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Basic skills for singers: Teaching Music basics to choirs

Date: Mon, 24 Apr 1995 21:34:04 -0400 (EDT)
From: Jeffrey Bernstein
Subject: Re: Choral Musicianship

I believe the voice to be the most sacred, most "human"
instrument, and therefore I believe choral music to have
unmatched expressive potential. That said, I observe some
elements of the choral/instrumental dichotomy.

1) The chorus's job is *more* difficult? That's a hard point to
sell. Most members of instrumental ensembles have had many years
of study on their instrument. Such training is not a requirement
to sing in a chorus. Certainly on a large scale a much greater
percentage of instrumentalists have such formal training in their
backgrounds than do their choral counterparts.

2) While I certainly support a greater valuation of the choral
art, and thereby reasonable remuneration for choral musicians, I
do not believe this is the way to improve the general level of
choral musicianship.

3) I think the way to improve the quality of choral musicianship
is to demand more of the singers. Thus do we not only teach them
but also inspire them and improve the group's ability to make
music. I have conducted a wide variety of ensembles from the
Harvard Glee Club to a church choir of 9 to a Broadway chorus of
*non-musicians*. I have never come across a group which could not
rehearse primarily a cappella. I have never met a singer whose
pitch acuity could not be improved dramatically in 4-8 weeks. To
demand of singers that they recognize intervals, tuning and their
role in the ensemble instills each with a sense of pride in
contributing to the whole. And they improve. Reading, ear and
vocal skills all improve when you teach them in rehearsal.
Sometimes my teaching has required that I choose simpler music
for a few weeks, or allow more time to learn music, but the
investment I make in this way pays off abundantly months later.

In short, we must teach our choral musicians. And they will
learn. And the national level of skill and involvement in choral
music will go up. At least that's the fond hope that gets me out
of bed in the morning.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Date: Tue, 25 Apr 1995 10:50:48 -0400 (EDT)
From: Mark Gresham
Subject: Re: Choral Musicianship

On Mon, 24 Apr 1995, Jeffrey Bernstein wrote:

> Such training is not a requirement to sing in a chorus.

Unfortunately, it is far more likely that a chorus is *expected*
to take singers "as is"--hence the whole concept of a chorus
sometimes being accused of being "elitist" if it has high
standards for auditions. (Is a major symphony orcehstra accused
of being "elitist" for auditioning players?

> Certainly on a large scale a much greater percentage of
>instrumentalists have such formal training in their backgrounds
>than do their choral counterparts.

Mostly because it is expected (or not expected). A skilled
orchestral conductor can step in front of a major or regional
orchestra for the first time and have some *reasonable*
expectation of common, shared technical knowledge and language on
the part of the players. This is not possible in the choral
world.

> 2) While I certainly support a greater valuation of the choral
>art, and thereby reasonable remuneration for choral musicians, I
>do not believe this is the way to improve the general level of
>choral musicianship.

But once we develop singers with the choral musicianship, where
do they go? Well, you could sing as an amateur all your life;
nothing wrong with that (I've never been paid for singing in a
chorus; I do get paid for composing, of course--that's my
profession!). But the point is there are few places to go as a
profession. Opera? Few and far-between for employment--both
available jobs and thsoe who can genuinely "make it" in them (so
WHY do we keep training most of our singers in this way,
particularly those who don't have "the instrument" for opera?
Something must change in the vocal world!) Opera choruses?
Well, yes, but small, part-time, and likewise few and
far-between. But one option. Church soloist? Very part time;
not bad (and often essential) extra money. Symphonic choruses?
In some cases (Chicago, San Francisco for example) there are paid
"core" positions; again, part time--and some very good support
for some solo careers (a member of the American Bach Soloists
sings with San Francisco in this capacity).

Some independent professional choruses (we've spoken about this).
Some very successful vocal ensembles (Anonymous 4, King's
Singers, Quink, Western Wind) of less than 12 singers--so best
paralleled to instrumental chamber music. This arena has become
quite successful in growing towards parity with the instrumental
world. Maybe this is a clue? The commercial-pop world.
Particularly studio, advertising, "cover" song recording--but not
someting that is broadly oriented towards any of the "classical"
approaches in vocal training at all. Perhaps that is also a
"reality check" for music educators?

> I have conducted a wide variety of ensembles [...] I have
>never met a singer whose pitch acuity could not be improved
>dramatically in 4-8 weeks.

But must we begin teaching from the "ground floor" each time we
start a new project? Why should we have to re-develop the
singers' pitch acuity over a 4 to 8-week period each time we
encounter a chorus? This is a piece of the issue: we don't have
a body of expected choral musicianship in the same way that major
orchestral ensembles have an expected body of knowledge and
musicianship. It is not expected that a singer, upon graduation,
be capable of participation in a chorus in a professional
capacity in the same way it is an expected part of an
instrumentalist's "toolbag" of knowledge, technique, and
tempearment to perform in an orchestra (if they indeed play an
*orchestral* instrument). Instrumentalists do this, as much as
anything, because they have A PLACE TO GO professionally if they
are not cut out for solo work or not interested in the ups-and-
downs of the chamber music world or free-lancing. Vocalists, for
some reason, are primarily taught to be SOLOISTS, and little else
(and you know what the recital business is like these days)--and
worse, usually one particular kind of soloist. And so, I feel
that the impact of professional choruses on the education of
choristers is VERY real: it is ONE reason in "the real world" for
a singer to learn the highest levels of choral musicianship as
part of their professional "toolbox."

Final note here: The improvement in education is not the reason
for the existence of professional choruses. The reason is the
result that comes from making it possible for someone to do it
"full time," and not as an avocation, in order to achieve levels
of the choral art which can come from that amount of committment
and devotion of TIME doing it. We expect what we expect from
major symphony orhcetsras because they can devote their full time
to making music--should we not have an equivalent situation in
the choral world?

> To demand of singers that they recognize intervals, tuning and
>their role in the ensemble instills each with a sense of pride
>in contributing to the whole. And they improve. Reading, ear and
>vocal skills all improve when you teach them in rehearsal.

