They're no "Choir Boys" but Dr. Tom Jenrette expects perfection from the Choral Ensembles at ETSU
April Feature Story: Q&A! with Dr. Jenrette
By Angela Wampler | March 27, 2007A! Magazine — What does it mean for your choral groups to perform at various conventions and at the White House? How were they invited?
Tom Jenrette: The invitation to perform at a convention of the American Choral Directors Association is the result of a recorded audition of performances from the last three years. Twenty-four choirs from around the world were invited to perform at the national ACDA convention in Miami in March, 2007. The ETSU Men's Ensemble is the only collegiate choral ensemble from Tennessee and the only male ensemble in the country to be invited. Other invited groups include the Swingle Singers and the Yale Schola Cantorum. The Men's Ensemble will perform two concerts at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, one at the Knight Concert Hall at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, and one at the Miami Beach Convention Center. They will sing for over 6,000 choral musicians from all over the world.
A! — You have a reputation for running a tight ship and demanding perfection from your students. How do you accomplish this?
Jenrette: By believing in their ability to reach near-perfection, by not being willing to settle for less, and by being convinced of the ennobling value of the effort.
A! — What do you like best/least about your job?
Jenrette: The best — teaching/working with students; the least — meetings and paperwork.
A! — What is your audition process? And what do you specifically look for?
Jenrette: Voice quality is important, but the ability to sing with good intonation is most important. The audition consists of singing scales to demonstrate range, repeating melodic passages played at the piano to demonstrate pitch retention, and singing a prepared piece to demonstrate voice quality and musicality.
A! — Once singers are selected for the Chorale, what is expected of them — attendance, work ethic, etc.?
Jenrette:The Chorale rehearses for one period each day, five days a week, throughout the school year. Students are expected to be at every rehearsal and to be on time for every rehearsal. There are very few extra rehearsals. Students stand on risers throughout every rehearsal.
A! - In addition to having strong, "trainable" voices, what are the qualities you find that distinguish one choir from another that result in a winner? In other words, what makes for a winning choir — other than a group of fine voices?
Jenrette: The belief on the part of the singers that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
A! — How important is the choice of music in creating a winning choir? How do you select the repertoire?
Jenrette: The right repertoire is all-important. Finding good repertoire is an on-going lifelong search.
A! - Why form an all-male choir?
Jenrette: Men love to sing in all-male choirs. There is a special camaraderie and energy that exists in an all-male singing group. I believe the majority of men prefer singing in an all-male group to singing in a mixed group. I believe young boys prefer singing in a boys' choir to singing in a children's choir. I have given a lot of thought to the sociology of this. I believe males are more comfortable singing without females around. They aren't afraid of looking foolish. I believe one of the best solutions to the problem of too few males in choral ensembles is to start an all-male ensemble.
A! - What are the features you find to be advantageous about an all-male choir?
Jenrette: I believe most people would rather hear a male choir than any other kind of choral ensemble.
A! — What are the liabilities?
Jenrette: The men's voices have to be divided into four parts instead of two as in a mixed choir. Therefore, you have to have first tenors who can sustain high and basses who can sing low. Also, you have to have strong singers in four sections instead of just two.
A! — What number is optimal for a gender-specific choir?
Jenrette: Anything between 4 and 400 is good. About 50 is probably best.
A! - How do you obtain the outstanding tonal quality that your men's group is known for?
Jenrette: It would take a book to really answer this question. That would be a good future project. I believe the most important ingredient for successful male singing is adequate energy. For men to really get into their voices, they have to commit a great deal of energy.
A! - Some people think a lot of students attend ETSU because it's close to home. Others say the preparation level of the students has dropped with the advent of the Tennessee Lottery scholarships. With that in mind, how do you develop such fine ensembles at ETSU? Have you seen any change, good or bad, in the caliber of students attending ETSU?
Editor's Note: To learn about Tennessee Lottery scholarships, visit
www.TnLottery.com and click on "Where the Money Goes."
Jenrette: I believe the caliber of students I have now is at least as good, maybe better, than in the past. We have an incredible number of gifted singers in Northeast Tennessee. I am so happy that many of them choose to stay close to home. The James and Sandra Powell Scholarships in Choral Music make it possible for me to attract talented singers and to make it financially possible for many students to continue their educations. The Powells have been the best friends to choral music at ETSU that anyone could hope for.
A! — What do you see as the future of choral music?
Jenrette: Like all of the performing arts — legitimate performing arts, not commercial — choral music is struggling. Generally people associate music with its entertainment value only, not with the ability of serious music to stretch their minds and elevate their spirits. The value of the fine arts in education is impossible to over-estimate. However, if the fine arts' only value is simply entertainment, then I can understand why it should receive so little support.
About the ETSU Chorale
The ETSU Chorale is an auditioned mixed ensemble of 75 voices that rehearses six hours per week throughout the school year. All members are undergraduate students at ETSU. Approximately half are music majors. Under Dr. Jenrette's direction, ETSU choral ensembles have performed for four southern division and two national conventions of the American Choral Directors Association, for state and southern division conventions of the Music Educators National Conference, for two national conventions of the Intercollegiate Men's Choruses. Concert tours have taken them throughout the eastern United States, Europe, Venezuela, and the Caribbean.
Dr. Thomas Jenrette is Director of Choral Activities and Professor of Music at East Tennessee State University. A native of Galax, Va., he holds two degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a student of Lara Hoggard, and the degree Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Michigan, where he studied conducting with Elizabeth Green and Thomas Hilbish. He has done further study in conducting with Brock McElheran, Robert Page, and Helmuth Rilling. His previous teaching posts have included the Burlington, North Carolina City Schools where he served as Director of Cultural Arts, Olivet College in Michigan, and Southwest State University in Minnesota.
Jenrette served as the repertoire and standards chair for male choruses for the southern division of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) from 1999-2005 and as Tennessee chair from 1989-1999. At the 2004 ACDA southern division convention, he presented an interest session entitled "Attracting and Retaining Male Singers."
He has been invited to conduct all-state male choirs in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. He is an active member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. At the 2006 regional competition of NATS, two of his students won second-place honors in their divisions. An active clinician, Dr. Jenrette has been invited to conduct all-state male choirs in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Jenrette has served two terms as a member of the executive board of the East Tennessee Vocal Association, and other professional associations include the National Association of Teachers of Singing and the International Federation for Choral Music. Jenrette is a member of Pi Kappa Lambda and Omicron Delta Kappa honor societies, an honorary member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, and he is listed in Who's Who in America and Who's Who in the World.
The ESTU Chorale is an auditioned mixed ensemble of 75 voices that rehearses six hours per week throughout the school year.
Since his first day at ETSU nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jenrette and his students have performed in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, St. Peter's Basilica at The Vatican in Rome, and twice at the White House in Washington, D.C. Shown is the ETSU Men's Choral Ensemble performing at the Dreikonigskirache (Church of the Magi) in Dresden, Germany, during their 2006 European tour. The Gothic revival church was built in the 1730s.