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Wherever the bar is set                                          
Katherine FitzGibbon
Northwest R&S Chair for Women’s Choruses

fitzgibbonWhen I began teaching at Lewis & Clark College several years ago, I was given a piece of advice from a senior professor. “The thing that is so great about these kids,” she said, “is that you can set the bar wherever you want, and they will always reach it.” I thought about her words and realized that they reflected not only the potential of our students at L&C but really an entire teaching philosophy. Certainly that seems like what we all aspire to: to set a bar and have our singers meet it.

But implied in that statement are several inherent challenges for the conductor/teacher. First, where to set the bar? If we can’t figure out what we need to ask our singers, they can’t possibly be successful. And which elements are we considering in the choral rehearsal – vocal technique, music literacy, phrasing and articulation, vowel unification, tone color, historical awareness, and even good citizenship?

The challenge, it seems to me, falls on the conductor to consider deeply each of these elements, be able to articulate the goals to the singers, create “buy-in,” and provide tangible strategies to aid the singers in meeting those goals, in ways that speak to a their age group and a variety of learning styles and backgrounds.

So, how to accomplish those major tasks? I believe that it first requires setting aside time – perhaps over the summer – to think about broad goals for the year and then checking in with those goals on a daily basis. Consider taking time with your singers at the beginning of the year to have a discussion of their goals.

This year, my students and I had a choir retreat in September, and they described goals of wanting to improve their music literacy, know each piece at so deep a level that they would all agree on dramatic and expressive performance elements, and become closer as a community of people. They basically came up with a list of goals on their own that mirrored mine, and now they feel that they have ownership over their goals for the year, rather than my having imposed my goals on them (similar though they would have been).

When they are struggling with a particular issue in rehearsal, I am able to remind them of the way that element links to their goals for themselves, and it’s as if the students are able to dig in and find further mental and physical resources to persevere on the difficult aspect of the music.

If you could dedicate 15 minutes a day – even while driving (carefully!), or standing in the shower – you could check in with yourself about how your choir is doing at reaching those goals. Perhaps you’ll think about their progress on a particular piece, or perhaps you’ll think in broader terms. This daily check-in allows you to step outside of “maintenance mode,” in which you may be relying on your customary strategies that don’t necessarily permit your students to reach new goals.

If you are a conductor who excels at teaching music literacy, but not yet at expressive singing, you may be reverting to emphasizing the literacy without the expression. Brainstorm a list of strategies for teaching expression, perhaps with the help of a mentor or peer, and use your daily check-in time to ask yourself whether you are prioritizing your goals in rehearsal on a regular basis.

If students can meet the bar wherever we set it, on whatever goals we emphasize, then the burden is on us as teachers and conductors. Unless there are special circumstances, the students can accomplish whatever we ask of them. We just need to ask it, and make it our daily mission to be sure we’re specific and tangible in how we do.

And of course, when your students meet those goals, shower them with praise. They’ll be hooked on the feeling of meeting a high bar. 

Why Women Choose Women’s Choirs
By Katherine FitzGibbon, Northwest R&S Chair for Women’s Choruses

Tfitzgibbonhose of us who are passionate advocates for women’s choirs often discuss the reasons we believe women’s choirs are important. We consider the wealth of significant repertoire available for treble chorus, the value of creating a community of women artists, the educational opportunity for our women singers to experience sophisticated closer harmony singing, and the pragmatic importance of giving women a high-level singing outlet in situations where women singers may outnumber the men. Many of us have sung in women’s choirs too and felt that the benefits for our musical growth were extraordinary.

And yet… we continue to see articles such as this one that note the numbers of women singers who feel that being selected to sing in the women’s chorus, especially in educational institutions where students seem to be keenly aware of a perceived hierarchy among choral ensembles, can feel like a “second class” singing opportunity relative to being selected for the mixed choir.

One institution where I noted a very different culture around women’s singing was Cornell University, where I served as interim conductor during Scott Tucker’s sabbatical several years ago. At Cornell, there are two select choirs that students hanker to be chosen for: a select women’s chorus and a select men’s chorus. Sometimes, those two choirs combine to perform mixed choral repertoire, but mostly they function as independent ensembles.

There is also a large mixed choir as well that serves in part as a training ensemble, but the most musically advanced singers who are women are striving to be selected for the excellent women’s chorus. There, it is a privilege to be selected for the women’s chorus, which goes on tours, commissions new works every year (with the marvelous unofficial commissioning theme of “No Whining, No Flowers” to avoid insipid women’s choral literature), and boasts an enormous alumnae network of supporters.

Although that model is, unfortunately, not feasible at my present teaching position at Lewis & Clark College (where women outnumber men significantly to begin with, rendering a men’s chorus impossible for the time being), it’s been exciting to develop a women’s chorus program with women who take pride in being selected for the women’s ensemble. 

For this article, I thought it would be interesting to turn to the women singers themselves to ask for their own feelings about why singing in a women’s chorus is important to them. They submitted written rationales that ranged from humorous to deeply moving. Several reasons seemed to recur in their statements to me:


Women choir members speak:

I chose the women’s choir because I wanted the kind of ‘safe space’ that an all-female community provides.

What I’ve found most valuable about choir is being exposed to so much beautiful and complex music.

While I’m at choir, I don’t have to be thinking about if I look okay or if the boy two chairs down is checking me out. I can be 100% focused on choir. Also, there’s nothing like being a feminist and getting to be in a kick-ass women’s choir.

