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Sunday Quarantine Deep-dive, June 7, 2020

This Sunday, the “moon” music we are celebrating is that composed by talented student winners of Harmonium’s 22nd annual High School Student Composition contest. Please visit Harmonium’s contest page and read all about them, and LIKE all over them on our social media! I am so happy that we can still recognize and celebrate them on this, the weekend we would have given our concert. We will perform the winner at some point in the future.

But the world this week is such that I could not get my heart around “Moon” music, but would rather rehearse “Where there is Light in the Soul” by Elizabeth Alexander. We have done a lot of Elizabeth’s works—most recently Pages from Kindling. Elizabeth has lots to say about music and social justice.

Elizabeth Alexander — SOURCE SONG FESTIVAL

I first met Elizabeth at an Eastern ACDA convention years ago, when she was still in Ithaca. In the early years of the composition contest, she was a judge, and provided a list of tips for young composers. The one that sticks with me is to “live with” and love the texts. Get inside them, roll them around on your tongue. Here is the text of “Where there is Light”:

Chinese proverb

Where there is light in the soul there will be beauty in the person.
Where there is beauty in the person there will be harmony in the home.
Where there is harmony in the home there will be honor in the nation.
Where there is honor in the nation there will be peace in the world.

I keep on singing this for peace and understanding, and I keep needing to keep on singing it more all the time. Sometimes I feel powerless, but this text speaks to me because steps 1 & 2 are something you have some power over, feed your souls (and those of your families) light, and make harmony in your homes.

We performed several of her works over the years, “Where there is Light in the Soul” remaining in the repertoire longer than almost anything, and often going on tour, and into outreach shows. Here we are singing it in a beautiful resonant church of San Gines, Madrid. (scroll to the bottom of this page)

Elizabeth grew up in the Carolinas and Appalachian Ohio, the daughter of a piano teacher and a minister/prison warden. Her love of words nearly eclipses her love of music – a passion reflected in her more than 100 songs and choral works, which have received thousands of performances worldwide. A recent McKnight Composition Fellow, she has also received awards and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, New Music USA, Minnesota State Arts Board, New York Council on the Arts, Wisconsin Arts Board, National Orchestral Association, International League of Women Composers, and American Composers Forum. She studied composition with Steven Stucky, Jack Gallagher, Yehudi Wyner and Karel Husa, receiving her doctorate in music composition from Cornell University. Her publishing company is Seafarer Press.

Trinity Sunday Music Musings June 6, 2020

What a strange and sad week it has been in the world. I wanted to have prelude music that responded, and Mark Miller always sets the right tone. Show us How to Love…Mark is an amazing composer, Assistant Professor of Church Music at Drew Theological School, Lecturer in the Practice of Sacred Music at Yale University and Minister of Music of Christ Church in Summit, New Jersey. On his website Mark says: “I believe in Cornell West’s quote that ‘Justice is what love looks like in public.’” His dream is that the music he composes, performs, teaches and leads will inspire and empower people to create the beloved community.  Thanks as always to our staff singers, Katie Hendrix, and Brandon Johnson-Douglas, and for Paula Roper for editing us into a trio. Last week Mark wrote a new song in response to the killing of George Floyd, Lament.

Mark Miller

We have a new canticle for the month of June, and some new (and old) faces from the choirs took the time to lead it. “Glory to You” by John Rutter sets Canticle 13, which is one of the lectionary choices for Trinity Sunday. It is sometimes called the “Song of the Three Young Men” from three Jewish companions of Daniel thrown into a fiery furnace by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar because they refused to worship an idol. If Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could praise so well from the fiery furnace, hopefully we will sing loudly on our houses during quarantine church!

Sir John Rutter is a beloved English composer, choral conductor, editor, arranger, and icon of the choral world. His most famous quote is “Choral music is not one of life’s frills. It’s something that goes to the very heart of our humanity, our sense of community, and our souls. You express, when you sing, your soul in song.” That is something to hold on to right now, as we are not able to sing together, which makes us choir people sad. Kirk Peterson wrote an article for the Living Church this week unfortunately called “Choirs are Dangerous” which I was interviewed for, and which is a bit more nuanced than the title suggests. The UK also came out with a less drastic study, and an “unprecedented international coalition” led by performing arts organizations has commissioned COVID-19 study from the University of Colorado.

