Interacting with well-known composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven isn’t an option for students who perform their music today.
That’s why the Seymour High School Show Chorale made the most of a recent opportunity to Skype with the composer of one of their music pieces.
This school year, the Show Chorale is performing Shawn Kirchner’s “Unclouded Day,” a choir arrangement of a bluegrass song by Ralph Stanley. Kirchner is a composer and songwriter from Los Angeles, California, whose choral works are performed throughout the world.
Story continues below gallery
Through Skype, Kirchner was able to hear the 42-member choir sing his song.
Kyle Karum, choral director at Seymour High School, said Kirchner suggested singing the song a little faster. He also wanted the choir to do phrase shaping, which involves putting more emphasis on certain words.
“He had a lot of great advice and helped us take our piece to the next level or two,” Karum said. “It was a great experience, and it’s always great to see (the students) so attentive and receiving these new ideas and being flexible in that way instead of saying, ‘Well, no, we’ve done it this way so many times.’”
When meeting in person with a choir on this particular piece, Kirchner said he often goes to the piano to demonstrate the banjo-style piano accompaniment he sometimes adds to it even though the piece is a cappella.
“Often, that gives the choir a different sense of how much rhythmic life is inside the piece, and it usually energizes their own performance of it,” he said. “I did give Mr. Karum and his choir a brief glimpse of this by going to my piano and playing just a bit for them.”
Kirchner said the tempo of the piece is the biggest variance he experiences.
“Some people hear a piece in a more moderate pace,” he said. “That allows for really good singing, and others like zippy tempos that are exciting but sometimes reduce the quality of the singing tone. I myself err on the side of zippy much of the time, and that was one suggestion I made, that the choir try a slightly faster tempo.”
He said it was clear that the choir already had the piece down and was doing an excellent job with it.
“I was impressed with the choir. They had excellent tone and intonation,” Kirchner said. “It seemed clear that Mr. Karum is providing quality vocal development to his students. In terms of interpretation, I try to bear in mind that there will be as many interpretations of my pieces as there are conductors.”
A couple of weeks later, the Show Chorale had an opportunity to interact with a respected musician in person.
Michael Boswell, associate professor of music and director of choral activities at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College near Terre Haute helped the choir continue to fine-tune “Unclouded Day.”
Karum said he liked how Boswell focused on vocal technique with various parts of the choir.
“The tenors in one moment just expanded their sound and sounded 10 years older than they are, which is really cool,” he said. “We’ve been working on this piece for two months, and that’s something that I’ve been thinking to do, and it has been on my to-do list, and he just did it in a moment using that technique.”
This marked the second time the show choir has Skyped with a musician and had a college professor visit.
Last school year, the group Skyped with composer Sydney Guillaume, and Thomas King, assistant professor of music at DePauw University in Greencastle, visited Seymour to work with Karum’s choirs.
“It’s just a unique experience because the person, what is their intent, what do they mean by writing this here?” Karum said. “It’s a cool thing because you get the actual composer’s input.”
The experiences also help Karum.
“I need to do all of my research and try to tap into his brain as best I can. I need to know as the conductor and teacher what did he or she mean by putting that there,” he said.
“With composers like Mozart and Beethoven, I can’t ask them, but the answer I’ve got to search in a book,” he said. “With Sydney Guillaume and Shawn Kirchner, we have Skype, and they can tell me, ‘Hey, do this here’ because that’s what I want.”
Boswell said he typically visits a Terre Haute high school each year, but it’s not as easy to go farther away.
His visit to Seymour on Oct. 16, though, fell on his fall break.
“I really like this kind of setting,” Boswell said. “I like coming into other people’s spaces and working with them on their music. It seems to be a relaxed way of just approaching music-making.”
He said it’s always fun working with high school students because they tend to bring energy to their music-making.
“It’s also nice to work with a choir who is working on music that is both appealing and challenging,” he said. “That’s to Kyle’s credit that he’s having them work on music like that, that it’s not only appealing that they like the tune but that it’s also challenging them in multiple ways.”
Listening to the choir helped him determine his approach in assisting them with their music.
He said he liked how the students heeded his advice.
“It’s very satisfying when you come into a situation where people aren’t used to your analogies and your advice to see that it still clicks,” Boswell said.
“I have my students who hear me say the same things all of the time, and it still works and clicks for them, but you don’t see that immediate spark of like, ‘Oh, that’s neat. I’m going to process that,’” he said. “When I see that from people who aren’t used to hearing the way I talk about music and think about how to sing, that’s just always neat for me.”
Boswell also worked with Seymour’s men’s choir and beginning women’s choir.
“I hope they value every minute that they are able to make music because it’s like so many other things that we take for granted that’s just beautiful and it’s just always there,” he said. “Hopefully for them to just appreciate every minute they get to do that, that’s the bigger picture.”
He also said he hopes they benefited from his vocal technique tips.
“I hope that one or two things that I’ve said might stick with them and help them on their long-term path of just continuing to improve their own singing,” he said. “Because as you improve your own singing, you enjoy singing more, and the more you enjoy singing, the more you do it, and I think that the more people sing, we slightly make the world a little bit better place.”
The Seymour High School Show Chorale’s next performance will be Saturday at the Ball State Choral Invitational in Muncie.
The multifaceted group will then join the school’s other choirs for the Sounds of the Season winter concert at 7 p.m. Dec. 13 in the Earl D. Prout Auditorium.
In the spring, the Show Chorale will present the musical “Into the Woods” at 7:30 p.m. April 5, 6 and 7 and compete in the Indiana State School Music Association state qualifiers competition April 28 at Bedford North Lawrence High School. The latter is like the choir equivalent of semistate. Choirs will be competing at four schools across the state in hopes of being one of 16 moving on to the state-level competition at Pike High School.
Also, Seymour will host the ISSMA District Choral Festival for the first time April 21 and the Spring Sing concert at 7 p.m. April 25. Both of those events will feature all of the school’s choirs.