A Piece of My Mind

I have been an active and very enthusiastic chorister for the past 30-odd years, ever since I transferred to the music-oriented junior high school Adolf Fredrik’s Music School. Throughout the years, I have had the pleasure of singing in many different choirs of various kinds, sizes and skill levels, which has been rewarding and enriching in many ways.

I have been a part of everything from traditional vocal quartets and barbershop quintets to large symphonic choirs and even assemblies of many hundred singers, made up of different choirs joined together. Stylistically, I have covered most of the classical and modern art music periods, as well as rhythmic a cappella music, a little bit of gospel, a helping of musical, and probably other things that I’m forgetting right now.

I’ve had the fortune to sing with some of Sweden’s most internationally respected choirs, as well as ambitious chamber ensembles, and even some amateur choirs where the social aspect is more important than precise pitch or rhythm.

Since studying at university, I have worked with and conducted a handful of choirs, also of varying skill levels. I was recently contracted as deputy conductor of the chamber choir at Härnösand Cathedral for more than one semester.

I’m throwing this abbreviated a cappella CV at you as a preamble to the actual point of this week’s post. I want to present my background as a chorister and choir enthusiast to explain (and, I suppose, to justify) my frustration at being recently reminded of a pet peeve which has been bothering me for many years.

It is, in my opinion, a kind of manufactured dichotomy that keeps surfacing every once in a while in the otherwise wide and mostly wonderful world of choral singing. It basically boils down to an opinion held by a number of choral singers and conductors that the music itself isn’t enough, it needs to be enhanced by some kind of more or less elaborate staging or visual element.

Let me explain.

In the Q&A section of the Swedish Choir Association’s (Sveriges Körförbund) bi-annual magazine, a reader calling herself ”Happy soprano” had submitted the following question (my translation):

I’m singing in a barbershop chorus, which I love […] A significant part of barbershop is the visual aspect, which we work on a lot […] and we often get a very happy response to that from the audience […] My best friend sings in […] a chamber choir that mostly performs classical music. […] The choir sings very well but, if I may be a bit blunt, is really boring to look at. Why is it that many choirs don’t put any effort into communicating with their audience?

Happy soprano in Tidningen Körsång

I shortened her question, but only because it was rather verbose; the last sentence summarises her point and it is not misrepresented. The printed reply came from the director of Sveriges Körförbund herself, beginning with this sentence: “Many thanks for your important question!” So far, I agree completely with the director, but most of the remainder of her reply I find quite problematic.

Generously interpreted, the director is trying to be sympathetic to the questioner’s experience of ‘traditional’ choral performances as less exciting than barbershop.

The director writes: “Sometimes, the music is advanced to the point that the singers focus entirely on the score and the conductor, which could lead to the audience feeling like the performers are in a separate bubble, to which they aren’t allowed entry […] Is it not possible, then, to combine complex music with consciously connecting with the listeners? Of course it is!”

While I generally agree with the director’s points, I think her answer is simplified to the point where important nuance is lost. And even in this fairly even-handed part of the director’s extensive reply she has a kind of condescending, almost arrogant tone.

The director further writes: “I think every choir wants to give the audience a pleasant concert experience, rehearsing in order to make the music sound as good as possible […] but what is it that they sometimes lack, so that the listeners aren’t moved by the experience, even finding it dull? The answer is of course just as you [the questioner] write: a lack of communication, of stage presence, of ‘embracing’ the audience.”

The director explains how choirmasters could either be unaware of this way of communicating with their audience, that they lack the requisite skills or experience, or that they “simply don’t prioritise this type of communication in their work”. Throughout her reply, she appears to disparage the role of the music, implying that it isn’t enough, such as when asking rhetorically if choirmasters want to “develop the huge potential choral singing has in terms of really moving the audience” (referring specifically to the visual aspect).

The director also offers this brief anecdote from her own career: “I myself have conducted performances where I initially thought impossible for the choir to sing from memory, so I split preparations equally between learning the music and the visual performance, which resulted in both a musical and an emotionally involved experience for the audience.”

