Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hearing the Music, Honing the Mind

Via Scientific American:

Science Agenda | Mind & Brain
Cover Image: November 2010 Scientific American Magazine See Inside

Hearing the Music, Honing the Mind

Music produces profound and lasting changes in the brain. Schools should add classes, not cut them

Image: Wendy McMurdo

Nearly 20 years ago a small study advanced the notion that listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major could boost mental functioning. It was not long before trademarked “Mozart effect” products appealed to neurotic parents aiming to put toddlers on the fast track to the Ivy League. Georgia’s governor even proposed giving every newborn there a classical CD or cassette.

The evidence for Mozart therapy turned out to be flimsy, perhaps nonexistent, although the original study never claimed anything more than a temporary and limited effect. In recent years, however, neuroscientists have examined the benefits of a concerted effort to study and practice music, as opposed to playing a Mozart CD or a computer-based “brain fitness” game once in a while. Advanced monitoring techniques have enabled scientists to see what happens inside your head when you listen to your mother and actually practice the violin for an hour every afternoon. And they have found that music lessons can produce profound and lasting changes that enhance the general ability to learn. These results should disabuse public officials of the idea that music classes are a mere frill, ripe for discarding in the budget crises that constantly beset public schools.

Studies have shown that assiduous instrument training from an early age can help the brain to process sounds better, making it easier to stay focused when absorbing other subjects, from literature to tensor calculus. The musically adept are better able to concentrate on a biology lesson despite the racket in the classroom or, a few years later, to finish a call with a client when a colleague in the next cubicle starts screaming at an underling. They can attend to several things at once in the mental scratch pad called working memory, an essential skill in this era of multitasking.

Discerning subtleties in pitch and timing can also help children or adults in learning a new language. The current craze for high school Mandarin classes furnishes an ideal example. The difference between m¯a (a high, level tone) and (falling tone) represents the difference between “mother” and “scold.” Musicians, studies show, are better than nonmusicians at picking out easily when your m¯a is ing you to practice. These skills may also help the learning disabled improve speech comprehension.

Sadly, fewer schools are giving students an opportunity to learn an instrument. In Nature Reviews Neuroscience this summer, Nina Kraus of Northwestern University and Bha­rath Chandrasekaran of the University of Texas at Austin, who research how music affects the brain, point to a disturbing trend of a decline of music education as part of the standard curriculum. A report by the advocacy organization Music for All Foundation found that from 1999 to 2004 the number of students taking music programs in California public schools dropped by 50 percent.

Research of our brains on music leads to the conclusion that music education needs to be preserved—and revamped, as needed, when further insights demonstrate, say, how the concentration mustered to play the clarinet or the oboe can help a problem student focus better in math class. The main reason for playing an instrument, of course, will always be the sheer joy of blowing a horn or banging out chords. But we should also be working to incorporate into the curriculum our new knowledge of music’s beneficial effect on the developing brain. Sustained involvement with an instrument from an early age is an achievable goal even with tight budgets. Music is not just an “extra.”

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New Dutch cabinet scraps four professioanl ensembles/music education

From the internet: The coalition agreement of the new Dutch cabinet includes the statement that the Netherlands Broadcasting Music Center (MCO) is to be scrapped.

Without any further explanation the future of four highly renowned broadcasting ensembles has become uncertain. The rug is being pulled out from under a distinctively Dutch music culture that can be heard in abundance via radio, television, online, and live in well-filled concert halls such as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn in Utrecht, at the Holland Festival, Pinkpop and the North Sea Jazz Festival.

The three radio orchestras and the Netherlands Radio Choir will have to disappear from the scene after 65 years of distinctive artistic work. The music library will be closed and MCO Education will have to disappoint hundreds of pupils in the region.

Please prevent the Music Center from closing down, and support our musicians. 38174 have preceded you and by doing so are sending politicians a clear signal.


You can go to their page to sign a protest- go to

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Brady Allred unexpected resignation, via Deseret News

Published: Monday, Oct. 25, 2010 6:06 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah has named a guest conductor to lead its choral studies program after last week's unexpected resignation of Brady Allred.

The university had been using graduate students to fill in for Allred after he took a month's personal leave and then resigned for "unexpected personal and family circumstances." On Nov. 1, conductor, pianist and teacher Barlow Bradford will step in as a visiting professor of choral studies at the U.'s School of Music.

Like Allred, Bradford will be responsible for leading the University of Utah Singers and the A Cappella Chorus and will supervise the graduate choral conducting program as well as other teaching duties. Bradford co-founded the Utah Chamber Artists in 1991 and is its current artistic director. He was also music director of the Orchestra at Temple Square in Salt Lake City and associate director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir until 2003.

Allred's departure meant the canceling of a few concerts, but Robert Baldwin, the interim director of the University of Utah's School of Music, said he was determined to keep the quality of the experience for the students. "I'm very optimistic. I'm actually really excited about the opportunities that (the change) provides," he said. "It does open opportunity to things that can be, frankly, revolutionary for the coming year. It will be a different experience for the students … a really positive experience."

Part of that positive experience involves recruiting well-known guest teachers like Bradford.