Meanwhile, I’ve been teaching the “red choir” sight-singing on zoom, and it’s pretty fun! Some of our teens met up this week, and when asked what they like about choir they answered (typed in the chat)


The sense of community

hanging with everyone before and after services and concerts

interacting with people

when your voices blend

the sense of community

Revisiting favorite songs from year to year with new groups of people

I like getting to hang out with everyone who I don’t get to see on a daily basis 🙂

You are such good musicians. I miss the crunchy harmonies and the silly choreography

This week’s Trinitarian hymn is the classic “Holy, Holy, Holy” . Remember, “hymn” means text, and this text is by Reginald Heber, a poet and rector in the village of Hodnet near Shrewsbury. He was appointed Bishop of Calcutta in 1823 and worked there for three years until he died of a stroke. Most of his 57 hymns, which include “Holy, Holy, Holy,” are still in use today. The tune is by John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876). This bio is from The, a wonderful site: “In 1849 he became the precentor and choir director at Durham Cathedral, where he introduced reforms in the choir by insisting on consistent attendance, increasing rehearsals, and initiating music festivals. He served the parish of St. Oswald in Durham from 1862 until the year of his death. To the chagrin of his bishop, Dykes favored the high church practices associated with the Oxford Movement (choir robes, incense, and the like). A number of his three hundred hymn tunes are still respected as durable examples of Victorian hymnody.”

John Bacchus Dykes – Primephonic
Dykes also wrote Melita, the tune to the Navy Hymn

The tune NICAEA is named after the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) at which church leaders began to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity to oppose the heresies of Arius. (Think “Nicene creed” as well…)

If I had rehearsed with little kids this week, I would have asked “what is this in numbers” (intervals) and some smart 8 year olds would have responded “1,1,3,3,5,5,6,6,6,5,3”. Since choir is on zoom now, we use a lot of solfege (because we can see hand signs even when on mute) which would give us d,d,m,m,s,s,l,l,l,s,m. if you don’t know what I am talking about, try singing a major scale on 12345678, or do, re, mi, fa…or ask a chorister!

Classics For Kids

I continue to want to have as many people as possible make musical offerings from home, wherever that may be. Thank you to Charlie Love for our piano postlude, “Air” from The Harmonious Blacksmith by G.F. Handel, originally from Suite No. 5 in E major, for harpsichord, but now beloved of piano students everywhere. Charlie will be a sophomore, and sings (tenor, but probably not anymore from listening to him talk-bass!) in the Gargoyles and Harmonium.

So that is our music for Trinity Sunday. Be well, be kind. Keep listening.

Sunday Quarantine Deep-Dive May 31, 2020

Subject: Moonlight Sound Design, Raimonds Tiguls, special guest, John Leister, percussion

To give us all some structure in this crazy time, Harmonium will be meeting on zoom Sunday nights to deep-dive into some “Moon” music one piece at a time.

From the composer, Raimonds Tiguls: “Moonlight Sound Design was commissioned and premiered by the youth choir Kamēr conducted by Māris Sirmais in Riga, Latvia in 2012. It is dedicated to my father who died by way of an accident. The title of the piece is inspired by the fact that the studio I have is in my father’s country house in an attic room, and the night moon shines directly into it. In the USA, it was performed by the Wartburg Choir conducted by Lee Nelson at the 2017 National Convention of the American Choral Directors Association in Minneapolis.”  I (Anne) was at that convention and as I always do when I hear a piece that grabs me—bought the music right away for future use.

Tiguls is a Latvian composer of film, instrumental and choral music born in 1972. As we learned when we were on tour in the Baltics, choral music plays a huge part in not just that country’s culture, but its history. Choral folk music unified Latvia during almost fifty years of Soviet occupation after World War II, when sacred music was banned. The Latvian summer song festival helped Latvians maintain their national identity during this period. The Festival held every 5 years involves a massed choir of nearly 25,000 singers and more than 100,000 spectators. Tiguls’ song, Dod, Dieviņi, (God Give Me) was in the Latvian songfest closing concert in 2013.

Tiguls is also a producer, founding and chairing the World Music and Art Fund which organizes international music concerts on the highest hill, Tigulu hill, in his home town  of Talsi. “Between the oaks he has found a place where music from different nations as Iceland, Georgia, Armenia, UK and of course Latvia come together in united sound and ambience.”

