Composing for Middle and High School Choirs – A conversation with Laura Farnell and Reginald Writer – Part 1

Mark Rohwer is the director of fine arts for Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District (Dallas-Fort Worth, TX). He was previously the director of choral activities at Flower Mound High School for over twenty years. He is a member of the ChorTeach editorial board. 

Laura Farnell is an active choral composer, clinician, accompanist, and adjudicator who resides in Arlington, Texas. She earned a BME from Baylor University and taught elementary and junior high music in Texas. In 2004 she received an Excellence in Education Award as the Arlington Independent School District’s outstanding junior high teacher of the year. 

Describe the path that led you to composing music for middle school and high school choirs. 

Farnell: I was fortunate to have a musically rich childhood, supportive parents, as well as caring and talented musicians and educators in my life, which laid the foundation for me to have opportunities in music. The path that led me specifically to composition likely began with my participation in the “improvisation” category of piano guild in elementary school. While at Baylor University completing my music education degree, I took a choral composition class with Dr. Robert Young. During my third year of teaching, I transitioned from teaching elementary music to junior high choir, at which point I found myself spending quite a lot of time adapting pieces to make them work for my seventh- and eight- grade tenor bass choir. At one point, I thought, “It would be so much easier to write my own pieces,” so I gave it a try! When my students seemed to enjoy my arrangement of “Deck the Halls” and were successful performing it, I thought, “Maybe other directors and choirs would be able to enjoy this piece,” which prompted me to submit it for publication. After it was accepted, I was encouraged to write and arrange more pieces for my students. 

Wright: I started composing music for school choirs due to a need for music for my high school tenor/bass choir. We had a strong, but mighty, twelve-voice men’s choir. The required music for the state festival list was well above the accessibility level for this band of humans. The more accessible music for the group was below their level. I composed a middle-of the-road piece that contained some cool stylings along with a difficulty that was within their grasp. 

As a singer or choral conductor yourself, what helped prepare or give perspective to your composing? 

Farnell: My experience teaching junior high choir probably shaped my perspective most as a composer and was also my primary motivation to begin to write. I wanted my students to have successful performances, and I felt the literature options available then were limited in many ways. I first wrote for my students, and doing so prompted me to shape my writing styles for their needs, such as what ranges would work best, what types of styles and texts they would like to sing, and how to make the pieces simultaneously interesting and accessible. 

Wright: My experiences as a middle and high school teacher/conductor gave me the best insight on what and how to compose. I tended to pay attention to the musical elements my students liked, as well as voicings and compositional devices that allowed them to be successful. I loved writers like Morten Lauridsen and Z. Randall Stroope, who incorporated interesting harmonies, and Stephen Paulus, who used instruments as a continuation of the vocal sonorities. 

Do you have anything specific in mind related to middle school or high school choirs when you are composing a piece? 

Farnell: Definitely! When I’m writing a piece for a specific choir, I try to tailor it to that ensemble, which can be a challenge when I’m working on a piece for a choir and director I’ve never met! When I’m working on a noncommissioned composition for a developing choir, a limited range is something I strive to prioritize, especially in tenor-bass compositions. I also try to incorporate optional notes to allow directors the flexibility to make the best choices for their ensemble. I also learned, first from Dr. Earlene Rentz in my choral methods class and later from personal experience, the importance of a supportive piano accompaniment part. Finally, I try to keep the text choice in mind as I write. I try not only to write music that uses poetry that speaks to my soul, but also to keep in mind, “How can I make these beautiful words accessible to the young artist?” 

Wright: I am always doing my best to stay in tune with the needs of the student musicians, as some things have changed over the years in terms of the make-up of some choirs. I’d like to think I am in tune with the overall specifics of young choirs in terms of appropriate skill level, tessitura, societal interests, and musical preferences for the age groups. 

What are the challenges you find yourself facing as a composer?

Farnell: When I first started writing, one of my primary challenges was finding enough time to balance the writing process with the demands of teaching. When I stepped away from teaching full time, I found a similar challenge of balancing my creative process, which often requires large chunks of uninterrupted time, with the demands of being a mom and a part-time musician. I also face the challenge of “staying connected” meaningfully in classroom work so that my writing remains relevant. Additionally, finding public domain texts that simultaneously speak to my soul and are accessible enough for use with young singers is an ongoing challenge. 

Wright: The biggest struggle I face at the present time is working to balance my life as a full-time husband and teacher while composing and conducting, where travel is mostly required.
Reprinted from ChorTeach with permission of ACDA.

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