By Rebecca Lord
Although we are unable to sing together freely during this perilous time, opportunities to collaborate virtually around the world are skyrocketing! The world is literally at our fingertips and there are extraordinary experiences to be had making new connections and building bridges across continents and cultures, as well as finding new treasures in our own backyards.
One exciting new tool for easily building such bridges is The Guest Artist Directory. This living database provides easy access to scores of artists willing to make guest appearances for ensembles, music classes, and other events. Included are conductors, composers, vocalists, instrumentalists, music-technology professionals, and others involved in the performing arts. Artists hail from numerous countries around the world and offer widely varying areas of expertise.
In an effort to facilitate success in new collaborations, artists from the directory have offered practical suggestions, resources, and guidance for those hosting visits. Composer, conductor and concert pianist Mark Hayes gives voice to the mission of goodwill in these efforts. “How can I best make this a valuable experience for the participants? I imagine many singers are depressed because of isolation. If I can encourage unity and kindness and build community, I will feel like I have made a difference.”
TECH FIRST: SET UP FOR SUCCESS
Before booking virtual guest artist visits, make sure you have a tech set-up that will work well. “Please test technology in advance so time isn’t wasted… during the session… [and have] a backup plan!” advises Dr. Jami Lercher, professor of choral music education at Baldwin Wallace University. Also take into account that guest artists will have a range of comfort levels with technology. While some will be experts, others may need clear instructions and basic help.
Set-up Tips for Hosts: As the most crucial connection will be between host and guest artist, the host set-up needs to be high quality and reliable. A microphone will enhance sound quality and an ethernet connection is strongly recommended. If Zoom is being used, settings will need to be modified. Zoom is defaulted to optimize speaking sound, and sustained sounds are cut off or otherwise adversely affected. Follow these instructions to modify settings for singing/music, provided by Carol Jacobe, conductor of The Jazzuits and instructor of voice at Le Moyne College. Ms. Jacobe also recommends these video instructions. Additional tech suggestions can be found on Virtual Choir Rehearsals by Gala Choruses and in “Cyber Solutions for Quarantined Choirs: A Guide to Virtual Rehearsals and Performances” by Rebecca Lord.
THE INITIAL CONTACT
Advance Notice: While some artists are okay with last-minute requests, most prefer advance notice. When possible, reach out well in advance and check each artist’s entry on the directory for specific timelines.
Drafting the Invitation: Use the requested form of contact (e.g., e-mail or website). Several artists mentioned they do no regularly check messages on Facebook or other social-media platforms. Be sure to find and use the artist’s correct title.
Artists were asked, “What information is helpful for you to receive when you are initially contacted to make a guest visit?” Following are key suggestions they offered:
- Basic details of the visit: the organization name & location, ensemble/class type, age if relevant, number of participants, date & time, time zone, and whether or not there is flexibility in scheduling (flexibility is best, when possible).
- Tech details: options for connecting virtually (e.g., Zoom, cleanfeed.net, JamKazam, etc.) “There are many new ways to connect now, so having an understanding of what’s possible with each person’s technology would greatly help to plan for the best success of the session,” notes David Sabella, two-term president of the New York Singing Teachers Association and faculty member of Fordham University’s Summer Music Theatre Intensive.
- An introduction to you and your ensemble/class: Briefly share facts and interesting details that will help the clinician get a feel for your organization. Co-Director of Choral Activities at East Tennessee State University Dr. Alan Stevens suggests including “skill level of ensemble, basic level of musical knowledge for the majority of the group, recent performances, rehearsal schedule (how often), and most importantly… type of music (genre/style) typically perform[ed].” Other suggestions include the history or mission of the group, strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble, curriculum, special concerns or protocols, and any relevant points about you as the conductor/teacher.
- Purpose for the visit: Artists want to know why they have been invited and how they can contribute to your ensemble/class. Share your reason(s) for inviting them and relevant goals or ideas for working with your ensemble. For example, if the artist is a composer, has your choir performed one of their works? Or is there a specific technique or area of expertise you are hoping they will share? Dr. Jason Paulk, director of choral activities at Eastern New Mexico University offers, “If you haven’t fleshed out details of what you’d like to present to your ensemble, that’s o.k. too…include the clinician in the discussion. Perhaps they can help you clarify your goals and an approach to accomplishing it most effectively.”
