Author: Dominick DiOrio

‘Singers and Musicians’ Part 2: On Conductors, Identity, and Musical Segregation

A group of singers

When I wrote the first post in this series, “Singers and Musicians” and Why Our Language Matters, I expected there to be a strong response from the people in my closest circle of friends and colleagues. I was not expecting the response to be quite so far-reaching. While I don’t know how many times the article has been viewed, my own Facebook post with the article was shared over 150 times—certainly a new personal record!

I think one of the reasons the article resonated with people so strongly is because it deals with fundamental issues of identity. These labels and categories that we construct to describe who we are and what we do are critical to understanding how we are viewed in both the music profession and in society at large.

A helpful exercise is to take an identity and think of the immediate mental image that comes to mind when you invoke it. Let’s take “conductor.” Picture a conductor in your mind. What does this person look like? What are they doing? What are they wearing? Who is in the frame with them?

If you have been subject to training in a music academy or conservatory (or if you’ve just been a witness to “classical music” in any form in the last 200 years), your first gut-reaction image of this person is probably male, probably white, probably tall, probably north of 60 years old, probably dressed in a tuxedo, probably gripping a wooden stick, and probably leading an ensemble of instrumentalists usually called an orchestra.

You probably wouldn’t initially think of someone like Lidiya Yankovskaya, the only female music director of a multi-million dollar opera company in the United States.

Or of someone like Francisco J. Núñez, founder and director of one of the world’s most accomplished youth choruses, who also happens to be a MacArthur Fellow.

Or of someone like Jeffery Redding, director of choral activities at West Garden High School in Winter Garden, Florida, who was just named the 2019 winner of the GRAMMY Music Educator Award.

That’s because when we use labels like “conductor,” we don’t usually think of educators, or children’s choir directors, or women. As we consider the word “conductor,” we have to work through the ingrained biases and assumptions about what they often or usually look like and what they often or usually do (which can easily be misinterpreted as what they are supposed to look like and what they are supposed to do). The above exercise is illustrative, because our first impressions have the power to reveal our own biases.

  • Every identity comes with inherent biases, assumptions, and privileges to varying degrees.

    Dominick DiOrio
  • Our first impressions have the power to reveal our own biases.

    Dominick DiOrio
  • Who deserves to be called musician?

    Dominick DiOrio
  • Is “composer” an identity to be bestowed as some honorific title?

    Dominick DiOrio
  • Our art is made smaller by the segregation of identity and the rationing of privilege.

    Dominick DiOrio

In the majority narrative, conductors work with orchestras (not choruses or wind bands), they work exclusively at a professional level (not in schools, churches, or civic communities), and they tend to look like the conductors of yesteryear: old, white, male, with gray hair and a strong belief that their interpretation was handed down to them by some divine power. The conductor as authoritarian maestro is a trope as usual and pervasive as it is tired and tiresome.

The problem is systemic, and it comes down to how we define “conductor.” Many definitions are woefully inadequate. Take for example the Dictionary.com definition, which states that a conductor is:

a person who directs an orchestra or chorus, communicating to the performers by motions of a baton or the hands his or her interpretation of the music.

In this reading, we ignore any ensembles that are not choruses or orchestras (even though the oldest professional musical organization in the USA is not an orchestra, but a band: “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, established in 1798).

While this definition thankfully includes women (which is an improvement, as many older definitions did not), it also perpetuates a false belief that there are only two genders, ignoring a wide array of possible gender identities. (An appropriate gender neutral pronoun to use in the above definition would be “their.” Here’s a quick primer on understanding gender, for the curious.)

Aside: Quixotically, the definition also states that a conductor can only communicate with a baton or their hands. To that, I say, Bernstein clearly must not have known what he was doing.

I like Merriam-Webster’s definition best, which states that a conductor is “the leader of a musical ensemble.” It doesn’t tell us who they are leading, or how they are leading. It doesn’t make assumptions about the conductor’s gender identity.

I believe that my article on the careless use of the phrase “singers and musicians” caused such a stir because it forced us to examine the way we define each of these two labels.

NOTUS and Indiana University Chamber Orchestra with conductor Dominick DiOrio after a performance of James MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross, March 2017. Photo credit: Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

NOTUS and Indiana University Chamber Orchestra with conductor Dominick DiOrio after a performance of James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, March 2017. Photo credit: Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

In the comments I saw on Facebook following the article’s publication, I saw many individuals attaching an element of quantifiable musical aptitude or skill to their definition of musician. It isn’t that a singer is not a musician, but that a singer is not as much of a musician as an orchestral player. Or as soprano and IU doctoral student Alejandra Villarreal Martinez stated so eloquently in a Facebook thread:

If we have a pianist who maybe is largely self-taught and plays pop tunes well enough to be paid for making music at the mall, I’d still call him a musician next to the pianist doing Rach 1 with a symphony. They are both getting paid for their artistry, even if they are worlds apart in musical/technical “skill.”

