By Stuart Hunt
Why your students will love you for raising the bar
I struggle writing this. My passion for building musicianship drove me to create a business whose sole focus is to address literacy in the three parts of sight-reading:
- interval recognition
For me it is both imperative for our students who recognize the benefits and at least ascent to the brief time we invest in learning to read better, and seeing some who have even developed a passion for it. Yet, I must honestly and regretfully say, my experience tells me we are clearly a small minority. We too often choose to invest the time or use our rehearsal time in other ways.
Teaching literacy in music reading is a professional choice. I will attempt to professionally address the whys and the benefits. I struggle with the opposite philosophy, but either way, I believe it is always philosophy that guides our decision.
For example, why do or don’t we
- maintain our car
- learn to cook
- prefer indoor or outdoor exercise
- marry or remain unmarried
Some of these are weighty questions; some are not. However, it is our personal philosophy that guides our responses and action. I freely admit that parts of this blog may be uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable to write, but it is not taboo.
Investing in sight-reading
There are only pluses, no minuses.
Given the narrow window of time we actually get to engage choristers, and considering the number of skills they need to acquire and master, the variables in rehearsal, and the outside options and mandates (concerts, performances, assemblies, testing, etc.), what we do with every second of rehearsal adds to or subtracts from musical excellence. Time is not our friend, therefore, as we all know, detailed planning of those activities that enhance skill acquisition and mastery are the stuff excellence feeds on.
Spending something does not yield a return. Investing does. I cannot countenance or advocate for deciding not to invest in teaching the myriad skills acquired in effective sight-reading skills, but here are a few reasons to consider:
- Sight-reading teaches heuristic (self-learning) skills. Those who acquire critical skills altruistically teach their choirmates, saving valuable rehearsal time.
- When students are engaged in learning, they are not interested in any form of distraction. Actually, they oppose distractions.
- With guided, planned, focused skill acquisition and mastery, decisions about literature are vastlyaltered. What was never thought possible is believed to be achievable
- When reading and note-learning / correction / drill are not an issue, there is more rehearsal time available for meaningful, deeper discussions about culture, intent of the composer, interpretation, listening examples, guest conductors, choir exchanges, concert detail planning, audience engagement, facial expression, movement or choralography, and so on.
- When a conductor plays a recording of music they know will deeply impact the choir and the audience, regardless of musical challenges, the choir can see and hear themselves come up to the challenge, and be willing to engage it.
- The culture described by Dr. Robert Shaw begins to develop: “I don’t desire to be a part of a choir that sings because they want to, but because they have to.”
How else and who else will develop future audiences unless we, choral conductors do that? One does not join an Olympic bobsled team for the experience. That person must bring something to the party: skill, passion, team-spirit, inspiration. Skills they have already acquired. So, what’s the difference with the choral art?
How are singers supposed to acquire the ability to read music?
Just by singing? How? If our literature choices are limited by our student’s poor skills, it is a zero-sum gain. Charles Ives said:
“If you always feed a 3-year old candy for breakfast,
they will always be a 3-year old
and the oatmeal market will die!”
Stop for a moment. Take stock of your rehearsals. Take stock of the learning rate of your choirs. Is it all you have ever wanted?
- Why or why not?
- Do you regularly get choked up in rehearsal?
- When was the last time?
- Did you talk about that with the choir?
- Are your audiences ever brought to tears?
- Why or why not?
Consider this metaphor as a foundational reason to make sight-reading a daily regimen:
- A tall building must have a strong foundation if it is to stand for a long time (legacy, inspiration, space for all and welcome for all).
- A good foundationprovides overall lateral stability for the structure (choral integrity and trust building).
- It also provides a level surface for the construction of substructure (positive leadership and sectional pride).
- Load distribution is carried out evenly (rehearsal absence is not an option; no dissention; focus is on the most important musical elements).
- Anchor it against natural forces such as earthquakes. Yes Dorothy, stuff happens even in great choirs. When it does, do we bend and focus on solutions or dissolve into petty arguments? We have all experienced that.
Reflect for a moment on your college and university experience and recall those moments when time just stopped. There was not another place on earth you had to, or would rather, be at that moment. Do your choirs regularly experience and talk about those with their peers and siblings? That is how great choirs are built.
I once saw a statistic that 80 percent of those who sang in a choir were recruited by someone else. I am one of those. I only sang in choir the last quarter of my senior year in high school. It totally changed my life.
Forty-eight years of conducting public and private choirs on both American coasts, throughout British Columbia, and 23 concert tours including 2 five-nation concert tours and competitions of Central Europe later, I can say that choral music is not a vocation. It is greater than a profession. It is a life! By committing our choirs to music literacy, we have all had experiences that none of us ever dreamed of, and we got there together, as a team of growing artists.
Choose your sight-reading system to fit your needs. Don’t go for low-hanging fruit. Commit to rigorous standards and stick with them! Your singers will not object – they will love you for teaching and motivating them to seek a higher challenge.
In fact, they will insist on raising the bar!
Great musical skills equip them to look beyond just the possible. You will give them new glasses to see, in their own way, that because they SOARED in a choir, and it altered their perception of what is possible. You will change their lives because, as Pat Riley said, “it is the result of always striving to do better.” It is not a skill, it is an attitude, rooted in competence, nurtured by mastered skills, and brought to fruition by a wonderful conductor with great ideals. YOU!
Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention,
sincere effort, and intelligent execution;
it represents the wise choice of many alternatives—
choice, not chance, determines your destiny.