Continuing with our programming theme - and also keeping with the goal of expanding content into areas more relevant to our readers, we have invited our incredibly thoughtful and accomplished conducting colleague to write an article which focuses on his work as the Director of Choral and Vocal Activities at Grand Rapids Community College. There are some wonderful lessons here for programming at the college level that we can all learn from and consider for our own groups... Enjoy!
COVID Is Not My Primary Concern
It may surprise you to read this right from the start, but COVID-19 precautions and contingency plans were not my first consideration when planning the 2021/2022 season for the choral and vocal division of Grand Rapids Community College. Certainly, mitigation practices and contingencies are part of the mix, but after a year of contingencies, improvised solutions, and major adaptations, I’m confident that my department will be able to adapt in accordance with what our County Health Department Recommends.
What I find more compelling as a teacher and more artistically motivating as a performer is designing a program where my students and I can be free to explore musical creativity and grow together as musicians. During our academic year of mostly remote instruction, I gave a lot of thought to what opportunities would be most urgent for my students upon a return to campus. Normally when I plan an academic year’s worth of programming, I build around a central anchor project which begins with the anchor of the previous year’s significant project.
Last year’s project was simply that we could bring the choirs back to campus at all (thanks to the tremendous team efforts of our facilities manager, associate dean for operations, department chair, and police chief!). Under different circumstances, I would welcome the opportunity to rethink my default ideas, but must confess that I have never felt more exposed as an artist or educator than right now. It feels like I am beginning with a completely blank slate.
To give myself grounding, I identified four pillars which guide my decisions about what I want to accomplish.. These pillars are also somewhat related to my pillars of creativity for my professional conducting, piano, and composition work this season. Whether you have a youth orchestra, a regional orchestra, a community choir, or teach middle school choir, I hope these four pillars can help provide you with some evaluative measure to consider your programming ideas.
Programming is More than Repertoire
I often tell my students that nothing is obvious unless you learn to see it. In that spirit, I want to clarify at the start that when I think of programming, I think of more than just what repertoire to pick for my ensembles. I consider the balance and complementary nature of what my department has to offer over the course of the year. How many concerts should each ensemble perform? How many rehearsals are needed for each program? How much chamber music should be offered? Should students be required to participate in chamber music? What sort of solo repertoire performance opportunities will we have this year? What guest artists will visit the department? Will we only host guests who can give masterclasses and recitals, or will I also bring scholars to lecture on topics critical to the profession? What will students have to cover in their applied lessons? What will be at the discretion of individual voice professors?
In short, programming for my department can be summarized in one question: how will the balance of academic and artistic opportunities take shape within my department this year?
The First Pillar: Education
Education is one of my most favorite words. The Latin word ducere means “to lead.” Combined with the prefix e, educere literally means “to lead beyond” or “to bring out.” I love this as the basis of my creative work. My students are at once my primary artistic collaborators as well as the individuals under my care for persistent and deliberate musical growth. As a community college, we don’t have an admissions board that tries to pick out the most competitive of all applicants. As a result, we have students of all backgrounds, skill levels, economic contexts, identities, and experiences. While many of my students do come to the college with significant musical training, a number of students require foundational music instruction.
I approach the education pillar with two main goals: performance opportunity, and ensemble repertoire.
Concerning performance opportunities, I often tell my students that music is a “lab science.” We must have a strong imagination and a way to test how our technique stacks up against our imagination. We are turbo-charging the number of and the types of performance opportunities our students have in a given year (as we are looking at a performance of some type in the voice program every 3-5 weeks). These performances may be rather short projects, but I wanted the design of our programming to match the rigors of the profession. One week, it may be a vocal chamber music concert, followed by a formal department recital. Then perhaps a choral concert, another vocal chamber event, followed by a vocal jazz project... These are all held together with a weekly live-streamed voice department recital, workshop, or masterclass. We’re in week five as I write this, and my students are already exhausted and exhilarated by all the performances we’ve had!
The education pillar also directly affects my ensemble repertoire choices. Repertoire selection needs to tackle a whole slew of pedagogical goals while complementing the work of the applied studios. In the college track, ensemble repertoire also helps set the stage for a scholarly context through which we investigate assumptions of music history and music theory. For example - my college is presenting a concert of “All American Composers”, who are from South America and North America, specifically - Mexico and NOT the US. Also, in the spring, we will perform Carmina Burana, and will address the controversy of Carl Orff’s association with the Nazi Party.
Repertoire curriculum is a crucial part of the education pillar. Student exposure to the range of canonic vocal literature is vital to their careers. However, repertoire is still practical training.. The role of repertoire is itself couched in the concerns of teaching many more aspects of music literacy and professional preparedness: facility with languages, familiarity with research methods, awareness of current scholarly frameworks, and expectations of the profession. All of these skills tie together musicality and practice discipline.
