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College issues: Should my college choir sing at Commencement?



Dear Listers:

Thank you to all who responded to my queries about performing at
university/college commencement ceremonies. I appreciate your assistance.
Here is the un-edited compilation of responses. I have only removed
identifying information and corrected a few simple typos.

Thanks again,
Robert L. Rue
robertlrue(a)aol.com

--------------------------
Responses:

1) At my school of ca. 18,000 students in the midwest, we have a soloist sing
the national anthem near the beginning of the ceremony, and the alma mater
near the end. We have a decent music program, and the soloist is usually a
graduating senior or master's voice major.

2) I feel your pain. When I came to my current position there was already a
tradition of the choir singing at commencement. I have not had many problems
with students not showing up for the ceremony, probably due to a lot of
proactive efforts.

For example, each fall when students audition for choir, I provide them with
a sheet listing every performance for the entire academic year. It's like a
contract of sorts. Also, I give first priority to those students who can
sing the entire year, so this acts as an incentive for them to make the year
long commitment. The students involved in choir understand that the
commencement is an important event in the life of the school. Our handbook
states that the largest crowds (and some of the most appreciative) to which
we sing are those at commencement. For many, it is the first time they've
heard the choir, and for some seniors, it's the only time their parents will
ever hear their child's choir, due to parents living far away. Occasionally
I am asked by freshmen why they should have to stay and sing. I simply ask
them, "Do you want the choir to sing when you graduate?," and they usually
reply yes. Then I say, "You're paying your dues now, and your time will come
soon enough." By the way, we actually have to sing for two commencement
ceremonies--the graduate ceremony on Saturday morning and the undergraduate
ceremony on Sunday. The students have to stay in town two extra days beyond
finals! I think the bottom line of why this works is due to the strong
choral tradition we have and the huge support we have from the college
administration. When we contribute in song to such functions, they look
favorably on taking care of the choir when it comes to making sure that there
are minimal course conflicts with the choir. That way, the choir can
continue to attract the best singers from the music department and the many
other liberal arts areas. I'm not sure if there is a black-and-white answer
to your dilemma. It's always a hard call, and I think you are correct in
looking at other options if the current situation does not showcase your
choir in a positive light.

3) I am in my 20th year â€| [Midwestern college] â€|

[Question] Does your choir (or choirs) sing at graduation? If so, are the
student’s grades influenced by their participation (or non-participation)?
[Answer] A Cappella Choir sings at Baccalaureate but not Commencement (the
band plays then). I check roll but don't change grades. It is such a long
standing tradition I rarely have a problem with students who have otherwise
been consistent in attendance. We do four pieces including three that are re
peated every year.

[Question] Or, does a soloist, or other person sing/play at graduation?
[Answer] Sometimes in addition to A Cappella Choir but never instead of
ACC.

4) Our chorus used to sing at graduation, but hasn't for the last 25 years or
so. For the reasons you stated - it's too hard and expensive for the kids to
stay around after finals.

We're a medium-size (4500) religiously affiliated university. Our
commencements take place in the athletic center, which is
the only place on campus large enough to hold the crowd.

Music - an indeterminable number of repetitions of the "Land of hope and
glory section" of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance; a couple of congregational
songs, led by one of the graduates; a rendition of "Climb ev'ry mountain" by
one of the graduating sopranos with piano accompaniment (to me, a strange
tradition, but one apparently well accepted); and a congregational Alma
Mater. It works well for us.

I can't imagine requiring the Chorus to stick around - too much of a burden
on them. They miss their rides home, they miss two or three days of time
with family or summer work, they have to pay for extra meals, etc.

5) We tried the all university choir performance several years ago, with the
same results that you had--plus we had great difficulty getting an acoustical
shell. The last few years, I have invited students who were "independent"
singers with good pitch sense skills to join in a small ensemble to sing at
commencement. The results have been excellent. The sound is amplified since
we are in the fieldhouse. We have had a women's octet, quartet, and duet
perform as well as a men's quartet and mixed quartet. This seems to be the
best solution for our challenge--and because these singers get such excellent
feedback from the attendees, they seem eager to do it again. Best of luck in
the future!

6) The college where I used to teach required the students to stay, and they
all did, since it was the tradition and it was an honor to have been selected
for the top choir. Where I teach now, we just have a faculty member sing the
National Anthem and the Alma Mater, and I am most grateful to not have to
require the choir members to stay.

7) In the past the large chorus has indeed sung for commencement, but we've
limited our participation to leading the Star-Spangled Banner and the Alma
Mater, along with the band. We had discussed singing an actual anthem, and
did that the first year, but I couldn't count on having enough people in all
parts to make that work, so we just do those two pieces now, one at the
beginning and one at the end.

