When Tucker Biddlecombe, associate professor of choral activities and choral director, first came to the Blair School of Music in 2012, Blair-based performing choirs were happy to have just a third of Ingram Hall filled for concerts.
“There had been times when there were more people on stage than in the audience,” he says.
What a difference three years can make. This year’s Choral Prism concert in February was standing room only, with every seat in Ingram Hall filled more than 30 minutes prior to the concert’s start. It’s been that way since the first Choral Prism concert in spring 2013.
Biddlecombe’s idea—to draw larger audiences and bring more of the university to Blair for concerts—hinged on finding a way to unite the Blair choral groups with student-led choral groups on campus.
“There was always a strict division between Blair choirs and concerts and the university choirs and a cappella groups,” Biddlecombe says.
“My idea was to combine them and do one concert on an audition weekend,” he explains. “Not only could we pull in audiences from all of our student groups, but from potential students who were auditioning at Blair who could see what the whole musical university landscape looks like. There was no other concert that featured that.”
Mainstays of the first three concerts have been the two primary Blair choirs—the Vanderbilt Symphonic Choir and the Vanderbilt Chorale—along with groups traditionally based in the university—the Vanderbilt University Concert Choir, and the Melodores, for whom Biddlecombe serves as faculty adviser. The Melodores, who won this year’s Sing-Off a cappella competition in December on NBC-TV, have always had a large following on campus.
“It’s been suggested,” Biddlecombe says, “that we only bring in that huge audience because they’re there to see the Melodores, but they see everyone else perform as well.”
Every year Biddlecombe invites new a cappella groups to perform. Last year it was Vanderbilt Variations. This year it was Harmonic Notion and Blair Vocal Jazz, and for the first time, a Vanderbilt dance group. The BhangraDores, who perform Bhangra, a music and dance style originating in the Punjab region of India, joined the Vanderbilt Chorale on a collaborative piece.
With as many as 16 pieces during a concert, Biddlecombe has perfected the art of transitions. He has been able to keep the length of the concert to one hour and 20 minutes.
“Every student has a detailed sheet called a ‘run sheet’ in their folders, telling them where they’re supposed to be and what they’re doing,” he says. “The first time everyone had to be taught how to use it, but this year, so many had done it before, they could lead the new students.”
To ease transitions, groups not only sing on stage, but also around the hall. While one group performs, another gets into position. As soon as the clapping dies down, the next group begins, creating a seamless flow of performances and no down time.
Biddlecombe also has the groups perform together in the round for the opening and closing pieces, surrounding the audience with the warmth of many voices harmonizing. The first year, they began and ended the concert with world music. This year, hymns were used. The opening was an arrangement of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” In the surround, Biddlecombe could see the audience’s expressions, a unique experience for him as conductor, since he usually has his back to the audience.
“People were supremely moved,” he says. “It was a powerful communal moment.”
The popularity of the concert has now created challenges for Biddlecombe as he tries to figure out how to accommodate larger audiences. Two shows may be a future possibility, either on one night or two. One thing he won’t do is move the concert away from Blair.
“I want people to make the trek to Blair. It needs to be something that Blair, as Vanderbilt’s school of music, hosts.”
Aside from bringing a larger audience to Blair, the annual concert has also brought more university singers to Blair’s ensembles, serving to grow the program.
“If I could quantify anything I’ve done here,” Biddlecombe says, “it’s the inclusion of nonmajors in the highest musical processes. Our Blair ensembles were small because nonmajors weren’t encouraged to try out. But when I hold auditions now, I may have a neuroscience major try out who sang with the Texas All-State choral ensemble in high school. Yes, they’re nonmajors, but that doesn’t diminish the quality—they’re musicians just like the Blair music majors. A full quarter of the chorale is now nonmajors and half of the symphonic choir, yet it has only served to enhance the quality of both.
“When I came, I was told our choirs did this and the other choirs did that and never the twain should meet. But I think we’re better together. We’re all part of the same Vanderbilt choral family.”
—Bonnie Arant Ertelt