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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

FEATURE | Why A Group Of Classical Musicians Decided It Was Time To Sing

By Brian Chang on June 5, 2017

Acquired Taste is a choral community of musicians built around the idea that music ought to be about the joy and not the judgement

Acquired Taste (Photo: Pocket Concerts)
Acquired Taste (Photo: Pocket Concerts)

Acquired Taste, under director Mitchell Pady, performed for the first time June 4th, 2017, 7:30 p.m. Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Toronto.

The singers of Acquired Taste like to emphasize the fact that they are professional-class musicians, fully capable of performing music — but on instruments. They are career musicians playing strings, horns, clarinets, flutes, pianos, oboes, and even the gamelan. As singers, they have little or no experience. They describe themselves as “professional musicians in an amateur setting”. It almost comes as an apology preempting the performance but there’s no need to apologize here, Acquired Taste is a new idea and a fun one.

Music is a highly developed language with its own syntax, grammar, and idiosyncrasies. A good chunk of the work is done at Acquired Taste because these are all musicians who can read and interpret music. They all have “highly developed senses of pitch, rhythm, and musicianship,” says Emily Rho, one of the co-founders of Pocket Concerts, the host organization of Acquired Taste. “The whole process has been incredibly satisfying,” she continues, “very experienced but on the other hand very inexperienced.”

This is their first full performance as an ensemble at with conductor Mitchell Pady. There are about 30 of them, a full SATB choir, noticeably lacking in the tenors, but what choir doesn’t wish they had more tenors? Pady describes the program as a “survey of about 500 years of choral music”. Stretching from James Taylor to Henry Purcell and Palestrina to Healy Willan. They are ambitious, challenging themselves, and creating beautiful music in the process.

The singers themselves have a lot of insight into the differences and the similarities of choral and instrumental singing. Neil Spaulding is a horn player with the Hamilton Philharmonic. Often performing in chorale with the other horn players, Spaulding says “as an orchestral horn player, I am almost always operating in either a duo or quartet situation, so that helps me when singing SATB”. The skills, listening, and adjustments that lead to consistency in an instrumental section need rejigging in a choir. As Valerie Sylvester points out, “those things we do automatically in the orchestra have to be newly thought out here in choir, such as preparing entries and blending.” A lot of rehearsing is learning these new instincts and skills.

A solid ear is necessary for good singing; being able to discern the right vowel shape and note placement in order to match the ensemble. Listening to the Choir, you can hear bits of these skills still being developed. The IPA “i” sound is a tricky one to pin down. Too bright and it creates a nasal sharpness, too dark and it starts to sound like a different vowel. Disagreement on the vowel makes the pitches uneven like on the word “Lumine” in the Tallis O Nata Lux or “thee” at the end of Purcell’s Hear my Prayer Oh God. The big gasping breaths, audible and visible in the choristers is another marker of developing singers. These are challenges that often stand in much more experienced choirs as well.

There’s a lot of new discoveries the singers are making and they speak about it with excitement. “It’s not that easy to read the words while you’re reading the notes!”, shares Valerie Sylvester, concertmaster of the Niagara Symphony Orchestra. “Singing in a choir has a particular and personal attraction for me because I’ve played hundreds of choral/orchestral concerts in my professional life as a violinist… And wondered what it would be like to be on the other side”. Sylvester also notes that page turns come very fast for singers. Whereas an instrumental part only includes the specific instrument, choral scores almost always include all four voicings and a piano reduction of the orchestrations. More parts require more page turns.

Pady is a generous conductor, structured and easy to follow. He often gives an extra short beat when the choir is taking a breath, allowing the choir time to come in on the downbeat together. Singers and wind players often have to develop the instinct of how to shorten notes in and along musical phrases just a bit to allow a breath. Experienced singers often do this based on subtle cues like commas in sentences, a longer note before shorter ones, prior to a dynamic change, on certain words, or just because the conductor wants it. It takes time for instincts to take hold.

The physicality of the voice moving through the body as pitch increases pose other challenges for singers. Often described as moving from chest to head voice, registration is different in every singer and moving from the comfortable part of the voice to a lighter head tone as pitch increases can often sound jarring, like two disconnected sounds. It’s a similar issue in lowering pitches as well. The registration issues, especially amongst the men were noticeable in the Bruckner Locus Iste. It can be a challenge, even for experienced singers to place notes along their registers appropriately. Acquired Taste is all about trying new things together. The environment is fun and the stakes aren’t devastatingly high. As Spaulding notes, “my income and professional reputation doesn’t depend on how well I sing”.

As a cellist, Rachel Desoer describes her predicament with this new learning: “With training I might be a soprano. As a bass line player, this is horrifying.” On cello, Desoer spends her days playing off of music written in a bass clef. Reading in the treble clef, as sopranos always do, requires the use of a different mechanic. But also, the ear starts listening for different things. Sopranos are not always the tonic, which bass instruments frequently find themselves playing. Listening to place oneself in the context of the ensemble is very different if you are amongst the lower or the higher pitched instruments or voices.

As the evening progressed, intonation started to falter as a few tired voices began to wobble in delivery. Tempi dragged on in the choir, gently prodded along by Pady, but ultimately slowing down progressively more. Breathiness starts to emerge by the time we get to the Brahms’ Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen. Like instruments need tuning as they are played over extended periods, so too does the voice need support and resetting to perform at an optimal level. As these musicians continue to develop their singing muscles, instincts, and skills, I’ll be interested to see how their sound changes over time. They have done incredibly well in just three months singing together, and most importantly, genuinely like singing with each other.

Music is a language after all; the way we speak it is different depending on the instrument. Ultimately, the goal of any musician should be to make the best music possible, no matter the instrument or lack thereof. Sylvester describes her fascination with it all, “sometimes I just have to stop and listen.”  Acquired Taste is clearly onto something interesting here.

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