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Review July-August 2015 issue
CHOIR & ORGAN
By Jeremy Summerly
In spite of its disarmingly glossy appearance, David Howard’s new book has as much to offer the professional musician as the amateur enthusiast. The style of written English is refreshingly clear and direct, even when dealing with technical matters relating to physiology and acoustics, and the author’s enthusiasm for the subject is evident throughout. Howard is at his best when he’s dealing with the biology of the voice and the physics of pitch. Indeed, on these subjects his clarity of expression is not just enviable but practically unique. The analysis of how under-achieving choirs perennially spiral flatter and flatter is pithy and exquisite: not only does it succinctly analyse the problem, it simultaneously offers a manageable solution. So persuaded was I by the power of Howard’s argument that I tried his suggestions out at the earliest opportunity and found that they worked: Howard can indeed teach an old dog new tricks. Some of the book concerns the nitty-gritty of running a choir within and outside rehearsals, and it is in these pages that some singers and choral directors may find their eyebrows involuntarily raised, but that is only to be expected: directing any musical outfit - particularly a choir - is a case-by-case operation and highly personal.
The book is fully colour-illustrated in a mostly helpful manner. That said, I’m not sure that a photograph of a young woman aiming a slice of cake at her open mouth is the best way to convince the listener that eating cake directly before singing is a bad thing (not least because digestive biscuits are a much more effective voice wrecker than the humble Victoria sandwich). Squeamish readers may also find the section on good posture a little too direct, particularly when asked to imagine the placement of a whole lemon between their bottom cheeks (thankfully the accompanying photograph only shows the tangy fruit held between the fingers rather than being accurately positioned). There are also four uses of the word ‘cochlear’ as a noun rather than correctly as an adjective, which rather rules out the possibility that this is an error of proof reading. Choral Singing is otherwise blissfully free of mistakes - given the technical nature of much of the discussion this is remarkable and laudable.
At root, this book is an authoritative and brave publication. Talking helpfully about effective choral training requires logic and technical expertise every bit as much as it requires passion and musicianship. David Howard has all these qualities in abundance and this new book is a welcome addition to the choral bibliography.
Review Summer 2015 issue
(Association of Teachers
of Singing, ATOS)
By Sue Anderson, Co-editor
Choral directors aren’t necessarily singers themselves, as historically many have almost fallen into the job via the ‘organist and choirmaster’ route. Although organisations such as ABCD, BVA and AOTOS are reaching out with courses to help redress the balance about vocal knowledge, this book comes into the central choral arena from yet another direction, the academic & scientific world of sound and acoustics. The author, David Howard, will be known to many AOTOS members as an inspiring speaker on the acoustics of the human voice. Our chair-elect, Ivor Flint, described his talk at the Summer Conference at the University of York (2012) where he is head of the Department of Electronics, as ‘A superbly illustrated and highly informative talk’.
In this book, David has set out with the dual purpose of providing amateur choral singers with a ‘how the voice works’ guide, and choral directors with a ‘how to get the best from their choir’ guide, and seems to achieve both objectives very satisfactorily. The basic text is punctuated with some wonderful colour illustrations of joyful singers, and many boxes giving detailed exercises, copious diagrams and clear technical information.
In chapters 1-3 the basic questions of how voices work, how to establish good posture and breathing techniques for singing, the effects of environment, food & drink, are systematically answered. There are many warm-up and cool-down exercises for lungs, larynx and vocal tract. In introducing chapter 4, ‘Acoustics of spaces and choir layout’ David writes ‘The way in which the acoustics of many voices interplay in the rehearsal or performance space is a critical part of the overall performance’. He considers both the performance space - which cannot usually be advantageously altered, and choir layout - which can easily be changed but often seems set in stone. He offers many practical ways to improve the overall sound whilst maximising the choir’s potential.
‘Pitch’, chapter 5, is a very comprehensive antidote to the often-heard but simplistic comment ‘sopranos - you’re flat!’ variety. With his unique understanding of voices, hearing, and the choral world, David provides many ways of diagnosing and remedying pitching problems, highlighting some of the changes in the perception of pitch. This theme is continued in the next chapter, ‘Good choral tuning and blend’, a subject which goes to the heart of the wonderful a cappella tradition. In discussing the frustrating problem of pitch-drift, experiments conducted by David with his research colleagues revealed that such drift is inevitable when the pitch reference for the choir is on a chord-by-chord basis. ‘If, however, the pitch reference is to a melody line that is kept in tune, and the pitch of individual notes is varied to enable this, then pitch drift can be avoided to a great extent’.
A useful chapter on common questions and answers is followed by appendices covering such issues as setting up your own choir, auditions, conducting gestures, our hearing mechanism, and tuning systems.
This is a beautifully produced book, full of factual information, which is presented in a direct and engaging way. I suspect that many choral directors and singers will find solutions, explanations and inspiration within these pages, and thus greatly enhance their mutual enjoyment of choral singing.
Review Summer 2015 issue
(British Voice Association, BVA)
By Stuart Barr
THE CHORAL JOURNAL
Review Vol. 58, issue no. 8, 2016
(Official journal of the American Choral Directors' Association)
By Brenda Smith, Associate Professor Music
University of Florida
Co-author with Robert Sataloff of the best-selling Choral Pedagogy
As the author of this excellent resource states: "Our voices matter, which is why everyone should know more about voice matters!" David M. Howard-organist, singer, and director-has created a colorful, engaging text that should be of interest to every singer, choral conductor, music educator, and voice scientist. This provocative textbook fills the gap between books about sound production and vocal/choral pedagogy.
