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We recorded a good deal of audio for an upcoming DVD about Emily Dickinson this week.

The music will be pieces from Emily Dickinson’s lifetime ~ music she could have sung, heard, or played on the piano.

We began with the chorus.

Since various singers were interrupting their out-of-town summer plans, we decided to rehearse and record all in one afternoon.

The desired sound was that of congregational singing.  At first, it was thought that no conductor would be needed.  However, every congregation and church choir I’ve been involved with needed someone, at least to get them started.  So I offered to fill that role.

Neither the singers nor I were familiar with some of the music.  We had all looked at it, but the singers had never heard some of the music in parts.  So the first thing we did was listen as I played the first piece in parts.

We had 8 singers, including 6 women and 2 men.  2 women sang tenor, both men sang bass, and the other 4 women divided the soprano and alto parts.

Auld Lang Syne

Everybody knows this, right?  Not so fast!  There are many versions in print.  Some have 2 eighth notes on the 1st “and”where others have a quarter, leaving out the passing tone.  Also, our version had a high note on the last line that was new to me.

We had a discussion about the text.  How old should it sound?  Were we going to sing “Ahled Lahng Zine” or “Old Lang (like “sang”) Syne?  My role much for much of the afternoon was to sift through people’s suggestions and make decisions that would unify the group.

Everyone in the chorus is a guide at the Emily Dickinson Museum.  All are very well educated, and all had choral experience.  And every suggestion was a good one.

I decided that, since the DVD is being made under the auspices of the Emily Dickinson Museum, the main market for it would be tourists.  Could we assume that they are language buffs?  Probably not.  I think they would want to understand the words easily.

So we sang pronunciations that a 21st century person would use.

In addition to the title, there were two other text considerations.  Last line of the chorus:  “Tak'” or “Take?”  We sang “take.”  Verse 5:  “Stowp?”  We decided that was probably “stout.”


​​Home, Sweet Home

We achieved variety in this song.  The chorus sang in unison for all 3 verses.  I wanted to hear one verse unaccompanied, and asked for the 3rd verse to be sung that way.  (Should the pitch slip, having the piano enter on a higher pitch would sound awful!)  In the 1st verse, I played the accompaniment as written ~ in the 2nd, only the left hand.  Then I conducted the 3rd verse away from the piano.

Text ~ in the 3rd verse, 1st phrase, we sang “home” for 2 notes, then divided “splen-dor” between 2 quarters.

Give Me the Wings of Faith (Bingham)​

Text by Isaac Watts ~ music anonymous

This is a hymn I hadn’t known before.  We practiced singing the text in sentences, breathing as indicated by the punctuation rather than at the end of each line of the poem, like this:

The poem ~
Give me the wings of faith to rise
Within the veil, and see
The saints above, how great their joys,
How bright their glories be.

Our breathing scheme ~
Give me the wings of faith to rise within the veil,
and see the saints above,
how great their joys,
how bright their glories be.

To sing the last verse in this way, the singers would be required to make it through 2 lines without a breath, a lot to ask for a choral singer.  I certainly wouldn’t want to try it.  So we implied long sentences.  To sing a long phrase and take a breath, be sure not to decrescendo on the last word of the line (where you want to carry over the thought).  You will feel like you are making a slight crescendo instead.  Try it!

Text to the last verse ~
Our glorious Leader claims our praise
For His own pattern giv’n;
While the long cloud of witnesses
Show the same path to Heav’n.

When we began the last verse, I couldn’t hear the first word.  The 2nd was fantastic!  In looking at possible reasons for this, we practiced looking at the last word of the previous verse for only one beat.  Then we moved our eyes to the beginning of the next verse.  (Looking quickly from the last line on the page to the top line is a great skill to have.  It only takes practicing it once or twice.)  Taking a breath on the last beat at the end of the previous verse is also important.

Sometimes a hymn “breathes” better by adding time between verses.  In this case, the singers were fine with the method I described.

