Italian Choral Showcase

Is one born or does one become a ‘Maestro’?

maestri si nasce o si diventa

I want to be certified!

With this joke, a friend of mine, a choir director, told me how she felt inadequate – despite having a lot of experience – because she lacked an academic qualification. The discussion that ensued, even if kept in ironic tones, was an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between the workshop (understood as a place where one learns by doing and looking at the example of others, even before studying theory) and the academy (understood as a place where one learns with solid theoretical supports, one studies the score ‘at the table’, composition and not only that). Given that the best schools (in the ancient and true sense of the word) are those that allow the student to experience both the speculative and pragmatic dimensions in depth, it is undeniable to observe that not all conservatories currently reflect the principle of doing.  Many of us will have met musicians who have completed a course of studies in choir conducting but have never directed a vocal group, who are able to analyse and compose a motet in the style of Palestrina but who have difficulty in the final act, that is, the act that transforms the music they have thought/written into music they have listened to.

How many of us – on the other hand – have never thought that the dot that transforms the emme of Milan into the emme of Maestro is only due to those who have the ‘certificate’ my friend mentioned a few days ago? Is that title, in short, also earned through practice, or is it only the prerogative of those with a diploma aka degree?

I have discussed this with three very experienced conductors, Ilaria Poldi, Mauro Marchetti and Gea Garatti respectively. I am well aware that our chat will never exhaust the complexity of the topics discussed, but it can and will be an invitation to reflect on the training possibilities for an aspiring choir director.

Ilaria Poldi emphasises how important it is to start ab origine, i.e. as a chorister, in order to understand the dynamics and experience first-hand the process that transforms a written note into a sung note. Subsequently, academic study and in-depth analysis of composition are indispensable; at the Conservatory, one can learn the preparatory study of each score, an indispensable process for understanding the mechanisms behind an author’s compositional choices and optimising rehearsals; furthermore, it is very important to study the repertoire and its modernisation in a contemporary key, especially for youth and/or children’s choirs; in some academic study courses, there is too great a distance, even stylistic, between what is studied and what young people or children are able to perform.  There are very useful repertoires for new conductors that are a fair compromise between the needs of a contemporary language but at the same time rest on solid foundations, otherwise the quality level would drop. In addition, the study of vocality and gestures is absolutely essential.

Mauro Marchetti points out that in some conservatories a student of choir conducting often cannot experience – unless he or she has previous experience – conducting ‘in the field’, because not all institutes have the possibility of providing a choir-laboratory, which is indispensable for the study of gesture and concertation. Thus, aspiring ‘certified’ conductors arrive – in some cases – at the coveted degree, but without ever having had direct experience of what a choir is. But – even more serious – Marchetti points out that we are still a long way from having, as a nation, a widespread, quality choral culture. The great Italian composers, after the classical period, have considered devoting themselves to the choral world as secondary. Only in recent years does this tendency seem to have changed, but if nowadays we can – also thanks to new technologies and the media – get to know repertoires that were once difficult to access, there remains a gap in the compositions of our great composers of the recent past. We agree with Maestro Marchetti in noting that the contemporary world of choral composition is very rich, but is often based on voluntary work; the figure of the composer as a profession is still relegated to other spheres. One often hears opinions that – in short – see the choir director as a conductor who has failed. We talked about this with Gea Garatti, who has been working as a choirmaster in the opera and symphony foundations for 30 years. For her, it is important – once the fundamentals have been formed – that the choral music student understands which area to focus on in his or her training: “There are many types of choir, each with different vocal, conducting and style requirements. The Conservatoire is useful for providing a solid foundation, but it is not enough. Each conductor must then go on to study the field that suits him or her best, possibly by attending one or more teachers with proven experience in the sector or repertoire that he or she intends to embrace. A fundamental aspect must be the strengthening of listening skills, also understood in a general sense, as those skills that lead the maestro to direct his group towards the refinement of the qualities that most characterise it. In the past, in Italy, training was, through programmes, limited to ancient music, motets and madrigals, whereas after a necessary transition from the rules of counterpoint, it is necessary to range over the vast repertoire of choral music from the Baroque to the contemporary. An important chapter, moreover, is the study of gestures; that of the Choir Director must be partly shared with that of the Orchestra Director, but needs to be exalted in the specific communication, linked to the vocal world, of nuances and phrasing, of style and intonation: specific gestural characteristics that change substantially with respect to those of the instrumental world and that place the Choir Director and the Orchestra Director on, if anything, parallel planes, without one prevailing over the other. Many conductors who have “bypassed” choral training, perhaps even skipping direct experience as singers, may find it difficult to approach an a cappella piece. In other words, they would be perfectly capable of conducting and leading it, but perhaps they would lack that approach based on the experience of choral singing that would make the piece more alive and vibrant. As many people have pointed out, some Conservatories – in some cases – have difficulty in keeping up with the contemporary world, constrained as they are by bureaucracy and ministerial programmes; these preserve them, if you like, from giving in to ephemeral fashions, but on the other hand they deprive them of possible enrichment. In any case, there are no other ways of obtaining a recognised degree at ministerial level (with the exception of the PIMS, as I will explain in a moment).

