When I graduated from Luther College in May of 1996, I was anxious to begin my career as a teacher. I couldn't wait to student teach, work with students, conduct choirs and eventually have ensembles of my very own. After I finished my student teaching, I took a job as a long-term substitute in the spring of 1997 and finally landed my "dream job" of teaching high school in a large program south of the Twin Cities. I had three choirs of my own and I began looking for repertoire to program.
Suddenly I felt overwhelmed. How would I know if this was the right type of music for the choir? What if it was too difficult? Too easy? What if they hated it? So began a journey finding exactly the "right" repertoire to begin the year. I remember my mentor, Weston Noble, telling us that the first piece the choir sings at the beginning of the year is a very important piece. The piece should not be too difficult; the singers should be able to achieve a high level of success almost immediately. The piece should not be too easy, however, or the choir will think that you don't think they are capable of much. The first piece of the year set the tone for all that is to come: the first piece should inspire.
As I began searching for repertoire for my first year conducting Aurora and Cathedral Choirs, I was excited to say the least. I poured over lists, read through new music, looked through music I had always wanted to conduct and listened to hours of choral music. I knew that first impressions of music were very important and I knew that I had to select music that gave the choir an insight into who I am and who I thought they could become.
During the latter part of July I attended a workshop where we had several "reading sessions" (times where all of the conductors would simply read through packets of new music so that we can get a better idea of how the pieces sound, how difficult they are to read, etc.) About halfway through a reading session for advanced mixed choirs, we read through a new piece, "I Will Lift Mine Eyes" by Jake Runestad. After singing through no more than 10 seconds of the piece I turned to my friend and told her, "This is Luther College!" I wrote, in capital letters, "CATHEDRAL!" on the front of my score.
By the end of the summer I became increasingly nervous about the difficulty level of this piece. There was extended divisi, the tessitura was high for many of the vocal parts, and it required a very high level of vocal and musical maturity from the singers. Nevertheless, I passed out the newly purchased piece of music and told the choir that I chose this piece for them within ten seconds of hearing it. I showed them my score with "CATHEDRAL!" written on the front. They laughed. I told them that serendipitously the composer just "friended" me on Facebook last week and that he was excited to hear how the choir felt about the piece.
If one could wish for a "magical" Luther choral experience, this was it. Within 10 seconds of reading the first two measures, the choir was spellbound. Every rehearsal day we grew more and more attached to the poetry, the marriage of the text and sonority that painted a picture of God's work in our lives. The piece has become the signature of Cathedral Choir this year. The students have stood in awe of the beauty that their voices can create through this piece and even shed a few tears as they began to grasp, even for just moment, how special and life-changing it is to have the experience of singing in a choir at Luther College.
Yesterday we had the composer, Jake Runestad, as a guest in our Cathedral Choir rehearsal. He conducted the choir as they sang his music. He gave them insight into how the music was created and how he envisioned shaping the phrase, bringing certain notes and sections to our attention. My mentor, Weston Noble, was in attendance. He commented to the choir that he could see how meaningful this experience was for them—he could see it in their eyes. I sat back and breathed a sigh as I realized that, truly by a stroke of divine providence, God had handed me that perfect piece to begin this choir's journey.
Jennaya Robison is an assistant professor of music at Luther. Prior to coming to Luther, she was the artistic director of Scottsdale Musical Arts, a multi-generational organization comprised of a professional orchestra and choir as well as children’s choirs and youth orchestras. She is researching vocal pedagogy in the choral ensemble, as well as body mapping to facilitate conducting gesture. Robison conducts both Aurora and Cathedral Choir, and teaches courses in applied voice and conducting.