Saturday, January 27, 2018

Preparing Pirelli: Finishing The Hat.

Happily, I enjoy the research you have to do when writing or preparing songs, and discovering obscure surprises as you work out what's what.  While preparing to play "Pirelli" in Marylhust University's production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, I dug out my copy of Finishing the Hat, Sondheim's collected lyrics (1954-1981) with, as the author names it "attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes".

Steve writes a long comment on page 345 about avoiding the typical monolithic opera/musical chorus, where all the singers seem to have exactly the same thought at the same time.

Finshing the Hat cover     "The tradition of the chorus as one voice persists even today,but surely no two people in a crowd being exhorted by a seller of what is essentially snake oil have the same degree of sales resistance.   Thus the overlapping voices in the lyric above.  Every single chorus member is characterized as an individual and the director can decide how to treat each one specifically; at the very least he has something he can say to each of the performers which may help them distinguish themselves from their fellow spectators.  (When the chorus is presented as a Greek Chorus, however, commenting on the action or telling the story directly to the audience, as in the case of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," it's both justifiable and and necessary that they all sing the same lyric.)
     "The problem of writing for choruses like this is that what you gain in the realism of individuality you lose in concerted choral power, and therefore you have to find a line, or preferably lines, that they can all sing without violating the principle.  In "Pirelli's Miracle Elixer," for example, "Give us back the money" and "where is this Pirelli?" tie the garbled counterpoint on the simultaneously different musical lines together and allow for a joyful noise, which is not only expected, but welcome."

A few other surprising nuggets not in the script or the score are in Finishing the Hat:

  • London 1849.  (The score says "Nineteenth century."  After researching "Shelley" and "Botany Bay" from the libretto,  before reading "Finishing the Hat", I'd calculated 1846.)
  • "Called an opera... a song cycle... a musical play...  'Dark operetta' is the closest I can come, but... what Sweeney Todd really is is a movie for the stage." 
  • British Playwright Peter Schaffer spotted every word of slang Steven had invented in a draft.   Producer David Land helped, but more than a few expressions are still Sondheimisms, not Cockeyisms.  
  • Steve says he's a slow reader. (Compared to whom?)
  • Toby is slang for "boy", "beer stein", "road", or "highway robbery".  "Tobias" is Hebrew for "God is Good" 
  • "Beedle" or "Beadle" (either spelling is okay) is a a minor official's title, like "aide" or "officer", not a first name.
  • Lovett's "Worst Pies in London" irregular form portrays her "a glitteringly disorganized, chatterbox,  switching moods mid-thought and thought mid-subject".  The repeated and grounding phrase "worst pies in London" are only there to relax and fool the audience...
  • "She is indeed the true villain of the piece"  (Yes, I'm surprised!)
  • A tooth pulling contest and the Judge's song were both cut in the original 1979 Broadway production to tauten Act 1.    New York City Opera's 1984 production, with the same director and sets, suffered no sag while including the Judge's song, but not with tooth-pulling.
  • Sweeney's schizophrenic breakdown in "Epiphany" alternates between rhythmic rhymed sections showing his determination, free-flowing un-rhymed sections for his grief, and even breaking the fourth wall for his true madness.  
  • Alas, no applause for the actor: the unreleased tension in the audience makes what follows explosively funny.
  • Writing in 2010, Stephen would change a dissatisfying, unnecessary and clumsy," lyric in "A Little Priest" from "Last one really sold/wasn't quite so old" to "Last one that we sold / Wasn't quite so old." 
  • Ditto, he'd change  Todd: "we'll serve anyone-" Both: "meaning anyone- and to.. " to (and did for the movie in measure 351) Todd: "we'll serve anyone-"  Lovett: "we'll serve anyone-" Both: "and to...
  • In "God, That's Good" (again a chorus of demanding, envious, freeloading, drunk, etc. individuals), the British expression for "Knock on wood" is "Touch wood", but needs three syllables to match "God, that's good".  Stephen is still open to suggestions. 
  • When Sweeney premiered in England, Stephen discovered by happy coincidence how sly a punster Lovett is in "By the Sea": "chopper" was slang for penis.
  • In the "Wigmaker/Letter Sequence", the stage directions are longer than the lyrics. 
  • Madhouses were indeed places where wig-makers got supplies.  Despite reforms and government oversight in 1816, London's Bedlam i.e.  Bethlehem Hospital  wasn't modernized until 1888.
  • Christopher Bond's 1973 play Sweeney Todd (and the basis of this 1979 operetta) has a scene where Mrs. Lovett tries to poison the Beadle, glasses get switched, and she almost poisons herself, distracted by Toby's singing. Steve wanted to write the disorganized trio, "but I never got around to it."
  • Whether the audience figures out the Beggar Woman's past from the start, in the middle, in her mad scene, or not at all, doesn't matter:  "Sweeney's reaction to the revelation is what counts, and everyone gets that at the same time."
  • John Lahr panned the show scathingly in Harpers Magazine after having read a script draft, but not hearing the show.  Sondheim wrote the critic and publisher that "he ought to see it first."   Lahr's response: "I guess you're right".
He's right.   It's bizarre, bloody, dark, idiosyncratic, and it's genius.  See the show first.

