DevelopingVoices

Interview with Emily Crocker, Renowned Composer and Choral Consultant

Emily Holt Crocker has recently been appointed Founder and Music Director Emeritus of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, an organization she established in 1994, by the Board of Directors of Milwaukee Children’s Choir. The choir has received acclaim for performances with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee Ballet, Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, American Choral Directors Association and international choir festivals in Japan and England.

As a composer, Ms. Crocker’s works have been performed around the world. She has received ASCAP awards for concert music since 1986. She is well known for her work in developing choral instructional materials and is author of Experiencing Choral Music, choral textbook series for grades 6-12, published by McGraw-Hill/Glencoe. As a conductor, she has led the Midwinter Children’s Choral Festival in Carnegie Hall and conducted the Milwaukee Pops Orchestra and Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra. In 2002, she was a recipient of the Excellence in Youth Music Award from the Civic Music Association of Milwaukee. 

Here is a brief interview with our notorious contributor to developing young voices around the world ~

DV: First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where were you born? Where did you attend school and study music?

EC: I was born in Fort Worth, Texas and received my primary and secondary education in Fort Worth Public Schools attending Meadowbrook Elementary, Meadowbrook Junior High, and Eastern Hills High School. I did spend 18 months during grades 6-8 in Altus and Weatherford, Oklahoma.

I went on to get a Bachelor of Music Education from University of North Texas and a Master of Arts in Music Theory from Texas Woman’s University. From there, I continued my post graduate studies in Choral Conducting, Choral Literature, Rehearsal Techniques and German from University of North Texas. From 1980-85 I studied Linguistics, and English and American Literature as a secondary teaching field.

DV: What is your first musical memory? 

EC: Hearing Hank Williams singing Hey! Good Lookin’ – What ya got cookin’ on the radio, and then the great singing at my home church, Church of Christ. There was a lot of a cappella singing. I heard 4 part harmony from my earliest years and began to follow the hymn notation from about age 5 or 6

DV: Did anyone in your family sing or play an instrument? Would you say your family was musically inclined?

EC: We were avid players of the radio and record player! My mother sang old songs around the house. My father had played the guitar as a teen.

DV: Did you study an instrument privately when you were young? If so, what and with whom?  

EC: Like every young girl in the 50s, I started piano at age 7 and I was lucky to have a treasure of a teacher, Laura Helen Coupland, who took me through to my high school graduation. Not only did she teach me piano repertoire and technique, she made sure I had a good understanding of music theory, ear training and music history.

DV: Were there any opportunities that came your way that inspired you to take the path of devoting your life to music?

EC: By high school, I was fairly certain that I was going to go into music. I had a number of experiences that were formative. I was selected as the high school drum major, and although I was a small person to be a drum major, I learned a great deal about leadership. In college, I also had the opportunity to tour Asia with an all-girl USO band, which opened my eyes to the wider world and helped me form bonds with other women musicians like myself. I received my music degree from University of North Texas which was a very large music school. This helped me establish myself among my peers and begin charting a career pathway in music.

DV: What were the greatest lessons you learned from your teachers (life lessons or musical) and who were they?

EC: I have had great mentors and teachers throughout my life, even now! I have learned the value of optimism, of humor and of persistence. Any challenge in life can be looked at as a series of steps or actions. Also, you have to advocate for yourself – see yourself where you want to go. That is the first step to getting there!

DV: You have balanced life as a composer, music educator, choral conductor and publicist. Tell us why and how you continued to simultaneously balance all these pursuits.

EC: My position with Hal Leonard Publishing made all the rest possible! I started writing music while still an educator and did that for about 10 years before officially joining the company and moving to Wisconsin. Composing and conducting were more personal goals of mine, and with lots of energy, I was able to combine all these with varying degrees of success. Also, I had lots of help from associates, friends and family and support from my bosses.

DV: In 1994 you formed the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. The Milwaukee Children’s Choir is celebrating its 25th season this year. What inspired you to create this organization? Are there others you would like to recognize that were on “the team”?

EC: Milwaukee had children’s choirs in the past, but for some reason, had not become a part of the children’s choir movement of the 1980s and 90s. One of my bosses at Hal Leonard, Steve Rauch, helped me to organize a group in 1994 based on Henry Leck’s Indianapolis Children’s Choir model. Henry was enormously helpful as well, sharing governance documents and organizational strategies, and although there were differences in our situations, I consider Henry’s initial guidance as crucial. I also was inspired by the writings of Doreen Rao and Jean Ashworth Bartle on children’s choir repertoire and techniques.

