ACDA East President
The text of this article was delivered as a luncheon speech to members of the Connecticut ACDA chapter on October 24, 2009.
Good afternoon, friends: Thanks to David and the organizers of this wonderful conference. I’m delighted to be with you and to see and hear all of the great choral music occurring in Connecticut!
I’ve been asked to speak on the subject of Choral Music: A Lifelong Journey. My own lifelong journey with choral music began in 1927, twenty-eight years before I was born. My father, Rodney James Peterson, grew up in Minneapolis…the youngest of four boys in a poor family. No music in the home – no piano – no rich familial musical heritage – but my Dad could sing! As a boy, he participated in his elementary school choir and also in the children’s choir at the local Lutheran church. He continued singing in choirs after his voice changed, and one of my most prized family heirlooms is my father’s piano-vocal score of Elijah…which he sang with his high school choir in 1938.
He continued to sing when he joined the Navy at the start of World War II – not in any formal way – but he used to tell me about the informal sings in which he participated at the naval base in Dartmouth as D-Day was being planned. He also sang at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, in an ad hoc massed choir of servicemen at the memorial service for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And, when he returned home from the war, moved to Chicago and married my mother, he sang in the church choir. That was in 1946.
Now, my father was the stereotypic church choir bass – the guy in the back row full of good humor and bonhomie, wise-cracking his way through rehearsals and probably causing the organist/choirmaster absolute fits! He made fun of the sopranos when they wobbled and tried to help the tenors out when they were struggling – which was often.
My Dad became the “featured bass soloist” of this very typical choir. Those were the glory days of the “church cantata,” and he started voice lessons at age 45 so that he could do the solo work in John Stainer’s The Crucifixion, Alfred Gaul’s The Holy City, and Theodore Dubois’s The Seven Last words of Christ. His solo repertoire included I Walked today where Jesus Walked, The Penitent, How Great Thou Art, and my personal favorite, My Task1.
To love someone
More dearly every day.
To help a wandering child
To find his way.
To ponder o’er a noble thought and pray…
And smile when evening falls…
This is my task!
My Dad also listened to music all the time when he was home. We owned highlights from La Boheme with Victoria de Los Angeles, and Carmen with Maria Callas; LPs of the Beethoven and Mendelssohn violin concertos, Tchaikovsky 6th symphony and the Schubert unfinished symphony on the other side of the record. His favorite record was of a solo recital by a fellow Swede – the tenor Jussi Björling. One of the big treats at Christmas was going to the local Firestone Tire franchise to get the new free Christmas record they gave out as a premium. Those records included all the crooners of the late 50’s and early 60’s, choral music by Mitch Miller and the Gang, and a VERY sprightly Hallelujah Chorus sung by a new choir called the Collegiate Chorale conducted by a guy named Robert Shaw. And, every year without fail, we put up the Christmas tree together while listening to a recording of Messiah; Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic and the Westminster Choir conducted by John Finley Williamson.
My father’s lifelong involvement in choral music started in 1927 and ended 1987, the year of his death – a full 60 years of choral singing. But, his journey didn’t end then, of course. Because I’m still here – remembering him, valuing him, hearing the sound of his voice singing along to the bass part of “Glory to God” from Messiah as we put up the Christmas tree. And of course, because of his lifelong journey with choral music, I started my own.
I often wonder whether my father’s first choir directors back in 1927 understood their influence on him. He never really talked about his music teachers, and I regret that I didn’t ask him to talk about his early musical experiences more. Certainly as a grown man, he was not someone to share his deepest feelings, and I’m sure that he never contacted them to thank them for opening his mind and soul to the glories of choral singing. I don’t believe he was a “star” choir member either – I’m sure his teachers perceived him as just another Swedish immigrant’s son with a “nice enough” voice but no talent or hope of pursuing music as a career – forgotten soon after graduation.
Did his elementary school music teachers know that they taught this average boy something that he would truly value and participate in for the rest of his life? Did his high school choir director, undoubtedly sweating blood throughout his rehearsals of Elijah, understand that future generations would benefit and thrive musically because of the experiences that he was providing to the skinny teenager in the bass section named Rodney? Probably not.
Now, I readily admit that, while my father’s influence started me on my life’s journey with a predisposition for choral music, I also had many wonderful teachers, conductors, mentors, and friends who shaped my pathway, sometimes causing my road to veer in unexpected directions and challenging me with obstacles that I had difficulty overcoming. But throughout my life, I sang with others in kindergarten, in church, in girl scouts, in elementary school choir, junior high choir, and high school, and I loved it all. In college, I sang in every possible choir I could…and I continued to sing with community and professional choirs as I began my own career as a choral conductor.
