Date: December 20, 2014
Date: December 19, 2014
A fellow teacher asked for some advice to teach rhythm using iPads. Wearing my "educational technologist" hat, one of my goals is to find places where technology opens the capacity for students to learn in more intuitive, more creative, or more effective way. I think that music theory in general, and rhythm as a specific example, is an area where digital learning tools can let musicians experience and interact with the concepts in a direct and meaningful way. This is why I firmly believe in the power of teaching and creating rhythms through the use of drum machines and the piano roll editors. The underlying essence of rhythm that many students struggle with is the hierarchy of “beat->division->subdivision” (or big-beat, little-beat) and being able to apply that concept across multiple time signatures, particularly changing the type of note which gets the beat (e.g. 2/2, 4/4, 4/8). Anyone who has ever watched a beginning musician try and count or sight-read outside of 4/4 for the first time understands this challenge. Garage Band has a perfectly functional piano roll editor view for this, and it lets students see the micro and macro structures of time which make up the essence of rhythm. Rather than using the packaged Apple Loops, or recording audio in, try spending time drawing in melodies and rhythms on this "grid" view, changing the time signatures and noting (sorry) the different kinds of observations that can come out of this view when it comes to rhythm.
Software drum machines have a similar value in that they allow you to visually align beat and division in a way that is obvious and intuitive. Reason’s (PC/Mac) drum machine was one of the major Earth-shakers in my teaching: set the thing to loop continually, and have the kids program in beat and division until they hear a steady, even beat. Now move the divisions around to create other kinds of rhythms. What do you observe when you move them around, etc.? Finally, they can very easily translate the visual notation of the drum machine into “proper” musical notation. Unfortunately, ReBirth for iPad (Reason) is a visual/interface disaster. I have heard really good things about DM1 for iPad, and the visual interface there is more like what I’d want to see for this kind of free rhythmic exploration.
Finally, Impromptu is a very different but very compelling approach to teaching theory including rhythm and form. Impromptu was developed by Jeanne Bamberger, who was at MIT for many years, and is now at UC Berkeley. The software is currently Java, but she shared the beta of the iOS version a few weeks ago and said it was very close to release. I’d highly recommend her as a resource to your teachers, and when the iOS version is released it’s worth exploration. Unfortunately, she mentioned that the accompanying textbook (“Developing Musical Intuitions”) is out-of-print and being revised for her website, but Amazon has used copies available.
Aside from DMI, I highly recommend two other resources for teaching elements of music theory through digital environments: Music Theory for Computer Musicians, and Teaching Music with Reason. The latter was a curriculum that Propellerhead released to work with Reason, then decided not to update when they updated their software. They ended up releasing it as a free download under Creative Commons. While the songfiles won’t be useful without Reason itself, the workbooks are a great example of some of the approaches possible through digital composition and DAW software. It’s a bit hard to find, but there are copies floating in back corners of the Internet.
These three strategies all involve alternative forms of "notation," or visual ways of representing time, sound and silence. They all can lead into traditional notation, particularly if students then begin to write notation hand have to think about how the proper spacing of notation reflects the same visual layout of time that a drum machine or DAW does. This is only one possible strategy, though-- if you teach theory or aural skills in your programs, do you have favorite digital tools which help? Discuss below and share any of your strategies!
Date: December 18, 2014
More from Daniel Coyle: Tip# 13 "Find the Sweet Spot." Once again, I recommend Coyle's book highly.
For this tip, Coyle speaks of finding "a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It's called the sweet spot."
He then gives hints on finding that "sweet spot" of learning by comparing the "comfort zone," where the sensations are, "Ease, effortlessness. You're working, but not reaching or struggling," to the sweet spot where the sensations are of, "frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You're fully engaged in an intense struggle—as if you're stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again." And finally, to what he calls the "survival zone," where the sensations are "confusion, desperation. You're overmatched: scrambling, thrashing, and guessing. You guess right sometimes, but it's mostly luck."
Coyle gives the example of a 13 year old clarinetist, part of an Australian study, who in a particular practice session, suddenly focuses intensely on her mistakes, figuring them out, and fixing them. The author of the study noted that the girl "learned more in that span of minutes than she would have learned in an entire month practicing her normal way, in which she played songs straight through, ignoring any mistakes."
This is analogous to my prior discussions of "drill" versus "scrimmage" (borrowed from the studies of John Wooden's teaching/coaching techniques), which you can find in this post, this one, and here.
It's our job to try to keep the choir as often as possible at that sweet spot, where they're having to stretch hard to accomplish something (learn a difficult passage, rhythm, vocal skill, etc.). This way, their learning will be at the optimum speed. That isn't all we need to do, of course, since we need to run through passages or pieces as well ("scrimmage"), but you can read about that in the other posts.
But our choice of repertoire is also something that needs to push our ensembles beyond their comfort zone. Finding the balance of some music that they can achieve more easily, but some that is almost beyond their abilities (but not pushing them into the "survival zone") is our challenge as a conductor. I've posted earlier about choosing repertoire, and often have tried to find one piece (often contemporary) that will push my students in ways they've never been pushed before. Since I've been involved with Swedish music, that's provided some of this music for my choirs (in recent years with the University Singers at UNT, Sven-David Sandström's Agnus Dei and Thomas Jennefelt's O Domine). But the specifics can and must vary, depending on the level of your choir—children, middle school, high school, college, or perhaps a program you've built versus a poor one you've just taken over—it's our job to find something that will s-t-r-e-t-c-h our choir's abilities. I've found it's often just that piece that the choir struggles with at first, perhaps dislikes, that they like best by the time they perform it. And it's those pieces that push your choir's abilities ahead faster and further than any others.
This is my last post before the holidays—have a wonderful break—and I'll "see" you again in January.
Date: December 16, 2014
It’s one thing for those of us in the choral profession to bemoan the state of current music. After all, the promotion of historically viable music is our gig. But when a hipster pop musician starts saying things like “the loss of melody has been a major contributor to the decline in music's standing in American culture,” one must admit to feelings of vindication.
The following is an excerpt from the column, “Top Ten Reasons Why the Music Industry is Failing,” by Ramin Streets, a singer/songwriter and entrepreneur from Chicago
There seems to be a serious lack of musicianship at play across so many of the song artists that are signed to major labels. It's become common knowledge that some of the most famous folks priding themselves on their singing ability rely way too heavily on auto-tune. There used to be a running joke about certain bands that made their living (and their hits) only playing 3 chords (nothing wrong with it - i.e. The Ramones). Yet now it really seems to have gone too far. Where are the virtuoso instrumentalists? Where are the guitar and drum heroes? The fact that we need video games to get our fix vs. seeing the real hero perform the real licks at a real show only further points to the fact that a deep seated need amongst music lovers is just not being served properly anymore.
Finally, the loss of melody has been a major contributor to the decline in music's standing in American culture. Traditionally, songs have comprised of four ingredients namely; melody, rhythm, harmony and lyric. Over the last 300-400 years, the strongest and most memorable music ever written more or less received equal weight in these four areas. Classical music saw heavier weight applied to melody and harmony. Then jazz, blues and later rock each applied rhythm to a greater extent (i.e. the rhythm section using drums, bass and guitar). This gave energy to the songs and to their performances both on the turntable and on the stage. However over the last 30+ years so much emphasis has been applied to beats vs. melody that the rhythm seems to be all we know. Problem is you can't hum or sing a beat. You need melody for that. And, unfortunately many of our modern producers only know how to address this need by lifting melodies from other people's songs. This can't last. With the proper permissions it's legal but is effectively cheating. And, in the opinion of this song artist only serves as the final nail in the coffin of an industry that has for far too long overstayed its welcome.
Date: December 12, 2014
iosThe larger our ensembles or more active our seasons, the more we find ourselves needing to get messages out to our groups quickly. Whether it's a rehearsal indication or performance note, or an adjustment to meeting times and places, the ability to easily mass communicate to your ensembles helps you manage your groups effectively. How do you do this beyond copying-and-pasting several dozen e-mail addresses, or forwarding old group e-mails just to salvage the addresses? Depending on whether you want to use e-mails or text messaging, there are a handful of tools which can help you quickly disseminate your message and get back to the music.
The School Giveth, The School Taketh Away
Those conductors working in school settings (K-12 or Higher Ed) may have an advantage in this capacity: if your school has a Learning Management System/Course Managment System (such as Blackboard, Canvas, Edmodo or Schoology), you may have group messaging built-in. Similarly, if your school gives all students e-mail addresses, you may have groups set up in your e-mail which make it easier to manage. On the flipside, K-12 schools often have policies regarding appropriate and inappropriate digital contact, including whether or not you can use text messaging with students. Especially with young students, e-mail may not be particularly prompt the way it is for adults-- in my experience, middle school students may not check their e-mails for days at a time unless they're in the habit. Be sure to check with your organization for any relevant policies here, as well as your students if you're concerned about how effective digital communication strategies will be.
The staple of the modern communication, e-mail is still our default for communicating with groups. Many of us have a love/hate relationship with our e-mail, particularly when it comes to group communications, as it often breaks down when multiple people try and carry on a conversation. Furthermore, it's really easy to have e-mails slip through the cracks amongst the amount of spam and mailing lists many of us end up receiving. For one-shot communications, or for having a system that you're pretty sure most people have access to, e-mail can help you push info out to your musicians. Make it a little easier to manage for you with two steps:
If you have frequent communications, communications which lead to group conversations, or send out files for people to access, there are better tools than e-mail. Use of discussion boards or groups lets people sees threaded conversations to keep track of a conversation unfolding over time (think the forums at ChoralNet as an example), and can prevent files from either getting deleted when they are needed down the road or having to clog up/live in someone's inbox. Most discussion groups or boards also send notes to people through e-mail (there we are again!) when there's activity, so you don't have to worry as much about whether or not your message is being seen. Google Groups is a useful place to start with discussion boards, particularly as many people already have Google Accounts which they can use with these.
Text Messaging/Messaging Apps
On the other hand, if all you need a service for is to send out quick updates, announcements or notices, your communication may better fit text messaging. There are some considerations when using text messaging-- don't assume, for example, that all your members have unlimited text messages. People may be paying (albeit a couple of pennies a piece) for each of those updates, and especially in cases where the singer isn't the one paying the bill (such as students), that may be a point of contention. If you want to use text messaging, though, you have some options available. One particularly intriguing concept for Apple users is sending text messages from your iPad or Mac through your iPhone using Apple's new Continuity system. You may have seen the commercials advertising the ability to make calls from an iPad or Mac through your iPhone-- the concept applies to messaging as well.
Remind is a service which allows teachers to text message students and parents easily. This has an added benefit that keeps the phone numbers hidden and private, which often satisfies school or parent concerns about safe communication (and keeps teacher numbers protected as well). GroupMe is an app which creates groups that can either use text messages or GroupMe's own apps to have group chats or communications. WhatsApp is one of the largest specialized communication apps in the world. Each of these are great ways to have efficient targeted communication, but they require all your members to set up accounts or download apps (although you can send GroupMe directly to a text message eliminating that need if you choose). Balance the number and type of communications you send with the time required to get everyone set up.
One Size Fits...?
More important than what tool you use is the thought process of choosing a communcation strategy which fits your needs. While e-mail works for the occasional blast, some tweaks to your setup might make it more manageable on your end. For those of use who communicate with our groups often or share materials on a regular basis, e-mail is a crude tool, and other strategies make communication more efficient. Do you have a communication strategy or tips on how you manage communicating with your groups? Share below!
Date: December 11, 2014
More from Daniel Coyle: Tip#11 "Don't Fall for the Prodigy Myth."
Coyle makes the point that prodigies (talent expressed at an early age) aren't really predictors of ultimate success. He gives some examples:
He then mentions Carol Dweck, whose research I profile here and here. Her work involves two mindsets, one that is fixed and where the individual assumes that their talent is fixed (and therefore failure is not a good thing); and one that she calls the growth mindset, where growth (and the failures that go with the attempts to do things one can't yet do well) is valued.
He also speaks of various sports "talent hotbeds," where they are, "not built on identifying talent, but constructing it."
While this feeds into our own skill building (and our willingness to explore things we don't yet do well and accept failure as a way to learn new things), I think it goes more to the development of our own singers'/students' skills.
