Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The evolution of a choral director

I have been sharing in my recent posts about my desire to form my own choir and work on music that I have a passion for, and in one of my recent posts, I said I wanted to do it "my way".  Many of you who follow my blog or read my posts from social media know that I have been in choral music for a while.  But with this post I wanted to share with you how this desire to direct came about: the evolution of a choral director.

I have contacts in the music world that have worked very hard to achieve what they have through years of study and schooling.  They are working on their masters or doctorate, or have their doctorate and are teachers or professors.  They work in the music industry as paid singers, or church choir directors, or in some capacity as professional choral musicians.  I applaud these people, since they are working hard and have achieved their goals, or are constantly working on furthering their goals, strengths and dreams.  

I had spent my high school and college years not focused on choral music, but the organ.  During my 20s I took lessons and classes in music theory and composition, but never thought of pursuing a degree, or setting myself up for directing.  In fact I had no dream of directing when I began my involvement in professional choral music.  Granted, I had done the "air directing" thing, standing in front of my stereo, waving my arms and emoting as if I was directing the choir or orchestra.  But I had no intent of actually DOING that.  I had never focused on choral music in high school or college.  During my time singing with a highly trained and skilled choral director I never even thought of directing.  Even in the few briefs years I sang with professional choirs I did not think of directing.  Frankly, I was too intimidated by one of the directors to think that I could ever achieve even a slight skill as a choral director.  Eventually I married (a choral singer thankfully!) and started a family, so singing fell to the wayside.  Singing became something I did on occasion as a guest at a small church choir.

Then in 2006 my wife and I joined a choir at a small Lutheran church.  The irony is that we joined the church as a family, but singing in the choir, with it's 7:15 AM Sunday morning "call", made it impossible for us to continue in the choir because we could never take the kids with us (anyone trying to get young kids up at 6 AM on a Sunday morning can understand!)  We left the choir, but continued to attend.  It was then that I started to think of directing, but only our church's choir.  I started to think about what I'd do to improve their tonality, their expressiveness, their intonation.  I'd hear them sing something, and wondered what I'd do to improve it.  Then, as I listened more, I began to find that I wouldn't hear how they were singing a piece, but how I'd WANT it to sound.  My ear modified it to what I wanted to hear from them.  I was convinced that, given the chance, I could get the choir to sing as I heard it, not as they presented it.  They were good singers, so I knew that there was that chance, that possibility.  So I made it a goal that if the director left, I'd apply for the Director of Music position.

Then, in the fall of 2009, I received what was arguably the "call" to pursue this dream.  I was feeling the urge to return to singing, and to find a good church choir.  The kids were older, and we weren't as involved as a family in that small Lutheran church.  I was looking online at various churches in the area when I saw one that was having a meeting that very day of their music director search committee.  And it was then that I felt the strong urge, the call, that THIS was something I needed to act upon, to pursue.  I didn't take immediate steps, since that very day was my wife's birthday, and we were leaving the following week for a 10th Anniversary cruise, but I thought about it, and emailed some close friends.  We returned from the cruise and I developed a bad cold, so it was 3 weeks before I could think about doing anything.  I decided to "scout" out the church and talk to the organist and see what the position was about.  I shared that on Facebook and was told by a Pacific Chorale contact that the position had been filled by someone from the Chorale.  I was disappointed, more in myself for not jumping at the chance.  But I made it known publicly that I'd done this, and that I now had a goal to direct.  The other thing that happened with this was my acknowledgement that I would be willing to go outside our own church to direct.  I began to research other churches and open positions.  I found a website that posted open positions for choral directing.  I began to cultivate friendships with other choral musicians on social media, and contemplated joining a choral director's association to further build my contact base, and maybe find someone to study with.