I put this in the syllabus and students are required to attend or they
flunk. However, I am very liberal about what excuses I accept.
Leaving town to start a job, or leaving two weeks earlier and then
having to drive several hours, I accept. But anyone who has an exam
on the last day or two should easily be able to stay for commencement. We
usually get about 30 out of 75.

Those who are graduating process with the class and then peel off and join
the Chorale, in cap and gown. It actually makes it a little more personal
for them to be separate from the masses, though they'd probably rather be
with friends. This year they have revamped commencement completely and the
chorus is off the hook! There will be a soloist, chosen without consultation
with the music department! And the band will still be there, of course.

8) Not a-typical situation. However... Our choir does sing at commencement
and it is required. It is an important part of service to the institution-
making us visible and an important part of campus life. We also sing at the
opening convocation the first week of school (also required). Although it
can be inconvenient, the choir basically views it as an honor to be
considered a valuable part of "high ceremonies". The Wind Ensemble also is
required to play at commencement, so all in all, there are about 110-120
students staying to perform.

9) I can sympathize with your situation. My college choirs do not sing at
commencement. I fear that even if I DID require it, many would choose not to
show up, willingly suffering the grading consequences. (but worse for would
be having an unbalanced choir and a shoddy performance) I have been
successful in having my community choir sing for the Baccalaureate service.
(Held the evening before graduation) This community choir is affiliated with
the college, but is comprised primarily of singers from local church choirs.
We still sometimes have a balance problem, but they have been good about
representing the college music program at this "official" college function.
Hope this helps.

10) See my answers to your questions within the survey. Also, see my comments
at the end.

[Question] Does your choir (or choirs) sing at graduation? If so, are the
student's grades influenced by their participation (or non-participation)?

[Answer] NO. Sometimes they do for fall commencement (which is held
indoors), and when that is the case, they are "required" to sing, but are
paid $25.00. Unless the enrollment is low, however, I try to accommodate
out-state students, those who have a long distance to drive (commencement
concludes about 4 pm), those who are going out on co-op and will not return
to school the next semester, etc. In short, I take it on a case-by-case basis.

[Question] Or, does a soloist, or other person sing/play at graduation?

[Answer] We have done this fairly successfully for the spring, outdoor
commencement, which employs a brass choir, but the soloist must be of
professional calibre.

[Question] Or, perhaps there is no "live" music. Do you play recordings?

[Answer] We have always used live music, be it band, brass choir, or
orchestra. (Since my background is vocal, brass, and strings, I am
comfortable with any medium.) Additionally, I have never used organ, but if
you had a fine organist and a "theater" organ, that would work well. Our
continuo organ has been employed, but only in conjunction with the orchestra.

[Question] Or, do you have music at all?

[Answer] Always, and that will continue as long as I am on the music faculty!
Lately, we have also used an 8-voice select group to sing the Alma Mater and
National Anthem. It seems to work well, although it is requisite that an
extensive "sound check" be done with the sound
system. We barely get by with 2 microphones. Also, we have found that we can
pay singers $25.00 each, but to get good instrumentalists, we pay $50.00
each. This spring, we have a 16-piece brass choir that is outstanding, but I
have had a few individuals miss more than one of the four rehearsals. They
are suppose to miss no more than one, but since they practice during final
exams week, I feel I must be fair. Incidently, having done commencement for
32 years, I have noticed some changes. While the University goes out of their
way to maintain a joyful but decorous atmosphere, the ambient noise level
during the "prelude" music continues to rise slightly each year. As a result
of this (and some other factors), we no longer use an orchestra at the indoor
commencement; the orchestra is not very large, most do not wish to play
(despite the honorarium), the adult members are too busy getting ready for
the holiday Season!

I should add, however, that a fairly high percentage of students
enjoy performing for commencement. For one thing, many plan to attend anyway,
to be in attendance when friends graduate (and participants have a pretty
good seat!). And many are just very loyal to the Performing Arts Dept., and
would do what they could to be supportive.

11) I went to â€|[southern school]. The only music at the actual commencement
ceremony was some kind of instrumental group to play the processional, I
think. It's just been a year since I graduated, and I don't even remember!
Anyway, so none sings at graduation, but the concert choir does sing every
year in the Baccalaureate service. Before the end of the term, the director
had everyone fill out a slip of paper saying whether or not they could sing
at Baccalaureate. He can always count on all of the graduating seniors, and
really many of the other members return as well. Underclassmen participate in
the graduation events in other ways (marshals, etc) so it is not a problem to
stay in the dorm (with arrangements made ahead of time) and prior to last
year we were
also given $5 or so to cover Saturday night supper, because we met Saturday
afternoon to rehearse before the service on Sunday morning. Last year we
just got there early on Sunday to run through the pieces. I only came back
once before last year - freshman year I really wasn't interested in going
back for it (It's a long drive from Atlanta!) and the next year my brother
was graduating from high school the same weekend so I couldn't go. Jr. year
I came back and sang, though, as well as my Sr. year, even though I had not
been able to be in concert choir that semester because of student teaching.
I always got the impression though that getting enough people to come back
and sing was never really a problem.

