Recently I decided to create my own mission statement for my work as a choral director. I had worked through the process of defining a mission statement with our ACDA membership, and I thought it would be interesting and informative to try the same thing for my own choral work. This is what I came up with:
As a choral director, I evoke sounds through a community of singers for the satisfaction of unique human emotional needs.
As I reflected on that role, I was pleased that I had concluded that I engage in work that matters in society because of the fundamental inner life needs of fellow humans.
In 2011, the GE Corporation conducted a survey in which they interviewed a thousand senior business executives in twelve countries on the topic of innovation. The most remarkable findings of this survey were the kinds of innovation these leaders think will be most important in the future. 77 percent agreed “the greatest innovations of the 21st century will be those that have helped to address human needs more than those that had created the most profit…” The common denominator between my work (and your work) and the results of this survey comes in the action of satisfying human needs.
While most of us probably don’t think of a choral ensemble as an activity of innovation, if we change our perspective a little, perhaps we’ll see that choral music making is an innovative solution to addressing human needs. If you begin thinking of your choral work through the filter of an innovative solution to a human need, where might that lead you? We know that it already is for your singers and for your past audience, but if you get out of your current “music box”, where else could it apply its uniquely human magic?
Tim Sharp is Executive Director of the American Choral Directors Association. Dr. Sharp pursues an aggressive agenda of progressive initiatives to keep ACDA energized and relevant in the 21st century, inspiring ACDA’s membership to excellence in choral music performance, education, composition, and advocacy. Tim is also in his fifth season as Artistic Director of the Tulsa Oratorio Chorus, Tulsa, where critics characterize his performances as having “stunning power” and “great passion and precision”.
The news this week was horrifying. Yet another terrorist attack in what we have considered one of our safest cities. Pakistan, Brussels, Paris, Boston, Charleston…the list tragically continues with stories of random terrorism and violence. How can we make this stop? While we might not be able to control or influence what happens across the globe or in a city distant from our home, we can influence those with whom we have the most contact – our singers.
Karen Howard recently completed a study examining the impact of a multicultural music curriculum on 5th grade students. Using music of the African diaspora, she found that this experience increased the children’s multicultural sensitivity. At the end of the period of instruction, one child’s response to the prompt, “I used to think that people with dark skin…” was “…were normally homeless and I was scared of them. Now I know that black people are no different from white people” (Howard, 2014, p. 249). Yes. We can make a difference.
Within NAfME are a number of sub-organizations that address specific constituencies. Among them is SMTE, the Society for Music Teacher Educators. SMTE has identified several areas of focus, among them are issues of teaching social justice in the context of the music classroom. Their resource page, http://cdsjresourcepage.wikispaces.com/home, has a plethora of links, articles, and ideas to promote social justice in our work as choral music educators. I urge you to check out this very interactive list.
Can we make a difference? I think so. In fact, I believe we have a responsibility to do so. In our choral classrooms, we have an opportunity to teach what cannot be easily taught in other areas of the curriculum – cooperation, community, and understanding. Time to roll up our sleeves, folks, and get to work.
Dr. Joy Hirokawa is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Moravian College (Bethlehem, PA) and the Founder and Artistic Director of The Bel Canto Children’s Chorus. She earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Music Education from Boston University, a Masters degree in Choral Conducting from Temple University, and a Bachelors degree with honors in Music Education, also from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. She teaches a course annually at Villanova University’s Summer Music Program in working with the child voice. Dr. Hirokawa is a frequent guest conductor and clinician, presenting regularly at ACDA, NAfME and PMEA conferences.
ACDA conferences, both regional and national, often tend to serve as mileposts as we head along our career path: “Do you remember the national conference when we heard…. Did you hear the interest session at the regional when we first learned about….” The 2012 Eastern Regional conference in Providence, though, was less a milepost for me than a giant direction sign: “STOP! Turn here!”
At that conference, many interest sessions and concerts were devoted to the concept of choral music as community service. I listened enthralled to the sessions devoted to intergenerational choirs, prison choirs, adaptive choirs, choirs for the homeless, choirs for promoting peace in war-torn regions. The more I heard, the more I realized that this was an aspect of our profession I knew so little about but that spoke to me with increasing delight at every session. But how to begin?
