I am so proud of my little girl who grew up to be such an amazing teacher!
This Title I middle school had lost its Band, Chorus and Orchestra teacher in the middle of last year. The program had been suffering. In fact the students felt like they had been abandoned and were convinced that they were not good kids and that no one liked them. My daughter applied for the job last Spring. During her sample lesson as part of the interview process, some of the kids told her that "nobody likes us because we are bad kids." Once she was offered the position, Cami told me that her main goals were to help those kids feel good about themselves and to convince them that they were just as "average" as anybody else, that everyone has both bad and good days, and that they can succeed by putting in an honest effort.
This fall, she began rebuilding the program from the ground up. Nearly all of these students were beginners. Many did not have any exposure to participating in a band, orchestra or chorus program previously. Many have very little support from parents or family at home. Yesterday was their first concert of the year. She had 70+ combined chorus students from three classes singing four 2-part songs. The 30+ orchestra students played 2 songs, and the 100+ combined band students from two classes played "Jingle Bells" for the finale. The main goals were to keep the rhythm together, attempt to play and sing the right notes, and display proper concert etiquette. My daughter was not even sure anyone would come to the concert -- performers or audience (parents, grandparents or friends.)
The student body population of the school is made up of mainly low-income families (whose parents have to work odd schedules), and students of all ethnic backgrounds including refugees who speak other languages and are just beginning to learn English. Language and cultural differences can be big communication barriers. I admire my daughter for having the stamina to work within these constraints as well as try to convince these 12-14 year-olds that they can learn fingering, embrouchure, breathing, rhythm, musical notation, tone quality, and concert etiquette fast enough to put on a concert. That is a tall order for any teacher, but multiply it by 200+ to give each student individual attention, and you have a job of epic proportions! And she is expecting her first baby to be born in just a couple of weeks!
Fortunately, the student performers showed up and also a good crowd of parents and other supporters. I even heard a lot of parents comment about how impressed they were by how many students were participating in the performance and how well they did. I even heard some of the kids mention how surprised they were by how "cool" and "fun" giving a performance was.
I am so proud of my little girl who grew up to be such an amazing teacher!
Sometimes when writing music, it is difficult to decide how many clues to interpretation to try to notate. Do you just put in a few dynamic marks here and there? Maybe you should try to dictate every phrase or every time changes in dynamics, feel, or tempo occur? Or do you leave most of the "interpreting" up to the conductor and performers?
I recently watched a television program on PBS where a violinist went in search of how to interpret Bach's Violin concerti and partitas. He had been avoiding playing Bach in his performance repertoire because he felt that he just did not understand Bach's music well enough to give it the right interpretation. So, he decided to go to Germany to immerse himself in the places, history and culture of Bach's time to help him understand the "riddle" of Johann Sebastian Bach.
To most musicians, J.S. Bach might as well be God. His genius is truly monumental. What Bach did for music in his own day and for generations yet to come was enormous. Not only did he write incredible music, he figured out the system for even tempering of keyboards so that those instruments can play equally in tune (or equally out of tune) in every key. He left a body of written music that literally wrote the book on the system of theory we use in Western Music today. But, no audio recordings exist from 1685-1750. So even though we know that Bach himself was known as a great performer in his day, we don't know exactly how he intended his music to be interpreted. During the Baroque Period, interpretations were done according to cultural conventions and not well notated in the score.
What the Violinist in the documentary did was go to visit and learn from Bach scholars working in the towns, palaces and churches where Bach's influence has been passed down from generation to generation for nearly 300 years. He learned, for example, that Bach enjoyed the melodies and violin virtuosity of Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). He also learned that Bach wrote a lot of music for Court dancing -- the style of dancing made popular by the French King Louis XIV and had spread all over Europe during the Baroque Period. After learning about these influences and hearing and seeing examples demonstrated, the Violinist finally felt that he knew enough background details to channel the spirit of Bach into his own performances of Bach's works.
We owe a great debt to scholars who make it their life's work to document, record, and otherwise keep alive the works and interpretations of great masterpieces of the past. So until some scholar makes it his life's work to document how to interpret my music, I will continue to try to strike a balance between "enough but not too much explanation" notation in my own musical scores. I will say that I am delighted that "Ring! Glad Christmas Bells" which definitely possesses a bit of Baroque panache, has been rather popular this Christmas musical season. I am happy that especially the flute quartet version will be performed in many far-flung places in Europe and Australia as well as in Northern America. Hope my notations leave room for some personal interpretation but include enough to breathe life into the work.
