July 12, 2018 admin

Nebraska Choral Directors,

Thank you for having me as a guest at your conference.  I have really enjoyed my time with you all, connecting with a few old friends and making a number of new friends as well.

I have say that I was truly inspired last night to hear Marjorie Simons-Bester speak about her teacher and mentor, Jim Elsberry.  Marjorie, your passionate words have inspired what I will share today.

If you’re a choral director now, chances are you’ve been influenced by more than one amazing human being, who through the art of music inspired you along your life’s journey.  And now, you find yourself, here at NCDA, anticipating another year of teaching, or perhaps in your first year of teaching, and wondering how you too can breathe inspiration into the lives of your students.

So as we begin to look forward to our next school year, let’s take some time to look back and consider some of those people who were so influential in our own lives?

Perhaps there was a coach?  A pastor? I’ll bet there were even a few important music teachers in your life.  As I share a little of my journey, I hope you’ll reflect on your own journey thus far.

In recent years, I have begun my choral methods class by inviting each member of the class to talk about the person or persons who have most powerfully influenced them.  For almost every person in the class, it was a music teacher. Rarely does the student talk about the amazing musical accomplishments of their mentor. Instead, I hear things like… “he believed in me”, “she really cared about us”, “he really wanted to help us love music”, “we could always tell that she wanted the best for us.”

Each of you could stand here in my place, and tell of your own journey, and of the people who made a significant difference in your life.  Who inspired you to teach music?

And in my own journey, I consider myself enormously blessed to have been raised by a grandmother who believed that all educated people should take piano lessons, for it was the piano that became the open door into my life as a musician.  And it was ultimately through music in large part that I was to find my center and my identity. Growing up in the little East Texas town of Livingston, the local choral director Tom Myers became a critically important person in my young life.  You see, Mr. Myers needed an accompanist for his junior high school choir. So, he decided to recruit a skinny, nerdy, 8th grade band kid, who was beginning to play the piano decently well. It didn’t take long for the “choir bug” to bite. The next summer, Mr. Myers insisted that I go to East Texas State University to get an early start on the all-state audition music.  Over the next several summers as a camper, I experienced conductors like Dale Warland, Donald Neuen, and Howard Swan. It was in the brilliance and passion of these men that began to see just how deeply inspiring choral music could be.

It was in the summer before my sophomore year in high school, I encountered the extraordinary Donald Neuen for the first time.  WOW!!! This guy was a rock star. I loved the way he rehearsed. I loved the way he dressed. I even liked the way he wore his hair.  

These were also the glory days of the Texas Baptist All-State Youth Choir, where I encountered Dr. Loyd Hawthorne.  Such energy! Such passion! Such radiant love for the singers. I saw in Loyd Hawthorne a man who was disciplined, energized, musical, persistent, and who loved his God and the people around him with an infectious passion and deep sincerity.  What a role model and inspiration he was to me!

Meanwhile back at Livingston High School, I was experiencing the artistry of clinicians like Bev Henson. In this man, I met the tour de force who would profoundly shape me as an undergraduate musician.  I instantly knew that this man had tremendous depth as a musician, and that I was destined to become his student.

I owe an enormous debt to my first choral music teacher, Tom Myers who saw something flickering inside of me during those critical years of junior high.  Because of him, I’m a choral musician now. I hope each of you will be a “Tom Myers” in the life of your students.

I entered Sam Houston State University on a choral accompanying scholarship especially designed for me; and for the next four years, I sat at the piano and absorbed the teaching of Bev Henson.  His teaching was conceptual. His standards were extremely high. His methodology allowed people of both modest and significant musical talent to become fine teachers. I’m deeply grateful for those formative years with Bev Henson, and for the way he pushed me to grow.

From the piney woods of East Texas, I traveled to the Eastman School of Music in New York to study with Donald Neuen.  For those of you who’ve sung with Don Neuen, you know what an inspiration he is. Don was enormously encouraging, while demanding the very highest artistic standards from us.  He was energetic, passionate, and completely consumed with the music. He is a brilliant teacher and his rehearsal technique is the most efficient I’ve ever seen. Don pushed me to be the finest teacher and conductor that I could become.  I love this man, and continue to reach out to him for professional advice.

And haven’t we all been inspired by our colleagues in the profession?  Phil Raddin phoned me while I was still at Eastman, and said, “Allen, I want you to come teach with me.”  We had two wonderful years together at Klein HS. From there, I ventured out west to lead the choral program at Odessa Permian High School, and learned so much from colleagues there.

Hungering for still more conducting training, I found myself a student at Baylor University.  Under orchestral conductor Stephen Heyde, I gained significant confidence in working with an orchestra. And from Donald Bailey I learned what it was to build depth of tone in a choir.  