It was providence again indeed when I saw a guest choral director posting on Choralnet in December of that year. The Manda Wilderness Community Trust, located in far northwestern Mozambique, was looking for this choir director to come for their annual Choral Festival, held in late July. The position would involve working with the local village choirs, teaching the ensembles a piece to perform en masse, then coordinating the festival and possibly organizing a workshop for the choirmasters for a few days after the festival. I applied New Year’s Eve 2012, and after a few challenging attempts to interview via rainy season solar-powered skype sessions, the trust offered me the position that following February.
I spent the next few months learning the local language, Chinyanja (a variant of Chichewa), finding a piece for the choirs to sing together, and hiking, hiking, hiking to get myself in shape. This remote region is known even in Mozambique as fim do mundo (“the end of the world”), so I knew there were not going to be many forms of transportation much more than walking!
In May, I arrived at Nkwichi, the headquarters of the Manda Wilderness Community Trust. For two-and-a-half months, I logged four hundred and fifty miles of hiking as my guides and I travelled from village to village, sleeping in tents at the compounds of each village mfumu (chief), eating the local food, speaking the language, and working with the choirs – just as here, each with its own distinctive way of working and its own community culture.
With each chorus, I would listen to them perform then ask if there was anything they felt they wanted assistance with. It was important to me never to impose my own ideas of what I felt they might need; and I was glad I came in with that mindset, because by the end of my time there I realized what I would have missed in the culture had I come in with that attitude – not to mention how foolish it would have looked.
I had brought video and audio recording equipment with me, and I used it to record two to four pieces at each and every session. My primary reason for doing this was to show the choirs how they looked and sounded, as they had never had this opportunity to see themselves before. Naturally, however, this meant that in the course of visiting fifteen of the sixteen villages in the region, I amassed a huge video collection of the local choral culture. This I carefully transcribed and translated each time I would return to Nkwichi, with much assistance from the knowledgeable local employees of the trust.
In addition to recording established repertoire, I felt it would be good as a guest director to encourage local composers to consider creating new works for the repertoire. In this endeavor I received enthusiastic support from local choirmaster and trust employee Richard Stephano. At each village in my final honorary speech (an expected custom), I would invite the choirmaster to encourage any choir member who had a composition to come and perform it with their choir when they came to the festival. I would record it, transcribe it, and then submit to earthsongs for consideration for publication upon my return to the United States. How exciting it was when three choirs came to the festival with new works to add to the repertoire!
My last three weeks were spent organizing the festival (Did the rubric sheet make sense for adjudication based on local customs? Were the judges acceptable to the choirs? Did we have enough nsima and mchicha to go around for the meal at the festival?), as well as delivering the workshop with the choirmasters. The total experience was of course life altering. Upon my return I could not wait to begin sharing all I had learned.
I am very grateful that earthsongs enthusiastically embraced the idea of publishing all three composed pieces. Part of my interest session will be the presentation of one of these works, written by Jaime Chiphanga of the Mcondece village choir. Based on my personal experience and observations, I will walk interested colleagues through an authentic rehearsal and performance process for these pieces, all of which would be appropriate for concert or for worship settings and are designed to work for choirs of all ages.
It would be an honor to share this wonderful culture and its music with you in Boston this coming February, four years after that transformational Eastern Division conference in Providence. May your time in Boston provide you with your own revelatory insights, inspiration and meditation, that we may each live a life of service through music wherever that leads us.
MARK CONLEY, a conductor, composer and singer, has conducted numerous ensembles from professional opera companies to high school and middle school ensembles. He has also served as music director for numerous theater companies as well as performing as an opera and oratorio soloist. At the University of Rhode Island he serves as Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities. He made his Carnegie Hall conducting debut in the spring of 2009. The Summer of 2013, he served as guest choral director for the choral festival in the Manda Wilderness of Mozambique, working for three months in this remote region in order to help present a choral concert in late July. He blogged about his experiences at www.intrepidconductor.weebly.com.