Unfortunately, all of this reeks of "educationalese"--that the
accomplishment is the improvement which comes from teaching the
chorus over time. It strokes the conductor's ego "as a teacher"
or a "leader" to think of these things, but please...
Contrarily, the idea of a professional chorus is: You don't have
to TEACH them these things, dammit! You should expect most of
this to be "in place" (including coming to first rehearsal with
the "notes" learned) as "tools of the trade." They should
already know about recognizing intervals, fine-tuning, their role
in an ensemble, etc.. and not the "wonderment of discovering
these thing for the first time." Goodness, Rollo! What
amazement!


> In short, we must teach our choral musicians. And they will
>learn. And the national level of skill and involvement in choral
>music will go up. At least that's the fond hope that gets me out
>of bed in the morning.

One way of teaching is by example. If we have professional
choruses who can do the music (hopefully) full-time, we will have
examples like Gregg Smith, Dale Warland, Chanticleer, Anonymous
4, etc. (and include the "cores" of Chicago and San Francisco
Symphony Chorus in that) to aspire to. The same kinds of
standards for musicianship I am speaking of can spill over into
the volunteer world. For example: In the community chorus in
which I sing, you are expected to learn the music OUTSIDE of
rehearsal; we do not "teach notes" except in unusual situations.
Any "teaching" of parts goes on outside of rehearsal, for those
who need it. Sometimes we sightread music to examine new
repertoire (or a "you need it, we read it" situation for a last-
minute performance need), but generally the singers are expected
to "know the notes" of scheduled repertoire before the first
rehearsal takes place.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Date: Tue, 25 Apr 1995 10:05:43 -0500 (EST)
From: SHASBERGER
Subject: Re: Oklahoma Memorial Service


I am also in support of establishing professional choruses, and
am doing my part in my corner of the world to foster that
development, but that is not the issue here. It is perfectly
appropriate that people from all walks of life came to sing and
support their neighbors in this situation. Even if there had
been a professional chorus in Oklahoma city, I am not sure that
any group could have been more fit to serve than those good
citizens who came to sing that morning. To denigrate the efforts
of the chorus or one chorister for their behaviour or ability to
sight read is really a callous view of the events of last Sunday.
I say a hearty thank you to Dennis Shrock, and all of the
Canterbury Singers (even the one with the runny nose) for making
themselves available to serve their community and the nation with
their best efforts. There are certainly times when critical
analysis of performance and repertoire is appropriate (we get the
chance at every ACDA convention), this event does not seem to me
to be one of them. Let's form professional choruses for other
purposes and with better rationale.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Date: Tue, 25 Apr 1995 09:58:49 -0600 (MDT)
From: "James D. Feiszli"
Subject: Re: Choral Musicianship

Basic musicianship is basic musicianship. One understands how to
count rhythms and find pitches with reasonable vocal quality or
one does not. Ideally each singer in an educational environment
comes in at a particular level and leaves at a higher level in
all areas of musicianship.

> But once we develop singers with the choral musicianship, where
>do they go? Some very successful vocal ensembles (Anonymous 4,
>King's Singers, Quink, Western Wind) of less than 12 singers--so
>best paralleled to instrumental chamber music. This arena has
>become quite successful in growing towards parity with the
>instrumental world. Maybe this is a clue?

The professional or semi-professional choral concert as a public
offering is growing in popularity over the old model of symphony
orchestras -- largely due to two factors:

a) Orchestras are too expensive, tickets have to be priced to
underwrite the orchestras. Choral concerts are less expensive.

b) Choral music spans a much wider historical/stylistic gamut
and is therefore more interesting to the general public.

I have no facts to back this up, maybe Chorus America does, but
it seems that many orchestras are in financial uncertainty and
many new choral groups have sprung up over the last 10-20 years.
Not only that, but which orchestra offerings are the most popular
with the public? Those with choruses!

> Unfortunately, all of this reeks of "educationalese"--that the
> accomplishment is the improvement which comes from teaching the
>chorus over time. It strokes the conductor's ego "as a teacher"
>or a "leader" to think of these things, but please...

Oh pu-leeze, Mark. Many more potential singers are ruined due to
the lack of "educationalese" in educational choruses than to its
presence. The ego that destroys is that which sacrifices the
individual improvement of the singer to the goal of having the
best choir, or performing that piece the conductor always wanted
to do, or preparing the ensemble for that ego-building
performance at a convention or elsewhere.

[personal note: I'm not casting stones at anyone else. I've been
just as guilty as anyone on these scores.] Yes, it would be great
to have more professional choruses. It is my obervation that
such a state is evolving as we speak. We all need to support
such endeavors. But their existence probably won't raise
standards until all choral musicians make certain of their own
philosophies, priorities, and standards.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Date: Tue, 25 Apr 1995 13:20:45 -0400 (EDT)
From: Mark Gresham
Subject: Re: Choral Musicianship


On Tue, 25 Apr 1995, James D. Feiszli wrote:

> Basic musicianship is basic musicianship. One understands how
>to count rhythms and find pitches with reasonable vocal quality
>or one does not. Ideally each singer in an educational
>environment comes in at a particular level and leaves at a
>higher level in all areas of musicianship.

Absolutely, but I don't see this happening as much as it used to,
at least not in this area. I don't think the musicianship is
being taught as much as it was.

> The professional or semi-professional choral concert as a
public offering is growing in popularity over the old model of
symphony orchestras -- largely due to two factors:
> [etc.]

c) The broadcast world has become "a little" more open to vocal
ensemble music. It still is "conventional wisdom" among the
classical broadcast marketing industry to "avoid music with
words" in general, except for opera. I think the audience is
building through greater exposure via radio, and consequently
through recordsing. Combine this with the greater interest in
early music, and you can see where the impact comes from.

d) I do not think the growth in interest is in choruses which
practice the old "mainline American" approach to vocal technique
bellicose and wobbly, with over-enunciated explosives and
slamming the beginning of each pitch (when there is a beginning
pitch). (This is a piece of why we'd better think carefully
about not only our choral techniques, but their relationship to
primary vocal instruction.)

