Worship Matters: The Art of Choral Singing

The Center for Liturgy and Music at Virginia Theological Seminary recently put on a conference titled “The Art of Choral Singing.” I’m glad I attended, and am grateful for the chance to share what I experienced.

Monday morning began with a session on choral warmups led by Anthony Blake Clark. Mr. Clark is the head of the choral department at George Washington University and Music Director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. He began his presentation with the caveat that he doesn’t believe in choral warmups (a sentiment which I share), but if they must happen, they should be focused on centering attention to the task at hand, mapping the body for vocal success, or attempting to address specific technical challenges in the repertoire. He provided examples of exercises in each of these categories.

Mr. Clark then led us in a choral reading session of “Choral Gems” – the word “chestnuts” was also used. The repertoire included excerpts from oratorios, the fourth movement of Brahms’ Requiem in English translation, Duruflé’s “Ubi Caritas”, Balfour Gardiner’s “Evening Hymn”, and a setting of “Who is he in yonder stall”  by Texas composer Robert H. Young. Interspersed throughout the reading session were tips from Mr. Clark regarding interpretation and technical fixes to common problems. As there was extra time at the end of the session, VTS church music professor William Bradley Roberts led us in John West’s precious but beautiful Victorian setting, “Hide me under the shadow of thy wings”, of which a performing edition edited by Bill is available from St. James Music Press.

The conference then split into two groups for the two concurrent seminars. My group went first to Cindy Dedakis’ presentation on beginning an RSCM chorister program, and the value of RSCM affiliation. Cindy was one of my predecessors at my parish, and she began the program there, laying the groundwork for what we do today- a living testimony to her expertise. She offered practical advice for getting started and using the RSCM’s resources. She and several attendees shared inspiration stories and successes and failures. I left the session with renewed conviction and energy to continue recruiting and teaching choristers.

After a delicious luncheon in the VTS refectory, we returned to the chapel’s choir room for another choral reading session, led by our friend and music shipping guru, Cliff Hill of Cliff Hill Music. Cliff offers a generous 20% discount on many items to church musicians, and RSCM members receive a 25% discount on RSCM materials when ordered through him. This session centered on unison, two-part, and SAB repertoire. One piece that captivated nearly all in attendance was Richard Lloyd’s “Ballad of the Judas Tree”; its text speaks of Christ descent into Hell to rescue and redeem Judas (“So when we all condemn him, as of every traitor worst, remember that of all his men Our Lord forgave him first.”) I plan to program it on Palm Sunday this year for unison tenors and basses, although any combination is possible.

Next, Bill Roberts led a session effective choral techniques. Using the attendees as his choir, he demonstrated the importance of making singers listen. By not repeating opening pitches from the piano, insisting on tuning and vowel alignment, and not being satisfied with “good enough”, he demonstrated that striving for excellence is possible with even the most amateur choirs. He also regaled us with tales of his work with the legendary Robert Shaw, and let’s face it- who doesn’t love a good Shaw story?

During the afternoon we had a great deal of free time. Luckily, it was a gorgeous day- sunny, crisp, but not too cold – and VTS’ campus is beautiful and welcoming.

During the afternoon we had a great deal of free time. Luckily, it was a gorgeous day- sunny, crisp, but not too cold – and VTS’ campus is beautiful and welcoming. On Monday evening, we were treated to a concert by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, led by Anthony Blake Clark. The venue was the seminary’s chapel, a stunning space with a generous acoustic. The concert opened with an arrangement of the African-American work song, “John Henry”. A chamber group drawn from the larger group sang the second of Brahm’s Vier Quartette, “Spätherbst”,with a lovely intimacy and perfectly nuanced accompaniment. The entire choir then sang Schutz’ “Selig sind die Toten”, which shares its text with a movement of the Brahms’ Requiem. After a short pause, the choir performed the Requiem in its entirety with the four-hand piano version prepared by Brahms himself for the 1871 English premiere. The choir was well prepared, the soloists sang with nuance and clarity, and Mr. Clarke conducted the piece from memory. The chapel’s acoustic was not friendly to the extreme fortissimi or busy contrapuntal passages, which often resulted in a tonal wash. As a result, the pianists also had trouble with balance and ensemble, but the chance to hear this work in such an intimate setting performed by people who clearly love what they do was a treat. I was particularly impressed with the flexibility of the soprano section- sometimes singing with a full vibrato that never obscured the center of the pitch, and sometimes with ravishing straighter tone that retained life and “spin.”

The next day held two choral reading sessions and another workshop. Ellen Johnston, director of the Center for Liturgy and Music, led the first session focusing on music from St. James’ Music Press. SJMP is a subscription based “print on demand” service that offers a large selection of practical music at a great bargain to music program budgets. Highlights for me included Robert Powell’s “Behold the tabernacle of God” and Bill Roberts’ poignant “When I’m afflicted, poor and low.” Roland Martin’s “Consider” and Rob Lehman’s “Crux Fidelis” and “Mandatum” were also both beautiful and practical – a mix that is often elusive.

Karen Brunssen, associate professor of voice at Northwestern University, led an engaging and much needed session on understanding the physiology of the voice through various stages of life. Her knowledge and enthusiasm was contagious, and everyone in the room was on the edge of their seats throughout. Her presentation was a mix of information from her book, “The Evolving Singing Voice: Changes across the lifespan”, and group vocal exercises to demonstrate her concepts. I used several of the exercises on my choristers this week with immediate results. Every person reading this should order her book, particularly those of us who work with volunteer singers who are aging. For pastoral musicians, retiring aging voices as the first solution is not an option. Ms. Brunsson gave us strategies and solutions to keep those voices in our choir as long as they want to sing.

Although I wasn’t able to attend the final reading session (I had to rush back to Philadelphia to present next year’s music budget at the vestry meeting- Pray, saints…) a quick glance through the packet reveals that Cliff Hill once again selected some proven winners. This session focused on SATB repertoire. Pieces that caught my eye include Rutter’s edition of Mendelssohn’s “Verleih uns frieden”, James MacMillan’s “O radiant dawn” (one of his more accessible works for smaller choirs), Steve Pilkington’s setting of “I wonder as I wonder”, and John Tavener’s “Todaythe virgin.” If you’re looking for something to shake up your Christmas Eve, try the Tavener. Many of us know and use Charles Wood’s “Moses sing unto Christ thy King” at the Easter Vigil; A new adaptation by David Patrick provides an organ accompaniment and varied choral settings for each verse. I had no idea until looking at the text attribution in this printing that the melody is an old English folk tune for “Old King Cole.” So there you have it. The Center for Liturgy and Music and Virginia Theological Seminary are dedicated to lifelong learning for those of us who work for Jesus and the Church, and these workshops are life-giving and full of new information, encouragement, and support. Many thanks to Ellen Johnston, William Bradley Roberts, Anthony Blake Clark, Cindy Dedakis, Karen Brunnsen, and Cliff Hill for giving us a wonderful conference. Keep on the lookout for future offerings from the CLM, and do try to attend one.

Michael Smith, Director of Music, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Whitemarsh, PA.