With singers, I think making this distinction also perpetuates the [false] idea among singers that it’s okay to not be as good as instrumentalists, i.e. that we are naturally inferior at music. I had a music director when I was studying for my undergraduate degree who insisted that singers were musicians and had a very high standard. Now, I’m carving a niche for myself singing extremely challenging modern music.

But if you ask me to compare myself to a girl singing in a folk ensemble, who learns by ear but keeps up with the ensemble, I think we should still call her a musician. I think what I’m getting at is that making a distinction between singers and musicians is the result of ingrained institutional elitism.

In other words, when someone makes this kind of distinction, what they are really saying is: who deserves to be called musician?

Case in point: the Pulitzer Prize in Music. Even though the prize is defined very simply as “for [a] distinguished musical composition by an American,” there is a history of awarding the prize to only the very smallest subset of musical styles, essentially blocking entire strata of artistic activity in music from consideration. The Pulitzer Prize committee famously refused to award a citation in 1965 to Duke Ellington, relayed in this story about Wynton Marsalis’ 1997 win:

Since the inception of the prize in 1943—when composer William Schuman received the award for “Secular Cantata No. 2, A Free Song”—every Pulitzer-winning composition spoke in the language of European-derived, Western classical music. As for jazz, blues, gospel, country, spirituals, and every other genre the United States gave to the world, all had been excluded. Completely.

This caused a contretemps in 1965, when a certifiable jazz genius—Duke Ellington—was denied a special citation the jury had recommended to the Pulitzer board. The subsequent and continued exclusion of jazz, often cited as America’s greatest cultural invention, disturbed some Pulitzer board members and distant observers alike. But it took years of effort, hand-wringing, argument, and public discourse to change the trajectory of the music Pulitzer in 1997 [when Wynton Marsalis became the first composer of jazz music to be awarded the prize].

At the root of the problem lies the term “composition.” Who is allowed to claim the mantle of “composer”? Is “composer” an identity to be bestowed as some honorific title? Are songwriters (composers of words and tunes) or arrangers (composers who use pre-existing material) locked out?

Why is Bach (a prolific arranger of Lutheran hymn tunes) called simply a “composer” when Moses Hogan (a prolific arranger of African American spirituals) qualified as a “composer and arranger”?

I believe our art is made smaller by this segregation of identity and by this rationing of privilege. I believe, as Alejandra does, that the definitions of conductor, composer, and musician should be broadly defined to include all possible forms of music-making.

When Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2018, everyone had an opinion, because his selection was historic. Hip-hop was not a genre that the Pulitzer Prize had ever recognized as having the potential for “distinguished musical composition.” In awarding this prize to Lamar, jazz violinist and Pulitzer jurist Regina Carter had the following to say:

It wasn’t a decision of, Oh, let’s just give this to a hip-hop artist, or to Kendrick Lamar, because of that. The piece stands alone. I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant work. I think he’s brilliant. Knowing that we were considering this, I felt really proud of us, the jurors, being able to realize that there’s other great American music and great American art forms besides what we’ve always been told is great.

Merriam Webster’s definition of composer is “one who composes; especially, a person who writes music.” It does not say that a composer is “a person who writes great music.”

The right to be called a composer belongs to Lamar as much as it does to a composer of symphonies, string quartets, or operas. And it belonged to him the moment he decided to start writing music to tell his story, not the moment he won the Pulitzer Prize.

In the same way, each and every singer should proudly claim the mantle of musician, each and every time they raise their voice in song.

On Networking: A National Conference Preview

Dominick at the exhibit hall in Minneapolis in 2017 with conductor Maria Ellis.

At the end of February, choral directors from all over the country will descend upon Kansas City, Missouri, for the biennial national conference of the American Choral Directors Association. Do not be fooled by the moniker of “national”; this is truly a global event for thousands of conductors, composers, educators, publishers, and other industry professionals from around the world. For five days, choral leaders will meet in one place and be inspired by performances, attend interest sessions presented by teachers they admire, and forge new connections that—for the composers present—often lead to new commissioning projects and second and third performances of just-written works.

I am grateful to serve ACDA as the chair of the Standing Committee on Composition Initiatives. In this role, I work with my colleagues—composer Susan LaBarr and conductors Andrew Crane and Nancy Menk—to consider how ACDA can better serve the community of composers that exists within and just outside our choral orbit. We’ve been working diligently for two years, asking ourselves how we can welcome new composers into our choral profession. The national conference is one of the best ways to do just that, as it serves as a perfect place to build new connections through networking.