- Financial Situation: Artists request up front transparency in this area, particularly in contacting guest artists who have not adopted a policy of free visits during the pandemic. “Available budget for honorarium or fee is important to know because some…. will negotiate based on the financial situation,” Dr. Paulk notes. “Be completely transparent and open with your request. If you have no budget, say so up front. If you have only $100, say so up front.” When travel becomes safe again, artists being invited for in-person visits will need further details. For example, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of Arizona Cantilena Chorale Dr. David Thye suggests, “does my visit include airfare, mileage reimbursement, hotel stay, meals, etc.?”
- Recording Plans: If you hope to record the visit for any reason, this needs to be communicated and details worked out.
Here is a fictitious sample invitation letter, drafted by Dr. Kenneth Lord, dean of the College of Business, Eastern Michigan University.
ADDITIONAL COMMUNICATION TIPS:
- “Please respond to emails promptly, within 24 or in some cases 48 hours” (Dr. Joshua Fishbein, adjunct music theory faculty, The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University and Towson University).
- “Communicate… clearly and follow through on everything you promise” (Dr. Andrew Megill, director of choral activities, University of Illinois).
- Lack of communication is the worst. Respond to emails, texts, etc. If it’s onsite, provide clear communication about schedule, location, breaks, food, and housing if applicable. If it’s online, be clear about schedule, who will be on the meeting, etc.“ (Dr. Alan Stevens).
- “If you make an initial contact and I respond, please let me know that you got my response even if you decide you are no longer interested” (Robbin Marcus, ATI certified teacher of the Alexander Technique).
- “Email is great for the initial contact, but then it’s important to talk by phone to better understand each unique situation” (Robbin Marcus).
- “Try not to be overly specific, allow us to share different perspectives” (Dr. Alan Stevens).
- “Do check SPAM as often messages from out of the organization get sidelined (this goes for guest artists, too!)” (Dr. Jami Lercher).
- “I’m a busy musician and it’s helpful to me to get a reminder from my host” (Arietha Lockhart, professional soprano soloist and music education specialist). Send a friendly, “looking forward to our visit next Tuesday” type of message.
DETAILS TO WORK OUT WITH THE ARTIST:
Once an artist has agreed to discuss a possible visit, here are next steps:
- Determine Format and Content: Setting up the content of the visit may be more art than science, as artists greatly vary in their preferences and areas of expertise. Be sure to thoroughly review the artist’s posted information, and then be ready to dialogue with openness. Some artists will come with ready-made presentations. Others will want to brainstorm with you. Approaches can include: master class, lecture/presentation, colloquium, performance & discussion by the visiting artist, clinic or workshop, individual or group instruction, performance and adjudication, Q&A, casual conversation.
- Share Hopes & Goals for your Ensemble/Class: Sharing specific thoughts about your singers can benefit the artist and the participants in maximizing their time together. Composer, arranger and publisher Dr. Earlene Rentz asks, “How I can support the teacher in terms of encouraging students?” Dr. David Thye suggests the following: “I just need to know what the host’s ultimate desire is for my visit? Growth? Inspiration? Refinement? New and/or specific concepts? Mastery? Competition or performance attainment?”
- Solidifying Tech Plans: Be sure to discuss all tech plans and how you will approach hosting (e.g., having an assistant monitor questions via chat and choosing individuals to unmute). If the artist has any specific tech requests, address these. If the artist is interested, it can be helpful to have “a walk-through of your online platform” in advance, suggests Amber Nicole Dilger, k-12 music educator and member of the Actor’s Equity Association. “Different schools/classes/teachers might choose different settings, so it’s always helpful to know what to expect at each new engagement.”
- Paperwork, Payment & Recording: Check with the artist and your organization to ensure all needed paperwork is taken care of. Common items include: a contract, financial paperwork, permission and waivers for recordings, or an agreement not to record. As this may be new territory for some, Mark Hayes suggests, “I prefer to use a simple contract that details what I am committing to, any fee involved and payment expectations, length and date of event and a general outline of what will happen.” Ms. Dilger notes that “many public school systems have a variety of paperwork/background checks that need to happen before the workshop, even online workshops,” adding that “it is so helpful to have access to this paperwork in advance.”
