I was glad to read a recent article from Chorus America this week entitled A New Career Path For Singers. The author outlines the trend of the last decade, whereby young singers graduating from excellent training grounds such as the Yale Institute Of Sacred Music, Westminster Choir College, and other venerable institutes of higher learning, are “knitting together careers by traveling from city to city to perform with professional choral ensembles.” This is certainly a 21st Century development, and is elevating the overall standard and, in most cases, visibility of choral music as a genre of music-making in America. It is also changing the way in which choral music takes place within a given community. In the past, a town or city that was NOT New York, Boston, Washington, or a handful of other well-stocked cultural centers, would rely on local singers being assembled by a hard-working, talented, dedicated local musician in order to produce a season of choral concerts that would achieve greater heights than the local volunteer choral society. Another option for exposure to good quality choral music was the importing of great collegiate or cathedral choirs from England, beginning in the mid-1900s when such ventures began to be somewhat practical. As I suggested in a recent presentation at the Dallas AGO Convention, the attraction of undertaking this as a financially responsible and practical endeavor is surely waning. In large part, I believe that this is due to the significant rise in standard of professional choral ensembles in the USA. Because of the rise of the “fly-in” model – not choirs from Europe, but individual singers from Stateside locations – it is now quite possible to hear first-rate choral music in places like Austin, Miami, Tucson, Santa Fe, and other cities where, twenty years ago, such opportunities would have been rare.
Several colleagues of a certain age – mine! – chimed in with completely legitimate comments on Facebook feeds in response to this article. These ranged from an observation that…
“in NYC in the late 70s, choral/ensemble gigs with the likes of Musica Sacra, NYChoral Artists, NYEnsemble for Early Music, Gregg Smith, Waverly Consort and whichever church/temple job one landed kept the bills paid. Occasional trips to the Philadelphia Singers, Folger Consort and Boston Early Music Festival broadened the horizon.”
“things have come a long way in the US where being an ensemble singer was seen as being a failure.”
While some individuals’ comments smacked of a certain envy that this “itinerant choral musician” phenomenon is happening now, nobody was critical of the development. One commentator said…
“it’s great to see ensembles and choruses sprouting up across the country! For those singers with flexibility, there’s gold in them there hills!”
There is no doubt that part of the success of these ventures rests upon the desire of individual singers to preserve the fulfilling, exhilarating, perhaps euphoric experiences that those of us who have sung with groups to a very high standard in college remember as being life-changing. In some cases, they also want to keep singing with the same people. They will often do this to begin with for very little financial reward. Hopefully, with a good entrepreneur at the helm, and a hard-working Board of Directors, the financial rewards come in due course. This is no new model. Look at the early days of groups like The King’s Singers, The Tallis Scholars, The Monteverdi Choir, The Sixteen and, indeed, look at their current membership. For the majority of the high-profile London choirs, the singer rosters are made up from the same artists, some of them with careers as solo artists too. Many of them make their bread and butter from regular cathedral or church singing. This can sort of be done in New York, but not many other places in the States. The singers know each other. They know the scene. They want to sing with each other. Or if they don’t, they have achieved a supreme level of masochism and self-flagellation!
And, returning to the article, another commentator said this…
“For a group of busy freelancers today it may be obvious that solo and ensemble singing needn’t be mutually exclusive aims (as singers across the pond have known and practiced for decades). Professional viability and a road to success can depend as much on finding and managing their compatibility; a skill-set for which student singers have too often been left pedagogically to fend for themselves…”
So, my observation is this. These singers want to sing with each other. They often found this mutual satisfaction and passion for choral singing in high school and college, and they want to keep riding that wave. It makes total sense. This is the kind of career in singing that can be somewhat sustainable for a wider group of people. With the greatest respect to my colleagues who “teach with the spirit and with understanding also”, how many singers who “train” to enter the world of opera, with that as their only goal, are “successful” in achieving their dream? Beyond that, how many of those singers, having spent the entirety of their studies with teachers who are building and training their voices for the opera stage, are of any practical use to a choral ensemble? From whence does their deep-seated desire to sing professionally come, if – and yes, this is not always the case – but “if” it goes hand in hand with a misguided notion – most often bestowed by inexperienced singing teachers – that choral singing is somehow less healthy, destructive or damaging to the human voice? Clearly, the motivation is not derived from the same source as that of a passionate choral singer! Where I grew up, the very best all-round singers were the singers who had sung in a choir and, for the most part, continued to do so while carrying on successful careers as leading oratorio, opera and art song professionals. The choral avenue was every bit as soul-enriching as the high-profile solo gig. And they could do both, to an extremely high standard. And they could read music fluently. And most likely play the piano. And be responsible to the team. And responsive to the ensemble aspect of the work. But these skills were born through an immersive, consistent, demanding upbringing through the musical ranks as a choral singer, which is rarely about the individual person, certainly not about the individual voice, and a frequent platform for oft-quoted directorial catchphrases such as “Leave your troubles at the door!”, or the harsher version of, “I don’t have time to hear about your problems!”, or “It’s not all about you!”, comments for which we would most likely be hauled in front of the community conduct board these days! That’s where the skills were formed. And THAT is where the true love of singing was formed.
I am a great supporter of individual singing lessons, for any level of singer. However, I will stick my neck out and say that, with very few exceptions, the type of vocal education that high school, and even college age, singers need is firstly a reinforcement of the musical values espoused by the choral ensemble, and secondly a solid grounding in good vocal technique. Not, as is so often the case, a twice-weekly session to “build” the voice into something that it does not need to be for an under 21 year old using solo songs and arias intended for the more mature voice, frequent bouts of “vocal rest” as ordained by the self-appointed guardian of the child’s voice – the singing teacher – and barely more than a disparaging sideways glance at the work of the choral program upon which they are wreaking havoc! It is singing, plain and simple! And a good singer needs to possess the ability to adapt to any given situation, if they are to be successful.
“We are a group that does the whole repertoire. So you have to be able to sing without vibrato, you have to sing with vibrato, you should be comfortable going back and forth from solo to ensemble singing.”
We are turning a corner in my current place of employment, where the potential for true partnership with the singing teachers is a reality. This fills me with excitement! I once mentioned that I honestly failed to see the value of our students taking the type of vocal lessons we offer at the school, with regard to the feeding and development of the choral ensembles. This was met with a slap-down of “You’re wrong!” and followed up with the statement that “It is those students taking voice lessons who form the backbone of the choir, because they actually want to participate, and encourage other people to rise to their standard.” Well, I can think of a much more compelling reason to want to participate in a choral ensemble, and wanting to be there needs to be the first prerequisite! What we do after getting them in the rehearsal door is the important part, with make-or-break consequences, and this needs to be assisted, not hampered, by any form of outside influence. I’m pleased to say that we are achieving results through the regular singing of Choral Evensong and Compline, concert tours, run-out engagements, guest clinicians (several pictured at the top of this article) and, yes, a coordinated and healthy approach to one-on-one and group vocal/choral education, with the right singing teachers in the mix. The fruits of our labors are there to be experienced, by singers, congregations and audiences alike. I fully expect to see several of the young singers who pass through the choral program here, five or ten years after they graduate, to be “knitting together careers by traveling from city to city to perform with professional choral ensembles.”
And yes, maybe there will be an occasional opera diva too…!