Saturday, January 16, 2016

String Shock

Currently, at the NC School of Science and Math, the orchestra and chorale are finishing preparations for our annual Collaborative Masterworks Concert performance. This year, the orchestra will be performing Dvorak's 8th Symphony in G major and will be accompanying the Chorale on movements selected from the Mozart Requiem, Brahms Requiem, and Mendelssohn's Elijah. Each year, we try to do a performance that involves collaboration between our choral ensemble and orchestra.  In addition, we welcome a number of community singers to join our Chorale for this performance. Hence, it is a collaborative concert. This is always a magnificent event. It is always great to see our high school students perform alongside adults of a variety of ages and to offer the opportunity for all of our students to participate in a performance of these great masterworks.

Each year, we know that the first rehearsal that involves both the instrumentalist and the singers will include something that Choral Director, Dave Stuntz, and I like to call STRING SHOCK. String Shock is the experience that the singers have singing along with instrumentalists and an actual orchestra rather than a piano accompanist for the first time. This phenomenon is very real and it is always stunning to witness many of the singers’ reactions.

For many, this is the first time that they've ever had this experience. One of the great things about being a high school music instructor is providing new experiences for our students. In this setting, we are not only providing new experiences for high school students, but also new experiences for musicians of all ages who are participating.

I was speaking with another music professional about this phenomena a couple of weeks ago and he suggested that I write a little bit about it. I think many of us have experienced string shock over the years in one way or another and, as a director, it is important to know that it is going to occur. There are a few facets of string shock that I think one should be aware of and prepared for.

First, is simply that the first run of a work with strings and singers together is going to be understandably distracted. The distractions will include the sonic experience, the visual experience, and the new ensemble experience. The singers will be interested to watch the movement of the string players.  The movement of  the bows and wave of ensemble movement is understandably visually interesting. They will be enamored with the different sound that the instruments create in conjunction with their voices.  The timbre of an orchestra is unique and really fun to experience "up-close" for the first time. And, in the end, that initial experience will be somewhat overwhelming.  I think that sometimes we conductors forget or, at least, take for granted the awesome sonic nature of the experience we get to have on a daily basis.  Additionally and understandably, the conductor's attention will be pulled in new directions with the additional musicians in the mix.  Thus, the singers will not be receiving exactly the same visual information that they had been receiving up to that point in rehearsals from the conductor.

Next, there is the issue of the accompaniment articulation. In a traditional rehearsal setting, the singers are used to hearing the accompaniment played on a percussive instrument, the piano. The articulation of notes on the piano is somewhat monochromatic in a rehearsal setting on piano as well. The singers get used to hearing that percussive nature of the hammer hitting the string and grow to count on it from both a pitch and rhythmic perspective. When the string section is introduced to the chorus, one of the first sonic differences is the string section's ability to articulate notes with a much softer edge. Legato is very different on a bowed string instrument than it is on a piano. This can lead to a number of rhythmic inconsistencies. The most notable however, is the tendency to slow down or drag the tempo on the part of the choir.

This can also be heard quite notably when a string orchestra is accompanying any corporate sing-along, like leading a congregation in singing. String players must work very hard to articulate each note and to stay on or just in front of the pulse in order to pull the congregation along. This same technique may be used in the accompaniment setting as well. It is often wise for the string section to be instructed to articulate notes just a little bit more than they might do otherwise in order to provide an important information to the singers. They must also pay close attention to the stick and work to avoid playing behind the pulse.  As the singers begin to get over the string shock, they may not need this added articulation quite as much. In the end, I find that the instrumentalist must hold the singers accountable for tempo and rhythm and must be very attentive to the conductor’s gesticulation.  It is easy for the string player to become complacent in this task.  So, frequent reminders are important and it helps to have a very proactive and aware front stand in each section.  My colleague, Dave Stuntz, and I have led many ensembles over the years, both in a scholastic setting and in a congregational setting, and one constant with a string section is the need for rhythmic accuracy and articulation. It just is a simple fact of the musical setting.

As the choir begins to get more familiar with the sound that they are hearing, the sites that they are seeing, and the new added information that is coming at them with the addition of the instrumentalist, they begin to get over string shock very quickly. As I said earlier, string shock is part of the beginning of the rehearsal process, and hopefully not a factor during performance. By the time this ensemble will reach a performance, both singers, instrumentalists, and conductor are all well prepared to provide an audience with the "shock and awe" of a great performance.

In summary, I certainly recommend that choral directors and instrumental directors, particularly string instructors, consider combining your ensembles for performances. The musical benefits to these collaborative performances are numerable. I have had many students over the years, return to my school or contact me well after their graduation, to let me know how important these performances were to their music education and to their overall memory of their experience in my ensembles. These collaborations can certainly bring generations together and bring musical communities together. But don't be surprised if you to have ensembles that experience STRING SHOCK!



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