While a student at Baylor, I received a phone call that changed the direction of my musical life.  “Allen, this is Paul Salamunovich”. Paul invited me to join the staff of the Los Angeles Master Chorale as his intern.  Those three years with Paul were tremendously influential. Paul’s sensitivity to choral tone, his subtle artistry of phrasing, and his insistence that singers become actors within the choir raised my level of expectation of how profoundly moving choral music can truly be.

Through the years, I’ve enjoyed numerous opportunities to work closely with the legendary Joseph Flummerfelt who was conductor of the Westminster Choir for 33 years.  Joe’s probing approach to music has always challenged me to look deeply beyond the surface of the music, and to wrestle with the most important questions. His assertion that all vocal music must come from “the primal cry of the human experience” has helped me to dig more deeply into what motivates and inspires the music.   His insistence that the conductor must open himself and breathe with the singers has empowered me to connect with singers in a very special way.

And then God brought Weston Noble into my life.  

I’ve often thought of Weston as the “Yoda of choral music”, for Weston was old, he was small, he was gentle, and he was wise.  From this lovely man, I learned what it was to inspire people to sing without an ounce of fear. I learned that the magic of the moment is created when vulnerability emanates from the podium.  Weston showed me in the flesh what I’d read in scripture…. “not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.”   The proverb is true, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  And at just the right time in my development, Weston showed me a more excellent and a more loving way.

So how about you?  Can you remember that first musical experience that sent shivers up your backbone?  Can you remember the first time a tear came to your eye as you sang in choir, and somehow you knew you’d never be quite the same?

I sang in my first all-region choir under the late Dr. Hugh Sanders.  We were rehearsing the Paul Manz “E’en so, Lord Jesus Quickly Come” that we sang together yesterday, and I felt something deep inside that I’d never felt before.  Mind, body, and spirit were at once in complete unity as I sang.  As Weston once said, “Music is going to allow you to have feelings you never knew that you could have.”  

What had happened during that all-region choir rehearsal?  By his warmth and vulnerability, Dr. Sanders helped me to be fully open, the music was powerful, the text connected to my spirit.  Dr. Sanders knew just how to prepare the space for the spirit to move, the environment for us to feel, and the space for us to all become vulnerable.  

You see… vulnerability, that is the key.  

Music can truly change a life, just as “E’en so Lord Jesus” did for me.  If I as the director can capture the imagination of the singers, and help them discover what the composer was trying to do; then together, we can find the emotional depth of the piece…the deep human impulse that motivates the work.  That’s when you reach out and beyond yourself to something greater; into the special world of the Spirit.

If Weston were here with us this afternoon, what advice would he give to young choral conductors?  I think he’d say… “Learn to be vulnerable. Learn to have openness. Be open with your faith. Learn to be open with all the people around you.  Be willing to look inside yourself, and have the courage to change.

During my years in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to study with a gifted orchestral conductor at USC named Jung-Ho Pak.  In our first meeting together, Jung-Ho said to us regarding our work with the orchestra… he said, this conducting class is not about you it’s about THEM. (the players in the orchestra).  It’s about learning to get out of the way, and empowering the musicians to release all the music that’s inside of them.”  

And as I’ve thought about his statement, I’ve come to ask myself…

Can I finally find release from the bondages of self-importance, and simply get out of the way so that the power of the music can roll right through me?  (Say twice??)

Could I invite you to be brutally honest, and consider what problems you carry with you to the podium?  Maybe a sense of inflated importance? Or perhaps the opposite, a low view of yourself?

Carl Jung would challenge us to consider our dark side, the shadow side, that part of ourselves that we don’t want anyone else to know.  Jung talks about our “feeling function”. And he suggests that we as artists tend to have a heightened feeling function.  In other words, we (as musicians) experience both beauty and pain more deeply than do most people.

I believe that there is great value in coming to terms with our shadow, so that we might experience both beauty AND pain in a more profoundly deep, honest, and human way.

Have you ever attended a concert that was in every way technically excellent, and yet you knew that something important was still missing? Perhaps it was this element of vulnerability of which I speak.  Perhaps there was still the unrealized potential for the conductor and the singers to open themselves to the deeper human meaning of the music, ….and to experience more of the pain and more of the beauty of the music and of the text.

Do you want to be a great musician, a great teacher, to inspire others?  If so, I believe you must embrace the pain of life with equal measure as you embrace the beauty. Otherwise, your depth will never come to full bloom.

In 2003, I led the Sam Houston State University Chorale in a performance at TMEA for the first time.  I was only in my third year at the university, and we were in a season of rebuilding the choral program.  The concert went pretty well, and the next day I had lunch with my friend John Ratledge. I asked John what he thought about the concert.  He praised a number of the superficial elements of the performance, but as I stared at him over my glass of iced tea, I asked him again, “no, what did you really experience in our performance.”  

