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St. Joseph's Singers celebrates nighttime in debut season finale
by Stephen Black for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 3, 2005

Stephen BlackOn Sunday, May 8 at 8:00 PM, St. Joseph's Singers will finish its first full concert season with a program exploring and celebrating nighttime. It has been a rewarding and revelatory year for all of us who have participated in this new endeavor. As with any fledgling undertaking there have been some challenges, but the highlights and achievements have far outweighed them.

St. Joseph's Singers is a group made up of around twenty trained amateur singers. Some are young and have professional aspirations to be performing vocalists. Some have conservatory degrees. Almost all of the singers are involved with at least one other choral group, either as a conductor or as a singer. The group is actually an outgrowth of a project that I completed as part of my doctoral work at the Yale School of Music. I was required to present a full-length recital, using resources outside the School of Music. Those familiar with the Yale Doctor of Musical Arts program know that there is an extensive period in which the candidates must prove their mettle in the professional performing-arts world. This project was a part of that work for me. I asked singers with whom I was familiar to assist me. They included members of the New Amsterdam Singers whose musicianship I respected (I was their assistant conductor for three seasons), a few strong musicians from a parish choir that I direct, and a few other excellent singers I knew here in the city. We presented a full-length Bach cantata with orchestra, as well as some demanding twentieth-century music. The program was a great success, and many of the singers expressed the desire to perform as a group again.

And so began the St. Joseph's Singers! It has been a challenge in many ways. First, I had to come up with a rehearsal schedule that could accommodate the singers who wanted to participate; some of them live outside of New York City. Because they are all accomplished and smart performers, I figured that I could prepare an hour-length program with three or four intensive rehearsals. So we came up with a weekend rehearsal schedule, and the singers understood that they had to do homework on their own to learn notes and become familiar with the pieces. Fortunately all of the singers are resourceful and industrious, and their individual preparation has been exemplary. It has been great to hand out sheets with score markings and other directions and know that the singers will have entered them into their scores and studied them by the next meeting.

A second challenge has been to come up with an ideal concert format. Because the group has a limited number of rehearsals, a two-hour concert with intermission did not seem feasible. So, after a little experimentation, we have settled on a program that is an hour in length, with no break. This has been very successful for us, and we have found that it has even been a draw for audiences. It was pleasantly startling to discover that people don't mind paying what they would pay for a two-hour concert elsewhere, as long as they can enjoy quality music-making. The old catch-phrase "quality over quantity" certainly seems to apply here.

The final challenge has been to develop a sense of community and ownership within the ensemble. Experienced singers who have sung with several groups know that choruses with a strong sense of community actively cultivate it over the course of months of weekly rehearsals. Because of our unique rehearsal schedule we do not have as much of an opportunity to build community. In fact, our group almost seems to be a pick-up ensemble at times, despite the fact that there is a core group of committed singers. I am hopeful that we can find methods and structures to improve our collective sense of ownership. Although I did start the group, I await the feeling that we are all partners in this endeavor.

It has been a labor of love and pure joy to found a new group, especially in a city full of musical upstarts. I hope that my experience will spur others to pursue their own ideas for performance. It took me three years to make the leap and start this project, and in spite of the inevitable mistakes and trials, I can say that I'm very glad I did it. I've been blessed with an enthusiastic and intelligent group of comrades, and I know that with partners like these there is no way to go wrong.

Stephen Black is founder and director of St. Joseph's Singers. This is his first article for Vocal Area Network.

Content Contact: Stephen Black.
Revision Date: May 3, 2005.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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