Date: March 4, 2015
More from Daniel Coyle: Tip #27 Close Your Eyes
As Coyle explains, "One of the quickest ways to deepen practice is also one of the simplest: Close your eyes. . . It sweeps away distraction and engages your other senses to provide new feedback. It helps you engrave the blueprint of a task on your brain by making even a familar skill seem strange and fresh."
I realized while reading this that I've asked my choir to close their eyes and sing in the past, but I haven't done it for quite a while. This does several things: as Coyle mentions, it "sweeps away distraction" and makes "even a familiar skill seem strange and fresh." But it also forces the choir to listen much more intensely. They have to listen and use other skills (maintaining an inner sense of pulse) to stay together as an ensemble without watching you conduct (and perhaps you realize you aren't as necessary as you thought! Or better, you can use your gesture more for shape and direction than keeping time).
I do sometimes stop conducting and ask my ensemble to sing without me—I want them to shape phrases independently, to concentrate on subtle details of ensemble, even learning to feel ritards together.
But I'll remember to ask them to close their eyes now and then.
Date: March 3, 2015
FROM POP DOMINANCE TO CHORAL ARTISTRY, by Joseph Brickey-Goldsmith
Choral music has seen a dramatic surge of interest over the past few years thanks to popular primetime television shows such as Glee, The Sing-Off, etc. While this is wonderful for choral programs, it also calls into question what to do when your students want to sing pop centric choral repertoire. The transition from a "pop" dominated atmosphere to one centered around choral artistry is enough to keep a director awake at night. However, after some time, the benefits will out-weigh the struggle. My students have stated they believe the fine choral arts require much more "dedication and nitpicking" during rehearsal; whereas, pop choral music is more focused on pleasing an audience.
One of the primary goals of directing a choir, or any musical ensemble, is to build a solid foundation of musicianship. Students who have mostly performed pop centric choral music will possibly resist the idea of learning and refining their musical skill set. My students are no exception here. There will always be a student to convince! Though, a rule I have is "You cannot say you hate a song until after the concert". Fortunately, because of our "dedication and constant nitpicking", I've yet to hear a student utter those words.
During the beginning of each semester, you will always be bombarded with the statement "We should do (insert name of pop song)". Again, I am not immune to these requests and often say "I'll look into it but in the mean time let's start reading through this" as I hand out a jazz standard or composer similar to Moses Hogan and Eric Whitacre. As usual, the newer or younger students turn their noses up a little to this new and unusual sound but with your enthusiasm and persistent rehearsal techniques they will soon become addicted to it. In due time, your choirs, especially the advanced groups, will start avoiding the pop genre all together or use it as "fun and easy" crowd-pleasers to perform at a concert or graduation ceremony. In all honesty, the main strategy to achieve higher levels of choral musicianship in your classroom is enthusiasm, consistency, and dedication to the choral arts by you!
Date: March 1, 2015
(Each week we look at a piece of useful repertoire from the ChoralNet Community Composition Showcase. A variety of voicings and levels of difficulty will be presented. Enjoy!)
Level: High School or higher
Uses: General Concert Use
Program Themes: The title would be a great anchor piece for other songs about music makers.
This piece would program well with: Crying for a Dream by René Clausen available at JWPepper and Sheet Music Plus
Not all pieces in the Composition Showcase are by self-published composers. Published and self-published composers are welcome. The requirement that composers offer only their six best works with no more than three in the same voicing helps to insure that only quality works are displayed. Tom Council's We Are the Music Makers is published by Colla Voce. If you are looking for a powerfully stirring number for any concert this piece will deliver, especially when using brass accompaniment.
This works is available through Colla Voce Music, Inc.
(Original publication: November 18, 2012)
Date: February 28, 2015
Date: February 26, 2015
More from Daniel Coyle: Tip #26 Slow It Down (Even Slower Than You Think).
Coyle: "This urge for speed makes perfect sense, but it can also create sloppiness, particularly when it comes to hard skills (see Tip #8). We trade precision—and long-term performance—for a temporary thrill. So slow down. Super-slow practice works like a magnifying glass; It lets us sense our errors more clearly, and thus fix them."
