Being a professional choir conductor requires a high level of sustained formal study, and the University of Arizona is one of the top institutions in the nation for such training.
The UA's graduate program in choral conducting is among the largest and most prestigious programs of its kind in the United States.
Faculty in the UA School of Music's program encourage students to study and perform with rigor; faculty and staff also facilitate student engagement with campus and local choirs and support students in gaining placement in national competitions.
The program also is tightly aligned with industry demands, particularly demand for conductors to work with secular, religious, academic and community choirs or with concert venues and recording studios.
"Our students win national and international awards and gain plum jobs," said Rex Woods, the UA School of Music director. "We appreciate that the University is a go-to school for choral conducting. It's pretty remarkable."
With 22 majors, graduate students in the UA choral conducting program represent the U.S. coast-to-coast, as well as four other continents. Among the eight incoming graduate students joining the UA this fall are graduates of the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, Westminster Choir College and the University of Notre Dame.
UA doctoral degree earners in choral conducting can expect strong job placement in teaching positions, said Bruce Chamberlain, director of choral activities in the School of Music.
Alumni have gained positions at higher education institutions like the University of Washington, the University of Minnesota and the University of Massachusetts, and also with professional choirs in California, New York and Sydney, Australia.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that music directors and composers will enjoy reasonable access to jobs across the nation, based on projections spanning 2010 to 2020. During that time, the availability of such positions is expected to grow by 10 percent.
But even before the federal agency reported its decade-long projections, the UA School of Music program was already enjoying a 100 percent placement rate in teaching positions for those who complete the Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) degree.
Faculty, administrators, student and alumni credit several factors for the program's success, including a history of strategic administrative vision, a synergistic relationship with regional and national arts organizations and a consistently strong class of students, who persistently earn national and international awards.
"Out of all the music produced, singers represent the largest group, and they need conductors; there is a market need for those who conduct choirs," said Andrew Comrie, UA senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.
"We've had national prominence across the entire School of Music," Comrie said, noting that the University's programs in harp, jazz and guitar are also highly regarded. "Choral conducting is one of those areas with an excellent reputation and where the very best students compete to gain entrance."
Training the "total artist"
The UA's choral program rose to national prominence under the tutelage of former faculty members John Bloom and Maurice Skones, a UA alumnus, both highly regarded in state and national choral communities.
Today, Chamberlain and Elizabeth Schauer, associate director of choral activities, are at the center of the program's development.
"Different programs will prepare different students for different outcomes. I tell people who are auditioning for the UA that 'we are helping you to become an artist,'" said Chamberlain, who was recently named the Arizona Chapter of the American Choral Directors Association Choral Director of the Year for his contributions.
"I am training people to be a total musician, and that will guide their careers," said Chamberlain, also the assistant director for academic student services in the School of Music.
One of the primary jobs of conductors is to adequately convey the vision of the composer or poet whose work is being performed.
Thus, it is crucial for those in training to not only gain strong literature competency, style and technique, but also the ability to best understand divisions of the choir and the choral repertoire.
Often, such expertise comes from working with various ensembles, Woods said. But many other institutions cannot accomplish this, largely due to small numbers of students and limited access to a range of ensemble types, he noted.
The UA School of Music is different, maintaining numerous choral ensembles and working with regional community-based ensembles – many of which are staffed by UA students, faculty, staff and volunteers.
UA graduate students serve as members of the Arizona Choir and work with ensembles on and off campus, including undergraduate choirs and choirs involving faculty members; a chamber choir; men's and women's choirs; and a symphonic choir, among others. All told, more than 500 undergraduate and graduate students participate in the UA's eight groups.
The Arizona Choir has been featured at conventions of the American Choral Directors Association's (ACDA) and the Music Educators National Conference. Also, UA graduate students in choral conducting have multiple opportunities to perform with professional ensembles around the world and in the past have performed with the Kronos Quartet and the Budapest Chamber Orchestra.
For these reasons, UA graduates tend to be exceedingly qualified for more positions, Chamberlain said.
"This means that the UA has every kind of choir there is," Chamberlain said. "So when our graduates go to interview, they can say, unequivocally, that they have had successful experience with every kind of choir that a university might have."
UA alumna Lisa Billingham, now a music professor at George Mason University, said she would not have been able to get her current position without her training and experience at the UA.
In her search for graduate programs, Billingham was especially drawn to the UA because of the reputation of the faculty, the collegial nature within and beyond the UA School of Music, the financial support offered to students and the structure of the program.
"One of the many things that called me to the UA was the conducting rotation," said Billingham, a 2001 UA DMA alumna who also serves as George Mason's choral music education director.
The rotation allowed students to work with a different ensemble for roughly a six-week period, conducting the choir in performance.
"So, the teaching wasn't always the same and with the same kind of ensemble, and it gave you the opportunity to touch different kinds of literature, which was one of the beautiful things," Billingham said. "Having that kind of experience on your resume meant that when I went to interview in different parts of the country, I could answer that I had those experiences."
Fierce competition, strong placement and Chamberlain's "grandchildren"
UA students have been named finalists for the last seven ACDA national biennial conducting competitions. Those in the field say that such an achievement is the equivalent of reaching the NCAA Final Four seven times in a row.
But there's more. UA students won ACDA's competition in both 2005 and in 2011. This year, three of the eight semi-finalists were UA students, which is unprecedented, Chamberlain said.
"As a student, the ability to get these experiences is really priceless," Comrie said. "Just like a doctoral student attending a high level research conference, this is quite analogous."
Then there are Chamberlain's "grandchildren," current UA students who were either trained or referred by others who once studied with him.
Current DMA student Scott Douglas Glysson is among them.
Having worked with Billingham at George Mason, Glysson chose the UA over two other institutions with key programs – Indiana University and the University of Colorado – primarily because he felt the UA was deeply invested in its students and that he would have little problem finding a job after graduating.
The UA made good on that promise, offering him a graduate teaching assistanship in his first year.
"The other schools only offered one the second year," Glysson said.
The UA, unlike some of its competitors, also maintains an on-campus recital hall that graduate students can regularly utilize without a fee.
Glysson also said the instruction and practical experience he has received at the UA has strengthened his skill in connecting the history of performance and the analysis of contemporary works.
"I feel empowered by my knowledge of historical and musicological concepts, and I can make good decisions that enhance the music and the performance for my groups," Glysson said.
Glysson said his own evolutionary path in the program has been striking.
"I have gone from feeling like I was giving everybody my best guess on the podium, to feeling empowered and confident in my abilities and decisions as a conductor," he said. "The UA choral conducting graduate program is a great program that, if you let it, can change the way you approach music forever."