When I was in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Chamber Chorus back in the 1970’s, if Mr. Shaw said it, it was The Voice From The Mountain Top, and whatever he said, we did.  It never occurred to me to question any of the things that I learned from him, and even now I’m sometimes surprised that these things are not always common knowledge.  The thing I’m thinking about today is the way Mr. Shaw insisted that we phrase Baroque music.  He told us that if anyone ever asked us why we do it like this, that we should say, “Because it is right”.  No shrinking violet, he!

The kind of phrasing he was talking about makes sense of many of the long florid vocal lines – and instrumental, of course – that one struggles with in 17th and 18th century music.  It’s sometimes called “cross bar phrasing,” and it’s based on the idea that most phrases in Baroque music don’t start on the beat, nor do many motives. 

I was working with a student recently on the song Star vicino that is found in many anthologies of early Italian music, and she was struggling with three measures near the end where there is a bit of coloratura.  It was printed, as most music is, to indicate the beat clearly for sight reading purposes, and she was trying to sing it as written.  It made no more sense than a pile of spaghetti:

As soon as I showed her how to phrase it correctly, everything fell into perfectly sensible patterns.

Many pianists are taught to emphasize the first note of each group of 16th notes when they are playing florid music, and that practice has crept into the approach many singers take with coloratura.  It tends to sound stiff and unmelodic, so I do what Mr. Shaw said, because it’s right!  Even though it’s fun to say that, the theory behind it is sound and given in great detail in James Thurmond’s Note Grouping.

Who’s Julius Herford?  He was Mr. Shaw’s teacher at Westminster Choir College.  He’s the person that Mr. Shaw said revealed this concept to him.  Since Herford also taught at Jullliard and Indiana among other top music schools, his list of pupils includes big names like Lucas Foss, Roger Wagner, Margaret Hillis, and Elaine Brown.  Look him up!  He was an amazing teacher.