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Ornamenting and "oversouling"

My True Love brought an article to my attention, laughing as he clicked "forward." It was a reaction to Christina Aguilera's unfortunate Lyrical Malfunction at the Super Bowl (poor girl) while singing the National Anthem, but it was also about pop singers' tendency to "oversoul" the melody -- the singer adds quick lines of decorative notes and musical frills between the actual melodic notes, overdoing it to the point the melody is an afterthought. Exhibit A: Mariah Carey oversouling Hero. (Also note Mariah's fluttering right hand -- it oversouls right along with her.) Exhibit B: This completely desecrated version of a famous Christmas song.

In classical music we have vocal decorations known as ornaments. In the Baroque era especially, singers would add embellishments all over the melodies. Even now, coloraturas like me are expected to tastefully ornament our most famous repertoire. First composed on the spot by the singer, the most successful embellishements were written down and are now considered standard.

Classical ornaments tend to happen after a melody has been introduced "plain." They highlight the fact that the melody is on its second hearing. Ornaments tend to be used at the very highest point of a phrase or to end musical idea and launch into another one -- they are not scattered in the middle and they are usually very clearly stated. Classical singers try, but they can't over-ornament much because conductors and pianists can instantly stop them with the crash of a chord. Classical singers can be guilty of choosing the wrong ornaments (or just executing good ones badly), but because so much of the repertoire is standard, the ornaments are part of the vocal furniture now and are practiced carefully, and rarely moved. I've composed a few ornaments for myself, borrowing a bit from this singer and that score, but I'm careful to remember melody first.

Ornaments are for tasteful classical singing, oversouling is the sin of pop divas, but the technical term for all singer-driven note addition is melisma. Melisma has been around as long as there has been singing. (Show me a singer and I'll show you someone willing to mess around with a melody.) But, it isn't always the right thing to do, unless you know when to stop. When my voice students ask if they can do it. I usually say no, at least not while I'm watching. Good melisma can be an indicator of a nice healthy, flexible larynx as well a nice, healthy ego. Bad melisma reveals breaks in the voice caused by laryngeal tension. For examples of bad melisma and criminal oversouling, watch American Idol, Seasons One through Twenty.

Melisma is heard clearly in chants of the Catholic church. A Kyrie ("Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy, Lord Have Mercy") can contain just a few notes -- or thirty five. They start out with the same couple of notes, but they're quite different after that. I like both versions heard here (there are hundreds more). Sadly, very few Catholic congregations sing either one, those that do restrict it to Lent. (I don't find singing chant during Lent to be penitential at all -- it's like Christmas to me!) It's been my experience that parishioners are attracted to melisma as listeners -- it sounds very showy and emotional -- but they don't dare try to sing it in a group setting. Only the monks and choristers are willing to give it a shot. As a chorister, I would be happy to be the Melisma Representative for any parish that would want one. Too bad so few do.

Here is another Kyrie in English by Marty Haugen, composer of the very well known setting, Mass Of Creation. Note how few notes are used in the melody, and how every word gets a note. I'm not a Marty fan and this Mass setting is sickeningly ubiquitous, but I recognize that he composed something that is singable for the average melisma-phobe. (Oversoulers, feel free to muck up Haugen as much as possible.)

The worst oversouling I ever heard was committed by a high schooler singing Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. He oversouled "I'll Know," and the audience was instantly transported from 1950s Gotham to an Usher concert. Thankfully and incredibly, Broadway remains mostly free of oversoul. Hope it stays that way, but I'm not placing bets.

H/T Huffington Post

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