Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Declivity Factor ™

(Emily Dickinson- looking kind of Virgin of Guadalupe-ish)

Someone asked me- Paul, ole buddy, why have you not set any Emily Dickinson texts to music? And my answer is, 1) everyone else already has! 2)
The Declivity Factor™. And, what is The Declivity Factor ™, you ask? Well, it is simply this-- I heard a piece by Gregg Smith (what a nice man) setting some Dickinson, and at some point, the word declivity was uttered or sung or something. And I stopped and said to myself, "Self, what the heck is that word?" And, truly it was unbeknownst to me. So, I then said to myself, "Self, you have studied at a university (or pretended to study) and yet you know not of this word. What is wrong with this cinemascope"?

And then it hit me-
The Declivity Factor™! Which is--- no poem can be set effectively to music which has such ridiculous East Coast learn-ed words- it just doesn't work. Lest you think me wrong and uncouth, no less than the great choral composer Kirke Mechem has stated this as well- though far more "couthly". Mr. Mechem states (I paraphrase here) that choral settings of poems must utilize texts where the language is immediate, and that the big honking Oxford Dictionary 20 volume OE2 (comprising 291,500 entries in 21,730 pages- retail price $995 , for sale at today for $848.02) need not be at hand. Mechem goes on to state that immediacy, action, emotion, and imagery are the key elements necessary to a text's successful metamorphosis into a successful musical setting.


Big word guy William F. Buckley (149-3-5)
motto: I'm smarter than you, na-na-na-boo-boo

Savvy composer guy Kirke Mechem (0-0-12)

motto: say what you mean, mean what you say

(Hey, I think Kirke is probably a lover, not a fighter;
but actually he has a chance to win, as he is still composing and Buckley is doing the opposite)

So, long story short, or maybe
vicey-versa- I haven't set any Dickinson texts because they have some of these fancy words sprinkled here and there (plus, declivity just has no musical sound to it whatsoever, I don't know how to make that word musical). Additionally, so many of the Dickinson poems are short and quite sing-songy. Their rhythm/cadence is quite often far too simple-- while the subject matter they are connected to is often not simple at all- to me a very bad disconnect.

Which leads me to the following nail in the coffin:
In addition The Declivity Factor™ (which I just trademarked a few minutes ago, in case you hadn't noticed)) there is The Yellow Rose of Texas Factor, popularized by humorist Roy Blount, Jr. Since so many Emily poems are in simple ballad meter with nice cushy rhymes, you can sing her poetry to ballads such as The Yellow Rose of Texas, or even the theme song from Gilligan's Island. These types of short lines/simple rhymes might make for somewhat passable beginning level children's choir music, but really, for serious music, the continual rhyming is actually detrimental. The reason being, that no really long musical lines can be established with any kind of sophistication--the simple rhymes keep popping their narcissistic heads up demanding attention. And if you do grant their wishes, your musical will usually be very choppy little four bar phrases. Furthermore, I think I am not alone in the belief that the
best poets couldn't care less if their poems don't rhyme.
So, pardner, I think I will pass on the Dickinson oeuvre (I've never said or typed oeuvre before) for now, at least. Here is a poem cut and pasted for you right here, so that you yourself can try singin' it to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas":

BECAUSE I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away

My labor, and my leisure too, For his civility.
We passed the school where children played
At wrestling in a ring;

We passed the fields of gazing grain,

We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,

The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’t is centuries; but each

Feels shorter than the day

I first surmised the horses’ heads

Were toward eternity.

Btw, I am a big fan of Copland's solo settings of Heart, we will forget him, and Going to Heaven.

P.S. Dickinson lovers, bring on the hate mail if you want.

If you have read this far, poor soul, here is your final reward:

pl -ties a downward slope [Latin declivitas]
declivitous adj
Noun1.declivity - a downward slope or bend
downhill - the downward slope of a hill
incline, slope, side - an elevated geological formation; "he climbed the steep slope"; "the house was built on the side of a mountain"
steep - a steep place (as on a hill)

One early use:

Jack and Jill went up the hill

to fetch a pail of water,

Jack fell down the declivity and broke his crown

and Jill came tumbling after.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

(photo of Carl Sandburg)

This Saturday, April 25, 2009- premiere of a fun new piece called Prairie Songs (texts by Carl Sandburg) commissioned by the Hinsdale Chorale for their tenth anniversary. If you are in the Chicago area please come!

For more info- click:

Monday, April 20, 2009

The WFMT/Chicago program announcer's audition

Here in waaaaay too cold Chicago (yes, spring and summer combined last from mid-May to about August 23rd) there is a great classical radio station, WFMT, which does warm our souls. Founded over fifty years ago, the station has never been tempted to become classical lite with a 5o tune playlist the way some classical stations in other cities have. Many of you around the country may actually listen to WFMT via cable or the internet. Besides the classical music, it also is the home of The Midnight Special, a Saturday evening program of traditional American folk music, which has been running ever since the station was founded.

I really don't think the station uses the following script anymore as an announcer audition (and not sure if it ever really was an audition script), but it has been preserved as a bit of fun on the station's website. Most people agree that this script was written by Mike Nichols (of Nichols and May fame, and later, of course, a very famous Broadway producer) when he worked at the station in his early 20's. See how you do on it yourself- maybe your next career is in radio!

(Elaine May & Mike Nichols--apparently propping up a sloshed water cooler friend of theirs)

Btw, this post drove my spellcheck crazy-hehe!

Announcer Audition

The WFMT announcer's lot is not a happy one. In addition to uttering the sibilant, mellifluous cadences of such cacophonous sounds as Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Carl Schuricht, Nicanor Zabaleta, Hans Knappertsbusch and the Hammerklavier Sonata, he must thread his vocal way through the complications of L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and other complicated nomenclature.

However, it must by no means be assumed that the ability to pronounce L'Orchestre de la Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris with fluidity and verve outweighs an ease, naturalness and friendliness of delivery when at the omnipresent microphone. For example, when delivering a diatribe concerning Claudia Muzio, Beniamino Gigli, Hetty Plumacher, Giacinto Prandelli, Hilde Rössel-Majdan and Lina Pagliughi, five out of six is good enough if the sixth one is mispronounced plausibly. Jessica Dragonette and Margaret Truman are taken for granted.