From the moment it was announced that Roxbury Classic Sounds Honors would be singing in Boston, my students and I felt an anticipation and excitement that was intangible and special. I feel particularly grateful about our upcoming performance in Boston. Roxbury’s first appearance at an ACDA convention was Friday February 13th, 2004 at the Old South Church. We feel privileged to sing at the Old South Church again, this time on Friday February 12th, 2016. There is something very sentimental about this for the Roxbury kids, alumni, staff and myself regarding this “moment in time.”
My mom taught me the value of these “moments in time.” She often said that a special “moment in time” was important as it acted as a frame of reference for modeling all the other days of your life. I feel certain of what these “moments in time” – milestone dates of anniversaries, important performances, and birthdays – do for us. They remind us that the journey is the real deal. Why do we do what we do on a daily basis? Because as teachers and musicians we are in the business of enhancing lives through daily music-making. The bigger picture is a culmination of the details: the months of rehearsal; the study of great music; the interaction of students and teachers; the welcoming of guest artists and their special talents to contribute; and – through all the above – the development of students’ confidence, skills, and talents.
I hope and trust through every rehearsal across days, months, and years that each student can develop their own passion to create and continually strive for authentic musical experiences. I hope these musical experiences can then become a “moment in time” for them, a frame of reference for their future experiences in life – a sort of chain-reaction for an extraordinary life.
Certainly, the actual performance moment in February is a significant “moment in time,” but so is the journey: the
daily musical phrases that hit correctly; the interaction of friends, singers, and colleagues; and the communication of beauty through music – this is the point of all we do.
I never want to forget the “big picture” concerning my involvement in ACDA.
This organization has given me great joy, friendships, opportunities, and resources in the choral world beyond what I ever imagined. So, for the “moment in time” in February, I am very grateful; however, it is the journey that I will truly cherish.
“Vital Force – Using T’ai Chi Chih and Movement Techniques to Teach Conducting”
Early Morning Workshop Sessions to be presented daily on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, February 11-13, 2016 at the Eastern Division ACDA Conference, Boston, MA, by Stan Engebretson of Bethesda, MD
It’s February 11 and you’re in Boston for a very exciting ACDA Eastern Division Convention, ready to be inspired at every turn and surprise! It’s cold outside, with perhaps just a little bit of snow (hopefully not as much as last year). For any of the three mornings while we are there, I invite you to start your day with a moving, meditative session of T’ai Chi Chih and other movement styles. See for yourself how these simple techniques will center you and focus your breath while building your core and balance for strong conducting. Then, take these ideas home to teach your singers how to develop their own core support and enhance their mindfulness to create great music!
T’ai Chi Chih movements will be used to find the “Vital Force” with centering, balance, and core-strengthening techniques needed to become a strong conductor and singer. “Vital force” is a term that describes the central strength or creative force that is so apparent in master artists such as Robert Shaw or Eric Ericson – the gift of inspiration and strength balanced with focus, clear vision, and a will to achieve greatness. “T’ai Chi Chih” is a variant of T’ai Chi not based on martial arts per se, but rather on a more meditative, peaceful, slow and elegant style of movement, centering the concentration and breath of the participants while strengthening the core muscles of the torso and focusing the concentration of power in gesture. Adapted from T’ai Chi Chuan by Justin Stone in 1974, (a successful musician himself), these movements feature soft gestures that circulate and balance the Chi (intrinsic energy) which help the conductor or performer transmit expressivity in music.
There are 19 movements plus a pose in T’ai Chi Chih, and many of these (approximately 10) will be explored within the sessions to create an improved sense of balance and posture for conductors and artists. Additional exercises will show the performer how to concentrate the power of the Chi, or energy, that can transform the intensity of the musical line into gestures and increase musical communication to the performers. Expressions such as “feel the weight of the ocean in the elbows,” “find your center core (Tan-Tien) and move through the core (rather than through off-balance gestures),” “have a sense of floating within your posture of the upper body combined with a high carriage of the head that is aligned on top of the shoulders,” and “keep the legs/knees soft so that you always have perfect balance,” are all tenets of the movement style which serve performers in all disciplines.
