Choral Improvisation: A model of shared leadership
JABBLE Choral improvisation: A model of shared leadership
Dr. Gerard Yun, CAS, Music in the Community instructor and Choral Director, Faculty of Music, Wilfrid Laurier University
Dr. Lee Willingham, Associate Professor, Faculty of Music, Wilfrid Laurier University
Much is being made about the leadership roles in choral ensembles. What are the conductor’s responsibilities, both in the concert preparation process, and in the performance itself? What artistic and creative decisions may be made by choristers? Is choral singing merely a process of compliant singers taking directions from a choral expert in the interest of eliminating mistakes and polishing repertoire for public presentation?
We read that the power of group singing is essentially a social phenomenon. Durrant concludes that the conductor has a “critical role in enabling social cohesion and emotional catharsis as well as developing musical skills in choral singing.”[i]
Along with the social phenomenon of singing, conventional practice reinforces the conductor as the one who focuses the event. We explore this role in light of developing a choral improvisational intelligence, and explore the processes that culminated in a Wilfrid Laurier University Choir Concert that was based on student improvisation.
The residency of Dr. Peter Wiegold at Wilfrid Laurier University in October, 2011 as part of a funded research project provided the spark and the resources for building a choral concert on improvisation. Several forms of choral improvisation were explored. Choral improv was used to create mood changes and build connecting bridges between contrasting pieces. Performed with pre-determined ideas in mind by student composers, choral singers, as well as traditional choral works, these bridges were created in the spirit of the “unforeseen;” each rendition of the atmospheric improvisations was unique.
The use of embedded improvisation within precomposed works was also explored. Windows of aleatoric choices were opened for the singers to create within guidelines provided by the composer.
Finally, the process of free and pre-structured improv was explored, based on themes chosen by the singers themselves, using tiny musical embryos known as “backbones.” The performers literally added flesh, sinew, and muscle to the bones with their sounds. Some of the music was tightly worked out, while some was literally free form. Digital sound images and acoustic instruments enhanced the colours and imagination as they embellished, catalyzed, and responded to the choral work.
JABBLE was presented as a journey of improvisatory exploration, a process of the imagination. The process is never finished or fully complete. A fertile and nimble imagination fosters creative thinking. As musicians, we like to think that we are creative. However, most of our performance work is the re-creating of fixed compositions, the work of others’ imaginations. In contrast, JABBLE combined the pre-composed with the on-the-spot creating.
 Durrant, Colin & Himonides, Evangelos (1998). “What makes people sing together? Socio-Psychological and cross-cultural perspectives on the choral phenomenon” IJME 1998, p. 63.
 Durrant, Colin (2000). “It’s not what you do, it’s the way you do it: A study of encounter between choral conductor and singer” CME, 41 (3&4) Spring/Summer 2000, p. 84. Improvisational Intelligence is a term used by Augusto Monk’s research in getting at the way a musician thinks when improvising.