Dr. Hilary Apfelstadt is Director of Choral Activities and Professor of Choral Conducting at the University of Toronto where she was named the inaugural Faculty Teaching Excellence Award winner in 2013. She holds the Elmer Iseler Chair in Conducting. In addition to coordinating the graduate choral conducting area, she teaches conducting, choral literature, and conducts MacMillan Singers, an advanced mixed choir, and the Women’s Chamber Choirs. She is also artistic director of Exultate Chamber Singers, a semi-professional ensemble in Toronto. Raised in Nova Scotia, she earned degrees from the University of Toronto, the University of Illinois, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For several years, she was a member of the Robert Shaw Festival Singers, recording two CD’s with them in France, and singing at Carnegie Hall.
The Wisconsin Honors Choir Project is unique in that it is one of only two I know in the U.S. that brings students together to learn music for performance with the conductor of the final concert. As a conductor, I enjoy this scenario because we can work as a team from the outset and experience the entire process together. It is more typical that singers learn the notes by themselves, their teachers help them, or they rely on learning tracks or YouTube. Once they meet to form a choir, they have only two or three days together and must learn the guest conductor’s way of doing things, which may actually contradict what they have already learned.
In picking music for the Treble Honors Choir, I selected a variety of pieces within a prescribed 25-minute limit that would include several styles and eras, and offer a range of challenges. This holds both the singers’ and the audience’s attention. I am very particular that we should experience music written before this century, so I always include something “old”. This year, it was an arrangement of a tune by a Baroque period Italian composer, Caldara, which challenges the singers’ vocal flexibility and agility. It is quick and light, and very rhythmic. In contrast, the second piece on the program is by Johannes Brahms, a Romantic era composer, who wrote music for the women’s choirs he conducted. His setting of Ave Maria, in Latin, is very famous. It is challenging and we worked hard to get the pitch accurate, as there were places where our ears led us to sing one pattern but Brahms had actually written another. This is a piece that many of the students would not get to sing in their local school choirs, because of its difficulty level, but an honors choir can conquer.
Another goal of mine is to select music with expressive poetry. If I can find examples of great texts set by woman composers, so much the better! The next three pieces work as a group in that respect, with music written by contemporary female composers on “old” poems. Canadian composer Eleanor Daley set Charles Dickens’ poem, Things That Never Die, with lyrical lines and rich harmonies. The sentiment of the text is something everyone can relate to, whether an adolescent or adult, remarking on the fact that kindnesses to others are never forgotten, even when the person dies. It’s a reminder to all of us, living in a world that sometimes seems too busy to care, that indeed small acts of mercy can be very meaningful and never forgotten. We talked about people like this whom we knew, and how their spirits left an impression.
Following that is a piece called Threaded With Stars and written by Susan LaBarr, who is a young composer beginning to gain notice. The poet, Sarah Teasdale, was very expressive. Numerous composers have set many of her poems to music. This work challenged the singers to be artistic. It is unaccompanied, so intonation was a focus of our technical work. There are also marked dynamic contrasts that we had to observe to emphasize the text meaning.
New England composer Gwyneth Walker combined two text sources for her lively piece, Now Let Us Sing! which is rhythmic and requires excellent diction and articulation. There are some places in this where finding pitches are quite tricky and the singers worked really hard to conquer these.
The last two pieces are grouped together because of their South American flavor. Eduardo Lakschevitz set a lively children’s song to music. The piece, Travessura took some work to get the pronunciation just right. We spent a lot of time speaking it in rhythm until it became comfortable for us. I had been fortunate enough to work on the pronunciation with a musician from Brazil last year so I could confidently help the Honors Choir singers. There is also a listening example on the publisher’s website they could use, as well. The final piece is Canciones de los Tsáchilas, which uses tunes from Ecuador, combined with nature sounds that the singers produce. The introduction is improvised and it took some convincing to get the women to sing this part comfortably, but once they got used to it, they did well. It’s essentially a soundscape of jungle noises and is fun to do, once the self-consciousness subsides! This piece makes a really exciting end to the program, especially as it includes percussion.
