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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Long time no write!

I just noticed it's been forever since my last post--sorry for that!

It's been a busy year, as I noted it would be in an earlier post. I took over for Jerry McCoy this past year on an interim basis (after his retirement) as Director of Choral Studies at UNT . . . and kept the Collegium Singers plus my appointment as Chair of the Division of Conducting & Ensembles for the College of Music. This amounted to 1 and 2/3rds jobs (and at times, more, it seemed!). Lots of work, but lots of fun stuff, too!

Collegium Singers performed at the NCCO conference in Portland, OR in November. The A Cappella Choir had a busy fall with some performances now on YouTube:
Rheinberger Cantus Missae
Sven-David Sandström Agnus Dei
Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer
and in the Spring:
Stravinsky Les Noces
Haydn The Creation

All lots of fun.

Plus leading the graduate program in conducting with nine students in residence, six students finishing papers successfully (2 from earlier years who were at deadline) and four current DMAs who all got jobs (plus one MM, Tucker Bilodeau, who got a great job as assistant choral director at Nolan Catholic HS in Ft. Worth). The DMAs who finished and where they've landed:
Rob Ward, DCA at Emporia State, Kansas
John Irving, DCA at Christopher Newport University, Virginia
Dwight Jilek, DCA at Bemidji State, Minnesota
Dean Jilek, DCA at University of North Dakota

Terrific conductors and people, all of them!

In addition, I ran a successful search for the new Director of Choral Studies at UNT and Allen Hightower will begin that position this fall. I look forward to working with him!

I also look forward to a normal load this year!

I don't think I'll be blogging as regularly as before, but I hope it won't be 10 months until my next post!

Soon I'm heading to Santa Fe to guest conduct Josh Habermann's fabulous Santa Fe Desert Chorale. If you're in or near Santa Fe at the end of July or early August, come see me! Schedule is here. I'm conducting an all-Shakespeare program called Sounds and Sweet Airs.

If not there, I hope to see you at UNT, at ACDA in Minneapolis or the Boston Early Music Festival or perhaps the IFCM in Barcelona, should Kathryn and I manage to go!

All best for a wonderful year for all of you.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Great interview with Rod Eichenberger by Josh Bronfman

Joshua Bronfman's Choral History podcast is quickly becoming "must listening" and his recent interview with Rod Eichenberger brought back great memories from me. I'd urge you to listen to these. It takes time, but is definitely worth it!

I've posted about Rod before (you can find the posts here) but answered Josh's podcast listing on Facebook. Here it is, my further appreciation of Rod and all he's meant to my life:

Fantastic interview, Josh! I enjoyed it immensely, learned a few new things, but could also add a few!

I began as an undergrad at the University of Washington in 1968, right at the same time that the DMA program was starting up, so during the same tim
e that Bruce Brown, Larry Marsh and others started (I think those two began in 1969).

I came out of Shorecrest HS, north of Seattle, where I'd worked with Leonard Moore (interesting person, deserving of another post--he was also my JH teacher in 8th and 9th grade), and Neil Lieurance, who student taught at Shorecrest my sophomore year. Neil was accompanist my junior year and took over the program my senior year, and would become a major influence and died too young last year at 70. You can find more about Neil (and a number of these things) on my blog.

I had a good voice and good ear, but had never learned to read. In the summer before my freshman year, Weston Noble was doing a couple workshops in the Seattle area. I went to the first one, which was largely about the voice matching he did. Weston liked how I sang well enough that he asked if I could come to the second workshop as well, which I did. Weston did ask if I was interested in Luther, but knew that I was planning to go to the UW. I didn't know this until a number of years later, but Weston called Rod and told him the, "perfect blending baritone" was coming to the UW. If it weren't for that I doubt I would have made the UW Chorale (the top choir) my freshman year. At my audition I remember Rod asked me if I could sing the opening of the Kyrie from the Mozart Missa Brevis in F (K. 192, which we did that fall). I replied, "No, but I can probably sing it if you play it for me first." Well, I got in.

