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October 16, 2011

Questions from the Choral Conscience

by Steven Zopfi, R&S Chair for College and University Choirs

Whezopfin I was in graduate school I came into contact with the legendary Howard Swan right at the end of his life. Though he was not teaching much at that point, his very presence made a great impact on how I thought about my profession. The questions of why we do what we do and how we think about what we do have framed my professional life ever since, and I often think about them as I start a new year of teaching. In that spirit of self-reflection and introspection, I offer them to you at the start of a new school year:

  1. Why do you do what you do? Is it about recreating great music? Teaching others about the music? The joys of communal singing? Our connection to great universal truths embodied in the great choral masterworks? Exposing others to the art of choral singing?  Or is it about applause? Singer adoration? Power? Your need to create and experience choral music?
  2. Why do you choose the music you choose? Is it about choosing great music? Exposing your students to different styles, genres, and examples of quality? Or is it about your need to conduct a specific work or piece?
  3. What are the rewards you experience as a conductor and teacher? Is it about the joy your students feel as they experience great art? Or is it about the applause and adoration of singers and audience members? Could you do what you do without the latter?
  4. Do you refer to “your tempo, your singers, your choir?” or do you use inclusive language? Are singers there to fit into a choral “instrument” or are they individuals whom you guide into being collaborators?
  5. Do you conduct or teach to mold individuals using music as your medium or do you teach music to individuals and incorporate their journey into the larger whole? Can you classify what you do as manipulation or guidance? Is it about your need to mentor or is it about your students’ needs?
  6. Do you talk about other disciplines as you teach? Do you reference literature, art, poetry, history, architecture and the myriad forms of human expression? Do you go beyond technique?
  7. Do you know the singers who sing in your choir and care about them as people? If the number one predictor of student progress is great teaching and the primary component of great teaching is the relationship between student and teacher, do you have a relationship with the singers whom you work with? Do you know what their interests are?
  8. Do you model what it means to be interested in beauty and the creative process? Do you talk about it with your students?
  9. Is it about the performance or is it about the process? Do you incorporate sightreading, vocal technique, and teach towards producing independent musicians or are you training a group for the next performance only?
  10. Are you interested in your own development as a musician, creative artist, and leader? Do you model being a life-long learner to your students?

In closing, may I offer you the words of another great conductor and pedagogue, Robert Page, who, when asked what advice he would give to young conductors said:

*Know and love the voice, know and love the singer, with all the eccentricities involved.”  Singers are lovely, caring, involved musicians. Don’t take them lightly. The voices carry messages that make the listener dream, care, love, and react in awe and wonder.

*Robert Page in In Quest of Answers, Carole Glenn (Chapel Hill: Hinshaw Music, 1991), 126.

Steven Zopfi can be reached at this email address...>


January 21, 2011

Waiting for Superconductor: Lessons from the School Reform Movement 

by Steven Zopfi, R&S Chair for College/University Choirs

zopfiMy stepdaughter recently gave me Waiting for Superman (Participant Media, 2010), the companion book for the controversial movie about public school reform, as a gift.  As I started to read through the collection of essays by scholars, educators, and philanthropists I was struck by how the school reform movement has something to say to us as leaders of collegiate choirs.

First and most importantly, all students can learn. All. The success of schools like KIPP schools and the Harlem Children Zone or the amazing results of Jaime Escalante in teaching calculus in south central LA demonstrate that all students can learn no matter what their background.

Secondly, the most important factor in student achievement is great teaching.  Even the notoriously difficult achievement gap can be overcome by repeated exposure to great teaching.

High Expectations.  Great teachers set the bar high. They provide students with the tools to succeed and then they make sure that their students meet those standards.

No excuses. If students do not meet those standards great teachers do not give up and they don’t let their students give up.  Jaime Esclante’s students regularly met after school, on Saturdays and holidays until they could master the materials.

