Henry Leck, Founder and Artistic Director of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, will bid adieu to one of Indiana’s landmark institutions, known the world over, after building the organization from scratch 30 years ago. After three decades at the helm of the world’s preeminent children’s choir, Leck – a revered figure in global choral music circles – will pass on the baton to his protégé, Joshua Pedde. Come April 30, Clowes Memorial Hall will play host to his final concert, marking both his farewell and the institution’s 30th anniversary.
In his 30-year stint, Henry Leck has taken the choir to the far corners of the world, encompassing international tours and performances at renowned concert sites across Australia, Central Europe, China, the Czech Republic, Great Britain, Greece, North America, New Zealand, Russia, Scandinavia and South America. His choral conducting portfolio includes a number of international festivals, including the Central European International Children’s Choral Festival, the Vienna Children’s & Boys Choir Festival with the Vienna Sangerknaben, the Musica Mundi Tuscany Children’s Choir Festival in Montecatini, Florence, Italy and Rome, and the International Children’s Choir Festival in Beijing, China.
Besides his international repute as a master of choral and other performance techniques, such as Laban, Dalcroze Eurhythmics, etc., he is generally considered the foremost expert on the child’s voice, and has distinguished himself by originating a method to navigate the boys’ changing voice, once considered a taboo topic at best and, at worst, an issue completely ignored by most choir directors. Under Leck, young boys have been able to understand their voice maturation process and nurture their new voices, allowing them to grow into the challenge instead of dropping out of singing during or after the brutal voice-changing stages, as so often happens. Boys’ choirs have been around for ages, and they’re inextricably linked to the art of worship in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact, the boy choir can be considered an institution in itself, shaped by the sands of time, and giving young talent a platform to hone their skills in a specialized field.
As Steve Jobs once said, “I want to put a dent in the universe.” Henry Leck has left an indelible mark on music education that will continue far beyond any of us reading this article. He is adept at shaping the naive but talented voices of children to a place where, at least for a moment, they realize that perfection is something that can be obtained before someone tries to tell them otherwise. To truly understand Henry Leck’s impact, it is important to illustrate the large shoes that he has filled and the historical context in which he fits, as he is undeniably one of the world’s all-time greatest musicians, educators, and conductors.
A Brief History of Boys’ Choirs
Before the emergence of Christianity, boys’ choirs were not a common part of the musical culture of ancient civilizations. Ancient China had 300-piece orchestras, but no boys’ choirs. The specialized musicians of the Jerusalem Temple Cult were men, with boys’ voices used sparingly to add sweetness to the proceedings. Greece and Rome created boys’ choirs for sacrificial ceremonies and festivals, with singing schools shouldering the responsibility of training the young ones.
The first three centuries of Christian worship were largely congregational in nature, calling upon everyone to sing in unison. There were, however, appeals by bishops and theologians, notably Basil of Caesarea and cc, to allow the participation of children. The ascension of Emperor Constantine and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire created conditions that would eventually allow boys to congregate into choirs. It started with the disenfranchisement of women from active ministry and from singing in church, and the practice of training young boys to become lectors on their path to becoming bishops and priests. Singing was one of the activities that lectors were required to partake in, and this system sprang the earliest roots of the boys’ choir.
In the late seventh century, the Schola Cantorum in Roma was established to train boys in singing and reading, and became the blueprint for similar institutions across Europe. Monasteries also began accepting boys wishing to become monks, and as part of their tradition, sang the Liturgy of the Hours. The disintegration of the Roman Empire in the sixth century put a pause on cultural activities, and in this environment, the significance and influence of boys’ choirs in religious monasteries increased.
In the years following Europe’s resurgence, cathedrals began overriding monasteries as places of religious education, music being no exception. This naturally led to a shift in boys’ singing in cathedrals, rather than in monasteries. In the history of the boy’s choir, 957 A.D. is considered a landmark moment. Bishop Wolfgang separated the diocese of Regensburg from the abbey of St. Emmeram, and then moved the choirs, clergymen, and congregation into the new St. Peter’s Cathedral in the city center. Thus, Regensburger Domspatzen, the cathedral choir for St. Peter’s in Bavaria, claims to be the world’s oldest choir of boys and men, crediting this documented separation as evidence, although their prominence as a premiere group has fluctuated over time.
At that time, boys sang Gregorian Chant, with a rhythm that was dictated more by the text than the music itself. After the domination of monophonic chant for thousands of years, the Church opened its doors to polyphony thanks to 12th century composers like Léonin and Pérotin. While it was initially denigrated for its “modernity,” the improvement in aural quality was too compelling to dismiss, and polyphonic settings began to be accepted and embraced.
