Major Choral Directors’ Conference Comes to Santa Barbara

High Renaissance, Bluesy Gospel, or Rockin’ Beat-Box, Choir Teachers are Passionate About Their Craft

The pop beat-box sensation House Jacks.
Courtesy Photo

If some passing satellite decides to train its electronic ear on Santa Barbara from February 20-22, it will hear the city humming — literally. This weekend, Santa Barbara hosts the 50th anniversary conference for the Western Division of the American Choral Directors Association (WDACDA), and teachers, conductors, composers, singers, and voice aficionados of all stripes will be descending on our coastal mecca by the hundreds to talk shop, show their wares, and get inspired — and humbled — by the knowledge and talents of their peers. The anticipation is mounting like a crescendo, and every indication points to bright major sevenths in multiple octaves. After two years of planning, regiments of volunteers, assisted by the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission and city funds, have managed to secure headquarters at the Fess Parker DoubleTree Hotel, as well as primo performance venues like the Granada Theatre and the Old Mission. Headliners include the L.A. Master Chorale in a tribute to composer/honoree Morten Lauridsen; the English early music ensemble Alamire; the Havana-based men’s group Camerata Vocal Sine Nomine de Cuba; and the pop beat-box sensation House Jacks. I sat down with WDACDA President and Westmont College Choral Director Steven Hodson and Program Chair and CSU Fresno Professor Emeritus Gary Unruh to gauge the pulse as they prepare for the downbeat.

Gary, you’ve been in Steve’s shoes and served as president, haven’t you?

GU: Right. I had some inkling for what we’re in for, but this seems so much bigger than what we used to do. We put some new ideas into play this time that I don’t think anyone has ever done before, like trying to be more involved with the community, and making performances accessible to people who live here. There is a huge interest in classical music, and probably more in choral music than I’ve ever seen anywhere.

ACDA boasts some 20,000 members, representing over a million singers.

SH: There’s a large number of people singing, and it’s growing these days. I think singing is reigniting around the nation.

I wonder why that is?

SH: Well, there is Glee and these pop a cappella groups. And there are studies that show how singing helps your health, your mental and emotional states, and all that. It’s percolating. From the beginning, these conferences have been a place for choral directors to come together and really build a family. It’s really felt that way to me over the years — to study the craft together, to have intersections, and to teach one another. They would always invite, by audition, the best choirs around to come and sing for them, so it would be edifying for the choir directors; for me it was always challenging, and sometimes frustrating, to hear these fabulous choirs and go home and work with mine and try to make them better.

I noticed there are conference presentations on Chinese choral art, royal Hawaiian composers, and Islamic music? How has multiculturalism affected the ACDA through the years?

SH: It is sort of a slam dunk in choral music, in a way, because all cultures sing. As you look through the repertoire that today’s choirs are singing, you will see that there’s a wide range of cultures represented.

GU: Ron Kean [director of choral activities at Bakersfield College] was one of the first to do these presentations, but they started about 20 years ago out of these little interest sessions. A few people would come and think, “Well, this is not European-based,” and that meant there was no future in it. People have learned a lot since then.


The ACDA Western Division Conference takes place Thursday-Saturday, February 20-22, at the Fess Parker DoubleTree Hotel. Public performances take place at various locations. For info, visit


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