Robert Harris in his office in the Music Administration Building.

Photo by Bill Arsenault


Impersonating the Professor

Robert Harris conducts the University Chorale and Chamber Orchestra.

Photo by Kelvin Ma (J04)

Northwestern's king of choral music has stripped off his sweater.

A big man with the grace of a dancer, Robert Harris sways and dips on his podium as his baton, diminutive in his long, slender fingers, pierces the air. Tiny beads of perspiration gather on his forehead.

It is Monday evening — the weekly rehearsal time for Northwestern's big University Chorus — and the connection between conductor and singers is almost palpable. They are pitched forward in their chairs, pencils ready, tackling the tangling, twisting contrapuntal lines in the "Gloria" movement of Anton Bruckner's Mass in E Minor.

"This Land Is Your Land" this is not.

Harris, Northwestern School of Music professor of conducting and ensembles and director of choral organizations since 1977, scolds and spurs ("Make it lighter!" "Make it dance!") in a voice so deep and sonorous, it could belong to a Shakespearean actor. He is doing what he does best: helping singers make grand works of music sound sublime.

British composer David Fanshawe says Harris is a master at that, calling him "one of the finest choral trainers and conductors in the world."

At Carnegie Hall in 2000, Harris conducted the New York premiere of Fanshawe's critically acclaimed African Sanctus, integrating 180 voices, live percussion and tribal music recorded by the composer during extensive African travels. "He mesmerized the chorus," Fanshawe says.

In the current University Chorus — about 100 strong — gray-haired men and women rub shoulders with students in Room 109 of the mansard-roofed Music Administration Building. Almost a third of the members are from the community (including a dentist, an architect, an artist, an accountant and a speech therapist), and several of the students are not music majors.

With a performance scheduled at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in less than three weeks, the pressure is on. "Ladies and gentlemen, it is your responsibility to learn the notes!" booms the conductor impatiently when a section of the Bruckner sounds ragged.

Still, for many of these singers, this rigorous weekly workout led by Harris is nothing less than exhilarating.

"You can have just the worst day of your life at work, on a Monday no less, and think, 'Oh, boy, I don't want to go to choir,'" says Winn Soldani (Mu89, KSM92), who has sung in the chorus for more than 15 years. "Then you go and you work with this man and this music and you go back home afterward and can't fall asleep you're so excited."

The next day, in Harris' office, complete with a patchwork of Post-it notes stuck to his computer, Yamaha upright, photos of his grandchildren and comfortable leather chairs for guests, he returns the compliment. He conducts more than 30 of Northwestern's most gifted singers in his elite University Chorale, but he delights equally in working with the talented undergraduate and graduate voice majors who, along with nonmusic majors and people from the community, make up the membership of the University Chorus.

"These are people (the nonmusic majors and the community members) who are there because they love it," says the professor, a modest, cordial man. "That is the true meaning of the word amateur — one who loves, because it is from the Latin amo."

As a thank you for their ongoing choral experience, Soldani and the other 30 or so community members in University Chorus raised approximately $20,000 last year, through the singers' individual donations, plus some corporate assistance, to be used toward the purchase of new risers with chairs for Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

"They did that because of Bob," says Toni-Marie Montgomery, dean of the School of Music, who calls Harris "an important link to the community."

Montgomery, who succeeded Bernard J. Dobroski as dean in July 2003, says one of her "major focuses is the visibility and prestige the School of Music has in the community." To her, Harris is key because his choral performances repeatedly draw large, enthusiastic audiences.

"He generally greets the audience and is very charismatic," says Dobroski, who has gone backstage to eavesdrop on Harris' preconcert pep talks to singers. "He's highly motivational, making you think of football coaches. There's a sense of holding hands, of inspiration."

Harris oversees five choral groups at Northwestern, leads four intensive rehearsals a week, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in conducting and has composed or arranged more than 60 choral works, issued by such prestigious publishers as Oxford University Press and Boosey & Hawkes.

The first director in the School of Music to take a Northwestern ensemble on a European tour, he led the University Chorale in concerts in 2002 in London, Prague and Vienna (where students turned the tables and coerced him into singing during a lively postconcert party at a wine garden. They gave him a rousing round of applause for his rendition of the spiritual "Who'll Be a Witness"). For three years he was a member of the Choral Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts and twice served as the panel's co-chair.

So what does this expert on vocal blend believe makes a great choir?

Harris answers by explaining the sum is greater than the parts. The ideal choral singer is a person "willing to subject himself to the ensemble."

"With the Chorale, in particular, we have 37 people who mostly want to be in opera. So I tell them, 'Fine, you have that gift. Now you have to think of this [choir] as being a funnel, and you have to pour all that talent into that funnel, and I want the thing that comes out to be a unified concept and a unified sound.' You have to get them to the point that they're willing to buy into that."

And how do you do that? "Work, work, work," he says.

His commands from the podium are a tip sheet for any choral singer intent on improving: "Don't just sing the note. Think the note!"

"You're oversinging. Don't get so hung up on your own sound."

"You're going flat. Sing to the top of the note, not the bottom."

"Too much vibrato!"

And then, the reward: "This is going to be stunningly beautiful!"

He also has a successful leader's knack for urging high-quality results without sending people flying out the door.

"He is a master at the push and pull," says University Chorus member Soldani, who now runs his own market research consulting business in Evanston. "As an [undergraduate] oboe player I could always blame my reed or the instrument. When you're talking about choral singers, their instruments are themselves. So the line a [choral conductor] has to walk between being demanding about the music yet reasonable with people is a very, very fine one that [Harris] masters like no one I've ever seen. It's actually something I have taken into my business life, where you have to learn to be hard on problems but easy on people."

