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Roger Wagner and The Secret
"Know what you want to get, and know how to get it"

by Jonathan Talberg, Youth and Student Activities R&S Chair, CA-ACDA
(reprinted by permission from "Cantate," CA-ACDA's newsletter edited by Douglas Lynn)

In mtalbeergy first year at CSU Long Beach, I had lunch with Jeff Reynolds, the head of brass studies at Long Beach, and a legendary bass trombonist who played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (and on every imaginable movie soundtrack) for four decades. I was starting my career as a university professor and he was finishing his. Naturally, I was mining him for any scraps of knowledge that might make me a better teacher and musician.

We got to talking about my first conducting teacher, Roger Wagner1. Jeff said to me, "I played Pinkham's Christmas Cantata for Roger in what must have been the Master Chorale's first performance of it. I remember being awestruck by the beauty of the choir, by its impeccable intonation, and by the degree of control they sang with. Being a church choral director at the time, I walked up to Roger after the rehearsal and said something like, "How do you do it? How do you get them to sing so well?"

Roger's response was, "Know what you want to hear, and know how to get it."

Jeff told me those twelve words had stuck with him throughout his entire career as a teacher and performer. Almost a decade after hearing the story, they ring in my head every time I plan a rehearsal.

Many young conductors and teachers begin by teaching a piece and then deciding how it should sound. I'm sure this is a mistake, and I want to offer my—and most of my teachers—idea of score study.

Sitting at my desk with a score in front of me, I ask myself "What do I want to hear here? How do I want this articulated? If I had the most perfect choir in the world, how would this sound?" Then I ask myself the second part, "How am I going to get the choir to do this? What can I do in warm-ups that will teach this concept? What analogies, metaphors, or stories will help to illustrate what I want to hear?

What can I pull out of my bag of tricks that will help the choir to execute exactly what I want to hear?" I am always aware that knowing how to get what I want is secondary to knowing what I want. If I have a crystalline sound in my head, the how will come—sometimes miraculously—by study and in rehearsal.

With more experience, I find that I've condensed Roger's words from "know what you want to hear, and know how to get it" to "Know what you want, and know how to get it." The bestselling book The Secret, offers this insight: "your thoughts and your feelings create your life." This 'law of attraction' brings what you think about most into your experience. The book has been much praised and much derided, but we can certainly agree that successful people know how to go about getting the things and experiences they desire by focusing their energy on the positive, and by going wholeheartedly toward their goals.

Successful choral directors learn how to create the choir they want by knowing exactly what it is they want to hear. ♦

1 Roger Wagner (January 16, 1914-September 17, 1992) was an American choral musician, organist, composer, arranger, administrator and educator. Founder of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Professor Emeritus at UCLA, Distinguished Professor of Choral Music at Pepperdine, Dr. Wagner's profound influence on choral music in California and beyond continues through his recordings, arrangements, and students' teaching.

 

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