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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ivan Fischer's Budpest Festival Orchestra sings!

It's remarkable to hear a professional orchestra--and I can think of hardly anyone else other than Ivan Fischer who would do it!--sing some a cappella Brahms:


Message from Ivan Fischer:
"Dear Friends, on this present tour I asked the Budapest Festival Orchestra to start a new life – to sing regularly. At the end of the Proms and elsewhere on tour we performed Abendständchen by Brahms as an encore only after three days of practice.

"Why? Because people should sing! Mothers should sing to their babies, children should sing in children’s choirs and adults should rediscover this wonderful communication tool. So we should set an example and start to show that it is possible to overcome fears and inhibitions.

"If you want to hear our very first attempt, please scroll to the end of the symphony, ca 45 minutes on this link."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Books Worth Your Time III

This one will be short (busy week!) and is not a book to read, but a great reference to have on your shelf: The A to Z of Foreign Musical Terms by Christine Ammer. Scores often have terminology in foreign languages and since the composer put them there to give you information about performance (calando, marziale, etc.), it's imperative to know what they mean. I've almost never found a term that isn't included in this lovely, compact, inexpensive (currently $9.68 on Amazon) reference! Incredibly helpful. For "calando," for example, it tells you that it's Italian and that it means, "Becoming softer and slower." That's opposed to "calcando," which means: 1- "Forcefully, pressing on" or 2- "Imitating, copying."
 
Definitely worth having on your shelf!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Books Worth Reading II

Thomas M. Sterner's The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life. Sterner is a musician, worked for years as a piano tuner/technician, as well as having an interest in Eastern philosophy. It's one of the best books I've read about developing better habits of discipline and focus. He has a wonderful little section that speaks to our habit of rushing through things and multi-tasking: with a day ahead that included getting two pianos ready (one for the piano soloist with the local symphony), then travel to do other tuning work, then back in the evening to check both pianos before the concert. He notes that he'd done this kind of thing many times and knew very well how much time it took, and that it was about two and a half times the amount considered a day's work in the trade. I'll let him speak from here:
When I started on the first piano, I put all of my effort into "being slow." I opened my tool box very slowly. Instead of grabbing a handful of tools and thinking I was saving time, I took each tool out one at a time. I placed each tool neatly in position. When I began setting up the piano, I performed each process individually, trying to deliberately work slowly.

It's a funny feeling when you try this. At first, your internal dialogue is howling at you to get going and pick up the pace. It is screaming at you, "We'll never get this done, you are wasting time." It is reminding you of the whole day's worth of work you have to get done to meet everyone's approval. You can feel the anxiety start to build and the emotions floating up to the surface. However, your ego quickly loses ground to the simplicity of doing one thing at a time and doing it slowly, on purpose. It has no place to build stress and work up internal chatter. That is because working slowly in today's world goes against every thought system. You can only work slowly if you do it deliberately. Being deliberate requires you to stay in the process, to work in the present moment.

After I finished the first instrument, I even went through the process of packing up my tools with meticulous care, just to walk ten feet away and unpack them slowly, one at a time, to start the second piano. Usually I would grab two handfuls of as much as I could carry and scurry through the orchestra chairs on stage trying to sve time. Not this day, however. I was determined to carry out my goal plan of just trying to work slowly. We spend so much time rushing everything we do. Rushing had become so much of a habit that I was amazed at the concentration it took to work slowly on purpose.

I took off my watch so I wouldn't be tempted to look at the time and let that influence my pace. I told myself, "I am dong this for me and for my health, both physical and mental. I have a cell phone and, if need be, I can call whomever and tell them I am running late, and that's the best I can do."

Into the second piano, I began to realize how wonderful I felt. No nervous stomach, no anticipation of getting through the day, and no tight muscles in my shoulders and neck, just this relaxed, peaceful, what-a-nice-day-it-is feeling. I would even go so far as to describe it as blissful. Anything you can do in a rushing state is surprisingly easy when you deliberately slow it down. The revelation for me came, however, when I finished the second piano. I very slowly put my tools away one by one with my attention to every detail. I continued my effort at slowing down as I walked to my truck in the parking garage a block away. I walked very slowly, paying attention to each step. This may sound nuts at first, but it was an experiment on my part. I was experiencing such an incredible feeling of peacefulness in a situation that usually had every muscle in my body tense that I wanted to see just how far I could intensify the situation with my effort.

When I got to the truck, the clock radio came on with the turn of the key and I was dumbfounded. So little time had passed compared to what I had usually experienced for the same job in the past that I was sure the clock was incorrect. Keep in mind that I was repeating a process that I had done for many years. I have set up these pianos together sometimes five and six times a week. I had a very real concept of the time involved in the project. I pulled my watch out of my pocket as a second check. It agreed with the clock-radio that I had cut over 40 percent off the time. I had tried to work as slowly as possible and I had been sure I was running an hour late. Yet I had either worked faster (which didn't seem possible, given my attention to slowness), or I had slowed time down (an interesting thought, but few would buy it). Either way, I was sufficiently motivated to press on with the experiment throughout the remainder of the day. I got so far ahead of schedule that I was afforded the luxury of a civilized meal in a nice restaurant, instead of the usual sandwich in the truck or no lunch at all.

I have repeated these results consistently every time I have worked at being slow and deliberate. I have used this technique with everything from cleaning up the dishes after dinner to monotonous areas of piano restoration work that I don't particularly enjoy. The only thing that foils the result is when I am particularly lacking in stamina and find myself drifting back and forth between working with slowness and succumbing to my feeling of, "I have to get this work done quickly."
The rest of the book is certainly as good and as interesting as this passage.

How often do we rush our own work? Whether in preparation (score study, prepping for a class), teaching or rehearsal, does rushing (because we know we have so much to cover!) help?

One of the notable things about the Swedish Radio Choir is their ability to work in a slow, concentrated way on different elements in the music, for example, intonation--it's quite extraordinary. And I had a rehearsal on Rachmaninoff's The Bells with them where I moved at too fast a pace, which resulted in frustration (and not faster results). We need to think of this in our rehearsals: rushing (and not really mastering a passage in the music) rarely accomplishes much and may in fact build in bad habits or mistakes. But it also means we have to build up the ability of our singers (at different levels, of course) to focus, concentrate, and do the patient work necessary to succeed in difficult music. This is perhaps even more true today with all the distractions (cell phones, instant messaging, Facebook, etc.) of the modern world.

Lots to think about, but this is certainly a book that's worthwhile!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Books worth reading I

Welcome back, everyone! The new year is beginning for most of us, whether school, church, community, or professional choir, and it's time for auditions  (for some!) and getting ready for first rehearsals. It's an exciting time!
 
I'll begin the year with a series on books I think are worthwhile. Not all will be for everyone (that's impossible), but I hope you'll find some worth exploring. Posts will alternate between books written for musicians/conductors/about choral topics and those written for a non-musical audience, but offering something to us as conductors and teachers.
 
I'm going to begin with a book that deals with an important topic--that of classroom management: Classroom Management in the Music Room -- "Pin-Drop Quiet" Classes and Rehearsals, by David Newell.
 
We all know that no matter how good a musician we are, no matter how well we know our scores, if we can't teach our choirs how to rehearse well, how to focus, how to make the rehearsal room a productive place--we won't accomplish as much as we could.
 
David Newell's book has a well-thought-out and disciplined approach (requiring discipline from you as well as your students), stressing a minimum of rules or expectations with only two options: the singer is either in the "rules" box or the "consequences" box. Newell is a band director, but all of his ideas can be adapted for choirs. He's writing for the secondary level, but these are universal approaches which can be adapted to children's choirs, adult choirs, non-auditioned choirs or high-level choirs.
 
He stresses quiet, calm, unemotional discipline techniques and consistency--and that gradually classroom management techniques have to move towards musical skills and rehearsals that will minimize management problems. In other words, the kind of rehearsals we'd all like to have!
 
Here's an outline from a clinic he gave which will give you a better idea--but believe me, the book is much, much better! If your choirs don't yet have the rehearsal discipline you'd like them to have or if you teach future teachers/conductors . . . it's well worth the investment!
 
Have a great year!
 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Learning from Eric Ericson IX - Wrap-up

Eric Ericson is one of the giants of our field and his work has been a model for many others: in his enthusiasm for performing and commissioning new music, in raising standards in a cappella singing, as a teacher, and as a conductor. His ensembles (Chamber Choir, Swedish Radio Choir, and Orphei Drängar) became models of their type and their recordings are likely to live on.

For me personally, it's been fun to look back at my own experiences with Eric and talk to Swedish friends who've worked with him closely. Looking back at these interviews, the following are significant aspects of his work and success:
  • curiosity - about music of all kinds and periods, for new music, for better ways of achieving excellence - this is something we can all emulate - it's a huge reason for his success - he did an enormous amount of new music and constantly encouraged composers to write for the medium of a cappella choir
  • his concern for getting it right (and being willing to work--and work the choir!--until he did)
  • his superb piano skills and his way of communicating through the keyboard to his ensembles - this is not something all of us can do, but for those who have great skill as a pianist, his use of the keyboard can provide a model for a way to work . . . and all of us can learn to play and give pitches in a way that supports beautiful choral sound, rather than call forth harsh and un-vocal ones
  • his conducting technique - while one may not want or be able to copy Eric's exact technique, his concern with mastering technical elements of conducting and (more importantly) making sure the body reflects what a singer needs to sing well should concern all of us -- as Stefan Parkman said, "He wanted to wave his arms and hands in such a way that it allows the singers to produce the sound."
  • the choral sound he developed came out of working for clarity, balance, and beautiful intonation - that he did this with big, well-trained voices helped define a new standard
  • his joy and love for music - as Arne Lundmark said, "In the concert itself I often had the feeling that all his love to music suddenly was shown and we were willing to give him all he asked for." 
Here's a summary of the series in one place:
I - Introduction
II - Interview with Eva Wedin
III - Interview with Robert Sund
IV - Eric teaching conducting technique I (notes from a workshop I observed)
V - Eric teaching conducting technique II (continued)
VI - Watching Eric conduct
VII - Interview with Arne Lundmark
VIII - Interview with Stefan Parkman

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Learning from Eric Ericson VIII - Stefan Parkman

Stefan Parkman has had a long association with Eric. Born in 1952, he first studied medicine, but began singing with Eric in Orphei Drängar in the early '70s. Just a few years later he began his studies in the Royal College of Music. Stefan's an exceptionally fine tenor (listen here or buy the album here to hear his solo in "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square"--conducted by Robert Sund, by the way) who's regularly sung the Evangelist role in Bach's St. John Passion--often while conducting the performance! Consequently, he began at that time to sing as an extra (but ended up singing most projects) for both the Chamber Choir and Radio Choir, and that continued until probably the late '80s. For example, he sang in the Radio Choir for their big US tour in 1983, when they sang for the National ACDA Conference in Nashville. In 1989 he became conductor of the Danish Radio Choir and that ended most of his singing with Eric. Some of his recordings can be found here.
 
In a conversation on March 29 he talked about characteristics of Eric and his ways of working:
  • His curiosity was insatiable and he was always eager to find new ways of solving problems, loved to explore new music, and always wondered, "how can we make this better?"
  • He always worked up until the last second until either the concert or broadcast, not giving up on making it better. "We could all hear that something was out of tune, but he had the curiosity to find keys and tools to solve the problem."
  • With his Chamber Choir he could work longer than with the Radio Choir, which was state-run and had to follow strict rules. With the Chamber Choir he would just go on working as long as he felt he needed. Today, people wouldn't accept that, but he was in the right time to be able to do that.
  • About his piano playing: "I don't think that any singer or choir can sound as beautiful as when Eric played the piano."
  • About his conducting and teaching of conducting: "He always tried to find ways to conduct that are comfortable and good for singers. In this his gestures (and playing) were very vocal. He wanted to wave his arms and hands in such a way that it allows the singers to produce the sound."
  • "He never talked much about text or its interpretation, but I later realized he'd thought about it and it was addressed by his hands or way of rehearsing."
  • "His choral sound was orchestral and homogeneous, a combination of beauty of sound and intonation."
  • New music: "This is a large part of his curiosity, of course. It's not unique, but during his time was unusual."
  • What he learned from Eric: "Gesture that gives both singers and instrumentalists time to breathe, to get their instruments going. In concerts, a vocally wonderful way of conducting. The never-ending eagerness to find solutions. And I can't conduct a piece such as Friede auf Erden, for example, without thinking of Eric, having sung it so many times with him. That doesn't mean my interpretation will be the same--he always expected us to do it in our own way--but learning it and so many other great works with him made a huge impact."
While I'm sure there could be more to say, I'll finish up next week with a summary about Eric and his work. After that, a summer hiatus!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Learning from Eric Ericson VII - Arne Lundmark

Arne Lundmark is the manager for the Swedish Radio Choir, a fine singer, and voice teacher. He's the baritone soloist on a recording of Sven-David Sandström's Etyd, som e-moll (if you get a chance, listen to it--gorgeous!). I was able to write Arne and ask about his experiences with Eric when a member of Eric's chamber choir and after. Here it is:
 
When did you first work with Eric? I studied at the Piteå College of Music so didn't work with Eric earlier in my career. I joined the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir in 1982 after moving to Stockholm. I was a regular member of EECC from 1982 -1992, and did some projects as an extra with both the Swedish Radio Choir and EECC during the years when I started working at the Radio, from 1992-2005.
 
What is characteristic of Eric and his work as conductor: What I was most fascinated by was his very clever way of expressing himself, both with his words and with his hands. And also the way he gave us a picture of the musical character and the harmonic context by sitting at the piano and letting his magic fingers point out the important notes and passages. He had an outstanding way of describing things that was his very own. And as a world class story teller, he obviously used that as a very efficient tool to have break in the rehearsal and get everybody on track and in the mood again.

It was quite frankly "messy" at rehearsals sometimes, and I have to admit that sometimes he spent so much time of tuning the choir so that learning the notes was a bit neglected! His conducting was very much about phrasing the musical line with the most undescribable gestures that everyone for some reason understood. In the concert itself I often had the feeling that all his love to music suddenly was shown and we were willing to give him all he asked for.

And I also have to say that Eric's way of using brilliant metaphors to get the right character is one thing I wish that our conductors would learn from.
 
What’s special about his sound? Is it part of a “Swedish” or “Scandinavian” sound? It's hard to tell. I think the combination of well trained, partly soloistic voices and the idea of all coming together in a transparent and well tuned way for the a cappella was the recipe for a good sound. Whether it was Scandinavian or not I can´t say, but Eric was anyway a pioneer.

What was most remarkable about him? The way he made choir singing go from a social phenomenon into a respected art form. And also how he succeded in attracting good voices to choir singing. That was a unique thing and maybe the first reason why the EECC had such a reputation.
 
Special memories of Eric? There are hundreds of stories, but one other thing that I will not forget is a moment when we invited him at the age of 92 to conduct the Radio Choir in a workshop. He made a fantastic work with some songs of Peterson- Berger. And on the stage he gave us all his blessings with some very touching words.