As the school year draws to a close and high school seniors bid adieu to their local vocal programs, some will head toward further development in a university-level program. As with education designed for younger students, college choirs are facing a number of changes in the way they approach students, teach curriculum, and utilize technology in the classroom. Universities face the added task of recruitment-building their program to appeal to a wide variety of choral hopefuls.
Choral Director recently spoke to three distinguished choral administrators from universities. We wanted to hear their thoughts about current trends in the relationship between college and high school choral programs, as well as what methods both colleges and high school educators are adopting in order to ease the transition for their budding vocal students. They didn’t disappoint. As Vanderbilt’s Tucker Biddlecombe notes, the college search process isn’t what it used to be. “More information is available about collegiate degree programs and specialities than ever before,” he says. “So much so that prospective students don’t even have to crack a course description catalog anymore.”
In addition to Biddlecombe, our panel includes Messiah College’s Linda Tedford and Grove City College’s Douglas A. Browne.
Choral Director: As high school programs continue to evolve, what kinds of changes are you noticing in prospective college choral students’ attitudes toward and expectations of college vocal programs?
Linda Tedford: As high school students come into the college setting, they find that the college choral programs are more demanding than many high school programs. They are very concerned about personal finances and their ability to pay for a college education and private lessons and so on. They are more interested in recordings and performance opportunities than in past years.
Prospective students are impressed by our choirs, which function at a high artistic level. They are also impressed by our recordings and the fact that we are on YouTube and have our own Facebook page. They also want to participate in additional activities such as international tours (we do this every four years), and our performances of major works with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra. They want to hear the artistic product via the recordings and by personal visits to rehearsals. I think this is wonderful as it shows a commitment to seeking the best educational and performing experience for their college education.
Douglas A. Browne: I am not very involved with high school programs. It seems over the years that the incoming choral students do not have as much background and expertise as they used to. I suspect many programs are leaning toward more popular music, rather than standard choral literature.
Tucker Biddlecombe: High school students entering college today are very specifically focused. More information is available about collegiate degree programs and specialties than ever before, so much so that prospective students don›t even have to crack a course description catalog anymore. As a result, fewer first-year college students enter into the university setting with little or no idea about what they want to do, and this is especially true in music. What they’re not aware of, however, is how great the supply and how little demand there is for singular focus in performance. I think college students would benefit from arriving at school with a wider lens when it comes to their collegiate path.
CD: Are there changes you’ve found your program making to better attract choral students?
LT: We emphasize the performance aspect of the choirs along with the educational emphasis. We are making more recordings (professionally recorded and produced), and we perform with local regional orchestra (Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra). We perform in the schools on our annual choir tour, and sponsor a District Chorus Workshop to help students prepare for District Chorus Auditions. These activities help us maintain and develop our relationships with area high school choral directors. In addition, we are constantly creating a presence on Facebook and YouTube.
DB: We really haven’t made changes, but continue to expect high standards from our students. Providing a strong program and striving for excellence is the best motivator for the students. Of course, some students come in, and see how hard we work, and want nothing to do with it.
TB: There are so many options for our students – various student organizations, gospel choirs, a cappella groups, theater companies – that in order to compete and provide a desirable alternative, we have to adapt a bit. I›ve always thought that students are attracted to excellence, but they can also be intimidated by it. I provide mini-lessons (15-minute voice sessions) to individual students who choose to take them. This closes the gap between some of our less experienced singers and our voice majors. We also need to make use of the data available to us through admissions: often there are indicators on applications that students have significant vocal and choral experience, and often these students are non-music majors hiding out somewhere on campus. We have endeavored to increase our web presence, as more and more students a relying on internet video in their decision making process. Still, there›s no substitute for learning someone›s name, seeing them on campus, and inviting them personally to your program.
CD: How can high school choral programs best prepare students for a college-level choral program?
LT: Emphasize musical skills such as sight reading. Continue to teach a variety of repertoire that includes the “classics.” Assist students with audition preparation (including repertoire selection, stage presence, professional dress and demeanor).
DB: Working with quality literature and not settling for mediocrity in singing and performance ability.
