Chopin – Mazurka #15 in C major, Op. 24 #2

A few weeks ago, one of my piano students started working on this piece.  My advice, “Pretend you’re Polish,” doesn’t seem to be helping her much.  But this short work is about as far from a Parisian Salon, and as close to a Polish village as Chopin ever got.  The passage in the lydian mode is hauntingly beautiful.  To play this piece, you have to forget everything you know about triple meter, and simply tug and pull at the rhythm until it’s about to break; and yet, it must all come out even, so that you can dance to it without missing a step.  And the coloristic variety that this piece demands!  Don’t get me started!

Sorry Hannah.  Come to think of it, maybe I should have waited before I assigned it to you.

Here is my interpretation of it.  I hope it helps you.  I recorded it this evening on my awful Lester piano.  See what you think.

Beethoven – Sonata in f minor, Op 2 #1, 1st movement.

Happy birthday, Beethoven!

I just finished recording this first movement of Beethoven’s first published sonata.  My performance is a bit rough, but then again, so is this lean-and-mean piece.

It’s the first piece I ever studied with Sementovsky, 35 years ago.  “Do not be afraid to explode,” he used to tell me, referring to the frequent sforzandi.  “When Beethoven explodes, no one dies,” he said with a laugh.  As I was learning this piece, Sementovsky and I battled constantly over tempo.  He wanted me to change tempo radically — for expressive purposes — which went against my restrained nature.  (And you’ll notice, in this performance, I do rush the recapitulation slightly, which he never would have approved of.)  “When Beethoven writes espressivo, he really means ritardando,” he said often. Well, maybe.  But out of respect for Sementovsky, I made a point to slow down the beginning of the closing theme each time it occurred, just a bit.

Prelude Op. 37, No. 1 in B flat minor by Alexander Scriabin

I couldn’t resist playing one more prelude.  This one is an exquisite, soulful piece marked mesto, which means mournful.  This is the sort of piece that George Sementovsky, my teacher, would have reveled in, with his attention to color, shading, blur, and nuance.  I’m sure he would have milked the written-in silences, and he would have played with greater dynamic contrasts than I did.  My performance is more restrained, more intimate than his probably would have been.  Let me know what you think of it.

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Prelude Op. 11, No. 13 by Alexander Scriabin

I just felt like playing this Prelude tonight. It’s been a long day, and I needed this serene piece — except I can’t seem to get a convincing lento tempo out of it.  It came out somewhere between andante and allegretto no matter how hard I tried to slow it down.  See what you think about my up-tempo version.

Vocal Registers

My students really enjoy this unit—maybe because kids find the human voice more accessible, more compelling, than instrumental timbres—or maybe because they know the terms alto and soprano from choir.  Kids in 4th grade (or the second half of 3rd grade) do especially well with this unit.

Many years ago, when I first taught kids to compare vocal registers, I assumed that kids could do it easily.  They might need, I thought, two or three lessons to really have it down.  Now I’m older and wiser.  Yes, kids can easily discriminate between the sound of a soprano and the sound of a bass.  Even very young children can do that.  But the sound of a tenor versus that of an alto is a whole other matter.  Middle vocal registers are not easy for kids to tell apart.

In this post, I’ll show how I teach students to discriminate among all 4 vocal registers — soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.  There are 8 sub-parts, or phases, to this Vocal Register Unit; each phase takes roughly 2 or 3 lessons to complete.   The unit, as a whole, takes roughly 4 months to complete.

The first thing you’ll find in this post is a description of each of the 8 phases; then, you will find audio files of each musical example.  And finally, you’ll see my rationale for each musical example.  Let me now take you through each phase.

 

Phase 1: Soprano and Bass

The first thing students do is compare extreme registers, which, by the way, is easy for them to do.  (No student yet has mistaken Paul Robeson’s bass voice for that of a tenor, alto, or soprano!)  You’ll notice that I keep the pieces the same at first:  two versions of the song “Danny Boy,” and two versions of the song “Greensleeves/What Child is This?”  As students advance through the unit, they hear greater stylistic variety, but in the beginning, kids need help focusing on vocal register; and the only way I can do that is to vary only the register, but keep everything else (as much as I can) constant.

Throughout this unit, you’ll see that whenever I introduce a new register, I make sure that kids hear several versions of “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” and several versions of “Danny Boy.”

Typically, I begin Phase 1 by asking students to listen to the following 2 musical examples, one after the other.

Soprano – “Danny Boy”

Bass – “Danny Boy”

After students have heard these examples, I tell the class that, in some ways, those pieces are the same, but in other ways, they are different.  I ask the class, “How were they the same?”  Students invariably answer that the words were the same; or perhaps they tell me that the melody was the same.  Then I ask, “What was different about the two pieces?” Typically, the students will say, “The singers were different.”  Then I press the point.  “How do you know that the singers were different?”  Eventually, the kids will give me the simple, correct answer that one singer sang high, and the other singer sang low.

And that’s when I introduce the term register.  “A singer who sings high is singing in a high register; a singer who sings low is singing in a low register.  These registers have names, and we’re going to learn the names of two registers today.  What you’re about to hear is a singer who sings in a bass register.”  Then I put the words bass register on the board as I play the Paul Robeson example of “Danny Boy.”

When that musical example is finished, I say to students, “What you’re about to hear now is a singer who sings in a soprano register.”  I show students the words soprano register as I play the soprano version of “Danny Boy.”

When that musical excerpt is finished, I say to students, “Now I will play two examples that you haven’t heard before.  Your job is to tell me, after you hear each one, which vocal register you heard — soprano or bass.”

The students, when called on, must choose one of the following sentences to read from the whiteboard in the front of the classroom:

The singer we are hearing sings in a soprano register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in a bass register.

After I ask roughly 5 or 6 students to compare the examples (and of course, I insist that they read the sentences correctly), I move on to something else.

