Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Choral blend, a better way to get it (with AUDIO SAMPLES)

If you’ve ever sung in a choir, you probably have been told to “blend with your neighbor” or “blend with your section.” How do we go about achieving that? I think we need to first understand what a blended sound is and what it isn't. Let's listen to a few examples.

Here is Margaret singing an “oo” vowel on one note.

Example 1:

Let’s hear an example of that exact same clip doubled. I’ve created a second track, an exact copy of Example 1. Here is what they sound like together.

Example 2:

As you would expect, there is little difference between Example 1 and 2. We can hear that Example 2 is a perfectly blended sound. Everything is perfectly matched – pitch, vowels and timbre. It sounds like one person singing.

Let’s pitch shift one of the tracks down exactly 20 cents (there are 100 cents in a half step). In the real world of choral singing, 20 cents is a very a small difference, just 1/5 of a half step. This is what we get.

Example 3:

As you can hear, even with only a small 20 cent difference, we can hear many more “beats” in the sound.

To compare, let's hear Margaret singing two very different vowels, “oo” and “ee,” on the same note (tuned manually) at the same time.
Example 4:

Example 4 isn’t perfect, but combining two vastly different vowel sounds together results in a much more blended sound than in Example 3 where the same vowel is sung only 20 cents apart. What about when we combine two different voices, a male and female singing different vowels? In Example 5, Margaret is singing “oo” and I’m singing “ee” (in my falsetto for better contrast of tone). Two very different timbres and very different vowel sounds singing the same note.
Example 5:

Again, Example 5 is not perfect, but more blended than Example 3. Even with the two very different timbres and vowels, it's clear that Example 3 sounds most unblended.
Good blending is mostly about matching pitch and directors need to address pitch matching more directly. Too many times in rehearsal I have watched directors bring up vowel, vowel placement, or even timbre obscuring the real issue. Some directors use vowel modification as a way to correct pitch, as a way of tricking the singer into singing a higher note. Singing "ee" instead of "ih" may cause the singer to sing higher, but ideally, the singer should be able to sing both vowel shades on the same pitch. It would be disastrous if a singer starting mapping brighter vowels to higher pitches as all languages require singers to sing both bright and dark vowels, and all shades in between.
We need to treat pitch and vowel as separate musical entities.
[I personally don’t like the word “blend.” Most singers, when asked to “blend,” will sing quieter with a breathy unfocused tone quality trying to “match” their neighbor. I sometimes use "unified" instead.]

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