Choral conductor Paul Crabb’s teaching blends music and life.
Members of choral conductor Paul Crabb’s Summer Singers ensemble enter McKee Hall’s Room 204 by ones and twos, grab chairs and begin forming a circle on the old gym floor. They chat nonstop as college students are wont to do about friends, classes, whatnot. The collection of 30 or so undergraduate and graduate students soon fills out the shape with sections for baritones, tenors, altos and sopranos. Inside the circle, the accompanist puts a hip against the grand piano and rolls it slowly into position near Crabb’s podium. Meanwhile, he works the room, adding his voice and laughter to the ever-louder hum of vivacious conversation. The bonhomie is as palpable as a sleepy cat in your lap.
Soon the tone begins to fluctuate as Crabb paces the singers through a program of songs by Johannes Brahms. Crabb, who is locally famous for his fastidious preparations, had spent enough time to paint a house researching a set of songs to tell the story of the great composer’s love, loss and coming to terms. After poring over books and scores that illuminate Brahms’ musical and social life in 1800s Vienna, Austria, he decided to open the program with the lively and romantic “Liebeslieder Waltzes.”
Crabb, who in 2012 won one of five MU Kemper Fellowships for Teaching Excellence, covers far more than the nuances of notes and rhythms. He explains to the choir that Brahms was infatuated with Julie, the daughter of his composer friends Robert and Clara Schumann. “We think that he wrote these carefree Viennese waltzes as an outpouring of happiness,” Crabb says.
But Brahms never told Julie of his love. Then one day Julie’s family announced her marriage to another man. “When Brahms found out, he wrote one of his most poignant works, ‘Alto Rhapsody.’ It’s heartbreaking poetry about one who loves but isn’t able to express it and therefore never is loved in return,” Crabb says. “He took that score to Julie’s mother and said, ‘Here is my bridal song,’ and walked away. The poor guy just didn’t know how to respond any other way.”
For Crabb, teaching the details of Brahms’ romantic life is as important as mastering his melodies and harmonic structures. Each feeds the other. Following his lead, Crabb’s students go so far as to say that approaching music any other way is unethical.
In the program of songs, Crabb complements the scintillating waltzes with “In Herbst” (In Autumn). “It’s about striving all one’s life to become fulfilled, and then autumn comes, and the sun is setting. Of course, he’s talking about the end of his life. The last verse is, ‘Moist grow the eyes as one looks back on things that were sad but with satisfaction that you had a life well lived.’ It’s a difficult thing for him to express in conversation, so he did it musically. He wants to know that someday people will be at rest. It’s fantastic. I have to know that stuff to be effective.”
And he is very effective, says graduate student Melanie Hagen, MM ’11. “Knowing what happened to Brahms, you interpret the text differently. He is pining for Julie, and you bring that longing into your emotions as a singer.”
Throughout the rehearsal, Crabb conducts in the round, rarely referring to his score. He stops routinely and deploys an array of educational tools. To correct a pitch or quality of tone, he sings a demonstration — first wrong, then right. To fine-tune a complex rhythm, he asks the singers to chant the lyrics in time. Removing the burden of producing melody isolates the text in a creepy-sounding, rhythmic drone. But it works.
To raise singers’ awareness of emotions in the text, he might explicate, paraphrase, analogize, extemporize or even play-act. For instance, the first “Liebeslieder” waltz is about guys and gals meeting at a dance. The tenors sing over and over, “Speak, maiden.” But their performance is not as expressive as Crabb thinks Brahms imagined it. So he asks for more. Still, it’s not enough. To conjure more of that happy tension, he asks the tenors to “face a female next to you.” This produces smiles all around, and the tenors up their energy as they sing again. Crabb knows there’s more, though. He raises the ante by inviting one of the women to stand next to him in front of the group, and they become the song’s characters. He strikes a melodramatic pose of address, leans in and sings, “Speak, maiden!” The room is big with laughter now, and he says, “Play it up, guys. This is 19th-century flirting. It’s what they’d do on weekends.”
