ChorTeach is ACDA’s quarterly publication for choral conductors and teachers at all levels. It is published online, and each issue contains four practical articles. If you are not already a member of ACDA, you can join as an Associate for $45 per year and receive access to ChorTeach and the Choral Journal online.
The fall 2012 issue contains an article written by Rich McKinney titled “The Singer in Prison.” The entire article is copied below. The rest of the articles in the fall 2012 issue of ChorTeach can be found here and are:
“Developing Tone Quality in Middle and High School Choral Ensembles” by Karen Willie
“Jam Sessions – Informal Music Making That Can Enrich Your Choral Program” by Craig Denison
“Men’s and Women’s Choirs: How Different Are They?” by Amy Hughley
“Rehearsal Strategies and Rubrics for Choirs” by Genevieve Tep
I’ve pondered writing this article for some time. Let’s hope that few people find themselves in my situation and have to deal with the subject I discuss here, but there are lessons to be learned, I believe. The title, “The Singer in the Prison,” is borrowed from Walt Whitman.
A life member of ACDA, I have taught music at every grade level. Currently retired, it is my privilege to work with a community chorus of sixty voices and a treble-voice ensemble. In the recent past, I also conducted smaller mixed-voice ensembles. None of us becomes a choral director by choosing it from a list of careers. We love music, singing, and all the other wonderful facets of this ar t. We train for the job much of our lives, often star ting with membership in a chorus as an elementary student. We move on to sing in more sophisticated choruses in middle and high school, college and beyond. Eventually we find ourselves with our own choir and begin the process of learning how to listen to all those singers.
Most of us have, at the very least, a modicum of vocal talent that, coupled with formal training, gives us effective tools with which to work. We learn not to sing with our choirs. We sometimes struggle with an explanation of how to get the singers to make the sound we desire.
And now we get to my challenge. I am not in prison; how-ever, in February of 2000, I lost my vocal cords to throat cancer due to Agent Orange exposure in the Vietnam War. Before you dismiss this article, I assure you it is not a “poor-me” diatribe. I’m happy; I have a great life. Do I miss the ability to throw back my head and sing? You bet I do. I miss it terribly, but I haven’t let it stop me from enjoying people and working with them in choral ensembles. My choirs are truly my voice. I admit that there are often rehearsals when I’d love to just look to the sky and ask for a voice for five minutes so that I could show my choir what I would like to hear.
Yes, I can talk—with the help of a battery-operated speech device. I also use a personal amplification system that enhances my audibility when directing rehearsals. But I cannot sing, and I can’t whistle a melody. I’m a neck breather. If I stub my toe in the night, I can’t yell “Ouch!” until I find my speech device. Sometimes I dream that I have a voice.
What’s my point, you ask? It is this: I have to verbalize clearly everything I want to hear from the singers. I have to stop and think, “How can I explain this so they will understand?” Sometimes it takes several attempts. I can’t say the choir always understands and applies the concept I’ve presented, but they give 100%, and we enjoy our work together.
What have I learned from my situation? I had no idea, during graduate study, that I would lose my vocal cords. Would I have changed careers if I knew that I would have no voice to work with? I don’t know. It’s difficult to imagine that I would seek a career as a voice teacher/choral director if I couldn’t make a sound. I certainly wouldn’t have been awarded the scholarships that helped me pay for the education I got.
I still love music. I compose and do some arranging. I’ve been lucky enough to have several works published. I have good piano facility—good enough to have some people say that I sing with my fingers. But while I love playing piano, it’s not the same as singing in my estimation. I guess what I’m saying is that you can’t always find an article to help you figure out how to teach this or that specific technique. Sometimes one just has to think it through and listen for an answer.
The odd thing is that my chorus sounds just like I would have them sound if I did indeed still have my voice. In fact, they sound like the ensembles I worked with prior to losing my voice. All but a few in my present choir have ever heard me sing or speak with a natural voice.
I don’t take credit for any of this. There is a higher power, a power that is an amazing choral director. In spite of what it sometimes looks like, this power nurtures the world and, in turn, the world sings a tune. It should be no surprise that dissonance sometimes muddies the waters, only to resolve into even more satisfying harmony. On occasion, one can even experience adjacent unresolved dissonances. But the overall result is fantastic. In fact, this is what music is—harmony and dissonance—and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. That higher power supports and directs me, and all of us, as we stand in front of our choirs and continue learning to listen and respond to what they are singing.
When I cease to learn, I will truly be in prison.