Q:  Let’s begin with the “how” of choral music making – the techniques.  Howard Swan, in his book, “Conscience of a Profession” outlines, …No that’s not true actually, it’s in that other compendium, The Decker book.  [Choral Conducting:  Symposium by Harold A. Decker and Julius Herford, Editor] Howard Swan has a chapter in that book. He analyzes the various American choral approaches, and he defines the “Shaw Approach” as: “Rhythmic drive; knowledge of the shape of the phrase; understanding the laws of vocal energy.”  Do you agree with that definition? And, can you tell me what that means?

RS:  I wish Howard were here and could do it because he knows what he means by his own words and he uses them with care.  Give me the three things again, will you.

Q:  Rhythmic drive is the one

RS:  And then?

Q:  Knowledge of the shape of the phrase

 RS:  Yeah, he’s talked to me about that.

Q:  And then understanding the laws of vocal imagery.


RS:  I’m not sure what he means by that unless he means the sort of methods we use to save voice at rehearsal, because of my - I think I have two principles about that that inform all of our rehearsal technique. 

The first is that vocal gold shouldn’t be wasted, and that you can strip the voice of its really significant beauty and just its energy by asking it to do too many things at the same time, which leads into the second point, and that is that until rhythm and pitches are secure, people shouldn’t be asked to vocalize very much, if at all.  We ask our - I have a, sort of a little favorite metaphor for it, and that is, I say that you’re on a bus and you’re going to your vocal class, your coaching class, whatever, and that you don’t want the person next to you to know that you’re studying a song.  How loud would you sing, you know?  And so we try to rehearse at that scale, that dynamic scale, which is some place between piano and triple piano.  We obviously enjoy some modification of dynamics.  We can sing forte as well as sing piano plus and sing piano minus, and we’ll also allow the tenor and soprano sections which in four-part writing have to operate at rather extreme ranges, extremely high ranges – we’ll allow them to sing down an octave any time that it’s comfortable for them, and I even occasionally tell a chorus, if you can whistle it, do so, I mean, if you know the notes and it’s coming easy. 

It seems to me that an awful lot of voices are ruined by, in choral performance, by asking in choral rehearsals, by asking people to satisfy all of the disciplines of music – dynamics, enunciation particularly among them – before they really know the notes, and the voice is such a sensitive instrument that you can just all but ruin it immediately by asking it to do things that it doesn’t even know where they are yet, to make a bad phrase worse by using bad English, but the – so in that sense, we are trying to save, what did he call it, vocal energy?


And Howard has also, in the second regard, taking them now in reverse order, Howard has also been very kindly towards my sort of phrasing from the earliest days. 

Howard [Swan] preceded me at Pomona College by exactly ten years, and was also Director of the Glee Club when he was there - student director of the glee club, as I was - following him some ten years later. He probably was a part of that famous Pomona College Glee Club, because it happened about that time that the national glee club competition ended.  He probably was a part of that Pomona College Glee Club that won the last national championship that was held in the United States.  And he became a – his field was not music at that time.  He was an educator, and as a matter, of fact in my junior high school years in Los Angeles, a part of Los Angeles called Eagle Rock, Howard was a history teacher in our junior high school. He had a very fine tenor voice, of great virility and strength and dramatic quality, and really not a heldentenor, not a baritone tenor, but a strong, strong lyric tenor. As many people know, he lost his voice abruptly and no one’s ever been able to figure out quite why except that he was such a perfect human being psychologically that he couldn’t have been psychic here.  He was completely happy in home life and everything and in his work life and so on. 

He got interested in choral music, particularly when he was singing in Los Angeles, and he had a fine career as a young tenor soloist and finally ended up in Occidental College which is one of the fine colleges of the United States, not only of California but of the whole country.  Substantially I used to respect him so much that I would, as I began to be more interested in music as a possible career, I went to talk to him, and he also then brought out rather renowned conductors from the East Coast, including John Finley Williamson, to give special courses for young conductors at Occidental College and some programs and so on which I also attended, and which were my sort of only courses, formal courses, at least those affiliated with any institution in choral conducting. 

