This last Saturday, I had the privilege of leading the second rehearsal of Chanticleer's Laboratory Choir - a specially formed honor choir that will be a "guinea pig" group for the National Youth Choral Festival's conducting seminar with Vance George.  The members of this Lab Choir come from high schools in the Bay Area: Acalanes HS, Concord HS, Davis HS, and Analy HS.  This group is learning five pieces of music in four rehearsals. In the conducting seminar the 12 National Festival choral directors will conduct this Lab Choir and receive feedback from Vance George.  The five pieces are chosen from repertoire to be performed at Davies Symphony Hall on March 29, so the participating directors already know the works, having taught the music to their own choirs.

In addition to learning the music, this Lab Choir is learning basic conducting techniques so the singers know how to interpret gesture of the different conductors.  The main goal of the group is to be flexible - to have the ability to sing the notes and rhythms easily enough for a conductor to play with sound color and interpretation. 

So this Saturday we worked for 6 hours.  Not only did we sing through the music, cleaning up notes that are still being learned, we also focused on hearing, creating, and representing SHAPE in music.  For one exercise I played various sample recordings of choral music to which the Lab Choir drew pictures representing the shape of what they heard.  Some heard and drew the landscape of pitches, others more the dynamic shapes, and some even heard an entire scene complete with images of sunrise and rolling hills.  It's important as choral singers to keep building our ear so that we can hear more than one thing at a time.  The ear can tell us when we're singing in or out of tune, in or out of style, in or out of balance, in or out of tempo...the more refined out ears are, the better ensemble we can create.

For another exercise we moved to different samples of music, trying to capture the spirit of what we heard.  Sometimes a conducting gesture seemed appropriate.  Other times a tai-chi-like movement represented the sound best.  This non-singing work was essential, since (as most of you choral directors and singers know), it's difficult to sing for 6 hours straight without feeling vocally exhausted by the end.

Today I met with another group that will participate in the National Festival: Bishop Amat Memorial High School from La Puente, CA.  This group of 16 singers is really excited to be joining us later this month!  We worked on two pieces they plan to sing on the morning of March 29th: "Salmo 150" by Ernani Aguiar and "Witness" arranged by Jack Halloran and Dick Bolks.  We played with bright vowels and tuning, representing the text through sound quality in "Salmo," and "got down" in the Gospel style for "Witness."  Not many people realize the African aesthetic roots to the colloquial phrase "get down."  In old ring shouts, which were pre-Civil War African-American slave music/dance jam sessions, to "get down" would mean to dance in the center of the circle of singer/players, showing a deep connection with the earth in movement quality.  As singers of Gospel music we can feel this same deep connection (particularly in the way we breathe) while "showing off" our singing.

Tomorrow, I'm doing a workshop with University High School in Irvine. Wednesday I'll work with two more National Festival Schools: Templeton HS and Paso Robles HS, both from the Central Coast.  Then I'll work with Morrow Bay HS on Thursday. 

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