R – Everybody needs (deserves) a mentor. I’ve had several who helped mold me into the director I am today. But when I began my career as a choral director, I found an amazing one; someone who challenged me intellectually and questioned everything I did. His name was Marv Crawford. Long before I met him, he sang with the Robert Shaw Chorale, studied choral music with an intensity I had not encountered before or since, and formed several choral groups known as the “Marv Crawford Singers” out in the Ann Arbor, Michigan area. In short, he has spent his entire live living and breathing choral music. When I tell you that he pretty much owned every professional choral recording that was released in the 1950’s and 60’s, I’m telling you everything you need to know. And he knew them! Inside and out. As an undergraduate in the mid 1980’s, I met Marv when he visited Keene and decided to stick around for a few months. We became fast friends and he took me under his wing. What followed has been 25+ years of learning from a master.
The turning point in my thinking around choral music happened when he was visiting me out in Vermont one Fall, I believe 1991. He had been trying to get through to me for a few years that original interpretation by the conductor was at the core of how the ensemble sounded. I couldn’t get past, “well, this is what the music says to do and these are my singers doing it!” So, listening to some choral recordings in my living room he brought east with him, he set me up. He said, “Okay hot-shot, I’m going to play 10 minutes of music and then I’m going to ask you one thing about it that you must answer. Think you can handle that?” Sure I was! He dropped the needle on this record and for 10 minutes and I listened attentively. He didn’t tell me the name of the piece or anything about it. I was supposed to listen. Well, I analyzed the entrances, the tempo, the nuances, everything I knew how to do. At the end of the ten minutes he took the needle off, sat back in his chair and said, “I’ve not only sung under this conductor before, I’ve prepared this very song under his direction. I’ve played you MORE than enough for you to answer this one question: what is this director’s choral philosophy?”
And my education began 🙂 What followed the rest of the visit was hours upon hours discussing the choral philosophy of Shaw, Luboff, Wagner, David Thorsen, Howard Swan. I’ve never heard choral music the same way since, and I’ve never prepared choral music the same way since.
In the early 1990’s I was the editor for the Vermont state ACDA newsletter and I wrote a couple of articles entitled, “Letters From Marv”. He wrote volumes to me on his thoughts and beliefs around choral music (rarely was one of his letters shorter than 6 or 7 pages long) and praising and chastising me in equal measure in response to recordings I sent him of my own choirs. I recently came across some edits of those articles, and below is a readers digest version of the articles and of Marv’s writings. Agree or disagree, he always made me think. I believe we can always use a little more of someone asking that of all of us. Enjoy.
Letters From Marv – part 1
* Vowel coloration is what gives the music its emotional content.
* Can’t wait to talk to the singers about phrase beginnings and phrase endings!
* We will NOT be “chorally cute”—singing loud because we can sing loud, or pausing just for the sake of pausing, or singing rubato because we can do it WELL. For well over 20 years now, I have sat in on rehearsals, choral festivals and concerts only to be perplexed as to why? Few seem to understand the difference between that and Robert Shaw taking a simply arranged folk song and singing with such musicality and intelligence, you’d think he had prepared, “His Yoke Is Easy” from Handel’s Messiah. Singing good music and being chorally cute does not make you a good choir. These are the differences between choirs that sing “music” and choirs that sing musically.
* The tone must reflect the emotion we want to share; the disposition of the mind as it relates to what we are trying to communicate.
* Study your video tapes from school, Rob—notice your conducting. Very vertical! Yes? (smile) You must sing some polyphonic music next year! You must develop the “long line”, YES? (smile)
* Words are always CLEAR EXPRESSIONS of MEANING, rather than simply vehicles for vocal sonorities. Too often, choral directors forget this.
* Once you understand what the words mean, in context, you will discover a flow—a poetic flow. And from that flow you will discover TEMPO and gradations of that tempo. Once you begin to speak the words, you’ll also begin building phonetic speach which, in turn, builds rhythmic speach that gives singing vitality and bite. When ALL singers feel the SMALL units of beat, together, then, and not until then will there EVER be an EXCITING ensemble. It is not enough to make pretty sounds in time and space!!! It is the obligation of the choral musician to make pretty good sense as well.
* We don’t have to sing hooty “ohs” nor raspy “ees” (as I have heard unendingly when I attend choral festivals) to make ourselves understood.
* Intensity? Our “ff”s are sung with intensity and weight because they have focus and coloration, in terms of context. How loud you can sing means nothing. Intensity? Bach wrote some of his finest music for two great human beings. I’ve experienced some of my greatest “ff”s in passages that called for 90 great singers singing “pp”s at the same time. You understand what I’m saying here? (smile)
* So we must choose our music carefully—with definite goals in mind for each selection.
* I think we have selected music in which the singers can take individual pride in preparing and collective pride in performing.
* Yes, we should select music from an educational point of view—but how about an emotional point of view as well; how about an enjoyable point of view too?
* I have some different opinions (from the “norm”) relative to programming and how a program should be presented. Many choral directors feel you begin with the early century music and bring your audience into the 20th century—ending with a spiritual to ensure the audience will “come to its feet” with a “standing” bravo. Relative to what we’re attempting to do, I feel a sacred composition should end the entire program. I really like Britten’s “Jubilate Deo” as an excellent selection. Why? It has rhythmic energy, it has a recurring melodic statement, the dissonance is ample enough, it has ABA form, good unison and range, and it says something religiously different than our per usual ecclesiastical rah, rahs.
* Get yourself a spiritual (or two) that would require some serious psychological implications rather than the “happy Slave spirit” songs we usually hear at many festivals.
* So what does Rob Westerberg want to say about the vocal and choral arts through his philosophy? Will a master composer be amongst the chosen literature? And will that master piece of music, if included, be from a masterwork? What do you want these kids to take home—that Mr. Westerberg was “awesome” or, “we sung the hell out of that music… with Mr. Westerberg?”
* (lousy) performances are the reflection of a poor conductor or one who just doesn’t understand fundamentals. It’s like a football team—either the line can block and tackle or it can’t. And that line IS fundamental to a successful season. Vince Lombardi – blocking and tackling: Fundamental. Shula – blocking and tackling: Fundamental. Patriots – blocking and tackling: Fundamental. Singing in tune: Fundamental! Rhythmic precision: Fundamental! Clarity of words: Essential! Unison singing!! Essential!! Conductors without techniques or concepts to ensure all of this is learned, one will hear a piss poor performance. Enough!!! (smile)