We held a composition workshop for our non-auditioned choir of soprano-alto singers this past Sunday and the outcome was astonishing and enlightening. Why invest the time in a composing workshop for our choir when not all of the singers are fluent in reading or writing music notation? The answer is representation, experimentation, cultivating creativity, collaboration, and social connection. Each of us has a story and exploring composition provides a conduit for expressing our voice and our experience. Within the span of two hours last weekend, our singers in Choir Matrix became songwriters.
The bar has been set high when it comes to composing music. In the classical music world, we have been taught to revere composers, often elevating to some to genius status. Since most of the classical composers historically have been men, representation for women and non-binary individuals to engage with composing has been minimal, until more recently. These two factors serve as a barrier to inspiring women, especially, to try composing. Therefore, we invited composer Diana Woolner to lead our composing workshop for our Choir Matrix.
Diana Woolner led the singers in improvisational warm-ups, first by asking volunteers to vary a well-known melody and then improvise a new melody based on an innocuous phrase, such as your pet’s name or your last meal. The singers dreamed up melodies on the spot and made some silly memories and inside jokes in the process.
The next level of experimentation was related to a song Choir Matrix has been learning by rote for the next concert. Since this concert focuses on the stories passed down over centuries through music, we chose to explore learning “Savage Daughter” by Wyndreth Berginsdottir without a music score. Essentially, the sharing of music organically. Part of the learning process has been improvising harmonies to compliment the melody of “Savage Daughter”, a contemporary folk song. During this composing workshop, Diana Woolner greatly enhanced the choirs improvisation of harmony through a number of exercises reinforcing chordal relationships. They also explored the feeling of employing lower harmonies verses higher harmonies, considering a build up of choral texture throughout the song.
Cultivating Creativity and Collaboration
With the understanding that as songs were passed down orally over the centuries, verses would often be altered or changed, either by accident or to reflect the experience of the singer. We used this concept to encourage the singers to write new lyrics to the verse for the song they learned, “Savage Daughter”. This exercise was inspired by a project taught by Dr. Mary Ellen Junda at the University of Connecticut. Our singers broke into groups of five and experimented with new lyrics to align with the pre-existing melody of the song. We encouraged the singers to consider text that reflected their current experience, but also related to the chorus of “Savage Daughter”. After a 15-20 minute session, each group sang their newly created verse to the rest of the choir. Here is one example of the brilliant collaborative creativity that blossomed during this process:
"We are the wildfires lit by our mothers The fast moving force clearing the trees After the smoke, new seeds awaken A brave world emerges, ferocious and free"
For the next assignment, the singers were asked to assemble different groups to explore composing a melody to a pre-existing text after guidance and instruction on melodic writing was provided by Diana Woolner. Each group was given a short poem by Sara Teasdale, “Let it be forgotten”, and instructed to create a new melody using the text. The singers collaborated, exploring rhythmic stress, styles, and key centers. Diana was available to help guide groups that needed additional encouragement or support. We heard the groups singing together, trying melodies out and reaching a common agreement on a final composition. After 30 minutes, each group had created a melody (some of which also included harmony) and sang their composition for the rest of the choir. Diana graciously recorded each composition to be transcribed.
There was dynamic energy present during the workshop—an excitement that bubbled from the creative process and through the connection happening among the singers. Choir Matrix only mets for 90-minutes once a week, so the joy and laughter erupting from singers connecting in a different way for this workshop was magical. Writing new lyrics or experimenting with a new melody in a group setting can feel exposing due to the intimate nature of creating; however, it can also be enlightening and help build a relationship with others.
The initial goal of this composing workshop was to show the singers that they have the capability to share their story and their song. The far-reaching goal was encourage composers to emerge from the group… and they did. We now have new verses to share for one of our songs at our next concert on Saturday, April 1, 2023 (concert information here). However, the most rewarding outcome of the workshop was that the singers made meaningful connections with their fellow singers through the creative and collaborative process. Sometimes we need only to be encouraged and told we can.
Written by Sarah Kaufold, Artistic Director for Consonare Choral Community and the choral director of Choir Matrix. Information on composer Diana Woolner can be found on her website: https://www.dianawoolnermusic.com