Tuesday, June 15, 2010

North Carolina Governor's School East- Day 2 and 3

Day Two and Three:

I’m blogging here Tuesday night after four sessions (over two days) with my amazing choral students at N. Carolina Governor’s School [Moses Hogan Singers CD on in the background- oh yeah…]

Monday we had two class sessions- my first chance to get to know the students and start inventing our choir. Rather than just pull out scores and rehearse- you know, that same old approach, I had decided that on Sunday I would assign them to bring in a found percussion instrument. So all 32 brought something in and there were some great lil’ instruments- metal water bottles, things which sounded like a guiro, shaker type items like empty plastic water bottles with pebbles inside, the sound an umbrella makes when you open and shut it, and even one student who took a small cardboard box and strung some rubber bands on it, thus creating a mini-ukelele. Then we actually played these things together, added a conga to it, and had some fun making (literally) music.

The afternoon was an exploration of really interesting ideas presented by an extraordinarily talented young percussionist named Billy Bialecki, who is a teaching assistant for the instrumental music department. Billy played some Indian (as in India, the country) folk music which featured some amazingly dexterous warbling of 32nd notes by a female singer. He went on to work with my choral students in creating creative clapping games, wherein they learned not to rush and truly feel a beat , and then we started to work with them on overtone singing . One our singers is actually already quite proficient in this, but for virtually all of the singers this was new territory (which they loved learning about and trying). We also played a little bit with just trying to build some octaves, fifths and such and listening for higher overtones to “pop” (appear) in the acoustics of the room. These students have pretty rich voices, and once I got them listening some of them could hear what I was hearing- some overtones becoming audible in the room whose actual fundamentals were not being sung. We’ll move into a more resonant space soon and explore this more. One thing I have been amazed by when listening live to European choirs, especially from Scandinavia, is how much they utilize this kind of sound- it seems like US choirs are fairly oblivious to the idea of developing this sound and developing the ears to notice when it actually is happening!

This morning (Tuesday) we continued listening to two mystery tracks- some ethnic music from who knows where- I am trying to get them to figure out the music’s origin and maybe what it is about, what language it is in and so on. So far, Susan (my assistant) is just writing up on the whiteboard what they think is being sung (one slow track, one fast track). Soon I will let them know if their educated guesses are on target or not. Then we’ll probably go ahead and give them the text on the whiteboard (one of our other teachers knows this mystery language, and we’ll pull her in soon to coach it), but we still plan on not handing them the scores until they try to learn it by rote from the recording. Maybe at some point we’ll hand out the scores just to help them confirm a few pitches and such- but by then they will pretty much know the piece already by using- their EARS! This truly is one of my big goals – to lead what is basically seen as a traditional “classical music” choir by teaching them to use their ears, intuition, and community skills and not just be hiding behind musical scores without a real connection to the soul of the music.

This afternoon Susan and I sat and talked about ourselves so that the students would know what we have done and are currently doing in our careers. This is a great thing for them to see, an older fellow who is a composer/conductor doing a lot of work in the field, and a much younger choral teacher to whom they can easily relate to in many ways. We then had a couple students introduce themselves to break the ice and get to know each other. We’ll keep having them intro themselves a few at a time until we get everybody covered. The student’s energy overall is pretty electric- they seem very pumped about Governor’s School and what we are doing as a choir. We then also really quickly did some solfege warm-ups (most seem to know basic solfege-YAY), did some count-singing just for a little while on a piece by me that we had tried out in the morning, and then worked on the fun, yet somewhat challenging rhythms in René Clausen’s Jabberwocky- they really were strong on their counting, Susan and I were very impressed. I then split them into four groups of eight and assigned the groups to take two days on their own time to prepare a play act of the text of Jabberwocky- we’ll see what they come up with. The idea is to get truly inside the story, to make it come alive, etc so that when we sing it all that physical energy of acting it out will be IN the singing.

All in all, Susan and I are pretty blown away by our students' energy level, enthusiasm, and pretty strong vocal skills as well and they really seem to already have the idea of creating a resonant presence to their sound. In general we are not telling them how to do things- we are facilitating them figuring things out, which is a classical GSE (Governor’s School East) approach. When we have my friend Lisa Fredenburgh here all day Thursday and part of Friday they will get a really solid vocal tech group lesson from a great nuts and bolts standpoint, but for now, this is all about letting them discover things either quickly or gradually, and not just telling them what to do. The GSE approach to teaching and learning is what should be happening all across our country- it’s about engagement and directed learning- not adult robots drilling factoids into student robots.

#1 We have hardly used the piano in the room
#2. We have been rehearsing in a circle and we just ain’t sitting
(I hate that slouch thing that chairs cause)

MINUS The clock on the wall is ticking too fast- we are having so much fun that I don’t think anyone really wants to stop

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