By Karen L. Bruno and Dr. Emily Williams Burch
In a year during which many of us have experienced deep divisions and conflict, purposeful collaboration can be a balm that pulls us together. As teacher-conductors, many of us have spent hours on Zoom meetings and webinars sharing best practices, learning from one another, and building our community of colleagues. But have we considered how to help our singers experience the power of purposeful collaboration? When sitting down to plan for their virtual choir season, RISE Chorales, a Savannah-based choral organization, and the Lawrence Community Girl Choir Program based in Appleton, Wisconsin, started with one overarching goal in mind: through a collaborative musical process, singers would share their stories, exploring both the challenges and the joys of living through a pandemic.
RISE Chorales Founder/Artistic Director, Dr. Emily Williams Burch, met the Lawrence Community Girl Choir Program Artistic Director, Karen Bruno, while serving on the national American Choral Directors Association’s standing committee for Advocacy and Collaboration. Bruno then was a guest on Burch’s “Music (ed) Matters” Podcast, which led to a discussion about creating a meaningful collaboration.
“I love that this project celebrates our singers’ voices – literally and figuratively,” comments Bruno, whose high school choir, Bel Canto, is participating in the collaboration. “As the world changes around them, it’s important that our students have opportunities to be involved in projects that celebrate and incorporate their ideas.”
The culmination of the collaboration will be the co-creation and premier of a new work by composer Matt Carlson. Members of each group will share their experiences of living and making music during a pandemic, and Carlson will set these thoughts to music for the choirs to learn and premier.
“Writing music has been so important to me as a way to process the complex emotional thoughts of the time in which we live,” says Carlson. “It’s a composer’s dream to be able to work with choirs in real-time while writing a new piece. I’m thrilled to collaborate with these excellent choral programs, and to provide a space in which their students may be inspired to respond to our world through writing music of their own.”
During the initial rehearsal, singers learned the song Give Light, a song written by Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino of Magpie. Its text comes from words of civil rights activist Ella Baker; in preparation for the combined rehearsal, both choirs read an article about Baker’s life and critical role in the twentieth-century American voting and Civil Rights movements. As high school girls comprise each choir, centering the words and experience of a Black woman was an important way to begin to build community. The singers then discussed the song’s melody, rhythm, and harmony in small groups, drawing their own parallels between the elements, text, and experience of singing and listening to the song together. Finally, composer Carlson led the singers through Begin, a piece he wrote for treble choirs in June of this year. He explained what inspired him to write the piece and shared important aspects of his composition process.
The choirs will come together four more times between November and February. They will record Begin as one group and will more deeply explore the themes of resilience and community, sharing ideas that will inform Carlson’s new composition. When asked to make up a headline to describe the first rehearsal, singers submitted ideas like, “Music Leads the Change We Need in the World,” “Listening, Learning, and Loving,” and “Powerful Women’s Choirs Unite in Their Individuality.”
This type of collaborative project is not difficult to create, but it does require alignment regarding goals or outcomes. Find a collaborator whose program is aligned with yours in terms of level of expertise, age group, and interest level so that community is easier to build, and be sure to set shared goals for the project that will benefit both programs. If one teacher-conductor or program is doing more of the planning or teaching, or if one teacher-conductor envisions a different final outcome of the collaboration, singers will be caught in the middle of an uncomfortable process.
Also note that collaborations need not take place over several weeks or months – a one-time workshop or experience can be just as impactful as a longer-term commitment. What does your choir need? What can you envision? What are your own strengths and weaknesses? Will your singers grow more if a third person – someone outside both organizations – is at the helm? How will the collaboration benefit everyone involved?
For instance, this project began with teacher-conductors learning about one another’s programs. They identified shared goals and decided upon the scope of the project. They chose rehearsal dates and times and created outcomes for each rehearsal. Meetings before and between rehearsals have featured collaborative, specific, and structured lesson planning. Specificity creates accountability for each participant, ultimately ensuring that each group’s needs are being met.
As the members of RISE and Lawrence’s Bel Canto look to future rehearsals, singers hope to get to know one another, learn the musical culture of each choral program, and make music together. Everyone involved is excited to see how the singers’ words and experiences become textual and musical ideas for a new choral composition. The students immediately understood that they were building a new community through this project and are excited to “overcome distance,” “face adversity,” and “spread love and empowerment” together through this project.