This morning was the long anticipated "Make a Joyful Noise!: Achieving Stylistic Nuance in Gospel Music" with the incredible Rollo Dilworth. Dr. Dilworth structured the session almost as a reading session, where we had a packet of his gospel arrangements and compositions (provided by Hal Leonard), and we just SANG. Then, as we were learning the pieces, Dr. Dilworth would stop and teach us as if we were the "ACDA Gospel Choir!" By the end of the session, we were singing with all the stylistic nuances of a gospel choir and had the tools to teach those ideas to our own choirs.
Three of the big stylistic features and their performance practices that Dr. Dilworth taught are as follows:
According to Dr. Dilworth, rhythm is the "core and dominant component of all music of African origin." In order to accurately present this idea in performance practice, choirs must have extremely accurate (but relaxed) rhythms, and the pulse should always be evident. The style of singing is much more percussive. "Halfway between staccato and legato," Dr. Dilworth described, "notes are sung in a slightly separated manner that is rhythmic and 'forward moving.'" A fun exercise he had us do was pretend to be a sous chef and chop onions (representing the short notes) and spread butter (representing the tenuto or weighted notes). Each line is a mix of chopping onions and spreading butter!
In the layering part in "Oh! What a Beautiful City," the altos have a word that is on the very last sixteenth note of the bar. Dr. Dilworth said, "You cannot count. You must feel." He had us put down the music. This is how you can get your choir to sing complex rhythms in gospel music--it is all about the embodiment and feel of it.
2. Vocal tone color:
Dr. Dilworth told us that in gospel music, vocal tone can range from very dark, to very bright sounds. In the beginning of "I Sing Because I'm Happy," he had the tenors and basses try their first line two different ways: one where his fingers were jutted out forward to create a very bright sound (making kind of a sharp "C" shape), and the other where his hand opened up to create a wider "C." The sound immediately became more open, stylistically darker, and more confident-sounding.
Another exercise he had us do in "Oh! What a Beautiful City" was on the very first "Oh!". He had us hold the "oh," and respond to what he did with his hands. First, he put his hands up, palms down. Then, he turned his palms up. The sound changed and was more open. Then, he put his hands vertical from each other, like in a shape of a very tall oval, and the "oh" was less spread, more vertical, and had more space. Then he moved his hands closer together, and it was maintained the space but had more focus to the sound. Even though it took a little bit of time to get to the tone, Dr. Dilworth was able to show us how to get to that sound and tone, so that we could apply it throughout.
An interesting point he made: One of the questions that he often gets is, "What should children singing gospel music sound like?" and his response was, "Children singing gospel music."
Several times throughout the workshop, Dr. Dilworth would have us put down the music to teach us sections by rote and teach us the feel of the style. He showed us how silly it looks when someone sings an upbeat gospel piece standing very still and upright. "SWYB," he would tell his students. SWYB is a mnemonic device he uses with his students: "Sing With Your Body." He said to us, "Your body must move. Movement and music are one in the same in African music." Even when you are not singing, your body has to be engaged and moving with the music! Your singers might hesitate to move, and one thing Dr. Dilworth did with us is give us instructions like, "Move backwards on this word" -- he gave us specific instructions to start us with movement, and then allowed us to move with the music freely and in our own interpretation. He also showed us that how the way he conducts is going to be very different from a classical piece, and that he is going to be leaning back and releasing and giving space to the singers depending on the moment in the music.
If you want to check out the songs we covered in the workshop, they were:
-Rebecca Saltzman (Senior and ICACDA President) and Sunhwa Reiner (Junior and ICACDA President-Elect)
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