PREPARATION & REHEARSAL
This section will be essential for the choral director who would like to put Shaw’s methods into practice. It will include written copies of warm-ups and explanations of his unique techniques and methods with video clips of choirs demonstrating examples. We will endeavor to present a variety of choirs and age groups. Volunteer submissions are welcome.
ESSENTIAL BUILDING BLOCKS
THE REHEARSAL TECHNIQUES OF ROBERT SHAW
Dr. Pamela Elrod Huffman
Director of Choral Activities
SMU Meadows School of the Arts
“I am frightened to death not only by concerts – but by rehearsals – the fear that I will not find the answers to what score study, my ears and my heart tell me should happen.”– Robert Shaw –
San Diego Choral Art Workshop, San Diego State College, 1953
The above statement was written during a series of workshops conducted by Robert Shaw, who was, at the time, only 37 years old. The insecurity evident in his words – insecurity certainly shared by many of us – is surprising when one considers the towering musical figure who wrote it. Thankfully, however, the same mind that produced those words also very consciously and deliberately developed techniques to overcome that insecurity.
Throughout his career, Robert Shaw believed that choral ensembles should exist on the same level of artistic competence as professional orchestras. This belief was manifested through his rehearsal techniques – preparation of a work was a process of gradual transference of accountability from the podium to the singers. Skills were layered one element at a time. He believed that attempting to teach everything at once would only lead to a confused and imprecise product where the music could not be revealed in a truly honest fashion. What follows is a description of the process he developed and believed in – a process to which he unfailingly adhered, regardless of the repertoire.
Preparation before Rehearsal
“What you know won’t hurt you”– Robert Shaw – San Diego Choral Art Workshop, San Diego State College, 1955
To emulate Shaw’s approach, detailed preparation is required:
- Thorough score study and analysis. Edit the score with painstaking care. Make as many musical decisions as you can prior to the first rehearsal.
- Voice testing. Listen to every singer. At the beginning of each season or workshop Shaw “ranked” them from highest to lowest voice in each section, and assigned each person a number that corresponded to their placement in that section. (For example, if there were fifteen altos in the section, the highest alto voice would be A-15 and the lowest would be A-1.)
- Create a seating arrangement. For every rehearsal, create a seating arrangement that seems best suited to the singers and/or the rehearsal plan for the day. On various occasions, Shaw employed the following seating arrangements:
- Block sections: S1 S2 A1 A2 T1 T2 B1 B2 seated in a semi-circle with S1 on the conductor’s left and B2 on the right. This corresponded with Shaw’s preferred seating of the orchestra with high strings on stage right and low strings stage left.
- Large circle: beginning with the highest soprano and seating singers from highest to lowest voice by section. Or create a double circle, with singers still being placed in descending order from highest to lowest; however, alternate them between inner circle and outer circle. Another variation is to place the tenors and basses in the outer circle and the sopranos and altos in the inner circle.
- Sectional circles: Create a four-leaf-clover shape with each “leaf” holding one section, S-A-T-B, and the conductor in the middle of the clover.
- Mixed formation in SATB quartets.
“Yes, I suppose like other people, I used to do ‘mee-ah, mee-ah…’ and I found that this was not nearly as important as educating the mind to what a unison sounds like.”– Robert Shaw, in response to the question, “Do you usually begin your rehearsals with a warm-up?”
Transcript of a question/answer session entitled “Robert Shaw’s Discussion Hour”,- date unknown
Shaw spent about ten minutes at the beginning of every rehearsal addressing matters of tuning, ensemble blend, and development of the dynamic palette. Singers were expected to vocalize prior to rehearsal so that the warm-up could be used to “tune” the ears and the brains. Establishing important musical disciplines in this portion of the rehearsal was crucial to the ensemble’s maturation into a truly expressive musical instrument.
Because this topic is too extensive for a comprehensive review here, go to my article, Choral Warm-ups of Robert Shaw for notated warm-ups, aural clips of each warm-up, and a detailed explanation of how and why each warm-up is used.
