LIKE BASEBALL. I LIKE BASEBALL A LOT. I especially like baseball when my team is in the World Series. This is the case this year. A quote by New York Mets manager Terry Collins caught my attention last week. When asked about how he felt about getting to the World Series he accepted no credit, saying “It’s all about the players. They did all the work.” This comment made me think again about choirs, choir leadership, and choral sound.
There are many different approaches to the choral sound. One of the more famous ones is the concept formulated back in the 1930’s by John Finley Williamson at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ. Williamson described this sound as the shape of a New England church. (See: Ray Robinson and Allen Winold, The Choral Experience: Literature, Materials, and Methods, New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, and London: Harper’s College Press, 1976, 179). This can also be thought of as a pyramid. In this choral sound the basses, greater in number than any other section, created the foundation. The altos and tenors created a rich middle. Second sopranos were fewer in number and rested above the alto and tenor. Finally, the fewest singers were in the first soprano section, which rested at the top of the pyramid. These days, this concept of choral sound is probably not utilized in exactly this way, but we do find instances of a pyramid effect, in which the choral sound is created from the bottom up. In this concept, sopranos are asked to create a shimmery, light and pure sound over a rich and warm foundational bass.
If choral sound can be thought of as a pyramid, perhaps the social construct of a choir can be thought of as an inverted pyramid, with the conductor at the bottom. Balancing everything, never tipping, the conductor is the least of all the individuals involved. Above the conductor, along the rich middle, sits all the singers, in increasing numbers and importance. Let’s face it – without people there is no choir. At the very top of the inverted pyramid, along the largest and widest swath of space, is the music itself.
People join choirs for many reasons. Some join because of the great repertoire, some for the social aspect, and some to serve. But conductors can also become the reason people join. People become attached to their conductors, who may be charismatic, great teachers, big personalities, or excellent jokesters. Some conductors relish their reputations as maestros, scholars, or gurus, achieving an almost cultish following. Conductors can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking they are the reason the choir exists, or why people join the choir. This is dangerous. Conductors should think of themselves as small, at the bottom, with the people of the choir and its repertoire growing and expanding in importance above them.