But he used to speak to me about my phrasing and I feel a little embarrassed to sort of engage in self-analysis, because I can’t think it would be much help to anybody else and somehow I think my phrasing was first motivated by textual relationships and textual emphases. It may have been also that my mother’s singing of spirituals and my mother’s singing of art songs guided this, so that part of my almost instinctive development, rather than learning in formal course fashion, and that I somehow from the very beginning found it loathe to let a phrase go as long as there was any more meaning to be found in it, either in its text or in its sort of melodic arch and I can’t trace that any farther, Harold, I think.

He thought for instance that the first Christmas carol records were remarkable for their phrasing.  Now, I think in some instances we phrased across natural hymn punctuation, congregational punctuation, which would allow the congregation to achieve some sort of sense of text.  We might run across a four-measure phrase where a congregation would breathe, where there hadn’t yet been a comma or period or something like that.   So I think that entered into my phrasing.

Another thing that helped a little bit later on was Mr. Herford’s very kindly instruction, and I soon became – I don’t know whether we’ve talked about this in previous things, but the analysis of phrase structure in music – harmonic, melodic, metric – all of these analytical methods which might become, if they were unrelated to actual singing or unrelated to actual playing, which might become sort of dull and only sort of undergirding structure and bones rather than blood and flesh.  Under Herford’s urging, they came to me very full of emotion, and so my phrasing was guided by also structural – I’m talking literally four measures, where there are four measure phrases, four measure phrases, three plus one or one plus three or two plus two or some combination of half measures. And so once this sort of thinking became charged with, to be over poetic, became charged with tears or laughter, then it was no longer desiccation and just dryness.

I suppose … Well I remember now another thing that Lynn Harrell told me.  Lynn Harrell is one of America’s great cellists, no longer quite young cellist as he was a few years back, but still is relatively young in his career, and he just simply says that all the things that he learned most from music were from listening to singers sing.  And his father was a very famous baritone and I think the greatest performer of the Jesus roles in the St. Matthew and St. John Passions that certainly I ever heard in my lifetime, but he also, had sufficient vocal capacity to have a good career at the Met.  For instance, he opened Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, and obviously Lynn studied his father’s recordings, but also other famous opera recordings that he felt taught him everything he knew about phrasing. And he brought, therefore he thinks he brings to his playing, without being vain about it, he thinks he brings a sort of a singer’s sense of phrasing.  And since I was raised with singers all my life and had such interesting voices as those of my two sisters and my mother and my aunt and my grandmother to hear, and they were sensitive people, so they sang – their literature was not what one would find in the most esoteric libraries - their natural sense of phrasing was fabulous, and I suppose, I hope I’m an inheritor of that.


So far as the first thing is concerned, which was rhythmic drive, it occurred to me when I, it occurred to me first when I kept meeting people like Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss at places like Tanglewood and just following the War in '45 and '46 and '47 and '48, that these young and brilliant musicians who had a great innate genius for pitch recognition and could transpose anything,  or could play anything back that was shown to them or heard by them. There’s a thing called absolute pitch, which I did not have and found it very difficult to read in those days.  I still find it difficult.  I have to sort of solfege every line of a major score just line by line, instrument by instrument, or voice by voice.  I did have - I recall then as I try to tote up what I had to learn before I could count myself in the company of these fellows - was,  I can remember as a child at age 3, 4, 5, walking down the street and obviously going left, right, left, right with my feet, but going three against two with my hands or four against five with a lineup of words or something that would give me something to play with. In a sense I think I was oversensitive to rhythm and I’m grateful for it, and I don’t know from where that comes. 