Moonlight Sound Design is the only known piece written for choir and hang. The Hang (pronunced haŋ in German) is a musical instrument created by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in Bern, Switzerland. Its name comes from the Bernese-German word for “hand.” The instrument is constructed from two half-shells of deep-drawn, nitrided steel sheets glued together at the rim, leaving the inside hollow, and creating a distinct “UFO” shape. The top (“Ding”) side has a center “note” hammered into it, and seven “tone fields” hammered around the center.

Percussionist John Leister will join Harmonium members is a zoom meeting tonight, and onstage when we finally perform this piece. He has performed with the American Ballet Theater Orchestra, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and as a substitute for six Broadway musicals. He has played in orchestras behind artists such as Paul McCartney, Metallica,The Moody Blues, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and James Taylor.

Leister is a graduate of The Juilliard School, University of Illinois, Rutgers University and Chatham High School. Following a 30-year career as a music educator and principal in area schools, including Madison, New Providence and Livingston, he is the percussion teacher at the Montclair Kimberley Academy. I happen to know that one of his favorite drummer is Jeffrey Porcaro of Toto, so it was fun to recruit John for our “Rain” concert in 2017, to play Africa!

Sunday Music Musings May 30, 2020

For our Pentecost prelude, our wonderful oboist Teddy Love will join me in the 1982 hymnal version of  the Pentecost chant Come Holy Ghost (Veni creator), after Katie Hendrix sings a verse of the chant in Latin.

Gregorian chant, also known as plainsong, is church music’s ancestor! It is named for Pope Gregory, not because he wrote it all, but because it was codified under him into uses for each season and time of day (office). Here is what music writing looked like in the middle ages:

The notes are called neumes. This gorgeous Pentecost chant, Veni creator, was written in the 9th century. As well as being for Pentecost the text is used in the Anglican communion in ordination services. Musicians, especially composers, feel a particular affinity for the calling of the Holy Spirit as the “Creator Spirit” and you can find settings for the rest of music history.

Here is a Renaissance setting by Palestrina, in alternatim, meaning the plainsong chant alternates with his lush and gorgeous polyphony—you can still hear the tune pretty clearly in the top voice, with points of imitation in the others.

By the Baroque, in the Lutheran Reformation, the service was in German, no longer Latin, but the chorale-tunes are still often based on the ancient plainsong melodies. Komm Gott Schöpfer heiliger Geist is clearly based on Veni creator, given a hymn rhythm, and a German translation. My wonderful daughter Lucy and son-in law Johannes sang the chorale tune for me for this service (I was thinking—who do I know who sings in German really well, and I realized that distance is no longer an obstacle in this service!). In the organ version you can hear the tune in the top voice of the right hand, and there is a cheerful dancing rhythm throughout. Later, Bach turned his ideas into a much longer work, which maybe I will finally learn during quarantine! BWV 667 from the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes.

Some Baroque organ pieces also set the chorale tune less clearly, but quite decorated in the soprano voice. Here I play Buxtehude’s ornamented version of Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, another Pentecost chorale.

Our hymn of the day is “Hail Thee Festival Day!” Salve Festa Dies. This hymn can be sung for Easter (#175), or Ascension (#216), but it is our tradition at Grace to sing it on Pentecost (#225). Did you know, that the word “hymn” refers to the words, the poem, not the tune? The writer in this case is ancient, Venantius Honorius Clematianus Fortunatus (c. 530- 609). Legend has it that while a student at Ravenna he was miraculously healed of blindness after anointing his eyes with oil from a lamp burning before the altar of St. Martin of Tours. More information on his fascinating life here.

The grand tune is by one of my favorite composers (and pronounce his name correctly!) Ralph (“Rafe”) Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams, along with Holst, collected folksongs in the early 20th century, many of which became some of our most beloved Anglican hymn tunes. This tune he composed, and it is actually 2 tunes and a refrain! (Peter the cat stuck around only for the first refrain.)

Rounding out our service music is the Mathias Gloria we have been virtually adding to over the last few weeks. Thank you to our adults, and then our School Choir II (teens) for participating. Paula, our wonderful video editor has now put it all together along with a 3x clone of Matt Palmer and his euphonium for a “Festival” Pentecost version. Can you find two participants “joining us” from England? William Mathias CBE (1934 –1992) was a Welsh composer, well known for his choral works, but also prolific in the orchestral and chamber music genres.

