Interview with William Dehning by Carole Glenn, 10 September 1994, Los Angeles.
1. What are the most important personal and musical qualifications for a conductor?
As far as personal qualities go, I think a sense of imagination, a sense of play, and an interest in people are important. Although perfect pitch would help, it would not necessarily help get our jobs done more quickly, but a sense of rhythm and what’s inside a rhythm is very important. And, of course, a conductor needs a good inner ear.
One’s imagination is critical when coming up with the concept of a piece and how you want it to sound. You have to know all the technical things of course involved in being a musician but I think that concept, which comes from the imagination, is the most important.
Conductors need to be widely read or else our imaginations become sterile. Reading stimulates the imagination.
2. What is one piece of advice that you would offer to a beginning conductor?
They get discouraged. The first piece of advice would be: there is a way to do this and it’s worth pursuing and finding it. I do get tired of a certain negativism, the “Oh, it’s tough in the field.” Yeah, it’s tough but it’s always been tough. It’s never been easy.
What we do as a conductor is a different sort of thing, but it is fun and richly rewarding. I’ve never for a moment regretted becoming a conductor.
So be as prepared as you can be. Be yourself and never forget the reason you got into this profession in the first place. Keep that sense of joy that music gives you and never lose your sense of play.
3. Are you aware of any difficulties that minority and women choral conductors may have had?Yes, of course, in the past. The avenues have not been open to them in the past. I think there has been a resistance—which you still see in Asian cultures to a--woman being an authority. The room gets kind of quiet when a woman gets up to conduct and that is still somewhat the case. I can think of a number of careers that, had she been a male, it’s possible that she would’ve gone “farther” by now, whatever “farther” means. And I think this has been true in the past but I no longer think it is and I’m happy to say that. [Boy! Did I ever get this one wrong!]
4. What should be the overall objectives of a choral program?
That depends on the arena, whether school, church, community, or professional choir. Regardless of the arena, the main objective of any program has to involve experiencing as much superb choral literature as possible; unquestionably proven, superb music.
We all need to experiment with the trivial now and then in part to remind ourselves what the truly excellent music is, in part because it’s easy and fun. We also have an obligation to build our audiences. Taking it further than that, our goal should be the furtherance of the culture. Choral music is positioned to do that, more than any other artistic expression, with the exception of literature.
5. Are choral conductors better prepared today than they were twenty years ago?
Without question, choral conductors today are better prepared than I was in 1970 – technically, especially. The world is smaller than it was 20 years ago and as a result, we’re hearing more music, and this is all to the good. We are also hearing the music of other countries to a far greater degree.
Schools are turning out well-prepared people. I know that we are at USC, and I know a number of other schools that are. There are more people than there are jobs at present, but that’s the state of the profession, not the training.
There are recordings of almost anything nowadays and that is a tremendous aid to the conductor. In the bad old days, we used to have to figure it out at the keyboard and just sit there and kind of play through it in some manner to get an idea of how a piece went, you know, even if we were lousy pianists as I am. I don’t know that recordings are necessarily a blessing, though. In many ways they’re a curse because there is less development of and reliance upon the inner ear that I spoke of in Question 1.
6. What do you do to preserve the vocal health of your singers?
Of course, it is very important to study the voice yourself. I’m surprised at how many pianists are in front of choruses who have no idea of how the instrument works. You don’t have to be a good singer yourself, but you should have an understanding of how difficult it is to sing a high F# in a work by Strauss or somesuch. The ability to reach singers through the imagination is critical to the functioning of an effective rehearsal. One must take the voice into account with the plan and pace of rehearsals. I’m surprised by how many conductors I observed who ask their singers to sing something fast and forte three times in a row. Take it down the octave, or just rehearse the rhythm. Be aware that, in a one or two hour rehearsal, a soprano only has so many high A-flats in her voice – only so many. Don’t use them up on drills and sterile repetition. Be cognizant and empathetic to the singers, as a singer.
7. How would you compare the quality of published choral music today with the music published two decades ago?
It’s far worse. There is so much junk being published. To a degree, this is our fault. For one thing, good music is not as readily available and is often much more expensive. The expense is attributable to two things. The first is “Theft,” plain theft. We’ve stolen music by copying it. Many people have been flagrant about it and it is criminal. Publishers have to make money so they publish what is most accessible and in many cases, to be honest, it’s not good music. The second reason is decline in what we perceive our audience's tastes to be. Audiences want to hear superb music done well. They always have and I think they always will. The third reason is that our own taste has deteriorated.
Sometimes we have tremendous problems getting good music because it hasn’t been selling. I think that much of this poor music is published to keep singers in programs, and I certainly understand the reason for that. But I think the best will always sell. I applaud publishers who continue to try keep publishing good music.
