Howard Swan; Choral Director, Author


Howard Swan, nationally recognized educator, author and conductor who was considered “a preacher of music” because of his energetic, foot-stomping, arm-waving mannerisms, has died. He was 89.

Swan, who lived in Newport Beach, died Monday in Irvine, his family said.

Accepted as the grandfather of choral music in Southern California, Swan wrote the book “Music in the Southwest” and the section on Los Angeles music in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He also co-authored the book “Choral Conducting: A Symposium.”

Swan was choral director at Occidental College for 37 years and after his mandatory retirement in 1971 he went on to teach at Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine. His Occidental choir was selected as one of four in the nation and 16 in the world to perform at the International University Choral Festival in New York’s Lincoln Center in 1969.


A popular guest conductor around the country, Swan was often selected to organize and direct choirs for national conventions such as the National Music Educators Conference in Anaheim in 1974.

He was also chosen to direct more informal groups such as the 225 volunteers who showed up for a Los Angeles Civic Center Community Sing in 1942. The event was sponsored by the Federated Music Clubs of America on the theory that “singing releases nerve tension, builds morale and makes friendships.”

Approaching amateurs with the same directness as he did his better-trained students, Swan told them: “Imagine you’ve known me for a long time and we’re all just sitting around in some friend’s house singing. . . . These [community sings] are not just for trained soloists, but for the people who’d like to sing--the barbershop quartet, the bathtub yodeler and the back-seat hummer.”

Ironically, Swan credited his success as a choral conductor to the fact that as a young man he temporarily lost his own voice and any hope for a career as a vocalist.

At the age of 31, he woke up one day with a paralyzed vocal cord and no voice at all. He regained the power of speech two years later, but only with a high, squeaky voice inappropriate for a male soloist. He regained complete voice control in 1970, when he had a then-new silicone treatment for the vocal cords.

“There’s a bit of providence in this whole picture,” he told The Times in 1974. “If I had stayed in solo work, I wouldn’t have amounted to very much.”

Because of the experience, he said, he consulted voice experts, studied everything available and became an expert on how the voice works.

“When I began teaching voice,” he said, “I couldn’t illustrate with my own voice. I had to find words to do it. I think this made my pupils a lot more independent. I just didn’t sit in a corner and say ‘Do it this way’ and open up my mouth. I had to find other ways to teach.”


Among those legions of students were William Olvis, who sang with the New York City Opera Co., and Joy Davidson, who sang in Milan with La Scala.

Swan was an honorary life member of the American Choral Directors Assn. and in March received its Robert Shaw Choral Award for lifetime achievement. He was also a founder and honorary life member of the Choral Conductors Guild of California.

A native of Denver, Howard Shelton Swan moved to West Hollywood when he was 6. He started singing as a child, learning music from his mother, who played piano, and his father, who sang.

Although he planned to become a history teacher, Swan studied music at Pomona College and later earned a master’s degree from Claremont College.


When he taught at Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles, he was asked to direct the boys’ glee club. Impressed with his developing work there, Occidental hired him in 1934. During his long tenure at the college, he also taught at Westridge School in Pasadena and was choir director at Pasadena Presbyterian Church.

Swan is survived by his wife, Katherine; two sons, Robert and David; a daughter, Katherine Schwarberg; eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach.

The family has asked that memorial donations be made to the Howard S. Swan Music Scholarship Fund at Occidental College.