Two books for the choral conductor: mortality at my fingertip

As the old year winds down I’m aware of the passage of time.  Reminders of mortality prod me, as if to say “you’re getting old”. To be more accurate, I’ve acted as though I were indestructible, denying my own pain, ignoring the evidence of my own aging.

Today I’m reading because the piano is off limits. Yesterday? I ding’d a couple of fingers closing the garage door in the dark: acting as though I were indestructible.  This morning –overly grateful for an apparent quick recovery – I foolishly jumped into playing Gould’s transcription of the Dawn & Rhine-Journey that I still have out from the library.

Finger selfie.  The middle finger --shown-- has the worst swelling, roughly an additional half centimeter.

Finger selfie. The middle finger –shown– has the worst swelling, roughly an additional half centimeter.

By the end of it I was barely playing mp-mf instead of ff, because of a blue bulge on the middle finger. It looks like a tummy that’s been over-indulging on Christmas treats, except the fat is in a finger not a waistline, and it’s bruised tissue. Here’s a picture of it as I stop writing for my finger-selfie, and no i don’t mean to give anyone the finger to end the year.  In fact i am very lucky that it wasn’t much worse (even if my Wagnerian celebration of my recovery at the keyboard was premature).

People think of mortality at funerals & wakes.  I attended one earlier this week.  People contemplate their remaining life span and what they’re doing with their lives on Dec 31st and to begin the new year.  And yes, when you get hurt ka-POW you are thinking about mortality.

I had a similar reminder last Sunday. I was so busy making copies on the church’s xerox for the offertory that I missed the warm-up, diving straight into “Shine Jesus Shine”. As in my encounter with the garage door, perhaps a bit more fear would have been wise. There was no swelling or obvious injury, but my top?  AWOL, at least until I’d cajoled my upper register to join in, sometime around mid-morning.

click for more info about this book on Amazon

My awareness of the non-existent high notes was especially heightened by a book I’ve been reading, namely Choral Pedagogy and the Older Singer by Brenda Smith and Robert T Sataloff.  Warmups! people need them at every age but especially as they age. It’s obvious i suppose but i never thought about it before.

I started singing late in the game. I was an accompanist before my own voice changed, and perhaps daunted that before I even had a man’s voice I was playing for an older brother who had one of the prettiest manliest baritone voices in the country. Under the circumstances why sing? I stayed at the piano as an accompanist & music director, only discovering I had a voice when –in illustrating passages to singers in a show—I noticed I had a voice after all: sometime around the age of 40. I always thought of myself first as a beginner, then as a late bloomer, but now as the gray hairs begin to over-run my beard I can no longer deny that I am an “older singer”.

Smith & Sakaloff may be aiming for the choral conductor, but their book reads very much like a text book for a choral curriculum, complete with review questions at the end of each section. I found myself grateful for the summaries, but also intrigued, as I visualized conductors using this book as a tool. My church choir is full of older singers even though it’s only in looking in the mirror of this book that i am confronting the implications of aging:

  • Changes in vocal capabilities (range, stamina, vocal quality)
  • Changes in the body impacting the choir (hearing, sight, back-health etc)
  • Psychology of singing and confronting limitations, aging, loss, and eventual mortality

I’ve been in denial about aging so of course I’ve avoided reading the book straight through. Yet every time I open it I see something valuable (and i’ve sampled almost every chapter). For instance I just opened to a page concerning the “breath gesture,” where it’s noted that there’s a difference between conducting an orchestra and a choir. I’d noticed before that David Fallis & Ivars Taurins (aka Herr Handel) do not assume that the voices they lead are mere machines (who should have their breath ready in the instant of downbeat) but instead offer additional gestures before the down-beat.  And you hear it in the results. Throughout –for instance just now as I glanced at a section concerning the appropriate sized accompaniment for the performing choir (ie piano or duo piano vs orchestra)—the authors always err on the side of that poor vulnerable group of singers, cautioning the conductor to be mindful of the difficulties & challenges facing singers.  Of course this is likely true even if you’re a virtuoso in your twenties, not an aging amateur in a church choir.  It’s always a good idea to treat voices as delicate instruments.  The common sense of this volume applies universally i would say, and not just to aging voices.