Sometimes in this busy world of ours, we are asked to SIMPLIFY. You know, to stop filling our lives with non-essentials that make us crazy or to stop taking on so many projects that we are constantly burning the candle at both ends. But some well-meaning people will take that to mean "just do what is SIMPLE and EASY -- you shouldn't have to work too hard."
For a musician, the word "SIMPLE" can be mystifying.
I have always had a hard time with the word SIMPLE when it comes to being a musician. Most people equate SIMPLE with EASY. In my estimation, there is nothing SIMPLE or Easy about learning to play or sing or conduct or compose or engineer sound. We musicians value quality so we practice until we get it right. That takes work and many hours of diligence. What do we answer to the Church leader who says to "keep it simple - just play a hymn." They have no idea that playing a hymn takes years of practice to acquire enough skills to do the job. That request is never SIMPLE or Easy! And what about conquering the nerves to be able to play in public? That may be even more challenging!
Okay, when non-musicians ask musicians to do something musical, many times they put the musician on the spot. The musician is expected to perform without any preparation. They may rightly even refuse to do it. And yet, when the musician asks for an opportunity to perform (with enough time to prepare), they are brushed off. It seems that people in charge of some activities do not want to plan ahead enough to insure the quality of the entertainment. They know that they want entertainment, but they don't know what it takes to make it happen.
Possibly, we musicians make singing or playing look effortless, so it looks like we do it so naturally that a beautiful performance happens spontaneously like in the movies. But that isn't reality. In real life, we cannot get around the fact that we need PREPARATION and PRACTICE. So, in my opinion, where we still have to work to prepare and practice, we can SIMPLIFY by carefully choosing the projects we take on and the methods we use to do those projects. We can SIMPLIFY by EDITING. It still takes work ( and that is not EASY), but it does strip away the non-essentials that clutter up our lives.
I can live with that definition.
From time to time our choir directors will say things like, "Well, that was just ordinary." "Your singing did not thrill me at all. The audience will get bored and change the channel." "Anyone can sing out of tune. We've got to be better than that!" "That line needs more shaping." "Spin the sound!" "Float the high notes!" "Now, this section is where we could use some drama!"
So, I have pondered what being "just ordinary" really means. We live in a world where performances are recorded and ready to play back at any time ad infinitum. The people in the professional recording industry do their best to create recorded performances that can live on forever without embarrassing the performers and give the audiences something truly worthy to listen to. "In tune," "rhythmically tight," "understandable diction," "good balance," and "interpretation" are all buzz words that if followed create that cut above ordinary performance. But is there ever a time when "just ordinary" is "just right?"
For years, I led the choirs at church. Just recruiting enough singers to get a decent blend was an accomplishment in my book. Of course, we worked hard on good singing techniques such as breathing, vowel formation, diction, and singing in tune. Most of these people enjoyed singing, but had neither the time or inclination to put in much effort beyond the regular rehearsals. Occasionally, I created "learning tracks" for them to listen and learn from. But, most of the time, I had to adjust my expectations to fit what they could reasonably accomplish. In cases such as these, being "just ordinary" was "just right." My biggest job was choosing music that would help them sound good -- challenging enough to keep the singers interested, but not so challenging that the audience would cringe at their inadequacies.
I also work a lot with children. Young kids are just learning about their abilities, let alone their vocal ranges and tone quality. The biggest job for me is getting them to sing out loud enough without over singing or using bad techniques. They primarily need to learn to HEAR -- to get a sense of matching pitch and singing in tune. They also need to feel the rhythm and be able to join it and stay in step. My second biggest job is to help them learn to love music -- all different styles and varieties and learn to appreciate the unique qualities of this wonderful GIFT of MUSIC. When children GIVE THEIR ALL and try so hard to do as instructed, whatever the outcome is, is good enough. It may be "just ordinary" to the disinterested audience member, but in the moment, the children's performance is "just right."
This past week I spent editing the footage of three performances of a 70 minute musical into a keepsake video for the families of the cast of "Parizade's Quest." These kids came from all different experience and talent levels and joined forces to learn this show. A few of these students had stand-out talents, but many of them were "just ordinary" kids who thought it might be fun to get to do a show. Some of them worked hard and developed their singing, dancing and acting talents to quite a high level. Others continued to be "rough around the edges." Those students may look back and cringe at their performance and wonder why they ever even tried to go out for the school musical. The ones with natural talent, I think, will be pleased with their efforts. But the critical point is that, though they all brought different abilities to the project, they all gave their best effort. In my book, they were not "just ordinary," they were "just right!"