Coyle also has a nice post on his blog about called, "Slow is Beautiful," which includes video of golf great Ben Hogan showing how he uses slow practice.
This is a critical rehearsal tool for the conductor, but there are various ways to use it. And surprisingly, I see it used infrequently by too many conductors.
In a fast passage, at a certain speed some members of the choir will never perceive the pitches (or patterns) accurately. You can practice the passage 20 times at a fast tempo and it'll still be sloppy. But a fewer number of repetitions at a slower speed can allow the singers to absorb the pitches and build them in correctly. The same thing is true for instrumentalists. When I rehearse strings, for example, if the music has awkward string crossings, difficult bowings, or simply calls for extreme speed, the only way to make it better is to slow it down. For both singers and instrumentalists, "muscle memory" must be developed that allows passage work that can be done accurately without consciously thinking of every individual note.
With a choir, it also makes it even easier if you take away another variable (text) and sing on a neutral syllable or count-sing (if your choir does that regularly). Since I do lots of baroque music with my chamber choir that specializes in early music, this is always the first tool of choice with a fast melismatic passage or fugue: take away the text and slow it down.
It's the same when performing (or learning) an unfamiliar language. I'll usually do a "repeat after me" session when first going through an unfamiliar text in another language. My going too fast only means that the choir can't even perceive the sounds correctly, much less repeat them accurately—and it will waste time, rather than saving it.
And sometimes to shape a phrase with subtlety, a slower rehearsal speed allows the ensemble to feel and shape phrases together in a way they can't at a faster speed.
Slower can be faster. And slower can much more quickly get the ensemble to a fast, yet clean performance.
Date: February 25, 2015
The last two posts (here and here) dealt with some of the problems that arise when we sing in choirs in public school settings. The problems happen all over, and are not new. I think I may have one way that we can help to make thing better.
I believe that we need to start, before we do anything else, by letting parents and students know up front about the inherent Christian-ness of choral singing, and allow them to make a decision whether participating in the art form is something they are interested in. Denying it, or neglecting to mention the strong tradition in the form, sets the choir director, the parents, and the singers up for a potential clash (a clash we repeat over and over again across the country), which benefits no one. We need to let everyone know that there is a strong Christian tradition in this art form, and that we will be performing many sacred Christian pieces at the same time that we are committed to inclusion and diversity. The parents and the students must also know that we are willing to make accommodations for students who feel that this piece or that one makes them feel uncomfortable.
By letting it be known right away that this is what the student is getting into, I think we empower young singers and their parents to make informed choices about whether they should participate or not, and to go into the situation with open eyes and minds. We have tried for decades to evade, minimize, obfuscate or even deny the Christian-ness of the art form. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge the truth of the matter...I would wager that many of the fights we engage in might be eliminated or minimized with this upfront discussion. The parent of the young singer would not have been forced to react to Silent Night, but could have had the discussion with their child at the very beginning, before problems arose. Of course the young singer could still have felt uncomfortable, which is why we also commit to accommodations, or could have elected not to participate, but at least they would be doing so proactively and honestly.
The next most important thing to remember is that the need for a diversified program does not go away when we decide to be open and up-front about the inherent Christian-ness of choral music. I want to reiterate and emphasize that this approach that I advocate for does not mean abandoning in any way our committment to inclusion, accommodation, and diversity. In fact, by taking this open, honest stance, we must work even harder to show our young pupils what is all out there in the choral world. This is our duty as educators.
In my next post I will talk about the factors that contribute to the appropriateness, and the perceived appropriateness of specific choral pieces on a choir concert program. Some are legal (as in, the supreme court) and some are cultural. Stay tuned for that discussion. For now, I’m sure there is more to say on this topic, so I will let the commentators chime in...they always have good stuff to add.
Date: February 24, 2015
CHORAL ETHICS (Part 8): DON’T SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER by Marie Grass Amenta
"It's easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself." J.S. Bach
Lady C* contacted me a few years ago as I began to collect stories for my Choral Ethics project. She conducts a semi-professional chamber choir, much like mine, located in the Northeast. She’s an accompanist as well as a singer and we formed a friendship. She wanted to know if I’d like to hear about her experiences as an accompanist for a community chorus which she thought were quite extraordinary. After reading her emails, I had to agree. I’ve changed some details but have left the major points she’s made.
