Revelations of an Honors Choir Conductor

“You have to try to create the kind of environment where every choir member is committed, and gives his or her all. Not all students come into a festival with that sense of commitment. Perhaps they never thought they’d be in an honors choir, or that they could ever motivate themselves to be so dedicated. As the director, it’s up to you to develop a group that the singers really want to commit to. Each festival is different and has a unique feeling and group of students. Your role as conductor is to find what will engage and unlock the creative energy of that specific group.” — Andre Thomas, director, 2010 National Honor Mixed Choir

Last week, Andre Thomas shared secrets of conducting an honors choir. Here are his insights working with honors groups overseas.

I. WORLD YOUTH CHOIR: Thomas has worked with the World Youth Choir, a group of 18-24 year olds from every continent. The singers chosen are some of the “strongest young singers in the world”, and speak many languages. “The singers in the WYC were all so committed to humankind and so quick to learn; they were so good. They came in committed to overcome any obstacles presented by cultural or language differences/difficulties.”

II. CHINA:  “People are people all over the world. I recently led a womens’ choir in China. It warmed my heart. The kids are just amazing; they’re so much the same (as kids here in the States). China is opening up in amazing ways, to music, technology, etc. but the language barrier really is their big worry. More so in choral music than in instrumental music.”

“I explained to these Chinese singers how the face can say so much, that the smile is powerful. I told them if they understand the meaning of the words, they can express that on their faces and in their vocal tone. If they do, acceptance by the audience happens immediately. In other words, how the music is interpreted, how the meaning is understood and conveyed by the singers is more important than 100% correct pronunciation. The audiences will overlook imperfections in the language if the singers are successful in conveying the spirit, tone, and meaning of the work.”

“I tell singers that the language barrier becomes secondary to the message of the music, and that they’ll get past any exterior problems if they work to interpret and convey the meaning of the song.”

III. VIETNAM: “In Vietnam, when it’d first opened to the West, I worked with an orchestra in Hanoi. They were performing Bernstein. These musicians were Russian trained; the only words we shared were English numbers, and Italian musical terms. However, their smiles said it all. After the concert, the musicians came up to me and had one word: FRIEND – and we hugged. To me, that’s music. It transcends language and culture; we are all the same. I try to make this point to the kids in other countries. I tell them not to worry so much about cultural differences or language issues, but rather, to focus on the spirit in which they deliver the music.”

IV. WHAT INSPIRED THOMAS to pursue music:  Thomas was asked how he came to pursue music as a profession, and if there were any one person or experience that inspired him to choose the path of music. Thomas replied: “Church music, just church music. My Mom singing in her choir robe, and me playing a toy piano before I could even read music — a four year old on the piano, playing by ear, I could hear it. Then my approach to music became formalized in school. It’s all due to the many teachers I had and met along the way. It’s the teachers who inspire kids to continue with music.”

It appears Thomas is one of these inspirational teachers. “Over the years, I have visited just about every state in the U.S. several times each to lead All State and other choral festivals. Recently, I was working with teachers in Alabama to help prepare for festival. I found that some of these teachers had been my students years earlier when I’d been in Alabama working with the All State choirs. The kids I’d taught were now the teachers preparing to lead the festival! These former students told me that they’re now teaching their students what I taught them. It goes on and on forever; that’s teaching, that’s what it is – it keeps going on.”

Andre Thomas is director of choral activities at Florida State University.

“Guidelines for Guest Conductors of Honor Choirs” — Music Educators Journal (Patrick Freer, September 2007)

–Sue Rarus, January 12, 2010, © National Association for Music Education