8. What can be done about the elimination of music in many school districts?
This is both a cultural and political problem. It would be solved immediately if the United States government said, “The Arts will be taught in schools, now shut up, and don’t argue.” If the government would have the courage to say that this is what should be done, and the government supported The Arts, as is the case in virtually every other civilized country in the East and the West, that would immediately raise cultural expectations of children. But barring that, I’m afraid since our government is a bit timid and only listens to the vocal and rich people, the parents will simply have to demand that The Arts be taught. Then politicians will listen. It must be demanded. What parents demand, the school boards tend to give.
9. What are your thoughts about the prohibition of sacred music in some public school districts.
I think sacred music ought to be approached the same way as history, science, world religions, or social studies. Western music is great art and needs to be taught in that way and for that reason. It so happens that much of this great art is connected to texts of religions. If the text is from the Koran, is universal and speaks universal truths, it should be done. Confucianism, Buddhism, Fundamentalism, I mean, what’s wrong with Amazing Grace? It’s a Scottish melody, by the way, and is great art and should be approached that way. I am for separation of church and state, but great art doesn’t have to be taught as dogma. A Madonna and Child can be a beautiful work of art regardless of what it represents and what a person believes.
Martial arts are taught, for instance, first as art forms, not as means of defense, or especially offense. We in choral music have this problem of course more than orchestras and bands. But, just as we want the religious right to leave us alone in regards to secular music, we want the liberal left to leave us alone when it comes to sacred music. I’m afraid that teachers are going to have to be the ones who decide, and both the right and the left are just going to have to be quiet.
10. What aspects of music are of particular importance to you now?
I think the process itself has become more important over time. I love rehearsing and I always have. It’s still a thrill, yes, to perform for 2000 people – though that doesn’t happen often anymore. But the process of taking just a bit of noted chaos and a bunch of human beings who don’t have any idea about each other and putting those two together is just a miracle. Performances, yes, they are fun, but right in the middle of the rehearsal process when it all starts to come together, just after the beginning, and before the polish goes on- when it’s no longer chaotic, you watch the “ah-ha” moments happen. Again, its people and music and 'getting there' that I enjoy. I enjoy the ride, as JT said.
11. What changes in choral philosophy and procedures have you noticed in the past twenty years or so?
I see more of the emphasis on the medium than the message. I’m surprised at that. I once read something that Charles Hirt wrote to Theron Kirk over 20 years ago, saying, “We are to the point now where we have purchased our instrument and we are now exploring the music.” I don’t think that’s as true in this country as it maybe could be. I hear a lot of perfectly blended, perfectly in-tune choruses that fail to get inside the guts of the piece. I’m amazed and I marvel but I am not moved. I’d rather hear something that is rough around the edges but really gets inside the composer’s head, when you can tell that the performers get it and they communicate that to the audience. Yes, I like to hear choirs in-tune, perfectly together, and perfectly lovely—that’s very nice and I always enjoy that. Occasionally, I come close to that with the groups I conduct but it’s not really what I’m after.
I also have a bit more of an acceptance of the straight tone sound than previously. To get many difficult 20-century pieces perfectly in-tune, you need to leave the vibrato out… that’s when the chords and clusters really sparkle. There are times when, at a certain dynamic level, I have asked for that, never at a forte, but when mezzo forte or less.
I thought we fought this battle with our voice teachers 20 years ago and apparently it’s coming around again. And I think, to a certain degree, that this is an influence of European choirs, especially Northern European. A lot of Americans have been over there to study and I think they are hearing that sound again and liking it. You also often hear that straight tone in Asia and Korea where they really sing foot to the firewall.
In modern music, and in very old music, it works. I think that’s quite a change, but I think we need to be extremely careful about its use with young students. You work with pros, demand it, fine. They’re paid and they know how to do it without harm.
12. What trends do you see for the future?
Recently there’s been a trend where the importance of music in the schools is falling away. I see that for the foreseeable future, too. What has replaced that scene, as we all know, are tremendous children’s choirs in the community, tremendous youth choirs. This is a very European concept. The choruses in European schools--I know the German schools firsthand--are really not very good but they learn how to analyze Schubert melodies, by golly, and they learn chord progressions at a very early age. When they leave schools they, then as adults, sing as informed musicians. And so it’s the church choirs, and community choirs, and the semiprofessional groups that are very prominent there.
I’m seeing that happening here, especially with children’s choirs and there’s a tremendous burgeoning of community chamber choirs all over the place. I’m glad to see it with the children involved because we are tending to lose them, of course, in the schools, especially in junior high and high school. Unfortunately too, what that means, is that those who can afford to pay get musical experiences, while those who cannot afford it, don’t. It’s unfortunate and sad, and it doesn’t bode well for the classroom community. But I don’t see that changing in the immediate future, I simply don’t see it changing.
