Category: Inspiration

Choral Music: A Lifelong Journey

Lynn Drafall
Lynn Drafall
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!

Young RodneyI’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.

Rodney Peterson in the NavyHe 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.

My TaskTo 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.

Rodney PetersonMy 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

The Search for Inspiration

St. Cecilia

St. Cecilia (1606)
Guido Reni, 1575–1642

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.1

Lynn Drafall
Lynn Drafall
ACDA East President

One of our most important tasks as leaders and choral conductors is to inspire others musically, educationally, and personally. The importance of this role cannot be downplayed. We’re in the inspiration business whether we stand in front of choirs of small children or senior citizens, whether choosing repertoire for our non-select middle school choirs or university music majors, whether sitting on committees or chairing meetings. We are called by our beloved profession to “appear and inspire” and, unless we expect St. Cecilia to startle us with her “immortal fire,” we must consciously search for this elusive but important quality.

When reading the dictionary definition of “to inspire,” many other functions that we also value as conductors are used: to affect, guide, arouse, motivate, energize, touch, cause, elicit, take action, draw forth, bring about, breathe life into; to stimulate energies, ideals, or reverence; to fill with life or exaltation.

Looking at our professional lives from this point of view, it certainly appears to be a daunting task, this inspiration thing! How do we do this? Where do we find our own inspiration? How do we maintain our motivation and energy when so much of it is poured out of us and into our singers? Who or what breathes life into us so that we can pay it forward and inspire others?

The music. Although there are many points of inspiration depending on our individual personalities, beliefs, and preferences, the music that we choose to conduct MUST inspire us. It can be beautiful or provocative, simple or complex, subtle or overt, well-known or completely unique. But, we need to find the inspiration within it in order to communicate that to others. Good music is its own profound inspiration. The fact that we are blessed to spend our lives interacting with music is another source. And, the fact that we share it with others who are thereby also inspired? That’s the best inspiration!

The text.  We all know that the wedding of two arts – music and poetry – is unique to vocal music. This marriage may be the reason that we were initially drawn to choral conducting – we all share the love of words and the sounds of words when set to music in perfect union. So, conductors often search for their inspiration in the poetic meaning and in the sounds of the words themselves. Admittedly, this search is difficult whether we are choosing repertoire for elementary choirs or adult professional ensembles. And, I think we could all admit to the error of choosing music by an uninspired composer who set compelling poetry, or a piece of beautiful music that contained no poetic import. Afterwards, we wondered why it failed to inspire us or our singers. But, just as in a healthy life partnership, the joining of the text and music in exquisite compatibility is the true source of inspiration . And it’s there for us to find!

The singers.  Inspiration is present in the faces and souls of our singers every day in our choir rehearsals. They too yearn for inspiring music, for inspiring poetry, for the personal fulfillment that comes with musical interaction and for someone to lead them there. Will that be visible to you every day? No. Will all of your singers inspire you all the time? Definitely not! However, be assured that there is ALWAYS at least one person in your church choir, your massed festival choir, or your rowdy choir of middle school boys who “gets it.” Whether you are inspired by the responsibility of that or inspired by the search for those singers, this is perhaps the most powerful inspirational motive of all.

The life choices we make. I believe that the conscious choices we make in life determine whether we are personally happy and fulfilled, and that inspiration can be drawn from a fulfilled life.  For some people, the choice to believe in a greater power is their source of happiness, and they draw personal inspiration from that faith. Others choose happiness while experiencing nature’s beauty, and they find their inspiration in a clear blue sky, a storm over the mountains, a calm sea. Still others are fulfilled when surrounded by the products of human achievement in the arts or sciences, literature or history, mathematics or sports, while others find happiness and inspiration in the warm presence of their families and friends. Not all of our circumstances are happy all of the time, of course, but we make the conscious choice to feel fulfilled. What happiness inspires you?  What choice have you made?

For those who see and hear, there is inspiration everywhere for us to find. We can gulp it in with every sense and use it as our primary personal motivator.  Once we find it, our task is easy – the translation of our personal inspiration into public action. We can inspire through high energy, through quiet intensity, through musical and personal integrity, through humor as well as profound philosophy. Our singers long for it. The music deserves it. Humanity needs it.

Note: The Feast Day of St. Cecilia is November 22.
1Excerpted from: Britten, Benjamin. Hymn to St. Cecilia. Op. 27. Poetry by W. H. Auden. New York; Boosey and Hawkes, 1942.

