Monday, March 25, 2019

O Susanna

 "Something so old no one knows it", 

quotes "Oxford American, a Magazine of the South" in 2012.  The article inspects recent recordings and the political, historical, and racial nuances of the old song.   I'm more practical as a musician:  I want to know "How does the song actually go so we can sing it as the author intended and the audience will like it?"  Well, they're right:  nobody quite knows how it goes.

Steven Foster wrote the words and tune in the late 1840's, but the sheet music publications of 1848 don't agree on the details of O Susanna's exact words or rhythms.  Two sheets claim "oldest publication" in 1948. New York's C. Hold Jr. publication displays "Christy Minstrels" and "G.N. Christy" prominently.  Baltimore's F.D. Benteen credits "The Ethiopian Serenaders" and "Wells" for singing and writing it.     Music Publisher W.C. Peters of Cincinnati had known and worked with Stephen Foster before.
Stephen Foster isn't credited on any of them, so none gets preference.  

Gosh, his manuscript would be priceless, but it's nowhere to be found yet. "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Old Black Joe", we've got the mss copied online, if you care to pay to peek at them.
Where the written versions differ, I can use original recordings, but not for O Susanna.  The first well-known recording, made in 1925 by vaudeville performer Arthur Fields, sounds familiar  with skipping rhythms and a bright bounce.   He doesn't sing the rhythms consistently, but he includes all four disaster-riddled verses with cheery delivery.   So it does serve as an early popular example of how at least one fellow sung it and sold a lot of copies, but decades after Stephens death in 1864 doesn't really tell us why the song was so popular in the first place

But this isn't 1848,  it's 2019.  So the question becomes, "How do people like to hear and sing it now".   To answer that, you do a survey of regular folks and what they recall of the song.   After interviewing a half-dozen folks, I learned this:

~ Almost everyone knows of "Oh, Susanna" and heard it in elementary school.
~ Almost everyone sings it in a lively tempo and snappy rhythmms

~ Everybody sings the words "Oh!, Susanna" on the notes fa fa la la, ...
~ Nobody has heard it sung fa fa fa la (as most early editions write it.)

~ Almost everyone fumbles the words.

~ Almost everyone remembers "banjo on my knee"
~ But are unsure if it's "a banjo" or "my banjo".   (It's "my" in the sheet music.)
~ A few mention the word isn't "going", it's "gwine" and important to keep.
~ Most know about "come from", "Lou'siana", and "Alabama"...
~ but not exactly where "I come from" or "I'm gwine to".

~ Early editions start "I come", but a few singers start with "Oh, I come..."

~ Most know about a verse about "It rained" "the weather".  Many can sing parts it.
~ Some know about a verse about a "dream the other night".  Few can sing parts of it.
~ Few heard of a verse about New Orleans, maybe.  None could sing any of it.
~ No one knows anything about a verse "riding a telegraph".

Those tell what's familiar and wanted in a sing-along:

I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee. 
I'm gwine to Lou'siäna my true love for to see.
It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry,
The sun so hot I froze to death.  Suzanna, don't you cry.

Oh, Suzanna, Oh don't you cry for me.
I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee.

I had a dream the other night when ev'ry thing was still.
I though I saw Suzänna a-comin' down the hill.
The buckwheat cake was in her mouth, a tear was in her eye.
I said "I'm comin' from the South.  Suzanna, don't you cry."

Oh, Suzanna, Oh don't you cry for me.
I come from Alabama with my banjo on my...
 And I bet, if  the singers stop right there, the audience will still sing:
                                                                          ... knee.

Monday, March 18, 2019

What singers are thinking.

 Claudia Freelander blogged in 2018.

While Thom King’s iconic cartoon, “What They Think About When They Sing,” has entertained our community for some thirty years, I am honored to have created the first publication to reprint it with his permission and offer him my heartfelt thanks for the clean copy.

Bass Fishing, Soprano ovation, Baritone technique, Mezzo the baritone, Tenor money.
What they think about when they sing.

I admit to singing Tenor.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Flute advice.

I just enjoyed the honor of accompanying a talented teen in a flute contest.  Here is a summary of the judge's instant feedback, a nice lesson in itself:

Never breathe during a trill.   To prepare, find a place to breathe where you'll have plenty of air to do the notes leading up to and away from the trill, the alternating trill notes, the termination notes, and all the way to the end of the last note.
Trills match the tempo of the music around them, faster in fast tempos and slower in slow movements,
Nerves take the breath out of you.  Flute takes a lot of breath;  trills are especially inefficient.  In practice, give yourself more than enough breaths so you're ready for nerves in performance or competition, and still have plenty of breath.

