Guest article reprinted from Fall 2013 "ICDA Notations," Indiana Choral Directors Association newsletter, Chuck Bradley, Editor  

Getting Beyond Slick
Dennis Malfatti, University R & S Chair for Indiana

Abradleys ACDA members, most of us regularly go to workshops and interest sessions at conferences to learn new ways to reach a certain sound ideal with our choirs, new ways to make the choir sing better in tune, have better blend and balance, better diction and vowel uniformity, more energy to the tone, better rhythmic precision, innovative ways to teach and rehearse specific repertoire or specific musical ideas, etc.   Workshops and interest sessions often help breathe new life into our pedagogical approach, particularly when we have gotten into a rut with our tried and true choral rehearsal methods.

As valuable and useful as these professional growth opportunities are, I sometimes feel after having attended many of them over the years that there is an underlying assumption that if we merely address all the subtle features of how to make a choir sound good, we will have achieved artistic excellence.  While the finest, most moving choral performances all exemplify the highest technical standards of choral artistry including those elements listed above, these technical features alone are not what makes a performance memorable.  We have probably all heard very good choirs that have crossed all their t’s and dotted all their i’s when it comes to perfecting all those elements of intonation, tone, blend, phrasing, etc., but their pequotebox2rformance has nonetheless left us feeling empty.  The performance was slick, but not much else.  Sometimes it’s the questionable quality of the repertoire, but even with universally accepted great repertoire, we can sometimes hear performances that don’t move beyond slick.

All other things being equal (i.e. excellent repertoire, achieving excellence in the various technical features of choral artistry, etc.) what separates the good and respectable if not terribly moving performances, from those that truly move us?  While there are no simple answers to this, at the risk of over simplifying, I would suggest that there are at least three elements that contribute to a truly great performance: 

1. The conductor must absolutely believe in the repetoire they are conducting and be passionate about the communicative power of the piece. 
2. The text of the piece and the intentions of the composer must mean something to the singers. 
3. We as conductors must foster our own musical imagination by keeping our musicianship fresh and energized.

The first element may seem obvious, but in the dizzying ocean of new choral music that comes at us through reading sessions and packets from publishers, as well as the tendency of choral conductors to try to emulate each other particularly when it comes to repertoire choice, it’s easy to lose sight of what we love and what moves us.  I get the whole “but it’s about the students, not the conductor” argument, but if the conductor is not sincerely and deeply energized by the music, the students most assuredly won’t be either. 

The second element requires the conductor to understand and communicate how the music is relevant to the singers’ lives.  What could an Ave Maria setting by William Byrd possibly mean to an 18 year old who grew up in a non-denominational, Protestant church in the mid-west or, for that matter, to a non-Christian in our choir?  On the surface, maybe not much.  If we explain to our singers how Byrd had to practice his Catholic faith essentially in secret and that if it was revealed, it could have cost him his career, even his life in late 16th century England, and then link that to the struggles our students maquotebox-Malfattiy have when their own individual ideas, beliefs, and convictions run up against familial, religious, or societal beliefs, we will have humanized Byrd and given his music a degree of relevance to our students.

Two years ago, I conducted Bach’s Cantata 131, a setting of Psalm 130 (“From the depths I cry to Thee…”) with the University of Evansville University Choir.  When seeing on the syllabus that we would be doing a Bach cantata, one of my more outspoken students told me after the first class that he didn’t like Bach because it was, “too intellectual, not emotional enough.”  Later, as we were learning the piece, I informed the students that Bach was orphaned at a young age, lost his first wife to sudden illness, and watched many of his young children die as well.  Even though this is an early cantata written before many of the sadder events of his adult life, it nonetheless speaks of someone who understood, and would come to understand even more fully, the painful cry of the psalmist.  I then challenged the students to look at their own lives, what painful experiences they may have had, what painful experiences they will most assuredly have later in life, and how the pain of the psalmist and Bach’s solemn and expressive setting of the psalm speaks to the most fundamental aspect of being a human.  After that, as we moved further into the rehearsal process, this same student came up to me after one particular rehearsal and said to me, “You made me love Bach.”