Poets, although not such a constant annoyance as polysyllabically named singers, creep in now and then. Of course Dylan Thomas and W.B. Yeats are no great worry. Composers occur almost incessantly, and they range all the way from Albeniz, Alfven and Auric through Wolf-Ferrari and Zeisl.

Let us reiterate that a warm, simple tone of voice is desirable, even when introducing the Bach Cantata "Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis," or Monteverdi's opera "L'Incoronazione di Poppea."

Such then, is the warp and woof of an announcer's existence "in diesen heil'gen Hallen."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Floor, Wall, Wall, Ceiling (ad nauseum)

(Fritz Reiner, a mean old S.O.B.)

The conductors I like
... are the ones who haven't robotically waved their arms *floor, wall, wall, ceiling* in such a long time-- that they, and no one else can recall them ever doing it.

The conductors I like... are the ones who understand that a downbeat (floor) can be a really strong, hardwood or cee-ment floor, or a cushy carpeted one, or just a wispy cloud that they are sort of floating on.

The conductors I like... are the ones who realize that each beat might just have a different personality, and that those personalities might change during a piece, maybe even a lot, piling up Sybil like!

(Sally Field, "you like us, you really like us")

The conductors I like... are the ones who know that "Wall #2 " (beat 3 in 4/4 time) is their opportunity to move things forward into the second half of the bar, and is also often an opportunity to use an outward expansion of their arms to expand the sound (here is one of the few decent reasons to mirror conduct), hopefully even LITERALLY expand their singers breath/muscular apparatus. Wow, "wall #2" can do a lot, especially with the breath in choral music (I have seen Joe Flummerfelt teach this in conducting masterclasses, though not using my funky terms here).

The conductors I like... know that they can learn new approaches to rhythm from other styles of music; for instance, jazz ( think Count Basie at his swingiest, or a bazillion other jazz artists). "Ceiling beat" (beat 4 in 4/4 ) isn't the goldarned end of the measure- it's the sweet beat that propels on through to the next beat one. This is one of many reasons why jazz is so swankily rhythmic. For instance, classical musicians are often stuck in this square mindframe: 1234/1234/1234/1234 with the barline being an unfortunate wall.
Jazz is more like this: 1234-->1234-->1. If you are a beat number in a jazz tune, being first doesn't matter-- it's more important to figure out what you do with your beat value in relationship to the beats around you. What a difference... a kind of "it takes a village" thing!

The conductors I like... own metronomes that, luckily for us, broke twenty years ago and haven't been replaced.

The conductors I like... let the rhythms breathe (and breath in rhythm with their singers)-- let them out of the box of the "tyranny of the barline". They are dancers, not dictators; painters, not pothole patchers. They like their choirs, and their choirs like them. They invite you into a beautiful soundworld, not glare you into the naughty corner if you don't revere their power. An S.O.B. like Fritz Reiner could bully orchestras into brilliance, yet you can't successfully bully a choir- the psyche of the individual voice and the collective soul of a good choir is too fragile for that (in my opinion).

The conductors I like... are the ones who are sublime to watch and listen to, or whose choir are sublime to listen to with eyes closed.

The conductors I like... smile (and make me smile). In fact, I can easily sense, even with their back to me, that they are smiling and having fun with their choir.

Therefore Aesop and Confucius say: The next time you catch yourself doing a whole bunch of square, robotic *floor, wall, wall, ceiling* conducting (or a lot of mirror conducting for no valid reason) let go of the tension you were burdened with from your classical music conservatory training. Loosen up, pretend you are Sonny Rollins or Danilo Perez-- and let the music's natural rhythms flow. It's okay, really!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Highly recommended- Univ. of Michigan Summer Choral Conducting Symposium

(photo of Jerry Blackstone)

This is a great summer symposium with grad credit available. A couple friends of mine have attended this symposium in the past and loved it. If you are not familiar with the university choral world in Michigan- I have to tell you that things there are great. In fact, I go up to Michigan for their ACDA events as much or more than attending Illinois events (sort of sad, but true). Each of these four instructors is unique from the other, a big strong point.
Pearl Shangkuan does not teach at U of Michigan during the year- her home is the excellent program at Calvin College where she also works with my fiend Joel Navarro.

Oooh... and they're working on one of my favorite pieces- Rejoice in the Lamb by Britten.

University of Michigan Choral Conducting Symposium


July 6 - July 10, 2009


Jerry Blackstone, Paul Rardin, Pearl Shangkuan & Julie Skadsem

(photo of Paul Rardin)


Conducting Masterclasses

Dalcroze Eurhythmics

Score Study Sessions

Reading Sessions


This workshop is devoted to the enhancement of beautiful and communicative choral singing. To that end we will discuss conducting and rehearsal techniques appropriate for a wide range of choral ensembles. Students will conduct in class and be videotaped to aid in the evaluation of their work. Reading sessions of new repertoire will take place daily as well as practical opportunities for workshop participants.

(photo of Julie Skadsem)


Workshops may be taken for graduate credit (NCFD), Continuing Education Units (CEU), or for personal enrichment without college credit.



This workshop has been approved by the Michigan Department of Education for SB-CEU.

Total Number of SB-CEU: 2.8


Personal enrichment and CEU participants complete the application below.

Application deadline - June 15, 2009

(photo of Pearl Shangkuan)

Online Application

Or print and mail: 2009 Choral Conducting Application

Mail all materials to:

Summer Programs Office

School of Music, Theatre & Dance
2005 Baits Drive Rm. 220

University of Michigan
Ann Arbor MI 48109


Non-refundable Application Fee - $25 (not included in the workshop fee)

Workshop Fee - $450

SB-CEU Fee: $ 25 (optional)


For more information about Summer Workshops, please contact Regina Ferguson, Program Coordinator.


