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Testimonials and Lesson Plans

Jenny Tisi, Pasadena, CA   

I just had one of the best moments of my 31years of teaching. I left excited. Kids left excited. What happened? Well, it’s pretty geeky, so if you like music theory, grab a cup of coffee and a comfy seat.


I have been editing Don's book on choral Intonation for just about a year now. When I first started, I knew absolutely nothing about the overtone series and Just Intonation. Once I started reading, I wanted to know more about the possibility of transforming how I approach intonation and other rehearsal strategies for my choirs.


My last rehearsal with my 6th -12th graders was last Wednesday. I knew that at the bottom of this first page of Esenvald's “I Believe”, the Basses were going to have difficulty finding their entrance pitch. My old way of thinking would be to think that they cannot find their pitch for 2 reasons:


1. We are in the key of D, they need to come in on a B, and no where in the melody on the first page is there a single B for them to find their note.


2. Out of nowhere, Basses have to come in on a IV chord in 1st inversion. A G chord. We talked about both issues and talked about how Basses sing the root and the 5th a lot in chords, but to have their first chord, many measures into an a cappella piece, be the 3rd of a chord was hard. We tried unsuccessfully hammering away at it. I needed information to make this work.


I asked Don why the Basses were having a hard time. I told him my logic. He smiled. Of course I then knew my reasons were not the reasons. The reasons?


The piece is in D. My kids now know all about the overtone series since I started reading this book. They know that overtones are part of nature. We get nature. It’s part of us. They know that every pitch has its own overtone series. They know that it is easy to find the 5th of D (A) because it’s part of the overtone series and is the second overtone in the series. I looked up the overtones of D in the appendix of the book:


D (fundamental) D A D F# A C D E F# G# A Bb C C# D


What note do you not see in the overtone series for D? B. That means finding B is more difficult because it’s not sounding. What note do the Basses have to find out of nowhere? B. Not only a B, but a B in a G chord, and G is also not in the overtone series for D. Double Whammy. So....where will this B come from? Score study to the rescue.


I looked at the tune that the sopranos and Altos sing for the 22 measures before the Basses enter. There are 8 short phrases of this tune before they enter and every phrase ends on an E. So......E. What is easy to find from E? B. Why? It’s the 5th of E, which is the 2nd overtone of E. The choristers can easily find the 5th of any note. I’ve trained them to do that over the past 2 months. Tonight, a week later, I had everyone sing the soprano and alto melody. When they got to the E, at the end of each phrase, I had them hold it, then think the 5th (B), then sing it. They sang it after each E perfectly and easily. I had them sing the lower B (sol under do) each time. The last step. I had the sopranos and altos sing the melody from the beginning. At each E, I asked the Basses to internalize the B (the 5th) in their head. And by all miracles, when we got to their entrance, everyone sang the most perfectly in tune G 1st inversion chord with the Basses rocking their B. They were amazed. I was amazed. It was pure joy. I bowed to them. They giggled. These are not auditioned singers. These are 6th-12th grade church choir kids, most of which do not have music as a class in their schools.


After rehearsal, I went in to where the choir was having youth dinner. I saw a bunch of choir kids and thanked them for geeking out with me on theory. They all thought it was fun. One of my 7th grade sopranos said, “I want to know more about the music.” I asked her what she meant. She said, “I know how to count and name notes, but I want to know more.” I said, “So you want to know music theory?” She said, “Yeah. It’s cool.” My day is made. How many years have I sold my kids short because I didn’t think they could possibly grasp something? The truth is, I did not have the tools to teach it. So...I needed information and I got it. They learned it faster and easier than anything I would have tried before. Yes, the book is dense and rich. It may take a few reads, but oh so worth it. I can't wait to dig deeper.

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