The meditative aspect of the art is enhanced through playing background music that is very simple, enhancing the sense of peace, calm, and focused imagery that is so necessary to conducting and indeed, to all the arts and humanities. One of the purposes of T’ai Chi is to replace the ego with a sense of method, a discipline that focuses the energy of the individual into an acutely aware, almost transcendental state. When one arrives in this “zone,” one can see how the depth of the music will express itself, without the performer inserting egos over the music as a filter. The honesty of the art becomes apparent, and the conducting is enhanced by a music-centric approach to the work at hand. One can now clearly see both “the forest and the trees,” and can transmit the greater meaning that is perceived through this enhanced and focused look at the music and the composer. A performer’s depth of expression is developed through this quiet focus, and the ability to transmit this expression is presented through the new balance and focus yielded by the movements and the meditation. At the end of the session, participants will apply these techniques to conducting exercises and singing in basic movements that are drawn from T’ai Chi Chih principles.
While we will be learning 10 or more movements over three days, you can come to any single morning or all three, as you wish. The sequence will change each day and we will apply different aspects of T’ai Chi to conducting and singing, including showing how T’ai Chi movements have been used in choral works such as Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque to create a new form of “Music in Motion,” so popular now in European choral circles today.
Bring warm coats, big smiles, and great energy as you discover the Vital Force within yourself during the upcoming convention! The lineup of artists, ensembles, and workshops this year is fantastic and one of the best in the country of all of the regional conventions, so I know everyone will have an exciting time in Boston.
Safe travels – I hope to see you there!
Questions? Feel free to email me directly if you need any information:
* (Btw, I was raised in Fargo, ND, so a little cold weather and snow in February is “nothing” – it only encourages me! <smiles>)
Stan Engebretson is the Artistic Director of the National Philharmonic Chorale in Bethesda, MD, and Director of Music at the historic “Lincoln Church,” The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, located two blocks east of the White House. He came to Washington in 1990 when he became the Director of Choral Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.
Originally from North Dakota, he holds degrees in Voice and Piano from UND and a DMA in Conducting from Stanford University. He has studied with great masters of the choral art, including Robert Shaw, Eric Ericson, Roger Wagner, Margaret Hillis, Richard Westenburg, Dale Warland, and Gregg Smith.
He has led choral clinics and workshops throughout the United States and in many countries including South Korea, Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania, France, Iceland, and Italy. In undergraduate/graduate choral conducting courses he presents T’ai Chi, Pilates, and Alexander Techniques to young conductors. Additionally he offers T’ai Chi workshops widely for various organizations including major international humanities’ conferences and others.
Why are you passionate about being a part of ACDA?
I have belonged to ACDA since the fall of 1965, when I entered the DMA program at the University of Illinois, under Harold Decker. Harold was one of the founding members and I so remember his enthusiasm for the organization and how important he felt ACDA was, from the very beginning.
The first time I attended as a student was the National Convention in 1965, and there I heard the USC Chamber Singers under Charles Hurt – a very moving experience. Then, in the mid-70s, I heard Howard Swan speak to us all about the importance of performing Good Choral Literature – I felt such affinity with that “call!”
I have attended all but one national conference since 1969 (my first year as director of choral ensembles at Vassar College) and all Eastern Division conferences since 1975 when Vassar’s mixed choir performed in Boston.
The experience of attending ACDA conferences energizes me – by hearing many choirs, I can put my work in perspective – and when comparing my work to the best of them I realize where my attention should go. And that is VERY important.
What is a particularly memorable performance or interest session from past conferences?
This occurred probably in the mid 80s – Eric Ericson’s Swedish Chamber Choir performing Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir…. It riveted my attention. My last year at Harvard I performed it with my HR Collegium Musicum. For me it is the finest a cappella masterwork of the 20th century. Ericson’s performance and recordings confirmed my own musical directions and stylistic sensitivities.
Two ACDA experiences standout for me personally: Harvard’s Collegium Musicum performing the concerted works of Monteverdi and Schütz at the 1995 ACDA National Convention at the Kennedy Center, and performing Dominick Argento’s The Revelations of St. John the Divine with the Harvard Glee Club at the National Convention in San Antonio.
What’s going to be great/new/interesting about your performance?
