Sunday, June 27, 2010


Lagniappe @ N. Carolina Governor’s School East

Lagniappe (Louisiana Creole): to give something extra, an unexpected bonus given freely (like a thirteenth donut when asking for a dozen)

Mark Twain writes about the word in Life on the Mississippi: he called it "a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get":

We picked up one excellent word — a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word — "lagniappe." We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure.When a child or a servant buys something in a shop he finishes the operation by saying — "Give me something for lagniappe." The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread. When you are invited to drink, and this does occur now and then in New Orleans — and you say, "What, again? — no, I've had enough;" the other party says, "But just this one time more — this is for lagniappe."

So Lagniappe is now in its second year at GSE- led by our director Michael McElreath and our French teachers last year and this year who are really into Creole, both Haitian and ‘Nawlins style. And our version of Lagniappe is this- not only do we work our tails off teaching these gifted kids Monday through Saturday, but we also give them Lagniappe night- an evening when our goal is to entertain them with the creative things we are doing in our careers and in our explorations, whether really serious or just interesting dabbling. It’s all presented as performance, and even the teachers who aren’t really performers (like natural science folks and math folks) take a shot a being stage personas.

So tonight Lagniappe included the following, in no particular order--the instrumental faculty dressed in jammies and lounging on a beat-up sofa gradually launching into John Cage’s Living Room Music; a video of Bill Fick doing some amazing print-making processes accompanied by a weirded- out Conlon Nancarrow piano track with improv added in by percussionist Billy Bialecki; a dance contact improv by dance teachers Karen Ivey and James Healey to a slightly modified track of Moon River, with an added live video feed, creating interaction between the dancers, their video images and cameraman; a magical holographic art demonstration by Gavin Hackeling; a poetry reading by Chuck Sullivan which tied directly into thoughts from the Thursday night Holocaust guest speaker; and much more. My presentation was pretty low-tech to begin with, and became even lower tech when we had the one tech snafu of the night when the cam projector failed. So I went into talk to the audience without tech mode, involved the audience a bit as I introduced the background of my choral setting of May Swenson’s witty and wonderfully humorous poem Summer’s Bounty and then we listened to a performance of the piece. The students laughed at the funny spots (yes it’s funny for sure, how could 300 HS students not laugh when they hear a choir sing about "nuts"?) and the tiny tech failure made no difference. In fact, later on, some colleagues complimented me for not flaking out over it, and just talking directly to the audience- their comments made feel nice.

So Lagniappe was a big success—the students in the audience had no idea what to expect as we told them really nothing about what this was- but we for sure gave them that thirteenth donut. I think the students here now realize fully that their faculty is weird but yeah, also really talented and totally thinking outside the box. We’re really just them with some years added on. And maybe next year we should have free popcorn for them- that would for sure be Lagniappe!

North Carolina Governor's School East- Wrapping up Week Two

N. Carolina Governor’s School East: The Rest of Week One and Week Two

Well I have fallen behind on blogging- forgive me as I have two rehearsals per day, meetings, consults, leading some informal chess electives, you name it- the days get filled to the brim for students and faculty a like here. That’s a good thing until the sleep deprivation starts happening, and that can become a big issue for these students who have never pushed through that sort of thing like an adult has.

So here we go- hit and miss on topics as I pick up where I left off. We had two wonderful days with my friend Lisa Fredenbrugh as visiting clinician. Lisa did a full day of vocal tech with the kids- a big eye opener for us was her idea of thinking of breathing from your back, not some more frontward breathing point in the belly/diaphragm.I think the reason this works is that it makes you more aware of your intercostal muscles being part of the whole breathing process.We also needed work on jutting/moving jaws, and even today a week later another visiting clinician was pointing out that issue to the singers.

My assistant Susan Hahn and I continue to keep working these voices through passagios and on and on into new tessitura territory. Today we had some “altos” singing healthy high B flats(!) as they worked one on one in vocalise with today’s clinician, the very youthful and very talented Jonathan Blalock.
I was glad to see Jonathan place singers on their back on the floor to vocalize. The change in gravity and the feeling in breath support are radically different in this position, and when a singer stood back up and sang again, wow- the sound popped. My first experience with this tool was when I attended a masterclass by Richard Miller (the guru of the scientific approach to singing) a few year ago and he had one of my singer from Vox Caelestis (my professional women’s choir in Chicago at that time) do it. This was a young lady who sure had a wide, slightly odd vibrato for her age which you could see Richard did not like and when he had her do the sing on the floor thing she really had to change her approach to support. And actually, it was the first time she let her guard down and trusted that someone else might know more than she did (Miller would have been about 70 at the time, she was about 25).

This year’s GSE students are very enthusiastic, very smart, and really don’t want to stop singing when the bell rings. Even with eleven rehearsals per week, they would rather just keep going. Of course this becomes an issue in regard to their vocal health. Last Friday we had guest speaker Leda Scearce from the Duke Voice Care Center give them a presentation on keeping their voices healthy. Leda especially stresses the idea of personally planned vocal rest, and that is what I have been working with them on as well. We also are trying to stress to them that what they do in choir is pretty darn healthy- we give them well-designed warm-ups that prepare them for each rehearsal and the day, and we also work with them on connecting more to their bodies, trying to get rid of the Western trap of separating mind and body. What often isn’t healthy is what they do with their voice OUTSIDE of choir-too much cellphone talking, too much yelling on the quad, and too much Broadway or Glee belting when they have some free time near a piano. Many afternoons I ask for a countdown- I countdown from 10 as “my voice is in great shape” down to 1- “uh oh, I have a serious problem”. Anyone raising their hand when I am counting down into the 3-2-1 area is given vocal rest, yet they attend rehearsal and pay attention. Once again, this is a way for us to keep track of the endurance/pacing issue; we have to try to keep HS voices healthy over six weeks in an intense learning environment.