I had wonderful collaborating colleagues: Charyl Granatella, Assistant Conductor from the very beginning, Donna Mitchell, our first Accompanist, Ellen Shuler, Assistant Conductor, Sharon Stosur, Accompanist, Amanda Draheim, Accompanist, Maria Koester, Accompanist, Sandy Cristan, Choir Manager, Casey Murphy, Choir Manager, Rob Sholl, member of the Board of Directors, along with Sharon Hansen. 

Other conductors remembered with great fondness: Christopher Peterson, Tina Glander Peterson, Raymond Roberts, Roxanne Miles, Linda Rann – there were tons of choir assistants, other board members & volunteers as well.

DV: What are your greatest memories of Milwaukee Children’s Choir?

EC: We sang wonderful music in beautiful spaces, but my favorite memories are the day to day moments and rehearsal successes, where the music came together and friendships were made and laughter shared.

DV: Did you ever have thoughts about how it would evolve and how it might look today?

EC: Milwaukee Children’s Choir has achieved many of the goals we established in the first 15 years of our existence: high artistic quality, comprehensive graded choirs, recognition as a full-fledged arts organization, school and other outreach programs, and collaboration with other Milwaukee and regional groups. I think that everyone would like to see a enrollment increase and a provision for further opportunities of children with limited means.

DV: You have been an advocate for children’s voices. You have experienced great success as a composer that understands the voice of the child and how to develop it. Can you tell us how the creative process begins for you and what that process is from conception to finished product?

EC: For me, it all starts with song and play. My first years teaching classroom music based on Kodaly principles gave me the opportunity to enjoy making music with children and seeing how song brings learning to life. My first successful arrangements were based on folk songs and the simple techniques employed in Kodaly teaching: ostinato, canon, countermelody. So, as a composer/arranger, I start with the song and develop it outward from that point. I also try to write a piano accompaniment that supports and contributes as an independent voice. My original music comes much the same way, but from a carefully chosen text and a melody that flows naturally from that text.

DV: You served as Choral Editor for Hal Leonard Publishing for more than two decades. Can you tell us a little bit about the work of a choral editor and just what an editor might be looking for – something that can help rising composers understand the criteria for getting published or writing appropriate works for choir?

EC: When I went to Hal Leonard, it was primarily a publisher of pop arrangements, and of course still is. We expanded the types of pop arrangements, leveled from easy to difficult, Broadway, jazz and show. My contributions were of expanding concert music for school groups and upward to the collegiate and professional level. We accomplished this by establishing relationships with important conductors and composers who introduced us to new compositional voices. Some of these include: Moses Hogan, Henry Leck, Rollo Dilworth, Andrea Ramsey, Audrey Snyder, Craig Hella Johnson and more. We also maintained our longterm writers such as Roger Emerson.

My advice for a new writer, would be to carefully examine works published by composers or companies that you admire, analyzing the overall qualities of those works. Then work to develop your own unique, authentic voice, performing your works with your own choirs and asking for input from your friends and colleagues.

As to getting published, try to make a contact with a publisher’s representative. There are also options for self-publishing now that didn’t exist when I started.

DV: What advice would you give to new composers pursuing a career writing for voices and especially children’s voices?

EC: The best way to learn to write for children is to work with children – so find (or start) a children’s choir and see what causes them to light up when they sing.

DV: Can you tell us a little bit about what inspires Emily Crocker?

EC: I enjoy and am inspired by the process. So when I’ve finished a piece or project I’m a little bit at loose ends until I find the next one. I have dozens of ideas on scraps of paper tucked away in a folder, so I have plenty of potential projects!

I am also inspired by the new generation of conductors, composers & educators. Our art is in good hands!

DV: What projects, personal and musical, are next for you?

I’m just finishing up my composing portfolio for the year, just one or two pieces still in progress. I’ll be shifting to a couple of instructional/curriculum projects for the spring. I have a couple of sessions this spring at Illinois MEA (also the elementary girls honor choir) and national ACDA.

DV: In May of 2019, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir will be premiering a commissioned work written by Emily Crocker to celebrate its 25th season and honor its Founding Music Director. 

We wish Ms. Crocker continued success with all of her many endeavors. We hope we are able to enjoy her talents and contributions to the world of choral music for a long time to come.

Lynn Swanson