In that moment of shared vulnerability, he said to me, “Allen, I longed to hear more of YOU and your journey in that performance.  I wanted to hear your struggles and your joys in the sound.  I wanted to hear the pain of your parent’s divorce. I wanted to hear the pain of your wife’s miscarriages.   And I wanted to hear the joy of your faith in our loving God. I wanted to hear beyond the surface of the music.”

John really went there!  And I was able to go there with my friend because of our years of friendship together.  Through years of conversation about music and about life, we’d built what you might call a Garden of Trust.  And in such a garden, beautiful things can grow.

And how, you ask, can one build this trust, this Garden of Trust with your choir? For surely that’s when true inspiration can take place.  Well, it doesn’t happen overnight, but rather through hundreds of conversations, decisions, interactions, and signals that you send to them, through days, and weeks, and months, and years together.  

So, how are you doing with the building a Garden of Trust with your choir members?  Not just your choir, but your choir members.  

For far too long, I saw the choir as a collective, as a group, as an ensemble….., not 40 or 75 individuals, all of whom had spirits, and needed my attention and care.  And then one day my wife, a college voice teacher, shared with me that a voice student had confided in her that “Clearly Dr. Hightower cares about his choir, but I don’t really know if he cares about us….as individuals.”  

As you can imagine, this wounded me deeply, but perhaps, there was some real truth in this wounding.  

Where was I missing the mark?  How was I failing my students as a mentor, as a pastor?  

What is it that our singers need us to be?  To what degree is our obligation purely musical, and to what degree is it incumbent upon us to go well beyond the merely musical?  

In his excellent little book, “Mentoring in the Ensemble Arts”, ACDA Executive Director, Tim Sharp writes…

That the ideal mentor:

  • Exudes warmth
  • Listens actively
  • Uses power constructively
  • Exudes excitement and possibility
  • Shows unconditional regard
  • Embraces humor
  • Is trustworthy
  • Is humble and modest

How are you doing with these things?  Let me ask you a tough question….

Have you, have we, sometimes been guilty of using the choir to fulfill our own needs for success?  (More contest trophies, more all-state members, more ACDA performances?)

Have we been guilty of developing relationships with students largely so that they will work hard, and make the choir successful, in turn making us as the director look good? …. (This as opposed to developing relationships with students out of the pure desire to invest in them, and to enable them to become more fully-realized human beings?)

So, what are some of the deeper truths that the self-reflection of the last 25 years of teaching have uncovered to me?

  1. Atmosphere:  I believe that we as teachers must take full responsibility for the atmosphere in our choral rehearsals.
  2. So…how intentional are you at creating a positive, motivating, affirming atmosphere in your choir room?
  3. What should this atmosphere be like?  I’d challenge you to consider words like “inspiring” “belonging”, “affirming”, “safe”, “family”, “energized”, “fun-filled”, but also ” “full of high expectation”, “disciplined”.
  4. Is your choir room a place where your singers find that they are loved for who they are, or mostly for how well they sing?  
  5. Is your choir room a place where there is laughter in most every rehearsal?  
  6. Is your choir a place of true community for your singers?

The worth of each individual, and the value of a real and sincere sense of community is at the heart of a healthy choral program.

So as one seeks to develop this “Garden of Trust, how do you begin to cultivate an atmosphere in which we can work with efficiency and productivity in rehearsal, and at the same time cultivate the worth of each person’s humanity, while developing a corporate sense of community within the choir????

Again, I believe that it all begins with the individual.

Do you value every person that comes into contact with you?  Do you see the beauty and importance of that individual? The irritating kid, who never has a pencil in rehearsal? The talkative kid who never seems to be listening to you? The choir member who makes you feel like a poor teacher?

I want to encourage you to seek out those brief and fleeting moments of human contact and affirmation with each child who walks through your door.

In rehearsal I am constantly looking for opportunities to have brief but meaningful interactions with students.  I try to arrive at the choir room a bit early, and enjoy just shooting the breeze with students until time for the down-beat.  Clearly “go-time” is “go-time”, and we take our rehearsal time very seriously, but I would never want the choir members to feel that making music was the only reason that we were there.  

The music-making is important, but making music with strangers is nothing like making music with friends, and with people that you know and care about.

I will frequently stop in rehearsal and ask students “what do you think text really this means?”,“ why do you think the composer wrote the music this way?”, “how do you think we can improve the sound?”,  “alto’s, what do the tenors need to do to improve their sound?”, and a myriad of other questions that spring to mind in the moment.  This in-the-moment dialogue brings a tremendous since of ownership of the process to the members of the choir.

On many occasions I’ve been able to turn around a downwardly-spiraling rehearsal atmosphere, when the music-making was becoming tedious….by taking the focus off the music, and toward the successes of an individual or section of the choir.  Suddenly the atmosphere becomes about them again, and not about the struggle with the music.

