Musings before a new school year
There’s 5 days left (!!!) before my classroom is once again full of teenagers who bring noise, laughter and music into my life. I haven’t had the teacher panic dreams, although I’m sure they’ll start soon, and I’m both nervous and excited to resume my normal routine.
This summer was impactful for me in many ways. I had the great honor and pleasure of singing La Pasión Según San Marcos, which was a collaboration between Minnesota Orchestra, Border CrosSing, Minnesota Chorale and La Schola Cantorum de Venezuela under the leadership of María Guinand. I can’t emphasize enough how life changing and powerful the experience was - and I was so glad to see our audiences agreed. (Side note: If you ask me about the experience in person, be ready for a story that involves tears, reenactment and extended vocal techniques.)
I also started my graduate studies at the University of Saint Thomas. I was anxious about the experience but was thrilled to discover a cohort of colleagues who are critical thinkers and valued collaboration as much as I did. Every day was exciting and challenging. I treasured every conversation I had with my colleagues and I’m very grateful that we get to spend a few more years together exploring our field and continuing to challenge the belief structures that hold us back.
I finally had time to process my whirlwind summer and define the things I want to bring back to my classroom from what I learned this summer.
Good music is a visceral experience.
I think we’ve all been at a concert where we hear a piece of music and are deeply moved. I am the first to admit that I cry at every single musical I’ve ever seen (to the dismay of the poor friend that ended up going with me) and while I don’t often cry at professional concerts, I usually wind up in tears when I see young people making music. Sometimes, it’s the text that gets me. Sometimes, it’s the actual notes and harmonies on the page. Sometimes, it’s the passion and zeal of the people onstage that moves me more than the actual music. La Pasión was all of those things for me. I often had to sit in my car after rehearsal because I couldn’t comprehend how my life could be big enough to include music making of that caliber AND music that connected to my culture and identity in a soul searing way.
I want my students to get that experience this year. Whether they find it in the context of the piece, or the performance practice or in that one measure in the tenor part on the fourth page, I want them to walk away knowing that music can hit HARD and that we as choral musicians get to actively participate in that process. This year, I’m going to push my advanced group to sing in quartets more often and experience what it means to be an independent musician. We’re doing a collaboration with South High School in Minneapolis that involves their Treble group, Beginning Orchestra and the Harding Orchestra, Bella Voce and Helios Chorum. We did a choir-orchestra collaboration last February and I was very surprised by how much students enjoyed it and mentioned it to other people. We’ve also been selected as an MPR Class Notes Residency school and Border CrosSing will be joining us in March for a concert of Latin American rep featuring instruments that are rarely used to accompany choirs. I want students to see that choral music is so much more than standing still on a riser - choral music can accompany a joropo (coming in March!!!) or include staging for a choral orchestral work. Singing is hard work because it’s a full body experience.
Music is not static - we need to move.
One of the classes I took this summer was titled “Musicianship”. The syllabus was terrifying because it spoke at length about dictation, composition, piano improvisation (!!!) and fixed do sight reading. The class was actually a Dalcroze class that involved all of those things… through movement. We mapped out I, IV, V and vi chords by walking around a circle and stopping to spin, high five a neighbor, moving forward, backwards, etc. We would move in 6/8 to pre-set word patterns that represented beats (e.g. “running” was three eighth notes) while the instructor played in canon with us. We composed body movements in 13/8 that demonstrated micro and macro structure. WE HAD A GREAT TIME. I wish I’d learned to dictate and hear music like that in undergrad! I found that when I internalized the beat and chord structure in my body, I understood it so much more fully.
This was even more emphasized after I spent a week with Dr. Therees Hibbard as a section coach for the Minnesota All State SSAA Choir. Dr. Hibbard has a practice called “BodySinging” that focuses on the beats inside our bodies that translate into how we understand music. We spent 70 minutes every morning just moving our bodies to her playlists. She taught 2 vs 3, syncopation, dynamics, etc all through movement that felt like play. I will never ever forget how I saw this come into full focus at the recording session. The singers were performing Stacey Gibbs’ arrangement of “Now Let Me Fly” which halts to a stop in the middle with a slow section that accelerates. The singers had been moving to their own beat and singing and then they STOPPED and without any guidance from Dr. Hibbard they began to sway side to side to the same beat. They were together like I’d never seen and it was a perfect example of internalized music. It wasn’t the Minnesotan step touch - it was 80 trebles moving in unplanned unison to let the music in their bodies be represented in their singing. It was mind blowing.
It’s our job as educators to do the research and understand the context of the repertoire we select.
I took a class this summer titled “Global Music Traditions for Choir” taught by Dr. Karen Howard. I could go on and on about how insightful Dr. Howard is and the open and vulnerable conversations we had as a class, but that’s a topic for another day. Dr. Howard challenged us to think beyond the music on the page and look critically into the cultures behind the music. For example: we studied the Bulgarian State Radio Choir and learned that the women in the ensemble had been recruited from their villages to sing with the ensemble. They were asked to share their folks songs (generally about harvest, love, marriage), which were then taken by male composers and arranged for choir. The women were never credited (or given royalties) for their music and and the songs were billed as exotic and mystical to the non-Bulgarian audiences. It challenged me to think about the voices we listen to and the voices we silence when we select repertoire. If we don’t unpack the pleasant and the unpleasant, we do a disservice to students.
I’ve thought a lot over the past few weeks about what kind of music I should be programming, researching or even engaging in as a performer. I think a lot about the phrase I’ve seen in elementary classrooms. “Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said right now?” and have moved it into my music education world: “Does this need to be sung? Does this need to be sung by me? Does this need to be sung by me right now?” Am I engaging in a traumatic narrative that I should not be engaging in? Am I reaching out to culture bearers to better understand repertoire and context? Am I doing the work of unpacking my own bias and privilege before asking for help? Am I being transparent in the process of all of this, so to best model it for my students? I still have so much to learn and think about in regards to these issues and I’d love to chat with anyone else who is grappling with this.
Here’s to a year of transparency, listening and celebrating the young people who chose to come into the choir room. May we dig deep this year.