Inclusivity in the music world, from genre to person: An interview with Music Professor Kari Francis

I sat down (via Zoom video chat, thanks COVID-19!) with Professor Kari Francis, from The College of Saint Rose. Professor Francis is a rather new professor at the College of Saint Rose, working for the Music Department. She teaches core curriculum classes such as Music Theory, Ear Training and Solfege, and Choral Arranging, which is offered every fall semester. In addition to this, she also now directs the Saint Rose Masterworks Chorale, formerly under the direction of Dr. Michael Lister. She has a high background in a Cappella music making, including barbershop, and was featured on the popular television show, The Sing-Off, years ago. I interviewed her because I knew she was a good source for some “non-conventional” music styles at our College.

It truly was a privilege to interview Professor Francis.

First Question: Where did you receive your Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from, and what exactly were they in?

KF: Yeah! Alright! I can answer that! So you said Bachelor’s, my Bachelor’s is in Music Theory and Composition from the University of California in San Diego, most schools tend to put those programs together. It’s a good school for young composers to start in as well, or for those interested in Contemporary Classical music. I have two Master’s Degree’s and both are in Music Ed. One is from Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. My other Master’s (which would’ve continued into a doctorate) is from Teacher’s College at Columbia University.

Second Question: What inspired you to pursue music as a career?

KF: Oh…boy. That is definitely…

Me: Yeah, sorry it’s kind of a loaded question.

KF: Oh yeah no, for sure, I mean, I hope it’s an interesting story! I think I got to the point where I realized I needed to keep doing something musical, and it kept falling into music projects. So, for better or worse it seemed like I wasn’t really getting out of it too soon. Um, and I’d say the first test of that was getting into college in undergrad, and realizing that, you know, I did have freedom to chose what I was investing my time, you know, class-wise and I guess money in. Even though I wasn’t declared as a music major yet, I still was taking a lot of music classes and I think that was a nice litmus test of checking what department or subject area that you’re drawn to, and at that point not having the pressure of knowing that it was my major yet for better or worse. It did mean that I kind of had to load up on the classes toward the end of my junior and senior year, which was a little stressful, but I think it was something that worked out.

I will say, and I know you’re (referring to me) hopefully on the same page as me regarding the whole a Cappella experience in college I’d say really matched me in a way that I wasn’t expecting. That’s probably how I ended up in the directing and education field specifically, despite not really knowing what that was or what degree path that would’ve been when I was in my a cappella groups. So, I was lucky to let that become a pipeline without really knowing that it could be a pipeline to those things.

But yeah that was it! I kind of just couldn’t get out of it, and thankfully I enjoyed it enough to keep diving deeper.

Third Question: I guess this has somewhat already been answered, but, was teaching an initial part of your career path?

KF: Haha. Yeah, um, without knowing it I guess I was doing directing and coaching projects which had a teaching component built in, but I didn’t think of myself as a teacher for a pretty long time. If anything, I was afraid of adopting that title because I, you know, growing up sadly we see how teachers are treated and how schools often don’t have funding; something about that made it a scary thing to associate myself with, mainly with K-12 public school teaching, um, but even that now it doesn’t have to be – your job and your title don’t have to be your reflection of a system because whether or not that system works, that’s on it. It’s not on you. So, as soon as I realized that I could call myself a music teacher or music educator and not feel like my success was tied to the success or failure of the public school system or of colleges or whatever. I’d say that helps a lot. But that was a much later realization, after Master’s #1 probably.

Fourth Question: Okay, I guess this is somewhat already answered as well. It’s pretty well known that you have a strong background in professional a Cappella, as well as barbershop. When did this begin?