One of his major motivating factors, adds Soldani, is "to make you feel you are part of something bigger than yourself. This is a little Bob Harris speech: 'Bruckner will still be around after we are dead and gone.' He always helps you to remember what a privilege it is to be the voice of the composer."

Harris savors conducting big, imposing works of music. "It's the idea of being able to take a musical score, study it and try to extract from it its essence, and to pass that along to your performers as a means of conveying [its power] to your audience," he says.

He recalls one particularly electrifying performance. "The last time we performed Carmina Burana [on April 27, 2002], I could feel the excitement and energy from the audience. I didn't even need to turn around. I could see it in the faces of the singers. You could sense the people were coming forward [in their seats] because the piece was grabbing them, and the moment it was over, there was an explosion out there. That's when you know you have gotten to the core of the music."

Harris has guest conducted around the world: in Argentina, China, Korea and South Africa, where he led master classes in several cities, including Cape Town, Durban and Bloemfontein. "I was touched more on the human side than the musical side by those experiences," he says. "It was the first time in my life that I had ever been in the majority, and it was eye opening," he says, leaning forward. "And the way people gravitated toward me, knowing that as an African American, I was bringing new concepts to them — it gave them a sense of pride."

The professor, who has sleek sculptures in his office that he brought from South Africa and an extensive art collection in his Evanston home, grew up in Detroit. His mother was a homemaker. His father, a laborer who worked for the Ford Motor Co., sang in a Baptist church choir and used to "plunk out his parts at home on a piano that nobody played."

As a little boy, Harris "tinkered" so much on the piano that his parents sent him to take piano lessons, at age 5, from the church organist.

On Sundays, says Harris, "all the kids had to sit in the front row. My father was a tenor. The choir director was a man named Charles Speights, and the music was of a high order — anthems and oratorios. Mr. Speights conducted the choir with a baton, and one day, when I was 7 or 8, I went up to him and asked, 'Mr. Speights, what is that stick you use?' I was amazed by this thing.

"He said, 'Bobby, that's my baton,' and I said, 'Can I have it?' He said, 'No, but when I buy a new one I'll give you the old one.' And he did. It was mahogany, and I treasured it. I used to wave it around."

(If you didn't know what Harris does for a living, you might guess it while talking with him. He conducts in conversation, lifting his palms, sweeping the air with an index finger, tapping his desk as if it were a music stand.)

When he was a child, the Detroit Public Schools had "a phenomenal music education program," he recalls. He started clarinet lessons in third grade and continued with clarinet through high school, always playing in band and orchestra and singing in chorus.

"I was one of those kids who watched Leonard Bernstein's (H57) Young People's Concerts on television," he adds, "and I remember going to the supermarket and buying records called Musical Treasures of the World for $1.49. I would get Ravel's Bolero and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

"I was also interested in pop and jazz, but my main music was classical. I tell people the greatest teacher I ever had was Johann Sebastian Bach."

After high school, he attended Wayne State University in Detroit, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees. He earned his doctorate in composition and theory from Michigan State University and later became director of choral activities on the East Lansing campus.

Harris joined the Northwestern faculty in 1977 after former School of Music associate dean Paul Aliapoulios heard the proessor's MSU Chorale perform at a music educators' convention in Kansas City, Mo. Former School of Music dean Thomas W. Miller, also at the conference, met the professor and invited him to audition for the job being vacated by Margaret Hillis.

"The rest is history," says Harris. "I was offered the position and accepted. Talk about being in the right place at the right time."

In addition to his Northwestern duties, Harris also served as choral director at Trinity United Methodist Church in Wilmette, Ill., for 26 years. When he retired from that position last year, Trinity held a tribute for him in September that "filled the church. It looked like Easter," says Trinity pastor Robert A. Atkins Jr. (GC73, G87).

Heather Headley (C97) ("Taking Center Stage," summer 2000), who won the Tony Award in 2000 for her performance in Aida on Broadway, and George Washington III (Mu90), a baritone who now sings with Opera Carolina in Charlotte (see "Impersonating the Professor"), were among Harris' former students who sang at the Trinity tribute.

Headley says his teaching directly influenced her professional career. "He would say that to sing, you need to listen and blend with the person next to you, and all of a sudden, that stuff starts working when you're in the chorus of an opera, or you're in the chorus of Ragtime or The Lion King.

"When [Harris] is conducting and hears something amazing," she adds, "his eyebrows go up, he closes his eyes, and it's just like he has eaten the best piece of chocolate he has ever tasted. I used to long for those moments, because I knew: All right, we got it. We're doing our job. I'm doing my job."

And how does Harris see his job? "I live for my students. I exist for them. I love the art form with which I work. I'm here to give what I can."

Anne Taubeneck is a freelance writer in Wilmette, Ill., who writes frequently about the arts for the Chicago Tribune.

Did you enjoy this story? If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at

Northwestern Home | Calendar: Plan-It Purple | Sites A-Z | Search
Northwestern 1800 Sheridan Road Evanston, IL 60208-1800
Phone: 847-491-5000 Fax: 847-491-3040 E-mail:

Last updated  Tuesday, 08-Mar-2005 05:14:02 CST
World Wide Web Disclaimer and University Policy Statements  
© 2002 Northwestern University