I owe ACDA a lot. The first national convention was in 1971 at the Hotel Muehlebach in Kansas City. I attended. It had been chaired by USC's Charles Hirt, and I was in my first year of teaching at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. Then the first divisional convention I attended was the next year in Indianapolis. Our NMU kids got chosen to sing there that year and Charles Hirt was there to hear them (the three-year rule came later, luckily for me). All of which went a long way toward landing the position at UOP the very next year. Many years later, the performance by the California Choral Company at the '91 national in Phoenix had much to do with my going to USC, in part because Morten Lauridsen had heard them and came backstage and badgered me into applying for the opening, which I did the following Monday.
But all of that is just politics. More important for me--as it is for anyone in this business--was what those meetings did and continued to do for me musically and technically, especially during the formative years of my late 20s and 30s. For one thing, the convention attendance was small enough to fit into a hotel ballroom; you got a chance to talk to everyone sooner or later, and everyone heard and saw everything the convention had to offer. Thus there was only one 'track' and everyone was on it. We had breaks for lunch and dinner.
When I started in this business, the only recordings one could find were Messiah, the Verdi Requiem, and Carmina. Oh, and the Shaw Chorale BMinor. The only amateur choruses we heard on those recordings were the Mormon one and the Westminster one. So the only place to hear the entire canon of choral music done by choirs we all might conduct one day was in person at a concert or at a professional convention. Nowadays, of course, there isn't much that hasn't been recorded, professional choruses abound, and collegiate choruses have utterly taken over. I began to learn at these events that there was a lot of superb music that wasn't written for orchestra and chorus. I began to learn that choral music had the largest body of literature. Most of it was sacred, but I didn't care about that then and I don't care about that now: great music is great music. What sticks in my mind from that first convention now were Schütz Psalm 98, Bach Singet, and Schönberg Friede auf Erden. I'd never heard them anywhere else: Talk about opening my ears! We even heard a fine junior high choir do the Hindemith Six Chansons (try to find that nowadays). This is not even to mention Frank Pooler's Long Beach State crowd doing all the wiggy composers such as Folke Rabe and the like. Pooler had a lock on that stuff as well as the Carpenters (I won't talk about his Mendelssohn, though).
So naturally I heard a lot of different takes on choral sound and attended a lot of interest sessions in which folks talked about how they achieved that sound. The only sound I really had firmly embedded in my ears at that point was Hirt's USC Chamber Singers and I knew that my 18 NMU kids weren't going to approach the sound of those 16 USC semi-pro honkers. I had to look and listen elsewhere.
One of the places I was fortunate to listen was the Pacific Southwest Intercollegiate Choral Association festival held annually in SoCal. I participated in four of them during my time at CalState LA (one year) and USC (three years). I heard college choruses conducted by, in no specific order, Howard Swan, Paul Salamonivich, Bill Hall, Dave Thorsen, Frank Pooler, Fran Baxter, plus a bunch whose names I no longer remember, but it was the entire spectrum of the West Coast sound and nowhere did one hear the neutered Lutheran straight tone sound, which is the cousin of that antiseptic Texas high school choral sound. No, the sound of all of the choruses was truly vibrant. Many of them performed in ACDA nationals in subsequent years, usually to great acclaim.
I have nothing against MENC and its state offshoots or the various state 'vocal associations.' They do fine work, especially for the classroom teachers and band directors. But as Roger Wagner said to Charles Hirt in the elevator at that first ACDA convention: "Damn, Charles, it sure is great not to have a bunch of band directors running around!" Those ACDA meetings were all about choral music then and they still are.
I'm sorry to say that I was never a 'networker' or a politician of any stripe and I'm not bragging, I'm complaining: I'm convinced that had I been a bit freer with the handshake and the small talk, I probably would have gone farther, sooner, in my field. But I was there for the music, the conductors, the sounds, the bull sessions, the demonstrations.
That was then. Now I care more about seeing people I have met over the years, and of course, the former students from the three schools where I taught for nigh unto four decades. Of course I always look forward to hearing some of the finest collegiate choirs the country has to offer.
And by golly, I can think of maybe a couple times that groups I conducted were maybe even numbered among them.
Here's to ACDA for helping and promoting some of the best in the art form from Womb to Tomb: kids choirs, middle school choirs, high school choirs, church choirs, collegiate choirs. We would not be where we are without such a fine umbrella organization.