I like that there is a direct connection between the effort we put into learning a piece and the polished result. There are very few things in life that are that cut-and-dry.

They take pride in being part of a community of women. As one student wrote, “I chose the women’s choir because I wanted the kind of ‘safe space’ that an all-female community provides. While I’m at choir, I don’t have to be thinking about if I look okay or if the boy two chairs down is checking me out. I can be 100% focused on choir. Also, there’s nothing like being a feminist and getting to be in a kick-ass women’s choir.”

I like that, in this student’s description, being in an, ahem, excellent women’s choir reinforces her existing sense of empowerment as a woman. Another student wrote that she had been in a women’s choir in high school and that she chose to sing in a women’s chorus again in college because of the power of her women’s choral experience before. And many students noted the possibility for “lasting friendships that are created through choir and the bonds that result from a common love of music.”

They find the repertoire to be exciting and challenging. Naturally, this means that the conductor’s responsibility is to find good repertoire that the students will find to be intellectually engaging, musically expressive, and with great texts (again, “no whining, no flowers”). One student wrote, “What I’ve found most valuable about choir is being exposed to so much beautiful and complex music.” A number of students said that they found that singing the dense chords of a treble chorus challenged their ears and strengthened their musicianship.

They are in love with their own sound and the physicality of creating a powerful and unified ensemble. In our women’s chorus, we speak a lot about the “power” of a women’s choral sound, and I deliberately choose that word rather than “beauty.” Many of our women have heard statements about how “angelic” or “sweet” or “pretty” a women’s chorus can be, and I think that those sorts of adjectives can be part of the problem in making women feel second-class. By emphasizing support and vocal technique and using their “full, powerful, women’s sound,” I strive to give the women the image of a choir with visceral power. In this way, singing with a women’s chorus is indeed different from singing with a mixed chorus, not because they are lesser but because their sound is focused and strong.

I was pleased to note that many of the women picked up on this theme in their written reflections. As one student wrote, “I believe it’s a more whole sound in a way. I love that our pieces sound so incredibly together, like we are all one. It’s very moving and powerful.”

Some find there to be no difference between the mixed choir experience and the women’s choir experience: “good choir is good choir.” Students talked about their love of the women’s chorus in terms that could just as easily have been used to describe a mixed choir. They wrote about their enjoyment of the rehearsal process, as when one student wrote, “I find it gratifying how tangible our progress is. The difference in quality from when we first receive a song to when we perform it is enormous. I like that there is a direct connection between the effort we put into learning a piece and the polished result. There are very few things in life that are that cut-and-dry.”

They wrote about their kinetic connection to their singing, as another student described, “Choir is very special. I think of it as all the magic and power of any other musical performance but instead of using a vessel for the creation of music like a saxophone or piano, it is your own body that is able to produce that sound. That is why I was drawn to singing in the first place. It is the most raw, human type of sound that one can create.”
Even their descriptions of the community of musicians sometimes omitted the gender component: “To be dramatic, choir has saved me. It has made a world of difference in my experience here. Everything in college is different and incredibly challenging, and to have this safe, supportive group to participate in each week is wonderful. I look forward to it and enjoy it thoroughly. Music means a lot to me, it is something I can always depend on, it keeps me sane.”

Some find that success as a women’s choir causes them to feel pride in their gender and their physical identity. In contrast with the preceding section, however, some students examine their general experiences of singing in the women’s chorus – even if the content of their reflections does not explicitly have to do with gender – and then draw conclusions about their gender. This makes me feel, more than ever, that we who conduct women’s choruses – whether we are male or female conductors – have a responsibility to these (often young) women to give them an excellent choral experience, since many of them will consider their experience to represent the capabilities of their gender.

One student wrote, “I believe that both choirs are effective, but often women’s choirs are not considered to be to the same quality as a mixed choir, which I find to be completely the opposite. I have found that our women’s choir members really set their aims high and do everything in their power to achieve that goal. It is inspiring to see everyone so engaged with a piece, and to become further engaged through the passion of the conductor.”Although hopefully that student’s observations could have been made by a student in a mixed choir, she felt that the work ethic of her choir was partly due to the gender of the choir. Or, another student wrote, “I chose to sing in a women’s choir initially because I was placed there, but now I like that we come across as a strong gender when we perform together.” These women are literally drawing conclusions about what kind of voice their gender has.

What this means for conductors of women’s choirs is that women in women’s choruses are receptive to hearing about your teaching philosophy, can be fired up to create a powerful women’s sound, love to be challenged musically, and will notice if they are treated differently from the other choirs. Not only will they draw conclusions about the value of women’s choral singing, but they will draw conclusions (perhaps even subconsciously) about the value of being a woman. We have a responsibility as conductors to challenge and engage these singers, consciously discussing with them the value of their artistry and the power of their voices.  As the survey of my students suggests, small though the sample may be, these women will internalize our passion for women’s choral singing.

Katherine FitzGibbon

Katherine FitzGibbon is the Director of Choral Activities and Assistant Professor of Music at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon; the Head of Faculty of the Berkshire Choral Festival in Sheffield, Massachusetts, and Vancouver, British Columbia; and the Artistic Director of Resonance Ensemble in Portland ( She serves as the Northwest R&S Chair for Women’s Choruses.