In the Dark

I’ll admit, I’ve been a bit bored upon returning to Shantou University from Guangzhou. Sure I’ve had various meetings and I try to go into “the office” each day to take care of some odds and ends but I really have had no work to do. Tonight, however, I got the chance to dive into some work: the Shantou University Chorus Team in their quest for glory at the World Choir Games 2006 in Xiamen. Yes, this is the cream of the crop singing-wise at the school, and I was happy to give their two non-Chinese songs a listen.

Their first song was “Trickle, Trickle,” a simple chorus favorite in English. The University High School Chorus, then under the leadership of none other than Timothy Krol, did this song with full choreography in 2005, so I know the song quite well. I worked on a number of things but in particular, pronouncing consonants. The song has a lot of onomatopoeia, to use a poetic term, (e.g., trickle, spash, splat, slush, etc.) so the consonants are what make the song fun. I also attempted to work with the basses on the acappella song. They had a hard time putting together a rhythmically competent bass line. I worked a bit of choreography and some smiling faces and they should be ready to compete…

The second song was a better challenge for me since it was a classical choral piece (an “Ave Maria Stella” by some random dude I’ve never heard of). The issue was that it was a modern classical choral piece composed in the 1970s (read: dissonance is the new harmony). The song, in Latin, sounded fine with the students clearly spending ample time learning the notes. What irked me, however, is that they had no idea what the feeling behind this type of music is. Even fewer knew the historical context of a Christian Latin piece.

I took a poll: Who in the room practiced a religion? None. Okay, politics and the Chinese government aside, that’s an issue when trying to convey “spirituality” of singing a song of prayer. I spent considerable time talking about what it meant to read the bible and compose music from the Latin mass. Then I dove into the idea of singing these holy songs in huge churches, cathedrals where it could echo up to the heavens. I drew upon my director Ian Robertson’s own words: “I don’t care what religion you practice, you have to believe in the music.”

So, in order to get them to “feel” the music and listen to one another, I went a little crazy. I had the students stand in a circle, alternating boys and girls, shut off the lights, and made them sing without a conductor. Now that is downright incomprehensible for a bunch of students that sit in perfectly segregated rows and take cues from a perfectly clear conductor. The result: mixed. Some students really understood the exercise in feeling the music and listening to one another above all else. Others faltered at not having a director. At least I gave it a shot.