Sweeney Todd Feb 2018 poster

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Join a choir or two!

To improve consistently,
  • Warmup every day. Five minutes is often enough.
  • Workout thrice weekly. Forty-five minutes is enough.
  • Vocal rehearsals, lessons, and concerts count as workouts.
 The easiest method to do this is to


 Voice lessons are great, but singing with a choir is a simpler, friendlier and cheaper way to improve any singer.   Singing in two choirs guarantees two weekly workouts and two weekly warmups.  Often the homework to learn your music and the performances they give provide your third weekly workout.    All you need is to find one or two choirs that are right for you,  set aside a little money for dues or tuition, then sing.  Portland has this great resource that my friend and colleague Tom Hard maintains in the PDX CHORAL CALENDAR that lists dozens of singing groups you might join.


Of course you want a group that's near you and rehearses and performs at times you can be there. Almost all choirs allow you to miss some rehearsals and performances, so don't let a few schedule conflicts deter you:  just be honest about your conflicts when you present yourself and it will work out.

Beginning singers should find and join a "Non-Auditioned" choir (one that accepts everyone without them having to sing well first).  Most schools and churches and community centers have one or two.

Intermediate singers should audition for a auditioned choir.  The music is more difficult, the singing more exact and membership more exclusive because you have to show what you can do (often all by yourself) before you start with them..  If you don't get into one when you first audition, don't panic, just stick with your non-auditioned choir, study "HOW TO AUDITION FOR A CHOIR"  and try another selective choir.

Advanced singers should get on contact lists for professional groups and audition every time they have a chance.  Such groups often have connections to solo, recording, and contacts that will spring-board you to other groups and performances.  In the meanwhile, stay with your auditioned choirs until you have reason to stop.


You should end off singing with your choir for two reasons:  it's too hard, or it's too easy.  You might need to cut back singing because of life barriers like family illness or job changes.  Either way, you decide what is best, communicate your decision to those that need to know about it,  then go.

A choir that's too hard for you will leave you feeling confused and nervous.  You'll feel like rehearsals are rushed and you barely know the music, even in performance.  First, before you do anything else, tell your leaders and teachers what you are feeling:  they might make changes to their teaching styles and have resources that can help you  remain in a group so you are meeting the challenges.   In the meanwhile, stick things out for another three weeks or three months and fulfill your promises to the group as best you can.  You may discover you're stepping up to the challenge, so you should stick with it.  If not, end off when it's ethical then find an easier group,

A choir that's too easy for you will leave you feeling bored and irritated.  You'll feel rehearsals are too slow and your fellow singers aren't doing well.   First, before you do anything else, stick with it and set a good example of how this singing and rehearsing should go and do an excellent job of it.   When the music doesn't challenge you, challenge yourself to be more beautiful, precise, artistic and emotionally engaged than ever before.  In the meanwhile, let your current leaders know how you're doing and let them make suggestions.  When you find and join a more expert group, end off your old group when it's acceptable to do so.

In the end, do the right thing for your choirs (don't burn your bridges by quitting like a flake or a jerk) because you might rejoin them in the future.  Even better, they might need you for something special - and they'll know they can trust you to deliver.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Timberliner's Chorus Public Concert:

The Rose City Timberliners  Chorus performs a dozen times this Yuletide in a colorful collection of winter sweaters, vests, scarves, red hats, and even antlers as they travel all over the Greater Portland area with half-hour and hour concerts of Yuletide favorites.  It's not too late to invite this group to your event.  Merry Everything!

