Friday, February 13, 2009

Interview with Walter Chapin, Part 4

Here is part four of five of my interview with Walter Chapin, director of the Oriana Consort.

Interview with Walter Chapin, 1/30/09, Café Algiers in Harvard Square, Cambridge, 2:00 pm

(continued from Part 3)

What follows are Walter's thoughts on conducting. This is his notes, as the portion of the interview where we talked about this was lost.

What I think young conductors should be working on:

At least the following six things (I could probably think of more), all of which I believe are absolutely necessary conditions for being a successful choral director:

1. Learn repertory, learn repertory, learn repertory. Constantly be playing through choral pieces you’re not familiar with. I doubt that it matters if you do this systematically or haphazardly, as long as you’re always looking at music that’s new to you. Your mental repertory cache will expand enormously over time.
2. Know how to read and play well from open score. Even if you’re not primarily a pianist, you’ve got to have sufficient piano technique to be able to play from four, five, six, seven, or eight staves. There’s no other way to know what each part has to sing. And know how to read instrumental scores as well --- with their C clefs, wind-instrument transpositions, and whatever. If you want to do works with instrumental accompaniment, you’ve got to have this capability.
3. As mentioned above, learn how to put together a concert program that will sustain the attention of your audiences over an hour and a half, and of your singers over a series of rehearsals. This isn’t easy to learn; it certainly wasn’t in my case. But it’s essential!
4. Cultivate, in your mind’s ear, a sense of what a choral group should sound like: develop ideals for the kind of choral tone a section should have, for how vertical harmonies should sound, for how phrasing should go, of how various languages should be articulated in choral singing, etc. etc.
5. Always know in advance the notes, the vertical harmonies, the phrasing, the dynamics, etc., that you want to hear from your singers. In rehearsal, when something is not right, you’ve got to know that instantly, and figure out in seconds how to fix it.
6. Listen to other choral groups --- as many as you can, and often, both live and on CDs. Get to know other choral directors!

Qualities I think are important in conductors, and advice on how to get ahead:

1. Be a DIRECTOR, not a CONDUCTOR. This is an important distinction, one that I picked up from an instructor at New England Conservatory and that attracted me, and not all may agree with me on this. But I think a choral director should not LEAD (as in conduct), but POINT THE WAY (as in direct).
2. A good singing voice has a life of its own. You can choose whether or not you want that voice in your ensemble, but once in, let it live its own life. Get the sounds you want from your ensemble by subjective suggestion, not by objectively telling your singers exactly how to do this and that in a physical sense.
3. Be sensitive to that magic moment that comes at some point in a series of rehearsals when all the technical stuff in a piece is finally learned, leaving the musical souls of your singers free to take over naturally. This is how real choral music happens: while a certain amount of preparatory drill is of course necessary, it should never be of the kind or quantity that leads to a rote-like, mechanical sound in performance. That’s not really music! Music is something magical, which finally emerges after some rehearsal effort, but which, once rehearsed, happens spontaneously and on its own.
4. Know your singers. Get to know them as people. Get to know how they feel about the music they’re doing. Listen to their input and ideas --- about programming, about chorus administration, whatever. Take advantage of their energy by giving them administrative things to do.
5. Figure out how to get your group widely heard and financially supported. Do this with the help of others, of course (such as your Board of Directors, if you have one) --- but lead the way with ideas, concepts, etc.
6. You may very well be a first-rate musical scholar, but a concert should be an artistic, right-brain experience for your audience, your singers, and you - not a lecture! Unless your performance is intended specifically an academic exercise (e.g. as in a symposium), remember that members of your audience want to leave a concert thinking “That was beautiful”. They don’t want to feel that they have been lectured to. Imparting knowledge about music you’re performing is important, of course, but do that in your program notes.

Stay tuned for the last part tomorrow, where Walter answers the Pivot Questionnaire!

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