Dr. Gary Wood

Dr. Gary Wood

Boston Singers' Resource News Bulletin April 27 , 2005

Recently appointed to be the next Music Director of the North Shore chamber chorus, Cantemus, Dr. Wood discusses his views on choral singing and choral conducting. He also shares details about Cantemus' upcoming concert, 'American Treasures' to be performed May 7, 8.

Since moving to New England from West Virginia in 1994, Dr. Gary Wood has put his considerable musical talents - as a conductor, educator, vocal coach and composer - to use serving the next generation of local musicians. Conductor of the Salem State College Chorus and Chamber Singers for 11 years, as well as a voice class instructor and member of the faculty jazz trio, Dr. Wood was appointed Chairman of the Music Department in 2002. As Chair of the department, he has been directly responsible for helping to develop the new Music Major degree (Bachelor of Arts in Music) at SSC. Dr. Wood is also the Choir Director at First Church in Wenham, MA. His modest claim that he ‘gets people ready for their next choir’ masks a strong dedication to and love of the art of choral singing. And, as the new Music Director of Cantemus, he anticipates some new and exciting challenges:

Joe Stroup: Congratulations on your selection as the Director of Cantemus, one of the North Shore’s premier choral ensembles. What kind of opportunities does this present for you?

Gary Wood: Thank you. It gives me an opportunity to grow. It’s an auditioned chorus. In a lot of my work up until this point I’ve worked in non-auditioned situations. I had an Oratorio society in West Virginia and a very fine church choir in Seattle. Now, I’m looking forward to regaining some knowledge and exposure to some of the more challenging choral repertoire that has not necessarily been available to me. Cantemus allows me a more intense, focused arena in which to prepare an end product that has to be of high quality. I appreciate the faith they have shown in me by accepting me as their Music Director.

JS: You’ve worked with this group before. What do you think you bring to Cantemus as a conductor and musician?

GW: Yes, I had done a few rehearsal conducting substitutions with them; maybe twice over the last five years. Since September I’ve been their Interim Conductor.
I think that what my training has taught me and what I have tried to learn and to accomplish is that music is mostly about technique. There’s plenty of emotion to go around and we can always draw on that. But you’ve got to get down to the fundamental levels of technique. Generally, with some of the groups I have worked with over the years, some of those singers had a background and some didn't: thus, I find that I work with people to help them make a sound first. That has become my goal; to make the sound. I’m obsessed with sound.

JS: What do you mean?

GW: This is going to sound a little strange but; I ‘see’ a mechanism that is providing the sound that I feel the composer wants at that moment. Usually that sound has a lot to with the teeth, the palates being separated in a comfortable way. I talk a lot about the separation of the teeth in terms of that dropped jaw ‘uh’ position. I talk a lot about making the ceiling of your room high enough; keeping the soft palate actively elevated throughout all notes; through the chest and blended and head. I have that vision like I’m standing on a tongue and above me is this great cathedral. That’s what I’m envisioning that everybody’s sound should be. That’s the mechanism through which the proper sound should flow. But then, once you get that going, then you have the opportunity to use additional techniques to change the sound depending on the situation; whether it’s a certain style - gospel or African-American spiritual or a jazz tune - or certain composer. Brahms sounds different than Handel and not just because one was born a few hundred years later. Because of the way he’s blending the voices, rhythms and harmonics he uses; the different timbral palates that were available. You can’t sing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ like you sing the ‘German Requiem.’ The sounds are different, there’s a different sound.

JS: So are you visualizing the mechanism in order to produce those variations?

GW: I try, so that I can provide the singer with specific technical instructions that will accomplish that goal. I try to have people think more about the breath and I talk a lot about, (again I have all these silly things), how everybody needs to get their M-B-S. degree in order to sing successfully. That’s: the Muscle makes the Breath move and the breath makes the Sound move. You can’t have one without the other coming before it. So that M-B-S connection, it’s nothing new, is the way I’m able to communicate it to people. I find that breath flow is the biggest problem in a lot of cases. And then, of course a relaxed throat. I don’t talk a lot about relaxing the throat, I’ll talk more about relaxing the chin and jaw and feeling that palate. I’ll give a visual indication as a conductor like ‘relax the throat’ or ‘feel the support’.

That’s another issue in terms of the conducting technique. I’ve been fortunate to have conducting teachers who were of different minds. Some stressed that every action the hand makes as a conductor has an effect on the physical response. So that if the hand is in the wrong place or physically tense at the wrong time, or whatever, you’re not allowing those singers to do the proper physical move. The physical gesture should mirror the physical sensation that you want the singer to have. So if everybody’s at the top of their range on a loud chord, you don’t want to be conducting with your hand way up in the air in a very tense gesture. You want to be dropping your hands low and spreading out below the stomach and having them feel a sense of grounding. Then I’ve had other conductors who have taught me that the whole package is more important. You don’t have time to do all that stuff. You lay the beats in there and you properly make the articulatory gestures - legato, marcato, staccato; and dynamic indications - by the size of the gesture. So I’ve been very fortunate, I think, because I do call on both sides of those techniques.

