transition

The announcement in my ChoralNet email this morning said, “American Boychoir in Transition.”  And I thought, “whew!  They know it’s a transition.  That will help them.”

I’ve probably been involved with  more transitions of choral directors from more perspectives than 99% of other conductors.  I’ve been the replacement conductor, teacher, and church musician; and I’ve been a student observing while five schools replace choral directors.  FIVE.

Next time, I’m going to write about what I think I’ve learned from all this, and a list of things conductors and administrators can do to make transitions between musical leadership smooth and successful.  For now, though, here is a straight up cataloging of those experiences:

In junior high: between 7th and 8th grade, Ms. Marconi decided to go full time to the other junior high in my district, and she was replaced by Ms. Rufe, a first year teacher.  

In 10th grade, Mr. Diemer–who had been teaching in the district so long that he had been my mother’s band director–retired, to be placed by Ms. Gardas, another first year teacher.

Right before I began college, there was some kind of political thing that went on at the University of Delaware that I don’t know the details of, and the result was that the choral director was no longer in charge of the choirs.  They spent time in transition: hired an adjunct conductor for the town-and-gown ensemble I sang in during my freshman year, and had one of the voice faculty conduct the Chorale (the auditioned choir) I sang in during my sophomore year.  My junior year, they hired an interim conductor, Paul Head, while they did a search for a permanent person.  I was one of the students who got to participate in the search and it was fascinating to me, a burgeoning conductor myself, to meet those conductors in positions that I imagined myself in some day.  Paul Head stayed, of course, and you can see him conducting the UD Chorale at the ACDA National Conference next week.  Hurray for success stories!

I then began teaching, taking over choral music at a private school where my predecessor did not have specific choral training, but had been a pianist.  It was awkward and difficult, and I’m afraid I didn’t stay to see it through: I ended up moving to Connecticut because there was a man there… I have no idea what has happened musically at that school since.

So I took over at a public high school in Connecticut, where my predecessor was successful and beloved.  I had a great time with those students, and I think they bought into my approach, but there was administrative friction–for example, one of the vice-principals told me I wasn’t allowed to require students to attend two concerts a year outside of regular school hours.  By the end of three years there, I was burned out.  So I went back to grad school.  The school replaced me and the band teacher with one person, and the program has shrunk since I left.

I was at Westminster the year after Joseph Flummerfelt retired.  In a school with so many conductors, they had plenty of people available to cover the ensembles he conducted.  Dr. Flummerfelt himself stayed nearby and gave a series of Saturday masterclasses for the graduate students in conducting.  They brought in short-term visiting conductors to lead specific concerts, some of whom fit better than others.  This was another fascinating experience for me to observe as a student and singer in the choirs.  They held auditions, had students meet with candidates.  It took longer than they thought to find someone.  They were slow and careful.  They hired Joe Miller to begin in January 2006, but I graduated in December 2005.  Joe Miller stayed, and the Westminster Choir will also be singing at ACDA next week.

I went back to Connecticut, got married to the man who brought me there in the first place, and began work at a church and a community choir where I’ve been ever since.  At both those positions, neither of the groups was especially happy with my predecessors, which I suspect made them more open to me and my approach, though by now I had some idea of some strategies I could use to transition in to a new position more smoothly than I had before.

I decided to look into doctoral work, and when I found a teacher who seemed to offer the opportunities and perspective I hoped would help me, and she told me that she would be leaving the school by the time I began.  UConn would be in transition.  “Of course,” I thought.  So I went.  They were supposed to do a search in that first year, but the economy tanked and the budget got slashed, and there was no money to hire anyone.  Without Westminster’s deep bench, they hired a temporary person, and then another temporary person to cover some ensembles and some of the choral courses.  They, as UD had, asked non-conductors to conduct ensembles and teach choral courses.  Unlike UD, UConn had a doctoral student in choral conducting (me!), so I helped fill in, too.  I was glad I was there to help with that, and felt it was part of my responsibility to help bridge the gap between conductors.  Last year, just after the end of my residency, they did a search.  They interviewed and auditioned candidates, bringing students in to talk to them.  I came to as many of the auditions as I could, though I was not on campus much that semester, both to be supportive and helpful, and also to meet the candidates who were conductors doing work I might want to do in a few years.  They hired Jamie Spillane, and I’ve heard only good things.  ACDA requires that a group have at least three years with the same conductor to qualify for consideration to perform at a conference.  So we’ll see what happens.  🙂

Then I began teaching for Bravo Waterbury, which is a new program.  No transition questions for the younger kids, but the older kids–3rd through 5th graders–are feeling the rough edges of transition.  I didn’t anticipate this.  I thought I was going in prepared to make the transition smooth, but what they had been doing before I came was so different from any other rehearsing or teaching I had seen before that even just warming up and making any musical corrections was totally shocking to them.  With all my experience observing transition, I failed to transition smoothly.

What could I have done?  How could my administration have helped me?  What will I want and need and do with the next ensemble who ask me to conduct them?

Tune in next time for some Advice and Observations on Transitioning Choral Leadership.

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