What do you want to say?

Dr. Karl Nelson

R&R Chair for Community Choirs, SWACDA  

      For many years, when I would plan the music for our concert seasons, my primary concern was to find a diverse range of styles and themes for my choirs.  I felt that this was my duty to expose and teach as many styles as I could, so that I could complete my “checklist” of stylistic and thematic goals. The choir members could then perform and appreciate the many different approaches of communication through the glorious art of choral music.  Like many of us, I would try to balance sacred and secular texts, English and foreign languages, modern and older compositions, traditional and lesser-known works, and fun and contemplative intents.  It seemed to be a good formula for successful concerts until it got to the point where I realized that what I was doing was not developing artistic events, but formulaic programs.  I was reminded of our purpose as artists when a colleague rhetorically asked, “If we’re not saying something, why do it at all?”  The more I thought about it, the more it rings true for every art form: visual arts, dance, theatre, and of course, music.

      I find that this places an extra responsibility on me when I select music that supersedes my “checklist” that I would try to follow.  However, this responsibility becomes more of an opportunity when I think of how different ideas can be presented to our choir members, audiences, and the community at large.  What can be communicated through music that needs to be encouraged to everyone so that the best in all of us can be brought out?  Everyone needs to be reminded of what makes us human and hopefully, more responsible members of our community, and the importance of how we interact with each other.

      ”A Rubric for Choral Relevance,” written by Jennifer Rodgers in the April 2019 issue of Choral Journal, outlines an approach where choral ensembles can be “more than relevancy-seeking” and become “relevancy-driven organizations without changing our current missions, budgets, or constituencies.”  This is ever-so applicable to the potential of what community choirs can do.  As members of the community, a collective voice as community artists can be the voice of awareness and change based on our daily concerns and aspirations.  Where do we start?  What do you want to say that could be raised from the dormant acceptances of our everyday lives?  An easy source would be to look at the current political climate and issues that affect so many of our lives.  The problem is that I, along with many colleagues in music, have no desire to alienate half of my potential audience members with blatant political statements.  One possibility is to find the underlying issues that may be missing in the often-times “black and white” dialogue of the media, elected officials, and political strategies.  This has been a starting point to delve into topics that can affect us all, but only a starting point.

      Rodgers continues to discuss the importance of developing relationships to make these issues truly relevant.  “We may feel strongly about an issue and have wonderful messages about that issue in our music, but we cannot form relationships with issues, only people.”  For some, this may be the most difficult part of the process, but it may unveil aspects of your community which may have otherwise gone unnoticed by relying on a single perspective—yours.  Rodgers suggests that when relevancy is used as a starting place, “what you say is not confined to what you sing, but how you guide your audience through the story you have to tell.”  Much like the contour of a phrase, Rodgers suggests the following sample “arc” for the story you may want to tell in order to develop relationships and impact in a concert:

·       Open ears and mind and develop trust.  What musical soundscape and emotional tone do you want your audience to acclimate to?

·       Capture attention and curiosity.  Answer the “so what?” question up front.

·       Connect to experience.  Generate empathy with your audience and between them and your subject by connecting to likely shared experiences and points of access.

·       Focus on your desired outcomes—action, lasting impression, discomfort, solidarity.

·       Empower and inspire—what do you want them to do after leaving your program?

      I haven’t gotten rid of my “checklist,” but I’ve discovered that there are many more possibilities that can be explored if I take the time to develop our relationships and nurture the ideas that are difficult to articulate in our everyday lives.  I know that I can program concerts with more sensitivity and create a connection through the words and music that has spoken to me, building relationships, becoming a better and more productive member of my community.  What do you want to say?

Reference: Rodgers, Jennifer.  “A Rubric for Choral Relevance.” Choral Journal 39, no. 9 (2019):  22-29.