Secrets of an Honors Choir Conductor

“You have to work with each group and find that combined ensemble experience. There’s an energy that encircles the room. You get a taste of it, and you want more. You crave it.” — Andre Thomas, MENC National Honors Choir conductor

In mid-December 2009, Andre Thomas took time from his busy concert and teaching schedule to talk with MENC staff. His enthusiasm and passion for his work was evident in the tone of the conversation. In addition to working with different groups at the university level, Thomas also works with high school choirs and conducts a large community choir with participants ranging in age from 15 to 85.

Thomas remarked: “Undergraduates have the same enthusiasm/excitement as high school kids (undergrads are just big high school kids). It feeds me immensely when I see the light bulb go on in their head/mind/eyes, when they’ve connected with an idea, or musical element. That’s your reward, not the festival wins. When kids come up to me after the concert and express how excited they were, how exciting the whole experience was, how the music was so exhilarating – that’s what keeps me going.”

Thomas teaches all week and travels most weekends conducting, clinics, workshops. Opening the minds of the young people as well as the creative energy are what drive him. When asked if he has time to perform himself, he says not since 1984 has he been able to sing in a performing choir, but he does occasionally accompany groups, including his own, on the piano.

Asked how he helps students chosen to be in the honors groups who are excited or nervous to calm down and focus, Thomas said,

“The first thing I always notice is that they over sing during the first 20 minutes of the rehearsal. They are typically the best singers in their school/area and they want to show me “Look, I have a great voice!” I have to convey to them that I understand they’re all the very best in their schools/regions, but now, we have to build a new unit, a new ensemble. The ensemble comes before individual achievement/talent. As a group we have to build an ensemble first, a new entity different from those they’ve known. Many of the students come from small programs, and this may be their first experience singing in a large, mixed choral group of up to 200 voices and multiple vocal parts. They have to adjust their expectations and approach.”

What advice would you give kids who pass the honors choir audition and are accepted into the ensemble?

We will only have a little time together, so in anticipation of our meeting in June:
1. Listen to your prep tapes.
2. Know the notes and music!
3. Keep practicing (your voice, music).
4. Stay healthy physically and vocally, and take care of your voice.

Thomas shared his thoughts about the June MENC honors event.  He said,

“This is the first time MENC has sponsored a national honors ensemble. It’s in June, when school is already over, so the students will face a different set of challenges than when they perform during the school year. They may have been out of school for several weeks or even a month by the time we meet, and they may be out of practice, vocally. I am going on faith that it’ll all come together!”

Andre Thomas is director of choral activities at Florida State University

–Sue Rarus, January 6, 2010, © National Association for Music Education