“I want to give my students a voice that will last a lifetime.”
Larry Bach has been teaching music and voice and leading choirs for over 30 years. This sacred charge still gives him great joy. Here he shares with us some thoughts about music pedagogy and the healthy use of the voice, which he has observed from a variety of perspectives over the course of his multi-faceted career.
When did you know that you wanted to become an educator?
I think it was in the 9th grade, when I wrote a career paper about being a college teacher – I thought that would be a good idea! I started college as a Music Education major, dropping that for Music Performance. After graduating, I took a church job. While I was there, a school affiliated with the church, North Central Bible College at the time, called me out of the blue; I was 27 years old. They offered me a teaching job. I had never heard of the school, nor had I ever been to Minneapolis before; I grew up in the Pittsburgh area. So behold – a college job presented itself, and away we went.
How do you find the balance between your teaching duties and your administrative tasks?
My teaching responsibilities currently include leading the Chorale, all of the conducting classes, leading the music for the fall musical, and teaching voice lessons. The second year I became the head of the department, I took on an additional administrative role. It’s a leadership role that suits me, but I don’t consider it my number one thing. We are not a large university, so the administrative part is not all-consuming. I’d say that probably three quarters of my position is teaching. It is nice to have a balance of both, because each function informs the other.
Would you say that you have an over-arching “teaching philosophy,” or does your approach grow more organically out of each teaching situation?
I think it is probably a little bit of both. Overall, I want to help the students become the very best that they can be. So that’s organic, because the students are individuals, and are always different. How I teach now, compared to how I taught 30 years ago, is quite different – because the students now are different. On the choral side of things, I favor not having a lot of excess vibrato. I think I have that sound in my ears from my 20 years with The Dale Warland Singers. I have embraced, and want to expose my students to, what you might call the Minnesota choral tradition of a cappella music. Also, I’ve tried to incorporate a really wide variety of music in my programs. In general, I would say that I am really committed to students, whatever style of music they’re doing. We’re a church-related school; many religious institutions these days are embracing a contemporary style of music. How do you sing an aria, or an oratorio part, or sing something in a more contemporary style, and be healthy doing them all? That is the over-arching vocal philosophy which informs my teaching.
What are some of the differences between teaching music versus leading an ensemble? For example, Dale Warland was in an academic setting at Macalester College for many years, but is that a different skill than using technique and charisma to lead a group and mold a distinctive ensemble sound? (And how does Dale DO that?)
Well, of course, Dale does have that charisma! This is a bit simplified, but I have never seen an audition process like the one that he had for The Dale Warland Singers. Because I became an assistant conductor for some of my years with him, I actually got to run some of the audition process until he got involved nearer to the end. It was pretty intense. He is extremely selective about the singers he picks. He picks the voices he wants, but he has enough time in the audition to get a feel for the person, so he is really selecting for vocal quality PLUS personality and attitude. And because of the kind of person that Dale is, he is able to get the maximum out of the group he’s assembled. Plus, singers want to do their very best to please him. But Dale has the uncanny ability, even in the audition process, to sense potential, and I think that has a lot to do with his success and the success of his ensembles. Most times, we are happy to end our preparation process at a very exciting, creative peak. But with Dale and other groups at that high level, that’s the starting place – at the beginning of the preparation process.
I think that teaching in an academic setting, in a classroom, is different from the leadership skills required for a performance ensemble. There is still teaching going on in an ensemble setting, of course. You are teaching musicianship and a lot of other knowledge and skills in a classroom. With an ensemble, though, you are leading the charge, and that is a slightly different skill set.
Can a teacher be taught how to teach? Can you speak to the dichotomy between the academic theory of Education – or the mechanics of child/brain development – and the experience of the actual teaching?
As far as the process of preparing future teachers? I don’t know that you can teach the passion, the “want to” in someone – and I think that having that attitude and approach has so much to do with it. Certainly, there are great pedagogical “helps” out there to become a better teacher. What I see frequently are people who are tremendous in their field – outstanding researchers, or performers – who love their field, but aren’t in love with the idea of teaching. Then there are those who love communicating and investing in other people – especially the younger generation. You can’t teach that. But those folks can certainly add to their arsenal to get better at the teaching part. There is more help out there for that than ever before. The passion for the subject and the process can carry one through the mechanics or logistics.
You mentioned that students have changed over time. Do you see any general trends? For example, has the national tendency to cut arts programming in the primary grades impacted the preparedness of entering students at your level?
Oh, yes. And this is not just my observation, but anyone I talk to. For students overall – and there are always exceptions – the preparedness and musicianship of students coming to college now, compared to 20 or 30 years ago, is just not the same. There is no question that this reflects on the cutting of the arts at the lower levels. In our school, and I imagine at other schools, we have had to institute a pre-theory class, because a lot of these students are just not ready to take the first level music theory class. It’s not that they’re not talented; they just don’t have those skills, because when they were growing up, that background was cut – it wasn’t there for them. The talent level itself is still extraordinary – the kids can sing, or play – but they are losing out in their musicianship skills. So we’re playing catch-up.
There are some great things about today’s millennial generation, but there are also some challenges. One challenge today is that it seems very hard for the kids to commit to things – which can make scheduling difficult. I used to schedule our groups to sing quite a bit more. But now my students seem to want to do a bit more of a lot of different things. If I schedule too many extra events, I don’t have singers. So where we might have done seven, eight, or nine concerts per year outside of a tour, we now do one to three, max. That’s all that I can do. I’d love to do more, but that’s the reality of the student’s schedules today. Kids of this generation are being pulled in a lot of different directions, and they think that they have to (or want to) do it all. They think they’re supposed to it all, and that they’re entitled to do it all. And so commitment is sacrificed. And this generation doesn’t, by and large, see that as a problem. So you adapt.
