A Million Voices

IMG_1497Dr. Felicia Barber couldn’t get over the sound in the Phillips Stevens Chapel.

“What a great hall!” she said to Joshua Harper, choral director at the Williston Northampton School. She gestured to the large, sunlit room. “What an awesome space!”

Behind her in the chapel nave, her accompanist, Scott Bailey, launched into a resonant tune on the organ.

Dr. Barber, a conductor at Westfield State University, had just finished leading her Chamber Chorale in a private concert for the Widdigers and Caterwaulers. Her group, some 20 college students dressed in formal black, performed a short program of new and known works, including pieces by Troy Robertson, Benjamin Britten, and Moses Hogan.

Mr. Harper said the idea behind the concert had been to give Williston students a chance to hear counterparts at the college level and talk to them about technique.

“I’ve been at two conferences this year and run into Dr. Felicia Barber of Westfield State at both of these,” Mr. Harper wrote in an email. “They are doing a really fantastic program, and when she made the offer to bring her students to me, I said sure, absolutely.”

The visit is the first of the experiences Mr. Harper is planning for the Widdigers and Caterwaulers this spring. On April 28, both groups will travel to the University of Massachusetts Amherst to sing with the Chamber Choir there and work with the Director of Choral Activities Dr. Tony Thornton.

Dr. George Case from The Boston Conservatory will then lead rehearsals of the Caterwaulers and Widdigers on May 15 as they prepare for their spring concert on May 20.

“Every conductor interprets and analyzes music differently, that’s one of the beautiful things about music,” Mr. Harper explained in an email. “Having another talented and respected conductor like George come in will provide the ensembles with another perspective and insight into the music they rehearse all trimester long with me.”

Mr. Harper noted that working with different conductors, varying genres of music, and other performing ensembles will help broaden the students’ musical horizons.

“When I was in high school and college, my conductors regularly brought in guest clinicians to listen and work with our ensembles, and these experiences were very exciting for me as a young singer,” Mr. Harper wrote. “I want to do the same for my students.”

Following the afternoon performance on April 4, Dr. Barber spoke for a few minutes about singing at the college level and answered questions. Williston students asked how often the chamber choral group practiced (50 minutes, three times a week) and what the audition process was like (prepared pieces were encouraged, but the focus was on the singer’s range and sound, so each student had to sight read as well).

Dr. Barber described how singers in her groups practiced warm, rounded tones—as though they were holding Oreos in their mouths—and the Williston students nodded. Mr. Harper had been teaching them similar techniques.

“We talk a lot about making your mouth as big as we can,” said Mr. Harper, adding of the Westfield State singers, “You sound like a million voices.”

As students left for afternoon commitments, Dr. Barber took one last moment to admire the high ceilings and polished pews of the chapel. “This is so awesome,” she said to Mr. Harper. “And the acoustics in here are glorious!”

The Chamber Chorale will perform again during a final concert of the combined Westfield State University ensembles, led by Dr. Barber, at the Westfield United Church of Christ on April 28 at 7:30 p.m.

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