Welcome to this summer series on questions and possibilities for a new era in our personal lives, professional lives, the choral landscape, and in society! I’m so glad you’re here for the journey.
From June 20 – 25, I attended the Choral Conducting Symposium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led by Dr. Andrew Megill, Dr. Pearl Shangkuan, and Dr. Maurice Boyer. I had attended the Symposium before and when I heard it was happening this summer, I jumped at the chance to attend. After a challenging 15 – 16 months, I wanted to attend a summer workshop where I could primarily focus on music and conducting in a supportive and non-competitive environment.
On average, each of the participants conducted once a day for about 30 minutes. When we weren’t conducting, we sang. Our first piece was something of our choosing. For the remainder of the week, we chose movements from the Mozart Coronation Mass, selections by Brahms and Mendelssohn, movements from the Fauré and Duruflé Requiem, and 20th century American and British part songs. Over the course of the week, we had the opportunity to work with all three instructors.
The schedule was built around COVID-related considerations and a desire to give attendees ample podium time. The registration was capped at 14 participants and it was 100% in-person. We were required to wear a mask whenever instruction was taking place. Despite wearing a mask, the music making was outstanding and moving. Masks were optional for anyone who was vaccinated and conducting. From 9:00 am – 12:00 pm and 3:00 – 6:00 pm, we sang and conducted. In order to air out the room, we alternated between two rooms in 30-minute increments. From 1:30 – 2:30 pm, there was an hour-long discussion on rehearsal techniques and choral/orchestral considerations.
When we received feedback on our conducting, the focus was on hearing the relationship of gesture to sound, breathing, and being ourselves on the podium. Often the first question asked was “What did you hear?” or “What did you like from the choir?” All three of the instructors wanted to help us achieve our imagination of the piece. Occasionally there might be some comments on tempo or style, but generally the instructors wanted us to be ourselves on the podium and help each conductor achieve their vision of the piece.
Despite the different experience levels of the conductors, each was a fantastic musician. This not only made for a wonderful choral ensemble to sing in, but also a joy to sing under each conductor. Throughout the week, each conductor became more themselves on the podium and allowed their innate musicianship and creativity to shine through brighter and brighter.
I was fortunate to be able to sit down with Dr. Megill and ask his thoughts on the week. From that conversation and ideas discussed during conducting sessions, I felt that I came away with a few things to reflect on for this coming fall.
For several weeks in the spring, the website said that it was to be determined whether or not the Symposium would happen this summer. I asked Dr. Megill the factors that went into deciding to give it a green light. He said that the School of Music supported hosting the Symposium. However, because the University of Illinois is such a large university, sometimes it was confusing who had the ultimate decision-making power. Increased vaccination rates across the country throughout the spring also helped.
I asked Dr. Megill what his goals were for the week. Primarily it was a hunger to make music live, especially since many areas of the country barely had had any live music in 15 months. As a result, he chose repertoire that was enjoyable to sing and easy to prepare. From a participant’s standpoint, we sang one or two of the pieces over ten times, but yet we did not grow weary of any of them.
Another question I asked Dr. Megill was what he was grateful for during the Symposium. He mentioned that given the state of the world, a group of relative strangers in the Symposium participants cared for each other, treated each other with kindness, and created a community of musicians. Even though the program was non-auditioned, we had a fairly balanced and outstanding choir. Dr. Megill was also thankful for being able to teach with Dr. Shangkuan and Dr. Boyer.
While some of Dr. Megill’s answers related just to the Symposium, I believe that his remarks also may relate to our own programs when we relaunch in the fall. Perhaps some of these questions or lessons are considerations you’re already thinking about. As the summer progresses, I will spend some time reflecting on these points.
- One of the greatest gifts we can give our choirs is to be ourselves.
- Especially with variants on the increase, being transparent and communicative with decision makers in our organizations is crucial.
- As we’re emerging into this new world, what kind of repertoire do we choose? Perhaps a worthy goal would be choosing repertoire that is enjoyable early in the rehearsal process.
- As leaders, we set the tone for our ensembles. From my perspective, a big reason why participants treated each other with kindness is partly due to the model of the instructors.
For more information on this year’s Symposium, click on the following link: