Northwestern Division - ACDA News/Articles

Honor Choir CDs delayed, but ready for shipment soon!

Members of the honor choirs at the NW Convention are no doubt wondering when they'll receive their CD recordings of their great concert of February 23 held in Vancouver, B. C. Unexpected copyright and royalty issues have arisen according to Al Giles, of Sound Preservers Co., Olympia, that engineered the recordings. The mastering and copying is apparently complete, along with jackets. It's mostly a matter of getting documentation of rights of use for all pieces, including some that were in manuscript, and a certain lack of "timeliness" from the holders of those rights. He expects the CDs to go out in a week to ten days.


A tribute to Marvilla Davis, retiring from directing the Alaska Chamber Chorale
A version of this article originally appeared in the December 7, 2006 edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.


The sound of music lost
by LJ Evans

Marvilla Davis lifts her hands into the air in a graceful arc and holds them there. Eyebrows raised, she scans the faces of the singers who stand before her to make sure all eyes are on her. As she raises her chin and lifts her hands a bit higher, everyone in the room takes a deep breath. Her hands descend, the mouths of the singers open and the hall fills with the sound of voices creating a resonant and harmonious melody.

The piece the Alaska Chamber Chorale is working on is “O Nata Lux”—oh born is light—by Morten Lauridsen, a collection of Latin texts referring to light.

It’s not perfect. This is, after all, just a rehearsal, in a large but plain practice room at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It’s less than a month until the group’s final holiday concert—Davis and the 32 singers have a lot of work to do.

After 15 years of leading the Alaska Chamber Chorale in exceptional performances of choral music from around the world, Davis plans to retire as director in the spring of 2007. The university music department has no one ready to take her place, and the decision has been reached to dissolve the group, leaving a hole in the Fairbanks music community.

“I have shed a lot of tears over this and I will continue to do so,” Davis said after the rehearsal. “I’m not burned out in the least leading the chamber chorale. I love working with them and teaching and making music with them. But you don’t live forever and there are some other things I’d like to do, like spend more time with my grandchildren and horses.”

Davis brought high-caliber musical training and artistic excellence to Fairbanks when she moved here in 1974, and she continues to work hard to stay on top of her craft, regularly attending conferences and training sessions Outside. Her retirement will mean the end of an era. Members of the chorale say they knew it was coming—Davis has talked about retirement before—but this time she means it.

“I feel tremendously sad because I don’t see an immediate replacement for the experience of singing like this,” said alto Eva Rothman.

Tenor Jim Hameister said “For the people of Fairbanks this group is like the Northern Lights. You can get along without it but it would be a much duller place.”

The founding of the Alaska Chamber Chorale
Davis has taught music for 41 years, in public schools in Montana and Alaska, at UAF and through private voice lessons. She and her husband Mike Conn moved their family from a small town in Montana to teach in the Fairbanks school system in 1974. Shortly after their arrival, Mike was diagnosed with cancer. When he died less than a year later, Davis was alone, far from family, with two young daughters.

Davis almost decided to leave after that first year. She asked friends to watch her girls and went to Hawaii alone to do some thinking. She thought she might look for a job Outside, maybe Oregon or Washington.

“It was just too hard to stay up here by myself,” Davis said. When she came back to Fairbanks, she went to a concert conducted by a friend, and then to a party afterwards. That’s where she met the man who later became her second husband, Charles “Chip” Davis.

“I was trapped in a conversation, and Chip came over and rescued me. We struck up a friendship.” They eventually married, Marvilla Conn became Marvilla Davis, and she continued to teach music and biology at West Valley High School.

In 1986, Davis decided to pursue a master of arts degree in music at UAF. When the degree was completed she accepted a part-time position in general music at Weller Elementary School. She also taught as an adjunct professor at the university, filling in one semester to direct the Choir of the North while professor John Hopkins was on sabbatical.

In 1992 Davis sought permission to start a new group, initially called the UAF Chamber Singers, which would have the mission of specializing in a cappella choral music. The singers all registered for a class at UAF in order to participate. There were about 18 in the group the first year, Davis said. After several years they decided to change the name to the Alaska Chamber Chorale.

“I thought that name was much more reflective of what the group was about, which was outreach to the community. We’ve had people from Nenana, from both military bases, North Pole, even Delta Junction. It’s probably two-thirds community people who sing in the ensemble with about a third full-time university students.”

