Choral Pedagogy : A new kind of choral music education

Some people most readily identify the state of Kansas with The Wizard of Oz, college basketball, and vast fields of corn and wheat. A relatively new field, however, is cropping up in the country’s heartland. The University of Kansas is at the forefront of the burgeoning field of choral pedagogy, asking questions, building a body of research, and becoming increasingly significant to singers, choral directors, and music educators alike.

Long recognized as a hotbed for music education and music therapy, the University of Kansas has placed special attention on choral pedagogy during the last decade. “Choral pedagogy . . . suggests a much broader way of thinking and knowing about choral singing phenomena than the more traditional term ‘choral music education,’” says James F. Daugherty, Ph.D. An associate professor of Choral Music Education as well as the director of Graduate Studies in Music Education and Music Therapy at the University of Kansas, Daugherty is also editor of the International Journal of Research in Choral Singing and has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Research in Music Education and Research and Issues in Music Education.

Traditional music education or choral conducting degrees typically include courses in choral literature, conducting, methods courses, and even private voice lessons—but they often omit the study and research of vocal function and pedagogy. As Daugherty explains, “The focus has been rather narrow on preparing folks to teach choirs in public schools, or, at the graduate level, preparing folks to teach those folks who will then teach choirs in public schools.”

This frequently results in what Daugherty describes as “an unnecessary and often detrimental division of choral folks into different camps, with the ‘educators’ in one camp and the ‘conductors’ in another camp. Indeed, in university graduate programs two separate degree programs have evolved for those interested in working with choirs, one for the educators (M.M.E., Ph.D.) and one for the performers (M.M., D.M.A.), each having its own purported knowledge base and ways of going about things. To my mind, that’s a pretty silly development.

“One cannot effectively conduct choirs without simultaneously being a good teacher,” he continues. “Likewise, one cannot effectively teach choral singing without simultaneously being a fine conductor. Regardless of which term comes first, teacher-conductor or conductor-teacher, the fact is both facets belong together, not apart.”

One of the most distinguishing aspects of the choral pedagogy degrees at the University of Kansas, therefore, is the effort to move beyond the traditional “choral” coursework to include a special emphasis on voice science and pedagogy.

“There has been in recent years a virtual explosion of knowledge in voice science, neurobiology, speech and hearing studies, and psychology, much of which is applicable to choral singing in its myriad contexts,” says Daugherty. “When it comes right down to it, choral conductor-teachers, unlike orchestral leaders, work with human, neurobiological musical instruments. That is, the singing voice is ‘built in.’ One cannot pack it away in a storage case. It’s a part of who we are as human beings. It’s the same instrument used for everyday speaking. It’s the same apparatus that, even when used for singing, continues to perform important functions in the human body/mind, such as protecting the trachea, regulating the temperature and humidity of the lungs, and serving as a connector to all sorts of previously learned neural networks that inform who we are as individual human beings. Choral teacher-conductors can no longer ignore such knowledge.”

Kathy Price, a Ph.D. student in vocal pedagogy at KU, agrees.

“Conductors of vocal music need to be educated in voice production. Too often choral conductors stem from instrumental or conducting or musicological/theoretical backgrounds. In most aspects these fields enhance the conductor’s skills and appreciation of musical style, history, and complexity. However, if the key ingredients of vocal pedagogy are not present, singers suffer.”

Price points out that many choirs are made up of student or amateur singers, many of whom do not have individual voice teachers. In these situations the choral conductor may serve as the primary source of vocal advice and instruction. “If that guidance is misdirected,” she says, “through a lack of understanding of the vocal mechanism and its functions, or if that conductor hasn’t had the experience of demonstrating and explaining vocal techniques, then singers risk injury, disillusionment, or the lack of opportunity to fully realize their own vocal potential.”

Conductors working without an understanding of voice production introduce what Daugherty describes as “an ethical dilemma.”

“We have an obligation, if you will, to adhere to that most ancient of ethical principles, ‘first do no harm,’” he says. “Yet choral conductor-teachers regularly ignore that injunction; that is, they do ask the voices in their charge to do some curious things, such as drop the jaw a ridiculous degree, ‘breathe from the diaphragm,’ rehearse at high frequencies and loud dynamics for long periods of time, sing choral parts not particularly well suited for particular voices, etc., etc. I don’t think such occurs out of malevolence. It’s simply a matter of being ignorant of how human vocal anatomy and physiology work.”

It is this gap in understanding that choral pedagogy works to address. “I suppose that choral pedagogy is one form of vocal pedagogy,” Daugherty says. “Research shows us that human beings tend to phonate and behave in somewhat different ways when they sing in groups than they do when singing as soloists. Choral pedagogy primarily focuses upon that group context, while vocal pedagogy can be used to describe working with singers one on one, as occurs in a voice studio.

“However,” he is quick to point out, “in the broad sense, singing is singing, and developing efficient, healthy, well-informed ways of singing, whether as a soloist or a choral singer, is integral to both vocal and choral pedagogy.”

Like many universities, KU offers M.M. and D.M.A. degrees in choral conducting or voice and opera as well as M.M.E. and Ph.D. degrees in choral music education. But students in the M.M.E. and Ph.D. programs in choral pedagogy, as well as those earning the Ph.D. in vocal pedagogy, spend hours in the School of Fine Arts Vocology Laboratory, where research is conducted, data are gathered, and technology is employed as a partnering tool in vocal education. In addition, KU benefits from having a laryngologist who holds a joint appointment between the medical school and the music faculty.

Daugherty refers to the programs in choral pedagogy at KU as “intentionally interdisciplinary, individualized, and flexible.” Some programs in choral conducting “entail rather prescribed coursework in such areas as musicology, music theory, and, of course, conducting lessons,” but KU allows choral pedagogy students to “pursue as much study in those areas as they wish, and we encourage them to do so.”

Melissa Brunkan taught and performed for 15 years before returning to graduate studies, this time in choral pedagogy. With a bachelor’s in music education from the University of Minnesota and a master’s in voice performance and opera from Northwestern University, she appreciates what KU provides at this stage of her career.

“I feel the beauty of this program is that it not only includes aspects of vocal performance and choral conducting, but also vocal pedagogy, physiology and anatomy of the voice, philosophy of teaching, music psychology, and choral pedagogy,” she says. “Experiences as a performer and conductor have been invaluable to my musical growth. However, I really wanted a program where I could combine these areas, and feel I found that at KU.”

Daugherty believes the background that KU’s choral pedagogy program provides serves students well in their career pursuits. “By the time they graduate, all of our students have acquired considerable skills and research chops in such areas as vocal anatomy and physiology, conducting, and human musical behaviors,” he says. “By design, doctoral students will, through their doctoral projects, already have two or three refereed publications on their résumés. They will have given refereed presentations at national and international conferences. They will be positioned through their dissertation focus to contribute significantly to knowledge in choral pedagogy. They will have had experience in teaching a variety of courses and choral ensembles at the undergraduate level. And they will have an already established agenda for research and creative activity.

“All those things position them to be a ‘cut above’ in the job search,” he says, “and our graduates do quite well in that regard. Each of our most recent Ph.D. graduates, for instance, obtained faculty positions at nationally ranked, research-one universities.”

This is the kind of success Brunkan hopes for after graduation. “I feel confident that the choral pedagogy program at KU will help me to achieve future career goals,” she says. “The multi-faceted program offers boundless learning opportunities as well as opportunities for professional and personal growth as a musician, conductor, educator, and human being. I feel that the program at KU will make me much more marketable, . . . because of a wider knowledge and experience base.”

“As knowledge expands and the world changes,” Daugherty says, “so the world of choral and vocal music is gradually changing away from a narrow, rather score-based, opinion-based, and insular dependence on ‘we’ve always done it this way’ thinking toward more open, interdisciplinary, science-based approaches. I like to think our programs in choral and vocal pedagogy at the University of Kansas are playing a role in that paradigm shift.

“The world is a wonderful place when musicians, scientists, researchers, educators, and creative artists can all sit at the same table and converse with one another,” he says. “Our goal at the University of Kansas is to equip our graduates to join and to take a leading role in that conversation.”

Information about the graduate programs in choral pedagogy and voice pedagogy at the University of Kansas is available at

Brian Manternach Jeremy Manternach

Tenor Brian Manternach has appeared throughout the country in opera, recitals, and concert work, most recently as tenor soloist in Handel’s Messiah with the Utah Chamber Chorale and Orchestra. With degrees in voice from Saint John’s University (Minn.) and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Manternach has taught studio voice at the University of Notre Dame and is currently completing his doctor of music degree at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He is currently the director of Choral/Vocal Activities at Juan Diego Catholic High School near Salt Lake City. E-mail the author at Jeremy Manternach is a graduate of Saint John’s University in Minnesota. A high school choral conductor for six years, his ensemble performed at the Minnesota ACDA convention. He was also a frequent performer in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, singing with the Minnesota Chorale, the Singers, and Kantorei. He recently presented his choral conducting research at the International Physiology and Acoustics of Singing Conference (PAS 4). He is currently pursuing his M.M.E./Ph.D. in choral pedagogy at the University of Kansas and is a member of the National Association for Music Education, the American Choral Directors Association, and the VoiceCare Network. E-mail him at