Final Thoughts Before A Concert

An Interview with Craig Jessop

Do you ever wonder what choral conductors think about after the last orchestra rehearsal before the big performance? Chorus America contributor Kelsey Menehan sat down with Craig Jessop at the Berkshire Choral Festival to find out.

So, here you are, soaked to the skin after giving it all. What's it like at this moment, the last rehearsal before the performance?

CRAIG JESSOP: I feel good. I feel very rewarded by the efforts of the choir. We have worked extremely hard all week long. And I feel like they have carried all of those principles through that I tried to impart. Everything that we addressed happened today. Okay, maybe there were a couple of isolated things where we slipped. But the principles, they all happened. I feel very rewarded by the teaching...after all, that's what it's all about. It's really the teaching. I feel very good. It's like, okay, you're launching a child, and you are on your own. We've done all we can do. Now we'll just have a great time.

So the tiny bird is at the edge of the nest...

Exactly. Go fly.

I've always wondered about this moment for conductors. Some just can't let go and keep trying to fix little nuances at the eleventh hour.

No, I am exhilarated because I know the performance will have an added edge to it [because we're not quite there].

I love this music.

Me, too, it's music of the heart. It's definitely music for the people...very listener friendly. As simple as the music appears to be, the simplicity makes it even more difficult. The intonation, the nuance...there are a lot of principles to be learned. And because the music is simpler, you can take the time. You have the luxury of taking time with that.

You have been asking us for a lot of expression in the music this week. I'm wondering, sometimes there is a tension between being an expressive individual singer and a being a choral singer who blends into the whole. Do you have any advice about how to express this wonderful music in the midst of a whole community of people?

To me the joy of choral singing is getting lost in the sound of the group. That's why I love to do choral music and to sing as a choral singer. Those years of singing with Robert Shaw taught me that there is something very powerful and spiritual about losing yourself in this thing that is greater than you could ever be alone. I think it was the years with the Shaw Festival Singers...those were 60 powerful singers and they were soloists, but they all sublimated their ego, their individuality, for the good of the whole and created an incredible sound. Shaw always said that the best singers made the best choruses, if they were willing to sublimate their egos.

What does that mean?

That means, you don't want to stick out. He would always compare it to fabric. You need to stay within the fabric of the sound. If there are loose ends or threads sticking out, it weakens the fabric. It does not make it stronger. There's a solution. You cut 'em off!

That means melding into the people around you?

Exactly. Do you ever watch synchronized swimming at the Olympics? Every single thing, from the tiniest big toe, goes into the water at precisely the same time. There is no soloistic movement there. And yet they are all solo artists. Isolate any one of them and they are prima ballerinas. It's the same thing with the chorus. Do you remember the girl in the Broadway musical A Chorus Line who wanted so much to be in the chorus line but she had been a solo dancer and her kicks were higher, her arms were flailing? Her boyfriend says to her, "You can't do it. You're too good." And she says, "Let me in. I need a job. Let me in." It's the same thing. You've got to be willing to submit and focus within the good of the group.

I think that is why most people sing in a choir. That's why opera choruses, by and large, are horrible. They are just screaming. They are all, "me, me, me, me, me."

As a conductor, your instrument is all of these people, and the orchestra. That sounds like a sure way to go crazy. You play a violin and you sort of know how to change the timbre or the pitch, but a chorus...

You're right. The conductor's instrument is the ensemble he has in front of him. And this hand [Jessop holds up his hand] can't make a sound in and of itself. It's powerless. You have to rely on other people and their artistry. And yet, this army of people, they've got to have a leader. They have to have someone who will mold them and make a unified sound.

A principle you have been trying to impart that contributes to that unified sound is tall vowels. When singers do that, it makes a huge difference.

It transforms. Suddenly there is this noble, majestic sound, where it is like creatures before that.

You have made the same point several dozen times about doing tall vowels, and it does sometimes revert back. What is it—muscle memory?

It's what your ears hear. Many need a good teacher to help one on one. It is hard to fix it in the choral situation. It's your baseline, when you revert to instinctual behavior. It's how you sang in junior high, in high school—if you never had someone with an ear to really know. And you know, I find that more and more, choral conductors are not coming out of the ranks of singers. They are coming out of the ranks of keyboard people, without a lot of vocal experience. I think that can make a big difference, if the conductor does not know the voice and understand the voice.

I wonder if singers have an idea that it should just come naturally. You open your mouth and sing.

A lot of folks here are probably the anchors of their church choir. "What do you mean? I'm the best singer in my choir. You want me to do something different? The other thing about singers is, they do not count. There is no rhythmic discipline. That is where our vocal teaching is really failing.

Singers hate to do the count singing that we did a lot of this week.

But it works. Once they get it, though, they can't argue with the validity of the technique. It's a means to an end. But it gets you there a lot quicker.

Any other words to the wise as we go into the concert?

Hold nothing back, particularly of spirit and the commitment emotionally. Of course, practice discipline as a singer, but as far as heart, hold nothing back.