Mix it Up Multiculturally

It’s not as daunting as it may seem to bring multicultural music into your chorus. Read on for Rules 5 – 8 from Clayton Parr’s Eight Simple Rules for performing and practicing music of the world’s traditions.


Studying and performing multicultural music has its challenges. One is finding music that is authentic. Published arrangements of traditional music are often limited by Western notation in expressing the harmonies and rhythms of music from another culture. Many choral arrangements Westernize the music by taking it out of the original musical context to make it more “accessible”.

Use the principle of spiral study. For a given country or theme, look at scores from many different sources, and listen to a variety of recordings to help you make informed decisions about the authenticity of a published arrangement. Important characteristics of music cannot always be expressed on a printed page alone. It’s important to listen to samples, to be aware of subtleties of pitch, rhythm, and timbre that are beyond the limits of Western notations.


Learn the original language of the song, rather than singing a translation. Each spoken language has a unique musical component, a native character. Success singing in a new language not only depends on correct pronunciation, but also the cadence, accent, and meaning of the words. Your performance will be more authentic, and you and your students will understand the music’s cultural roots and culture much better. Whenever you can, find a native speaker to assist.


Working in another musical culture gives you the opportunity to learn traditional pedagogical approaches and new musical styles. The Western way of learning and rehearsing music is totally foreign to most other singing cultures (e.g. the conductor chooses the score, passes it out to choir members, teaches students in repeated rehearsals, and performs on a stage to a passive audience).

Pieces of another culture which are traditionally learned by rote should be taught by rote, even to choirs who read music well. This experience will develop the singers’ aural abilities, challenging them to learn in a different way. The nature of rehearsals may change completely from the choir’s regular experience.


Performing music of another culture requires a lot of study and preparation. The conductor and performer must think in new ways, use new learning methods, work with new languages, try new ways of listening, and explore new models of the role of the conductor. Expand your directing style to lead through example, demonstration, and participation.

You may, as a leader, have to give up some direct moment-by-moment control over the performance, allowing the performers to take the lead. If you leave the comfort of familiar pedagogical and leadership models to work in new directions, you may be rewarded with new insight into what it means to be a musical leader.

–Sue Rarus, March 3, 2010, © National Association for Music Education