What, or who influenced your choral work most?
OK, I’ll go first!
by Howard Meharg, Web/Editor, NW ACDA
Not long ago someone asked me what I learned most from my two tours with the Norman Luboff Choir. While that period in my life was a good many years ago (1974 and 1977) and no doubt ancient history to a good many of you in this profession today, it still seems like a short time ago to me. The question prompted more thoughts than a simple and specific answer, for many others have been my teachers. I cannot begin to name you all, for some influences from colleagues have simply been absorbed, making it impossible for me to name the source.
Several major influences
Yes, we learn from each other. That is a life-long thing. I've learned from you. I continue to learn from your articles, your presentations at workshops, hearing your choirs at contests and at conferences. For twenty years I had the privilege of absorbing (there's that word again) so much from my friends and colleagues in Male Ensemble Northwest. Frankly, I'm pretty sure my fellow NW associates have influenced me most. But, allow me the fun of "dropping some names" and mentioning some well-known professionals in our business.
But first, I have to thank and talk about two colleagues from my earliest days in this business.
Larry Marsh and Ormal Tack
I learned of the importance of unifying the vowel from an older colleague, Ormal Tack, who taught for some years at R. A. Long High School in Longview. His system of simplifying American English vowels and assigning one to each syllable of each word in a choral work still makes sense to me. Virtually all he taught in this regard, however, was passed down to me through my friend and colleague, Larry Marsh. Larry taught in the junior high that fed Ormal’s choir. Later, he taught at "the other" Longview high school, Mark Morris. What a treasure of fine choral music they had going in those schools in the early 1960’s! And what an influence it was for those of us in that region, especially for this young guy across the river in Kelso, one of my first jobs. Larry was a constant source of knowledge, challenge, and inspiration for me. He got a doctorate and taught in Texas, Michigan, and most recently at Linfield University, retiring a few years ago.
Vowels are the vehicle for tone. Every syllable of every word in the lyrics of a choral work must be agreed upon as a starting point for good choral tone.
Christiansen was another major influence. I suppose it odd that I had attended only one workshop with Paul Christiansen. It was at the University of Denver in about 1965. Paul was the youngest son of F. Melius Christiansen of St. Olaf College. He conducted the choir at Concordia College from 1937-1986.
I have never forgotten…and try not to let my choirs forget…the importance of the concept Paul stressed...unison. (Washington ACDA people are the recipients of that idea in that I named the WA ACDA newsletter “UNISON.”) It’s a simple idea. One voice. But it can become the guiding principle for a choral director. “Does your soprano section sound like one voice?” While many issues could be preventing that from happening, unison becomes the goal. Simply put, your job is to find out what issues prevent this unison from happening!
(An aside: Christiansen denied that non-vibrato singing was also a goal in his choirs. I remember him referencing the Philadelphia Orchestra and asking, “Do the violins of the Philadelphia Orchestra play without vibrato? No! But they do sound as one instrument!”)
Train your ears to listen for unison in each section of the choir. If it isn't there, find out why. Is it lack of agreement on the vowel? Is it a tone quality issue? Is it balance? A simple matter of wrong notes? Is it in tune?
Some of the first real listening I did with choral music was hearing the Norman Luboff Choir LPs. I was struck by the richness of the sound and the flow of the phrases. When Luboff first started doing workshops, I was able to attend one in the early 70’s at Cannon Beach. While it was a bit intimidating to ask for an audition to sing with his group…after all, he has a star on Hollywood Blvd. for his work in the movies…I actually did sing for him. I later got a nice letter turning me down, and saying “My baritone section is returning almost intact from last year, so I won’t be needing an additional voice.”
I decided not to give up on the idea of singing professionally in a choir. So, in 1973, I wrote to him. He was kind enough to reply and asked me to send a tape with “something classical” and “something pop.” I put it together with the help of Dale Mattson (then at Sehome High School, Bellingham) and sent in my audition material. A few weeks later I got a letter inviting me to report to rehearsals being held in a church right on Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA., in January of 1974. I was just brash enough to feel comfortable with this and, taking a leave of absence from my school job for three months, began my association with people who became friends as well as an influence on my professional career…Norman Luboff and Gunilla Marcus-Luboff.
What was Luboff’s chief influence on my work? He insisted on musical line! Every phrase was to have a natural ebb and flow. Luboff programs for the touring group opened with a “classical” side for the first half, followed (with a change of jackets from tux to casual) for the second half and his signature folk and pop arrangements. Natural diction and emphasis on syllabic stress along with that flow of the line. Vital material for the “Luboff sound.”