Because the chorale is a university class, the group performs regularly in UAF’s Davis Concert Hall, “which has great acoustics and suits us perfectly,” Davis said. The stage walls and floor are finished in oak, which Davis said influences everything from the chorale’s choice of music to their choice of concert attire—black tux and black bow tie for the men, black dress and pearl necklace for the women. For a spot of color the men add a boutonniere in a color appropriate to the season—red at Christmas, a pastel shade for the spring concert in May.

Musical standards are high
A fairly strict audition is required to get in the chorale, Davis said. Prospective members don’t have to sing a solo, but she listens to them doing various vocal exercises. She also plays patterns on the piano or sings to them and asks them to sing it back to her. Mostly she is listening for the quality of the voice to make sure that the voice will blend with the ensemble.  Singers also need to have a good ear and tonal memory.

 “You do not need to have the best singers in the world, but you need singers who are willing and able to blend to produce an ensemble sound.  The conductor must also know what sound is desired and how to achieve it. That’s what I am striving for,” Davis said.

“Marvilla is demanding of the quality she knows we can produce,” said bass Ken Kokjer, one of a handful of singers who have been in the chorale since the group began. “At the same time she accepts the limitations of working with an all-volunteer chorale. She sometimes chides us, but it's always in a way that makes us want to work harder for her. Rehearsals are productive and businesslike, and yet we all have fun.”

People as young as 15 have sung in the chorale and there is a 70-year-old in the group. Davis said she has encouraged that age diversity because it gives a unique vocal texture to the sound.

“When I listen to recordings I can tell you by listening—those are college students, or that’s a high school group, or that’s strictly adults. Voices have a color and a maturity level to them. A college group can have a wonderful sound but the maturity is not quite all there yet. But taking a group like ours where you have a wide range of young, middle and older voices, you get a sound that’s hard to duplicate.”

The Alaska Chamber Chorale has been invited to perform at the American Choral Directors Association twice at regional gatherings and once at the national conference.

“The first time we went to Portland at the invitation of the ACDA, the quality of performance was a big shock to many of the other conductors in the northwest,” Davis said. “They all thought ‘Alaska really has this music program?’ The executive director of the entire 20,000-person organization was the first one on his feet to applaud. I told them it’s just like anywhere else, we have great singers and wonderful choral programs in Alaska.”

After the performance, the singers received many compliments, Kokjer said. “I think it was then that we became really aware of how good Marvilla is and how professional she had made us become,” he said.

Davis said being asked to perform at such a prestigious gathering of professional choral directors is a really big deal—on a par to the UAF hockey team playing for the national championship and coming out on top.

Davis chooses a broad spectrum of music from many genres for the chorale but it’s all a cappella, or unaccompanied, said soprano Melissa Downes, founder and director of the Northland Children’s Choir. A cappella arrangements require a tight blend of voices to get the most beautiful sound, and Davis chooses her music specifically to fit the ability and voices of her singers.

Downes has studied voice with Davis for years and is also one of the singers who have been in the chorale from its inception. “When I decided I wanted to start a children’s choir in Fairbanks she was a mentor to me. I don’t think I would have had the courage to do this unless I had learned so much from her.”

As one of many performances around town over the years, the chorale sang for the dedication of the Rabinowitz Courthouse in downtown Fairbanks, Downes said. The group was upstairs on the balcony while the audience stood downstairs in the lobby. They sang two or three pieces, one of them in Latin, which was especially appropriate, Downes said, Latin being the fundamental language of the law. “I’ve always remembered that as special, we sounded really good in there,” Downes said.

When the group was scheduled to perform at the national ACDA conference in Manhattan in 2003, Davis also wrangled an opportunity for the chorale to sing at St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue. St. Patrick’s, the largest Catholic gothic cathedral in the U.S, also has high standards and many groups audition for the few slots available, Davis said.

St. Patrick’s cavernous size and echoing acoustics made singing there a challenge, said alto Barbara Hameister. It’s at those times that Davis’ direction looms even larger, Hameister said, because “you can’t listen to each other in the same way that you usually can. It’s almost like what you hear has already happened. The conductor has to be your sole focus, that’s the only thing that’s true.”

“It sounded like the music was being lifted up as we sang.”

The chorale has become family
Davis and several members of the chorale said the group has been a joy not only because of the music but because over the past 15 years it has become like a family.

“We sing happy birthday to each other, we get cards that we all sign for anything that comes up, we have showers for babies or people getting married. Four couples who met in chamber chorale have ended up getting married,” Davis said.

Major performances of the group take place at Christmastime and in the spring every year, and Davis hosts a dinner at her home the week following each concert. The group sits around and critiques a recording of the performance. Over the 15 years there have been 30 of these get-togethers, Davis said, which has helped to foster the family feeling.