Soprano – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?”

Bass – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?”

That’s it for Phase 1.  Typically, I will repeat this phase for one or two more lessons, just to make sure that students are familiar and fluent with the words soprano, bass, and register.

Readers of this blog who are familiar with other units I’ve written will recognize a pattern to how I teach:  I never introduce one thing, and then tell students, “This is called such-and-such because I say so.”  Instead, I follow a basic tenet of Gordon’s Music Learning Theory:  we learn by making comparisons.  In this case, students learn what the soprano register sounds like by comparing it with the bass register; and they learn to recognize the bass register by comparing it with the soprano register.

Here is a recap of what happens in Phase 1:

  1. Students learn two vocal registers in tandem so that they can make comparisons.
  2. Student learn the two most extreme registers—soprano and bass—because these registers are incontrovertibly different from each other; and as such, all students can easily distinguish between them.
  3. Students compare vocal examples that are virtually identical, except for the crucial difference of vocal register.
  4. Students hear the selections and compare them before they name the vocal registers — which is another tenet of Music Learning Theory:  hear it first; name it second.
  5. Students learn first through my direct instruction; after that, they must name, without my help, the vocal registers of unfamiliar examples they hear.

 

Phase 2:  Soprano and Bass (with varied repertoire)

During this phase, students compare soprano and bass registers by listening to pieces that are different from each other.  I do not play “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” or “Danny Boy” (my go-to “same” pieces), but instead, play for them examples representing a variety of vocal styles and genres.  In fact, during this phase, I tend not to focus on maintaining any kind of sameness across examples.  The music may vary in tempo, dynamics, style, time period, and genre.  Students can aurally discriminate between soprano and bass registers well enough that I need not hold other factors constant.

I tend to play, during a single lesson, 3 soprano examples and 3 bass examples; taken together, these examples make up roughly five minutes of the class period.  I learned a long time ago that if I simply alternate examples, or if I play too many of the same examples in a row, students will figure out my pattern, and they’ll stop concentrating.  (They might think to themselves:  “The last one was a bass; the next one has to be a soprano.”)  To make sure that doesn’t happen, I deliberately avoid playing examples in a predictable order: soprano, soprano, soprano, bass, bass, bass; or soprano, bass, soprano, bass, soprano, bass.

Instead, I plan ahead by choosing to play the examples in the following order: Bass, Soprano, Soprano, Bass, Bass, Soprano.  The following week, I might change the order as follows:  Bass, Soprano, Bass, Soprano, Soprano, Bass.

The students, when called on, must choose one of the following sentences to read from the whiteboard in the front of the classroom:

The singer we are hearing sings in a soprano register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in a bass register.

After the class has heard and named these examples, I move on to another activity.

Bass – “Volga Boatmen” Russian folk song.  (Bass, Paul Robeson)

Bass – “The People that Walk in Darkness” from Messiah by George Frederic Handel.  (Bass, Donald Gramm)

Bass – “Votre toast, je peux vous le render” (Toreador’s Song) from Carmen by Georges Bizet.  (Bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov)

Soprano – “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music).  (Soprano, Julie Andrews)

Soprano – “Der Hölle Rache Kocht In Meinem Herzen” (Queen of the Night) from Die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (Soprano, Roberta Peters)

Soprano — Exultate Jubilate by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  (Soprano, Max Emanuel Cencic)

 

Phase 3: Bass and Alto

During this phase, I introduce the term alto.  I tell students, “Some of the singers you will hear today sing, not in a bass register, or soprano register, but in an alto register.  We’ll start by hearing ‘Greensleeves’ sung in a bass register.  After that, you will hear the song sung in an alto register.”

Bass – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” — Elizabethan folk song.  (Bass, Paul Robeson)

Alto – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?”  Elizabethan folk song.  (Countertenor, Alfred Dellar)

As in phase 2, I tend to start with a bass example, and then I play the musical selections in the following order: Bass, Alto, Alto, Bass, Bass, Alto.  The following week, I might change the order as follows:  Bass, Alto, Bass, Alto, Alto, Bass.

The students, when called on, must choose one of the following sentences to read from the whiteboard in the front of the classroom:

The singer we are hearing sings in an alto register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in a bass register.

Bass – “Volga Boatmen” Russian folk song.  (Bass, Paul Robeson)

Bass – “Se vuol ballare, signor Contino” from Le nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  (Bass, Hermann Prey)

Bass – “The People that Walk in Darkness” from Messiah by George Frederic Handel.  (Bass, Donald Gramm)

Alto – “Our Love is Here to Stay” — music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin.  (Contralto, Ella Fitzgerald)

Alto – “Hush, Little One Hush” — American folk song arranged by Walter Schumann, from the film Night of the Hunter.  (Contralto, a damn fine uncredited singer!)

Alto – “Yesterdays” — music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Otto Harbach.  (Contralto, Billy Holiday)

 

Phase 4:  Bass and Tenor

During this phase, I introduce the term tenor.  I tell students, “Some of the singers you will hear today sing, not in a bass register, not in a soprano register, not in an alto register, but in tenor register.  We’ll start by hearing ‘Danny Boy’ sung in a bass register.  After that, you will hear the song sung in a tenor register.”

Bass – “Danny Boy”

Tenor — “Danny Boy” Irish folk song.  (Tenor, 3 Irish Tenors)

After students have heard these musical examples, I sometimes ask them if they could tell that, in each case, the song “Danny Boy” was sung by a man.  Many students don’t pick up on this.  I mention to them, briefly, that tenors are men who sing higher than basses.

Once again, I start with a bass example, and then I play the musical selections in the following order: Bass, Tenor, Tenor, Bass, Bass, Tenor.  Another order I might choose is as follows: Bass, Tenor, Bass, Tenor, Tenor, Bass.

