This past October, I had the pleasure of leading a high school choral festival in northern Minnesota featuring four small(er) schools from around the area. The goal of the festival was to spend the majority of a day meeting students from other schools while collaborating in song on a variety of pieces. The choirs prepared the pieces separately, before coming together at a central location. There weren’t any judges or singing FOR each other—they simply came to sing WITH each other. What transpired that day changed me as a conductor forever and reminded me that sometimes the simplest things are the most important.
Growing up in western North Dakota, my choral experience was a humble one. For two of my years in high school, I was one of three tenors in a choir of fewer than 20 singers. I was most likely a baritone, but since I could (kind of) sing high, read music, and my presence boosted the tenor numbers by 50%, I sang tenor. We rarely had moments where we tuned a chord or achieved balance in the choir, and the pieces we could perform were limited. However, it was in those same choirs that my love for choral music was ignited, cultured, and supported. My choir director introduced us to Lotti’s Kyrie in D minor—I had never heard anything like it, and I’ll never forget how I loved how the parts imitated each other but had their own unique role in the piece (what I now know as point of imitation counterpoint). My director encouraged me to audition for the North Dakota All-State choir my sophomore year, and I was selected and had the privilege of singing under Dr. André Thomas in Mandan, North Dakota. The sheer amount of people in choir gave me goosebumps. I couldn’t believe that so many singers were, well, choir geeks like me. Simply warming up and making a chord was incredible. Some of those same people I met are still my friends today. Among a variety of pieces, we sang David Dickau’s “If Music Be the Food of Love.” It was here, experiencing this piece under Dr. Thomas, that I knew I wanted to teach music for the rest of my life.
It’s easy to look at the experience with Dr. Thomas and say, “This is where it all happened”. However, this is only a small (but very powerful) point in the story. In truth, my experience in my high school choir, however meek and humble it was, provided the backdrop for my experience in All-State. The daily rehearsals working on a variety of pieces while continuing to grow as a singer were absolutely essential.
I was reminded of this during the above-mentioned festival this past October. When we began to warm-up, the students’ eyes lit up. Most were used to singing in a choir of 10-20 students. Some had never matched pitch before. When the sound in the room was made, they were changed. Many discussed how they felt supported, enlivened, and whole, just because they were in a big group. We made a lot of progress with vowel shape and vocalism in that warm-up, but even if we didn’t, the number of singers in the room and the sound we created still would have changed them forever.
We are needed. We must not forget this. At all levels, it is tempting to forget the many, many achievements and progress our students make. Of course, it is imperative that our standards are high for the sake of our students and our world, but we must not forget that sometimes the simple act of singing in a group (even if our vowels/pitches/etc. aren’t quite right) might just stimulate a love for music, community, and humanity.
A choir is one of the only remaining places where people come together and, for a time, place the goals of the ensemble over many of the goals/wants of the individual. It is a place where we forget ourselves for some time, in a world that seeks to exalt our individuality. We look past our differences and aspire to unify our technique and message in the music. There have been many articles and studies that have recently emerged linking participation in choir to greater feelings of joy and lesser feelings of anxiety. In contrast to the largely passive nature of many activities people use to “recharge” (watching Netflix, social media, surfing the web, texting, or gaming), singing in a choir is real. It is active. It is tangible. It is human. It is needed.
So, carry on. Maintain the highest standards and goals, but don’t forget about the many daily victories in your teaching. Choir may be one of the only places where we can begin to bring people together by finding common ground. Let’s embrace our future and change the world.