Brock Holmes On Finding His Heart in Russian Singing

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Middle C Music guitar and piano teacher Brock Holmes recently released an album of songs from the 65-year history of the Yale Russian Chorus, for which he was both a member and conductor. We spoke with him about his involvement with this unique musical organization.

HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH THE YALE RUSSIAN CHORUS?

When I was a freshman, I was planning on being a singer in kind of what Yale does, which is organized a cappella groups. And I was going to try and be involved with the Whiffenpoofs, which is the signature Yale group. There was a senior who was across the hall from me who said, 'Oh, so that's what you want to do, huh?' And then he said, 'So let me ask you a question: would you like to sing sugary music or meaningful music?' And that got my interest.

So I asked him what he was talking about and he said, 'I'm talking about the Russian Chorus, where we sing this really powerful music from this really powerful tradition.' He said, 'Why don't you come to a rehearsal?' So I went to one rehearsal and I was hooked.And so that's what I did beginning of my freshman year. A conductor asked me if I wanted to take it over and I said, Are you kidding? You gotta be kidding! I don't know how to conduct, I don't know Russian. He said, 'I think you can do the conducting, because I kinda know you musically. And there are plenty of guys who know Russian in the chorus, so any time you have a question about pronunciation or meaning, you can get them to help you.' So I did. And I conducted it for two years.

And that led to an association that's lasted until now. Because the group has been giving concerts off and on throughout the years ever since. And just last weekend we had our 65th reunion. It was pretty powerful. We had 120 guys aged 18 -- from the current chorus -- to 89, which was the age of our founding conductor. And we sang a dynamite program. It was hard to stay standing upright that long, but we did.

WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF THE RUSSIAN CHORUS?

In 1953, the head of the Yale Russian Club met a guy named Denis Mickiewicz, who was a graduate music student at the time, and turns out that Denis Mickiewicz was Russian. And he was invited to come over to the Russian Club to talk about Russian music. So he did. And instead of bringing notes for a lecture, he brought a ukulele, a guitar, and a bunch of lyrics to songs. And he taught songs to these guys. And apparently it was such an experience that everybody said, 'Hey, we gotta form a group.' So they did.And for about 10 years it was an enormously powerful and successful musical organization. They stole singers from all the other groups. They had the best singers on the Yale campus for about 10 years. They recorded commercially, they toured the world, they were given awards on their tours.

And so from 1963 on, there was a series of other conductors, and I was the fourth in that series, following Denis. And they've continued in various incarnations until now.For the occasion of the 65th [anniversary], I and a friend of mine got this wacky idea that we ought to celebrate -- in addition to showing up and singing -- we could also put together a CD commemorating the 65 years. And it so happened he had a complete set of recordings that he had archived and massaged over the years of 12 albums and eight recordings of reunion concerts amounting to a set of 355 recordings across 80 songs. So we set about selecting the songs and then my friend Bob Shackleton did an initial fix of the clicks and the pops from the LP recordings. And then we were lucky enough to find a Grammy Award-winning engineer named Pete Reiniger, who worked for Folkways Records and who I had known for years and years, to come and do the mastering for us. So we got a beautiful-sounding three-CD set of tunes from 1959 all the way up through a couple years ago. It looks beautiful and it sounds great.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT THESE RUSSIAN SONGS COMPARED TO WHAT THE WHIFFENPOOFS SING?

What's so fascinating about it is Russians have this looong history of a cappella singing, which is deeply rooted in religion and spirituality -- partly due to the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church did not allow musical instruments into churches. So that the way you made music was a cappella singing. And the other thing is that many of these old, old churches were stone and therefore extremely reverberant. And so these monks sort of developed this repertoire that fit into this sound environment.

And they did it for hundreds of years!

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In normative Western singing, other than opera -- which I'll sort of set aside -- but in most Western choral traditions, the idea is to be very coherent. And to sing with a certain technique, which involves raising your back palate. That's what the focus is -- get the note right, get the volume right, get all that correct.

In this Russian [form], while all of that is there, there's another element, which is what hooked me in my first rehearsal. Which is: you find your heart and you sing it. You gotta sing with your heart. Because if you don't, it just sounds like...Western choruses. So it adds an element that makes it much more fun to sing.

Because when everybody finds their heart and when everybody sings in that way, it's a joyful and spiritual and big experience.

So I've always loved it for that reason.

Click here to hear samples of the Yale Russian Chorus.


Click here to purchase a copy of the 3-CD set, Mnogaya L'Eta: 65 Years of the Yale Russian Chorus.

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