Sir William Mathias, Welsh composer

Sunday Music Musings 5/24/2020

Hd memorial day clip art images free download black and white

Today’s hymn is chosen for Memorial Day weekend. “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” also known as “the Navy Hymn,” is found as number 608 in the hymnal. The original words were written as a poem in 1860 by William Whiting of Winchester, England. Similar words, which reference land and air as well as sea, are found at Hymn 579, “Almighty Father, Strong to Save.” Both hymns are also Trinitarian in nature, referencing Father, Christ, and Holy Spirit.

The melody, Melita, published in 1861, was composed by fellow Englishman, Rev. John Bacchus Dykes, an Episcopalian clergyman, canon and precentor at Durham Cathedral, and later vicar of St. Oswald’s, Duham. Dykes published sermons and religious tracts, but is best known for his over 300 hymns. Because of his musical ability, Whiting became master of Winchester College Choristers’ School. Thus the poem for this hymn was penned by a musician, while the music was written by a clergyman!

Grace Church Choirs rehearse for evensong at Winchester Cathedral in 2015

There are over 100 verses that can be found here, including the one about outer space, written by Joe Volonte, a member of Grace Church, and sung at his funeral:

Eternal Father, King of Birth,
who did create the heav’n and earth,
who bids the planets and the sun
Their own appointed orbits run:
O hear us when we seek thy grace
For those who soar through outer space.
CDR Joseph E. Volonte, USN
3 May 1962

Our opening trio is in the Daughters of Zion repertoire and is sung today by three seniors. “Be the Change” was written by Marc Kaplan and Colin Britt in Jersey City NJ in 2010, based on words adapted from Gandhi. Colin holds degrees from Hartt, Yale and Rutgers, teaches at Rutgers Preparatory School, is director of music for Grace Church Van Vorst in Jersey City. He writes: “Marc was asked to commission a piece for an All-County Choir, and as he was thinking about being the best version of himself, Gandhi popped into his head. The melody wrote itself in 5 minutes. He called me and the rest is history.” This is from the Justice Choir Songbook an amazing resource free to use and perform, with useful music for community singing from rounds to spirituals.

Our service music is the Gloria (S-278) by William Mathias (1934 –1992) that we usually sing for much of Eastertide and the summer. We’ve been trying out some “virtual choirs,” for which singers listen to a track (here, me playing the organ) and record themselves singing, and thank God, Paula edits it all together. Although we are all singing alone (or with a family member) in our homes, the final product makes us feel as if we are all together. The adults sang the Gloria first, then last week we had some of the “Blue Choir’ (6th-12th grade trebles), and this week we added a few more of them. Next week, we plan on “massing” together for Pentecost. The nice thing about “virtual choir” is we were able to include Eleanor Wroath (now in England) with the adults, and Kiera Duff (again, England) with the Blue Choir.

Last week’s “virtual ‘blue choir'”

Our “postlude” today is actually an old video, by sentimental request of several seniors (many of whom are in it, as freshmen.)  “Here’s to Song” by Canadian composer Allister MacGillivray is an ode to friendship and song, that we often pull out and sing in the middle of the year if a chorister moves away, or do for the seniors in June. MacGillivray is from the Cape Breton region of Nova Scotia, and was an active music historian, song collector and song writer. Some of his other well-known songs are Song for the Mira, and Away from the Roll of the Sea.

Here’s to song, here’s to time;
Here’s to both with friends of mine;
Here’s to friends who raise their voices high.
Kings have riches widely lain,
Lords have land, but then again,
We have friends and song no wealth can buy.

Remembering Robert Shaw

I originally wrote this in 1999 when I heard of Robert Shaw’s death. Soon a movie about this man’s life may come out which gave me the urge to share it with another generation. At the time my parnets were still alive, so when Shaw died was the first time I felt that I was an “older generation” the generation that had actually sung for him….

January 25, 1999 every choral conductor in the U.S., if not the world, lost a father figure and our greatest mentor when Robert Shaw died suddenly at 82 of a massive stroke.  Shaw was famous for his work with Fred Waring, then with his own Robert Shaw Chorale, and finally with the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus.  However, it was through his many workshops at summer institutes and universities, in France, and in the last decade at Carnegie Hall, that he touched and influenced so many of us, and made everyone who ever sang for him a disciple.

I knew Shaw, the man, not personally, but his deep spiritual artistic and practical self, which was so freely shared with those who sang for him, or I should say labored for him in the meticulous preparation of a masterwork.  If I add up all the rehearsal hours I spent with Shaw it comes to probably two months of my life.

