Untangling the Yarnball

This week I had a student come into my office to complete her individual beginning-of-the-year voicing. She sings in the UNLV Singers and is a music education student. Since I am new, I had asked every student in the choir to come in and see me so I could hear him/her 1 on 1 and to be able to greet them and give them a chance to chat with the new guy. When we got done with her placement, she asked me about the voicing process I had done in the choir last week. Like most of us, I took a few minutes to voice each singer and place them next to other singers who would compliment each other. It’s a quick process for me anymore: each singer sings for a few seconds, one right after the other, and then I start mixing them together until I find what sounds like the best match.

The student was curious what I was listening for, how I was able to hear and remember all the voices after a couple of seconds, and why it was important to do it at all. She’s not the first student who has asked this question. From the first time I did this exercise with my very first high school choirs, students have always been curious about the voicing process. What made this time different was that this student wanted to know how it worked so she could replicate it.

When I first started teaching, one of the challenges of working with freshman high school students was unwrapping four years of the intense music learning that led to my bachelor’s degree into a manageable pathway for students who were just beginning their journey toward understanding the individual and ensemble concepts and skills necessary to become articulate, thoughtful vocal musicians. When you take for granted note names or solfege syllables, when you find the physiology of singing to be second nature, how do you unwrap the tangled yarnball of music knowledge that has been woven together over the years back into single conceptual threads?

Voicing a choir has so many components that teachers who have been working for awhile take for granted. We hear the color and characteristics of a voice quickly, and we can tell from just a few moments what kind of qualities would be best suited to assist and magnify the positive qualities of each voice. We have heard so many singers over the years that we can even predict with reasonable accuracy the trajectory of a singer’s vocal qualities over the course of a year. Next, we have spent countless hours in front of an ensemble, crafting a technical and aesthetic awareness of the sound qualities needed for a variety of diverse repertoire, for ensembles with sixteen or one hundred voices. All of this understanding plays a part in the voicing process, which, to a young music education student, appears to be done in a blur as if by magic.

Luckily for choral music education students at UNLV, they will all take an entire course dedicated to choral methods, where we will get to discuss these concepts in more depth. in the meantime, I need to give some careful thought on how to structure my instruction on voicing a section or an ensemble. Untangling the yarnball yet again!