> I have no facts to back this up, maybe Chorus America does, but
> it seems that many orchestras are in financial uncertainty and
> many new choral groups have sprung up over the last 10-20
years.

But professional choral ensembles are not all free of the same
financial problems either. Musica Sacra (Richard Westenburg's
group in New York) cancelled its silver anniversary season due to
lack of funds. Gregg Smith has always worked "close to the edge"
in budget. And I've heard (but not had confirmed) that Dale
Warland isn't exceptionally high on cash right now. All of these
deserve financial support; they are not immune to the current
problems in arts financing.

>
> Oh pu-leeze, Mark. Many more potential singers are ruined due
>to the lack of "educationalese" in educational choruses than to
>its presence.

No, I mean the "educationalese" outside of a school situation
where there is a task of preparing a specific program in a
specific time frame. What I'm after as "educationalese" is the
idea that it doesn't matter how prepared the singers are in their
"toolbox" of skills because you can always "teach them is 4 to 6
weeks." The educational institution IS where the "education"
should take place to prepare for professional work, not
afterwards in the middle of rehearsing a professional ensemble or
a professional performance! This is where the problem comes in.
By all means, educate in school! (Preferably BEFORE college,
too, thank-you!) Educate both for potential professionals and
for skilled avocational singers alike (we need an informed
audience).
--------------------------------------------------------------

Date: Tue, 25 Apr 1995 11:23:38 -0700 (MST)
From: Rodney H Caldwell
Subject: Choral Musicianship

After 33 email messages I went back to read John's initial post
on this subject. It seems that one of the primary concerns is
related to the ability of singers to prepare literature with the
same degree of dispatch as our instrumental colleagues. The
ability of choirs and singers to dispense with the mechanics of
music making and to concentrate on the artistry of music making
would seem to be in everyone's best interest. Thus my
question...what is the true purpose of sight reading? We have
accepted for years that it is appropriate for singers to come to
rehearsal to learn their notes. We perpetuate this belief by
providing opportunities for sight reading in rehearsal.

Shouldn't the expectation be that the singer would prepare the
notes prior to rehearsal, and that we would be better served
giving them the skills required to accomplish this
task?
--------------------------------------------------------

Date: Tue, 25 Apr 1995 14:44:04 -0700 (PDT)
From: Esther Mix
Subject: Re: Choral Musicianship

Jeffrey's disclaimer notwithstanding, I dnot think any choral
musician can help but feel maligned. Having been an orchestal
player many years befor a bout with tendonitis, I have gone from
always being paid to being invited to pay for the privlidge of
singing. Does this change in circumstances have anything to do
with training in musicianship?

Offensive too is the implication that singers themselves are
responsible for this state of affairs. Without decently paid
jobs at the top, I can see no reason for ambitious singers to
want to get in on the ground floor of the pyramid (if I
understand Mark's metaphor correctly). While I enjoy filling my
spare time by singing in groups where I am at least not out of
pocket, it's hard to forget the disheartening experience of being
greeted after an all Milhaud concert by a conductor who said: "I
did'nt know *you* sang in choruses". How many soloists do you
know who would even think of listing choral work on a resume?

As for the lamentos over the direction of vocal training, I
think once more people should put their money where their mouth
is. Yes, there is a adjustment involved in going from Walkuere
III to a rehearsal of Ockegem, as I did yesterday, and the later
probably suffered, at least for the first half hour, but when did
I last get a 600$ check for singing Ockegem?
--------------------------------------------------------

Date: Tue, 25 Apr 1995 16:44:56 -0700 (PDT)
From: Roger Doyle
Subject: Re: Professional Choirs

Just an observation about professional choirs.

What we all know but are loathe to admit is that professional
choirs are, most often, started by the conductors of same and
therefore are an extension of the conductor's ego. Consequently,
the "non-affiliated" support for these groups seems neither broad
nor deep.

Professional orchestras, by contrast, are started and supported
by civilian volunteers, business and professional leaders and
city/county/state governments. The "non-affiliated" support is
certainly broader than for the choir but it is *much* deeper.

When an enlighted citizenry comes to recognize the uniqueness of
a superlative choral ensemble in its midst, professional choirs
will be formed, promoted and supported by those who want them for
all the right reasons. Until such time.....fully professional
choirs (and few vocal ensembles) will simply not exist except by
the sheer willpower of the conductor and the singers who are
willing to "play along" for peanuts.

---------------------------------------------------

Date: Tue, 25 Apr 1995 23:25:55 -0400
From: ScriptoVox@aol.com
Subject: Re: Choral Musicianship


> The chorus's job is *more* difficult? That's a hard point to
>sell. Most members of instrumental ensembles have had many years
>of study on their instrument. Such training is not a requirement
>to sing in a chorus.

Allow me to explain *more* difficult: The choral musician must
read, apprehend, assimilate and convey text. In some ways that
is a sightreading benefit to the beginning choral musician, who
can rely on the meaning and positioning of the words (verses) to
identify place in the score, and in some instances, to suggest
the proper rhythms. One unfortunate consequence of that is that
some amateur choralists may not initially embrace the
fundamentals of reading rhythms, and may rely on the words as a
crutch.

Further, composers necessarily simplify rhythms where text
predominates, in order to clarify the text. Accordingly,
beginning and even intermediate level singers are not exposed to
the complexity of rhythms likely encountered by their
instrumental counterparts. Yet the choral musician's task is
*more difficult.* I can't prove it scientifically, but I think
that the tasks of reading, interpreting and conveying verbal text
occurs in a different part of the brain than does the reading,
interpretation and conveying of musical message, and is, in the
main, a more complex function. The choral musician must perform
both functions simultaneously. Moreover, he/she must do so while
constantly tuning the "instrument"-- the body. As you know, the
vocal cords are not nerve intensive, and the feedback to the
brain as to positioning, tensioning and flexing of the cords is
*indirect*. To perform all of these functions simultaneously is
RAM intensive to say the least, and is a tribute to our Creator,
as your comment regarding the sacredness of the voice suggests.

