Monday, July 21, 2008

Informal singing-as-learning

Dave Warlick is delivering a keynote at the Pennsylvania Music Educators' Association annual conference. His tweets on the subject got me thinking. Apparently the music teachers were all singing at one point, and Dave (who implies that he is not very musical - I have no idea how true that is) was somewhat daunted at the thought of having to follow that!

I have been a member of various choirs and bands all my life, and there have been numerous situations when I have been one of many people who have 'jammed' in one way or another. On the train with the school choir on the way to a television audition. In someone's lounge at a barbecue. In someone else's lounge at a church worship team meeting. In a coach on the way back from a performance of Fiddler on the Roof in another town.

Hearing a whole bunch of people singing in unison is stirring enough. But when it's a bunch of musicians, each with a trained ear... well, it fair makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

What happens is that the musicians don't all sing the same tune. Nor do they follow some canned path set by a piece of sheet music. They listen to one another and seek out a harmony. What my neighbour is doing influences and informs what I do, but does not dictate to me.

In some parts of the world, this musicality is inculcated almost subliminally. Growing up in South Africa, I would hear the singing of groups of labourers working on the roads. Many of them would have been illiterate and unschooled. Yet they understood music. With no perception of the complexity of what they were achieving, they would sing in counterpoint and harmony, following musical patterns unique to that part of the world. I imagine that a child growing up in a Welsh mining town probably also grew up taking in music with their mother's milk (hence the superior quality of the singing from the Welsh supporters at any rugby match!).

In southern Africa, not only do they sing spontaneous tunes, they sing spontaneous words, too. Someone will sing a single phrase over and over. Others will pick up on it and start to weave around the first person, creating a tapestry of sound, unique to the moment. Not to be recorded or remembered - just something that seems to suit the here and now.

No-one taught them. No-one sat them down and said, "Today we are going to study fugues. Somebody give me an A." They just sang. They sang and they encouraged participation.

So going back to my bunch of musicians who've been singing harmonies of their own devising on the coach. When they get where they're going, they pile out of the bus and take to the stage. There, they will follow the music exactly as it is written. They will watch the conductor like a hawk and do exactly as directed. They will apply to this formal, structured, rigid situation the same passion as they did to the ad hoc, make-it-up-as-you-go-along singing they did on the way over. They know the sounds of one another's voices. They know the feel of the soundwave vibrations when they get it just right.

They all know what to do. They have practised formally and informally. They have poured their hearts into both the formal and informal situations and they have held nothing back.

Sigh. Why can't learning in the office be more like that for more people?


Developer said...


Although I can't sing worth a flip, I am somewhat musical, and I know the feel you are talking about. Got to the follow URL for some of my compositions:

Click the little MP3 buttons...

-- dave --

Anonymous said...

@dave I'm impressed.

DiscoverLearnPlay said...

Karyn - very cool post! As a music educator I respect your thoughts about singing and can't help but mention that guitar learning is often approached the same way - students see, hear, mimic, or hunt and peck their way to new little bits of information often introduced out of sequence.

Unfortunately, some teachers fall short when introducing musical concepts in a cohesive order, especially to voice and guitar students. This only leads to frustration and sometimes abandonment for someone who was excited to learn their instrument in the first place.

I encourage you to keep singing and if you are interested in learning musical concepts applied to voice - take a look at the software at

Cheers from Texas - 103 in the shade today!

Anonymous said...

@musicked Thanks for stopping by (I think this is your first comment here)... and for the link.

I have always sung, but never played an instrument - hence my perspective, fed by Dave's tweets.

I am classically trained and my inability to play an instrument was a definite hindrance to my progress. I had to apply mathematical principles when writing harmonies for my exams. Unsurprisingly, my teachers always declared my harmonies "accurate but boring". It was only when they played them back to me that I realised what I had composed!
So much the wrong way to go about it!

On the other hand, my inability to play an instrument has meant that I have had to develop excellent pitch memory, and can usually be relied upon to start a song in the right key. This tends to surprise more accomplished musicians who tend to play a chord to find the pitch. Sadly, though - I seem to be losing my sense of pitch. I've posted about that before, but now I'm blowed if I can find the post again.

My sons both took guitar lessons. I really liked the way their teacher approached the process, giving them skills to start working out chords to songs for themselves pretty early on. Sadly, he was intransigent on the matter of songs chosen and insisted on teaching them songs he liked which, since he was close to 60, didn't go down a storm with them and eventually led to them giving up (such Philistines: no appreciation of Clapton!)

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tena koe Karyn!

Ah the 'a cappella'! Love it. I remember the African native chants - beautiful music - I lived in Nyasaland as a child till 10 y, and would fall asleep listening to the African chants lilting up the valley (they sang in the evenings in their villages).

But the music you described is similar to Irish singing - not the pub music, but the harmony. The Irish singers make up words too - called mouth-music.

One of the strange things about this style of music is that it all follows the old tempered scale - pre Bach's even-tempered scale. This is why the music is instantly ruined if an even-tempered instrument is played along with it, such as a piano, guitar or even a flute. But the violin (if the musician is a good ear player) can play sweetly harmony with the vocals and blend in just like another voice. The violin is NOT a chromatic instrument, while the piano, guitar and flute are.

Workplaces are chromatic - they are fretted (just like the guitar:-) and if one instrument is out of tune with another there is no way you'll get lasting harmonies. A cappella forces the 'workers' into stepwise efforts. Like a skilled set of rowers in a canoe, they 'work' in harmony.

Don't ask for whom the bell tolls, though. When a cappella music is in the air, it tolls for thee!

Ka kite

Anonymous said...

@blogger Perhaps that's why the homemade guitars favoured by the Zulus in my childhood had no frets and were played in an unfettered way that complemented the vocal music. But let's face it - the best accompaniment for that music is pure percussion.