“You suck, and you will never live up to my expectations.”
This is what Prof. Scott Tucker, music, director of choral music at Cornell, says to the Glee Club to push the group to improve, according to Patrick Chamberlain ’13, president of the Glee Club.
“His rehearsal technique with the men is to never compliment us,” Chamberlain said. “The second he compliments us, we sound terrible because we start thinking egotistically. The thing we always tell Professor Tucker to do is to tell us we suck.”
Tucker said that during rehearsal he leads his choral ensembles — comprised of the men in the Glee Club and the women in the Cornell University Chorus — through the music, introducing them to its meaning and getting them to “sing it in a way that is stylistically appropriate and which communicates the deeper musical subtext.” Chamberlain said Tucker understands the human voice so well that he can create a perfect sound with the group, and “he doesn’t stop working with us until he gets exactly what he wants.”
“I’ve never sung with a conductor who knows so much about music or is such an incredible musician,” said Jessica Briggs ’12, former president of the Chorus. “He puts everything he has into conducting us, which makes us want to put everything we have into singing.”
Over the last 17 years, Tucker has pursued excellence for both the Glee Club and Chorus. The groups’ performance of “A Prairie Home Companion” on National Public Radio in 1997 is one of a plethora of accomplishments he has tucked beneath his belt.
Next year, Tucker will succeed Norman Scribner as the artistic director of the Choral Arts Society, a 170-member amateur chorus in Washington, D.C., that regularly performs with the National Symphony Orchestra. After an extensive evaluation process, which Tucker compared with “being in a fishbowl,” he beat 80 applicants from all over the world to the position.
Tucker’s impending departure has stirred bittersweet feelings in a group of people that, according to Chamberlain, is more like a family than a choir.
“Of course we’re sad to see him go, but mostly we’re so excited and proud of him,” Briggs said. “I think a lot of people are going to want to go to D.C. to see his performances.”
Additionally, Chamberlain said that the post that Tucker is leaving for is “probably as high as one can go in the choral world.”
“His predecessor, Norman Scribner, is a legend,” Chamberlain said.
Tucker said that he will most miss the students he taught through his “extraordinary” 17 years at Cornell.
“They’re bright; they’re motivated; they’re talented,” Tucker said. “They’re very much doing music as a release as well as a passion. There isn’t any routine or boredom for them to doing music.”
According to Tucker, a highlight of his work with the students occurred last year, when the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra folded just two weeks prior to a joint performance with Cornell’s choral ensembles. In under two weeks, the Cornell students produced a successful concert on their own — hiring musicians, finding a concert hall and publicizing the event.
But no single anecdote can adequately describe Tucker’s time here at Cornell. Reflecting on annual domestic tours to performances in places like China and South America, Tucker said, “I can’t even count the memories.”
According to Chamberlain and Briggs, Tucker leaves behind a powerful legacy in the music he has brought to the choral ensembles.
Both the Glee Club and the Chorus commission artists each year to compose new music for the groups to perform. According to Tucker, the Chorus performs pieces written by female composers — music that offers a woman, protagonist voice in a position of strength.
As for the Glee Club, Tucker’s predecessor preferred a masculine, powerful sound that is traditional to men’s choirs. However, Chamberlain said that Tucker sometimes favored “a balance and a beauty of sound, a purity, crystalline, that’s a little lighter.”
In 2002, Tucker spent a sabbatical in South Africa teaching local choirs how to read musical notation — choirs he said were “very hungry to learn the Western canon of music.”
Tucker’s experience in South Africa “informs all the music that [he makes].” A man he met there taught him by rote a wealth of traditional songs, which Tucker has since incorporated into the choral ensembles’ repertoire.
“I saw firsthand that music is an expression of community. I didn’t really understand that until I was in that really rural community, where everyone came together and sang, expressing who they were to each other and to God,” Tucker said. “All music is like that in some way. Everything expresses relationships. It’s not just abstract sound.”
Tucker said he is satisfied that he is not leaving a “sinking ship.” Members of the Glee Club and Chorus added that they are confident the transition will be successful, if slow.
“I’m the ultimate optimist,” Tucker said. “I just think the best thing is around the corner, always.”