Friday night lights, the thrill of the Final Four, the new billion-dollar Yankee Stadium. Team sports have a larger-than-life place in American culture. This is nurtured from our earliest days in school, and it contributes to social and ethical development in our children. But there is another “team” that is equally important one without a ball or an opposing team, but no less intense than the fiercest cross-town rivalry. It is the choir the “singing team.”
For 27 years, I directed the choir at John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview, N.Y. Young men and women who sang in this group entered into a lifetime bond that transcended individual accomplishments and promoted team unity and togetherness. In so many words, alumni have expressed this very sentiment throughout the years. John Gould, M.D., Ph.D. (JFK Choir class of 1970), a physician and surgeon in California, writes, “High school choir taught me about music, but most of all it taught me about human bonds. It taught me to strive to be at my best, and to allow others to help me with that goal as I helped them. When it was over, there was something wonderful and precious left inside. I have carried this with me every day since then, and my life is richer for it.”
Being part of a choir is challenging and demanding. Just as being on an athletic team, choral singing requires dedication, loyalty, self-sacrifice and hard work. Adolescents in particular need to feel that they “belong” and this sense of belonging is not unique to participation in sports. Choir fosters the same strong sense of teamwork. It provides stability, promotes camaraderie, encourages and motivates its members to focus, to work hard, and to succeed.
In basketball, one practices the pick-and-roll and getting the ball to the open man in music, one practices the mastery of notes and rhythms. Practice is the preparation for performance. In sports, it’s the game. In music, it’s a concert. For the singer, the thing to be conquered is the music itself. In sports, it’s the other team. The rehearsal is the equivalent of a team practice. It is there you “run” through the notes. You work on dynamics, phrasing, and subtle nuances of shading, text painting and interpretation.
The coaches employ “tactics.” They are there to motivate, to stimulate, and to inspire. They are there to push the team beyond any perceived limitations, to encourage, to help the team accept that anything is possible if everyone believes in the common goal. The same is true for the choir director. Team members identify with discipline and achievement. Jack Yao (JFK Choir class of 1975), now a vice president of Information Technology in Yorkville, Ill, writes: “Choir was much more than just making beautiful music. It helped me establish and confirm a set of values to live by: 1) Set the bar high when establishing your goals; 2) Focus and determination will generally make those goals attainable; 3) The group is more important than any one individual; and 4) Love and respect for each other is critical to success.”
Top choirs have very demanding schedules that may include rehearsals during the day and at night with all or part of the group. Sectionals are where you break down the team into smaller units sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. Each section has its own “sound” and its own identity. These sections are analogous to skill positions in football. The coach might run his backs and go through a series of drills. The choral director helps choir members to master the music by mastering the notes and rhythms. The object is to be true to the composer, to understand what he or she intended, to grasp the musical meaning and to bring the text to life.
Sports and music have so many similarities and so much to offer our nation’s youth. I love them both, but I especially love music; and choral music is in my heart. For me, outside of human love, music is the most beautiful thing on the planet. There is nothing like it. It expresses the inexpressible. I am so fortunate that I was able to share my passion for music with my young students. I used to tell them that music performed well would give them a chill in the back of their necks, a tingle down the back of their spines, a special kind of “buzz.” I would literally jump for joy each and every year when they would come to me after a concert where things had “clicked,” and say, “We got the buzz, we got the buzz, we understand!”
UCLA’s legendary coach John Wooden writes, “Team spirit is the ultimate expression of interdependence it makes the group better. Team spirit is consideration, respect, and dignity for others.” This holds true in a musical ensemble, as well as a sports team. There is no doubt about the value of a team experience whether it is provided by a great teacher, a coach, a music or theatre director. As well, there is no doubt about the impact that either sports or music have on a student’s life. The legacy of a great teacher lives on in his students. I cherish that legacy.
Ron Cohen taught in Plainview N.Y. for 27 years. In 1995, he received the New York Outstanding Choral Director Award, and in 1998 was the recipient of the New York State School Music Association Distinguished Service Award. He has also been featured in articles in Long Island Newsday and USA Today.