LETTERS FROM SHAW
Choral Letters - Communication with Choruses (Shaw in an interview with Howard Dyck, CBC 1992)
Q: I want to talk to you about how you communicate with your choir and have over the years. Obviously there’s a great deal of communication that goes on in the rehearsals and we’ve seen that in evidence. But you’ve also taken to writing letters to your choir. What is it that you want to communicate in those letters and why do you choose to do it in letter form?
RS: Well I suppose the original thing was - obviously one begins by sending letters, “get your tail here next week” sort of thing.
The difficulty with the amateur chorus is keeping motivation serious, and keeping everybody alarmed, sort of really. And the things that they – and so this is just to hit them - since they only get together two hours to two hours and a half once a week, it’s a long time between drinks at the fountain. So part of it is, it begins as public service announcements - what’s happening, coming up and then, “you have to get your robes ready” and that can soon pass over, that sort of thing can pass over to a secretary.
But if there are important things that were loused up at the last rehearsal, important technical elements or part of choral technique, these deserve some clarification. And I think, I suppose partly it was to force myself to come to terms with something. How did I happen to lose my cool in rehearsal and get mad when what I should have been doing was doing what? So it’s partially self-critical and self-analytical as well as “come on, let’s everybody join in." And I don’t know why they - That’s obviously to have them have something during the middle of the week that brings their attention back to next Monday night.
But the matter of the letters is - I guess begins with technical things that happened wrong and that were either cured or not cured at rehearsal. And obviously the things that aren’t cured at rehearsal are either a fault of inexperience on my part or the fact that I couldn’t keep my own attention on important matters, and got caught up feeling sorry for myself or something, or got worried about the time wasn’t long enough, and we were going to break, fall down in front of all these millions of people. So that started - that’s the way that started.
I think now in terms of, well for instance the last sort of half dozen letters I wrote to our chorus about the Missa Solemnis when we were recording it three or four few years ago. Those begin to be reasonably decent musical analysis and textural analysis for participating amateurs. I’m not sure that they’re worthy of publication for professionals in the field, but maybe some of them, maybe if they were sufficiently edited, meaning they were sufficiently black leaded, they might even qualify for that. And I don’t know that - Part of the, I suppose part of the success of the successful conductor of the amateur chorus, particularly the large amateur chorus, the large people’s chorus, where one doesn’t have an institution like a church to hold them together from their religious training or their religious commitment or whatever, is simply cheerleading.
The danger is that, the danger lies in when it remains cheerleading. Then it becomes as suspect as any of the other sort of affairs of men like political affairs of men, which depend upon marketing and merchandising and public image. Howard Swan and Ralph Lyman and the fine choral conductors, and John Finley Williamson and Christiansen, were powerful human beings and had a – they were in a sense missionaries. They believed very strongly in what they were doing and that it was good for people and the better the product became, the better it was for people. And so they simply...it’s like I think my father used to feel, and uncle who was a missionary to China, used to feel about the Christian gospel. They were sure they were right. These Buddhists wouldn’t get to heaven, and they were trying to help them, and didn’t realize from time to time that that they were harming more than they were helping, you know? This is certainly a part of the - has to be a part not of the equipment or the arsenal. It’s not a part of his technique, but it has to be somehow a part of his faith that this is good and right and proper, and therefore it’s sort of worth every bit of enthusiasm you can put into it. So I think that’s the way that they began. Some of them are better than others.