Running head: In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey


In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey Angela K. Yarnell The University of Kansas

In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey


“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest,” according to Confucius. As I reflect on what I have learned through imitation and experience, I will draw from my parallel graduate and teaching careers, that have played a contrapuntal duet together, both providing questions and answers for the other in the most entwined of ways. First, I recognize that some of what we learn is intended, listed by course number, title, and description and referenced on our transcripts. But much more is learned from the relationships that are formed with the professors who teach the classes and their personal research and anecdotes they share to enrich the readings, the guests who share their specialties and passions, and the fellow graduate students who each have their own strengths and interests. Attempts to trace this lineage of knowledge may provide insight to the interlaced web of thought that is the university, but cannot be truly thorough because of its complexity. The intention of my graduate studies in choral pedagogy has been to secure the most efficient and effective methods of vocal production by increased familiarity with contemporary research in order to teach a diverse group of students choral singing through high quality literature and the latest proven methods. During my academic journey in choral pedagogy, I have had the great honor of achieving some of my professional goals as a direct result of my studies in music education. I had long dreamed of the honor of preparing a concert for my colleagues at a conference. It was not a goal centered round a line of a resume, but rather for the sheer delight of pushing my choir members and myself to new heights through the process of preparing for such an honor. My high school band director, Penny Snead, taught me to seek out new challenges that force you to learn about yourself as a conductor. The news that my un-auditioned group of young women would sing at

In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey the 2009 Kansas Music Educators Association In-Service and Workshop was exhilarating, but also meant that the real work would begin. The KMEA journey put into magnified practice everything I had learned as both an


undergraduate and graduate student. The seven months between the invitation and performance can be viewed as a microcosm and a culmination of the majority of my graduate studies. All of my prior graduate classes helped prepare me for the first task of program design and literature selection. How could I set about a program that would be challenging yet attainable, diverse, educational, and be of such quality that my young ladies would pour the necessary hours into rehearsal to sing it beautifully? How might our performance possibly make a new contribution to the repertoire or in some way energize the audience of fellow choral directors? Memories of professors telling of their experiences with youth ensembles circled my mind, and I remembered spending many classes just thinking and dreaming of what might be possible in a choral setting. And then I remembered my first rehearsal with my Eudora High School women. I was prepared. From undergrad, I knew how to warm their voices and focus the class for singing. I had selected accessible literature, had studied it, and was so excited to start rehearsal that I could not even stand still. And then they sang. Not in unison, but in a tone cluster. I thought I would be sick. I felt that way for three straight weeks that first year, but eventually they started to sing. Sitting there contemplating a program for KMEA, I thought of those young ladies. I thought of their faces, their eyes, and their sound. They wanted to be able to sing so desperately, and they worked so hard to make it happen. From the moment I accepted the position in Eudora, my friends and many of my colleagues expressed concern for my decision and expressed that I should ‘get out of Eudora’ and get a real gig. Some of my colleagues who wrote beautiful recommendation letters for me

In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey


were mad that I took such a job, when I had been offered so many others. I took the job because I knew I could make a contribution to choral music in Eudora. My resolve was strengthened by Dr. Daugherty’s encouragement to go where there is the greatest need and set about building a choral kingdom. Six years later came the invitation to sing in Wichita. This concert was for them. It was for the young ladies who had had so many directors give up on them. It was for the girls who had parents who told them to drop out and get a job rather than finish high school. It was for the ones who sang because choir was a place they could transcend their realities and for a moment be their best selves. I thought back with fondness to Dr. Darrow’s impassioned speeches about the value of each student in “Mainstreaming and Inclusion in Music Education” and how she challenged us to overcome our preconceptions of student capabilities and limitations. And so, the program was chosen: “Through My Eyes” would be a concert celebrating everything wonderful about these young ladies, with text from their perspective of the world. With the structure in place, I set out to find the music that would tell their story. Lessons from “Choral Literature” and some segments of “Contemporary Topics in Choral Pedagogy” helped guide the process as I spent hours looking for just the right balance of styles, periods, languages, texts, and levels. I considered thematic sets, progression of keys, non-pitched a cappella transitions, voicing, tessitura, timbre, tempi, instruments, pacing, and endless other factors (see Table 1). After all, Hilary Appestat was right in saying that the “choice of repertoire not only dictates the performance curriculum; it IS the curriculum” (2006). I took inspiration from Dr. Dunn’s and Dr. Daugherty’s presentations on thematic programming and literature selection as well as conversations with a select group of esteemed colleagues to create the final repertoire list.

