesses minimized and strengths maximized.  It makes for a more positive experience for all involved.  We’re creating a positive experience!

Consonants:  A choir’s ability to produce clear, crisp consonants is paramount to conveying the text.  Anything that does not allow one to clearly hear the text might need to be avoided.  The size of the choir, vocal and musical abilities, and the skill with which they have been required to habitually demonstrate clear consonants…all important elements.  If the texture is too thick, singers with limited vocal consonant skills cannot be heard through the accompaniment.  For example, I might use some a cappella singing in some sections, so that the voices can be heard clearly, but not too much a cappella singing if the choir is challenged with intonation issues.  These types of abilities can be heard in the pre-composition stages.  One’s ears are “the friend” in preparation for writing.

Choirs who are skilled in exploding consonants might enjoy an involved accompaniment…brass, organ, strings, woodwinds.  An important question:  “Is there a particularly strong  instrumental solo performer that you might want to include?”  For example, I submitted a piece to a high school choral director, and wrote for a solo cello/keyboard accompaniment.  However, there was a wonderful violinist on his faculty, and the choral director asked if I might write something for solo violin instead.  I write for the best person available to the choir director.   If I write for a specific instrument, I want to make certain the instrument is available to the choir.  That is, why write a viola obligato part…if the choir can get a violist??!!  Makes sense??

Intonation:  This is probably the most sophisticated concept of all considerations.  There is generally a reason most choirs sing with correct intonation (posture, breath support, vocal awareness, etc.).  As I prepare for writing a commission, I listen to the intonation of the group who will be singing my piece.  If students sing below pitch, then a cappella singing must be kept to a minimum.  I would also try to select brighter vowels, higher range (keep it out of the chest), and I would likely incorporate unison singing in a larger amount.  The tempo would also likely be faster, with a driving energy toward the final cadence.  I would probably not include many ritardandos, and be sensitive to descending passages.

There are many vocal considerations that a composer must address before writing a commission.  I cannot accommodate all aspects of concern, but through listening to a choral director’s description and a choral group’s performance, I can prioritize a list of things that might assist me in writing a successful commissioned choral octavo for a special group of singers.  The goal is to write a piece of music that contributes to a singer’s love and enjoyment of choral singing.  May we all be fortunate enough to achieve that goal!!