I think that “legacy” is probably a topic with which all of us in the choral community in Minnesota are quite familiar. The legacy of choral singing, whether that is in our high schools, colleges, or communities, is a concept that we are all steeped in from a young age. That is certainly true of singers and directors in the East Metro where there are so many fine programs – from the high schools of District 196 and Hastings to Stillwater and the Anoka-Hennepin schools and many places in between, not to mention the strong collegiate, church, and community choirs on the St. Paul side of the city. There is truly much to be celebrated.
Rather than resting on the legacies of the past, though, I would urge us all at this point in our year to focus on maintaining and building on our legacies. Whether it is the end of a school year or a concert season, or the natural dovetailing that follows the high points of our various liturgical seasons; spring and early summer serve as transition points for most of our choirs. Those transitions can prove to be difficult for carrying on legacies, but they can also serve to be rallying points. I would urge us all to consider how we can address two potential transitions at this time of the year in terms of maintaining legacy – transitions in choral membership and transitions in artistic leadership.
Particularly for school choirs at all levels, the spring is a time when our choirs will be saying goodbye to a significant number of singers. I often share a story from my own senior year of high school with my singers at this time of year. As my high school director could probably attest, I had a more than healthy ego as an eighteen-year- old All-Stater/soon- to-be music major. One afternoon after bemoaning to my mother what would become of my high school’s choir once the seniors left she gave me some very good advice – no one is irreplaceable. Of course I was incensed at the time, but I’ve come to see the wisdom in helping my singers to see that truth. Yes, the strong tenor section leader or that phenomenal soprano soloist might be moving on, but there are always other singers waiting for their turn to shine.
At this time of year while saying our goodbyes and expressing gratitude for the leadership of those singers who are leaving us it is equally, if not more, important to symbolically pass the torch on to our emerging leaders. For our younger singers who often seem to crave ritual, having a way of saying goodbye – a traditional song, a passing of folders, writing notes to the graduates in copies of the music as gifts – gives them a way to start realizing that they are now going to be the leaders. It is also important to verbalize the accomplishments and the legacy of the choir so that the remaining singers continue to take ownership.
Of course the continuity of the choir director helps to maintain and further the legacy of a choir during the transition from one year or season to the next. So what happens when that is continually disrupted?
Just as the spring and summer bring with them a change in choral membership, so to do they bring a change in artistic leadership. Soon many collaborative pianists and directors will be having the last performance with their current choirs. Some of us will move on to other exciting positions or adventures, while others will conclude careers and take much-deserved retirements. These transitions will, of course, bring challenges to maintaining and building the legacies of our choirs.
In the transition of artistic leadership there is also opportunity to help the choir continue to grow. This is a time for those of us who are leaving to show confidence in our singers and in their future leaders. It is a time to celebrate the legacies we’ve built together. I think it is also helpful to acknowledge and celebrate the communities that are our choirs that have built those legacies.
As we all make final preparations for one last concert, take time to share with your singers the legacy they have helped you build. Celebrate leaders. Welcome and anticipate new singers. Look to the future with hope. As my choirs will sing at the end of our May concert from Stephen Paulus’ The Road Home “With love in your heart as the only song, there is no such beauty as where you belong, rise up, follow me, I will lead you home.”
We lead our singers home to our choirs’ and their collective legacies.
I wish you all good luck on your performances, have a great summer, and I hope to see you at Dialogue!