It started with her audition. She was tested for her ability to follow a conductor's baton, to sight-read orchestral reductions, to read open-score, and then played a solo piece of her choice - Liszt- to demonstrate her technical prowess. The director was very impressed and she was hired immediately after auditions were over. It was grueling but she got the job.
Lady C was rarely told what to prepare for the next rehearsal unless she asked. She was given large masses with orchestral reductions and smaller jazz pieces with tricky accidentals in open-score formats. Everything had to be as perfect as possible the very first time without being given any clue as to what sections would be worked on. In rehearsal, the director gave unclear instructions as to where he wanted to start and both she and the singers struggled with trying to figure out what he meant. With lightning speed, he gave a downbeat and was irritated when folks were fumbling. Lady C quickly learned to flip to the page and measure he wanted within seconds but the cost was her nerves and a three hour rehearsal which always felt panicked.
She was unexpectedly not paid the first paycheck of the season one year. September was a brief month, as the chorus started up halfway through. Although she’d been paid the first week in October in previous years for the half-month of September, she wasn't paid THIS particular October. She inquired as to why, and was told, "The pay period is too short for the money we have to pay the payroll company. It's not worth it for the small amount you're paid." During her time of employment, there was always some sort of paycheck issue.
She was told during the interview process, she would be responsible for arranging any substitutes. If she couldn’t make a rehearsal she would have to contact a sub from an approved list. The only problem was no one could supply her with that list. When she pointed out there didn’t seem to be an actual list as she had been told, it was suggested she “audition” her own subs. If they played to as high a standard as was expected of her, she should contact the director for his approval. She missed one rehearsal due to an inconvenient snowstorm—and rehearsal was cancelled anyway—and never missed another all the years she worked for them since all the other “quality” accompanists seemed to be busy during the very day and time she would need coverage, especially after being told who the director was. Even when her best friend from college, a bridesmaid in her wedding, was dying from stage 4 breast cancer and the family requested she come and see her before her death in another state, the director refused to allow her to miss a rehearsal.
After several years on this rollercoaster, Lady C resigned from the position. She sent an email and didn't mention any of these issues, as she desired a collegial relationship with the organization. The music world is small and just wanted good will to follow. She told them she had family matters to attend to—which was true—and those were big factors in her decision to resign. She also really enjoyed the people in the chorus and respected the director’s musical abilities and wanted to leave on a positive note. He didn't acknowledge her resignation and suspects he was angry with her leaving. Lady C resigned more than two years ago, and still hasn’t heard a word back. This was a bad working situation, and the chorus goes through accompanists like crazy. You'd think the chorus administration or founding director would learn their lesson, but they haven’t.
* Name withheld by request
Choral Ethics (Part 6): Judging Our Colleagues
Choral Ethics (Part 7): Our Choral Culture
Date: February 22, 2015
(Each week we look at a piece of useful repertoire from the ChoralNet Community Composition Showcase. A variety of voicings and levels of difficulty will be presented. Enjoy!)
Level: Advanced High School or higher
Uses: Spring Concert
Program Themes: Madrigals Frorm Many Ages, What's in a Name?
These pieces would program well together. There is a third piece in the set as well titled Westron Wind.
I couldn't seperate these two wonderfully diverse but connected pieces. Both are excellent modern settings of Medieval texts. The first is similar in feel if not harmony to pieces you would use at a May Day Madrigal feast. The second is much more reflective and sustaining Reminiscent of Einojuhani Rautavaara's gorgeous Canticum Mariae Virginis (see iTunes), with which it would program well. Both works show the depth of expression Karen P. Thomas is capable of and warrants delving further into her works.
Both works are available from the composer.