Man obviously is a binary creature in left and right and two eyes and two ears and two feet and so three is always a, sort of a mystery to the human consciousness because – and for that reason I’m sure it’s true that- oh, what are the dances we try, the tarantella dances are in threes and so on.  They make people sick at their stomachs.  I’ve also said that if man had three legs, our waltzes -  our marches would be waltzes, obviously.  So this was natural to me and I, certainly when I finally met someone like Toscanini, who had it seemed to me enormous propulsive line quality.  This was based upon reiterative qualities.  This was very moving to me, and also Mr. Szell.  From the very beginning I was interested in relating units to units rather than disturbing their relationship.  I was interested in seeing if all of expressiveness could not be caught without one moment of change of tempo, without either slowing down or speeding up in any way. 

Now I think, I’m just sure that a subtle change of tempo can be one of the very most moving things and emotionally communicative things in music, but I am also very secure now in the feeling that every change must be absolutely consensual and absolutely agreed upon by everybody and they must do it in such a manner that it doesn’t feel led.  And they must sense these subtle drawing apart of tempo or closing in on tempo together. 

Maybe my interest in jazz from an early day working with, as I did, beginning with the Waring outfit and being loaned by Waring to Broadway shows or to the Aquacades or to work with jazz artists like Art Tatum and Cozy Cole and the drummers of Benny Goodman and those wonderful jazz trios and quartets that were around in those days.  That reiterative quality means, I think, more to me than it does to others. 

I don’t want to interrupt you, but there was one other thing I thought of and that is that I also, since I’m more concerned with finding the composer’s intentions than I am my own and finding my …For instance I just don’t feel I have a right to say this is Shaw’s Brahms Requiem or something and I want it to be Brahms’ Brahms Requiem and screw Shaw!  Let’s get him off to the side as soon as you can, get him out of the way and so that it keeps me from that sort of indulgence.

Q:  But in view of the fact that music is after all the art form that happens in time, it makes a lot of sense that the rhythmic element is a very important one.

 RS:  Yeah, yeah, 'cause that is substantially its medium.  Now it does it somehow, tone becomes a sort of space to time, and so it works in a sort of a tonal space. But it’s working with time and, consequently, it runs in sync with life time or runs counter to life time, or its problem is to shape time in such a fashion that these two elements of time, one of which is reiteration and the other of which is growing and passing through, are somehow, not reconciled but become both true, and it’s manifestly impossible.  Everyone knows that time is indivisible.  Now, we speak of the time of creation and many of us are secure, reasonably secure that it ain’t over yet, you know, and that it still goes on.  We recognize sunrise and sunset and the various seasons and gestation, periods, but at the same time we also recognize that if I hold the hand of Mac Harrell when Mac’s dying, nobody knows, including me and Mac, when death occurs, you know.  You simply can’t.  I was with another dear friend [Peter Harrower?]  a few months back in which it was clear from the brain oscillation in the machines that he had been brain dead for some time. and there were no machines to keep the boy alive, but his heart kept going for 15 minutes after the machines proved he was dead.  

Time is a strange, strange function of human life or life is a strange function of time, but it has this quality of reiterativeness, but there are moments whose meaning is simply not to be found in their measure. 

And so, in music -  obviously Beethoven goes along hammering the same three chords for 35 minutes and all of a sudden you get one measure in which he absolutely explodes harmonically.  I mean he destroys harmonic time that he has been building in this.  It’s just amazing what time means to music.  So rhythm has meant more to me, and what I try to find is not – I find myself saying to a choir time and time again that, you know, your eighth notes simply aren’t equal, and if you want to disturb them, first get them equal, then find out which direction you want to disturb them.  And these four sixteenths must equal absolutely these two eighths, and not only that, but they must be heard against four whole notes.  Because obviously the difficult thing with a chorus is to get it to speak together, speak, I mean, sing together obviously, but to get a rhythmic order so secure that Hindemith sitting at his desk could write it down as fast as we can sing it, you know. 

