Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Guest Clinicians at N Carolina Governor's School East choir

Things have been crazy busy here at the North Carolina Governor’s School East choir program. It’s been hard to keep up with everything and still find time to blog. In addition, I have received two wonderful new commissions in recent weeks, so I have been trying to find time to work on the one I have already started, and at least start mulling over the other.

Anyway, I would like to relate stories about all the guests I have had in to talk to or work with the students. This has been extremely valuable in two ways; one, they gain valuable insight from skilled, experienced adults on a variety of topics that pertain to their singing, vocal health, and music-making, and 2) it allows me to not be stressing their voices with too many hours of rehearsal per week (we technically have anywhere from 150-195 minutes of rehearsal time per day on the school calendar, but obviously that would cause really ragged voices in HS students).

Our first guest, way back in week one, was my good friend Lisa Fredenburgh who will start a new job as director of choral studies at Aurora College in Illinois. Lisa volunteered to work with these students for a day and a half in group vocal tech lessons. About 60% of them had never had a private voice lesson, so this day and a half from Lisa was great for them. She really stressed posture and breathing “from the back”, which really was a great image for them. She also worked a lot with them to envision a shape to the sound within the mouth and how that sound would project out. this was great instruction from a wonderful, positive person.

Our next guest was Leda Scearce, from the Duke Vocal Health Clinic. Leda presented all the facts any young singer should know about their voice and how to take care of them. She showed photos of damaged larynxes, videos of vocal folds in action, and imparted great wisdom about how to treat your “instrument”- one of her biggest concerns was that young singers should plan vocal rest into their day. To me, this was important, as Lisa Fredenburgh had already told me she felt that in our environment here, Susan Fetch (my assistant ) and I are already treating their voices with respect in rehearsals (full, well-planned warm-ups, no extra stress in the AM, de-emphasis on pressing down with the voice) and that any tired or strained voice issues are happening out on the quad, through too many hours on cellphones, and so on. Leda emphasized over and over that singers need rest, water, good nutrition, a better approach to their vocal use throughout the day, and many other things.

Our next guest was a young tenor who caught my eye at the Longleaf Opera aria competition, Jonathan Blalock. Jonathan placed second in that competition which we all attended, and I was able to get him in for two days to do even more vocal tech with our singers, and I was especially interested in him working with the guys (the ladies did get his attention as well). Jonathan stressed the importance of breath and breath management. He really helped many of the singers find more breath support connected to the sound and the ability to move air in appositive way. Of course I didn’t want these teenagers trying to sound like Jonathan and that was said out loud to them. What we did want them to emulate was the connection of all the elements in his vocal production, and developing an ear for when things feel right and sound right. Jonathan has a great live voice and a wonderfully engaging personality- so he was an excellent role model for them, since he is only about ten years older than they are. He is now off to Israel for some great opera roles.

Our next guest was Shawn Copeland, a professional clarinetist and also an Alexander Technique instructor. We were able to work with Shawn for an entire day and it was amazing. He taught physiology to the students and dispelled all sorts of misconceptions they had about their body and its physique (ably assisted by “George”, Shawn’s full skeletal model). Shawn decided to work mostly on the body mapping element of Alexander Technique but he did get into hands-on work with almost every singer in the room. He was able to reinvent posture and carriage for almost every singer, in some cases drastically improving their posture and their awareness of how they habitually hold their bodies. Wow, this day was amazing.

Dan Huff, head of music ed at UNC, Chapel Hill, visited us and talked to the students about careers in music and how to choose a music college. Dan’s presentation was extremely valuable to these students.

We also worked with the multi-talented Tigger Benford, a percussionist who teaches musicians and dancers in a very creative way. For our one session with Tigger, I chose for him to work with them on body percussion. After a few simple things, Tiger stepped up the challenge, and the students were expected to be able to use their hands, arms, feet, and whole bodies to learn (by rote) a whole series of rhythms, many of which were outside their usual area of competence (cross rhythms you would not usually run across in western music). This was a great Governor’s School moment-- a few kids wanted to give up, but I told them just keep going. No one said everything was easy in life (right?!). And the fact that this was a bit of a struggle for some of them was a good thing. I was proud that the 2-3 kids who sort of wanted to give up stepped right back into the fray of what Tigger was challenging them with. Another pearl of wisdom from Tigger that they won’t hear in their HS classroom: beat one is not always the start of everything, in fact in much music , things lead into beat one (and back out of it) , so it is just an arrival point, not just a disconnected, blatantly strong beat.

Our final guest, via Skype, was the wonderful choral composer Joan Szymko. We are working on her 2010 ACDA Brock commissioned piece “All Works of Love”, with a very simple text by Mother Teresa. Over an hour-long Skype session, Joan answered some great questions from the kids, and gave them many moments of heartfelt wisdom about the meaning of music, how texts and music compel us to think deeply about who we are, and so on. The students questions were well thought out, and Joan’s answers were brilliant. This was an amazing opportunity for young people to talk directly t to a living composer about a recent work which has been premiered to great praise. We will be singing Joan’s piece July 23rd on our final concert, and I think this personal connection with the composer will make our performance so much more meaningful.

So there you have it, a bunch of all-star guests who shared their love of music and lots of the technical things they have worked so hard to discover in their careers. To be 16 or 17 years old and gain all these insights over six weeks time was truly invaluable for these students.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Help us Help a School in Haiti

Greetings all – especially to those of you who have been directed here so that you could read my semi-annual updates of what I am doing in the music world.
I usually try to update you on new pieces I am writing, or pieces just released by my publishers, or some traveling or guest conducting I am doing. This time I am going to write something that is not so much about me-me-me; and ask you read all the way to the end if you can.