Tune long notes, especially octave leaps, carefully.  Why do composers do that to us?   It easy for anyone to hear tuning issues when the note lasts a long time.

New skills, say you've just learned double-tonguing, won't be consistent.  Even so, don't give up on them, keep practicing, and use them.  If you don't use it, you lose it.

Exaggerate  dynamics.  You are doing them, but they should be more.  In a large hall, for an adjudicator who is far away, you'd need to shoot for far to much variation.   Practice doing far too much dynamic variation.   If you wonder if you're driving the audience crazy with your volume changes, it's probably just right.

Overall, it was a lovely performance.

I agreed.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Bocelli Backstage

From a colleague after hearing  23 June 2018 Concert with Andrea Bocelli, Oregon Festival Orchestra and Portland Symphonic Choir:
Hi Gary:
I sure enjoyed seeing you at the concert last night! 
I LOVED it!  I was blown away by the "back up band" being a full symphony, and choir!   I'm not an opera buff, and would have preferred a few more super-text lyrics, but my, what sound!  He can be a difficult performer to watch, since he does not use his body as sighted people do, but if you close your eyes, you find he puts everything he has into the song, great sensitivity and a purity of emotion.  I imagine even non musical folks connect with him at that aesthetic level. Of course, all the "encores" were rehearsed, but so satisfying for his fans.  I'm assuming the little girl on the edge of the stage was his daughter.  
It was fun to run through the choir with my field glasses and be surprised to see someone I know.  Inquiring minds want to know:
-- How long did you have the music?
-- How many rehearsals with the choir did you have?
-- How many with the orchestra?
-- How many with the talent?  Was it the same day as the concert?

-- Did you enjoy working with Andrea Bocelli? What was that like?

Well, just had to write and tell you how much I enjoyed the wonderful concert.   Well Done!
Kudos, V.
Hi, V,

I'm glad you had a great time.   Here are some answers you may certainly share:

Portland Symphonic Choir accepted the contract to provide 60 singers for the June concert in mid-April after negotiating since March.  As PSC's tenor section leader, I appointed the choral tenors and helped my colleagues in the other sections chose theirs.  There were a few substitute choristers on standby, and we needed them due to unexpected illnesses and such at the last minute.

We first had access to our music as online scans on May 29 and got paper copies during our first choral rehearsal on Monday, June 11.  We had one more choral rehearsal on June 18.  We learned some details about the conducting and tempi  from Doug Schneider, PSC's usual accompanist, who ran our rehearsals:  he'd been to their first rehearsal playing keyboards for the orchestra on June 17.

Our only rehearsal with the orchestra, conductor, and guest performers was at 4:00 on the day of the concert.  Andrea himself wasn't there as expected because his flight from Las Vegas had been delayed due to the president's flight commandeering the LV airport that day.  We only could only press on Andrea-less and hope he'd arrive on time for the show.  

The conductor had already toured with Bocelli and knew precisely how to predict his tempi and rubati.  I myself was asked to fill in for A in rehearsal, but I declined the nomination: Italian opera isn't my forte, I don't know A's typical nuances, and I had to practice my own job in the show.  The conductor wheezed some of the tenor phrases when they mattered for timing.    For us choristers, though, it was the usual game of FOLLOW-THE-STICK,  since the hall was so large, amplified and wet that we couldn't trust our ears for the beat. (Actually, we followed his right wrist - his stick technique is unusually florid.)   Rehearsal ended at 6:00  with no sign of Andrea.

Andrea arrived at the MODA center slightly after 7pm in a cortege of limousines, had a supper in his dressing room (we all got a catered a meal of cannoli and chicken piccata), and you saw what happened after that.
It's uplifting and inspiring to witness humans doing such remarkably difficult and and exacting artistry, even when you cannot hear clearly, cannot see their faces, and have your own part to play in the production.  Andrea's mezza-di-voce above the staff is well known and regarded, but hearing it done in real time is breathtaking.  I can do that sort of thing well about one time out of every ten tries:  he got it perfectly every time.   In the hundreds of notes he sang, I heard only two that were less than perfect - they they only proved that the fellow was human and doing this live. 

I kept (stole?) my music and backstage pass as memorabilia.

Yours, Gary Shannon
( 8-{D} balding, bespectacled, bearded happy guy, usually open mouthed.
I teach voice lessons online:  My Passion:  Your Art.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

20 October 2018 Recital

I'm accompanying 2016 NATS competition winner and recurring soloist with San Francisco Symphony,  Yi Tripplet, at a home recital this weekend of three German Lieder, three French Mélodies, three Chinese Gēqǔ and three Opera Arias.  