In order to offer more flexible programmes but without losing sight of in-depth study and traditional studies, a number of non-state schools have recently sprung up, some of the highest level and professionalism, in which it is possible to study something other than the official Ministry programmes, without obtaining an equivalent qualification, the fateful certificate mentioned at the beginning. Let’s look at some of them, from north to south:

The “Milano Choral Academyin its online presentation answers the (rhetorical) question I posed as a title. “One is not born a conductor, one becomes one, over time and with study”; in its path it can count on the presence of some of the most important professionals working on the national and international scene and excellent laboratory choirs, including the Ars Cantica Choir & Consort.

The “Accademia Righele, based in the Veneto region, appears to be very attentive to new media and the new demands that contemporary life places on those studying choral conducting today. Very interesting are the courses of vocal trainer for choirs, a role that goes alongside that of the director as a necessary complement for the development of the vocality of the choral formation.

The “AERCO Academy” is based in Parma, and in its presentation it makes the concept of broadening the themes very clear, when alongside the traditional ones such as singing, conducting, composing, it adds school training (a sector that always seems very vital to us) and management; the modern dialogues with the ancient: the great importance given to the Permanent School of Gregorian Chant is proof of this.

The “Scuola Superiore per Direttori di Coro della Fondazione Guido D’Arezzoboasts a great past; it was one of the first to organise courses outside the institutional sphere, offering a three-year course, a two-year specialisation course and other initiatives, in the Tuscan city that has always been a reference point for choirs. Among the courses are diction for singing, forms of poetry for music, and body awareness techniques.

In the South, the Accademia Direttori di Coro (Choir Directors Academy) is based in Sicily and focuses on a workshop approach (the “workshop” mentioned earlier), organising courses with a small number of participants per class. Alongside the traditional disciplines, there are experimental studies such as the management of interpersonal dynamics in the artistic field or the non-idiomatic reticular method developed by Maestro Enzo Marino.

Among the study possibilities, one cannot fail to mention the educational project of the PIMS, which recently had the possibility of equating its qualifications with those of the State. This is a just recognition for an institute founded in 1910 by Pius X, which places great importance on Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony, alongside the study of composition and everything related to conducting.

In conclusion… what do you recommend to those who want to approach choral conducting? In short: “Are you born or do you become masters”? It is undeniable that most of us started out in the workshop and then went on to the academy; the second case is rarer. Generally speaking, a musician becomes passionate about choral conducting thanks to the experiences he or she has had in his or her school group or parish, and then decides to perfect and go deeper. Fortunately, however, the opposite is also becoming more and more common: musicians attending an academic course feel the need to form their own choir, if they do not already have one. Until a single school succeeds in synthesising all the above-mentioned needs, the best approach will probably be to integrate various types of teaching, starting in any case from a good base in the workshop, both as a chorister and as a conductor, and deepening one’s studies in academic circles. That dot that – as I said above – turns an emme into a maestro should not, however, be seen as a fetish or a point of arrival.

Personally, I am skeptical when faced with people who show off their distance from academic studies, but I must also admit that in the past and in our present I have met excellent self-taught musicians and conductors who, despite not coming from traditional scholastic environments, manage to carry out important cultural and musical projects. So much for ‘maestro’ to both. Academic qualifications – although they do not guarantee the quality of a conductor – often make the difference between an enthusiast and a scholar; and in the field of music, the difference can often be felt. A diploma in the strict sense is not required to found a choir or to conduct. But let’s also say that conducting is one thing, conducting well is another.

I conclude with a sentence that has two slight nuances depending on how you set it; I invite you to reflect on which of the two you prefer:

“Passion is necessary, deepening is indispensable” or “Deepening is indispensable, passion is necessary”?

The masters will have the final say.

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