“I have been made to feel very welcome as a newcomer,” said alto Eva Rothman, who joined the chorale in January 2006. “It doesn’t feel like a closed club despite how long some people have been in it.”

For Barbara Hameister the music and the friendships have blended into a whole.

“I sometimes have a hard time separating out the musical satisfaction I get from the personal satisfaction—the relationships, the family aspects—because both of those sides have been extremely important to me,” Hameister said. “I don’t know which of those things I will miss the most.”

LJ Evans is a freelance writer living in Ester, Alaska.





Good to Great!
 by Eric Kauffman, South Central Region Chair
(reprinted by permission from Ohio Choral Directors Association, Rowland Blackley, Editor)

What makes a good choral program a great choral program?  The answer is paradoxical in that good is the enemy of great.  The problem of good being interpreted as good enough is the first step to settling for mediocrity.  With apologies to Jim Collins, author of the bestseller “Good to Great” -Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, I found inspiration in the correlation between running a successful business and a successful choral program.  I want you to question why some choral programs progress while others stagnate.  I want you to consider yourself more of a business person than an educator.  Inefficiencies commonly found in our choral classes and rehearsals would never be tolerated in the business world.  

First Who…Then What 
The old adage “People are your most important asset” turns out to be wrong.  People are not your most important asset.  The right people are.  Collins found that good-to-great leaders were not pre-occupied with changing their strategy and creating a new vision.  They first got the right people on their team, the wrong people off of their team, placed the right people in their most productive sections- and then they figured out where the team wanted to go to be successful.  Notice that I didn’t say the most talented people but the people most interested in making great choral music.  The ultimate goal is music education through great choral music.  Surround yourself with people who want to make that happen.

Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)
Good-to-great choral directors must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your reality, whatever they might be.  When failure is not an option, the positive spirit can become contagious.  Be proud of the progress you make daily.

The Curse of Competence
To go from good to great requires transcending the curse of competence.  Just because something is your passion - just because you’ve been doing it for years or perhaps even decades- does not necessarily mean that you are as good as you can be at it.  If you do not aspire to be the best choral director you can be, then you will never have the great choral department your students and community deserve.  Have the courage to grow as an educator and a musician.  Personal growth will ultimately reflect upon your choral program.  Ask questions and share ideas with musicians, teachers, and people you respect the most.     

A Culture of Discipline
All choral programs have a culture, some choral programs have discipline, but few choral programs have a culture of discipline.  When you have disciplined members, you don’t need hierarchy.  When you have disciplined creative thought, you don’t need bureaucracy.  When you have disciplined actions, you don’t need excessive controls.  When you combine a culture of discipline with an ethic of musicianship, you get the magical alchemy of great performance.  If making great music is the goal of the ensemble then self-discipline through self-motivation will prevail.  It’s all about education through choral music!

Technology Accelerators
Good-to-great choral programs think differently about the role of technology.  They never use technology as the primary means of igniting a transformation.  Yet, ironically, they are pioneers in the application of carefully selected technologies.  Technology by itself is never a primary cause of either greatness or decline.  It is important to use your technology dollars wisely.  Consider purchasing ear-training software for your computer lab or even a laptop set up in a practice area.  Students can use their study hall, lunch hour, or before and after school time to improve their aural skills.  A carefully scheduled spreadsheet can easily help you account for every kid in the class to participate in ear training activities for a few minutes a week while the others are continuing to rehearse in class.  Academic integrity is something choral music is often asked to demonstrate.  The program assesses the student’s progress and not you, helping you to qualify their final grade more accurately.

Process leads to Product
It is important to remember that no matter how dramatic the end result, the good-to-great choral transformations never happen in one fell swoop.  There was no single defining action, no grand program, no one innovation, no lucky break, and no miracle moment.  The process which leads us from good to great choral music is just that, a process.  There are no such things as “quick fixes” in choral music but rather your bag of choral tools that, if cultivated and nurtured on a daily basis without fail, will lead you from good to better, if not great!  Consistency, insistency, and persistency are major elements of daily success.

From Good to Great to Built to Last….
Creating a higher standard is actually easier than maintaining it.  Each one of your successes will create an expectation from your students, your administration, your community, and hopefully yourself.  It is your responsibility never to allow for your standard of excellence to be compromised.  In order to overcome the standard of mediocrity which exists in many areas of education, you must never forget the importance of renewing what makes your teaching “superior” and “innovative.”  Ultimately you are the catalyst between good and great choral music in your school or community.

Jim Collins, Good to Great – Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (New York:       Harpers Collins Publishers Inc., 2001)