It can be incredibly daunting to attend a national gathering like this for the first time. Composer Dale Trumbore has already laid out so eloquently the “how to” of negotiating the professional choral conference in a terrific blog post. I recommend it to you highly as essential reading in preparation for any choral conference, whether it be your first or fifteenth. She speaks with great clarity of insight, and I have learned much from reading her personal stories. I know you will, too.

Dale Trumbore

Dale Trumbore, inaugural winner of the Brock Competition for Professional Composers

Dale is also being honored this year as the inaugural winner of the Raymond W. Brock Competition for Professional Composers, “professional” to distinguish this competition from the “student” competition which will now be offered in alternating years). (Aside: Prior to this year, the Student Competition was offered annually since 1998. ACDA decided recently to begin offering a professional competition, in response to many remarks from composers who felt there were fewer opportunities for composers who had aged out of “young” or “emerging” status.)

Dale’s winning work In the Middle will be performed by The Aeolians from Oakwood University and conductor Jason Max Ferdinand on Thursday, February 28 from 2:00-2:45 p.m. in Helzberg Hall (Gold Track) and 4:15-5:00 p.m. in the Muriel Kauffman Theater (Blue Track).  You can preview this work below, performed by Brandon Elliott and Choral Arts Initiative.

If you’ve never attended a choral conference, I welcome you to join us! Below, I’ve included a preview of some things that composers will not want to miss at the coming ACDA National Conference, along with a few pieces of advice.

1. Hang (i.e. “network”) with other composers and conductors at the first-ever Composer Fair and Happy Hour.

On Wednesday, February 27 from 5-7 p.m. in the Kansas City Convention Center Exhibit Hall B, we will feature our first-ever Composer Fair & Happy Hour, a meet-and-greet opportunity for ACDA members to have quality face time with composers from around the world. Distinct from the exhibit hall area, the Composer Fair is a two-hour “pop-up” experience, where members can all gather in the same space and move from table to table, interacting with composers of many ages and backgrounds. Conductor members will gain valuable time with composers of the music they love, while also having the chance to meet a composer they’ve heard about but never met in person. This is a chance for composers to also meet conductors of ensembles they’ve admired.

Here is the list of composers who have registered to take part in this inaugural event, in alphabetical order:

Ivo Antognini
Kim André Arnesen
William Averitt
Timothy Banks
Sergio Barer
Eric William Barnum
Josh Bauder
Bud Wayne Bisbee
Matthew Brown
Richard Burchard
Peter Burton
Michael Bussewitz-Quarm
David N. Childs
Charles Dickerson
Dominick DiOrio
Melissa Dunphy
Daniel Elder
Bradley Ellingboe
Donald Fraser
Daniel E. Gawthrop
Stacey Gibbs
Howard Goodall
Amy Gordon
Joseph Gregorio
Jocelyn Hagen
Elaine Hagenberg
Marjorie Halloran
Mark Hayes
J. Edmund Hughes
Victor Johnson
Ron Kean
Lee Kesselman
Katie Allison Kring
Susan LaBarr
David Michael Layne
John Leavitt
Mary Lynn Lightfoot
Karen Marrolli
Richard McKee
Jacob Narverud
Kyle Pederson
Diane Laura Rains
Philip W. Riegle
Paul John Rudoi
Kevin Siegfried
Z. Randall Stroope
Roger Towler
Bruce Trinkley
Michael John Trotta
Dale Trumbore
Christina Whitten Thomas
Deanna Witkowski

Also, for very early rising composers attending the ACDA conference as well as choral directors/choristers interested in new music and in meeting a bunch of composers, there will be an informal meet-and-greet at the nearby Chez Elle creperie on Friday, March 1 at 8:00 A.M. with Laura Krider and William Lackey from the American Composers Forum and Frank J. Oteri from New Music USA. I’ll be there, too. But in order to make sure there’s room for everyone, please let us know if you are able to be there as soon as you can, so we can give the folks at Chez Elle a head count and also inform us of any food allergies/intolerances (e.g. gluten-free, vegan, etc.) so the kitchen can be prepared. Separate checks will be provided; see Chez Elle’s website for menu and pricing.

2.) Be inspired by performances of new music, such as “The Music of Chen Yi and Zhou Long: Legacy from the East.”

This may come as a shock to many composers, but the overwhelming majority (greater than 75%) of music performed at ACDA National Conferences was written in the last fifty years. Stop and admire that statistic for a moment. It’s quite impressive, and immediately shows as false the oft-cited claim that choruses are fearful of new or contemporary music. Nothing could be further from the truth.

