Every voice is its own unique instrument. The sound of each voice has been honed by a mix of vocal coaches, choral directors, and our own musical exploration. In a choir, our vocal instruments have to blend, creating one unified sound, or tone. Atlanta Master Chorale’s tone is gorgeous, warm, filled with light and heart. Not content with mere robotic perfection, we reach for the humanity and emotion that lives within the tone. After all, the instruments we play are not made out of wood or metal. Our instrument, our sound, our tone, is literally who we are.
When a singer joins a choir, it is understood that she will adjust her tone to match that which is sought by the director. This is easier said than done, because like all singers, all directors have a different idea of what they would like the sound of their choirs to be. If you are singing in a show choir, your director may ask for a bright tone. English choirs traditionally have a forward, ringing tone. Russian choirs employ dark, rich tones. American choirs tend to gravitate toward warm, open tones.
Dr. Nelson likes to say that there are many kinds of virtuosity. One of the most overlooked aspects of virtuosic singing is the ability to create this exquisite tone while keeping the warmth and humanity in the sound. That said, our choristers make up a tapestry of talent. Everyone in the choir has had some form of expensive vocal training, and all solo voices are extremely different in tone. We have operatic baritones, gospel tenors, coloratura sopranos, and dramatic mezzos. We have choral directors, composers, church musicians, and voice teachers (like myself.) Yet we strive to find a way to serve the music with a unified statement. At the end of the day, our goal is for the audience to hear 64 terrific singers and one sound.
In last week’s rehearsal, the women were challenged to find this exquisite, unified tone while singing a very high and soft passage of Eric Whitacre’s “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine.”
On the first pass, my fellow sopranos and I kept it safe. We gave the phrase a lot of breath support but placed the tone high up in our heads. No way were we going to lose control of that careful tone by opening our voices and using our uvulas. It would be quiet. It would be submissive. It would be safe.
The result? The sound was too thin, too girl-like. We were women! Time to try again.
On the second pass, we straightened up in our seats. We were going to give this phrase some womanly strappiness! The tone moved forward, behind our noses, into the proverbial mask. We are audacious! We are present! We will not be ignored!
Nope. This technique would not serve either. Our tone had too much fizz, tizz, and ring. It was too brash. It needed warmth. This was now the third pass over the same phrase. There was some obvious squirming. The rest of the choir was waiting and we were bordering on wasting rehearsal time. Also, the tenors had nailed their similar phrase on the first try… We sopranos had to step it up, and step it up now.
Dr. Nelson acknowledged that producing the tone required to serve the music was perhaps an impossible task. We needed to sing with a warm, rounded tone, with effervescence, up at the top of our range and at a quiet dynamic. Also, it needed to be in tune.
The sopranos took a collective breath as Dr. Nelson cued us to try again. Jon Easter played our pitches and we held them in our audiation. We opened up our entire instruments, from the space inside our mouths to our throats in our preparatory breath. Gathering in enough breath to run a 100-yard dash, we prepared our abdominal muscles to control its movement through the vocal folds. We knew that by not floating the tone in our heads or pointing it out through the mask, we were opening ourselves up to vulnerability. The tone could flow through this huge resonant space we had created and crack or bump, effectively ruining the flowing phrase. But we threw caution to the wind, exposing the entirety of our voices, and tried a third and final time.
The result? Beautiful. Using our collective skill-sets, we had produced a womanly, warm, light-filled tone that served the phrase perfectly.
We heaved a subtle sigh of relief, ready to sing the next section of the Whitacre and every other phrase of music in life with this tone. Turning the page, we glanced at the next line and its lyrics: “tum, tum, tum.” It became clear that in this passage, we were to imitate the sounds of Leonardo’s machine.
I looked around to my seatmates and smiled. Time to find a different tone for this phrase. After all, if there is something every Atlanta Master Chorale chorister loves, it’s a challenge.