December 26th, 2013
What are the trends, challenges, and opportunities that are shaping choruses and choral music? A panel of leaders in the field weighs in.
There are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of choruses and choral music. Millions of people in the U.S. report that they sing in a chorus. A cappella groups are exploding on college campuses. Television programs like Glee, The Voice, and The Choir showcase the power of singing. And new professional and volunteer choruses are forming around the country and beyond.
But there are challenges to the art form we love. School music programs in many communities have been slashed. Small non-profit choral organizations are struggling to raise the funds needed to keep the music coming. And audience members today have a dizzying array of entertainment options, which may or may not include attending a choral concert.
We asked seven leaders in the choral arts and the larger arts field to think about the current trends that are shaping choruses and choral music. What major challenges will have to be overcome to insure a vital future? What new opportunities do choruses need to start taking advantage of? Here are their thoughts, organized by theme, and presented in a conversational format.
It’s hard to talk about the future without talking about how much new technologies have changed and will continue to change our lives. How is this impacting the choral field?
Katherine Yang, director of education and community programs at the Pacific Chorale: We are dealing with the reality that people’s first experience of classical music probably will not be in a concert hall. With the iPhone and iPod and Pandora and Spotify, we have the opportunity to jump from song to song and create our own playlist. The question is, how do we make sure our art form stays relevant and that our music gets sampled more frequently and is part of the everyday listening experience, especially for the younger generation coming up? People listen to many different kinds of music. We need to get in there and be part of the mix.
Brian Newhouse, managing director of Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media's classical programming: All the research we are paying attention to shows that media consumption of classical music in general, including choral music, is going online. It used to be if you wanted to listen to choral music, you made it yourself or turned on the radio or listened to a record. But now you can go to YouTube and listen to fabulous little videos of choirs from all over the world. So the competition for visibility has become dramatically sharper in the last two or three years.
The phrase we use here a lot is mindshare. With everyone having almost limitless choices, we are competing for mindshare. In April 2012 we opened up Choral Stream on MPR, a 24-hour choral channel with 30 hours of choral music playing in one continuous loop. I had hoped for about 20,000 monthly launches of that stream after a year, but we had three times that. We think there is a significant national online audience for this.
Patrick Dupré Quigley, founder and artistic director of Miami's Seraphic Fire and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra: Choruses need to figure out how to evolve technology into their communications and performance experiences as an enhancement, not a detractor. The big Twitter concerts, personally, I find to be ridiculous. It is just one way to get people to not pay attention to the music.
That said, we perform music in all sorts of different languages constantly, and the opera has been projecting supertitles for 30 years now. People really like supertitles, and it is not hard to accomplish. Why are we not using that? Why are we not using more video to communicate with our audiences, and with potential audiences? We need to think fundamentally how technology can give our audiences a better way in to what we do.
Music and choral programs in schools around the country are being cut. How are you seeing this play out in your communities, and how can choruses help combat this problem?
Ann Howard Jones, director of choral activities at Boston University: In Boston, we have hardly any public school music programs left. Studying music is becoming an economic issue. Unless you have the money to take private lessons, you don’t make any music. We also have very few graded children’s choir music programs in churches anymore. There is no starting with the preschool kids and bringing them up through primary and then getting them into a middle school choir and then a youth chorus. So I don’t know how our own more advanced choirs are going to survive. Fewer young people being trained to sing well. They might have nice voices, they take private lessons, but they don’t have musical skills.
Francisco Núñez, artistic director of the Young People's Chorus of New York City: I travel a lot to other countries and many universities no longer see singing in a choir as an important part of preparation for higher education. Academic test scores have become the only thing that’s important. How does a child find cultural significance in his life if he has to balance that with getting into higher education? Where do the arts meet and balance a child’s life? That is something that we as educators are going to have to grapple with.