From glancing at the conference programs in the Choral Journal (ACDA’s monthly magazine), nearly every choir performing at the conference has a work by a living composer (or several living composers!) on their program. Any concert you attend will feature new music. That being said, there’s one special event you won’t want to miss…

On Wednesday, February 27 at 6:30 p.m. (Blue Track) and Thursday, February 28 at 6:30 p.m. (Gold Track), the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory Singers (Robert Bode, cond.) and UMKC Conservatory Concert Choir (Charles Robinson, cond.) will give a featured performance of the music of Chinese-American composers Chen Yi and Zhou Long. The presentation will feature a wide range of choral a cappella and choral-instrumental music by these two dynamic and long-established composers. The performance will conclude with Zhou Long’s major work, The Future of Fire, for the combined choirs and wind ensemble.

3.) Go to interest sessions, but not all of them. Here’s a curated list.

The ACDA National Conference features a veritable smorgasbord of possible interest and literature sessions for attendees to witness. It’s impossible to go to everything, so don’t even try. (Literally, actually impossible.) So for your guidance, here is a curated list of some of these sessions, earmarked in the conference program booklet as “of possible interest to composers.” Reading the titles alone gives you a good sense of the diversity of perspectives present at this gathering.

  • Choosing, Adapting, Composing, and Publishing for Middle School Choir
    Presenter: Emily Holt Crocker
  • A Conversation with John Rutter
    Presenter: Moderated by Tim Sharp, ACDA Executive Director
  • Finding Common Ground:
    A Panel Discussion on Conflict Transformation through Choral Music

    Presenters: Arianne Abela, Emilie Amrein, Micah Hendler, André de Quadros
  • Heartbeat and Harmony: Exploring Vocal and Choral Repertoire with Percussion
    Presenters: Susan Brumfield and Lisa Rogers
  • It’s About All of Us: The Collaborative Future of Choral Music in Empathy, Servant Leadership, and Selflessness
    Presenters: Geoffrey Boers, Clara Osowski, Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, Paul John Rudoi
  • Making it Plain: Transcribing Contemporary Gospel for the Mixed Chorus
    Presenters: Brandon Waddles and Brandon A. Boyd
  • Meaningful Improvisation in the Choral Rehearsal
    Presenter: Leila Heil
  • Performance Practice of Latin American Music
    Presenter: Cristian Grases
  • Programming for the 21st Century: Quality, Inclusion, and Diversity
    Presenters: Hilary Apfelstadt, Lynne Gackle, Eugene Rogers, and Jo-Michael Scheibe
  • Quality Accessible Repertoire for Intermediate and Small-but-Mighty Women’s Treble Choirs
    Presenter: Shelbie Wahl-Fouts
  • Tarik O’Regan: Orchestrating Voices
    Presenter: Tarik O’Regan
With Cameron Chase McCall and Dale Warland at the ACDA national conference in Salt Lake City, 2015. (Photo courtesy Dominick DiOrio).

With Cameron Chase McCall and Dale Warland at the ACDA national conference in Salt Lake City, 2015. (Photo courtesy Dominick DiOrio).

4.) The Exhibit Hall: Be overwhelmed, yes, but be present.

The Exhibit Hall is unquestionably one of the most overwhelming places to be at the national conference. Located this year in the Kansas City Convention Center, there are literally hundreds of exhibitors, from publishers and composers to tour companies and instrument makers, and it’s always very loud. The chaos of people moving in and out and about can be difficult if you’re not used to such activity.

But, some of the best conversations I have during the entire conference occur in this room, when I’m walking around with no purpose in particular. I’ve met conductors for the first time who have performed my music. I’ve run into composers who are present at the conference for the first time, hoping to meet a friendly face to show them around. On more than one occasion, I’ve started the conversation about a commission in the exhibit hall, and then I’ve followed up the next week with an email. So much business and connection happens on the Exhibit Hall floor, and I encourage you to plan unstructured time there to allow for such serendipity.

The exhibit hall is also the perfect place to meet with potential publishers. Representatives from all of the major publishers have booths in the hall, as well as many of the online distributors (MusicSpoke, Graphite Marketplace, etc.) that allow composers to keep the copyright to their scores. Go and meet with these people, and bring copies of your scores to share.

This gets to one larger point about networking in general: never be afraid to say hello, even if you don’t think you have anything in common. Taking that first step to make a connection with a simple hello and a handshake will lead, step-by-step, to a greater professional network of colleagues.

5.) Finally: Do something that has nothing to do with choral music.

Maybe you step away from the conference for an afternoon to go to a museum. Or maybe you decide that on Friday night, even though you want to go to a concert, it might be better to have a leisurely dinner with a friend you haven’t seen in years. Whatever it is, we can’t all be “on” for four days straight without going a little crazy, so step away for a bit and don’t feel shame in doing so.

