– Jeanne M. Slattery
Steve Johnson has chutzpah. When he first came to the Music Department in 1993, the university band’s performance skills were weak: individual students were not able to audiate (hear in their mind) the characteristic timbre of their instruments, how to listen and play in tune within and across other sections in the band, or to think and perform as a cohesive unit. He contacted the director of the Air Force Band in Washington, D.C., one of the top professional bands in the nation, to ask if his band students could have a joint rehearsal and actually sit in the sections and play music sitting next to the members of the Air Force Band. Yes, they could. In Johnson’s words, “that changed everything.” They finally heard what it sounded like for musicians to listen to each other and really work together. They finally heard what it sounded like for a band to really work together.
More recently, Steve Johnson made a cold contact to Anders Edenroth of The Real Group, a Swedish a cappella group, to ask him to compose a piece for the Chamber Singers to perform at the Llangollen International Choir Festival in Wales this summer. (Remember, I said chutzpah.) Edenroth agreed and sent them Dear Enemies, a moving piece about a man whose brother was killed by the Germans on the last day of WW2 and his response to the German choir that had traveled to perform at Llangollen in 1949. In the words of this piece,
On the very first day of peace when all wounds were raw // silence broke and we all could hear // the first and fragile measures of a newborn song.
Atone. Words will help us atone.
Forgive. Melodies will help us forgive
Amend. Assemble and let’s make amends.
Dear enemies, we welcome you
As friends.– Anders Edenroth
The Real Group – which I’ll refer to as TRG – gave a concert in Clarion in October 2019 and also led two workshops, one for Chamber Singers, and another on the next day for the Chamber Singers and three other choirs (University of Pittsburgh’s Heinz Chapel Choir, Slippery Rock University Chamber Singers, and Bradford Area High School Choir). As Steve Johnson said, their visit was “a home run” for the students – an opportunity to work with people of their international reputation, people immersed in music and the choral tradition – to discover that they were genuine and humble people. Their work together gave the students and Steve Johnson a new perspective on Dear Enemies and how to work effectively as a choir. As one student said:
It really clicked for me when he had us think about the “energy” of each word we were singing, and make sure that we were emphasizing them appropriately. The phrasing sounded so much better once we had worked on it. – A student
What did I see?
I am not a musician, so I’m not going to talk about the musical skills of TRG or of the four student choirs I listened to, but I love music and love watching people teach well. I spent 4-5 hours with these musicians during a busy part of my semester as they worked on Dear Enemies and other pieces – and count myself grateful for the opportunity.
Anders Edenroth worked with the Chambers Singers on Tuesday; three of the four other members of TRG, which also includes Emma Nilsdotter, Morten Vinther Sørensen, and Jānis Strazdiņš, did so on Wednesday. They started by asking the choirs to perform their pieces, then turned to the audience to ask them what they liked. Why? As Emma Nilsdotter observed, the choirs are already very good at identifying their mistakes, but often less good at perceiving what they do well. And, as the other members of the room described, they’re already doing a lot of good things: paying attention to phrasing and dynamics, while performing with energy, emotion, and excitement.
From a teaching perspective and that of a psychologist, I believe that TRG’s genuine focus on the good gave the choirs a foundation from which to work. It gave them a sense of hopefulness about where they were going and a recognition that they are on track – perhaps more on track than they knew. Some of the performers must have been very nervous – imagine the high school students, who were performing in front of three much larger university choirs!
When there wasn’t an audience, members of TRG asked the members of the choir themselves to reflect. How did you feel singing this piece? How does it feel to be divided in half and facing each other? TRG would only be working with them for one or two days; after that the choirs needed to accept responsibility themselves for their performance. As a result, TRG encouraged the choirs to listen to each other, to “find the chords” rather than only attending to their own individual parts, to start a performance themselves rather than relying only on their choir director.
Theirs was a respectful and an empowering approach to teaching.
When no one was conducting and we had to start ourselves, we really focused together as a choir. I feel as though we all felt a little more relaxed with the song when we focused on each other. – A student
Of course TRG also used eye contact effectively and were warm and encouraging with the singers. They used their sense of humor and told occasional self-deprecating stories about themselves. Anders Edenroth, for example, encouraged the choirs to look at his mouth rather than his hands while he “conducted,” as he was more confident and capable in expressing his intent with his mouth and eyes. The choirs, rather than seeming intimidated by TRG, appeared to relax and have more fun with them the more time they spent together. What a gift!
Were the members of TRG wishy-washy, just giving the choirs positive feedback? No. TRG had strong and apparently effective recommendations to help the choirs improve and were assertive in expressing these, but they consistently started where the performers were. Their positive feedback was the firm foundation necessary to allow the performers to take the necessary risks to strengthen their performances. Their feedback communicated that TRG believed that these choirs could and would be successful.
Take home message
It takes courage – and self-confidence – to hand your choir over to another director, yet that is exactly what Steve Johnson did. What did he get from that? He said,
“I had underestimated our students. Anders Edenroth treated them like professionals, and they reacted as such. I learned I can expect more of them than I had.”
Steve Johnson observed that our students can have an inferiority complex – “I’m from little Clarion.” The lesson he hopes they pull from these workshops? Don’t be afraid. He believes it is critical to create opportunities for our students to recognize who and what they can be, so they set the bar higher – and achieve more than they ever believed.
Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is a student-centered teacher, who loves her students, teaching, and learning. She has published three books – Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; and Empathic counseling: Building skills to empower. She can be contacted at email@example.com