Dr. Steven Michelson has been the conductor of the Helena Chamber Singers since it inception in 2000. He has brought to his current position a wide variety of experiences as a musician and educator. He served as a high school choral director in California from 1971-1982, following a two-year enlistment in the U.S. Navy. In the summer of 1982 he began a doctoral program in choral music at Arizona State University under the direction of Dr. Douglas McEwen, which he completed in June 1984. Following doctoral work he served as the Associate Director of Choral Activities at Michigan State University from 1984-1990. He then served as Director of Choral Activities at Murray State University in Kentucky from 1990-1992. From that position, he moved to Helena to teach choral music at Helena High School for 21 years before retiring from his teaching position in June 2013.
“Embarking On a Journey”
By Steven Michelson
(The following is an address given by an imaginary choir director to his choir on the first day of rehearsal.)
Good afternoon! It is great to see so many people who in some way deem the choral singing experience important enough to devote an entire year to it while receiving very little academic credit (if one considers the time commitment that must be made).
As you can see by the music in your folder, we have quite a variety of musical styles before us, which will in turn present a variety of challenges as we work toward perfection of these pieces in our rehearsals and performances.
What we are about to do is embark on a journey together – a journey that will take us to new and exciting places, perhaps to places we have never been. As we begin this journey, we might pause for a moment to ask several questions, just as the motorist asks certain questions as he studies his map before beginning a trip: (1) Where are we going? (2) Why is the journey important? (3) How are we going to get there?
In an attempt to answer the first question, I would like to suggest that we will be exploring the work of feeling – not in the physical sense of touching (although that may be a worthy outcome of our journey), but in regard to the development of our sensitivity to the music we sing. This will enable us to perceive keenly and react deeply to its expressive qualities.
All of us human beings have a need to express our ideas about life through some nonverbal means, perhaps through a symbol of some kind, for many times we have difficulty expressing these ideas through our language. Each of us has thoughts and feelings, some profound and some frivolous, which we would like to express, but so often we struggle for the best way to express them and end up becoming frustrated and dissatisfied with our efforts. Many times we have not come to grips with our feelings enough to understand them, much less express them to others.
I believe we are all here today because we sense that music, and specifically choral music, can be the symbol through which we can gain insight into human feelings, and which can help us gain a more complete sense of our humanness. As we become absorbed in each piece with our powers of thinking and feeling, we might reach a point of insight into life that we have never experienced before.
You have perhaps noticed from glancing at the music in your folder that not all the music presents equally difficult or similar challenges. Each piece is representative of a certain musical style and presents unique insights from a broad range of composers. I chose the music with the knowledge that we should not expect to work at the far reaches of our abilities at all times.
Not all of our musical experiences will be at the deepest level of involvement but yet our commitment to them must be equally resolute. Do not allow your initial preference for or judgment of each piece to get in the way of your perception of that piece. My belief is that each piece we study this year will contain an insight to be shared between composer and performer, composer and listener, and performer and listener; hopefully it will offer self-knowledge of a basic sort to all of us.
In regard to perceiving and reacting to each piece, an important question for us will not be “Did we like it?” but rather “Did we understand it?” Music is an art form which, as Bennett Reimer said, “is a basic means for making contact with life.”1 In the words of R. B. Thomas, “music clarifies human life.”2 It helps us deal with how we feel about human life. This is why our journey is so important.
If we believe that the gift of music is an insight into the way life feels or how it feels, and that our journey will help us gain new insights, then we must eagerly ask, “How are we going to get there?” I will attempt to answer this question by telling you what I believe my responsibility as a teacher will be as we take our journey together. Kahlil Gibran has expressed this responsibility rather well in The Prophet:
If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind… The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it… For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man. 3
As the conductor of this choir, I cannot tell you how to perceive the music, how to react to it, or what value to place on it. I can only help to develop your capacity to respond to the expressive qualities in the music, which I call the aesthetic qualities. It is these qualities that I believe help lead us to greater insight into life.
Concentrating on such components of sound as dynamics, tempo, pitch direction, range, rhythmic patterns, pace, consonance and dissonance, phrase structure, variety, and repetition, and discovering how these expressive modes of sound are used in characteristic ways in each different style, should aid us in perceiving and reacting to the expressive qualities in our music. As we grow in our capacity to respond to these expressive elements, we will not only gain greater insights for ourselves; but we might, perhaps, be able to “move” our audiences to greater awareness and insight as well.
In order for me to help develop your capacity to respond to the expressive qualities in our music, we will be dealing with fundamentals, fundamentals, and more fundamentals. This means strict and consistent attention to technical detail. Such elements as rhythmic vitality, enunciation, tone color, intonation, dynamics, and expressive phrasing will be focal points for our concentration.
The refinement of these fundamental elements of technique will help us gain insight into the expressive nature of each piece. Fundamentals are the key to unlocking the door of each piece to enable us and our listeners to enter the world of insight and perhaps refine our sense of humanness.
As we concentrate on the musical details, I will try not to interpose myself between you and the music we are studying. Talk will be kept to a minimum. We are all aware that language is a basic means of communication, even when directed toward expressive ends, but my intention will be to use words only as a means of articulating or clarifying musical problems as they develop throughout our rehearsals. I will, in a sense, act as a guide to help you gain insights as we rehearse each piece.
At this point I would like to offer a word of caution. As we proceed in our journey together, it will be imperative that we retain an objectivity to the music during our rehearsals and performances. As we deal with the music fundamentals that comprise each piece, we must not allow ourselves to become so emotionally involved that we lose our sense of objectivity.
This is not to say that we must remain aloof and oblivious to our feelings at the moment, but it does imply that we must be able to keep a distance between our objective and subjective, or emotional, involvement in the music in order to render an intelligent and sensitive, i.e., artistic, performance. Robert Shaw expressed this so succinctly when he said, “We will not touch the audience by crying a lot; we will touch them by singing well.”4
In this moment of eager anticipation of the journey which lies ahead, I would like to conclude by saying that our journey requires a commitment from each of you – a commitment of time, energy, and study. The extent to which we dedicate ourselves to our task ahead will determine our level of gaining and sharing insights.
Although our journey will perhaps take us to unknown but exciting places, we will never reach a point where we ultimately reach our destination, for ours is an endless journey – one that will hopefully continue throughout our lives to keep us fulfilled and “alive.” When the year has ended, perhaps we will be able to say, as did one of the characters in The Brothers Karamozov by Dostoevesky:
And even if we are occupied with most important things, if we attain to honor or fall into great misfortune – still let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us…better perhaps than we are.5
- Bennett Reimer, A Philosophy of Music Education (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1970), p. 75. ↩
- R. B. Thomas, “Review of the Yale Conference, Fifteen Years Later.” Council for Research in Music Education (Fall 1979): 60. ↩
- Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1923), pp. 56f ↩
- Robert Shaw, Comment by Shaw in rehearsal at Festival of Masses, San Francisco, July 1983 ↩
- F. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamozov (New York: Harper and Brothers, Pub., 1960), p. 875 ↩