After 23 years of many roles with the Dale Warland Singers, including associate conductor, Jerry Rubino is leading a new “artistically ambitious” choir of seniors called Voices of Experience. Chorus America talked to Rubino about what he calls his “ministry” of music—how he encourages singers to bring their full, expressive selves to singing.
In your choral music career you wear many hats. You are a conductor of professional, community, and church choruses. You are a composer and arranger, and a clinician and teacher. Now you are leading a chorus of senior singers. Tell us about your latest endeavor.
Two years ago, I became conductor of Voices of Experience, a new choir that is a joint project of the Minnesota Chorale and the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. The choir is made up of seniors, many of whom previously sang with the Minnesota Chorale. They didn’t want to have as big a commitment, but also didn’t want to give up singing or doing quality repertoire.
The singers are mostly in their 60s and 70s, with several in their 80s, and a couple younger. They take it very seriously and they want to be challenged and keep up their voices. I read an article recently that talks about all the special things that people who are older need to worry about in terms of their vocal technique. While I agree, I really don’t give older singers a lot of specifics about how they can keep their voices young. Rather, I tend to use the same warmups with them that I do with my other choirs, but perhaps not as complicated or range-y. I treat them with a great deal of normalcy, which I think is what they appreciate.
Voices of Experience is not auditioned but we have criteria for what would make someone feel comfortable in the group. You need to be able to match pitch and be able to use printed scores. The ability to read music is preferred, but not demanded. I have quite a few people in the group who can read music, and others who learn mostly by ear. I do a specific seating chart, where I put readers next to those who do it by ear.
At every concert we have an audience singalong time. I choose the songs based on theme of the concert. Our upcoming concert is about peace and justice. So we will do Lift Every Voice and Sing with the audience. The singalongs are a huge hit in our concerts. I keep wondering if there is more that we could do to reach out like that as the program builds.
What have you heard from the singers about their time in Voices of Experience?
The singers always tell me it is one of the highlights of their week. They have ownership in it without me even trying.
We use the beautiful rehearsal hall space at the MacPhail Center which has a lobby right outside. It doesn’t matter how early I get there, there are always choir members already there and they bring their coffee and sit in chairs and talk. It is very social, very much a community. Last spring, I began a practice before rehearsal of asking three or four singers to tell their stories—where they had sung before, where they had grown up, etc. Of course, some wanted to talk forever! But for the most part it was an enriching, nurturing time.
For 23 years you were on the staff of the Dale Warland Singers, a professional chorus. Yet your heart seems to be with community choruses.
Five years ago Dale Warland was asked to create a chorus to be regularly involved with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. I assist him with that ensemble so I continue to be involved and passionate about professional choral music. I also have been the Minister of Music at Spirit of Hope United Methodist in Golden Valley, Minnesota for 24 years. For me, the core reason to sing in a chorus is to be in a safe community place where you can learn and grow and bring your best you. Of course, musical excellence and beautiful tone is extremely important, too. The best ensembles combine musical excellence with the communication of text and emotion. I actually use the word ministry. I like the word in the broader sense. It is not just spiritual ministry, but social and personal, that life-changing experience that nurtures us to be complete people and even “soul workers.”
After coming to Minnesota in the 1970s, I taught at four local colleges, including Carleton College in Northfield. Carleton has a small music major program, but they strongly promoted paticipation in the arts to their students. They felt their students needed to be well rounded and wanted them to learn how to use the other side of their brains, rather than only being driven academically. Students would come to me and ask, “What do I need to do to make an A?” My standard response was that you really cannot legislate artistry. You have to allow it.
This is such a challenge in our field. There is the side of the brain that analyses and tries to do things correctly. But there also has to be a sense of finding out who one is, of finding out one’s calling, and figuring out how one relates in an ensemble. The spiritual dimension, which we talk about a lot, is not always as valued, taught, and encouraged. It takes time to explore that because it is not black and white. That is what I really love about what I get to do.
Where did you learn about these dimensions of singing?
I did not start off in choral music, but rather began in college specializing in instrumental music, especially the cello. I was always interested in a lot of different instruments and all styles of music, from the classical repertoire to pop and jazz. I ended up at Temple University where my advisor was Robert Page, who was a significant mentor in my life. He modeled excellence.