So…

If you’re already registered for the ACDA National Conference, great! I look forward to seeing you there. If you haven’t, it’s not too late. To do so, you first must join as an ACDA member and then register for the conference. Please note that the cost to attend, even with the cost (and benefits!) of annual membership, is cheaper than many other music industry conferences. The cost is well worth it.

If you are interested, online registration closes at 11:59 p.m. Central Time on February 18. Learn more at the ACDA website.

Conference attendance has been one of the great joys of my career, as it combines the best parts of being a professional with belonging to a community of colleagues and friends. I hope you will feel welcome to join our choral community at the ACDA National Conference this year and take part in the wealth of new music offerings that will be of interest to composers from all walks of life.

Writing for “The Chorus”: Text, Dynamics, and Other Occupational Hazards

NOTUS standing outside

As a composer-conductor who works primarily with new choral music, I encounter over 500 freshly minted new works for chorus each year. Sometimes, I am considering newly published works for potential programming; other times, I evaluate new manuscripts as part of a jury in a composition competition. At still other times, composers will send me scores via email and ask that I consider programming them.

Some of these scores are beautifully crafted, expertly notated, and idiomatically written. More usually, however, the scores will often make exceedingly unwarranted demands on the singers or include some rather basic errors.

In order to guide us all toward a more perfect harmony in writing for the chorus, and because writing for the chorus is often neglected in the training of composers at academic institutions, I am including below some of the most prevalent pitfalls that I have seen over and over again—even by some of today’s most reputable composers.


Point #1: “The Chorus” contains multitudes.

According to Chorus America’s 2009 Chorus Impact Study:

[A]n estimated 42.6 million Americans regularly sing in choruses today. More than 1 in 5 households have at least one singing family member, making choral singing the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for both adults and children.

You can probably surmise that not all of the 42.6 million Americans who sing in choruses are paid professional musicians. This leads us to our first consideration: for whom am I writing?

Unlike in an orchestra, where you can probably expect a section of violins to sound a certain way, a section of sopranos can be any one of a vast range of possibilities—10 trained opera singers, 16 Anglican boy trebles, 50 non-professional community singers over the age of 55, etc.—and it is quite critical that you have some awareness of which choral instrument you are envisioning before writing. As you might imagine, the fortissimo of an opera chorus will likely be very different than the fortissimo of a high school chamber choir.

Whether writing a new commission for a youth chorus or a professional chamber choir, recognize that your role in writing for the chorus is closer to what in fashion is known as “bespoke.” You are tailor-making a new work for a specific group of individuals, and those individuals may come from a wide array of professional or non-professional backgrounds.

The same is true in publishing: you probably wouldn’t submit a sacred anthem for mixed chorus and organ to a publisher that offers its catalogue predominantly to a secular, educational market.

So: before you do anything else, define “the chorus” for your situation or project. It will anticipate and surmount a whole host of problems before they even have a chance of existing.


Point #2: “The Chorus” is not “The Orchestra.”

Where many composers lack academic training in writing for the chorus, nearly all composers are expected to learn how to compose for the orchestra and its various instruments. Composers are taught the technical considerations of the string family—harmonics, bowing techniques, which strings are open, etc.—and about optimal voicings when combining the winds and brass into harmonic sonorities.

Composers also learn what is inadvisable in writing for the orchestra: namely, which pitches do not exist on certain instruments, the dynamic tendencies of certain instruments, why you can usually only write seven pitches for the harp, etc.

Here, then, are some regular rules for “The Chorus,” especially as they differ from “The Orchestra.”

1. Dynamics:

Most voices are naturally quieter in the lower register and naturally louder in the higher register. (Very few people naturally “scream” low in their voice; young babies, when they want your attention, will cry high and loud in their range.)

For this reason, it is very difficult to adequately balance a choral sonority when the sopranos are high (F5-A5) and the basses are low (F2, etc.), as the basses will naturally be softer than the sopranos. This is unlike an orchestra, where a dramatic crescendo may often be built with the low instruments descending (cellos, tuba, bassoons) and the high instruments ascending (violins, clarinets, trumpets, etc.).

Unlike an orchestra, the most effective choral crescendos occur when ALL vocal parts move to the upper part of their vocal range.

Four different chord voicings sung fortissimo: not good (SATB=G5,D4,B3,G2); better (SATB=G5,B4,D4,G3); best (SATB=G5,D5,G4,B3); and best with multiple voices (divisi: sopranos singing E5 and G5; altos singing C5 and D5; tenors singing F#4 and G4; and Basses singing B3 & D4)

Voicings beneath a soprano high G and how they will likely sound.

2. Breath

It is easier for a section of strings to sustain a sonority than it is for a chorus of singers. This may seem self-evident, but singers need to breathe to produce their sound, where string players need to breathe to stay alive, yes, but not to create sound with their bow.