Selecting a program for an honors choir or all-state chorus is a time-consuming task. There are many goals to be met, both for singers and audience. In addition to the priorities mentioned above (variety in style, good poetry, inclusion of female composers, musical growth), I also try to use one Canadian piece so that American audiences get to hear some of our fine composers. Eleanor Daley is well known in the U.S. and the piece we are singing was actually commissioned by the 2013 Tennessee All-State Women’s Chorus; Ms. Daley conducted them. Additionally, the music needs to have a variety of vocal and musical challenges. If it’s all easy, slow, legato music, the singers might work on effective phrasing, but not develop vocal agility or crisp articulation. So the program as a whole must contrast not only styles, but also tempi, articulation, and vocal challenges.
When the music is learned in a matter of days, as we did at camp in June, there must be something the singers can learn pretty easily and something that will challenge them more. It is important to have something accessible that they can sound good on right away. Probably the hardest piece proved to be the Brahms and without the fine section leaders we had, we might not have been ready to perform as well as we did. Each day the singers had a sectional and it really helped the learning process. After working the Brahms separately in four groups (S1, S2, A1, A2), we put the women together in two large groups (S1S2 and A1A2) for one sing through. It then started solidifying because the parts worked in duets.
At the first rehearsal, I tried to read at least a segment of each piece so the women would have a sense of what the entire program would be like. Then we tackled things in bits and pieces and began linking those together. Each rehearsal, we were able to do longer and longer segments as we grew in accuracy and confidence. Knowing we had a performance at the end of camp, even an “in-progress” performance, I wanted to be sure we had enough time to sing the pieces all the way through several times so it would not feel scary to do so in the performance. We had to practice in what I call “performance mode”. That means accomplishing accuracy first, then continuity as we worked towards artistry and expressivity.
One of our challenges was to be expressive facially. It’s interesting that since many of us spend a lot of time interacting with screens and perhaps less time with people than we used to do, that showing expression on our faces seems to be a challenge. It’s important in performance to convey the composer’s and poet’s intentions and to engage our audiences, and dull faces make for dull performances. One of my strategies for that is to identify singers in the group who are naturally expressive and have them come and demonstrate as a group in front of the entire ensemble while everyone is singing; that often serves to inspire and motivate the others.
In terms of building community with a group that has never sung together before, it’s important to honor the group as a whole, to emphasize the importance of the individuals to the success of the choir, and to recognize the contribution that each section makes. Sometimes it’s helpful to have one section sing their part for another group and model for them. If the A2s, for example, are really excelling, they deserve to be heard by everyone else. So part of my teaching strategy is to listen for good potential models and to recognize excellence publicly. It is not a competition; in fact, we all rejoice when someone does well and are encouraged to do even better ourselves.
As a teacher, I seek to be organized, sequential, fast-paced, encouraging and patient, and always use “we-language.” For example, rather than saying, “I need you to sing louder there,” it would be a matter of rewording that – “What is the composer asking for dynamically right there? Why might that be? How can we do that justice?” In addition, saying, “Let’s fix that spot,” gets a better result in my experience than saying, “You are wrong. I need you to sing the right note.” Allowing for questions is important, too. No one should feel intimidated and not be able to ask about something that isn’t clear. And when someone has the courage to ask, it’s my job to respond thoughtfully and helpfully.
Sometimes we seem to take a step backwards and something that was progressing well yesterday is not so strong today. To me, that likely means it wasn’t solid enough in the first place so I need to reinforce it. Before getting frustrated with the singers, I go back and perhaps try another teaching strategy to reinforce the spot. Over time, it gets better. My personal habit of persistence allows me to keep going.
Each repetition needs a challenge and directive. Rather than saying, “No, do it again,” the teacher can encourage verbally “let’s make that rhythm more precise” and then respond to what happens “good; that is much better,” or “good effort; let’s try it staccato now to exaggerate.”
After teaching for several decades and having the good fortune to conduct many wonderful choirs and honors groups, I know that a positive spirit nets better results than a negative one. Sure and steady progress toward a goal, with encouragement and effective teaching strategies, makes for a process that leads to success. When we started the camp together, I told the women that my overall goal was for them to be better musicians at the end than when we started, and sincerely hope that is the case. If not, I haven’t done my job!
The women in the group are talented, supportive of each other, respectful to their wonderful section leaders, accompanist, and to me, and want to do well. Based on what they accomplished in their work-in-progress concert, they are on track to excel in October. Their next challenge is to memorize the music so they can be completely free to express their artistry through singing together. I am excited to see everyone again in October and look forward to making wonderful music again.
Treble Honors Choir Project Conductor 2015
Professor and Elmer Iseler Chair in Conducting, University of Toronto