Phone: (734) 764-5429

Fax: (734) 647-6916


Jerry Blackstone

Paul Rardin

Pearl Shangkuan

Julie Skadsem

Choral Conducting Program


You will be responsible for providing the following materials:

Mozart: Coronation Mass (Kyrie and Gloria)

Available for downloading for study purposes:

Handel: Messiah (Movements 1, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-26067-4 (Edited by Alfred Mann)

Britten: Rejoice in the Lamb

Boosey & Hawkes, #48008987 (ISMN M-060-01512-0)

In addition, please bring the following supplies:

◦ VHS videocassette tape
◦ baton
◦ colored pencils


(Tentative schedule)

9:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m.

Conducting Masterclass

Topics include:
◦ score study techniques
◦ rehearsal strategies
◦ building tone
◦ effective use of warmup
◦ repertoire resources

1:30-3:30 p.m.

Conducting Masterclass and Reading Sessions

3:30-7:00 p.m.

Monday-Thursday - Enjoy Ann Arbor!

7:00-8:30 p.m.

Monday - Summer Sings - community-wide sing through of major choral work with

soloists and piano; Jerry Blackstone, conductor

Tuesday-Thursday - Workshop Chorus Rehearsal led by faculty and workshop participants

with 50-60 voice choir


Musical Resources of Toledo, OH

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"'Tis but my URL name that is my enemy"

Courtesy of

The top 10 unintentionally worst company URLs

Attn: Entrepreneurs
Everyone knows that if you are going to operate a business in today’s world you need a domain name. It is advisable to look at the domain name selected as other see it and not just as you think it looks. Failure to do this may result in situations such as the following (legitimate) companies who deal in everyday humdrum products and services but clearly didn’t give their domain names enough consideration:

1. A site called ‘Who Represents‘ where you can find the name of the agent that represents a celebrity. Their domain name… wait for it… is

2. Experts Exchange, a knowledge base where programmers can exchange advice and views at

3. Looking for a pen? Look no further than Pen Island at

4. Need a therapist? Try Therapist Finder at

5. Then of course, there’s the Italian Power Generator company…

6. And now, we have the Mole Station Native Nursery, based in New South Wales:

7. If you’re looking for computer software, there’s always

8. Welcome to the First Cumming Methodist Church. Their website is

9. Then, of course, there’s these brainless art designers, and their whacky website:

10. Want to holiday in Lake Tahoe? Try their brochure website at

Monday, April 13, 2009

Morning Person, a dizzying dazzling poem by Vassar Miller

Here is a wonderfully creative poem by Vassar Miller which I set recently for SATB/piano four hands. It is newly published by Roger Dean, cat # 15/2599R. It was premiered in October 2008 by the White Heron Chorale, directed by Rick Bjella, and a second performance by The Festival Singers, Madison, WI, in February 2009, conducted by yours truly.


God, best at making in the morning, tossed
stars and planets, singing and dancing, rolled
Saturn’s rings spinning and humming, twirled the earth
so hard it coughed and spat the moon up, brilliant
bubble floating around it for good, stretched holy
hands till birds in nervous sparks flew forth from
them and beasts---lizards, big and little, apes,
lions, elephants, dogs and cats cavorting,
tumbling over themselves, dizzy with joy when
God made us in the morning too, both man
and woman, leaving Adam no time for
sleep so nimbly was Eve bouncing out of
his side till as night came everything and
everybody, growing tired, declined, sat
down in one long descended Hallelujah.

I discovered this poem in Garrison Keillor's collection Good Poems (I have set 3-4 poems already that I found in this great compilation). I knew nothing about Vassar Miler when I read this poem, but I certainly recognized a text just itching to be set to music! There is so much energy, so much imagery, that it immediately jumped out at me from off the page. So after gaining permission to set from the copyright holder (I'll blog about that later, it's an interesting story) I decided I would join the crew of composers who have tried to paint the Creation (hello, Papa Haydn). Of course, this text is so fresh and creative, most of the heavy lifting has already been done by the poet. I just needed to find an entry point. something to get started with. I felt that once started, this would be one of those pieces "that writes themselves". The germinal idea did come to me, a sort of a blur of primordial electrons spinning in the piano four hands part in a John Adams-ish sort of way (think Short Ride in a Fast Machine). Why piano four hands? So that we can create lots of jangly busy noise, of course, when things really start cooking!

After the "Adams-ish" oddly metered (usually 4/4 + 1/8, just to throw things off kilter) piano part sets the stage, the choir enters, in some slightly Randall Thompson-ish shifting parallel, and/or contrary motion figures. Things stay energetic for a long time, and at times there are even some suggestions of Stephen Sondheim's more advanced harmonic structures and shifts, usually controlled through the very busy piano/four hands part. Yes, I think it's okay to borrow, even more okay to give credit to where the influences come from (let's see, I have already mentioned three- but they sure aren't a shabby three).

I wanted to create some variety in my setting, so I decided to slow the pace down temporarily (and then go back to musical ideas from the beginning, thus creating a big ABA form). To do this, I decided that after all these mentions of critters cavorting and the general dizziness of creation, I would set apart the mention of the creation of Adam and Eve- humanity. It's hard to for anyone to deny that we are special creatures, and therefore it seemed natural to set us apart from the beginning Allegro. So the piece slows way down, and thought the text doesn't talk about it, my harmonies and slight dissonance in this slower section are a hint of the Fall from grace. The music is purposely a cappella here so that only the human voice is speaking about the first humans. Additionally, the harmonies of this ensuing subplot to the creation story are just a bit churchlike in fashion (far less extended harmony 7th, 9th, and 11ths than the outer sections). But I don't linger to long on this subplot, as I want one more Allegro ride!

To finish, I would have hoped to write a fast and loud ending, as I am trying to write more of those these days- there are just too many contemporary choral pieces in the slow, doleful touchy-feely mode- don't you agree? However, Miller's text pretty much forbade this- as she (and therefore I must follow) lays all of creation to rest for the evening. I'm still happy with the ending, especially the big pile of stretti choral entrances (my college counterpoint teacher, Ben Johnston, would be proud I think) right before the coda.

