What I learned about contemporary music from the Louisville Youth Choir

I love learning the mental landscapes people carry around with them, the memories that reveal themselves uninvited out of the blue. I mean, sometimes it’s horrifying stuff, things parents said or did that they’ve never forgotten, and usually not things that their parents meant to be remembered with quite such clarity. For me, these landscapes are moments when the outside world crystallized something that my intuition already believed or needed to hear, because a weaker part of myself needs a memory, one that’s scripture-like in its brevity and decisiveness, to remind me how to do what I need to do.

I realize how distractible this makes me sound, but I got to thinking about this phenomenon

recently while standing across the room from Amanda recording Scelsi’s Sauh duets for

Quince’s second studio album. Sauh features what’s called microtonal intervals, which boils

down to a composer using notes that don’t exist on the piano, notes that lie between, for

example, C and C#. When you get these funky sonorities right (like A natural and C ¼ sharp),

you have to stare into them for a long time and welcome the rough beating of their

antagonistic wave lengths in your ear, so that you can find them when the time comes.

Unfortunately, the way music tends to be taught in our most impressionable years, we are

taught that some intervals are good and that others are bad, out of tune, mistakes, something

that needs to be fixed. We’re taught to be conscious of a standard of beauty that is “timeless”

(nevermind the fact that, in the history of Western music before Classicism, many composers

saw mathematically odd intervals as opportunities for expressivity).

I felt lucky standing across from Amanda (a duet partner who never lets you down) that, in high

school, I was put through training that made me flexible and open to welcoming microtonal

intervals as something to be explored, rather than something to be despised. My freshman

year, I joined a regional youth choir led by Frank A. Heller III. This guy is a monster – and I mean

that in only the best way. His training regimen and repertoire choices are on my mind every

day, and here are three things I’d share with everyone, if I could.

(1) Microtonal tuning exercises

At the beginning of each rehearsal, Frank had the whole choir begin singing on a middle C, for

example, and we’d do eight consecutive vocal onsets during which you change pitch

incrementally until you reach D4. So by the fourth onset, you had to be a C#4. And perhaps the

accompanist would play a C#4, just so we’d know if you’d overshot or undershot our goal. And

then he’d play the goal note at the end. Then we’d do the same, but perhaps with 12 onsets or

within only a half step. THEN we’d do the whole thing in four-part harmony.

Why was this important? Well, acappella choral singers have to learn to tune by ear accurately.

This kind of exercise gives a singer a chance to send signals from the brain to the vocal chords

to make tiny adjustments, much smaller than when one is singing a vocal warm-up with piano

accompaniment. It partly makes us better athletes with these little muscles in our throats that

we’ll never be able to see directly, but it also encourages us to see the act of making these

sounds between notes less as an ugly mistake and more as simply a place that exists, that we’ve

visited without being shamed for it.

(2) Tapping each others’ shoulders in tempo

Kids who grow up playing instruments, I think, have more experience listening to and watching

their neighbors for musical information to keep the ensemble together. For singers like me,

who’d rarely sung music that wasn’t recorded, I was literally imitating what I remembered from

a recording almost all the time. I didn’t care what other people around me were doing,

especially if they weren’t doing it the way I thought it should be done.

Occasionally Frank would have us tap a quarter-note pulse on the person’s shoulder to our right

while we each sang our own parts. And occasionally this annoyed me a lot, because the person

next to me was not tapping the tempo I thought was right. But when everyone got in a groove

together, the whole group moved as one, and it was really exciting. What mattered wasn’t the

‘rightness’ I was imagining in my head; it was being sensitive to the tapping on my left shoulder

and the taps I was giving to the person on my right – being outside of my own head.

New music, when it’s being done really convincingly, needs a lot of that ‘outside of your own

head’. You have to know your own music well enough that you can hear everyone else, read

what signals they’re sending, and – most excitingly – have some ideas about how to respond to

those signals.

(3) Give us music we can grow into.

We sang a massive variety of music in this choir. Some music that probably our parents didn’t

like and that we complained about. Music in foreign languages. Music that verged on atonal. I

don’t remember how I felt, but singing Hindemith at age 16, I’m pretty sure I didn’t really hear

the art. But I knew when we got it right that we’d achieved something that previously I couldn’t

have imagined, and I felt proud. And with time – having been exposed to unfamiliar musical

languages at a relatively young age – my ears and mind caught up with my abilities.

Frank was showing us that what impressed us today might not be the limits of what we’re

capable of, and that we shouldn’t stop growing, just because we learned some piece that we

loved at first sight. Learning new music changed and made me reconsider the other music in my

life, and as an adult, how I feel about new music changes because I hear country music and how

I hear Brahms is changed by Monteverdi.

So – thank you, third row of Louisville Youth Choir. I’ll see you tomorrow in my mind.

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