And I think this is one of the things that is sort of unique about, in general, the sound that I have been associated with for fifty years.  I think it’s one of the things that Toscanini couldn’t believe when he heard it the first time, that here was a choir that actually, you know, sang at the same time.

I think this is why he walked into a rehearsal the first time and said he wanted me to conduct.  I assumed he’d be conducting the rehearsal. It was the Ninth Symphony.  When I finished, he asked me to go through it and I went through it and the choir was singing in a room, and I could see because he was at my back and walking up and down in back of me, and I, everybody is watching his walk instead of my, but the point was that they were so disciplined that they sang absolutely precisely together and it wasn’t because I was leading them and they were all following me, because they’d been trained to do this.  And he heard it and said I can’t, that’s the first time I ever heard the piece sung and it sounded.  And George Szell said once.  I said, why’d you bring me here because I obviously have too much to learn to be in this position, to have 80 concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra, and he says, because you make a choir, you treat a choir like I treat an orchestra, and I think we go after the same things and so that was good news.  At least I figured I could go home and sleep again a couple of nights before I got thrown out of town.


Q:  This matter of rhythm, and it seems to me that a very careful attention should be paid to matters of diction, are related.  Can you tell me about that and what informs your thinking in that?

RS:  Well, the rules, for me the rules of enunciation are pretty simple too.  I’m talking about concerted enunciation with group singing.  And the first is that every sound of every syllable must be phonated.  That is, to say in the English language as practiced by Americans, North Americans, arguably, we have diphthongs and we have even occasional tripthongs.  The word year has an e in front of a y and then it has a sort of an e vowel which follows and then it has a huh follow the ear.  And obviously the word space is made of, has two vowels – a and e – spaaeece, and height has two - ah-e - and so on.  And so we say that we have to sing every sound.  We have to phonate every sound of every syllable.  And they have to be granted a pitch and they have, but more importantly, they have to be granted a time.  And if one sings "Home, Home on the Range," and gets to the chorus, you’ve got to hold the word home for four seconds.  Where are you going to put the m on home and where are you going to put the u vowel which will precede the m?  And so we factor it into the rhythm, and we say that it happens on beat 4, and it’s preceded by the main vowel but it’s also , the m is also preceded by a fraction of the disappearing vowel and the diphthong.

But the point is that we lay it out and we lay it out on our scores.  I mean we put where the final consonants occur.  Most choruses can reasonably identify the beginning of a word or a phrase.  They can get that together, but it’s very difficult for them to stop the thing once they got it in motion.  And so we just say, we make them, we write it in our scores.  If I edit it completely, I put every "t" in and which fraction of which beat it’s to be phonated.  And so this is, in this respect the choral art is infinitely more complex than the instrumental art because a violin - a string instrument can start its pitch by an up or down motion or by a plucked motion, and a trumpet has, or the brass instruments have a "t" or a "k"  to start the phonation, and the oboe has, and the clarinet and the winds have the pressure of the lips which either allows them to spuh or not to spuh, sort of a thing.  But a choir, and a singer, is asked to. Those dictionaries over there on the piano are, I suppose, several thousand pages thick – two or three thousand pages thick each – because they’re Indian paper -and each dictionary must have three columns on it of 20 to 30 words each, so there are about 100 words on each page, and times however many pages and times the number of syllables on each word.  So you’ve got, you have the possibility of starting a pitch on a combination of consonants or vowels which are in the tens and tens of thousands and that’s as though you’re asking an oboe player to play this note with this instrument and pick up an English horn and play the next note.  Now drop that and play the third note with oboe and so on. 

Because the singer has to arrive at an instantaneous pitch phonation with the prescription of the composer, but he’s got to do it perhaps with as many consonants in front of the vowel as "schwr" as in the word "schwrank." It’s a lot more complex than it is just simply in orchestral playing. But, by understanding that, I mean, it’s already licked.  Only you just have to do it, that’s all.  And you have to convince everybody that it’s important to be done, and you can end up with an over precise enunciation, or you can end up with – I mean there are other errors possible. 