When a chorus is clear on how, when, and where to breathe in music, the resulting performance is always more compelling and artful.

Two different settings of the word stars. In the first one, all sing at piano level the word "stars" on whole notes for four full measures without a breath (SATB = C5,A4,F4,D4). In the second setting, the pitch values are the same but only the sopranos sing "stars", with a crescendo and then a decrescendo halfway through and taking an eighth note rest in the penultimate measure and returning to their pitch intoning "m" pianissimo. The altos, tenors and basses intone "m" throughout and all also take a decrescendo in the penultimate measure with the altos taking an eighth note rest halfway through, the tenors taking an eighth note rest at the end of the first measure, and the basses taking an eighth note rest after the first beat of the penultimate measure.

Of course, a chorus can stagger their breathing—where some voices in the section continue singing while others breathe, and then they switch off—but there are limitations to this technique, too. It is easier to stagger one’s breathing without a noticeable effect during passages that have quieter dynamics and lower ranges. It is much more difficult to do so without noticing when louder dynamics and higher ranges are in play.

If you want to sustain a chord over a long period of time, consider planning the breaths and releases into the over-arching sonority and texture. Not only will it be more successful in performance, it will also probably be more interesting to the listener, too.

There is an easy solution for this: when you are writing choral music, sing every part as if you were performing it. Is it clear where the breaths should be placed? Are you having trouble sustaining a particularly long line? When you begin to put yourself in the place of the singer, your choral writing will improve.

3. Range & Tessitura

Singing high notes is difficult. Singing high notes over a long stretch of time is especially difficult and especially fatiguing, just as it would be if a composer were to demand the same of a brass player. Singing high notes non-vibrato, at a very quiet dynamic is exceedingly difficult. Asking a singer to do this for pages on end is simply cruel.

One of the most common mistakes I see in choral writing is a disregard for the tessitura of the singers. Tessitura—according to Wikipedia (I know)—is “the most aesthetically acceptable and comfortable vocal range.” It’s not just an issue in the higher registers either. It is fatiguing for singers to be in any narrow range for a long period of time.

An extremely slow (all whole notes and fortissimo) parallel setting of the text: "Night has fallen on the lot of them." (Sopranos sing C5 B4 E5 D5 A4 B4 F5 D5 C5; alto sing B3 C4 D4 B3 C4 B3 A3 B3 E4 D4; tenors sing E4 F4 G4 E4 F4 E4 D4 E4 F4 G4; and basses sing A2 B2 C3 A2 B2 A2 G2 A2 B2 C3.) The ranges are all rather condensed and it makes much better sense to swap the tenor and alto parts so they are both singing in more comfortable ranges.

In composition, it is best to consider questions like, “How long has the section been singing in this range?” If you find that the tenors are only singing between D4 and G4 for six pages in a row, you should probably consider re-voicing their part. They will grow tired, their intonation will suffer, and they probably won’t enjoy singing your piece.

So, vary the range and tessitura of your vocal parts, especially for longer and more extended works.


Point #3: “The Chorus” does not have valves, keys, or slides.

From whence cometh the pitch?

While some highly trained choruses can perform any selection of pitches put in front of them, even the very best professional radio choirs in Europe often have to use tuning forks to find pitches in extremely complex music. It is to your benefit as a composer to make this job easier for the singers by skillfully preparing your score to be more successfully executed.

To be clear: I am not advocating for a “dumbing down” of your music. I am saying that we should be aware that a singer cannot just push down a key to find an F#. It is helpful to sometimes find other ways of forecasting the pitch prior to singing.

This may be apparent in the motives played by other instruments before a choral entrance, in the case of choral-instrumental music. In a cappella music, it might be a skillfully placed unison statement for the chorus before a treacherous 11-pitch sonority. Be resourceful but also kind.

A good rule of thumb: Can you, as the composer, pitch every note in your score accurately? If the answer to that is not “yes,” then perhaps consider a rewrite.


Point #4: “The Chorus” does have consonants, vowels, and other assorted phonemes.

Ah, text! Nothing differentiates a chorus from an orchestra more clearly than the use of words and all that they entail.

If you are not used to writing texted music, then some basic disclaimers are worth mentioning:

  • The vowel sound of any syllable is what occurs “on the beat” or “on the note.” So, if you write the word “Strength” on a downbeat, the “Str” will all have to occur before the notated pitch, and the vowel will occur on the beat.
  • Some consonants can be lengthened (m, n, f, v, s, z, sh, zh, etc.) and some cannot (t, d, k, g, p, b, etc.).
  • Chorus releases after notes usually occur on the rests in the music: so when a quarter note on the word “great” is followed by a quarter rest, the “t” sound will occur on the quarter rest following the word. (You do not have to notate this as the composer; the chorus will do this naturally.)

