Directing choirs is about the people… well, it’s kind of also about the music… but I’m not supposed to say that out loud, so it’s just about PEOPLE!
I grew up captivated by music. It wasn’t until later that I fell in love with the transformative personal power of group singing. Since that time, I have felt colleagues struggling with balancing the commitment to high musical standards, academic rigor etc with creating a sense of belonging and personal development. I can solve the conundrum! It’s both. (I know it seems like that’s been my answer a lot lately.)
It’s about helping PEOPLE experience MUSIC. That’s the job. They are two inseparable parts of our job. To me it is this duality that is my favorite part of the job. If we were just about people, we could be sociologists, social workers or psychologists. If we were just about music, we could be soloists, composers, or concert pianists. But that’s not what we chose. We are choral directors, music educators, worship leaders and facilitators of group singing. With out our people we would have no music, and without the music the people wouldn’t come.
And the music REALLY needs to be good. That matters. None of the human connection we hope to foster in our rehearsals can happen if people don’t show up. And people LOVE to show up for things that make them feel accomplished and competent. We can’t shy away from pursuing excellence in our choral rehearsals, or in our profession. The great news is that we all get to define excellence for ourselves.
What is Excellence? Who gets to define it?
I do. For my classroom. You do for yours. It’s pretty simple really. The line in the sand that I draw is that everyone has to have some definition of this word, or people will not take the choir seriously. It does not matter if excellence is centered around concepts of intonation, rhythmic precision, resonance and expressive line like mine is, or centered around facial expression, choreography, story telling like a great show choir. The priorities can be completely different and they could both be excellent. Maybe your definition of excellence is centered around the way humans FEEL in your rehearsals. Centered around an informal rubric of community, acceptance and love. That’s ok too. You are an excellent choir when you achieve your choir’s goals. This doesn’t have to be an argument. The tent of choral music is large enough for an infinite number of “Excellence models” but you must choose a definition and strive for it relentlessly.
Can We Define Success Using Both Human and Musical Elements? I think so!
- Consistent excellence in the final musical product. An important caveat here is that we CANNOT reserve ourselves to basing this on the concert. To understand who is doing GREAT work in this area, we need “before and after” recordings or eye witness. This matters because we don’t all have the same singers, feeders, admins etc. So, to me success in “musical excellence” should be available to elementary to professional choirs. Show me how far your singers can come under your leadership!
- Consistent management of choral programs that flourish. Do people want to sing for this person consistently and over years? To me, this says volumes about what is going on in that rehearsal space. I know something’s being done masterfully.
- Does the director have a track record of better and better music making? The beauty of this one is that it requires a synthesis of #1 and 2. You can’t make steady improvement in the music unless you have a steady stream of excited and eager singers coming into the program.
- Is the director an innovator in one or more areas of their teaching practice? Are they dreaming up, implementing and perfecting NEW ways to deliver the choral art form and all of its nuts and bolts to new generations of singers?
- Is the director contributing to the body of scholarship? This could take the form of research within academia, the creation of definitive recordings, or even by curating new discussions on various aspects of scholarship for conventions etc.