On Sunday, November 12, the Illinois State University student chapter of the American Choral Directors Association will host a screening of the powerful documentary on the life of American conductor Robert Shaw. Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices will be shown at the Normal Theater in Uptown Normal at 7 p.m. There will be a brief talk-back following the film with Professor Karyl Carlson, director of choral activities at Illinois State University, who sang and studied with Shaw for many years. This event is free and open to the public.
A wonderful opportunity to learn more about Shaw and the tremendously vibrant and unforgettable music he brought into our world, this documentary dives deep into his life, a man truly of many voices.
With a preacher’s flair (most likely because of his family ministry background) and the craftsmanship of an architect, Shaw realized high musical achievement despite his lack of formal musical training. He experienced a lifelong sense of insecurity, but maintained an intense work ethic.
Despite his feelings, Shaw led a remarkable and rewarding musical career and life, receiving many awards including 16 Grammy Awards. Though music was his chosen form of communication, his impact extended beyond and included his involvement in the civil rights movement.
Most famous for his work with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and the Robert Shaw Chorale, he also founded the Collegiate Chorale in 1941, a group of around 150 members all at different skill levels but also, a very racially diverse group.
He founded many other musical groups and established a series of professional workshops. His most notable group, the Robert Shaw Chorale, was established in 1949 and included 40 professional musicians. The group traveled to over 30 countries in Europe, the Middle East, and South America, making Shaw a known conductor outside of the United States.
The executive producer of the film, Kiki Wilson, was impacted by Shaw so greatly during her time in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra chorus, that she was compelled to initiate a documentary of his incredible legacy.
Not only did Shaw have extensive experience with choirs, he also enjoyed an orchestral conducting career, serving as artistic director for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Here, he helped evolve the orchestra into one of the finest, full-size ensembles in the United States. During his time in Atlanta he also formed the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Chamber Chorus, both earning a reputation for excellence.
Robert Shaw developed techniques for rehearsing choruses in a way that no one had before, often involving isolating elements in music such as rhythm, pitch, or enunciation to focus on them individually. In an obituary written by the Independent, the Shaw choral sound was called “beautifully blended and refined, but also rich and full bodied.” His rehearsal technique involved a gradual transference of accountability from the podium to the singers, where skills were layered one element at a time rather than overwhelming the musicians with everything all at once. He began with a thorough score study and analysis, voice testing, and creating a seating arrangement before rehearsal.
The Illinois State University Concert Choir, as well as many other choirs, uses many of Shaw’s seating arrangements such as block sections, large circle, mixed formations in SATB quartets, and sectional circles in a four-leaf clover shape with the conductor and accompanist in the middle of the clover.
Shaw also spent an extensive amount of time on the warmup where he addressed tuning, ensemble blend, and developing the dynamic palette. The vocalists in his choir were required to vocalize prior to rehearsal and the warmup would be used to “tune the ears and the minds.”
The Shaw rehearsal process begins with a method called count-singing, which teaches pitches and rhythms simultaneously. This allows for the singers to share a common pulse with the goal to ensure precise beats and subdivisions. Shaw would then add dynamic shading and finally the production of text. Additional information on Shaw’s method can be found on the Texas Music Educators website.
The documentary Robert Shaw – Man of Many Voices tells the story of how this passionate, remarkable man became the great Robert Shaw that is loved today. Learn more about his path to extraordinary musical achievement and his legacy at this FREE event.
This event is funded in part by the Illinois State University Friends of the Arts.
Additional information about Robert Shaw and the documentary Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices can be found on the film’s website: