Not Your Grandparents’ Choral Concert

Richard Shnipke • ChoralJanuary 2023 • January 15, 2023

For decades, choral directors have followed standard concert and programming models. Many arrange choirs on risers in a standard formation and have them sing varied programs spanning periods and styles. Some programs work in chronological order, starting with an up-tempo baroque or classical work and moving through various selections to demonstrate the choir’s ability to interpret music in the most accurate, historically correct, and expressive manner. They often conclude with a spiritual or world music that is rhythmically interesting and energetic. While educationally sound, I wonder if this model engages contemporary singers and audiences in a meaningful and relevant way. In our digital world, people are exposed to images and sounds at an unbelievable rate. Conductors must create programs that are not only sung beautifully but keep our singers and audiences excited about our art. The following are practical ideas to consider when planning your next concert or season.

Program Order
When something is predictable, it is less engaging to listeners. Think about watching a movie and coming to realize the plot is a version of a story you have seen dozens of times. Attending a traditionally programmed concert can feel similar. Breaking this mold takes planning and creative thinking. A good place to start is by asking the following questions: 

• Do we always need to end with a spiritual, or could it go elsewhere in the program? 

• Can non-traditional sets be created that include multiple tempi and style periods? 

• If multiple choirs perform on the same concert, can they be incorporated throughout the program instead of having each choir come to the risers, sing a set, and leave? 

Visual Interest
Creating a visually interesting concert experience can help engage attendees and enhance the music making, allowing the program to have a greater aesthetic impact. Performances can be enhanced visually in several ways. First, consider your venue and how you might use the entire space. Singers can be placed in various locations to provide audiences with a variety of visual and sonic experiences during the program. Using not only the main stage area but aisles, balconies, a catwalk, the lobby, the back of the house, the orchestra pit, etc. can be helpful. Having the choir(s) use multiple formations can add visual appeal. All of us have attended concerts when choirs changed from a section formation to a mixed arrangement. Consider ways to make these changes practical to make the program more artistic and interesting. Thinking about the historical or cultural context of a musical work can also provide inspiration for choral staging. For example, imagine the possibilities when considering the differences in the original performances of a Baroque double choir anthem, an English madrigal, an African folk song, or an Indian raga. Let the music be your guide and let the choir’s formations help provide the most authentic and expressive performance possible. With access to technology in most modern performance venues, the option of using digital imagery is a reality. Collaborating with art, digital media, film, and/or theater programs can help your concerts become more visually appealing and allow for cross curricular partnerships. 

Designing thematic concerts can help engage audiences while providing a rewarding and creative outlet for conductors. Themes can be based on whatever inspires you. A theme gives you the creative flexibility to program together musically disparate works for textual reasons and to build interesting musical and emotional arcs. These types of concerts can help you attract new audience members who may be interested in the specific theme of the concert. 

Tying it All Together
One of the keys and biggest challenges to creating programs that are artistically and musically engaging is the logistics involved. Structuring concerts in a manner that provides the audience with a feeling they are part of an artistic event (not just attending a choir concert) is of utmost importance. Few people enjoy the portions of a traditional concert that have to do with watching people and equipment move around the stage. One challenge we face is minimizing these aspects and/or incorporating them into the overall flow of the concert. Considering musical key relationships can allow you to move seamlessly from one work to the next without applause or interruption; incorporating narration between selections or groups of works can provide the audience with crucial information while covering logistical changes of personnel or equipment. Using instrumentalists helps provide variety in both musical timbre and the visual picture. Creating instrumental interludes can offer another opportunity for covering logistical changes or for a musical transition to prepare an audience for the key or style of the next choral work. While rewarding for an audience, the musicians, and the conductor, putting all these items together does require planning. Designing concert “flow charts” that give the performers logistical information about performance order, staging directions, and transitions (both musical and logistical) is crucial. Also, making extra time to rehearse all the logistics is an absolute necessity. While we may have all these items worked out in our minds, it does take time for the students to understand and internalize our vision. During rehearsals, students often find solutions or offer suggestions for problems that were not anticipated in the original planning. Creating this type of programming takes time and energy, but the effort to provide more artistic, meaningful, and engaging concert experiences for both our students and audiences is a worthy endeavor.

Used with permission of the Ohio ACDA newsletter and ACDA Chorteach. This article is the first of many to be provided by the American Choral Directors Association and reflects SBO+’s commitment to helping music teachers of all genres.

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