Choral singing tips with Ian – 3. Marking up a score

Duration: 17:32

Transcript – Choral singing tips with Ian – 3. Marking up a score


[music playing]

[music playing]

IAN JEFFERSON: Today, I'm going to show you the way I familiarise myself with your typical choir song, particularly the way I study and prepare my copy of the sheet music. Hopefully, this will make it clear how important it is to take the time to really know the music, no matter how simple, before attempting to teach it.

Now, no matter how good a muso you are, you shouldn't just try to wing it. Whether you're teaching songs as a conductor, or learning songs as a singer, these tips might prove useful. Every person has their own method, but here's mine.


I'm going to use a treble voice unison arrangement of 'Blackbird,' the Beatles' song, as an example of how I might study and prepare my sheet music - the vocal part and the piano accompaniment - before I stand up in front of a choir to try to teach it. Some of you may have access to this particular arrangement of 'Blackbird,' but it's not commercially available. So, if you go to a music publishing website and try to buy a choral arrangement of 'Blackbird,' it'll be different to this.

Anyway, regardless of the piece of music I've chosen, I hope you find the kinds of things I do, to prepare, useful.

[bass guitar music]

I'm old school, so I use a pencil to write and draw marks on my own copy of the sheet music. This is called marking up the score. Often, I will scrawl lyrics, circle particular notes or dynamics or time signature changes, and even write little messages to myself to remind me how to conduct certain sections of the song. Other conductors might use highlighters, coloured pencils, or sticky notes, particularly if they're working on lengthy orchestral pieces. But, usually for a piano/vocal score, I like a good old 2B pencil, mainly because it's easy to erase if you make a mistake.

Now, this song will already be familiar with many teachers and students. And this can be helpful to some degree, but it can also be a pain, because you have to insist on everyone singing this version. And it can be painfully hard to unlearn another version you might already know.

The conversational nature of the lyrics means that no two versions are the same rhythmically, or even melodically. When a choir sings in unison, they must all sing exactly the same rhythm and notes, or it'll be a mess. At the same time, however, their relaxed pop style needs to shine through or the lyrics will sound prissy and robotic - not very natural.

This particular arrangement of 'Blackbird' is for unison voices and piano, so OK, you don't have to worry about the choir singing in parts. You can use this song to really work on a beautiful blended sound.

I happen to have the lyrics printed out in poetry form. So, it's good to see that, lyrically speaking, the song is quite succinct and repetitive, which should make it easier for the choir to memorise.

So, first up, familiarise yourself with the whole song by either singing it through in your head, or singing it aloud and accompanying yourself, or, if you have a recording that exactly matches your version, listen to it and follow along with your music. Luckily, I've made an audio version that matches this arrangement exactly.

[music - 'Blackbird']

SINGER: (SINGING) 'Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life.'

IAN JEFFERSON: [gasps] I can't hear you. I'm listening to music.

SINGER: (SINGING) 'You were only waiting for this moment to arrive.'

IAN JEFFERSON: So, let's go back to the top of the very first page, after the title and writing credits. We have a lot of important musical information given to us at bar 1. The tempo marking, the speed of the piece, says, 'simply,' with a crotchet equaling 100 beats per minute. So, my metronome gives me this tempo.

[metronome ticking]

[playing note]

(SINGING) 'Blackbird singing in the dead ...' [hums]

The first system of music is the 3-bar piano introduction. If you're a singer, you may think, well, the piano part's got nothing to do with me. Let's get to where the singing starts. But, hold your horses, Nellie. Let's see what other information is given to us in the first bar.

The key signature shows us that we will use F sharps and C sharps. So, we're either in D major or B minor. The very first chord in the piano part is a D chord, so it's safe to assume the key's D major. This will mean the highest note will be a high D.

[playing note]

(SINGING) 'Into the light of a dark black night.' Into.

[playing note]

The lowest note is the B below middle C.

[playing note]

(SINGING) 'You were only waiting for this moment to be free.' For.

[playing note]

That's lowish for young kids, but certainly not too low. So, this song, in D major, is a nice, safe key for treble voices.

The first bar also tells us that the time signature is 3/4 - 3 beats in a bar. So, when I'm conducting, I like to show my accompanist 2 beats in tempo before they start playing. I give the accompanist 2, 3, play. So, I write that on the music.

[metronome ticking]


(SINGING) Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo.

Etcetera. This way, I stay consistent every time I start the piece.

[gasps] But, wait. Shock. Horror. The second bar is in 2/4, as is the third bar. In fact, most of this song has been notated in 2/4, but for the first bar of each verse, it's written in 3/4, which gives this song its lovely folk feel. The changing of time signature is definitely the most challenging aspect of the actual conducting, the arm-waving, of this song. So, what I do is just write big numbers above the bars that have a time signature change, like this.

[music - 'Blackbird']

SINGER: (SINGING) 'Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these broken wings ...'

IAN JEFFERSON: Ensure your accompanist is comfortable reading the rhythmic pattern in the right hand of the piano part in the second bar. The little triplet, or swung 16th note, before the staccato F sharp, gives the accompaniment its gentle lilt.

[music - 'Blackbird']

This rhythmic pattern needs to be absolutely secure in the accompaniment, as this figure is repeated throughout the song. So, that's something else you might just circle.

The piano intro is mezzo piano - moderately soft. And the choir is given the same volume when they enter at bar 4. There are only two verses in this song. And, having cheated and looked ahead, I know that verse 2 is exactly the same as verse 1 in terms of notes and rhythm. The only difference is that verse 2 has different lyrics and is slightly louder - mezzo forte - moderately loud.