KF: Yeah! Oh man, my dark backstory haha. I ran into a Cappella groups singing these things called “tags”, and I had no idea what those were. And of course those are the anthem of barbershop song that you can kind of teach on the spot. It seemed like groups that were very – not to say like very good groups were also barbershop groups, but groups that cared a lot about tuning and about really honing in on matching vowels. At the collegiate level I didn’t really witness a ton of that, except with these few groups that sometimes they had a faculty director or someone who was kind of nudging them toward this otherwise kind of antiquated singing style. Or people who happened to be connected to a quartet or a chorus and depending on where you are, there are some pretty big barbershop scenes. So, if you’re a choral person, chances are you run into a barbershop ensemble of some kind. So, there was a group, funny enough, called From Out Of Nowhere, so, already a suspect name, but they were great and they actually won the ICCAs (International Competition of Collegiate A Cappella) in 2009, which was right in the middle of my college career. And I happen to have a couple of friends in the group, just by virtue of being in Southern California. Everyone meets each other in festivals, and you kind of start to learn who people are. And they actually had a couple members who were part of this group called the Westminster Chorus. Check them out on YouTube – they’re wild! They’re this amazing barbershop chorus, they’ve won international contests a ton of times. They’re super good, and they’re super well-deserved. I started to notice overlap with people who are in college groups, especially if they’re an all-male group, in the Southern California area would join Westminster. And that was more of an extension of their undergrad a Cappella, rather than forming another a cappella group. Something about that seemed connected in a way that if one wanted the next level, then that’s where you went. So I just started watching more barbershop groups and talking to people, and where you see ICCAs and a cappella as its own thing, like its own interesting inner world, then you’ve got that maybe times 10 for barbershop; maybe just because it’s been around a bit longer. So, even just like culturally hanging out, or just socially observing and people-watching; it’s so interesting. And, I think that’s what got me into it, and that just there’s really intense musicality – just really hammering on those parameters of really intense tuning, really intense vowel matching, and then really visual presentations in a way that’s kind of different from what we do in the choral a Cappella world.

That was a really long answer, sorry!

Fifth Question: No, that’s great! That’s totally fine! So, um, I guess this is kind of a follow-up: What exactly about these styles of music made you put such a strong focus on them? What drew you to them?

KF: Yeah! Um, I think for me that, I mean, I never had the flashiest voice as you can probably hear from when you’ve heard me sing. Like, it’s never been some amazing solo voice. And that’s all well and good, you know, it’s just not my wheelhouse. And I think what I noticed about the a Cappella groups, and especially maybe when I joined even more so, that it felt like I could contribute something. And feel good about that. And it didn’t have to be about who had the best voice. It was who had the best skillset for arranging, you know, for even just that one song. Or directing just in that one moment. Or being able to learn some beatboxing, or sing bass. Whatever it was, it felt like there were more things you could potentially do because of how many styles you were trying to sing, or the nature of the pop music or the way it was being arranged. It seemed like there was a lot more variability there. And something about that was really enticing. I think the first thing, though, was just arranging at all. Like, the idea that you had a group of people and you were arranging something new. I think that was the hook, for sure. But then getting into that and realizing the amount of variety, maybe, within that idea. I think that’s what made me stay. So then I was lucky to be in a couple of groups, like, not quite ascending levels; but started with collegiate groups and had this kind of intense septet that was like, still not professional but maybe semi-professional, and then a couple of pro groups, and just seeing the intensity of the projects scale with the type of group it was. So, being in a small group: doing more recordings and festival performances, versus the collegiate groups; they’re just starting to get into that. But you know, just doing whatever you could do over the course of a semester or a year. So, obviously it’s scaled to the type of group it is. Yeah, I’d say I’ve done more with those types of groups than I’ve been able to do with just a choir or a chorus. Depends on the size and the nature of the repertoire, or just the literal finances or the resources you have access to.

Again, another long answer.

Sixth Question: No that’s great! Thank you! So, this next one is kind of long. Many young music students don’t get much exposure to a Cappella music, particularly during grade school. I know I myself made my first arrangement and performed it with a small group during my senior year of high school. Though it was something I loved, I didn’t have much guidance. What would be your advice to a music student wishing to get into a Cappella?

