My choirs are an extension of myself; another side of my musical persona. It's only natural that I share with my groups my taste in musical styles, my personal favorites, my dedication to excellence and artistry, my desire to connect with an audience, my work ethic, my almost religious belief in humor. And in doing so, it seems, I redefine, clarify, and reinforce these same things within myself on a daily basis - far more than I ever could do if I only worked alone.
The inspiration for my love of choir comes from my junior high and high school experiences. The "John F. Kennedy High School Choir" (Plainview, New York) conducted by Ronald Cohen was the prototype for everything that I have done in the field since. The friends I had in choir shared more with me, on so many levels, than friends made elsewhere. They are my friends to this very day, though we live so far apart. We shared the work, the music, the communion, the elation and the joy, the love of our director and the following of his dream, and this has lasted a lifetime.
For as satisfying as solo performance may be, there is something exponentially greater in sharing performance with a group with whom you have worked. The result is far greater than the sum of its parts. When all the voices are singing their own individual parts clear and true and in perfect synch with one another, and you are lucky enough to finally, finally hear those elusive overtones ringing - the magic happens. And when it does, it's a communal reward for all the hard work. You all understand that this special moment could only have been achieved together. Add yet an appreciative audience to the equation, and it doesn't get much better than that.
I was surprised to learn that the man responsible for the quote, "God is in the details", Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was an architect. I could have sworn he'd be a choir director! The details of choir directing are indeed endless. So much so, that one must constantly prioritize: What to work on in the time allotted is the constant question. In the long run, you need to deal with every imaginable aspect – musical and otherwise.
So … what's really involved?
Choosing choir members: A combination of philosophy and circumstance made me go with heterogeneous, amateur choirs. My singers come from different origins, work in every field imaginable, are of all different ages, weight and height. (This may not seem so unusual here in Israel, but if you take a look at the norm in the Far East, say, Elfa's Singers from Indonesia, where all members of the group are nearly clones of one another, you'll understand the significance.) I also accept singers of various levels of musical education: not all read music, not all have sung in choirs before, few have had voice lessons. The criteria for acceptance are a good ear, a decent voice, a sense of rhythm, a love of the pop/jazz genre, personal energy, intelligence, discipline and an open mind, and – last but not least - a burning desire to be a member of the particular choir.
Choosing the repertoire: I start with the same criteria I use for choosing my own personal performance repertoire – songs of which I never tire, songs with a "lift", with great rhythm or a particularly touching melody or really special chord changes. It goes without saying that theme and lyrics are very important, but, for me, the musical criterion comes first. Then I check the "choirability" of the song. What's that, you ask? Not all great songs lend themselves to choir arrangement. Some are too personal and must remain solo vehicles. Some have haunting, monotonic melodies, which may create a wonderful effect when recorded, but don't cut it in live performance. I look for songs with a special energy. I look for repertoire that will make my groups as unique as possible. I look for that special "something" that will surprise and please an audience and put a smile on their faces that grows as the song proceeds.
Warm up: In over sixteen years of choir directing, I've never started a rehearsal without a physical warm-up. I put on music – each week something different, rhythmic and "cool" – and everyone moves, following my lead. It sets off our time together from everything that has happened that day, isolating us from the world outside. It puts us all on the same page. When done regularly, it releases our inhibitions in each other's company and builds trust. So what if you dance like a geek? We're all in this together! The benefits are both short term: a good mood is set for the rehearsal, and long term: eventually when choreography is needed for a song, we are already used to moving together, we are not embarrassed in front of our friends, and we can draw from a library of moves that we've already collected in prior warm-ups. How is it possible to expect a choir that only sits on its bottom for months at a time to be energetic and move with the music on stage?
Vocal training: Breathing exercises follow the physical warm up, followed by vocal exercises that I create on the spot every rehearsal. They open up the larynx and warm up the vocal folds, promoting agility and pitch precision, while making sure there's support from the diaphragm and the "core". (Lots of my physical imagery comes from my years of Pilates workouts. I find a striking parallel between the disciplines.) But by choosing to vary the exercises each week, creating some challenging and unusual ones, they serve simultaneously as vocal and ear training. See below.
Solfege (ear-training) in camouflage! (A bit detailed: Read at your own risk!) I wanted my choirs to be more professional but I had two problems. Firstly, many of my singers have had no serious musical education. I wanted to be able to say, "You're going flat on that minor sixth descent", but couldn't. Secondly, because the names used for notes in Israel are "doh", "reh" & "mi", my adopting the Kodaly "Movable Doh" system would be too confusing. I had to come up with some sort of singer-friendly terminology that would allow me to talk to them about musical matters. My solution: numbers! "Doh"= "one", "Re"="two" and so on. I decided to try doing group solfege lessons. It's become a game for us: When I play a new exercise or melody, I challenge them all to try to "identify the numbers". Most of my singers, at this point, can do it - or at least come pretty close. In addition, the singers eventually learn that the note functions are different; that a "three" must be sung a little higher, and that a "six" or a "seven" are very often used for "color" in a chord and must be sung more gently and with more air than they would sing, say, a "one". I knew I'd hit on something when one of my tenors shouted out in a sudden "aha" moment: "Wow! I just realized! Nine is the new two!!!"
"Accents": When dealing with a group of some thirty singers who may stem from as many as seven different countries, you are faced with a serious problem of multiple "foreign" accents. The vowels in every language are different. A chord will not ring properly when there are seven different interpretations of an "ah"! I work relentlessly trying to clarify the vowel sound I want, (which of course varies, depending on the language of the song we're singing), correct the singers who are having trouble, and then remind them – again and again and again. And again and again and again. Accents have a funny tendency NOT to want to be changed.
"Sound Quality": How does one try to improve a choir's sound quality? Most of the singers have not had voice training, nor have they had any experience singing classical music. Add to that the fact that most are native Hebrew speakers, a language that is spoken with a particularly horizontal mouth and flat palate, not conducive to good choir sound. Were our repertoire classical, it would be easier. They could imitate the raised palate and rounder sounds, and achieve better resonance. It's harder to reconcile pop, jazz and rock with "classical" sound production. But as the years go on, I am more and more convinced that that's the ticket to a better choir. Even pop and jazz and rock need to be sung – somewhat – "classically". Period. The singers in my choirs who have been abroad at festivals and competitions, and who have been exposed to great international choirs know that this is true. As a result of this exposure, something happens to them. They're suddenly willing to try, to change. And they return home better choirs!
Performance: "Katzefet" participated in the "Vivace" Festival in Veszprem, Hungary a couple of years ago, competing against some of the most marvelous choirs I'd ever heard. In an informal feedback session with one of the judges, I received a "gift" that I have never forgotten. "There are choirs here that sing like angels," he confided to me, "but I told their conductors, 'SO WHAT?' What good is choir that sounds so beautiful, but makes no connection with it's audience? What good is a choir that holds it's music as a barrier between themselves and the crowd? Your singers, Jeanne, could perhaps improve in their sound quality, but still they have something the others don't have: they entertain, they connect, they engage their audience! That is the most important thing." Talk about reinforcement! Being a performer myself, I've always known that there is no other raison d'etre for being on stage than to connect with an audience, to make something happen on that particular stage, in that one particular moment that has never happened in just that way before. From the moment I established my first choir, I've passed on this credo and have worked to make my singers understand, internalize, and learn the skills needed to achieve this goal. It's a work in progress…