Getting Into Treble: First Post

Dr. Hana Cai, Soprano/Alto Choirs R & R Chair

Since starting my work at Ithaca College, I have been immersed in the world of treble choir music. A few years ago, if you had told me that my primary focus today would be SSAA ensembles and music, I would have looked at you as if you had sprouted wings. Prior to being at Ithaca, my only experience singing in a treble choir was one year (weekend, really) in the Maryland All State Treble Chorus. I had managed this feat by being a late bloomer into choral ensembles: my identity was as a pianist and a band kid first and foremost. By the time I was convinced that singing in choir was a good thing, my voice and reading skills were developed enough that I managed to audition straight into the top choral ensembles in both high school and college, “bypassing” the treble choruses.*

Looking back now, it makes sense that I would become a big fan of and advocate for treble choir music. The catalyst that finally made me want to be a part of a choir was actually a treble choir performance. In my sophomore year of high school, what was usually the Eleanor Roosevelt Chamber Choir ended up being an all-treble show choir that year (if memory serves, all but one of the tenors and basses in the ensemble the year before graduated). I was enraptured by their performances: they sounded amazing, sang music that I loved, and had such great energy. Additionally, the first ensemble I ever regularly directed in high school was an SSAA a cappella group. In some ways, now conducting the Ithaca College Treble Chorale feels like a return to my choral roots.

There was a period of time where I was pretty averse to singing in and leading treble ensembles. I remember not particularly enjoying my experience in All State Chorus, not because of the conductor, but because of the atmosphere (remember, I was a band kid) and finding the repertoire a little cheesy and more feminine than I was comfortable with at this age.** Later, different conductors and singers I met talked about women conductors being “relegated” to conduct treble choirs while others expressed frustration at the optics of a male conductor leading a group of female singers. Although I did not actively avoid leading treble ensembles – I even conducted a couple of ad hoc treble groups during my doctoral work – I also did not give much thought to treble ensembles. I certainly never considered being a part of or leading one.

But why? Why did I think there was not more interesting treble repertoire out there when I had heard the coolest pieces sung by the coolest treble choir only a year prior? Why was I ever concerned about being a “woman conductor” leading a treble ensemble?  

As part of my role as the ACDA East Repertoire and Research Chair for treble choirs, these are some of the questions I hope to address in this blog. In the coming months, we will explore:

  • Choosing repertoire for treble voices.
  • Pieces by composers from underrepresented groups.
  • Pieces that address difficult topics.
  • Resources for teaching pieces from different cultures.
  • Programming ideas.
  • Ways to create a more gender-inclusive environment.

Join us as we delve into all things treble! And if you would like to contribute to the blog with any questions or wisdom or pieces to share, I’d love to hear from you!  Feel free to write to me at

Dr. Hana J. Cai is a conductor, pianist, and singer based in Ithaca, NY.  She is currently on faculty at Ithaca College where she conducts the Ithaca College Chorus and Treble Chorale.

*We will definitely be discussing this hierarchy in future posts.
**Except for Michael Haydn’s Dixit Dominus, which still is one of my favorite pieces for SSA choir.