The students, when called on, must choose one of the following sentences to read from the whiteboard in the front of the classroom:

The singer we are hearing sings in a tenor register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in a bass register.

Bass – “Volga Boatmen” Russian folk song.  (Bass, Paul Robeson)

Bass – “Se vuol ballare, signor Contino” from Le nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  (Bass, Hermann Prey)

Bass – “Votre toast, je peux vous le render” (Toreador’s Song) from Carmen by Georges Bizet.  (Bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov)

Tenor – “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi.  (Tenor, Joseph Calleja)

Tenor – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Paul Simon.  (Tenor, Art Garfunkel)

Tenor – “Santa Lucia” — Italian folk song.  (Tenor, Alain Vanzo)

Students have now been introduced to all 4 vocal registers.  Basically, I have laid the groundwork for the remainder of the unit.  From this point on, students will have to compare sopranos, altos, and tenors.  Not easy for them!  But by now, they have some experience with those 3 registers because they have compared them to the bass register.  Now it’s time for the bass register to disappear for a while.  The next several weeks will be devoted to the soprano, alto, and tenor registers.

 

Phase 5:  Soprano and Alto

My experience is that it’s easier for kids to distinguish between a soprano and an alto than to distinguish between a soprano and a tenor; and it’s easier for students to distinguish between a soprano and an alto … if they hear a soprano example first.

Once again, I begin by playing two versions of “Greensleeves/What Child is This?”– soprano and alto.

Soprano – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?”  Elizabethan folk song.  (Soprano, Méav Ni Mhaolchatha)

Alto — “Greensleeves/What Child is This?”  Elizabethan folk song.  (Countertenor, Alfred Dellar)

After this brief soprano/alto comparison, I play musical selections in the following order: Soprano, Alto, Alto, Soprano, Soprano, Alto.  Another order I might choose is as follows: Soprano, Alto, Soprano, Alto, Alto, Soprano.

The students, when called on, must choose one of the following sentences to read from the whiteboard in the front of the classroom:

The singer we are hearing sings in a soprano register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in an alto register

Soprano – “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music).  (Soprano, Julie Andrews)

Soprano – “Glitter and be Gay” from Candide by Leonard Bernstein.  (Soprano, Barbara Cook)

Soprano – “Der Hölle Rache Kocht In Meinem Herzen” (Queen of the Night) from Die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  (Soprano, Roberta Peters)

Alto – “Our Love is Here to Stay” — music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin.  (Contralto, Ella Fitzgerald)

Alto – “Yesterdays” — music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Otto Harbach.  (Contralto, Billy Holiday)

Alto – “Tiny Sparrow” — American folk song.  (Contralto, Mary Travers)

 

Phase 6:  Soprano and Tenor

For some reason — I haven’t figured out why — young students often have a tough time hearing the difference between a soprano and a tenor.  Long ago, I stopped asking kids incredulously, “Really?! You really don’t hear that one is a woman, and the other is a man?!” Apparently, they often don’t.  Maybe they’re focusing on the fact that both tenors and sopranos must work extra hard to reach and sustain high notes.  Who knows?  At any rate, I save the soprano/tenor comparison until kids have heard the musical selections many times over several previous weeks.

Soprano – “Danny Boy” — Irish folk song.  (Soprano, Méav Ni Mhaolchatha)

Tenor – “Danny Boy” Irish folk song.  (Tenor, 3 Irish Tenors)

After this brief soprano/tenor comparison, I play musical selections in the following order: Soprano, Tenor, Tenor, Soprano, Soprano, Tenor.  Another order I might choose is as follows: Soprano, Tenor, Soprano, Tenor, Tenor, Soprano.

The students, when called on, must choose one of the following sentences to read from the whiteboard in the front of the classroom:

The singer we are hearing sings in a soprano register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in a tenor register

 

Soprano — Exultate Jubilate by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  (Soprano, Max Emanuel Cencic)

Soprano – “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music).  (Soprano, Julie Andrews)

Soprano – “Glitter and be Gay” from Candide by Leonard Bernstein.  (Soprano, Barbara Cook)

Tenor – “La Danza” from Les soirées musicales by Gioachino Rossini.  (Tenor, Luciano Pavarotti)

Tenor – “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi.  (Tenor, Joseph Calleja)

Tenor – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Paul Simon.  (Tenor, Art Garfunkel)

 

Phase 7:  Alto and Tenor

This is not an easy phase for children.  But by now, students have heard these examples enough times that they should be able to get them right. Once again, I start by comparing versions of “Greensleeves/What Child is This?”

Alto – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” — Elizabethan folk song.  (Countertenor, Alfred Dellar)

Tenor – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” — Elizabethan folk song.  (Tenor, John Denver)

After this brief alto/tenor comparison, I play musical selections in the following order: Alto, Tenor, Tenor, Alto, Alto, Tenor.  Another order I might choose is as follows: Alto, Tenor, Alto, Tenor, Tenor, Alto.

The students, when called on, must choose one of the following sentences to read from the whiteboard in the front of the classroom:

The singer we are hearing sings in an alto register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in a tenor register

 

Alto – “Our Love is Here to Stay” — music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin.  (Contralto, Ella Fitzgerald)

Alto – “Hush, Little One Hush” — American folk song arranged by Walter Schumann, from the film Night of the Hunter.  (Contralto, a damn fine uncredited singer!)

Alto – “Tiny Sparrow” — American folk song.  (Contralto, Mary Travers)

Tenor – “Santa Lucia” — Italian folk song.  (Tenor, Alain Vanzo)

Tenor – “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi.  (Tenor, Joseph Calleja)

Tenor – “La Danza” from Les soirées musicales by Gioachino Rossini.  (Tenor, Luciano Pavarotti)

 

Phase 8: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass

In this final phase, students compare all 4 registers.  The moment of truth!  They get one more hearing of “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” and then they hear examples that they’ve never heard before.  This is the only way to tell if they’ve truly learned to discriminate among vocal registers.