In the 1450s and 60s, the first polyphonic works involving boys’ choirs were produced. The boys and monks of Canterbury Cathedral made polyphonic choral works more influential and wide-spread, encouraging the formation of many choruses for boys as well as men, some still in existence today. With little or no interruption in continuity, such can be found in Magdalen, Oxford; Christchurch College; and the world-famous chapel of King’s College in Cambridge, all of which continue to exist today.
In the seventeenth century, boys’ choirs flourished under musical geniuses such as Henry Purcell, John Blow, and Pelham Humfrey. The rise of Catholic Reformation further extended the spread of boys’ choirs across the world, where young boys mesmerized natives with their singing proficiency, just as Henry Leck has done with his audiences, utilizing choruses typically comprised of both boys and girls (although such a mix would have been strictly forbidden in the seventeenth century).
Subsequent years saw the rise and fall of church institutions, and with them, the boys’ choir, and it’s not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that religiosity, choirs, and choir schools resurged dramatically, resulting in a profusion of church music.
Women Join the Chorus
Twentieth century decrees by the Sacred Congregation for Liturgy forbade a mixed choir of men and women, and separate women’s choirs were permitted only under certain circumstances and with the permission of the bishop. Unbelievably, it was only in 1991 after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that girls were allowed to sing in Anglican choirs. In January 2014, the Canterbury Cathedral welcomed its first girls’ choir, after 900 years of being restricted to only male voices.
In an ideal world, nobody has to put forth a case for a girls’ choir, for cathedral music should be simply shared and experienced by everyone regardless of gender. The practical advantage of setting up a girls’ choir is that although their voices also mature with age, they can be recruited at a later stage and there is no risk of voices breaking as is the case with boys.
There is some debate on whether boys’ voices sound different to girls’, and there isn’t any consensus around it, though there are some strong feelings among traditionalists who are generally less open to the idea of including the fairer sex in church choirs. There are, however, studies on the difference in voices based on listeners’ aural perception. Henry Leck’s ear naturally picked up on such nuances, but science proves his point.
According to a study by David Howard of York University, there isn’t any distinguishable difference in the voices of girls’ choirs versus boys’ choirs, though individual voices may sound different. Howard asked 198 respondents to listen to 20 snippets from the Wells choir, ten of which were sung by girls in top line, and the other ten by boys. Just 53 percent of respondents were able to tell the difference correctly, suggesting that boys and girls can do an equally good job.
The gender of the choir doesn’t matter, but its quality does. Music education and voice training methods and programs have come a long way, helping adolescents manage their vocal quality with time and maturity. One of the earliest proponents of music education concepts in children was Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály.
The Zoltán Kodály Method
Born in Kecskemét, Hungary in 1882, Zoltán Kodály’s childhood was immersed in music. He studied piano and violin, sang in the cathedral choir, and was composing music at fourteen years of age. After acquiring a PhD in philosophy and linguistics, Kodály began to teach music theory and composition at the renowned Liszt Academy. Besides composing music, one of Kodály’s biggest passions and preoccupations was solving the problems facing music education. He wrote extensively on the subject, mostly in the form of educational music for schools, as well as textbooks themselves. In 1935, he started a long-term initiative, determined to reform music teaching in Hungary’s schools.
By the 1940s, his work and contributions culminated in the formation of an active, effective music education program unlike any other in the world. It became the basis of what is today known as the Kodály Method. Although he didn’t actually develop the aforementioned, formal method, he viewed himself as an educator and composer who created a few, key principles for music education, and it is these contributions later in his career for which Kodály is most famous (rivaled, maybe, only by his work with Béla Bartók, when in 1905 they traveled to remote villages collecting folk songs using phonograph cylinders, dictating the music, and later using the songs as part of his teaching tools). Kodály believed that nobody was too great to write for children, and he focused his attention on fixing and perfecting children’s choral singing.
Kodály is responsible for creating new standards in sight-reading (not an easy task), vocal intonation, and rhythmic vitality. He fought against cynics and critics to pave a new path in music education for kids. A few of Kodály’s concepts are discussed below, some of which Henry Leck sourced, refined, and crafted into a method applicable to the children of the later 20th and early 21st centuries.
Child-Development Sensitivity: The major portion of the teaching material Kodály created aligned to the child’s capabilities. However, at all times, many of the music materials were designed to expand those assumed capabilities, extracting excellence in making music from each child.