The last day of week one we attended the Longleaf Opera Company’s aria competition. This was an aria competition (hmm, I generally dislike arts competitions) for young artists. The nine semi-finalists we heard on Saturday afternoon were between the ages of 25- 34, i.e. singers just entering their prime. They were all quite good, but certainly some really grabbed your attention. It was wonderful for my 16-17 year olds to see where they might be in ten years. It was also very valuable for them to see storytelling going on, almost always a healthy vocal production (although there were two tired voices trying to compete), and for them to see that every not meant something. I was happy to see that a concept that Richard Miller always stressed, the idea that every note matters and that every note must ring and contain a natural vibrato, were apparent in almost every singer.

A valuable tool for us in week two has been count singing, especially for a spiritual arrangement of mine, Hear de Lambs A-cryin’. Since the melody is slow and has some sustained notes the count singing has helped teach the singers to keep those longer notes from becoming flabby, meaningless, and disconnected from the overall melodic line. For anyone unfamiliar with count singing, it’s a rehearsal technique championed by the late Robert Shaw in which the words are stripped from the piece and replaced by singing the subdivided pulse “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and” all the way through a piece. By count singing all the eighth notes in a quarter note pulsed pieces (say 4/4) the whole line has meaning and shape, including any long notes. In addition, it becomes very apparent when chords are not tuning. My singers’ reaction to count singing was twofold; I think some of them weren’t that thrilled about it (kind of like getting them to eat their veggies!) but I did notice many of them picking up on the bit by bit benefits of it, as each time we went through it was a little better than the time before (“Baby steps” a la Bill Murray in What about Bob?).

So it’s Sunday morning the 28th now and it’s time to start wrapping up this meandering blog. Tonight the faculty here are presenting something called Lagniappe- which I hope doesn’t mean Long Nap. We each take five minutes to wow the students with whatever we want to present - a mini-lecture, a demonstration of research we might be doing, a work in progress report- underwater ventriloquism- you know, whatever we think might help them realize that the faculty here is smart and cool.

I am going to be talking about my setting of May Swenson’s poem Summer’s Bounty, a wacky poem which is a basketful of deconstructed summertime compound words. For instance morning glories becomes glories of morning, raspberries becomes berries of rasp, and one of my favorites- mushrooms becomes rooms of mush. It also contains a cool chord I stole from the opening of George Gershwin’s overture to Porgy and Bess (see George, at least I tell people where I got it).After I talk about the poem a little we’ll listen to a nice recording of the piece by the Oregon State University Chamber Choir directed by Steven Zielke.

Ciao for now!

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

Sunday, June 13, 2010

North Carolina Governor's School East Mixed Choir- Day 1

Three hundred bright young minds (gifted high school students who have just finished their sophomore or junior years) arrived here at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC for the six amazing weeks of the North Carolina Governor’s school, the first governor’s school in the country. To read more, visit

These young adults will study in one of ten main areas (I am leading the 32 voice mixed choir) plus engage in classes about life, ethics, current events, new ways of looking at things and be addressed by some very interesting guest speakers. They reside fulltime on this small college campus and develop very strong bonds over the six weeks. They are constantly encouraged to try new ideas on for size, and these bright kids, many of them straight A types, are also encouraged to not fear “failing” at something, in the belief that maybe an errant first attempt at something is really the true learning experience, as opposed to the idea of getting everything right the first time and nailing an A at all times. In fact, there are no grades here, just an amazing exploratory experience awaiting them. After their main classes, they can also drop in on a wide variety of ”electives”, one or two hour informal sessions led by a teacher or counselor on just about anything you can imagine. There might be as mini-lecture on zombies, a chance to sing doo-wop, a discussion of Foucault, sports to participate in or just hanging out on the quad. I am starting out by doing electives on geocaching and chess for beginners. That should be fun.

The teachers are from all around the country and are very interesting. They are all outside the box thinkers and quick wits, and all very loving and collegial. Many of us live on the campus and hang out together for hours and/or hang out with the kids on the quad. Its just one big happy family!

So this is where we start- an empty slate to be filled. In fact, when I met with the choral students and their parents today I commented on how cool it is that we get to invent a choir over six weeks starting with just us. I certainly have plans on what I want to lead them toward, but I want them to invent a lot of this- this is about me and my great assistant Susan Hahn facilitating, not dictating, and at first this may seem strange to some of them. I actually intend on sending subgroups off to learn pieces by themselves without any initial help from me or Susan or YouTube. And then we’ll see how well they work together, how many leaders emerge and so on. We’ll guide them and challenge them, but also often get out of their way if they show signs that they want to start conducting, make some of the musical decisions and decisions on how to present our concerts (I doubt we want to be boring in concert, what fun is that?). We’re going to be more about music than about musical scores. We are only going to use scores to learn music, and then put away the scores. And in fact, we’re also going to learn some pieces without scores…shocking, eh?

I’ll try to blog as often as possible (2-3 times per week?) and anyone interested can read my perspective about what happens.

So stay tuned and I’ll try to describe the experience!