Author: Mari Esabel Valverde

Courting the “Lay” Listener

dating music

I am on a date, and he asks me, “What do you do?” I tell him, and if he is not scared away, we go to my car and I play him select recordings of my music. I am notably vulnerable, and he is just calm. Then, I ask him what he thinks. The reaction is routine.

Whether it’s him, a family member I have not seen in a while, or an old friend from high school, upon hearing my work, they may describe my music as “beautiful” or “relaxing.” These are not bad terms, but my heart cries that they cannot fully digest what I and my collaborators have made—the inspiration, the obsession, the hours of self-doubt, the days of rehearsal, and the anticipation. And what they experience is just, “Mmm.”

Do they hear the intricacies? Do they experience the seduction of a modulation or harmonic parenthesis? Do they feel the tension created by suspension or sense the folding of time created by contrapuntal rhythms or melodic heterophony?

I fear not. They may not have learned how to listen to this genre of music.

Maybe it’s my failure as a composer to be plain enough. It’s conjecture, but they probably listen to music organized by regular beats and loops and jams. Or perhaps, they would appreciate it more deeply if my music were delivered in timbres to which they were accustomed, i.e., electronics.

Declassifying “Classical”

My dates commonly make the comment, “All of my friends that listen to ‘classical’ music, are those who have formally studied music.” And there’s the rub!

It is a little disheartening that everybody, including “classical” musicians, has the need to grasp for terms like “classical,” “concert,” or worse, “art” music. Is there not a tacit air of aristocracy or bourgeoisie to the concert-going community? I know that what I do and with whom I do it are privileges, but our products ought to be more publicly digestible.

“Classical” is a problematic blanket term for Baroque, Renaissance, Romantic, and contemporary music performed by choral, symphonic, wind band, and chamber ensembles. What is more, these classifications are blanket terms in themselves! And, I understand that we credit composers, not “artists,” for creation, but why is there so much compartmentalization?

Overwhelmingly, I prefer music on acoustic media. Of course, it is a matter of taste, and my taste is influenced by classically oriented ears. It is not to say that I do not appreciate more mainstream genres of music, but I certainly have an affinity for artists with some classical background, e.g., Regina Spektor, Sara Bareilles, and the Québecoise Béatrice Martin of Cœur de pirate.

Bridging the Gap

On a personal note, until grad school, my background was predominantly choral and vocal, and my listening was limited. I had only a moderate appreciation for symphonic music. But after a year of orchestration seminar, a semester on the history of orchestral “masterworks,” and a semester on Mozart’s string quartets, my ears were utterly transformed. I discovered colors, layers, and movement that I did not acknowledge before. How had I gone all these years not truly hearing the music?

Very plainly put, this is yet another push for music education as core curriculum because the study of music is fundamentally the study of listening. And we are all missing out when children are neither readily exposed to nor invited to participate in musicmaking.

Two years ago, I met the director of choral activities at the University of Washington, Dr. Geoffrey Boers, when he came to Texas to clinic the All-State Choir, and I was fortunate to hear him speak on choral music programming. He suggested, and I paraphrase, that folk and pop music is in fact contemporary “classical” music—that it is as appropriate for an ensemble to sing an arrangement of the Beatles or Elton John as it is for them to sing Brahms or Britten.

Months later, I attended a choral convention in Seattle, in which his Chamber Choir performed. Their program, themed “Stars,” consisted of works from a variety of eras: a Monteverdi madrigal, a 20th-century avant-garde piece by Ingvar Lidholm, and a contemporary work by Eric Barnum. But the most memorable song was their finale, Boers’s choral arrangement of “Lippy Kids” by the British artist Elbow. The director withdrew from the podium, and the choir, dispersed around the stage, revealed a tenor at the mic and another chorus member at the piano. As their soulful singing built, the choir raised their hands, holding reflective stars, and became a full portrait of the night sky.

The addition of a non-“classical” arrangement was deeply moving. Having witnessed others in tears, I know the singers connected with the listeners. Perhaps the solution we seek is such programming, which offers a fusion of genres to inhabit the same time and space. So, all of us can appreciate the music a little more deeply.

What musicians create serves many purposes, but it is all in vain if we are not genuinely connecting with the listeners. We owe it to ourselves to deepen their listening and to maximize our communication.

Where Is Do?

Walking Woman In Center Of Spiral Stairs

Walking Woman In Center Of Spiral Stairs

Our voices do not have keys, bars, valves, positions, or switches. Singers are without an instrument the naked eye can see. So, for long and far, we have instructed as we were instructed—that solfège is representative of the order of scales and chord members in all of their colorful permutations.

When presented with new music, there is a question my voice students ask in quiet panic: “Where is do?” Where do I start? Where do I go? Woe is me!

