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Global Singing Traditions in the Choral Ensemble

Karen Howard

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Karen Howard

With diverse musical traditions more accessible than ever, many choral directors are looking for direction in navigating global repertoire that they can feel confident in bringing to their ensembles. Arrangements of traditional folk repertoire or new compositions in the style of a particular music culture are growing in number. What is not growing at the same pace is education that gives choral conductors a sense of comfort and confidence when selecting and analyzing such diverse materials. Questions regarding vocal health, authenticity, and performance practices are common. This article will address these questions and offer suggestions for moving forward in incorporating diverse choral traditions into the ensemble.

Protecting the Voice

There is a long history of training that focuses primarily on vocal production in Western European art music. Few programs allow time and space for exploration of vocal traditions and timbres that sit outside of what has long been the traditional choral canon. It is indeed possible to use the singing voice to produce a variety of tones and timbres while simultaneously being vigilant about vocal hygiene. Paying keen attention to such matters as: hydration, relaxation, stretches, tension throughout the head, shoulders, and neck, and warm-ups attuned to the manner in which the voice will be used serves singers well.

It is beneficial to reflect on one’s personal beliefs in regard to choral tone. We are most comfortable teaching what we know best and at times, this knowledge keeps us circling around a singular tone to be applied across musical cultures and genres. The more that we know about comfortable and safe ways to produce various tone colors and timbres, the more options we can offer to our singers to create a more colorful sonic palette.

The Big “A” – Authenticity

Choral directors frequently restrict themselves to the unrealistic requirement of recreating an “authentic” musical experience that is as close to the original context as possible. In fact, the director and singers comprise a unique culture that can be seen as having a rightful reality, and authenticity of its own. In order to feel a sense of success in working with global choral music, the original context of a piece should surely be considered even while attention is also given to the realities of the particular ensemble and the needs of the particular singers. Sharing original audio recordings or videos from the culture with your singers helps to develop an aural understanding of what inspired the arrangement they are singing.

While a choral director can function as a sort of artist-in-residence in her or his choir when presenting music from outside of primary training, it is not practical to expect musical and cultural expertise across multiple musical genres. To that end, it has become common practice to seek out artist-musicians in the community, bearers of specific cultural traditions, to offer up-front-and-personal musical experiences. Culture-bearers add a human dimension to the study of singing traditions that can be powerful for singers and their directors. A culture-bearer can bring the music’s history and culture from a place of marginal interest to central prominence in the choral setting. Choral directors recognize that culture-bearers have the expertise of their musical heritage to share, but that they may require help in translating the material in a manner that allows singers to relate to and understand, and to perform the music using their pedagogical and management skill.

Implications for Choral Directors

Choral directors interested in quality experiences with global music traditions will benefit from engaging in deep listening and examination of music from diverse traditions and cultures. Continuing to develop your own personal musical skills, regardless of the length of time since graduation, will increase your comfort in teaching a broad range of musical genres. Select music that is rich with cultural context and address the relevant sociocultural and historical features through meaningful dialogue. Find a way to ask the complicated questions of yourself and your singers related to vocal production, historical context of the piece, and its place within your choir.

Resources for Quality Global Music

In addition to quality arrangements and original compositions available in octavo format, consider transcribing or arranging a tune that catches your attention. Following are suggested resources to get started.

Smithsonian Folkways Archive – www.folkways.si.edu

This website includes thousands of recordings, and hundreds of videos. Look under “Tools for Teaching” for lesson plans using materials in the archive created by music educators from around the world. Perhaps you will find a tune that is perfect for your choir. Are the artists still living? Reach out with your questions. Try to transcribe the arrangement. Unison melody? Try your hand at arranging.

Association for Cultural Equity – www.culturalequity.org

This is the massive online archive of the work of renowned ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Included are original interview recordings, photographs, field notes, and even video documentaries.

Folk Song Collections

There are countless collections of folk songs from different music cultures. If you are unable to find an existing arrangement from a particular music culture, peruse a collection of unison folk melodies and create an arrangement that suits your group.

 

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