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It's the words! Alice Parker workshop and Robert Shaw

Listen to this.  Do the singers sing a strict ta ta-ti rhythm?  Is this piece sung in a jazz style with swung eighths?  Certainly not!  So why aren't the eighths straight?  

Enter Alice Parker, right hand of the great Robert Shaw and one of the great masterminds behind his famous Robert Shaw Chorale.  And by "mastermind" I don't mean that she knows more about choral singing than anybody else and is a wizard or sorceress.  No, I mean that she has stripped away the layers of bullshit that tend to accumulate on the music most choirs sing and she treats singing as what it is, a poetry-delivery-device!  Alice simplifies music and makes it easy and uncomplicated.  "I always go back to the words," she says.  "We begin and end with the words."

I attended a workshop given by this grand lady and it changed the way I taught my kids right away.  Usually I get excited about several octavos at  the annual choral workshop, but this year, I got extra excited about the pieces I was already singing!  Alice suggested that we chant the words as a group and find the natural rhythm to the words.  We chanted and chanted until we were perfectly together, even with the pre-schoolers!  Children naturally added notes as if they were merely exaggerated inflection and pretty soon we were singing in unison acapella.  We added the music and it was magic.  Listen to the Shenandoah again.  Can you hear how the men really say the words?  Hear how they speak as one voice.  Hear how they use the notes and blending of harmony to shine a spotlight on the words.

This approach is the dead opposite of what I've experienced with many Hungarian dyed-in-the-wool Kodaly teachers.  These teachers have you on solfa right up to the concert!  I brought this up with Dr. Parker during questions, fully expecting to be ostracized by my colleagues for speaking such sacrilege.  I was surprised.  I heard stories of Kodaly and other composers upset with choral singing of their music because they "got the rhythm wrong."  The wrong rhythm was what was printed, the right one was what is actually said.  Dr. Parker reiterated what she had said, "95% of what music is cannot be communicated on the page.  The page is a starting point only."

Making the song all about the words does several things.  It makes diction effortless, it forces vowel agreement, meaning begets phrasing, and beauty is a goal inasmuch as it serves the text.

Painting words

How can we make the word "bleak" sound more bleak?  How can we make the word "moan" sound more like what it means?  How can we make the word "frosty" sound more frosty and "icy" sound like it's actually freezing as we sing it?  I had my students examine "In the bleak midwinter" this way and was amazed at their ability to make the "bl" in "bleak" sound hopeless, the "ee" sound flat and desolate, and the "k" final and cold.  We practiced this word over and over and put it into the song.  We did this with all the words.  We examined how the notes further helped the text come to life.  Our rendition was truly ours.  I listen to the Robert Shaw version and I like ours better.  We really owned the piece and I love that.  I love how the piece became ours because of the work we did together in figuring out what this piece meant to US.  I'm so thankful to Alice Parker for that!

So why is it that the definitive recording of the Rachmaninoff Vespers is not by a Russian Choir but by The Robert Shaw Chorale?  Their native language isn't Church Slavonic, nobody's is.  Most of their members are not Orthodox Christians in the Russian tradition.  This is in no way native music for them.  They go to the words!


Well, there are translations, but the most important thing about any music in Church Slavonic is that it is sung prayer.  Unlike Hebrew or other languages that may have been "dead" at one time but for worship, Church Slavonic has never been "alive" outside of prayer in the Russian Orthodox Church.  The most important thing about it is that it exists for prayer and unity.  When Saints Cyril and Methodius went to Slavic lands to bring them the Gospel, they learned dozens of Slavic languages and made up a Creole from all of them.  They wanted to unite Slavs under one church, one God, one custom of worship.  They invented Church Slavonic.  1000 years later, it still endures.  (Fun fact, the term Cyrillic refers to the alphabet developed by Cyril and his brother.)

Church Slavonic
So back to Robert Shaw and Rachmaninoff.  Listen to these two pieces from Rachmaninoff's Vespers, there is one over-arching sentiment in each note, syllable, and phrase, transcendence.  A beauty that can only be devine, an awe that is the sweet dying when confronted with the face of God.  Now I have no doubt that there were Jews, Atheists, Secular Humanists, Baptists, and loads of other non-Russian Orthodox people in Robert Shaw's chorus, but I also know that all of these people were human.  Human beings are made to experience joy and wonder, we see it in children no matter the age, mental capacity, or physical characteristics.  I'm sure that these Slavonic songs were discussed and honed by Shaw's singers with a deep reverence for the deeply reverent. 

As you approach new and old songs with your students, have them speak the words together as one voice.  Discuss how the notes bring out the meaning of the words.  Ask students how each word can sound more like what it means.  Invite discussion on these revelations in diction and phrasing.  Use movement and performance practice to further flesh-out songs.  Help your students make songs their own. 


Ryan Brodersen said…
Beautiful idea, thanks for sharing!
YAY! Great post! Thanks!

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