The Importance of Community in Choral Music

Today was really interesting.

My colleague David Weiller and I are in the midst of auditions for our choral ensemble that is travelling to Spain and Portugal this coming June. I am so very excited to be taking an ensemble to Europe for the first time! My first occasion to leave North America was as a newly graduated senior and member of the Nordic Choir. I have been fortunate to have been abroad for music and leisure since then, but I believe that one’s first ever adventure to another continent remains vivid and full of color in ways that successive trips and travels do not. So many of my mental photographs over the years have faded in vibrance with time. Yet, that European tour, over a decade ago now, seems to remain in like-new condition in the recesses of my memory. I enjoy reaching back into the album and remembering select moments from time to time, and they always fill me with happiness and appreciation.

I have had a handful of these nostalgic moments over the last few days. By happy coincidence I called an old classmate this afternoon whom I have not seen or spoken with in many years. It was great to hear his voice, even for a brief conversation. He had been an occasional roommate on our touring with the choir my senior year and was a part of that same European trip. He had no reason to do so, but when I told him who I was on the phone, he reacted with excitement in his voice: “I can’t believe I’m talking to you right now! How are you?!” Another member of that tour, the man who stood right next to me all of that year in the tenor section, had a birthday today, and his name popped up on Facebook this morning. I am reminded weekly of classmates and friends who were a part of this trip. It was the culminating event of a year of community and song at the end of an amazingly rewarding four-year choral career. It is amazing how quickly I can pick up conversation with these people when I see them. It’s sort of like that moment in the last Ocean’s movie, where there is some sort of agreement that everyone who’s shaken Sinatra’s hand has an unspoken obligation to treat the others with friendliness and cordiality. That’s what it’s like to sing and tour together in a special choir. It is a community that endures the passage of time and divergent pathways that life creates for us all. People who share song together over time develop an almost indecipherable intimacy that only shows itself long afterward. It is a spiritual interconnectedness for me and many others.

At UNLV we have opened this tour up to a diverse array of singers: our current undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, choral alumni, the amazing music teachers of the Clark County school district, and members of the exceptional community chorus, the Las Vegas Master Singers, which my colleague conducts and which is affiliated with our university. Our travelling ensemble is going to consist of singers ranging in age from late teens to early seventies, musicians all. David has made a point of asking each singer what interests him/her about this tour, and it is fascinating to hear the responses. The younger students are eager to experience a new part of the wide world, though there are older adults who also are excited at the prospect of leaving the country for the first time. The term “once in a lifetime” was used more than once. Some singers, now retired, were looking forward to travelling in a group, others were excited to sing in large cathedrals, experience Iberian culture and history, eat new foods, and have an adventure with other people of similar interests. It has become apparent that this tour will not be one of technical wizardry and tour de force production value that might make us seem impressive outside the walls of our city. Instead, this journey will be about creating a community through song and shared experience. I feel strongly that this is what has drawn so many of the auditioning singers to us this evening.

Case in point: the last person to audition this evening really drove home the enduring power of community. Erik, a tall, tan, and trim gentleman with spiky gray hair and a sharply trimmed goatee, sang with David over 25 years ago and had life-changing experiences touring and travelling as a member of the UNLV Chamber Chorale in the late 80s and early 90s. He recalled a memory of singing in a grand cathedral in rural Mexico and how that moment had stuck with him the rest of his life. In the years since he has spent a career working in city planning for the local government, gotten married, raised three wonderful children. He told us about his youngest daughter, just off to an excellent East Coast college on a softball scholarship, and how they had spent the last decade being travel team parents on the road every weekend for tournaments. His second daughter was getting married in their backyard in three weeks. Erik hadn’t sung in over a decade, even longer if he didn’t count the contemporary worship team at his church, and here he was, drawn in by an email sent to alumni encouraging them to come along with us, no guarantee of knowing a single person. He sang in a beautifully lyric baritone voice, sight-read a hymn, still using those skills from all those years ago. Then, Erik and David hugged and, on his way out the door, Erik said he “would love to be a part of a community again.” And it just struck me right in the deepest part of my heart.

I spend a lot of time visiting high schools and talking with students about how rewarding singing can be after they graduate. I like to say, “Music is great, but people are AWESOME.” And I mean it from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head. Many students love their choir experience because they feel a sense of belonging, pride, tradition, and purpose. It’s not uncommon for high school students to eat lunch in the choir room, spend their before- and after-school hours there, often not singing at all but simply sharing in community with friends and classmates. Great music and the most successful ensembles and individual musicians I know understand the value of community within the greater context of the musical experience. Communities trust and support one another, challenge and uphold one another, honor one another’s efforts, and celebrate each other’s successes. I tell students at UNLV that, in the end, no one would rather have “he sang minor thirds really well” written in their obituary if he could have “he reached out and connected me to others through the wonderful gift of music” written there instead. That’s not to excuse them from being technically proficient and academically excellent, only to remind them why accumulating knowledge and ability is important in the first place. Music is the vehicle, skill and knowledge are the fuel, and people are the destination.

Why Not Sing in American Latin?

I’ve had the opportunity to listen to almost one hundred choirs over the course of this year as a clinician, judge, conductor, and audience member. After the English language, the next language most frequently sung is Latin. Much fuss is made about how to actually pronounce Latin. The current trend of attempting to deliver a historically informed performance (as the composer would have heard and envisioned it) has found its way into the pronunciation discussion. Would Bach have heard a different dialect of church Latin than Charpentier? Latin did diverge into regional pronunciations influenced by the natural consonant and vowel sounds of the vernacular language in that area. This has been confirmed by research. This can be heard in contemporary recordings of European choirs. Yet, many of these same choirs frequently sing the Latin dialect of their home country, even if they are performing the work of a composer from somewhere else. The national/regional Latin dialect still wins out from time to time.

This brings us to Latin in American choral music. Inevitably, at every festival, a judge or clinician will approach a choir and chide (sometimes castigate) them regarding their Latin pronunciation. In the majority of cases the Latin is part of a contemporary choral work set by an American composer, followed by ars perfecta motets from Italy or Spain. The number one word that is pointed out is always, always “in”, which Americans pronounce [In] and every judge always wants to be pronounced [in]. After that there are several sounds that get brought to attention: is “excelsis” pronounced “eggshell-sees” or “eks-chell-sees” or “ek-sell-sees”? American choirs tend to pronounce this word the first way most frequently, which makes sense considering how those letters would be pronounced in American English. The same can be said of the more percussive consonance of t, c, and ch sounds, mixing of bright and dark vowels and modifying them as if they were in an American English word, etc.

I submit for your consideration: it’s time for the American choral academy to acknowledge that the United States has its own Latin dialect. Cultivated over generations of sacred and academic practice, it is an assimilation of the colors and quirks of American English. We are, after all, not Europeans, yet we exert enormous energy trying to be European in this regard. What then, is the “right” way to sing a Latin text set by a 21st century American composer? Must every American composer place a note in the music indicating the desired European dialect with which they envision their work to be pronounced? That seems like an unnecessary expectation to place on composers and choirs alike. Embracing an American Latin dialect would release conductors from the monotony and wasted rehearsal time of continually correcting ingrained pronunciations, allow composers writing for American audiences a chance to imagine sound colors more familiar to their singers, and get rid of the anxiety of taking a choir to festival and being judged uneducated or wrong because one didn’t choose the appropriate European dialect. Let’s claim American Latin as our own unique contribution to the choral vernacular. If everyone else can do it, so can we.

glɔriə ɪn ˈɛgˌʃɛl siz deɪ oʊ. ‘mɛrɪkə.