Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why should classical music be there for relaxation?

Here's a great article from Patrick Castillo (MPR)

OPINION: Beethoven didn't write the Eroica Symphony for your yoga class

by Patrick Castillo, Special to MPR
September 16, 2014
NEW YORK — As an advocate and practitioner of the art form, few tropes cause me greater distress than the old saw that classical music is relaxing. So Sheila Regan's recent article listing "Ten times when classical music can help you relax" got my heart rate going molto piu mosso, let me tell you. Following Regan's advice, I reached for some Mozart to help settle me down. It didn't work.
Because it's not meant to be relaxing.
With all due respect, Regan's well-intentioned article widely misses the mark in assessing the value of classical music.
The greatest music ever written — and I'm no genre partisan here: I'm talking the St. Matthew PassionA Love SupremeQuartet for the End of TimeAbbey RoadFear of a Black Planet — all of this music exists to fascinate the ear, challenge the mind, and elevate the soul. Not to be "[kept] at a low volume," as Ms. Regan suggests, "to help you drift off to sleep."

Friday, September 12, 2014

Brian Schmidt awarded 2015 conducting fellowship to Sweden

I am thrilled to share the news release below from the South Dakota Chorale in regard to their fine conductor Brian Schmidt. Bravo, Brian, and I hope you have a most rewarding time in Sweden! In addition to the Chorale, Brian is also the director of the Duke Vespers Choir at Duke University in Durham, NC. 


Dr. Brian Schmidt, Artistic Director of the South Dakota Chorale, has been awarded a fellowship with the 2015 International Conductors Exchange Program to Sweden. Selected by the American Choral Directors Association, Dr. Schmidt will be among 14 U.S. conductors to travel to Stockholm, Sweden, in October, for the Scandinavian Choral Convention.  As part of this fellowship, Dr. Schmidt will also serve as a host to a delegation of Swedish choral conductors that will attend the 2015 ACDA National Conference next February in Salt Lake City. The South Dakota Chorale is one of the choirs that has been selected to perform at the conference.“I am thrilled to learn more about the incredible Swedish choral tradition and establish lifelong connections with Swedish conductors. This experience will certainly be one that will influence my day to day work and I am eager to share all that I learn with students and singers in the future” says Schmidt.  

Dr. Brian A. Schmidt, the founding director of The South Dakota Chorale, is a native of New Ulm Minnesota.  He completed his undergraduate studies at South Dakota State University.  Graduate study was at The University of North Texas where he earned masters and doctoral degrees under the direction of Dr. Richard Sparks and Dr. Jerry McCoy.  Dr. Schmidt is currently the Assistant Conductor and Administrative Coordinator of Chapel Music at Duke University Chapel.  Under his leadership, the Duke Vespers Ensemble and The South Dakota Chorale have explored the breadth of the choral repertoire, producing performances and recordings that include Buxtehude’s Membri Jesu Nostri, the Duruflé Requiem, and Sven-David Sandström’s Four Songs of Love.  He has been a particular proponent of the contemporary Scandinavian and Eastern European choral traditions. 
More information on Brian Schmidt can be found at and 

Dr. Brian Schmidt, Artistic Director of the South Dakota Chorale, has been awarded a fellowship with the 2015 International Conductors Exchange Program to Sweden. Selected by the American Choral Directors Association, Dr. Schmidt will be among 14 U.S. conductors to travel to Stockholm, Sweden, in October, for the Scandinavian Choral Convention. As part of this fellowship, Dr. Schmidt will also serve as a host to a delegation of Swedish choral conductors that will attend the 2015 ACDA National Conference next February in Salt Lake City. The South Dakota Chorale is one of the choirs that has been selected to perform at the conference.“I am thrilled to learn more about the incredible Swedish choral tradition and establish lifelong connections with Swedish conductors. This experience will certainly be one that will influence my day to day work and I am eager to share all that I learn with students and singers in the future” says Schmidt.

Dr. Brian A. Schmidt, the founding director of The South Dakota Chorale, is a native of New Ulm Minnesota. He completed his undergraduate studies at South Dakota State University. Graduate study was at The University of North Texas where he earned masters and doctoral degrees under the direction of Dr. Richard Sparks and Dr. Jerry McCoy. Dr. Schmidt is currently the Assistant Conductor and Administrative Coordinator of Chapel Music at Duke University Chapel. Under his leadership, the Duke Vespers Ensemble and The South Dakota Chorale have explored the breadth of the choral repertoire, producing performances and recordings that include Buxtehude’s Membri Jesu Nostri, the Duruflé Requiem, and Sven-David Sandström’s Four Songs of Love. He has been a particular proponent of the contemporary Scandinavian and Eastern European choral traditions.

More information on Brian Schmidt can be found and 

Dr. Brian A. Schmidt, the founding director of The South Dakota Chorale, is a native of New Ulm Minnesota. He completed his undergraduate studies at South Dakota State University. Graduate study was at The University of North Texas where he earned masters and doctoral degrees under the direction of Dr. Richard Sparks and Dr. Jerry McCoy. Dr. Schmidt is currently the Assistant Conductor and Administrative Coordinator of Chapel Music at Duke University Chapel. Under his leadership, the Duke Vespers Ensemble and The South Dakota Chorale have explored the breadth of the choral repertoire, producing performances and recordings that include Buxtehude’s Membri Jesu Nostri, the Duruflé Requiem, and Sven-David Sandström’s Four Songs of Love. He has been a particular proponent of the contemporary Scandinavian and Eastern European choral traditions. 
More information on Brian Schmidt can be found and 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Thanks, Universe, for the medicine for my soul!

