Emory Report
February 14, 2005
Volume 57, Number 19


Emory Report homepage   >   Current issue front page

February 14, 2005
Choral pleasure

BY Eric Rangus

It’s less than a week before the next performance by the Emory Concert Choir (Emory’s elite choral group), it’s raining outside, and Eric Nelson has a sore throat.

Nelson, associate professor of music, is director of the choir (and of choral studies at Emory) and its conductor, therefore he is most effective with his back to the audience—the people he aims to reach. Rarely does he face them and sing himself, at least at Emory.

“I don’t have to be obsessive about my voice as someone who sings for a living,” says Nelson, whose voice—even in his less-than-100-percent condition—is perfectly pitched. “There are stories of voice majors and professionals walking around with scarves on their face and neck. It gives rise to this prima-donna attitude, and maybe there is some truth in that. I demonstrate and sing and speak all the time, but I don’t have to sing for two hours tonight with a professional orchestra, so the margin of error for me is much larger.”

The expectations for the choral groups he leads—the nationally renowned Concert Choir and University Chorus—are quite a bit different.

On Tuesday, Feb. 15, in the Schwartz Center’s Emerson Concert Hall, the Concert Choir will host the Korean Students’ Glee Club, an elite, 30-voice choir made up of students from around South Korea. The glee club and chorus each will perform solo sets then the two will sing together for the finale, which will include audience accompaniment. That’s just one performance of a busy spring for the choir, which also will include performances during the William Levi Dawson celebration in March.

The University’s second annual a cappella celebration, Barenaked Voices, which features both the choir and chorus, takes place in April. A full schedule of these and other music events can be found at www.music.emory.edu. All performances are free.

In truth, Nelson’s choral ensembles are singing all the time, more than once a week in most cases, so his breaks are few and far between—not that he ever really wants to take one.

“Everybody loves music, and everybody loves to sing,” says Nelson, who also directs the Atlanta Sacred Chorale, a 50-voice chorus specializing in sacred music. “Not everybody will sing in public, but they might in the car when nobody is looking or in the shower. Singing is as essential to being human as speaking or breathing.”

For Emory students who feel the same way, they have a lot of options to explore—chief among them the Concert Choir. But they can’t just walk in from Fishburne Drive and sign up; there is a resume check and auditions, and competition can be fierce. It’s not uncommon to have 35 sopranos fighting for three spots.

Auditions take place privately in Nelson’s office—no Simon Cowell table for the singers to face. The choral director and his piano can be intimidating enough, although Nelson understands how stressful such a tryout can be.

“I don’t know if anything in life is more personal than singing for someone,” he says. “It literally is you. Even when you are playing the trumpet or violin, you can always blame it on the mouthpiece or ‘my key was stuck.’ I have to evaluate it as an instrument the student is playing, but I also have to be keenly aware at every moment that ‘it’ is a ‘he’ or ‘she.’”

Beyond talent and singing experience, Nelson requires knowledge of craft. If a student can’t read music, he or she will likely not be singing with the Concert Choir. But for the 40 students selected each year, the musical experience rivals that of any other school in the nation.

“Everybody is there because they love to sing,” says Nelson, who demands at least as much of himself as he does of his students. Choral directing requires much more than musical knowledge. To bring out the best in his singers and properly interpret musical pieces sometimes centuries old, the director must understand history, culture, society, poetry and language. Just this academic year alone, the Concert Choir is performing pieces in English, Latin, French, German, Portuguese, Bosnian and Korean (with the Glee Club). Instilling a sense of teamwork is an essential part of the job as well.

“Sometimes at a conservatory, my peers teach choirs that have amazing singers but they are really there to get to the Met,” Nelson says. “To make a choir wonderful, individual singers need to be at their very best while being aware of people around them and blending and merging their voices with that person. The choir is greater than we are.

“There is something about Emory students,” he continues, “that allows them to strive for excellence individually and yet have open minds and open hearts, which allows them to willingly, joyfully and exquisitely blend and merge with these other people. I find that mix of music and intelligence to be a great and rare thing.”

The University Chorus is a different ensemble altogether. It’s much larger than the choir (203 voices this semester, more than double the size when Nelson came to Emory eight years ago), less experienced (its members do not audition), open to faculty and staff, and students can take the course for academic credit.

“It’s a little like driving a Lincoln Town Car versus a Porsche,” Nelson says about the chorus in comparison to
the Concert Choir. “It doesn’t turn as quick, but it’s really fun to drive.”

Nelson teaches his chorus members the basics of the art: how to stand properly and breathe well. Then comes learning how to carry a tune. The performance part of singing, in fact, is something Nelson doesn’t rush to teach; the craft is much more important. For instance, graduate students in his choral methods course, now one month into the semester, are just now talking about wheat a conductor needs to do before a rehearsal. Actual performance work has yet to play a role.

Nelson’s students have varied backgrounds. Many have been singing and performing all their lives. Others, like those in the chorus, are merely curious about music and want to see how they can contribute to the art. For his part, Nelson got started early in life.

When he was 6 years old, Nelson began singing duets with his sister Janet, who was 18. He quickly discovered his talent for it. She taught him to read music, and he learned to play both the piano and trombone, discovering along the way music’s power to move people.

While still in elementary school, Nelson and his sister would visit nursing homes and sing for the residents. Becoming a musician was never really the question; all Nelson needed to decide was what type.

He toyed with several genres, orchestra musician and vocalist among them. Then, during his freshman year at Houghton (N.Y.) College, a Christian liberal arts school, Nelson discovered choral music. After a time, he became student conductor for the chorus. When the faculty conductor went out of town, he put Nelson in charge.

“I felt like I was home,” he says. “This is why I was put on this planet, and I’m very lucky.”

Translating that love for choral music, not only to an audience but to the singers who make it, is Nelson’s quest, and he throws everything he has into it. An inspiring director he can be a tough one, too, demanding that something extra from his singers like a football coach who wants his linebackers to hit just a bit harder.

Nelson’s conducting is packed with passion. During performances as well as rehearsals, his arms flash through the air like sabers yet retain the subtlety necessary for an art where the flick of a wrist might change the sound of 200 voices. And the students have noticed.

In 2004 Nelson received a Crystal Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching, an honor that fills him with pride and accomplishment. “Because I love choral music so much, I think it’s very important to pass on that knowledge to other people,” he says. “I want them to experience what I have experienced—there is a bit of evangelism about that. I’m all about teaching the craft, first to the singers, then to the choral conductors who will then go out and teach their singers, and it spreads.

“The singers who graduate from here will join choirs all over the world. They will probably sing the rest of their lives, and I’d like to think part of that is because they studied at Emory with me, whether it’s one semester with University Chorus or four years with Concert Choir.”

Nelson’s is a hyper-dedicated yet healthy outlook he constantly maintains—even when his physical health is less than ideal. Whenever he catches cold, his high baritone deepens slightly. This is not always a bad thing. “I think any baritone has low-bass envy,” he says. “We all wish we had rumbling, subwoofer low notes. Every time I have a bronchial thing that drops my voice down, I wish that when I got healthy I could keep those low notes.

“I know it’s not good for me, but it’s so much fun to sing those low notes.”