13. What are your favorite musical compositions and why?
That would be hard to say. I’m very lucky that I’ve done a lot of music that I love. If someone said, “You can only do one piece for the rest of eternity, pick one,” that might be Bach’s Singet dem Herrn. I like music— and I don’t know how to say this—in which “gimmick” is not at all obvious, and in which the craftsmanship that expresses the text, and which stays true to itself; not quoting anyone else. The music should meet the essence of the text and speak well to the singer. This is not to say that I don’t love a piece of schmaltz now and then, I sure do. Some schmaltzy pieces are exactly what I mentioned; they can be true to themselves and express the text beautifully. Ultimately, the craftsmanship has to be part of it.
75% of the time, I program music which I know is unquestionably superb. Of course part of that, too, is because I have been a teacher all my life and it’s my job to do that for my singers. About 25% of the time I experiment with “fluff and folk” stuff because that’s fun, too.
14. How did you happen to make music your career?
I don’t think “happen” is the right word. It was a conscious decision I made when I was a little bit older and only after I’d been miserable studying engineering and business and god knows what else.
I thought that music would be better than misery and I was right. I was 21 when I began to really study music, so I came to music through the back door and I’ve struggled to catch up ever since. I’m still catching up.
I had played instruments and sang since I was ten. Music always moved me. It was something I enjoyed and through which I met a lot of nice people, so I thought, “Well, I might not make money, that is true, but I will enjoy my days and enjoy getting up in the morning.” And that’s still true.
15. Which conductors have been an inspiration to you?
This is really easy. In chronological order, and for different reasons, Charles Hirt in the late 60s, Helmuth Rilling in the mid 70s, and John Alldis in the early 80s. I was inspired by these men and in very different spheres and for different reasons.
As far as the orchestral sphere, Erich Leinsdorf. He wrote a book that came out just after I’d seen him conducting. I was in Europe observing him, sitting back by the string basses. I was really inspired. He showed no pretense, was utterly clean, and yet beautiful. That was one of the few times I’ve seen the players applaud the conductor after a performance. They were playing Debussy’s La Mer, and I think something as prosaic as Peter and the Wolf, and if the players are going to applaud for Peter and the Wolf and La Mer, that conductor is on the ball.
I was also inspired by observing Georg Solti in late 60s. Those five people, but I still have to go back to Charles Hirt and the influence he had on me, especially in terms of choral sound. His was vibrant and with vibrato. He had good voices at USC and he let them sing. It was a very vital, exciting sound that still rings in my ears. I still have trouble accepting the use of straight tone.
16. How does choral music in the United States compare with choral music in other countries?
We are less nationalistic and more universal in repertoire than most European countries. Asians are almost as universal and program a lot of music. If you hear a German choir, you’ll primarily hear German music. If you go to France, you primarily hear French music. I wish we did more American music today in this country than we do because it is there. We are less parochial in this country and I think that’s good. I think we are freer and more soloistic with the use of the voices in the ensemble, and I think that’s good, too. They tend to do less cheap music in other countries than we do, though.
17. How may music serve as a force for understanding between diverse groups of people?
I think there are times when we all ask, “Is what I’m doing important?” There are times when it might not seem to be. We don’t make $30 million a year. Rock stars do. We aren’t looked up to as heroes. Athletes are. But the answer is always a resounding “Yes.” Music is one of the only things which involves not only the body, but the brain and the spirit.
Let’s get this straight, the greatest athletes are artists, too, just as some great musicians are great athletes. We can each participate in choral music at some level. It is important because by involving ourselves with something greater than ourselves, as we with great literature, and music—especially choral music, by participating, we become better ourselves even if it’s only for a moment, it’s important.
I can’t think of anything more important than becoming a better human being, or at least more fulfilled, and music can do that, just as great literature does.
Reading a great book can be a lonely experience but you come out fulfilled, you come out better, and you know it. Ultimately, it is just you and the author. Choral music is not lonely. We do it with other people and we come out not only better ourselves, but we’ve helped others become better, too. I can’t think of anything more important--except food, water, and rest--than becoming a better human being.
18. Why is music important to humankind?
I just know it always has been. It’s more than the cliché of a common language, it’s a common experience. This is especially so in choral music— a common experience. Even if the language is different, you’re still using one instrument that is the same as everyone else’s. It is not like one person having a fiddle and the other having a flute. Yes, the sopranos are different, and Lord knows tenors are, too. But it’s all the same instrument. It’s the one God gave us, and we all have a voice. Choral music speaks immediately to whoever is making it. I think this is because singing is so close to speech, the element of human language. It is also so close to laughter and tears— it is all the same in any language.
I once ran across a quote by Hindemith: “People who make music together cannot be enemies at least while the music lasts.” I think that’s true. We can become enemies again after rehearsal, but not while the singing is going on.