The Power of One: Unison Works for Developing Choirs
by David Edmonds, R&S Chair for Women's Choirs
October 1, 2014
Choosing repertoire for a choral ensemble can be a time-consuming and tiresome process that all of us, as choir directors, must go through countless times in our careers. Yet each laborious cycle of picking concert literature is also an opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the prodigiously voluminous body of extant choral music. Often, our greatest challenge is balancing the desire to expose our singers to the greatest works in the literature with giving them works that are immediately accessible and supportive of their progress as musicians and singers. Too often we fall into the trap of giving our young choirs overly challenging pieces in eight, twelve or even more parts that make extreme musical and vocal demands on our developing singers they simply aren't ready for. These pieces actually inhibit the vocal and musical development of our young singers as they struggle simply to hold their own part. Basic choral tone, vowel and blend often are casualties in this battle of over-programming.
Occasionally, however, we find pieces that satisfy both of the afore-mentioned criteria of being well-crafted and good for our singers' development. One such group of works in this vein that is often overlooked, especially in choirs with young and developing singers, is unison songs. Below are five benefits of including a unison song on your next program:
Improved choral tone. There is arguably no better vehicle for improving a choir's tone in a shorter amount of time than a unison selection. Time traditionally spent on teaching multiple parts is significantly reduced and can instead be spent on honing the vocal technique and tone of the full choir. Generally, solo works from the standard repertoire are written exceptionally well for the voice see "Tips for selecting a unison piece" below) and are excellent mediums through which the individuals of the group may grow in their vocal progress. I firmly believe that a large part of our job as choir directors is to teach our young choir members how to sing and I have found no better tool than the unison song.
Audiences love them. Most of our audiences aren't full of other choral musicians with acutely discerning tastes when it comes to vowel, blend, intonation and the like. Our typical audiences may or may not have very much experience on which to draw when listening critically to a choral performance. One quality of a choir's performance, however, that I have found impresses audiences more than any other is a choir's tone. When receiving feedback from audience members about a particular concert, I typically receive the most positive comments about the unison pieces. Frequently, the audience members can't pin down exactly why they liked a particular song; they just know it sounded great. It stands to reason, then, that the unison pieces on the program are often audience favorites, because they help to make the choir sound full and resonant with beautiful tone.
Ready-Made solos. Though this benefit may only apply to a negligible number of your singers, I have found it to be helpful in a few cases. Once your choir learns a unison piece together, they ALL have a solo piece ready to go for any upcoming contest or audition they might encounter. If careful steps are taken to choose quality unison literature and to teach the choir to use their best technique and musicianship, then you can be quite certain that each of them will be well prepared to use that song in other situations.
Money-savers. We're continually asked to do more with less money. That's one reason why it's so beneficial to include music in the public domain on our programs. By utilizing sites such as Choral Public Domain Library (cpdl.org) and International Music Score Library Project (imslp.org) you can find thousands of works written by many of the greatest composers published up through the first quarter of the 20th century in PDF formats. You can then print, duplicate and distribute these works to your choirs for just the cost of running the copy machine. Haven't used these sites yet? Just do a simple Internet search for something like "Mozart Ave Verum PDF" and see what comes up.
Confidence Builder. Your students, just like your audience, will appreciate hearing the wonderful, big, confident sounds they create while singing their unison selections. There is strength in numbers and this fact is used to the greatest effect in a choir's unison songs. Even though it should seem intuitive to the singers—when they all sing the same thing at the same time it will sound stronger—in my experience young choir members either don't rationalize it this way or they simply don't care. All
they know is—we sound great.
Tips for selecting a unison piece
If you've never included a unison piece on a choir program, you may not even realize the huge body of literature with which you're dealing. Every solo song in every genre (opera, oratorio, art song, folk song, etc.) can potentially be utilized in this manner. To help sort through the mountains of choices, here then are a few tips when selecting an appropriate unison piece for your choir:
Range and Tessitura. Because you're dealing with all voices singing the same line, you'll inevitably encounter issues with range and tessitura. Try to find something that does not spend too much time in either extreme of the range. A quick rule of thumb is to look for pieces that stay on the staff (I use the treble staff in both cases, and simply transpose down an octave for the men.) In other words, look for a range of about E4 up to F5 for women or E3 to F4 for men. Occasional excursions outside of this range are probably manageable without alterations to the music, but in some cases an extra vocal line in very brief passages may be needed to accommodate all voices. Also, don't forget that you can often transpose your piece to fit the choir. Today's music software can make this quick and easy. If you're a purist, just remember that there wasn't even a truly recognized international standard of pitch until the mid 1900's! Often, you can find multiple keys of pieces already online
(think about all those books of solos for "high voice" and "low voice". Many of these are already in the public domain.)
Go with the greats. Though it may go without saying, when choosing a unison piece, it truly pays dividends to select works by the outstanding composers in each generation. Not only do these composers have excellent music sensitivities, but they also know how to write for the voice extremely well. They know which vowels work best in the extreme ranges and they know how to build a phrase so that the voice is set up for success. When you're trying to lead young singers through consistent vocal improvement, you can use all the help you can get. Composers who understand how to effectively approach and leave the most difficult areas of the voice are the biggest boon to a teacher dealing with developing voices. How do you know if a piece is written well for the voice? Sing it yourself!