When a choir director gives the down beat for a performance, he is hoping against hope that the things he put in place from rehearsal will be remembered and come to fruition. But in reality, that doesn't always happen.
So many things can go wrong. Mostly, though, it is the singers who fall back into former ways and do not think of the recent "fixes" the director asked for. This occurs especially when a piece has been in the repertoire for some time or the singers learned it previously under different conductors. A wise director will allow enough rehearsal time to revisit the tricky spots several different times before performance. This is called "transferring." The director takes time to check if the performers have transferred the new techniques, skills, interpretation, timing, et al, to reach performance level. Call it a test, if you will, but it must be done. The singers need to have enough practice to let the changes seep down deep into the fabric of their being.
Muscles have memory. Singers sometimes fight against previous muscle memory in order to put in new or different technique or interpretation. It is not easy to rebuild the muscle memory, but once achieved, it remains for a long time. The trick is to put the correct techniques into the muscles from the very beginning. The most common problems are vowel placement issues, proper support of the tone throughout the varied vocal ranges, and breath management.
Getting many voices to sing with unified vowels can take the majority of the rehearsal time. Practically every conductor has his own preferences in the pronunciation of English vowels. Regional dialects win out in most cases. Many conductors tend to prefer the high British choral tradition and train their singers with those sounds in mind. The main object is to get the singers to all agree on the same vowel formation and placement. That is how they will tune successfully.
Harnessing and taming the power of individual voices can be a full time job for a conductor. Some voices are big and loud and have a timbre that comes out of the fabric of the rest of the group. These voices may have wide vibrato or possibly a reedy or brassy quality. What is considered desirable in a solo voice, is not necessarily the best for a choral group. Convincing these singers to control their sound and not hurt their delicate artist's egos can be a daunting task. A conductor will want to have good musicians and trained voices in his group, but the singers must learn how to manage their sound quality to blend in with the group. They must learn to support their tone quality a little differently in order to blend. The vibrato must be tamed by singing with more breath. The singer must become aware of how to use the light head voice even in the low registers. Those singers will not be happy singing with such control, so the conductor should remember to choose pieces occasionally that will allow those with big voices to let loose and sing with their natural power.
Part of breath management is preparing for that first note. This can be the most problematic of all the issues the conductor has to deal with. Getting everyone to take the breath, and time their entrance to come in exactly together. Beginning with a consonant helps, but many times the first syllable will begin with a vowel. The conductor may spend a lot of time working with the singers to get them to take their breath together on the preparation beat, in the shape of the vowel, and come in exactly on cue. This is tough and takes a lot of practice. It takes the same effort to get the singers to come in together between phrases. Often, the singers relax the rhythm when taking a breath and are late coming in on time in the next phrase. Proper breath management is the key and timing the breaths to fit the rhythm.
The good conductor will always be checking to see if what his group rehearses actually transfers to performance!
Singing tone clusters is usually considered a jazzy twentieth century thing to do in vocal music. Not many large choirs attempt singing pieces built measure after measure using such close harmony. Not many large choirs' directors have the tenacity to train so many voices to tune so many close pitches at once. It is very difficult and takes a task-master and a lot of whip-cracking to make it all work. Usually the singing of ultra close harmony and tone clusters is left to the small groups of elite voices who specialize in singing these "special" effects. When executed well with proper technique in an awesome piece, the effect of singing tone clusters can have an other-wordly effect. And when a large choir can pull it off, the effect can be magical indeed.
But as our director Mack Wilberg of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir said yesterday, "a little goes a long way." The piece we are preparing for an upcoming concert is the Agnus Dei from the Chichester Mass by William Albright. The reason this piece works for us, Wilberg said, was because it was short (about 2 minutes) and it uses the tone clusters for certain effects and not for the entire composition. In fact, the effect of using the tone clusters helps word paint the idea of how we as poor wondering souls on the earth living in chaos come pleading to the Lord for help. So during the words of the prayer, the first two phrases are painted with close harmony and tone clusters suggesting pain and pleading.
"O Lamb of God
Who takest away the sins of the world,"
The next two phrases are given more consonance suggesting that it is the Lord who brings order to our lives and will bring forgiveness, mercy, and peace.
"Have mercy upon us.
Grant us peace."
This particular piece is sung very softly for the ethereal effect. That is another technique that is difficult for a very large choir to master. Large choirs are generally known for their powerful, loud sounds, not for their ability to sing softly. Our directors are working very hard to give us the tools to sing in many different styles, with huge dynamic ranges and proper finesse. We are working hard as singers, too. This may be out of our comfort zone, but we are trying to make our "little" pianissimo sound go a long way --- in tune, too!