Do you look for opportunities to give your singers momentary smiles and expressions of affirmation?  Students are desperately hungry for this. And you as their choir director are uniquely qualified to do it. When you look at your choir, do you see beyond the surface of the faces?  Do you really know them?

Weston Noble has taught us so much…  Weston had an uncanny ability to find excellent role models from within the choir, and allow them to model for the section or for the entire choir.  

“Beth, would you sing that passage for us?”.  Beth then sings it beautifully, and you lead the class in a spontaneous affirmation of her success.  Then you’ve accomplished two really significant goals in that moment. Beth feels affirmed and important, and now your sopranos have a unifying model of how to sing the passage. Within this kind of community, each individual will find a place of safety and worth.

Do you seek to empower students with opportunities to serve the choir, and perhaps find dormant gifts of leadership and service within themselves?  One of the greatest opportunities for a choir to grow in its sense of community is through touring together…

In my years of touring with the Nordic Choir, I experienced many transformational experiences.  Among these was the nightly preparation for an upcoming concert. Each evening, following a time of rehearsal and dinner, the choir “robes” as we would say, and then comes the time for devotionals.  

This is a part of touring that I treasured at least as much as actually performing with the Nordic Choir.   During devotionals each night, two or three seniors would share a prepared speech with the gathered choir.


I would take a few moments to address the students who’d just shared, affirming them, telling them of my appreciation of their work and leadership in the choir.  And then as I’d finish, hands begin to go up all over the room. One after another, after another, members of the choir would speak out to affirm and encourage the students who had shared their devotionals.  Yes, tears would flow a bit at times, but more importantly each of us was edified, as we offered up encouragement and praise to our colleagues in the choir. Often this was the most magical part of our day.

Can you imagine how the students felt as we then transitioned into the performance?  They are affirmed, they are full of gratitude, and they are unified as a choir, ready to share the beauty of the music with their audience as one voice.  

A few years ago, I spoke at the Texas MEA conference, and talked a little about this subject of community within the choir.  Behind me on the stage was a wonderful high school choir. Just hours before, they’d sung a beautiful solo concert at TMEA. I turned to these young people, whom I’d never met, and asked if any of them would be willing to stand, and share a word of affirmation to someone in their section, or in the choir who had been a great role model for them during their TMEA preparation?  Hands of choir members began to spring-up on the risers, and the atmosphere in the old room suddenly changed. As these high school students began to praise and encourage each other, tears began to flow from eyes throughout the room.

Because of what I’ve seen my students doing in our devotionals, I’ve now found myself searching for opportunities both in and out of rehearsals to create random moments of community building.  

“Alright, sophomores, stand up, now find someone in the choir with whom you’ve never had a real conversation, go to them, and get to know something about them.”  

“Okay Trevor, tell me about someone in your section whose work ethic you admire.”

“Sopranos, that was so beautiful”.  “Choir, let’s express to the sopranos how much we appreciate them!”

We all know that singers (and conductors) can have egos.  But how do we inspire our singers to place the importance of the group above their own need for ego gratification?  Well, I think it’s because from the beginning, we choose to affirm the value of each person, choir members are then encouraged to express how much they appreciate attributes of their peers, and we (the director) go out of our way to know the people in the choir.  We, as a choir, seek to spend time with each other. We believe that the choir is a family, and that we want to foster a true and safe sense of belonging.”

Would you take just a moment to think about some of the choral mentors who have poured into your life and who have inspired your journey?  Now would you look through the eyes of that 8th grader or that sophomore who is in desperate need of inspiration, who desperately needs affirmation and a sense of belonging?  (Point around the room) YOU, and YOU, and YOU can be THAT person who makes all the difference the life of that young person.

How do we mentor the members of our choir?  How do we pastor our choir?

We learn to love them as people.  And we seek to create an atmosphere in which they are free and empowered to express their care, their love, and their affirmation to each other.  Let’s seek to become open and vulnerable to the people we stand before.  Let’s model humility, and make it clear that this experience is about them, yes through the music, but really about them.

This conference has been centered on the idea of vocal health.  Let’s allow our students to see what a truly healthy adult life looks like.  Do they see that we put our God first, our family second, and our work third?  Do they see us loving our spouse? Do they see that we are seeking to balance the demands of family and work?

And as we seek to inspire the journey of the precious singers entrusted to our care, let’s live out the words of the late Hugh Sanders, the man who inspired me as a 14 year old boy, who said,

“You can use people to make music, or you can use music to make people.”    (Choose well.)

Now go, and inspire someone’s journey!

Thank you.

-Closing Address Transcript, NCDA Summer Conference 2018 – “Vocal Health” by Allen Hightower

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Nebraska Choral Directors Association (NCDA)