It tells us that we must be careful not to assume too much from the current level of some of our students. We don't really know who will develop and who won't. It's our job to do everything we can to build the skills of each and every student. Coyle quotes Anson Dorrance, head coach of the University of North Carolina women's soccer team, who's led his team to 21 championship wins: "One of the most unfortunate things I see when identifying youth players is the girl who is told over the years how great she is. By the time she's a high school freshman, she starts to believe it. By her senior year, she's fizzled out. Then there's her counterpart: a girl waiting in the wings, who quietly and with determination decides she's going to make something of herself. Invariably, this humble, hard-working girl is the one who becomes the real player."
What does that tell us about how we treat our young singers?
Think about it!
Date: December 9, 2014
THE BUSINESS OF CONDUCTING by Jameson Marvin
I also observe a fetish to perform contemporary music whose value is not very high; though it may entertain, it will not have lasting value. I think some conductors are intimidated by the “specialists” who have cornered the CD market of early-music performance. We seem to be afraid to sing Renaissance and Baroque music with our “too-large” choirs; and that is a huge pity. Over the past 25 years or so we have witnessed an extreme decrease in the performance of quality choral music from the 15th through the 19th centuries: by far the richest repertoire. We must perform music of the past five centuries (as well as quality music of the 20th and 21st) to educate our students in the vast wellspring of the richest choral tradition: western literature, or we will lose it!
Jazz is a great American art form – it is a solo or solo-ensemble art form. I think we demean this uniquely American genre by it stuffing it into a choral context. Show choirs belong in Las Vegas, or on TV. We do not need to hear microphone-enhanced pop music performances at choral conventions. We are saturated with it daily on radio, TV, and CDs.
Date: December 6, 2014
It seems that in the eyes of our society, the death of a music program is a non-event. Whether it involves the choral offering at an area high school, a community band, or a civic orchestra, performing arts organizations expire without so much as even a casual nod from local media.
But when a Division I university decides to shutter its football program, media giants USA Today, CNN and ESPN make it one of their top stories.
Earlier this week, the University of Alabama at Birmingham announced that it was eliminating its football program. According to the UAB’s press release, the program was being closed “in order to more effectively invest in the success of priority programs that are most likely to bring national prominence.”
The reaction from those involved was predictable. Teeth were gnashed, marches were planned, fans complained, and ESPN published photos of football players weeping after the announcement.
There were those, however, who appeared to have remembered why a university exists in the first place. Birmingham’s Fox 12 quoted Karen Brooks (president pro tem of the Board of Trustees), who said that the decision will allow the university to “sharpen its competitive edge in teaching, research and service.”
We do not celebrate this closure, nor do we wish ill-will toward the players or coaches involved. Rather, we hope for them a smooth transition to other teams. Certainly, many of us in the performing arts know exactly how they feel; this sort of thing happens in our world all the time.
Date: December 5, 2014
The iPod may have been the single most important technology development for music educators that I've seen in my career thus far. The ability to load an entire listening library onto a portable device and recall examples instantly for our musicians allows us to give our ensembles concrete examples of musical language and style in a way that simply wasn't feasible on the fly before that device. While the hardware has been replaced (RIP, iPod), the concept of instant access to recorded examples is still an essential part of teaching from the podium. With the introduction of that hardware, though, Apple became one of the most dominant players in the music distribution industry through iTunes, and in many ways Cupertino still dictates how the digital distribution industry operates.
As both consumers and creators of music, our field has a deep and complex relationship to music ownership, copyright and intellectual property. The industries of music production and distribution are evolving into Internet-based models, and we see these changes both in how we compose and create music as well as how we find and access it as "end users." We focus more often on the composition and distribution end of this question, particularly with the opportunities that we see on ChoralNet on a daily basis for composers to feature and distribute their work and for conductors to discover new works directly from their creators. Two recent stories about Apple show a shift on the other side of this equation: how we as music consumers purchase and utilize the recordings that we add to those devices, and how absolute our "ownership" of those recordings truly is.
You, Too got U2
Apple loves to make a spectacle, and their September press event was no different. Amongst the announcements of an Apple watch and two very large phones, CEO Tim Cook announced that everyone with an Apple device would get to download U2's new album for free through iTunes. On its face, it appeared to be a very large but somewhat standard "company rewards customer loyalty" move by allowing users to get access to free music. That's not actually how it worked, though-- the album was downloaded automatically to all users' devices. If you owned an iPad, iPod or iPhone, you got the album whether you wanted it or not. Furthermore, you couldn't simply delete it-- it would re-download. Apple had to create special instructions to delete the album from your account, which are not particularly quick nor easy.
It's easy to see where Apple got the idea: "Who wouldn't want free music?" It turns out that there were a lot of very good reasons, ranging from losing valuable storage space on smaller devices to simply not wanting to have the album clutter up a library or appear and play amongst random shuffle or smart playlists. Many users viewed it as an invasion of privacy and security to have a company inject files and media into a personal account. Particularly in the education world, where iPod, iPhone and iPad programs have exploded in recent years, the ethical impact of having what amounts to promotional advertising dropped onto school devices carefully managed for learning is concerning.
In the end, though, unless these files took up the last bit of free storage on your device, they likely were more of a curiosity or minor annoyance than major damage. Unfortunately, another Apple incident was allegedly much more consequential for users.
iTunes or Bust?
A major antitrust lawsuit against Apple opened this week alleging that Apple used unfair business practices to establish and maintain dominance in digital distribution through iTunes. This case has many parallels to earlier cases against Microsoft for the integration of Internet Explorer and Windows, in that both cases question how far the companies can go to force you to stay within their ecosystem while using their products, and how much choice we as the consumers should have in how those products are used.
From 2007 to 2009, system updates for both iTunes and iPods identified songs that had from non-iTunes sources as security risks and upon discovering them prompted the users to restore the iPod to factory settings. This wipes the iPod clean, although any songs in a user's iTunes library would be copied back to the clean iPod. The non-iTunes songs, though, would not be copied (and if they were reintroduced, they would again be identified as security risks, prompting the cycle to begin again). The Wall Street Journal reports that prosecutors and Apple disagree on the motives and whether they represent intent to damage competitors such as Amazon, with Apple acknolwedging that the practice occured while stating that they were responding to serious security threats.
Regardless of the validity of the threat or motive to the action, of particular concern to the consumer is the way that Apple took preventative action to effectively block a viable consumer purchase from being copied to the iPod. Where consumers often default to a mentality of "it's mine, I purchased it, I can do with it what I want," both these cases demonstrate how our relationship to digital media companies goes well past the point of purchase. In each case, whether by assuming users wanted something (free U2 album!) or assuming we didn't (avoiding security risk!), Apple took some measure of control over our music libraries on our behalf.