(Original publication: November 11, 2012)
Date: February 21, 2015
Date: February 20, 2015
(Screenshot: Apollo MIDI over Bluetooth, itunes.apple.com)
While the iPad continues to make progress in enabling powerful music and audio software, there are two recent hardware and accessory developments that are of particular note to professional musicians. As always, Chris Russell (@choirguy_) has done a great job of catching both the developments in Bluetooth MIDI for iOS, as well as a new model of AirTurn Pedal. Bluetooth-powered accessories have great flexibility for class- and rehearsal-rooms since they are easy to distribute and manage and avoid the fragile cabling which often presents a failure point in heavily-shared devices. Apple clearly is recommitting to Bluetooth development as they add additional features with every iOS and OS update, even adding Bluetooth connections to previously Ethernet-only devices like Apple TV. Some of the changes are starting to pay large dividends in the capacity of the iPad for music making. While neither of these two developments are radically new, they each represent subtle but important improvements to the iPad as music device.
Apple introduced MIDI over Bluetooth in both iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite as a way to build wireless audio device communication. In essence, the iPad can now communicate wirelessly with compatible audio devices (the devices, obviously, must be Bluetooth MIDI-compatible). Most of these devices such as drum machines or synthesizers are outside of our common toolkit, but compatible MIDI keyboards give us the capacity to use the iPads as full notation workstations, driven by keyboard input. As Russell points out, Garageband is currently the only app taking advantage of this code, but notation apps will soon be able to add the code to future updates.
This is great news for those of us working with iPads as personal machines, but this is also great news for classroom iPad use. Bluetooth keyboards (the typing kind) have found wide adoption in class sets of iPads because of their ease of setup and connection. As mentioned above, relying on Bluetooth eliminates the risk of the cables/connections breaking, which is often the most widespread failure point in these after-market accessories. Having a small classroom set of Bluetooth MIDI keyboards allows students to use them for playing notes through Garageband, as well as eventually using them for input into notation apps as well.
Setting aside the iPads and keyboards for a moment, the integration of Bluetooth MIDI into Yosemite opens up the capacity to use the iPad and Mac together in MIDI applications. By binding the devices using Bluetooth MIDI, you could play a pre-composed example from the iPad on the Mac to take advantage of the sound libraries in your favorite Mac OS notation program. You could also have musicians play on the iPad while recording into a DAW program such as Cubase or Ableton.
AirTurn PED Pedal
The iPad makes an extremely convenient library for storing large volumes of music, but the screen size means that there are always some awkward page to deal with. AirTurn has been making Bluetooth pedals which signal to apps to turn or scroll a page for a couple of years now, and is releasing their newest version this week, called the PED. The PED is much smaller and more discreet than its predecessor, and promises to be much more flexible through customization and a wider range of available functions. I've yet to fully buy into the notion of an iPad foot pedal, but I know many musicians who swear by theirs, and rather than rehash the details I'll direct you to Russell's hands-on review.
Date: February 19, 2015
More from Daniel Coyle: Tip #24, Visualize the Wires of Your Brain Getting Faster.
In this tip, Coyle is referencing his earlier book, The Talent Code. In it he looks at research into the way the brain works with particular reference to myelin (you may have read about the "myelin sheath") that surrounds the axon of a neuron in the brain. It is an electrical insulator and as you repeat actions, the myelin sheath grows (myelination) and increases the speed with which electrical impules flow from one neuron to another. In essence, it's the way practice—repetition—makes those repeated actions easier, more automatic, and better. In the appendix of The Little Book of Talent Coyle quotes Dr. George Bartzokis, a scientist at UCLA: "What do good athletes do when they train? They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelate that wire. They end up, after all that training, with a super-duper wire—lots of bandwidth, a T-3 line. That's what makes them different from the rest of us."
To get back to Tip #24, Coyle suggests, "When you practice, it's useful and motivating to visualize the pathways of your brain being transformed from simple copper wires to high-speed broadband, because that's what's really happening."
In much the same way as telling my choir about the difference between "drill" and "scrimmage," and increasing what I've called the "density" of their rehearsals, I suspect that their understanding of myelination and what's really happening in their brains as we practice (or they practice individually in the practice room) could also increase the focus and effectiveness of their work.
Something to think about—and also useful for us individually as we work to improve our own rehearsal and conducting skills.