In conclusion, I loved the energy of this poem and truly enjoyed enhancing it musically. Singers seem to love it, as it gives them a chance to really sing out and tell Vassar Miller's great, dizzying story.

FYI, here are the program notes that were used for the Madison, WI performance:

The music for this setting of Vassar Miller’s poem begins with the swirling of tiny particles in the vastness of space (represented by the piano introduction) as Miller’s “Morning Person” awakens to create the universe, according to the poet – in one day, not six. The enthusiasm in the choir for each new creation is dizzying, and only slows down to reflect upon God’s creation of man and woman—the music here is more subdued, a somewhat melancholy hint at the Fall and banishment from Eden. The music then speeds up again and reaches one more grand climax before every newly created life rests for the evening- whew!

Vassar Miller (1924- 1998), wrote her poetry on a special constructed typewriter due to the cerebral palsy which affected her speech and movement. Her poems, most of which dealt with either her strong religious faith or her experiences as a person with a disability, were widely praised for their rigorous formality, clarity, and emotional impact. In 1961 Miller was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her collection Wage War on Silence. An outspoken advocate for the rights and dignity of the handicapped, Miller was not only a poet of extraordinary talent, she was a woman whose indomitable spirit enabled her to overcome her significant physical limitations.

Morning Person
Published by Roger Dean Publishing Company
Catalog # 15/2599R
SATB/piano four hands
Spiritual (non-denominational) text in English
Difficulty rating (1-5): 4
Duration: 4:30

Complete perusal score available from Roger Dean or contact

A wild fun ride as God creates the universe, with an exhilarating text by Vassar Miller,
premiered October 2008 by Rick Bjella's White Heron Chorale.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"A poet confessing to mental illness is like a weight-lifter admitting to muscles"--Roddy Lumsden

I found this very interesting musing on one man's creative process, and thought I would share it with you. What might seem at first to be an unconventional type of creative process is probably far more common (with individual variations of course) than we think.

(Roddy Lumsden)

Mis-shapes and gaudy details – the process of writing poetry

The eating habits of snakes, a short-cut, moths and coca-cola – words and images which lodged in Roddy Lumsden’s head. Here he describes how they ended up as poems.

Last summer I was walking near Piccadilly Circus when I found myself taking a rather neat shortcut of the type visitors to London wouldn’t risk. I felt mildly smug; I had been living in London for over three years and now here I was, at last, enough of a Londoner to be jinking through alleys and back-streets to get to my destination more quickly. I had acquired The Knowledge. I ticked myself off – zipping through a shortcut is hardly worth an Olympic medal. Yet, I knew right away that I should ‘write’ about it and, sure enough, fifteen minutes later, there was the poem, in my head, exactly as it was published six months later.

The Shortcut
On a summerday like this, you pay
for the delicious pleasure
of finding and taking a shortcut:

someone’s little finger
will turn up in the heap
in the Used Tickets canister;

there will be the five wild faces
of the Matriani sisters
in the bay window of the bedlam;

news will reach you
of the death of a horse
you once rode across a burning field.

I have placed ‘write’ in inverted commas since, as with quite a few of my poems, there is no writing involved; I typed it up when I got home, but by that time, I had already chewed over the details (which body part should be unexplainably severed, which odd surname to give the mad sisters) and made all the changes I needed. It only has one sentence of twelve short lines and just sixty-six words; it won’t change the world or appear in anthologies fifty years after my death, but I like it – I think short poems get a bad deal and poems which try to change the world are mostly embarrassing. It’s a typical example of a poem I write now and then, a short lyrical piece consisting of an idea, set down using some potent images.

The poem’s meaning, or message, in as much as it has one, is that our small pleasures might be balanced by small tragedies elsewhere, an age-old idea which has crept into my work (and into some recent yogurt adverts!) a few times. The poem works as a sort of ‘alternative definition’ for the word shortcut. There is no strict form, yet it’s not as shapeless as it may seem – note the run of near rhymes (pleasure, finger, canister, sisters) which act as a small ladder to hold the poem up. As well as choosing particular words while composing the poem, I found myself repeating it over and over to get the flow, the melody right; for me, it has a certain speed and rhythm which is important to it. I’m one of those writers who feels that the page only ever holds a written approximation of what a poem really is – a spoken piece – as poems were for centuries before a literary tradition developed and captured them in print.

Poets split broadly into two halves in the way they write – some are like composers, with phrases and rhythms whirling in their heads, while others, scribbling ideas down with a pencil, are more like sculptors, bashing away at a lump of raw material until it takes shape. A friend told me recently that he had made over one hundred draft versions of a sonnet, probably spending the equivalent of three full days of his life getting fourteen lines just right. Who is to say that his twenty second draft wasn’t the right one? I couldn’t work that way: it creates different, but not necessarily better poems. Secretly, poets like me worry that another fifty drafts might make our poem perfect; poets like my friend are concerned that too much reworking ruins the initial inspiration.

I feel that life’s surfaces, mis-shapes and gaudy details deserve their mentions too. I do write of love, death, faith, science, but some heavy subjects, the ‘big safe themes’ as they have been called by detractors, are better handled by those more convinced than me that these are poetry’s core subjects (and more convinced that addressing history might earn them a place in history). So I have stepped aside and written of ventriloquism, barmaids, nudists, the belly, wedding dresses, cola and moths.

Oh, and also the eating habits of snakes. The poem ‘My Reptilian Existence’ is part of a long sequence I wrote about that old chestnut of a theme, myself. My first two books, Yeah Yeah Yeah and The Book of Love contained many poems written in the first person, but that person was rarely me. The sequence Roddy Lumsden is Dead
looks at parts of my life which I find difficult to deal with, especially problems with love, happiness and mental illness in both my recent and distant past. These are not original themes (as I comment in the book, ‘a poet confessing to mental illness is like a weight-lifter admitting to muscles’), but I have balanced the more serious poems with unusual and humorous ones.

