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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Learning from Eric Ericson IV - Conducting Technique I

These notes are from several sessions (hence I've abbreviated in some places) that Eric Ericson did on basic conducting technique. This took place at the Haystack Workshop in Astoria, Oregon. I was singing in the 16-voice chamber choir that did a concert as well as providing the workshop choir. These are exercises to practice, or which are useful in teaching conducting (I've used them regularly). I'll spread this over two posts, corresponding to the two days Eric did this. (Sorry for any formatting "oddities" -- I had to scan and old typed version to pdf and then convert to MS Word, which made for some challenges) It's difficult, of course, to write about something that is physical and visual, but I've done my best!
1) Posture - find a balanced posture - now rotate your body side to side—relax your arms and let them follow your body - note that the arms follow in a circular way - "you need to find a natural way for your body to conduct"
2) Put your thumb and forefinger together and press intensely, so intensely that your fingertips become white - but localize the tension so that it's only in your fingers, not your arm - move your arms freely, tension only in the fingers - "too much muscle can kill the music"
3) Now bring your hand up to a 'normal' position - feel attachments that lift your arm
  • lift , then relax - just let your arm drop - now close your eyes, lift and relax - now move your arm out to the side, lift and relax
  • have a partner lift your arm with no tension then let go - it should fall naturally
  • now feel as if your arm is being lifted only by an attachment at the finger - then from the wrist , elbow, shoulder
4) Now clasp your hands together and press them together hard - feel the intensity, but no tension in your shoulder
  • shake hands with your partner, very firmly - check with the other hand to see that there is no tension in the shoulder of your partner
5) To find the position of the hand while conducting, simply lift up from by your side - find a natural position - avoid the elbow out or in, just ''natural”
6) what the conductor does must help vocal production (E. doesn't want baton for this reason)
7) the focus of the beat is the entire hand (not the fingers—too tense/ not the wrist—too floppy)
  • the hand is where the choir reads the main information - the whole body gives 'resonance' (supports, is in agreement with) with the hand
8) conduct in 1 (Eric plays the piano) - "feel the magnetic pull towards the rebound spot" (ictus)
  • now try with both hands ("don't go too high - work in the center of the body")
  • feel contact with the breath and the level of the hands
9) bounce the beat off of the left hand, held at belly level
  • now bounce it off the left hand at the top, the hand at the top of the beat
  • now move the hand with no destination (like painting a wall)
(Eric plays a waltz - "you want a clear one that provokes what follows"}
10) now conduct with the whole arm - now focus in the elbow - see how awkward and inefficient
11) now conduct in a four pattern - E. watches and says: "don't let your elbow go out for beat 2" "don't put beat 1 in front of the body - it makes for an unnatural position"
  • "don't think beat as in "beating” (schlag), use the positive aspect of heartbeat"
12) (continue conducting in 4) - feel the hand leading the beat , the arm follows
(comments to class while conducting) "relax your shoulder" "concentrate the beat in the hand" "walk around a little bit" "smaller beat , very small"
13) E. has class alternate bars conducting 4 while counting 2 and vice-versa
  • then beat 3, count 1 (E. says onnne, going immediately to the 'n') beat 1 , count "1-2-3
  • then beat 6, count 2
  • beat 2, count 6
  • (exercises of the "least common denominator")
14} "The size of the beat is related to the tempo, not the dynamic”
  • he does an exercise to help feel this: change tempo with the beats the same size - doesn't work
  • (he also notes that generally he doesn't want beat going above the eye level)
  • now he alternates randomly, playing the piano and calling out the changes one bar ahead
  • then improvises freely - conductors now keep that pattern against his rhythms
15) Independence of hands: r.h./1.h.
  • r.h. conducts four, l.h. goes up and down while you sing a scale:
  • then, do the opposite (the 1.h. goes the opposite direction of the scale)
16) Articulation: alternate:
  • make sure the articulation of the hand coincides with what the voice does
  • marcato calls for a faster rebound , contraction of muscle (E: "In America I generally feel there is too fast a rebound. This loses the possibility of sonority between beats .")
  • Eric uses 12/8 for developing a legato beat - plays the opening of the St. Matthew Passion while conductors conduct ("feel the pull of the beat" )
17) now conduct 12/8, but sing only the first 8th note of every beat on the syllable “pom”
  • Now on the 2nd eighth note
  • now on the 3rd eighth note
  • (you must think all the of the eighths and show the consequences of each beat
  • the class keeps up this pattern while E improvises jazz

