It’s Not the Music

Robert Eaton
ACDA East President, 2010-2012

As the new school year approaches and with it the beginning of the process for honor choirs and auditioned conference choirs, many will be focused on preparing the most polished and refined audition recordings. Committees will be formed and procedures reviewed and scrutinized in order to provide a fair and impartial evaluation of those recordings. In short, much effort, talent, and in some cases money will be invested in the attempt to showcase the very best musical performances and performers. But, as an Association of Choral Directors, is this what we are all about? While musical excellence is always a worthy goal, should it be the predominant focus of our attention or should it be viewed more as a means to an end?

How one answers those questions depends a lot on how one answers the following:  Are we primarily choral Educators or choral Directors? Is presenting outstanding choral performances the best way to promote the Choral Art or is it the process for preparing the choral performance the best way to promote the Choral Art?

The positive influence of choral music on the lives, mores, and values of participants has been well chronicled by numerous authors, philosophers, and educators. All too often, though, our training for chorus directors largely neglects these statements and almost exclusively focuses on the technical training of a conductor and musician. Often significant time is spent developing strategies for dealing with “attendance policies” and chorus handbook rules and regulations.

In my own early years of teaching I too became irate with students who missed rehearsals or worse yet, a performance. I would rant about the values of parents who dared to make family plans that conflicted with a chorus concert, trip, or festival. The primary goal was to make the best music possible. Over time my attitude changed. Perhaps it was the exchange with former students whose names I could not remember and whose faces I recollected only dimly. They probably were one of those students I let stay in the choir because they ‘did no harm.’ Now they tell me how much chorus meant to them in high school, that it was what kept them in school, and how it was the source of their fondest memories. Or perhaps it was watching the 70 and 80 year-old vocalists who dragged themselves weekly, often with physical pain, to church or community choir rehearsals. Or the experience of vainly trying to comfort an elderly vocalist who tells you with tears that they can no longer sing in the ensemble. These experiences gradually led to me to a belief that it is the process of making music that is most important, even more important than the music itself.

Anyone who has received an email from me has perhaps seen my two signature quotes. They have become more and more a part of my moral compass as the years go by.

“The most important thing about performing is to make magic, to make a special moment in time. The whole process … is never about proving something but about sharing something.”  – Yo Yo Ma

“The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sing the best.”  – Attributed to Henry David Thoreau

As we prepare for yet another competitive season of choral music I suggest we at least think about:

  • Is there a place in an honor choir for a dedicated but less talented vocalist with an overwhelming commitment to the choral art?
  • Is there a place for a conference choir that may not exhibit the ideal tone but sings with strong conviction and emotion?
  • Should we require testimonials from former students and ensemble members relative to the process of making music?
  • On a broader scale, how do we instill this understanding of the influence we have on the lives of the individuals in our ensembles to our young and future choral director/educators?

Thanks for listening.

Bob Eaton