Winter Timberliners

If you have no other chance, hear them sing their last public concert of 2017 (and you can sing along, too)
8 pm Friday, December 22 at

Teh Grotto Festival of Lights

Monday, October 9, 2017

Practicing Choral Music: Ten ideas for the singer who doesn’t think they can practice on their own

----------This is a mirror post from Doreen Fryling.--------------

Congratulations! You’ve now been told for the millionth time to practice your music for your next choir rehearsal. But if you are someone who hears that and thinks, “I don’t play piano. I can’t do this without someone helping me,” here are some ways you can practice on your own and improve your singing.
Grab your music and a pencil. Many of these steps can be done in a public place. No need to head to the practice room (stop using that as an excuse).
  1. Start with the text. Make sure you know what you are singing. Think about the text. Find a translation if it is in another language. Write the poetic translation above/below the lyrics. If you want to go deeper, use a translation site to translate word for word (especially if there’s a word that you sing over and over again. You should know what that specific word means). Do you know who wrote the lyrics and why? Can you put the piece into historical context?
  2. Listen to a recording. We live in a time of unbelievable access to recordings. Find them. Listen to more than one recording and compare them until you find one or two you really like. Follow along with your score. Listen while paying attention to all of the parts. Listen while paying attention to just your part.
  3. Analyze your music. How is the piece organized? Does it have sections? Are there repeated parts? Does your part occur in another voice part? Are there key changes or meter changes? Is there a repeat sign/first and second ending/coda? How would you describe the organization of this piece to someone who has never heard it?
  4. Find your starting pitches. For every entrance you have, figure out how you are going to find the starting pitch. Maybe another voice part just sang the note. Maybe it was just in the accompaniment. Do you know what note of the chord it is (e.g. I’m singing the root of this chord)? There is nothing worse than “sheep singing” (blindly following what the person next to you is singing). Take responsibility for being able to enter on your own.
  5. Don’t just sing through the parts you already know. You’ll be wasting your practice time. Identify problem areas, analyze why you’re having a problem with that spot, figure out ways to solve the problem area.
  6. Solve the problem area. Break it down to something you CAN do. Then add something to it. Practice with repetition, but only if you’re sure you’re doing it right! Start with just the pitches slowly (dare I say on solfege syllables?). Then add the rhythm to the pitches. Next, add in the lyrics. Make sure you slow down the tempo each time you add another layer. No need to practice with dynamics, articulations, and breaths until you have mastered pitches, rhythms, and lyrics.
  7. Work backwards to forwards. How many times have you felt great about the beginning of a piece, but completely unsure of the ending? During your own practice time, work on the ending section and progressively add sections, each time going through to the end. If you think of your piece as “ABCDE,” practice E, then DE, then CDE, then BCDE, and ABCDE.
  8. Audiate your part. Sing your part through in your head. Do this while you are walking somewhere. Do this in your car while you’re waiting for someone. Do this before you go to sleep. Do this ALL OF THE TIME. (Friendly reminder: Audiating is virtually impossible if there is other music playing. Carve out some quiet time in your life.)
  9. Use your pencil. Mark your score while you’re in rehearsal so you remember what was giving you problems. This will save you time when you plan out your next practice session.
  10. Just practice. 99% of the time I don’t want to practice. No one does. But 99% of the time, once I start practicing, I get stuff done. I stop when I lose focus or I run out of time. I NEVER regret spending a little time practicing something. Do yourself a favor and make it part of your daily routine.
You have the ability to do these ten things. Do them. You will reap the benefits of being more confident with your part, which will allow you to contribute to the ensemble in a more meaningful way. And your own vocal technique will improve, because you’ll be able to concentrate on how you sound instead of always worrying about how your part goes. You’ve got this.

-Doreen Fryling (lifelong practice avoider)

Monday, August 28, 2017

Timberliners 2017 September 13 Invitation

You're invited to the tenth
Rose City Timberliners Chorus
Semi-Annual Open-House &
Music-Reading Guest-Night

Wednesday, Sept 13, 2017
7:00 – 9:00 pm

featuring the 2014 barbershop songbook

You don't need to read or sing well, just bring your voice.
It'll be a blast with goodies at the end. If you only visit us
once this year, that's the night to come be our guest.

Gary Shannon, Director. 503.761.1837