The Wit and Wisdom of Mr. Shaw

"The arts, like sex, are too important to leave to the professionals." I heard this statement several times, over the years I sang with Robert Shaw. Musicians throughout the world will observe the 100th anniversary of Shaw’s birth on and around April 30 of this year, and many will share memories of his pithy anecdotes and one-liners. I will especially remember this phrase; it does stick with one. And it references directly the work I do: making choirs out of, and for, amateurs.

Amateur, in its radical and most profound sense, means lover. Amateur musicians love what they do—whether they are paid to do it, or not. Members of Chicago Chorale sing in the group because they love the repertoire, they love getting together to sing it, they love working hard to get it right. I am able to program massive works—the Bach Passions, for instance, the major masses and requiems, the intricate and fiendishly difficult a cappella works of Arvo Pärt and Herbert Howells, the Rachmaninoff All Night Vigil on which we are currently working—because Chorale’s singers love these works, and are willing, even happy, to sweat through the long hours required to learn them, to become comfortable and fluent performing them. I am able to spend the time with the performers that the works require, and our audiences are able to hear the results of our work for reasonable ticket prices.

Chorale exists at least as much for its members, as it does for its audience. I don’t doubt for a moment, that choral singing, especially good, conscientious choral singing, is one of the best things one can do with ones time and energy. Grappling with the best that Bach has to offer brings one closer to the godlike mind and vision of Bach himself-- a state to which all of us should aspire.   Embracing the passion and commitment of Rachmaninoff first-hand, sharing in the other-worldly vision of Pärt, can only change us in good ways-- and change our relationship with our culture, and the entire world around us.

Professional music—music for which performers are paid—is a good thing. I have been happy to perform at a high enough level, personally, to be paid for what I do. I am grateful. And I know the pitfalls of such professionalism. I have too often gone into performances under-rehearsed because management could not afford sufficient rehearsal time; I have too often sung with and under musicians whose work I did not enjoy or respect, because I needed the money offered me. I have too often performed repertoire which did not seem worth the effort expended to present it, and about which I felt little pride or sense of accomplishment. I have too often entertained the nagging feeling that the magic I experienced as a child, and as a student, when the vast and wonder-filled world of music opened up to me, was no longer a major part of what I was doing.

I never feel this disappointment when I work with Chorale. Idealism, and love, predominates in this work. I see the awakening of wonder in the eyes of my singers, experience the grateful response of our audience, and I know that what we are doing is right where I want to be. Mr. Shaw had it right.