From the President (Sept. 22, 2010)

Dear Colleagues,

I was slow at getting to my weekly messages this school year, and am one behind! I had intended to write this one to you earlier this week but got delayed with the many details that go into starting a school year. Having recovered somewhat from all that, I thought I might get this out today before leaving school.

This book I have been reading is really very informative and worth the effort if any of you are interested. It is called “Creating the Special World,” A Collection of Lectures by Weston H. Noble, edited by Steven M. Demorest, with a very nice forward by Paul Salamunovich. It is a GIA Publication. As you well know, Weston Noble was the Director of Music Activities at Luther College where he directed the Nordic Choir. He is also known as a lecturer, conductor and clinician; I believe he conducted our own Vermont All State Choir many years ago when the festival was held in Burlington every year. I seem to remember him doing Schubert’s “The Omnipotence” that particular year.

At any rate, here I go again about this rhythm thing with choirs. I have always felt that if one works toward a high degree of rhythmic integrity in their rehearsals and performances that one immediately corrects a wealth of “other” problems that we regularly deal with in choral performance. In this particular instance (in Chapter 6: Building Choral Tone-Rhythm and Consonants) Mr. Noble relates an interesting story about being at a workshop run by Robert Shaw (it is not a coincidence that all these kinds of discussions always come back to Shaw!), and he was asked “Mr. Shaw, how do you achieve blend?” Mr. Noble could hardly wait for his answer, but after pausing for a moment, Mr. Shaw answered “I achieve blend through rhythm!” Mr. Shaw went on to say “You directors spend so much time trying to achieve vowel uniformity, and then you never arrive at the vowel together!” Consonants establish rhythm-vowels establish beauty of sound. “Do you directors know the three basic rules of consonants?” he asked. No one volunteered an answer, so he told them………..

Rule #1 Be ahead of the beat (Fred Waring: “begin every pulse or beat of music with a vowel”).

Rule #2 Make the consonant short and properly formed (just a crisp touch of the consonant).

Rule #3 The consonant must have the same pitch as the vowel that follows. (Fred Waring: “Accurate initial intonation will result if singers always
think in advance the pitch of the first vowel and sing the preceding consonant on that pitch.”)

These three statements require some thought, and than one has to move on to other studies as they relate to vowels and consonants….all things that we have all been exposed to and studied at some level in our education. It should come as no surprise that both Fred Waring and Madeline Marshall were teachers of the young Robert Shaw, and so it is only logical that Shaw would have given much of his lives work and thought to these issues. So I again, after reading all this information in this book, took up my “Robert Shaw Reader” and re-read the chapters on 1) Warm-up, Rhythm and Tempo, Phrasing and 2) Quiet Singing and Count-Singing and 3) Enunciation, Language. I am in awe of the focused, concentrated and insightful analysis of virtually every conceivable aspect of these topics that Mr. Shaw has offered to us through his letters to his chorus members over the years that he was working. It is indeed NOT something, I suppose, that we should be sharing with our singers on a regular basis, but on the other hand we would all probably be better for the effort we make by informing ourselves of the complexities of phonation. At times one has to read this material very slowly to comprehend what he is saying (at least I have to), but if you are of this particular persuasion I would encourage you to do so! The book is edited by Robert Blocker and printed by Yale University Press: The Robert Shaw Reader.

In summary, I guess the summation word for this article is “RHYTHMIC INTEGRITY.” The fine points of achieving this are worth reading about. So I have taken a short piece that I am doing with my Freshman Chorus (Amor Vittorioso by Giovanni Gastoldi) and am leaving the language out of the equation. All the work I am doing is by using the count-singing system that Shaw developed and persistently used in his rehearsals. It is easy to handle this work in this manner because the only note values used are eighths, quarters, halves and whole notes throughout at a very reasonable 4/4 meter at a half note=40. Only after the rhythm is completely mastered will I start to use text. We shall see if I attain anything that might recommend me doing more music in this manner. The count singing takes time for the students to learn and even longer for them to see the results. Pray for me!

Most Sincerely,

Frank Whitcomb

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