First, as a twenty-year-old musician who thought maybe choral conducting was my calling, I took a two-week workshop at Westminster Choir College in 1980.  In the first week alone, we prepared Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces Brueckner’s Te Deum and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms for performance at the Temple Music Festival.  The workshop chorus was unauditioned in those days (although it was ostensibly made up of music teachers) and I remember my trepidation when Shaw, unhappy with the soprano sound, began going down the row, crucifying soprano after soprano as each one sang individually.  At one point during the week, Mr. Shaw was not pleased with our progress and threatened to cancel the performance.  No-one doubted that he meant it.  We pulled together though, and the concert was an experience that would mark me for life.  That man could conduct 200 singers and make every one feel as if every nuance and detail of each individual’s singing made all the difference.  My mind was made up, I wanted to do that!

The second week at Westminster was a little less frantic, as we only prepared Haydn’s Creation for a performance at Avery Fisher Hall.  Shaw had more time to stop and preach his gospel of pitch, rhythm, tone quality and enunciation.  Each facet was to be  separated out and rehearsed to perfection until they were allowed to be put back together.  I also began my habit of taking notes in the front of my score, jotting down everything he said.  I pulled out all my Shaw-marked scores when he died.  There it all is, everything a young conductor needed to know but didn’t yet understand how much!

Although he was famous for his interpretations of 18th and 19th century masterworks, Shaw always championed 20th century composers as well.   (This sometimes got him into trouble with the ASO Board of Directors!)  In 1981, he came to Yale to direct one of his favorites, Hindemith’s monumental requiem When Lilac’s Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.  We had assembled the Yale Glee Club, Concert Choir and New Haven Symphony Chorus (and Yale Symphony).  Shaw was not without collegiate humor, and managed not to take offence when we all showed up dressed like him (in navy blue sweat shirts with towels around our necks.)  As assistant conductor to Fenno Heath, I had been doing the warm-ups all year…”Don’t worry,” Fenno told me, “I’m sure Mr. Shaw wants to do his own warm-up exercises.”  Imagine the pounding of my heart when I saw Fenno scanning the room for me at the beginning of our first rehearsal.  Shaw had apparently said, “Oh, do what you always do!”  He graciously complimented me on the warm-up later (that hissing exercise with the 2s against 3s!).

In 1985, the Bach tricentennial year, Robert Shaw came to Cincinnati Conservatory to lead our concert choir in a performance of the St. John Passion.  He had developed a working English translation, believing the immediacy of the drama of the great work should not be lost on modern English-speaking audiences.   Shaw was never all count-singing and diphthong-analyzing–but always went to the spiritual heart of a work.  When we sang those crowd choruses in the Passion we were so angry and mean that it really felt as if we had participated in the crucifixion.  Through the work we experienced sin and guilt and we really felt that final redemption.

In 1990 Carnegie Hall established an annual series of professional workshops under Shaw’s direction.  When he planned Britten’s War Requiem for 1994 (my favorite 20th century choral work) I mustered my courage and my voice teacher’s help, made an audition tape, and was accepted.  That week was inspirational: beyond his usual pickiness about rhythm, pitch, and enunciation, I remember Shaw working particularly hard on tone color (sometimes half of us whispered and half of us sang), and on explaining Britten’s integration of Wilfred Owen’s devastating WWI poetry into the Latin Requiem Mass.  The chorus was phenomenal–I remember Shaw actually stopping a dress rehearsal to tell the second altos that the beginning of the Recordare was “gorgeous–as good as it gets!”  This was one of the greatest compliments I ever received, even though there were 25 of us!  The War Requiem performance, called “soul-bruising” by the Village Voice was even more emotional with Benjamin Luxon as the baritone.  He had once sung the work under Britten yet was now almost totally deaf.  I recall seeing Shaw in tears at the first entrance of the boys voices (The American Boychoir, from the second balcony) and wondering how we would all make it through the rest of the work.

I thought at the time that it might be my last chance to sing/study with maestro Shaw (he was 77) but he went on to plan the workshop through the end of the millennium and we all started to assume he would live forever.  From 1996’s Verdi Requiem, I found this in the front of my score: “Our job as conductor is communicating to singers and audience, while getting out of the way of the composer, 1.information, intellect and instrumental and vocal know-how, and 2.  passion.”  From 1997’s wonderful Elijah performance I found this colorful barb “you sing like a hose, when you should be singing like a necklace”.

