Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A week at Westminster Choir College

I spent last week at Westminster Choir College, now part of the Westminster College of the Arts of Rider University, located a short walk from Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. I was there to take the Group Vocal Techniques course offered by James Jordan, in which he presents a systematic approach to developing a choir's voices through the warmup sequence.

Besides learning much from the course, I also was thrilled to visit one of the totemic places in the history of choral music in the United States. As Jordan says, Westminster Choir College may be more devoted to the maintenance of a particular choral sound than any other place. Its founder, John Finley Williamson (1887-1964), was a visionary musician and organizer, one of the giants in the history of American music of the 20th century.

So many aspects of choral singing are often passed down in a process more resembling folklore than schooling. Anyone who has sung with a variety of directors knows that there is great variation in the warmup procedure from group to group. Of course, there is no one "right" warmup that is applicable to every possible choral ensemble; but on the other hand, many warmups seem to owe their genesis more to habit than to systematic thought. Moreover, in the culture of a choral society, the warmup sometimes acts more as a framing device to put distance between the "real world" and musical labor, than as an effort to accomplish specific goals in the development of the voice. Put more bluntly, if a choir has a certain vocalise that begins every warmup, its function is as much to communicate "please stop socializing and take your seats" than anything else.

Jordan's teaching serves to question these habits and to make the warmup serve a purpose. One area in which he opened new doors for me is to rethink the role of the accompanist in the warmup. When I have led choirs, I have used vocalises that climb by a half step with each repetition. (Having sung bass before, I also like to use vocalises that descend, something that is less common in the choral warmup, in my experience.) But I did not give much thought to the accompaniment to these vocalises. Usually, I would just play the tonic chord of whatever key the vocalise is in, and perhaps hammer out the notes of the vocalise if the singers were having trouble staying on pitch.

Jordan's technique (developed in collaboration with accompanist Marilyn Shenenberger, whom I also met at this seminar) is not obvious but makes perfect sense once encountered. First of all, one should use the dominant chord, not the tonic, to introduce each successive key. Second, the accompaniment should not simply hammer out the notes of the vocalise, but should provide a contrasting line which singers should hear and sing in harmony with. Finally, the accompaniment can often include high-pitched, percussive notes outlining the harmony. (Warmup exercises employing these techniques can be found in Jordan's textbook Evoking Sound: The Choral Warm-Up.)

(Photo: the Playhouse at Westminster Choir College, an imaginative use of an iconic mid-20th century architectural form, the Quonset Hut.)