Regular assessment that informs teaching.  Rather than teaching to the test once a year good teachers test and assess often and use the results to adjust their teaching.

Accountability. Good teachers hold their students accountable for results. Teachers are accountable to each other and to their administrators and parents for their student’s success.  Bad teaching is not tolerated and is either remedied or the teacher is dismissed. Students are not put at risk.

Thinking Outside the Box.  What works for some doesn’t always work for all. Teachers must adapt, learn, grow, and try new things in order to succeed with every student.  Sometimes, one has to think outside the box.

Esprit de corps. Good schools instill pride in their students that drives the reach for excellence. Students want to be excellent. They actively pursue setting goals and striving for them. They help each other learn. Teachers strive for excellence and work together to strengthen their skills. If there is a problem, people ask for help and are willing to learn. They are in a safe environment that promotes learning.

Doesn’t this sound like a recipe for improving our collegiate choral programs? 

All students can sing no matter what their background.  

Great choirs need great conductors.

Great conductors set high expectations and then give singers the tools they need to succeed.

Great conductors do not accept excuses and inspire singers to not make excuses.  If it take extra rehearsals, more coaching, score-marking sessions, sectionals, somehow it will be done.

Great conductors regularly assess their progress and their student’s progress and they use those results to tweak their teaching from rehearsal to rehearsal and sometimes minute-to-minute in rehearsal.

Great conductors are not afraid to improvise or think outside of the box if something is not working.

And great conductors inspire pride in the ensemble. Students in these types of ensembles like to work together to solve problems and make progress. Section leaders mentor younger singers. Younger members spend more time in the practice room getting the part down. Choir is seen as a safe environment to strive for excellence.

The analogy only goes so far.  There is no crisis in choral-land and we are not waiting for Superman to rescue our failing choirs.1 Collegiate choral singing is alive and well in our country.

Yet, I believe the school reform movement has something to teach us as college educators. We can improve. We must improve. Few of us are superconductors.  A prominent figure in the education reform movement said, “When you see a great teacher, you are seeing a work of art.”2 Our singers deserve no less.

 1 Not yet, anyway.  In their recent survey The 2009 Chorus Impact Study (Chorus America, 2009), Chorus America reports that access to choral singing for young people is starting to decline with more than one in four educators reporting that there is no choral program in their school and more than one in five parents stating that there were no choirs for young people in their communities.Geoffrey Canada, leader of The Harlem Children’s Zone.

2 Geoffrey Canada, leader of The Harlem Children’s Zone















January, 2010

They are what they hear: a new paradigm for teaching choral music at the college and university level

by Steven Zopfi, R&S Chair for College/University Choirszopfi

At a recent faculty meeting, one of my colleagues shared a list of musical genres his music appreciation students compiled when asked the question, “What music do you listen to?” The list ran over 70 genres and subgenres and included such categories as, Jpop, Alternative, Funeral Doom, Doom Metal, Alternative Metal, Break-Beat, Broken Beat, Techno, Alternative Techno, Euro-Techno, Fusion, Fusion Jazz, Fusion Rock, Classics, Oldies, Swing, Bebop, Acid, Acid-Alternative, Grunge, Punk, Jazz-punk, Emo-punk, Show Tunes, Funk, Jam, Post Jam, Post Rock, Post Grunge, Power Metal, Rockabilly, Reggae, Top-Forty, Progressive, Progressive Punk, Country, Western, and Folk Rock. At the very end of the list was, you guessed it, classical.

It is probably no surprise that classical music is not the in the mainstream of our students’ lives. Even our choral students do not spend a majority of their time listening to Bach cantatas and Stravinski’s  Symphony of Psalms. Yet we have the responsibility of performing the great masterworks of our art with these same students, who lacking context, struggle to understand style and meaning. That is not to say that our students do not achieve mighty things when presented with great music. But could there be other models than starting from choral “scratch” every time?

With the recent research linking food consumption to health and well-being, wouldn’t it be interesting if we take the same prescriptive approach to choral music? If we are what we eat, than perhaps we could try singing what we hear. Could we take a tip from our voice teacher colleagues who regularly prescribe listening assignments drawn from the great singers to their students, and ask our choral students to listen to the great choirs singing the great literature? If most of our great choral music is “foreign” to our singers, can we borrow a technique from our colleagues in foreign languages and set up listening labs, virtual or otherwise, that allows a student to hear highly trained professionals sing Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Mozart, and Britten. Why are we not doing this across our profession?

One of the reasons could be the great “recording dilemma” that we all faced in graduate school where we were warned that listening to recordings is a dangerous way to learn music. And there is much truth to that. If we simply copy interpretations that we hear on recordings we miss the process of learning a piece at the deeper level that allows for personal insight and meaning.  Copying is a shortcut that cuts us off from the hard work of analysis, audiation, and understanding that leads to higher levels of performance. At most, recordings were to be used at the end of the preparation process and then only in multiples to safeguard against copying.

But we forget that this piece of advice was directed at conductors – at choral professionals, nay, choral jocks, whose professional lives were immersed in the choral field – who could spend hours debating the relative merits of notes inégale and the appropriateness of vibrato in the works of Arvo Pärt. Our students, for the most part, do not yet possess that aural library of high quality performance and literature. They lack the aural context.

And how did we get that aural context for choral music? We listened and imitated. Eventually, we knew enough that we knew we needed to study our scores, read the scholarly literature, and experiment. Wouldn’t it be great if our students could also have the opportunity to become familiar with more than just the standard examples that happen to be included in their music history texts? Perhaps we can set up listening assignments on our e-classrooms. Can we host discussion boards about our listening? How about listening quizzes for our conducting students? How do we make use of the new streaming music websites designed for our students?

There are pitfalls, of course. Mistakes or interpretive details that differ from the conductor’s interpretation can very easily find their way into current repertoire as students absorb their listening. Copyright issues may preclude inclusion of some of our great choirs. But, the potential benefits could be enormous. Instead of conducting a University choir where only a handful of students had ever heard a Mozart Mass, we could be conducting students who had listened to performances by Helmut Rilling or Sir Neville Marriner. Perhaps we wouldn’t have to work so hard at articulation, intonation, balance, and color, if our students had a backlog of “good choral sound” in their head. If they are what they hear, then perhaps by feeding our students examples of our art to their ipods, we can create a space for choral music in their heads and hearts.


NW ACDA members, take note...

I wanted to make you aware of a tremendous opportunity for graduating college and university choral students.

Through our conference’s New Member Initiative ACDA is offering complimentary membership for first time students as a welcome to the profession.

That is correct! A full year of membership with a subscription to The Choral Journal and all member benefits absolutely free for undergraduate and graduate choral students who are graduating this year.

If you know of someone who might qualify for this offer, please feel free to pass their name and contact information on to me or share my e-mail directly with them. Thank you in advance for helping our newest colleagues and best wishes with the end of your year.

Best Wishes,

Steven Zopfi
Chair of College and University Activities, NW ACDA <>


Soundings: Musing on sound, branding, and mission at the college level

by Steven Zopfi, R&S Chair, College/University Choirs

I have been musing lately on choral sound and branding. A recent article in The Voice of Chorus America on branding (Standing Room Only: "A Strong Brand Is Essential to Success—and Possibly Survival.” Brandon Walsh and Roger Sametz Volume 32, #2, Winter 2008-09)1 and a recent discussion of branding in a recruitment committee meeting at my institution got me thinking about the sounds our choirs make. Many choirs have a recognizable “sound” that identifies them to the listener. Some choirs are famous for their sound. Certainly when one hears Chanticleer or the Vienna Choir Boys there is no mistaking who is singing. It got me thinking, why do some choirs have a recognizable sound and does it help or hinder?