According to the established choral curriculum, we just cannot agree. For me, do is every pitch class that is C. And tonic, or any given center of tonality, could be anywhere. The world of sound is vast and ultimately pandiatonic. For them, I fear, the world is a little less colorful, and I will explain why.

Brace yourselves! It’s about to get technical.

Fixed vs. Moveable

My older brother taught me how to sight-sing before I learned my way around the piano. The solfège we learned in school, I came to find out as a grad student, was a chromatic fixed do. But, the do to which most American singers are accustomed—and which I am obligated to teach—is called moveable do.

For those unfamiliar, fixed do is the system in which solfège corresponds strictly with letter names. The traditional European version calls ti “si,” and chromaticism is intuited rather than represented by chromatic solfège. In other words, they stick to do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si in every key and mode.

On the other hand, moveable do defines solfège strictly based on diatonic function, where do is tonic, mi is mediant, and so on. This do, however, is loosened by secondary dominants and unstable harmonies, e.g. fully diminished sonorities. Thus, moveable do necessitates the addition of chromatic solfège to account for tonicization and modulation. Then, we see fi as “raised four,” te as “lowered seven,” si as the leading tone to a relative minor, etc.


Additionally, many choral classrooms display hand signs, which correspond to solfège and serve as a kinesthetic means by which to develop tonal memory. But, with moveable do, the benefit of these tools is limited to perceiving harmonic function.

Like moveable do, chromatic fixed do incorporates chromatic solfège to account for the accidentals, and the hand signs are still applicable. The difference is that, with chromatic fixed do, singers develop muscle memory, which reinforces their tonal memory. And rather than harmonic function, the ear develops the skills to understand relationships between specific pitches.

Consequently, we are presented with two models of aural pedagogy. The standard moveable do trains the ear by using solfège to trace the relationships of intervals. For example, in F major, F up to C is do up to sol; and in Bb major, F up to C is sol up to re. Presented precisely the same interval, we perceive a difference in diatonic function.

With chromatic fixed do, in every key and mode, our example of F up to C, is always fa up to do. Again, it’s a perfect fifth, but we are left to imagine an exciting and mysterious variety of its function.

Taken as a harmonic interval, the fixed fa and do offer a name for particular colors that occur in tertian harmony. Fa and do stabilize in F major, but simultaneously bend towards B­b minor. They cool in D minor, blur in Db major, alarm in E minor, broaden in G major, and lighten in Ab major. My ears delight in the profound potential of fa and do.

Modes Are in the Air

Instead of Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart, I fed my adolescent ears Debussy, Ravel, and Brahms. In choir, I was exposed to everything from Tomás Luis de Victoria and Monteverdi to Honegger, Dello Joio, and Jonathan Dove. So, I missed out on standard keyboard harmony, and my listening was not organized by the conventions of diatonicism; but, the modality of music became elemental to my listening. And because of my fixed do upbringing, to me, music was modal before it was ever diatonic.

My sensibilities deepened when I had the privilege to take in a lecture by Narcis Bonet—a disciple of the enduringly influential pedagogue Nadia Boulanger—as a student in the European American Musical Alliance in 2009. To paraphrase, Bonet posed that the unraveling of tonality through the eras corresponds with the natural phenomena of the harmonic series.

After the fundamental do and the second harmonic up an octave do, you have sol, which constitutes a structural open fifth—the Middle Ages. Add do and mi—the Renaissance. Then, it’s sol and te—the threshold to the Romance, a.k.a. Beethoven. And eventually, the supertonic re—Debussy. In other words, as time goes on, the harmonic series builds, and composers free the tones that follow.

With the understanding that our sense of tonality, no matter the do, is governed by perfect fifths, the possibilities seem to be endless. The aural atmosphere is rich with modal interdependence, and composers are able create tonal portals by simply dropping the local tonic by a perfect fifth. What sorcery is this!?

Harmonic Language

Modes are ubiquitous. They’re colorful, emotionally charged, and expressive in their own right. So, I have come to the conclusion that moveable do has whitewashed my high schoolers’ ears. They lack in ready perception of modes.

I also humbly recall my composition professors, who on multiple occasions would ask, “What key are you in here?” More recently, it’s my commissioners or colleagues who persist, “Why don’t you resolve to one?… Can you end on one?… We would really like a strong ending.”

Scratching my head, my response is the same: “But, it’s all modal!” It’s how I experience music, and I think, it will always reflect in my work.

Con vibrato ma non troppo: Rethinking Sopranos

boys chorus

boys chorus

“Keep it light.”

“Less wobble.”

“Check your vibrato.”

Choral singers, from adolescents to adults, are familiar with a conductor’s fussing over, specifically, the soprano section’s vocal production. Conductors, many of whom are not trained sopranos, hate to confess that they ask their sopranos to sing senza vibrato. To most, such instruction is anathema.

