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My old friend Martin send me a contribution on occasion and they are worthy of passing on-so here goes>

Hi Mike,

I wrote a column that appeared in today’s Battle Creek Enquirer. (2/3/14). The digital version will come up at Martin Egelston Battle Creek. That’s quite a change from my January letter that was a tribute to government workers.

We have been moving a lot of snow about, but have been able to do our errands. The city does a good job of plowing streets. Its the rural areas where the big 4 wheel drive trucks are the preferred transport. The birds are eating so much I may have to consider food stamps.


“An old country boy, seeking a part time lay preacher’s role, said, when asked about his sermon preparations, “I just open my mouth and let her fly!”

My singing skills are like that. For twenty-five years, in a variety of church, community, and university choirs, I sang the base/baritone lines of hymns, anthems, blues, swing, jazz, and oratorios.

I’m not a music major and certainly not a soloist. I can barely read music in different keys. I can’t sight read and sing a difficult piece through on the first or second try as lyric opera chorus members do.

In close harmony pieces, I struggle against dissonance in learning to shift with certainty between flats, sharps, and naturals. Often I am a follower, guided by the sounds of those sure of their notes and the tempos.

But despite those impediments, I have humbly provided unacknowledged teaching assistance to conductors through committing some twenty-two slip-ups.

For the betterment of other singers, I want to share some of the vocal techniques I helped teach.

Good singing starts with the diaphragm. Many novice choir members don’t know its location from their thigh bones. One beginner, when asked what it was, said, “I think my grammar book covered it.” Another wondered rhetorically, “Could it be in my billfold?”

Well, it’s the membrane separating the chest from the stomach.

Conductors want us to breathe sufficiently, allowing the air to flow to the very bottom of the lungs, thus pushing down the diaphragm. Then by breathing in and exhaling adequately and instinctively, we cause the breath to flow across the vocal chords making the sounds and supporting the notes.

However, with notes flying along the staff, it is not easy to remember to air up sufficiently. Once when a choirmaster frowned at me for airing up every other measure, I asked her, “What should I do to breathe better?”

She shot back, “I don’t care how you inhale — loud or soft or through the nose, mouth or any other orifice, but, for goodness sake, do it sufficiently to anticipate entrances and to carry over a line until punctuation allows you to lift and breathe.”
Inadequate breathing often leads to gulping. In a Northwestern University Community Chorus concert, we sang Randall Thompson’s melodious Alleluia. It is a beautiful one word song — alleluia — sung repeatedly and harmoniously in a continuous musical line with no noticeable vocal pauses.

We were to do staggered breathing, that is, individually dropping out a note or two, tanking up on air, and reentering unobtrusively on a later note.

During the pre-concert warm-up rehearsal, I did not air up sufficiently, broke, and conspicuously gulped air before the fourth alleluia — alleluia, alleluia, GULP, alleluia.

My singing colleagues leered at me. The conductor picked me out in the 50 voice choir and asked, “Young man, do you plan to do that in the concert?”

“Of course not!” I assured him. But I had conveyed an invaluable breathing lesson — something I unthinkingly offered on other occasions.

Improper entry anticipation breathing causes scooping or fishing for the first note. If singers do not get a good basket of air early and concentrate on the beginning note placement, they generally start two or three notes below the pitch, gulping, and slurring to the first note.

Once during a rehearsal, I tried to give a real come on and slurred the first note singing “Heeeeeeyyy, Good Looking” for nearly four bars.

Congratulations,” the director said, “You have now become our resident scooper. Will you now demonstrate to the choir how to take a deep breath, anticipate the first sound, and hit it directly?” I did so. But privately, I thought my first version was a sexier bidding.

Pleasing sounds require a new phonetic language. Of course, the purpose of singing is to convey a message. For example, the singing of the harsh sounding consonant “R” makes conductors cringe. They want us to skip Rs as in the word mercy, singing muh-cee instead. When I poured out a wide mouthed R, one conductor commented, “You sound as if you need it!”

Other times, we are told to roll our R’s. For Spanish speakers, rolling is a natural. But for those of us missing early orthodontics work, it is difficult to get the tongue positioned and vibrating without spitting or slobbering. Putting a “D” in front of it helps.In one song, by the time I could roll out drrrhomba, we were on to samba. At another rehearsal, I buzzed an R in “How Great thou Art,”—Grrrrrrrrrrr. The choir cut off on its own. “For the God’s sake,” the conductor pleaded, “let’s not snarl at the listeners.”

Now, for warm-up, I practice rolling the R in Pdrrraise, but it trips along the tongue with great difficulty.

Sloppy reading can cause diction errors and wrong translations. Once I slurred some words together singing, “And lead us snot into temptation,” carrying over the S in us to not.

I made the same miscue with Handel’s Slumbers snot nor sleeps. “Well, you certainly conveyed a new sense,” the conductor quipped. “But Snot is not a worshipful word!” Fortunately, these elocution slipups have animated others to spit out their words distinctly.

Wrong emphasis can jettison meaning. One time I committed an emphasis mistake, getting a powerful breath to open a hymn, “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.” I exploded on the first syllable, singing — JEEE-sus when the intent was a less vain sounding, softer Je-sus.

“Do you plan to swear again during the performance?” the conductor inquired.

“I don’t know why I did that,” I responded. “I have never been a curser, except for one other time when I tried to teach an English 101 class about the principle parts of speech, but three times inexplicably exchanged the first letter of parts with the sixth letter of the alphabet.

Finally, conductors expect us to hold our music at eye level so we can readily shift our eyes to them rather than bobble our heads. We can then follow their lead in beginning together, keeping the tempo, varying the emphasis, and finishing together.

Well, I misspoke about solos, for during the warm-up portion of the Hallelujah Chorus in a Sing-along-Messiah, I stood alongside the conductor’s podium and taught choral attentiveness. The piece concludes with four vigorous hallelujahs, followed by a lengthy pause before a final, powerful hallelujah.

I buried my head in the music, lost the count, and belted out an extra hallelujah during the lengthy pause. The conductor nearly lost count, glared at me, and shook her head. She said reams in silence.

Well, never mind the other fourteen suggestions. Sometimes I felt too conspicuous in my exuberance and public corrections, but I realized conductors ask a lot of us: begin, end together, stay on pitch, pronounce words distinctly, keep the tempo, sing with conviction, and, if there is time, enjoy it. That’s a lot to enjoy, but I did.

When some of my friends asked why I sang, given all my foibles, I answered with some pithy quotes.

When words fail, music speaks. Singing feeds the soul. You can’t fight if you are singing. These are wonderful reasons to continue singing.

Now, my singing is about the house, and I pursue it vigorously because I neglected harp training — the heavenly music alternative.

I plan to continue singing until I join the angel chorus, or, if necessity dictates differently — belt out a fiery aria in a warmer setting”.

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