Nurturing choral leaders of the future
MSU choral alumnae mentor young women scholars in unique program.
Alison Geesey Lagan’s love of choral music was nurtured by women. Her mother played piano and led a church choir, her grandmother sang, and her most formative music teachers in school were women. Today, she’s paying that passion forward as director of children and youth choirs at the Michigan State University Community Music School.
But when Lagan decided to pursue a career in choral conducting, she encountered a different dynamic. Women were scarce. They were under-represented. Choirs and choral groups beyond elementary school were generally led by men. Even images on textbook covers or in popular media largely depicted men, cementing the perception that women conductors were non-traditional at best.
“When I was growing up, if you researched the field or even googled ‘conductor,’ most of what you found were stories or pictures of men in the profession,” said Lagan. “The conducting profession has long been the prevue of men, especially at the professional level. It’s only now starting to change.”
That change and movement toward gender diversity in choral conducting is being fostered, in part, by initiatives like the Young Women Scholars program created by mirabai—a professional-level women’s chamber ensemble comprised of MSU choral alumnae. For the past three years, Lagan has helped shape and coordinate the specialized education track that attracts high school women from around the country who are interested in choral conducting and teaching. Held in June, the program pairs eight young women in a one-on-one mentoring relationship with a member of mirabai.
“Programs like Young Women Scholars provide leadership experience, and show young women it is possible to pursue a career in conducting,” said Lagan. “We’re here to celebrate their unique attributes and what they can bring to the field.”
MSU Professor of Choral Conducting and Chair of the Music Education area Sandra Snow had a mission in mind when she formed a treble-voiced choral ensemble. In 2017, Snow recruited alumnae from the MSU Women’s Chamber and formed mirabai—an ensemble devoted to promoting equality among women in choral music. Snow explained that mirabai is a select group with an overall mission to democratize the choral landscape and normalize the formation of such ensembles.
“There is a rich tradition of women’s choirs in the United States, and women should be represented at every level of choral singing,” Snow said.
The Young Women Scholars program is part of the mission to establish women’s choirs and show what they can accomplish. It is among the various initiatives undertaken by the 32 women in mirabai who work as conductors, arts administrators, educators, singers and composers.
Since 2018, the group has invited high school women with an interest in music teaching and conducting to apply to the week-long program. Eight students are selected from a nationwide pool that has grown to 100 or more applicants. Each receives a full scholarship to attend the program that runs parallel to Snow’s Choral Music Experience Institute for Choral Teacher Education.
“This program is an incredible example of the impact of MSU beyond the walls of campus,” Snow said. “Our alumnae have gone on to successful careers and are now coming back to share their expertise, mentor aspiring students, and strengthen opportunities for women in choral music.”
Over a five-day period, scholars enjoy private conducting instruction and group classes in score analysis, aural skills and rehearsal technique. Students also observe professional teachers from across the country in a master class setting. At the end of the week, each scholar leads their own master class and conducts a piece featuring a choir from the Community Music School, as well as a piece with the master class choir.
MSU Music Education sophomore Claire Kaiser attended the Young Women Scholars program in 2018. The Charlotte High School graduate said she continues to look back on what she learned that summer, and recalls the day she led a choir.
“Dr. Snow and Ms. Lagan did a great job empowering and teaching us that we are just as capable and strong as our male counterparts,” she said. “They showed us that we can do whatever we want to do as far as choral conducting goes.”
Lagan said the overall goal of the Young Women Scholars program isn’t so much to streamline students into music education or even choral conducting. It’s more, she said, about strengthening confidence and leadership abilities.
“We’re exposing these scholars to amazing women who are leaders in the choral profession,” she said. “It shows them there are lots of paths to take in the choral world, including roles they might have thought weren’t for them.”
Snow said that Lagan is an ideal person to lead the program and to mentor students alongside her fellow choral members of mirabai.
“She sees the potential in every scholar,” said Snow. “She’s a fantastic role model and exactly what we want young women to see. They can look at Alison—as well as all the other members of mirabai—and see what kind of life they can make in the choral profession.”
Snow said that while the Young Women Scholars program is a reunion of sorts for mirabai, the full ensemble will unite March 4-7 to perform at the Southwestern Division of the American Choral Director’s Association Convention in Little Rock, Arkansas. The group is one of three invited to perform, standing apart as one of the few professional choirs with an all-female roster.
“I’m very proud of the connectivity that has developed among ensemble members,” said Snow. “We all rely on one another to bring their individual gift to the table and to collaborate. The fact that we have an educational mission targeted toward young high school women is a real point of pride.”