I was having coffee with my friend Frank Heller III the other day. I invited him to compare notes with me about working with choirs. Frank’s a good person to chat with about that: he has spent decades teaching vocal music in high schools, and these days directs the popular community choir “Voces Novae” here in Louisville. We both also direct choirs in local churches.
My background is different from Frank’s. I spent my decades as a producer and composer in the independent music industry, with my most challenging decade on Nashville’s Music Row. As proprietor of RCA Studio B I hosted a lot of school music programs whose students came there to record their stuff in the “Home of a Thousand Hits”. Between those sessions and the location recordings I did as a composer working with school and church choral programs around the country, most of whom recorded songs that I helped them write, I ended up with my own perspective of what seems to bring motivation and focus to choirs of various different sizes and skills.
As Frank and I talked, he kept coming back to a couple of aspects of choral program success that he really believes in: focusing on the breath and building foundations of music literacy through solfége. I totally agree with those two points, and realized that I took them as a “given” on the list of choir building. There are, however, two other processes that I use to get good results out of a group of singers in any situation. I call them:
1. Awakening Awareness – Part of this is a better knowledge of how we hear tonality and tonal relationships. I teach folks about the richness of ratios in frequencies of sounds that we hear. An understanding of this kind of perception encourages the singers to more accurately combine their voices with others by being more assertive with their listening, and better knowing and understanding what they’re hearing.
To do this I use pieces that are easy to contrast: perfect fifths and triads for the purity of simple ratios, clustered harmonic extensions, and non-diatonic shifts to demonstrate complex ratios that are much more challenging for the ear to diagnose. It’s easy to write these examples on Finale or Sibelius, and with a little help the students can be creative and suggest some of their own examples.
This applies to rhythmic hearing as well. The salient here is repetition. Simple rhythmic patterns that do not change or evolve can be contrasted with those that fluctuate unpredictably, or have more obtuse meters. Again, the students can create their own examples with nothing more than hands slapping knees!
Once the choir members are adept at perceiving degrees of tonal and rhythmic character, I find it’s much easier to get them to bring new repertoire to clarity and focus. They also increase their confidence while recognizing their new skills.
2. Exploring Expression – It’s really important to me that choirs approach their music with a sense of adventure. In my experience the best level of engagement between choir and audience has occurred when the choir sings with the passion and dynamics that come from a high level of trust in their abilities and leadership. This is what I call “The Courageous Choir.” They’re able to easily get their voices off the page and into the air. I find that details about posture, breathing, focus, section balance, etc., are achieved more naturally and intuitively when the singers are in the habit of excitedly exploring the creative expression of the music. We stand better, sing better, combine better, even look better when we’re fully in the moment and fully alive with the sense of adventure.
In our conversations, Frank reminds me that my approach to choirs is more that of a producer and composer, and I think he’s right. I respect and admire his tenacity at maintaining the high level of organization and structure that are so necessary in a long-term choral program. My “Courageous Choir” approach is perhaps a bit more catalytic, probably from my working with so many choirs during weekend intensives and recording sessions. I bet that the combination of Frank & Fred would be ideal. I think I’ll try that, Frank willing.
Fred Bogert has spent the last 45 years in the music business. He has produced, written for, and performed on three Grammy-nominated CD’s, as well as appearing as composer, producer and performer with a variety of artists, from Jorma Kaukonen, John McEuen and David Amram to the Austin Symphony and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Fred’s Nashville studios included RCA Studio B and Studio C, where he recorded over three thousand songs for a who’s who of independent artists. His his choral scores are available on sheetmusicplus.com. Fred lives in Louisville, KY. fredbogert.com