Editor’s Note: Last winter, NCAKE was preparing for the spring workshop to be given by our own members, when an opportunity arose that we could not ignore: The American Boychoir School, directed by Fernando Malvar- Ruiz, a Sarolta Kodály scholarship winner at the Kodály Institute in Kécskemet, Hungary, was coming to San Francisco and would be happy to present a workshop for NCAKE. We jumped at the chance. Here is a report on the workshop.
On Saturday, April 24th, 2010, NCAKE hosted Fernando Malvar- Ruiz and the American Boychoir for a workshop entitled, “Music Literacy in Rehearsal & Warming Up: A Demonstration with the American Boychoir.” The event was held at the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland.
Malvar-Ruiz and the choir began the workshop with a physical warm-up led by one of the singers; Malvar-Ruiz noted that the boys tend to follow their peers better than an adult. In both warm-ups and performance, the singers were allowed to move their bodies expressively as they sang. The conductor explained that the movement keeps the boys relaxed and creates better singing.
The choir moved on to breath next. Malvar-Ruiz recommended spending half of the warm-up on breath at the beginning of the rehearsal process with a choir. The choir then demonstrated different vocalizations for gently stretching and warming up the voice. Malvar-Ruiz approaches his warm-ups with a “top down” philosophy, bringing the head voice down into the lower register to help singers move gracefully through the passagio.
Throughout the warm-up the conductor used imagery to engage the singers, telling them, for example, to stand as though they were “hanging from the ceiling.” For his diction warm-ups, Malvar-Ruiz asked the students not to let their mouths flap like Muppets, with a raised, tight neck, but like nutcrackers, with the jaw lowering as though being pulled by an imaginary string. To achieve a light, gentle staccato the boys imagined that they were “walking on thin ice that you don’t want to break.”
For another exercise, the boys were asked to use their voices to throw darts from overhead to the back of the room. Malvar-Ruiz explained that he usually started by dictating where the darts were thrown and then asking them to throw darts at the accompanist and finally at him. The boys gleefully demonstrated this last direction.
The second section of the workshop focused on what Malvar-Ruiz calls the boy’s “evolving voice.” (He prefers the term “evolving” to “changing” for its positive connotation of growth and improvement.) For the workshop, members of the choir stood up and sang individually on an “ah” vowel, showing that their voices represented a spectrum from pure treble to fully adult voice. Many workshop attendees found this experience invaluable in understanding the boy’s evolving voice.
First and foremost, Malvar-Ruiz stressed, it is essential to keep a boy singing during the time when his voice is changing. When you tell a boy to stop singing, you may lose them to singing altogether. A conductor who asks boys to take a break from singing is communicating that growing up is wrong, that this change is embarrassing and should be concealed. Malvar-Ruiz has his singers continue performing throughout their vocal evolution, working with each boy individually. Boys who are experiencing a time of limited range may only sing one or two notes in a song and mouth the rest of the words. In some songs, one way to include evolving voice boys is to have them sing soprano or mezzo an octave down.
For teachers who work with mixed middle school choruses, Malvar- Ruiz suggested that evolving voice boys sometimes sing together with no girls present, to help create a sense of camaraderie among the boys and avoid them feeling awkward in front of girls. The point is to take each boy as an individual in order to really understand his voice.
After a presentation by Jennifer Cooper, Education Director for the San Francisco Boys Chorus (and incoming NCAKE President), about the use of the Kodály philosophy in the SFBC musicianship curriculum, the workshop concluded with a presentation on musical literacy in the American Boychoir. Malvar- Ruiz employs what he calls a “ludic approach,” making music-making playful, not a chore.
Malvar-Ruiz and his singers demonstrated a number of methods for practicing literacy in a playful manner. The first activities were variations using Curwen hand signs. The conductor would hum either individual pitches or a melody and the boys would sing back and show hand signs. They also sang directly from hand signs or memorized with inner hearing from the conductor’s hand signs and then sang back, as well as singing in harmony from the conductor’s hand signs. The choir also showed the attendees a game they called “Simon.” One boy sings a note; the next boy adds a note; the next boy adds a note, etc; and at the conductor’s cue, the choir sings the whole melody. The boys also demonstrated how they play with pentatonic and diatonic scales and modes. Finally, the choir sight-sang several pieces and did some on-the-spot musical analysis. It was an impressive demonstration of musical skill and an inspiring ending to a highly enjoyable workshop.