The Second Pillar: Inspiration
Ensembles are places of co-labor-ation. The labor of building an ensemble has never felt more real than this semester. Many of us are a year out of practice of performing together, and for many students, the excitement of returning to ensemble performance was quickly tempered by the challenge that is ensemble performance.
To this end, we are spending this year searching for alternative performance concepts. Our exploration of Latin American music this fall will be presented in a performance that combines poetry in English and Spanish. The program will be an education event that expands ideas of what Latin American music is. Next semester, our joint faculty recital will be a multimedia event that combines the work of local visual artists with the music of local composers. Finally, our major Carmina project will face the controversy of Orff's work head on, in an interdisciplinary (and semi-staged) production which frames the whole cantata as a Faustian morality play depicting an artist working in a fascist world corrupted by fame and glory (a concept developed by my mentor Carmen-Helena Tellez).
My contention as an artist here is that if we can cultivate inspiration and imagination in our common work within the department, we will be well-positioned to inspire and ignite the imagination of our audiences.
The Third Pillar: Aspiration
I’ve been thinking a lot about how my piano teacher used to give me Beethoven sonatas and Liszt etudes that were rather beyond my capacity to play. It occurred to me years later that my piano teacher was giving me a sort of musical ultimatum: improve or stagnate. Some of my earliest performances of concert piano literature were rather awful, but they were tremendously important springboards to focus my personal targets of artistic growth.
I learned this lesson well when I led youth orchestras: programming music that is too difficult for students is not the same as setting them up for failure. Students need to have significant goals placed before them. When our voice department publishes our event calendar, students are able to see their entire educational journey, in the increased rate of performance and the difficulty and scope of our creative projects.
Visiting guests and tenured faculty are also important pillars of aspiration. All of the voice faculty maintains a performance schedule both on and off campus. Guest artists provide inspiration to the department for recitals and masterclasses. My teacher from Notre Dame is going to bring her Chicago-based artistic team to help produce our interdisciplinary Carmina Burana in April. I’ve taken care to choose artists that aren’t just excellent aspirational models, but who also have important local connections. Next semester, we will present a masterclass by a Latinx soprano who grew up just a stone’s throw from our campus and completed her undergraduate studies at neighboring Grand Valley State University (where many of my students will complete baccalaureate degrees). We will also welcome a graduate of our own voice department who is now an accomplished linguist and scholar.
Students need to see themselves in the artists we set before them. This can be embodied through the diversity of guests we bring and in the way we encourage them to where they are going. This forward looking mindset will not happen automatically, it must be established through the aspirational models we bring to our students and in the advanced repertoire we set for ourselves.
The Fourth Pillar: Relationships
Community colleges have a unique relationship with their local community in contrast to their local state colleges and universities. For us, a major portion of our operating income is from millages paid by property owners in the county. This is the foundation for an important reciprocal relationship. Our community invests in the opportunities a community college offers its residents, and we should honor that community investment by offering not only a robust vocal music education, but by leveraging we build bridges to the community.
My department is a founding member of the Opera Grand Rapids Collegiate Consortium, which pools resources to bring national artists for masterclasses, to provide joint student recitals for college voice students from across the state of Michigan, and to set up priority audition opportunities for OGR’s professional chorus.
These relationships are more than professional networking. These connections additionally host opportunities for high school students to visit campus and be a music major for a day. City public schools are important education partners. Providing free tickets to public school students for performances can be a great way to build stronger connections with the community. As important as education partnerships are, our connection to the imagination of the community is a vital aspect of maintaining our work. Area property owners are contributing to our work, whether they come to the College or not. It is crucial that our community continues to see that what we do is an important public asset.
It’s also important that our students recognize that they will soon be members of the community who contribute to the success of their local public works and see this as an important transformational power. Whether through the OGR Consortium, our festival for community college choirs from across the state, our high school choir clinic days, middle college course offerings, or collaborations with local artists, every performance project we do has to capture the imagination of students and our audience members in a way that emphasizes the riches of having a vibrant community resource like ours in Grand Rapids.
Programming and Repertoire Are Related But Not the Same
There is one thing I learned from the preparations for this academic year: programming planning and repertoire planning are not exactly the same thing. They are certainly related, but there’s an important distinction between the two (at least from my vantage point of leading a collegiate program). Programming is fundamentally about the design of a whole context. Repertoire is about the content within that context.
If I may borrow a phrase from my time in business school, “we should design for the outcomes we want.” The outcomes I strive for include satisfying artistic experiences, and more importantly, programs that accelerate the growth of future music educators, music therapists, and performers. I design for ignited imaginations and clear aspirations of our broader community in a way that celebrates both what is already within our community and nurtures and prepares our students for the future.