As conductors, scholars, teachers and performers of music, we have a great stake in understanding how music is distributed. We are all also passionate and dedicated consumers of music and have that perspective on the industry as well. While these cases are fairly limited in scope, they demonstrate the changing nature of media distribution. It's not hard to extend the same line of thinking forward and envision other, more serious, over-reaches by the companies that sell and deliver recorded media. It's also important to realize that, just as Microsoft before it, these two cases are indicative of one company being the dominant player in the market--the point of citing them is not to highlight Apple's behavior, but to ask what any company in such a position may do. The same concerns about Apple controlling both a device and the distribution network apply just as well to Amazon and the Kindle, for example. Apple paid U2 a reported $100 million to distribute "Songs of Innocence." What if artists or recording labels turn the tables and offer money to Apple or Amazon in exchange for pushing promos or singles for an upcoming major album? If a song or recording is found after its sale to be copyright infringement or an intellectual property violation, would Apple or Amazon delete it from user devices rather than be a party to legal action?
For many, the benefits of these devices and services far outweigh the potential risks and hazards, and neither of these cases alone caused people to give up a digital music player or account. The original transformative idea of carrying your entire recorded library in your pocket is still just as powerful, and may even be taken a bit for granted now 13 years after the first iPod. Our understanding of what it means to "own" a digital file, service or account is under constant revision, though, and that can have an effect on how we use and operate these devices as well as how we choose to distribute our own recordings. What do you think about these cases? What does this mean for us as musicians? Do you think these are relevant to us in the choral field? Join in the conversation below!
Date: December 4, 2014
More from Daniel Coyle: Tip#10 “Honor the Hard Skills"
From Coyle: "As you probably recognize, most talents are not exclusively hard skills or soft skills, but rather a combination of the two. For example, think of a violinist's precise finger placement to play a series of notes (a hard skill) and her ability to interpret the emotion of a song (a soft skill). . . The point of this tip is simple: Prioritize the hard skills because in the long run they're more important to your talent."
This goes to the challenge of building hard skills—whether in yourself or in your singers—while still making progress in the creative soft skills. Coyle's saying to prioritize the hard skills . . . but how do you do this?
We can relate it to research on the imagined ability of the brain to multi-task. I say "imagined," because all recent research shows that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, but that your brain has to switch back and forth between tasks. And that switching is not efficient. There's even a recent study that suggests that multi-tasking can damage the abilties of the brain!
So, the skills we have to teach our singers have to be prioritized: vocal skills, ensemble skills, musicianship, etc.
This is a challenge, because our groups also have to perform . . . and they also need to learn how to sing musically and creatively. We can't work exclusively on exercises and hard skills.
This was perhaps possible in an earlier era—for example, the stories (probably exaggerated, of course!) that the famous voice teacher Porpora had the singer Caffarelli train on a single page of vocalises (and nothing else) for five years, then saying, "Go young man. You have nothing more to learn. You are now the greatest singer of Italy and the world."
And in a contemporary version of this noted by Coyle, "At Sparktak, the Moscow tennis club, there is a rule that young players must wait years before entering competitive tournaments. 'Technique is everything,' said a coach, Larisa Preobrazhenskaya. 'If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake.'"
So, what do we do? I think we have to follow the research about "multi-tasking." In other words, there's no such thing as being able to practice both soft and hard skills at the same time. But we can alternate work that allows both (and not in such a quick way as to pretend to multi-task and do both at once).
I've written before about drilling a particular passage, for accurate pitches, rhythms, vowel, intonation, etc. (some of which may well have to be isolated one element at a time), but then after that (see my various John Wooden posts about drill), work with the choir on singing that passage musically and expressively. Or being able to conduct them with freedom of tempo (rubato) or different phrase shapes and dynamics, since the singers are now confident enough to be able to watch and respond. Some of this can be practiced fairly soon—after even a few repetitions in some passages, the choir can master enough of the music necessary to focus on musicality.
And also important is that work on basics (most likely through vocalises or other exercises) is something even an advanced choir needs. Again from Coyle: "The cellist Yo-Yo Ma spends the first minutes of every practice playing single notes on his cello. The NFL quarterback Peyton Manning spends the first segment of every practice doing basic footwork drills—the kind they teach twelve-year-olds."
This means finding ways to carefully balance basic work on hard skills (some of which are basics which need continual repetition, no matter what the level of the choir) and working on the soft, creative skills of musicality and projecting the emotion the composer attempts to express.
It means re-thinking our rehearsal technique. It means rehearsing with an eye towards balancing the absolutely important building of hard skills (see my earlier post relating to Robert Shaw's techniques) and the need to build in musicality early on as well. It's part of what makes what we do endlessly fascinating. Rehearsing is craft, but the combination and balance of techniques can also be art.
P.S. speaking of mentors, Robert Scandrett died on Tuesday—Bob was another important mentor to me. You can find my response to his long and meaningful life here. An amazing musician and person, the study tour of England he planned and led in 1975 changed my life in many ways—take a look, you won't believe what we got to do, who we got to meet, and the performances we heard.
Date: December 2, 2014
Paul Carey has been an acquaintance of mine for a number of years now. He’s a regular on the conference rotation, and an active (and good) composer. He’s also got some great opinions and is not afraid to speak his mind. Plus, he’s hilarious, which is always a benefit.
Recently he posted a six part series on the state of music publishing and describing a vision of what the future might hold. It’s a very interesting read, and I hope you can find some time (perhaps in a few weeks!), to sit down and read all of his posts.
As a conductor, I have a few frustrations. I am constantly amazed at the number of new compositions for choir pumped out each year. Many, dare I say most, are not the best quality. This volume of low quality music makes finding new music terribly difficult. In the olden days (like 50 years ago), there wasn’t enough music. Just finding anything you hadn’t heard of often involved trips to Europe, or a great publisher, or a really good music library. Someone told me once that there are a few thousand new band titles every year, and there are something like ten to fifteen thousand new choral titles each year. I have no idea if those numbers are accurate, but if they are even close, that’s scary.
And to make it worse, it is these sub par compositions, rather than the higher quality pieces, are often the ones that pay the bills for publishers, distributers, and many composers and arrangers. People buy this music. I’m not sure if there’s anything to do about it, but it makes life hard, especially for the young conductor or music teacher, to find good rep.
