Monday, June 27, 2011

A Great Week One for the N Carolina Governor's School Choir

Wrapping up Week One (June 12- 18) of N. Carolina Governor’s School Women’s Choir Activities

It was a very busy week here in Raleigh as we started off this year's six week session of NC Governor’s School by welcoming the 300 students on Sunday and beginning classes on Monday, June 13th.

During the first week here is what my group of 24 brilliant young musicians accomplished:

They’ve gotten to know each other (and me and my great assistant Beth Philomen) so well in one week that we already feel like a close-knit family (that’s functional family, not the other type!).

They sight-read a lot of the scores we are singing this summer, with very little help from me, and virtually without any help from the piano (there is usually no one sitting at the piano).

They worked on tuning, vowels, using their ears a lot, and trying to build a sound for this choir. We aren’t using the b word (blend)-- I would rather let them sing beautifully with the vibrant color of each voice contributing to the ensemble. If they need to be “blended” then that’s a job for Beth or me when we are conducting.

They read and discussed in depth Randy Paufnik’s excellent address from a few years ago to students/parents of the Boston Conservatory. This is a great speech in which he informs them that as musicians they can heal the world and that music is not a luxury. In addition to a great discussion, the students here also listened to, and mapped on the whiteboard, one of the pieces mentioned in the address- Oliver Messian’s “Quartet for the End of Time”. This piece was composed by Messian while he was in a Nazi concentration camp, and where it was also first performed. At a future date I will talk in more length about what we did with this listening exercise.

They were extremely active, engaged learners when we spent ten hours over three days working with brilliant Alexander Technique instructor Shawn Copeland. Shawn taught them how their body is constructed, ably assisted by his skeleton friend George, from their feet all the way up through the tops of their heads. Shawn corrected many false assumptions we all have about how our bodies work and there were many, many “a-ha” moments. Shawn also worked one on one with the students on their posture, balance, etc. He also introduced some great partner games that not only taught Alexander learning points, but helped create personal bonds within the choir.

They were also highly attentive to a 75 minute lecture with some Q and A time with guest Leda Scearce, a professional voice care therapist from the Duke Voice Care Center. Leda taught them what they need to know to take care of their voice this summer and all through their future as singers. This was very valuable advice for young “vocal athletes”, which is what Leda considers them to be.

They also hit the practice rooms and chose songs to sing for a Broadway night we will do soon, which is an added-on optional opportunity for them to sing publicly.

With a suggestion by me of a worthy service project, they immediately grabbed the bull by the horns and formed a student led committee to make the project a success. The project will be to raise money for a very new grassroots food program for high school students in the mountains of Haiti (not in the more attention garnering large city of Port-au-Prince).

Placed in four groups, they also organized skits of a fun poem, which is an exercise I use to get singers to be more inside their texts and to not just sing notes. This is a way to get singers to realize that they should embrace that they can be amazing storytellers with their eyes, faces, bodies, and not just through static singing in the conventional style.

On Friday afternoon, as a reward for all their amazing effort, I tossed an Otis Redding CD on the sound system, cranked up the volume and invited them to dance. I left the room and let them blow off steam and have a good ole time. When I came back twenty-five minutes later they were all dancing, all twenty- four of them- no one decided to sit the moment out. And to many of them, the Otis Dance party was the highlight of the week- and why not, it was another fun bonding moment for the twenty-four of them.

Finally on Saturday, they threw me a birthday party in the morning- cake and candles, a very nice card, and a very sweet paper chain where they had each written something special on one of the chains.

So, the bottom line is this- as a director you can be mean, nitpick about tiny details, never support your choir’s psyche, never get to know them as real people, and so on and create an impersonal and highly negative energy in your rehearsals—or, you can see the value of team building with positive energy from day one of whatever musical group you have begun to work with. What happened the first week was magical, and we were highly fortunate that all my plans (with great assistance from Beth) went very well. The result is a huge platform that we can continue to build upon for the next five weeks. Yes, we need to woodshed more notes, but we have trust and a bond in the room and so much more. Wow, what amazing kids!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Great Insights on Programming from Richard Sparks

One of the best blogs about the choral world is written by esteemed conductor Richard Sparks, which you can find here. Richard's blog is way different than mine, certainly more serious than some of the goofy things I post at times, and that's great.

Recently I rediscovered some of Richard's blogs on programming, which you can find grouped together by clicking here. There is some great reading for you there, and here are a few choice excerpts culled from various of the blog entries to pique your interest:

This is a reminder to always look for context when you perform a work--who was it written for? for what kind of space (church, theatre, concert hall)? what size and kind of ensemble? what purpose (liturgical, court, home)? These are always questions that can inform your performance.

With most of my programs, I start with a work or works I really want to do, then start building around it. For me, it's all about how the pieces chosen work together: they can contrast nicely, or several works can complement each other. In that sense, I want the audience to either feel the connections I've made or, in going from one set to another, to move to something that feels very fresh. For that reason, once I come up with a work or two that will "anchor" the program, then it's often a matter of figuring out what else will work well with it

All of us need to continually expand our knowledge of repertoire. This will also be shaped by the ensembles you conduct: the choral repertoire is broad and has so many sub-genres: treble, male, mixed, sacred, secular, for large ensemble, for small ensemble, etc., plus all levels from the most inexperienced choir to advanced repertoire only a professional choir could attempt

One of the glories of the choral medium is that there is such a wealth of repertoire to explore. We’ll never run out of it, and that’s one of the joys of this job. It should never be dull.

So, last time I talked about the importance of thinking of repertoire in programming from the standpoint of the needs of the chorus and individual singers to maximize their growth. But what about the needs of the audience? Or of the institution that supports you if you’re not an independent choir (or your board, if it is)? You can’t forget about those needs (or at least you shouldn’t if you want to keep your job!), but the challenge is to balance those with what the choir needs to do.

My experiences with choirs at different levels tells me that doing challenging music is more often the limitation of the conductor/teacher—I’ve heard children’s choirs doing some amazing music, for example. They don’t know that mixed meters are difficult. If it’s presented to them well and matter-of-factly, they just do it.

Richard Sparks is Professor of Music at the University of North Texas, where he conducts the Chamber Choir and Collegium Singers, and teaches a variety of academic courses. He is also Artistic Director and Conductor of Pro Coro Canada in Edmonton, Alberta--a professional chamber choir; and a free-lance conductor/clinician working in the US, Canada, and Europe. He spent considerable time working with the Swedish Radio Choir in 2007 and 2008. He is Conductor Emeritus of Choral Arts in Seattle, WA (which he founded and conducted from 1993-2006) and was Director of Choral Activities at Pacific Lutheran University from 1983-2001.