Choral music -- a path to human connection

Why choral music?

Today's world increasingly relies on technology as a means for human connection: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Skype have opened up amazing new possibilities for humans all over the world to talk and interact. Only yesterday afternoon I was trying to get into a Google Hangout with Eric Whitacre, one of my favorite composers (unfortunately, I was unsuccessful -- the Hangouts filled up within seconds of being posted!) Tomorrow morning, I have a composition lesson via Facetime with my teacher, who lives in Connecticute. In light of these new ways to connect, is choral music still relevant? 

Choral singer

For me, choral music has provided me with some of my most powerful moments of human connection. I think of the year I spent in Ireland, singing with a choir made up primarily of African asylum-seekers. Music was their connection to each other as strangers in a strange land, and their connection to the homes and cultures they left behind. I think of the enormous swell of emotion I felt singing Frostiana at the 2012 Ithaca College Choir reunion, where we had gathered to honor our beloved conductor. I think of the sheer joy I get every time I have the privilege of stepping in front of a group of singers to conduct -- I know we're going to get to take an incredible journey together. These are but a few examples.

The way I approach composing choral music has a lot to do with connection, also. For me, choral composition ALWAYS starts with a search for a text. I look for words that really make me feel deeply -- a text that touches on some essential truth of the human condition -- and from there, my goal is to enhance and embroider that truth with the power of multiple human voices. My task is always to make whatever "aha" moment is already present in the text apparent to the listener through thoughtful use of all the tools of the composer: rhythm, melody, harmony, register, dynamics, texture, instrumentation, and so on.

Getting all of those ideas successfully translated to the page is the first step. The conductor and choir do the rest of the work bringing a piece to life. Each singer has to bring their own understanding and interpretation of that text to the larger group. The conductor's task is to take all of these ideas -- the composer's, the singers', and her own -- and to harness them into a unified whole that amplifies the message and intent set by the composer and the author of the text. At its best, choral artistry is a giant magnifying glass, an amplifier of sorts for human truth. 

Is it any wonder, then, that humans singing in a choir react to this kind of unity on a physiological level also? Consider that when a choir begins to sing together, their heartbeats involuntarily synchronize as they sing. If that doesn't point to choral music's power to forge deep connections between humans, I don't what does. 

Through choral music, I have explored the languages and cultures of the world; learned to appreciate religious traditions both familiar and foreign to me; plumbed the depths and heights of the human experience; looked at the world through the eyes of the old and the young. I have assimilated bits and pieces of all of those truths into the person I am today. 

So while social media and technology continue to emerge as new ways for humans to connect, it is my fervent wish that humans will keep returning to the power of the choir for hope, for healing, for exploration. and ultimately, for the power of connection. 

My journey to composing

One of the questions I get the most is, "How did you start composing?"

Music has been woven into my life from the very beginning. I grew up in a household where both my parents sang to me, and music was always on the stereo. My first memory is of sitting on my father's lap as he played "Back In The USSR" fiercely on the piano, wailing along in his wild baritone. I'm told that from the time I was two I was making up little songs and ditties in the backseat as I rode to preschool -- so, in some ways, you could argue I've been a "composer" for thirty-something years now!

Still, it was not until last summer that I sat down and decided to write my first "real" choral piece. I had just returned from a show choir reunion at the high school I attended and taught at for 4 years. It was a lark, an experiment, and certainly just for fun. Predictably, what came out of that first effort was a show choir pop tune. And yet, as soon as I finished that piece, I found that I wanted to write another. A few weeks later, I wrote He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven. Feeling pretty pleased with myself, but wondering if this was worth sharing with the world, I emailed it to Dr. Tim Reno, one of my oldest and dearest friends from my undergraduate years at Ithaca College. When he responded that he wanted to program the piece for one of his choirs, I was deeply encouraged.

As is so often the way in the world, one thing led to another. I just kept writing. A few treble choir pieces followed, and then an acquaintance asked if I'd be willing to compose something for the Women's Works of Ithaca concert a few months later. I jumped at the chance. Women's Works gave me my very first rehearsal and premiere experience, and it was a perfect opportunity for a fledgling composer.

The month after Women's Works, I was off to Albany to work with Dr. Reno's choir at Siena after having a few brief rehearsal check-ins via Facetime. Once again, it was an enormously positive experience, and a deep confirmation that as a musician, I am really happiest creating music in the choral rehearsal.

I'm not quite where this composing journey of mine will lead, but I'm happy that you're here on my site, taking the time to read this. I hope you'll stop by frequently!