#69: Wednesday, April 28, 2021
What Comes Next? Repertoire considerations in the return to “normal”
Vidalita, arr. Diana V. Sáez
SA, piano or guitar
At this point in a normal school year, we’d be finalizing the performance schedule for next year. Students would be registering for ensembles for next year. We’d be solidifying collaborations, run outs, off-campus events, and invited guest artist concerts. Everyone would be looking ahead. Right now…it feels like we’re all in limbo. How can we best plan for fall, when we don’t know yet what fall will look like?
When my choirs are allowed to gather, rehearse, and perform again, as a full ensemble, for their first real indoor concert, it will be a wholly unfamiliar experience for them. Currently they’ve been doing music literacy work, plus rehearsing only in small groups, 8 ft apart and masked, in the music library, for 30 minutes at a time, for less than half our usual total weekly rehearsal time. No choir room, no chapel/performance space, no supportive acoustics, no social activities, no full choir, no performances.
It’s not “choir as they knew it.” Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like choir, just a “class.” Especially for non-majors that take choir as a 1-credit add-on elective, finding the joy in music-making right now, when we aren’t allowed to perform, or even rehearse, as full choirs is a huge struggle.
Ensemble- and community-building is a challenge, as is creating a beautiful, lyrical tone. Vowels are tough, and vocal placement is tougher. Long, supported phrases feel impossible. The farther apart students stand, the less they can hear of their neighbors, so the less they individually sing, and the less confidence they have – even moreso if we’re outside.
Students with previous vocal training, or those taking voice lessons currently, have found some ways to feel comfortable singing in a mask. Conversely though, students who came in with less experience, or with less/no formal vocal training, or maybe who are trying choir for the first time, get easily frustrated in masks. And understandably so. They are trying – so hard – but it feels like everything is stacked against them.
By next academic year, I will have two years of students who will have never sung in the ‘before-times’ while at my school, and two years of students for whom normal is a distant and very brief memory. Our last real performance will have been in December 2019.
My program, like many of yours, will have shrunk and dwindled in size and scope. It’s disheartening and demoralizing, to watch programs we’ve built start to crumble. Its soul-crushing to watch students leave your program because singing in a mask is not any fun, or because they miss performances, or because they are so tired and overwhelmed with the rest of life/school that they just don’t have anything left to give.
But, despite it all, moving on, and moving forward, is the only option.
So…when we finally can sing together, in our regular rehearsal/performance spaces, in our regular sized groups, for our regular length rehearsals, hopefully closer together, and hopefully leading to actual performances…what do we sing? We will still likely be masked, especially if we want to perform indoors, but if all the rest of the “normal” is back to normal, that’s not a deal breaker.
As I think about the future – I have some key repertoire (and non-repertoire) thoughts floating around in my head, that I think will benefit my singers and my program as we move forward:
- Songs that are one, or two, or three levels of difficulty lower than I might have programmed in the before-times. Confidence needs to be rebuilt – in all levels of ensembles. Leave the one-on-a-part music, and complicated polyphonic selections, for another time. I love complex-rhythm selections, and divisi-within-small-ensembles, but this isn’t the right time, at least not for my choirs. Especially with lower numbers overall, easier is better. I may have a major or a strong reader here or there that is capable of something more complex, but that is probably the exception rather than the rule. Next year is about the health of the whole. Build back the confidence and belief in their own abilities.
- Less music overall. Fewer pieces. Fewer concerts/events. Humpty Dumpty the Choir Program has had a great fall during the Covid-times. And needs care and nurturing to get put back together again. I know I want to jump head first into all the performances – just like we used to do and more. But I also know that won’t be as successful as a pared down schedule could be. I hope to be allowed back to a regular series of opportunities by our administrators, but consciously choose to do less than I would have in the before-times. Take the time to build community again. Build confidence again. Really support a true joy in singing for and with others, even if we are still masked. (Re)Build a sustainable program, not just moving from concert to concert.