Soprano – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?”  Elizabethan folk song.  (Soprano, Méav Ni Mhaolchatha)

Alto – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?”  Elizabethan folk song.  (Countertenor, Alfred Dellar)

Tenor – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” — Elizabethan folk song.  (Tenor, John Denver)

Bass – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” — Elizabethan folk song.  (Bass, Paul Robeson)

As students listen to the following unfamiliar musical examples, they must choose, when called on, one of the following sentences as their answer:

The singer we are hearing sings in a soprano register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in an alto register.

The singer we are hearing sings in a tenor register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in a bass register.

 

Soprano – “Tornami a Vagheggiar” from Alcina by George Frederic Handel.  (Soprano, Patrizia Kwella)

Alto – “Oh Thou that Tellest” from Messiah by George Frederic Handel.  (Contralto, Catherine Robin)

Tenor – “Waft Her, Angels, Through the Skies” from Jephtha by George Frederic Handel.  (Tenor, Ian Bostridge)

Bass – “Thus saith the Lord” from Messiah by George Frederic Handel.  (Bass, Donald Gramm)

 

Vocal Register Examples

Soprano – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?”  Elizabethan folk song.  (Soprano, Méav Ni Mhaolchatha)

Alto – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?”  Elizabethan folk song.  (Countertenor, Alfred Dellar)

Tenor – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” — Elizabethan folk song.  (Tenor, John Denver)

Bass – “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” — Elizabethan folk song.  (Bass, Paul Robeson)

Soprano – “Danny Boy” — Irish folk song.  (Soprano, Méav Ni Mhaolchatha)

Soprano – “Tornami a Vagheggiar” from Alcina by George Frederic Handel.  (Soprano, Patrizia Kwella)

Soprano — Exultate Jubilate by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  (Soprano, Max Emanuel Cencic)

Soprano – “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music).  (Soprano, Julie Andrews)

Soprano – “Glitter and be Gay” from Candide by Leonard Bernstein.  (Soprano, Barbara Cook)

Soprano – “Der Hölle Rache Kocht In Meinem Herzen” (Queen of the Night) from Die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  (Soprano, Roberta Peters)

Alto – “But Who May Abide The Day Of His Coming” from Messiah by George Frederic Handel.  (Contralto, Helen Watts)

Alto – “Oh Thou that Tellest” from Messiah by George Frederic Handel.  (Contralto, Catherine Robin)

Alto – “Yesterdays” — music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Otto Harbach.  (Contralto, Billy Holiday)

Alto – “Our Love is Here to Stay” — music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin.  (Contralto, Ella Fitzgerald)

Alto – “Hush, Little One Hush” — American folk song arranged by Walter Schumann, from the film Night of the Hunter.  (Contralto, a damn fine uncredited singer!)

Alto – “Tiny Sparrow” — American folk song.  (Contralto, Mary Travers)

Tenor – “Santa Lucia” — Italian folk song.  (Tenor, Alain Vanzo)

Tenor – “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi.  (Tenor, Joseph Calleja)

Tenor – “Waft Her, Angels, Through the Skies” from Jephtha by George Frederic Handel.  (Tenor, Ian Bostridge)

Tenor – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Paul Simon.  (Tenor, Art Garfunkel)

Tenor – “La Danza” from Les soirées musicales by Gioachino Rossini.  (Tenor, Luciano Pavarotti)

Tenor – “Danny Boy” Irish folk song.  (Tenor, 3 Irish Tenors)

Bass – “Votre toast, je peux vous le render” (Toreador’s Song) from Carmen by Georges Bizet.  (Bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov)

Bass – “The People that Walk in Darkness” from Messiah by George Frederic Handel.  (Bass, Donald Gramm)

Bass – “Thus saith the Lord” from Messiah by George Frederic Handel.  (Bass, Donald Gramm)

Bass – “Volga Boatmen” Russian folk song.  (Bass, Paul Robeson)

Bass – “Se vuol ballare, signor Contino” from Le nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  (Bass, Hermann Prey)

Bass – “Danny Boy” Irish folk song.  (Bass, Paul Robeson)

 

Why I Chose These Specific Examples:

“Danny Boy”

I had “Danny Boy” in mind from the start, when I first heard Paul Robeson’s beautiful rendition.  I knew that I could find a tenor version easily, and a soprano version (from the album Celtic Woman) was easy enough to find; but the alto version of my dreams is, alas, not available.  Honestly, I am not a big fan of the Irish tenors album Heritage (from which this excerpt was taken).  Too nasal a sound for my taste.  Although there were a few moments when the tenors stopped singing with an excessive broadway sound, and that was the moment I tried to excerpt.

Greensleeves/What Child is This?:

I love the countertenor Alfred Dellar, the first modern countertenor, a trailblazer and champion of early music.  And I have a fondness for John Denver’s music, although I wish he had pitched the song a bit higher so that his tenor quality could really come through.  Still, the kids get it, and that’s all that counts.  And of course, Paul Robeson’s glorious voice and spirit hang over this whole unit!

Exultate Jubilate by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  (Soprano, Max Emanuel Cencic)

Max Emanuel Cencic grew up to be a fabulous countertenor, but in his younger days he was an equally fabulous boy soprano.  I love seeing my students’ eyes pop out of their sockets when I tell them that this is a boy!

“I Could Have Danced All Night”  (Soprano, Julie Andrews)

Many of my students have seen The Sound of Music, so they can piece together that this is the same singer.  Few if any of my students know the music to My Fair Lady.  I hope they get to know this musical better when they’re older.