Wow – I just hope that we sing a concert that connects with conductors, teachers and students, that it brings all listeners in! And I hope that it might pass on musical ideas, that we might offer a few transcendent moments here and there, and ultimately sometimes be inspiring!
I retired from Harvard in 2010, and shortly there after I formed the Jameson Singers – currently about 40 out of 60 singers sang with me at Harvard in the Glee Club, or Radcliffe Choral Society, or HR Collegium Musicum. We have a wonderful time working together – they remember many things I taught them – and that is incredibly gratifying. We were thrilled to be accepted to sing at the ACDA Eastern Conference.
Why can’t our members afford to miss your performance at the Boston Conference?
At Harvard I performed a cappella repertoire of equal amounts of Renaissance, Romantic, and Contemporary choral literature, and choral-orchestral works every year ranging from Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 through Paul Moravec’s Songs of Love and War.
The Jameson Singers a cappella program is similar: Ockeghem’s “Alma redemptoris Mater” followed by the “Gloria” from Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli; then three pieces: “Prayer” I from Britten’s Ad majorem Dei gloriam, Vaughan Williams’s “Kyrie” from his Mass in G Minor, and we conclude with Bruckner’s “Os justi meditatbitur sapientiam.” I hope we sing these five beautiful, poignant, contrasting, complementary pieces well!
I attended my first ACDA regional convention in 1984, albeit in the Western Division. At the time, I was a junior in college, persevering through music history and advanced theory toward a career teaching high school. I still remember the sense of awe as so many wonderful choirs assembled in one place, reiterating again and again – the sky’s the limit kid! Learn your Roman numeral analysis and get out there. Fly, Leonardo. Fly!
Particularly heartfelt was a performance by the Brigham Young University Choir – the last under the direction of Ralph Woodward who would retire just a few months later. To say that concert was emotionally charged would be an understatement, as there was scarcely a dry eye in the house by the time they were finished. The singing was intelligent – a Heinz Werner Zimmerman piece comes to mind – but fully evocative of the human spirit. These were people who loved making music together, and for those few minutes, we got to make music with them.
I remember talking about the concert the next morning with my peers and my mentor, Charlene Archibeque, as we bantered about the performances of the previous day. I also recall daydreaming over my omelet about what it might be like to be invited to perform at such an event – an honor to be sure, but also a bit stressful perhaps? Most of us come to these things looking for a few new ideas, a shot in the arm to update our vaccinations against complacency, and if we’re lucky, we take home a few moments of pure inspiration, moments as likely to be found in the unison singing of children’s voices as in the more esoteric artistry of music from eastern Europe. If you’re like me, you spend most of the conference trying to decide if having lunch with a long lost friend is worth the risk of missing the “musical highlight of the conference!” But alas, is there anything more personal or subjective than that?
Dave Fryling had asked that I might say a few words about preparing my choir to sing for this auspicious occasion, a task I find a bit more frightening that actually preparing the choir. The genesis of our program comes from the title of a Craig Hella Johnson arrangement of a song by Annie Lennox called “1000 Beautiful Things.” As it happens, this was the over-arching theme for a program we did last year of the same title. In this rendering, we will feature two recent works inspired by Hildegard von Bingen, a Brahms part-song paired with the eerie compositional meanderings of Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, and conclude with a new David Childs setting of the e.e. cummings poem, “i thank You God for most this amazing day.” The underlying thread that binds these pieces together is the realization that little has changed in the human experience since the beginning of recorded history. Joy, grief, melancholy, euphoria, and hundreds of their close cousins repeatedly assume the leading roles in the stories of each of our lives.
I think back on that BYU performance in 1984 and can only hope that we might touch a few souls in the way that choir touched so many, but what I can tell you is this: Such an opportunity to sing great repertoire for an audience that truly understands the art causes us to pause, time and again, to ponder the wonder and magnificence of 1000 beautiful things.
We look forward to sharing those with you, on stage and off, in Boston a few months from now.
And no… we’re not singing “Leonardo!” I just thought it was a clever title.
In an ideal world, music from world cultures and from our own folk tradition should be an integral part of a rich and diverse choral repertoire. Historically, our repertoire choices have been focused on Western European traditional music. This may have narrowed our vision about what should be considered quality music. What could our choristers and students in choral settings in the United States gain from experiencing the diverse musical traditions of our globe? Let’s think musically.