I was at Temple at the most unbelievable time. The Temple choirs used to be the choir that sang with Philadelphia Orchestra. While there, the orchestra changed recording labels and the Philadelphia Chorus was formed for a brief time to do some recordings. I was in that group and a lot of the people that I sang with were in the very first Philadelphia Singers, that Michael Korn formed in the early 1970s.
Then twenty years ago I got to know a brilliant man named Wesley Balk who taught theater at the University of Minnesota and was one of the original artistic directors of the Minnesota Opera. He was known for helping singers figure out how to act. What I learned from him is that the integrated singer/actor, who stands on stage and sings a role in theater or opera, really has to bring together three different disciplines. One is the the body awareness. Another is the acting—the interior preparation of character, personality and emotion. And the third is the vocal instrument itself. So many singers go to school to perfect the vocal instrument, without ever integrating all of these other things.
Growing up in the church, we were raised to give our best to the Lord, but the highest priority was not to perform. The highest priority was to engage the people, so that the people hearing us had a spiritual and emotional and personal connection. It sounds so lofty and obvious, but people still want to ask what my Carleton students did: What do I have to do to get an A? They think that doing what is on the page in front of them is going to make the music. But that doesn’t make the music. The music in front of us is simple a list of instructions. We make the music with the integration of the three things I mentioned.
How do you encourage your singers to “make music”?
When I am conducting a choir or coaching a singer, I will often stop them and say, “Would you please sing this as if you understand what the language means.” Often they are so busy using language to make beautiful music that they are not allowing their own instinct to come through. Take a word like glorious. It needs a wow moment. It needs to sound like it has a wowin it. If a singer sings with an attitude of understanding a text, the musical tone will shift, the expression on the face will shift, and the body language will shift.
This is what I just love watching people do. Children will do this in a heartbeat. As we get older, we are not sure. We think we have to be given permission to do this. I would say that I do an awful lot of permission-giving to explore that side. I stop my singers when it gets exciting in the room. If I get goosebumps, I tell them. Getting goosebumps is a wonderful barometer, and you can’t plan on it. It just happens. It is like an inner aha. If that happens in the room, we have to celebrate it. Singers will say, “Why did you stop us if it was going so well?” I say, “Because I wanted to celebrate it going really well so that we can set up the right conditions to do it again.” We have to practice allowing spontaneity to actually be part of our experience.
You also have started an organization called VOICES 360. Tell us about that?
VOICES 360 is a vocal and instrumental ensemble that is on call for anything from a private party to recording sessions. We do early music, classical music, gospel, pop and jazz in venues as diverse as Macy’s and Orchestra Hall. With VOICES 360, I really try to teach people both by reading music and by ear. Contemporary gospel music, for example, is much easier to learn by ear than to try to get it on the page. There are so many actors in music theater in Minneapolis and they can’t read music. They have to learn by listening to a CD, which sets them up to copy someone else rather than to create their own role. I am setting up a class as we speak called “Music Notation Understanding for Singer/Actors.” I will encourage participants to really combine the right and left brains to create a fully expressive role. It seems to always be about balance.
How has Chorus America been helpful to you?
I could talk about that for a long time. Though I had known Michael Korn [one of the founders of Chorus America] from the very beginning, I did not get serious about jumping into Chorus America until the early 1980s. I attended the annual conference the first time it was in Minneapolis, with the Dale Warland Singers hosting. My group, the Cabaret Singers was part of the Dale Warland Singers. We were invited to perform and I was hooked. Here were all of these famous people that I knew of—Alice Parker and Margaret Hillis come to mind—and I don’t know what happened, but I became part of the family.
Back in the 1980s, one of the goals of the Dale Warland Singers was to be a professional choir. We wanted to expect singers to work at the same level as our instrumental counterparts and needed to be paid a professional wage for that preparation and performance. One of my jobs was to create a performance evaluation for professional singers. We were fortunate to be an early pioneer in this regard. Back then Chorus America was a support group to try to figure out these kinds of things. For me, that is the strongest thing Chorus America offers—help with how to create a board, how to deal with fundraising, how to choose an executive director, and all of the other things about running an artistic organizaton. With VOICES 360, I am not yet in a position to hire an executive director or create a board of directors. If the heavens were to open, that would be lovely and I would turn to Chorus America for help with that.