“Glitter and be Gay” from Candide by Leonard Bernstein.  (Soprano, Barbara Cook)

This is from the classic 1956 Original Broadway Cast recording of Candide.  The impossibly florid coloratura passages practically chose themselves!  There is no mistaking Barbara Cook for anything but a soprano!  (In general, the soprano excerpts I chose are giddy and goofy, whereas the alto excerpts are serious and sultry.  It just worked out that way.)

“Queen of the Night” from Die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  (Soprano, Roberta Peters)

How could I say no to the Queen of the Night, the ultimate example of coloratura prowess?  I couldn’t!

“Yesterdays” —  (Contralto, Billy Holiday)

I have a poster of Billy Holiday in my classroom.  One of the fringe benefits of teaching this unit is that my students get to know Billy Holiday’s unique, self-referential voice.  There are other great jazz vocalists; there’s only one Billy Holiday.

“Our Love is Here to Stay” —  (Contralto, Ella Fitzgerald)

I had a music history professor in college who once said, quite seriously, that he never let a semester go by without playing at least one excerpt of Ella Fitzgerald. (And then he added that it was quite a challenge to work her into his Medieval and Renaissance course!)  The kids have seen her poster in my classroom since they were in kindergarten.  With this excerpt, they can connect her face to her glorious voice!

“Hush, Little One Hush” — American folk song arranged by Walter Schumann, from the film Night of the Hunter.  (Contralto, a damn fine uncredited singer!)

I use this melody as my Goodbye Song for kindergarten and first grade.  I still don’t know who wrote this mixolydian melody, although Walter Schumann (the composer of the Dragnet theme — dum… da DUM DUM — ) arranged it for the film Night of the Hunter.  It is, quite simply, my favorite melody in the world.  The contralto who sings it, whoever she is, has earned a place in heaven!

“Tiny Sparrow” — American folk song.  (Contralto, Mary Travers)

The opera and jazz vocal examples had to be broken up with at least a few examples of folk music.  I’ve been a fan of Peter, Paul, and Mary since I was about 3 years old.  This is one of my favorite Mary Travers solos.  (If you have a chance, listen to the moments of this song where Paul and Peter harmonize with her.  Gorgeous ensemble singing!)

“Santa Lucia” — Italian folk song.  (Tenor, Alain Vanzo)

“La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi.  (Tenor, Joseph Calleja)

“La Danza” from Les soirées musicales by Gioachino Rossini.  (Tenor, Luciano Pavarotti)

Mr Vanzo and Mr. Calleja may not be household names, or world-class tenors, but their lyric-tenor quality and rapid vibrati make it easy for kids to say “tenor” when they hear them.  (I long ago stopped including recordings by Placido Domingo in this unit.  His heavy, dramatic tenor quality was nothing but a puzzle for kids to figure out!)  It may be sacrilege to write this, but I was never a big fan of Pavarotti.  There’s just something about his tone quality that always made me want to turn him off, and then find another recording of whatever he was singing.  But this Rossini example is an exception.  He owns this piece!

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Paul Simon.  (Tenor, Art Garfunkel)

And now we come to the great Simon and Garfunkel, who had the greatest blend of any duo in pop music history.  By themselves, they seemed to have half a voice.  What a damn shame that they had, and still have, such a rocky relationship.  This song is a case in point.  Simon wrote it; Garfunkel sings it mostly as a solo.  It’s one of the greatest collaborations in pop music.  And yet they fought over which one of them made it great!  Crazy!

Handel

And now we come to the Handel excerpts.  Handel has been my favorite composer since I was about 14.  I ended up using quite a few examples from Messiah, although I hope that the excerpts from Jephtha, his last great Oratorio, and Alcina, an opera from 1735, will come as a pleasant surprise.  In the last few decades, Handel has been lucky.  Great recordings have emerged featuring outstanding tenors, sopranos, and choruses.  Ian Bostridge and Patrizia Kwella are among the many Handelian superstars.  For some reason, not many great Handelian contraltos and basses have emerged.  (Catherine Robin is a notable exception.)  I haven’t given up hope that, one day soon, great contraltos and basses will emerge to sing Handel.  But for this unit, I’ve had to go “old school” with recordings from the 1960s.  The Colin Davis recording of Messiah (which features Helen Watts) is a classic recording — maybe the finest modern-instrument recording of Messiah ever made.

I took a chance with my selection of baritone, Donald Gramm.  His lyric baritone is not as obviously bass-sounding as some of the other bass examples.  And the plodding orchestra in the excerpts sounds ridiculous compared to the great Baroque orchestral recordings available today.  But I just couldn’t say no to Donald Gramm, who died of a heart attack at age 56!  No one sings the bass selections from Messiah quite like he does.  These excerpts were taken from a recording that my parents got in the 1960s from a Publishers Clearing House giveaway.  It came in the mail as a free gift with another purchase.  My mom and dad put the record on the shelf and never took it down again.  But I did. The wide vibrati of the other soloists on the recording turned me off; the slow, heavy choral singing was unbearable; the sloppy orchestral playing was laughable; and then there was Donald Gramm!  “And I will sha————-ke!”  He sang as though Handel had written the piece just for him.  And I felt, as I listened, that Handel and Donald Gramm had collaborated just for me!

Please accept the following Gramm/Handel selections as my gift.

“Thus Saith the Lord”

 

“For Behold”

 

“The People that Walk in Darkness”

Some Random Thoughts About IMMA

Here we are in the early weeks of September, when general music teachers everywhere are posting too many pictures of their classroom decorations, but posting too few deep insights about music pedagogy.  That’s why I was so happy to see the interesting facebook thread about how best to administer Gordon’s aptitude test, the Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation (IMMA).

https://www.facebook.com/groups/245675515451058/permalink/3548625008489409/?comment_id=3549536355064941&notif_id=1536436726452842&notif_t=group_comment_mention

The advice I’ve seen so far on that thread is great.  Here are just a few more things for music teachers to think about.