In 2000, I was living in Stoke Newington in London, an area full of Turkish restaurants and, sadly for my waistline, I had acquired a bit of a kebab habit. I was tending to eat one huge meal in the mid-afternoon and nothing else all day, which is very bad for you. It’s also how a snake feeds! A poet I know had recently translated a French poem by Baudelaire about a snake which is full of rich images, and I probably had this in mind. Like ‘The Shortcut’, this poem has strong rhythms and some rhyming (and notice the click-track of words with strong ‘k’ sounds), but there is no strict form. I wrote the poem straight onto my computer screen, made a few drafts and may well have changed one or two words on the advice of friends (many good poems are given a gloss by others).

My Reptilian Existence
I feed just once a day, a swollen package
of cheap meat, cold veg, salty bread

and pungent sauces. I idle on the floor,
unable to move and consider my fate.

I taste the air on Manor Road for syrup pudding,
jailbait, bin-fires, crack-laced Thai chicken.

I’d like to skulk along the railway track,
picking for kickshaws and tidbits

in the summerday greenery. You poets
can call me lazy, lazy all you like.

Why don’t you hook my Scotch mouth
over your tumbler and milk me for my venom?

I wanted the piece to be short and, being about food, laziness and snakes, driven by unusual language, and so I chose swollen, syrup, skulk, kickshaws (meaning ‘trinkets’), greenery, tumbler, venom, all of which are rich and pungent words. The mention of crack, incidentally, comes from a local fried chicken shop having such an addictive batter recipe that locals say it contains cocaine! This rather strange little poem is, I hope, both serious and humorous at the same time, a trick which we Scottish and Irish poets are supposed to value much more than English or American ones.

As with many poems, there is a slight twist towards the end – here it involves addressing the readers directly, and as ‘poets’. The repetition of ‘lazy’ works as a sound effect adding both a wink of humour and emphasis. The image of the snake’s forked tongue has been used by myself and other poets to symbolise dual identity, two languages, as in Scots versus English. One of the themes of the sequence is moving between Scotland and England and how that shift of identity mirrors the shift between self and deluded self, real person and ghost, being in love and being alone.

A poem’s ‘subject matter’ may seem its most likely starting point, but it seldom is. Most poets will talk of a ‘seed’, an odd phrase which enters the head, or an image they encounter or imagine. I keep a little hardback notebook in which I enter the ‘seeds’ I don’t yet know where to sow. Here are some random entries I have made in the past few years: fox fire, all of the above, rubies, canned laughter, Inca music, hotel rooms in the 1970s, London Scottish. Some of these may still find their way into poems, others will remain moments of inspiration which fade till I no longer understand them. Did I really plan to write poems about dung on snow, Tom of Finland or Jesus’ wrists? And remind me, what do peculium and bezoars mean again?

Roddy Lumsden’s second collection The Book of Love was a Poetry Book Society Choice. ‘The Shortcut’ and ‘My Reptilian Existence’ are taken from his most recent collection, Roddy Lumsden is Dead (Wrecking Ball Press, 2001).

This article first appeared in emagazine 18, December 2002

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Composer to head Seraphic Fire's Miami Choral Project

Composer to head Seraphic Fire's Miami Choral Project

Shawn Crouch, a composer, conductor and educator, will bring a love of music to needy children as part of an innovative Miami Choral Project that he hopes to expand across the nation.

   Shawn Crouch, 28, (center) listens to rehearsal of his music. He was commissioned to write a a piece on the bombing of Hiroshima. Crouch wrote "Requium for Hiroshima" which premiers at the Church of the Epiphany by the choral group Seraphic Fire.
Shawn Crouch, 28, (center) listens to rehearsal of his music. He was commissioned to write a a piece on the bombing of Hiroshima. Crouch wrote "Requium for Hiroshima" which premiers at the Church of the Epiphany by the choral group Seraphic Fire.

Special to The Miami Herald

Shawn Crouch wants to bring the magic of music to needy youngsters as the newly appointed foundation director of Seraphic Fire's Miami Choral Project.

He knows its power: Crouch has been playing, experimenting and studying music since he was 5. His seven brothers and sisters play instruments, too.

''I have made it a mission that young people know the importance and power of music,'' said Crouch, who has been a composer, conductor and educator at New York's Hunter College Campus School.

The newly started Miami Choral Project is funded by a $684,500 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It is a tuition-free program that creates a ''little league-type'' network of choral ensembles for children in low-income areas in Miami-Dade.

''This program is the first of its kind in America and one of the most important music education initiatives ever undertaken,'' Crouch said.

And Patrick Dupre Quigley, Seraphic Fire's artistic director, said Crouch was best suited to lead the effort. ''When we conceived this project, I knew that the only person I'd want to have at the helm would be Shawn Crouch,'' Quigley said.

``I have worked closely with Shawn on numerous projects for almost a decade now and I know firsthand his dedication to both his students and to classical music in general.''

The project, scheduled to launch in August 2010, is still in its preliminary stages.

Crouch, however, knows exactly what he wants to achieve.

''We want to better low-income communities through participation in choral singing,'' Crouch said. ``Children who sing together are taught important life skills: how to listen to one another, how to work as a team and how to strive for their personal best, adding their voice for the benefit of the choir as a whole.

``We will nurture these life skills through music and help foster them outside of rehearsal into the child's community.''

The grant funding the choral project is part of the Knights Arts Challenge, a five-year, $40 million initiative to transform South Florida arts.

''The arts have the power to bring a diverse community together, like few other things,'' said Dennis Scholl, Knight Foundation Miami interim program director. ``This project, under Shawn Crouch's leadership, will unite young Miami-Dade residents and build a love for the arts and friendships across communities.''

The choral project is starting in Miami, but Crouch wants to expand it across the United States.

''It would get kids involved with singing across the country,'' Crouch said. ``Choirs would come together for regional choral festivals. What a wonderful idea, bettering the world through music.''

This isn't the first choral project that Crouch has taken on.

Crouch increased Hunter's concert choir from 20 to 80 singers and started a chamber choir and a men's and women's ensemble.

He said he focused on helping students ``hear the pitches inside their heads and sing them.''