This past Sunday I was walking to go pick up my son who had an afternoon activity at the large Anglican church in town. As I was walking I was assaulted on a regular basis by the mega-thump of car stereos playing rap music, with of course the bass turned up to eleven. It was so ridiculously pervasive block after block that it pretty much sickened me and made me feel very depressed about the lack of interest by the general public in anything other than the crap put out by the rap and pop industry. It’s all about money, of course- if it's crap yet sells, that's all that matters, right? Well I guess classical music, jazz, authentic world music and many other styles don't matter, even though I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to prove the superiority, complexities, and rewards of so many other types of music over and beyond what is popular in the US today.

Anyway, this sadness I was feeling as I walked to the church really came over me- and to be honest, I have been a bit down lately anyway. I do suffer from periods of depression and I am not against letting people know that about me. So yeah, I was feeling pretty sucky!

But here is what happened next- I walked into the church and Aidan's activity was not quite done. And I also noticed that someone was playing the magnificent 1922 Casavant pipe organ there, so I wandered into the side of the sanctuary and listened for a bit. You might have though that this would cheer me up, but actually it was having the opposite effect. For as the organist finished playing a most epic piece there was no one there- I really didn’t count, since I had just wandered in to hear the last few minutes of this practice session. So the piece ended in a roaring forte and then-- silence. Nothing- no roar of an audience, just silence- reminding me of the proverbial tree falling in the forest. As the organist got up to leave, I said hi to him in the hallway. I didn’t even introduce myself as a composer like I usually do (who cares- does it matter all the time?) and asked him what he had been playing. He was very nice and told me it was a neglected piece by JS Bach. He then went on to tell me that he was practicing it because he was to be a part of a project by WFMT radio in Chicago to perform ALL of the JS Bach music for organ over a period of months in ten concerts. He also cheerfully told me that he had sort of volunteered to do the forgotten pieces that the other organists didn’t pick to play. I thanked him for his playing and wished him well. And all of a sudden my spirits were so much higher- for he had also gone on to tell me that WFMT had asked listeners if they would attend such a series of concerts and apparently the answer was a resounding yes. Would Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, or Kanye West or their followers be in the audience? Duh, no, but it least it made me feel like our classical art is not totally dying in front of our very eyes quite as much as I usually think it is. Here is info on the ten-concert series:

The Dude

And then something more happened! I heard voices singing upstairs- not old, tired church choir voices but truly great professional voices AND a sound I even recognized. I wandered upstairs and lo and behold, the professional choir Chicago A Cappella was rehearsing. They have done a lot of my music over the last ten years, for which I am very thankful. This is not their usual rehearsal space but for today (hmm, interesting) they were there working on some chant and chant-based music for their first concert of the season. I said hi (I saw some new faces and a new face directing for this concert- John William Trotta) and was also happy to introduce myself to the new members, since the group will be singing my Christmas spiritual “Ain' dat-a Rockin' All Night” in December. I left them alone to continue rehearsing some men's parts and had a nice, quick conversation with longtime member Betsy Grizzell.

John William Trotter

So what was going on here? It's pretty amazing that the universe dropped these two incidents right into my lap in the space of 15 minutes, isn't it? It made me feel so good, so hopeful, and made me want to throw away the depressing thoughts that were invading my space on the walk over to the church. And in fact, I have been pretty down for bits and pieces of this whole summer- I have been trying to shake it off, but with only partial results. Maybe this was a message to me not only about the music that I love, but also about how I need to embrace the positive aspects of life and to more firmly take control of my psyche and put the negative inner-thought monster into the naughty corner!

So thank you to the universe, and also JS Bach (you crazy genius you), the dear and very talented organist, WFMT radio, and Chicago A Cappella for your gift to me Sunday!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Happy Holidaze? My new carol book and other holiday repertoire

Happy Holidaze?? Umm, yeah I know you are groaning- but some folks are already picking out December holiday repertoire! While I am especially aiming to gain attention for my book of 18 carols for women's voices, please know that if you scroll down you will find some rep for SATB music as well! Some of those pieces below have rental orchestrations which have been very popular with audiences.
Last Fall I released "Carols, distinctive arrangements for women's voices", and it was an amazing  process to not only research and write the pieces but be my own publisher as well. I had a lot of help from many folks around the country- proofreading, choirs trying out the pieces, etc. It made me really appreciate the talent and the generosity of my musical colleagues. The collection has sold well and was just reviewed very favorably in the August 2014 Choral Journal (available right now online, and hard copies in the mail soon). Scroll way down to read the review.

Thanks for reading- and keep enjoying your summer break!

18 New Christmas Carol Arrangements
Scored variously for SA, SSA, SSAA a cappella; some with simple instrument parts
Sacred texts in English, Latin, German, French, and Spanish
Durations from 1:30 to 5:00 each carol
Price: $15.95 per copy- FREE SHIPPING on all US and Canada orders  (please note- this is the current price- the Choral Journal lists it at $17.95)
Order through or email me at
Also through Musical Resources, the exclusive wholesale distributor

Paypal or conventional billing available

An exciting new collection of 18 carols in new, creative settings suitable for
high school and beyond women's voices, plus also suitable for advanced treble children's choirs.

- Carols and processionals for both concert or madrigal dinner use
- A mixture of transcriptions, arrangements, and new settings of classic Christmas texts, occaisional solo, duo, and trio passages create variety for strophic carols
- Traditional English and Latin texts, plus settings in French, German, and Spanish
- A mixture of easy to more challenging carols, as well as a wide variety of moods and tempi
- Some carols have instrumental parts for one or two players (for instance harp, two flutes or other melody instruments, cello, percussion). Instrumental parts can be downloaded by clicking on the title below.
If anyone out there with a women's choir or youth advanced treble choir would like a TOTALLY FREE PERUSAL COPY- send me your US or Canada street address and I will get one to you. I think once you examine it, you will agree that it can be a resource you can go to year after year for December programming. Last year a number of the choirs who bought copies did 2,3,4, carols out of the book at their holiday program!

Here are some other pieces of mine which might really spice up your December programs.

Let me know if you would like any free perusal scores of these pieces. I will just highlight a few- you can view a complete listing with details, score samples, etc. of all of my many Christmas, Hanukkah, and Winter Solstice scores by visiting:

One of my holiday bestsellers is the Hanukkah song "Unending Flame" with a truly nice text (so many Hanukkah texts are awful, I think you will agree). Voicings available are SA or SABar. There is also a rental orchestration for this piece which really makes it pop.
Another bestselling piece which can be either with piano or rental orchestration  is my very dancey SSA version in mixed meters of I Saw three Ships:

If you are looking for SATB works, Nancy Menk made a very nice recording of my lyrical “Hush my Dear, Lie Still and Slumber" which you can hear:  
I also have a piece with a similar feel to it- my arrangement of “Gabriel's Message”, available in manuscript.
Finally, some pieces with brass. First up is “Christmas Bells”, which was commissioned by Edie Copley at N. Arizona University. This is big and festive (yet with a very introspective middle section)  for SATB/brass/organ/perc/handbells.  This piece is now also fully orchestrated.
The ending will ensure that your entire audience is awake:

The other brass piece is not as festive since the text by the brilliant Thomas Merton is generally more reflective- it's called “The Winter's Night Carol”. I don't have a good recording yet of the piece due to miking issues at performances, but I can certainly e-mail you a score if you like!


Paul Carey's work as a choral composer and arranger is well acknowledged and valued.  His newest publication, Carols…for Women's Voices, takes a significant step in furthering his reputation as a composer for treble and women's voices.    Many of Carey's fine and best-selling arrangements and compositions of carols for mixed, children's, men's and women's voices are available through leading publishers such as Oxford University Press, CF Peters, Lorenz, and Roger Dean.  Yet, unlike many compilations of works by modern composers and arrangers, this distinctive collection does not contain works available through other sources or as separate folios. 

Most of the works found in this collection are arrangements of melodies or compositions upon texts from classic manuscripts and various folk sources.   Nonetheless, the recastings of these materials in Carey's hand are fresh and distinctive.  His "Personant Hodie" (from the Piae Cantiones), for example, retains the familiar tune of the work for the most part but lightens the texture with gavotte-like ritornelli and an unexpected reworking of the melody in 7/8.     Other works, such his SSA unaccompanied version of the classic "We Wish You A Merry Christmas", find a different voice through this composer's compositional wit.  As these two examples imply, the collection contains both sacred and secular carols.  In addition, these two arrangements also exemplify the suitability of some of Carey's arrangements for younger choirs.

The title of this collection is somewhat deceiving, for of the eighteen works in this collection, five are entirely new works, penned using familiar texts.  The distinctiveness of even these works can be evinced by comparing two texts that both Carey and Benjamin Britten have set:  "There is no rose of such virtue" and "Adam Lay ybounden" (perhaps most familiar as the text used for Britten's "Deo Gratias" from A Ceremony of Carols ).   The former is richly set with a nearly chantlike solo and responses by duets and a quartet that shimmer with their uses of inversional modal alterations.  The latter text is interpreted through completely new musical lenses.  The ABAB form of Carey's setting alternates between a haunting, contemplative section and a second, more rhythmically driving section.  This compositional choice musically refocuses the text on the apple's theological role, that of emphasizing the praise of the apple's acceptance and its eventual conclusion in the birth of Jesus.   These five original works alone make it difficult to overlook this collection, and underscore the fact that these arrangements can also find a home in the repertories of more advanced treble/women's choirs.

Cristobal de Morales' O Magnum Mysterium is the only work included in this collection where Carey assumes the singular role of editor.  As would be expected, Carey's edition is much more lightly edited than the classic (SSAA) Schirmer edition by Goodale, but the choice of transcribing this work a half-step higher mirrors a significant characteristic of this collection as a whole—each of these "distinctive arrangements" are sensitive to the distinct characteristics of women's voices.  The Morales is often performed in this key, as it simply resounds better and navigates the passaggi more easily.  Furthermore, such sensitivity extends to the variety of texture, styles, tempi, voicings, and languages (french, latin, spanish, german, and english) found herein.  Carey's collection is varied enough to lend variety to any program built from its offerings, yet cohesive enough to lend solidity to such a performance. (Note: This reviewer acknowledges having contributed to the translations of French texts and initial readings of some of the works in this volume.) 

The quality of these arrangements and the breadth of stylistic variety reflected in this holiday collection for treble voices is nearly unparalleled; for choral ensembles and programs of all types, and for churches with treble ensembles, this fine publication could reasonably be expected to occupy a similar place in holiday/Christmas libraries as the Oxford Book 0f Carols and Carols for Choirs currently hold.  Well edited by Carey and "tested" by various types of treble/women's choruses, this solid collection possesses enough musical gold to fit the needs of many types of choirs, performances, and even educational functions.

Friday, May 2, 2014

A Great Collaboration!

I just finished a three day residency with the Escanaba (MI) Junior High School and High School choirs, where last night the Chorale, their top group, premiered a new commission from me entitled "April" (SATB/piano).  This trip was a long time in planning and I have to say, the singing was epic and that I was treated so wonderfully by everyone.

When I arrived Sunday afternoon to my spacious hotel, there was a large gift basket awaiting me. The basket was filled with all sorts of great Upper Peninsula Michigan products, especially local Escanaba products- honey, wine, candy bars, candles, and so on. What a sweet touch! I also found out later that the beautiful box that contained the gifts was handmade by one of the high school's music booster folks- wow!

In the days before the concert I worked with the junior high school chorus on my piece "May I be Happy" (published by Roger Dean), a piece which is growing in popularity across the country. My main focus with this group was to project the text, and try to present more joy as they sang. I also have to say that a certain passage in the piece which throws quite a few choirs was spot-on as sung by these folks since their director, the very talented John Beck, had them solfege the piece, thus avoiding the pitfalls that trip up a lot of choirs who don't utilize solfege.

