James Bass of UCLA and Seraphic Fire joins Ryan today to speak about balancing out your education and conducting career with opportunities as a seasonal professional choral singer. We will dive into schedule, pay, sight-reading requirements, and so much more.
We often seek permission and approval from others in order to live the life we wish to live, both personally and professionally. The problem is that when we do this we give up control of our lives to everyone else but ourselves. Since we love what we do so much, there is a very blurry line between our personal and professional lives. This presents a huge problem. If we’re always looking for other’s permission and approval professionally, then we will never truly be ourselves personally.
In this week’s Technique Tuesday entitled “Cut the cheese“, I lead you through a process and give you permission to choose music that you and your choir will feel great about. It’s a short one! ~15 mins
On the regular interview episode entitled “Choral Entrepreneurship“, I had the privilege of interviewing Patrick Dupree Quigley, conductor of Seraphic Fire, undisputedly one of America’s best professional choirs. He speaks about giving himself permission to make that scary leap from a safe job into full-time entrepreneurship. Patrick describes what it was like to build Seraphic Fire to the $1.6 million/year budget powerhouse that it is today. ~50 mins
Traveling with your ensemble can be a mix of exciting and nail-biting. For me, it’s always been something to look forward to but I’ve known others who simply dread the idea of going on an extended trip with their ensemble.
Currently, I work with an adult women’s ensemble so traveling with that group is a bit different than with teens or tweens. Nonetheless, it still has its challenges. The average age of the travelers in my group is probably 60, with a fair number of travelers on the north side of that number. That presents interesting challenges that you may not have with younger groups, for example.
Everyone learns a lot on their first trip with their ensemble. Destination = Think about what’s right for your age group.
Destination was probably the first mistake I made on the first trip with my women’s chorus, when we went to Northern Italy. The terrain in Italy was so difficult that by Day 2 everyone was exhausted and had ankles the size of elephants. However, I chose Italy because I really wanted to go there and – lucky for me – plenty of others did as well. However, someone – perhaps from the tour company – should have told me that perhaps it wasn’t ideal for my group. Furthermore, I wanted to fit so much into one trip that we wound up with only a small sampling of everything and – in many cases – there just wasn’t enough time to explore the really important places, like Venice and Florence. So, you need to think about this on your own, though I also wished someone at the tour company would have said, “Perhaps want you’re trying to do isn’t a good idea.”
That said, take time to interview several tour companies. We’ve now settled on one that we like, but the first one we used wasn’t experienced in working with middle-aged adults, so that’s why our trip wasn’t designed with our ages and limitations in mind. They had worked with mostly high-school and college students, which are a totally different animal in comparison. Make sure your company is willing to stray from their “standard” tour itineraries to accommodate your needs and requests. And, if not, move on. And don’t be afraid to ask for references beyond the accolades you see on tour company websites. They’re not going to put the bad ones up there! Ask questions about things such as:
- Communication – Was it clear from the start? When your questions and concerns answered promptly?
- Ease of payment – This should be a given by now, but find out if the company has a system that easily allows your travelers (their parents) to pay online. The last thing you want to do is deal with money.
- Concert venues – Were the venues centrally located and easy for patrons to find. Were the concerts well-advertised and, as a result, full?
- Sightseeing – were the sightseeing and other activities age appropriate for the group? Were there enough activities? Too many?
Think about the kids you’re traveling with, their personalities, and want you want to give them. Talk about Costa Rica – natural destination, really didn’t appeal to a lot of musical kids, many of whom are not the outdoors, camping type. Most of them probably would have preferred a more historic destination in Europe or elsewhere over spending lots of time in a national park.
As far as location is concerned, you also want there to be optimal opportunities for performances in venues that show your choir at their best as I mentioned briefly before. Carefully check out the performance venues your tour company is considering. When we were in Italy, we sang in three beautiful churches but one was so buried in the back streets of Lucca that it just wasn’t easily found by those seeking some choral entertainment that evening, so our audience was made up mostly of those who were traveling with us.
Think about concert times as well. I used to travel domestically with a children’s choir, ages 9 to 13 or so, and I figured out quickly that concerts don’t work well later in the evening for these young people, who would go full out doing whatever we were doing during the day and then had nothing left to give at night. So we did mid-day performances whenever possible, which were the perfect time. Then I could let them tire themselves out for the rest of the day.