In many ways, I believe it helps the choir to have a signature sound. From a marketing standpoint a sound can act as identity stamp and help with selling the choir. It is part of the branding that many successful choirs and institutions routinely do to separate themselves from the pack. Arguably, choirs that have a successfully “branded” sound have an easier time marketing themselves, selling CDs, and developing audiences, and recruiting. Choirs that have an institutional sound (a branded sound that has survived over generations) also have an advantage in integrating new members as all they need do is “fit themselves in” to the established choral sound norm.

So far so good. But I believe that branding can also be harmful to our ensemble and our students. The problem is two-fold I believe. First, by forcing everyone to conform to the sound brand, we run the risk of disregarding what is pedagogically appropriate for some students. As institutions of higher learning we have the responsibility to teach vocal technique that is pedagogically appropriate to our students’ level of development. To be sure, many branded sounds have much to recommend them pedagogically. However, is it always appropriate to demand, say, the non-vibrato singing of a professional early music ensemble from our touring choir, or the nasal, high-larynx singing of Eastern European folk ensembles from our advanced women’s ensemble. Most of us do not have the luxury of auditioning for voice-types specific to one particular style. College and University choirs tend to be comprised of singers with a wide range of vocal expertise and voice type. Are we asking for something that our students are not developmentally capable of giving in some cases?

Secondly, is the chorally branded sound appropriate for the wide range of literature that is part of the mandate of teaching institutions to share with their students? I own a recording of a very fine professional European choir singing a number of American choral standards. I pull it out for my conducting class every year and they almost always have the same reaction – laughter. The performances are beautiful. The phrasing, intonation, unified vowel shapes, and the ensemble is impeccable. However, the sound ideal is completely different than what is considered the norm for this repertoire. I wonder, then, at some of the choices we make as conductors when we ask our ensembles to sing their entire repertoire with a similar sound ideal. Instead, might we consider Robert Shaw’s maxim “There is no such thing as absolute ‘beauty’ of choral tone; there is only dramatic integrity of choral tone.”2 To that I might add for educational institutions, “and pedagogically appropriate choral tone.”

To be sure, as institutions of higher learning we also have the responsibility of teaching style. We must present a wide variety of repertoire, and teach and perform within many different style parameters. To not do so shortchanges our students and deprives them of critical musical experiences. So how do we go about walking that pedagogical fine line that exposes our students to style without forcing them to make poor vocal choices beyond their ability?

I believe that we can still promote choral branding and institutional sound without harming our students, as long as we are willing to modify the teaching of style and our choral brand to fit within the possibilities of our students’ voices and experience. Judicious programming that takes into account the realities of what our students can do and for how long, can go a long way in helping students find a level of vocal comfort. We can reassign voices for individual pieces that place uncomfortable demands on certain voice types. Larger voices might find it easier to sing a lower choral part for a Renaissance motet that requires less or no vibrato, for instance. Or perhaps we can ask our students for “less vibrato” instead of no-vibrato for certain styles that require very clean intonation and “center-of-the-pitch” singing. Our rehearsal plans can be adjusted so that we don’t ask students to sing vocally taxing ethnic pieces at the ends of rehearsal or at the ends of long concerts when they are vocally fatigued. And finally, we can use caution when using recordings of professional choirs to model style. Many professional choirs specialize in a very narrow range of repertoire. This specialization allows them to choose singers whose voice types match the technical needs of the music. Our modern college choirs, on the other hand, sing a wide range of repertoire and styles. What may be possible for the Tallis Scholars or Anúna might not be possible for our college students in all cases. Certainly, we can learn from these highly specialized groups and apply their lessons when we teach style. But we must sing and teach responsibly.