I also worked with the HS Chorus on my piece "Bright Morning Stars" (published by Colla Voce), an old, yet still vibrant American folk hymn. We worked on tuning of this pentatonic song and especially sweetened up the major thirds, once again by using solfege. We also had some fun channelling our opera diva voices. By asking to hear their take on a diva voice, we were rewarded by them propelling a lot more air through their full vocal mechanism and we not only wound up with more sound projection, but better tuning as well. Of course we weren't trying to teach them to belt- just move more air! The kids had fun with this and I think it will pay off when they sing other pieces- looking to find a bigger, yet still healthy voice production more in line with their maturing voices. As many of you know, a lot of kids in early high school still have their 6th grade sound model in their head and don't realize that they can, sometimes quite easily, move beyond that toward more full vocal production.

Most of my time was spent with  the Chorale, the top group at the high school and the group singing the commission premiere. I worked intensively with them Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday polishing the piece. This was really fulfilling for all of us, and it was only possible because they had learned the piece so thoroughly in advance and had it well-memorized. This meant that not a single singer was struggling with notes, text, or anything, and we could try different phrasing, dynamics, word-stresses, and other nuances to find just the right performance presentation. The Escanaba Chorale has a long-standing history of choral excellence, and has been, for years, one of the very top high school programs in the entire state of Michigan, which is a very strong choral state both at the high school and collegiate level. For anyone who thinks the U.P. of Michigan is just about "Yoopers", hunting, fishing, and snowmobiling, they couldn't be more ignorant of the facts. Music is very strong in Escanaba and Marquette, and there are many fine artists, photographers, poets and novelists throughout the U.P.

I loved that every person in the Chorale was committed to working hard with me- to engage and share some real collaborative exploration toward more expression of the text and music, and even have fun along the way. Each and every one of them was ready to pitch in and tune a particular chord, try slightly different tempi, etc. Leading the way, of course, was their amazing and very talented director of thirty-six years, John Beck, and his wonderful accompanist, Kim Beck - a keyboardist capable of fine nuance as well as sparkling pianism.

John Beck

When the choirs performed Wednesday night the JHS Chorus shone as did the HS Chorus. John and I felt that the latter was reaching a new zone of skill and confidence that night. When the Chorale took the stage and wowed the crowd with a number of pieces preceding mine, the stage was set for the premiere of my piece. Now this piece is quite subtle- it begins and ends softly and many high school audiences won't be drawn in by quiet pieces, they usually want big and bold music to listen to. But this evening's audience was different. I sensed them becoming very focused by the quiet beginning, and when there were climaxes of sound they were quite excited by them (believe me, we composers can read an audience during a performance quite well- we can sense the audience's energy response to the music!). By the end of the piece they were all totally drawn in- the auditorium was totally quiet, even younger siblings were totally silent, and when the piece was over there was a tiny magical moment of silence and then a big standing ovation when John had me stand. Getting standing "O"s as a composer isn't really that common- sure, people usually applaud plenty, but the standing "O" in the middle of a concert is not that common. Needless to say I was thrilled by the performance. At the reception following the concert I had dozens of people shake my hand, stood for pics with choir members, and so on. And at the reception, the wonderful booster folks had a ginormous cake with an edible image of the first page of the score on the cake (yay for modern cake technology). All in all the concert evening was spectacular and the whole experience with the choir, John and Kim Beck, the boosters, and choir parents was one of the most epic experiences I have ever had. I was also treated to two wonderful dinners while I was in town. Maybe I should apply to become the Escanaba, MI composer-in residence!

Here is a nice news article on the prep for the piece:

One final word about our process for this piece. John and I had some difficulties finding a text. He had done some "big" pieces by me like "My Friend Elijah" but I felt that maybe I wanted to do something more intimate. We agreed on that after awhile but still didn't have a text. Then I found out that they might have found an Escanaba poet we could work with. That turned out to be a dead-end, however. Then we finally found a text we liked, BUT, now I was going to be on the road for quite a spell. So I decided to try to start the piece at home, make some progress on it, and then work on it as I travelled to composing and music conference gigs I had in Jacksonville, FL, Little Rock, AR, and New Orleans. While still at home, I was able to get about halfway through the piece and send that much to John so the choir could start on it. I was then able to find a few hours here and there on the road to complete the piece. This was a new way of working for me- I had never tried to compose on the road before. But it worked, and I actually enjoyed finishing the piece in New Orleans in my hotel overlooking the French Quarter. Who knows, maybe there is a measure or two of zydeco in there somewhere!

So in conclusion, the friendliness and hospitality in Escanaba from EVERYONE was overwhelming. This week was an absolute joy. To anyone from Escanaba reading this- thanks for an amazing time there. You are great people!

COMING UP: More epic music-making starting in a few days; this time in Eastern Washington state with the very talented, energetic young conductor Justin Raffa and the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers in a program of mostly my music, including a very serious, unusual commissioned piece (oh yeah, plus zombie music too!).

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Belt it, baby! Or not?

Belting is a grand American singing tradition, no doubt about it. Some good stuff there over the decades.
But when did we decide to belt EVERYTHING? AND when did we decide to melisma-ize everything in the pop world? Are pop singers being paid by the "note"? I call it "note" because often their melisma-izing of things like the Star Spangled Banner is so full of "pitchy, dawg" "notes" that really can't be recognized as being true notes or rhythms in some way (Music Theory 101 students-good luck notating the growls, slides, and whines and such in the clip below). Or maybe each and every melisma here, and all the belted grunts, groans, and howls are actually a  display of semiotic genius? I dunno.