- Fewer choirs? When I started in my current university, there was one main choir, and an advanced off-shoot group. Eventually, I transitioned the program into three stand-alone ensembles – a beginner, an intermediate, and an advanced. And all three groups would rehearse together once a week also, creating a tutti ensemble to start/end the concerts. So, really four groups. And it worked. I loved it. The students loved it. But, you know what? I don’t think that’s sustainable next year. Or ideal. Or necessary. Or helpful. I need to reconceptualize my program for next year, to find what I think will benefit the current singers most. Maybe that’s fewer choirs. Maybe that’s more combined rehearsal/repertoire, and less divided among individual choirs. Maybe its re-working my existing rehearsal times in a different way. I’m still working out the details, but its definitely on my mind.
- Repertoire that is lyrical. I frequently program fast/feisty/fierce rep for my choirs. I arguably don’t program as much lyrical music as I could. But one continued struggle this year has been getting long, lyrical, well-supported, tuned, confident phrases, out of masked, distanced, tentative singers. I for one know my singers need a return to simplistic, soaring, tuneful phrases.
- Unison! (Re-)Building beautiful confident tone and a blended sound is another of my goals for next year. One of the best ways to do that (though not always the easiest!) is with unison rep.
- Warmups. So many more warmups. And purposefully chosen, with clear intent. Ideally we all do this all the time – good solid warmups with good solid intent as to why each one was chosen. But with the chaos and disjunct nature of the current rehearsal structure/location/layout/numbers, sometimes that’s a tall order this year. However, if one of my main goals is to (re)build a beautiful tone, purposeful intentional warmups are one of the key ways to accomplish that.
- Repertoire from a variety of cultures and traditions – lifting up the voices of historically- and currently-underrepresented communities as composers, arrangers, lyricists, poets, and culture-bearers. We can give lip-service to ‘diverse and multicultural repertoire’ – but that isn’t enough anymore. Our singers, especially as students in an educational setting, deserve well-reasoned, well-researched repertoire choices, not just well-intentioned. I feel like dissecting my repertoire choices needs to be wholly transparent – something my students can see and process along with me. Who is the composer/arranger, are they associated with the culture of the piece itself? Where did the text come from…what did it mean when first used…has the meaning changed? Can my students see themselves in the offerings in this concert/semester/year? There are so many questions to put here – that could be an entirely different blog.
A piece that hits many of the points above is “Vidalita”, a traditional northern Argentinian folk song, arranged by Diana V. Sáez for SA ensemble plus piano or guitar. Dr. Sáez is an expert on Latin-American choral music, and is known for her careful, quality compositions and arrangements. I feel confident in her authentic choral portrayal of this tune, especially if performed with a traditional classical guitarist. The song begins in unison, with both part I and part II singing together. Then it becomes two-part, with melody+upper oohs, or melody+lower oohs, or melody+harmony. The song is short, not overly long or complex. Its tuneful and hummable. Its in minor, with the occasional si and one fi. So, I could continue to work on my singers’ progressing music literacy skills, while also emphasizing phrasing, contour, shaping, and support. And give students an opportunity to sing a piece of Latin-American origin, arranged by a Latin-American composer. (Who also happens to be a woman!)
There will be a lot to re-build next year, in many if not all of our choral programs. Purposefully-chosen, carefully-selected repertoire can be a key component of that rebuilding. The transition will likely require us to think differently about our rep, and our concerts, and our overall structure. But its possible. Rebuilding will happen. We will sing together again. The music will rise again. The journey begins now…
Until next month!
|Music Source:||Traditional northern Argentinian folk song|
|Arranger:||Diana V. Sáez|
|Date of Arrangement:||2016|
|Text Source:||Traditional northern Argentinian folk song|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Love, longing, life|
|Voicing Details:||SA – first unison, then two-part|
|Accompaniment:||Piano, or classical guitar|
|Publisher:||Boosey & Hawkes|
|Composer’s website, including perusal score, and audio https://dianavsaez.com/compositions/vidalita/|
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is Director of Choral Activities and associate professor of music at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.