At last Sunday night’s Harmonium rehearsal of the Duruflé Requiem we were talking a lot about Shaw and his techniques–I had recently borrowed soprano Linda Clark’s Duruflé score with her “Shaw markings.”  The next day, assistant conductor Mark Miller called me from his car, when he heard the news of Shaw’s death.   I was truly stunned at the thought that Shaw was no longer to inspire us in this world.  It felt like a huge responsibility that my colleagues and I must now listen with Shaw’s demanding ears, inspire with his attention to details and believe with his passion that what we do matters to all humanity.  Shaw reminded us all to be “amateurs” in the true sense of the word–to sing “for love.”  And those of us who labored with him–how lucky we were–must pass on these stories to the next generation of conductors.

Drawing them in–the brand new audience

I have been sorting through old papers in a 25th anniversary kind of way, and I actually found some articles I wrote in the last 10 years that I would love to update and share online. Perhaps this will inspire me to some new blogs once I get my feet wet.  Here is one for the ACDA Eastern division in 2005.

DRAWING THEM IN How to find an audience among people who have never heard singing…

I’d like to discuss the great divide between the typical chorus and their least likely audience.  There are two issues here — bringing them through the door, and then helping them feel comfortable and informed once they are inside.

I learned a great deal this year from teaching a music survey course at a local university.  The course was intended to fulfill a liberal arts requirement for students who had no musical background whatsoever.  The question in my mind was:  How does one teach the “elements of music” in several three-hour classes, and then cover all of music history in a relevant way?  The course required three “concert reports” from the students.  The prospectus specified that they must attend professional level orchestral, opera, choral or chamber music concerts and write papers about their experiences.

I believe I learned as much as the students did from these reports. Most of the students had NO musical background whatsoever, had NEVER been in a chorus or band, or had a piano lesson.  It was sometimes hard for them to know what to say about any musical experience beyond basic adjectives such as “amazing” or “boring.”  As the semester progressed they would struggle to use some of their vocabulary words like allegro or adagio.  (One kept using her new word pitch almost as if the performance were a ball game, i.e., “The clarinetist pitched high, then she pitched low…”). 

As they learned to trust their tastes and describe their feelings, their papers got more interesting.  One young woman noticed that when the lights came down, many audience members opened their cell phones to use them as lamps for reading the programs. Several students knew enough to recognize an under-rehearsed performance of  Amahl, even if they’d never been to an opera before.  One student was lucky enough to catch a performance of the Tallis Scholars. His brief exposure to Josquin’s Ave Maria in class had given him a few insights into the period — but when he heard the singing live, he knew enough to know the performance was outstanding, to be moved and fascinated (and to be happy he had  impressed his girlfriend by taking her!).

Students really appreciated being offered a “way in” to understanding the performance, in the form of pre-concert or during-concert lectures by performers. One student attended a performance of a difficult Dominick Argento work with words by Virginia Woolf.  This was music that I had found difficult to process; yet, both because the words were accessible, and the pianist offered excellent explanations, my neophyte really enjoyed it.  One student came to my own organ recital. Despite my pre-performance explanations, she had no clue HOW I was playing with my hands and feet until the post-concert tour of the instrument, and even then was bursting with excellent questions about how the sounds were connected between the pipes and the keyboard.  One student, having attended a performance of a Haydn Mass at which the conductor must have made a reference to the medieval nature of the traditional Mass text, wrote convincingly about the “medieval choral work”!

It amazed me to realize which items were notable to a first-time performance attender.  There was the inexplicable behavior of the concertmaster (“first a violinist walked on stage and everyone clapped!”)  Then, there was the following description (of one of my own concerts):

“I was pleasantly surprised with the entire environment at the church entrance where I could see people of all ages wandering around the church, chatting, smiling, and getting ready to have a great time in performance.  The entrance was much more crowded than I expected. Everybody dressed appropriately to this event where I felt I could feel safe to attend this kind of concert.”

This reminds me of a recent article in The Voice of Chorus America in which Duain Wolfe, Chicago Symhony Chorus Director, was astonished to discover that his classical music radio-listening, opera-loving regular taxi driver, Joe, had never gone to a concert in Orchestra Hall.  When Joe was offered tickets, he protested, “But I don’t have a tuxedo!” After attending a concert, Joe was also full of (good) questions, like “How do I know when to clap? Why do they turn out the lights so I can’t read the translation in my program?”