Further: It is your responsibility as the composer to know not only the meaning of the text you are setting, but even and especially the inherent stresses of the language. Nothing shows a novice choral composer more obviously than when the composer writes a motive for a text that inadvertently stresses the inappropriate syllable. Check your dictionary, especially when writing in a less comfortable language, to ensure that you are stressing each word appropriately in your setting.

One of the most common problems I encounter is when a composer hears the composite text of a part in their head, but does not think carefully about what each of the singers have to perform.

Two different settings of the text: "What must you bring?" In the first one, each section sings a different word and sustains it: basses singing "what" on a C3 for two measures, then tenors joining two beats later with "must" on F3 followed by altos singing "you on B3 at the beginning of the second measure and finally sopranos singing "bring" for a single beat two beats later. In the second setting the basses sing all four words on half notes with tenors joining for the final three words, altos the final two, and sopranos the last word, all on the same pitches as the first setting. DiOrio further comments that the first setting sounds like "Wha mu you bringstt" whereas the second one listeners can actually hear the full sentence.

In instances like this, the conductor has to reconfigure the arrangement of syllables to make the composer’s intention clear.

Finally, text is expressive. The chorus can communicate not just the text, but also the meaning behind the words. Make sure you, as the composer, have given some thought to how you would express the text—poetically, rhetorically, etc.

A good practice that works for many composers I know: memorize your text and speak through it regularly, until its natural rhythms, inflections, and lines begin to emerge. Do this before you set any of the words to notated music.


Point #5: “The Chorus” is made of people.

At the end of the day, a chorus is a collection of people. These people come into the rehearsal room with an assortment of daily experiences: one of the baritones may have just won an award, while one of the altos may have lost a parent. They both enter that room to have a communal singing experience that will connect them to others and give voice to where they are on that day.

Millions of Americans sing in choruses because making music is part of being human. To truly be successful as a composer of choral music, we have to recognize that all choral music is in some ways communal music. And all choral music gives voice—literal voice, with text—to our human experience.

So let’s be empathetic composers. Let’s put ourselves in the singers’ shoes. And let’s make the study of choral composition and its rudiments as usual in the academy as the study of string harmonics.

“Singers and Musicians” and Why Our Language Matters

A cohort of singers on outdoor steps

There it was yet again, this time in an article written by a living composer in October 2018.  It stuck out like a four-inch crease in a freshly ironed shirt. While it may first appear—like so many other biases—to be simply a polite substitution, it actually carries a condescension that comes from a long history of implied assumptions that communicate “separate and certainly not equal.”

Not even The New York Times is immune from this double standard. Quite to the contrary, you’ll come across the phrase hundreds of times if you spend just a few minutes scouring their archives. You’ll find it in headlines and reviews, in news articles, letters, and obituaries:

  • An article on the Bayreuth Festival from 2015 includes the line: “Plaques just outside the Festival Theater poignantly memorialize Bayreuth singers and musicians who were persecuted by the Third Reich.”
  • The headline from a 2001 obituary reads: “Alix Williamson, 85, Noted Publicist for Singers and Musicians.
  • A news article on the Metropolitan Opera’s union and management negotiations from 2014 includes this gem: “Outside the opera house on Friday, the day began with about 150 singers and musicians from the Met’s chorus and orchestra holding a demonstration, with a melodious score, in Dante Park, a small park opposite Lincoln Center.” (Aside: yes, I recognize that this is complicated by the names of the unions themselves—i.e. the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra players, and the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the chorus and the principal singers, as well as other professionals including the stage managers—but there is no good reason to use this language when referring directly to the artists themselves and not to their union representation.)
  • And there it was as recently as October 2018 when Nico Muhly was describing his new dramatic work: “My role, as I understand it now, is to be an editor and custodian of the document Nick and I created, and to guide — but not prescribe — the various options the singers and musicians have in expounding it.”

To be absolutely certain that no one misses my point: singers and musicians are not mutually exclusive categories. All singers are musicians, but not all musicians are singers (some are players, some are composers, etc.).

Language matters. When we use the phrase “singers and musicians” in one breath, we communicate—even if inadvertently—that they are mutually exclusive categories. In other words, singers are not musicians.

That’s a problem.

  • When we use the phrase “singers and musicians” in one breath, we communicate that they are mutually exclusive categories.

    Dominick DiOrio, composer and conductor
  • The vast majority of singers are individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to studying the art of performance and the craft of music.

    Dominick DiOrio, composer and conductor
  • These ‘singers’ are making some of the most adventurous new music being written today.