KF: I think one of my goals is creating a pedagogy, so here’s sort of attacking it from the other side. So I’ll answer your question, but I’ll answer it with a different question that you didn’t ask first, which is “How can, especially high school choir directors, who maybe very much grew up in the traditional choral camp, and more traditional choral training, how can they be good stewards of educating students who are interested in a Cappella, to groups, and to singing pop music and making arrangements, and feel comfortable about that in a healthy way. Right now it seems like there is a gap in the pedagogy, as far as teacher-training, especially for choral directors, that also covers those styles. So ideally, if you had a teacher who just….they don’t have to be an expert, but they just need to have some fluency in order to point you in right direction. That would be my goal – or at least my hope – for choir directors in the future, that they can jump between a couple of styles. And again, they don’t have to be an expert in all of them, but be strong enough that they can feel comfortable talking about it. As far the student though, as a teacher there’s what we call Developmentally Appropriate Practice, and that just means is what we’re asking you to do, if it’s not currently in your skillset, is it something we can help you achieve in the time we have with you. And for elementary students especially, usually an a Cappella group, or singing a Cappella, is probably not quite there. Like, its likely that they’re gonna need some type of accompaniment, or some type of pitch reference. Not saying always, but for the majority of cases – like they’re still learning to sing usually – to sing in a healthy way. Those need to take top priority before you start trying to get into taking away the pitch reference, the piano, or something like that. But there have been really good middle school a Capella groups, so it is possible. And that’s where I would say the teacher or director is someone who is comfortable enough with the style to arrange and really adapt to the students in the room. That’s probably the biggest thing. I’d say the easiest mistake to make to buy an arrangement from say, JW Pepper, or one of these Deke Sharon arrangements – which are a great place to start – and then try to fit people into particular parts or roles that they don’t actually fit. You risk damaging their voices, or say if it doesn’t go well, now that student decides they dislike a Cappella, and you’ve kind of pushed them away from it. But the best way for interested student to get into a Cappella, hmm…what’s tricky now is that their aren’t as many big media events for a Cappella. Like, we had a HUGE wave, and now we’re on the other side. Which is still totally fine. I would say probably the best thing you could do, is attend a festival. And there are a couple across the US; it kind of depends on where you are. The Contemporary a Cappella Society (called CASA), that’s probably the best collection of people you could talk to who could point you to a specific thing you want to do within a Cappella. Generally, just going to the CASA website, and checking them out. They are also ultimately the big host of a lot of these big festivals; the LA a Cappella Festival, Boston Sings, So Jam, and a couple of other smaller, regional ones like the Betsy Festival. But short answer is go to a festival, talk to people there. And check out the CASA website.

Seventh Question: What other styles of music do you experiment with?

KF: Oh boy. Well, I have to say – here’s what that question makes me think of, which will hopefully give you the answer. My favorite music festival that I’ve been to, stylistically, is a festival called Big Ears. It’s in Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s very, very cool. I went last year, and it’s not a very old festival. I think it’s out on by the guy who does Bonnaroo, it’s kind of their other festival passion project. But it’s a mix of bluegrass and there’s a little bit of sacred harp in there, and it’s just this interesting, sort of under the umbrella of semi-Americana. That’s what we would call it, especially within that region of the US. But also pulling from other places. That, and then experimental classical, contemporary classical music. Back to back, you have some of like, Bell Affleck, an incredible bajo player, if the memory serves. He’s just like, top of the top. And then you also have someone like Meredith Monk, or Madonna Leo Smith, all these amazing experimental improvisors of classical music, but classical of for our time. And those are kind of always pushed back to back, and it was wild, but that combination was really magical. I guess the short answer again is that I listen to a lot of music, so when someone asks “What do you listen to?” I don’t really have one answer. And I guess a lot of folk, not quite bluegrass, but bluegrass-adjacent. At least recently, maybe within the last year or so . So if you check out Big Ears and see a lot of those artists, that’s a lot of what I listen to. But its always a moving target.

Eighth Question: Okay! So this one is more choir related. We know that you currently direct the Saint Rose Masterworks Chorale. How do you go about picking your choral repertoire?

