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October 25, 2012

Mountain Dew and chocolate donuts

by Brian Reeves, President, Missouri ACDA

reevesFor years that was my morning ritual. When students laughed I told them breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Another highly-caffeinated choir director I was.  

While no Olympian, my diet is much better now mainly from trdonutying to instill healthier habits in my own kids.  The evidence there is unequivocal. The long term physical and emotional consequences of poor nutrition in children can be dire.

This makes me wonder what “food” we are giving our choir. After all, the long term consequences of poor musical nutrition in singers are most certainly dire.  

Columnist David Brooks writes that a century ago people of character needed to possess a “well-furnished mind….You may never have visited New York City, but to be a respectable figure in your town in Wisconsin or Arizona, it was helpful to know what operas were playing or what people were reading in Paris.” Indeed, my grandmother, an Iowa farmer with an eighth grade education, subscribed to The Etude magazine and practiced Mozart piano sonatas. 

Not anymore. The motivation for artistic literacy is no longer a cultural expectation; rather, it resides with each of us.  We are not just a stop on the musical train. In many cases we are the only stop.

While this responsibility can be overwhelming, it can also be invigorating. We have the opportunity then to plan long-term, to program thoughtfully. Prone to selecting a more than healthy share of contemporary repertoire, I now structure concerts so my students also sing Handel, Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn before they graduate.

Teaching the canon is crucial. We directors have sung all the greats before but our singers have not.  

And it need not be overly complicated.  Benjamin Britten wrote wonderful unison pieces. The soprano duet from the Vivaldi Gloria is two-part and glorious. The Walton SAB edition of the Haydn Gloria from Heiligmesse is infectious. While not sight-reading material, program the Liebergen Dies Irae from the Mozart Requiem and your singers will love you forever. In fact, the Mozart Requiem itself is SATB and surprisingly accessible. For more advanced ensembles try the Mendelssohn double-choir Heilig, his SSA Laudate Pueri or the first movement of the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms. And He Shall Purify from Messiah is a gem.  

Right now Missouri colleges and universities are leading the way with annual masterworks performances. They may even let you bring your choir- or members of it – to sing along.

As any expert concert programmer would tell you, variety is important.  Never would I suggest you perform concert after concert of “dead people” music. The 2012 Missouri All-State Choir program includes works by Handel, Bach, and the Black Eyed Peas. I love it!

Yet while that Snickers bar tastes good immediately and can give us a needed boost in between rehearsals, a steady diet will surely be detrimental to our long-term health. What level of musical nutrition are we offering our singers?

Take my advice. Stay away from the Mountain Dew and chocolate donuts.