There is only one way to tell what works ~ sing it yourself!  If you are gasping for air, then you need to add time between verses.

(You can see the score at www.CyberHymnal.com.  The public domain file is in a format that could not be uploaded here.)

The Spacious Firmament on High

This is sung to the tune of Haydn’s chorus “The Heavens are Telling” from “The Creation.”

We encountered some syllabification issues.  In verse 1, “E-the-real” is printed beneath 2 quarter notes for “real.”  So, would you sing “re-al?”  No.  My reasons:  you never say that word in 2 syllables in standard English; and that part of the word is not hyphenated in the score.  We got through the “re” part of the word quickly, going to the “ah” vowel right away.

“Th’ unwearied sun” ~ not so clear, is it?  Someone asked whether we should sing “thun.”  We changed it to “the unwearied sun” in the interest of clarity.  “Th'” and “un” both belong on the same quarter note.

Verse 3, line 2 ~ “What tho’ no re-al voice nor sound”  Hmmm… same problem as before.  “Re-al sung on 2 separate notes?  Never heard it that way.  The 2 notes are the same pitch.  A clue!  We imagined that the 2 notes were tied, sung as a whole note.  So “re” lasted for a dotted half note.  Then everyone morphed to the “al” part of the word for the last quarter note.  It’s important not to accent “al,” and not to use a glottal stop.  That resulted in a unified group singing an understandable word!

The chorus took a breath at the end of every line of text.  The lines are way too long for a different breathing scheme to work easily.

We recorded one version with softer dynamics to illustrate the text “evening shade” and “solemn silence.”  The producer said it didn’t work.  I think that if we had had more rehearsal time, it may have.  Additionally, we were in a thickly carpeted space which absorbed sound.

Watchman, Tell Us of the Night

I am familiar with this text, but to a different tune.  One chorus member had had similar experience.

We went for variety in two ways.  First, a singer suggested that the women start the hymn, alternating lines with the men.  The words work very well that way!  Each group sang in unison.

Second, we stressed the quarters and dotted quarters to make the best use of, and draw attention to, the 6/8 meter.

​​Broad is the road that leads to death (“Windham”)

Music by Isaac Watts, text by Daniel Read

One singer knows this hymn well, having sung in Sacred Harp sings many times.  She gave us the tempo.

Our score was printed in shape notes, which are difficult to read at first.  Also, the text is printed between the voice parts, with only one verse in each available space.  With both unusual printing problems appearing in the same hymn, this took some getting used to.  We sang through it several times.

Sacred Harp sings are done with the singers’ sound flat out there, so that’s what we did.  It is an unschooled schooled sound.  So in that way, this hymn also added  variety to our recording.

The producer said we weren’t starting together.  We looked at the first word, “broad.”  There are so many different sounds!  Someone asked if we should roll the “r.”  A congregation wouldn’t do that, so we didn’t, either.  Instead, we exploded the beginning of the word, getting through the “br” quickly.  When everyone did that, arriving at the open vowel, we were together.

One singer apologized for making a mistake, and wanted to record the first verse again.  This time, I found myself using the largest conducting motions of the afternoon, resulting in a defined ritard and a convincing ending.

Verse 2

Deny thyself and take thy cross,
Is the Redeemers great command;
Nature must count her gold but dross,
If she would gain this heavenly land.

Verse 3 
The fearful soul that tires and faints,
And walks the ways of God no more,
Is but esteemed almost a saint,
And makes his own destruction sure.

Verse 4
Lord, Let not all my hopes be vain,
Create my heart entirely new,
Which hypocrites could ne’er attain,
Which false apostates never knew.​

The Lament of the Irish Emigrant​

Although this was on the chorus list, the second page includes a cadenza!  We attempted the first page and a half with 2 sopranos, but things fell apart rather predictably.  A soloist will record this piece.

You can view portions of the music and text at this link.

Looking ahead

In a future post, I will talk about recording the piano music for the DVD.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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