I joined the Gospel Class of the 2014 Centrum Blues Festival. You can join just for the Gospel Choir and it gets you the lessons, performance and into one concert.
Dr. Ethel Caffie-Austin is described as West Virginia’s First Lady of Gospel Music and Denora Roberts is from Maryland. Both are black. Their gospel choir for Centrum was nearly exclusively white, though there were a few asian people. I went to high school in Alexandria, Virginia. I thought, oh, goody, these women will yell. At some point, they will raise their voices at us.
This class taught me the best voice production of anything I have ever done. I have not focused on voice, being a rural doctor, but I have sung folk songs since I was tiny. In college I joined the university community chorus at the University of Wisconsin, where we did Carmina Burana. I took some private lessons. When I moved here in 2000, I joined Rainshadow for the William Byrd Mass that they were going to sing for my mother’s memorial after she died of ovarian cancer. My father had helped start it in 1997. I asked to stay in it after the memorial and they let me. I have been in it ever since.
And still, these ladies from the east, did the best voice training I’ve ever had.
First they had us sing and they divided us into Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. They did it by ear in groups. That in itself was impressive. They could hear everything.
Here is what they told us:
1. Sit in a chair. Take as deep a breath as you can, then inhale three more small breaths. Hold it. You should be able to hold it for five minutes. I can’t yet. But I am doing better. Let the breath out.
2. Do six fast inhalations and exhalations, as deep as you can and sticking your tongue out on the exhalation. You will look like a Maori warrior — that is the face you want. It may make you light-headed. That is because you have blown out your store of CO2 and your body is adjusting.
3. Nasal wash every day. Neti pot or Neilwash or a Sinugator. Ok, the last one sounds like it would bite your nose. I chose the Neilwash because neti pots look too much like teapots.
4. Stretch your range. Both of these woman could sing all four parts: down to bass, up to high soprano.
5. Drink enough water. Drink water all through class. Drink water all day.
Then they taught us. No paper at all. They would sing a part, have us sing it back, and then teach the next part. In four days they taught us four part harmony to 8 gospel songs. We would get confused and start singing each others’ parts. They would stop. “A tenor is singing the alto part. Who is it?” They would have the tenors sing and could pick out the culprit.
Towards the end of the first 3 hour lesson, Dr. Caffe-Austin looked at the Sopranos and yelled full voice: “Sing louder. With soul.” Everyone jumped and I started laughing. The other Sopranos gave me evil looks. Dr. CA didn’t sound angry or anything except loud. Full voice for her filled the chapel we were in.
On Friday we did a lunch concert outside. Dr. Caffe-Austin really messed with us then. “What is the order?” People asked. She just smiled. Out there she would just start a song and we’d better pull it out of our memories. And…. she threw in three we had not done. By the third, we’d gotten it: call and response, we’d better sing.
On Saturday we were first in the lineup for the four hour Blues Concert in the balloon hanger (it is an old fort, remember? Fort Worden, and it was an intelligence dirigible hanger.) This time we were ready and responded to whatever she threw at us. It was so much fun and all oral tradition: no written words, no written music and we learned it.
The picture is from July 2005 from the Centrum Fiddletunes Festival outside the balloon hanger.