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On the Level with Tim Sharp

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Over 20,000 members strong, the American Choral Director’s Association (ACDA) is the premier non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion and advancement of choral singing in the U.S.A. With national, regional, and state chapters that represent the backbone of the American vocal music world, chances are most readers of this publication are already familiar with the ACDA’s conventions, performance opportunities, honor choirs, online literature, and other resources.

Dr. Tim Sharp has a unique vantage point on the world of vocal music education, as he has been a singer, an educator, a choral director, a music advocate, and, since 2008, the executive director of ACDA. In this recent conversation with Choral Director, Dr. Sharp shares his take on the challenges facing choral directors today.

Choral Director: What current trends do you see happening in the vocal music world, both positive and negative?

Tim Sharp: On the positive side, there is a very energized base of singers out there. Our numbers show that participation is up. I don’t know how you measure desire, but there’s clearly no lack of motivation on the part of young people to sing in choirs. The NEA participation study in 2008 showed that choral music participation increased from 2003 to 2008, and that aligns with what we anecdotally see and feel: our student chapters continue to grow and we see big numbers when it comes to honor choirs, auditions processes, and the groups that come to our conferences. All of that leads me to say that the enthusiasm for participation is strong.

On the counter to that, a lot of the growth we see is happening in community choirs, children’s choirs, and other ensembles going on outside of schools. I think that growth would be mirrored in schools if educational institutions weren’t limited by two factors: the expertise it takes to make a choir work; and the scheduling issue of making sure that vocal music is a priority within the curriculum. The concern is to make sure that vocal music doesn’t get rooted out either by lack of leadership or lack of priority in terms of having a place in the curriculum. That mismatch is a disconnect that we as advocates cannot allow to happen.

CD: You mean the disconnect between growth in the community ensembles, but not so much the school ensembles?

TS: That’s right. At the ACDA, we are about fostering and promoting growth and helping improve quality. Of course schools would have the same kind of agenda if indeed vocal and choral music were a priority within the school. They too would shoot for excellence. However, if it’s not a priority, that’s a concern. We can’t be limited, though, to what schools do or don’t do. We are about choral singing in general and if it’s not happening in the school, we’re going to help it happen in the community. That doesn’t mean we’re pulling back on any efforts in the schools, but it’s a difficult issue.

One of the initiatives I’m leading with ACDA is to increase collaboration between ourselves and any other organization that would like to work with us, because we are not a lobbying group, and we can’t do it all by ourselves we’re not large enough. We first look to MENC when it comes to school conversations within various states. I’m encouraging all of our state chapters to work with all of the various MENC chapters to collaborate however necessary. That varies from state to state; we don’t have a national perspective on what choral music looks like in any given state.

CD: Is your perception that there might be competition between instrumental and vocal music programs in schools for funding and validation, or just that all arts programs seem to be in a precarious position these days?

TS: I think the bigger issue is with music and arts in general. When we start looking around at each other and saying, “Oh, theatre is more important than ballet, and ballet is more important than opera,” we’re really beginning to cannibalize each other. It may be a reality in some situations that marching bands might be more visible and, therefore, have an easier road to the funding but I don’t think we do ourselves well when we start picking on our colleagues in other musical and artistic areas. The much bigger issue is whether or not music and art in general will be seen as a curricular subject at the core of education.

While choral music is one of the most democratic and cost-effective ways of bringing music into any school situation, the bigger desire I have is just to make certain that the arts in some form are in the life of kids. I would love for it to be through singing, but I’m not going to bicker if it were something else. That issue might be solved if we could just reprioritize arts in the school in general, and then people might see that the choral arts are a great way for getting mass participation from the student body.

CD: Would you talk about some of the resources that the ACDA offers to vocal music educators?

TS: We’re a federal system in the sense that we have a national office and we have 50 state chapters and seven divisions within that structure. Historically, ACDA has been primarily known for its conferences at each level. Those are the events, the showrooms, that bring everything into culmination: the practices of the honor choir, the practices of the adjudicated choirs that sing in our programs, interest sessions, demonstration sessions, and so on. All of that emanated from state, division, and national conferences. A lot of those divisional activities continue to give teachers and students something to shoot for and something with which they can separate themselves out from other activities out there.

From the very beginning of ACDA, Robert Shaw said it best when he said the goal was, “A finer performance of a finer quality of choral music.” Our activities give that focus, that finer quality of performance and finer literature, which is what most of our choral events are aiming for. Since 2008, we have also tried to have rich content in terms of intellectual property, and in getting it out there and presenting it in such a way as to ensure that we have best practices and standards that are published and available through our Web sites, our chapter Web sites, and through ChoralNet and other ways that we can get that material out to more people. We’re taking those conferences and turning them into educational, pedagogical, and performance content that is then made available to our members. That has been the thrust of what we are doing. The ACDA is really about providing inspiration and these sorts of helpful materials, and we’ve ramped that up incredibly in the last two or three years.

CD: Is there anything that you would like to see more of from vocal music teachers in the schools?

TS: I think the word collaboration comes back into play. Exchanges, exchange programs, singing for each other, doing more work on the local level to try to create an atmosphere and a culture that recognizes that the community is bigger than just one classroom. Teachers have got to work together within their school system or county to broaden the circles of experience for their students. They can emulate what happens on the state level, as far as I’m concerned, only on the smaller scale, but they need to be doing things like that in their area. These broader choral events demonstrate to kids that the choral culture is bigger than what they may think it is.

Part of the issue is that many student singers are up against a social context that is often dominated by other activities. Right now there is the added bonus of vocal singing looking hip in the media, through American Idol-style singing and shows like Glee. This has helped give choir some of the attention that hockey, soccer, and other activities have long held among students.

CD: Have you noticed an up tick in choral participation due to shows like “Glee”?

TS: I would say it is more of a validation of what people are already doing, rather than any sort of boost. The kids were already participating in choirs anyway. Kids do like to get together to sing and make harmony. We have seen this all over the world. What this media phenomenon has done is really validate that singing is a cool thing to do. Now it’s funny, because “Glee” in particular isn’t really validating it because the underlying idea on that show is that the kids who participate are misfits. But what I like about it is that even if a kid feels like he or she is a misfit, singing is still cool.

I have to quickly say for the teacher’s sake and I’m married to a schoolteacher that I recognize that it goes quite beyond the boundary of a 50-minute class period in order to put together quality performing ensembles. It’s not necessarily expected of music teachers to be more heroic or self-sacrificing than what you might see from a math teacher. But choir has to be cool, it has to look like a socially fun thing to do, and the community has to validate that by responding to their endeavors.

CD: So would it be a stretch to say that the exposure on TV makes choral singing more relevant?

TS: It does make it more relevant. Those of us who are in this for life, we know that at the end of the day, music is that emotional and cathartic expression that people need. The world is a better place because people sing. Relevancy to me is that people find something that is really meaningful to their life, something that can bring them some bit of expressive joy and understanding every day. I think “Glee” and the popularity of these music-based shows demonstrate that kids are happier when they’re engaged in their singing activity.

There are other facets of our society that demonstrate how relevant music really is. One is that we still have a place for it at moments of joy and celebration. We see choirs in the background at special events, we sing together for the national anthem at the football game, and we include singing in the ceremonies of things that are important to us. The core relevancy is the idea that life has stress, complications, and shades of emotion, and music for the masses particularly when you can participate in it brings relevancy to a life experience.

I always come back to the idea that choral music is affordable and democratic. People were built with an instrument inside of them and people are catching on to that. As educators and members of the choral community, we need to come together to wield that common interest and enthusiasm so that we can reach even more people.

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