I have other quibbles that in the grand scheme of things are minor. They mostly involve thus use of current technology. There’s no reason anymore that I cannot be able to view a pdf of a complete score. It’s easy, cheap, and provides tons of value. I do not care for minimum orders (typically 16-24), especially when the publishers with minimum orders are also usually not allowing me to view the complete score online. I fail to see why I can’t order and print on demand. Lots of independent folks are doing it, and it really should be possible for everyone. Pay for 50 copies at 10:00 am, run them to printing services, and sing through it at noon.
But the one that always blows me away is that typical composers do not retain the rights to their own music, and they often get in the neighborhood of 10% of the sale price of their pieces. My numbers may not be 100% accurate, but they are close. It makes me sad for composers.
Paul dissects these issues in more detail (and much more eloquently and accurately), and outlines some of the future thinking that is going around this important issue. Enjoy, and remember: the end is near!
Date: December 2, 2014
THE JOY OF MENTORING, or HOW I ALMOST BECAME AN ARCHITECT, by Karen Fulmer
The launch of ACDA Mentoring is a revolutionary development in our mission to inspire excellence in performance, education, composition and advocacy, matching the knowledge and resources of experienced conductors and composers with the needs and requests of emerging candidates. ACDA members will soon connect as teachers, coaches, advisors and students without the restriction of geographic location.
I always loved to sing but never thought of music education as a career until my senior year of high school when my choir teacher, Howard Meharg, suggested that I should consider becoming a teacher. Not knowing exactly what I wanted to do in life, working with students through teaching music sounded like something I’d enjoy. College brought some disappointing life experiences as I never made it into the top choir and I had one voice teacher tell me I might be able to get by as an elementary music teacher, but I certainly could not be successful at the secondary level, where I wanted to teach. I was devastated and ready to quit.
Then, my student teaching placement paired me with a skilled cooperating teacher who said I had everything going for me to become a great teacher. Although he taught secondary choral music, performed with the local opera company and sang in the Oregon Bach Festival Choir, he also played trumpet and loved performing in dance and jazz bands. He was an active member of MENC and ACDA – he encouraged me to join choirs, the opera chorus and professional organizations to gain experience and depth of knowledge. As I tagged along to various events, he introduced me to many other area choir directors and relationships were created.
The words and encouragement of one person changed my life direction forever and had Howard not seen a potential teacher in this high school student, I would most likely be an architect today. As I’ve worked with numerous student teachers during my career and currently supervise several for a local university, I am keenly reminded of the significant role mentors play in the development of conductors, teachers, and composers and how important it is for these relationships to build and flourish. I hope ACDA members will enthusiastically take advantage of this beneficial new program. Mentor registrations began Nov. 1, and mentee applications started being accepted yesterday (Dec. 1). Both steps can be taken at mentoring.acda.org.
Date: December 1, 2014
THE POWER OF CHRISTMAS MUSIC, PART II by Thomas R. Vozzella
Last year we explored Christmas music and, briefly, how other world religions acknowledged Jesus in their writings. It was not intended as an expose on Carols, Holiday Music, etc.; It was a reflection on why Christmas Music came to be, in its purest point of origin-the birth of Jesus and the Biblically, historical events surrounding the birth that has given us Christmas music. In terms of the semantics of Christmas Music vs. Holiday Music: without the birth of Christ there would be neither.
Although I did not discuss inclusivity, I feel as though inclusivity has minimized and created an antagonistic environment towards Christmas music in public schools and other gatherings. We have become so polarizingly sensitive, that we now limit students exposure to great music because of its Christian and religious inferences. Whether Christmas music is presented as an art form in public settings, or as religious expression, it has become the “elephant in the room”. Being sensitive to other cultures does not require us to “throw the baby out with the bath water”.
Rather than making a concerted effort to equalize musical expression over time, some seek instant results. These results will never be accomplished outside a natural and sincere development of inclusive expression.
There is a deeper issue with regard to world music and that of other religions, which is a whole other topic. However, where does one find well-written, notated and accessible world choral music? What music is marketable to publishers and how do we enter into an age where music, of all world and faith traditions, is accessible in mainstream publishing? I am sure my fellow composers will address this, and I hope they do!
Now, back to inclusivity…by way of my experience as a high school student. Our director and one of my mentors, Catherine Carnabuci, balanced religiously based masterworks with secular/world music throughout the academic year.
It did not matter what your background: we sang with Jewish students, African-American students, Asian students, Agnostic students, Christian students, Atheistic students, Gay and Lesbian students, and from other varying orientations and beliefs. Repertoire was never an issue. What we were doing, was singing great choral music-from Bach’s B Minor Mass to the madrigals of Emma Lou Diemer, White Christmas to Robert Shaw’s Angels we have heard on High, Daniel Pinkham’s Christmas Cantata to Randall Thompson’s Choose Something Like a Star, William Dawson’s Out in the Fields to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and many more, together, without prejudice.
Philosophically speaking, we as a nation have long established musical traditions, religious and not, that could use revamping, not disregarding. With this in mind, an overt effort to be inclusive of all musical expressions through the addition of music from other cultures, nations and religions would help to create an era of inclusivity, without devaluing long held nationalistic musical traditions, especially during the Christmas concert season.
Date: November 27, 2014
More from Daniel Coyle: Tip#9 “To Build Soft Skills, Play Like a Skateboarder”
As Coyle says:
After this, Coyle uses some great examples from Brazilian soccer players, Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy troupe, and the (!) Brontë sisters to show how in different situations, flexibility and creativity are developed. He then closes with:
As always, I highly recommend getting Coyle’s book yourself.
But the question is, how does this apply to a conductor? As recreative artists, where does our own creativity come in?
One is in learning how to be expressive and teaching your singers the same. Of course we all bring our training and lifetime in music (however long that is!) to our understanding of interpretation, whether generally or specifically in understanding performance in various periods, national styles, the particular style of an individual composer, languages, poetry, expressive diction, vocal color, varied use of vibrato, etc., etc. This is part of our never-ending learning process, which also includes listening to great artists (not just great choirs), whether singers or instrumentalists, or conductors of the past or present (one of the great things about the wealth of recordings available to us). This never-ending learning process is one of the reasons I love what I do . . . no worries that I can learn it all—and I should never get bored!
