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Guest Article
Originally printed in California's ACDA newsletter, "Cantate," Winter, 2008
The Choral Director: A Heart that Dares Mighty Things
by John Tebay, Southern Regional Representative, CA-ACDA

It takes no strength or courage or daring to succumb to a lesser thing, a nearer goal, or a cheaper bliss. How often we give in and sell out by adhering to the voices that say, “It’s good enough; it’s the best it’s gonna get; I just don’t have the singers this year; my singers are not capable of rich musicality; my choir could never sing that level of literature.” Teddy Roosevelt said that “far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” The choice remains ever before us to jump in and sail with the inspiring, invigorating current of the choral art, or stay on the bank and only watch the beauty go by. It takes a mighty heart to dare mighty things.

Here are four vital components for a vibrant choral program: tone, musicality, literature, and recruitment. The following tools are suggestions that will hopefully be useful in the goal of reaching higher and jumping into new depths.

To achieve a vibrant, well-blended, velvet pianissimo, try beginning with a five-note descending vocal exercise, slowly, on “oo.” Lips should be almost closed, with the space inside the mouth and throat expanded. With no vibrato, work to imitate the purity of tone produced by a wet crystal goblet when your finger rubs around the rim. All vowels should match exactly as should the space inside the mouth and throat. Now transfer this tone to a simple four-part section in a piece, still singing only on “oo.” Next, put in text, with all vowels maintaining an oo-ish-ness, never leaving the original goal of imitating the crystal goblet. Work to maintain this tone through dynamic changes and all registers.

The musicality of the choir is limited to the musicality of the director. Start by having your choir speak the text. Does the love song communicate love? Can you speak joy into the text on joy? If the piece deals with anger, can you sound angry? Can you insert human emotion into the spoken text? Put this element into your singing.

Give special attention to syllabic stress. A well-written song will match poetic rhythm with the rhythm of the songs. Emphasize important or strong-beat syllables and de-emphasize the unaccented syllables. Sing BEAU‑ty, not beau-TY.

Shape all phrases appropriately to the style and intention of the song. This would include specifically mapping out dynamics throughout the entire piece along with crescendos, decrescendos, diminuendos, accelerandos, ritards, rallantandos, rubatos, legatos, marcatos, accents, etc. Where is the peak of the piece? What is the most important line of text? How should the listener feel when the song finishes? Make sure the finished product achieves the goal of the song.

What a challenge! We must find multiple selections, all containing the following criteria:

  • Enjoyable to the singers
  • Enjoyable to the director
  • Enjoyable to the audience
  • Appropriate subject matter for all
  • Level of difficulty appropriate for singers
  • High artistic value

Keep your standards high. Great literature is food for the soul, the life of a choral program, and the success of a concert. Resources for great literature are choral festivals, conventions, reading sessions, workshops, music publisher’s websites, music stores, Choral Public Domain Library (, and your ACDA Repertoire & Standards Chairperson. Great literature takes time to find, so take the time to find great literature.

Work to develop a specific recruitment plan. Here are some suggestions for you bag of tricks:

  • Run your program with high standards, discipline, and excellence. This will cause your singers to get excited about your program and recruit for you.
  • Share your recruitment goals with your students, and solicit their help in reaching those goals.
  • Create a festival that includes your feeder schools. Be sure to have your choir close the festival and sing brilliantly.
  • Target the best feeder schools and offer to go to their rehearsal and work with them. Plan your time with them to be so effective that they can hardly wait to come and study with you.
  • Plan retreats, tours and parties. A choir that plays together and has great experiences together grows together.
  • Perform great literature. The music you choose can be one of the most powerful recruitment tools you have.

The mountains that enclose the vale
With walls of granite, steep and high,
Invite the fearless foot to scale
Their stairway toward the sky.

The restless, deep, dividing sea
That flows and foams from shore to shore,
Calls to its sunburned chivalry,
“Push out, set sail, explore!”

The bars of life at which we fret,
That  seem to prison and control
Are but the doors of daring, set
Ajar before the soul.

Say not, “Too poor,” but freely give;
Sigh not, “Too weak,” but boldly try;
You never can begin to live
Until you dare to die.
— Henry Van Dyke

So keep reaching high. Dare mighty things. Look again…that mountain is not too high, the water, not too deep…try the door again, you will find it opens easier that you thought. ♦


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