A Master Class in Unusual Song Styles

Caterwaulers and Widdigers Learn Two Traditional Forms from Grammy-winning Roomful of Teeth

Mastering Inuit throat signing is a tricky business, and has a tendency to produce a lot of laughter. Thankfully, messing it up is part of the point.

As Brad Wells, artistic director and founder of Roomful of Teeth, explained to the Caterwaulers and Widdigers during a recent master class, the technique is deceptively simple, and yet wonderfully complex.

To do it right, the breathy, guttural, and rhythmic style—traditionally part of a one-upmanship game played between two Inuit women—needs to be staggered by a half second between a pair of singers.

“Normally, this game is meant to break down,” Mr. Wells explained. “So the leader is trying to trick the follower by changing the pattern. The follower is trying to keep up and eventually one of them laughs and one of them loses their breath or gets out of the pattern.”

Laugh the students did, as two by two they attempted to keep up the rhythms—and discovered just how difficult the style really was. When Gabby Record ’17 and Sam Madden ‘17 maintained the pattern for a long, impressive minute, other students burst into applause, and Mr. Wells declared them both winners.

Roomful of Teeth, a Grammy award-winning ensemble, is known for incorporating a diverse repertoire of singing traditions, which they study during an annual retreat at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, Massachusetts.

On Tuesday, during their special session with the Caterwaulers and Widdigers, the eight-member group demonstrated two of those styles: Inuit throat singing and Bulgarian belting.

Mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken walked the students through the ladder, showing them how to smile broadly, brighten their sound, and use broad vowels.

“Think of it as a quiet yell,” she said. “It’s all in the tone.”

The session, which began with Roomful performing the first movement of Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece “Partita for 8 Voices,” ended with a chance for the students to ask questions of the singers.

The students wanted to know how to master throat singing (a lot of practice), how the Roomful members wrote down non-traditional music (a mix of invented score writing and a lot of oral learning), what it was like to sing with Kanye West (he’s a gracious and sweet guy). They also asked what advice the group could offer high school students.

“Don’t skip sight-singing class,” said Ms. Warnken. “It’s the single most important skill to have as a professional singer.”

“It was probably the most incredible thing I’ve ever done,” Ms. Record said after the session. “It was so different from what we normally do in choir—I was blown away.”

And how did she feel about the Inuit throat singing?

Ms. Record had no reservations: “I’m going to totally try to incorporate this into my repertoire!”

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