Mr. Waring used to have what he called tone syllables.  It’s a rough phonetics.  And it’s almost a sort of bastard phonetics really because it didn’t take too much into accounting for the diphthongs and the disappearing sounds. It worked fabulously for his repertoire of the popular song, but it was too slick and too multicolored to work with a Haydn Creation text that would also be in English.  You’d want it a little more elegant.  You’d want a little more of the English theater precision in that, a little more elegance of the King James language and possibly of Shakespearean stage language, you know?  And so one can make mistakes and become over precise, either in terms of style or in terms of emphasis. 

One can make the hung consonant simply too long and they’re quite suitable for fraternity singing or the pop song. They may add many singers, you know, and if their phrase ends with an "ng," they’re liable to hold it for three measures or something, and this passes for emotional commitment, and that’s fine, but you can’t do it with great text. So the organization of enunciation is first the recognition of the sounds that make up language, and second, the placing them against the time table of the music. And that’s all there is, but the dumb thing is to get it done.


Q:  There is another dimension. You’ve talked about phrasing and rhythm and that seems to me to be emphasizing the linear, horizontal aspects of the choral art. Again I refer to Howard Swan who says, “Robert Shaw likes a seamless choral sound." Now I think here we’re talking about certain vertical aspects of the sound. What do you mean by a seamless vocal sound?

RS:  Let’s ask what Howard [Swan] means.  I think, and I understand it - since both of us were exposed to John Finley Williamson in our younger days.  It seems to me that if I remember John Finley well, he wanted his altos to sound different from his sopranos, and he wanted his tenors to sound different from his basses.  And in a fugue he, in a sense, he hoped that he had four different species of human vocalism in his choir.

Q:  Like choirs in an orchestra?

RS: Yeah, I suppose like winds verses brass – that is, wood winds verses brass verses strings, except that in any of those families, you had a pitch that ranged from high to low. You had the highest note of the oboe down to the lowest note in the contrabassoon in a single family, and you had it in the clarinet family and you had it in the string family. And I suppose with speech all of percussion is in a sense patterned after the sounds capable of being made exaggerated or amplified, the sounds that are capable of being made by the human voice, clicking together in languages, the clicks in African languages and so on.  Howard and I both were students and spent four years in the Glee Club of Pomona College with Professor Ralph Lyman.  Dr. Lyman, had - Prof, his name was - Prof had a rather seamless sound. In those days voices were not quite as mature as some of them are now. In high school choruses in greater New York, for instance, you can get occasionally a real tenor voice, I mean, a voice that’s reasonably ready to go into a Met production or into a Met operatic chorus. But in those days, people being gentle folks and kindly people and WASPS generally, anyway, and not having to learn to sing against subway noises or cops and robbers at night and sirens, voices were relatively smooth.  In Prof Lyman’s choir he was always hoping he’d have enough good small sound baritones to make a tenor section.

And so the four voices of the male chorus—first and second bass and first and second tenor—were very very smoothly organized up and down. The low voices—the tenor voices—sounded like a bass voice carried up into falsetto, rather than like Pavoratti’s, who’s got the hook on it and can dominate a symphony orchestra. So we both inherited that.  I had further experience in building the Waring Glee Club with a repertoire, as in a pop song, which is substantially a love song, a serenade arranged in six parts for male voiceswith a wide range, a three octave range for the male voices. But again, one didn’t want to disturb that sort of lullaby sound, and that “darling, I love you” sound with vocal gymnastics and heroics. And so that was very smooth.

And I, for whatever maybe that combination of reasons or combinations of experience, led me in my building of the first mixed choruses I worked with, because the Waring Glee club was completely male, of course, with a trio of girls who added occasional interjections, I tried to get a seamless sound up and down the scale.