Finally there seems to be a push back by more and more people at this weedy garden of pop divas and their imitators. Renee Flemings' performance of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl was a step in the right direction even if you didn't like the orchestral arrangement. And didn't it seem odd that people were gushing (before the fact) that a "REAL OPERA SINGER" was going to sing at the Super Bowl? " OMG, a real opera singer, I wonder what that might sound like?", seemed to be the question on the lips of every vapid, pop-world oriented person in America. Dang- seriously?

Down below is a post today by the ever insightful Michael Finke called "A Meditation on the Overworked Belter". What do you think of this? I shared this on FaceBook to friends and all my classically trained pals (but many of them also do the pop world , too) agreed with Finke. Not surprisingly "Let it Go" from "Frozen" came up in this FB discussion. I answered back to one comment with "nodes never bothered me anyway"- as in vocal nodes for those who don't know the reference! Anyway, see what you think of Finke's thoughts. Keep in  mind that he isn't against belting at all- just against it being done constantly, and without consideration of the lyrics and the plot.

But first let me present my idea of great belting in service of lyrics and plot- a performance that always brings chills to me, especially enhanced by the lighting at the end, and which doesn't turn into belting until near the end of the tune (and ever so gradually builds into it over about a full minute of singing, starting at about the 2:00 mark). Here is Liza Minnelli in the film version of Cabaret (hey Warner Brothers, hope you're okay with me placing this here).

Here now is Finke's article:

A Meditation on the Overworked Belter by Michael Finke

Before I dive into the topic of “belting,” let me begin by saying that I (like many others) always appreciate the power of a singer or performer that can reach impossible pitches at impossible decibels. It can be a thrilling moment when an actor fires off all missiles into a single word or phrase. But that being said, I have come to wonder if the modern age of musical theatre belting has come to parallel the American stereotype of overwhelming excess.

I know, I know. If a composer likes to write songs strictly for belters, and a singer only likes to perform songs for belters, and an audience wants to hear said singers belting, then what’s the harm? Sometimes such musical moments can function in an immensely cathartic way causing one to rejoice, sob, or somewhere in between. However, like most things in life, too much of one thing can ultimately impair the greater objective at hand.
Belters... let it go. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)
Belters… let it go. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

Belting, or screlting, or masking-belting-by-mixing, or whatever you want to call it could potentially be seen as an epidemic in musical theatre. Some nights I go out to the theatre and realize I’m being belted at for a solid two hours in which there is no juxtaposition or shifting of tone/ambiance at any point in the show. Now I am the last person to categorize rules when it comes to creating any type of theatre. But I can’t help but ponder the static feeling of hearing “belting song” after “belting song” after “belting song.”

What has lead to this type of environment? Is it the offensive skyrocketing of ticket prices, in which audiences want guaranteed moments that say their money was well spent? Is it the business of pop culture, in which the loudest tend to get the most attention? Or is it the theory that people will always be more dazzled by the flexing of a vocal range rather than the flexing of a thought or idea within a song?
Let’s create a scenario in which you, the reader, are sitting in a room with a musical theatre actor performing a song. The content of the song is about (just for the sake of an example) a woman who just lost her husband. The song is heartbreaking, the performer is equally moving, and the song generally has a reasonable range. But suddenly and without warning, the melody soars high into the stratosphere of sheet music. The performer is blasting all possible sound while sounding absolutely gorgeous. Now I’ll pose a question: is your mind still focused on all that the character is experiencing? Or is your mind focused on how impressed you are that the singer can hit those notes? Or both?

No wrong answer here. But I tend to find myself shifting my frame of mind from the content of the song to the skill set of the singer. I’m not saying both cannot be achieved at the same time, but I do believe it is a very intricate line to balance. And as a musical theatre writer, I’m constantly unnerved by having musical moments result in a muscular distraction (albeit a fun/sexy distraction, but a distraction nonetheless).
Another composer once (harshly) stated that “Some writers use belting as a means of hiding behind their own material.” That statement caught me off guard (as I’m certainly a composer who has asked his actors to hit their fair share of tough pitches). I would much rather phrase the statement in an alternative/productive way – “There’s a time and place for certain qualities of music, and sometimes the choice is in the wrong place and/or the wrong time.”

In old school musical theatre (for all of its glory and all of its embarrassments), the use of vocally charged moments seemed to arrive at very meticulous plot points. A former musical composition teacher once said to me, “The most important note should always be the loudest!” (there are those damn words again! Always or should.) And while those kinds of restrictions rub me the wrong way, I have come to understand it as a helpful tool. Take Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel for example. An incredibly emotionally draining play, Carousel handles heavy topics such as suicide, spousal abuse, misogyny, and a giant pile of pure self-loathing. And yet the one moment you hear any character belt is when the protagonist, Billy Bigelow, is deciding whether or not to support his unborn child or die trying. I’ll reiterate that: he’s either going to support his future baby or die. And that was the one moment in which Rodgers decided, “Yes. Let’s ask him to pump up the volume a bit.” (Not a direct quote, but it’s fun to imagine.)

Cabarets and concerts are a different experience entirely. With an influx of alcohol, social gatherings, and a crowd that sometimes consist of a short attention span, it’s understandable to have multiple singers stand onstage and create as much sound as necessary (although some song cycles/concerts manage to pull off the opposite in the most astonishing of ways, i.e. the works of Ricky Ian Gordon or John Bucchino). But when you’re dealing with a more direct linear narrative, such tools can often backfire.

Every show is different. Every composer is different. And more power to the composer who strictly writes song for belters (and the singers who love the material). However when the most poignant moment in a show can be as quiet as “Send in the Clowns,” “You Must Love Me” or the revelatory concluding duet, “Pierre and Natasha” (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812), my brain and my heart are equally dazzled. Many new musical theatre writers are able to capture that somber but resiliently breathtaking aesthetic in wonderfully dramatic ways. Everything from Gaby Alter’s “Deep in February” to Miller and Tysen’s “One of These Nights” can stir a cacophony of emotions, while asking the singers to exercise different parts of their instrument beyond their own vocal chords.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Recap of 2014 ACDA Central in Cincinnati

Here is a PART ONE recap of some of the goings-on at the 2014 ACDA Central Division Conference in Cincinnati last week.

