Week 2: Friday, March 30, 2018
Hello and welcome back to the second installment of my weekly Women’s/Treble Chorus blog, here on Choralnet.org!
Last week, I focused on What is a women’s/treble choir? Who sings in a women’s/treble choir? Why?.
This week, I’d like to continue with that introduction, looking at the challenges conductors often face when programming for women’s/treble choirs, and how we can both acknowledge and overcome those obstacles.
Starting in April, I plan to introduce a new repertoire selection with each post – focusing on subject matter, composer background, text source/author background, range, voicing, harmonic structure, form, rhythmic components, line independence, and more. I’ll walk through the piece, noting teaching strategies and pointing out potential challenges. It is my hope that this blog can serve as a resource for conductors as we program repertoire for our women’s/treble choirs.
Searching for Repertoire? (Getting mixed in with Children’s Choir)
On JWPepper and other music purchasing sites, the voicing lists now often read “Treble Choir” and “Tenor-Bass Choir,” in addition to Unison/Two-part, SAB/Three-Part Mixed, and SATB, etc. This Treble designation is beautifully inclusive when referring to the singers who make up a given ensemble, but can be tricky when referring specifically to the repertoire. On paper (or on screen), the distinction between children’s choir and non-children’s choir music is now even more murky than before.
That’s not to say that children’s choirs can’t perform repertoire for older treble voices, and that older treble choirs can’t perform repertoire originally for children’s choir. Some material can absolutely cross over. But some material may be too mature for a children’s choir, or too childish for an older treble choir. Subject matter, text, ranges, tessitura, voicing, and accompaniment are just a few of the points to consider when trying to decide what repertoire might be good for your particular ensemble.
Why can programming for a women’s/treble (W/T) choir feel challenging?
Beyond the thoughts mentioned above and last week, there are a number of other points to consider that may make choosing rep for a W/T ensemble seem more challenging than for your mixed ensembles.
If you are a tenor or bass, you likely did not have the opportunity to sing in a W/T choir, except perhaps as a children’s choir member when you were younger. If you are a soprano or alto, and were music ed or music performance in school, you likely sang in the top mixed ensemble, and/or continue to sing in mixed ensembles now (symphony chorus, church, community). Either way, many of us who were music ed or performance majors may have had limited experience with W/T repertoire from a performer’s point of view. Since we as conductors often program works that we loved as performers, this lack of personal performance experience in W/T ensembles can be a missing resource when we look for music to use in our W/T choirs.
If you went to school for choral music ed or choral conducting, especially in a graduate program, your choral literature classes most likely focused on SATB rep, and thus contained very few works for women’s voices or treble choir. Those same lit classes (and music history classes) likely included very few works by women composers, of any voicing or genre. While some programs (though not enough!) are consciously attempting to cast a wider net in terms of what to teach their undergrad and graduate students, (i.e. including composers of other genders, races, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, and political backgrounds in the course content), these changes can take quite a while to work their way through the system, and do not generally affect those of us who may have already missed this information when we were in school.
Historical works for W/T choirs are legitimately more difficult to find in the published realm, primarily due to the political, religious, institutional, and systemic bias against women (as performers, conductors, and composers, and so too just as humans). W/T ensembles absolutely existed, but, just like the women themselves, were far less likely to be seen, heard, and valued than their mixed choir or men’s/boy’s choir counterparts. In turn, that means the music written for W/T ensembles was less valued as well, and less likely to be kept, archived, published, and distributed.
This point is even more true if you are looking for works for W/T ensembles written by women composers. Women composers historically were not afforded the same professional standing as men (for many of the same political, religious, institutional, and systemic reasons). With the exception of a few well-known or well-connected women with privileged family or religious visibility, compositional output by women composers was also less likely to be valued (kept, archived, published, and distributed), than that of their male counterparts. That’s not to say women composers didn’t exist, and that works (by composers of any gender) for W/T voices didn’t exist – but finding them takes more work and more research on the part of the conductor.
There is a great deal of re-voiced repertoire out there – selections originally written for SATB choirs and re-worked for treble voices. Some of these arrangements or transcriptions are wonderful – in that they allow our treble singers to experience composers or styles that they might not otherwise have access to. However, many of these arrangements/transcriptions have complications with tessitura, range, and voice leading, which can make them a pedagogical minefield. Figuring out which re-voiced selections may work for our ensembles, and which won’t, takes time and research on the part of the conductor.
Perhaps more at issue though is the idea of programming works originally intended for mixed, men’s, or children’s voices, as opposed to the literal and figurative voices of women. Visibility and representation are important. If we limit our W/T selections primarily to re-packaged SATB, TTBB, or children’s repertoire, we are also limiting the visibility and representation of women’s voices – both to our audience and to our singers.
New works for W/T choirs are regularly commissioned by community, high school, and collegiate ensembles. And many of these additions to the W/T genre are amazing. But, unfortunately, this repertoire frequently can be a touch too difficult for an intermediate or advanced-but-small W/T group. So, you may go to a conference and hear a great song with a perfect text, but it calls for more divisi than your group can manage, or more independent voice lines than your students are ready to tackle. This can feel disheartening – to finally find something you think will speak to your ensemble, but then realize it may not be at the right level for them just yet.
Often, programming quality repertoire for our women’s/treble choirs can sometimes seem a daunting task. However, my hope is that through this blog you might find both individual selections and general resources that speak to your ensembles and their skill sets, and expand your knowledge of available repertoire. Next week, I’ll start introducing one song each each week. In the meantime, I encourage you to review the resources from last week’s post, focusing on repertoire for women’s/treble choirs and/or works by women composers.
Until next week!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is associate professor of music, Director of Choral Activities, and music department chair at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.
Email: Bio: https://www.hollins.edu/directory/shelbie-wahl-fouts/
SELECTED RESOURCES, Part 2 (See Week 1 for the start of this resource list)
MUSE Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir (Jillian Harrison-Jones, artistic director)
Peninsula Women’s Chorus (Martín Benvenuto, artistic director)
Aurora Chorus (Joan Szymko, artistic director)
Cornell University Chorus (Robert Isaacs, conductor)
St. Mary’s College Women’s Choir (Nancy Menk, conductor)
Oklahoma All-State Treble Rep List
Tennessee All-State Women’s Chorale Rep List
Empowering Silenced Voices Database For Socially Conscious Choral Music (Jeremiah Selvey & Chorosynthesis)
Sacred Renaissance Choral Music for Women’s Choirs: An Annotated Repertoire List of Music from Italy and Spain (Kathryn Kelly Longo) https://scholarlyrepository.miami.edu/oa_dissertations/1178