KF: Well, in my many semesters – AKA two – when I first came in last semester, it was very new, and I guess I was playing my cards a little close to my chest, and picked pieces that I knew would go relatively well for a group I had never worked with before. And in retrospect, I think a lot of them were – not that there isn’t always a challenge make things better – but on the whole I think they were on the easy side for the ensemble, so, that was good to know. And I picked a theme, which was all late Romantic unaccompanied English composers. So I thought it would be very cool to hone in on one specific thing. I will say I’m not sure if everybody was on board with that theme as I hoped they would be, so maybe that would be something for more like a Chamber Choir concert or something like that in general would be better for smaller groups. Where as, programming more for diversity would be more ideal for a larger group. So that’s what I did this semester, and I think as whole that this will be better for Masterworks going down the road. I’m always trying to tip more 50/50 for female-identifying or nonbinary, and male-identifying, and that’s not true of quality, but it’s better than nothing. Even last semester I tried to find some underrepresented composers within that stylistic bubble. It wasn’t great in terms of the percentages – it was still mostly white dead dudes – but I think this semester was a little bit better. It can’t just be that we have the stereotype of white dead European male composer, and everything else. That’s still a binary that isn’t super helpful, but I guess it’s an okay starting place. You’re just sadly looking at that as your starting point especially for something like Masterworks; many of the masterworks have ben composed by people who identify that way or probably did at least when they were alive. So, how do you temper that with meaningful diversity and still teach the musical good things that are contained in those masterworks by those people. So, we’ve got “Hymn to St. Cecelia” by Benjamin Britten, but it’s only 11 minutes, so it’s not one of those hour long, “Look how great Haydn is!” things. And all of that is fine, there’s as place for it, but try to mix it up. And then, for about the same amount of time, is Gwyneth Walker’s “I’ve Known Rivers,” so she did this very cool setting – you might enjoy this if you haven’t seen it yet. There are many great recording of it, so I’m hesitant to direct you to just one, but the piece itself is good. It’s all Langston Hughes poetry ([for those that don’t know, Langston Hughes is my favorite poet, so I geeked out at this.]), and Gwyneth Walker is a really solid composer; I personally enjoy her stuff, maybe you would too. But a little bit more there like trying to get as many non-male, white European blah blah blah. So it’s not only the demographic, like ow much of each you’re putting in a concert, but also for how long. I always try to make sure there aren’t more dead white European male composers, than the other half combined. I’ve struggled to have this conversation with Masterworks – not for the conversation, but rather for losing class time. Goals for the future I suppose.

Ninth Question: What is your experience with directing choral ensembles?

KF: It’s been all over the place. I mean, I’ve done a pretty standard amount of typical conducting courses that you take; both choral conducting and then conducting by default is usually instrumental, and then you have a couple of days of choral conducting for those instrumentalists. Across all of my degrees, I feel like it’s added up to a decent amount. But obviously, the best thing is to just have a group, rehearsing with them consistently and being on the podium. So, I was lucky to be able to do that with my barbershop chorus, the Sirens of Gotham. So I directed them only for about a year. The other choruses I’ve done are usually attached to a school. I’ve had one at Hunter College, for two semesters; I’ve had one at the The New School, which houses the Mannes School of Music for a semester; and as a teaching artist, school choirs and public schools over the last four-ish years.

Tenth (and final) Question: There are a lot of different ensembles at Saint Rose, and new ensembles seem to be popping up every semester. Going back to the barbershop aspect, have you thought about starting a barbershop ensemble at Saint Rose?

KF: Hahahaha. I would love to! If you feel like people would be interested, then I would be down.

Me: I think people would be interested.

KF: Really? Good to know. I’m wondering if it would be worthwhile to open one up and call it the close harmony club or something and have it be barbershop one day, maybe some vocal jazz another day, or is it worthwhile to focus it on only barbershop? You can do plenty with just that for sure. It has crossed my mind, but I guess I didn’t want to impose myself too much. I’d be very interested though, if students were.

And there you have it! Big thanks to Professor Francis for agreeing to let me interview her, especially during these crazy times. I hope everyone is staying safe, and stay tuned for more content!

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