Dordt College News

Building a choir

June 24, 2014

“Trust” is the first thing Dr. Ben Kornelis mentions when asked “What makes a good choir?”

“You need to create a comfortable enough atmosphere that singers are willing to take vocal risks,” he says. “A singer needs to be able to sing a wrong note or make a bad sound if they’re going to make a really good sound.”

To make that happen, Kornelis creates opportunities for choir members to feel comfortable with each other.

“My responsibility is to create a context in which choir members feel free to laugh with each other and be able to move on when they make a mistake,” he says. Sectionals help, but going on tour is always one of the best ways for this to happen because students spend so much time together and work so hard together that trust grows naturally and quickly. It’s why a choir usually keeps getting better and better as a tour progresses.

Of course, trust alone won’t build a great choir. Kornelis needs good singers.

“I’m blessed, this year especially, to be able to ask almost anyone in the choir to do a solo,” Kornelis says. They’re that good. But having good soloists doesn’t automatically make a good choir.

“They need to complement one another, not compete with one another,” he says.

In auditions for his choirs, Kornelis looks for excellent pitch, a pleasant tone, good ears, and a sense of musical expressiveness. When a singer has these, Kornelis says, he can teach them the rest of what they need to know to be a good choir member—things like pronunciation and even note reading.

As he listens to singers audition, he’s also thinking about balancing range and character of the voices. There are only 52 spots in Concert Choir, and he wants a full, well-supported sound from all sections.

Once the choir is selected, members play some part in deciding how songs will be sung.

“I come into a rehearsal with a good idea of what I’d like, but I want the students to be able to help experiment a bit too so that together we come to the right decision about how to sing a piece.” His goal is to help them develop into strong confident singers, not just for his choir but for the rest of their lives.

Kornelis spends each summer choosing the music for the following year. He begins with a huge stack of sheet music on his piano and gradually works his way through it, playing and listening to recordings of performances.
As he selects the next year’s repertoire, Kornelis balances a variety of goals. He wants the audience to appreciate and enjoy the pieces as they listen, and he needs to like them enough himself to be able to live with them for the several months it takes to prepare, rehearse, and perform them with his students. But most importantly, Kornelis needs to provide his students with a broad education in musical styles and periods.“

Over a possible four years in choir, they should experience everything from Gregorian to Renaissance, classical, avant-garde, gospel, non-Western pieces—and much more,” he says. Such variety also keeps students engaged.

“Not everyone likes every piece, but hopefully both students and audience find something they can relate to and like using this approach,” he says. “A few songs might be a little like vitamins. As you chew them you know they’re good for you even if you don’t like the first taste.”

Interestingly, sometimes it is the “chewy, dissonant, really hard” pieces that students end up liking the most. Learning to sustain a pitch amidst dissonant notes and trusting themselves to do so can feel very satisfying. And learning pieces from different historical styles ensures that singers will learn a variety of technical skills and techniques.

Some of Kornelis’s concerts follow a theme; some might focus on a composer. For the Fall Music Festival, Kornelis always chooses pieces that fall into four general categories: classical, non-Western, church music, and lighthearted—dessert, as he describes it.

Students and audiences often love the non-Western pieces, “probably because they often have a different sound and color as well as different subject matter from what they’re used to,” Kornelis says. “They help us learn about other cultures but also about our common humanity.”

Kornelis thinks he has one of the best jobs on campus—certainly the best “seat” in the house as sound washes over him and throughout the auditorium.

“If I had hair, it would blow back,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s loud, powerful, and very exciting when the singers are hitting on all cylinders.”

Every day, he leaves rehearsal with some sense of progress; and even on his worst days, he leaves with a sense that he’s had a part in bringing something beautiful into the world.

Sally Jongsma

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