>Certainly on a large scale a much greater percentage of
>instrumentalists have such formal training in their backgrounds
>than do their choral counterparts.

*Certainly*? I think I disagree. Depends on what you mean by
formal training. Most of us have had some training in singing
from the earliest days of our education: Singing with Kaptain
Kangaroo (I date myself), Romper Room, or Ms. McGillicuddy in the
the 3rd grade is normal developmental fare, and all children who
speak or sing have passing familiarity with the techniques of
tonal production on the human instrument. Not so the trumpet,
for example, which is generally introduced in late elementary or
early middle school.

> While I certainly support a greater valuation of the choral
>art, and thereby reasonable remuneration for choral musicians, I
>do not believe this is the way to improve the general level of
>choral musicianship.

To paraphrase Kevin Costner: "If you pay them, they will come" -
- to rehearsal, to performance, to the practice room, and to a
higher standard of excellence.

>3) I think the way to improve the quality of choral musicianship
>is to demand more of the singers. [etc. ] In short, we must
>teach our choral musicians. And they will learn.

I wholeheartedly concur. All of us, no matter how accomplished,
should receive on-going training in the fundamentals of
musicianship (choral and instrumental) and it is through
excellent programs such as that of the Harvard Glee Club that
such training can be fostered.
----------------------------------------------------

Date: Wed, 26 Apr 1995 12:28:00 +0000
From: rldowns@ghawk.com (Ronald Downs)
Subject: CHORAL MUSICIANSHIP

On Tuesday, April 25, Rodney Caldwell had this to say to
CHORALIST about
Choral Musicianship:

RC> Thus my question...what is the true purpose
RC> of sight reading?

Sight reading ability is one of the primary vehicles by which
this "artistry" can come to fruition. I assume here a much
broader interpretation of the term... namely the ability to not
only execute one's own "notes and rhythms" but the ability to
understand how those notes fit into the larger whole of the
score. This includes IMO the ability to understand harmonic
textures, dynamic contours, metrical and rhythmical complexities,
stylistic / aesthetic characteristics and needs of the music,
etc. This adds to the ability of the chorister to understand the
**music**, and I think also prevents that personally irritating
excuse for reading failures that singers make (and conductors
tend to tolerate) of which I quote a variant: "Well, I worked on
my part, but when you put it all together with everyone it sounds
different and it's harder to sing." Having strong sightreading
ability (even in the narrowest sense of being able to sing the
intervals) will help to *muscle* through that initial group
reading situation, and if they are able to supplement it with on
the fly understanding of some or all of the factors that I
alluded to earlier, that's icing on the cake. This capability
becomes even more important when one is reading / learning the
more complex 20th century music of such composers as Krenek,
Schoenberg, Ligeti etc.

I would even dare say that the final result will be enhanced with
the added fluency that a solid sightreading
ability would provide - a "naturalness" of musical execution that
gets beyond the calculated affectations that can pass for
musicality sometimes and into the realm of genuine artistry and
communicative expression. There are more mundane benefits such
that if things break down in a performance , more
often it will be the strong sightreaders who will keep things out
of the depths of hell and perdition .

RC> We have accepted for years that it is appropriate for singers
RC> to come to rehearsal to learn their notes. We perpetuate this
RC> belief by providing opportunities for sight reading in RC>
RC> rehearsal.

The times I have directed groups I have never regarded it as
appropriate nor have any of the directors I've ever sung under
tolerated such behaviour. However, I don't think that I've ever
sung in an ensemble where there wasn't a need at one time or
another to *read* a new piece of music in a rehearsal situation.
This happened regardless of how well organized and prepared the
leader / organization was.

RC> Shouldn't the expectation be that the singer would prepare
RC> the notes prior to rehearsal, and that we would be better
RC> served giving them the skills required to accomplish this
RC> task?

Of course. Music **fluency** comes with understanding the
concepts of the music, not just the notes. I enjoy studying
choral scores from all different periods and I feel this gives me
an edge to not only sight-read but instantly understand through
experience most pieces of music that I may run into out of the
blue. For me, it is more developing an intellectual foundation
through study of the literature and applying the broader
principles to the specific instances. I think also that if we
choral musicians could get away from banging on a piano everytime
we need to learn our part, this would strengthen our ability to
hear the entire musical entity with the mind's ear which is where
I think understanding must begin anyway.
---------------------------------------------------

Date: Wed, 26 Apr 1995 18:37:00 -0600
From: crannell@storm.simpson.edu (Wayne Crannell)
Subject: Re: Choral Musicianship

> Shouldn't the expectation be that the singer would prepare the
>notes prior to rehearsal, and that we would be better served
>giving them the skills required to >accomplish this task?

YES, YES, YES, YES, YES,YES, YES, YES, YES, YES!

This expectation took time to establish, but once in place, I
noticed a DRAMATIC improvement in my choirs' musicianship, and
general skill level. However, while we might wish that our
singers wouldn't be sight-reading in rehearsals, as I say to my
choirs...."I don't really care how you get the right notes, just
get them so we can move on to other things."
----------------------------------------------------------

Date: Wed, 26 Apr 1995 21:12:22 -0800
From: desta@ychs.ycusd.k12.ca.us (Dean Estabrook)
Subject: Ivory towers

As a high school choral conductor, I am beginning to realize that
most of my esteemed collegues on the list must dwell in the
choral nirvana of University or Professional venues. What a
luxury to debate whether to sightread a new piece in rehearsal,
or simply require that one's singers come to rehearsal with all
the notes learned!

At my level, it's beginning every year with young people to whom
the notated page is like unto their first glance at a Russian
Textbook. No, it's even more foreign, thanks to icons which they
have never beheld, let alone have a clue as to what they may
represent.

Yes, I teach sightsinging...have tried a raft of methods, but I
have never enjoyed a choir to whom I could say, *here's the
music....come to the next rehearsal knowing all the notes so that
I can work with the higher order stuff* To do that, one would
have to assume that the singer knew enough to teach him/herself.
Must be nice to work with that level of musician.....wonder where
they learned their skills?