Lessons from Gracie

Lynn Drafall
Lynn Drafall
ACDA East President

My husband and I are the proud owners of a rescue dog named Gracie. She came to live with us three years ago, given up by a family that we suspect had abused her a bit. She’s a cross-breed (aka mutt) of vaguely questionable ancestry, although we know she has both Golden Retriever and German Shepherd somewhere in her because of her big smile and big bark. Regardless of her parentage, she is very large, very hairy, and very beautiful – just ask her!

We adopted Gracie at a time when we were both incredibly busy with our jobs and we both had been spending long hours away from home. So, why did we decide to become dog-owners?  Well, because we are now forced to leave work to go home and be with her! I can’t tell you how much happier we are, and what better musicians and teachers we’ve become, because of that decision.  In this and in so many other ways, she has become our own slightly goofy therapy dog, reminding us constantly of the truly important things in life and allowing us to see the world through her expressive brown eyes.

GracieI see Gracie’s eyes in the rearview mirror every afternoon when we take our ride to the park.  Those eyes are always shining, full of expectation and delight, and always looking forward.  EVERY afternoon we go to the SAME dog-friendly park and I always drive the SAME route. But, there is Gracie in the rearview mirror, always looking ahead with excitement and happiness, constantly smiling and anticipating the start of a new adventure. How many of us supposedly enlightened human beings face each and every day like that?  Always looking forward to what’s coming next – full of delight with the journey – eagerly anticipating the next adventure – while knowing that we’re going to the same place again and again?  I’m learning to look at my life that way because of my dog.

Gracie is really very smart and has learned many things since she’s been with us. But, bless her heart, she will never learn that squirrels are always going to outrun her. She is never going to catch a squirrel – it’s not going to happen! That fact, however, doesn’t seem to affect her obvious enjoyment of the squirrel-chasing game. When she sees a squirrel, she first gets that intense “call of the wild” look. Then, she begins to stalk slowly before finally breaking out into an all-out run, dragging her poor humans behind her. The squirrels taunt her from the trees as she tries to climb up to get them – they even know they’re safe! But, dear Gracie always believes there is a chance. She’ll never stop going for the glory! The fact that she’s never been successful doesn’t seem to bother her in the slightest.

I was walking Gracie one afternoon last fall after a day in which I had incredibly lousy rehearsals with my choirs. You know those times when you work so hard to get it perfect, and it never gets as far as you would like, and you get so frustrated with yourself and your choir that your can’t see straight?  While on that walk, Gracie saw a squirrel and went after it. As always, she was unsuccessful. And, I said out loud to her, “Yup, I know the feeling. I didn’t catch my squirrel today either.”  But, Gracie will never quit chasing squirrels and never stop enjoying that chase. That afternoon, she reminded me that the chase after perfection should be the most enjoyable part of our work, while perfection itself usually remains as elusive as Gracie’s squirrels.

We read in all the dog books that dogs “live in the moment,” and that’s perhaps the most important thing that Gracie continues to teach us. For, once she finally gives up on her squirrel chase, she simply turns around and continues on her walk, feathery tail swaying in a slow wag, the frustration of the previous moment completely forgotten as she ambles along to find the next interesting smell or fascinating blade of grass. How many humans can be so easy-going, quickly turning that emotional corner to bring ourselves back into balance after a frustrating experience. What a gift!  Ah, it must be great to be a dog!

But, it’s even better to be the owners of a dog. Because, when we come home at the end of our long days, there is smiling Gracie waiting at the door, instantly forgiving us for being gone so long, coming softly to our hands, waiting for us to acknowledge her with a smile, a kind word and a soft touch.  Ah, yes – these are the best lessons that she continues to reinforce – to smile, forgive, pay attention, be kind, touch softly. I remember to do these things because of Gracie.

So, in the days ahead when the weather continues to grasp you with its icy cold fingers, the spring music hasn’t arrived from the publisher, the administrators are demanding your budget request for 2011 while you can’t even begin to think about tomorrow, and the work schedule keeps getting longer and longer, remember Gracie’s lessons. Look forward with a smile of sheer delight – live in the moment – and go chase some squirrels!



On your mark….Get set….Go!

Lynn Drafall
Lynn Drafall
ACDA East President

Dear Colleagues:

Let the games begin!  I know that this letter finds most of you up to your necks in preparations for your new performance and teaching seasons. Please accept my good wishes as you say a fond farewell to summer and launch into a rewarding yet busy autumn.

While you are planning your musical year, know that your Eastern Division board members have also been hard at work – looking at the big picture, envisioning new ideas, discussing the needs of our members – all in the attempt to make our work more relevant and helpful to you!  Here are just some of our goals for the next two years:

– Increase Visibility of Division Repertoire & Standards Activity

Our 2008-2010 R&S chairs have pledged to create and implement workshops, think tanks, master classes, reading sessions, and honor choirs for their specific areas of specialty, and to offer these in the geographical regions of the Division that are most in need. Although our division conference will continue to be the largest of our offerings, we hope to provide many more localized and specialized events for you.