The Rehearsal Process Begins:
“Let the composer be the interpreter. Let him say what the music is about. We get clearer if we handle technical problems; the spirit flows…. Build the rehearsal so they make as few mistakes as possible.”– Robert Shaw
Transcript from question/answer session entitled “Conducting Seminar”, Cleveland, Ohio, 3 November 1958
Count-singing is a procedure that teaches pitches and rhythms simultaneously and trains the singers to share a common pulse. The premise is that all beats and subdivisions are chanted on proper pitches, changing pitches as the rhythm dictates. Numbers are used as follows, “one-and-two-and-tee-and-four-and,” substituting tee for three because the consonant group in the latter takes too long to articulate. The example below illustrates the notated music on the top staff and what is actually sung on the lower staff:
Care should be taken to give each syllable equal emphasis and duration, avoiding the inherent strong/weak/strong/weak accents that naturally occur when singing subdivisions. A somewhat poco staccato articulation is used to keep the underlying pulse steady and rhythms clean. This holds true even for music that will eventually be legato. (Employing a legato articulation while count-singing can produce too imprecise a result, impeding the goal of singers’ sharing a clear-cut pulse, and it can ultimately result in legato phrases that lack underlying forward motion and rhythmic accuracy.) During the initial stages of learning, singers should never employ a dynamic louder than mezzo forte – to do otherwise can tire voices and compromise rhythmic accuracy. Proper dynamics are not the goal at this point.
During count-singing, the following principles are applied:
- Sixteenth notes are counted as “one-ee-an-duh, two-ee-an-duh,” etc. A dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note should initially be counted as “one-ee-an-duh,” (applying a slight marcato accent to the final sixteenth-note pulse so that the singers agree on the precise location of the sixteenth note.) Then have singers count it as “one…an-duh,“ (absorbing the second sixteenth-note pulse) and then finally as “one…duh” (absorbing the second and third sixteenth-note pulses).
- Adjustments should be made to keep the counting as uncomplicated as possible. For instance, a passage in 4/4 that contains complex sixteenth-note patterns might be learned more quickly if the singers are instructed to count to 4 twice (i.e., the eighth notes assume the beat and sixteenth notes assume the half-beat [see Ex. 2]).
- Compound meters may be counted as a series of 3s.
- There is a common misconception that in musical passages containing longer note values (i.e. half and whole notes), the singers simply sing the main beats without any subdivision. Doing this for an extended period of time can negatively affect vocal stamina. Maintaining the subdivision not only keeps the voices active and supported, it also helps the tempo and intonation stay consistent.
- If a voice part moves above the staff for any length of time, sing down the octave to save voice (sopranos especially).
- In dotted rhythms, dots are “dropped” (i.e., the third subdivision of the beat is silent) or at least decayed. A rest is inserted in place of the dot, or the dynamic should diminish somewhat through the dot, so that the shorter note following the dot can be accented. (The rationale behind this is the fact that the shorter, final note value in a dotted rhythm is often lost in the overall texture.)
- When a note functions as an anacrusis, it should be accented slightly.
- If there is a rest, observe that rest just as you would when singing the printed notation. Then resume chanting beats or subdivisions with the next notated pitch (see Ex. 1).
- Cut-time may be counted as 4/4 at first (depending upon the ability of the singers).
- Whenever possible, put final consonants in the proper place. This saves valuable rehearsal time when the words are added to the texture.
- Once pitches and rhythms are in place, begin to add a suggestion of the dynamics, avoiding forte dynamic levels (dynamic extremes can be established in later rehearsals, once singers have moved on to either text or neutral syllables).
- To alleviate boredom, ask 1/2 the choir to count-sing while other half sings an appropriate nonsense syllable. Switch “sides” periodically.
One important final note regarding the count-singing process: Shaw often stated that the technique was not appropriate for all types of music and in some instances could be completely counter-productive. For instance, music that is highly complex rhythmically and/or set in rapidly changing or asymmetrical meters might just as effectively be taught on nonsense syllables. The important thing is to establish accurate pitches and rhythms, so take the simplest and easiest route to that goal.
Dynamic shading can and should be added during the count-singing phase. As stated above, however, extremely loud dynamic levels should be avoided; rather, the singers should apply a suggestion of the dynamic shaping in forte passages.
