By Eliahu Sussman
Engage, Educate, and Empower – Z. Randall Stroope talks conducting, running effective rehearsals, and trends in choral music.
The crowning achievement for many high school choristers is the opportunity to sing with an all-state choir. In addition to meeting and performing with other fabulously talented singers, all-state choirs also present students the chance to work with stellar conductor/educators. For thousands of aspiring vocalists over the past several decades, that has meant a date with Z. Randall Stroope. A highly accomplished and decorated composer and conductor, Stroope has been a prolific clinician, working with a remarkable 38 all-state ensembles across the U.S. – and counting.
As a composer, Stroope has some 125 published works to his credit that that have sold millions of copies and continue to be widely performed by both choral and instrumental groups around the world. CD recently reached Stroope at his office at Oklahoma State University, where he serves as the director of Choral and Vocal Studies, to discuss trends in choral repertoire and performance, as well as lessons learned from working with so many different types of choral groups.
Choral Director: What notable trends are you seeing in choral music today?
Z. Randall Stroope: Art is a reflection of society, and it’s also a reflection of our personal struggles and emotions and the various life events that we have. Choral music represents that as well as any art form, and I think that is because it so connects to people. Because of that, choral music is really sensitive to trends and does reflect society. Several trends come to mind. Electronic media gives us unprecedented access to things like repertoire lists, performances on YouTube, historical practice, educational books, electronic magazines – anything that is going to help a choral director be better at his or her art. It’s really right there at people’s fingertips, and that wasn’t always the case.
On the idea of literature, there’s a deluge of multicultural music in mainstream choral performances: music from places like Estonia, New Zealand, and China – cultures that just a few years ago were not nearly as strongly represented as they are today. It’s brought us into their living rooms and made us both much more conscious of the world, but also given us the opportunity to perform their music. That has been a huge aspect.
CD: Both of those two are related, in the sense that electronic media has opened the door to many new cultures.
RS: Those two are married at the hip. There’s also a really positive trend in the implementation of repertoire and curriculum standards in schools. Schools have always been concerned about curriculum standards, but perhaps more so today than ever. That impacts the printed music they choose, the concepts that are taught. Any time there is a serious look at standards, that’s a positive thing. That’s really been a help.
And then one of the greatest things that has happened in the past 25 years is the large number of children’s choirs and youth orchestras – really, youth ensembles of all types – that have been developed across the country. Only a handful of years ago, those were relegated to the large cities, whereas there are literally thousands of them today. These are community children’s choruses I’m referring to, not ones directly tied to schools. That’s been a really positive thing, and it has got to infuse heavily into the adult ranks, into various aspects of our community: both people that are going to be on the arts boards, where they had this experience when they were younger, and people that will go into music in college, as teachers, and even people in other disciplines who are going to continue performing in other choruses and things like that. The children’s chorus is a real shot in the arm because it opens a window to the future. That’s been one of the real wonderful impacts, although all of these things are great.
CD: To what do you attribute the explosion of youth ensembles?
RS: I actually directed Bel Canto, which was part of a larger community structure that I had when I lived in Omaha. We had 400 kids participating. From my perspective as the director, I always felt that we were a complement to the schools. We were good friends with the schools. We didn’t want to be a replacement for them. We tried to pick up those pieces that the kids weren’t able to do in school. For example, we traveled internationally with children as young as 12. Many schools have difficulty traveling over 50 or 80 miles, and here we were, going to China, Japan, and South Africa. Part of it is just the constraints of the schools themselves, relative to budget.
The schools serve a wide variety of people and need to touch all of those people at their levels. Community chorus is much more specific to a finite mission and goal. That is attractive to a lot of people. But I don’t think it’s an either/or issue; I would like to think of it as a real complement to something that has been happening already so well in the schools. This is just a little more icing on the cake.
CD: Certainly many students who are involved in community choirs are also going to be involved in curricular music-making opportunities.
RS: It’s mutually complementary. The best marriages are the ones where both parties benefit, just like we were saying earlier about the concept of technology and international repertoire. If one part really benefits by the other, than there’s a need and a mutual benefit that I think is always necessary.
CD: Do you think that the increase in youth ensembles over the past few decades is tied to the increased exposure on TV and in movies of vocal music performers and ensembles?
RS: It could certainly be a part of it. Most children’s choruses do quite a bit different repertoire than the pop programming you see on TV, so it might not play as heavily as one might think. I would say that there’s always been a large amount of pop art music in all media forms and that continues today more than ever. There’s room on the musical plate for a variety of styles. Students shouldn’t just study classical music. They shouldn’t just study pop or jazz. It’s great to expand their palate, and there’s really room for just about every vocal form.
Where the impact of the television programming comes in is when a school has a show choir or a jazz choir that does frequent interactions with various community groups. Even though some may not totally endorse everything they stand for, there is generally some good there, even in just the awareness that there is an excitement in choral music or vocal music. The more exclusionary directors or audiences become, the less likely they are to have a holistic approach to music.
I love to listen to pop music when I’m away from the university, just to cleanse my palate for a little bit. Everyone is going to like different styles, and I think it’s so important to have a little variety. With Glee or with the talent shows on TV, I think there’s room for that and we should embrace it in large part.
CD: Let’s talk about all-state groups for a moment. What have you gleaned from your experience working with so many different ensembles?
RS: I’ve learned that choral music is flourishing and increasing across the country. This year is my 38th all-state and it’s wonderful meeting choral directors who are personally making it happen when budgets are non-existent and recruitment is mired in changing school schedules and testing and all of that sort of thing. Choral directors are resilient. Their love for the art is apparent, and they’re really driving the machine.
