Arabic Choral Music: Navigating the Challenges and Questions Encountered while Learning and Teaching the Repertoire
RoundTable XIII-1, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm
This roundtable seeks to draw together music educators and choral conductors who facilitate the learning and performing of Arabic choral music, one of the less familiar genres of choral music in the West. As choral organizations in academic institutions, schools and communities have become culturally diversified due to technology, media, migration and globalization, it has become increasingly essential for choral educators to understand their role as facilitators in selecting repertoire, encouraging cultural awareness and sensitivity towards diverse cultures and their musics. Conversations concerning the decolonizing of Eurocentric choral programs and practices are also increasing, and many choral educators today promote the respectful learning and performing of repertoire from various musical cultures other than the European classical tradition, including Arab cultures.
Learning and singing Arabic choral music can be intimidating for educators with little to no knowledge about the cultures, music, language and dialects represented in the repertoire. This roundtable aims to encourage dialogue regarding the challenges and questions encountered while working with the repertoire from socio-historical contexts to traditional singing styles, language pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet for singing Arabic, choosing effective culture bearers and creating bridges between diverse cultural groups.
Singing, specifically in languages other than one’s mother tongue, can be used as a means to expand choristers’ knowledge and appreciation of one another’s cultures and can lead to a sense of connection to places and people far away. Aside from the language, there are various elements found in Arabic choral music that are likely unfamiliar to most choral conductors and choristers, such as the many modes or maqāmat that make up the Arabian tone system, the maqsum, simple rhythmic percussion patterns that often accompany the singing, and Arabic vocal technique for traditional singing styles. Singing Arabic choral music using a traditional singing style can allow choristers to experience the beauty of the various cultures’ singing tones. It can also increase cultural sensitivity to vocal nuance and encourage open-mindedness to diverse singing styles. Arabic classical singing, unlike Western classical singing, is more lyrical and is closely related to the phonatory and articulatory behaviour of the Arabic-speaking voice. This singing style produces a straight tone as vibrato is absent. When singing Arabic choral music, culture bearers and listening to examples of choirs from the culture of origin singing the repertoire can also help with diction, timbre and articulation.
These many elements of Arabic choral music may seem overwhelming to educators and choristers when they first encounter them. Conversations will be encouraged focusing on the following questions: How should choral educators with little to no knowledge or experience approach teaching these specific elements? Considering that not all choral educators are voice teachers, what tools will enable them to facilitate choristers in the traditional singing style of Arabic choral music? What considerations should be made when choosing a culture bearer? Where can choral educators find authentic recordings of Arabic choirs performing this repertoire?
The focus of music education and learning Arabic choral music should not only be on the end result (the music performance) but also on the critical reflection of our musical and instructional practices. By providing adequate socio-historical contextual information to help explain the music’s origins and meanings, existing negative stereotypes can be dissolved. In order to foster a deeper understanding of the music and ourselves in relation to others, educators aim to provide cultural context for the music that is taught. The cultural context for Arabic choral music, an integral examination of various cultural aspects, can help students cultivate understandings of one another and appreciate the fundamental place of music and the arts in one another’s cultures. Discussion will be encouraged with the following questions:
1. How can we make space for lived music rather performed?
2. It is easy to pull things apart within the music, look at the research and find a way to isolate the socio/political context so we can better understand it, but then how do we put them back together?
3. Can choral music truly be space for difficult conversations?
In recent years, community music has flourished among adults. Choir conductors encounter repertoire in many different languages. When planning to sing Arabic choral music, conductors should be attentive to their choristers by considering their learning needs and assessing how the learning is facilitated.
Even though tools like the International Phonetic Alphabet can help guide pronunciation, choir members might have concerns about learning the language. Whether they are sensitive to “othering” or stressed by the fear of mispronouncing words, the choir conductor can offer different tools to help choir members. During this roundtable, a renowned choir conductor, clinician and pedagogue will encourage discussion on the following topics:
How can a choir conductor offer tools to encourage music in the community as a medium to build bridges among cultures? What different teaching approaches can the choir conductor offer to help interpret the repertoire? Are there methodological steps that could guide the learning of Arabic choral music?