Besides the anecdote being reductive to the point of irrelevance, I find it quite a sweeping statement. The director omits several highly important factors, including (but not limited to):

  1. The complexity, or ‘objective’ difficulty, of the repertoire;
  2. The ensemble’s perceived, or ‘subjective’, difficulty in learning said repertoire;
  3. The tastes and preferences of the audience members;
  4. The suitability of said repertoire for a visually oriented or more traditional performance;
  5. The choristers’ comfort level with acting while singing on stage.

More complex music does certainly require greater focus during the performance, as well as likely longer and more involved preparations. ‘Complex’ in this case isn’t analogous with music that could objectively be described as more difficult, such as atonal or experimental music, but could simply refer to pieces that are on the difficult end of the scale for a particular ensemble.

Also, to be fair, I absolutely agree that it’s rather uninspiring to look at choristers whose faces are stuck to their folders, sight-reading as if their lives depended on it. Incidentally, those choristers likely aren’t able to follow the conductor very well, or perform the music as they are supposed to which affects both the visual and the musical aspects of the performance.

An uninspired and/or uninspiring performance can be the result of many things: poorly planned preparation, insufficient rehearsal time, repertoire that’s beyond the capacity of the ensemble, or even that the singers simply don’t like the music and are letting that bias shine through in their performance.

That last point might be excused in an amateur choir, but would be completely unacceptable behaviour from a professional ensemble. And amateur choir conductors shouldn’t simply resign themselves to leading sub-par performances, musically or visually. I believe it is very much a question of selecting the right repertoire, preparing it properly and consistently, and not letting the choir ‘get away with’ less than they are capable of just because they are amateurs.

Again, while I agree with the director’s overall point, I take offence at the way she is expressing it.

The director also thoughtlessly ignores the fact that different audiences have different tastes. For many (including myself, to be fair), listening to a more ‘traditional’ performance is much more enjoyable. It allows us to concentrate on the music without distractions, it lets the choir concentrate on making an emotional impact through the music only – yes, it is in fact very much possible! – and many of us care little for visual trappings, that too often only amount to shallow contrivances that add nothing substantial to the experience.

Let me give a single example of a choral work that I think even the director herself has to agree is able to make an emotional impact on an audience in even a ‘traditional’ performance: Lars-Erik Larsson’s modern classic, God in Disguise. In fact, it was originally conceived for radio performances, not concerts: a context in which the visual aspect is definitionally absent.

Furthermore, preferring a ‘visual’ or ‘traditional’ performance is not simply a binary choice, but a gradient. (In fact, I assume that even among barbershop enthusiasts, some care more about the performers hitting just the right overtones than having a glitzy choreography.)

I promise to wrap up this impassioned, overlong post soon, but first, allow me to also play the devil’s advocate for a bit.

Choreographed or visually informed performances can be wonderful. If done right, they can add layers to individual pieces as well as an entire concert programme. Staging is an integral part of Lone Larsen’s renowned vocal ensemble VoNo’s concerts, and they seamlessly combine it with top-class vocal performances.

Also, it would be remiss of me not to mention my dear Norwegian friends: Kurve. While I have found some of their stagings and choreographies a bit forced, they have also given thoughtful and incredibly well-integrated ‘visual’ performances.

Kurve’s last major show-type concert was “Livsbilde” (Pictures of Life), last September. One of the audience members wrote in a letter to the local newspaper: ”From the first words to the last notes, the programme was tied together by that through line. All the impressions overpowered us, and we [the audience] felt a kind of kinship in sharing this experience.”

In summary, it is my firm belief that music alone is perfectly able to reach out to an audience and move them on an emotional level. Evidence to this is legion. Preference toward ‘visual’ or ‘traditional’ performances varies wildly among both listeners and performers. Stating, or even implying, that ‘only’ singing isn’t enough for a choir to be able to connect with their audience, and that one type of performance is better or more valid than the other, is impressively ignorant. And the fact that this comes straight from the director of the Swedish Choir Association is, in my opinion, unacceptable.

As an addendum, I would like to quote the U.S. Barbershop Harmony Society’s Contest and Judging Handbook. It describes ‘barbershop style’ as “a musical art form” (sic!):

[…] the type of entertainment with which we are concerned must principally be a form of music supported by artistic delivery and not simply a musical accompaniment of another form of art, such as drama, dance, or comedy.

Barbershop Harmony Society Contest and Judging Handbook (2016)
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Composer, arranger and songwriter for performance, recording, broadcast and interactive media.