There are music theory systems in other parts of the world as sophisticated as our Western European music system. Take for instance North Indian or Hindustani classical music, with its hundreds of ragas (melodic organization) and talas (rhythmic organization), a music theory system so complex it would take us many semesters of music theory classes to fully understand it. How about heterophony, rarely encountered in Western music? Not homophony, polyphony, or monophony, but the less familiar texture that brings yet another perspective in music performance because singers can contribute to the overall piece by adding spontaneous ornamentation to a melodic line. Let us not forget the ability to sing microtones in Chinese Opera or with overtones in Aboriginal music and Tuvan throat singing. There is also the purposeful tuning of instruments in pairs in Indonesia to allow the presence of beats (not really something desired in our western ideal of intonation) and the intricate layers of rhythmic patterns present in multiple examples of African music, to name a few.
So, why should we incorporate music from various world traditions (in addition to our beautifully crafted Western European tradition)? Simply stated, because we are traditionally exposed to the elements that are common in our music traditions, but there are multiple important music elements still foreign to us. Performing and learning about these elements will only enhance our understanding of what music is and what it represents to millions of humans around the world.
Recently I had the privilege of conducting the Mucho Macho Choral Festival–designed to get 6th through 9th grade young men excited about choral singing–and I decided to take some time to have these choristers share why that sang in choir. It was eye opening that these young singers felt so free to share such personal insight with a group of strangers.
I then did the same thing with a group of 150 middle schoolers in the Wisconsin Middle Level All State Choir–a fine SATB ensemble made up of 7th and 8th grade singers. They each shared from their heart, and I decided to write a blog post about the experience.
One young musician, Scedra, had many of us crying with her answer to the question ‘Why do you sing in choir?” Beyond the music, it’s our job to create a safe space for our musicians. Singing is such a personal art form; if you don’t feel safe, you won’t offer music filed with emotion, passion, and honesty.
We are members of ACDA (American Choral Directors Association), which means we are choral directors. So… we direct choirs and choruses. So… What is a choir?
This perhaps seems like a silly question. We all know what a choir is, after all we direct one! I’d like to suggest, though, that a definition of choir/chorus in a broad sense might address some of our issues relative to membership, help us to articulate who we are, and perhaps expand the horizons of many of our members but most especially the young aspiring choral directors.
For some a choir is a group of vocalist trained to sing synchronously, creating a unification of sound, musical intonation, rhythm, and diction. As we prepare for our National and division conferences we expect to hear the most outstanding and excellent examples of such vocalization. We expect precision, quality and nuance in tone, unified diction and vowels, and dynamic control. Hopefully in many of these ensembles we will also hear the expression of human compassion, exuberant and joyful outbursts and artistic humility.
Many more of us ‘choral’ directors have choirs that, while striving for some degree of precision and vocal refinement as described above, utilize a much broader definition of a choir. I’d like to suggest that a choir is a community of voices that; join together to express the fullest range of human emotions and experiences; that collectively is exponentially more powerful than the individuals’ voices within the community; and that because it is a uniquely human instrument physically connected to the human psyche and the human ability for speech it is unique among all other musical instruments or ensembles.
Within these parameters fall many a small church choir, senior citizen choirs, choirs for the autistic, hospice choirs, etc. We probably won’t hear many of these at our conferences (although in Providence we are planning a session on ‘alternative’ choirs) but they are no less important. In fact, it can be argued that the survival of choral music and a measure of our success in promoting the choral art is rooted in these millions of communities of voices.
I would like to strongly recommend that the future of choral music and the choral art will be greatly enhanced if more of our ‘established’ and prestigious choral directors directed some of these ‘community of voices.’ Those of us with ‘established’ choirs should mentor and nurture these ‘alternative’ choirs and their directors. The purpose and soul of the choral music is rooted in these expressions. We must not forget our roots. That song began as and continues to be sustained cries of emotion, of pain, joy, love, grief. Song began as sustained exclamations of human emotion. A choir is a community of voices expressing together that experience.