A Spectrum of Success:
Two stories of non-musical changes that have profoundly impacted musical success.

“The choir was so enthusiastic!”

“The singers all looked like they were really invested.”

“What an innovative program!”

Jennifer Rodgers

How do you, my fellow music professionals, receive these comments? Do you take them at face value as the compliments they are? Or do you worry that they are somewhat backhanded because they don’t directly address musical elements? Your answer may indicate your definition of success in our field – is it a hierarchy or a spectrum?

I think it is the nature of music educators to want to embrace a spectrum of success, but only truly do that if the kingpin of musical excellence is firmly established. This secret (or not so secret) hierarchy quickly governs everything we do as choral conductors – how we structure our programs, manage rehearsals, navigate diversity of sound and repertoire, and assess and receive feedback on all of it. So much so, that I propose our priority on musical excellence may be counterproductive in the quest to actually be musically excellent.

At the heart of this article are two stories that support this proposal and illustrate parallel and complimentary successes in choral music. But first, let’s acknowledge that musical excellence is a complex and vague construct. We each could easily list common pillars (tone production, phrasing, dynamics, articulation, balance…) and start in on that list from opening rehearsal through performance. However, that plan is (and should be) immediately complicated by a number of factors. To explore just two:

  •  Diversity of programming – you want to perform pieces from more than one genre, culture, or language, but the time to achieve true technical excellence and authenticity increases with each diversifying choice. Lofted vs. brassy tone, German vs. Swahili language, classical vs. jazz styling, etc. How will you prioritize between diversity of fluency and more fluency in one tone or style?
  • Relevance and understanding – you can approach any musical element from a technical or relational point of view. It will take a few minutes to tell a choir which words you would like them to stress, affecting their dynamics and articulation. It could take quite a bit longer to take them through the process of figuring out word stress for themselves and perhaps considering different interpretations. On the surface, it would seem that you need to prioritize between efficiency of instruction and more investment in the process. However, let us also consider which is more efficient in the long term.

Each of these examples presents major decisions for how you will spend precious rehearsal time. Of course, we want to be “excellent” and “successful” in all these ways and we can build toward multiple skills over time. In the short term, however, we do have decisions to make.

The compliments quoted at the beginning of this article reflect an ensemble’s community and investment in each other, the students’ understanding and expression of the music performed, and the capacity of musical programming to explore human sound, culture, and experience. On a spectrum of success, these are all excellences – each important on its own merits, but also complementary to each other and that kingpin of technical musical excellence. The stories below are but two out of many in my experience where non-musical work leads more efficiently and more effectively to the excellence of musical work.

Lyrica and the Case for Identity

When I arrived at Iowa State University, even in the height of COVID-19’s impact on choral programs, it was clear that three of the four major ensembles were thriving and one was suffering. It was also clear to me that identity was at the heart of both the successes and the decline. The three robust choirs covered the bases of musical achievement, difficult repertoire, new works, school spirit, outreach, and touring. The fourth choir, Lyrica, had none of those as its primary characteristic and no others of note in their place.  They were “the other treble choir” and they knew it. In the Spring of 2021, enrollment reached a low of 17 students – pandemic enhanced, but still following a 10+ year trend of steady decline. What’s more, morale, energy, and confidence were all very low, and the students didn’t feel any agency as performers, leaders, or artistic contributors.

The first change began organically, almost out of necessity. We were outside, masked, and distanced – metaphorically and physically. I had chosen a Wailin’ Jennys folk arrangement and just couldn’t get the group to feel it. Perhaps out of desperate need to communicate with these students or for us all to have visceral musical experiences in our pandemic lives, I suddenly began to move. Drawing on Dalcroze eurhythmics that I had experienced briefly more than 30 years earlier, I lilted and shifted, walked into the momentum, lifted away for unstressed notes…I danced the music. And I will note for the record that I am not a dancer.

The students wouldn’t quite join me, but they leaned forward and started to sing differently. A transformation took root that day and started to grow. If we were having trouble with a rhythm, we shifted weight to feel it. If we needed a better phrase or meaning behind articulation and dynamics, both the students and I started using physical shapes to describe it. I started the next year with embodiment as a core practice. This took many first-year students by surprise, but quickly became a basis of our choral culture – in part because the small cohort from the year before started perpetuating it with pride! Many other elements followed in quick order. Some were more predictable, like better rhythmic fluency and more overall energy in the room, and some were more far-reaching, like more improvisation fluency and overall bravery.