Recently, Andrew Crow, Director of Choral Activities at Ball State University, shared with me his experience teaching his students Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb on a text by Christopher Smart: 

My young students found Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb initially perplexing, even daunting.  When I initially told them that Christopher Smart wrote the poetry in an asylum, many laughed. On a different day, I explained how Smart was assigned to the asylum under questionable circumstances and that, if he were living today, he would have received medication, not sequester.  I asked how many students in the ensemble knew someone close to them or in their family who struggled with mental issues: bi-polar disorder, autism, depression.  Of course, it was almost everyone.  So it was a short leap to ask them to honor the work of Christopher Smart in this performance, just as they would honor the work of a loved one who was struggling.  In some small way, they could reclaim Smart's life and work by giving themselves over to its unorthodox nature.  I encouraged them even to celebrate that they have the freedom to be weird, and let out their inner weirdness!  They embraced the project and still talk about how their perception of the composition was transformed.

None of these examples have anything to do with tone, blend, intonation, etc.  They have everything to do with the reason we are musicians in the first place.  Tone, blend, and good intonation are tools that allow the music to communicate to the deepest reaches of our soul.  But those tools alone most assuredly don’t guarantee this will happen.

The third element, keeping our musicianship and musical imagination fresh and energized, is critical for the conductor.  Among the many traits that make a great performer or conductor, I believe one of them is imagination.  It is not enough to know a work inside and out.  We must have a genuine point of view about the piece, something that makes it our own.  This doesn’t mean we should wander radically from the score or from performance traditions.  It does mean that our interpretive decisions should have a spark of spontaneity to them, a sense that the music is always alive, not a mere repetition of highly rehearsed sound events.  Truly communicative performances are a combination of intimate knowledge of the score filtered through the imagination and intuition of the performer/conductor.  Musical interpretation should come from an informed imagination.

In his article, “Guiding Principles of Conducting,” the famed band conductor H. Robert Reynolds wrote:

The most important things in the music are not found in the notes, but in what’s behind the notes.  The “feel” of the music is so much more important than the “thinking” of it.  It’s the feeling – the intuitive understanding, the internal sense of the sounds – that we’re trying to discover, then transmit to the players and to the audience.  Yes, we seek an objective knowledge of the music that is intellectual and analytical; but then we use that information to find out how the sounds feel.  Simply following explicit directions (or the lack of them) on the score is like learning a few words at the age of two and then trying to use that limited vocabulary for the rest of your life.  We must continue to ingest all kinds of music, studying new scores, growing with the musical times, and helping our interpretive skills to develop.

In this quote, Reynolds suggests how we might foster our own musical imaginations.  Later in the same article, Reynolds describes how listening to Beethoven’s late string quartets informed his approach to conducting band repertoire by Percy Grainger because, in his words, it makes one a “deeper musician.”  

Certainly, listening to fine choral performances such as what we hear at ACDA conferences is important to our musical growth but it shouldn’t end there.  Listening to all kinds of music from different eras, music for symphony orchestra, chamber music, solo keyboard music, opera, early music, modernist avant-garde music, jazz and it’s many historical subgenres like bebop, cool-jazz, fusion, free jazz, and sophisticated and authentic forms of non-Western music helps keep the colors in our musical palette vivid, varied, and full of imagination.  Sticking with what we know, what we’re used to, and with only what we think we like will surely limit our capacity for bringing imagination to our performances. 

None of this is to understate the importance of all the technical aspects of choral artistry we all strive for.  The true essence of a work can never come through when the execution is sloppy and lacks precision.  Nor am I suggesting that the ideas set forth in this article are the only necessary additions to technical perfection that lead to a great performance.  We should never confuse technical aspects with the true essence of the music.  A slick performance may be admirable for its technical achievements.  It may earn points at an adjudicated festival since the qualities that lead to a slick performance usually fit quite easily into the concrete criteria used for evaluation (I’ve never seen “Were you moved by the performance?” on an adjudicator ballot).  But is this really music? 

Focusing only on technical precision robs great music of its real intent.  It becomes more about the prowess and discipline of the performers than about moving the listener.  When we make technical precision the end goal, a genuinely moving performance will likely elude us.  The expressive power of great music is incalculable and is among the greatest gifts we have to experience in our short lifetimes.  It is up to us as conductors to unleash that power.

Dennis Malfatti, Associate Professor of Music and
Director of Choral Activities, University of Evansville