I have been regularly reading the “Robert Shaw Reader” all year, and I continue to be intrigued by his incredible attention to the most minute details of the choral art. Indeed some of his critics would call attention to this aspect of his work and at least imply that what he gained in detail he lost in the inspiration of the performance. I wonder?
I am going to depart from that thought for a few moments to tell you what my last week was like at school. It was of course the end of the quarter, and with that comes my annual end of the quarter assessment. Each quarter I have all the members of my choirs learn a solo selection that they have to perform (with accompaniment) at the end of each quarter. I work and coach them on it throughout the nine weeks of the quarter, detailing all aspects of expression, phrasing, breathing, pronunciation, etc. There is more than ample time for them to prepare right in the chorus rehearsal. This quarter’s selection was a solo version of “My Lord, What A Mornin’.” It is rather simple, very expressive and yet there are many opportunities for the students to show their ability to interpret dynamics, ritards, knowledge of the fermata, phrasing and proper breathing. I often will also have each student demonstrate their progress on rhythmic studies and melodic sight singing by reading a short 6 or 8 measures of each as well. I chose not to do this this quarter, but to concentrate on just the solo selection.
Although my students can sing the selection as a group well with me accompanying, it is absolutely amazing how many “mistakes” these students make when they sing it alone. Even if I disregard matters of intonation, wrong notes, wrong rhythms and such, it is still incredible how they can disregard matters of breathing in the proper place, phrasing, observance of dynamic markings, ritards and fermatas. Having observed this, I now must move my thinking ahead to what an ensemble must do to really attain the kind of expectation that Robert Shaw demanded of his singers. With all the inaccuracies present in my choir, I simply do not know how one can possibly attain the kind of performance that I hear in my head. I believe Shaw was right on….his belief that at the core of a successful performance is rhythmic integrity; indeed, without this there is little hope for perfect intonation. There are so many inaccuracies of all sorts that it is a miracle that choirs sound as good as many do! Other factors that play into the realization of a beautiful choral sound are vowels (all singing the same vowel sound), consonant placement, voice quality and how they are placed in the choir, vibratos, etc.
And of course there are matters of attendance and attitude, cooperativeness and general intent. All in all I sometimes wonder how we do the good work that we all do! I have in particular this year had tremendous problems with student commitment and dedication; seldom have I had the kind of absences in my full choirs and in my more select choirs as well. A full rehearsal is something that seldom happens, and students seem to have many, many conflicts that do not allow them to follow through with their commitments. Ultimately this results in poor ensemble and less than satisfactory results in performance. I am not sure what the solutions are and where the answers might lie, but I do know this for sure. Shaws methods, perceptions and analysis are quite accurate, and we would all be better for reading his thoughts. He analyzes everything and has thoughts on attendance, commitment and method that are insightful and worth consideration.
Lots of questions here, and few answers…….I continue to strive to do the best work I am able to do, but as I have often lamented, music literacy (rhythmic and melodic skills) are and important key to success in the performing ensemble, Although some of my students possess these skills, I am afraid the majority are lacking. What to do?