Think about how the concerts are placed within the trip as well. On our last tour to Budapest, Vienna, and Salzburg, all of our venues were wonderful and all performances were well-attended. However, our third concert was on the last evening of the last day and everyone was simply exhausted. We actually shared that concert with a college choir and they looked equally as exhausted. Plus everyone was concerned about getting packed to leave early the next morning. While my choir rose to the occasion and did a wonderful concert, I don’t think I’d place it at the end like that again.
With middle school and high school students, you also need to fill your days with plenty of activities, which gives you less opportunities for the students to get into trouble. Traveling with adults, or even college students, you can add in a fair amount of free time and everyone will be fine doing their own thing. With younger travelers, however, staying busy is the key. Keep them moving. They can rest at meals and on the bus rides in between activities.
That said, know that problems will arrive and be sure you are properly staffed to handle them. There will be some drama of some sort and sometimes – if you’re a male director – you might need a woman to handle it and vice versa. Most school districts offer guidelines about the number of chaperones required per trip. Make sure you adhere to the guidelines and if you think the numbers are low as far as chaperone to student ratio, talk to someone about it before you introduce the trip.
Most of all, BE PREPARED both before and during the trip.
As you get close to travel date, have a pre-tour meeting and distribute ALL necessary information for both the travelers and those staying at home. TSA guidelines, emergency numbers, performance particulars including uniforms, etc. Remember, these kids will be traveling without their families – many for the first time – and everyone will be nervous – the kids and the parents. Cover ALL your bases.
On the day you leave, check PASSPORTS or other ID if you’re not going international, making sure everyone has theirs in their possession. Even one of my middle-aged ladies forgot her passport on the day of departure and had to go back home and get it, missing the bus to the airport, requiring her to find her own way there because we couldn’t risk waiting for her.
Finally, relax and enjoy. This is your trip too. On my first performance tour, I was so stressed about things going wrong or – worse yet – about people being unhappy with something, that I truly didn’t enjoy the trip as I should have. Rest in the knowledge that you’re well prepared and that you did everything you needed to do to make this a successful trip. Let the manager from the tour company do his or her job, which will leave you to tend to your kids and to creating the best performances and the most incredible memories.
You can reach me at
Thanks for reading!
Malcolm Gilbert, ninth grade choral director from NY and member of Choir Nation, explains his process for context-based sight singing that you can apply to your teaching any time.
Pattern Sheet (mentioned in episode) available for download to Patreon supporters at www.patreon.com/findyourforte
Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing the configuration of your room, and seating your choir.
When choosing to Feng Shui your room and seat your choir, keep the following items in mind.
- Be aware of the height of you versus the choir, especially if discipline is an issue. Just because you have risers doesn’t mean you need to use them.
- Channel your inner civil engineer and plan the flow of traffic into and out of your rehearsal room. This means that you should have aisles planned out so that each section can easily get to their spots. Theres nothing worse than 4 straight lines with no aisles for people to be falling over each other. There are only two ways in/out of each aisle. Unless your students line up in riser order outside of your door before the bell, I don’t see this as a good solution.
- Plan for bathroom breaks/interruptions when choosing a seating layout. If a student must get up in the middle of rehearsal, will it be distracting to the rest of the choir. This is especially difficult when you’re on riser. You may want to visit your bathroom policy if you have no other choice.
- If you choose to put your students in a pattern where they face each other, like a “U”, make sure they can handle it. Sometimes kids can get a little goofy if they have the ability to look at each other and not at you. 90-degree angles are not your friend in this situation.
- Consider a podium. One cue I used to use was that the choir was not allowed to speak when I was on the box. We used to listen for the sound of the air conditioner only when I was standing on my podium. I would train the kids by getting on and off the box and allowing them to rehearse talking and being quiet based on where I was standing.
- Let them face the clock. It’s better than creating unnecessary neck tension in the middle of your rehearsal, if you get my drift.
- You must be far enough away from the choir that you can hear all the parts evenly, but close enough that you’re still engaging.
- Ask for feedback from your most trustworthy students or class. They will tell you whether they notice discipline issues and will give you a general sense of the “vibe” that this configuration is causing.
- Most importantly, can your choir hear each other?