Don't know if this is the kind of info you're looking for or not, but there's
my 2 cents, for what it's worth!

12) The essence of the problem and the solution should be the subject of
time. opt out of graduation performances for the following reasons.
A. The audience is the typical mid-western audience more concerned with
seeing Maisie Sue Sunshine cross the platform and shake the president's hand
rather than hearing a rendition of Thompson's Alleluia.

B. Graduation, if your school is like mine, takes forever. I am sure the
administration would love to get out of the auditorium sooner if they could.

13) We do not have vocal music at our commencements, but we do have
instrumental music, which involves exactly the same problems. Perhaps a
description of how we handle the situation will suggest something helpful.

A volunteer band is selected to play for commencement. It is made up of
students from Wind Ensemble and Symphony Band, and rehearses before final
exams begin. Arrangements are made for them to be housed and fed in the
dorms through the Saturday of graduation (I think). But between the end of
final exams and the day of commencement they go on a 2 or 3 day mini-tour,
performing at high schools for recruiting. And I believe they are paid a
small stipend for doing all this. Making it volunteer solves many of the
problems you list. Making it interesting and different helps. And making it
convenient is key.

14) My choirs perform every year – I usually have my chamber choir do the
baccalaureate service in the morning and the concert choir do the graduation
in the afternoon (both are on the last Sunday in April). It is included as
part of their course requirements--if they have an unexcused absence from a
performance, they receive an F for the semester. These exercises happen
after grades have been turned in, but I have no qualms about going to the
registrar and having their grade changed. Most of the students really don't
mind singing at graduation since most of them want to come and cheer on their
friends anyway (we are a small liberal-arts school, 1100 students, so that
may make the difference in my situation). For those who do complain, I tell
them, "when you graduate you'd want it to be a big deal with nice music,
etc., so we're making it a big deal now for the students who are graduating t
his year." We make arrangements with residential life to let the students
stay in the dorms until after graduation, just as the graduating seniors do.
Once the choir is done singing (relatively early in both services) they're
free to go sit with friends and family. I feel that graduation and
baccalaureate present a unique opportunity to showcase our ensembles to
people who might otherwise not be coming to our
concerts, and I think it builds support for our program. I'd encourage you
to keep doing as you're doing. Hope this helps!

15) I think you have found the best answer...use soloists. Choirs will
not work for all the reasons you have discovered. I’m sure that you have
someone in your stable that would love to sing in front of a group that would
otherwise not attend a recital, etc. I do think that music is appropriate to
the service, but using a soloist is the best answer to this problem.

16) I do not have a parallel circumstance but perhaps these ideas might
help. Is it possible to make this into a "paid gig"? That is, if you have
some money in your budget to pay four or eight singers some small
remuneration (say $25 each), then, set it up as a "by audition" circumstance.
It can become "prestigious" rather than a chore. Perhaps in the way you
"frame" the occasion would make it seem different.

If you do the above, then you could also say that those that volunteer with
the paid quartet (octet, whichever) would be the first string of
consideration for NEXT year (assuming that some of the paid group would be
outgoing seniors). Or, you could hire some professionals and make this a
cool thing to do as they get to sing with "pro" voices.

Another idea is to have their grade contingent on singing graduation: That
is, set up the semester/quarter with 100 points. Points are earned by 1)
attending rehearsals 2) performances 3) readiness with music (etc. etc).
Then by NOT showing up for this, they would not receieve their points, thus,
not making an "A" for choir. Create a syllabus which says these things and
dates. Make it a "contract-syllabus" (which I do for all classes) which they
sign one copy and give it back at the start of the semester. The last line
of the syllabus is "My signature means that I have read the syllabus and am
aware of the requirements of this course/class/chorus to receive a passing
grade."

Could you plan a choir party around the notion of singing at graduation? That
is, the "annual choir party" takes place right after the graduation for all
singers? Or a dinner, or a small, private awards ceremony, or a "roast" of
students and conductor (wink wink). Maybe an annual choir breakfast before
the ceremony where you pass out some serious awards and some funny ones.

If you tour, perhaps those that sing the graduation ceremony are
"automatically" entered into a drawing where the one who "wins" (name pulled
out of a hat) gets their entire tour paid for in the next year. Well, I
suppose I could think up a lot of things. I'll stop here. Anyway, it's a
problem for sure and maybe it is just time for a group "chit chat" session
where you present the importance of singing at graduation (P.R. for the
department, recruitment, provides interest in people attending the concerts,
the only time the entire faculty hears the chorus, etc. etc.) Once that is
explained, turn the burden on THEM and have them "discuss" and come to a
group decision that this is important. Then, get out those "contracts"! Go
od luck.

