In high schools throughout the country, orchestras, bands and choirs flourish; not unreasonably, we might expect to observe a consequent flowering of music itself. But even a casual glance at the great majority of these school playing organizations reveals that Western art music remains terra incognita to the participating students notwithstanding the hours they devote to "working up" showtune medleys, folksong medleys, spiritual medleys, Christmas carol medleys, Sousa march medleys, mixed medleys and the sundry other musical horrors about which the most that can be said is that they pacify the P.T.A. This fashionable theory that the educator must shield the musically inclined from examples of high artistic achievement lest they be enthralled to the point of slipping out of social alignment has many adherents. It has, however, at least one challenger.
Thomas Hilbish became director of music at Princeton High School with the presumption that good music squarely-met benefits even young minds and spirits. Early in his seventeen-year career as conductor of the Princeton High School Choir he set about improving the capabilities of his singers that they might fulfil successfully the needs of an adult repertoire. The results he has since achieved are astonishing. The choir lists performances within the past eight years of ten major works by J.S. Bach; masses by Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Faure, and Sessions; Stravinsky's Les Noces and Symphony of Psalms, both Webern cantatas and an impressive assortment of recent works, of which five, including Sessions's Mass, were given premier performances. Needless to say, quantity is not all. The concerted acclaim of European critics elicited during two summer tours, of such composers as Sessions, Kodály and Copland whose works the Princeton students have mastered, and the musicologists from all lands who attended the Congress of the International Musicological Society in 1961 at which the group performed testifies to the remarkable quality of its work. How has Mr. Hilbish worked this miracle? And what has its effect been on the sorcerer's fifty-odd apprentices?
To attain a near-professional level of musical performance with high school students requires more than daring and determination on the conductor's part. A solid background in fundamentals is crucial. In devising a curriculum, Mr. Hilbish has stressed those basic musical studies which develop most quickly and efficiently the voice, the ear, and the eye. Students advance through three consecutive classes in vocal technique, the third of which is known outside the school but not on the school's records as the Princeton High School Choir. (Surely some psychological benefit attends this reluctance to entitle an academic subject, "choir.") From the beginning, students encounter intervals, scales, meters, rhythms etc.; they practice sightreading daily; they receive individual attention on vocal problems and are often encouraged to seek the help of a private teacher. (Roughly one-fifth of the advanced students receive private lessons outside the school.) The present enrollment places about two hundred and fifty, or one in seven, Princeton High School students from grades nine through twelve in these classes. That the Princeton choir can maintain a steadily high standard with a membership that changes entirely every four years tells of the efficacy of Mr. Hilbish's preparatory program.
On its first visit to European music festivals, in the summer of 1962, the choir took fifty-five singers carefully selected from the advanced class in vocal technique. Their tour, which consisted of seventeen concerts given in Germany, France, England, Switzerland, and Belgium, was jointly supported by a State Department cultural exchange grant (the first of its kind for a high school group) and contributions from the Princeton community. So successful was the venture that within two years the group was again invited to cross the Atlantic, this time to participate in the Conference of the International Society of Music Education in Budapest, the Cheltenham Festival, and the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto. Once more, the praise of all who heard them was lavish.
The effect on individual members of the long hours spent preparing difficult music, of giving concerts here and abroad, and of generally sharing Mr. Hilbish's belief in good taste and excellence in musical matters appears to be far from deleterious. Competition to be a part of the advanced singing group is keen. A recent survey of the extracurricular life of members revealed a high number of participants in sports, drama, student council, yearbook, newspaper, and other high school activities often used to gauge social well-being. An unusually large group is sufficiently successful in its other academic work to be listed on the honor role.
The Princeton community may have in its proximity to so outstanding a university an initial advantage over some localities in fostering an excellent high school. But many fine high schools equally well-situated may be found in America; none possesses a musical group whose accomplishments match those of Mr. Hilbish's choir. To him the credit must go; and with it goes also the knowledge that, as secondary school music in the country improves, and as student performing organizations take their work with increasing seriousness, no greater compliment will be paid any fine singing group than to say that it compares with Thomas Hilbish's Princeton High School Choir.