Rod put me next to an organist (Greg Vancil) who was, of course, a superb reader and told Greg to make sure I got the right notes (which wasn't too difficult) and knew that my voice would work well with Greg's. On the other side of me was Dennis Coleman, who became the long-time and *very* successful conductor of the Seattle Men's Chorus (just now retiring). 

Of course, I learned an enormous amount from Rod. At that time he taught the undergraduate conducting class as well, so he was also my undergrad conducting teacher (his load at that time was ridiculous--teaching undergrad and grad conducting, supervising the work of his MM and DMA students, and conducting both the UW Chorale and Oratorio Chorus (the next big choir--there was also an unauditioned choir--University Singers--which he was able to give to a grad student). 

Along about my sophomore year I was enormously shy and was feeling a bit left out at UW (only my fault through shyness). I'd also gotten to know Bob Scandrett at Western Washington University (who also died this past year) through Neil, who was doing an MM during the summers at Western. I went to Bob's summer workshops, and that summer I went up for a workshop with Gregg Smith and stayed with Neil at his dorm. Rod came up for the final concert and afterwards we all went to Bob's for the post-concert party. Bob asked if we'd make the punch and Rod and I proceeded to make an incredibly potent punch and gradually got pretty well tipsy. Leaving late we discovered that the dorm was locked and I couldn't get back in. So Rod said, hey, come stay with me and we'll look through the new music I'm doing with my church choir (he was then at Blessed Sacrament Church with a great choir) and we sightread through a lot of the rep he'd chosen (by that time I *could* sightread!).

So, starting my junior year I now became a mostly silent member of the gang and started hanging around Rod's office with the other grad students (at that time, Bruce Browne, Larry Marsh, and Ted Ashizawa--I may be leaving out others). I still remember listening to them arguing about the proportional relationship in a Gabrieli motet. I learned an enormous amount by being the fly on the wall and also got other benefits. I sang in virtually every one of their graduate recitals, learning repertoire, improving my musicianship, gaining new ideas for rehearsal technique, etc. Rod also had large stacks of complimentary scores he'd received from publishers and told me if I'd file them for him I could keep any duplicates. I did this and gained the beginnings of my own choral library, but would also, if filing a piece by Hindemith, look at what else Hindemith had written and started to get an overview of the repertoire. 

Rod turned 40 that year, the same year I turned 20, so it's always been easy to remember how old he is (and since that's 1930 and 1950 it's also been pretty easy to calculate our ages!), which makes me 65--very hard to believe--and Rod 85 (almost impossible to believe, given his vitality and energy).

I was learning an enormous amount during this time. Rod mentions the Australian tour as a huge impact on his career (I wasn't able to go on that one, unfortunately), but it was an earlier tour in 1971 that was a huge impact on me (after my junior year) to Vienna for two weeks for a big symposium with 7 other American university choirs (including Maurice Casey and his choir from Ohio State). We also toured after that to Venice, Verona, Lake Cuomo, Zurich, Andermatt, Dijon, and finished in Paris. I stayed in Europe afterward and spent time visiting at Wilhelm Ehmann's Westfälische Landeskirchenmusikschule, a week with Greg Vancil and then finance Nancy in Salzburg (who were studying at the Mozarteum that year), a couple weekends bookending that visit observing Helmuth Rilling in Stuttgart, and then about 10 days in Cambridge going to evensong services at King's and St. John's (David Willcocks allowed me to attend a rehearsal for evensong at King's--George Guest kicked me out of his rehearsal!).

Both the experience in Vienna, which included each American choir doing a full program in different churches in Vienna, all of use combining for Mahler's 8th Symphony in the Konzertverein with the Vienna Boychoir and Bratislava Radio Orchestra conducted by Günther Teuring, Kodaly's Psalmus Hungaricus in an outdoor performance at the Rathaus, and a quartet from each choir (I wasn't one of them) doing the Stravinsky Mass at Stefansdom in a Sunday service. It was, quite simply, an inspiring experience, as was my time in Europe afterwards.

