Thinking Outside the Bubble: Expanding Our Thinking About Choral Music-making

by Elizabeth Hogan McFarland

Our world is changing rapidly; one could argue this change happens so fast that educational structures, especially those in higher education are struggling to keep up. As teachers, we find ourselves preparing our students for worlds that we can't even anticipate. It is no longer reasonable to simply teach in the same way that we were taught if we want to encourage our students to gain the skills that they'll need to adopt lifelong musicianship.

Let's consider a few questions:

  • What did your own musical development look like?
  • What shape does your current musical life take?
  • What does the musical life of the average citizen entail?
  • How does your choral instruction reflect, prepare and shape this music participation?

I imagine that your musical past-life included choir, but maybe also participation in instrumental ensembles, a garage band, a community chorus, and other more novel pursuits! Hopefully, you have kept up with some of these other forms of music-making in addition to your choral participation. If you aren't yet in a professional choral directing position, how can you plan now to keep active in making music in ways that feed your soul and widen your view of what our discipline can be?

The average citizen participates in music mostly as a passive observer. We can bemoan that this is an unfortunate outcome of the recording industry, "laziness of millenials" (along with an obsession with avocado toast!), the death of art music, or other such excuses with varying degrees of merit, or we could consider how our instruction, encouragement, and participation in our art form can potentially shape this outcome for the future.

What if we reimagined the choral ensemble as relevant, impactful, community-minded, and inspiring to both the singers AND the audience? What if we found ways to engage our singers as active participants in the music-making process, thereby enabling them to carry on the development of musical ideas on their own WITHOUT us. What if instead of complaining about how no one understands our art, we advocated and instructed within our community and showed others by example that choral art is fundamentally an art created for humans to pursue together, an activity that our world desperately needs now?

These ideas and questions are far from new, and their implementation will look different in every single community that finds a way to create a thriving choral culture. Students of SWACDA, you are our future and a catalyst for what could be. I encourage you to use the resources available to you, including our student immersion day, online resources, local chapters, collegiate honor choirs, and conducting competitions to refine your skills and broaden your understanding of your craft while considering how YOU can contribute to the growth of our field in new and exciting ways. I would love to talk more with you about what that can look like for student initiatives within SWACDA - email me and let's get that conversation started.

Elizabeth Hogan McFarland