This thread also put me in mind of an article I read a few years
ago...it was an interview with Roger Wagner. He was asked, *Mr.
Wagner, how do you get that wonderful sound?* His reply was, *I
hire good singers.* Properly informed by that new tool for
obtaining good tone quality, I immediately improved the sound of
my choir by about zero percent. I know, if I had gotten my DMA
too...........
-------------------------------------------------------

Date: Thu, 27 Apr 1995 07:47:39 -0700 (MST)
From: Rodney H Caldwell
Subject: Re: Ivory towers

In general, I have responded directly to individuals concerning
my initial post with regard to sight reading vs. coming to
rehearsal with the notes prepared, but I think Dean's points
require a response. First, although I am completing a DMA in
conducting (and hoping, praying, begging for a college job) my
experience (like Dean's) is with "untrained" singers. I taught
Jr. High & HS in a rural KS town for five years, and presently
conduct a typical amateur community chorus (the ivory tower is in
a different time zone).

Let me admit to never having achieved what I am advocating. My
choirs also sight read in rehearsal. Dean's point about starting
over each year is precisely what I have experienced, and what has
caused me to question our methods. If we are starting over each
year, then what have we been teaching? By allowing students to
sight read in rehearsal isn't the message sent that it is
appropriate and acceptable to come to rehearsal and learn the
notes? My opinion is that this is the wrong message. If we want
to empower students to become independent musicians, then we must
give them the skills necessary to do so. This may mean teaching
them different skills than those that we presently pursue. I
guess my gut feeling is that as long as we do it for them they
will not do it for themselves.
--------------------------------------------------

Date: Thu, 27 Apr 1995 19:41:31 +0000 (WET)
From: "Randall D. Johnson"
Subject: Re: Ivory towers

On Wed, 26 Apr 1995, Dean Estabrook wrote:

> As a high school choral conductor, I am beginning to realize
>that most of my esteemed collegues on the list must dwell in the
>choral nirvana of University or Professional venues. (etc)

Dean,
I enjoyed your observations! Don't worry, there are plenty of
"lurkers" to the Choralist that have a more pragmatic approach to
teaching and conducting. I work with a variety of groups and
styles. If it is a group that doesn't read (most of 'em) I have
to spend the time to teach them. Who else is going to do it? My
reward is that I have one auditoned group of 16 that reads great!
However, I enjoy my beginning students just as much and get the
same kind of enthusiasm from them. So I have a DMA and one moment
I teach how to divide a quarter into two 8ths and the next moment
I work on some nuance in a Durufle motet. Reading music is not
like understanding Quantum Mechanics. Most choral music is simply
not that difficlut. But hey, I even do pop and jazz a cappella
charts so what do I know.

One last thing, I taught High School for a while and failed at my
attempts to teach music reading on a regular basis. I remember
vividly facing a class of Whitney Houston Wannabes who had heard
that she couldn't read a note of music and that Eddie VanHalen
flunked music theory in college. Armed with this ammunition of
"We don't need no education" they were then sure that I was only
there to torment them. I thank them because it was they that got
me back to grad school. I have the utmost respect for those who
have the gift to inspire the public school age groups
....university life is FAR easier!

Thanks for a reminder of most peoples reality.
-----------------------------------------------------

Date: Thu, 27 Apr 1995 13:18:15 -0500
From: hulleym@BELOIT.EDU
Subject: Re: Ivory towers

Dean Estabrook seems to feel slighted that his colleagues who
teach at the college/university level are discussing issues on
Choralist that don't affect him. And, I detect a note of
animosity towards those of us who aren't in the same predicament
that he is in- namely, that of being faced with a large number of
singers who don't have a clue about sight-reading! Well, Mr.
Estabrook, GET OVER IT! Most of us who are teaching at the
college/university level came up through the ranks, teaching
junior high and high school before we attained our "ivory tower"
(by the way, a term I personally find quite offensive). We have
struggled with, and continue to struggle with, singers who don't
know a quarter note from a hole in the ground. Those singers
don't disappear at the collegiate level, you know-

In your message, I detected a note of animosity that we have the
"luxury" of discussing whether our singers should come to
rehearsal prepared- that is, with the notes learned. I suggest
to you that this is an issue that is entirely appropriate for
collegiate directors to discuss; just as you expect more of your
students in various ways at the high school level than you would
at the elementary level, we expect more of our students. We are
not suggesting that somehow these students arrived at their
present state by a miracle- we KNOW it was the teachers' hard
work that got the knowledge in there; we are simply suggesting
that the students may be held responsible for exercising that
knowledge. Please- if you are unhappy with your present state of
affairs, change it or get over it! MEG
---------------------------------------------------------------

Date: Thu, 27 Apr 1995 13:43:46 -0600 (MDT)
From: "James D. Feiszli"
Subject: Ivory Towers and all that jazz

I too was a trifle offended at the suggestion that just because
someone teaches at a university that they have the luxury to
avoid teaching :-)

However (I taught junior hi and high school) as a department
chair at a college, I must admit that the biggest difference
between high school and college is that of the instructor's time.
At this level one does not go in at 8:00 and leave at 3:00 (or
4:00) having taught seven classes. Rather I come in at 6:15
usually leave around 6:00 pm and have maybe two or three classes
daily.

The major reason for that difference is that university folks are
supposed to be engaged in research and scholarship and service.
That means publishing, composing, doing clinics, creating and
running an Internet mail list (so that your colleagues can take
potshots at you for not doing it the way they'd like... ;-/ ).
Unfortunately, these days, most of those things must take a
backseat to the department adminstration.

I worked hard when I taught grades 7-12 (instrumental & vocal)
but it's safe to say I am working just as hard now .. just
differently.