We have three choirs; I direct the top group, the touring choir. That group almost always stays together for the full year. And typically, student who get in that group stay in until they graduate. But in the younger choirs, the students are in and out, even within a semester. Which makes it harder: I don’t know them as well; they’re not as prepared to come into the top choir; perhaps I won’t have as high a level to choose from as I had in the past. But it is what it is. Despite some of these challenges, I’m still doing this because I really love it. It is tremendous to have something to go to every day that you really love. I always feel quite fortunate and blessed to be in this situation.
Is there anything different about working in a Bible-based setting?
Well, certainly there’s a lot of joy. These kids love to sing. A lot of directors in other settings have to forge a unity in their groups. But at a faith-based school, we have a significant built-in unifier that brings us together already, from the outset. Most of our concerts are sacred, branching out into other styles: Renaissance to contemporary. It is fun to get the students to embrace all those different styles – and to do them all well. And to have them get passionate and excited about it – that’s been a joy, and is actually still very exciting to me today, even after all these years of teaching. I really love getting my students excited about all the possibilities, and what they’re capable of achieving – which sometimes they don’t even know themselves, until they’ve done it. This is, for many of them, the highest level that they’ve achieved so far. And that is really fun, and also very personally fulfilling.
Can you talk a bit about how you view the use of the singing voice in your program and in your teaching?
I strongly believe that you don’t need a “classical” voice and a “contemporary” voice; you need to find YOUR voice. If you are a person of faith, I would frame it in terms of finding the voice that God gave you. And to use your voice in the way that we were designed to make a joyful noise. When it comes to the voice, I want to separate the noise from the style. Everybody makes a noise. Can we make that noise ON the breath, in a healthy way, so that we are not injuring the vocal cords that we were given to make this beautiful noise? Then, once we can do that, can we study, and learn to use the ears that we were also given to make the right colors, and vowels, and resonance; to sing a Renaissance piece, or a Baroque piece, or a Mozart aria, or a jazz piece, or something from a Broadway musical? But always starting from the premise of singing in a healthy way. Our goal, in all of our voice classes and recital performances, is: “Let’s be healthy.” Many of our students are starting to become music pastors in places of worship, where a lot of what they do may be leading contemporary worship forms. We want our students to have a voice that will last a lifetime. That’s our motto, in fact: “A voice that will last a lifetime.” One of the things that informs this is my own personal resume: I have sung in graduate school choirs, two summers as an undergraduate student singing in Graz, Austria, singing with The Dale Warland Singers, soloing, leading hymns and contemporary worship songs in our school chapel program, singing in evening rehearsals, teaching the next day – and yet, I’m not losing my voice; I am still vocally healthy. I am telling my students: “This is what I believe can be available for all of us.” So that’s our goal: “A Voice for a Lifetime.”
Most leaders of worship music are not equipped to teach their young people how to use their voice to sing contemporary styles properly and healthily. And that can be true in a theatre setting, as well. No one is guiding them on how to re-produce what they are listening to in current popular media – there’s so much tension in their production. Many high school music directors have told me that their kids participating in some of these religious programs are showing vocal wear when they come into the classroom the next day. We need to teach them; keep working with them to learn how to make that sound without hurting their voices. That is what we’re committed to doing, especially since we’re working with a lot of faith-based kids. And many of them are succeeding in learning about this. I do a lot of workshops just on that topic. I have worked with a lot of high school choirs just on how they make their sound. And how that healthy sound can be adjusted to a gospel style, or a spiritual, and then perhaps a Renaissance piece, too. That has been my approach for a long time, and I believe it has served very well.
It sounds like you would agree that to engage young people, you should meet them where they are; that whatever style of music it is that engages them, start there.
For sure, that’s going to help. Look to engage your students, and then you can help them to do what they already want to do better, and to have more fun doing it. Now you’ve got them, and you can take them anywhere!
One can only hope that educators nationwide are as nurturing and imaginative and protective of their students and their voices as Larry. The specific inclusion of art and music in the new Education Act (Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, 2015) is a step in the right direction, to restore some of the prepartion which has been lost at the primary grade level. Engaging our youth is investing in our future, and the future of artistic achievement.
David Winkworth, Associate Editor, Star of the North
Larry Bach currently serves as Artistic Director for North Central University, as well as its Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Director of its School of Music and Theater. Under his vision and leadership, the Fine Arts department has grown from 30 to 200 students. Bach conducts the Chorale, the University’s premiere choir, and teaches conducting classes. The Chorale has completed 15 overseas tours, performed multiple times for the American Choral Association and has performed at Carnegie Hall. Bach received his Vocal Performance Degree from West Virginia Wesleyan College, and a M.M. in Conducting from the University of Minnesota. Bach is also a doctoral candidate (abd) in Conducting at the University of Iowa. He also studied at the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. Bach has had a 20 year association with the Dale Warland Singers, a Minneapolis based professional choir, which has been acclaimed both nationally and internationally. During his tenure with this group, Bach served as an assistant conductor, singer, and tenor section leader. Bach has also sung under the prominent conductors Helmuth Rillig, Eric Erickson, and Robert Shaw. Bach has traveled extensively throughout the United States as a clinician and guest conductor for churches, schools, and professional organizations. During the 2004-2005 season, Bach was named the All State Choir Director for Minnesota from the Minnesota Music Educators’ Association (MMEA).