Teaching Rhythm Through Syllables: Kodály’s approach to rhythmic syllables involves teaching by patterns, and by the relative duration of beats similar to those created by nineteenth century theoretician Emile-Joseph Chêvé. The syllables are simply a way of voicing rhythm. The United States and Canada have made some changes to these syllables to avoid possible confusion resulting from language, or phonetic, differences. The widely used duration syllables in the Kodály method include ‘ta’, ‘ti-ti’,‘tika tika’, ‘tika-ti’, ‘tri-o-la’, ‘tum-ti’, and ‘syn-co-pa’.
The syllables are taught through patterns and phrases taken from songs. They are viewed as sounds with definitive musical relationships as opposed to simply rhythmic values. When children are performing rhythms with duration syllables, each sound continues into the next, almost forming a piece unto itself before the first note has left the child’s lips.
Abandoning Learning Assumptions: The overall sequence in the Kodály method is determined by the child’s innate developmental characteristics versus the logic of the subject matter. Duple meter is taught before triple, minor thirds and major seconds taught before minor seconds, etc. The adult brain is accustomed to determining what is “easy” and what is “hard,” and this isn’t true for children with proper, consistent, and quality music education.
Tonal Memory and Memorization: An important concept put forth by Kodály is inner hearing, which is the ability to hear the sounds silently and accurately before voicing them. Children are asked to sing the first three phrases of a song inside their head and the fourth one aloud. This is a difficult task, and children who can do it correctly are developing the ability to think of musical sounds as one would think of speaking another language.
Tonal memory, which plays a key role in singing accurately, works in a similar way. In a modern-day context, sequences are played on the piano and sung a few times, thereafter allowing students to repeat them vocally and, in many cases, notate the said sequences on paper, again, as if emulating learning any type of language.
Kodály’s methods have been incorporated, tweaked, and refined by choir conductors for years. Using the undeniable sound of artistic excellence created by the Indianapolis Children’s Choir as but one unit of measure, Henry Leck took the best of what Kodály – and others – created, and invented a more inclusive approach to singing, stretching from childhood through adolescence and beyond. He also insists upon an almost militant style of discipline from his students, who quickly become disciples, as the allure of musical perfection rests at the end of Henry Leck’s baton, something that no one – young or old – can resist.
Henry Leck’s Music Education Concepts for Children
Leck has poured his extensive experience as a choral director into educating young children, focusing heavily on tone quality and the continuous refinement of intonation. Besides contributing to the choral section of the Silver Burdett music textbooks for 4th, 5th and 6th grades, he has authored a choral textbook series Experiencing Choral Music published by McGraw Hill/Glencoe, and served as the editor of two nationally-recognized choral series published by the eponymous Hal Leonard Corporation and Colla Voce, Inc./Plymouth. Along with countertenor Steven Rickards, Leck has also produced DVDs demonstrating vocal concepts in Vocal Techniques for the Young Singer, The Boy’s Expanding Voice: Take the High Road and Creating Artistry through Movement Dalcroze Eurhythmics.
He has been generous in freely sharing his deep knowledge and insights into children’s and young boys’ voices at concerts and live events. Some of his techniques are outlined below:
Mental preparation is critical to a productive rehearsal. The mind must be relaxed and focused before vocal chords are put to the test. As the making of music begins in the silent depths of the mind, so should a rehearsal be preceded by a state of stillness and calm. Leck suggests establishing visual symbols that help students create a sense of mental stillness, transitioning from a busy and/or tensed state to one that is composed and ready for an immersive artistic experience. He says the symbol can be as simple as holding up both hands to indicate that the flurry and noise must be replaced by stillness and concentration, and the discipline of transitioning from chaos to calm must be improved upon in every successive rehearsal.
The next step is to take singers through muscle relaxation exercises, performed by the instructor and mimicked by singers. It’s not unlike the stretching techniques for upper torso relaxation used by athletes before a race. Much of the routine is based upon the Alexander Technique of releasing tension and maintaining balance. It often proceeds as follows:
• Hands over the head
• Backward stretch
• Rolling the shoulders
• Rotational stretch
• Rolling the head
A disciplined approach to mental focus and muscle relaxation are crucial steps to the process before moving on to any other artistic activities. While these activities don’t appear revolutionary on the surface, the absolute adherence to these steps, and those subsequent, were unique in 1986 when the Indianapolis Children’s Choir was formed. Henry Leck took the same approach to discipline that Kodály did to abandoning learning assumptions. His expectations of adult-like behavior from children, combined with his innovative approach to teaching, set the stage that started a resurgence and revolution unmatched in the modern era, taking otherwise normal children to the heights of musical perfection.