Here at SDSM&T we don't have music majors, so all music reading
skills and most vocal training must happen in the choral
rehearsal. I program all of the music which will be worked on in
the course of a semester into the Electronic Music Lab (a fancy
name for a computer with sound board and keyboard attached to a
sound system) where students who don't have good reading skills
or keyboard knowledge can go to learn their notes outside
rehearsal. Next week I'll save my syllabus to a textfile and
post it on the CRS so anyone can read it. Ditto for my spring
concert program .. most of it stolen from David Otis Castonguay's
WWII program last fall (thank you David).
------------------------------------------------------

Date: Thu, 27 Apr 1995 15:05:44 -0500 (CDT)
From: Robert Prowse
Subject: Re: Ivory Towers and all that jazz


I echo all you said. I direct 4 ensembles and teach 3 classroom
courses at the University level. I am at recitals and concerts
almost every night right about now. Typical day: 8:00 a.m. to
9:00 p.m. plus homework (preparation for the next day). In
addition, I must administer the program and recruit. If I sound
like I'm complaining, I'm not. I love my job. I just want
everyone to be aware that it's not a cushy one. I don't think
any teacher's job is.

----------------------------------------------------------------

Date: Thu, 27 Apr 1995 15:59:42 -0500 (CDT)
From: Robert Prowse
Subject: Re: Ivory towers

I know I just made a post regarding this subject. That post was
about college choral directors being as overworked as others.
This one is about the sight-reading dilemna.

This thread is very timely, since I, too have been struggling
these past few weeks with the problem. I have found myself in
the awful position of having to fix notes the week of a concert!
Unacceptable!!!

I have decided on a solution based on our band's current
practice. There will be section leaders. They will receive
extra scholarship support. (Now, where am I going to find the
money?) Their job will be to meet with the section once a week
to woodshed notes. Anyone who misses sectional rehearsals will
be required to make up the session with the section leader. The
future of the section leader's position and scholarship depend on
their results.

This places a lot of time constraints on the section leaders, but
it is also a position of prestige, to which others will aspire.

I will also be instituting a sight-reading program in my choir.
We will take two minutes to do a short selection or two, every
time we meet. I tried this in the Fall and the students seemed
to feel it was well worth the time spent. At that time, I was
composing my own sight-reading material. This was too time- and
paper-consuming, so I will be requiring choir members to purchase
the Ottman book (also used in our sight-singing classes).

I guess I have simply gotten tired of the spoon-feeding. And I
keep remembering that students will rise to the level of our
expectations -- no less and no more.
----------------------------------------------------------

Date: Thu, Apr 27, 1995 2:38 PM
From: "Joel D. Pressman"
Subject: Re: Ivory Towers vs My world

After reading the Ivory Towers postings in silence, I then read
R. Caldwell's posting using the phrase "allowing students to
sight read in rehearsal."

Now I respond.

Comparing an orchestra rehearsal to my choral rehearsal is
useless and inappropriate, unless that orchestra director has 90%
players who have never seen notation before. There is a process
of development for the instrumentalist which begins with
notation. See a C, play a C. This is not the case with singers.
If they are lucky enough to have "singing" in school, it is
usually song-leading. Learning by rote. The instrumentalist in
the orchestra usually has months or years of familiarity with
notation.

How many violinists spend several years looking only at a sheet
of lyrics?

Further, the experience of the beginning instrumentalist is so
new that starting off with Hot Cross Buns or Ode to Joy (no
accidentals, please) is not the frustrating (or even humiliating)
experience it might be to a high school singer, who has already
acquired the skill to sing more sophisticated melodies just by
singing along with the radio.

I also know that my piano students can look at a diagram of hands
playing notes on a keyboard, and they can tell right away if they
are doing the right thing. Without some kind of technological
help, my singing students cannot do the same.

I teach sight-reading in class. I have to. Our performance
pressure is such that I also use rehearsal tapes and, yes, I
confess, I sometimes teach by rote. We are trying to purchase
MIDI set-ups that will allow lab work in sight-reading, but hey,
this is California, where we don't pay for our children until
they go to jail.

Philosophy about this stuff is fine, but we have two jobs to do,
and they are not always on the same timeline. We have to build a
process while achieving a product, and that means we do whatever
we have to.
-----------------------------------------------

Date: Thu, 27 Apr 1995 19:03:20 -0400
From: Douglebow@aol.com
Subject: Ivory Towers and such!

I really have enjoyed everyone's response concerning
musicianship, sightreading, and such.

I spend most of my time composing, orchestrating and conducting
in L.A., mostly with studio orchestras of varying sizes and
instrumentations.

When conducting a film-scoring recording session with union
players (who all read brilliantly) while on the clock, with
lots of pressure, there is more relief in getting the gig done on
time, and on budget, than joy over the very fact that I have a
career where I can conduct great players (playing my music!) on a
regular basis.

Conducting my church choir of 28 mostly non-reading singers, on
the other hand, is both more work and very often feels more
rewarding an experience. They really appreciate the music, and
the effort that we ALL must put in to get the results we want.

I like having the best of both worlds, and even though I have to
teach my choir every note, and need only throw a downbeat for the
studio players, isn't the fact that we are all taking a wide
variety of talent and 'making a joyful noise' what is really
important? Those whom you inspire today with your spoonfeeding
may go on to a university music program and become a reading
musician tomorrow.

I think you guys at the high school and college level are the
real heroes who inspire guys like me to get the neccesary
training so that we can give back what you have given us: THE JOY
OF MAKING MUSIC!
--------------------------------------------------------

Date: Thu, 27 Apr 1995 22:30:57 -0400
From: RobertamR@aol.com
Subject: Literacy solutions

I really like the ideas you've come up with re teaching choral
literacy. If I ever get a college choral position, I'll probably
try to institute something along these lines.

Re sight-reading rep, I know that Southern Music (TX; not to be
confused with Peer-Southern) publishes an *extensive* series of
octavos and choral collections specifically geared for sight-
reading, and the selections are graded according to difficulty.
One Choralister that I know of, C.M. Schearer (sp.?), has been
actively involved in the creation of this series (comments,
C.M.?); it is tied into the whole adjudication apparatus of the
Texas Choral Directors Association. IMO, using SATB (or whatever
voicing is relevant to one's situation) literature would be
preferable sight-singing textbooks. But, then again, there's
always the cost factor, amount of new material needed, etc.
----------------------------------------------------------

Date: Thu, 27 Apr 1995 23:08:41 -0600 (MDT)
From: Thomas Kim
Subject: Re: Spoon feeding (was: Ivory Towers)

Robert Prowse writes:

> I have decided on a solution based on our band's current
>practice. There will be section leaders. They will receive
>
[Snip...snip...snip]

> I guess I have simply gotten tired of the spoon-feeding. And I
>keep remembering that students will rise to the level of our
>expectations -- no less and no more.