I am in Raleigh, North Carolina teaching the 32 gifted choral students at the North Carolina Governor’s School East ( www.ncgse.org ) on the campus of Meredith College. The NC Governor’s School selects 600 of the brightest high school students in ten discipline areas from all over the state and brings them together for a six week intensive summer experience where there are no grades; just the challenge of concentrated work in their main area, as well as amazing explorations of learning in new areas for each student. This is a place where students can be (as we say here) “nerds, geeks, and artsy freaks” to the hilt without being self-conscious about it, and where the unofficial motto is “try, fail, fail better”. In other words, we give these kids freedom to not have to worry about maintaining an immaculate GPA and we throw daunting, yet cool projects their way and let them solve them without our help. It’s all great fun, very challenging and yet exhausting in a good way for six weeks.

When I was at the ACDA conference in Cincinnati this past spring I heard Ethan Sperry’s great group from Miami University of Ohio sing music from Haiti, as arranged by Sten Kallman. I was blow away by this soulful music and corralled Ethan one evening. I found out that these pieces would soon be out in his earthsongs series and I immediately decided we had to sing them at NC Governor’s School.So that is what we are doing-- we just sang one of those pieces June 30th and July 1st (titled Freo—O Brother) to very enthusiastic packed-house audiences and we will add “Gede Nibo” soon to our repertoire. The students love this music and have totally connected to it musically and spiritually. We have also been highly successful in singing it with pretty authentic tone colors for this folk music.

Sometimes things in the world align, and here is what developed here over the last three weeks—I met the new French teacher and she is fluent in Creole and is teaching her French students “Nawlins” and Haitian Creole. We’ve put our classes together and learned more about Haiti, both past and present. We then realized that the grassroots environmentalist Dave Chameides ( www.365daysoftrash.blogspot.com ) was visiting our school to not only speak about the environment (we know him as Trash Dave for his speeches to us about how wasteful Americans are; he also owns two Emmys for his work as a TV cameraman), but also would give a short talk to our students about his trip to Haiti just two weeks after the earthquake(visit www.dchaiti.blogspot.com).Most of my students attended that short talk.

You can see all these things coming together, because Lesley Curtis (the French teacher) and I had started to talk about our classes doing a service project together. Lesley knows two American teachers who were in Haiti when the earthquake happened, and one of them actually knows a school whose building was destroyed and still hopes to start school in some way in a few months and that is in dire need of school supplies for two hundred students.

So Lesley and I hinted to the students that we should do more than just be scholars, or practice room shut-ins (hope you agree on that!); and that we should do something for the world. And our students really grasped this idea- that they, even as teens, could step up and do something important to help others.

So here is what is happening-- that school in Haiti (they have a brand new 501c3 website www.korebel.org set up by friends in NYC) has given us a modest list of school supply needs for their 200 students. All they are hoping for is a packet for each student consisting of:

three spiral notebooks
three black pens and three red pens
ten pencils & one eraser
one ruler

Dave told us he decided to help in Haiti in a number of ways- but one of them specifically was to find a way to give to people directly and make a personal connection. There’s nothing wrong in giving money to Red Cross, for instance, but he wanted to make his connection personal. This is what we at N. Carolina Governor’s School East choral music and French class want to do; make it personal. We are going to try to donate these supplies by ourselves, and also through the parents, through the community, through pleas to OfficeMax or Staples, or any way we can. When get the supplies all gathered together we also intend to write personal notes to the people at the school and put them in the supply packages as well. And maybe we can record our Haitian music on a CD and they can hear us sing THEIR music as best as we can. By the way, you can see pictures of the Korebel students, the ruins of the school and efforts to keep teaching the children amidst the runs by clicking here www.korebel.org/media

This is where you can help if you would like to join us. I have spoken to the NC Governor’s School East director, an amazing person and historian named Dr. Michael McElreath about this goal. He tells me that if any of you in the US choral world would like to contribute to this cause, you could write a check to us and we will buy more and more supplies for this school and try to overwhelm them with kindness. We also feel that it would be silly for you to mail us school supplies, because we would still have to ship them again to Haiti. That’s why we are hoping some of you will want to mail us a check to help this cause.

I am hoping that ChoralNet/ACDA will publicize this and help build this. I think folks there like Philip Copeland and Tim Sharp are great people who want our music to be more than just mere notes on a page; and that our singing should bring joy and uplift people and that we really must work harder in our field to make what we do be of further impact in the world. All of the recent growth and energetic new leadership at ChoralNet and at ACDA are amazing me. I think there is a groundswell of newly focused energy in the American choral world, and that is what I am trying to tap into in as big a way as possible. Who knows, what we do here in Raleigh for this project and what you might contribute might overwhelm this small school in Haiti to the point that they will need to share the newfound abundance with other schools nearby. How amazing would that be?

So if I have touched a nerve within you, here is how you make a donation (hopefully a bit before we finish the session July 24th):
Checks should be written to “NC Governor's School East" and put "Haiti school supplies" on the memo line.

Mail your contribution ASAP (any size appreciated) to:

Dr. Michael McElreath
NC Governor’s School East
3800 Hillsborough Av
Raleigh, NC

Thanks in advance for anything you might want to contribute!

Best wishes,