In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey


The set was comprised of three song pairs entitled, “I. Looking Forward”, with music of possibility; of what these ladies could achieve; “II. Looking Inward”, featuring texts from the heart and their innermost dreams; and “III. Looking Heavenward!” with sacred songs celebrating their faiths. The program included two new works, “Letter From a Girl to the World” by Andrea Ramsey, a fellow University of Kansas graduate student, and “We Never Know” by Cynthia Renfro, my talented accompanist who wrote this work for our women’s KMEA performance. Several presenters in segments of “Contemporary Topics in Choral Pedagogy” had discussed commissioning works for your own choirs and gave me the courage to try new literature. I was also excited about providing my singers the unique opportunity to be accompanied by two composers on stage and have insight to the compositional process and their vision in rehearsal. Composers in residence, so to speak, further propagated my goal of making these young women feel valued because they realized the rarity of such an occasion and were proud to be part of it. Meaningful texts are at the heart of every great piece of choral literature, and “We Never Know” with poetry by Emily Dickinson perfectly captured the idea of looking forward: We never know how high we are Till we are called to rise; And then, if we are true to plan, Our statures touch the skies

The heroism we recite Would be a daily thing, Did not ourselves our cubits warp For fear to be a king.

In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey


This beautiful poem and work became our song of triumph as we approached our concert dates. We all wanted to sing it to proclaim: we are here! With the literature chosen, I set about studying the scores and planning strategies for how we would learn all of this wonderful music. I referred continually to my notes and readings from “Choral Diction” and became a full-fledged International Phonetic Alphabet convert. The two Latin texts and one Sanskrit text provided obvious opportunities to teach IPA to the ladies, but we also began to apply IPA vowel transcriptions to our three English pieces for ease of communication and vowel unity. The semi-colon notation in the diphthong vowel pairs reminded us to elongate the initial vowel. We embraced the use of the schwa between word pairs ending and beginning with consonants, going so far as to make an ‘I love my schwa’ sign that only choristers would understand. Madeleine Marshall’s book, The Singer's Manual of English Diction along with various choral recordings, informed our study of the language of half the concert program. I did not rely upon a ‘one size fits all’ approach, but rather upon a synergy of ideas presented in a quickly paced environment so that all could learn according to their different modalities and personalities. Rehearsal strategies pulled from every discipline and many were created specifically for the literature. As I learned from Pam Bushouse and Mary Cohen, we translated some repetitive consonants and vowels into kinesthetic representations as quick reminders of the unified production and used Tai-Chi movements to connect to the breath and align our bodies. Dr. Tucker urged me to teach that the quality of the breath is equal to the quality of the sound, so much of our energy focused on various ways to breathe deeply. Had I taken “Science-based Voice” prior to this endeavor, I would have instructed my students in the appoggio breath management technique and been more scientifically accurate when discussing

In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey


how the voice works. Even so, I believe we still would have danced, because much of the music required us to move to capture its inherent buoyancy and lilt; certain songs and sections had a kind of rehearsal choreography to go along with them, from painting phrases in the air, to fluffing clouds in our hands, to elephant walks, and even including some sumo wrestler stances. Although more research supporting this type of kinesthetic activity is needed, and the reasons why such activities seemed to work, whether it is novelty effect or something else, are unclear, such movement brought renewed focus to rehearsals and was an expedited means to an end. After the girls embraced the movements, I would use them in miniature while conducting as reminders of our goals. With “Choir Online” experiences behind me, web-based learning tools were created that reinforced the concepts taught in rehearsal and enabled the ladies to explore other aspects of the literature. These efforts to approach the music with respect to different learning modalities and intelligences captivated them and engaged them in the whole process. As we continued the journey, it was also imperative that all performers understood the text and reflected upon its meaning in their lives. To that end, each young lady completed individual written work exploring the texts and participated in choir discussions during a retreat. Excerpts of their writings were printed in the program, including one from junior Hannah Pittman reflecting on “We Never Know”: “Looking at history, at the people who were ‘not supposed’ to amount to anything, and seeing how truly great they became and the things they changed, allows me to realize that the only true limits that I have are the ones I set for myself,” (see Appendix 1, p.4). The most emotional moment of our reflections came when we were discussing “Letter From a Girl to the World” and the girls shared what they wished people knew about them or how they wished their parents would say aloud that they loved them. Everyone in the room realized that we are all equal in our insecurities and vulnerabilities; that we are more