It occurs to me that I learned something else that sticks with me. I toured again in 1977, so adding up the concerts in both tours…each making a complete circle around the United States…we sang in perhaps 100 venues. The acoustics differed in each hall. Some helped us. Some we fought to sound good in. Outdoors is tough! The worst venue I remember was a Masonic auditorium in Detroit. The sound seemed to be sucked into the walls. To a person, we all hated that concert! Believe it or not, Luboff’s favorite hall in the entire 1974 tour was R. A. Long High School’s auditorium in Longview, WA. (I sorta helped set that up with local Rotary Club sponsorship in my hometown.) Unfortunately, a later remodel of that auditorium killed it as a primo hall for choral work. (OK, I did digress!)
Is your choir singing a connected line (when that is called for...and most often it is the case)? Are you thinking flow coupled with subtle syllabic stress. Are you aware that the highest note of the phrase just may not be the most important one. How unimaginative to allow each syllable or each word of a lyric to have the same stress. Learn, as Luboff did, from some of the great pop artists of his day about stress and release in the phrase. Oh, and search for the finest place (acoustically) you can find for your concerts. Make sure your concert hall is going to help you sound your best. It is, for good or ill, a vital part of your instrument.
Fred Waring is not often mentioned as an inspiration or role model for choral work. But I readily admit to being attracted to the sound of choral music by listening to Fred Waring’s “Pennsylvanians.” I began my career in 1959. Waring was beginning to “wind down” by that time. For the first ten years and more I turned often to Shawnee Press (his publishing company) and that catalog full of arrangements by Harry Simeone, Roy Ringwald, and Hawley Ades.
One of the characteristics of Shawnee Press’ publications was the inclusion of Waring’s pronunciation guide written beneath the lyrics of these arrangements or compositions. These guides spelled in phonetic form the correct vowel, including the turning of the diphthong and where the consonant should fall. I had more than one student ask, “what is this foreign language under the words?” Most of us paid little attention to this at the time, but I eventually began to see this was exactly what we were doing as we sang a musical phrase.
In the early seventies, I attended a week-long workshop sponsored by Waring’s organization and held at California State University in Hayward. While Waring didn’t spend a great deal of time in front of the attendees (others led the presentations), he did work with us on his diction method…using the phonetic system he had developed. (He struck me as being a bit of an old-fashioned musical tyrant.) But I still believe his system makes sense!
Just what is the vowel for any given syllable for the texts we sing? Are we really in agreement on that? Blend is still a good word! Shaping the vowel for a clean unison is still a good idea! It’s a marvelous start for good vocal tone quality.
Find one of the old Shawnee Press arrangements and note the phonetic indications under the lyrics. For a moment, forget about word meanings and simply be aware of the mechanics of what you're doing as you sing a phrase. Shape the sound of the vowel. If you have confident singers, go down the line and ask each to sing the syllable (vowel) in question. Agree on the correct vowel. Follow that exercise by asking your singers to be aware of how active we must be with the articulators (tongue, teeth, lips, hard and soft pallate) in making the lyrics understood...and still maintain musical line!
Unlike a few of my friends, some of whom are still active choral directors, I never met or sang with or for Robert Shaw. Yet, his written words influence me still.
OK, a couple of notes…maybe of interest.
It may be worth noting that Robert Shaw, shortly after graduating from Pomona College, class of 1938, was hired by Fred Waring to recruit and train a glee club to sing with Waring’s group.
A marvelous bass who I often stood by in the Luboff Choirs, Raymond Keast (maybe the oldest guy in the choir), had sung with Shaw in the early 60’s. I was in awe imagining the thrill of which Raymond spoke as he told of being in the Shaw choir that sang the “B minor mass” before an audience in Moscow in 1962. He said the applause went on for twenty minutes!)
One can find a huge number of quotations attributed to Shaw. He had a penchant for writing messages to his singers. Gayle Walker, president of ACDA’s Central Division, quotes messages from a colleague’s folder, copies of notes Shaw wrote to the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus during 1957-1964. It was quotes like these that I continue to read and absorb that have influenced my work. Shaw said, for example: “Good enunciation happens when 200 people make intelligible, attractive sounds at the same time. Good intonation is the result of singing in tune in time.”
That sort of thing leads me to say, I believe that within the sub-divisions of the pulse we have exact places for consonants. The sounds of voiced consonants can become part of the rhythmic life of a line. Concepts as simple as taking care to sub-divide the pulse, making the eighth note to fall precisely on the “and” following a dotted quarter note, or taking care that we don’t lose rhythmic precision by taking too long to breathe between phrases and thus rob from the energy of the line…all vital in so many ways! As Walker wrote, “Time, he (Shaw) said, is music’s ‘canvas,’ and every moment must contain dramatic drive.”
Shaw still inspires me as he speaks so eloquently from the past in saying, “…it seems to me that this union of spirits before goodness and beauty and truth is as close as men come in this life to the ends for which they were born. This establishes their humanity.” (Quotes taken from Gayle’s article in “Resound,” p. 2, Winter, 2017, Bill Niederer, Editor)
Look for sources or books about Robert Shaw. Read, learn, and be inspired. Grow!