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.

We Need A Minor League System for Musicians

The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell highlights a little-discussed gorilla in the corner of most high school and college music rooms: the overwhelming amount of practice it takes to become an elite performer in the world of professional music. Gladwell outlines a study by K. Anders Ericsson that tracked the practice habits of conservatory music students in Berlin’s Academy of Music. Their findings were illuminating: despite the music world’s love affair with the concept of the “genius”, “virtuoso”, and “talented” performer, Ericsson found that the greatest determining factor in the rate of improvement and eventual professional success of promising students was not their innate abilities. It was, in fact, their practice routine. The number of hours of practice per week inclined steadily from childhood through age 20, resulting in over 10,000 hours of practice logged by the time the students had graduated from college.

What’s more, Ericsson was able to extrapolate further on this “10,000 Hour Rule” to create a four-tiered strata of eventual professions for music students, based on their total number of practice hours. Student with 8,000 hours were considered “merely good”, and students with around 4,000 hours became teachers! Coincidentally, Ericsson also studied amateur pianists and found that they averaged only 2,000 hours of practice over the same period that “elite” professionals were logging five times that many. That no “naturally gifted” students were able to slacken their practice pace and still rise to the top of the brew should serve as a strong warning to aspiring professional performers, but it also has strong implications for aspiring professional music educators. The saying in baseball is that “the numbers don’t lie”, and Ericsson’s research indicates that the numbers here are, at least at first, overwhelming. For students, however, it might and should come as something of an inspiration. It isn’t some unknown commodity of “talent” that determines whether you make it to the top: it’s a matter of consistent practice.

It is understood by many parents and students that ensemble music courses, from the elementary level to post-secondary, are more than a laboratory environment for learning music skills. Music ensembles are frequently thought of as an expressive and creative outlet (though, frequently, creativity has little to do with it), a social bubble and community of caring classmates, an environment for students to display leadership skills, and, in some avenues, an opportunity to engage in a type of competitive environment most frequently found in youth athletics. Parents and the greater public, and, increasingly, students themselves, wish ensemble music experiences to contain a degree of entertainment value that they find in popular and consumer music. With tight budgets and cultural disregard and disrespect for the arts so common that it has become an assumed matter of course, schools, where {by the far the greatest degree of traditional and contemporary music education and training is taking place}, favor quantity over quality when gauging the worthiness of arts courses to even exist.

How, then, can any music educator be counted upon to ensure students get anywhere close to the number of practice hours they need to be competitive for a future in the profession? Even an ensemble that meets one hour a day for an entire school year only provides 180 hours of rehearsal time, 1,260 total if you track 6th thru 12th grade. Most teachers are lucky to meet 30 minutes three times per week, and that time is not necessarily focused on individual achievement and growth. Too often, music educators at the secondary level are trapped by the “y’all come” nature of their ensemble, forced to spend the majority of their efforts on bringing less knowledgeable or less motivated students up to snuff and praying that the ambitious students figure it out on their own. Even then, a motivated self-starter who practices on his/her own one hour a day all school year for seven years would log 2,030 hours of practice. Combined with the generous hour of daily rehearsal over that same time period, the number of hours logged isn’t quite a third of the necessary hours needed to make the 10,000 hour barrier. Going into college, such a student would need to practice four hours and thirty-six minutes per day, seven days a week, for four straight years to make it to exactly 10,000 hours.

What the professional and academic music scene needs is a farm system, a minor leagues of music, so to speak. I’m not talking about placing professional symphonies and opera companies in every small town in America, more the system of improvement and growth that a minor league system represents.

Take professional baseball in the United States. Players who show promise during their high school careers are drafted or signed to “professional” contracts with a team affiliated with a major parent, usually an MLB team. These minor league teams are located in cities large and small across the country and are split into strata from “rookie” teams composed entirely of newly signed players to the “A teams” classified as A, AA, and AAA, each of which represents a progression in skill and development of the player. Finally, players on the AAA teams serve as a sort of reserve squad for their parent MLB franchise, and players on the bubble of professional readiness for the major league roster frequently bounce between these two levels until they either earn a regular spot on the big team or settle into a less prestigious role. It is not uncommon for a newly signed prospect to spend five to seven years in the minor league farm system before he is ready to play in the “big leagues”. While players are on this developmental journey, they receive individualized instruction to improve their own skills. Position coaches specialize in the detailed skills of fielding, pitching, hitting, and catching. Managers bring all of these skills and talents together to create a stronger team and teach the players how to contribute their unique gifts to the greater good of the players around them. Experienced players teach rookies important shortcuts and advice from their personal experience, and strength and conditioning coaches work on the fundamentals of general athleticism to ensure that players can continue moving forward free from injury. Together, this system provides young players with the necessary 10,000 hours in a constructive, strategic, and purpose-driven environment.