A specifically musical shift became apparent at the end of that semester when all choirs turned to combined works for the annual holiday concert. I had two choirs starting the same music at the same time – Cantamus and Lyrica. Cantamuuns auditioned with more musical fluency and had been performing more difficult repertoire all semester. Lyricans were not as confident in auditions and their musical fluency was widely varied. Lyrica was sightreading the holiday music better and learning it faster. How? Because they applied their bodies and their bravery to the new task. They had formed a community where they felt less inhibition, were willing to try new things imperfectly, and were emboldened by being in it together.

NOTE: As I write this article, we are preparing our combined choirs Masterworks concert, which will be the sixth time since that first holiday concert that the conditions have been the same as described above. Each time, the “more advanced” treble choir has exhibited more traditional musical fluency in both auditions and rehearsal – more knowledge and capacity with sight-singing exercises, more sophistication of tone and tuning, and quicker responses to questions of key, meter, and rhythm. And each time, Lyrica has exhibited more accuracy and retention of both mechanics and instructions about style. This is not a coincidence. This is a different kind of fluency. Lyrica culture and embodiment have created a bigger and safer playground that allows members to sing with energy and without fear.

The second change began through a deliberate quest for identity. It didn’t make sense for Lyrica to become a culturally specific choir (jazz, gospel, etc.), but perhaps we could be a choir that explores a host of cultures through music. In 2021-22, we were able to partner with artists through Arts MidWest who were working with Ames that year – a Brazilian band and an Israeli-Persian rock singer. Then I sought out other partnerships with a local blues and jazz singer, an African drummer, and an international Irish tenor – all in Central Iowa! The Lyricans brought their growing bravery and sense of self to each new experience, and with each one came different challenges – invitations to actually dance, learning a wide range of song stylings and vocal timbres, unfamiliar languages and harmonies.

Before the 2021-22 academic year was out, Lyrica had a clear new identity as an adventurous choir which brings culture-bearers to campus, learns music a little differently sometimes, and aims for a “no fear zone” rehearsal space, a phrase coined by the students. At our end-of-year review for 2022-23, when I asked them what ideas and partnerships they would like to pursue, the reticence I had felt when we began this journey was gone and the whiteboard quickly filled with enthusiastic ideas.

There are many successes now evident in this ensemble and reflected in the story above. Going back to those opening compliments, these students are enthusiastic and invested, and the programs are creative – full of different sounds, embodied in a variety of ways, and telling a host of different stories. Lyrica is known for these successes, has an identity that the students build on, and our numbers are growing again – nearly 70 in the Fall of 2023!

I believe that these successes are absolutely valuable in their own right and separate from “musical excellence,” but a last piece in this story leads me to my assertion that non-musical work leads more efficiently and effectively to the excellence of musical work. In the Spring 2024 semester, I pursued a partnership that many students had asked for – with Simon Estes, internationally-renowned and ceiling-breaking operatic baritone and our music building’s namesake. This meant a concert program featuring opera, art song, gospel, and hymn music and, thus, classical tone, more music learned directly from the score, and more stand-and-sing formations. I worried that students would be less energized and embodied, and the music less relevant to their lives.

I needn’t have worried. Their Lyrican culture firmly in place, they brought all of these skills to this “more traditional” music. When I asked them to translate an archaic sentence, figure out how they could relate to a plot, or paraphrase Schubert, their insights were abundant, profound, and…well…awesome. They were as curious to make lofted, operatic sounds as they had been to sing India Arie, and they had more skills at hand to do just that. We learned the music handily, memorized and nuanced in Czech, German, and English. Simon Estes and the audience leapt to their feet and I saw nothing but pride on those singers’ faces. Oh, and the compliments were notably about enthusiasm, investment, and musical excellence.

Cantamus 2.0

Cantamus is the treble choir at Iowa State that has a reputation for advancing the field of treble music.  With musical excellence firmly in its kingpin position, the ensemble regularly commissions new works and performs a variety of more challenging repertoire. This identity was securely in place when I arrived in 2020, even in the pandemic decline. As the numbers grew again, I came to realize that both the strong identity around and focus on musical excellence were actually standing in the way of achieving it, particularly when combined with the musical gap of the COVID years. Choir members were afraid to make incorrect sounds or sing incorrect notes, robbing their bodies and the room of fundamental energy. Returning members were adamant about singing memorized, but the learning process was slow, and we were barely getting to an acceptable quality of performance with music in hand.

