I often use the phrase “rhythmic integrity” when I work with my choirs, especially my select group. I usually have to take the time each year to explain to them what I mean by that, and than we proceed to act on that thought and try to attain the goal as the year progresses. Last year I tried an experiment with my Madrigal Choir, selecting just one piece from the repertoire and approaching it as Robert Shaw would have done it.
I am a Robert Shaw devotee; I avidly followed his career, waited with anticipation for his next recording during his Atlanta years and his subsequent ones with the Robert Shaw Festival Singers, and have read everything I can get my hands on about him; interestingly enough, I find that there is very little about this person that did so much for choral music in this country. At any rate, I have had a few opportunities to observe this man close up in rehearsal and performance, and I have, I believe, every known recording! I am an admirer of his performances and ideas, realizing that not everyone is, but maybe should be? But the man was a prophet of sorts, and I found him to be a riviting, intellectual presence that gave much thought to what he did and what it meant in the greater sense. His ideas on rhythm are well known, and his count-singing technique is legendary. I have often wondered how much better our own performing ensembles might be if we all simply made up our minds to use it and doggedly pursue it as he did. But for the most part we don’t, in spite of the wealth of evidence that it works! The proof is in the Atlanta recordings if one wishes to take the time to listen. Incredible rhythmic integrity is apparent in every measure.
And this is what I did with my choir last year on the one selection. I used his count-singing technique doggedly on just that one piece, didnot use the text until the piece was completely in place, and than alternated the technique with text, always reverting to the count-singing when rhythmic issues surfaced. Yes, the students complained and questioned my motives, and I explained to them what and why we were doing it. The final result, I think, was a performance of that piece that seemed to me to be more rhythmically exciting and precise than anything else that I have done. Maybe I just wanted to believe that, but I think my assessment was objective.
So I thought it would be informative for everyone if I quoted a section of Robert Blocker’s book that refers to Shaw’s count-singing technique, and maybe some of us might consider this for future rehearsals. Read carefully, as there is much wisdom between the lines! Here it is:
“September 23, 1981
I thought you might enjoy the excerpt below from a letter Mr. Shaw wrote awhile back to the preparer of the chorus for performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, guest conducted by Mr. Shaw.
My first caution is: stay away from the text until notes and phrasing are right and ineradicable! There is no doubt that Bach was motivated by the text; but if we truly seek to contact his own emotional motivation, we have to work “backwards” through his notes. Phrasing, articulation, intonation, balance and the ebb and flow of dynamics are the means by which we contact Bach’s motivation; but if we start with an “interpretation” derived from the text translation and our own religious inheritance-however grand, but more frequently feeble-we will miss the possibility of encountering Bach’s own penetration of the text or the ritual.
This is simply any vocal line not with its text or with its own metric organization of long and short notes, but as though it were spelled out in accumulations of its smallest unit.
a) This, of course, need not be done in performance tempo. Indeed, initially, slow rehearsal will accomplish much more than rapid rehearsal. Rehearsal tempi should be calculated to prohibit the singer from making a mistake. Errors should not be allowed to happen-or they will accumulate and require un-learning.
b) This should also, initially, never be practiced at performance levels of dynamics, but at the absolute minimum of vocal sound-as though one were thinking the pitch rather than singing it. It follows that when the ranges are excessively high, people may sing down an octave (frequent with sopranos, less frequent with tenors-because of the fluency of the male falsetto; almost never necessary with altos and basses).
c) Sometimes in borad tempi-with a lot of small notes-it will be found practical in 4/4 time to count-sing each measure either as 2 times “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &” or as a single measure of “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 5 & 6 & 7 & 8 &.”
d) This technique accomplishes extraordinary things for intonation because it requires the singer to intiate the pitch of a whole-note, for instance, eight times per measure. But it does even more for thythms: it makes it impossible for a singer to sing through a rest; and it lines up every measure vertically in terms of the smallest unit.
e) With respect to articulation, it allows the singer to make each 1/8th or 1/16th note either staccato or sostenuto, either accented or smooth.
f) When, finally, the appropriate dynamics are added, the singer is forced to consider where precisely how much of a change in dynamics is to be accomplished how rapidly.
Variants of the “Count-Sing”
1. Neutral, syllable “doo” or “dah”
a) As successive smallest-denominator pulses (i.e. 1/8th or 1/16th notes). b) As staccato pitches on each text-syllable or change of note (singing only the initial fragments of each pitch).
2. Simple tapping exercise
a) On each syllable or change of pitch (to isolate rhythmic from pitch problems, and to give the voice a rest). b) With a pendulum or metronome maintaining a constant tempo, tapping each syllable or change of pitch, to encounter the difficulty of maintaining a tempo.
It should be noted that the Count-sing device is also enormously productive for sectional rehearsals; and that-
The fastest, most productive way for the 4-part chorus to rehearse is for each section to rehearse one to four times separately, and for the conductor to rehearse 4 to 16 times.
VARYING REHEARSAL TECHNIQUES-
By alternating number-singing with text; by altering tempi from too slow to too fast; by arranging choral sections in circles, or by moving them to different locations in the room; by moving from sections to quartets; by having 1/2 the chorus sing numbers while the other half sings text; to throw as many different lights on the music and the learning process as may be possible–will speed, not slow, the learning.
Finally, precisions and rightness are the ultimate convincers and communicators. Anything less than that is musical pornography.”