Blair’s new choral director set to take the stage

children'schorusTalk about a baptism by fire. Tucker Biddlecombe arrived for his first day on the job this summer at the Blair School of Music with a Herculean assignment. He had just weeks to prepare the Blair Children’s Chorus for a performance of Mahler’s mighty “Symphony of Thousand” with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Needless to say, the former Florida high school choral director rose to the occasion, and the children’s chorus sang gloriously.

Blair’s newly appointed director of choral activities will be at it again this weekend, conducting the Blair Chamber Choir on Saturday, Sept. 29 and the Blair Symphonic Choir on Monday, Oct. 1. I had a chance to speak with the 36-year-old Buffalo, NY native and ask him some questions about his philosophy of teaching and his vision for Vanderbilt’s choirs in the upcoming years.

BiddlecombeQ.  When did you first realize you wanted to conduct choirs, and why?

A.  I was always a very hypercritical musician when I majored in vocal performance in college.  I never found a lot of joy in it.  I typically found satisfaction in what I was doing –a song or a section I sang – about once a month.  I knew it wasn’t right for me.  It wasn’t my teacher’s fault, but I wasn’t in a good enough place to accept my faults as a musician and to grow.  But when I had to get up in front of a choir of people for conducting, I began to have that sense of joy and satisfaction about every two minutes.  I think as soon as I began conducting I knew that’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I was musically designed to do.

Q.  How did you decide to come to Vanderbilt University?

A.  After I finished my dissertation I applied to a number of different schools.  I was one of about 110 choral candidates who applied to Vanderbilt.  I was excited when I saw the job, first because it was the earliest job but also because it had the element of a children’s chorus in it, which I had conducted for a long time.  I was asked to come to campus for a preliminary visit and I really enjoyed it.  The chemistry seemed to be right, and I was more sure of it the second time I got asked to campus to work with the choirs.  Eventually I was asked to take the job and I gladly accepted; I really enjoyed the campus and the students.

Q.  Do you have a basic philosophy of what good choral singing is and how it should be achieved? If so, what is it?

A.  There are two basic philosophies of American choral conducting.  One is the Lutheran tradition, associated with places like Luther College and St.  Olaf.  It’s a very beautiful, blended sound in which the individual voices are rarely heard.  The other is associated with Robert Shaw.  It involves taking wonderful individual vocal talent and focusing on unity of vowel, entrance and exit rather than trying to make every voice sound the same.  I would say my philosophy is a balance between the two.

Q.  What are the differences between conducting a high school and a college choir?

A.  The main difference is the amount and kind of repertoire that a college choir can perform.  There are a lot of pieces that, for one reason or another, just aren’t appropriate for high school students to sing.  Really large, vocally trying pieces; a great deal of Bach, and other similar things are beyond most high school students vocally and even emotionally.  College students, on the other hand, sing that kind of thing for their bread and butter and love it.

Q.  What is the most irritating thing you think choirs do on a regular basis?

A.  By far the most irritating thing a choir can do is fail to bring their music to a rehearsal.  An instrumentalist would never dare fail to bring their music; their part is “the part,” and if they don’t play it no one does.  Choral musicians can, for some reason unknown to me, be lax about this sometimes.

Q.  Do you prefer to conduct a cappella choral works or works with orchestra?

A.  I prefer to conduct as many musicians as possible.  I can conduct a choir, a choir with orchestra, or a chamber choral ensemble with guitar and flute.  I really do enjoy conducting orchestras and picking up the baton for large pieces.

Q.  How do you see choral singing fitting into a larger musical education?

A.  We’re lucky, in that I can find a person who is willing and interested and in about a year I can make them a productive member of my choral ensemble; it takes much longer for someone to learn instrumental skills.  Choral fits into the hierarchy in that we need to be a participatory enterprise, where people can join us rather than just sit and listen.  Singing in the choir should be communal; in the first few years that I’m here, building a community that’s interested in choral music will be a big priority.

Q.  What’s your favorite piece to conduct and why?

A.  My favorite piece that I have conducted so far was the Bach Cantata No.  150.  I was convinced by a fellow conductor and mentor to try a Bach work with my high school choir that was appropriate to their level.  It took a lot of work, but once the choir got it, it was one of the most intense musical and emotional experiences I have had in my career.

Q.  Vocal pedagogy has changed a lot over the past 30 years, with new techniques and biological understanding of the voice.  Is choral conducting changing along with it? Should it change?

A.  Choral conducting has changed a lot in the last 30 years.  We’ve gone from an approach that says every sound is the same, every kind of repertoire is the same, and there’s not much shifting of styles between different kinds of music.  Just like vocal pedagogy has changed, just like period performance has changed, so has the needs for a choral ensemble.  That’s why you see a lot of specializing: groups will specialize in Romantic music, or early music even up to particular composers.  In choral conducting, our job is simply to help in the production of a good vocal sound.  To do that, sometimes we have to go out of the traditional box of what we were taught as conductors.  As a conductor, I’ll do all kinds things to create an atmosphere that assists the singers in their rendition of whatever they’re doing.

Q.  What other hobbies, musical or otherwise, do you have outside of choral education?

A.  I’m a huge sports fan.  I love hockey and football – I played hockey a lot when I was younger.  I’m not very athletic, but I enjoy watching and following sports.  I used to ghostwrite for a sports website’s column.  I would say that’s definitely my primary hobby; it takes up a good amount of time outside of my job.

Photo credit: Blair Children’s Chorus by Laurie Davis

If you go

Tucker Biddlecombe will lead the Blair Chamber Choir in music by Brahms, Poulenc and Hogan at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29 at Turner Hall, 2400 Blakemore Ave. He leads the Blair Symphonic Choir in the music of Henry Purcell and Thomas Tallis at 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 1 at Ingram Hall. Both concerts are free.

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About Kelby Carlson

Kelby Carlson is an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music working toward his bachelor of music in voice. In addition to ArtsNash he also writes articles for the Vanderbilt Torch, a politically oriented magazine on Vanderbilt's campus. He hopes to pursue a master's degree in vocal performance or a law degree after undergraduate school.