Stepping Stones to Embracing Tonal Diversity

Jeff Dahl

I have been part of a comprehensive visioning process with ACDA that was skillfully guided by my friend and colleague Steve Albaugh. Serving on the 2020 committee was an endeavor in reflecting on practices, programming, structure, funding and beliefs of our professional organization. With a desire to move it forward, to give energy to it’s vitality and relevance in a dynamic world, we imagined a relevant future for ACDA of Minnesota. As we examined our organization it was natural to do a self-examination at the same time. As I near the end of my teaching career I find the call to be relevant in the world a challenging task. I have always been an over thinker and reflective about all things, especially my teaching practices and effectiveness in the world. I must admit, I thought all of my thinking was a positive behavior trait. Recently I have learned that while it can be positive, over-thinking can also be a negative habit of mind. I have been encumbered with this habit of mind for most of my life, which can lead to self-loathing and self-deprecation. Neither of which is a positive personality trait, although I can find self-deprecating humor funny at times.

In a small break-out group at our August 2020 meeting at St. Olaf, a highly-esteemed and respected colleague of mine was in my group. In the small group I shared my thoughts on a particular topic. After my input in the group, my colleague would state, “let me play the devil’s advocate.” I value multiple perspectives and appreciate testing the strength of opposing arguments, but after the third time my colleague felt a need to play the devil’s advocate I realized my perspective was not being seen as relevant or informed. So when I was asked to contribute to the Fall Star of the North around a theme of embracing tonal diversity it immediately started to cause me a considerable amount of stress and doubt. I am not sure that I have anything to say on this topic that could be beneficial, inspiring or relevant to the members of ACDA of Minnesota. It may even cause you want to play the devil’s advocate. What would you write about? I have decided to share a couple of life experiences that have been stepping stones to what I believe is my ability to embrace tonal diversity.

The World Choral Symposium hosted in Minneapolis in 2002 was an incredible opening to hold the beauty of choral music from around the world. It was an opportunity to develop a global awareness of this amazing art form that we, as choral musicians, are engaged in. My experience at the symposium left me with a wonderful sense of intrigue about our world and all the diversity and beauty within. It evoked questions in me about choral sound and the attachment to different characteristics of sound from around the world. I wondered about the many things that could have an impact on a choir’s sound such as climate, spoken languages, religious practices, cultural history, etc.. It was a life changing event. The awareness of and access to a global understanding has changed greatly in our world since our state hosted this symposium. Our ability to explore our diverse world and music on the internet has the potential to expand our global understanding.

My education at Bemidji State University built a foundation in openness to tonal diversity. Dr. Paul Brandvik, former director of the Bemidji State University Concert Choir embraced tonal diversity. He used the acronym FREE as he taught us about choral sound. He believed that a beautiful sound is FREE; it is Free, Resonant, Energized and Expressive. I remember preparing for the NCACDA convention in Lincoln Nebraska in the spring of 1986 with the Bemidji choir. Dr. Brandvik’s session was titled, “Programming: A Variety of Colors through musical styles.” He programmed a diverse program with a desire to demonstrate the flexibility of the choir to produce FREE sound within a range of choral tone that was as diverse as the repertoire. Our rehearsals included consideration of period practices and a varied approach to choral tone. The choir embraced a continuum of tone from one that was relatively absent of vibrato to an operatic tone. The tone varied from bright to dark and heavy to light. A piece by Romanian composer Alexandru Pascanu, called “Chindia” is an example of a piece that demonstrated the flexibility to embrace tonal diversity by the ensemble.

Dr. Brandvik was generous to include me in a group of students he invited to attend a performance of the Concordia Choir, Moorhead as it toured the final year of Dr. Paul J. Christiansen’s career at Concordia.The conversation in Dr. Brandvik’s van on the trip back to Bemidji was another opportunity to consider tonal diversity and to consider the many expressive and beautiful sounds to embrace in our world.

Through those formative years in my education I had other opportunities to develop and expand my awareness of tonal diversity. A visit to Luther College with the Bemidji choir is one example. I was so impressed listening to the Nordic choir sing a piece that included quarter tone singing. The performance also included a set of dancers in unique dance bags. The Nordic choir’s diverse repertoire and tonal color was another inspiring experience that expanded my horizons. Another example is when I had the rich experience of singing with the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir under the direction of Robert Robinson. The rehearsals were inspiring and educational. Robert Robinson’s amazing voice was incredible to behold. It was an informative and wonderful experience.

I am a work in progress. I know I have a great deal to learn. I may be completely unaware, blind and in the dark to many things. I will grow as the light continues to expose all that I cannot see yet. As I grow, I will continue to deepen my understanding and ability to embrace diverse choral tones. It is great to be a lifelong learner; join me in the journey as we continue to step into 2020 as a vital and relevant choral community.