At first, I was tapped their pride and identity as a motivator – urging them to use their musical fluency more actively and trust that knowledge. I spoke about energy and modeled it constantly, finding myself exhausted at the end of rehearsals. That energy wasn’t coming back to me, however, and wasn’t resulting in any lasting change.  Some of the students who had also noticed these difficulties began to follow my lead, urging their peers to up the energy, concentration, and discipline. I was grateful and hopeful about this development, but it only seemed to increase the divide between leaders and followers in the group. Now, those not “rising to the challenge” were more withdrawn and those plugging for it were disappointed in their peers, setting up what could easily become a cycle of negative reinforcement.

At the end of the 2022-2023 academic year, I decided to be more overt about the situation and consider several shifts for the coming year. I called it Cantamus 2.0 and spent class time that Spring to both lay out my thinking and invite students’ input on the changes. Together, we talked about frustrations and perceived barriers, then developed a wishlist and priorities. We turned these into a community agreement, including commitments to being actively present, creating a conscious and respectful environment, and building professional practices together. Students knew that they would be asked to sign that agreement starting the next year.

I redesigned the audition to include embodiment (building on Lyrica success), some risk-taking, and embracing diverse styles. Then I offered current singers the opportunity to go through that audition process with me in the Spring so they would know what to expect. I was also open about my willingness to reduce the ensemble size in order to focus on these initiatives. I stated my hope that singers would return, but also that they should choose not to return if they weren’t able to commit to what Cantamus 2.0 asked of them. Although musical fluency was still a component of the audition, these new initiatives were all about prioritizing other kinds of excellence – investment, enthusiasm, and community. I was beginning to double down on my belief that these choices would, first, make for a more comprehensively “successful” choral experience, and, mindfully second, actually raise the bar of musical excellence by treating it as a complementary rather than primary focus.

I was prepared for enrollment numbers between Cantamus and Lyrica to swap places. Cantamus would be smaller and more select in this new way, and more singers would be invited to Lyrica, which I hoped would augment their new adventurous identity. As it happened, both groups grew significantly. Some Cantamuuns did not return, but those that did were on fire. They brought new peers and some who had left the group over the last couple of years returned.

In this first year of Cantamus 2.0, we performed four concerts from memory without really focusing on memory drills. The number of student-led components increased, including warm-ups, shout-outs for morale and celebrations, more confident sectionals, and collective staging and performance decisions. The pace and feel of rehearsals were strikingly different – we covered more music and addressed more musical skills. We all left most rehearsals with renewed energy and animated conversations spilled out into the hall, many of them about the music and Cantamus-related business.

Conclusion

These stories present nearly opposite perspectives on how musical excellence relates to other successes in choral music, and both experiences have greatly changed how I teach. There is a lot of either/or thinking around – that one has to choose between focusing on excellent musical tone or building a strong community; that a choir can be serious or have fun. I have always believed that a strong community makes technical work more effective because the singers are invested differently. They feel more agency in making and encouraging musical choices. And I have always promoted the concept of “serious fun.”

But I have also had my own worries about the compliments quoted at the beginning of this article. I know that I am a trusted, innovative, relational teacher, and I get regular feedback on those qualities. Still, I find myself feeling defensive when I confront a hierarchical definition of success. Success is not just a spectrum, which calls to mind a Likert scale and happy/sad/mad emojis. It is a cluster graph with beautifully colored and related constellations, or a Venn diagram with robust overlap. In the center is not musical excellence, but simply excellence.

About Jennifer Rodgers

Dr. Jennifer Rodgers is the Assistant Director of Choral Activities and Assistant Teaching Professor of voice/choral at Iowa State University. She directs two large treble ensembles at ISU and the Ames Chamber Artists in the community. Her D.M.A. is from the University of Washington where she specialized in voice pedagogy in the choral setting and bridging contemporary and traditional styles. Jennifer has presented internationally on the topic of musical self-image and has a growing body of published work and presentation in choral relevance—a movement to examine the field of choral music through a lens of inclusivity and connective dialogue. She has just been named the next editor of the Rehearsal Break column in the Choral Journal of the ACDA.