The Choir Issue, Part Two

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IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE THAT A FULL YEAR has passed since the first installment of this series. During that time, it has been my pleasure to serve as a panelist for several presentations on the topic of voice teacher/choir conductor interactions. Two such sessions were on the program at the American Choral Directors Association national conference last March in Chicago, moderated by Allen Henderson, Executive Director of NATS. Another took place at the Phenomenon of Singing international symposium in St. John's, Newfoundland (part of Festival 500), moderated by Caroline Schiller, a NATS member who serves on the voice faculty of Memorial University. Additional panel presentations are scheduled for several regional ACDA conferences in the coming year, and I'm sure the issue will be broached again in Orlando at the upcoming national NATS conference.

Clearly, this is a hot topic. Each of the panels I've cited included a mix of singing teachers and conductors, who spoke to capacity crowds. We panelists acknowledged strong differences of opinion and ongoing conflicts that exist between our two disciplines; curiously, however, there were no significant disagreements among those of us sharing the dais. Perhaps we all were on our best behavior? I think not. An honest exchange of ideas occurred, demonstrating that we share more common ground than might often be perceived. As I noted in this column a year ago, the key to cooperation is communication. The better we understand the concerns, ideas, and vocal expectations of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle, the more our students will benefit. The remainder of this article will focus primarily on choral and solo singing in colleges and universities, but many of the ideas are equally applicable to other situations.

WHAT WE SING

How do you select the repertoire you assign to your voice students? Many of us in the academy work under the umbrella of a jury system, which often includes explicit requirements that direct our choices. Dr. Christopher Arneson, Associate Professor of Voice at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, presented a marvelous session on the topic of repertoire selection from a developmental perspective at the 2011 NATS Intern Program. As he noted, the repertoire we select is of vital importance; it becomes the voice teacher when the student is in the practice room, away from our direct oversight. Chosen wisely, repertoire encourages healthy vocal development. But inappropriate repertoire will inhibit development and easily can become injurious.

Of course, a major consideration in the assignment of repertoire relates to the issue of Fach. In spite of all that has been written on this topic over the years, I'm still perplexed when I hear young singers performing literature that clearly is beyond their present level of vocal development. More unfortunate, the errors usually push younger singers into repertoire that is too heavy. A young tenor whose voice is suited to sing Des Grieux's lovely "Dream" aria from Massenet's Manon will not grow into the character with the same name in Puccini's version of the story by singing "Donna non vidi mai"-but he might well hurt himself. (One could also speak to the merit-or folly-of assigning "La rêve" to a tenor who cannot also survive "Ah, fuyez, douce image," but that will be left for another discussion.)

In the professional world, casting choices are dominated by Fach. With few exceptions, singers are cast in roles that best suit their voices. Brünhilde is unlikely to be offered a contract to sing Bach's Matthäuspassion, just as the Evangelist in that work probably will never sing Cavaradossi. Of course, there always are examples of singers who are successful singing outside their expected comfort zone, as when Placido Domingo sang the title role of Simon Boccanegra as a baritone. We, along with our students, must remember that this type of exceptional casting is outside the norm. …