Don’t skip any part of the directions in the test manual. Those directions are thorough, and designed for children.  You can add to them with visual examples if you wish.  I used to hold two things behind my back, a pencil and a coffee mug. Then I held up the pencil, and as the class stared at it, I said, “First.” Then I paused…… while the class continued to stare. Then I said “second,” and held up the coffee mug. Are they the same or different? After the class said “different,” I made a big deal out of the fact that they had to wait for the second thing—the coffee mug—before they could say “different.” Then I did the same thing with two pencils that looked identical, and after I held up the second pencil, the kids said “same.”

As your kids listen to the sample questions, make sure that they draw their circles after the second pattern.  Remind them that they can’t choose “same” or “different” after just one thing. They have to wait. And waiting is hard for little kids.

Also, monitor their circles closely. Walk around the room, especially during the practice questions. Some kids will circle the cup, the tree, the car. Use the practice questions to check for their understanding! (I still laugh when I think of the poor kid many years ago who just couldn’t grasp what the test was about. “What does it mean when we circle the two happy faces Johnny?” To which Johnny replied, “It means that he’s happy because he likes apples.”)

Some older kids will ask if it’s a test. (Translation: Do we get a grade for it?) I used to tell kids, “It’s a worksheet that will give you extra practice in listening, so listen as carefully as you can while you do it.”  We grown-ups are kind of anxious about the pedagogical implications of this formidable, psycho-acoustic tool. But our kids must never see our anxiety. Keep calm, keep cool. “It’s a worksheet, boys and girls. You have to finish both sides. It will show me what good listeners you are, so I want you to do your very best with it.” Keep it as simple as that.

Often with young students, I stopped the CD when they got to the bottom of the first page, just to give them time to turn the paper over.  For little kids, turning the paper over in time for the “hat” test item is hard. That’s the only time I used to pause the test (except for obvious things like a truck going by, or an announcement coming over the loudspeaker).  Before you press the play button to resume the test, make sure that all students have turned their papers over.  You might want to ask them to put their finger on the hat at the top of the page, and then walk around the room to check that they’ve done that, just to make sure that all the kids know where to start when the test resumes.

When you score the papers, you may discover pattern-marking.  If kids pattern-mark (same-same-same-same-same, or same-different-same-different-same), they will get a chance score of 20.  In other words, their test score is invalid.   If you truly need a valid score from them, retest them later.  Sometimes, very rarely, a child who genuinely tries his best will get a chance score of 20, and very rarely, below a 20.  The child may be having a bad day.  You might want to retest that child as well, because it’s highly unlikely that such a score is valid.

And finally, I urge you to calculate your own local percentile ranks, especially if you’ll be administering the test year after year.  The mathematics are easy, but time-consuming.  Let me walk you through the process of calculating norms.

Here is a frequency distribution of raw scores from the Tonal portion of IMMA.  Yes folks, these are actual scores from actual kids!

Raw Score Age 6 Age 7 Age 8 Age 9 Age 10+
40 –/282 1/641 2/693 2/623 6/657
39 –/282 –/640 4/691 7/621 8/651
38 2/282 8/640 16/687 29/614 32/643
37 5/280 15/632 51/671 65/585 83/611
36 13/275 48/617 76/620 75/520 108/528
35 24/262 69/569 94/544 100/445 102/420
34 19/238 70/500 91/450 83/345 86/318
33 28/219 59/430 84/359 79/262 81/232
32 34/191 76/371 69/275 56/183 48/151
31 21/157 63/295 42/206 34/127 40/103
30 24/136 56/232 38/164 27/93 25/63
29 22/112 32/176 29/126 18/66 20/38
28 25/90 34/144 31/97 14/48 12/18
27 17/65 20/110 18/66 14/34 4/6
26 10/48 28/90 21/48 9/20 2/2
25 8/38 21/62 9/27 5/11
24 7/30 14/41 6/18 1/6
23 1/23 13/27 5/12 5/5
22 6/22 9/14 4/7
21 8/16 5/5 3/3
20 8/8
19
18

This table shows how I kept a running total of the scores of each age group. For instance, take a look at the Age 7 column.  Now, look across from the raw score of 21 and you’ll see 5/5.  The number on the left is the number of 7-year-olds who scored a 21; the number on the right is the total number of kids I’ve counted… so far.  Now, go up one row.  The number of 7-year-olds who scored a 22 is 9; the cumulative number of kids so far—the number of kids who scored 21 plus the number of kids who scored 22—is 14.  9/14 means that 9 kids scored a 22, and I’ve tallied 14 kids so far.  Keep going up and up and up until you get to 40, the highest raw score possible, and you’ll see that only 1 7-year-old scored a 40, and the total number of 7-year-olds tallied is 641.

As soon as you’ve documented your data in this manner, you’re ready for the next step: calculating percentile ranks for your population.  Here is the formula for doing that.

Start with the number of kids below the score, then add half the number of kids at the score, and then divide that sum by the total number of kids. Whoa! Before you panic, here’s an example of how you calculate percentiles.  Let’s say you have a 7-year-old who got a raw score of 36.  Look at the 35 row.  (Yes, you read that correctly:  If you want to convert a raw score of 36 into a percentile rank, look at the 35 row).  569 7-year-old kids scored a 35 or below.  Now take a look at the 36 row.  48 7-year-olds scored a 36.  Next, take half the number of kids who scored a 36 (half of 48 is 24), and add that number to 569—the number of kids who scored a 35 or below.  24 + 569 = 593.  Finally, divide 593 by the total number of 7-year-olds who took the test: 641.  593 divided by 641 is .9251, which you simply round up to the 93rd percentile.  And there you have it.  If your student is 7 years old, and he scored a 36, he is at the 93rd percentile rank.

Once again, the formula for calculating percentile ranks is this:

Start with the cumulative number of people below the score.  To that number, add half the number of people at the score.  Then, divide that sum by the total number of people.