But, back to bar 4. The first bar of singing has quite a few Ds in it, but be wary of the C sharp on the word 'the.'

[playing chord]

(SINGING) 'Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Singing in the dead. In the dead.'

So, I might circle the C sharp.

There may be a temptation for the choir to sing the word 'night' early, so I draw an arrow after 'of' to indicate that 'of' is long, and a downward arrow above 'night' to ensure it lands right at the downbeat of the bar.

[playing note]

(SINGING) 'Blackbird singing in the dead of night.'

'Night' is held for two full beats, so the 't' of 'night' falls on the downbeat of the next bar. So, I write a 'T' and an arrow like this.

The word 'night' is the first sustained note that is sung, and that happens to be a diphthong. So, I write 'nah' above the music as a reminder to keep the choir singing in an open -

(SINGING) 'nah'

- sound for-

(SINGING) - night.

[music - 'Blackbird']


This is the same for every last note of each phrase.

(SINGING) 'Take these broken wings and learn to fly.'

Off on the downbeat.

(SINGING) 'All your life.'

Off on the downbeat.

(SINGING) 'You were only waiting.'

Circle the rhythm of -

(SINGING) 'waiting. You were only waiting for this moment to arise.'

And off on the downbeat.

This is followed by a few bars of piano interlude before verse 2 begins. I'll just fast forward through these two verses, adding all the same sorts of things to the music.

Right. Now, we're at bar 36, where the middle section begins. The phrase prior to this -

(SINGING) 'You were only waiting for this moment to be free.'

Just note that the last word, 'free' is cut off early on this second beat of the bar, to give you time for a breath before singing.

[playing note]

(SINGING) 'Blackbird fly.'

In case you forget what volume the choir should be singing here, you just quickly look back and see the choir's most recent dynamic marking back at bar 22, when they were given an 'mf' marking for the second verse - mezzo forte. So, that continues for this new section.

By the way, if you're wondering what this little bracketed note in the piano accompaniment means, it's a courtesy that lets you know that, strictly speaking, the A here is already being played by the other hand here, but really that's a detail you can ignore. It's really just for the piano player.

So, here we are at the middle section, bar 36. We have the choir's first melisma of the song during the second syllable of 'blackbird.'

(SINGING) 'Blackbird.'

Two notes for bird.

(SINGING) 'Bird. Bird.'

And not only that, it's our first sustained schwa.

(SINGING) 'Erh. Bird.'

So, remember to encourage your choir to open their mouths to a relaxed vertical shape in an attempt to make the schwa sound less disgusting.

(SINGING) 'Blackbird fly. Blackbird fly.'

Once again, fly is a diphthong. So, I write, blackbird 'flah.' 'Ih.' These 2 words are repeated. And we can see, underneath, in the piano accompaniment, a crescendo during the repeat of -

(SINGING) - 'fly.'

So, we might add a little crescendo to the vocal part to add some intensity. This is just before our highest and loudest phrase of the song.

IAN JEFFERSON AND SINGER: (SINGING) 'Into the light of a dark, black night.'

'Night' for 2 beats. So, off on the third beat of bar 45, which is a 3/4 bar and the beginning of an instrumental verse.

[music - 'Blackbird']

There are more than 12 bars where the piano plays and the choir just stands there. This is a perfect opportunity for the choir to practise how to keep the energy and intensity of the song alive when they're not doing any singing. It is important they stay engaged while pretty much standing still.

Then, the middle section is repeated with a crescendo again into our highest note.

(SINGING) 'Into the light of a dark, black night.'

The song then goes into a fake ending. After a slight rit, slowdown, the piano plays a rolled chord that is held, with a pause indicated, before stopping altogether, as indicated by this caesura - or tram tracks, as people call them.

On the original recording, I think the Beatles put on some little [imitates birds chirping] sounds of - [huffs] that was supposed to be birds by the way, if you're wondering what that was. And then, the song sort of begins again.

Bar 75 is a tempo - back to the original speed. And there is a 5-bar piano interlude to bring us to the repeat of the first verse, which happens at bar 80.

The final line of this verse -

(SINGING) 'You were only waiting for this moment to arise.'

- cutting off a little bit earlier than the first time we sang it in verse 1. This is repeated 2 more times, getting softer with each iteration. The third time is piano, soft, with a rit on the second last bar.

(SINGING) 'You were only waiting for this moment to arise.'

There's a fermata on the final note.

(SINGING) 'Arise.'

So, the choir must hold on to the -

(SINGING) 'ah-rah'

- of 'arise', and put a gentle 'zuh' exactly as the conductor cuts off the voices and piano.

(SINGING) 'You were only waiting for this moment to arise.'

Well, that's the end of the song. Now, there may be some of you who think over-analysing every phrase in a piece like this ruins the free and easy spirit of the song. Well, that might be true for the conductor, but the singers probably won't go into this much trouble. And the conductor's job is to keep the learning and the performing of the songs fresh and energetic.

How about one last run-through the whole song, with you singing and me conducting? If you have the sheet music, great. If you don't, I'll throw the lyrics up on the screen to help you. So, sit up straight, open your mouth, and sing from your heart. Here we go.

[music - 'Blackbird']

SINGER: (SINGING) 'Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these sunken eyes and learn to see. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Blackbird fly. Blackbird fly, into the light of a dark, black night.

Blackbird fly. Blackbird fly, into the light of a dark, black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise. You were only waiting for this moment to arise. You were only waiting for this moment to arise.


In the next video, I'll be looking at how you go about arranging a piece of music.

[music playing]

Keep singing.

End of transcript