Date: February 18, 2015
My last post was about an interaction I had with a parent regarding the use of sacred, Christian music on a "Winter Holiday" program. You can read all about it here. I alluded to the "Hanukkah Situation" in that post (not to be confused with the Bonnie Situation), and wanted to open up a discussion about it. For the record, I am Jewish, and if that gives me even a tiny measure of extra credibility, well, I'm just gonna go ahead and take it.
Here's the thing: Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday. In the scheme of things, Rosh Hasanna, Yom Kippor and Passover are much more important. Hanukkah has become conflated with Christmas for a number of reasons. In particular, they fall around the same time of year, gift giving is a part of both traditions, and Jews have adopted Hanukkah as a somewhat public display of their faith (think menorahs in the window). But Hanukkah is not a biblical holiday, as the previous holidays I mentioned are, and there are no restrictions on work, going to school or other such things. It is a relatively minor holiday that has become most people’s primary point of reference for Judaism.
When we employ tokenism, and include one or two Hanukkah tunes on every “Winter Holiday” program, we are emphasizing the wrong aspects of Judaism (plus many of those pieces one might include are garbage from a musical standpoint, especially the huge numbers of pieces that have been written specifically to give Winter Holiday programs a new Hanukah piece each year...you know, that brand new Hanukkah piece in your new music reading packet? Sorry, but they are often not that good). So, not only are we denying the importance of Christian music at the holiday program, we also do a disservice to Judaism by educating students and the audience on the less important parts of the faith and it’s musical tradition. For many people, the only Jewish song they know is “Dreydl, Dreydl,” which means that music educators have failed to teach about Judaism and Jewish music.
What we are doing when we program a Hanukkah piece every year, and ignore the rest of the Jewish choral tradition, is simply paying lip service to the notion of multiculturalism and inclusion. By including one of these pieces, we can push back when someone objects to the "Winter Holiday" program by saying "see, we included a Hanukkah song!" But educating in a diverse and inclusive way is not accomplished just with one piece. It's really done over the course of the entire year. And ultimately, to do it well, it is a multi-year project that aims to represent as many branches of choral music as possible so that our students have an accurate understanding of what is out there.
The end result is that I tell my choral music education students that they have my permission to not do Hanukkah songs every year, as long as they do other music from the Jewish tradition at other times of the year, help to educate their students about the Jewish faith, and seek other opportunities throughout the year to find pieces that are outside of the Christian tradition.
Next time I will talk about some of the solutions to this issue, and how me might open this conversation up a little and address some of these reoccurring problems.
Date: February 17, 2015
CHORAL ETHICS (Part 7): OUR CHORAL CULTURE by Marie Grass Amenta
“Habits change into character.” Ovid
Many of us, especially in community-based programs, complain we don’t have enough singers to do the repertoire we really want to do. If we are a mixed group, we long for more tenors or baritones or basses but don’t seem to retain them when we get them. After years of being a huge group, our numbers become reduced and we wonder why. There is often a very simple explanation; it comes down to the current “culture” of our organization.
What do I mean by “culture?” I don’t mean what TYPE of choir it is, though whether it is a women’s chorus or men’s or children’s or school or church or a community chorus CAN influence its culture. What I am referring to is the unspoken acceptable behavior in your ensemble for both the singers and director.
We create our own distinctive culture whether we are aware of it or not. We hold auditions or open rehearsals every year, and then are not welcoming to the singers we said we wanted. We play favorites. We allow a select group to lead the organization, keeping us either mired in the past or grabbing onto any new trend or repertoire that comes along. And yet, we don’t think these behaviors affect our chorus.
If someone from the outside attended one of your rehearsals, what would they learn about the group, the singers and you as a director from what they would see or hear? Would they be able to pick out the choir leadership? Would they notice the “newbies” from the way they were treated? Could they tell who are your favorites and those singers who are not? And most importantly, would they be compelled to join your chorus after their visit?
Pam*, former board member of an auditioned community choral organization, contacted me recently wanting to share her story. This choral organization (the “Acme Chorus”*) calls itself the “premier choral group” in her community and that may be true. But it has also developed the reputation of being the most cliquish.