But come to think of it: we’re all aging aren’t we..?  It’s the same lesson I should have learned long ago, that we’re not indestructible, not immortal, but human and finite.

click for more info about this book

Another book for the choral conductor is Camerata: A Guide to Organizing and Directing Small Choruses. It’s by Arthur Wenk, a true Renaissance Man. At different times of his life he’s been a math teacher, music professor, psychologist, organist and choir-director and mystery novelist.  Our paths crossed a few times in my life:

  • As the director of my church choir
  • As the most impressive organist I’ve ever seen in person (I was his page-turner for the big items such as Bach’s St Anne Prelude & Fugue or the Widor Toccata)
  • He’s author of two of the key books on Claude Debussy –although I never realized he was the same Wenk until much later—namely Claude Debussy and the Poets and Claude Debussy and 20th Century Music
  • Co-participant in the COC’s Opera Exchange, concerning Pelléas et Mélisande
  • Conductor of Toronto a capella choirs Camerata, and later Quodlibet.

Camerata –the book that is—seems to be a natural outgrowth of this work leading chamber choirs here in Toronto and elsewhere. It seems to be meant to ensure that anyone seeking similar goals should learn from Wenk’s experience, via a how-to guide for this kind of ensemble. This is a very practical book, as the first paragraph illustrates:

Arthur Wenk

Arthur Wenk

Begin by deciding what kind of choir you want to direct. My Camerata choirs are small, mixed choruses specializing in unaccompanied choral music. Their repertoire spans the entire range of a cappella music from Bach to Bartók, and from plainsong to Stravinsky. (When I started the Pittsburgh Camerata, one newspaper ran the phrase “back to plainsong by Stravinsky,” an intriguing notion.) Music for each concert is chosen to fit a theme, and the audience is supplied with program notes including both the original words and an English translation to aid comprehension of the music. (In Québec, this meant providing both English and French translations of works sung in German, Latin, and Italian.)

Ah yes, it’s clear that Wenk has done this before Toronto, in Pittsburgh and in Quebec (where he was also a music professor). The book is full of common sense. For instance, concerning rehearsals, Wenk tosses out some ideas that are good for any discipline, not just unaccompanied choral singing (i quote a few, although there are a great many, all excellent):

You might want to consider some of the following ideas:

  • Purchase 1”-wide three-ring binders and prepunch the singers’ s scores before distributing them. Having and keeping music in order can save an enormous amount of rehearsal time.
  • The time you spend making sure that the music is clear and the texts legible, especially in foreign languages, will repay itself many times over in rehearsal time saved.
  • Don’t rehearse more than sixty minutes without a break
  • Consider the benefits of learning a cappella music without the aid of a piano
  • Consider the benefits of conducting from memory. Keep the score in your head, not your head in the score.
  • End every rehearsal on a positive note by concluding with something the choir
    sings well.

Wenk has done this before many times, and from all angles: as conductor, programmer, composer, and promoter. Needless to say, he offers the tips of an expert, passing the torch to the next generation.

Here’s more information about these two fascinating books, including purchase info:
SMITH & SATALOFF: Choral Pedagogy and the Older Singer
WENK: Camerata: A Guide to Organizing and Directing Small Choruses

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Two books for the choral conductor: mortality at my fingertip

  1. Ouch to your hand.. I hope it heals very soon… Not a good start to the New Year.. I hope the soreness soon wears off..
    Take care.. and Happy New Year to you

    • barczablog says:

      Thank you so much Sue, you’re kind & thoughtful as usual. And yet i tell the story because i think it’s instructive at least to me. Do we only know mortality when our limitations smack us in the face (or finger)? If the result is a more thoughtful Leslie, who doesn’t blindly enter some intersection without looking both ways, or doesn’t numbly stick his hand where he shouldn’t: it was a good lesson. I need to warm up, cool down, sometimes proceeding with caution as i recognize my mortal limits even while contemplating infinite possibilities.

      Happy New Year to you too!

  2. I am pleased to know that you enjoyed our book. I hope that you and your musical associates continue to find it useful; and I look forward to meeting you and to hearing you perform sometime.

    • barczablog says:

      It’s wonderful to hear from you, thanks! I confess the book is like a mirror, reminding me of things (aging!) I may not be ready to face. But i have to take my medicine, face reality. It’s much easier in fact with the help of a book like this one.

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