Eugene Rogers, associate director of choirs at the University of Michigan: We have got to figure out a way to continue to help school districts in communities where choral music is dying. When you think how much music can change one’s life, and you see these programs being chopped off at the knees, it is sad.
But I also see conductors becoming more creative and having these community groups—not just children’s choirs but youth choirs —where people are really trying to continue to foster singing. If it’s not happening in the school, we will try to provide some avenue for young people to make music. That is a positive, to make up for the loss, if you will.
Katherine Yang: One of the hottest trends in music education in the performing arts world is the Venezuela based El Sistema model. There are a number of programs based on that philosophy in Miami, Atlanta, Boston, and Philadelphia. And we are creating a program now here in Los Angeles. Many of these programs take place after school. The students are not only learning the fundamentals of music but also the importance of being a part of an ensemble, a family. The point is not necessarily to create exceptional musicians who would go on to conservatory, but to create exceptional citizens, who will come away with more awareness of the art form and an experience of belonging and connection.
Ann Howard Jones: We need to connect the arts to all of those other aspects of learning that students are so pressed to excel at. When we do Holst’s “The Planets,” let’s talk about astronomy. Let’s figure out some way to get scientists in the same room with us. If you’re going to sing “Dona Nobis Pacem,” get an expert who does poetry and art about war to come in. We should connect more. It’s hard because we are all so specialized and focused on our own thing. But we can’t lose the opportunity to help people work on the spiritual, social, and soulful parts of their lives.
What shifts have choruses made in the kinds of music they are choosing to perform? Which new programming trends will we continue to see more of?
Eugene Rogers: As I tell my instrumental colleagues, we have a little bit of an advantage in that choral music crosses so many genres. The choir has the ability to go in and out of the classical, popular, and sacred music worlds. People are thinking outside of the box to make this a relevant art form. This can sometimes be tough because we as conductors may feel pressure to play into pop culture’s ideas of what music is. Because we have so much at our disposal, it is a challenge to not lose sight of the past, the greats, the chestnuts, the strong traditions that have built choral music to be what it is today.
Ann Howard Jones: Everyone seems to be on the new music bandwagon, which is fine, but in the meantime, the platform out of which the new music has come is less and less familiar to today’s young singers. I am talking about a student who comes through a school program and has never sung “He, Watching over Israel” or “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” All they know is this contemporary melody-driven music. I think we have to figure out how to keep that compositional trend balanced.
Gabriela Lena Frank, composer and musician: The words that we will be asking our choirs to deliver to our audience are going to be more reflective of contemporary culture. For Chanticleer, for example, we used slam poetry from Chicano poets. I brought that into the music and that demanded more things from the singers—short turns of phrases and being able to pull things in a very angular way. They sounded a little bit like they were improvising on the spot, and yet that required their classical chops. It was obviously not a slam poet who was delivering the text. It was something that uses the best of both worlds.
Ann Howard Jones: World music is going to increasingly be part of our programs, but I think sometimes we push it a little too far. We go to a convention and hear someone sing African music and we go buy that score and go home and try our best to sing it. I’m not sure that is doing that music too much good service.
But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t do it. Lots of people have worked on how to make the music work in a setting where we really aren’t going to sing it “authentically,” but we are at least going to experience the music, and thereby experience a little bit of the culture. Perhaps we need to delve into the music more.
Speaking of new music, what role does commissioning and nurturing the next generation of composers play in the development of choral music?
Patrick Dupré Quigley: People need to remember that young composers become established composers with large circles of influence. The act of commissioning someone who is young and fresh is not just because it will be good for the world. You are also doing something good for your organization.
The benefit to the organization is that you get a custom-made piece of music. The benefit for these young emerging composers is they learn to be flexible in how they write for the voice. They grow up to be well-regarded, highly published, and successful composers. They will be champions of yours for years and years to come.
