|Rachel Rensink-Hoff conducts|
the McMaster University Choir
On February 18 Dr. Rensink-Hoff was awarded the Ontario Arts Council's prestigious $10,000 Leslie Bell Prize for Choral Conducting. (See details below).
Rensink-Hoff is Assistant Professor of Music in the School for the Arts at McMaster University. She conducts the three choirs at McMaster and teaches conducting, vocal pedagogy and music education. She holds Doctoral and Master’s Degrees in Choral Conducting from Western University and a Bachelor’s from Calvin University in Michigan.
GHM: Do you come from a choral singing family?
RRH: I married into a family that loves singing but didn’t grow up in a singing family at all. I have three sisters and we all took piano lessons, but I was the only one who kept going. Singing didn’t come until later. I was a pianist. I went to university intending to study piano but that was the last time I really worked at it intensively. At first I accompanied the choir and then I sang in the choir, and then I took conducting and got into it that way. But I didn’t sing in a children’s choir. I sang in school choirs (my future father-in-law was my music teacher!) and at church. But thinking about the kind of singing some of my students do now, like having been in the Hamilton Children’s Choir, nothing like that. Choral singing wasn’t on my radar until university.
GHM: When did you catch the conducting bug?
RRH: In year two, at Calvin University, I took introductory choral conducting. In year three there was a new choral person, Pearl Shangkuan, and she was the one who really lit the fire. I loved her classes. She was inspiring as a conductor. And then I took advanced choral conducting and that was when I realized, “I want to do this”. Calvin is a unique place, lots of choirs, a lot of people come from a church background so there’s lots of singing. Strong choral singing all around, seven groups when I was there.
GHM: What brought you to Western University?
RRH: After I graduated I taught high school for a year in Michigan. But when I married my husband, who is also Canadian, we moved back to Canada. I started my Master’s at University of Toronto but transfered to Western after a year. I studied conducting at Western with Victoria Meredith and Gerald Neufeld. I sang in the UWO Singers. They’re the Western Singers now. I learned a lot about pedagogy and vocal production from Vickie. Gerry was great to study with to learn gesture and conducting technique.
GHM: What choirs were you conducting before you came to Mac?
RRH: I had a women’s choir in Cambridge and I had started my own group in Niagara called Impulse, which I did for a few years, but as soon as I started here [at Mac] I stopped all that. This is full time. I miss doing community choirs and would like to do them again but this is not the right time.
GHM: Why did you choose to do The Messiah with the Mac Choir?
RRH: I think it’s a work that all the students should have sung before they leave. Most of the choristers purchased their scores and now they have it and they can go out and sing it again in community choirs. And I hadn’t conducted it before. It was the first time I had done such a major work, hired my own orchestra and all that. When the students came to the first rehearsal only a couple of them had sung any of it. It’ll be fun to do again. I learned a lot in the process of preparing it.
GHM: In your rehearsals, do you warm the choir up? How do you do that?
RRH: We always start with something physical, stretching, sometime massages, patting the body down, breath exercises. I spend a lot of time just getting them to figure out how to lock into some kind of resonance. A lot of the male singers especially have never done choral singing before. There’s some basic teaching about vowel shape openness and I use that warm-up time to focus on that.
GHM: Do you do warm-ups with piano?
RRH: Yes. Vocalises, singing on one pitch. Last time I did a five note scale ascending major, descending minor, and usually something fun.
GHM: How do you balance aesthetic and educational concerns when you are programming?
RRH: I don’t think I ever get it exactly right. I do try to choose a wide variety. I like that. I have fun doing everything from Monteverdi to Rachmaninoff, to contemporary stuff. I like the eclectic thing, I think because students are just in and out and some of them are new to choral singing. They get the whole palette of repertoire. And they all come with different ideas about the kind of music they’d like to sing. Some of them really want to do the traditional stuff and some of them want to do lighter stuff or super-contemporary so I try to have a hook for everybody. Most of my concerts are loosely thematic in some way, just to tie it together.
Our audience is built mainly of parents, which is somewhat unusual for a university choir. When I was at Western, we were singing for the University community. The audience was other students and professors. It seems, for whatever reason, that more of the students here are from the local area than at Western. Because the audience is parent-based a lot of them are new to choral singing too.
My biggest challenge is finding longer works that are not accompanied by orchestra, because I can’t do that all the time. I’m always on the hunt for extended works that are accompanied by piano or organ, or other instruments. We’re doing Brahms’ Nänie with piano, which isn’t ideal, but it’s still worthwhile.
The other piece is me. I want to do certain things. There are always works where the students go “What?” and I say, “This is my stretch piece, this is the piece that I need to do”.
GHM: Thanks for speaking with me.
Interview by David Fawcett