Conducting Masterclass Alumni: The Beat Goes On
Over the years, many talented conductors have participated in Chorus America’s Masterclasses. The Voice asked past Fellows to share where they are now, and how their Masterclass experience has shaped their different professional paths.
Chorus America has long been committed to helping emerging conductors excel. From Conference sessions to special publications and other resources, the organization has made it a priority to invest in the early- to mid-career artists who are the future of the field.
Key to that investment is an ongoing series of Conducting Masterclasses, which draw on experienced master teachers and top-notch performing ensembles as artists-in-residence. Thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Arts and regional and individual funders, Chorus America has presented Masterclasses in cities across the United States, from San Francisco to Philadelphia and Houston to Cincinnati.
Each Masterclass focuses on specific repertoire—either choral-orchestral literature, a cappella works, or music for children and youth choirs with instruments. Competitively chosen Conducting Fellows receive intensive coaching and significant podium time, and the rigorous four-day workshops also provide opportunities for Conducting Associates and Auditors.
More than 300 conductors to date have participated in Chorus America Conducting Masterclasses. In this article, past Fellows reflect on what they learned, and how the experience continues to nurture their performance practice and professional careers.
“I was originally interested in the exposure to an orchestra.”
Marie Bucoy-Calavan is a veteran of multiple Chorus America Masterclasses, including the 2012 Choral-Orchestral program at Mannes College The New School for Music and the 2013 Chorus America Seattle Conference event working with choir, organ, and brass. She was recently chosen as the first May Festival choral conducting fellow, a new position established with the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s choral conducting studies program.
“I was originally interested in the exposure to an orchestra, to get more experience and instruction so I could be more confident on the podium,” she says of her interest in the Mannes Masterclass. “Being a choral conductor you hardly ever get that time. I learned specific gestures and I learned that my conducting could get in the way of string players in a way I’d never known.” It wasn’t easy. “We are all our worst critics,” she says, “but the frustration really made me go home and practice. The learning was even more illuminating when I got off the podium and re-evaluated and figured out what I could fix for the next day.”
She had a different experience at the Seattle Masterclass, not only because of the repertoire and pedagogy associated with conducting brass, but because her previous experience had raised her comfort level. “The craziness and hectic feeling quieted down and it became more about learning,” she says. The audience element was a bit more “nerve-wracking” because the Masterclass was part of Chorus America’s Conference and open to all attendees. Nonetheless, Bucoy-Calavan sees this more public setting as an opportunity for observers to learn too. “I do think it’s valuable not only for conductor participants but also the conference participants to see emerging conductors and how clinicians teach them.”
“It’s such a big part of being a conductor.”
Wei Cheng first heard about Chorus America’s conducting programs while pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and serving an internship at the Chicago Symphony Chorus. In 2002, Cheng participated in Chorus America’s Choral-Orchestral Masterclass in Chicago. She then returned the following year as a Fellow in the A Cappella Masterclass with Dale Warland and Charles Bruffy as lead faculty in Kansas City.
Asked which program she preferred, the response was a hearty “Both!” Because the teaching approaches varied significantly, Cheng found that the two programs addressed different skill sets.
“The first one was more focused on techniques to coordinate the two [the chorus and the orchestra] and make things work,” she says. “The second was more about a personal level of interaction between you and the singers.”
Born in Beijing, Cheng received her undergraduate degree in music and choral conducting at the Central Conservatory of China. “Choral music in China is limited and I really wanted to learn more. This is a Western tradition and there is a limit to the information, scores, knowledge, and history you can get in China.” Now director of choral activities and assistant professor of music at Denison University in Ohio, Cheng has achieved her aspiration of leading a choral program with a long and heralded tradition. “I do hope someday to be able to send students to these workshops,” she says of Chorus America’s Masterclasses. “It’s such a big part of being a conductor to be involved in an experience like that.”
“I gained a sense of my own comfort in front of large ensembles.”
Jason Harris at the 2010 Masterclass during Chorus America’s Atlanta Conference.
Jason Harris attended Chorus America Conducting Masterclasses at two key points in his academic development. In 2005, just after completing his master’s degree in choral conducting at the University of Michigan, he participated in a Choral-Orchestral program in Cincinnati. Then, while working on his doctorate, he attended the 2010 Masterclass with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, presented in partnership with the League of American Orchestras as part of Chorus America’s Conference.
Each experience, he says, allowed him to refine technical aspects such as gesture, but there was a particular educational benefit in working with both outstanding collegiate and professional instrumentalists and singers. “It’s two different sets of skills working with students, who are still learning their craft, and working with adult musicians who play at such a high level. It really prepared me for the intensive setting of a school like Oberlin.” Harris is now assistant professor of choral conducting and director of choral ensembles at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.