I could only be in town for the first few days- I had to leave Friday late afternoon to get back to Chicago and then Madison, WI for a performance in Madison of a big piece of mine by The Festival Singers, directed by my friend Bryson Mortenson.

I was there early enough in Cincinnati to hear the opening night "Festival of Anthems" at Christ Church Cathedral. This was a wonderful program presented together by the following choirs: The Christ Church Cathedral Choir, directed by Stephan Casurella; The Cathedral Choir of Hyde Park Methodist Church, directed by Neal Hamlin; and the Xavier University EdgeCliff Vocal Ensemble, directed by my friend Tom Merrill as well as the Xavier University Concert Choir, directed by Richard Schnipke.

Tom Merrill

These four choirs sang some great music interspersed by congregational anthem selections as well as readings by ACDA officers Tim Sharp, Mary Hopper, Loren Veigel, and Diane Hires (wow, Diane was choral director at my high school WAY BACK when I was a student and pianist there, not yet a choral person).

I was very impressed by the Christ Church choir- I would assume that all or most of this choir are artistically devoted paid position singers. Everything they sang was spot on, as the Brits would say. Especially solid and artistic were the Parry "I was Glad" and James MacMillan's " A New Song". MacMillan needs to be FAR more known in the US- he is a major talent with a very personal voice. We need more choirs to begin recognizing his talent. Actually Central division directors Tom Merrill and Nancy Menk have discovered him and brought him to the US for wonderful programs of his music.

The selections by the Xavier choirs which were beautifully sung were the Josquin Ave Maria (Virgo serena) and the Purcell "Thou knowest Lord". I am again very impressed by the rock-solid artistry of Tom Merrill's singers and applaud the program he directs at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Congrats, Tom!

The concert ended with a rockin' and rollin' postlude- the "Festival Toccata" by Arthur Banyon, performed by Christ Church's  multi-talented Stephan Casurella  on a pipe organ that had been a bit balky all night (cipher issues which we did our best to ignore!).

 All in all last Tuesday was a great opening night for ACDA Central.

NEXT POST: more recaps of Central Division, even though I am now in Jacksonville for the ACDA southern division, and also did a ton of stuff in between these events- blogging and keeping up is a bear of a challenge!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Convocations at Virginia Commonwealth University

At the invite of Dr. Rebecca Tyree at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA I am doing a very busy two day residency at her fine school. In addition to the two presentation outlines placed here for VCU students (and other interested folks) I will be doing composition consults with young composers one on one as well as working with 3-4 choirs on a number of my pieces. I am very excited to be at VCU Sunday through Tuesday night, and then will trot on down to Jacksonville FL for the ACDA South Conference. Here are the two session outlines:

The Craft of Choral Composing/Arranging: A Door to Creativity

Session Presented at Virginia Commonwealth University by Paul Carey, March 2014
serious and not so serious blog at

Starting Points for a new piece

Parameters- generally need to be chosen in advance of composing:

Often determined by who you are writing for (is it a commission, a group you know, unknown?)

Text/Language; the tone of the text (sacred/secular? serious/ humorous? joyful/sad? modern or older in feel?) Length of piece; a cappella or accompanied; Voicing and potential vocal ranges, also key; difficulty level; length of piece; other issues.

Paramount to all of this- does the text “speak” to you? Will it speak to others? Can you enhance the text's artistry through a choral setting? Will people be excited to sing it and will audiences be excited to hear it? In other words, what is your motivation as a communicator as you start composing?

Questions to ask yourself: Do texts need to rhyme? What kind of texts appeal to you, especially in regard to setting them? Do you like rhyming texts? Do you like short or long texts (to me, I worry about this a lot- can I create a 3-4 minute piece with a poem less than eight lines?). How do you feel about complicated texts, texts with fancy words like “declivity”?

More text issues in particular: is it a commonly set text? What can you bring to it? If you are about to create the 4,937th Ave Maria- what might set your version apart!? Do you have something new to say?

Piano accompanied settings: How involved is the piano? How well do you write for the piano? Should the piano double the voice parts- anywhere from never to always? [Give ex. of Janet Galvan's choral series].

Voicing/Key ideas: shall we avoid certain keys such as F, C, G, etc.? What ranges are we going to deal with? What tessituras make singers happy and how does key selection fit into this? Shall we be homophonic or contrapuntal? Shall we always let the sopranos have the melody? [PC: Give example of my most responded to FaceBook comment].

Copyright issues: The magic year of 1922. All works published prior to 1923 are public domain. To even begin to set a copyrighted post-1922 poem you must have written permission to set the text. You should also be requesting permission to perform and publish the work and create an agreement about the publishing scenario (one time buyout for use? ongoing royalty sharing?). Likewise, to arrange a piece of copyrighted music you must do the same as above prior to starting.

Learn the copyright laws as well as you can- it will benefit you to know them. Visit
also Actually read the copyright law- it's quite short! What constitutes a copyrighted work when you compose or arrange [“set in final form”, “lifting the pen from the page”?].

What are the differences between composing a new work and creating an arrangement? What are your ides on this? One key question when arranging, do you have something original you can add; can you find a “hook”, or something else worth noting, that works for the arrangement? To me, arranging is an art and something more composers should be doing. It is also a great entry point for beginners! It can be very satisfying to take something already formed and reform it with your own voice and talents.