    Dominick DiOrio, composer and conductor

This subtle but false dichotomy reinforces many of the assumptions that singers are forced to confront in their careers: that they are not as musically literate, that they came to their career through a path of sub-par training, that they lack the ability to hear and understand the underpinnings of a musical score, that they have to hire a vocal coach to teach them their part, etc., etc.

We hear it in the subtext beneath the “Eureka!” stories about famous opera singers being discovered, endowed with a beautiful voice but lacking any formal training. (Woody Allen troped on this quite famously in his 2012 movie, To Rome with Love, where a mortician’s perfectly developed operatic tenor is only revealed when he’s singing in the shower.)

It is further reinforced by the history of choral-orchestral music performance, where an important tradition still flourishes: a professional (read: paid) orchestra of players and a non-professional (read: non-paid) chorus of singers combine to perform some of the great warhorses of Western art music (your Beethoven 9s, Mahler 2s, and the like). In this reading, musicians are trained professionals, while singers are those other people participating in the performance who could not have learned their part if it were not taught to them by a chorus master (which, it should be noted, is another problematic name for someone who can and should simply be called “conductor”… but that’s an issue for another article).

All stereotypes are grounded in some kernel of truth, and you may indeed encounter singers who conform to and confirm some of the worst stereotypes. But in my experience as a conductor-composer who has worked with literally thousands of singers, the vast majority of them are individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to studying the art of performance and the craft of music: i.e. musicians.

As a conducting faculty member at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, I lead NOTUS, a select vocal ensemble that is unique among collegiate choirs, as we have a singular mission to perform, commission, and record the works of living composers. As you might expect, we regularly perform contemporary music that is exceedingly challenging. We recently released our first commercial album, NOTUS: Of Radiance & Refraction, which features five world premiere recordings of works that we commissioned from IU faculty members. Listen here to a movement of John Gibson’s In Flight, for chorus and electronics, featuring soprano soloist Kellie Motter:

The thirty-or-so student singers that I work with each year are musicians in every sense of the word. These young people can sing pitches out of thin air from tuning forks. They can tune (and express!) 10-part chords. They can sing melodies with complex polyrhythms and syncopations. And they can do all of this while communicating a poetic text clearly and distinctly. (You might surmise that I’m quite proud of them. You’d be right.)

I prepare these students to be responsive to the musical gesture. I ask them to come to rehearsal already familiar with their musical part (no spoon-feeding their pitches with the piano). In short: I expect each one of them to be as professional a musician as the first oboist in an orchestra is expected to be.

I believe that we confront this bias head-on by making sure that we do everything we can to hold singers to the same musical expectations as our players, especially in our training institutions. I take comfort in knowing that I have many colleagues in this profession who believe the same, and who are also training their singers to be as responsive as the best orchestral players.

Excitingly, the choral repertoire has been expanding and transforming over the last fifty years as this artistic shift in our professional expectations of singers has led composers to imagine new choral musics that were never possible before.

In Sweden, Eric Ericson and his Chamber Choir redefined excellence in choral performance on an international scale with their recordings. They performed music more complex than any other choral repertoire then-written and helped establish careers for composers such as Sven-David Sandström and Lars Edlund. (Here’s the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir performing Sandström’s Agnus Dei consisting of gnarly tonal-ish clusters that float in and out of each other:

Today in the USA, Donald Nally and The Crossing are exhibiting new levels of choral artistry and technical mastery in the performances they give to works by composers such as Ted Hearne, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, David Lang, and Lansing McLoskey. (Here’s The Crossing performing Ted Hearne’s Animals:

Roomful of Teeth and Brad Wells have embraced the “choir as rock band” aesthetic, combining vocal traditions from across the globe to create stunningly otherworldly works by their singer-composers Eric Dudley, Avery Griffin, and Caroline Shaw. Listen to RoT sing Shaw’s “Allemande” from her Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 voices:

And for inspiration beyond measure, look no further than Francisco Núñez and the extraordinary Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Through their Transient Glory program, they have commissioned some of the most interesting, diverse, and eclectic contemporary music for youth chorus ever written, from the likes of Paquito D’Rivera, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, and Michael Torke. And these young people ages 9-18 sing as good as—and in some cases better than—any professional choir. Here they are singing Michael Gordon’s Every Stop on the F Train:

Yes, these groups are made of ‘singers.’ They are choirs, or vocal ensembles, or choruses, collections of people who make noise together with their vocal cords or whatever else you want to call them. But these ‘singers’ are making some of the most adventurous new music being written today, and you can be damned-sure that they are also musicians of the very highest caliber.

So enough. Let’s embrace some new language.

We could say “singers and players” or “vocalists and instrumentalists.” Or maybe call them all “performers” or “artists.”

Or how about just “musicians?”