17) At my school the choir does not sing for commencement (it's held outside
in an open amphitheater). The band plays, however, and the members are paid
by the university. When I was an undergraduate, at â€| the orchestra AND
choir performed and we were paid. Most of the seniors performed in the
ensembles in cap and gown and many of us felt that the ensembles had been the
highlight of our undergraduate experience anyway so performing rather than
sitting with the class was our choice. I remember earning ca. $15 for the
gig in the seventies, and think our band members now are getting about $50
each. Best wishes,

18) Arrgggh! Here's my experience with this major problem:
([Question] Does your choir (or choirs) sing at graduation? If so, are the
student's grades influenced by their participation (or non-participation)?

[Answer] They sing at Baccalaureate, and it is a requirement that they do so
(it is one performance grade); as such it appears on the choral calendar
handed out at the first rehearsal. However, that's unenforceable (see below).

[Question] Or, does a soloist, or other person sing/play at graduation?
[Answer] At my previous institution (where I taught for five years), I sang
the Alma Mater and National Anthem at all convocations, including three
graduations per year. When I was nine months pregnant, I was allowed to
choose a senior to substitute for me at the December graduation. At this
institution, for graduation the music within the ceremony is just whatever
gets proposed, as the traditional is that the senior member of the music
department usually organizes a three-four member vocal group or chooses a
soloist; the ensemble directors aren't consulted.

[Question] Or, perhaps there is no "live" music. Do you play recordings?
[Answer] We use traditional pipers for academic processions when there are
parents present; otherwise, it's usually the Water Music via sound system.

[Question] Or, do you have music at all?
[Answer] Here's the full story: I've been at this institution for two years.
Towards the end of my first year, the provost insisted that the Chorale sing
at Baccalaureate, in addition to the Liturgical Choir (volunteers, who sing
Afro-pop pantheistic music for very aberrant Catholic masses!; the
Baccalaureate ceremony here is a badly-done hybrid of academic awards
ceremony followed immediately by Mass, poorly attended by faculty, students,
and parents). Since Baccalaureate was not on the syllabus, I took
volunteers, and got about half the choir, which made the provost mad (sorry,
but that's the way it is). She insisted that I make it a required event for
this year, which I did; her office picked up the tab for extended housing
and meal plans. However, since the college's academic policy states that all
course requirements, including class meetings, are finished at the time of
the scheduled final regardless of whether there is actually a final exam, the
Dean of Students (a wishy-washy guy if there ever was one) told me that I had
to excuse any student who had a prior commitment, and had better excuse any
student who just plain objected. Well, I know that several students and at
least one parent lied about the prior commitment business, in addition to a
few students who had already been excused (an exchange student leaving for
good; a student who was diagnosed with mono during finals and sent home, that
sort of thing), and a few no-shows, so we ended up with approximately the
same ratio of volunteers that we had last year. They sang well, but half of a
35-member group singing the Alma Mater and one classical selection in the
gymnasium and producing a beautiful sound in 4-6 parts is not nearly as
impressive to the general public as a 50-member pop "liturgical" group
swinging and swaying to bongos and singing unison with occasional descants.

And the band does not play and never has in its 30-year history (under the
same director, who insisted from the first that he was not going to make his
students stay the extra week to play ten minutes of processional; he was
tenured when he made that decision, of course!). And the provost didn't ask
me for a suggestion for the student to sing the National Anthem at
Commencement, so it was done very poorly by the director of the student-run
vocal jazz group (who dropped out of Chorale my first
year because I was too demanding!), and I was the one who heard all the
complaints! And I had several graduating seniors who could have done a
beautiful job. So, obviously my advice is that if you can avoid having your
choir boxed into this, do so!

19) The choir provides one song not to exceed five minutes in length for each
and every graduation at â€| . Why not? Approximately 6,500 listeners attend
the commencement exercises....by far our largest audience of the
semester....we sing on the December and May commencement program.
Incidently, the symphonic band plays at the beginning, middle, and conclusion
of the exercises. So, we have about 145 students involved as musicians
only.......No complaints. Yes, their grade is affected if they do not
attend... in a very negative way. This is considered a major performance in
the syllabus issued on the first day of the semester.

20) My Singers know from the 'get-go' that they are required to sing at every
performance of the Singers, which includes Commencement. Put it in writing,
and there should be no complaints.

P.S. If they do not show up, they receive an 'F'.

on April 27, 2002 10:00pm
My choir used to sing at Commencement, but after 2 years, I got out of it for the same reasons as others have listed. The band still plays. He counts it as the semester final. Since the grades are due earlier, he gives them all full credit but puts in a change of grade report for the few that don't show.