The 2005 Masterclass in Cincinnati, which featured the choral and orchestral forces necessary for Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, was particularly enlightening for Harris. “I gained a sense of my own comfort in front of large ensembles,” he says. “It confirmed that I am absolutely comfortable in front of an orchestra this size, which can be daunting for a lot of choral conductors.”
And yet the learning for Harris was not just from the teachers and players. “The most important thing you can take away from any conducting masterclass is the exposure you get to other techniques, to other types of thoughts, to other types of pedagogy,” he says. “When you are in a masterclass with 10-20 other students you are getting 10-20 other points of view. That has an impact on your own artistry.”
“It was like driving a Ferrari.”
When Catherine Sailer pursued her doctorate at Northwestern University, she split her time between conducting choral and instrumental ensembles. “I love both and wasn’t willing to give either up,” she says. At the 2002 Chorus America Choral-Orchestral Masterclass featuring the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Sailer was able to embrace both passions outside the limits of academia. “We were able to start out at a high artistic plane and not the rudimentary rehearsal business that we have to do even in an excellent school setting,” she says. “We weren’t teaching. We were performers trying to perform at the best of our abilities in keeping with the quality of the ensemble.” The following year she was selected as a Fellow for Chorus America’s A Cappella Masterclass, where the artists-in-residence were the Dale Warland Singers and the Kansas City Chorale. “It was like driving a Ferrari,” she says.
The experiences also provided opportunities beyond instruction, she says. “It’s about being an artist and being on the most professional level, expressing what I really want and not doing more than I need to do,” she says. “You don’t just hear what you taught your choir in rehearsals; you hear what you are showing.” Currently associate professor and director of choral studies at the University of Denver, she encourages others to apply for Chorus America Conducting Masterclasses. Two of her students recently participated in the 2013 Children’s/Youth Conducting Masterclass hosted by the Cincinnati Children’s Choir and the May Festival Youth Chorus.
“You have to keep your wits about you.”
Malcolm Merriweather is now choral associate at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.
When Malcolm Merriweather attended the 2012 Chorus America Choral-Orchestral Masterclass, it had been two years since he received his master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music. “The opportunities to work with orchestra and chorus for someone at that stage of my career were not frequent,” he says. Though cueing and gesturing technique were key takeways for him, he reports the most important lesson he learned was about “fluidity.” “It’s important to make sure that communication is mutually equal between entities so that they are one, so that you are not giving too much attention to either the chorus or the orchestra,” he says. “In the heat of the moment it’s easy to get swept up in the beauty and grandeur and poignancy of the Brahms Requiem. You have to keep your wits about you.”
Currently serving as associate conductor of the New York Choral Society and as choral associate at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, Merriweather was equally inspired by his Masterclass colleagues. “It was a great cross section of abilities that included people at different stages of their careers,” he says. “Some in school, some like me who had graduated and were starting out, some who were in doctoral programs, and those who were done and who were really out there doing it. That experience told me that I should really investigate finding a doctoral program that suited me.” Merriweather begins his doctoral studies this fall at the Manhattan School of Music.
“You learn so much that you bring forward with you.”
“Sometimes as choral musicians I think we could benefit from looking at the score through the eyes of an orchestral conductor,” says Kellie Walsh, artistic director of Shallaway—Newfoundland and Labrador Youth in Chorus, who attended the 2004 Chorus America Masterclass for Children/Youth Chorus Directors featuring the Chicago Children’s Choir and Anima—Young Singers of Greater Chicago. In addition to the overall learning experience, which included orchestral musicians, Walsh drew specific inspiration from Duain Wolfe, director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and also founder of the Colorado Children's Chorale, who was among the faculty members. “I connected with him as a teacher: his pedagogy, his musicianship, and how he worked with a chorus,” she says. She subsequently invited Wolfe to prepare Shallaway for a performance with the National Arts Centre Orchestra.
The Chorus America Masterclass also drew Walsh more closely into the choral community. “The level of training was incredibly high, but also the opportunities to meet other conductors,” she says. “You learn so much that you bring forward with you.” She found that watching her fellow participants was “every bit as valuable” as working directly with master teachers and mentors. Since taking part in the Masterclass, Walsh has become a regular attendee at Chorus America’s annual Conference. “The second I step into the atmosphere and start talking to people, I always learn so much,” she says. “I feel completely revived and rejuvenated.”
For more important takeaways from past Conducting Masterclass participants, click here.