The complete listing of Division R&S chairs is elsewhere on this site.  Please contact the R&S chair that matches your specific interest if you wish to be involved in this planning process!

– Provide Direct Assistance for Conductors Working in Urban Environments

As you know, our friends working in urban settings often face severe obstacles. Whether their issues are financial or programmatic, curricular or academic, these teachers and conductors constantly battle to maintain a viable presence in their schools for choral music, often without any professional support.

Tony Leach (PA) and Nick Page (MA) are creating workshops and programs to assist these teachers, and they will be visiting and working in the Division’s urban centers during the next two years. While their work is experimental at this point, these two highly gifted men have the opportunity to make a lasting and positive difference in the lives of urban choral conductors and their students.

If you wish to be involved in this very important project, please contact Tony at and Nick at

– Place Greater Emphasis On Research & Scholarship

We hope to support and provide a higher profile for all of our division members involved in research and scholarly activities. This initiative will include any members that are researching historical and philosophical topics, rehearsal strategies, conducting technique, score study, vocal development, editorial practice  – virtually ANY endeavor that brings new knowledge to the field of choral music.

Although presently in the infant stages of planning, we’ve thus far discussed possibilities for web-based research consortia, poster sessions and project sharing at conferences, new collaborative ventures sponsored by the Division, as well as periodic research seminars and retreats.

Jim John (NY) has consented to chair this important new initiative. If you’ve got great ideas for this and would like to be involved in the planning and implementation, please contact Jim at

– Restructure the Division Conference

Our 2010 division conference will occur in Philadelphia on February 11-13. I’m SO excited about our plans that I could talk forever about it!  Briefly, however, we have reworked the schedule to allow for MORE performances, MORE interest sessions, MORE reading sessions, MORE honor choir and workshop choir experiences, and MORE opportunities to connect with the city and interact with your colleagues. Our location (Marriott Downtown) is central to tons of great restaurants in every price range, and our performance venues represent some of the very best acoustics in town!

If you have some ideas for us or wish to be involved in the conference planning, please contact Dave Deitz (PA), the conference chair.  In the meantime, stay tuned for more details!

– Enlarge the Membership

To maintain the good health of our organization, we must continue to attract new members. Our division membership chair, Brent Miller (NJ), and all of your state presidents and boards have all been working diligently to contact those whose memberships have lapsed in the past 18 months and remind them to renew. And, we now need YOU to help attract new folks.

I know that the search for new members may be a “hard sell” in these tough economic times. We are all facing rapidly increasing expenses with stable or decreasing incomes, and many folks need to think twice about writing a check for professional organization membership. But, here’s where YOU can help! You KNOW the benefits of membership, you KNOW the wonderful opportunities we provide for choral conductors and their singers, and you KNOW that we are constantly working to make our events and activities even more beneficial to you. Help us make all these wonderful plans into realities for more choral conductors.



Ah, Summer…

Lynn Drafall
Lynn Drafall
ACDA East President

Greetings, colleagues!
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”  I know this title conjures up mental pictures of evergreens covered with snow, but I’ve always felt that it more aptly described the present season – a chance to relax and reflect on what has occurred and also to prepare mentally for all there is to come in the future. I hope that you’ve given yourselves some time to relax, read a good book or three, re-acquaint yourselves with your families and pets, and reflect on a “job well done” during the 07-08 year.

While I have done plenty of relaxing (!), I’ve also been working to prepare for the next two years of Eastern Division activities. Please take a look at other pages on this site for listings of the 2008-2010 division officers, Repertoire & Standards Chairs, Project Chairs (new additions to the board) and the ‘10 Conference Committee.  All of these people have consented to work on your behalf for the next two years, and have committed their time and talent to serving the choral art within the eleven chapters comprising our division.  Please take the opportunity NOW to send them a little word of welcome!

On the homepage, you will also find a listing of the summer conferences that some of those eleven ACDA chapters are hosting. After you’ve taken some time to relax and unwind, please think about attending one or more of these great events to start re-energizing your professional life – you are welcome at any of them!  Congratulations and best wishes to all state officers who are involved in their planning and implementation.

Ah, summer… Whatever would we do without these golden days to unwind and renew?  Without the quiet, lazy afternoons to think and plan?  Without these wonderful opportunities to travel and grow and reconnect with our colleagues?

It IS the “most wonderful time of the year!”