I missed the fall quarter because of that, but when I got back asked Rod if I could participate in his graduate conducting class. He allowed me to do that, so I learned even more. He spoke in the interview about doing experiments with conducting gesture, but he also developed some ideas when he was office-mate with David Shrader (Schrader?), who was the percussion teacher at the time. I think Shrader helped him with ideas of certain kinds of motion (pick-ups, which Rod called "into", for example) which he then associated with certain gestures. There are others who will have a much better idea of Rod's development of those ideas, which continued after he left UW and, as he mentioned, during his many workshops in Australia and New Zealand and also at USC. 

I also had the job at University Methodist which Rod mentioned (although not following Rod directly, there was another person there for 3 years before I came--I was there 8 years). The UW organ teacher that Rod mentions, Walter Eichinger, was still there and yes, an enormously nice and supportive person--and a wonderful musician, too. Rod advised me NOT to take the job, but I did anyway (when do students always listen to their mentors?!).

After the Australia tour I don't think I sang in the Chorale anymore and probably was mostly done with my degree. So I was less involved with Rod after that, particularly when he left for USC.

But when I took the job at Pacific Lutheran University in 1983, following Maurice Skones, Rod immediately got in touch with me and said, "I know something about following legends and if you ever need to talk, just call," and gave me his number. From that time we kept in touch when we could and if my PLU choir was touring to Southern California (which in those days we did about every third year), we always had a day off and I'd go visit Rod at USC, have lunch or dinner together, and if he could, he'd come to my concert.

Since that time (or at least when he left for FSU) we've kept occasionally in touch and have seen each other primarily at conferences. A summer ago he did a workshop for Alan McClung at UNT and we got him over for dinner at our house. It's always incredibly fun to talk with him, as *anyone* who's experienced his presence knows!

Rod was an enormous influence in so many ways. One of the things I noticed from the beginning is that every time we've met he always had some new ideas--he's always exploring and learning, a true "lifelong learner." I hope I've picked up much of that from him. 

I've always felt that among my musical debts to him are a sense of rhythm and phrasing that I know started directly with singing with him. And I'm sure there are many others as well, some I may not recognize.

His speaking about collegiality and how to treat people (or ignore the bitching that always goes on) has also been an influence on my approach.

Rod in rehearsal was always fun, volatile, and extroverted. This was difficult for me at the time because that's *not* my natural personality (although I've come a long ways since that time). In this, I learned a lot from my (relatively brief) experience with Helmuth Rilling at the Oregon Bach Festival in 1972. Rilling was conducting the B Minor Mass and this was long before the professionalization of the chorus. Rilling was almost mechanical in rehearsal ("recover to a MF in b 42, the crescendo to F in b. 44, downbeat"), just concentrating on getting the dynamics, articulations, ensemble, etc. correct. But then in one of our last piano rehearsals, during the build up from Et incarnatus through Crucifixus to Et Resurrexit, he started to conduct in a totally different manner, just exploding on the Et Resurrexit (and then calmed back to his usual way of leading the rehearsal). From then on through the orchestra rehearsals to performance he got increasingly intense and expressive, showing things, changing things, and using gestures we'd never seen before. It was a great lesson for me that to be successful, I didn't have to have Rod's personality.

But then, it's always been one of the great things about Rod that he's enormously supportive of all his students. We talked about the Rilling experience and he never (as some people might) talked down my experience. And he's been a true supporter for all of my professional life.

This is a very long way of saying thanks to you for doing this interview (and capturing some of our choral history before it disappears--although Rod's videos will keep alive much of what he did, as will his students). But it's also my way of thanking Rod for the huge and important influence he's been in my life.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

