There has been increasing awareness in recent months and years to the growing problem of choral elitism. Much smarter and more talented masters of music than I have tackled this issue with profound prose. It seems that most of us can agree on one thing, choral elitism is an obstacle to the future growth of choral music.
Let’s be honest with each other. Most choral directors, those of us currently in the field and also new college graduates, will be leading “sub-par” programs. Scratch that. We'll be leading programs that would simply not get top marks at a standard classical choral festival. For every outstanding program in the area, there are dozens that can barely afford a music director and only have a handful of singers who can match pitch or correctly pronounce Bach.
In a field that finds ultimate value in the final product, when our choruses aren't always ready to please the choral gods, how can we work to redefine success?
One problem in redefining choral standards of success is that we all WANT to be leading a program that sees tears welling in the eyes of our audiences as we tenderly present a Whitacre or Lauridsen. We want to dazzle with a piece of Byrd polyphony and bring down the house with a Hogan. These are noble goals and should continue at the highest level. It is clear that incredible musical inspiration is created for both singers and audiences when excellence is achieved. However, we do not exist simply to create the next generation of professional singers.
Redefining success comes down to simply realizing why we all do what we do: to inspire.
Sing to Inspire
I have been lucky enough in my career to work with some amazing organizations, including spending time with VOCES8, Apollo5, and Paul Smith as part of the VCM Foundation.
My favorite part of VCM is that a simple mission permeates every aspect of the organization: to inspire people through music. If you follow one of the groups on social media you will see the familiar hashtag, #singtoinspire.
One of the beautiful things about this mission is how ambiguous and vague it really is. Inspiration is not a cookie-cutter concept and can look very different in every situation.
I would like to encourage every director to follow the lead of some of the top musical groups in the world with this simple rule: meet a group where they are and measure success from there!
If you have a group of complete beginners that cannot match pitch or follow rhythms well, inspiring musical excellence could mean building a song about everyday occurrences such as a rainstorm or riding a bicycle using body percussion and mouth noises. One simple call-and-response melody with a group of singers (or even the audience!) completes an impressive polyphonic masterpiece. The opportunity to CREATE music and have it come together into a cohesive and pleasing piece can change a singer's world.
Celebrate Musical Growth
As a community, we need to collectively learn to enjoy and celebrate the process. That does not only mean “the process of perfecting a choral piece.” More importantly, we must celebrate the process of musical growth. Of getting our singers from point A to point B, regardless of if your point B is not the same as another group’s point B (or even their point A!). One of the biggest flaws of choral music is our inability to record and measure progress. How do you measure the affect music has on a person?
In the current age of technology, I highly encourage directors to use audio and visual tools to record where a group starts in order to observe how far they travel. Don’t be afraid to share activities, methods, and progress with colleagues. Share your journey, and encourage other directors as they lead their singers on a separate journey. Ask for help and share advice. Above all, #singtoinspire.
Erik Jacobson is the General Manager of VCM USA, the choral music foundation supporting the work of VOCES8. He directs the Kalamazoo Male Chorus and will soon begin work as the Executive Director of the Michigan School Vocal Music Association. Erik spent time as the Executive Artistic Director of Milwaukee Children's Choir and taught high school choir for five years.