Thoughts on the Practice Tracks
This is a post that I’ve been wanting to do for a while, because I hold the unpopular opinion that, contrary to the feelings of students who rely on them as if they were their own mother, the practice tracks are not 100% helpful, useful, or encouraging of good musicianship. For example, how many All State or Region Choir conductors have been flummoxed as to why the choir is seemingly inflexible to their tempo, phrase shaping, or dynamics? I hope that they are all given the practice tracks to review in preparation so they know what they are about to be presented with, because students who advance to one of these performing groups know their music well, which means that, by extension, they adhere to the practice tracks and the ideas therein the like their lives depend on it.
That’s not to say that the way that Texas does things should change. I have friends who have taught or made the All State choir in their home state and have told me of the differences and each state has their own challenges. Undoubtedly, Texas has the most rigorous and regimented process of those I’ve come in contact with. Some states perform a capella, some audition in quartets, some have to do scales just like band has to do etudes, some audition by recording, some restrict the amount of kids per school who can compete or even the number of times you can make All State! Obviously, in comparison, my impression has always been that Texas does All State best (along with literally everything else, amirite?) but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some kinks to be worked out or quirks to be aware of.
Good news, when approaching the practice tracks, we can learn from experience that there are a set of expectations and conventions that apply, which we will do below.
The initial Gloria tracks were *allegedly* recorded 30 years ago and *supposedly* on an out of tune piano, but “in tune” is relative, right? Right? (Uh, no. Especially when the vast majority of public schools are equipped with electric upright pianos tuned digitally to the same temperament.) So those of us sitting at a piano trying to figure out or teach pitches with the track rolling (because we had to use the track to hear the accompaniment, since the score doesn’t show it!) were tearing our hair out for the majority of the summer, when the terrible clash of dying cat noises emerging were, shall we say, less than helpful. I think my students with perfect pitch are still in therapy.
Anyway, the situation was rectified, sort of, by digitally raising the piano tracks. That’s the PIANO tracks, NOT the voice tracks. So here’s my advice: move on from the voice tracks to the piano tracks ASAP. That thing is high enough (hi, Tenors) even when it’s flat! So get it in your voice in the correct key so you’re not shocked in the audition room. And if you’re not sure if you’ve got the right tracks, ask your choir director — they were available to TMEA members on the website.
Without the piano accompaniment on the score, singers without perfect pitch are forced to learn to find their pitches basically by osmosis, prayer, and repetition. Students will rely HEAVILY on the tracks and have to learn by ear in order to know where there pitch is relative to the track, so making sure that at the very least, the track is in tune, is critical.
There are also many mistakes not only in the score but in the recording of the voice parts, so you must check the errata list to make sure you’ve corrected everything!
I am Loved
I do love this piece, but it unfortunately is one of those beautiful pieces that has trouble becoming a clear audition “cut”. All of the rubato makes for a beautiful performance, but requires a frustrating amount of study to line up with the track. What a performer might feel compelled to do in a moment of tempo change is far different from what a conductor might do. But guess which tempo wins? The tempo that the pianist had in mind when he recorded the track!
For the majority of the song, you can almost hear a metronome clicking, the tempo is very constant until a tempo change is indicated in the score.
Oftentimes, in ritardando and fermata the pianist follows a sort of pattern (ie: this is half as slow as that, this fermata is double the length of the note) but this isn’t always the case. We know that pianists are human, and often speed up their counting when holding a long note, or slow down slightly to accomplish a particularly tricky phrase (we’ll talk about Celebremus in another post…)
So what I recommend doing is studying those moments silently and figure out what the track does in a very analytical way. Literally, “This fermata is 6 beats in the old tempo” kind of stuff. You sound like a chump if you fumble one of these moments, even though *technically* it’s not *wrong* to have a different interpretation, such as feeling a fermata differently. So shelve your individuality at these moments and study so you can line up with the track! And please, please, watch your conductor for their interpretation if you are successful enough in your audition to be able to perform this beautiful piece.
The trickiest thing about the track is the very beginning. I like to think two beats (a full measure!) for the piano’s final chord, two beats to breathe, and two beats on the fermata, including the eighth note that follows. Visit the Downloads page for our full La Danza guide, including counting and pronunciation.
In closing, I encourage you to approach the practice tracks with an open and analytical mind. Don’t take it all as gospel, remember that the goal is to actually perform this with a choir instead of alone with the track. And live performance is always different! Then, pay attention and be critical: is this tempo metronomic? How many beats is this fermata? How do they count in the beginning and give me my first pitch?