HomeBlogsbillhare's blogWhat The Zhen Jo Were We Thinking??

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Well, I’m on another airplane, so it’s time to write some articles!  I’m on my way back from the 2009 ICCA Finals in New York, which will probably go down in aca-lore as “the day MTV took over”.

While judging the finals, I noticed something that also bugs me in recordings, so thought it might be a good topic – over-enunciation of nonsense syllables.  Now, your high school choir teacher might be proud that you’ve kept up your good diction, but I say doh jin jin walla boww to that.

Actually, I’d probably say something closer to dhhw zxnm zxnm fvuhhhllu BBuuuuughhhrr to that.  In various forums I’ve seen questions such as “what syllable is good for guitar/piano/bagpipe/etc?”  The answer is “no syllable”.  These are sounds, not really collections of consonants and vowels.

Of course, we need to be able to write down our basic ideas and tonal shapes for others to read, as well as the other way around – you just got that shiny new chart from an arranger and you want to get started rehearsing it right away - and the more clear the info on that paper is, the faster you can learn the intent of the arrangement.  But the “intent” is just a guide for you to take it the rest of the way and make it your own!

We have our own little language, but no one should be fluent in it. “Zhen” roughly means a distorted sustained guitar, “din” might be some sort of piano, but could also be a Chinese zither.  Written on a piece of sheet music, these ”words” help us find the character and tone of the arranger’s intent, but these are just training wheels.  Once you feel steady, take them off and make the sounds your own!  Just avoid syllables that sound like words - back in the 90s, it seemed there were whole songs that went "jen jen j jen jen" behind a singer.  My wife, Jen, would keep losing track of the lead singer because it sounded like a bunch of people were calling her name... 

[written April 09]


I agree

As a non-singer a cappella fan, I find it incredibly difficult to hear the solos when the background parts are busy "talking"--the more word-like the syllables are, the more they compete for the aural space the soloist is supposed to have exclusive right to.  It makes it hard to hear and tiring to listen.

As always, I agree with Bill

If you sing "bum bum joe" clearly, people will think your friend Joseph is a homeless man.

Underenunciate, or better yet pick nonsense syllables that don't sound like words (in your native language). Use the voice as an instrument in its role as background part, and make sure the timbre reflects this.

- Deke Sharon • 800.579.9305 • http://www.dekesharon.com

Didn't the ICCAs happen 5 months ago?

OK, I've gotten a couple emails about this so I'll explain myself...  I wrote the above article in April on the flight back to California, on an old laptop I stopped using soon afterwards, and forgot about it.  Today I was looking for a lost file that I thought might be on my old laptop, and discovered this rare, unpublished work of genius.  So brilliant that I had totally forgotten to upload it in the first place... 

Bill Hare Some dude who records and mixes people who can't play instruments. http://www.dyz.com

Bingo!! or, er, uh, bingo, bongo, shoop doot doo wah


I had to laugh reading your column!!  I've been begging groups for years to tone down backup and (especially) bass syllables.  Few things mar my subjective enjoyment of an a cappella performance more than the studious, studied, zealous enunciation of sounds that are there for rythymic empahsis only and were never intended to be crystallized lugnuts of noise.  You probably said this in there somewhere, but groups have to decide which sounds (usually the lead - this isn't rocket surgery) are meant to carry information, i.e. the lyrics, and which sounds are meant to be there to give the tune a groove, i.e. everything else. 

I think that part of the problem is the devotion to the printed page.  I'm not advocating musical illiteracy here, merely less blind alliegence to the dictates of the ink.  It pays to think stylistically when shaping and rehearsing a piece, rather than worrying about whether or not one is fulfilling the apparent orders on the page to the virtual letter. Most backup syllables, back in the hazy origins of the genre, were scatted, with little planning and casual agreement between those singing them.  Like, "Okay, why don't we throw in a 'sha doop 'n doobie' right here?  But when it's written on the page, many observant performers feel pressure to make sure that they 'get it right' or 'nail it down', the intent of which alters the performance, and not for the better. 

Another part of the difficulty lies in what I believe to be the 'casual' roots of our genre.  There's sort of a 'breezy tightness', if you will, to the best of our colleagues' ensembles, in which everything is crisp and yet effortless sounding.  Part of that hat trick lies in doing exactly what Bill suggests.  Too much emphasis on squared off articulation sort of extracts that wonderful element (some might call it 'swing', although that isn't really the right word) and replaces it with a kind of turgid stolidity that I sincerely doubt is the intent of any group.  In a way it's a sort of paradox.  I'd call the desired effect 'sloppy precision.' 

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