Bridging the Gap: Connecting Choral Communities

Timothy Westerhaus, University and 4-year College R & S Chair, Washington State

westerhausAs choral conductors, we strive to create and strengthen bonds of community within our choirs as we pursue musical excellence. Our ensembles thrive when each member identifies with a common cause that resonates deeply with other members. These common causes include aesthetic elements, such as a specialized body of repertoire, ensemble size, and pride in achieving a certain level of musical excellence. In addition to these musical elements, commonalities also include age, location, school, language, and myriad other characteristics. As leaders, we facilitate retreats and other opportunities conducive to strengthening bonds among singers, knowing that the ensemble that “plays well together” also sings well together.

Paul Wellstone, the late U. S. senator from Minnesota, often asserted about our interconnectedness, “We all do better when we all do better.” This idea challenges us to look beyond our own choral communities and to seek broader relationships. An unintended consequence in creating strong, tightly-knit communities within choirs can be that individuals’ passions for making music becomes dependent on singing solely with one particular ensemble. Singers can take such great pride in their ensemble that it may seem that no other chorus can match their experience of choral music. Their love of choral music becomes inextricably bound in the ensemble rather than the experience and repertoire. This feeling can be reinforced by those very music competitions and festivals that aim to recognize musical excellence, sometimes pitting ensembles against one another. What a dangerous paradox!

The good news in the Northwest (and this observation comes from a conductor that recently transplanted to Washington) is that we have many wonderful models and opportunities for connecting choral communities. At the 2014 Washington ACDA Summer Institute, conductors of all ages gathered to reconnect with colleagues and make new connections. The spirit of collegiality is genuine, often based in long-lasting friendships, and grounded in the recognition of our mutual passion for choral music. We recognize that “we all do better, when [each of us and our ensembles] all do better.” At the most basic level, we depend on one another for new singers for ensembles; high school programs thrive when elementary and middle schools serve as natural feeders, and the students are served well in that they are easily connected with a choral community in which they can feel at home.

In the same way, choral programs at the collegiate level can thrive when we connect with those who have fostered the growth of students at secondary schools. At this year’s Summer Institute, Brian Mitchell and I shared mutual pride in a former student of his continuing to sing at the college level at Gonzaga. Although this student is not a music major, choral music continues to be an important part of her life. From the perspective of collegiate conductors, we also delight when our students continue to sing in professional, community, and sacred choirs.

Let this reflection serve as an invitation and a call to collegiate and secondary conductors to connect students with new choral communities. Although we are busy with preparations for a new school year, take a moment to call to mind those recent graduates. If you are a high school educator and are aware of your students’ post-secondary plans, consider contacting conductors at colleges, universities, and local communities to identify your students to them. We will be glad to hear from you as we seek to welcome new musicians! In the same way, collegiate conductors can contact conductors in local communities and identify potential choirs for our students. In this way, we can foster connections that enrich singers with choral music throughout their lives.

Let us “bridge the gap” together!

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