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Reprinted with permission from "Melisma," (Winter-2008), official newsletter of the North Central Division of the ACDA, William Ross, Editor

To Sing is to Fly
Kevin Meidl -  President Elect, North Central ACDA

We choral directors are dreamers!  The imagination with which we approach our music and our programs creates a bond that engages singers with their music.  The music we share with our students, church choirs, and community groups tends to be music that has personally captured our souls …it has grabbed hold of us and has required of us the opportunity to be heard.  So it is with that imagination that we connect with our singers and lead them on toward a musical experience…one that we hope becomes significant in their lives.

Many of you may be familiar with the following poem.  Greg Carpenter introduced it to me some time ago and since that point, I have been completely taken by it. 

To sing is to love and affirm,
to fly and soar,
to coast into the hearts of people who listen,
to tell them that life is to live,
that love is there,
that nothing is a promise,
but that beauty exists and must be hunted for and found.

  1. Joan Baez

When I take a moment to reflect on this text, I believe even more completely in who we are and what we are about in ACDA.   “Beauty exists and must be hunted for and found”.  Is this not at least part of our mission as choral conductors?  Is this not the search through which we live our careers? Is this not the journey on which we ask our singers to travel?

Pamela Blevins Hinkle, the artistic director and conductor of the Indianapolis Women’s Choir, shared with me recently that her choir had been reciting this text before concerts for many years…such are the power of the words. When it came time to produce their first compact disc, it seemed natural to request permission to set these words…words which had come to mean so much to her singers. She says,  “I love the people who listen part…(it) draws the listener forward in their seat to, well, listen!  Then a lovely section building around the most important message…”  

Gwyneth Walker set the poem to music for the Indianapolis Women’s Choir.  She says… “The words express an affirmation of life, of love and of beauty.”  Walker is a prolific and renowned contemporary composer, who lives on a dairy farm in Vermont.  She has an extensive catalog of choral works. When asked recently about her approach to putting words to music, she stated:

‘When I set poetry to music, I focus on the central images
in the poem.  To me, poetry is not words.  It is the images
that words create.  And thus, with the musical setting, it is
important that the images in the poetry translate into musical
imagery.  Often, the accompaniment is the central means of
creating the imagery.  The world of the poem may be established
within the opening measures of the accompaniment.  The vocal
lines, while also participating in the musical imagery, have a
primary function of conveying the words.”

The score for To Sing is to Fly supports this compositional approach.  The clarity with which Walker describes her views on text leaves little doubt about her expectations for either the music or the reception of that music in the listener’s ears.  She states, “The musical interpretation, with both the piano accompaniment and the vocal lines (in To Sing is to Fly), endeavors to capture the flowing and triumphant spirit of song in flight.”

A famous quote attributed to Joan Baez suggests that Walker’s unique setting may fit with her own vision of the creative process:  “It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them.  The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.”  Walker’s language is similar as she suggests, “…the only sort of music that will communicate…must come from your imagination, your mind, your heart.”

So too do we choral conductors engage the imagination!  In our minds we establish expressive vision for the music we create.  We also seek the realization of this vision as our rehearsals progress toward a final concert or recording.  If the music resonates with us…it is likely to resonate with our singers and our listeners. 

The remarkable setting of this text, from tentative suggestions of life and love, to an intense command that “beauty exists and must be hunted for and found” speaks to a special marriage Walker is able to achieve…a marriage of words and music. It speaks a language that transcends generations and gets right down to the heart of what the choral art is all about.

Walker told me recently that that she was inspired by the text and was amazed that the Indianapolis Women’s Choir was able to obtain permission for its use.  For this reason, she has not sought to publish it, but makes it available with her consent.  To hear an mp3 recording of the work or to view the score visit www.walker.com  To Sing is to Fly is written for treble voices S(S)A(A).

walker-song

 

We in North Central ACDA are challenged today by budget cuts, position cuts, and those who do not value the arts.  We can find our very existence threatened in our schools and community programs.  Perhaps with a clear mission and armed with the right tools, our music can “coast into the hearts of people who listen”…and then too, like with the words and music of Joan Baez and Gwyneth Walker…our programs and our choirs will “fly and soar”!     

Hinkle, Pamela, Belvis.  Conversation with the author.  December 5, 2007.

www.walkermusic.com  Notes.  Walker Music Catalog. 2003

Ibid.

This quote is found in many online sources including www.quoteworld.org and is attributed to Baez.

www.walker.com Walker Music Catalog.  Unpublished essay “Advice to Young Composers”. September 29, 2004.

Walker, Gwyneth.  Conversation with the author.  December 1, 2007.

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