I have just arrived home from a whirlwind trip to Rhode Island, leaving Friday after school and arriving back here this afternoon just in time to play for our Sunday musical rehearsal at school. As I was playing and waiting for the choreographer to do her work, I found myself thinking about the worth of the “Musical” experience in high school, and furthermore, about the intrinsic worth of the “Festival” experience in general. I have been involved in these kinds of events for many years now, and have gone through countless periods of content and discontent about these experiences for music students. However, I do think I have an uniquely worthwhile perspective gained from 4 years of managing the Vermont All State Chorus, 8 years of managing the New England Music Festival Chorus, at least 8 years of managing and organizing the Champlain Valley District Choral Festival during which time we perf ormed a major choral/orchestral work every year with an adult orchestra, accomplished soloists and a highly recognized conductor, not to mention my years of experience as a choral director and singer. Here is what I have to offer:
For lack of a better delivery system, the festival experience, as we know it, seems to be the best way we have to deliver an experience for students that operates as a motivator for singers to continue singing and exploring the choral art. This system consists of choosing a recognized conductor who chooses a program of quality choral literature. Next we provide students with music well in advance of the festival rehearsals for preparation, and finally we provide an environment that is conducive to efficient and inspired rehearsals, culminating in a performance. This system works well and achieves the desired results provided that:
1) The conductor is compet ent, organized and inspiring.
2) The program consists of quality choral literature appropriate for the choir.
3) Teachers are organized and persistent in making sure that students are well
prepared for a rigorous rehearsal schedule.
4) Students are motivated to practice and to take a positive, disciplined
approach to rehearsals.
5) All aspects of the host environment have been organized, including rehearsal
space and, most importantly, a performance venue.
However, the above is where we begin to fail the process, and for reasons not totally under our control. One’s idea of a competent, organized and inspiring conductor seems to be in question more and more. One thing is for sure……all the qualities we expect to see in a conductor are seldom present in one individual, any more than all the qualities of the “perfect” singer are present in any one student. I always thought that a musician with musical intelligence and integrity, coupled with a command of the conducting art and the ability to articulate their ideas, would be successful and admired. Now, at times, this concept seems to be in question.
Who decides what quality choral literature is? This is a complex analytical process which is, at best, almost impossible to assess. I hear this all the time from colleagues when expressing opinions on chora l literature; everyone has a different opinion and a different slant, and so it should be! We might agree on literature that is cheap and not worth the effort, but there are many opinions on good literature and its worth.
Let’s face it, our students are not always well prepared for festival rehearsals, and we do ourselves and the festival experience a great disservice by allowing them to attend, not to mention the choral art, in general, a huge disservice by allowing our performances to take place in venues that are intended for other activities. Yes, I mean gymnasiums!
Having briefly said all that, my point is this; there are people who work very, very diligently to make sure that all the above criteria are met. I am one of many that hire conductors, preview potential programs, organize festivals and prepare students. I assure you that in the capacities I fill I endeavor to make sure that we hire extraordinary conductors preparing exemplary programs under the best acoustical rehearsal and performance conditions possible. There are=2 0many other individuals as well that do the same in their work for students.
Mistakes are made, and fault is not necessarily to be placed. No matter how highly recommended a conductor comes to us, sometimes we have years that are not as good as others. Programs of repertoire are scrutinized to make sure that they represent the kind of literature that we desire our students perform, but the varied and eclectic tastes of all musicians make it virtually impossible to satisfy everyone. And the best we can do with selecting qualified students for these experiences is to rely on the selection process, which is, at best, flawed and always in a state of change in order to make it as accurate as possible. Finally, we make serious compromises when we look for venues for performance, and all too often settle on a gymnasium because we lack the kind of space needed to accommodate a large choir and audience.
And finally I get to address the matter at hand. Under few circumstances would I deny any of=2 0my students the opportunity to audition for a festival. This experience can potentially change a student and inspire them to consider music as a profession. It wets their appetite for more of the same. Most times the festival experience is an adequate one, and sometimes it is extraordinary, and once in a while it is not a good experience. When that happens, we have to re-organize, explain to our students that this sometimes happens, and try again. One poor experience does not mean we should deny our students the opportunity to do something that is meaningful and potentially life-changing. When problems arise, we attempt to fix the problems. I have always advocated being part of the solution and not part of the problem, and I would hope that we all take this attitude about our student’s participation in the festival experience. We are successful 95% of the time, and we should not let that other 5% cloud our view of how meaningful these experiences can be for our students.
I have seen the power of music in action with my students at these festivals, and I wish for them to have as many rich experiences as possible. Let’s keep our students involved in the festival experience, admit that sometimes we do not hit the mark20exactly, but pat ourselves on the back for the great experiences we have provided our singers all these years.