My Arrangement of A City Called Heaven

Let's look at my arrangement of A City Called Heaven. This began because of my love for spirituals and my belief that they are an important part of our American musical heritage. I have arranged about ten spirituals for concert use and also included one in a recent large-scale work about the Civil War. My starting point for A City Called Heaven was a recording of the song by the famous African-American soprano Marian Anderson. Her version (with piano) is very straightforward. To set it for choir I would have to come up with something very dramatic and something I could call my own as an arranger. This was an interesting project- it was four years from start to finish [explain why].

Opening- setting the dramatic scene- the hummed a cappella opening is full of deep sadness, loneliness and inner turmoil. The humming is what actually cannot be expressed in words.

First verse- simple setting, unison and piano. The fermatas here and there are a definite element on the piece. They represent the sadness and turmoil- that nothing can progress without some sort of turmoil blocking the way.

 Second verse- a natural progression to two and three part writing (in stretto).

Chorus: the first rising of high intensity dynamics, strong use of unison (and octave) sound, more fermatas which the choir sings through with intensity. This section explodes, especially with my hook for this section- the shocking A flat chord in the piano at mm. 49-50. Finding this harmony was what unblocked finishing this arrangement for me. It was something unique which gave the piece my signature and freed me up to become more creative as I continued working.

Third verse- back to introspection. This becomes very personal for the textual voice. “My mother” painted in heavenly tessitura both for sopranos and piano; “my father” very dissonant for altos and piano. Then more sadness when sisters and brothers also are part of the abandonment.

Final Chorus: same material as before but more complex, including more fermatas. The pause at m. 86 sets the stage for a very dramatic, yet quiet ending. There is a final, a cappella few measures of music which is actually new material as far as harmonies go (my “create something a bit new at the ending” mantra). The song finally ends with some rather ghostly harmonies on the word “home” which closes to a hum and thus connects to the very beginning. The singers sing all the way through to the end (another mantra- “keep your singers engaged” as close to the end as possible).

This piece has had many performances- I think for two reasons. It is very dramatic- it's impossible to not connect to the drama and pathos of this text when sung well. It's also a rarity in that it is a spiritual set specifically for women's voices, not just an SATB setting rehashed for women.

Staying Alive?:
A Talk by a not-yet-dead serious composer about
surviving in today's pop-music world

Session Presented at Virginia Commonwealth University by Paul Carey, March 2014
serious and not so serious blog at

A Composer's Toolbox:

  1. self-confidence, even in the face of various rejections along the way
  2. a great business card
  3. a functional (or GREAT) website
  4. score samples in some form- whether in part or full- online, paper, etc.
  5. getting started: can you actually get to hear your music besides a Finale playback? Enlisting friends, colleagues, your professors, street people, etc.
  6. knowledge of copyright laws
  7. graphite or electrons? The composing process in regard to your tools of notation
  8. learn some counterpoint- you'll be unique!
  9. If you will write choral music, jump into the deep end and read a ton of poetry, collect texts

Getting out there:

  1. sending out scores/recordings, targeting conductors, [does anyone want to listen to a synthesized performance?]
  2. attending ACDA conferences (NafMe, AGO, Kodaly, etc. conferences) What else can you learn there?
  3. is it schmoozing or networking?

More getting out there- publication:

  1. Your view of publication: does publication through various mainstream publishers prove the value of your work? What do you think?
  2. Publish through mainstream publishers? Only “self-publish? Do both? What are the pros and cons to this whole situation today?

Back it up: how do you publish with mainstream publishers????

Submission process with mainstream choral publishers: doing it your way or theirs? [how it should work, and how it often goes wrong]

  1. are you willing to give up control of your copyrighted piece?
  2. Are you willing to do that for a return of 10% of the selling price?
  3. Can you call some of the shots about how this happens?
  4. Goofy stories about the publishing world [anecdotes about Oxford and James, and Reg, missing scores, POOP (Permanently Out of Print), etc.
  5. what are realistic sales goals?

Can you make a full-time living as a “classical” composer today?

My advice, start this as a part-time venture with the goal of getting better and better at it, then see how the world responds to your work. Give it time and be patient. Endure rejection (I save my rejection letters!). Try to be an eclectic composer/arranger- why limit yourself to, say, just sacred music, or some other self-imposed limitation? Consider other types of composing- music for films, video games, etc. Other than teaching music in K-12 or college and side supplemental music jobs like conducting, judging festivals, giving music lessons, etc. here are your possible income streams as a composer:

Commissions (once they become fairly consistent for you this will be your largest income)
Consider writing film music, video game music
Royalties from mainstream publishers
Sales of your own “self-published” music through your website
Giving talks/residencies at high schools and colleges

(I view my 10% royalties from publishers as a promotional item, in other words, even though I resent the low royalty rate, I consider them as my hired help for publicity).

Conclusion: If you think you have something to say to the world through your music, go for it. It sure as heck will be an interesting life! Doing this part-time makes a lot of sense, but that doesn't mean you can't be artistic, serious, and proud of your work.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Here We Go: The 2014 ACDA Central Conference in Cincinnati

I am in Cincinnati (well actually I'm staying in my fave spot in Newport, KY across the river- the Newport Landing area full of restaurants, book stores and such) for the Central Divison ACDA conference. It is danged cold out- but what else is new this year in the middle of our country?

Tonight (Wednesday) there is going to be a ton of sacred music sung at one of the churches here. Looks like a gonzo event, especially for sacred musicians. I'm not up on who is doing the concert but I am pretty sure Howard Helvey and Tom Merrill are involved.

Tomorrow (Thursday) the whirlwind starts off bright and early. I'll be attending as much as I can as well as meeting old and new folks. It looks like a great conference. FYI, my new book of carols for women's voices will be on sale at the Musical Resources booth. Dennis Blubaugh will be running a $2 discount on the book. I hope those of you with women's choirs (appropriate for HS and up, as well as advanced children's choirs) will take a look at it at the booth or over the internet. Those choirs who used it this past December really felt that they enriched their programs with the carols they choose from the book.

