Vesper Sparrow and the connection between two techniques

Missy Mazzolis´ Vesper Sparrow is a choral work that employs two vocal techniques to create unique sonic colors. As its title suggests, the purpose of this piece is to imitate the territorial song of the vesper sparrow. The composer combines Eastern and Western vocal techniques to achieve the right effect for the work. The result is a polyphonic texture rich in guttural timbres that combine perfectly with the pure timbres of the Western technique. However, how is it possible to get the choir to change between techniques during the performance? The answer lies in the similarities between both techniques.

The Eastern vocal technique, better known as  overtone singing, is the one that the singer manipulates the resonances created as air travels from the lung to phonate sounds and create melodies. To achieve this phenomenon, it is necessary to alter the vocal tract in the same way as in western classical vocal technique to produce the required sound. Like classical singing, the study of the overtone singing centers on the same bases of breathing, posture, and phonation, but differs in resonance. In  overtone singing, the resonance focuses on the alterations of the vocal tract to phonate the overtone. In classical singing, the vocal tract alteration works for changes in the vowel, register, and timbre. These are some differences and similarities between both techniques to show that they are not different. Both techniques seek the correct, natural, and safe phonation for correct performance. However, this is only the beginning of the answer to the question of how to change between techniques during the performance.

When the chorister and the conductor find the similarities in the techniques, it is time to make a vocal exploration to achieve the change between techniques. The exploration begins with vocal exercises that are set by the conductor for the connection between registers using pure unmodified vowels. The guttural vowel is open and bright, but entirely placed in the chest area and phonated in the area of ​​the vocal tract. When finding the correct opening of the vowel, automatically start listening to the overtone at the same time as the main note. In the case of this piece (Vesper sparrow), it is necessary to make a different modification in the opening of the vowel to avoid the resonance of the overtone. To avoid the overtone resonance, it is necessary to remove a little bit the brightness of the vowel; One option is to round the vowel shape to give that effect. Once these explorations have mastered, the practice of changing registers with their respective modifications to sing the desired sounds has to begin immediately. It is important to do several repetitions to get the correct muscle memory to be able to sing these dramatic timbre changes instantly. The result of all these processes is an immediate, healthy, and quality change between open guttural vowels and pure and covered vowels.

It is impressive how the composer manages to exploit the maximum potential of the human voice, leading to perceive the vocal technique in different ways to achieve a unique sound. All this can only be possible if the choir and the conductor have a vast mastery of the vocal technique to achieve these modifications healthily. It is not recommended that amateur choirs  try these modifications, since it can cause problems that are difficult to correct.

Alejandro Carrillo Pastrana.


Hinds, Stuart. ¨How to Teach Overtone Singing to Your Choir.¨ The Choral Journal  Vol. 51, No. 3 (October 2010): 34-43. (accessed March 28, 2019).

Hinds, Stuart. ¨New Music for Chorus with Overtone Singing.¨The Choral Journal  Vol.47, No. 10 (April 2007): 20-31. (accessed March 28, 2019).

Hirokawa, Joy. ¨Teaching Vocal Technique in the Choral Rehearsal.¨ The Choral Journal  Vol. 56, No. 4 (November 2015): 73-77. (accessed March 27, 2019).

Skoog, William.¨Use of Image and Metaphor in Developing Vocal Technique in Choirs.¨ Music Educators Journal Vol. 90, No. 5 (May 20114): 43-48. (accessed March 27, 2019).

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