- Prepare/share any materials needed. If the visit will include work or discussion of repertoire, it is helpful to send pdf files of the music in advance, suggests Dr. Galen Darrough, director of choral activities at the University of Northern Colorado. If the format will be discussion and/or Q&A-based, find out if the artist would like access to questions in advance, and have students/singers submit these.
- Ask the artist if there are ways you can best prepare your class/ensemble for their visit. Then follow through!
PREPARING FOR THE VISIT
Now that the details of the visit are arranged, you and your ensemble/class can prepare to maximize your time with the guest artist. Here are some tips:
- Homework: Review bio and provided links, websites, and other information you can find about the artist. If possible, watch or listen to performance or other material and discuss.
- Promote: Help create excitement about the visit and encourage openness. “Prepared students, excitement about learning something new and a positive host set the stage for success by a guest artist!” explains Robbin Marcus. She suggests assigning students to read and write about the topic(s) that will be addressed in advance “to pique their interest.”
- Instruct: Provide attendees with instructions on procedures and decorum (e.g., no snacking, wandering around or other distracting behaviors on screen; appropriate attire and backgrounds, no black screens; no recording; how Q&A’s or other participation will work).
- Encourage Positivity: Mark Hayes mentions, “A choir is a family in so many ways, so unity and kindness are values that need to be intentionally cultivated,” Mark Hayes explains. “I’m not trying to turn this into a ‘Kumbaya’ moment 🤓 but if I heard singers affirming, complimenting and lifting each other during the time, that would be a positive result.”
- Organize: If singers will be performing or otherwise participating in an organized fashion, share a detailed plan with them. Also solidify your tech plan. Moderation of conversation (reading chats, vetting questions, unmuting individuals) and tech needs will need to be taken care of on your end and not left to the guest artist. An assistant (can be a choir member) is highly recommended to help.
- Prepare Questions: Spend some time with your ensemble/class generating questions in advance. Artists suggest open-ended questions rather than yes/no questions. “Encourage big questions,” suggests Dr. David Fryling, director of choral activities at Hofstra University and founding conductor and artistic director of eVoco Voice Collective. “Encourage curiosity outside of the confines of music theory, history, or choir techniques.” Explore the artist’s story, his or her background and career start, artistic inspirations, key moments in life that led to this path of artistry, advice, greatest achievements, failures and coping strategies. “Please avoid overtly personal questions,” adds Dr. Tish Oney, performing artist, author and composer. Here are sample questions.
A Good Start: Be sure to “arrive” early, make sure everything is running smoothly, and be ready to welcome your guest when s/he arrives. When the event begins, warmly welcome your guest, share introductory comments about her or his accomplishments, and encourage positivity and openness through word and example. Composer and pianist Kyle Pederson adds, “I think it’s awesome when a host … establishes a baseline about why we’re having this conversation… what they hope it will accomplish, and does so with some positive energy.”
Successful Leadership Throughout: Enjoy these suggestions!
- “It’s helpful when the host is actively involved. Redirect questions that are obviously not helpful for the artist to address (‘we’ll talk about this in a rehearsal later, but let’s take another question right now.’)… If the artist mentions something that the ensemble has no reference to, jump in and help them to understand the conversation. Do NOT be afraid to be actively involved in guiding the conversation, but also avoid cutting off the artist” (Dr. Alan Stevens).
- “Please have students introduce themselves when speaking/asking questions” (Dr. Jami Lercher).
- “I love when teachers ask questions, especially if I have said something to their students that is different than what they are accustomed to… it’s good for students to hear adults learning new things as well. I’d prefer that any serious disagreements happen privately“ (Robbin Marcus).
- “Be open! Let the guest artist work with your ensemble and try things that you may not agree with initially. You can always ‘go back’ when the guest artist leaves, but let her/him try something new. You never know, you might like it!” (Dr. Alan Stevens).
- “Inclusiveness, positivity and openness are always better than competition. I want everyone to feel better for having experienced the event if possible” (Mark Hayes).