In your own preparation then, as you learn a particular piece of music, besides the usual research about the music, composer, and text, once you begin to really learn the piece, it’s time to experiment (without worrying, as Coyle says, about errors) with different tempi (and variation in tempi, ritardando/accelerando, and rubato), shapes of phrases, colors, articulations, places to breathe, etc. I do this by literally singing phrases myself, but also purely in my own internal musical imagination (which is a great thing to develop—the ability to imagine and hear the whole score: texture, voices, instruments, harmony, dynamics, etc.). Sometimes it can help to isolate different elements one at a time: experiment with articulation (legato, marcato, staccato and everything in between), with vocal color (bright to dark), and so on. With rubato, when is it appropriate, when not? How much rubato works with the composition—or does too much rubato destroy the structure of the music?
I’m having a great time with the Mozart Vesperae solennes de Dominica, which I’m doing with my Collegium Singers right now. It’s the much less known of the pair of Vespers settings Mozart wrote, and an absolutely wonderful piece. But it’s music which needs careful work to shape expressively: varied dynamics, articulations, attention to text (both meaning and diction) and text accent (which does not always fall on strong beats), length of final notes, and (of course) tempi. These all feed into phrase shape, which I think of as the heart and soul of expressive interpretation.
All of this experimentation gradually builds an interpretation. Now does this finalize it? Of course not! The ensemble will affect what you do—perhaps a tempo you’ve imagined simply doesn’t work. And the room where you sing will also make its own contribution. When I tour with choirs, the different rooms can make a big difference in tempi, in how much time you take at the end of a section of music. Music is a live art—it’s an interaction between you, the ensemble, room, and audience. I’ll always remember a concert in the Stanford University Chapel with the Choir of the West from PLU—and the great reaction of the choir to the room after we cut off the first chord we sang! For that particular performance I had to allow much more time at the end of sections and it made an impact on my tempi, as well. But any different room will have its own effect.
Another thing young conductors need is practice controlling what the ensemble does with just gesture (unless you’ve decided its fine to talk to your ensemble in performance!).
When rehearsing, even early in the process, particularly if you’re drilling a phrase or section of the music, start varying what you do (tempo, ritardando, dynamics) and show changes with your gesture, expecting the singers to follow. This gives you many more reps in learning how to control what the singers do with gesture alone. Don’t wait until the dress rehearsal to experiment! Do it as soon as you can—you can also explore your own creativity, exaggerate various things (dynamics, tempo rubato, etc.) that you’d never want to do in a performance.
But the idea is . . . find ways to practice your creativity as an interpretive artist!
Date: November 25, 2014
ACDA THROUGH THE INTERN'S EYES by Taylor Jack Conley
I have spent two summers in the ACDA national office, and the time has been profoundly fruitful. Working in the national office of an organization dedicated to the choral art allowed me to grow my knowledge and love of the art. I was able to work with ACDA’s spectacular staff members in their various departments.
I spent the better part of the summer of 2013 in the archives organizing and cataloging the plethora of resources the national office possesses. The projects I began that summer actually carried over into my second summer internship. When I returned in 2014, I gradually updated the list of conference recordings the archives contain (about 6500). I grew my knowledge of choral repertoire just by listing hundreds of titles on an Excel spreadsheet. Every time a title would interest me, I would look it up and listen. This project will be something I am happy to have been asked to update over time. I will have the pride, and responsibility, of having my name on an ACDA archive project. I worked on a membership drive researching the various resources available to the different membership categories (students, church choir directors, high school directors, etc.). Sifting through all that ACDA has to offer opened my eyes to the staggering amount of resources members have access to. Needless to say, I know where to go to answer choral related questions from now on (Hint: try ChoralNet).
Not only did I get to work on various projects around the office, I got to see the inner workings of ACDA. Before I stepped foot in the office, I envisioned a staff of 50 working every day to advance the choral arts around the world. On my first day I was a bit surprised when I met twelve staff members. When I see marvelous work ACDA does with only twelve people at the helm, I can only imagine what this great organization could do with my previously imagined staff of fifty.
What would be the greatest thing I took away from my time at the ACDA national office, you might say? I would say that I see a great future ahead for ACDA, and the choral art. From the Choral Journal and ChoralNet, to the ACDA Career Center, there are a, sometimes overwhelming, amount of resources ACDA has to offer. Members do not merely belong to a group, they use the tools provided to grow, and encourage the betterment of choral music. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to get to work closely with the ACDA staff. I built friendships, gained mentors, and obtained a wealth of knowledge I hadn’t expected. Devotion to the idea that choral music, all music, can make the world a better place is what drives the American Choral Directors Association, and is why I’m am thrilled, and always grateful, to have spent two summers working towards that idea. “To foster and promote choral singing…”
Date: November 22, 2014
MY MOST MEANINGFUL MENTOR, by Jack Senzig
I met John W. Downey when I was a student at UWMilwaukee. One day in class I was sitting in the front row next to the grand piano. Dr. Downey played Debussy’s First Arabesque. It was the most beautiful piece of music I had ever heard. With unbidden tears abundantly rolling down my cheeks I asked him if he would play it again. He smiled and in his soft breathy voice said “Why certainly” and repeated the performance.
John saw in me a gift for writing melody. He encouraged me and guided me in composition lessons to expand my childish palate and to help me grow as a musician and as a man. I had begun composing a vocal piece with another teacher who had chided me to throw it away because it was, in her opinion, tonal garbage. When I finally got to study with John he asked me what I had written. All I had was several pages of my Psalm 13. When he got done listening to it he beamed and said “That’s beautiful.” He made clear his sincerity and guided me to complete the work.
There were two things in particular that made the mentor/mentee relationship special. He actually valued my opinion and he shared his life with me. One time at a concert in his honor, I sat on one side of him and his wife on the other. The piece was a setting of his spouse’s poem “A Dolphin.” When the performance was finished he received plentiful applause from the audience but didn’t think to acknowledge the poet. She was very upset with him. I try hard to remember that situation every time I work with people who deserve recognition, not only in musical performances.
John sought and accepted my critique of his work in addition to giving copious critique of mine. He wrote a set of pieces for the Chicago Children’s Choir. Our university choir director at the time did not perform much 20th century music. When John asked him to give the pieces a read through he was turned down flat. The stress he felt over the poor relationship with the director opened my eyes to professional relationships and has influenced my dealings with colleagues and students.
