Singing the Melody: Freedom to be Flexible

6.09.15 By Malcolm King

Sticking to the melody is a natural part of singing. The composer or songwriter gives you the notes and you lilt them, as written. According to the arrangement or how the director tells you, you phrase it in a way that they tell you is beautiful. You are told, the audience will respond to this form of phonation and your fellow choristers and chorale members will feel comfortable because you are singing in unison. If assigned a higher or lower voicing, our blend becomes part of a rich harmony.

Yet the nature of music is one that is fluid and dynamic. As a performer, one learns that they must cater to their audience so that each performance is fresh, moving, and a strong interpretation of what the conductor has given you. Music is based—at least in part—on improvisation. There are tiny grace notes penciled in on leger lines above the staff. Small moments that if played right can lift a song that much higher in the hearts of the listener. And as a good singer, you begin to train your ear for these places in the sheet music. Add a trill here, an accent there, and so on.

So too is the nature of teaching. I have been given a collection of sheet music, i.e. the curriculum, from the director, my principal. I try to make sure to really count the rhythm and sync with the time signature set at our initial read of the chords. Most weeks I hit every note, every triplet, every whole note, every quarter rest, all of it. I teach the curriculum as it is printed in my scope and sequence. And the director tells me it is beautiful.

However, there is a part of me, the songstress that feels stilted by the rigid measures in which my voice is constricted to hum. I know that my audience every now and then needs a bit of flourish. Consequently, I take my breath and lean into a long bridge which helps my audience to rock in their seat, to dance, to sing along once they’ve got hold of the tune. This, I argue, is the obbligato. I listen to the applause of their quiz grades, the octave leaps in their depth of analysis, and I croon at the transformation of their posture as not simply members of the crowd, but participants in the performance itself. It is a dance which we collectively learn and synchronize until we are a moving chorus of understanding.

Some days I fear that the director will sit before her music stand and tap her baton impatiently. But I beg of her to trust my understanding of what the composer intended. I dare her to let me ring out above the average treble clef, the highest form of my teaching, the point when my instincts and skill set intersect with the writers of all our standards and blend in a rich note of transcendence. This is my dream. This is my hope. It is music to my ears. Won’t you please listen?

more from Malcolm King on the blog

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