- “If an event is online, please ensure that the majority of ensemble members are on camera so the artist is not talking to an empty grid. Be willing to let the conversation take a different direction than you had originally anticipated, especially if it’s guided by ensemble member questions” (Dr. Alan Stevens).
- “It would be good to know specific skills of some students who might be writing music, performing in elite groups (jazz/Celtic/etc.)” (Dr. Earlene Rentz).
- “I prefer that the host take… the lead if difficult issues arise” (Dr. Ronnie Oliver, associate director of choral activities at the Manhattan School of Music and artistic director and conductor of EnsembleNYC).
- “If using Zoom, muting participants’ sound while I’m talking would be helpful. In some cases turning off people’s videos are necessary if they are distracting by their behavior. It might depend on the age of the singers” (Mark Hayes).
- “I definitely appreciate when the host can keep an eye on the group, especially large groups of younger students. Disabling chatting between students during the presentation is helpful, and having the host manage any direct messages is a big help. It is also a big help if the host can manage the chat-submitted questions and be the one who curates and then verbally asks the questions” (Amber Nicole Dilger).
- “Great hosts are open, gracious, and skilled listeners” (Dr. Tish Oney).
Things to Avoid:
- “Anything negative, combative, or disrespectful” (Dr. Ronnie Oliver).
- “If the discussion got political, religiously polarizing or disrespectful, I would not return“ (Mark Hayes).
- “Last minute changes can… be disruptive” (Dr. Joshua Fishbein).
- “I would like for my visit to be all positive. No need for negative statements about anyone or anything… It takes all of us being our ‘best selves’… in order to make choral music ‘happen’ artistically so that the ‘dots and sticks’ are lifted from the page and find their way into the hearts” (Dr. Earlene Rentz).
Wrap-up: Be sure bring things to a close in a gracious and timely fashion and leave yourself a couple of minutes to express gratitude to the guest artist on behalf of all attendees. Applause or a group visual thank you or thumbs up from the attendees is a lovely gesture.
FOLLOW UP, GIVE BACK & PAY IT FORWARD!
Follow Up: Dr. Jason Paulk offers this wonderful advice: “If you have agreed on a payment, try to send a check expediently. Also, a note telling the speaker something you appreciated about the presentation. It means more than you’ll ever know!”
Give Back: The ACDA leadership and Guest Artist Directory Manager Rebecca Lord are eager to hear of your experiences! Please take a moment to e-mail with stories or comments about your guest-artist experiences!
Pay it Forward: Consider joining the Guest Artist Directory yourself, or recommending artists you have worked with to your colleagues!
In recent years, Rebecca Lord has served on the choral/vocal faculty of Brigham Young University-Idaho and as Associate Director of Choral Activities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she earned MM and DMA degrees under the tutelage of Donald Neuen. She also served as Chorus Master for Arizona Musicfest and Assistant Conductor for the Hour of Power choir. She has a background as a professional violinist, soprano, dancer, and actress. Dr. Lord is temporarily teaching part-time, as she is enjoying being a new mother.
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- Oliver, Ronnie Jr. (Associate Director of Choral Activities, Manhattan School of Music and Artistic Director and Conductor, EnsembleNYC), survey response September 2, 2020.
- Oney, Tish (Performing Artist, Author, Composer), survey response September 12, 2020.
- Paulk, Jason (Director of Choral Activities, Eastern New Mexico University), survey response September 1, 2020.
- Pederson, Kyle (Composer, Pianist, Lyricist and Educator), survey response September 1, 2020.
- Rentz, Earlene (Composer, Arranger, and Publisher), survey response September 2, 2020.
- Sabella, David (Faculty, Fordham University’s Summer Music Theatre Intensive), e-mail to Rebecca Lord September 2, 2020.
- Stevens, Alan (Co-Director of Choral Activities, East Tennessee State University), survey response September 2, 2020.
- Thye, David (Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of Arizona Cantilena Chorale), survey response September 3, 2020.
- “Virtual Choir Rehearsals,” Gala Choruses, accessed September 26, 2020, retrieved from https://galachoruses.org/resource-center/quarantined-choirs/virtual-choir-rehearsal