While the search for a permanent replacement for Allred continues, Bradford will conduct for scheduled December and February choral programs and assist with two planned guest residencies. One of those guest residencies is conductor James Jordan. A prepared statement from the UU. said Jordan was "one of the most influential conductors in America" and the author of 17 textbooks and recordings. He'll visit the school in January and again in the spring. The other guest residency is pending.

Edgar Thompson, an emeritus faculty member, will teach the graduate choral conducting class this fall. Bradford and Jordan will teach the spring classes and seminars. Candidates to replace Allred will come to the UU. in March for interviews and also a mini-performance. Baldwin said students would be heavily involved in choosing Allred's successor.

Baldwin remembered a similar situation when he attended the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz. to study under a specific conductor only to have that conductor retire after one semester. That professor's leaving opened up opportunities for Baldwin to study with a variety of conductors. "For me it was an incredible experience."

Baldwin is confident that the guest conductors will do the same for Allred's former students.

Last week, former students of Allred expressed shock an disappointment that he resigned, but said he had their continuing admiration and support.

"We haven't been told anything about his resignation," said Kat Kellermeyer, avocal performance major. "The only thing I do know is that he is a fabulous teacher; he is the reason I came to this school. Everyone is sad to see him go."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

26th Annual High School Women's Choir Festival soon!

Dr. Nancy Menk (in white coat)

For anyone with a HS women's choir in the Indiana/Michigan/northern Illinois area, you should be attending the St. Mary's College annual festival, founded by Dr. Nancy Menk. I was one of the clinicians last year and it was a great event. Here's some quick background on last year, the plans for this year, and as a bonus-- how Dr. Menk kept busy, busy, busy last season!

26th Annual High School Women's Choir Festival coming up soon!

Last fall, the 25th annual High School Women's Choir Festival was held November 19 and 20, with 20 choirs from 4 states participating. In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the festival, all participants premiered a new work by Canadian composer Eleanor Daley, commissioned especially for the occasion. “How the Flowers Came,” for SSAA and piano, is published by Alliance Music. Daley rehearsed the massed choir on her new work, and also served as a commentator along with composer-conductors Paul Carey and Lee Kesselman.

This year’s festival will be held on November 18th and 19th, 2010 with commentators Paul, Caldwell, Sean Ivory, and Barbara Tagg.

What my friend Dr. Nancy Menk was up to last year- whew, busy, busy!

Dr. Nancy Menk, Mary Lou and Judd Leighton Chair in Music, conducted the 120-voice Northwest Indiana Symphony Chorus and members of the orchestra in 2 performances of Handel’s Messiah this season. She also prepared the Chorus for the Holiday Pops concert, a concert version of Puccini’s Turandot with DuPage Opera, Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man, and a concert of the music of Cole Porter.

Menk led the South Bend Chamber Singers in their 21st season of concerts as an ensemble-in-residence at Saint Mary’s College. You may read more about the SBCS in this edition of Overtones.

On Valentine’s Day, Dr. Menk conducted over 175 singers and orchestra in a sold-out performance of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna at Carnegie Hall. Members of the Saint Mary’s College Women’s Choir, the South Bend Chamber Singers, and the Northwest Indiana Symphony Chorus participated, along with the LaPorte High School Treble and Mixed Chorales (Tom Coe, director), the Northwood High School Choir (Jeff Cramer, director), and the El Segundo High School Choir from California.

In October, Menk gave a talk to the Michiana Music Teachers Association on working with an accompanist. Menk attended the American Choral Directors Association Central Division conference in Cincinnati in February. She conducted a reading session on medium-advanced repertoire for women’s choirs. In the spring semester she served as choral clinician at Culver Academy and LaPorte High School, and she served as an adjudicator for the Michigan School Vocal Music Association’s state choral contest at Holt, MI.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Count Singing- an underused tool?

I have been meaning to post about count singing for awhile now. I will have to admit that I had not even tried it until the summer of 2009, since, as some of you may know, I am pretty much self-taught as a conductor (as my professional training was as a composer) and have only gradulally been exposed to everything that a professional conductor with a master's or doctorate degree from a quality school has been. I don't apologize for this, as I am actually quite proud of my conducting and communication skills as I approach it from a very different direction than most people and honestly, how many conductors try to branch into composing and really do the work to be truly good at it? At this point I'm a multitasking, ambitious person always looking for ways to improve myself and learn things from the conductors I observe and truly admire (many, many people) out there.

My first desire to attempt to using count singing began as I was about to leave Chicago to teach the choir at the North Carolina Governor's School for six weeks in the summer of 2009 (a position I am excited and proud to continue to hold), and just before that there was a post, with many responses, about count singing on the ChoralNet site:

From what I could see, it sounded like many directors don't know this approach well, but it was certainly obvious that those high level professionals who had sung for Robert Shaw or were around Shaw proteges sure knew the approach and could talk at length about how to do it and talk about its benefits. While I knew the basic idea of count singing I had not ever tried it, but now was obviously the time to try it out, I said to myself. So with a little reading in the Robert Shaw Reader and some personal one-on-one advice from some quality folks I knew, I used it at Governor's School in 2009 (and again in 2010) - a LOT. The reason that I found it was extremely helpful for this particular gifted high school all-state choir was this- while many of the singers were phenomenal, various members really did not know how to breathe properly and they also had little sense of how to keep long legato lines spinning/moving forward(of course, that might be one and the same problem and it also is something that, as a diligent choral composer, I am very aware of as I write for the voice).

