COLUMBIA — Rehearsal for the MU Summer Singers is about to begin, but right now, the cluster of singers looks like a pack of old friends catching up with each other, discussing graduate school and the merits of football.
“I’m going to have to start following football when I go to Florida State.”
“I used to follow football when I played, but now I don’t care so much.”
One guy even greets a friend by jumping into his arms.
But as conductor R. Paul Crabb takes his position in the middle of the room, the singers fall into order. Sopranos alternate with basses in the center, while altos and tenors move to the ends, taking their places in the semicircle of chairs in a room inside the McKee Gymnasium building.
It’s like a serious choir on summer vacation.
The group is composed of past and present MU students who must audition to join the class. The group is unique in its size and in the difficulty of the pieces it takes on, which it perfects in the span of four weeks. The music for its upcoming performance was written for two choirs, which provides for eight-part singing: two parts each for the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. This means that with 24 performers, only three people sing each part, leaving little place to hide if singers skip a beat or a note falls flat.
“It’s a pretty intense, highly responsible job,” Crabb said. “I saw I had a personnel this year of advanced and mature musicians, so it provided an opportunity to do something really demanding.”
As they begin one of their two-hour, four-times-a-week practices, the singers start to warm up their voices. Crabb instructs them to begin with a “lip trill,” which in layman’s terms is motor boat sounds. Although this sound effect is normally reserved for entertaining babies, when emanating from the throats of experienced singers, it fills the room with a deep, resonant hum.
“There are some teachers out there who do ensembles who tend to have their set of warm-ups and they do them every day,” Tristan Frampton, a member of the Summer Singers and MU doctoral candidate, said. “Dr. Crabb looks at them as a learning opportunity. The warm-ups are specifically formulated to the song we’re doing.”
After about 15 minutes of warm-ups, during which the conductor mixes humor with instruction, the room falls silent. Crabb begins to move his arms in commanding, deliberate motions, and 24 voices singing “Missa super Osculetur me” consume the room.
Getting to perform music of this caliber is rare, Frampton said. “In the whole scheme of things, whether you’re a freshman, or a master’s student or a doctoral candidate, this is still a unique experience or a learning experience for everybody.”
The goal of this four-year-old group reaches beyond hitting the right notes and challenging its members vocally. These singers interpret the meaning of the song for listeners.
“We can provide the antithesis of a silent movie,” Crabb said. “We can provide sound, but we need an audience that can use their imagination to interpret that sound.”
Throughout their practice, Crabb reminds the singers to sing with “conviction and sincerity.”
“You have to set the mood. It’s our business to portray the intention of the composer,” Crabb said. “Each of the phrases must have something that identifies it uniquely, or else they all sound the same.”
With one last shout of “sincerity,” the singers return to the song, running through the same part over and over again.
The musicians themselves add a visual element of their own. They are a sea of waving arms and bobbing heads, each singer doing whatever it takes to get the note out. No one stands perfectly still. Some even sing without shoes.
The choir is an eclectic group, including undergraduate and graduate students. Not all of the members are music majors.
“Singing isn’t something you stop if you’re not a major. We want people to know that lots of people have the opportunity to sing regardless of their major,” Crabb said. “There are people who have never sung before and people who have been singing for 15 years.”
Member of the Summer Singers and recent MU graduate Emily Bennett agrees.
“People may think this is a group that only involves music majors,” Bennett said. “It’s always fun to have people from different backgrounds to sing with us. We’re just people who enjoy singing.”