R & S Chair Articles
|An interview with Northwest ACDA Women’s
Z. Randall Stroope
by Marcia Patton
Patton: What are your priorities in programming and preparing for our women’s regional high school honor choir?
Stroope: First of all, the treble chorus medium (done well) is one
of my favorite forms of music-making. The purity and homogenous sound
of trebles is unmatched. Programming for women's choir must:
Patton: I have always loved your piece “The Poel Sings”. Students can “connect” to it by identifying someone who has positively affected their lives. Whom do you consider your own primary life and musical influences?
Stroope: My early influences were my mother (great keyboard improvisor),
Patton: What differences do you allow in writing and programming for your children’s choir and your collegiate ensembles?
Stroope: Let me answer that question this way. Beauty and musicality
|Kurt McKee interviews Jerry Blackstone
by Kurt McKee, R & S Chair for Men's Choruses
When I sit in on honor choir rehearsals at conferences, I often wish I knew more about the conductor. Their positions often offer them a unique perspective because they travel around the country and work with different groups in many different settings. However, watching them work with or conduct our singers rarely provides much information about them as a person or as a colleague.
When I heard that Jerry Blackstone had agreed to direct our Men's Honor Choir in Portland next March, I couldn't have thought of a better person I would want my guys to experience. I jumped at the chance to interview him for this edition of the Northwest Notes. My hope is that we can all know a little more about him, more than just watching him work with our singers for a few minutes at a rehearsal next spring.
Dr. Blackstone is Director of Choirs and Chair of the Conducting Department at the University of Michigan School of Music, where he oversees a choral program of eleven choirs, conducts the Chamber Choir, and teaches conducting at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Under his direction, the Chamber Choir performed at the recent National ACDA Convention in New York City. At Michigan, he has also conducted operatic productions with the U-M Opera Theatre.
Professor Blackstone has conducted many All-State and Division Honor Choirs over the years. He conducts the University Musical Society Choral Union, a large university-based community chorus that frequently appears with the Detroit Symphony. He is involved with ACDA and various choral organizations on many different levels.
One of the main reasons we asked him to be a part of our conference is his work with the University of Michigan Men's Glee Club from 1988-2002. During his 14-year tenure with the group, the U-M Men's Glee Club performed at ACDA national and divisional conventions and toured several times extensively through four continents. Among many other publications, Blackstone's educational video (Santa Barbara Music Publishing) titled Working With Men's Voices, has been highly acclaimed.
I was able to ask Dr. Blackstone a few questions this past month regarding national trends, building musicianship and health in male singers, and about choral programs, in general. These were just a few of his responses.
On the national level, how would you rate the health and vitality of male singing ensembles?
When you go out and work with the types of groups I do, chances are the individuals are really the cream of crop, often very well prepared. I am not certain that I get to see what it is like in trenches. But from what I see and hear about, I am always impressed with quality of voices, in both mixed and male groups. I am certain, though, that we always need to be challenged to teach our students musicianship skills. To train them in the fundamentals that will enable them to become life-long musicians. Whether I am working with a men's honor group, a mixed group or a men's festival group, the need for training in the fundamentals is a constant.
What are the rewards and challenges facing today's university choral conductors?
The rewards are many. Very talented students who can rise to any occasion and work with great repertoire on a daily basis. Graduate students who are so capable. It's a great privilege and opportunity to work with them. They are so hungry, so eager.
I would say that, for some students, motivation is a challenge. Some are more motivated than others. In our chamber choir we have roughly 40 singers, about half of which are grad students. The great challenge to the conductor is that you absolutely must do your homework. Must be prepared. Must have something valuable to say. We must provide a challenge for them or inspire them in a way that not one of them would ever feel we are wasting even one of their minutes. In many situations, there are often vocal performance majors who view the "choral experience" as a necessary evil. We must engage them and somehow introduce new repertoire and ways of learning that they would not be able to access in the voice studio alone.