About 15 years ago, the Acme Chorus had 75 to 90 members, sang with local symphonies at least once a year, did a variety of repertoire and had a conductor who, while not the founding music director, shared her vision. Everything was going along very well and then, it wasn’t. Singers started dropping out and numbers dwindled to an unbalanced 30. They were not asked to sing with the symphonies any longer, except occasionally for the holiday programs and now are no longer asked to do those. They have had five different music directors in the last ten years and repertoire has been all over the map, from major choral works to Broadway medleys to 21st century oddities, sometimes all on the same concert. When I asked Pam what had happened, she told me there had been a complete board membership turnover.
This new board determined everything old was bad and everything new was good. This wasn’t hearsay; Pam tells me this was said aloud in many board meetings. They kept nothing that was clearly working in the organization, but started from scratch with their own theories. They decided it should be the board and not the music director who chose repertoire. They fired the music director as he was part of an older regime and then fired the subsequent ones when they didn’t like to be told what to do by the board. The present MD is not a choral conductor but a vocal coach and while a good musician, leans heavily on the board for help with repertoire and the board likes it that way.
Since this was a highly auditioned choir, they required at least two board members in addition to the music director to be present at every audition so the high quality would be maintained. Pam was part of several years’ worth of auditions and was horrified. Often, someone was vetoed by a board member simply because they didn’t like them. Pam fought for several singers to make it after auditions but in rehearsal others either snubbed them or were truly nasty so they would drop out.
Pam stuck it out until late last year. She could no longer tolerate the atmosphere in rehearsals, the cliquish behavior new singers were subjected to and the music director’s helplessness. She recently joined her community’s non-auditioned chorus. They may not be the “premier” group but she’s happier!
* Name withheld by request
Choral Ethics (Part 6): Judging Our Colleagues
Date: February 16, 2015
Yes, we have covered this ground before, but given some of the behaviors I have seen lately, this bears repeating . . .
The 2015 ACDA National Conference takes place in Salt Lake City next week. If you have looked at the conference Program Book (It’s also your February Choral Journal), then you can tell that this is a massive event with scores of performances spread over four days. The Conference will provide almost twenty thousand choral musicians with unparalleled opportunities for performance, study, growth, and fellowship.
Cumulatively, the choirs, clinicians, and singers invited to perform will invest unimaginable amounts of money to travel to the Conference just to perform for us. (Our association doesn’t give the auditioned choirs a single nickel toward their conference performance.) Perhaps even more impressive are the incalculable hours of preparation that these choirs will have devoted to the process.
With that in mind, one might think that every single colleague in attendance would show a little respect for the performers and celebrate their accomplishment. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
During a concert in the beautiful Meyerson Symphony Hall at the last national conference (in Dallas), two people sitting behind me nattered negatively and continually during the performance. “When MY choir sang this piece we did it better.” “Her sopranos are so shrill.” “Oh my gawd, look at her shoes.” It was, in a word, maddening; the more they jabbered, the deeper the hole I bit in my tongue. (WARNING to the classless among us: This year, I will not sit silently when such buffoonery takes place.)
How would any one of us feel if someone ruined our concert with petty conversation . . . or Monday-morning quarterbacking . . . or most egregious of all, a cell phone? Many folks would have a full-blown fit.
We’re supposed to be professionals, we’re sitting at the big kid’s table. Let’s all try to act accordingly when we are on the other side of the podium at our professional conference. Or as my dear ol’ Dad said, “if you can’t say something nice . . . .”
Date: February 15, 2015
(Each week we look at a piece of useful repertoire from the ChoralNet Community Composition Showcase. A variety of voicings and levels of difficulty will be presented. Enjoy!)
Level: High School Freshman Men or higher
Uses: Recruitment, General Concert Use
Programing themes: Love of Life, Drinking Songs
This piece would program well with: No Platonic Love and Jenny Kissed Me, the other two pieces in John Ward's To The Ladies
John Ward's Let the Toast Pass is an excellent entry level piece to men singing in harmony. The text is about drinking and women, two subjects most young man will enjoy singing about. This piece would be excellent for a full ensemble or a trio to sing at recruitment stops. Take your men around to educational facilities that feed your program and have the men sing this song. It is sure to get other boys and young men interested in singing. The homophonic style, straightfroward rhythm and simple harmony will make this an excellent semester's work for a young choir or one rehearsal fun for more experienced men. Sing all three of the pieces in John Ward's To The Ladies to make an excellent set for your men to sing. This is an essential recruitment tool you can't afford to pass up.