When I had a high school student who liked to critique me in front of the class, I remembered John Downey’s gentle example. I recognized the young man’s musicianship, choked down my ego and tried to mentor him. I invited him to critique me every day after class and promised to consider his suggestions. I valued his critique, some times changing my rehearsals and sometimes explaining why my approach was correct. He started taking conducting lessons with me and chose and directed a piece for the choir to sing. He ended up getting a good scholarship to Luther in part because of the mentoring he received from me. He is now a choral colleague and teaches at a university.
I miss John Downey deeply. I wish I could share the successes in my career but most came after his death. It does make me happy to know that some of him is alive in me, and hopefully will be carried on by my children and my students.
Who was your mentor? Tell us about him/her in the comments below!
(Will you one day be someone’s most meaningful mentor? Plant the seeds today for tomorrow's choral world. ACDA Mentoring [mentoring.acda.org])
Date: November 20, 2014
This is a difficult choice, since I've been lucky to have some wonderful teachers and mentors. For example, Neil Lieurance was an influential teacher—without him I probably wouldn't have made a career as a conductor. Neil died this past year at the too-young age of 70. I wrote about him here. But beyond his influence in HS, Neil immediately treated me like a colleague after I graduated and began my undergraduate studies at the University of Washington—I'd visit and he'd share whatever music and recordings were interesting him. He followed my work with early ensembles I conducted and was always willing to give advice. He was a true mentor.
Rod Eichenberger, my undergraduate conducting teacher (although he let me take part in the graduate conducting class as an undergrad), has been another great teacher and mentor. I started hanging around his office and listening to his conversations with the grad students around my junior year (among them Bruce Browne and Larry Marsh) and he told me if I'd file the large stacks of scores for him, I could keep any duplicates. This not only gave me the beginning of my personal library but a great overview of choral literature—if I filed a piece by Hindemith, I'd look through the file to see what else Hindemith wrote for chorus. And, like Neil, he remained a mentor long after I graduated (to the current day, in fact). When I took the job at Pacific Lutheran University, following Maurice Skones, he called and congratulated me, but also said, "As someone who followed Charles Hirt at USC, I know something about the challenges of following a legend. If you ever want to call and talk, don't hesitate." This was a gift . . . and a relationship that has continued up to the present.
But for this post about my most meaningful mentor, I'll speak of Eric Ericson. Eric was never my teacher, but has undeniably been a major influence on my music-making, repertoire, and approach to so many things.
I was aware of Eric's recordings from at least the early '70s (Neil Lieurance or Rod probably introduced me to them). I was fascinated with the amazing sound of his Chamber Choir and the Swedish Radio Choir, the purity of their intonation, and the repertoire they performed. In 1983 at the ACDA Conference I heard the Radio Choir live for the first time. And since I'd just auditioned for the DMA program at CCM, was invited by John Leman to join the masterclass conducting choir and got to observe Eric's teaching first-hand.
The following fall I began at PLU and in 1985 Bruce Browne called and said Eric's Conservatory Chamber Choir would be performing at the ISME conference in Eugene, OR and wanted some other opportunities for the choir. So I built the PLU Summer Choral Workshop around Eric and the choir. They were in San Francisco before coming to Tacoma, so Eric flew up and the choir came a day later on their tour bus. This was my first time to get to know Eric, watch him work on conducting technique with the whole group and a small group of master class conductors who worked with the Chamber Choir. It was an amazing experience.
About a year later I participated as a singer in a choir put together by Bruce Browne for his Haystack Workshop for which Eric was the clinician, I brought Eric and the Conservatory Chamber Choir back to PLU's summer workshop a few years later as well.
When I began thinking of a topic for my dissertation, I knew it would be about Swedish choral music, so I traveled for the first time to Sweden in April of 1989, where I searched for "the" topic, and Eric was the guide, introducing me to lots of people and resources. I sublet the apartment of one of his wife Monica's sons. I would then return for the full summer of 1990 to do research (and sublet the apartment of another of Monica’s son’s). Given the topic of my dissertation, Swedish A Cappella Music Since 1945 (published later here) I spoke with Eric numerous times, spent time in the Radio’s library, spent time going through Eric’s personal library of scores in his apartment, and Eric made connections for interviews with virtually every important choral composer of the this time period, plus many conductors and administrators.
I’ve also seen Eric work many times with his various choirs in rehearsal, recording sessions, and concerts. He was also the first conductor with a group of singers that would become Choral Arts. I’ve had numerous discussions with him (and those close to him) about his art. Eric was eternally curious about anything choral—always wanted to know what you were doing, what others he knew were doing, what repertoire you were doing (and it wasn’t easy to stump him about a huge range of rep: “Oh yes, I did that in the late ‘60s" or (about some obscure American piece), "Yes, I know that."
It’s hard to separate out all aspects of Eric as mentor, but so many opportunities have come from my work with him. There’s so much repertoire I’ve learned due to him. Approaches to sound (even though few of us have the level of voices of the Radio or Chamber choirs), and intonation have also come from him. And incredibly important is his work ethic and dedication. Eric lived for music and this showed in his every approach to music, music-making, and his choirs.
I owe him an immense debt. And thanking all my teachers and mentors, I hope I have been a mentor to those students and conductors I’ve come worked with over the years. That will certainly continue as long as I’m able to help. It’s an important way of giving back all that I (or you!) have been given over the years.
ACDA has a great new mentoring program and I hope you’ll consider being a mentor or mentee. Make sure you check it out!
(Will you one day be someone’s most meaningful mentor? Plant the seeds today for tomorrow's choral world. ACDA Mentoring [mentoring.acda.org])
Date: November 19, 2014
Picking one mentor in my life is difficult. There have been so many folks that have influenced me. I’m focusing on three right here, but there are countless more. Basically everyone at Florida State had some sort of impact on me. Likewise, colleagues at every place I’ve worked. I did not start this life as an old soul...one already filled with a well of wisdom and thoughtfulness. I basically learned by screwing up, and then having smarter people lead me to the truth, sometimes with a carrot, sometimes with a stick, but always with my best interest in mind.
Bruce was a huge musical mentor, and recently he has become my friend, too (something that you young conductors out there get to look forward to if you are lucky). One of my first foundational musical experiences was when he brought his professional choir, Choral Cross-Ties, to my high school (Ulysses S. Grant High in Portland, Oregon, where Rodney Eichenberger taught for a short time). The singing from that group was just out of this world. Hearing them sing was one of the top two or three foundational experiences in my life.
