The teenagers at Allen University’s Hall Johnson summer music camp began their morning with a practice hum that gained depth and precision as renowned guest conductor Roland Carter urged them onward.
“Your intensity has to stay here,” Carter, the Tennessee-based composer, arranger and conductor, commanded. “Don’t lose the pitch.”
And this seemingly contradictory advice: “Just relax. You can keep that sound going on forever.”
Within moments Wednesday, the 20 teen choral students were deep into the music of famous black spirituals, many arranged by the late Hall Johnson, a 1908 Allen alumnus who gained national and international fame for his musical contributions to the genre. Johnson’s legacy permeates the inaugural camp.
“It’s very challenging, especially with the theory class, said Myia Williams, 17, a student at Lakewood High School in Sumter. She sings at church and was familiar with the spirituals such as “Listen to the Lambs,” “Ain’t Got Time,” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked.”
In just the first two days of the week-long camp at the historically black private college, Juwan Surginer of Columbia said he had made huge gains.
“I learned how to sight read and I learned how to project my voice and go into my falsetto deep in my chest,” the rising junior at Spring Valley High School said. The students learn musical theory and the history of the spiritual.
The 20 students, under the director of festival conductor Carter, will perform a closing concert Friday night that is open to the public.
Carter, all energy and action as his arms waved high and then low with the beat, told the youngsters that the embrace of music goes far beyond the lyrics and music.
“If you are trying to aspire to be a singer, you can’t be shy,” he said, as he instructed one of the campers to take on a solo. “You see when you sing, when you perform – it’s what we call abandonment – you have to empty out everything.”
Hall Johnson lived by that credo, embarking, after leaving Allen, on studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Julliard School and the University of California as he launched a storied musical career.
An integral part of the arts explosion during the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson composed, arranged and performed in Broadway musical orchestras, including Eubie Blake’s “Shuffle Along” and “Runnin’ Wild.” He worked in Hollywood and he coached renowned singers like Marian Anderson and Harry Belafonte.
But Johnson’s lifelong dedication was to the preservation and performance of the Negro spiritual as sung during slavery. He remembered his maternal grandmother, Mary Hall Jones, a former slave, and his mother singing the spirituals. In the mid-1920s, he founded the Hall Johnson Choir, which performed all over the world.
“Even then, in 1925, I saw clearly that, with the changing times, in a few years, any spirituals remaining would be found only in the libraries – and nobody would know how to sing them,” he wrote in an essay, “Notes on the Negro Spiritual.”
“I also knew that I was the only Negro musician born at the right time and in the right place ideally suited for years of study of the Negro musical idiom as expressed in the spiritual. I started right in. I had always been a composer and here was virgin soil. I assembled a group of enthusiastic souls and we gave our first concert on February 26, 1926.”
The students at the Allen camp will carry on that tradition, which pleases Allen organizers, including camp director Kenneth Green.
“It has exceeded what we expected,” he said of the camp experience. The university along Harden Street in Columbia expects to hold the camp annually.
Julian Holland, of Sumter, just graduated from high school and will attend Winthrop University this fall. He is familiar with the spiritual – his father is a pastor in Hartsville – but he said he also acquired new knowledge this week.
“It’s been quite an experience,” he said. “Dr. Carter is really good at breaking things down and showing you how to break down notes.”
Carter, who has taught hundreds of students and is a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has a direct link to Hall Johnson.
As a graduate student at New York University, he had the opportunity to spend some time with Johnson. He told the students it was Johnson who taught him the signature “rocking chair technique” of swaying while singing spirituals. Johnson died in 1970.
Through the day, Carter cajoled, encouraged and praised the students as they mastered dissonance and tackled the layering of sounds that makes the music so evocative.
“You got to put it all together, folks,” he told them. “I could forgive you if you didn’t know the music but you got the music in your head.”
After a particularly grueling musical passage, he raised his arms to the students: “You are wonderful.”