There are already several parallels between the music academy and the baseball farm system. Position coaches are like studio teachers, focusing on the specific skills of the chosen instrument. Managers are akin to ensemble directors, bringing everyone’s talents together to make an ensembe, cast, or company. Graduate students assume the position of veterans, providing insights from experience, and music theory, pedagogy, ear training, and musicology provide fundamental, core knowledge of music that informs and improves student practice and performance in every genre. One could think of music majors on scholarship as a sort of “drafted” prospect, one who shows promise in high school and whose potential warrants a financial investment on the part of the university. In this way, there is sort of a farm system in place for developing musicians. However, where the musical academy falls short of professional baseball is in the connections, networks, and agreements between the different parts. High schools and universities rarely coordinate curriculum and expectations for promising musicians beyond state or regional music standards that are inconsistently adhered to or assessed. As a result, a student may spend 10 or more years in college trying to get to 10,000 hours, frequently paying thousands of dollars with few, if any, professional engagements during that time. Beginning minor donleague don’t make much, but it’s at least an incentive for developing players to stick with it until they’ve gotten to the highest level.

High schools need to start taking seriously what it means to prepare students for the next level. There is a reason why there are always one or two high schools in every state that send a disproportionate amount of promising young athletes on scholarship to collegiate athletics: their coaches, parents, and institutions decided that preparing students for every possible future in athletics, including professional sports, was going to be a goal and priority of their program. Therefore, these stakeholders invested the resources necessary to give their student-athletes the skills they need to make the jump to the next level.

Likewise, universities need to become more proactive in creating partnerships with professional, semi-professional, and amateur ensembles, artist programs, and institutions in their community and greater region, working to provide these organizations with future contributors and leaders. Performers should be moving out into these organizations as a natural extension of their university experience. There will always be a “major league” level of music performance. The Met isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the Los Angeles Philharmonic. These major organizations should reach out to others in a formal capacity. This doesn’t mean that the organization would have to have an inclusive partnership with a “feeder” program, but having a strong, mutual understanding of the skills and experiences desired by the bigger fish can only help the smaller fish to swim faster and stronger.

A farm system of interconnected curricula, expectations, and mutual respect and understanding is a long-term solution to a long-term problem. Ensemble music in secondary school isn’t going to change overnight. Nor is the societal value of academy music and music education. However, if the United States wishes to bring more students to the 10,000 hour threshold, it needs a better process than the wild west system it is currently saddled with. Middle and high schools (which should already, but often aren’t, be aligned with each other on curriculum) should work to align their curriculum with the needs of their local and regional post-secondary institutions. Those institutions should, in turn, partner with area professional and semi-professional organizations to provide graduates with a stepping stone into the professional music world. From there, less formal relationships and understandings can be made on a broader range of needs between these local/regional organizations and their “major league” counterparts.

The result of this system should bear fruit at all levels: increased competition at the highest echelons of the profession will move it forward. Increased awareness of, and participation in, regional music organizations will increase civic awareness and community engagement and support for local institutions. Universities can demonstrate their commitment to lifelong learning and increased practice time after students walk out the door while also receiving more students who possess the prioritized requirements of their music schools. Finally, and most importantly, secondary music programs can build bridges into the professional world, adding legitimacy to arts education through increased student participation after graduation and heightened academic and artistic integrity for students throughout their seven years of middle and high school music.

Let’s play ball!


The Future of Music, The Future of Us

UNLV is one of the most diverse college campuses on the planet. It has more students of color, more ethnic backgrounds, more first languages, more first-generation college students, and more students from low-income backgrounds than all but one other university in the United States. That in and of itself is incredibly exciting. What’s even more impressive: UNLV’s choral department is as diverse as its general student body, an almost unparalleled demographic representation among secondary and post-secondary choral programs nationwide. The School of Music at UNLV has over 500 students, both undergraduate and graduate, traditional and non-traditional, homegrown and international. It is located in the heart of a rapidly growing, increasingly cosmopolitan city.

just some of the 2016-17 UNLV Choir Members

UNLV’s music students, right now, already look like what most of our country’s ensembles, classrooms, and communities are going to look like 20 years from now (and many do already). It is a student body that values community alongside rigorous scholarship, one that embraces difference and doesn’t shy from it. For that it should be celebrated!

I’ve been visiting a lot of high schools recently, getting to know students and teachers, learning the values of Las Vegas’s young people and musicians. Inevitably, I am asked why I think young people should choose UNLV from amidst a host of excellent options. This is what I tell them:

If you want to go somewhere where everyone looks like you, thinks like you, talks like you, acts like you, and comes from the same background as you, there are plenty of colleges and universities like that to choose from. Many of them have phenomenal music, passionate professors, and dedicated students.