''We have toured throughout Europe and are now recognized as one of the finest high school choirs in New York City,'' said Crouch, who holds degrees from the New England Conservatory and the Yale School of Music.

He plans on moving to Miami in late August and is already anticipating the rewards of starting the choral project.

''As an educator, I love watching students light up when they learn about and perform music,'' he said.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Three I's that don't include me

The three I's that don't include me: involvement, investment, (through inside-out rehearsing), independence...leading to integrity

(compiled by Rick Bjella, contributing: Randal Swiggum, Nick Page, Larry Doebler, Lucy Thayer, Tim Bruneau, Patty O’Toole)

Reprinted by permission of Rick Bjella.


Who or what is at the center of your rehearsals?
Whose opinions are valued most?
Around whom do your structure your strategies for the daily rehearsal?

Student involvement:

  • foster a safe environment ("well, that was creative", “basses I love you dearly...”, “I love the way you truly listen to each other and honor what was said”)
  • share affirmations with the ensemble
  • provide a more accurate, personalized, positive reflection on student efforts in rehearsal. (i.e. "Glenn you are particularly good at dramatic reading of texts, that is a real gift that you have, that is a contribution that you make in a way that is particularly stunning")
  • give the students only the title of the piece ask them “how do you think it will sound?”
  • give short writing moments (in journals, portfolios, 3 x 5 cards, board work, post-it notes
  • have student led warm ups prescribed by the teacher
  • have an improvisation on one note-(the drone has been a powerful musical force throughout the ages-explore different vowels)
  • ask YOU questions (addressed directly to students relevant to personal experiences meant to evoke personal opinions “Have you ever ______? How did it feel? Did you ____?)
  • develop listening squads: students sit out and listen to rehearsal, offering critical comments
  • giving students many opportunities to evaluate both rehearsals and performances (written comments, group discussions, etc.)
  • allow the individual person to react with free movement that reflects the phrasing-start simply and then work towards more subtlety
  • switching parts so that the student is understanding all of the choral parts
  • sing the instrumental accompaniment for understanding of the entire phrase
  • move to the pulse of the music- developing body memory
  • learn parts through solfege (movable or fixed do depending on the piece) Assists pitch memory and independence
  • have singers in positions to be compassionate. (Sing at a nursing home, a soup kitchen, hospital, or funeral, etc.)
  • have student compositions based on one phrase or one word
  • listening with intent (give them a puzzle, a problem, or a chance to share their opinion of something technically challenging - i.e. This Little Babe).
  • fellowship game - sit or stand in a community interview circle (this can also be done in smaller groups as well): a. interview a person in the middle - ask three questions student has a right to ‘pass’ on any question. b. model the activity by being in the center as well.

Student investment and ownership:

  • have students develop their own text interpretations
  • use story telling (composers, personal experiences relating to the text, communing with nature, growing-up, losing loved ones, stories by other artist, authors, poets, visual artist)
  • believe in your story
  • have the students read a letter (that you or they create) from the composer about her intentions for the piece.
  • have the students teach a spiritual, or folk song by rote to the class before passing out the arrangement
  • invite student opinions on an artistic decision (e.g. where exactly the crescendo should begin, which vowel color suits the mood of a particular word best, etc.)
  • have student-led sectionals
  • memorization squads: if the group is having trouble with individuals not memorizing their parts, have a team sit out and check the memorization of individuals in the group
  • have students come up with their own warm ups
  • have them listen to tapes from their own recording sessions and evaluate the relative quality
  • have an anger moment where they allow it to all come out in their singing
  • try student grading of each other and themselves (set up a careful list of criteria - they see much more than you do)
  • have a choir council or officers to meet and discuss issues from the students’ perspective, to act as spokes people, and to plan social events and group-bonding activities
  • use dalcroze activities led by students based upon the music that is being rehearsed
  • moving to the pulse of the note values- freeing the eyes from the score
  • sing silently - owning the score without singing it/ showing it completely through the eyes-check the memory at a predetermined spot.
  • find ways to actively involve them in the drama of the music.
  • have student invested towards nuts and bolt needs (library maintenance, attendance)
  • have touring planned by students- discussing at the ground level objectives and
  • discuss the etymology of words, showing links between one language and another.
  • have a student committee set clear goals regarding students able to sing their part alone with musicianship and understanding
  • have students write reflections concerning a concert
  • consider having student program notes
  • have an open forum -- pose a question on curriculum (i.e. “What makes this a good piece of music?”, “What makes an exciting choir rehearsal?, If you had one wish for this choir it would be..) ask a follow-up question/ journal entries
  • develop abstract expressions - break the choir into six groups, provide them with markers, crayons, finger paints -- ask the them to illustrate a concept you have been working on such as dotted rhythms open vowels, binary form, the heart of the music.
  • run rehearsals of difficult passages in circles (basses, tenors, altos, sopranos) while running the passage have the leader in the middle make suggestions for improvements -- set strict time lines -- change leadership in the middle constantly. (use movement within the circle to solidify different learning styles)
  • have a no limits day -- suggest that they can sing in any manner they think is appropriate and the only thing off limits is the ‘can’t’ word.
  • student independence:

(knowledge=Independence (K=I) and complete imagination)

  • shoot for depicting the text in a synergetic manner not as a result of what the conductor might impose
  • show the score through physical movement reflecting dynamic, dramatic, linear and harmonic elements with complete physical understanding
  • sing one part and reflect physically another part.
  • interact with others through discussion with people not in the choir
  • have students understand the integration of all study with the music that is being performed

Developing Student Integrity [IMPLEMENTATION OF THE DREAM]:

Start small. Just as it is difficult to know what to do with a blank page, it is difficult for some students to know what to do with authority. Don't expect overnight change.

  • model the behavior you wish to emphasize.
  • model them before the rehearsal
  • model them during the rehearsal
  • model them after the rehearsal
  • never stop modeling them

Slowly lead students to independence (i.e. ask students to troubleshoot for a solution to a musical problem instead of volunteering one yourself). This will get them thinking for themselves and eventually, they will think independently all the time and take more responsibility for musical excellence. Know your own musical and emotional interior. If you are not comfortable with the things you are asking students to share, then the students will not respond well.

