So You Think You Can Sing?

I was never a better musician than my sister. Perhaps that’s why she’s the music teacher and I’m not. Nevertheless, we are both in the Discourse of music. A musician can be one who plays an instrument, sings, conducts, and/or composes, but for this analysis music will remain in the confines of singers. In Darcy A. Fiano’s research paper titled “Primary Discourse and Expressive Oral Language in a Kindergarten Student” she outlines James Gee’s seven key analytical questions. The seven tools are called building tasks and they include: Significance, Practices(Activities), Identities, Relationships, Politics, Connections, and Sign systems and knowledge. These seven building tasks can be used to analyze the community of musicians. Through observations of a high school chorus class one can analyze the building tasks of identities, politics, and relationships. When looking at a simple musical term book one can get a better picture as to what the language is like and therefore analyze the building task of sign systems and knowledge. Music is everywhere, and in many different ways.

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Some musicians don’t have the privilege that I have had. My dad is a music teacher and has been since before I was born, my uncle is a composer and plays the french horn, and my mom is a singer, pianist and clarinetist.

My Dad playing for my Senior Recital

You could say that music was a part of my life long before I was born. Hence why I believe music is part of my primary Discourse. Gee defines Discourses as “ways of being in the world; they are forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities”(Gee 6–7). In simplest terms, Discourses are the clubs you are in, the sports teams you are on, the church you go to, the work you do, etc.,. Everyone has at least one Discourse and that is their primary Discourse- that is, “the one we first use to make sense of the world and interact with others”(Gee 7). I made sense of the world through music. When I was a baby we didn’t play with a toy, we sat on our father’s lap and “played” the piano. To understand what it means to be a musician one must be a part of a chorus or band, although just joining a chorus doesn’t make you part of the Discourse. Anyone can be a part of the local chorus but only members of the Discourse would know how to sing properly. For example, it may be common knowledge that to sing one must extract the notes from his/her diaphragm, but only members of the Discourse would physically know how to do that. Equally as important is the family system of a chorus. The audience only judges a chorus by the notes sang during their concert, but a member of the Discourse would see the love and connection between members of the chorus or the disconnect between members of the chorus. Simple things like thoughtfulness in breathes and clothing choices make musicians unique to any other activity or sport.

Bonny Eagle Select Chorus at Maine State House

Identities in a Chorus

Just as a team is made up of players, and a club is made up of members, so a chorus is made up of singers. Each singer has a specific role in making the chorus function together and it is important to know how they work together. Fiano would call those roles, identities. In evaluating the identities in any Discourse, one should ask themselves, “How are situated meanings, social languages, figured worlds, intertextuality, Discourses, and conversations being used to enact and depict identities (socially significant kinds of people)?”(Fiano 3). In other words, what is being used to show specific roles in a Discourse. In a chorus, there are four general roles, or sections (not including the pianist or conductor): Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass.

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  • A Soprano singer has a very high female voice
  • An alto has a lower female voice
  • A tenor has a high male voice
  • A bass has a very low male voice

Although there are more sub-sections, if you will, these four will give you an insight into the identities of each section. Being awfully general, the soprano section will sing the melody, or the principal part of the song. If you ever have a song stuck in your head, you can blame the sopranos. Next we have the two middle sections, the altos, and the tenors. They typically both sing harmony. They aren’t noticed as much as the sopranos because they compliment the soprano’s melodic line. Finally, we have the basses. The basses keep everything together, so if anything goes wrong we blame the basses. They may sing the same note twenty times in a row, but that note is the framework that holds the pitch, or sound, together.

It is very important for a chorus to have each of these sections because each section relies on the other for musical cues or notes during a rehearsal. A chorus is just like a sports team, without just one section the entire team may fall apart.

Musical Terms = New Language

There are many terms used in music that aren’t used in other Discourses and many of them come from the latin language. Some of these include adagio, meaning slow speed, tonality, in relation to the organization of tones and harmonies, and sforzando, indicating a note to be forcefully accented.

This group of new words and the way musicians use them to communicate may be classified into the building task of Sign Systems and Knowledge. Fiano defines Sign Systems and Knowledge as, “The relevant sign systems (e.g., languages, social languages) and forms of knowledge (ways of knowing) that are relevant in a context and how they are used and privileged or disprivileged”(Fiano 67).

The essence of this building task is to evaluate how musicians use words to communicate. The Glossary of musical terms from Khan Academy provides a few basic words that are commonly used by musicians to communicate. The Italian word Fermata is “A symbol that tells the performer to hold the note as long as s/he would like, but certainly longer than the written note value.”(Glossary of musical terms). Typically the length of the note is up to the discretion of the conductor, but when a singer sees this symbol in a piece of music, they instinctively look to the conductor.