It seems to me, IMHO (boy, this is the first time I used this
acronym!), that the spoon feeding has merely been moved from the
higher ups to the not-so-high ups...Wouldn't such a system
continue to foster a singer's reliance on "note-pounding?" To be
fair, Dr. Prowse's institution of a sight-reading program _will_
help; wouldn't it be better for all "woodsheding" work to be
continued by the conductor to see first hand the progress of the
group's sightreading ability?
--------------------------------------------------

Date: 28 Apr 95 08:19:42 EDT
From: "Timothy P. Banks" <74063.424@compuserve.com>
Subject: RE: The Ivory Towers debate

To the responses to Estabrook by Feiszli, Prowse, and others, may
I add that those of us in the "college" world who are also
heavily involved in church music (ie adult & young choirs) are
constantly aware of the realities of music training. I admit to
my choral conducting students that I cannot honestly teach them
any technique on a Thursday morning that hasn't worked for me on
a Wednesday night (!) -- As to the suggestion by Turner that
job dissatisfaction is a factor, I paraphrase a Chinese proverb I
learned years ago:

"Find a job you love and you will never work a day in your
life."
---------------------------------------------------

Date: Fri, 28 Apr 1995 07:38:07 -0500 (CDT)
From: Robert Prowse
Subject: Re: Spoon feeding (was: Ivory Towers)

Thomas Kim writes:

> It seems to me, that the spoon feeding has merely been moved
>from the higher ups to the not-so-high ups...Wouldn't such a
>system continue to foster a singer's reliance on "note-
>pounding?"

True, the spoon-feeding moves down the ladder, but it becomes
students helping students find ways of learning their parts. Our
undergraduate students today seem to suffer (with notable
exceptions, of course) from a lack of self-motivation. Maybe
this is no different than times past, but I am now more aware of
the situation: We teachers are expected to impart the
information, to _make_ the students learn, so to speak.

Let's face it: some students will eventually learn to sight-read
if we keep after them, and this I intend to do. But many will
not, or the process will take too long. Concerts come up and
must be performed on schedule. The system about which I speak
(using section leaders, etc.) is one that places the burden of
note-learning on the students and sets up the better prepared
students as good examples. This frees the director to do more
with musical expression earlier in the process.

Believe me, I will be able to guage the students' sight-reading
ability no matter who is doing the note-pounding. I think most
of us directors are very sensitive to those kinds of things. And
to clarify what may be a misunderstood point: I intend for the
section rehearsals to take place outside of regular rehearsal
time. I certainly would not give up valued conductor/choir time
for this system. This extra time commitment can be expected from
our students because we are talking about our top auditioned
choir, representing the school's best.
--------------------------------------------------

Date: Fri, 28 Apr 1995 16:10:13 -0400
From: LSCMP@aol.com
Subject: Re: Ivory towers

In regard to the sightreading -- outside preparation discussion,
here are some blatherings from the rural southwest corner of New
York state:

A little over a year ago, I spent 3 months visiting community-
based and independent choral ensembles in England and the US. It
was a short "sabbatical" from my job running a small not-for-
profit agency that tries to make music accessible. The goal was
to look at the "glue" that holds various choral groups together.
Following each rehearsal, we made opportunities to meet and chat
with the singers and conductors. After a Wednesday night
rehearsal with the Birmingham (England) Bach Choir, I joined a
number of the singers and conductor Paul Spicer at a local pub.

That night's rehearsal had been the first on new repertoire --
Vaughan Williams Mass in Gminor and Rachmaninov Vespers -- which
was handed out as the singers arrived that night. (So it was
clear that the singers were *sightreading* in the rehearsal.) At
one point, over a beer, I asked how it could be that the 60
amateur singers had such sightreading proficiency. Everyone
seemed to want to pass over the question, as if it were just a
compliment. I really pressed Paul Spicer on the matter, though,
and came back to the question later. He seemed genuinely at a
loss. Then finally he said, "They all learn to read English, too,
don't they?"

The discussion about sightreading here in the list hints that
something _better_ is needed and that it is needed _prior_ to
rehearsal. Personally, I like to think that *teaching* singers
to read has been probably more important in my career than any
performance of any piece I've ever conducted. Sure, it is
appropriate for a singer to repair his/her errors outside of
rehearsal, if he is unable to read the music correctly in the
first/ second/ or third place. But it is within the grasp of most
humans to learn to read music with a level of accuracy nearly
comparable to the level they have in their native language. All
they need is practice.

The pressure to prepare concert programs and to memorize music
fights against building the skills of reading. IMHO, the *sports-
model* of music education (putting young musicians into
competition with each other in order to keep them, their parents,
and the school board interested) has focused us and them on the
least important aspect of music. Just to keep myself honest, for
twelve years I have been singing every week in a good local
church choir. [It is a regimen I can enthusiastically recommend
to all conductors - a window into what you are putting your own
singers through.] In that choir, I *sightread*. So do all the
other paid members. Our job, as one of the tenors put it, is ...
"never to make a mistake." And that is pretty much what we do.

That choir of 24 singers (12 are paid) _casually_ reads at a
level that allows the director to do almost whatever he wants,
with only Sunday morning rehearsals -- Bach "Christ lag..." for
Easter (with section solos), Honegger "King David," Anglican
chant, and on and on. It's because they read. Not because they
get the music in advance, practice it at home, and arrive
prepared. (They don't, they don't and they don't.) Have you
noticed the audition form for Shaw's Festival choruses? The
options in the self-evaluation for sightreading include
"flawless". Why not?
------------------------------------------------------

Date: Mon, 01 May 1995 12:46:31 -0700 (PDT)
From: boersg@CWU.EDU (Geoffrey Boers)
Subject: Re: Ivory Towers

I am reading with interest the latest thread regarding Ivory
Towers and the issue of what we are teaching our singers.