The young law student stood up in front of the public speaking class in Law School and displayed a poster of a quarter rest. He told the audience that when he was in high school the band director explained that this was the most important element of music the band would play all year. The band director said that observing the rests was just as important, if not more important, than playing the notes. That analogy always remained with the young law student and he went on to relate how a potent pause in public speaking was just like observing the rests in music.
The silence, when appropriately observed, is where the audience participation happens. It is where thinking occurs. It is when their information processng catches up with the actor's line delivery. It creates suspense. It is when to expect an emotional reaction, even laughter or applause. It is when the Spirit testifies of truth.
The spaces between the notes in music are very important. Much like delivering the punch line of a joke or pausing just enough to emphasize an important point, the rests in music clarify the musical thought, delineate the articulation, build up the suspense, and a host of other great things. If the music went on and on with no rests the effect would be like an entire paragraph read as a run-on sentence. The emphasis and meaning would be lost to the audience. They need the pauses to help them process the information. The listener of music needs the spaces of silence to punctuate the meaning of the music.
Sometimes the performer or speaker doesn't get it. They ignore the moments of pause or rest and plough right through continuing with their message without giving the audience time to process, react, understand or even applaud. That's when they lose interest. No one likes to be run over by a steam roller! It's the same in music. When the dynamic levels stay the same for measure after measure, the audience gets bored, or worse, offended by the constant onslaught. A performance without variety in effects, tempo, dynamics, and moments of rest is simply ineffective.
When the audience is bored or lost or unable to process, they check out and begin to entertain themselves in other ways. The revered Baroque composer, George Frederic Handel, understood the concept of the "potent pause" very well. He often included measures of sudden and absolute silence at moments of important emphasis in his master oratorios. Unfortunately, not all audience members have an appreciation of the highly ornamented Baroque musical style. Once, during a community sing-along performance of Handel's "Messiah," two older women decided they had listened long enough to the very busy polyphonic music and decided to exchange holiday recipes instead. Their conversing got louder and louder so they could her each other over the music rising to a climax. Then, at the "Grand Pause" in the final measures of Handel's majestic "Hallelujah Chorus," one lady said loudly to the other, "I MAKE MINE WITH LARD!"
We as musicians really need to be aware of our performances and how the audience is responding. Hopefully, the audience will be receptive and stick with us. Hopefully we will include times of Potent Pauses for the audience to take in all that we are giving. Hopefully, the performance will be so riveting that no one in the audience will be lost! The best audience will have some knowledge at least of deportment and etiquette! Hopefully they will understand that moments of silence really are golden!
An example of using a potent pause for building suspense: In the Halloween song "We Are Out to Scare You," there are pauses for effect between the scary opening of the song and the funny follow-on part. When doing this song with a class, the teacher will ask the children for input of what characters to use in the funny part. The teacher will take those suggestions, but not reveal her choice until the instant it will be sung. She might even hold up pictures. The class will quickly join in. The scary part builds some suspense and suddenly there is a pause that builds more suspense -- and only the teacher will signal precisely when to begin the next part and what character to sing. It's a little like leading the group to the edge of a cliff and trying to hold them back before they jump!
Depending on how effective the teacher is,
this pause can be pretty potent and very fun!
Attracting and audience and keeping them engaged has always been a conundrum. How can an unknown composer or group attract and keep an audience? What makes the audience want to stay and hear the group or the music?
Well, I cannot say that I have all of the answers, but I do understand a few things. People are fickle and no one knows exactly what will tickle their fancy at any given moment. Their moods are always changing, so what may please them one moment, might bore them in the next moment. That last part is the real key to engaging and holding an audience. Understanding that moods change, in order to please the audience, you must plan your programming to ebb and flow to take that audience on an adventure through many different mood swings and genre changes. Good musical compositions will follow this rule, too. The well-crafted piece will have changes in dynamics, and tempo, and textural colors and lead the listener through an adventure of emotional and/or spiritual awareness. And yet, a piece of music that will please one moment, the audience might not be in the mood to even listen to in the next. VARIETY is the key to holding an audience.
The most powerful influence to how a group or composer will attract an audience is through word of mouth comments. People tend to act on other people's recommendations. If enough people buzz about a song or a group, more people will take notice. That is why disk jockeys and critics have always held such enormous power. They can be "king makers" and even "career breakers" all depending on how they play-up or tear down a new group or song or composer. Social media has come on the scene in recent years and has given more power back to the actual listeners and performers. But, the principle is the same -- word of mouth accolades or criticisms amongst the public will determine the fates of the performers or products. The real difference here is that a performer or composer might have some very vocal friends who spread the word to other friends who spread the word to their friends and so on until the song or group suddenly and miraculously builds a following of fans all from a grassroots effort.