The event begins at 3:30 pm at Eight-Three-Eight NE Albemarle Terrace with wine and goodies. The recital itself goes from 4 pm til about 5 with more wine and goodies afterward. The music is rapturous, the singing inspired, the view stunning, and the weather looks to be perfect. 'Twill be lovely.

Here are my translations of the Italian and German expression marking of the arias.  I even get to sing tenor in the last one.

O mio babbino caro
from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi

Andante Sostenuto 
slowly sustained
rinforzando stronger
rit. (ritardando)  slowing (delaying) [but tempo will speed up again]
rall. (rallentando) slowing down (slackening) [and slows more to the end]

Ah! non credea mirarti
from Bellini's La Sonnambula

 Andante Slow walking speed
cantabile  song-like, smooth
 Ossia alternately (literally: o sia, "or be it")
colla voce with the singer
lento slowly

Glück das mir verblieb
from Korngold's Die Tote Staadt

Langsam  slowly.
poco rit.  slowing a little
morendo  dying
sehr langsam,   very slowly,

schlicht,  simple,mit Empfindung, with feeling
dasselbe Zeitmass
the same tempo
Allmählich fliessender
gradually flowing
und im  and in
Ausdruck gesteigert increasing expression.
a tempo (fliessend)
in tempo (flowing)
poco a poco
little by little
calando waning
ad lib. (ad libitum: at option) with freedom 

      [performer chooses timing and pitch.]
weider sehr langsam
again very slowly
mit tiefster Empfindung with deeper feeling.
ganz langsam
very slowly
(adagio) very slowly [
from Italian ad agio ‘at ease.’]

Friday, September 21, 2018

2018 Bios

Two bios for the price of one:

This one was first published in Portland Symphonic Choir's "Movie Madness" concert program in 2010.

Composer Gary Shannon

Voice coach, singer, actor, pianist, and composer, Gary Shannon is the tenor section leader for the Portland Symphonic Choir. He arranged the brilliant finale for our 2010 concert, That's Entertainment, “Movie Madness” finale

Gary received his Bachelor of Music in Composition and Education from San Jose State University with great distinction, writing two musicals and an opera before graduating. Moving to Portland in 1979, he served as musical director for Group At Hand, The Musical Company, and Cabaret Magnifique, as well as music director and arranger for The Dickens Carolers, guest director and arranger for The Oregon Repertory Singers, and vocalist and counter-tenor soloist with the internationally recognized Choral Cross-Ties. Mr. Shannon performed tenor and counter-tenor solos for Oregon Symphony Orchestra, Bravo Vancouver, and Cascade Music Festival concerts of Bernstein's Mass, Chichester Psalms, West Side Story, and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

A talented actor,Gary held the highest score ever awarded by the Association of Community Theaters for his “Judas” in Jesus Christ, Superstar, his record broken two years later by Henry Fonda On Golden Pond. Currently, Gary works as the music director for The Rose City Timberliners men's chorus and as the choir director and organist for St Timothy's Lutheran Church. He teaches music and singing online at

Here's a 2018 bio focusing  on vocal coaching and accompanying for a private recital program for Yi Triplett.

    Gary Shannon is an influential musician, rehearsal pianist, vocal coach, choral director, classically trained tenor and composer in Portland, Oregon, from Santa Cruz, California.
      San Jose State University of California awarded his Bachelor of Arts in Music Education with Great Distinction with associate degrees in keyboards, vocal performance, theater arts and music composition under Drs. Charlene Archibeque, Tikey Zes, Lou Harrison, and Allen Strange in 1979. He co-founded Portland, Oregon's "Group at Hand" Theater Company with Carole Lowden in 1980, producing, directing, and performing musicals, operas, and plays until her unexpected retirement in 1984. Freelancing, Gary sang, directed, accompanied, coached, and composed music for The Portland Dickens Carolers, Oregon Repertory Singers for Gil Seeley, Oregon Symphony Pops under Norman Leyden, Choral Cross-Ties and Portland State University with Bruce Browne , Marylhurst University for Justin Smith, and varied local churches. Mr. Shannon won top prizes in the 1984 Yamaha Electone Organ national competition performing an original excerpt from his Organ Sonata in E.
      Gary currently leads the Portland Symphonic Choir tenor section, directs the Rose City Timberliners Barbershop Chorus, serves as pianist and choir director for St. Timothy Lutheran Church, and provides online and in-person accompanist and vocal coach services through his own company, His upcoming project is preparing his portfolio of recordings, compositions, and arrangements for online publication.
     He and his wife share a cozy home in southeast Portland with their two adult children, a pair of persnickety cats, and a pampered bunny.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Daily Warmup

 The purpose of a warm-up is to remind yourself how to sing what you need to sing today.  A warm-up will not improve your singing much - you use a workout to do that - but it gets you ready for singing well today.

