I have been meaning to post about count singing for awhile now. I will have to admit that I had not even tried it until the summer of 2009, since, as some of you may know, I am pretty much self-taught as a conductor (as my professional training was as a composer) and have only gradulally been exposed to everything that a professional conductor with a master's or doctorate degree from a quality school has been. I don't apologize for this, as I am actually quite proud of my conducting and communication skills as I approach it from a very different direction than most people and honestly, how many conductors try to branch into composing and really do the work to be truly good at it? At this point I'm a multitasking, ambitious person always looking for ways to improve myself and learn things from the conductors I observe and truly admire (many, many people) out there.
My first desire to attempt to using count singing began as I was about to leave Chicago to teach the choir at the North Carolina Governor's School for six weeks in the summer of 2009 (a position I am excited and proud to continue to hold), and just before that there was a post, with many responses, about count singing on the ChoralNet site:
From what I could see, it sounded like many directors don't know this approach well, but it was certainly obvious that those high level professionals who had sung for Robert Shaw or were around Shaw proteges sure knew the approach and could talk at length about how to do it and talk about its benefits. While I knew the basic idea of count singing I had not ever tried it, but now was obviously the time to try it out, I said to myself. So with a little reading in the Robert Shaw Reader and some personal one-on-one advice from some quality folks I knew, I used it at Governor's School in 2009 (and again in 2010) - a LOT. The reason that I found it was extremely helpful for this particular gifted high school all-state choir was this- while many of the singers were phenomenal, various members really did not know how to breathe properly and they also had little sense of how to keep long legato lines spinning/moving forward(of course, that might be one and the same problem and it also is something that, as a diligent choral composer, I am very aware of as I write for the voice).
Beside the usual mention of count singing benefiting both rhythm and intonation, came for us the benefit of keeping long notes of phrases, and thus the full long line, alive as the beats went by energized by the counting-- and this also made my singers much more aware of how they began a breath and especially how they managed that breath.
So we did a lot of count singing but I also took care not do it so much that they would hate it- we did it just enough to get its benefit without making it drudgery. It's now a major conducting tool for me and I hope that someone with a lot of expertise in this area will do an interest session on it at a major ACDA event (anyone listening out there...maybe pick up the ball on this?).
For a perspective beyond my own, here is a link to blogger Sarah Johnston's post "Why I love count singing", and within her blog there are some references to Shaw that you can follow.