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Learning from Eric Ericson III - Robert Sund

As you read the thoughts of various musicians who worked with Eric, you’ll discover commonalities—which is only natural—but each from a slightly different perspective.
For me, one of the best things about doing this series is giving me the excuse to get in touch with my Swedish friends. This week it’s Robert Sund. I met Robert in 1989, on my first trip to Sweden. But I really got to know Robert when we were judges that same year at the first Marktoberdorf competition. Since the judges’ deliberations were all done in German he helped me find the right word as we discussed the performances. I’ve had many meetings with Robert over the years, but I learned still more during this conversation.
Robert has a background that is out of the ordinary compared to Swedish choral conductors. He took piano lessons for 6 years (until he was 14) but his real love was jazz. He played piano, trumpet, trombone, and other instruments, listening to a lot of music (Swedish Radio had a big band in those days), formed his own band and did arrangements for them. When he went to Uppsala in 1963 to attend the famous university there (the oldest in Sweden, founded in 1477), he went to study English and his intention all along was to be an English teacher and for music to be an avocation. He hadn’t even sung at that point.
He auditioned for the orchestra at Uppsala on trombone, but was told that they rarely used trombones and he ought to sing. He quickly met a group of singers who heard him play jazz and they formed the Olsson Quintet, an all-male group singing jazz and other light music. He auditioned for the great men’s chorus, Orphei Drängar, conducted by Eric, in 1964, but didn’t get in that year, so sang in Allmänna Sången (one of the oldest choirs in Uppsala—formed in 1830, but had just become a mixed choir in 1963) and took voice lessons. The next year he was accepted into OD—Eric had already heard of the Olsson Quintet—and began his long association with Ericson. He says he’d never even heard of Eric when he arrived at Uppsala!
Robert and the Quintet became involved in the famed “Caprice” concerts which were held every December and were programs with fun, funny, and surprising elements (and usually a special, surprise guest—if you want to hear more—you can order CDs containing music from different Caprice years: here or here). Because of Robert’s skills as an arranger (again, self-taught) he was on the program committee and very involved with OD early on.
You should know that Eric loved jazz, so this was something he and Robert very much shared. And if you were around Eric very much or heard him sitting and improvising at the piano, you’d inevitably hear some jazz.
As time went on, Robert did his master’s degree in psychology (as well as musicology) at Uppsala and later worked briefly as a psychologist. However he gradually realized that music needed to be more than an avocation, so he began studies at the College of Music in 1971. He was Eric’s assistant with OD from 1968 (taking rehearsals when Eric couldn’t be there) and became conductor of Allmänna Sången in 1970. His conducting debut with OD was in 1969 when Eric was ill and he also took the choir on tour.
During the time he was at the College of Music (1972-75), he sang in the school’s chamber choir (which he said was fantastic in those days with many fine singers and conductors who’d later become well-known) and also in Eric’s Chamber Choir from 1973-77. From 1985 to 1991 he and Eric were co-conductors of OD and he took over totally in 1991, retiring in 2008.
So now, to let Robert speak about his experiences with Eric:
I was always very close with Eric – always with him, making programs, discussing OD. He was interested in my family and children, even up until the very end. The Olsson Quintet had dinner with him and Monica every first of May, which also lasted until very near the end.
In terms of programming he was always very careful, wanted other opinions, and delayed making decisions – the program committee for OD had to push him a bit. He always wanted to hear what other people were thinking. In this sense he was very open to questions from choir, patient (perhaps even when he might not have been) and his manner was gentle. This way of working with people (as opposed to conductors who get angry) was one of the things I admired and learned from him.
His workload was amazing, especially in those days. [Sparks: during this time he rehearsed OD one night, the Chamber Choir on another, had the choir at St. Jacobs in Stockholm (with whom he did all the major works with orchestra) on another, the Radio Choir three days a week, the Chamber Choir at the College of Music, and teaching at the College of Music—and remember all of these groups toured at different times of the year as well]. He loved to rehearse and could easily and happily spend 10 minutes balancing one chord and getting it in tune. If there were two minutes left at the end of rehearsal he wouldn’t end early, but start another piece. OD were often astonished if a guest conductor came in and stopped rehearsal early. As an example, OD was on tour one year and they had a dinner together at a restaurant. Eric asked everyone to bring their music to the restaurant and then rehearsed (in the restaurant) until shortly before the concert.
He used the piano frequently in rehearsal (although lots of a cappella singing as well, of course) and relied on it to show what he wanted. He was a marvelous pianist and would either demonstrate how he conceived the music or use it to help with tuning, difficult harmonies, or other aspects of the music. I also use the piano as a tool in my rehearsals.
Very early on Eric began recording not only concerts but rehearsals. You’d always see him with his headphones on, humming along as he listened to the last rehearsal. This was very much part of his routine. I’d imagine this began at the Radio where he had access to recording equipment. He loved technology and as soon as portable recorders were available he brought them to all his rehearsals and concerts. This allowed him to hear what the choir was doing from a different perspective.
Uppsala was a place where he totally relaxed and where many of his close friends were. With OD he was one of the guys. When I went to Stockholm to study I was surprised to see the awe with which he was regarded. People would say, “Do you know him already?”
You asked about his sound: if you’ve heard the recording of Swedish songs he did with the Real Group it shows that Eric loved a light, clear sound with fantastic intonation. He always spent time with phrasing. In some ways he was reluctant for the choir to go to the extremes of forte, because he could lose that lightness, balance and intonation. In the same way, he emphasized vowels for their effect on tuning and color and de-emphasized consonants. He rarely went for drama, but beauty of sound and wonderful intonation.
He had a great sense of humor and used it to relax the choir. The worse things went, the more funny he’d become.
Eric has been my only teacher. Not only during my studies at the College of Music, but also during 20 years of close cooperation in different choirs I have learnt almost everything I know by watching him work. Of course I have studied other famous conductors and picked up details here and there, but I am most lucky to have had the opportunity to have been so close to the greatest master of them all.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Paul Salamunovich dies

