Choir Concerns Voiced, but not Heard

Between a cappella, choir, and MOBROC bands, the number of vocal performance groups at Conn seems awfully high for a campus of only 1,865 students. However, one cannot deny that vocal performances are popular at Conn, with concerts like last month’s PRISM expo drawing impressive crowds and large audition pools creating a competitive environment. As in many aspects of student life, there are widely varying opinions within the choir program about the true measures of its success.

The biggest disparity in opinion seems to be between first-years and upperclassmen, with first-year students favoring the program much more than others. In fact, of the eleven current members of Camel Heard—an advanced ensemble open to audition for non-music majors—nine are first years. Chorale, a larger group, has 16 first-year students out of 24 total student members. Obviously, something has driven older students away from the program.

“I did [choir] for the past three years,” said Moll Brown ’18, “I’m not doing it this year…it took a long time [to leave] because it’s the thing I like the most.” Brown, a student of music education, explains that their biggest problem lay with the way the choir program is run, especially on an administrative level. “It’s tough when you pay this much money to go somewhere and then the program is just inadequate,” they reflected.

Dara Pohl-Feldman ’18 is heavily involved in the performing arts on campus and, like Brown, she was driven away from choir. As a matter of fact, last year she and nearly every other member of Camel Heard brought complaints to the administration about what they had experienced. “I organized about nine of us…we sat down with Dean [Jefferson] Singer and Dean [Marina] Melendez,” reflected Pohl-Feldman, “…nothing ever came of it.”

Such grievances aren’t only limited to those pursuing a career in music, which seems to demonstrate a deeper malcontent within the choir program. “I’ve sung in a bunch of choirs, I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘singer’ but I love to sing,” mentioned Lauren Baretta ’18, a Voice opinions editor who was a member of Chorale for three semesters at Conn. She, like Brown, found that she was not satisfied with what the program provided her. “It wasn’t exhilarating, it wasn’t life changing in any way, but it was fine.”

A point of tension in Pohl-Feldman’s, Baretta’s and Brown’s experiences is when Professor Wendy Moy, Head of Musical Education at Conn, went on sabbatical last year. Her normal role was filled by her colleague Jeremiah Selvey, who was the source of much discontent in the program. “Professor Selvey and I didn’t get along…. I brought it to Dean Singer,” added Baretta, “that kind of resolved the problem.” Baretta, Singer, and Selvey met and determined the minimum requirements by which Baretta could finish her semester of choir, reaching a solution that Baretta described as “surface-level.”

Fortunately for those who agree with Brown, Pohl-Feldman, and Baretta, Selvey is no longer teaching at Conn, as Moy returned from her sabbatical. However, this might not be the solution that these students would have wanted because, for many, Moy is one of the reasons they left the program.

“I’ve spent the last four years trying to get Wendy Moy fired,” said Brown. The two clashed repeatedly because, according to Brown, Moy’s P.h.D in musical history does not help her to be a good conductor. Pohl-Feldman shares Brown’s concerns with Moy’s conducting style, insisting that Moy demonstrated a “lack of flexibility with students and…  incompetence in musicianship.”

The first-year perspective, however, certainly seems to be different. “So far it’s really great… I’m really enjoying it,” said Katie Farr ’21, one of the nine first-year members of Camel Heard. Contrary to the expectations of many upperclassmen, Farr hadn’t heard much at all about the “widespread” dissatisfaction with the program. “I heard one girl say that she knew a girl who knew a girl who didn’t like [the program] very much,” said Farr, but that was the extent of her knowledge.

Of course, even those satisfied with the choir don’t see it as perfect or infallible. “Keep in mind, it’s only been a month or so,” advised Farr, “so my perspective is limited.” Even though she enjoyed Camel Heard, she felt as though the ensemble certainly had some room for improvement. “It felt a little rushed sometimes, trying to learn specific pieces,” she added. However, these problems can befall just about any choir, especially when trying to prepare for a concert under time constraints.

Moy herself seemed optimistic about how the choir program is run and received. Though unavailable for direct comment, she wrote in an email that her goal as conductor is “to provide an environment that nurtures [students’] gifts and brings out the best in their voices and artistry.” Obviously, the perceived success of that mantra varies greatly depending on who is asked about it.

Overall, the general student perception seems to be that the choir program at Conn does not suffer solely because of malcontent with the conductors, but rather has some deep structural flaws that need fixing. “The whole structure of how choir is set up is wrong,” said Baretta. “By forcing people to be a part of an ensemble, you’re encouraging kids who don’t necessarily want to be a part of this group to be a part of this group.” Conn policy mandates that in order to take voice or music lessons, a student must be a part of an ensemble on campus. The backwards logic of being forced to perform a talent that one is trying to learn certainly isn’t lost on many students with a mindset like Baretta’s.

One must question, then, why there has been no change in the choir program. Clearly there has been demand from the students. As Pohl-Feldman recalled, nearly all the members of Camel Heard went to speak with several members of administration last year. Between this extraordinary event and the multitudes of individual complaints, it’s a wonder that this issue seems to constantly be “swept under the rug,” as Brown put it. Unfortunately, it seems that answers may remain elusive for the time being, as Dean Jefferson Singer, Dean Marina Melendez, and Music Department choir co-chairs John Anthony and Dale Wilson declined to comment on this matter.