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GUEST BLOG: "The Students' Challenge to Directors" by Taylor Jack Conley

THE STUDENTS' CHALLENGE TO DIRECTORS, by Taylor Jack Conley
 
Dear Choir Directors,
 
       We singers are lazy by nature. It’s part of being human, really. We will accomplish as little as you let us if you set the standards low enough. Yet, if you raise that bar higher, we will attain and accomplish feats unimaginable.
       So, why not raise your standards? We really don’t need the music for those six different octavos we’re singing in our next concert. In fact, with enough practice, we don’t even need the music for some of those larger works you’re having us sing. Sure, we can use our music on Bach’s B minor Mass, but that’s a huge work. Big works don’t have to be memorized as part of general practice.
       The plain, black folder that contains our safety net isn’t truly necessary. We can do it, I promise. If only you would set the standards to a higher level, we could connect with you and the audience on a whole new level without our faces buried in the music. Our memorization would allow us to have better posture and be watching you for every single cue and direction; and we know how much you would enjoy the extra attention. Those folders, the nuisances that they be, have a tendency to draw faces into them and occasionally even go tumbling to the ground sending pieces of music flying all over the performance space. Just imagine the sound we could produce with our faces up, towards the audience at all times and allowing great singing to happen by better neck posture. Imagine what a wonderful performance that would be without worrying about folder cues, muted sounds, and folder splats to dampen the musical mood. What a performance that would be! Oh, you want to fit all of us on an insufficient amount of risers? We needn’t worry about fitting our folders in there as well; we don’t need them due to our memorization! We could also accomplish a great deal as musicians by being deeply connected to the music and text through memorization. We could sing our hearts out, and let our minds do the work.
       What we ask is a simple task: challenge us. Make us work to be better musicians and performers. Will you step up the plate and lead us into a new level of musicianship and performance practice? We will only ever do what you ask us to, hardly anything more will happen spontaneously. If we, in doing the bare minimum, don’t accomplish great things ourselves, we leave a vacancy for someone else to seize the opportunity. Why not let your students achieve musical greatness under your guidance?
       We, as students, ask you to bring us into a new level of performance that can amaze the audience, ourselves, and you.  Challenge your students and you will not be disappointed.
                    Sincerely,
                           Your Students
on August 6, 2013 7:12am
VERY COOL! Thank you so much....
Applauded by an audience of 1
on August 6, 2013 9:16am
Hi dear students, You're absolutely RIGHT, and my adult community choir needs to read and support this standard. There is no comparison to the audience connection and expression from singer to conductor when repertoire is memorized.  Thank you for sharing this musical expectation and I know most educators will agree with you!  
Carolyn, Eynon Singers, Scottsdale ,AZ
on August 6, 2013 1:20pm
Thanks for that wonderful challenge, Taylor! I agree with you about the importance of the director's high standards when it comes to singers memorizing music; singers of all ages and levels can memorize, leading to a better musical experience for all.
 
And while I also agree that singers can be more connected to text and music via the memorization process, I don't see memorizing as a "connection panacea." In my experience, singers who have memorized their music can be just as disconnected/disengaged as singers whose directors have asked them to hold the music. And the flipside is also true--singers who hold the music can be much more connected/engaged than singers who've memorized the music. (But to your point, just about any choir will be more connected and musical when they memorize the music -- especially when you compare their performance of the same music while holding scores/not memorizing.)
 
IF there were no other factors at play -- no other easy methods with which to empower singers toward a full and compelling engagement with text and music -- I would not be writing this response.  But I know that there is an incredibly simple technique that can transform a choir's engagement level in about an hour. 
 
So, I challenge directors to take Taylor's challenge AND investigate the process described in the book, Choral Charisma: Singing with Expression (SBMP, 2005) or the related website at www.choralcharisma.com. The process is straightforward; it's based on people's actual behavior as understood by neuroscientists, Method acting theorists, psychologists, sociologists, and expression experts. But again, it's simple; I've taught it to hundreds of choirs in about thirty minutes, then applied it to the group's rep in the remaining workshop time. Results have been completely transformative for the singers, the director, and the audience members. Much more about the results on my website, including testimonials from nationally recognized and highly regarded choral directors.
 
In a nutshell, the process empowers singers by having them do what we all do in our day to day connections -- we try to affect each other, changing the way the other person feels, thinks, or acts. With a song, singers create a story that would support one character trying to impact another character in one (or more) of these ways. They then use their imaginations or real-life experiences to flesh out the textual/story details. When they sing, they try to affect the director who has become their "Other." The director in this scenario should NOT be trying to impact the singers, or have them use their "mirror neurons" to reflect back the director's expression/emotional content. In this process, the singer is the primary expressor -- and the audience is impacted firsthand by experiencing their authentic and potent singing. (For an example, go to the "Barbershop" page of the website.) 
 
Importantly, certain things go along with this process: 1) The rehearsal and performance environment must be safe and supportive. 2) The singers must be free to move. 3) External language such as "Show the joy in your face" or "Reflect the awe in your voice" is not used (it confuses singers, leading to inauthentic expression). 4) Technical restrictions such as "smile with your eyes only" need to be tossed out -- due to the bodymind connection, such directives literally short-circuit authentic expression in humans. 
 
Once more, the process is amazingly easy to incorporate ... and has the power to complete transform the singer/audience experience immediately. 
 
 
on August 7, 2013 9:08am
Thank you for this Taylor! I will share it with our singers and their parents at our fall orientation when I talk about "why we memorize"!
 
Carol Thomas Downing
Virginia Children's Chorus
on August 18, 2013 12:58pm
 
A young aspirant asked Pablo Casals why he used a conductor's score while so many conduct from memory;  "Why not, I can read music," he said. Sarcasm?- perhaps. An analytical conductor may have dozens, if not hundreds, of markings in a score of which he may wish to be reminded as a performance progresses.
So far as a chorister singing from memory, while attractive to the eyes of some, others may enjoy watching singers concentrating on the, hopefully, multitude of markings he has made as an analytical choral conductor indicated.
Appearance wise, watching similarly clad singers with equal length cut, in perfect alignment, has a certain benign interest like swallows on power line do. Then the only thing moving other than the mouths of the singers is the conductor gesticulating to remind singers of what they could, ahead in time, see what he must prepare them for. I have more confidence in singers reading and singing than singers recalling and singing. There is always a hint of the question: am I correct?
 
Simply, singing from memory is right for a solo recital but has limited virtue for a choral performance.
 
Example: YouTube   St. Cecelia Orchestra and Chorus  Pappano  Verdi Sacred Pieces or Rossini Stabat Mater.   Compare to any big name 
college or university.
 
Just another viewpoint!
 
E. Palmer