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  • Writer's pictureValerie Nicolosi Niemerg

Lecture 15 - The Men – Unique and Wonderfully Made

Part I – The problem of Octaves

I have the pleasure of working with a lot of Deacons. It’s an effort I began several years ago for mercy’s sake. Try for a moment to put yourselves in the shoes of one of these to-be-pitied men. They want nothing more than to volunteer their free hours to the study of theology and direct ministry in Christ’s Church. To this end, we train them for years, in our Diocese for five years, alongside their spouses.

Then, at the end of this long journey, one of the very first things we do, without any warning really, we drop them in front of about three hundred people and say “Okay, now sing.” And not just sing, but LEAD the singing.

This is not fair.

Most of these Deaconate programs have little more in the vein of musical preparation than a one-time workshop in which a hired musician gives them a series of musical pieces they are completely incapable of reading. Then she tests each candidate to determine whether they will be competent to tackle the Mount Everest of all Deaconate musical requirements, the dreaded Easter Vigil Exultet.

But that’s it. Sure, a few of these men had the good fortune to participate in some kind of music as a youth. Perhaps they were part of a musical family, or played an instrument in high school. But most of them have never taken a single music lesson. The barest minimum of musical understanding eludes them. Therefore more than a few of them are . . . tonally challenged.

So, when you hear a Deacon struggling in Mass, or at the Stations or Benediction, warbling helplessly away in some unearthly key, please say a prayer for them, and offer to pay for a voice lesson or two. Believe me, anything you want to say, they already know. They didn’t ask to be put in this position. It just wasn’t in the lengthy job description.

But for the purposes of this blog, there is something very important to talk about just for the men that I have learned from years of teaching Deacons. So, ladies, sit back and take a vacation day from the blog. Or better yet, share this post with your beloved.

Here it is.

Men. . . .

It’s not your fault.

The problem is the octaves. . . .

90% of the men participating at liturgies do not sing. They just don’t sing. I don’t know why, but in Crazylegs’ (that’s my friend Barb’s name for the devil) fiery efforts to eliminate singing, he somehow started with the men. And for a variety of very intelligent, well-reasoned, and seemingly goo reasons (it’s not a typo, the devil doesn’t inspire us with good. More like “goo” reasons because of their origin) he started with the men. So, the men generally speaking, don’t sing during liturgical prayer.

But the women do.

So that’s what you hear. Women’s voices and an organ. And sadly, as a good minister should, you are probably trying to sing with them. Not to stick out, but to blend in. To sound like them. To join them.

Have you ever thought “I’m not singing high enough?” Have you ever been trying to sing along but felt like you were just too low and weren’t getting the right notes? So, then you start fishing around for “something higher.” The right notes! You just want to sing the right notes with everyone else.

Here’s why you’re having a problem.

Did you know there are only twelve pitches audible to the human ear? That’s right. Only twelve notes. It’s amazing, isn’t it? That we can have so much incredible music when we’ve only got twelve notes to work with . . . And, isn’t it fun to note the number . . . interesting choice, don’t you think? . . . 12 Apostles. . . 12 Tribes of Israel . . . 12 Days of Christmas. . . on and on. . . .

“Well, what about the piano?” you ask. There are more than 12 notes on a piano! “There are 88 notes on a piano! What about that?”

Well, if you’ve never taken a moment to study a piano, please do so now:

If you take a close look, you’ll see that the alternating black and white notes actually move in a pattern: two black notes, then three, two, then three and so on. And counting the black and white notes together, this pattern is exactly twelve notes long. It repeats over and over on the piano.

That’s not just the piano. It’s sound. The piano reflects what the human ear discerns as pitches: twelve notes repeating over and over at higher or lower frequencies.

If you pick any note on the keyboard and play its counterpart up one set of twelve, that’s called an octave. It’s very difficult to explain without a Masters in Acoustics, but here’s a short little YouTube video if you want to try to understand it.

Basically, when you jump an octave, you are jumping to THE SAME NOTE at a higher frequency. That’s why you think you’re too low. You’re singing the RIGHT NOTE, down an octave from the women. And that’s what you should be doing. . . YOU SHOULD BE TOO LOW.

This concept is very important for any male voice singing in a congregation. You are singing the right note. It’s just that you’re a man, and God made the male voice to sing in a lower octave than the female voice. Since you hear only women singing and an organ playing, you naturally think you’re on the wrong note and keep trying to jump up higher. But chances are, you are on the right pitch, just IN THE OCTAVE OF THE MALE VOICE.

One way to resolve this problem, would simply be to forbid all women from singing and force the organist to play all the music in a lower octave. It sounds strange, but if we did that, you might not have any problems matching pitch anymore, and you might not have so many technical problems singing in your chest voice (I’ll get to that next).

But. . . and as crazy as it sounds. . . yeah, we already tried that. For centuries, women were not supposed to sing in church. I don’t know why. I don’t understand the reason, but it always drives me mad when the “purists” insist that we go completely back to the Renaissance and Medieval periods for our liturgical music inspiration, because. . . well. . . stuff was pretty messed up then. I’ll get to some of that in the third of this series.

You see, at some point, someone figured out the nature of acoustics. And that nature is, by God’s design. There’s nothing you can do about it. The higher octaves will naturally sound more easily and readily across a larger space than the lower octaves. The human ear is much more able to discern the higher tones than the lower. That’s why we always put the MELODY of a piece in the SOPRANO, or highest voice.

So, good news, God made you to sing in a lower octave. Bad news, acoustics demand that the organ play in a higher one. So that’s what you’ll always hear.

Another obvious solution to your problem goes without stating, but I’ll write it anyway. If all the men in the church would sing out, you would have no problem hearing the melody in your octave. Because though the male voice is lower than the female, it is more powerful.

When I encounter Deacons or just male students who have never been introduced to the concept of octaves, two things happen. First, the light bulb moment with a large gasp of air and faces lit brilliantly with relief. “Oh!” they exclaim. Second, we then must sing accompanied ONLY in their own octave for many months before they can hear me play as an organist will. They need time to readjust their ears. To hear everything “low” for a while, and give themselves permission to get comfortable in their own voices, down the octave, where God made them to sing. But if I try to play up the octave before they are ready, they will inevitably start trying to “sing higher” again.

So, gentlemen, these are the octaves. To keep these blog posts short, I will stop here and begin the second in this series for male singers about the technical tactics in approaching this problem. How does this knowledge translate into what I’ve taught you about low breath, frontal resonance, air flow and the natural breaks in the voice? How do we help our male singers to become more comfortable singing in our churches?

What’s the technical answer? Stay tuned. . .

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Dec 20, 2022

Most young deacons think they’re God, which doesn’t help. I’ve been haughtily refused when I offered free voice lessons to a deacon. Never again.

Valerie Niemerg
Valerie Niemerg
Dec 20, 2022
Replying to

I'm so sorry you had that experience Imelda. That was very ungracious. Most of the Decona I have dealt with have been kind and holy men with open hearts. They have greatly blessed my life. I hope you have a better experience in the future. Thanks for reading!

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