Paul Salamunovich died on April 3 at age 86.

I got to know him when he was a clinician (twice) at our Pacific Lutheran University summer choral workshops.

He was a wonderful man, devoted to his family, to St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church which he served so well, to Gregorian chant, and was beloved by everyone I know who'd worked with him. He conducted countless all-state, all region choirs over the years.

He sang with Roger Wagner from the time he was a boy, sang and conducted for Hollywood movies, and had a memorable 10-year tenure with the LA Master Chorale, a choir Wagner founded.

To learn more, follow the link above to the LA Times obituary.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Learning from Eric Ericson II - Eva Wedin

Eva Wedin is our guest-blogger this week. Eva began singing with Eric as a student at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm (1973-78). She sang as an alto in the Radio Choir from 1979-2012, when she "retired" . . . and still occasionally subs with the choir (imagine all the music she's sung with high level choirs!). She also has her own choirs, including Engelbrekts Vokalensemble. I first met Eva when I first worked with the Radio Choir in 2002 and we became fast friends. When I came back to work with the Radio Choir in 2007 and 2008 she was also the choir's librarian, so we worked together on getting scores. She's also visited with us in the US. Here's her guest blog post:
Eric Ericson – my Musical Father! I can without a doubt say that 90% of all that I've learned about music during the 40 years that have passed since I began my studies at the Royal College of Music, I've learned directly from him or through him as a choir singer. I feel so blessed that I had the opportunity to have him as my teacher and conductor for an intense period of more than ten years and at numerous occasions after that.
The first word that comes to mind when I think of Eric's approach to music is ENTHUSIASM. He looked like a child in a toy store every time he sat down in front of the choir ready to rehearse. Whether a simple folk tune or a brand new score by Ligeti or Lidholm. It was always a joy for him to tackle whatever obstacles to reach the perfect performance.
He worked very much like a CONSTRUCTION WORKER building a house. Harmonies and rhythms became the frame work of the house, intonation the paint work and the sound the shiny clean glass windows. Dynamics became beautiful stair cases and terraces. The house was furnished with lyrics, words and syllables. Finally he built a playground in the garden with his wonderful sense of humor.  (A childish metaphor, I know, but these thoughts just pop up when I think of him.)
He was a fantastic PIANIST who could play in a way that demonstrated how he wanted you to sing. He could almost create a choir sound with the piano.
His CURIOSITY was huge, especially when it came to new music. He loved to explore a new score, preferably with the composer by his side, so he could ask questions and get as close to the composers intentions as possible. I don't think he ever said that a piece was impossible to do, no matter how difficult it was. He DEMANDED A LOT from the choir, but he never demanded more than what he gave himself. He was the hardest worker of all. I remember a tour with the Radio Choir to the US in 1983, when we traveled and had concerts pretty much every day for three weeks. If there was any possibility for him to go ahead to the next place, he did and by the time we got there, he had already done a couple of master classes in the afternoon.
He knew that everyone expected the most from him and his choirs which of course inspired him, but I think also sometimes weighed him down.  He felt that every concert had to reach world class level, whether it was in a small church in the Swedish countryside or the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. But that also gave room for small miracles to happen. The Radio Choir had sung Ligeti's Lux Aeterna in a small Sami church [the Sami are an indigenous people in the north of Sweden and Norway] in the very north of Sweden and after the concert an old Sami woman came up with tears in her eyes and thanked Eric and the singers for Ligeti, that made her see stars she had never seen before. And that little story makes you wonder how many more such stories there are all around the world, that we don't know anything about. All thanks to Eric and his curiosity…