Many composers and performers have delicate egos. They work and work to create and offer their music never knowing if it will be favorably received. They may struggle for years with hardly any recognition at all. They may suddenly have success for time but fade in the next instant. So, on behalf of all the struggling artists out there, I plead with the public to support music and art and be vocal with your praise. It is a little thing for you to give a favorable comment or a "like," yet so powerful and meaningful to the struggling artists in your midst.
Programming is everything. When you choose songs to perform for a choir concert, talent recital or even a Primary program, how the songs will work together in their order of presentation is very important. We were singing "Climb Every Mountain" yesterday getting ready for the Music and the Spoken Word broadcast, when our director explained the order of things. Because "Climb Every Mountain" ends in such a dramatic way, the song that follows it must be something extra special. "There are not many places you can go after "Climb Every Mountain." So, he talked a little bit about his thoughts on programming. "Whether you want to believe it or not, this is show biz."
What he meant was that most people associate the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with songs of a religious or classical nature, definitely not with "show business." And many classical musicians don't even want to think of themselves as functioning in the "commercial world." They serve the art not the public. Yet, music is meant to be performed for an audience and so it becomes a business, whether you like it or not, to please your "public" and keep them coming back for more.
So, in programming a finale number on the broadcast to go one step beyond "Climb Every Mountain," Mack had us sing "Come All Ye Nations of the Earth" which indeed goes well beyond the majesty and scope of "Climb Every Mountain."
Many school and church choir directors forget that programming is everything. They may think that it does not matter the order in which the songs are sung, or even their messages, or key relationships, or how much fussing with reorganizing the players or shifting music has to happen in between the numbers. But those things really matter very much! The ideal arrangement of songs in a concert should create a nice ebb and flow leading to a climax. The arrangement of topics, styles and genres should also take the listeners on a harmonious adventure. They should be arranged in such a way to engage the listener and keep their interest over the entire length of the concert without wearing them out.
So, whether in a choral concert, band concert, piano or dance recital, school chorus concert, church worship service, or even in a Primary Program, how the songs work together really does matter! It is show biz, whether you want to believe it or not, and PROGRAMMING IS EVERYTHING!
Sometimes a silly phrase is timed so well that you just wish that you had been the one who said it. At choir last night, Mack Wilberg was explaining to the string players why their parts were so boring. He said, "It's like putting lipstick on a child. It would be a mess!" So, after the eruption of laughter and giggles by the choir, he explained the reason why he did not add a lot of flourishes and movement in the string parts. He said, "That would take away from the majesty and integrity of the piece." The arrangement was "High on a Mountain Top" which is one of Mack's most brilliant and majestic pieces. The big interest in the orchestration is in the organ and brass parts. He told the string players to "own" those half notes and hang in there until the next piece when they would have plenty to do.
As I pondered the image of "putting lipstick on a child," I thought about all of the shows I have previewed for my work Children's Theater. So often the packaged shows come with highly processed pre-recorded or "canned" minus tracks. In my experience, the children's voices do not sound very good against full symphonic orchestra accompaniments or big brass band backgrounds, especially if they do not have a good sound engineer at the ready to pull off some equalizing magic. Their little voices just aren't big enough to stand their own ground against the overpowering interest in the minus tracks. In effect, it is like putting lipstick on a child. It is unnatural and fake. Instead of supporting the small voices, the heavily orchestrated backgrounds tend to overwhelm them.
Sure, there are some young children who can stand their ground against fully orchestrated accompaniment tracks. But that is not the norm, and their success is undoubtedly linked to the efforts of a good sound engineer. Most young children between the ages of 5 to 12 have small light voices and even less training. To expect them to sing with projection over a full orchestration, even in a group, is ridiculous. And it is just plain wrong to "train" them to belt louder and louder before their vocal apparatus and range are developed enough to managed the strain.
"Putting lipstick on a child." If you have ever witnessed the aftermath of a toddler applying lipstick to herself, you know the picture I have in my mind. What a mess! Not only on her face, but on her hands, her clothes, the counter, the furniture, the walls... Yeah, heavily orchestrated accompaniment tracks for young children's voices can be an unnatural mess like that!
My name is Betsy Lee Bailey. I enjoy singing and writing all kinds of music. I have performed and directed or taught music all of my life. This blog is dedicated to all of the people who have been encouraging me to write about my experiences.