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The Language of the Discipline: Filling their Ears

Many of us in the field have a huge responsibility to the musicians in our ensembles: we are the channels of everything wonderful about our choral tradition, through which our singers learn about the history and future of composition, performance traditions and culture of music. If you went through a college music program, or an intensive professional training, you remember not only the performance training, but the theory, pedagogy and history training that went into your "comprehensive" musicianship education. For our singers, be they students or community and church members, we may be their only source of music "training" or expertise. While we are first and foremost conductors, and our singers come to us to experience singing rather than (or alongside) studying theory and history, we teach a de facto "survey of choral music" by what we program: our careful selection of literature from eras, styles, purposes and traditions. The common phrase in music education is "the literature is the textbook." What if we expanded that idea just a little-- instead of saying "the literature (that we perform) is our textbook," it was "the literature (of choral music) is our textbook?"
I believe that there's a performance-oriented argument to be made that our singers should listen to a representative sample choral music. We, as deeply passionate and well-versed professional musicians, who have spent our lives training a particular speciality, run the risk of taking for granted that our singers have the same intuitive aural performance ideal that we do. We know "the sound" that we have in mind. Do our singers listen to choral music enough to recreate it? How much rehearsal time could be saved, and what higher levels of performance could be attained, if your ensemble had a truly solid understanding of fluid tempo (as opposed to the metronome-controlled rhythm tracks that lock commercial music into a rigid beat)? There's a natural comparison to language learning: online language resources are flourishing because teachers and students understand that there's an inherent value to spending time listening to the language as often as possible rather than simply having direct classroom instruction to recreate a dialect and accent. Art rooms and studios, furthermore, are filled with samples and models both of projects that are there for direct modeling (e.g. we're studying lines, so here are examples of lines) and those that are simply great exemplars of art for purposes of inspiration and seeding one's creative toolbox.
There's also an aesthetic reason for us to encourage our singers to listen to music beyond that which we program: Everything that we do to raise the public level of knowledge about choral music serves our art. Last week, I wrote about some sources for streaming music online for you and your singers. If we believe that our role as conductor includes being a steward of the choral tradition, and we accept the responsibility of being the only "choral experts" that many of our singers encounter in their lives, then we may look for ways to expand our "textbook" beyond just the music that we program. I had the chance to sit in an English faculty meeting this week where the department was trying to build a list of "core texts"-- those works of literature that the department believed a student must experience before they left the school. Are there choral works that you think all of your singers should experience? Are there works which are the hallmarks of our field to which you would like to expose your ensemble? This list may sound like a programming list, but there are many reasons why your "my singers must hear" list could be different than "my singers must sing:"
  • Ensemble Type. A small chamber ensemble might not ever perform large works with symphony, for example.
  • Technical Difficulty. If you teach middle school, or conduct a senior open-sing, your groups might not do much avant-garde.
  • Volume. If you have three concerts a year with 12 pieces a concert, that's still only 36 works. If your "Desert Island listening" list is anything like mine, 36 works a year would need many years to cover that!
It's Not Just Mixtapes
There are a few easy and light-weight ways that you could offer supplemental listening to your singers. While you may initially think of this as a required element to add in (shades of our history-class "drop the needle" listening exams), I'd encourage you to think of this as a supplemental service to offer your singers for their enrichment. After all, they already must have some level of interest in music-- they showed up to your rehearsal!
  • Spotify Playlists. As I talked about last week, I believe that Spotify playlists are a great feature for being able to share music with your singers. As the Spotify library grows, it's quite possible to build a playlist with great listening examples and share it easily. Since Spotify handles the music licensing, this is also an extremely copyight-friendly way to do it.
  • YouTube Channels. YouTube is filled with videos of ensembles from elementary school to large community groups. Building a YouTube channel is an easy way to collect those videos in one place where your singers can access them.
  • A Blog. A great model for this is the 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die (companion to the book). This is a little more time for you to actually write up a little description, but if you only wanted to offer a few album suggestions for each year or concert cycle, it wouldn't have to take that much time. Including a link to a YouTube example or the album for sale through iTunes or Amazon Streaming would make it easy for your singers to purchase the album. Tumblr is popular for easy and free setup of a small (typically short posts) blog.
  • An Internal Website. If you are a part of an educational organization, you can post recordings (even if they're copyrighted) for your singers through Fair Use and the TEACH Act. The catch is that you have to be able to restrict access to students who are registered in a course or educational program. If your school offers course websites that require a password to access, this is a good solution. If not, Google Sites would let you set up a very basic site with password protection.
Feed Their Ears
No matter how you do it, a small amount of effort could provide a great resource for your singers to expand their musical knowledge and experience. Offering this exposure to the breath and depth of the choral field to our singers is a rewarding service to our art, and can prompt great discussions during rehearsals as singers talk about their favorite new music. As the English faculty asked-- "What music do your singers need to know?"