I also stayed active in my church, and in the fall of 2010 I was approached by our choir director, who was aware of my goal, to become his assistant director.  I was pleased that he asked, but after thinking about it for two weeks, and discussing it with my wife, I turned it down.  During our time singing with him I had found that many of his ideas and techniques of choral singing and rehearsing where the opposite of what I knew about choral music, and the training I had received from two very fine choral directors.  I decided that, rather than work under someone who I disagreed with, I'd not take the position.  I do not regret that decision, even though the following winter and spring he took a leave of absence, and I would have taken his place.  Even so, during that time I would have needed to stay within the parameters he'd set, and thus it would not be my choir, my ideas, my thoughts.  I continued to be active in the church, and found myself sitting on Sundays, listening to the choir, and wondering what I'd do with them to improve them.  Then, suddenly at the beginning of 2012, the choir director left.  I made my interest known to our pastor, and was one of three candidates for the position.  During my interview I was asked questions that were mostly about my faith and my background, and it became apparent that my lack of keyboard skills was one drawback to one member of the committee.  I came away convinced that one of the other candidates, a young man who filled in during the director's leave of absence, was the better person for the position.  But I also came away knowing that this was something I really wanted to do.  My wife started to encourage me to start my own choir, made up of singers that were good enough that we wouldn't have to spend time working on notes, and were also trained enough so I wouldn't have to teach them how to sing.  I liked the idea, but really had no sense of what needed to be done to make that happen.  Plus I had no goal of what we'd do with the choir.  I wouldn't really want to "perform" anywhere, but just rehearse the music I loved and wanted to work on.

Later that year my wife and I started to attend a Lutheran church that was closer to us, and in doing so, we joined the choir.  It was a larger group of singers than we'd been in, and made up of some good singers and readers.  My wife knew some of them already, so the transition was easy.  I was determined to use this time to watch the director, learn from her, observe her, and hopefully gain some more knowledge.  During this time I found that my desire to direct was growing more.  I was being asked to become part of a couple of the smaller professional groups here in the area.  I was socializing more with other choral directors, and beginning to understand more about what I wanted to do.  2013 turned out to be the year that I really began to define things, and became more involved in choral music than I had since my days in the Pacific Chorale.  Early in the year my wife and I sang for that young choral director for his masters recital, and I made connections with some fine young musicians through that time of rehearsals.  One of them was a talented harpist, and because of her, I chose to do a work that speaks so much to my heart - the Britten "Ceremony of Carols".  I became alive with music, constantly thinking of this piece and how I'd do it.  Before the choir took its summer recess I approached our director and told her that I'd like to direct, and asked if she'd keep me in mind for future opportunities.  During the summer my wife put together a small choir to sing on one of the summer Sundays, a choir made of up of singers that had worked under a beloved church and high-school director.  I ended up being the director for this, although the singers knew the piece so well that they didn't need to be directed.  But I did work on some things like setting the tempo, entrances and cut offs.  It went well.  Well enough that I asked if there were any other openings during the summer, and there was.  So, I solicited a group of singers and in late August, directed this pick up choir on a Sunday morning.  And this time I prepped them completely, and it went over very well.  I was now firmly feeling that I wanted to direct.  That I wanted to move forward with the Britten.  I began to set that up but found that it wasn't as easy as I thought.  Not in the music, but in the logistics.  The date, the singers, booking that wonderful harpist, the location, and the balance of the program, all put me behind in actually executing the work.  I ended up not doing it, but knew that someday I would.  It was also during this time that my wife suggested that the pick up choir she'd been talking about all along have a goal, and that we'd provide music for a small Lutheran church once a month, doing the type of music that I love and have a passion for.  Suddenly it all gelled together.  This is what I would do!  As Christmas approached I began to think more and more about the coming year and the desire to create this choir and be part of the ministry of this small church.  One day my wife asked me what my motivation was to direct, and it was then, during that discussion that I realized it was because I wanted to direct a choir my way.  I was no longer satisfied to sing.  I wanted to be the one shaping and molding the sound and the music to how I wanted it to sound.

So, here we are, in the first couple of weeks of 2014.  I have yet to begin that process of planning, but I am going to start soon.  I have music to review, singers to recruit, rehearsals to plan, and a place to direct.  But the evolution has moved to a new phase, and I am excited about this phase.  May the Good Lord guide my steps, and make everything I do pleasing in His Sight.

Soli Deo Gloria



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