An Interesting Year

As I mentioned, I'm leaving ChoralNet blog posting in another week. Next year will be interesting, to say the least.
l'll be taking over Jerry McCoy's Director of Choral Studies duties in an interim year at UNT, so conducting the A Cappella Choir, being the primary teacher of conducting for our graduate choral conducting students, being primary in creating their comprehensive exams and advising on dissertations (and four to six will be doing them this year!), and administering the choral program. I'll still be conducting the Collegium Singers (who will sing at the Boston Early Music Festival in June and at the NCCO conference in Portland, OR in November), and will remain chair of the Division of Conducting & Ensembles at the College of Music.
For A Cappella, I'm still planning much of the repertoire, but know I'll do Stravinsky's Les Noces in the spring. And I'll conduct the Grand Chorus (the three UNT mixed choirs) and Symphony Orchestra in Haydn's The Creation at the end of the year. This is part of the score study work to be done this summer. But that's one of the processes I really enjoy.
I've conducted Les Noces before, but one of the nice things is there's a very good new edition out. Any time I do this kind of work again, I usually want to completely re-study, but the new edition makes it even more important.
And with The Creation there are lots of things to decide. We'll do it in English and the libretto by Van Swieten has "issues," to say the least! There are other versions, including the Shaw/Parker translation, one by Nicholas Temperley and another by Neil Jenkins, who has several wonderful articles (1, 2, and 3), plus his own translation. This is the kind of research I love doing and I'll ultimately make individual decisions (collaborating with my soloists) on choices, but probably staying closely with the original text.
Peter Brown's book about the early performances of The Creation is wonderful and leads to all sorts of questions to answer, particularly about the size and disposition of the orchestra. In most of Haydn's performances with large forces, he had three sets of woodwinds (Harmonie), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassons, and two horns. In addition his trumpets (2) were doubled, as well as the 2 trombones (he usually also had two sets of timpani). And he scored for contrabassoon and bass trombone (not doubled). The set of parts that Haydn used (and which have markings in his hand) also had extra parts for the contrabassoon and bass trombone, which I'll certainly use. All three of the Harmonie were not used all the time, but surviving evidence shows that it was likely that Harmonie 1 played everything (meaning some solos in the arias), Harmonie 2 on most big tuttis (even in arias), and Harmonie 3 in choruses and at other special places ("Let there be LIGHT").
If I can manage to use the triple Harmonie, it changes the balances and color . . . and in some moments, such as the "roar" of the lion, it will mean that the low Ab will be played by all cellos and basses, six bassoons and contrabassoons, plus bass trombone. A mighty roar, indeed!
It's these kinds of things that come from research that I enjoy doing. And hopefully it all comes together in an interpretation that is not just about being "historically correct," but gets to what Haydn wanted to express and how he expressed it. For me, that's part of all performance practice—figuring out how better to express the emotion and ideas of the composer.
Wish me luck!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Lessons from Daniel Coyle

As you know if you've read many of my posts, I enjoy reading in other areas, from psychology to sports/coaching, and trying to learn things from them I can apply to music and conducting.
I think that the biggest thing I've taken from Daniel Coyle's two books has been the idea of gradually building the "white matter," or myelin, in the brain. If you've read much about the brain over at least 50 years or so, some of the structures (neurons, axons, dendrites, the synapses, etc.) have been understood to some extent for a long time. The idea of the insulating properties of myelin, which is much more recent, which gets put down only as a connection is fired, and builds gradually, is a great help to understanding how practice works. It tells how important it is to practice the correct things in the correct way (because you don't want to lay down myelin—or reinforce—the wrong things). And it also tells us about the patience needed as our brains repeat the correct actions many times and gradually build stronger and stronger connections as the correct skills are ingrained and gradually become more automatic, more unconscious . . . so your conscious brain can do what only it can do in leading the whole show.
It changes the nature of how we practice our own skills (conducting & rehearsal technique), but also, how we teach our singers to sing better, to be better musicians, better ensemble singers, better expressive singers. I know I will think much more about my own skills and these processes because of this.
And on to an announcement that I'll finish up being a ChoralNet blogger soon. For one thing, I've written a lot and need to work on some other things. But primarily, my life will be especially busy next year. Now, all of us are busy—I'm not special in that way, given the lives we all lead as conductors and teachers! But next year, with Jerry McCoy's retirement at the quickly-approaching end of this  school year, I'll be taking on his role for the 2015-16 academic year, administering the choral program, conducting the A Cappella Choir, and teaching all our graduate students in conducting (including writing and running their exams and supervising quite a few final papers). At the same time, I'll keep conducting the Collegium Singers (our ensemble that sings with our period-instrument orchestra) and remain chair of the Division of Conducting & Ensembles.
It'll be busy, but a great challenge and great fun at the same time—Jerry set very high standards. I'm looking forward to it . . . but trying to keep up with writing a weekly blog is a bit much.
I'll say more later, but it's been a great privilege to be able to share with (and learn from) you over the past several years. Thanks to Scott Dorsey and Phillip Copeland for asking me to do this—it's been fun!