The piece (and the set) are available from the composer.
(Original publication: November 4, 2012)
Date: February 14, 2015
Date: February 12, 2015
More from Daniel Coyle: Tip #22 - Pay Attention Immediately After You Make a Mistake.
Coyle notes that, "Most of us are allergic to mistakes. . . Brain scan studies reveal a vital instant, .025 seconds after a mistake is made, in which people do one of two things—they look hard at the mistake or they ignore it. People who pay deeper attention to an error learn significantly more than those who ignore it."
This reminds me of the practice in many British choirs (and many influenced by the practice here in the US) where the choir member raises their hand immediately after they make a mistake. I've always thought of this as a way for the chorister to let the conductor know they acknowledge the mistake, meaning it'll be corrected and no need to stop the rehearsal.
But this makes me think that perhaps there's another reason for this practice: it could literally help the singer learn more quickly from their mistake—and repeat a mistake fewer times (or not at all).
If some of you use this practice regularly in your choir, let us know in a comment if it's made a difference in the number of times a mistake is made before it's corrected.
An intriguing idea! And perhaps a good reason for me to ask my singers to do this, too!
Date: February 11, 2015
This past holiday season I found myself embroiled in a somewhat heated discussion surrounding seasonal music, parents, and students. The story is familiar to many of us: A Jewish child, in a choir affiliated with the public school system, was performing on my college holiday program. This child expressed discomfort in singing Silent Night. The parents asked for accommodations, which we were happy to oblige (the student didn’t sing with the massed choirs for Silent Night). The parents, however, did not limit their concerns to the nature of our accommodation, but challenged us on the acceptability of our entire musical programming for the holiday season. In essence questioning us on the appropriateness of Silent Night and the emphasis on sacred music from the Christian tradition, while exhorting us to explore a multicultural and secular program.
For the record, I am Jewish. I remember being a part of a “Christmas” program when I was in preschool in the late 1970s. I was very uncomfortable at the time. It felt weird to sing “Christ the Savior is Born.” I also felt excluded, because I really didn’t know most of the songs, and I certainly didn’t know verse two of any of these songs. I knew Jingle Bells, but the other kids already knew most of the other songs.
After that I mostly didn’t perform much sacred music until I started singing in choir regularly in high school. Some of the old feelings came up when we sang works with similar texts to Silent Night. But, I gradually became desensitized to it, and eventually was free enough to explore and examine the meanings and motivations contained within the text, and to use that to inform my singing and conducting. I haven’t been uncomfortable singing sacred music in decades, but I remember vividly the feeling.
Despite my background and heritage, I have become a staunch supporter of Christian sacred music within the choral art form. I think there are a number of points to be made, that aren’t talked about directly, and maybe coming from a Jew might be heard more clearly.
First and foremost: Choral singing is inherently a Christian tradition. It was founded, nurtured, and developed almost exclusively within the Christian church for more than 1000 years. If you participate in choral singing, you are participating in a historically Christian art form. If you chose to sing in a choir, and do it with an accurate representation of the tradition, you will sing a lot of sacred Christian music. There are many instances of secular choirs and choral music, choral music from other religions (including many examples of Jewish choral music), but the cold, hard facts are that the vast majority of choral music throughout history is of a sacred, Christian, nature, and that if it weren't for the Christian Church, we probably wouldn't have choral singing as we know it.
In order to study choral music and choral singing, and maintain any level of accurate representation of the tradition, it is impossible to separate the religious background from the art form. Any attempt to fully separate choral singing from Christianity means that you deny a major portion of the artistic tradition, and deny the students of the art form an accurate representation of what you are studying. You are, in essence, lying about what choral music is and is not.
Imagine you want to study stained glass artwork, and maybe want to become a stained glass artist to earn a living designing and installing stained glass. Now imagine begining your studies in this field, but not wanting to learn about stained glass in churches, for whatever reason. And take that one step further and say that you want stained glass design and installation to be your career, but you will not install or design for churches. The preposterousness of this proposition is almost laughable; you will be one unemployed stained glass designer/installer who knows very little about stained glass!