Speed and Agility. While speed and agility are certainly two vocal abilities we want our singers to possess, songs that place high demands on these qualities in our singers are often not the best choice for a unison choir selection. Pieces containing long, florid melismas at quick tempos or pieces that contain frequent, expansive leaps often create problems that are only compounded in a group setting. While I have certainly used several 'up tempo' unison pieces with my choirs, I am always careful to be sure that the piece is manageable and will be encouraging, not discouraging to the development of the singers.
Ten Selections For Starters
The following is a short list of unison works I have chosen based on their accessibility, their strong musical merit, their audience appeal, and their level of effectiveness in facilitating good technique and musicianship in a choral ensemble. Many of these pieces work well for either men's choirs or women's choirs. (Sometimes a change in the text might be warranted to reflect the differing gender of the singers than that originally intended.)
These pieces are listed alphabetically by composer.
**All pieces are unison unless otherwise indicated.
**Note: any reference to a piece below as "Public Domain" is not a permission to copy the works. Please undertake the appropriate research into copyright information for each piece before duplicating a score.
"Wie Melodien" (from Fünf Lieder, Op. 105)
This much-loved art song by Brahms opens with a swiftly rising melody (even if one takes a slower tempo based on Brahms' "Zart" indication at the beginning of the score), quickly ascending into the upper register before falling back to the middle-low range just as quickly. This arching phrase structure occurs throughout the piece and serves as a wonderful teaching tool for choirs of all kinds. German secular text.
"The Sally Gardens"
arr. Benjamin Britten
Boosey & Hawkes
Though there are many arrangements of this famous melody setting a W. B. Yeats poem, Britten's stands out from the rest due to the imaginative accompaniment he employs. The simple, sparse piano part makes a vivid comment on this song of love and loss and adds greatly to the beauty of the song. As in the Brahms above, a gently arching phrase shape will help your singers successfully manage their upper and middle registers throughout the piece. English secular text.
"Art Thou Troubled" (from Rodelinda)
G.F. Händel/arr. Jean Ashworth-Bartle
Hinshaw Music, Inc.
This is a lovely piece by a master composer. This edition is well arranged with an English text that still manages to put efficient vowels up in the high register for the voice. A contrasting "B" section adds variety to this da capo aria. English secular text.
"Dove sei, amato bene" (from Rodelinda)
This is the original version of "Art Thou Troubled". The disadvantage of this score is that it is in a 3/8 meter and is not as immediately readable as it's English version listed above. Though it's a half-step down from "Art Thou Troubled", which can be beneficial, if you think your students would struggle with this somewhat odd meter, go with the Ashworth-Bartle arrangement. Otherwise, this is a beautiful aria that your choir will love to sing. Italian secular text.
"Ombra mai fu" (from Serse)
This brief yet gorgeous aria, the melody of which is often known as "Handel's Largo", was originally intended for a countertenor voice. (YouTube Andreas Scholl singing this for an excellent performance example.) The opening note alone will improve your choir's tone on the "Oh" vowel and this piece offers multiple opportunities to build beautifully arching phrase shapes while smoothly covering slightly more than an octave of their range. The piece draws to a strong and lovely climax on the word "piú", perfect for encouraging head resonance in your singers. Italian secular text.
"Lascia ch'io pianga" (from Rinaldo)
Another beautiful and accessible aria, "Lascia" sets up the voice well with manageable leaps on vowels that will encourage more head tone from your singers. Particularly beautiful is the gently ascending scalar melisma on the word "sospiri". A da capo aria with a nicely contrasting "B" section. Italian secular text.
"Come Ready and See Me" (from Eight Songs for Voice and Piano)
Boosey & Hawkes
A simple, but beautiful setting of a poignant poem by James Purdy, your choir will love singing this piece. Available in multiple keys, this song will be a favorite of singers and audience members alike. English secular text.
"I Love All Graceful Things"
Eric H. Thiman
J. Curwen & Sons Ltd
"I love all things that move with grace". So begins this classic setting of a simple and pleasant poem. With its beautifully mellifluous melody, this piece is arguably Thiman's most well known work. The gently rising and falling vocal line takes the singers up smoothly into the upper passaggio setting them up for success in the upper register.
"The Call" (from Five Mystical Songs)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
This very short solo is particular well suited to men's voices and is an exciting piece for singers and audiences alike. Though there are some rhythmic challenges due to the mixed meter, the piece is largely written in halfnotes and quarter-notes and can be learned rather quickly. What's more, the vocal line is made-to-order for young male singers who are working into their upper registers. English sacred text.
"Orpheus With His Lute" (from Three Songs From Shakespeare)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Oxford University Press
Equally useful with men or women, this lyrical art song includes an undulating melody that gently rises and falls leading the voice with ease into the upper register for a lovely climactic moment before floating back down to the final cadence. English secular text.
David Edmonds is Director of Choral Studies at the University of Montana, Missoula. He can be reached HERE