Some of my students ran into horrible problems getting to concerts, stemming from faulty telephone information numbers in press releases, faulty directions to obscure churches, and insufficient parking once they got there… so, if you are reaching out, don’t forget the obvious logistical-friendly issues that will help people see that you are reaching out.

So how can we become more user-friendly in the twenty-first century? Symphony Orchestras have been (often, in desperation) trying new and creative ways to attract the under-40’s demographic, ranging from offering pre-concert cocktails to post-concert speed-dating sessions (NYTimes 8/21/05).  But I think that those of us with community choirs already have our own best advocates — our amateur members!  Read “amateur” in the truest sense of the word, as Robert Shaw always said, as “those who love.” 

I would like to propose two main ways for you to get people in your door for the first time: personal invitation, and cross-over event.

Personal invitation: The last time my choral society, Harmonium, did an audience survey, we learned that the way most people came to a concert for the first time is to be brought (by the hand) by a friend.  Encourage your singers and their families, and your most loyal subscribers, to proselytize for the cause they love, converting one person at a time! (For instance, you, or they, might offer complimentary tickets for any completely new audience member.) 

In a wider (but less personal) way, Harmonium announces each concert via an email that is personalized by each member (“come hear your neighbor Jill’s first solo!”)  These tailored messages are then forwarded by the members to their own lists of friends. These personal emails are more likely to be read than a mass email from your website. [This article was written before facebook which we now use as well with posts, photos, videos and invites—but not everyone is on facebook savvy—so keep emailing and especially personally inviting!]

Finally, don’t forget to find out if your local university, community college, or high school has a music appreciation course, and make sure the professor receives your posters and brochures!  Better yet, go there and announce your concert to the class.  You can send out press releases until you are blue in the face, and all of your choral-music aficionados might palpitate with excitement that you will be performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio or a world premiere commission, but it won’t make someone who’s never dared set foot in a concert suddenly appear in your midst!

 Many community choirs complain about their aging audiences.  Harmonium currently has a lot of singers between 16 and 30.  It isn’t so much a question of finding them as it is telling them that it’s okay to find you.  The high school age students (many at all-state level) first came to a concert to hear a parent or teacher, and decided they want to share the experience.  The 20-something college graduates mostly found us by web-searching a replacement for their undergraduate choral experience. These young singers bring their young friends to listen, and the audience becomes more diverse. 

Crossover Events are intended to build bridges with communities that are related to, but peripheral to, the core community chorus.  They give you a chance to sing for potential future audience who have come to hear whoever you are collaborating with.

For example, Harmonium presents a Halloween concert.  The chorus is joined during some of the program by a children’s choir (lots of parents!)  Flyers distributed in a local elementary school encourage kids to come to the concert (more parents!)  The program is made interactively kid-friendly.  Color pictures of small ghosts, witches and mermaids, attending our concert, appear in the local paper the following week.

Other examples of potential themes or collaborations that you can use to expand and diversify your audience include:  a jazz group, a poetry festival, an artist, a costume designer, student composers, a library, supporters of a charity.

Once you’ve gotten the uninitiated potential audience there, of course, your product had better be appealing:  a quality performance of worthy music done from the heart.  (This is a whole other article!)  Harmonium tries to offer a wide variety of music, from renaissance to twentieth century, programmed around a theme.  A theme might be “Light,” or “Angels,” or “Peace.”  In any of our concerts, there has got to be something that everybody would like; maybe something even experienced audience members have never heard before. Performing new music certainly levels the playing field for the listeners!

So, make your programming and your environment user-friendly, with clear directions, cheerful ushers, readable program notes, pre-concert lectures, meet-the performer receptions, and copious outreach. Most of all, don’t assume anything!  Don’t assume the audience knows so much about Bach they don’t want to hear you talk about him or his music.  Don’t assume they know so little that they won’t care if you give a lackadaisical, uninformed performance.  Don’t assume they know the meaning of the word modulation.  If they do, and you explain it, they’ll just feel smart because they already know that!  

Even if you’ve written program notes, don’t assume they’ve had time to read them.  During the event, between the songs, address the audience in a friendly way with some salient points about each work.  Don’t assume you have to “dumb-down” the B Minor Mass to get an audience to return.  Don’t forget that we choral musicians have the text as our own crossover “way-in” to the music.  Don’t forget, at least once during the evening, to tell the audience just how much you love singing for them!