If you had to give an aspiring vocal ensemble just one piece of advice, what would it be?
Master the basics of great ensemble sound – intonation, balance, and blend – stay true to your niche (or find one), enthusiastically enjoy any successes you have, and be likable people.
How you were introduced to ensemble singing?
In college, a small group of classmates and I decided to form a small a cappella ensemble from our larger choral ensemble. We got the attention of the college administration, and they put us on the road as a recruitment team. We were just having fun, doing what we loved to do.
What’s the first thing you look at when you open a score for the first time?
Always the text, if there is a text, since everything is built from the text or the idea of the composition.
If and when you have to programme a concert, what factors influence you most?
The primary influence on my thinking is how the programme will relate to an audience, as well as how the programme will relate to the performers. The performers must believe in the project, and the audience must find it relevant. Relevance is a moving target, depending on many factors, but it is always attainable.
How rigidly do you like to keep to a score in performance?
Rigid is probably not the word I would use, but I am very literal to the printed score. I believe it is my obligation as a conductor and a performer to deliver the composer’s final intentions for the music. However, there are many factors under the category of interpretation that keep me from every feeling I am working in a rigid context.
What, for you, are the marks of a great composition for vocal ensembles?
A great composition offers a feelingful experience to performer and listener. A great composition is also a great idiomatic “fit” for an ensemble, allowing an ensemble to sound its best when performing the composition accurately.
What, in your opinion, makes a great ensemble singer?
A great ensemble singer has a pleasant to very pleasing vocal tone, listens well and adjusts their singing immediately for the good of ensemble balance and blend, is flexible and hard working, reads music reasonably well, and is a pleasant human being.
Do you have any pet-hates when you hear choirs or vocal ensembles perform?
I can tolerate many technical problems that occasionally appear, but I cannot enjoy an ensemble that pays no attention to phrasing and an interesting and feelingful musical line.
Is there anything that you do when you perform, rehearse, compose or conduct that others might find unusual? (quirks, tricks, useful tips)
The only thing that I know that I add as a cue to myself in conducting major scores (B Minor Mass, Messiah, Carmina Burana) that I didn’t pick up from anyone is a marking I write in my conductor’s score to remind me to shift my weight and posture every couple of movements while conducting. I find if I don’t mark this and follow my marking, I lock into a position and find myself limping after a concert.
If you could have had a different career, what do you think it would have been, and why?
Actually, professional music has allowed me to be a singer, a conductor, a classroom teacher, and an administrator. I can’t imagine any other career and have never had a second thought about it.
Are you able to say why you particularly love choral music?
As much as I love all genres and styles of music, I love choral music because it is the sound humans make using their innate instrument. No one can perform on my voice but me, and the combination of my voice with the voices of others is as real as music can get. Only the combination of voices can deliver a text in multiple lines of counterpoint and harmony.
Do you have a favourite choral composer and, if so, whom and why?
I love the music of Johannes Brahms more than anything I could call a “close second.” Brahms is able to embody human emotion in his composition in a way that is very hard for me to articulate.
Is there a piece for choirs or vocal ensembles you’d like to recommend to us that we might not have heard of before?
Ha! The King’s Singers not only know it all, they have probably recorded it all! But, if you ever run out of ideas, some of the music of late 19th, early 20th century American composer Dudley Buck, is worthy of consideration. His “Rock of Ages” hymn setting is exquisite, and no one knows it.
Is there anyone or any group in the world of choirs and vocal ensembles that you admire particularly, either current performers or groups from the past?
I long admired Melvin Dickinson, conductor for many years of the Louisville Bach Society, for his lifelong attention to the music of Bach, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Reger, Rheinburger, Bruckner, and the lesser known German choral masters.
Do you have a guilty pleasure? If yes, will you tell us what it is?
I am a banjo player and love playing American bluegrass style music and American folk music. Recently, I have been enjoying the pairing of choral singing with bluegrass instrumental ensembles.
Read all the KS Q&As on the Ensemble Hub Dropbox.
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