Iwan Edwards: Motivating Young Voicesby Wah Keung Chan
/ March 1, 2001
The great thing about
singing is that it challenges so many aspects of a childís psyche," said Iwan
Edwards, conductor of the FACE Treble Choir. "Itís an intellectual exercise, a
physical exercise because there is breathing and that is healthy, and itís an
emotional exercise. All of those things children need. It goes towards
developing a complete child. To deprive them of that is therefore, in a sense, a
Following a March 22 performance of the Lizst Dante Symphony, the same
work that launched the choir, Edwards will be retiring after 20 years as the
FACE Treble Choirís director. "Itís time for the director of the choir to be
teaching at the school," said Edwards, who will continue his activities as
chorus master of the the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, artistic director of the
St-Lawrence Choir and professor of music at McGill University. La Scena
Musicale spoke to Iwan Edwards about his work with youth choirs.
"When Phillip Baugniet, founder of the FACE school, invited me to join FACE
in 1979, it only went up to grade 7. Only 12 students were interested in
singing. The next year we made choral music compulsory. I had done some work
with maestro Dutoit and he found out that I had worked with choirs. In January
1981, the Montreal Symphony programmed the Lizst Dantť Symphony and he
asked me to form a treble choir of 50Ė60 singers." Since that time, the FACE
Treble Choir, consisting of mostly girls from grades 7 to 11, has become the
youth choir of choice for the MSO in concerts and recordings.
Auditioning and working the choir
"Iíve always had gifted and not so gifted children. Although the choir is
auditioned, there are very few I turn away. If a child wants to sing, I try to
make it possible. I look for a good voice with true intonation; it doesnít have
to be a soloist voice. Itís surprising how illuminating childrenís faces can be
at an audition. They are petrified. I listen and I watch them and try to gauge
if there is any kind of a spark that I can appeal to. If there is a love for
what they do, it shows every time.
"We work on good posture, breathing, support, good formant vowel sounds and
to develop a keen awareness of the intonation. Itís like a sculpture, you chip
at it slowly until you get what you are looking for.
"I encourage them to sing intelligently. I never talk about blend and I never
go for a white sound. They develop a sense of what their sound is."
Edwards divides the choir from left to right in sections: soprano I, soprano
II and alto. "The grade 11 girls are taller and are in the 4th row. It works
downwards ó so the grade 7s are in the first row. As the more mature sound comes
forward it picks up the other colours from the younger voices from the front,
and out of that comes the melange which is the sound you are looking for. This
helps the grade 7s learn the music and develop the choirís unique sound.
"Sometimes, the student in grade 11 is short but has a strong voice, but you
would never put her in the front row. She would be in the 2nd or 3rd row,
alongside two younger singers with strong voices to absorb her sound, so that
the blend comes horizontally and vertically."
How to motivate
One of the hallmarks of the Treble Choir is its ability to sing from memory.
"Childrenís minds are absorbent and pick up things very quickly. They have
remarkable powers of retention which adults tend to underestimate. Memorizing is
an expectation built over 20 years. The trick is to absorb the music as they
learn it. The older ones read very well and the younger ones have to learn to
"I try to keep them motivated, and the motivation lies within the repertoire.
The more extreme the notation, the "cooler" it is. Give them a piece of allegory
music, and unlike adults, they will ask how to do it. You build into the natural
"There are two kinds of music that really appeal to them. The Murray Schafer
type of music encourages their imagination. They love singing counterpoint; the
settings of renaissance masses give them a measure of independence which is
satisfying and challenging. They are bored with pop songs; a choir can never
reproduce an individual, therefore the use of pop songs with choirs is a
"One thing to avoid is giving them the impression that there is a problem.
Then their new-found confidence will disappear very quickly. I try to encourage
them to focus enormous energy into singing, to be specific with the text,
painting pictures for them which will help them get the music off the page. When
they latch onto an idea or concept, it is amazing what happens to their energy
level at that point, it just takes off. They know they are being genuinely
creative, and children like that.
"I enjoy working with children because they have fresh minds you can play
with, and you can reach into their souls very quickly. Children will show their
emotion much quicker than adults. It is a privilege to be in that position, and
one has to be careful not to abuse it. The emotion has to be genuine all the
time, not cheap or superficial."
More of this interview appears at <www.scena.org>.