Constantly invite student input and then LISTEN CAREFULLY TO WHAT THEY SAY. Students have insights into what is going on in the music (or in the group) that you will never have.

Consider the difference between student-centered and student-directed. Is it enough to plan activities around student interest and input? For more adventure, try moving toward student directed activities. Students have many things to teach each other (and you).

Consider these four elements of all rehearsals:

  • time
  • structure of the ensemble, rehearsal room / form of the rehearsal
  • how things are learned and percieved
  • pedagogy: who teaches whom? why?

What can you and your students learn as a result of ‘tinkering’ with one of the above elements?

Moving towards a more student-centered rehearsal (like a new idea) can be messy and not always productive on the short run. HOWEVER, investing in a well thought-out process that encourages students to take charge of their own education will be motivating and exciting for them, and for YOU.

Special thanks to Randal Swiggum, Nick Page, Larry Doebler, Lucy Thayer, Tim Bruneau, Patty O’Toole for their insights into this document.

Joan Szymko- 2010 ACDA Brock Commission Composer

ACDA announces their selection of Joan Szymko as the 2010 Brock Commission Composer

The following is from (plus I have a comment at the bottom)

The American Choral Directors Association has selected Joan Szymko as the composer of the 2010 Raymond W. Brock Commission. The Raymond W. Brock Memorial Choral Series was established in 1991 to honor the life and contributions of Raymond W. Brock, who served as Administrative Assistant for ACDA from 1987 until his untimely death in 1991.

Annually, the ACDA Executive Committee will commission a recognized composer to write a choral composition in an effort to perpetuate quality choral repertoire. The funding for this annual commission comes from the Raymond W. Brock Memorial Endowment which has been established by ACDA members, friends, and supporters of the choral art.

About the Composer
Joan Szymko has over 25 years of experience as a choral conductor, composer, teacher and performer in the Pacific Northwest. She led the Seattle Women's Ensemble for ten years and in the fall of 1993 became the artistic director of the 100+ voices of Aurora Chorus – women in harmony for peace. Szymko founded and directed Viriditas, a select women's chamber ensemble from 1994-2001. Szymko has been a resident composer with Do Jump! since 1995, performing her music with the company at their home theater in Portland, OR and on tour, including runs on Broadway (2000), the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. (2001,2007) and at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles (2001).

From Paul: What a great choice! Joan has been writing very creative choral music in a unique personal voice for years. She has never boxed herself in musically, a trait she shares with another Pacific Northwest composer, Stephen Hatfield.

When I founded and directed Vox Caelestis, a professional women's chamber choir in Chicago, we did a number of Joan's pieces. I had always hoped she could come visit us at a concert, but the trip from the Pacific Northwest was always a deal-breaker. But.... her parents live nearby! Once I found this out from Joan via e-mail, I invited them to be our special guests and come hear a concert we were doing which included Joan's incredibly fun The Rose, a setting of Gertrude Steins' famous lil' poetic fragment "...a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" (music and recording at Joan set it for SSAA and accordion. When I showed the piece to Vox at our first rehearsal for that concert they all laughed- accordion (and "a rose is a rose is arose is a rose")?! But it really is a fun piece and a little trickier in the voices than you might guess at first. The big chore was to find an accordionist who could read music well and follow with me and the choir. Of course Chicago (and Milwaukee) are still full of accordion players (though I am sure their numbers are in decline) but so many of them play only popular music by ear, work solo, etc. We did finally find a very talented women who read well and did a great job on the piece-- and truly The Rose was a big hit with the audience. Joan's delightfully gracious parents were there and loved it all. We even had them stand and take a bow for raising such a talented and wonderful daughter. Congratulations on ACDA's announcement, Joan!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Mary Alice Stollak retiring soon

One of my favorite people, Mary Alice Stollak, will be retiring soon, after a farewell concert May 14th in East Lansing, MI.
I'm happy for her and her garden is happily awaiting, yet it's a bit of a sad time as all of us who have been touched by her generosity, kindness, musical savvy and impeccable standards will be a bit lost without her. I have to say that I know of no one else (in any choral sphere from youth choirs to the professional ranks) with such a magical sense of interpretation and magical rubato phrasing . I will always remember a little piece she commissioned from me (and she commissioned a number, for which I will always be thankful, currently published by SBMP) called Thanskgiving. To me, it was just a gentle little piece with a very light but sweet text. When I went to hear her premiere it at a Michigan ACDA convention I was floored. She had taken my "little piece" and made substantial music out of it just because of her amazing gift for shaping phrases. How she does this kind of thing I don't really know!

Mary Alice will be a bit embarrassed that I have blogged about her, she's that humble. But I feel that she deserves the attention. One thing she has told me a few times recently is this- that people just assume she was always a children's choir director, but that really wasn't rue. Becoming part of the SA or SSA children's/youth choir movement was a recent thing for her.
I was also so happy for her when she won two Grammies for her work in the recording of William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Congratulations to Mary Alice for all her hard work and amazing achievements over the years- she set incredibly high standards for herself and expected others around her to reach for the sky as well. She is a great person, friend, educator, and conductor.

The following newspaper article is from 2007:

Choral director uses love of music to inspire students, audiences

By Samantha Meinke

Her husband, MSU professor Gary Stollak, was the first to know they'd won [ the two Grammys].

"I got the call and I knew but didn't tell anyone right away," he says. "I got up at the dinner and said, 'Well, I have an announcement.' Then I said in a really sad voice, 'I heard about the results,' and I dragged it out as long as I could and finally said, 'We won! And the other great news is Mariah Carey called and wants you all as back-up singers.' "

The Mariah Carey bit wasn't true.

Stollak says sharing the moment of victory with her singers, ages 10 to 17, was the best way to celebrate.

"It's all about the students - to watch how excited they were, it was wonderful."

The art of teaching

Stollak has come a long way from the blue-collar Milwaukee neighborhood where she was raised. Her father sold day-old bread to farmers, and her mother was a homemaker with an eighth grade education.