Here is one warm-up technique that covers everything in few as 2 minutes when you're in good voice and health to 20 minutes when you're ill with vocal trouble.   Do a warm-up everyday, whether you are doing a performance, rehearsal, practice, or nothing at all that day.

The Daily 7-Minute Vocal Warmup

WARNING:  DO NOT USE THIS WARM-UP WHILE DRIVING.  You safety depends on your attention to the road - do not distract yourself.   Do this when you can concentrate on it without putting yourself in danger, please.

Part One:  Stretches.

If you've already been active today and feel limber and relaxed, skip these physical stretches. 

Basic rules for physical stretches:   (quoting [with a few comments])
  • Move into each stretching position slowly. Never force yourself into a stretch by jerking or snapping into position.
  • Notice how much tension you feel. A stretch should rate anywhere from mild tension to the edge of discomfort on your pain meter. It should never cause severe or sharp pain anywhere else in your body. [Hold stretches while you relax into the stretch.] Focus on the area you’re stretching, and notice the stretch spread through these muscles.  [Relax.]
  • As you hold each position, take at least two deep breaths. Deep breathing promotes relaxation. [And breathing is the base of singing]
  • Never bounce. After you find the most comfortable stretch position, stay there or gradually deepen the stretch. Bouncing only tightens your muscle — it doesn’t loosen it. Forceful bouncing increases the risk of tearing a muscle.

1.  Torso (stretch standing or sitting):  reach both arms to the ceiling then the floor,  reach high and bend right then left, twist right then left.   Repeat all six if feeling tense.
2.   Head: (roll standing or sitting) point your chin every direction:  up, left, down, right.  Repeat.
3.   Jaw :  Open mouth and eyes wide.  Squint and make a sour face. Repeat.
4.   Shoulder:  roll up, back, down, forward.  Repeat
5.   If you like or need it, self-massage your face, jaw and throat or anywhere else you carry tension.

Part Two:  Core Sound.

Your core sound is beautiful mid-range singing, with little strain.   The more you sing, the more free and beautiful your core gets.  When ill, even the core sounds poor, but that's what you start with in a warm-up and build from there.

1.  Yawn-sigh: yawn, inhale and sing a sigh from the top of your range to the bottom, then bottom to top on "ah", easy and light.
2.  Find any Core sound, a pitch you can sing well right now, that feels easy and sounds loud and beautiful.    "mm", "oo" or "ah" are likely vowels, and most folks find a core around G or f, but it doesn't matter what pitch you find, only that you find a core sound now.
3.  Long Tone:  take a good deep, low breath and sing that core note for 15 seconds on the clock.  If you can't make 15 seconds, focus on breath technique and try again.

Part Three:  Range.

Take that core sound to the extremes you need today: high and low, loud and soft, open and closed.

1.  Sirens low and high:   Starting from your core sound, slide the note low and hold it.   Then start from core, slide it high and hold that. While doing these sirens, change as little of the vowel and placement as possible, keeping and stretching your beautiful core sound

2. Scales low and high:  Using any instrument, locate your core pitch. (If you haven't an instrument, just make your best guess and continue:)  Sing scales to the notes you need.  Here are typical ranges for choristers, and which scales to sing from typical core notes. 

Vocal part typical core low note interval down high note interval up
Bass E E' octave down d octave up
Baritone F G' octave down f octave up
Tenor G B' fifth down a octave up
Alto f F octave down e' octave up
Mezzo g A octave down g' octave up
Soprano a c fifth down a' octave up

You can and should extend or shorten the scales to match the notes you need.     If you sound easy, loud and beautiful on your scales, great.  If not, try them once or twice again.  Doing more scales than three is fine, and now they're a workout and practice.
3. Specials: if the music you're singing has tricky vowels, speed, diction, or dynamics, simply sing the tricky music about as well as you did it last time you sang it.   You can attempt it many times and even turn this into practice and work with any of the hundreds of vocal exercises and learning tricks that exist, but...

When you achieve the object of the warm up (remind yourself how to sing), you're ready.