Musicianship skills are still a great need. It seems that many singers are not as musically literate as they used to be. The challenge for the conductor is to do the necessary skill building in the younger choirs. I find that after a year or two of theory and some positive choral challenges, the level of artistry rises up dramatically if we do our job. It is also a great challenge and responsibility to be very creative and balanced in programming.
It doesn't really matter what level you work at, every one of us is now almost required to be highly capable entrepreneurs. We have to know how to market our groups to a very discerning public. We have to plan ahead for everything, sometimes years in advance. We have to keep ahead of everything so there are no surprises.
I know you made some mention of it, but what about today's singers?
Today's singers are pulled in a million different directions. They need to learn when to say yes and when to say no. Over-commitment can have devastating effects. Research is much more attainable today, but the Web is both fabulous and a curse. It is often overwhelming for students. As a professor, there comes a point when those Juniors and Seniors need to make big yes or no decisions. Yes to their dreams, to reality, or to a fusion of both, regarding their life plans. They need to be focused enough to do what needs to be done to get them what they want.
As you work with groups throughout the country, what is the most impressive trend you see?
Most importantly: I love it when students are willing to invest their heart and soul in whatever we are working on at the time. They jump right in. Try to experience music in the most heart-moving, compelling way. There are so many that never look at you and roll their eyes. I recognize that this may not be reality for many, but it provides a great deal of motivation for me.
What are some of the fundamentals directors need to focus on when developing their male singers? Or, In developing a healthy male tone, what techniques do you find most successful?
Falsetto/Head Voice are most important to use as a platform. I tend to approach male singing from the fundamentals of good posture, wonderful breathing. Beyond that, a right perspective, not a heavy sound achieves much. I often have them sing things an octave higher. Head voice influences the lower range. We work on how to carry the lighter qualities down.
We must always be a servant to the music (regarding tone). First of all, are the director and singer interested in the music? Then what kind of sound is appropriate to each piece. Maybe a virile or masculine or reserved and thoughtful tone might be needed. Based on the understanding we reach, it is fair game to use our whole bodies to communicate that sound. A real kinesthetic response creates real tone. They might not sing loudly for a while, but really great, without volume. Vocal freedom and space first. I like us to taste that feeling and then let that influence the sound. A rich and velvety and creamy sound that doesn't give in the pressures of being flat.
Are there any ways you see that singing in a men's choir specifically helps to establish either stronger male vocal technique or personal development?
A ton of ways. Men's choirs are very special. There are so many possible range tessituras in a TTB or TTBB choir that you can fit men into their range far better than in an SATB group. Especially in the middle to high school years when their vocal range can be more limited. Lots of SATB music has tenor parts that are truly first tenor parts, or a deep bass part that is far too low for a true young baritone.
With men's choirs there is a large body of unique repertoire that only men can do that is wonderful, beautiful, dramatic.
The bonding in a men-only choir is uniquely wonderful and affirming. It is sometimes raucous and sometimes brotherly. I have seen the dark and the light sides. It's a home. At the University of Michigan, students find typical arts and sciences class enrollment ranging from 300-400. In the Men's Glee Club, in your choral experience, you are important, people know your name, you travel together, sing together before football games. Combine that with high musical expectations and opportunity for fellowship or brotherhood is very dramatic.
Men's choruses tend to provide lots of leadership opportunities for the men involved. Tours, retreats, fundraising, entrepreneurial skills, an alumni bulletin, alumni get-togethers. These seem to be more common with a TTBB chorus.
When choosing literature for men's groups, what factors do you consider?
Can they sing it? Do I like it? Is it appropriate for the group and what are the possibilities . I find that if I get in trouble, it is usually because I fall in love with a piece and just decide that I MUST do it. When that is the determining factor, it may be totally wrong for the group. It has to be great music. It has to grab me. Is it going to teach them something I want them to know? Will it address a growth area my singers need?
In the recent past, I have discussed a topic with several colleagues. In a nutshell it can be describes as this. CAPTURING THE IMAGINATION: Balancing technique with imagery and emotion to create great singers and performances. What are your thoughts?