In a nutshell, traditionally we have been a performanced based
art which the outcome of a concert is our goal. Historically,
through the early 1980's the students in our ensembles had more
capability of internalizing concepts such as sight-singing merely
by doing. During the last two decades there has been such a
dramatic change of learning styles in Society as a whole that the
osmosis method of skill-building no longer works. (Other subjects
of course have the same problem. Mote declining SAT's) So... our
method DOES have to chage.

1.We must focus as we rehearse on the underlying vocal and
musical concepts that undergird the composition rather than the
composition itself. What lifetime skill does this piece teach is
the fundamental question for rehearsal planning. If equipping
tools is the goal, rather than the performance, then starting
over each year will be less of a problem.

2. We must focus on a variety of learning approaches rather than
teaching in the same old cognitive approach. Up to 90% of our
students don't learn as we were taught. So body movement and
imagination (kinesthetic and affective) techniques help concepts
"stick" in ways that our "tried and true" methods don't. I
personally remember concepts taught decades ago--I don't remember
the music or the people's names who we involved, just the
concept. Isn't this what we want to give to the students.

3. To empower others we must disempower the all-powerful
conductor who has all the answers. Start by doing less music in
the fall and by lessening the performance pressure you feel so
you can move more slowly and teach through these methods. They
ARE more time-consuming, but pay off in a matter of months as the
students begin to be more "equals" in the creative process. When
they return in the Fall they carry with them a year's worth of
ideas and concepts and skills, not merely the memory of 25 pieces
of music and some great performances.

If anyone is interested, I have materials, syllabi, planning
models to help with the application of these ideas in our
"spontaneous" milieu.
------------------------------------------------------

Date: Mon, 1 May 1995 15:12:05 -0400
From: LSCMP@aol.com
Subject: Re: Ivory towers

> Americans are eager for the sensational...

Exactly.In many aspects of youth and childhood (not just the
arts), we push past the steps that would build a foundation for
future learning and self-esteem. The need for our teachers and
coaches to put "product" on the stage seems to shorten our
educational vision. We know better, but it is *hard* to swim
against the current.
--------------------------------------------------

Date: Tue, 2 May 1995 15:42:38 -0400
From: RobertE956@aol.com
Subject: Re: Ivory Towers

Reality Check! Wayne- I don't have the state mandating ANY music
much less a performance ensemble. My high school choirs rehearse
twice every 6 school days for 48 minutes. The only way it works
is if one builds from the basics and that includes some
funadmental music literacy. Second WHO gave your students the
fundamentals to be able to "learn it on their own"? Probably
some music "educator" which what I thought we all were. It
appears the "performance" is your concern not helping students
learn. It has nothing to do with students assuming
responsiblity, it has to do with SOMEONE helping them acquire the
tools and resources so that they can experience the world f
music. Society might be more supportive and appreciative of the
arts if there were more "choral educators" and fewer
"performers", for without the educators you would only be
"performing for yourself. (But then I'm afraid too many
conductors do just that and forget about their students).
-------------------------------------------------

Date: Tue, 2 May 1995 17:14:41 -0400
From: John.Howell@VT.EDU (John Howell)
Subject: Music ed in Romania

The fundamental difference between music education in many
(most? all?) European countries and that in the U.S. is that
they have fixed curricula on a national basis, and we have
freedom of choice. That, in fact, is a fundamental difference
that affects practically everything in American education, not
just music.

When a fine educator and superb politician like Kodaly convinces
his government to set up an ideal system of music education, as
he did in Hungary follwing the communist takeover, the result is
music literacy at an amazing level for ALL citizens. In America
the same results can be achieved, and are being achieved in some
places, but they are always dependent on a single individual or a
happy grouping of individuals who happen to be inspired,
inspiring, and pedagogically sound in their teaching.

Don't forget Kodaly's belief that "only the best musicians should
be ALLOWED to teach children," and compare that with the attitude
in most music departments and music schools.
----------------------------------------

Date: Tue, 2 May 1995 18:09:08 -0400 (EDT)
From: Mark Gresham
Subject: Re: Music ed in Romania

On Tue, 2 May 1995, John Howell wrote:

> When a fine educator and superb politician like Kodaly
>convinces his government to set up an ideal system of music
>education, as he did in Hungary follwing the communist takeover,
>the result is music literacy at an amazing level for ALL
>citizens. In America the same results can be achieved, and are
>being achieved in some places, but they are always dependent on
>a single individual or a happy grouping of individuals who
>happen to be inspired, inspiring, and pedagogically sound in
>their teaching.

So, in regards to the "happy groupings of individuals," have
large professional institutions (such as ACDA, MTNA, etc.) wither
been more-or-less successful in moving in that direction OR would
have they attempted to achieve the same results through a
different philosophical path?

One has heard the beginnings of an 'experience vs. results'
debate brewing in other branches of this thread. Has the current
common wisdom of educational practice worked (that is, made
genuine headway)? Or has it been the source of the problems? Is
it a kind of 'new math' of sorts? Are the problems the same as
in other studies? Is literacy in all fields of education sliding
right off the bottom
on July 23, 2003 10:00pm
Help! I'm part of a chruch chior that is made up of middle aged adults and HS students.. none of the adults ( including the director and the panio player ) can read music. the only ones who can read ( not very fluently are the HS students taking band or chior in school .. I don't have perfect pitch and we all sing by ear and our panio player plays by ear but i always know were off tune , but my director will never listen to me what do I do??
on July 23, 2003 10:00pm
Find a better choir?

on August 14, 2006 10:00pm
The utter disrespect most singers receive from instrumentalists is ridiculous. Singers are musicians. While perhaps in small church choirs, there are many volunteers who have not had training and cannot read music, most people who sing in choirs have years of experience and training, be it formal or informal. In fact, singing is much more difficult than playing any other instrument because the sound is produced from within one's own body and so many variables can change that sound production.

To the original poster, I would say the best solution would be to replace the choir director with one who can actually read music and has some music training, preferably in vocal technique. Otherwise, it's merely the blind leading the blind.