We Exist to Transform

Susan Zemlin

Susan Zemlin

I had to change my major to Music Education in my first year of college. I couldn’t help it. Choral music was the thing that transformed me in ways the other subjects individually could not. It was the thing I could not explain, yet could not get enough of. If that transformation is what brought me here, now that I am a conductor I think about all who are waiting to be transformed as I program each of my concerts.

It has taken me thirty years to realize that just picking music I like is not a programming process that is effective for all those involved. It is my responsibility to consider:

1 – Who is in the audience?

What is their frame of reference. What do they need?

2 – Who are the performers?

What are their strengths and skills? What are their experiences? How can I give them a new experience while relating to something that is relevant in their lives?

3 – What is happening in the world?

Are we called to help people understand a major event or concern through our artistry?

In my job, I program for a variety of capabilities and needs. My SATB Concert Choir is the easiest for me to program. They are my most versatile and skilled ensemble, so there is a huge amount of music available to them. It would be easy for me to pick my favorites for them and give them no voice in the programming process. In fact, I did that for many years.

Recently, I have found joy in allowing them to suggest things that they have heard and always wanted to sing. I still do most of the deciding, but they have sometimes made suggestions that end up being the perfect fit. For example, they wanted to sing “Emerald Stream” this year. After we began working on it, environmental protections came to the forefront of American conversations. We ended up accidentally singing it in a concert the same day executive orders repealed some environmental protections. We were not being political. My students had asked to give voice to that song. They understand that they have power.

That power can be harnessed to help the community. Earlier in the year, our school scheduled “Box City,” an event that generates awareness for youth homelessness in our area, on the same night as our Fall Concert. My students knew that they had the power to raise money by singing some clear messages about kindness. One of my officers gave a beautiful speech, and they collected over $800 in freewill donations for Hope For Youth.

In my first job, I had four male singers in my high school choir on my first day of work. I had never heard any music that would work for that configuration. Many of us are faced with the challenge of finding quality music for tricky voicings. Now I have a collaborative choir with general education students and special education students. I spend the most time programming for their capabilities. I have learned to be creative about adding a special element to each song I program for them. Maybe we create a video to show while we sing, or we have some of the singers do a dance, or we add ASL to the chorus. You would hear this choir and not consider them to be perfectly balanced or in tune, but they are an audience favorite at every concert. They transform the listeners while transforming each other and me. They understand what my Augustana College speech professor, Eugenia Hartig, told me over thirty years ago: “If you want to persuade people to listen to you, have something to say and believe passionately in it.” It took me a while to figure out how to take her advice, but she was right.

What we sing has to be designed to transform all of the stakeholders. We have to believe in what we are singing before the singers will. The singers have to feel a connection to the music before the audience will. If we do our jobs, we will continue to provide experiences that transform and enrich our communities. This is my last article as president. My wish for all of you is that you continue to transform and be transformed by choral music.