Breath management is often considered the single most important aspect of singing. Breathing techniques and singing go hand-in-hand, with many respected collegiate voice teachers forbidding students to sing a note until the basics of proper breathing techniques have been mastered. Henry Leck’s approach to breath management is extensive, so much so it would require an article unto itself. Suffice it to say that, for the non-singer, breathing is an involuntary bodily function. For the serious vocalist, it is at the very core of their physical technique.
A focused mind and a ready body forms the foundation upon which singers remember a given pitch. The ability to recall pitch is based on elements such as breathing, aural sound, physical sensation, the space in the mouth, and resonators. Before a child can exercise their vocal chords, singers must start with their “head voice,” sometimes a contentious term in vocal pedagogy, but one Leck clearly defines and, when used properly at a young age, a concept that eases the often difficult passage the male voice change presents.
Leck believes singing is a multi-sensory experience. Lessons, rehearsals, and pieces anchored in aural, visual, and kinesthetic techniques can provide equal value to vocal excellence when designed and executed properly.
Among a multitude of factors, much of the aesthetic of the choral sound is dependent upon homogeneity of vowel sounds created by each individual in the choir, which must be smooth and sustained to create the coveted beauty choral music can convey. Leck insists that singers must learn to train their muscles, commanding individual control and transition from tones high to low, easily and evenly. The ability to spin tones, meaning from slower to faster vibrations as the voice runs up and down, is essential technique. Again, it cannot be understated that vowel sounds must be unified within the choir, integrating harmoniously to create a beautiful quality that is rarely achieved. Singers must take care to align to the timbre of their fellow singers, and all of this is brought together by the individual on the podium, a task fit for only the master conductor.
Leck also describes aural techniques based on the phonetic alphabet, such as holding the tongue high for words such as ‘feet’, and ‘fate’, and lowering it steadily for ‘fed’ and ‘fan’; lowering the jaw for words like ‘small’ and ‘floor’; and rounding the lips to sing words such as ‘took’ and ‘mood’.
These are just some gems from the broad instructions Leck has provided in different formats. Other topics and subtopics accessible through his work include vocal modeling, singer’s posture, choral tuning, variety of choral timber, and stylistic artistry.
It’s worth reminding readers that these techniques are being taught to very young children, many under the age of ten, although once they reach the most advanced ensembles of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, most can read music at a collegiate level or above. Coming full circle, Mr. Leck is a gifted musician, an excellent conductor, and the first true innovator in the field of choral music since Zoltán Kodály. Beyond that, he has mastered the power of context, knowing that human behavior is very sensitive to and greatly influenced by its environment. Disciplined, intelligent, and talented children are far more malleable than their adult counterparts, so much so that through his own methods, he is able to infect his students with an epidemic of excellence, a strain that grows so strong, the children who have been privileged to be under his baton begin to believe that excellence – not only in music, but in life itself – is the rule, not the exception. As he steps down from the podium, he is due not only the rest and relaxation owed to one who has worked so hard for so many years, but he should undoubtedly be recognized as one of the greatest music educators and conductors to stand before us. While many would expect to find this kind of talent in New York or Los Angeles, he created the world’s most gift children’s chorus in the American heartland of Indianapolis, Indiana.
Leck’s departure will be heartfelt for those who have known him in a smaller or larger capacity, from those who have worked with him in weekly rehearsals to the thousands of young singers he has brought from all continents to sing at such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall and The Vatican. People close to Leck, myself included, will say that his students had his unmitigated support to be great, and that he provided them with a refuge away from their troubles, where music was a unifying force of solace. In Mr. Leck’s own words, “The moment they walk in, they’ll realize what it means.”
Jim Morris, Vice Chairman of Pacers Sports and Entertainment and Chairman of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir Advisory Board, described Henry Leck as “one of the greatest people in our city and our state.” It is on the shoulders of giants like Leck that the Indianapolis Children’s Choir and the state’s artistic culture continue being recognized as a veritable asset, a source of pride, and a shining example of the transformative powers of music on humankind. While nothing good can last forever, and his protégé, Joshua Pedde, is world-class in his own right, the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana as a whole has a duty to make certain it remains the epicenter of excellence in children’s choral music that Henry Leck worked so hard to build.