Here are the percentile ranks that I’ve calculated for the Tonal portion of IMMA.

Raw Score Age 6 Age 7 Age 8 Age 9 Age 10+
40 99
39 99 99 98
38 99 99 98 96 95
37 98 97 93 89 87
36 95 93 84 77 72
35 89 83 72 63 57
34 81 73 58 49 43
33 73 62 46 36 30
32 62 52 35 25 20
31 52 41 29 18 14
30 44 33 21 13 9
29 36 25 16 9 5
28 27 20 12 7 2
27 20 16 8 4 1
26 15 12 5 2
25 12 8 3 1
24 9 5 2
23 8 3 1
22 7 2
21 4 1
20 3
19 1
18

Why calculate local norms?  Because you may find that the percentile ranks in Gordon’s test manual do not apply to your population.  That was the case for me.

Music/Language Analogies Part 6: Phonemes and Morphemes

Introduction

Most people don’t use the words phoneme and morpheme every day, but I remember vividly a time in my life when I did.  In fact, those words were vital to me when I experimented with new ways to teach students to read tonal notation.  I want to define phoneme, morpheme, and other linguistic terms for you up front, so that we’ll have a common vocabulary.  Here is a chart that shows the linguistic terms you will see in this blogpost, their musical counterparts, and their definitions.  (If you want more information about these terms, you can find three sources at the bottom of this post.)

Linguistic Units and Their Musical Counterparts

                     LINGUISTIC UNIT                  MUSICAL UNIT
Phoneme—A minimal speech sound in language. An isolated pitch.
Morpheme—A minimal, meaningful linguistic unit. A whole, functional pattern, or a single pitch within a functional pattern.
Free Morpheme—A morpheme that can occur by itself as a whole word (as in the word chill). A whole, functional pattern.
Bound Morpheme— a word-part that cannot be broken into smaller meaningful units (as in the suffix y). A single pitch within a functional pattern.
Inflectional-Bound Morpheme—A type of bound morpheme that provides further information about an existing word (as in the suffix y that changes chill into chilly). A single pitch that is part of a pattern with one unambiguous harmonic function (such as a tonic major pattern).
Derivational-Bound Morpheme—A type of bound morpheme that, when attached to a root-word, creates an entirely new word (as in the suffix ing that changes chill into chilling). A single pitch that is part of a pattern with ambiguous functions (such as a chromatic pattern).

I hope you agree with me that these words are not all that formidable. I’ll talk about each term, and its musical counterpart, one by one.

 

Phonemes

In her book Teach Yourself Linguistics, Jean Aitchison defines a phoneme as “the smallest segment of sound that can distinguish two words.”  For example, the sounds /d/ and /t/ in the words bid and bit are phonemes.

Individual pitches are analogous to phonemes in that you can aurally distinguish one from another, just as you can distinguish the sounds /d/ and /t/ from one another.  For example, you can hear that the pitch A and the pitch A sharp shown below are different.  (And it makes sense that people from cultures in which music consists of quarter tones and microtones will discern differences even more acutely.)

Because the pitch/phoneme analogy doesn’t hold up for long, I want to move on fairly quickly to more fruitful comparisons.  Let me explain how and when it comes apart.  The sound of the pitch A in the two patterns shown below remains constant despite the change in context; and, in fact, it remains constant across all examples of music notation.  But phonemes are another matter; they’re not nearly so reliable. The letter [g] may symbolize two distinct phonemes depending on whether you use it in the word sag or sage.  Here’s another example: The letter [s] in the word house symbolizes two different phonemes in the sentence I will buy a house in which I will house all my belongings.

Where does that leave us?  In a previous blogpost, I wrote about poor analogies that give us little insight into music and language. I showed that the note/letter analogy is unsustainable, and that the pattern/word analogy is equally poor.  Now, I’ve made the case that the pitch/phoneme analogy is just as flimsy—but it’s different from the other comparisons in at least one way:  we’re using a precise linguistic term phoneme instead of imprecise terms like letter and word.

 

Morphemes

I want to go on using linguistic terms by talking about morphemes, minimal meaningful sound units in language.  And here, we come to an analogy that not only holds up, but is the mother-load of all music/language analogies!  Morphemes are analogous to functional tonal patterns and to pitches within patterns. 

Don’t let that last sentence throw you!  Morphemes and tonal patterns have a great deal in common.  And by understanding morphemes, we can better understand patterns, and the pitches they’re made of.

 

Free and Bound Morphemes

There are two kinds of morphemes:  free and bound.  A free morpheme is a self-contained word that you can’t break into smaller, meaningful units.  A bound morpheme is a word-part that has no meaning by itself, but takes on meaning when you attach it to a word.  The last two sentences cry out for an example, so here is one.  I wish I could take credit for creating the sentence you see below, but I found it (in slightly longer form) in Aitchison’s book on page 54: The albatross chanted a dreamy lullaby.

The albatross chant ed a dream y lullaby
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Here we have a sentence made up of free morphemes (1, 2, 5, 8), bound morphemes (4, 7), and root words (3, 6)

 

Root Words

I know what you’re thinking.  I didn’t explain what root words are in the chart at the top of this post.  True, because I don’t think they have a musical counterpart.  Read on, and you’ll see what I mean.

What exactly is a root word?  Typically, a word that consists of two or more morphemes has a root, which Haspelmath defines as “the base of a word that cannot be analyzed any further into constituent morphemes” (p. 19).  I prefer the definition offered by Chall and Popp; theirs is more direct.  To them, a root word is “the simplest form of a word when all prefixes, suffixes, and inflectional endings have been stripped away” (p. 156).

Here’s where things get a bit tricky:  Words are not roots until you attach prefixes or suffixes to them.  So then, the words chant and dream are free morphemes if you use them without prefixes or suffixes, as in the sentence “I chant in my dream.”  The words chant and dream become roots when they function as the base of the words chanted and dreamy.