Count Singing???

Beside the usual mention of count singing benefiting both rhythm and intonation, came for us the benefit of keeping long notes of phrases, and thus the full long line, alive as the beats went by energized by the counting-- and this also made my singers much more aware of how they began a breath and especially how they managed that breath.

So we did a lot of count singing but I also took care not do it so much that they would hate it- we did it just enough to get its benefit without making it drudgery. It's now a major conducting tool for me and I hope that someone with a lot of expertise in this area will do an interest session on it at a major ACDA event (anyone listening out there...maybe pick up the ball on this?).

For a perspective beyond my own, here is a link to blogger Sarah Johnston's post "Why I love count singing", and within her blog there are some references to Shaw that you can follow.

Thanks for reading!

A great presentation on choral arts and communication

Conductor Philip Copeland

When I attended the ACDA southern conference in Memphis this past spring I heard a lot of great musicmaking, but certainly one of the most memorable moments was hearing Philip Copeland's University of Alabama/Birmingham choir sing AND watching Philip conduct. While Philip and I have developed a friendship mostly through ChoralNet and e-mail I had never actually seen him conduct until Memphis. I was totally blown away by his style, conducting the gesture and the line, rarely simple beat patterns. I asked him about this later and he told me it was due to the great influence of his teacher Jerry Jordan. You can see what I said about the UAB choir at ACDA by clicking here:

Some background on Mr. Jordan via Ole Miss on the internet:

Jerry Jordan is Professor Emeritus at the University of Mississippi where for twenty-one years he led one of the most active and accomplished collegiate choral programs in the United States. Choirs under his direction or supervision performed to standing ovations at National and Southern Division Conventions of the American Choral Directors Association each of his last five years at Ole Miss. His Concert Singers have won seven major international choral competitions in Europe – more than any other American choir.

Recently I noticed a post of Facebook in which Philip mentions a presentation he gave recently about Jerry Jordan's ideas about choral musicmaking. I took a look at this slide presentation and really wished I could have heard the live verbal presentation that went along with it. I hope that Philip can share it with more people. In the meantime, I highly recommend you view the slideshow by going here

I got a kick out of slide number 15 and then was surprised and pleased he mentioned a piece of mine at slide number 66 .

So, see what you think- there is much to ponder and learn from here, without a doubt!

P.S. Philip is now the new director of choral studies at Samford University. We should all look forward to hearing his new choirs from Samford.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Whittaker's field guide to page-turners!

(Pianist Billie Whittaker)

A quick reference to a great blog- freelance pianist Billie Whittaker's take on the various sub-species of page-turners! It is a very funny read, especially for those who are (or were!) working pianists.

I discovered Billie's blog (she is a DC/VA area musician) while doing some research on this whole "collaborative pianist" tag. I intend to blog about the issue, and am looking for opinions about what it means, etc. It was fun to find some humor as I do a lil research!

A Brief Guide to Page-Turners

Amid the crunch of recital preparations, many pianists forget to secure a page-turner, leading to last-minute recruiting from friends, friends-of-friends or from random strangers in the recital hall. Unsurprisingly, when the only real qualification is 'warm body', using potluck volunteers often has mixed results. The most common kinds of turners, both good and bad, are listed below* with corresponding identifiers for easy reference.

Crowders sit unnecessarily close at all times (sometimes practically in your lap).

Helicopters hover with a hand on the music, regardless of incredibly slow tempos or flat-laying scores.

Human Obstacles
attempt to turn from the bottom RH side of the music, blocking the view and inspiring thoughts of violence.

Music Civilians are mystified by the black and white dots scattered on the page and find what you do closely akin to magic. They are usually terrified of making a mistake and stare at you, unblinking and tense, for each nod. Oddly enough, they are one of your better options.

Space Cadets are either caught up within the music or contemplating what to have for lunch as you turn your own pages. They may also forget to show up to the concert at all.

Heart Attacks turn the pages too soon or too late (sometimes two at a time . . .) They incite panic and frantic slapping of pages.

turn with enough force to rip music or fling scores to the ground.

Silent Critics
are usually pianists of equal or higher chops. They're great at turning, but unfortunately also cause acute self-consciousness with every wrong note and bad fingering.

are a category I have never experienced, but a colleague of mine once worked with someone who liked to hum along with the melodies during performances.

The Best Page-Turning Award goes to:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Page-Turner
. The ninjas among page turners, they sit completely out of one's peripheral vision. They rise with smooth motions approximately 1-2 lines from the bottom (depending upon tempo), turn the page lightening-quick and retreat back to invisibility without a whisper of sound. Their non-presence allows you to focus on the performance instead of on enabling someone to allow you to perform music.

And let's not forget:
Terrifyingly Clueless with questions like, "Which side should I sit on?"

Here is the url for her blog: