“The voice is inextricably tied to one’s personality, so letting students feel comfortable with each other and with me enables them to use that instrument to their full capacity.” --Choir Director Mike McGaghie
Strong choirs are known for their music, not their silence. But singing in Macalester’s Concert Choir takes more than simply hitting the right notes. As Mac’s new choir director Mike McGaghie has settled into his first year on campus, he’s been working on helping his students listen—and in the process, connect with the music and each other.
“One of my major goals is to teach students how to use their ears,” says McGaghie, who conducts both the Concert Choir and the Highland Camerata. “When they listen with real awareness, they learn a lot about ensemble, the voice, and musical styles from different eras. They learn about cooperation, about give and take.”
Just as important as listening is connecting with one another. Choir members call their group close-knit, thanks to activities like the annual fall retreat. Last autumn the group drove two hours north to a Brainerd, Minnesota, retreat center to spend a long weekend rehearsing, relaxing, and getting acquainted.
Students learn the value of a strong community, too. As Alejandro Cervantes ’16 (Bay City, Mich.) explains, choir members quickly see that even just one singer missing a single rehearsal can negatively affect the entire ensemble.
For McGaghie, the retreat was a perfect opportunity to get to know his singers better as individuals and help them bond as a group. “Bonding experiences are very important for a choir, because our instrument is our being,” McGaghie explains. “The voice is inextricably tied to one’s personality, so letting students feel comfortable with each other and with me enables them to use that instrument to their full capacity.”
McGaghie arrived at Macalester with that philosophy already well defined, thanks to his experiences as the Boston Conservatory’s director of choral activities, assistant conductor of the Harvard Glee Club, and music director of the Concord Chorus. With a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a doctorate of musical arts from Boston University, he has taught courses in choral literature, Renaissance and Baroque performance practice, and aural skills.
The new director’s wide musical range was obvious during his first semester on campus, when his ensembles tackled a repertoire that exposed the members to a variety of compositions, from Italian baroque to 20th century pieces. To his delight, McGaghie discovered that Macalester students possess a similarly diverse range of interests, with only a minority of them majoring or minoring in music.
“I love their curiosity,” he says. “Because they all study such different fields, they come to rehearsal able to talk about things like religion or politics or linguistics or physics in addition to music. But naturally we talk a lot about the music, too: the composers, the language, and the politics that created the music.”
Even by mid-year, members of his choirs were uniformly praising McGaghie’s leadership. “He has this way of connecting with us,” Cervantes says. “I did not expect—at a liberal arts college like this, with such a small student body—that we’d have such an amazing choir. There’s a focus and an energy that’s irreplaceable. He can be fun and relatable, but then he gets up on the podium and gets work done.”
The result of that energy, says Kohei Hisakuni ’15 (Hastings, Minn.), is a thriving group of singers. “Mike is a great motivator,” Hisakuni says. “He’s an inspiration to us all.”