JABBLE! Choral Improvisation: A Model of Shared Leadership


  • Gerard J. Yun Wilfrid Laurier University
  • Lee Willingham Wilfrid Laurier University


Much is being made about the leadership roles in choral ensembles. What are the conductor’s responsibilities, both in the concert preparation process, and in the performance itself? What artistic and creative decisions may be made by choristers? Is choral singing merely a process of compliant singers taking directions from a choral expert in the interest of eliminating mistakes and polishing repertoire for public presentation? We read that the power of group singing is essentially a social phenomenon. Durrant concludes that the conductor has a “critical role in enabling social cohesion and emotional catharsis as well as developing musical skills in choral singing.” Along with the social phenomenon of singing, conventional practice reinforces the conductor as the one who focuses the event. We explore this role in light of developing a choral improvisational intelligence , and explore the processes that culminated in a Wilfrid Laurier University Choir Concert that was based on student improvisation. The residency of Dr. Peter Wiegold at Wilfrid Laurier University in October, 2011 as part of a funded research project provided the spark and the resources for building a choral concert on improvisation. Several forms of choral improvisation were explored. Choral ‘improv’ was used to create mood changes and build connecting bridges between contrasting pieces. Performed with pre-determined ideas in mind by student composers, choral singers, as well as traditional choral works, these bridges were created in the spirit of the “unforeseen;” each rendition of the atmospheric improvisations was unique. The use of embedded improvisation within pre-composed works was also explored. Windows of aleatoric choices were opened for the singers to create within guidelines provided by the composer. Finally, the process of free and pre-structured improv was explored, based on themes chosen by the singers themselves, using tiny musical embryos known as “backbones.” The performers literally added flesh, sinew, and muscle to the bones with their sounds. Some of the music was tightly worked out, while some was literally free form. Digital sound images and acoustic instruments enhanced the colours and imagination as they embellished, catalyzed, and responded to the choral work. JABBLE was presented as a journey of improvisatory exploration, a process of the imagination. The process is never finished or fully complete. A fertile and nimble imagination fosters creative thinking. As musicians, we like to think that we are creative. However, most of our performance work is the re-creating of fixed compositions, the work of others’ imaginations. In contrast, JABBLE combined the pre-composed with the on-the-spot creating.

Author Biographies

Gerard J. Yun, Wilfrid Laurier University

Gerard Yun, conductor, composer, and global music specialist is deeply trained as an ensemble conductor (choirs, orchestra, and opera) in the Western classical tradition. As a choral/orchestral/opera conductor he held professional posts with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the Colorado Youth Symphony Orchestras, the Orchestra and Chorus of Southern Utah, the San Jose Civic Light Opera, and The Colorado Lyric Theatre. He was one of several conductors invited to study with conductors of the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire in St. Petersburg, Russia just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Gerard’s academic career has been shaped by interests in music education, choral music, and the intersections of music as a global phenomenon. Although originally taken up as "hobbies of distraction" his work with instruments such as the Australian Didgeridoo and the Lakota Flute eventually became part of his professional portfolio. This is especially true of his work in Tuvan and Tibetan Overtone Singing and the Japanese Zen Buddhist Shakuhachi. Gerard was professor of choirs and voice at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah and Director of Choral Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. before immigrating to Canada in 2006. He teaches music courses and conducts choirs at Conrad Grebel University College and Wilfrid Laurier University. He is also instructor of shakuhachi at York University. Gerard serves as Artistic Director of the East-West Music Series, a joint project between Renison and Conrad Grebel Colleges at the University of Waterloo, and The Bell'Arte Singers in Toronto, Ontario. He has received commissions for original compositions from ensembles including The DaCapo Chamber Choir, The Utah All-State Choirs, The Hamilton Children's Choir, and the Madawaska String Quartet.

Lee Willingham, Wilfrid Laurier University

Lee Willingham is an associate professor of music at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, where he coordinates the music education and choral programs and directs the Laurier Centre for Music in the Community. Previously, he was on faculty at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of University of Toronto, and in the former Scarborough Board of Education he was Coordinator of Music and also served a term as President of the Ontario Music Educators' Association. Lee is a past conductor of the Ontario Youth Choir and has been invited to serve as guest conductor for many ensembles, including orchestras, choirs and bands. He has provided workshops or adjudication throughout North America and Europe. This year he conducts the 25th anniversary concert of Toronto’s Bell’Arte Singers, the massed Honour Choir and Orchestra of Canadian Independent School Music Festival at Roy Thomson Hall, the Saskatchewan Honour Choir, and the Budapest Baptist Central Choir in Hungary. Lee devotes much time to teacher education and provides workshops and guest clinics for music educators. He has developed or reviewed curriculum for the Ministry of Education, Ontario, and continues a strong relationship with prospective and current teachers in the school setting. This year, under Lee’s administrative leadership, Canada’s only MA in community music was launched. He was editor of the Canadian Music Educator from 2000-2009, and co-edited the book Creativity and Music Education, 2002. In June, 2009, he was named the Director of the Canadian Music Education Research Consortium.