Before I leave the topic of root words, here’s one more thing to think about: while all roots may function as free morphemes, not all free morphemes are roots.  Thus, the word the—a word you’d never encounter with a prefix, suffix or inflectional ending—is always a free morpheme, never a root.

I won’t try to draw an analogy between patterns and root words for one simple reason:  there is none.  Tonal patterns, as I see it, have no roots; they seem to be made of nothing but bound morphemes.  In other words, each pitch in a pattern contributes roughly equally to its function.  Take a look at the pattern shown below.

The pitches C and F are each bound to the pitch A.  If you remove the pitches C and F from the pattern, you’re left with the single pitch A.  But is that pitch the root of the original pattern?  Not at all.  On its own, the single pitch A has no tonal function.  In fact, if you remove any two pitches from that pattern, the remaining pitch has no discernible function.

 

A Brief Interlude

Before I press on, I want to bring up an important point.  From a linguistic point of view, you can look at tonal patterns two ways, and each way is legitimate:

  1.  A single tonal pattern is similar to a free morpheme, in that each is a self-contained, meaningful unit.  Or…
  2.  A single tonal pattern is made of discrete pitches that, somehow, glom onto each other like bound morphemes, despite having no “root” to hold them together.

Each way of thinking is valid.

 

Inflectional-Bound Morphemes

If you look back at the chart I showed at the beginning of this post, you’ll notice that I referred to two kinds of bound morphemes.  That’s right.  Not only are there two kinds of morphemes: free and bound.  There are also two kinds of bound morphemes:  inflectional and derivational.  Here’s where we soar into the stratosphere! Let’s talk about inflectional- and derivational-bound morphemes.

An inflectional-bound morpheme (such as the -ed in chanted) gives you more information about a word, but it doesn’t change the meaning of that word significantly.  What is the musical counterpart to an inflectional-bound morpheme?  One example is the pitch C sung after the pattern F – A to create the three-pitch pattern F – A – C (which, in the context of F major, is the tonic pattern do-mi-so).  If do-mi is tonic major, then the added so gives you even more certainty of the pattern’s… tonicness.  The note C (added to F and A) doesn’t change the function of that pattern.  In fact, it clarifies the tonic function.

 

Derivational-Bound Morphemes

What about derivational-bound morphemes?  Let’s say you’re in a movie theater watching a horror film.  The theater may by chilly, but the horror film is chilling.  Derivational-bound morphemes (such as the -ing in chilling) create not only a new word, but an entirely new meaning!  Take a moment to sing the two series of patterns shown below.  They are identical, except for the final note.

 Series 1:  I – IV – V – I

 Series 2:  I – IV – V – VI (Deceptive Cadence)

If you look at the final pattern in Series 2, you’ll see an example of a derivational-bound morpheme in music—the final note D.  You expect a cadential pattern in F major, but the pitch D, sung after the notes F and E, creates the submediant deceptive cadence do-ti-la.  Or does it?  Is that final D, in fact, a deceptive cadence in F major?  Or is it the hint of a modulation to d minor?  Either could be true.

In short, derivational-bound morphemes are analogous to pitches in tonal patterns that have multiple, often ambiguous functions.

 

Practical Application

And now for the big question:  How does all this help us in real life?  Is this just an intellectual game?  Far from it.  These speculations may help music teachers to understand (finally!) how to teach students to read music notation most effectively.

In a previous blogpost, I talked about the four groups of students who participated in my doctoral study.  Here, again, is what the four groups were asked to do:

All 4 groups learned to read (that is, to sing at sight) familiar tonal patterns. One group read whole patterns only; a second group read individual pitches within patterns only; a third group learned to read whole patterns, followed by individual pitches within patterns; and a fourth group learned to read individual pitches within patterns, followed by whole patterns.  It was a classic design: one group learned A; another learned B; a third learned A before B; and a fourth learned B before A.

Just to give you a taste of what it’s like to teach students to read individual pitches within patterns, I’ve asked my daughter Celia to sing patterns at sight.  Actually, she and I sang the following patterns as a team.  Please listen to the audio track below as you follow along with the patterns.

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 12.25.12 PM

 

Because the students in my study had learned only tonic, dominant, and cadential patterns (and not chromatic, multiple, or modulatory patterns), those students who read whole patterns, read them as free morphemes; those students who read individual pitches within patterns (just as my daughter Celia did in the audio track above), read them as inflectional-bound morphemes.

 

Coda

This post has been fun to write, mainly because I got to relive the best moment of writing my dissertation—the breakthrough moment when I figured out how to teach tonal reading a whole new way.  At no point during my study did I compromise my students’ audiation of pattern functions and tonality.  On the contrary, during each moment of each lesson, students learned the musical equivalent of phonics (individual, notated pitches) while still audiating tonal syntax.  Triumph!

I mentioned in a previous post that I found no significant difference among the groups.  Upsetting? Yes, it was, until I remembered what Carl Sagan once said: “In science, a negative result is not at all the same thing as a failure.”  To those MLTers who insist that the best way to teach tonal reading is with whole patterns, I say… maybe not.  And to those who insist that students will not learn to notationally audiate if they read individual pitches, I say—absolutely not!  As my adviser Darrel Walters put it, “Eric, you kicked the stilts out from under the extremists.”

 

PS.  If you want more information about the linguistic terms I used in this post, here are three sources that I have found particularly helpful:

Aitchison, J.  (1999).  Teach yourself linguistics.  London:  Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

Chall, J. S. & Popp, H. M.  (1996).  Teaching and assessing phonics:  Why, what, when, how.  Cambridge:  Educators Publishing Service.

Haspelmath, M.  (2002).  Understanding morphology.  London:  Arnold Publishers.