Her parents encouraged Stollak and her two brothers to pursue the arts.

"My mother did not drive until the mid-'50s, and so she and I would get on a city bus and we'd have to transfer a number of times to get to Milwaukee Art Institute, where there was 'Music for Youths,' a program like a community music school," Stollak says. "She was always finding things in the paper and saying, 'Come on, we're going to go to that art class.' "

Stollak also received inspiration from another, somewhat unlikely, source: the Eastern European nuns who taught at her elementary school.

"Every single day we had music," she says. "We got all of the subjects that were required by state law ... but I think the big difference was the environment. There was art on the walls. I remember vividly the big, tall, old-fashioned windows, and the windowsills were just covered in begonias and geraniums. I look back and think, 'man, was I lucky.' Those nuns gave their lives to make a lower-middle class neighborhood lovely."

She learned the importance of collaboration during large gatherings of Catholic schools, where she performed in a red choir robe and watched Russian dancers and girls in Polish costumes.

"There was never competition," she says. "There were simply concerts."

Stollak took the lessons of her childhood into her adult life as a teacher.

"Working with Mrs. Stollak was intense and rewarding," Karyn Heavenrich, a former children's choir member and current Barnard College junior says. "I learned the importance of making mistakes ... I learned about group cohesion - when one person was missing from a choir of 70, the sound seemed off-kilter."

The home team

Collaboration is also something Stollak has found with her husband.

"Gary has always been such a supportive person," she says. "He loves the arts. He comes to almost every rehearsal and sits in the back and grades papers while he's listening."

The two were an equal match from the start, when each pursued the other at Indiana University.

"Josef Gingold was having a violin recital and whenever that would happen, there would be standing room only, and - this is horrible - I saved a seat, hoping he might come to the concert," Stollak says. "He had met me once backstage and he knew who I was and so he came down the aisle and asked if someone was sitting in that seat. I said, 'Well, I'm saving this for someone, but they haven't arrived, so you might as well sit there.' "

"Instead of dropping a handkerchief, that was her way," Gary says. "It's still amazing to me how assertive she was."

They were married a year and a half later - on June, 11, 1966. She graduated June 12 and they moved to East Lansing June 13, where Gary worked as a psychology professor at MSU. They soon had a son, Matthew, and two daughters, Clare and Sarah. Mary Alice stayed home with the children while rehearsing as a singer. She occasionally gave oratorical concerts and recitals.

In 1981, Stollak began teaching at Haslett High, and in 1985 she was invited to be the choral director for the National High School Summer Music Institute Choir at Northwestern University in Evanston, near Chicago.

"They had heard the Haslett choir perform and asked if I'd be interested in teaching in the summer," she says. "Gary and I talked about it and ... he said, 'You, know, I think you should do this. I'll take care of the kids.' "

He wouldn't have it any other way. "There can't be a greater pleasure in life than to see one's spouse and children live out their dreams and become as confident as possible and earn the respect of others," he says. "I have never had a moment of jealousy. I bask in the respect she gets."

The high notes

Stollak taught in Haslett until 1991, when she became an assistant professor at University of Michigan-Flint.

In 1993, she was asked to form MSU's Children's Choir for 10-17 year olds in Michigan who audition and commit to six monthly practices. She left U-M in 1998 to devote herself wholly to it, and eventually added the CMS Singers for 9-14 year-olds and the Preparatory Choir for 7-9 year-olds.

Since starting the children's choir, she has reached the top of her career and the top of her profession. She and the choir have performed at Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. She reached what she considers her highest honor when the choir represented the United States at the 2002 World Symposium of Music, which is equivalent to the Olympics of choral music.

"Singing is about finding a balance between the intellectual technique - thinking about your body as an apparatus to produce music - and the emotional components that transform a simple song into beautiful music," Heavenrich says. "Mrs. Stollak teaches her students to find that balance - to be alert and intent without overthinking; to concentrate and to feel simultaneously."

Stollak's preparatory techniques won her Grammys. But she says the greatest reward is the beauty that children in the choir produce and experience.

"We need more beauty in this cacophonous world," she says. "Look at the headlines. Look at the news. Our children are being bombarded by things which do not touch them in a way that uplifts them. Our music should not be the Harlequin romances of music. It's meeting Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Christina Rossetti and William Blake, and then a great composer is able to take their works and make them come alive, and children are able to experience that beauty.

"If you get any awards or accolades, it's because you were true to your heart and to the beautiful material."

Teach and learn

Stollak has stayed true to her heart.

"So much is gained from the study of the arts, and music in particular - discipline, making and keeping commitments, logic and decision-making," says Rhonda Buckley, director of MSU's Community Music School. "Most importantly, the study of music helps a child, and each of us, know more fully who we are. Mary Alice is a master teacher, consummate musician and great friend and mentor to young musicians."

Stollak also teaches responsibility.

"I tell kids that you're not a professional just because you get paid," she says. "Being a professional is being consistently good, no matter what the circumstances. ...When we were hired (to sing 'Songs of Innoncence and of Experience'), our reputation preceded us. They said, 'We know we can trust you, that you will be well prepared and get the job done.' "

And Stollak teaches social awareness.

"I still remember the most beautiful lyrics to songs I sang years ago," Heavenrich says. "'I Dream of Peace' is ... an account of the war in Yugoslavia told through children's first-hand accounts. ... As an 11-year-old, singing 'I Dream of Peace' exposed me to current events. I began to think about war, and its causes in a way that was accessible. ...When I wrote my application to Barnard College, my personal statement was about 'I Dream of Peace' and how it influenced my world view and academic aspirations."

Stollak has given a lot to students; she says she's learned a valuable lesson, too.

"I've learned from them how important it is for children to have something in life to contribute that's greater than themselves," she says. "My fear is our society is teaching children to either win a medal or focus on performance only, rather than teaching children to love what they do. It's my hope that in the Community Music School we will be able to instill something in children that they not only will never forget, but that they will actively involve themselves and their children in for the rest of their lives."