I recently had the opportunity to attend my first Sweet Adelines International event - the International Education Symposium in Baltimore. The event is chock-full with educational workshops for barbershop directors and singers, quartet competitions, such as the Mixed Harmony and Rising Star Contests, and a whole lot of singing.
As the Music Director of a small barbershop chorus in Boston, I attended the symposium in the hopes of improving my rehearsal skills and learning how to prepare my chorus for regional competitions. These were the key takeaways from the conference for me:
The Importance of Connecting with Your Audience
The greatest performers of all time have one thing in common: they know how to connect with their audience. As directors, we spend a lot of time focusing on the technical components of vocal production and often don't include quite as much instruction on how to emote during a performance. In barbershop, "Showmanship" and "Expression" are scoring categories, so it's important to spend a substantial amount of time working on these skills.
In this fabulous workshop, taught by Ryan Heller, Director of Pride of Portland Chorus, we watched performers like Liza Minelli, Bernadette Peters, and Judy Garland singing on stage. We all came to the same conclusion: they were not 100% technically accurate in their vocal production but we 100% didn't care because we felt emotionally connected to them throughout their performance. This is something we should strive to achieve with our choruses. Once a solid vocal foundation is set, work to enhance the music through characterization, lyrical expression, physical expression, and choreography.
Learning New Music in Layers
Peggy Gram, a Sweet Adelines International Faculty Member, hosted a class in which she stressed the importance of "layered learning." Layered learning is the process of stripping down a piece to its bare essentials and working up from there. It focuses on isolating skills such as rhythm and pitches by removing other higher-level elements. When learning a new piece of music, she recommends following these steps with your chorus:
- Clap the rhythms
- Learn their pitches on a neutral syllable
- Sing piece on a vibrated "v" and open to "vah"
- Add words
Setting High Standards for Your Chorus
Kim Wonders, Director of Metro Nashville Chorus, highlights the importance of knowing your chorus's personality and culture. She recommends creating a set of core values, an affirmation statement, and a mission for your chorus to live and breathe. Make sure your website showcases these points and that your members can speak to the organization's values.
Establish goals for your chorus based on these values and create a safe environment for openness and vulnerability. Keep your music and management teams proactively meeting and discussing regularly and help nurture new leaders by adding them to a committee first and nurturing them to a full leadership position. And finally, establish a strong work ethic for all members of the chorus. When you can achieve these goals, then you can accomplish a higher standard of music.
Choosing Music for Your Sweet Adelines Chorus
Choosing the appropriate music for you chorus is essential for achieving high scores during competition. Sweet Adelines International faculty member, Jana Gutenson, led a workshop reviewing the "Music" judging category. She reminded us that 30% of the overall points are awarded based on the song arrangement. In order to score well in this area, arrangements should have a singable melody in the lead line, the chords should be limited to or focused around the 11 barbershop chords, the song should fit within the vocal abilities of your chorus, and you should choose a tempo appropriate to the style of the song. She recommends choosing pieces that highlight your groups strengths and to "try before you buy." Contact the arrangers to see if you can preview a copy before purchasing for your chorus.
Did you attend IES? Let us know your key takeaways from the conference in the comments below.
Tori Cook is the former Director of Sales & Marketing at Chorus Connection, an active board member of the Greater Boston Choral Consortium, and a soprano with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. In a past life, she was the Music Director of the Harborlight Show Chorus and President of Chorus pro-Musica. When not making music, she daydreams about adopting a golden retriever puppy and scuba diving to exotic locations around the world.