Gabriela Lena Frank: Take advantage of the writers out there. Commission them and ask them to write texts. My main writer is Nilo Cruz, who won a Pulitzer Prize as a playwright. He really understands theater and performance and understands how words need to live on the stage. It is not a great leap when you have a writer like that, who is living, to make the transition to music. That is a guaranteed way of having a contemporary voice instead of programming the same repertoire all the time. That is a good way to secure our relevance in the general public’s eyes.
Francisco Núñez: Children’s choirs typically sing commissioned pieces that are very short—four minutes, three minutes—but when you get to college and after you are singing the big works. There is a gap there. I am asking composers for larger works for children, 30-, 40-, even 50-minute works. The young child has become a stronger musician and a much more intelligent musician, and I think they have the stamina and the discipline to take on larger works.
We have to train our parents and our audiences that this is important to do. We need to nurture a much more intellectual appetite. Instead of serving a buffet, we need to start serving larger meals.
Gabriela Lena Frank: I have seen choirs of young people become more skilled over the past ten years and composers need to rewire their brains about what they need to write for young voices. Young children are tremendously skilled but are in developing bodies so the limits are not the same limits you have with an adult singer. I see their influence in the choral world at large as being a strong one.
What opportunities do choruses need to take advantage of in order to be successful in the future?
Brian Newhouse: Strike up a relationship with your local public radio station. And before you pick up the phone or before you email, have at least three really strong answers to the question, “How will the choir’s work benefit the station?” I get requests every day from ensembles of all kinds who want me to do something for them, but you know who gets the most attention? It is somebody who’s got fresh enough thinking that they flip the coin over. They come to me and say, “Okay, I have this recording of my choir concert. The rights are cleared for your station to do whatever you want with it, including putting it on radio and doing free downloads. And we have figured out how we can share that activity and put it on our website and on yours, so we can do some shared marketing and get both of our brands in front of audiences.” People have got to ask themselves, “How can I help someone else succeed?” That’s how they will find their own success.
Katherine Yang: Each year we bring 400 amateur community singers to our concert hall to sing side by side with the Pacific Chorale. As a result, each year we see new fans of our organization, new subscriptions, and engaged individuals who are part of our family. Some sort of side by side engagement is a good opportunity to attract music lovers, and more specifically choral music lovers from the community. Orchestras do this too, but it is much easier for choruses.
Ann Howard Jones: We need to be willing to take our chorus or madrigal group down into a subway station, or into a public park, or into a nightspot. I know of a creative string ensemble that performs in a nightclub. They get star billing and just have a wonderful time – and they are playing wonderful music.
Francisco Núñez: The concert hall itself is changing. It is no longer the place you go in and sit and listen. The concert hall is a coffee shop or a museum. Choruses have the opportunity to create ambiance, to become the art installations of the future. That is what will create a new art form.
How can we continue to elevate awareness of, and appreciation for, choral music?
Gabriela Lena Frank: People sometimes think that choral music has a veneer of quaintness. There is a long tradition of non-professional choirs where a lot of people can participate, and perhaps that translates into choral music not being taken seriously. There is repertoire that can successfully address the way amateurs and professionals make beautiful music outside of those labels—just as artists.
Patrick Dupré Quigley: The job of the professional chorus is not the short game; it is the long game. It is every time people come they will be amazed, they will be entranced, and they will come back and most likely they will bring someone. It’s like the way a redwood grows. It is slow but it is constant. So many of the professional choruses in the U.S. are very new, under five years old. It is important to realize that what people are trying to accomplish is not going to happen in the next program. It will happen in the next decade.
With choruses, our real job is to convince people that our programming and our commitment to quality is so high, that even if I don’t know the pieces, the performance will be at the level that I would expect of any professional organization. We are required to give absolutely excellent performances every time. We can never afford to let down our audience in the contract we make with them when they buy the ticket. If we constantly stand by that contract, we will win.
Kelsey Menehan is a writer, psychotherapist, and longtime choral singer based in San Francisco.
This article is adapted from The Voice, Winter 2013/2014.