I later went to Portland State University for one year and somehow managed to make it into Dr. Browne’s PSU Chamber Choir. It was that year that really made me finally decide to be a conductor. We sang some incredible music...Ligeti, Distler, Brahms, Bach, and so much more. We also had as our guest conductor the one and only Eric Ericson. I was a young, stupid, freshman who could barely find his way around a Ligeti score, let alone have the awareness that I was in the presence of one of the greatest and most influential conductors of all time. The rehearsal were incredible. I remember him sitting at the piano to demonstrate a particular phrase in the Brahms, and being blown away by his musicality. That year of music making was prehaps one of the most memorable, and still influences me today.
So after that year I decided I wanted to be a conductor. There was some part of me that needed to get out of Portland, and so on the recommendation of Kenny Potter, I went to Florida State University. I wound up getting both my undergraduate degree in Music Education, and my doctorate from Dr. Thomas (Doc, for those in the know).
My experience at FSU made me the man I am today (and by the way there are a number of folks at FSU who could also be mentioned in this post...Judy Bowers and Kevin Fenton to start with). As I said before, I am not an old soul. I floated about, not really applying myself and making a lot of mistakes...I failed aural skills twice, mostly because I didn’t go to class.
Andre influenced me in different way than Dr. Browne. My rehearsal technique and demeanor are stolen almost note-for-note from Doc’s playlist (though no one I know can replicate the ‘Doc” stare. Ask around. It is a truly legendary look. You can see a version of it here). His ability to hold a room, to demand more from his singers, and to instill passion and devotion is unparalleled. Watching him work, either as a singer or an observer, is a truly wonderful experience. I’m not sure if there are many choir folks who haven’t seen him work, but for you young directors out there who haven’t, do yourself a favor and watch him work. Take notes. Steal his ideas. They are gold.
He also helped me by showing me how to really be a man and handle my business. He did so much tell me what to do (thought there was some of that), it was more through the model he presented. People rise up to do great things around him because of they see how he is, what he can do, and are inspired to push themselves. Plus, if you are around him and slacking, he’ll go after you hard! So there’s a little but of fear there, but it’s healthy. :)
Without Andre and also Judy, and Kevin, I wouldn't be here doing what I’m doing. Bottom line.
I got my Masters degree at Oregon State University with Steve Zielke. What I got from Steve was not so much musicality (though there was plenty of that), or “life skills,” though there was that too. What I got from Steve was the political, interpersonal, and opportunistic (in a good way) skills to help to expand and improve a program. Steve is talker. And he can talk to anyone about anything. He is great at observing the landscape of his department and community and finding opportunities to improve things. He knows how to find money. He knows how to get a kid excited and interested in coming to OSU. He thinks outside the box and comes up with thoughtful, creative ways to expand and grow his programs in a way that I haven’t seen from many folks. I learned a ton about recruiting from him, again, not so much by what he taught me directly, but by my observations of what he did.
So those are my mentors. I’d love to hear your feedback about the folks mentioned above, or your own mentors. Let’s share with the world the great people in our lives.
Date: November 18, 2014
I am fortunate to have had many meaningful mentors, but it was Dr. Dee Romines who set me on my career path. Currently on faculty at Hardin-Simmons University, I knew him as Mr. Romines, director of the Academy choirs at Punahou School in Honolulu, HI.
Choir was my Thing, and it happened at 7:30 every morning. No matter how early I arrived, the choir room door was unlocked, and some kind of record was playing...sometimes Robert Shaw, sometimes Elvis...and he would be preparing for rehearsal in the office. I understand now the ever-present cup of coffee. The choir room was my safest place, my most ME place, and I'm forever grateful that it was always open when I arrived.
Mr. Romines gave me the words to put on what I could already do: rhythmic integrity and exactitude, scale degrees and harmonic function. He challenged me to learn and love Palestrina and Handel and Mendelssohn and Poulenc. He helped me earn my first pay as a chorister, let me accompany the choir (perhaps to the detriment of the choir, but to the benefit of my education), and made me know I had something important to offer. I learned the importance of letting someone know when they perform well; always demanding excellence in rehearsal, after our concerts he would sit and look at us all and say, "I thought you sang well. No really, I did!"
I chose to pursue a music major solely because of the influence of Dee Romines. (I can hear his gentle self-deprecating voice saying "sorry" here...don't worry, it was the right path.) Clearly, here was a man who worked hard at a profession that fed his passion...maybe I could also. Maybe I could make a living doing what I loved. Maybe I too could provide a safe place, a "most ME" place for a young singer. I hope, somewhere through the past 20 years, I hope I have.
He is Dr. Romines now, and has influenced the lives of thousands of choristers. And Dr. Romines, with me, I thought you did good. No really. Really, I do.
Will you one day be someone’s most meaningful mentor? Plant the seeds today for tomorrow’s choral world. ACDA Mentoring (mentoring.acda.org).
Photo of Punahou Chorale Japan Tour Choir, 1989. Dee Romines, back row, 4th from left. Julie (Schroeder) Parsons, back row, 6th from right.
Date: November 17, 2014
My Most Meaningful Mentor
Next to my parents, no one had more influence on me than Jerry Jordan, the former Director of Choral Activities at the University of Mississippi. I am always thinking about the lessons he taught me and I am thankful to have had such a wise person in my life. Without him, I can’t imagine who I would be or what I would be doing.
There are many things that he taught me when it comes to choir:
Most choral conductors work diligently to get all of the notes, interpretive markings, and dynamics just right for a performance. For Dr. Jordan, excellent execution of the musical elements was just the point of departure. His sense of phrasing was unique and his interpretations were eloquent commentary. I remember Kodaly’s “A Song For Ever” and Barber’s “The Coolin’.” I remember the complexities of Bach’s “Singet” and Brahms’ “Warum ist.” I remember Luboff’s “Deep River” and Liebau’s “Wonderful World.”
The non-musical things stick with me even more. He modeled courage and conviction as he challenged young minds to embrace new ideas. He encouraged us to act ourselves into new ways of thinking and embrace all forms of beauty in the world.
Will you one day be someone’s most meaningful mentor? Plant the seeds today for tomorrow’s choral world. ACDA Mentoring (mentoring.acda.org).