Developing a recognizable choral sound that is identifiable to an ensemble or institution can be a positive facet of today’s college and university choral ensemble. An ensemble or institution with such a sound can have a tremendous advantage in branding their ensemble with members, audiences, and prospective students. A “branded” sound can help attract and retain students, maintain institutional pride, and popularize the ensemble. However, such branding can have a negative impact on our singers by forcing students into making poor vocal choices for their level of vocal development. However, with a little judicious planning and sensitivity, conductors can adjust the choral brand to accommodate the pedagogical needs of their students and ensembles. By choosing repertoire that is appropriate for our singers’ vocal development, teaching style within the limits of the possible, careful rehearsal planning and re-assignment of parts, our college and university choirs can sing a wide variety of repertoire with stylistically and pedagogically appropriate tone that is in line with the pedagogical mission of our institutions. All that, and a little Bach too.

Brandon Walsh and Roger Sametz, “Standing Room Only: A Strong Brand Is Essential to Success—and Possibly Survival,” The Voice of Chorus America  32 (Winter 2008-09).

Howard Swan, “The Development of A Choral Instrument,” in Choral Conducting Symposium, 2d ed.,ed. Harold A. Decker and Julius Herford, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1988), 39.

Paid advertisement

Steven Zopfi Named University of Puget Sound Director of Choral Activities and Conductor of Adelphian Concert ChoirZopfi

(JUNE 5, 2008) TACOMA, Wash. – Following a rigorous national search, University of Puget Sound is pleased to announce conductor Steven Zopfi as the university’s new director of choral activities and conductor of the Adelphian Concert Choir. His appointment begins July 1.

“I look forward to returning to University of Puget Sound,” Zopfi says. “The opportunity to make music with incredibly talented students and to be part of a faculty that is interested in teaching and helping students learn is fantastic. The supportive atmosphere at Puget Sound makes it a wonderful place to learn and grow.”

One of the leading young conductors in the Pacific Northwest, Zopfi has been called “magical” and “superb” by critics, and choirs under his direction have been invited to perform at local and regional conventions of the American Choral Directors Association, National Association for Music Education, and other professional organizations.

“I am delighted to have our choral program led by such an outstanding conductor as Steve,” says Keith Ward, professor and director of University of Puget Sound’s School of Music. “He has received many accolades for his work, all well deserved. He is a remarkable artist and teacher; I really could not be happier with his appointment. I look forward to his vision and dedication to excellence in shaping the choral program at Puget Sound.”   

Zopfi is a native of New Jersey, and attended The Hartt School at University of Hartford and University of California-Irvine before earning his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from University of Colorado. He has taught in public schools in both New York and Vermont, and has served as Vermont state president of the American Choral Directors Association, as well as on the executive boards of the Vermont Music Educators Association and the Washington Choral Directors Association. Zopfi’s scholarly interests include late-20th-century American motet composition and the instrumentation of the basso continuo of early-17th-century vocal music.

As a performer Zopfi has sung for many leading conductors, among them Sir David Willcocks and one of America’s most celebrated choral musicians, Robert Shaw, in addition to sharing the stage with symphonies and orchestras in the United States and abroad. He has prepared choruses for several nationally recognized conductors, including Carlos Kalmar, Bernard Labadie, Alastair Willis, and more, and is the founder and former artistic director of The Foundling Hospital Singers, The Boulder Schola Cantorum, The Grace Chamber Orchestra, and The Portland Sinfonietta.

In his new post, Zopfi will oversee Puget Sound’s vocal ensembles and take the helm of the Adelphian Concert Choir, one of the university’s signature groups and one of the Northwest’s most celebrated ensembles. An Adelphian concert schedule follows:

Adelphian Concert Choir

Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008*
7:30 p.m.
Kilworth Memorial Chapel
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008*
2 p.m.
Kilworth Memorial Chapel
Saturday, May 2, 2009
7:30 p.m.
Kilworth Memorial Chapel

* Seasonal concert. Admission for the seasonal concert is $8 general and $4 sr. citizens (55+), non-Puget Sound students, and Puget Sound students, faculty, and staff. Tickets are available at Wheelock Information Center, with remaining tickets sold at the door. For credit card orders, call 253.879.3419.