Friday, March 21, 2014

A CAPELLA

--- Robert Shaw choir lyrics 
--- Blly Joel and Jimmy Fallon sing Doo Wop  

 I was never a soloist, but I was the fourth soprano from the left, second row, in the Galesburg, Illinois, High School a capella choir.  To be truthful, at the time I was more interested in a baritone two rows back than I was in a major change in the development of choral music.  But I can close my eyes now and see my a capella friends before a performance, aimlessly moving about in the third floor choir room.  I can feel the silky, gold-trimmed robes, hear the soloists nervous coughs, remember the physical purity of young vibratos -- know the rich contraltos, a few falsettos in the tenors, and one rare, very deep bass named Dennis.  The voices might have been a little flat or a little sharp, often a cacophony in the beginning, but  I remember the final harmony of young and confident voices as if we were singing today.

My first introduction to Robert Shaw was in 1949.  By listening to the exquisite sounds he created, I know that there was a Robert Shaw of the baton for both symphony and choir.  I know stories about him.  He recorded A. A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.”  He was often cantankerous.  He maintained a strict involvement with the minutia of the score and the musicians.  He was known as a sports fan, a wonderful public speaker with a bit of a stammer, and a humanist.  I know those things about him and other things about him as well, but I know best and love most Robert Shaw the arranger, the architect of choral music on a page.

For the choir, whether it was from Mozart, the Hallelujah Chorus, or a new Jerome Kern show tune, sheet music was always on  7-by-10-inch cream colored sheets with black or green print.   We used black folders to hold the music up high, so that our lungs would be free to breathe, but sometimes an unattached single sheet would slide out on the floor in the middle of the awesome responsibility of a group performance.

Music arranged by Robert Shaw was unique, with musical phonetics spelled out in a second line of lyrics.  The light italic print mapped out syllables to be sung for each word.  Ah as contrasted with aw, eu instead of oo, accenting a hard th and zh and other perfect consonant combinations.  We were warned to avoid the hiss of an s and never use a long e but to stretch other vowels, and the pleasant sounding diphthongs.  We learned to hold our mouths in ways to make a ‘cathedral’ of sound, to breathe with our diaphragms, and to hold a note to the very end before tacking on the final consonant.  

            Most of all, novices though we were, we recognized not only the precision but the joy in singing Robert Shaw arrangements.  Confident, professional -- in our minds we stood ready for a concert hall with full orchestra or a chorus singing selections from the Messiah for a small congregation of families on Christmas Eve.  What a glorious sound a choir makes.  Singing or listening, the music is arresting, important.  Each voice sends a message from a soul.  All other musical sounds, majestic violin or crooning sax, even the noble piano can only be a pleasing imitation.
            
The music of those years sustains me.  Though I no longer sing unless I’m alone, I still search out the choral music when roaming through the CD section of a music store.  Whether Jellicle Cats or a Bach Chorale conducted by Shaw himself with the Atlanta Symphony, whatever I buy brings back those wonderful years of high school, college, and church choirs, where singing together and knowing about Robert Shaw were like having the key to a very special society.

There have always been those who sing and those who don’t, and later those who have sung and those who have not.  When I hear music now, I’m so glad I was one of those who sang, because memories from those years enhance the joy of listening now -- and then there is also the joy of humming along.


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And for VERY current a capella Doo Wop, click  HERE  for Billy Joel and Jimmy Fallon.