However, if you want to be somewhere where the people you sing with and feel with and learn from and become friends with and share with represent the entire world, the future classrooms you’ll teach, and the ensembles you’ll conduct, regardless of where you find yourself on this ever-shrinking planet, then, may I humbly suggest that I know of a place like that.


Untangling the Yarnball

This week I had a student come into my office to complete her individual beginning-of-the-year voicing. She sings in the UNLV Singers and is a music education student. Since I am new, I had asked every student in the choir to come in and see me so I could hear him/her 1 on 1 and to be able to greet them and give them a chance to chat with the new guy. When we got done with her placement, she asked me about the voicing process I had done in the choir last week. Like most of us, I took a few minutes to voice each singer and place them next to other singers who would compliment each other. It’s a quick process for me anymore: each singer sings for a few seconds, one right after the other, and then I start mixing them together until I find what sounds like the best match.

The student was curious what I was listening for, how I was able to hear and remember all the voices after a couple of seconds, and why it was important to do it at all. She’s not the first student who has asked this question. From the first time I did this exercise with my very first high school choirs, students have always been curious about the voicing process. What made this time different was that this student wanted to know how it worked so she could replicate it.

When I first started teaching, one of the challenges of working with freshman high school students was unwrapping four years of the intense music learning that led to my bachelor’s degree into a manageable pathway for students who were just beginning their journey toward understanding the individual and ensemble concepts and skills necessary to become articulate, thoughtful vocal musicians. When you take for granted note names or solfege syllables, when you find the physiology of singing to be second nature, how do you unwrap the tangled yarnball of music knowledge that has been woven together over the years back into single conceptual threads?

Voicing a choir has so many components that teachers who have been working for awhile take for granted. We hear the color and characteristics of a voice quickly, and we can tell from just a few moments what kind of qualities would be best suited to assist and magnify the positive qualities of each voice. We have heard so many singers over the years that we can even predict with reasonable accuracy the trajectory of a singer’s vocal qualities over the course of a year. Next, we have spent countless hours in front of an ensemble, crafting a technical and aesthetic awareness of the sound qualities needed for a variety of diverse repertoire, for ensembles with sixteen or one hundred voices. All of this understanding plays a part in the voicing process, which, to a young music education student, appears to be done in a blur as if by magic.

Luckily for choral music education students at UNLV, they will all take an entire course dedicated to choral methods, where we will get to discuss these concepts in more depth. in the meantime, I need to give some careful thought on how to structure my instruction on voicing a section or an ensemble. Untangling the yarnball yet again!

A Single Step

UNLV Concert Singers, Fall 2016

One of the challenges of singing in an ensemble is that you have to put a certain amount of trust in the people around you. As is the case with all forms of artistic expression, so much of choral music is about the ability to be vulnerable. It makes sense, then, that it can be difficult to be musical and comfortable when you are singing with unfamiliar people. The first week of classes brings new faces and personalities to campus and to choir, and everyone from the most senior to the first-time freshman experiences a little bit of the same sensation. Things get even more complicated when you have a new conductor on top of it, which is what all of these students here are experiencing.

The displays of patience, enthusiasm, and encouragement from the faculty and students here at UNLV in this first week of rehearsals and classes portends a great year filled with good music, intense learning, and strong community. I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve it.

A Door Opens, A Door Closes

Wow, what a week, month, and year it has been. Yesterday evening was the culminating moment of several journeys, personal and professional, as well as the launch pad for the future.

I decided to accept a position as a doctoral student and graduate assistant at Texas Tech in early April of 2013, but I did so with some hesitation. I had come to truly love my job at Fort Dodge Senior High School, the city of Fort Dodge, and the state of Iowa in general. It was difficult to leave a community I had come to treasure.

Now, just over three years later, it is remarkable how quickly the time has passed. I am so thankful for this time of growth and challenge. Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote that “a mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” That is certainly true of my three years of doctoral work. I have learned an incredible amount about the history and art of choral music and the trade of conducting.

Now I have the opportunity to take all of these experiences and apply them to my own practice. If anyone had asked where I would end up at the end of all of this, I know I would not have said a large public university, and I would have been hard-pressed to list Las Vegas as that destination. As it turns out, I could not have asked for a better fit for my professional passions and personal pursuits. I am very excited to become a part of the UNLV faculty and to contribute to the choral and music education culture there.

For my inspiration this week I return to my roots and the spiritual and worshipful music of my alma mater’s most storied ensemble, the Luther College Nordic Choir.

Song of the Week: Prayer by Rene Clausen


Similarly, the Oneota Valley is the home of Brian Andreas, the poet and artist behind the poem “Connection”, which I have known for many years and which I have adopted as a sort of subtitle to my work in the choral art.

There came a moment
in the middle of the song
when he suddenly
felt every heartbeat
in the room,

and after that
he never forgot
he was part
of something much