CD: Would you talk about your process when working with these groups?
RS: The students are extremely hungry for information. Basic human need has never changed. People like discipline. They like quality. They like to know that their time is being used in a valuable manner. They like to be appreciated. They like to feel like they’re accomplishing things. No matter what the discipline, that’s true and it will always be so. As long as you can tie into that, they’re going to appreciate what’s happening.
The first thing I try to do when I walk in the room is engage the students. Unless they’re engaged, you can’t teach them anything. They have to know from the get-go that you care for them and you have high expectations. I have made up over time my three “e”s: Engage, Educate, and Empower. You can’t teach something if the students’ arms are crossed and they aren’t really listening. I walk into all-state and the first thing I do is start shaking hands in the back row. If I have time, I try to shake the hand of every single student sitting there, before I even reach the podium. Just look in their eyes, ask them what their name is, and shake their hands. This starts the rehearsal in a very personable way, and then you’re able to educate when you stand up. Hopefully, through the training of the directors, myself, and the students’ own work, they are able to become independent. We empower them to be independent thinkers and independent musicians.
I’ve learned a great deal about motivational techniques for singers and, obviously, musical concepts – ways of presenting material in a quick and efficient way that seems to hit the majority of students the first time. That’s always important.
CD: You’re referring to discrete musical techniques?
RS: Right, but I always want to start out by engaging the students. We begin working immediately. When I walk to the podium, I have them stand and then we’re working. I don’t take a lot of time to explain things. Students are sharp and they’re there to work. It’s a fun journey, each time you do an all-state choir, an honor choir, or something of that sort. I love it. I feed on it.
CD: Does that inform your other activities?
RS: Oh yeah – you must know that it does. Once again, this is another example of a mutually beneficial partnership. It’s a wonderful marriage in that I’d like to think that I’ll be a student and learner all my life. There’s not a time that I don’t go on the road that there’s some concept that I learn, or that I re-think. Maybe it’s something that I’ve taken for granted, where I sit there and go, “Really? Are you sure that’s true?” And that process of reevaluation and filtering and cleansing and retooling – all of that keeps you on the edge and makes you new again. That’s one reason I love it. It just regenerates me every time I get in front of a choir.
CD: How would you describe your conducting style?
RS: Quick paced, almost to a fault. I have high expectations. And I am relentless in getting a concept just right. I try to have a gentle-aggressive posture, if that makes sense, and I’m constantly asking students to demonstrate and be a part of the process. We really just drive a hard bargain. The students have a desire to be challenged and to have their time wisely used. Once they’re engaged, you can’t possibly go too fast for them because they want to be challenged. It’s actually quite an easy process once you get the ball rolling.
CD: Are there techniques that you’ve picked up over the years that you think other educators might benefit from doing more of?
RS: Yes, absolutely. I would say that the first thing is to have a plan. That sounds obvious, but it happens less than we want it to. Even the best, most experienced teachers benefit from having a rehearsal plan. Plans should not just cover what you’re about to do in that rehearsal, but also at least two to three weeks out. I share my plan with the students: “This is what we’re going to do today” or “This is how far we’re going to go.” They need to be a part of the process. When they are, they buy into it and become a huge part of it.
Another thing I might recommend is changing where you begin working on a piece. I don’t go from the beginning to the end; I begin with where the energy source is, where the fire or the culminating moment of passion is. Whether you’re talking about movies or about a book or a musical work, there’s a part of it that stands out as your favorite part. That’s where the fire is, that’s the energy source of the song. We sing the beginning so we can get to that source. That is where I always begin a work, right at that source. Then we work both ways out from there. It’s sort of like a movie trailer; they never show the first three minutes of the movie, they always show the part that gets your attention, and that’s where I begin working.
I have an expectation in the classroom, the tone is completely understood – simple things like being punctual and valuing students’ talents – we just have a method for doing things. I value students’ talents. We engage them in rehearsal. Even at all-states, I often have as many as 10 or 20 singers up there standing with me so that it’s a team approach, not me dictating what needs to be done and how to do it. It’s an “us” approach. Students buy into that.
I immediately engage students, bring them up front, and have them assist me in rehearsal in a variety of ways. I think that motivates them and, in part, helps them to think of themselves as teachers in training, in a way. The tone of the rehearsal and the way you manage rehearsal and value your students – not just philosophically, but actually using their skillsets up front as part of your teaching – that’s one area where I put a lot of emphasis.
CD: Utilizing students’ skill sets also speaks to the empowerment that you mentioned earlier.
RS: That’s exactly right. Empowerment is not something that happens in two or three years or when a student becomes a senior; it starts happening the first week that they’re in choir, starting to inch towards that goal. It’s that holistic way of teaching, where the director is more of a traffic cop with all of the talent in the room, than a musical dictator.
CD: Is there anything that people should be more careful about when working with young singers?
RS: One of the most important things – if not the most important – is that the selection of literature has to be absolutely appropriate for the ensemble. The literature is our textbook. It has to be quality material. The overall experience is only going to be as high quality as the piece of music that you’re working from.
Also, the director has to be a role model of hard work and musicianship. You can’t be all things to all people, but you can certainly try, and the students have to know that you are trying. It comes back to the great literature you’ve selected, you have a plan on how to present it, and that plan involves everything from the simplest ideas of where you’re going to start to how you’re going to end, and everybody knows that plan. They’re all on board, so we’re all moving together. If there are mistakes made in my rehearsals, it’s because I don’t take the time to plan.