Oxford: Day 2

Breakfast was a hot symphony of eggs, beans, bacon (it was bacon, not ham!), toast, and whatever else could fit on our plates. OJ cascaded out of pitchers into glasses as the crisp scent of coffee and tea danced around the room. It was a masterpiece.

Energized with delicious proteins and vitamins, we walked toward the church for our session with our first guest speaker.

With James O’Donnell, we delved deeper into the world of chants and learned a bit about his philosophy on conducting. Indeed, early music and chants are deeply educational if one would take a moment to look at what they mean. I’ve finally come to understand that chants are, above all, honest. This honesty gives it a musical complexity that stresses the importance of being true to each inflection and rhythm of the text. Then, an addition of balance and direction brings color and vitality to each word. As Mr. O’Donnell puts it, a truly beautiful chant is one that lets such old music live.  I really loved Mr. O’Donnell’s understanding of conducting, which was basically, “Less is more.”

By giving only what the ensemble needs, you are trusting and empowering them to be the most active part of the music making process. This philosophy really seemed to translate into his doings as master of the choristers in Westminster Abbey. Yes, THE Westminster Abbey. When one of the participants asked, “How do you get the sound?” he replied that it is in the nature of the repertoire that they do. What he does is emphasize the importance of singing the line, energizing the vowels, and telling them to be alert to the good sensation of singing well. The singing is essentially on them.

Mr. O’Donnell, soft-spoken and as Yoda-like as Mr. Whitbourn, ended his session by saying one of the most insightful things that I’ve heard so far. When someone asked how he manages to make his boys such good sight-readers, he explained the process but finished with “We over-emphasize sight-singing. It is an important skill, but it’s more interesting to see how quickly and naturally they respond to music and whether they have a true curiosity about it.” Mmm … the innate power of music. I love it.

Then, ladies and gentlemen, we had our very first conducting session! Williamson Voices was divided into two groups: an accompanied group and an unaccompanied group. I was in the latter group, and we were sent to the chapel.

We had about 10 conductors trying different a cappella pieces. Watching each conductor stand in front of us reminded me of what Mr. O’Donnell told us earlier –  that conducting magnifies one’s strengths and weaknesses. It is, in other words, an extremely personal and vulnerable art. I thought that the conductors who got the best sound out of us were those who let the music wash over them as it flowed out to fill the chapel. To do this, it needs to be a full-body experience, including the face. Oh, conducting is deep, ladies and gentlemen. So deep. Needless to say, I’m really excited to see what they will be able to achieve by the end of this week.

Then finally, the Compline. Despite the mistakes we made, I thought that the Compline was both intriguing and successful in many different ways. For example, I realized just how much we, as modern human beings, are so darn scared of silence because it’s so exposing. As I walked into the chapel for the Compline for instance, I saw many a shifty eye and embarrassed smile. But there is strength to silence as well as an almost improv feel to the singing when we did mess up. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not even all about being Christian or speaking to God (although that is a big part of it). It’s about being in the moment: singing, waiting, breathing together with everybody.

When we get another chance with the compline, I’m sure we’ll all be more attuned to each other and the nature of the music. Well it’s 11 p.m. and I can hardly keep my eyes open. Siiiiigh I don’t know how my friends have the energy to be creatures of the night. Kirin got no time for that.

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I bid thee goodnight. Or good afternoon… Wherever you are, you pick.

About choralmusicinstitute

Presented by Westminster Choir College of Rider University and Oxford University's St. Stephen's House, the one-week institute provides instruction to all levels of conductors.
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One Response to Oxford: Day 2

  1. Jacob Finkle says:

    Conducting is incredibly vulnerable, but it helps a lot when you have such a responsive choir. When the choir reacts to every minute change, you cannot help but become more bodily aware.

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