TB: Teach your students to be independent and intelligent musicians. The change that is most stark about a collegiate choral program is reduction in rehearsal time, and thus a lack of repetitions in class. The more independent learners you graduate, the more lifelong singers you will have created. Nothing sours faster than an interested student who is totally lost in a faster learning environment.
CD: How has the curriculum at your school changed recently? What has been the biggest influence on those changes?
LT: When the state mandated requirements of special ed courses, these additional courses have created a credit load that is difficult to do in four years for music ed students. Music technology is becoming more mainstream, and we are integrating technology into our classrooms and our curriculum.
DB: I have one choir that used to perform weekly for a Vespers program. We have changed that to performing about once every two weeks. It seems to have worked better because the time commitment for the students is reduced some – without having to prepare two selections for each week, we can do more difficult literature.
TB: Since our program at Vanderbilt is very small, we have to be creative with our students› time. I have decided to shorten our rehearsal periods; 90 minutes is just too long in our environment. I can get just as much accomplished in 60, and I›ve found that our students are more willing to work on their own if given the time. What influenced those changes were simple fact-finding conversations with trusted students.
CD: Has new technology worked its way into your teaching methods? What types of new tools are changing your choral program?
LT: Our choral rehearsal room has its own recording system, allowing me to record rehearsals and play back for students. We have state of the art technology in our new High Center for the Performing Arts.
DB: I am a traditionalist, so I haven’t really incorporated technology except in my office work.
TB: It’s become very easy to pass on marked scores to students, and that is an incredible time-saver. I tried to move to an iPad for my scores in rehearsal, but I just prefer a notebook of music. I like turning pages, I guess. I have a voice major who is visually impaired, and getting music Brailled for him was always a hit-or-miss endeavor. There would often be significant errors or problems in the engraving. Through use of the music notation program Sibelius 7, I›ve been able to scan in his music, and load it as an XML file into his Braille reading machine. As would be expected, Facebook groups have been a great way to get information out about our program, and upcoming concerts.
CD: Have there been any changes in the way your program has prepared college-level students for post-graduate employment or career development?
LT: We stress performance for all of our majors, equipping them to go on to grad school if desired. We provide valuable field experience for music ed majors starting in the sophomore year and continuing throughout their college years. We do mock interviews for job applications and grad school applications. We assist with resume development. We assist with researching job opportunities through our vast network of area teachers.
TB: We try to encourage our singers to be as versatile as possible. Good singers should be able to do almost anything, and I never want one of my students to enter into a paid situation and tell a conductor or director, «No, I can›t do that.» Some of our students have found employment opportunities in the arts administration realm, while they›re waiting for grad school or professional opportunities to germinate. If I have students who are leaving music after college, I try to make them understand the hole that will be left when music is no longer part of their daily life. If they can fill that hole with something significant, then their chances of continuing on without music are better. That can be tough to do, though!
Linda Tedford serves as director of choral activities at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She directs a number of choirs at the school and she teaches conducting and voice. Tedford is also the founder and conductor of the Susquehanna Chorale and is responsible for creating the chorale’s educational outreach network of choirs, the Susquehanna Youth Chorale and Susquehanna Children’s Chorale. The Susquehanna Chorale has toured Great Britain and released three critically acclaimed CDs. She is a member of ACDA, Chorus America, the National Association of Teachers of Singing, the International Federation for Choral Music, and the Music Educators National Conference.
Douglass A. Browne is professor of Music and director of choirs at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Browne’s Grove City College Touring Choir has performed many times at the annual conventions of the PMEA and, since 2002, the choir has also performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, and the Erie Philharmonic Orchestra. Dr. Browne has served as clinician and/or adjudicator throughout the country and currently serves as an adjudicator for North American Music Festivals.
Tucker Biddlecombe is an associate professor of music at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, where he serves as director of choral activities. His duties include conducting the Vanderbilt Symphonic Choir and the Blair Chamber Choir, teaching choral conducting, and serving as artistic director for the Blair Children’s Chorus program. He is a sought-after clinician and adjudicator, and will conduct the Florida All-State Men’s Chorus in 2014. Dr. Biddlecombe is a published composer and arranger, with choral works printed by Alliance, Hinshaw, and Walton Music.