There are Robert’s Rules of Order and then there are...


Riley’s Rules of Music

(with thanks to my teachers, friends, and lifetime of musical experiences)

 Musical (almost) Maxims

  •  No one ever fell in love with music because of what it looks like on the page.  It takes a compelling performance to turn notes into music.
  •  It is the obligation of the performer to open the door to their heart and let listeners in.
  •  Every performance of music is threatened by the possibility that it will take place on the other side of a metaphorical wall from the listener.  Tear down that wall!
  •  The first 10 seconds of a piece of music imply the entire universe of that piece.
  •  At risk of oversimplifying, there are two kinds of music making - “indoor” and “outdoor.”  Indoor music making asks the listener to draw closer, to listen for what’s underneath, or behind, the notes.  Outdoor music making exults in sending music over a distance, in creating a wave of sound that surrounds the listener.  Both kinds of performances are equally thrilling when used appropriately.
  •  Regarding loud music: “I don’t like power.  I like strength.” - Blanche Moyse 
  • And yet... cultivate quiet dynamic levels - and silence.  It draws the listener in, calibrates their ear to a more natural dynamic range, and makes the fortes seem louder, more exciting, and less effortful.
  • Seek the dialogue in music.  Listen, sing, listen, respond.
  • Resist musical homogenization!  Every Beethoven’s Fifth should be a new Beethoven’s Fifth.  Every 16-bar blues should be a different shade of blue.  Every Hallelujah Chorus expresses a new joy.
  • The denominator of the time signature should never dominate.  The number of beats in a measure may or may not be the pulse of the music.
  • An accidental in music should not sound like an accident!
  • An accidental in music is like a person who gives you good directions to a place you’ve never been before.
  • Notes are the equivalent of words, phrases the equivalent of sentences.  Sing phrases, not notes.
  • Modulations from a home key to the sharp side (adding sharps) are typically like stepping on the accelerator, to the flat side, like stepping on the brakes.

Choral (Vocal) Technique

  • The tonal quality of a choir is a property of unified intent, not the result of all the voices being exactly like each other.  This means that a chorus of diverse voices can blend.
  • Use your breath efficiently.  Don’t force air through your vocal cords; allow the air to rise naturally from your diaphragm.  You use your muscles to regulate the natural rising of the breath.
  • Align your body from pelvis to the top of your head like an inverted organ pipe.
  • Sing on vowels.  Articulate with consonants.  With the prevalence of amplified singing we have gotten used to hearing singers sustain voiced consonants such as m, n, ng, b, d, l, v,  and z.  This is possible with a microphone in front of your mouth, but except for special effects, doesn’t work as well for choral singing.
  • With rare exceptions, choral singers should not slide (scoop) up to notes from below, as is typically done in the many different pop singing styles.  Once scooping gets in the ear and voice as “normal,” it is a difficult habit to break.  The best defense against scooping is a bellyful of air and the sensation that voice is settling on top of the note. 
  • Avoid switching from chest to head voice (or head to chest voice) in the middle of a phrase, if possible.  Try to sing the lowest and highest notes of a large interval in the same (blended) register.
  • Generally speaking, the lower you are in your range, the brighter the color of the vowel should be.  The higher, the darker.   If a phrase lies low in your register and needs to be heard prominently, use a brighter vowel color and a stronger articulation of consonants to give the phrase prominence rather than forcing.  If a phrase lies high in your register, use a darker vowel color and gentler articulation.
  • Don’t sing like you are shooting ducks in a shooting gallery, with every note receiving equal weight and articulation.  Every note has come from somewhere and is going somewhere else.
  • Try singing with a Mona Lisa smile on your face: just the hint of a smile, with soft lips.  The smile will convey happiness to you and to those who watch and hear you sing, and puts your face in a position for a clear, bright sound.
  • The shape of your mouth when you sing should resemble the shape of your mouth just prior to biting into an apple.
  • Imagine that your two front teeth are a tuning fork.  Your upper lip should be relaxed but lifted so that your tuning fork front teeth can vibrate unimpeded.

Sight Reading/Ensemble Tips

  • An accidental is like a person who gives you good directions to a place you've never been before.
  • Pulse is NOT the same as meter.  Pulse is musical, whereas meter merely marks time.
  • Pay attention to the start and the end of phrases and the middles will take care of themselves.  Remember that every entrance in choral music is like jumping onto a moving train - you have to be going at the same speed as the train (as the music) or you will fall off the train and be killed!  How you end a phrase has an enormous impact on what the listener remembers.  The end of the phrase is not where you ran out of air, it’s where the composer finished a musical thought.  Finish with finesse!
  • When your part is uninteresting it generally means that somebody else’s is more interesting.  Help the listener hear the music better by creating space for the more interesting part.  Usually “creating space” means singing more softly or with less vocal weight.
  • If you can remember the tonic (1st scale degree or home pitch) and the dominant (5th scale degree) of the key you are singing in you will never be lost (for long!).
  • Facility in sight-reading has a lot to do with the ability to take cues from the other parts.  Learn to hear and read vertically as well as horizontally.
  • Anticipate entrances.  Breathe in the rhythm of the music.
  • A great chorus is always engaged in a respectful conversation: singing and listening. 
  • Singing great contrapuntal music well is the highest choral art.  Interesting, independent vocal lines married to expressive vertical harmonies inspired by an resonant, memorable text create a unique world of complex, emotionally-charged beauty.