Even so, there are a variety of ways they tiptoe around asking sopranos for such “pure” tone production. And what is often perceived by their singers is that vibrato is bad, ugly, tasteless, or unnecessary, to the extent that vocal pedal tones and high pianissimi look daunting.

Soprano and composer Victoria Fraser, a friend of mine who makes a living as a choral musician, recently referenced her experience at a summer music festival in Germany. They prepared one movement from a new major work by James MacMillan, commissioned for the following summer, and she said it “killed” the sopranos. To which I responded, “Well, MacMillan is not a soprano.”

I fondly recall singing the popular Scottish composer’s The Gallant Weaver under Simon Carrington as a member of the Texas All-State Choir. It is a sublime example of a work for advanced adult mixed voices requiring vocal flexibility, endurance, and wide ranges. The alto, tenor, and bass parts remain low and the sopranos are high and exposed. In fact, there are three soprano parts, creating a melody that echoes in heterophony with many sustained highs and repeated leaps to A5.

Yes, it makes beautiful music, but it is what I call an “expensive piece.” It is demanding, to say the least. This model for vocal beauty has been popularized, and, much like society’s standards for feminine beauty, it is lofty, grossly impractical, and often, manufactured.

It is a suspicion of mine that this is the case because most of the choral repertory comes from male composers, who have no experience in the role of sopranos who are women.

A Misnomer

It so happens that a significant amount of our choral literature draws from an historical context in which women were not able to participate. The SATB voicing, as we know it today, belonged to all-male choruses, consisting of both pre- and post-pubescent male voices.

Consider the language. Soprano is Latin and ends in “o.” Even in 2016, even when discussing female roles through centuries of opera and the highest voices in our vocal ensembles across the world, women are given the title of “boy.”

Early music is customary in choral markets and programming, from high school on, and we have become more than comfortable with the “o.” And now, we are composing, conducting, and teaching in a way that puts post-pubescent female voices into the role of pre-pubescent males’. That is, we expect our sopranos to sing thin, high, and without vibrato.

Victoria Fraser suggests there has indeed been an early music “revolution,” which is a factor in the increased desire for straight tone singing. She believes that the trend of early music has “bled” into contemporary choral music, and she laments that conductors often opt out of a more energized, colored vocalization from their sopranos.

So, why as professionals do we perpetuate, and why as composers do we imitate, the sound of a soprano section comprised of pre-pubescent boys? Why insist on the misunderstanding that adult female sopranos are able to or should sing strictly senza vibrato in the way children do?

Vocal Health

Too often, conductors forsake healthy vocal production for easy tuning and clarity of tone. Then, we revisit the controversy between the proverbial choral director and their private vocal instructors.
The teacher in me would ask that we compose with the understanding that “straight tone” singing all the time is not only limiting to a soprano’s timbral capacity but also destructive to their instrument. Such strain can lead to vocal nodules and other health-related phonation problems.

Conversely, singing con vibrato is singing out, with energy, and it is conducive to efficient phonation for all voice types, especially on highs and fortes. Vibrato also helps with vocal endurance because it is only possible when the vocal mechanism is in a position to relax and allow for some vibration, which is an indication of steady breath flow.

That is to say, if the first sopranos are singing above the staff senza vibrato for longer than a couple of minutes with infrequent rests, you are going to have an exhausted soprano section for the remainder of your rehearsal or concert.

Composers would do well to prevent such a situation. We may think we can get away with sustained highs and louds senza vibrato because of that seductive playback function on our engraving software. Those sopranos do not have trouble sustaining and tuning when they are represented by a pre-recorded sound. But there are more reliable models.

As another expert in the vocal field, my brother Matthew Valverde, puts it: “Sopranos who can ‘straight tone’ beautifully all day do exist. But if you’re looking for the music to be done well and in diverse communities, it is best to allow women to just sing.”

Composers Are Responsible

One of the mundane but necessary parts of collegiate composition curricula is the study of what is idiomatic to compose for any given instrument. What are the different colors you get as you explore the clarinet’s registers? How difficult will it be to hear a flute at that dynamic level in that tessitura? What triple stops are feasible on the violin? How quickly can the harpist make these pedal changes?

Likewise, it behooves a composer to research the idiom of adult female voices. Unfortunately, recording after recording will suggest that sopranos have supernatural abilities of sustained tone production like sunbeams on a crisp winter morning. Such a sound comes at a cost, and we could stand to reimagine vocal beauty for the sake of the accessibility of our composition with sensitivity to the longevity of our collaborators’ livelihoods.

An Atheist Composer on Choral Music

female chorus

female chorus

Musicians of all stripes are just coming off of a month of “winter” concerts, services, masses, caroling, and other traditional religious productions. It is no mystery that Christmas and Easter are among the best times to get a decent paying gig. As a singer, I am among these musicians.