In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey


alike than different. These activities were inspired by my memory of Dr. Johnson insisting that we say that we teach kids music, instead of the more common phrase, “I teach music”. Our focus on the intrapersonal mode of intelligence brought a new depth to our interpretation of the music, because the texts were no longer simply beautiful abstract thoughts, the texts were about us. Preparing a choir to perform is not all about the abstract concepts of literature and how to present it, however. When preparing for such an honor as a convention performance, it is true that your entire choral program’s strengths and weaknesses are magnified under the stress. I tried to embrace the experience as an opportunity to grow as a conductor and leader yet celebrate what we do well. On a pedagogical level, I knew we had been selected for our musicality, focused blend, and mature tone. I also knew we needed to work for greater resonance, more spacious vowels, and even greater blend and unity within the sound. On an interpersonal level, I knew our positive rehearsal environment and tenacity as a group would serve us well, but that we would need to be careful to maintain joy in each moment and patience with each other in rehearsal as the date drew near. It was a constant struggle to be fully present in each moment with such an important concert looming. I thought of Dr. Daugherty’s comment that often the most beautiful and memorable moments in music happen in rehearsal and not in the concert. After some effort, I was able to believe and convince my singers to believe that we would do everything ahead of time to be prepared so that when we were performing we could simply relax and enjoy the moment. Although funny in retrospect, I thought back to Dr. Johnson’s task analysis lesson, where we broke even the simplest of activities, such as preparing oatmeal for breakfast, into individual steps. It was a natural transfer then to rehearse every musical and nonmusical element of a performance with the students to develop a fully disciplined and cohesive

In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey


ensemble. He programmed us to be over-prepared in every detail surrounding the performance, and I am thankful. As our convention date neared, we finalized all aspects of our performance. We all became hypersensitive to choral blend and voice matching, with someone suggesting almost everyday that they could hear an individual voice sticking out or that something might be better if we changed positions. We were able to put Daugherty’s research on choral spacing into action by spacing the ladies laterally on the risers. Our findings were similar to Daugherty’s in that my more advanced singers loved the space and increased Self-to-Other Ratio, but my intermediate students preferred close spacing. After adequate rehearsal time, all grew used to the increased space between singers. Rehearsal conditions prohibited us from exploring circumvent spacing, since it is crucial that rehearsals are as near to the performance conditions as possible. Along that line, we set up two pre-KMEA concerts in different venues to train ourselves to be able to adjust as needed once we were in Wichita. For varying conditions, our first concert was at Lawrence High School with an acoustical shell, grand piano, and more reverberant acoustical space, since our auditorium had none of these properties. Our second performance was to be at a local church with a grand piano, but the sanctuary burned before we could perform there, so our own auditorium was the host to our KMEA send-off. Nothing quite prepared us for the dry stage but reverberant house in the Mary Jane Teall Little Theatre at Century II, but the ladies were stoic and did their best to adjust as needed during the performance. As expected, I remember with more fondness and detail the events leading up to the performance than the final concert itself. There were two ultimate moments of the proud director for me: (1) the choir walking with held hands through the Hyatt to the registration/atrium area of Century II and then singing their opening piece, “Cantate Domino” in a circle with complete joy,

In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey


and (2) holding the ending fortissimo CM chord of “Agnus Dei” with the overtones soaring and then silently transitioning to the opening piano unison A with absolute perfection. We didn’t sing for a full house, but it didn’t matter. In those moments it was really all about the girls singing for and proving to themselves that they could do what no one thought possible. Penny Snead was right, I did learn about myself as a conductor by going through this tedious process. Every decision was weighed and every sound analyzed like never before. The whole process was truly a challenge with the looming question: “How wonderful can we be?” I certainly made mistakes along the way; different choices in teaching strategies could have potentially made us better in performance, but at the time, I did everything I knew to do. Skill sets evolve as we learn from ourselves and others, so I have no regrets. I don’t agree with Confucius about learning from experience being bitter. The journey to a performance at the 2009 Kansas Music Educators Association In-Service and Workshop was stressful and frustrating at times, but there was more sweetness than bitterness, and I learned more than I can describe from the adventure. The path and success of this one journey is but a glimpse into my life as a choral conductor and my approach to teaching and learning. My continued growth as a professional depends on setting goals and seeking out the necessary research and knowledge from colleagues to attain those goals. I wish to become more adept at teaching solo and choral singing resonance, along with increased attention to diction and musical nuance. I am fascinated by the study of choral literature from all periods and do continually work to improve my knowledge base of the finest choral pieces. I also intend to seek out and apply more research-based methods in my teaching and further explore the science behind singing so that I may present information in a variety of ways that is both accurate and effective. The research questions posed internally at the

In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey


beginning of this graduate journey are simplistic in comparison to those that peak my curiosity now. The more that is understood, the more we realize what answers we must still seek, and the world continues to grow larger and more complex.

In Search of Choral Wisdom: One Conductor’s Journey


References Apfelstadt, H., (2006). Handout from “Contemporary Topics in Choral Pedagogy” at the University of Kansas, Summer 2006. Confucius., (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2009, from Web site: Daugherty, J., (2003). Choir spacing and formation: choral sound preferences in random, synergistic, and gender-specific chamber choir placements. International Journal of Research in Choral Singing. Vol. 1 (1), 48-59. Dickinson, E., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1924;, 2000. [August 21, 2008]. Marshall, M., (1953). The Singer's Manual of English Diction. Location: Schirmer.

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