It is interesting that you should mention it. I have submitted an article to a book that is in the works that will be published by GIA next year sometime. There was already a Volume One that was published called Teaching Musicianship Through Singing in Choir. It has several great pieces by many notable conductors. We are working on Volume two. The premise of what I wrote is that conductor has to bring a dream to the rehearsal. The dream is determined by study of the score, if not, then the musical process becomes merely democratically informed. No one, whether it be conductor or singer, can have strong opinions. No single idea of tone rises above all others. Everybody determines the tone. If the conductor has a real, vibrant dream for each piece, then you'll do whatever it takes to realize that dream. You may do the same piece at different times with different groups. The dream changes with different groups and years. But with a dream, conducting isn't that hard. Dream informs all that you do. I was working in a rehearsal not long ago and I told them "it needs to be more like pudding and less like 7up." It became more legato. Our Choral Union was working on Beethoven's 9th. The sound was too pushy, too detached. So I asked them to sing with their arms. The dream doesn't have to be complex, but it must be clear. What we DO and SAY in rehearsals flows directly out of the dream. You can accomplish more with an image and a demonstration than you could with 1000 words. We don't trust our gesture enough. We might have to insist that they follow.
How would you encourage a choir director that wants to develop a men's choir in a school setting that has not traditionally been able to offer one?
I have to start of by saying that I have never taught in a public school setting. However, I work with many who do. At U-M, in my 14 years at director, our Men's Glee was sustaining 100 guys pretty consistently. Word of mouth was best. My singers were very good at convincing others how much they loved to be a part of the group. We did tours every year. Tours were very helpful in recruiting. We were involved in campus activities. We always scheduled our fall concert for the night of the last home football game. Fall concert always had 3000 people. It is important to look at your calendar and tie performances to various things. We always put on a Male Vocal Arts Day. High school boys came. They were not prepared in advance. They'd come in and work on a few songs with the Men's Glee Club and have a few demonstrations. Our guys would sing with them and then for them. It was great fun and a great recruiting tool. We always had an in-state tour. Tradition is very important, helpful. Men like to be a part of something bigger then themselves. Our men know that the pillars of the group are Tradition, Camaraderie, and Musical Excellence. They always went to pizza after every Thursday night rehearsal. There were certain songs that were only sung at the end of every bus trip. The musical excellence was primarily the conductor's responsibility. They knew their best was not the lowest common denominator.
What elements need to be considered on the issue of offering mixed choirs vs. men or women-only choirs at the middle level, high school, and collegiate levels?
When I worked at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, we just simply did not have enough men on campus to have a TTBB choir. I should have had the men we did have sing a men-only piece. Wheaton had a great male chorus. In 1859, they established the Michigan Men's Glee. It was definitely tied to Football and other things. Historically, it was a different time. Universities were mostly male.
I can say that single-gender groups in MS are vital. The just have completely different issues. Women can often do a ton more. They still have their own vocal issues, but often have voices that are more developed. Men have different issues. An single-gender group lets the boys find their range. The opportunity to sing in a group like that is really helpful. Also, at the high school level, I know it is a ton of fun.
Recruiting male singers is a challenge for any director. Any ideas that have been successful in the past?
Texas ACDA has had some good articles regarding recruiting. Lots of great ideas. Ken Phillips has written some good ones. I think that when we recruit, they need to know there will be interesting and fun things happening. It is important to be at the right place at the right time. Being a presence on campus is important. We need to recruit athletes as well as artistic types. Many guys join choir because their friends are in the group, not necessarily because they hope to meet girls.
If you could offer three challenges to our NW ACDA members as they prepare for performances and as they work with their singers, what would they be?
1) Continue to develop musicianship skillls in our young musicians.
2) Choose the very best repertoire we are capable of. All styles and levels of difficulty can be appropriate. The easy path is not necessarily better. Do your homework.
3) Fill your artistic bank account of great musical experiences. Attend rehearsals and performances of great choirs. It is just like Little League–going to see the tigers play, instead of just watching little league games all the time. Think, "Why does that move me? How does that move me?" It is crucial that we all keep our own artistic bank account well-stocked.
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