Chris McGinley
DMA Candidate, University of Minnesota

2021 FMC Graduate Study Scholarship Recipient


I am honored to have been selected as a recipient of one of the 2020 Graduate Study Scholarships. This award helped to sustain my research and efforts as I worked to complete my DMA in Conducting from the University of Minnesota, studying with Prof. Kathy Saltzman Romey and Dr. Matthew Mehaffey, while my full-time collegiate teaching career at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire.

A major component of my degree is researching and writing my dissertation on the topic of improvisation in choral rehearsal and performance. This topic involves studying historical and global traditions of choral improvisation – including organum, faburden, cantare super librum, free and structured schemes of harmonization, hymn lining, aleatory/indeterminacy, graphic scores and text pieces – and illuminating their pedagogical and performative opportunities for use by scholastic, community, and professional choral ensembles. While much of the experimentation phase of the research was halted by COVID-19 in the spring and fall, access to the university library and resources purchased with scholarship funds allowed the research and writing to move forward throughout the summer.

This fall marked my last semester of coursework for my degree, all of which was taken online. Conducting Seminar was held over Zoom, and my participation was largely asynchronous due to conflicts with teaching responsibilities. Lessons and meetings also occurred virtually, as were degree-qualifying events such as my written and oral comprehensive exams and the assessments for our three language requirements. Thankfully, I was able to complete the practical portion of my secondary degree area in Wind Conducting (under the supervision of Dr. Emily Threinen) by conducting mixed chamber ensembles in person at UMN and UW – Eau Claire. The Eau Claire recording was included in one of the final concert streams of the semester, but sadly the recording session for my piece at UMN was cancelled due to COVID.

COVID-19 has also impacted my teaching, as it has for all of us. At the University of Minnesota, all of our choral ensembles went virtual through Zoom for the entirety of the fall semester. This has meant adopting or creating new strategies and platforms for choral music and considering opportunities for global learning and collaboration, helping students develop their musicianship and background research skills, and consider the meaning of our artform.

In the ensembles I co-direct along with Master’s student Vinay Thomas, our particular focus was engaging students in recording, production, collaboration, and creativity with the goal of keeping them singing every week. At the start of the semester, we explored the virtual choir process using Noteflight to record student tracks and GarageBand to edit them together. Over time, we transitioned to projects where each student was recording multiple parts in Noteflight or Soundtrap, getting to hear choral harmonies by singing with themselves rather than singing along and having to wait for an edited recording to come back. Around the midpoint of the semester, the creative possibilities of the platforms occurred to us, and our projects became less about recording a notated arrangement, instead using technology as a means for creativity: students were creating their own realizations of canons, learning to edit tracks and manipulate elements like pitch, tone, and reverb, and eventually producing fully realized 3- and 4-part arrangements folk songs, hymns, and music of their own choosing.

At UWEC, our choirs remained in person, limited to 30-minute rehearsals of 12 singers or fewer. This has meant exploring a chamber music model, breaking each ensemble up into several chamber groups and cultivating student leadership as a means for keeping the various groups running while faculty provide coaching and conducting when possible.

Both schools produced virtual concerts in a variety of pre-recorded and live formats. As a grad student who is simultaneously a professor, I see the role that collaboration, especially between teachers and student workers/volunteers, plays in keeping our artform afloat during these challenging times.

None of us can do it alone, and the support of MN-ACDA is a comforting reminder that we don’t have to. As I complete my degree and return fully to the career of teaching, I hope to repay the generosity I have been shown.