Once pitches and rhythms are in place, the choir can move from count-singing to nonsense syllables and begin to add more true dynamics. The rhythmic “pacing” of dynamic shading has already been established somewhat – now the full range of dynamic shading can be built into the voices.
“The theory of successful Choral Enunciation is that each of the multitude of vocal sounds which in proper sequence combines with others to make up the human language (however unconscious, unnecessary or undisciplined it may become in everyday speech) in the formal ‘fabric’ of music, is to be clearly identified, positioned precisely as to time and pitch, and uttered with distinction, enjoyment and ardor.”– Robert Shaw
Handout entitled “Drills for Choral Musicians, Enunciation #1”, date unknown
Just as the chorus has agreed upon the production of pitch, rhythm, and dynamics in a piece of music, so must it agree on matters regarding the production of text. Shaw emphasized the following axioms:
- Every syllable in every language has a beginning, middle, and end. Each of these must be pronounced clearly and correctly.
- Text is joined with rhythm before it is joined with proper pitches.
- Initiating vowels must occur on their respective beats or sub-beats. Consonants that precede these vowels must occur in advance.
- For additional clarity of consonants, add a neutral syllable (the “schwa”), and assign it a rhythmic value, much like one would do in expressive solo singing.
Text can be added to the texture of the music in several ways, none of which include speaking,and all of which require that singers maintain accurate tuning as they progress through the series of vowels and consonants.
- Homophonic texture: text is sung with proper rhythms on a unison pitch. If possible, a keyboard accompaniment of shifting chordal harmonies (that employ the selected unison pitch) should be included to support the voices.
- Contrapuntal texture: text is sung with proper rhythms, using the whole-tone cluster of D, E, F#, and G#. This somewhat dissonant combination of pitches permits the conductor and the singers to clearly hear the structure of the counterpoint. Using a more consonant combination of pitches (i.e. a major triad) or a unison pitch obscures that potential clarity. Shaw used the pitches in two ways (SATB divisi, from highest to lowest pitch):
Again, keyboard support at this stage is helpful. The accompanist should play the assigned pitches according to the rhythms of the voice parts, rather than simply repeating all of the pitches on a continuous basis.
Note: To keep things interesting, Shaw would sometimes call for a modulation every couple of minutes, ascending by a semi-tone each time in all voice parts.
- If the singers are not unified in their pronunciation of a text, assign one beat to each syllable and chant on a unison pitch or a whole-tone cluster. This will enable you (and the singers) to hear more clearly where the inconsistencies are occurring.
- Ask half the choir to sing text with proper pitches and half to count-sing. (Counters should be the predominating texture.) Switch periodically.
- A variation of the above is to have half the choir sing on a nonsense syllable and half sing text.
Perfect music without inspiration is soulless. Truly inspired performances cannot happen without adequate preparation. Robert Shaw realized the necessity of a strong partnership between the practical and the emotional when it came to great choral artistry, so he would lay the groundwork for the music in the same way that the composer did. Then, once the choir became fully accountable for the structure of the piece, the true magic of emotion and interpretation could emerge.
And magical it was . . .
“Exercises, disciplines, rehearsals are necessary. One does not become an artist simply by declaring that his aesthetic taste-buds are as open as the next fellow’s. It’s damned hard work from here on in; but at least one knows what problems he’s trying to lick. His whole study is now geared practically and specifically. One now has a purpose – and it is not ‘faster, higher, louder.’ Rather it is, ‘This has got to sound thus and so – how in hell can I do it?’ That attitude can get results.”– Robert Shaw
Letter to a chorus during preparation of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, 17 January 1953
(Author’s note: The quotes included in this article came from documents housed in The Robert Shaw Papers at Yale University, New Haven, CT (the collection being open to the public by appointment). Many of these documents are simply hand-written or typed notes loosely compiled in folders – so specifics of dates and places are not always available. An additional resource for learning about Shaw’s techniques is the series of DVDs entitled Robert Shaw – Preparing a Masterpiece, available for purchase from Carnegie Hall. Finally, the author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of W. John Proft in creating the musical examples included in the article.)