I understand that there are differences between stained glass and singing, but the fundamental truth of the argument holds up: when we deny that choral singing is a Christian art form, when parents say to the principal of the school “why is the public school choir performing any sacred Christian music at all? Isn’t there enough secular repertoire?”, we are challenging the study and performance of the fundamental artistic creations of the form. To remove Christian music from the holiday program is like trying to earn a living installing stained glass windows on businesses and community centers alone...it doesn’t make any sense.
The response from parents is often that they just want representation, diversity, inclusion, and balance, not wholesale exclusion of Christian music. I happen to agree wholeheartedly with this, because the same argument for including Christian music in the choral program holds for the inclusion of the other types of music: the need for an accurate representation of what is out there in the art we are performing and studying. However, this can be a slippery slope, and when this principle gets distorted, you wind up with the situation we have with Christmas and Hanukkah, which I will address in my next post about this subject.
Date: February 10, 2015
CHORAL ETHICS (Part 6): JUDGING OUR COLLEAGUES by Marie Grass Amenta
“If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” Alice Roosevelt Longworth
It does no good to gossip about our colleagues and their ensembles. It doesn’t help the arts community in general or the choral community specifically to “bad mouth” others. We are all in this together and the sooner we realize it and behave accordingly, the sooner we will reap the benefits.
We should be supportive of each other, since if your group is doing well, my group should be as well. Many forget this truth. They attend concerts and gossip about the performance or the concert wear or who is doing what and how well WHILE THE CONCERT IS HAPPENING. They repeat gossip they hear to their friends and the truth, whatever it is, morphs into something unrecognizable, the victim of a game of “Telephone.” It might be “fun” but it is damaging because it destroys good will. And art organizations, no matter on the church, school or community level, need good will to survive.
I hate the gossip which surrounds some art organizations. I won’t tolerate gossip in my rehearsals from singers about other groups, especially if they are former members of those other groups. You won’t hear a bad word from me about my conducting colleagues or their choirs in public or private, but my spouse and children know my opinions. I will nod or be non-committal when gossip swirls around me but I won’t join in the “fun” no matter what. I know when the gossip is directed at me in my presence and I refuse to acknowledge it, I look stupid or naïve. If I say anything in retaliation or make an equally nasty comment, I will be sinking to their level. And I will look as poorly as they do. Better to be thought of as stupid than nasty!
There is a difference between networking and gossip. If someone retires and there is an open position, it’s good to know. It’s also good to hear why the person is leaving so we can decide if we really want to apply. Whoever applies for the first job and then gets it will create another opening. And so on, down the food chain of choral jobs. We’ve all heard stories about colleagues in our community: the “too big for his britches” fellow who got the plum church job and was asked to leave after eight months or the college conductor who retired and left a mess for his successor to clean up or the community chorus director who didn’t try to be a community member. I never believe such stories unless I hear it from a person I respect. I don’t believe the church member/piano professor who was the one to let the church director go or the college conductor’s replacement. The alto with an attitude I don’t believe when she tells me the director was asked to leave for the simple reason he didn’t attend the fund raiser! I don’t repeat these stories to anyone because I don’t want to perpetuate gossip. It’s not fair to my colleagues and I don’t want to get that reputation.
My own chamber choir is not the norm around here and, as often as not, is referred to as that “little choir” in a rather disparaging way. The singers in my choir understand we are that “little choir” until proven otherwise. Recently, I had a conversation with one of my altos after our fall concert. This particular concert’s attendance was pretty good and my alto noticed several members of other, larger choral organizations from our community attending. Both of us in this post-concert conversation opined their attendance probably wasn’t so much a desire to hear our concert but probably a desire to see us fail. My alto is one of the most laid back, non-gossipy people I know, so when she offered her opinion, I took her seriously. She told me a friend of hers, a member of one of those other choral groups, spoke with her after the concert and told her she was surprised we were so good because “rumor has it” we weren’t. The saddest part of this whole story is in that one phrase, “rumor has it.”
Date: February 9, 2015