When I was observing a chorus rehearsal one day, I heard one girl say, “There is a fermata there, so remember to look at Mr. Thomas.” Notice that she didn’t define or explain what a fermata was. She didn’t need to. It was common knowledge that a fermata symbol was an indication of a held out note. Another common term in music is “key”. According to Khan Academy, key is defined as, “A group of pitches based on a particular tonic, and comprising a scale, regarded as forming the tonal basis of a piece or section of music.” The key of a song essentially tells the singer how much higher or lower the notes should be sung. Now, knowing the definition is one thing, but knowing how to find the key of any given song is a skill only those in the Discourse have. In order to know the key of a song, one must know how to read music, recognize a flat or sharp, and recall basic music rules. It is no small task, but questions like, “what key are we in?” or “what does that word mean?” are questions that all musicians need to be able to answer.

Relationships: Among Singers

Strong relationships are key in most sports teams, clubs, and other Discourses and they are no less important, if not more important, in the choral singing. When a chorus sees a fermata, they look to the conductor for the lead. When the conductor gives the signal, the chorus stops. This is exactly the type of a relationship that can be evaluated using Fiano’s questions, “What sort of relationship or relationships is this piece of language seeking to enact with others?”(Fiano 83). This suggests looking at who interacts with who in the Discourse and why those relationships are important.

In observing a High School Chorus class there were interactions between individual students, students and the conductor, and groups of students to other groups of students.

As was mentioned earlier, in a basic four-part chorus there are four sections. Each section sings different notes and when they are all sung at the same time they create a song. Now if one section messes up, all of the other sections can get messed up as well. That is why it is important for each section to be listening to each other and watching each other to keep that connection.

Pure Connection

Relationships: Singers and Conductors

Another very important relationship is between the conductor and the chorus. When watching a performance a non member may think the conductor is simply waving his hands around, yet in all reality, he is keeping the chorus together.

With each hand gesture from the conductor, Dr. Paul McGovern, comes a reaction from the chorus, Southern Maine Community Chorus.

With each hand gesture comes a reaction from the chorus. For example, if a conductor begins to lower his hands that means he wants the chorus to get softer and the chorus will do just that. All that being said, when a chorus gets really comfortable with each other, they can sometimes conduct themselves.

Here for link.

In my high school chorus experience, there were many songs that the conductor sat in the audience for. He had helped us get our feet on the ground, but eventually we became so insinc and connected that we could perform without him. We were such good friends outside of classroom that we were able to interact so well as to perform on our own. It is pertinent that the singers, the sections, the chorus and the conductor all have strong relationships with each other for the “team” to function properly.

Values: Unity, Stress Relief, and “The Arts”

Taken from Fiano’s analysis, the building task of Politics asks the questions “What perspective on social goods is this piece of language communicating…”(Fiano 83). Essentially the question asks, what are the values of this Discourse. In my observation of a high school chorus class, the question of correct concert dress came up. For this class, and for most choruses, the typical concert dress is a white top and black bottoms, or all black. The reason they all wear the same thing boils down to values. They want the audience to understand they are united.

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They are one chorus, and they intend to sing as one. The conductor of the Southern Maine Youth Chorale often reminded us singers that chorus is all about sounding like one voice, not about who has the best voice or the brightest pink shirt. Choral musicians should value unity in vocal tone and in dress. Musicians also have strong belief that the arts are important. In the class observation, the students were discussing their next fundraiser, selling Yankee Candles. It may be common knowledge that band and chorus programs are the first to go when districts face budget cuts, but what many don’t know is that music class is sometimes the best part of the day for students. In the school I was observing, their school board was threatening to cancel the 5th Grade band program, an important building block for band musicians. When word got out, kids, teachers and parents from every band, chorus and art class in the district got together and fought for their 5th Grade band program, and won. Thinking back to when I was in high school, my conductor was the teacher everyone went to when they were stressed or sick or worried, and chorus class was the class they escaped to in times of trouble. Musicians realize that it is important for every kid to have music to turn to when they have nothing else. This love for the arts and belief that music can be peace and therapy after a long day of classes doesn’t end at the high school or even college level.

Although not all are shown in this snapshot, the seven building tasks, Significance, Practices(activities), Identities, Relationships, Politics, Connections, and Sign Systems and Knowledge, that are presented in Fiano’s analysis can be used to pick apart the community we call Music. Musicians come in all different shapes, sizes, and styles but they all have a specific role they play. Just like any other sport or activity, music has a way of being, valuing, doing and saying. In order to get better, musicians must practice. In order to share their love for music, musicians must be outspoken and passionate. Through my observations of a music class, definitions from a term book, top songs from a billboard, and being in the Discourse of music myself, I hope you have learned that Music is an important part of many people’s daily lives.

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Works Cited

Bonny Eagle High School Select Chorus Class. Personal Observation. 09 Oct. 2015.

Fiano, Darcy A. “Primary discourse and expressive oral language in a kindergarten student.”

Reading Research Quarterly 49.1 (2014): 61–84.

Gee, James Paul. Literacy, Discourses, and Linguistics: Introduction. London: Journal of Education 171.1 (1989): 5–17. Print

“Glossary of musical terms.” Khan Academy. 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

“Music: Top 100 Songs | Billboard Hot 100 Chart.” Billboard. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.