Melisma??? Melis-YOU!!!

So last night in rehearsal we started to move away from the da-da-da technique of singing melismas.  Melismas are long phrases of notes that are sung to one syllable of a word.  Think of the GLORIA refrain in the Christmas carol, ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH.  You sing a lot of notes on the GLORIA.  This was a technique of writing music that showed vocal prowess and virtuosity in the Baroque, but had its origin in Gregorian Chant.

In MESSIAH, there are plenty of movements that use this technique.  Handel was a brilliant composer; his music is so exciting because of the melismas.  But, for singers that are not used to singing in this style, it can be quite challenging.  Singing a melisma takes a lot of breath support, physical stamina, articulation, and vocal agility.  Most amateur singers have one of those four.  The breath management to sing these melismas require a constant "refreshing" of the breath.  If you would, imagine a dog panting.  Now do it quickly.  That is the type of breath management singers have to do with melismas.  To build the agility, singers need to practice hitting all the notes accurately at a slow tempo before attempting the articulations of Baroque styling.  One way to assist this is to have the singers sing the melismas using a soft consonant, like a D, plus the vowel that is to be sung.  For instance, if the word is GLORY, the singer would sing all the notes of the melisma with a DAW syllable.  Once all the notes are learned accurately, you can replace the D with an ever-so-slight H to give articulation to the melismatic pattern.  In MESSIAH, there are many eighth and sixteenth-note melismas.

Here is a preferred example:

Here is a less-than-preferred example:

Notice in the second example there isn't the crispness of the rhythm or notes.  In fact, one might even say it is "gooey" like syrup pouring over pancakes, where the first example is more like rain drops falling on a tin roof.

The articulation is so important when doing Baroque music.  The Choral Society moved from the DAs last night to adding the Hs of articulation and the music started to dance and come alive.  Six weeks to go and I think the singers will have all the requirements to successfully perform the music--breath management, articulation, agility, and breath support.



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