Soon the singers are deep into the feeling of the songs. “Invest!” Crabb urges. “Commit!” Some sway, others hold their scores in one hand and gesture with the other. It’s hard to know whether they are singing Brahms or if Brahms is singing them. And he calls out over the music, “Thank you!”
Fire and Philosophy
Although that episode ended happily, Crabb’s students say his reactions run the gamut. “He can be fiery when he gets frustrated,” says Drake Douglas, BA ’12, who has sung for Crabb since his freshman year. “I can remember being terrified at times when I first joined the group. He can get a little loud, and a questionable choice of word might slip out here and there. But it’s never for a bad reason. It’s because he’s frustrated — not that we can’t do something but that we won’t do something we’re capable of. He always says that we all need to be rowing equally. If one person is slacking, that compromises everything, whether it’s text treatment or knowing a pitch or just having your measures numbered on time.”
In describing such moments, Douglas effortlessly offers up a sign of affection for his teacher. “Whenever he gets mad, his moustache kind of bustles around,” he says, smiling. “Reminds me of a squirrel.”
Fellow faculty member Neil Minturn has noticed Crabb’s high expectations. “He’ll say to students, especially in the premier group, University Singers, ‘We need you to show up for rehearsals, be prepared and so on.’ That tells me he has a very clear idea of what he needs to do — University Singers needs to be a professional ensemble, and if people are not taking it seriously, they’ll be gone from the ensemble. And I think, ‘Man, could I be that tough in my classes?’ ”
“It’s more like a mission for him, and it’s so obvious that he does this because it’s what he is supposed to be doing as a person.”
Crabb’s choirs evince his quality. He directs University Singers, which has been invited to perform not only in sought-after European venues but also in the United States at national choral conventions and most recently the White House. Those accomplishments look great on a résumé, but the testimony of his students is a tribute: They call him an exacting conductor, nurturing teacher, model of diligence, father figure, inspiration, friend.
“You feel like you are working together on the music, not like he’s being paid to direct us,” Douglas says. “It’s more like a mission for him, and it’s so obvious that he does this because it’s what he is supposed to be doing as a person.”
Kaitlin Foley, BS Ed ’11, has absorbed Crabb’s philosophy of music. “He searches for truth and teaches us that as human beings we are truth seekers by nature, and as musicians we are truth tellers. Through music, he tries to convey some reality that attaches to one’s inner self.” If that sounds like heady stuff, maybe it’s just a musician’s way of observing what teachers across campus hope to impart — how to take the work seriously and make learning a part of life.
Music has always been part of Crabb’s life. It started with his grandfather, also Paul Crabb, an itinerant musician and piano tuner, a “music man” of sorts who rode a circuit of small Kansas towns. He’d alight in some little burg for a few days to rehearse local instrumentalists in the evenings, then put on a concert before hitting the road again.
Crabb’s father, Harry, made extra money playing trumpet in dance bands, and his mother, Betty, gave piano lessons. From the time Crabb was in grade school, the family performed locally at Rotary Club meetings, bank dinners and other venues. Oftentimes his mother accompanied his father, and the kids sang hymns or hammed it up doing skits with songs.
Crabb always wanted to be a professional singer. In high school, he sang in the choir and began soloing in recitals and musical theater, playing Curly in Oklahoma, Rolfe in Sound of Music and Freddy in My Fair Lady. “I was scared to death,” Crabb says of those moments. He can still summon the acute embarrassment of the time he was on stage to perform “Three for Jack,” a blustering sailor’s song with far too many yo-hos for Crabb’s taste. “The music fell off the piano just before we were supposed to start, and I just stood there. All my buddies were out there pointing and laughing. I was pretty rattled, and when I finally started singing, a jet flew over and drowned me out completely.” His first college recital as a voice major didn’t go much better. “I was so nervous that I had to hold on to the piano because I thought my knees were going to buckle, and I’d fall down.”
