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Shaping choral experiences for women: texts, the color palette, and building community

  • August 13, 2014

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We sing to feel the most alive, the most vibrant, the most spiritual, and the most complete. We don’t sing to learn concepts for concepts sake, sol-fa for sol-fa’s sake, vowels for vowels sake, or even music for music’s sake. We sing because to be expressive is at the core of one of the essential experiences of the human condition.

When programming for women’s ensembles, I often take a “reverse-engineering” approach. A single piece can serve as the platform for the development of an overall experience for singers and listeners alike. That single piece is one I evaluate not only for musical veracity, but as an evolutionary process that has the potential to connect deeply with women over time. Such a work will necessarily examine text and how the text uncovers essential aspects of women’s lived experiences. If the composer has allowed the text to inform the writing, other considerations likely to fall into place (satisfying vocalism, craftsmanship, appropriate ranges, etc.).

Once such a work is identified, I begin to build around the text, aligning other works whose text or music coalesces naturally or juxtaposing a set of works to provide contrast. I find that if I keep the experiences of the women who sing first and foremost, the ultimate listening experience by audience members takes care of itself. When I am least successful, I worry about audience reaction. Audiences, or listeners, crave the same thing that singers do—a meaningful, heart-felt, connected performance.

One gratifying advancement in women’s repertoire in the last twenty years is a widening conception of vocal color available to women. As I often say, the “alto” part is a function of composition—a means to create harmony. Alto is a voice part, not the voice. Most women are some form of a soprano instrument—mezzo sopranos regularly use both the rich part of their voice as well as the upper part of their instrument. All women, then, should have the chance to use the full range of their instruments with a variety of vocal techniques. This is a central programming concern as I want to balance WAYS in which singers use their instruments in addition to the works themselves. Singing with meno vibrato is a color choice as is using the full resonant sound or learning to mix chest with head voice. Choosing a variety of musics that exercise the voice in different ways can greatly expand the vocalism of your choir.

The sample program was developed after choosing Andrea Clearfield’s treble movements from her Tibetan Cantata. The texts are sacred songs in the Tibetan tradition and Clearfield’s sensitivity to the original material has a clear connection to the colorful ethos she creates. The remainder of the program was built around the color of Clearfield’s composition, choosing settings whose inherent color seems to match the spirit of the texts. The program is experienced largely in sets of two, with Andrea Ramsey’s This Is Indeed Music serving as an emblematic call to song. There is a wide variety of vocal color required as well as diverse genres suggesting varying approaches to articulation and style.

Sample Program: Upcoming Colorado All State Women’s Choir, February 2015

This Indeed is Music, by Andrea Ramsey (Carl Fischer Music)

Stabat Mater, by Alessandro Scarlatti (Boosey & Hawkes)

Nigra Sum, by Pablo Casals (Tetra)

Tibetan Cantata, by Andrea Clearfield (See-A-Dot Music Publishing)

– Shar Ki Ri (Mountain to the East) 

– Tse Go La (At the Threshold of This Life)

Two Sara Teasdale Poems, by Jussi Chydenius (Oxford)

– The Look

– The Kiss

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Sandra SnowAs conductor, teacher, and scholar, Sandra Snow’s work spans a wide variety of ages, abilities, and musics. She holds appointments in conducting and music education at the MSU College of Music, where she interacts with undergraduate and graduate students in the areas of conducting, choral pedagogy, and choral singing. Snow conducts the Michigan State University Women’s Chamber Ensemble, a group that has appeared as featured performers at American Choral Directors Association conferences (Central Division 2014; National Conference 2009; Central Division 2008; MI-ACDA 2007). 

As guest conductor, she travels extensively conducting all-state and honor choirs and holding residencies with singers of all ages. Snow is author of the DVD “Conducting-Teaching: Real World Strategies for Success” published by GIA (2009), a resource for conductor-teachers at all levels of teaching. She edits the choral music series In High Voice published by Boosey & Hawkes.

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