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Overtone Singing: The Key to Past Life Melodies

by Lawrence Willford

Multimedi a examples for t h is

interactive article are on the Web at
< cj/ oct99>.

HE POPULARITY of overtone
singing has exploded into the
mainstream choral world in recent years, due ro Sarah Hopkins' composition, Past Life Melodies. The reaction
of audience members makes this particular piece exciting to perform. As a result,
many choirs have decided ro study the piece
and have added it to their repertoire.
The basis of Past Life Melodiesl is the
harmonic overtone series. As the composer describes in the first pages of the
score, the chord clusters making up the
majority of the piece center around the
harmonic series of the fundamental pitch,
B~. By constructing the piece in such a
way, the ears of the audience are tricked
into hearing the upper partials of the series as the sung pitches are dropped from
the choir. T his also sets up the final seccion of the piece where the choir and
soloists begin to sing harmonic overtones.
It is in this section that much of the
mystery of the piece is developed.
Unfortunately, most people are nor familiar with this technique of singing, and
as a result many choir directors and singers become confused. One should keep in
mind that the piece was originally commissioned by the St. Peter's Chorale, a
high school choir in Brisbane, Australia,
directed by Graeme Morton. Although
Lawrence Wiliford earned a B. M. from
St. Olaf College in 1999. H e is
currently a member of two profssional
ensembles: Cantus, the all-male vocal
ensemble founded at St. Olaf College,
and The Ensemble Singers of the
Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota.
H e is also a published arranger through


the group is talented, this composition

was written for young choirs and should
not discourage ambitious choirs or choir
As a soloist for Past Life Melodies with
the Sr. Olaf Choir <link to St. Olaf Choir
web page>, in 1997 on tour to Australia
and in 1998 on tour to the West Coast, I
have been asked several times by choir
directors and singers how one can produce such high, clear overtones. It is not
difficult, but it is of vital importance that
one execute overtone singing correctly for
an effective performance. Sara Hopkins
describes how to achieve the desired effect with a short paragraph in rhe preface
to the piece:
Harmonic Singing: On a long
sustained note in your middle to
low register, slowly open your hum
out (mm-o-or-ar- rr-ree) to take
in the upper parcials. Play around
with the harmonics and mouth

shapes, going from one ro the next.

Focus your mo ut h shapes to
produce dear bell-like harmonics.

For most people this is not a clear

explanation without someone demonstrating what to do. As a result, often
choir directors and singers take this explanation to exclude good vocal habits.
T his is not the case. To produce the
clearest sounds, it is imperative that the
singer use good energy and breathing techniques, as with all well-trained singing.
The overtones are created by a combination of vowels, tongue placement, and
focus of the sung pitch (the fundamental). By singing the fundamental pitch
and filtering the vowels through an American [r) sound (I often use the example of
the stereotypical pirate noise '~rr"), one
is able to isolate individual partials of the
overtone series. This is what is meant by
the composer in rhe reference to mm-oor- ar-rr-ree. H igher partials are created

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with closed vowels such as [e2] and [i] (as the sound produced should not be placed
in "eee") <sound clip>. Lower partials are far back in the laryngeal or nasal pharynx.
created with more open vowels such as It should be placed forward in the mask
the open 0 (as in "awe") <sound clip> as if smiling.
Finally, overtone singing is most effecand open E, [E] (as in the word elbow) etc.
The other part of the technique that tive when one is able to control the overmany people misunderstand is that one tones produced. This comes through
should not push down on the larynx or practice and slowly moving through the
let the tongue get caught up in the back different vowels, starting first with the
of the throat. These bad vocal techniques open vowels and proceding to the closed
cut the sound off and do not allow for vowels. As one practices this, they will be
proper resonance of the voice. In addition, able to hear the next overtone in the


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Choral ensembles available to graduate
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ascending series. Try to listen for specific

intervals off the fundamental (as indicated
in the overtone series progression below)
starting with the (8ve +) perfect fifth
<sound clip #1> then the (8ve +) major
seventh <sound clip>, the double octave,
the (8ve +) ninth, etc., using brighter,
closed vowels. Next, try to start with the
(8ve +) fifth <sound clip> and go down to
the (8ve +) major third, then the octave
<sound clip #2>, and finally the true fifth
using darker, open vowels <sound clip
#3>, all the while filtering them through
the [r] sound. Another hint: the sung
pitch should always sound more like a
french horn than a medieval shawm.
An effective performance of Past Life
Melodies is determined by the subtleties
within the piece. It should be performed
with rising anticipation-a wash of sound
that vanishes into the mysterious and
magical sound of overtone singing. This
means the soloists and other singers must
practice outside of the choir rehearsal and
then work with the choir director to polish and collaborate in the music making.
One final warning. This piece can be a
bit monotonous for the choir, due to the
nature of holding one or two pitches for
an entire piece. For their sake and yours,
explain the piece and how it fits together.
Tell them about the overtone series and
make the piece exciting for them and for
your audience.
<Example of me doing an improvised
overtone solo #4>
<Brief sound clip from the end of the
St. Olaf Choir performance #5>

Past Life Melodies is available in both SATB

and SSAA settings through Morton
Music, PO Box 24300, Fort Lauderdale,
FL 33307.

Past Life Melodies has been recorded by the

Sr. Olaf Choir on Advance Australia Fair
through Sr. Olaf Records-phone 888/
232-6523. It is also recorded by the St.
Peter's Chorale on Until I Saw . .. phone
011 (07) 377-6222; fax 011 (07) 371-9743.

-C]Charles K. Smith
Director of Choral Activities