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Art of Listening: Finding the Receptive Sound

September 27, 2015

A musician's ears "wake up" to different layers of listening-awareness throughout their musical life. In nearly forty years of musical engagement, my ears have had a number of a-ha's, but the one that haunts me to this day occurred thirteen years ago, when I realized I wasn't singing in tune. It was and continues to be a point of deep humbling. I've made vast improvements in my intonation, but have come to accept I'll never sing perfectly in tune though I've committed to spending the rest of my life devotedly trying to attain this sonic oneness. The closer my intonation gets, the stronger my ear gets. It's like trying to touch infinity, or experience true nothingness. It's always just out of reach.

 

At the time of this discovery, I was singing while playing accordion. My spacious room was brightly reverberant because it had a tile floor and contained very little beyond myself and the accordion. I awoke to the discord of the mingling of my voice and my instrument, and thinking it was merely a mistake, I repeated the section I had just played. The discord remained. I played the section over and over without any improvement. I repeated the section slower and slower until I was playing one note per breath. This was the moment I discovered long tones and long tone singing. After a long while of this practice, I emerged from my room, shaken but also galvanized by my discoveries.

 

I told my housemate and good friend, Jessika, who was already an accomplished singer at the time, about my findings. Her response burned weirdly deep in my memory. She said, "You'll go far with that."

 

I continued singing long tones in unison with my accordion every day for a while, but I eventually felt I had made enough improvement that I could devote myself to the more flashy pursuits of song-writing and various accordion techniques. Some years passed. I grew tired of my piece-meal job and house-show gig life, and decided to pursue a degree in music.

 

Once in college, I threw myself into writing and playing accordion and vocal music. I was on fire. I wrote a plethora of new songs, and then began a process of migrating from song-writing into music composition. As my musical ideas became more complex, the demands on my musicianship grew. This required longer practicing, and by the end of my second year in college, I developed such pain in my wrists that I had to stop playing accordion entirely.

 

If accordion had been my "thing," I would have relearned how to play the instrument in a way that put less strain on my wrists. What this physical limitation did, however, was redirect my focus into composition. The only other instrument I felt any draw toward was the human voice, so I studied vocal technique, and started to experiment with composing for and directing vocal groups. In the midst of all this, my ears "woke up" once again to the fact that I still wasn't singing in tune. Once again I played long tones on my accordion, and practiced singing unisons as well as other intervals with the accordion drone.

 

At this point, I explained my process to another excellent singer and friend, Jeppa, who had sung in the Seattle Harmonic Voices, a choir which sang long tones with reinforced harmonics. Her response was an exact echo of Jessika's six years earlier: "You'll go far with that." Apparently, synchronicities can take six years to fully ripen.

 

From that point on, long tone singing has remained a major part of my life, as a daily mindfulness and vocal practice, as a method I teach, as a medium for composition, as a medium of healing, and as the foundation of my main music project, the Long Tone Choir. I have indeed come far with long tone singing, and my journey continues.

 

There are many ways to approach, practice and experience long tone singing. My experiences and perceptions of it are not the only truth of the medium, but they're what interest me, what I hope for from the singers that perform my compositions, and what I try to bring forth in my students. So now, without further ado, I present to you...

 

the official Long Tone Choir long tone singing method

 

1. Long tone singing is a relatively equal balance of receptivity and activity. This differs greatly from traditional Western vocal practice, which is far more outwards and active in its methods. In traditional Western voice technique, vibrato is employed so the singer's effort can be poured into greater volume and emotional intensity, at the sacrifice of true and steady intonation. In long tone singing, however, the singer's attention is directed towards the mingling of their own pitch with the other audible pitch/es present. With their attention thus on both listening and sounding, their interest and intent naturally turn to tuning their own pitch more closely with the other pitch/es in the space. In maintaining a balance of both sounding (giving) and listening (receiving), singers feel nourished rather than depleted at the end of a toning session.

 

2. Long tone singing is gentling. In order for this practice to be gentle, singers must maintain an awareness of their body. If a singer becomes aware of a feeling of strain or any other discomfort, it's then time to refocus their attention on listening, breathing, body awareness and receptivity. Only once they've made the proper adjustments in their posture, breath, attention and intention, can they safely resume singing long tones. Also, because singers are listening as much as they are sounding, the resultant sound of the long tone should be gentle. To accomplish this, a proper sound envelope for a long tone should be an initially quiet (p) and gentle attack that crescendo's into a mid-range volume (mp or mf), and then decrescendo's into a quiet (p) ending.

 

3. Long tone singing occurs and is measured in the individual singer's own breath time. That said, singers should still aim for good sound and intonation throughout their toning, so the sound will need to be cut off before the very last bit of breath is expelled. Otherwise the intonation will go uncontrollably flat, and the tone may altogether crack and generally deteriorate. In entering into the timing of one's breath, singers enter into an organic and changeable experience of time, which reconnects them to the fact that they are an animal and a part of nature, rather than a machine that operates at a programmed and unfluctuating pulse.

 

There is certainly more to it than these three points, but these are, in my experience and intention, the corner-stones of long tone singing. Apparently it is a triangular building, but it is also rich and complex, containing an infinity of exploration.

 

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