Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Round is a very cool shape, unless you want to be a supermodel

(Bob Chilcott, photo credit: Vicky Alhedeff)

I recently did a three hour clinic with an incredible HS choral ensemble at Jacobs High School in Algonquin IL. They were preparing for some invited performances in San Diego in early April and one of the pieces was my Mashed Potato/Love Poem from the three tune set Play with your Food! (published by Walton). So I was there to work with them not only on their mashed potatoes ("stirred, not whisked") but to give them some feedback on all their other music as well.

Wow, this is a great choir, directer by an amazing young director- Andrew Collins. Andrew has truly inspired these students. When he sent me some of the repertoire they are doing I remarked to myself that this looked like college material. And I really often wish that HS directors would stop overreaching what their students can really handle. But... after hearing them sing a few things I realize that they truly could sing at the college level in every way- impeccable tone, intonation, balance, phrasing, you name it (oh yeah, they also had plenty of very accomplished tenors- rare here in Chicago and most other environs as well).

We worked on a number of things- foremost being my pet project- effectively communicating text and mood to the audience and make a true connection with them. And one of the most amazing things we did was to get in a circle and sing to each other. The tune was one of their easier ones but quite gorgeous and very meaningful- Bob Chilcott's choral arrangement of U2's MLK (about Martin Luther King of course). So we sang it in the circle and since they had it memorized I had them hold hands and make that connection throughout the choir. But the most electric moment was this-- when I had Andrew stand inside the circle-- not to conduct (hey, by now I also had them singing with their eyes closed!) but to feel the energy inside the circle of these souls singing a text with heartfelt meaning. Also, keep in mind, they also had to sing "together", ie. start and finish their phrases without any visual cues from Andrew or each other. So... when they finished, the intensity of emotion in the room was such that it was many seconds before they all had opened their eyes... and many seconds more before anyone finally spoke. And then when the moment had ended, I asked Andrew to tell the choir what it felt like to stand inside the circle. Basically he told them that it made his hair stand on end at times, and that their energy and connectedness was what he had been hoping for all year. They did it! And the best thing about it was that we all connected, all focused, and I really think that more choirs should rehearse in this circle formation as much as possible- it really connects singers to each other in so many positive ways.

Andrew's school presented me with a very rewarding honorarium as I left, but the real reward for me was the honor of working with them for a very intense, but also very fun three hours. Best wishes to them all as they perform in sunny San Diego!


  1. That sounds fantastic, real music! That's what we do it for.

  2. I am the President of the Board of Education for this school, and I know I speak for our entire Board in saying we are so very proud of them. The performed for the Board prior to taking off for San Diego and they made the hair on our neck stand up as well. Thank you for helping out, we are very very proud of our students and feel fortunate to have a person like Andrew as part of our team.

    Joe Stevens

  3. Paul,

    Your thoughtful reflection and kind words about our wonderful musicians has traveled around the Chicagoland area. We are very proud of ourfine Jacobs High School students who are like anyones son, daughter, grandchild or neighbor. Our students performance truly brought tears to those in attendance. This once in a life time opportunity illustrates the power of a wonderful teacher and the ability of talented youth.

    Kenneth Arndt
    District 300 Schools, IL