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In a 1960 letter to the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Robert Shaw, the revered conductor, wrote,

“The ‘Lacrymosa’ [Berlioz Requiem] gets its great ‘swing,’ impetus and urgency from its triplet subdivisions within a triple meter….”

Shaw trained all his choruses, professional and amateur, to sing the inside of the beat.

Lately, I have heard far too many sounds sinking to the floor and even into the basement.  Often, the sound doesn’t even make it 1/2 way through the value of the note!

Why is that?

Have your long sounds been sinking?  Are they flat?  Boring?  Braindead?

I’m talking to all singers and all instrumentalists, pianists included!

If you’re a pianist, you’re probably wondering how any of your sounds could go flat, yes?

Let’s consider long notes for a moment.

When a performer encounters an extended sound, it seems to me that s/he is confronted with a choice:

Either be bored with the wait; or

Keeping energy going through that sound and on to the next.

You can hear the difference instantly. The energy in the room suddenly feels alive!

Shaw’s approach is to reiterate the vowel. In the case of the triplet subdivisions mentioned above, that interpretation would look like this:

“La-a-a” instead of one long, boring “laa” (sinking, i.e. going flat and making a diminuendo, as soon as the “l” is sung).

The reiteration happens inside the performer’s brain, and is not heard as a glottal attack.

Pianists and other instrumentalists also need to incorporate this technique. Long sounds are meant to be alive, energetic, and present in the room. Merely depressing a key and sitting there for 4 counts (or more!) just doesn’t make it.

How do you know when to continue?  How can you tell when to release? If you’re not subdividing, your long notes always slow down.

Listen to this recording of the “Dies Irae” from the Verdi Requiem conducted by Robert Shaw.  You’ll hear an incredible amount of energy within the first 10 seconds!

Atlanta Symphony and Chorus, Robert Shaw, conductor

Now play it again.  Can you hear the subdivisions?  The perfectly modulated crescendo?  The precise cutoff, with that huge chorus?

This is the recording that made my jaw drop the first time I heard it.  That’s saying a lot, since the Westminster Symphonic Choir* sang the Requiem with The New York Philharmonic during my first year of graduate school. We thought we were pretty good!  (Actually, we were!) Shaw’s version is amazing.

Subdividing the beat also helps you:

modulate crecencedi and diminuendi; and

achieve gradual, even accelerandi and ritardandi.

What else?

Two other ways to keep long sounds alive:

During the sound, ask yourself and your fellow musicians exactly that, “What else?” You’ll think ahead, and won’t sit on one note.

“What’s next?” is also a great question.

Many phrases have a break along the way, either for a breath or for another instrument to play an interlude.  That interlude likely serves to bridge the gap. The performer with the melody needs to bridge it, too.

Even when you’re breathing in the middle of a sentence, asking a question connects your thought to the next part of the phrase, creating an arc.

Everyone has to breathe.  But the breath doesn’t need to stop the music.

I hope these comments help you participate in the life of the sound!  It takes breath, brain, and investment in the inner rhythm to make that happen.

* “…The Westminster Choir sang with the New York Philharmonic for the first time in 1939 conducted by Sir John Barbirolli.  Since that time the Choir has sung over three hundred performances with the Philharmonic, a record number for a single choir to perform with an orchestra….” Wikipedia

Listen to the Westminster Choir singing Lutkin’s Benediction in a 2009 recording.

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