Ever since high school, I have adored choral music. Like many young musicians, I idolized the composers and decided I wanted to compose choral music, too. Indeed, new choral music has a big market!

But, as an atheist in a field often inextricably connected to a religious community, there is an element of cognitive dissonance that’s a running theme in my career. When I tell someone that I sing in professional choirs and compose “mostly” choral music, it is uncomfortable, even alienating, when they make the assumption that I do so for spiritual reasons, that I am a “believer,” that the music that I compose is for worship, and that it has been sung by choirs, in the strictest sense, not choruses.

Why do so many people assume “sacred choral” music when I say just “choral” music? Religion, like music and especially choral music, at its best brings people together for a common good. That is the reason I sing in choirs.

Still, I was raised in Texas, surrounded by religiously conservative messages that discouraged me from ever exploring questions of faith. Because of my queer identity, I understood early on that there was not really a place for me in the church. It turned out, I was okay with it.

Sacred vs. Secular

One of the most unnerving moments of my career, young as it may be, came with my first publication. I was truly overjoyed to put forth my work as part of the Anton Armstrong Choral Series, but it was initially misclassified as “sacred” not “secular,” presumably because the word “Heaven” was in the title.

Why do publishers make the distinction in the first place? We do not market band or orchestral music as “sacred” or “secular.”

The one time I met Eric Whitacre, he said something to the effect of, “Isn’t all music sacred?” These words come from a composer whose music was described as “religious music for the commitment-phobe” two years later by The Telegraph after a performance in London. It is quite clear that the writer Ivan Hewett is not a fan, but I would argue that the premise of the discussion is a bit contrived.

The composer identifies as “not an atheist, but not a Christian either.” So, why does Hewett insist on contextualizing Whitacre’s music as “spiritual” at the Proms? Are their audiences really “craving” religious music? Are we not permitted to perform “sacred” music at a concert hall? Or “secular” music in a church?

We are living in the era of Whitacre’s Alleluia, which is a choral setting based on a—presumably secular—instrumental work of his called October. His music sells well, and his Alleluia is deemed appropriate in a religious context because of its title and single-word content. After all, is there a non-religious way to sing “Praise the Lord”?

In any case, I could not condemn a composer for expressing his “spiritual” agnostic truth.

Blurry church interior

Why the Distinction?

Still, since we are in the business of distinction, or perhaps discrimination, I think we should call “sacred” choral music what it actually is: Christian choral music. Surely, this repertory is distinct from music inspired by Judaism and Islam, e.g. Steve Reich’s Tehillim or Abbie Betinis’s Bar Xizam.

Additionally, why does the term “sacred” in a publisher’s catalog tend to exclude music from non-Abrahamic religious traditions? What about Native American-, Canadian First Nation-, or Aboriginal-inspired texts? Why should we put such a limit on what qualifies as “sacred” music? What does it suggest about “secular” music?

Perhaps the prevalence of specifically Christian choral music is what is limiting. In prioritizing the “sacred” above the “secular,” we emphasize certain lessons and ignore others.

At the very least, we have abandoned the questions of human sexuality and gender diversity. When discussing a commission with Sandi Hammond, the director of one of the United States’ first all-transgender choruses, she insisted that a new work not include anything about Jesus or the Bible. She said her singers felt “suppressed” by religion. As a trans woman myself, I understand their frustration too well. To us, there is something missing or erased in a program that excludes music that is not part of a Christian tradition.

Facing Forward

Now that I have it off my chest, I would like to ask for a response from composers. Has choral music been relevant to you in a way that Christianity has not? Have you wanted to compose choral music but have not—or have you ignored the contemporary choral scene altogether—because of its religious association?

Needless to say, I am reluctant to set “sacred” texts. I will only set them if they truly move me, as in the case of the Prayer of St. Francis. I am more than eager to expand the repertory of “secular” choral music, and I would encourage other composers to contribute the same.

Those of you who are choral directors, especially in a high school or university environment, could we focus on humanism, rather than religion? What makes the “sacred” choral literature you program or compose relatable to the singers, some of whom may not be Christians?

As an atheist singing, teaching, or composing music associated with religion, I strive to appreciate how the “deeper” meaning is universally applicable. Whether or not we accept a particular faith as a spiritual direction, it is, perhaps, of utmost importance that we connect with the humanist content of these musical settings.


Mari Valverde

Mari Valverde

Mari Esabel Valverde is a composer, singer, teacher, and translator. Her music has been featured at conventions, festivals, and tours across the States and abroad in England, France, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Oman. A native of Texas, she holds degrees from St. Olaf College and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a protégée of David Conte. She has appeared with the St. Olaf Choir, International Orange Chorale of San Francisco, Dallas Symphony Chorus, Dallas Chamber Choir, and Vox Humana.