Choral Singer’s Handbook:
Best Manual for Amateurs & Pros
Although the first two notes of his big hit “Red Roses for a Blue Lady,” which he wrote with long-time collaborator Sid Tepper, constitute a “descending minor second,” Roy C. Bennett modestly doesn’t offer up his own songs as examples in his Choral Singer’s Handbook, arguably the best such manual around for both amateurs and pros. Though over 25 years old, the book that prompted then Director of Choral Music at The Juilliard School Abraham Kaplan to say that anyone “in need of the information it offers” would be “hard pressed to find a better one,” this slim, no nonsense paperback on “how to be a good choral singer” remains timely and significant, especially in this age of jargon-inflected, bloated guides and texts. Simply written, affectionate in tone, and charmingly illustrated (by Dan Margulies), Bennett’s clear, encouraging and carefully paced instruction evidences intuitive pedagogical sense and deep affection for choral singing which, despite his extraordinary success as a popular song writer, continues to claim his heart as his “favorite music.”
Considering the popularity of choral singing in America today (Chorus America reports an extraordinary growth of choruses and choirs over the last twenty years, with approximately 250,000 groups across the country); the particular attraction choral singing has for older, retired men and women; and recent research that points to the enhanced health and emotional benefits of group singing, The Choral Singer’s Handbook could be said to be right up there with Atkins and the South Beach Diet – in fact ahead of them, for where nutrition and fitness books target the body, choral singing can claim, as the old song has it, both body and soul. As experienced singers well know, and those new to choral groups soon discover, to sing well, one must sit, stand, and breathe properly. Some choral society members may show up for rehearsals with a cane, but once they’re called to order for warm-up exercises, physical and vocal, they rise to the occasion and sing out joyfully.
As reported on Chorus America’s website, a three-year study concluded last year by Dr. Gene D. Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., demonstrates a solid connection between health and the arts, and “choral singing in particular.” Singers (the average age in Dr. Cohen’s group was 80) were seen to be healthier and happier, with findings indicating fewer doctors’ visits, less depression, fewer falls and injuries. All the more reason to recommend The Choral Singer’s Handbook, which focuses on oratorios, for Dr. Cohen’s study also showed that seniors want demanding, challenging music and love to perform, inspired by being with like-minded individuals who are all working toward one goal. One of the special delights of The Choral Singer’s Handbook is Roy Bennett’s gentle but constant reminder that choral singing is, indeed, a community endeavor, a social responsibility as well as a musical commitment.
The Choral Singer’s Handbook may be as relaxed and efficient as it is because it preaches what Roy Bennett has practiced – with pleasure - all his life. Of course, though it is only slightly over 100 pages, it’s not a book to read through in one sitting but to dip into and reread, especially those sections that define and exemplify the elements of music – rhythm and sight singing. Amazingly, Bennett covers a lot of ground in a way that makes it all seem easy, and the reference and summary pages at the end, alone, are worth the price of admission. But it is mainly Bennett’s heartfelt decision never to sacrifice enjoyment to learning that distinguishes his book. He remembers what moved him to want to sing, he wants the same motivation for others.
At 87 Roy Bennett’s going strong as a baritone in the Great Neck Choral Society. Though best known for having composed songs that were recorded by, among others, Vaughn Monroe, Guy Lombardo, the Andrews Sisters, the Ames Brothers, Dean Martin, Burl Ives, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Perry Como, Frankie Vaughan, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, and though he has taught song writing and has written other books that reflect on earlier days as a CCNY English major, Roy Bennett seems to want to be known primarily as “a choral nut” and through the Handbook, as a mentor of future nuts. What could be more sane!#
The Choral Singer’s Handbook by Roy C. Bennett, $6.95, published by Edward B. Marks Music Co. and distributed by Hal Leonard Corporation, can be found at music stores or online at www. sheetmusicplus.com.