If Crabb didn’t hit the floor, he nonetheless bumped against a barrier. “I came to realize that I didn’t have the substantial voice that a lot of my colleagues had. I never had their ability to cut through the orchestra.” He decided that if he couldn’t become a singer, he would educate himself to direct the singers. He earned a master’s degree in vocal performance from Wichita State University and a doctorate at Florida State University. In 2003, he came to MU.
On Singing in Italy
A truism in education holds that the more senses teachers engage as they impart knowledge, the greater the likelihood their students will learn. Music is perhaps a special case in the way it conjures emotion. “Paintings fade, and statues decay, but if we open a score from 1550 and sing it, the music is as fresh and alive as it ever was,” Minturn says. “And there’s something quite special about singers. They talk about the intimacy of singing. You make the music with your body. If someone doesn’t like the quality of my voice, there’s nothing I can do about that. That’s my body.” In good choral singing, it is seemingly the best part of each voice that merges with the rest, and this better self becomes the choir.
And Crabb’s approach adds layer upon layer, Foley says, citing the University Singers’ 2010 tour of Italy as an example. As always, Crabb labored over the programs and planned the trip. The glorious churches they sang in were packed with appreciative audiences. One of the churches, built in 379, was named for St. Ambrose, the father of church music based on psalms and other poetic religious passages. The choir stood before his enshrined body and sang Ambrosian chant. Music archivists showed the singers a 200-year-old opera score written in Gioachino Rossini’s own hand.
Crabb and singers on the trip are still moved by a moment at the 14th-century Sforza Castle, now a collection of art museums whose treasures include ceilings painted by Leonardo DaVinci. Crabb had secured permission for the choir to sing in the room containing Michelangelo’s last sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà, an archetypal Christian scene of Mary holding the dead Jesus. The program was to encircle the statue and sing Orlando di Lasso’s “Vide Homo,” in which the crucified Jesus has risen from the dead and is chiding the apostles for their disloyalty.
“We prepared it before going to Italy,” Crabb says. “There’s a place in the text where Jesus says to his disciples, ‘The pain of the crucifixion is great, but it’s nothing compared to your betrayal.’ ”
Despite all the rehearsals and lessons on the text, something quite new was sounding in the room.
Two years later, Foley still chokes up thinking about what happened when they sang that line in Italy. “There’s a moment where the sopranos have a high F, and it’s part of a really beautiful chord. Then a beat later, the altos come in with an F-sharp, which is a half step higher, and it creates a strong dissonance.” At their rehearsals in McKee Hall, Crabb had explained how di Lasso composed the dissonance to illustrate the pain of Jesus, but somehow the old gym’s acoustics muted that sound. Still, Crabb told them, the composer had passed through Milan, and he wrote for the acoustics of those grand stone buildings that would elevate his songs.
As Crabb circled his choir around the Rondanini Pietà, he knew something remarkable would happen, if not exactly what. They began singing. Visitors to the museum paused to listen. As always, the beautiful chord came, and the sopranos hit the high F. Then the altos entered with the F-sharp, and despite all the rehearsals and lessons on the text, something quite new was sounding in the room. “We didn’t fully understand that piece until we heard it there,” Foley says. “The dissonance rang out.”
“I looked up,” Crabb says, “and one soprano in particular, she just … ” He gestures to indicate tears falling.
Most of the choir was in the same state, Foley recalls: “a hot mess, as we like to say. And when we finished, the audience was dead silent. They knew what we were feeling, and that was the coolest part.”
Douglas sensed it, too. “It felt so much bigger than me, or a song, or a statue. And yet at the same time, the tears were those of peace — peace in feeling that the musical journey I’d been on my whole life suddenly came together in a tribute to an artistically and spiritually powerful facet of human history. I knew there was no other place I was supposed to be at that moment.”
As for Crabb, “When you see that,” he says, “it’s pretty damned rewarding.”
Watch “One Mizzou” featuring the University Singers directed by Paul Crabb.