Thursday AM Pearl Shangkuan has included Summer Bounty ( the uptempo first movment of my three movement piece "Play with your Food"- one of my bestsellers) in the Intercollegiate Reading Session. This is a great event  (two different sessions)- a large, very talented pool of central division university singers performing music that Pearl has chosen to be featured.

Pearl Shangkuan
 The singers get their packet about an hour before the session- so for them they are on the spot! Summer's Bounty will challenge their skills since there is a whole lot of mixed meter going on. They'll also have to not get distracted by how crazy-witty the words are! Here's the text:

Summer’s Bounty by May Swenson 
berries of Straw apples of Crab beans of Lima
berries of Goose apples of May beans of Jelly
berries of Huckle apples of Pine beans of Green
berries of Dew apples of Love beans of Soy
berries of Boisen nuts of Pea melons of Water
berries of Black nuts of Wal melons of Musk
berries of Rasp nuts of Hazel cherries of Pie
berries of Blue nuts of Chest cherries of Choke
berries of Mul nuts of Brazil glories of Morning
berries of Cran nuts of Monkey rooms of Mush
berries of Elder nuts of Pecan days of Dog
berries of Haw nuts of Grape puppies of Hush 
You can learn more about the piece and hear Steve Zielke's excellent choir sing it here: 
Many of you may know "Play with your Food"- it is published by Walton and contains the middle movement "Mashed Potato Love Poem" (hey, would you choose to be with your lover or a third helping of mashed potaties?) and "Vending Machine", about a boy and his Dad buying some peanut butter crackers at a vending machine. All the texts are witty- not just generically humorous. I balk when people sometimes call these "novelty" pieces- they are more than that thanks to the quality of the texts. Btw, there is also now an SSA/piano version of Mashed Potato Love Poem (it is also selling very well).
I'll update as the conference goes- time allowing. I am on a whirlwind tour of conferences, residencies,and concerts featuring my music. Over 5-6 weeks I will be in Cincy, Madison WI, Richmond VA, Jacksonville FL, Little Rock AK, and New Orleans. I am totally looking forward to visiting those warm weather cities! 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Dordt College Choir Tour- don't miss it!

Hi all!

Yes, I haven't blogged in forever! Why? I have simply been swamped composing, arranging, self-publishing an entire book of 18 Christmas carols (sales have been great) traveling, trying to be a good dad, etc! I will try to get back into it ASAP, especially since I will be at three ACDA conferences and usually try to post about them. I will be at Central, Southwest, and South. In between all of this are residencies (Virginia Commonwealth University), choral judging, performances in Madison, WI and a trip to Nawlins!

Today I want to turn your attention to the 10-day Dordt College Choral Tour (directed by the very talented Ben Kornelis). They will be singing some great music (including a shape-note tune arrangement of mine) in some great cities (six different states and one in more in Canada!). Go hear them if you can. Also scroll down for the repertoire. or go to  for all this info and more.
Ben Kornelis

Here are the tour dates:

Thursday, March 6
7 p.m. concert
First Christian Reformed Church
801 15th Avenue
Fulton, Illinois

Friday, March 7
7:30 p.m. concert
Wheaton Christian Reformed Church
711 E Harrison Avenue
Wheaton, Illinois

Saturday, March 8
7 p.m. concert
Ridgewood United Methodist Church
6330 Ridge Road
Parma, Ohio

Monday, March 10
7:30 p.m. concert
Lafayette Federated Church
180 New Jersey 15
Lafayette Township, New Jersey

Tuesday, March 11
7:30 p.m. concert
Fairlawn Christian Reformed Church
305 Goldwaithe Road
Whitinsville, Massachusetts

Wednesday, March 12
7 p.m. concert
Rochester Christian Reformed Church
2750 Atlantic Avenue
Penfield, New York

Thursday, March 13
7 p.m. concert
Talbot Street Church
13 Talbot Street
London, Ontario

Friday, March 14
7:30 p.m. concert
LaGrave Christian Reformed Church
LaGrave Avenue SE
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Saturday, March 15
7 p.m. concert
First Christian Reformed Church
16248 South Park Avenue
South Holland, Illinois

Sunday, March 16
9:30 a.m. worship service
Bethel Christian Reformed Church
3500 Glenwood Lansing Rd.
Lansing, Illinois
6 p.m. worship service
Bethel Christian Reformed Church
521 S Halleck St
DeMotte, Indiana

Dordt College Concert Choir
March 2014 Concert Tour Program

I        Praise God for the Breath of Life (Ratcliff)

Opening Prayer

II      Gaudete Omnes (Sweelinck)

III     Dem dunkeln Schoss der heilgen Erde (Brahms)
         I Know That My Redeemer Lives (J.M. Bach)
         Take My Hand, Precious Lord (Dorsey, arr. Lojeski)

IV     What Stood Will Stand (Halley)
         The Promise of Living (Copland)

V      Dúlamán (McGlynn)
         Catania (Sicilian Folksong, arr. Mignemi)
         Balleilakka (Rahman, arr. Sperry)

Intermission & Offering

VI     Blow ye the trumpet, blow (Edson, arr. Carey)

VII   Weather Report (Anglican Chant, as sung by The Master Singers)
         Stormy Weather (arr. Althouse)
         Light of a Clear Blue Morning (Parton, arr. Johnson)

VIII  The Best of Rooms (Thompson)
         Nunc Dimittis (Lukaszewski)
Closing Prayer

IX     Pilgrims’ Hymn (Paulus)
         O Lord God (Tchesnokov)

Optional Selections:
         O Love That Will Not Let Me Go (arr. Phelps)
         Praise to the Lord (arr. Christiansen)
         Dordt College Alma Mater (Grotenhuis)