Building Skills 25

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #52 - Think like a Gardener, Work like a Carpenter
". . . the truth is, talent grows slowly. You would not criticize a seedling because it was not yet a tall oak tree; nor should you get upset because your skill circuitry is in the growth stage. Instead, build it with daily deep practice."
Coyle mentions hearing the phrase, "Think like a gardener, work like a carpenter," at Spartek, the Russian tennis training center that's shown enormous success.
Whether it's our own skills or those of our singers, we have to understand that, like gardens,  we take tending and only grow and develop over time.

Building Skills 24

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #50 - Cultivate Your Grit
"Grit is that mix of passion, perserverance, and self-discipline that keeps us moving forward in spite of obstacles. It's not flashy and that's precisely the point. In a world in which we're frequentlly distracted by sparkly displays of skill, grit makes the difference in the long run."
There's been a lot written in the past few years about the concept of "grit" and it's importance—much of this comes from research by Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania (and a winner of one of the McArthur "genius grants)," who studied what made a difference in cadets doing well in or just surviving the famed "Beast Barracks" training at West Point. Beforehand, a brief test was given (you can find a version of it here),  "questions that asked them to rate their own ability to stick to goals, to be motivated by failure, and to persist in the face of obstacles." Grit proved extraordinarily successful in predicting success (much more so than intelligence and many other measures) and has also done well predicing success in many other areas.
As Coyle says, "Grit isn't inborn. It's developed, like a muscle. . ." and it's a muscle that's important to develop in ourselves and in our singers. The ability to persevere through learning challenging music, complicated musical and vocal skills, to persist in what Coyle calls, "deep practice," is what brings success.
If you find this interesting, a longer interview with Angela Duckworth is here. For a look at an opposing opinion, however, writer Alfie Kohn has a very good article questioning the concept of grit here.
What do you think? How important is it to success? If you believe it is, how do you cultivate grit—perseverance to reach difficult goals—in your singers/students?

Building Skills 23

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #42 "Six ways to be a better teacher or coach"
More than one tip, but six for improving our skills!
  1. "Use the first few seconds to communicate on an emotional level - Effective teaching is built on trust . . . . There are lots of tools for making this connection—eye contact, body language, empathy, and humor being some of the most effective—but whatever you use, make sure you prioritize that connection above all else. Before you can teach, you have to show that you care." I won't add anything to that—we can all see the connection to what we do as conductors.
  2. "Avoid giving long speeches—instead, deliver vivid chunks of information." Coyle talks about the inspiring speeches we see in movies . . . but which rarely work. He says, "When you're coaching [teaching, leading a rehearsal], picture the person's brain lighting up . . . reaching to make new connections. The question is not what big important message you can deliver. The question is, what vivid, concise message can you deliver right now that will guide her [them] towards the right reach?"
  3. "Be allergic to mushy language." We all can be guilty of this. Our instructions need to be clear and concrete. Specific, not general.
  4. "Make a scorecard for learning." Make sure that the "scorecard," however you are measuring the performance of your choir, is measuring the things you want. Think of process (means), not ends. Think about how many of them are physically, visually involved in the rehearsal, how many are using the posture you've modeled for when singing, etc. It's the processes that will lead towards great performances—and your goals (and praise) should be for meeting those means towards better performance.
  5. "Maximise 'reachfulness'. Reachfulness is the essence of learning. It happens when the learner is leaning foward, stretching, struggling, and improving." Make sure your singers are actively involved, singing, trying, thinking, helping each other with feedback. As Coyle asks, "How can you replace moments of passivity with moments of active learning."
  6. "Aim to create independent learners." Work to teach skills, both of technique and of listening, so they can eventually make lots of corrections themselves, can begin to phrase musically themselves. Someday they'll be the ones preparing and performing without you, and perhaps teaching themselves. What have you given them to set them free to make music when you're no longer there?