The author advocates for warm-up and cool-down procedures to increase productivity in solo and choral singing rehearsals. The book gives a thorough explanation of anatomy and physiology and expands our knowledge of the acoustical results of good singing habits. Useful charts reinforce the reader's understanding of the principles. As an active practitioner in the field of choral conducting, the author shares his strategies for the effective leadership of amateur and professional singers. He advocates for the identification of vocal problems and provides practical suggestions for resolving them. He clearly understands the tendencies of choral singers as musicians and human beings. The author openly shares rehearsal plans and practices that will enhance the choral experience for conductors and singers alike.
Howard's knowledge of acoustics is applied specifically to evaluation of performing spaces and individual singing voices. Interesting graphics demonstrate the singer's voices and the listener's experience of it, what singers perceive of their own voices and what the choral conductor hears, and how sound moves through an auditorium. The author is always aware of the "human factor", speaking often of the importance of careful communication. He speaks of delivering timely words with kindness, words that will build the choral singer's confidence and knowledge.
The chapters on pitch and choral tuning explain the proper use of keyboard instruments in choral rehearsal. The author's extensive work in acoustics as applied to singing opens new vistas for the exploration of exquisite choral blend. The author reports on research in "pitch drift" and suggests ways that individual choral parts can be anchored in a construct of tonal references.
The last chapter addresses questions frequently asked by singers of all ages. The author explains his position on diverse topics. The questions are answered thoroughly, drawing upon Howard's own experience and research. It is clear that the author believes that participation in choral singing should be a life-giving, sustainable activity.
Of special note are the appendices, which range from practical advice about founding a choir to holding auditions. Also included are tips for analyzing conducting gestures and principles of hearing and tuning. The format makes the book particularly user friendly as a handbook or textbook. Each chapter opens with a list of questions that are addressed systematically, and the book is filled with beautiful photography of choral singing "in action". From the endnote, we learn that the photos were chosen to exemplify the multicultural nature of choral singing. Choral singing and Healthy Voice Production is a testimony to the value of singing with others. It is filled with interesting, surprising, and fortifying information for all who would wish to better understand how to sing for a lifetime.
Review December 2015 issue
CHURCH MUSIC QUARTERLY, CMQ
Published by The Royal School of Church Music
By John Henderson
Until David Howard’s book, the standard source on how voice science and performance practice combine in the choral world was Choral Pedagogy by Brenda Smith and the venerable Robert Sataloff: a book whose tone often frustrated this reader. Choral Singing and Healthy Voice Production is altogether a much better approach to the subject. Howard has a unique mix of qualities: infectious energy for his subject, and is an Engineering Professor of Music Technology and an amateur choral director.
Aimed at choral directors, this book seeks to empower its reader through solid technical grounding in areas where knowledge is often lacking: how the voice works and how to maintain healthy voice production. Where he goes beyond Smith & Sataloff’s book is by showing how science (often using his own research) can provide the tools to explain why pitch drift occurs, and how to blend voices better. Anyone who attempts David’s exercise to show how a choir can go a semitone flat in just twelve chords whilst singing perfectly “in tune” will be simultaneously amazed and horrified!
Leonard Bernstein may have been one of the most significant composers and conductors of the 20th Century, but for a masterclass in communicating the joys and detail of classical music to children and uninformed adults, I urge the reader to watch videos of Bernstein children’s concerts (freely available on YouTube). Howard also has this gift of communication: the ability to lucidly explain complex technical details to non-scientists without ever patronising them. The user-friendliness of the book is further helped by being laden with diagrams, photos and tables of practical exercises.
There are a few weaknesses. The most important is that not only is the book designed purely for classical choirs, but that it doesn’t mention this fact: it just assumes that choirs = classical. In today’s rapidly-evolving choral world, this is both disappointing and a missed opportunity. A chapter on idiomatic sound technique (getting choirs to adapt their sound to the music) would be an exciting addition (an unpublished area). Also, his chapter on how the voice works assumes the adoption of lower-larynx voice production (through the “yawn”). This would be a mistake in other genres (and is indeed questionable in e.g. early classical music). Howard also uses imagery (in his posture-correcting “Frankfurter Sausage” and “Bolero Jacket” exercises) and a methodology for “experiencing diaphragmatic breathing” which he assumes will be universally repeatable from his instructions, but which this reader find ambiguous. Occasional voice science statements are also challengeable: e.g. “Production of thin-fold sound requires… plenty of air”.
Notwithstanding my quibbles, this is an excellent book that should form part of the basic pedagogy for every aspiring and established choral conductor. May Howard’s irresistible energy, immense knowledge and practical experience have great impact upon the choral world.
Dr David Howard, organist, choir director and head of electronics at the University of York, has produced a guide for choir trainers, singing teachers and more advanced singers which attempts to bring simple science into the art of singing. The author’s primary career as a teacher of science is evident in his crystal clear explanation of matters physiological.
With cookery books, their glossy covers, shiny paper and full-colour staged photographs of food often give the impression that presentation matters more than substance. This is not the case with Dr Howard’s book. The physiological understanding of vocal technique, its development and its care have advanced considerably in recent years and, whilst there are differences in approach between some vocal tutors, there is more unanimity now than there was even a few decades ago. Much of this modern thinking has been distilled into this volume.
We have many singing text books in the RSCM library, most of which also delve into the interpretation of different styles of music, an area not covered by this book. Howard concentrates on the physical essentials of how the human body (for it is the whole body and not just the throat) creates the best sound possible in a way that is both healthy and enjoyable. Numerous helpful photographs and diagrams are used to explain this.
There are also chapters on how to form a choir, a list of the kind of frequently asked questions that come from singers to choral directors and how to deal with them. I was especially taken with his chapter on pitch and how one can help singers who cannot pitch a note accurately.
All in all, and considering that there have been many good books about singing technique published in the last decade, I would say that none has been better than this.