you are what you eat

R – I realized early in my career that taxpayers fall into two categories, and this was before the age of “Glee”: those that view their public school music programs as “entertainment” and those that don’t. And I don’t buy the argument of, “well, a little of both”. Either they do or they do not. And what you program for literature each term will likewise fall into two categories: it will feed into the entertainment belief or it will dissuade from it. Let me preface my soapbox with this: pop and jazz are two examples of genres that are imbedded in our culture, period. Programming literature that reflects either of these for instance absolutely can hold educational validity. Five Foot Two, Sincerely, Java Jive… these are staples in my program and always will be from time to time. Got it?

That said, what do we feed our choirs and why? The YHS Chamber Singers had a very heavy entertainment label attached to them once upon a time. So I started programming masterworks each Spring. I did this for two reasons: no one in the community is going to equate the Liebeslieder Waltzes or Vivaldi’s Gloria with “entertainment” and every one of my kids would come out on the other end of those experiences as musicians they had never been before. Three cool things happened within a few years of this approach. First, the kids’ perception of the program changed, including those not in the program. They had viewed it as an entertainment thing, and they slowly came to understand that there was an academic agenda instead (advocacy?!). Second, the kids’ musicianship skyrocketed. One of my kids after our first rehearsal with the Lord Nelson Mass in January of 2002 walked up to me and said, “Berg, my head hurts”.


The kids were on musicianship overload and it was a beautiful thing! Third, once the community understood that this was not an entertainment enterprise, the audience size quadrupled. Quadrupled. When they finally succumbed to the agenda being academic, the only thing that mattered was the quality of the performance itself. And that turned things around.

I have always said this: if you genuinely believe in the powerful, spirit engulfing qualities of Byrd or Bach or Brahms when their music is performed artistically, you will never need to “sell” them (the moment we do, we’ll know it’s time to pack our bags and give up the good fight…).

Afraid of coming across as too hoity-toity? After a performance in a shabby industrial town in Tennessee of the Mozart Requiem, which the concert manager had requested the Robert Shaw Chorale not perform because ‘it was too highbrow,’ a young woman waited for the autograph seekers to depart. “I suppose,” she told Shaw quietly, “there are two kinds of people who would understand the Mozart Requiem: those sufficiently skilled in musical materials and literature to appreciate its technical mastery, and those who have lately experienced a deep personal tragedy. I am no musician. Thank you very much.”

I was lucky enough to combine my Chamber Singers with the Chamber Singers of Noble High School under the direction of Erin Lowell a few years back to perform the Mozart Coronation Mass at our state music teachers conference. We wanted to illustrate that even a work such as this is accessible for teenagers. After the performance we took open questions from the audience and one teacher asked a very respectful but leading question: how many of the singers took private lessons? Out of 50+ kids, 6 hands went up. Then one of my basses, Jack Cooper, in front of the entire audience blurted out the thing I am most proud of in my career: “When you sing this in rehearsal, every day is a voice lesson”.

Program just one of the Waltzes. Program just one motet. Hop on choral public domain, download even one great short work by Mendelssohn for free, photocopy it legally and try it on for size this next term. Your kids and your community will understand you to be what you bring to them, and it can change who they are too.

You are what you eat.

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