JS: What was your musical background and experience prior college?

GW: I had no formal training until college. I was basically self-taught or learned from my family. I had a lot of musical influences in my family; jazz, country, blue-grass; mother, father, uncles, aunts; they played music. It’s just a part of what they did. It was just a way of life. We played music.

I teach a class called Music for Today which is a kind of history of American popular culture music; rock and roll, things like that. If I could do anything I would go back and try to become a jazz musician. Something about that music that I can’t escape. It’s just somehow embedded in me.

JS: Have you been able to do any writing lately?

GW: Very rarely. I would like to get back to that after I get done being Chair (at Salem State) but I’m about to be elected Chair Person for three more years so I don’t see much composition happening.

JS: What might you write about?

GW: I think that still, despite all the years of education I’ve had, I’m still a product of my youth. I still go back to country music and jazz and blue grass. But I sort of infuse that now with the technical language of strictly choral music. I’m intrigued by all of it. If I had the chance right now to write a piece I don’t know what I’d write. I’m very attracted to the Requiem text; particularly the ‘In Paradisum’. I’m studying jazz guitar now. I’m very intrigued by the electric guitar and by jazz guitar. And I’m also intrigued by the possibilities of guitar and Cantemus. I know there’s some very fine repertoire out there that I just have to kind of go and rediscover.

JS: You have so many varied musical talents. How do you view your self primarily?

GW: My wife is the true educator in the family. But I think I’m a performer first and foremost. There’s something about that moment, when you are making music, that still thrills me. It’s irreplaceable and indescribable to me. It’s very, very personal. To me that’s sort of the ultimate truth; playing or singing or performing music. Because that’s it; it’s time to do it now. You take your best shot and you put all of your resources into that moment.

JS: How do you get that to happen with a chorus?

GW: You’ve got to let the group go as you get closer to performance. You’ve got to let them feel confident. We’re out here to really make something happen but it’s not going to happen unless we’re mindful of the technical challenges that we are about to undertake. My mantra is ‘Hearts on Fire. Brains on Ice.’

JS: Cantemus has two programs coming up in early May. Tell us a little bit about the music and why you chose it.

GW: In our May concerts, entitled ‘American Treasures,’ we celebrate the contributions of some important choral composers of America. The centerpiece of our concert is Randall Thompson’s ‘The Peaceable Kingdom.’ The genius of this work is in its presentation of the varied textual messages rather than their meanings; he moves beyond the meanings to carefully present the text in a musical way. We’re also doing Daniel Pinkham’s ‘Wedding Cantata’ which is set to Biblical texts from the Song of Solomon and Samuel Barber’s ‘Reincarnations’ which are generally hailed as masterpieces. The program also includes a lovely set by Cecil Effinger entitled ‘Four Pastorales’ for chorus and solo oboe. The clarity of the choral writing and the richness of the oboe timbre permeate this music.

JS: What ideas do you have for future projects?

GW: I have an interest in exploring Renaissance repertoire with them. I also look forward to exploring chamber chorus repertoire with, say, one instrument. I find that quite interesting and I know that there’s got to be a large amount of great repertoire out there; the Effinger piece being one example.

I’m looking forward to working in a very collaborative way with the Cantemus board and with the group as a whole in choosing repertoire, getting suggestions from everybody because the members also have a rich musical background that they can draw on from their experiences. Some of them participate in other choral activities. There’s a rich source of repertoire information from the members of the group and I look forward to collaborating and building interesting and meaningful programs together.

JS: Again, congratulations on your new position. Everyone is looking forward to hearing some great performances from the chorus.

GS: There’s something so incredibly human about making music, especially choral music. It’s so meaningful, so ultimate, so defining and I really, really love it. John Kennedy quoted the Greeks and they said ‘Happiness is the use of one’s talents along lines of excellence.’ I try to say that to myself and other people a lot. We all try to do that regardless of where we are or where we’re from. And you can do that as person who lives a good, meaningful life. You can try to do that with excellence every day.

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Gary Wood received his Masters of Sacred Music from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, and was awarded his Doctorate in Choral Conducting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He lives in Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA.

Cantemus presents ‘American Treasures”.
Sat May 7, 7:30 PM, at Christ Church, 149 Asbury Street, Hamilton, MA.
Sun May 8, 4:00 PM, at Central Congregational Church, Pleasant and Titcomb Streets, Newburyport, MA.
Chamber chorus with piano, organ and oboe. Gary Wood, Guest Conductor. Featuring works by: Randall Thompson, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Daniel Pinkham, Cecil Effinger, and more. $20 Adults, $15 Seniors, discounts available, 21 and under free.
1-888-chorus-1. www.cantemus.org.