Friday, May 30, 2008

Voice versus Instrument, Round 1

In my copious amounts of free time, I've been reading from a book by Dr. Maragaret Lucy Wilkins entitled Creative Music Composition: The Young Composer's Voice. I find this book extremely fascinating for mainly two reasons. The first is that it is about music. Anything about music, in my opinion, is worth reading. The second reason, however, is that Dr. Wilkins is British, and she uses a slightly different vocabulary and approach when it comes to music and pedagogy. Whereas an American musician, such as myself, grew up hearing such banal terms as 'quarter note', 'half note', and the oh-so-exotic 'sixty-fourth note', our British counterparts use the interesting terms 'crotchet', 'minim', and 'hemidemisemiquaver', respectively. How is that for a mouthful?

It didn't take long, of course, for a controversy to arise in the reading betwixt the sweet vocal genre and the beloved instrumental genre. In fact, I hadn't even approached the second chapter before I was struck with this befuddling truth about the vocal world. When trying to advocate the use of special workshops or clinics to have student compositions performed, Dr. Wilkins writes:
The use of a choir in workshop situations had proved more problematic than the use of instrumental ensembles. This is because student and amateur singers need much more time to learn new works than competent instrumentalists, who are capable of sight-reading music very quickly. (p.11)

Now, before all the vocalists stomp their feet in outrage, notice the words 'student' and 'amateur' in regards to the type of vocalist that has problems learning new material quickly. A professional singer should be able to sight-read a piece perfectly, but the world of the student singer is very different. Of course, there is an exception to every rule, and that works on both sides of the musical fence. Just as there are some student singers who are able to sight-read extremely well, there are also instrumentalists who have trouble reading scores. Some instrumentalists have stronger talents in other areas such as playing by ear or playing from memory.

The important element to take from this whole discussion, however, is that vocal music and instrumental music are unique to themselves, bringing about their own challenges and advantages. One is not ultimately better than the other, but one may be more relevant or pragmatic for a certain compositional situation than the other. When you compose, always keep in mind the abilities of your performers because they will make or break you.

If you are interested in reading more from this book for your own knowledge, you may find it here at a pretty reasonable price. By all means, feel free to shop around; I'm not endorsing one particular company over another. This book is NOT a requirement for the course, so don't feel obligated to purchase it. I also have a copy I may decide to loan out after I have finished reading it.


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