…and COURAGE. It must have taken a lot of guts many times to dare to tackle all those extremely difficult pieces that landed on his music stand. Pieces that today are performed by every other choir in the world, but back then took a year to learn. I'm obviously thinking of Lidholm's Laudi, or Canto LXXXI for that matter. All the pieces that Eric performed for the first time that later became door openers into a new era in choir music, available for all.
VERSATILITY is another quality in Eric. He did all kinds of music. Had a composer written a choir piece, Eric did it. From renaissance to jazz and all in between. And he was just as THOROUGH and DILIGENT whether he worked with a jazz piece together with Bengt Hallberg or the Matthew Passion with the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble.
He was a TEACHER not only to his students, but he also turned every rehearsal into a lesson. And that's what I mean when I say that everything I've learned, I've learned from him. Music theory – when he explained the harmonic and rhythmic structures in a piece. Music history – from singing all kinds of music from all the different periods. Musical interpretation – how he shaped and performed the piece.
Conducting technique – his hands could, just like the way he played the piano, show how you needed to sing in order to produce the sound he wanted. He could with just a slight elbow movement get the whole choir to breathe and phrase together. Knowledge of repertoire, of composers, conductors, of other singers, orchestras, concert venues, places around the world I would have never visited other than on a choir tour. People I've met, friends I've made…
This may sound very personal, and it is. But the thing is, I'm only one out of probably a thousand that would say the same thing. What Eric has meant for all of us is unfathomable and I will forever be grateful for everything he has given me.
NEVER has one choir conductor meant so much for so many!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Learning from Eric Ericson - I

Eric Ericson (1918-2013) was one of the major choral conductors of the last century. His work was influential for many of us and the standards he set with his own Chamber Choir, with the Swedish Radio Choir, along with the men's chorus Orphei Drängar, raised standards around the world. The many tours with those three choirs (and the chamber choir at the College of Music), in addition to his many recordings, were how most of us first knew his work.

While he prepared and/or conducted most of the standard choral/orchestral masterworks, his primary focus and love was for a cappella music. It was always his goal with the Radio Choir, for example, to have 80% of the repertoire the choir sang be a cappella (he wasn't always successful with this).

As the primary teacher of conducting at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm he influenced generations of Swedish conductors from the early 1950's into the 1990s (for a considerable number of those years he was the teacher for all choral conductors, whether music education or church music, and for many years it was also the only place in Sweden where one could study conducting). Later in his career he influenced conductors from around the world through masterclasses and conducting courses.

I've written before about his use of the piano in rehearsal, but we'll explore more of what made Eric . . . well, Eric. And, of course, to ask which of his methods and approaches will be useful to us. A number of posts as well will be guest blogs or interviews with some of my Swedish friends who've known Eric for many years.