That was 33 years ago – teaching elementary and junior high choral music in central Illinois. In my first year of teaching, I received a small plaque from a student that said: “Teachers affects eternity – they never know where their influence stops.” I recall thinking that it was a lovely sentiment but, being 21 years old at the time, I was more concerned (and rightly so) about my influence on the “here-and-now” than being concerned with how my work could affect the future. As I continued through my career, however, I began to see in a very real way how my personal interactions with my choir members, my repertoire choices, and the programmatic decisions that I made had a very real and direct impact on how my singers valued their choral music experience. And, of course as the years progressed, I also happily heard from former singers who reported that they had continued to sing in community, church, temple, or professional choirs after they left my program, that they had become choral conductors themselves, that they had listened fondly to their old CDs of our performances together and, perhaps most poignantly for me, that they were singing songs to their own children that they learned from me.
What is it that is so powerful about the choral experience? Why do people do it for their entire lives? What values do we as conductors teach – what music do we share – that causes our singers to embrace choral singing as something akin to a drug addiction – something that they cannot live without?
I ask these questions knowing that we all have different personal answers. Indeed, aesthetic philosophers have been trying to answer these questions for hundreds of years. Now, I know better than to delve into philosophy with an after-lunch crowd on a Saturday afternoon in October, so I’ll keep my personal answers to these questions simple. Knowing, experiencing, and understanding musical meaning heightens, deepens, and broadens us. In music, we resonate with the ancient voice of primal humanity while being intrigued by newly forged rhythms. Being musical opens us up to thinking thoughts that are thousands of years old and also to exploring completely new emotional and cognitive dimensions. Making choral music allows us to interact in a sublimely intimate way with two high arts – music and poetry – entities that are larger and far better than ourselves. And, because of that interaction, we become larger and better people.
One of my favorite quotes about this unique power of music is from William Wordsworth – the first lusciously alliterative line was engraved around the recital hall of my alma mater:
There is in souls a sympathy with sounds;
And, as the mind is pitch’d, the ear is pleas’d with melting airs
or martial – brisk – or grave:
Some chord in unison with what we hear is touch’d within us
-and the heart replies.2
And all of these wonderful things that music does? It’s even more powerful, more awesome, more meaningful when doing it with others! I’m sure that most of you have heard about the Chorus America’s How Children, Adults, and Communities Benefit from Choruses: The Chorus Impact Study.3 This is the subject of a now famous clip on the television show CBS Sunday Morning, and Ann Meier Baker, the president of Chorus America will be presenting the findings in depth at the conference in Philadelphia. The first paragraph of the press release about the study reads as follows:
“If you enjoy singing with your neighbors, congregations, or classmates, you’re taking an increasingly popular path to a successful life. According to a new study by Chorus America, an estimated 32.5 million adults regularly sing in choruses today, up from 23.5 million estimated in 2003. And when children are included, there are 42.6 million Americans singing in choruses in 2009. More than 1 in 5 households have at least one singing family member, making choral singing the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for both adults and children.”
42.6 million choral singers. That’s a lot of lifelong journeys, eh? And, you – me – the people in this room – WE are responsible for the roads that those 42.6 million singers travel. Responsible, that is, one singer at a time.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s an important thing we do – this business of choral music. We know in the end that we do indeed influence the journeys of some of our singers – the few who move on and continue toward professional musical careers – the few who remember to thank us. But then, there are those students like Rodney James Peterson – the singer who probably never said thank you, the one that didn’t keep in touch, the student that we never really figured out, the one that we forgot about – the one that is sitting in ALL of our rehearsal rooms EVERY day – the man who sang and loved singing for the rest of his life. Isn’t he and the singers like him really the best reward at our journey’s end?
I do hope that my father’s choral directors would be happy with their rather unexpected legacy. I imagine them smiling, pleasantly surprised beyond the grave as they think about that skinny forgotten boy in the high school bass section, and the fact that he continued to love choral singing until his death. I hope they are happy that he influenced his daughter to choose choral music as a career and that she is speaking with you today. And, I hope they acknowledge, as I do willingly, a little bit of ownership in my own past, current, and future choir members who continue their own intimate and marvelous relationships with choral music, whether I know about them or not. To those nameless and faceless choral directors of my father’s youth, I say: You have indeed affected eternity. Your influence lives on!
In this time of giving thanks and gathering with family and friends, take a moment to pay tribute to those whose lifelong musical journeys influenced your own. Their gifts to you are many, and your good work is their legacy. Listen to their stories – remember them with joy – and hear their voices singing in your choirs.
Wishing you all blessings of the season….
1 My Task. Music by Emma Louise Ashford. Text by Maude Louise Ray. S. G. Smith and F. Eborall, 1917.
2The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850 eds. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. Norton, 1979. (These lines begin Prelude Two.)
3How Children, Adults, and Communities Benefit from Choruses: The Chorus Impact Study. Produced with funding support from The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, an anonymous donor, and The National Endowment for the Arts. Chorus America, 2009. (The full text of the report can be found at www.chorusamerica.org)