A wonderful interview with him from 1997, the 50th anniversary of his Chamber Choir, can be found here. It will tell you a lot to get started.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Young Conductor X - leadership 2

My last post introduced the importance of leadership (or the ability to lead) to be a successful conductor. Most of us learn much of what we know about leadership from our own conductors/mentors/models. This is one of the most important ways we learn.
But one can be more systematic and explore the rich literature on leadership. A quick search on Amazon led to 111,042 books on the topic! So there is no lack of books on leadership--it's more a question of figuring out which ones are worthwhile! Many come from the business world, others from the world of sports. As I mentioned, my series on John Wooden dealt in part with an approach to teaching, but leadership as well. I've read books by Nick Saban, Phil Jackson and others about leadership in the sports/coaching world. While I've read a fair number of books on business leadership over the years, most don't reside in my personal library. But I can certainly recommend Jim Collins' Good to Great and other books. I also like many of Stephen Covey's books and some of Tom Peter's.
In the music world, Benjamin Zander, long-time conductor of the Boston Philharmonic (not Symphony!), has a book co-authored with his wife, The Art of Possibility, plus a number of videos and a TED talk.
Ramona Wis has an excellent book, The Conductor As Leader, which deals directly with all these issues and which I can strongly recommend. She speaks a lot about "servant leadership," which is one model I find very helpful. This means that the leader is also a servant to her ensemble--what do you do to help your singers grow? How do you serve the composer's intentions? This is in contrast to a dictatorial style of leadership (which can also work, of course). I have a recent post on my personal blog about my HS teacher/mentor/friend, Neil Lieurance, who just died Sunday. He's a prime example of a servant leader--I owe him my career.
Kenneth Owen commented on my second post and my statement there that leadership was essential for success (but was rarely taught), with a link to his own blog on choral leadership, and I can recommend it highly.
The point is much the same as with my other blog posts: growth as a conductor is life-long. There's always more to learn. Young conductors who look towards a successful career should be exploring ideas about leadership throughout their careers. Jump in and begin to read more about the topic from the musical world, but also other fields where leadership is all-important. Talk to your mentors/teachers about this topic, ask questions, ask why they do what they do.
Again, the fun of this career is that you can always grow, always be better. And learning to be a leader is an important part of that growth.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Young Conductor IX - leadership 1

As I mentioned earlier in this series, it's rare that there's a place in any undergraduate music education curriculum, or even MM or DMA curricula in choral conducting on the topic of leadership. This is one of those things that's incredibly important, but rarely taught directly. It may be that your music ed or conducting teacher talks about this informally or in an open choral seminar, but most of us have to pick up ideas about leadership by ourselves.
And what do we mean by leadership? Martin Chemers, in his An Integrative Theory of Leadership, says leadership is, "a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task."
That is not a bad definition of leading a choir. Ask yourself how your mentors/conductors do (or don't) enlist the support of their choirs towards to common task we have of making music and presenting it to the public. When we discuss leadership, we aren't talking about "management," although our administrative skills are also important. For me, the leader is one who inspires, who gets her choir to achieve beyond the level that they (and perhaps others) thought was possible.
Of course, most of what we learn about leadership comes from observing and being part of choirs led by our own conductors/teachers/leaders. This kind of modeling, whether explicit (discussed directly) or implicit (observed by you, perhaps absorbed unconciously), is enormously powerful. This unconcious learning can be positive, but also negative. We all tend to emulate what our mentors do and how they do it, for good or ill. It's possible to pick up good leadership traits from our mentors, but also to absorb traits that might not be so positive.
For the young conductor, whether an undergraduate music education student or a graduate student with considerable experience, I believe that thinking about leadership directly is an important factor in your success. Ask yourself what you admire about your mentors or other conductors (All-State/Honor Choirs/Church Choirs/Community Choirs, etc.). What are the characteristics about them that inspire you and other members of the choir? How do they communicate their excitement about the music, the choir, you? Simply put, what makes them an inspiring leader?
Talk with your peers about these issues as well. Peer to peer learning is incredibly powerful. I always felt as a graduate student that I learned as much or more from my fellow students as I did from my teachers.
And, of course, we also learn from negative models. We've all had conductors who did not inspire. Or you may have a wonderful conductor who has an area or two which is ineffective. Sometimes we make mental notes to ourselves that we'll never do that particular thing when we have our own groups! That's valuable, too.
When you make more of what you observe of good models conscious, it allows you to work on particular aspects of leadership on your own. It may even make you aware of negative habits you've picked up from one of your models.
If you're already a conductor, ask yourself how you're doing in inspiring your choir to achieve--how are you doing as a leader? An important question!
Coming up: reading about leadership. We can learn from many leaders, from business to sports--my recent series on the basketball coach John Wooden is one example, but there are many more.