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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Building Skills 6

More from Daniel Coyle: Tip#9 “To Build Soft Skills, Play Like a Skateboarder”
 
As Coyle says:
 
Soft skills catch our eye because they are beautiful. Picture the soccer star Lionel Messi improvising his way to a brilliant goal, or Jimi Hendrix blazing through a guitar solo, or Jon Stewart riffing through a comic monologue. These talents appear magical and unique. In fact they are the result of super-fast brain software recognizing patterns and responding in just the right way.
 
While hard skills are better put together with measured precision, soft skills are built by playing and exploring inside challenging, ever-changing environments. These are places where you encounter different obstacles and respond to them over and over, building the network of sensitive wiring you need to read, recognize, and react. In other words, to build soft skills you should behave less like a careful carpenter and more like a skateboarder in a skateboard park: aggressive, curious, and experimental, always seeking new ways to challenge yourself.
 
After this, Coyle uses some great examples from Brazilian soccer players, Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy troupe, and the (!) Brontë sisters to show how in different situations, flexibility and creativity are developed. He then closes with:
 
When you practice a soft skill, focus on making a high number of varied reps, and on getting clear feedback. Don’t worry too much about making errors—the important thing is to explore. Soft skills are often more fun to practice, but they’re also tougher because they demand that you coach yourself. After each session, ask yourself, What worked? What didn’t? And why?
 
As always, I highly recommend getting Coyle’s book yourself.
 
But the question is, how does this apply to a conductor? As recreative artists, where does our own creativity come in?
 
One is in learning how to be expressive and teaching your singers the same. Of course we all bring our training and lifetime in music (however long that is!) to our understanding of interpretation, whether generally or specifically in understanding performance in various periods, national styles, the particular style of an individual composer, languages, poetry, expressive diction, vocal color, varied use of vibrato, etc., etc. This is part of our never-ending learning process, which also includes listening to great artists (not just great choirs), whether singers or instrumentalists, or conductors of the past or present (one of the great things about the wealth of recordings available to us). This never-ending learning process is one of the reasons I love what I do . . . no worries that I can learn it all—and I should never get bored!
 
In your own preparation then, as you learn a particular piece of music, besides the usual research about the music, composer, and text, once you begin to really learn the piece, it’s time to experiment (without worrying, as Coyle says, about errors) with different tempi (and variation in tempi, ritardando/accelerando, and rubato), shapes of phrases, colors, articulations, places to breathe, etc. I do this by literally singing phrases myself, but also purely in my own internal musical imagination (which is a great thing to develop—the ability to imagine and hear the whole score: texture, voices, instruments, harmony, dynamics, etc.). Sometimes it can help to isolate different elements one at a time: experiment with articulation (legato, marcato, staccato and everything in between), with vocal color (bright to dark), and so on. With rubato, when is it appropriate, when not? How much rubato works with the composition—or does too much rubato destroy the structure of the music?
 
I’m having a great time with the Mozart Vesperae solennes de Dominica, which I’m doing with my Collegium Singers right now. It’s the much less known of the pair of Vespers settings Mozart wrote, and an absolutely wonderful piece. But it’s music which needs careful work to shape expressively: varied dynamics, articulations, attention to text (both meaning and diction) and text accent (which does not always fall on strong beats), length of final notes, and (of course) tempi. These all feed into phrase shape, which I think of as the heart and soul of expressive interpretation.
 
All of this experimentation gradually builds an interpretation. Now does this finalize it? Of course not! The ensemble will affect what you do—perhaps a tempo you’ve imagined simply doesn’t work. And the room where you sing will also make its own contribution. When I tour with choirs, the different rooms can make a big difference in tempi, in how much time you take at the end of a section of music. Music is a live art—it’s an interaction between you, the ensemble, room, and audience. I’ll always remember a concert in the Stanford University Chapel with the Choir of the West from PLU—and the great reaction of the choir to the room after we cut off the first chord we sang! For that particular performance I had to allow much more time at the end of sections and it made an impact on my tempi, as well. But any different room will have its own effect.
 
Another thing young conductors need is practice controlling what the ensemble does with just gesture (unless you’ve decided its fine to talk to your ensemble in performance!).
 
When rehearsing, even early in the process, particularly if you’re drilling a phrase or section of the music, start varying what you do (tempo, ritardando, dynamics) and show changes with your gesture, expecting the singers to follow. This gives you many more reps in learning how to control what the singers do with gesture alone. Don’t wait until the dress rehearsal to experiment! Do it as soon as you can—you can also explore your own creativity, exaggerate various things (dynamics, tempo rubato, etc.) that you’d never want to do in a performance.
 
But the idea is . . . find ways to practice your creativity as an interpretive artist!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Most Meaningful Mentor


This is a difficult choice, since I've been lucky to have some wonderful teachers and mentors. For example, Neil Lieurance was an influential teacher—without him I probably wouldn't have made a career as a conductor. Neil died this past year at the too-young age of 70. I wrote about him here. But beyond his influence in HS, Neil immediately treated me like a colleague after I graduated and began my undergraduate studies at the University of Washington—I'd visit and he'd share whatever music and recordings were interesting him. He followed my work with early ensembles I conducted and was always willing to give advice. He was a true mentor.
 
Rod Eichenberger, my undergraduate conducting teacher (although he let me take part in the graduate conducting class as an undergrad), has been another great teacher and mentor. I started hanging around his office and listening to his conversations with the grad students around my junior year (among them Bruce Browne and Larry Marsh) and he told me if I'd file the large stacks of scores for him, I could keep any duplicates. This not only gave me the beginning of my personal library but a great overview of choral literature—if I filed a piece by Hindemith, I'd look through the file to see what else Hindemith wrote for chorus. And, like Neil, he remained a mentor long after I graduated (to the current day, in fact). When I took the job at Pacific Lutheran University, following Maurice Skones, he called and congratulated me, but also said, "As someone who followed Charles Hirt at USC, I know something about the challenges of following a legend. If you ever want to call and talk, don't hesitate." This was a gift . . . and a relationship that has continued up to the present.
 
But for this post about my most meaningful mentor, I'll speak of Eric Ericson. Eric was never my teacher, but has undeniably been a major influence on my music-making, repertoire, and approach to so many things.
 
I was aware of Eric's recordings from at least the early '70s (Neil Lieurance or Rod probably introduced me to them). I was fascinated with the amazing sound of his Chamber Choir and the Swedish Radio Choir, the purity of their intonation, and the repertoire they performed. In 1983 at the ACDA Conference I heard the Radio Choir live for the first time. And since I'd just auditioned for the DMA program at CCM, was invited by John Leman to join the masterclass conducting choir and got to observe Eric's teaching first-hand.
 
The following fall I began at PLU and in 1985 Bruce Browne called and said Eric's Conservatory Chamber Choir would be performing at the ISME conference in Eugene, OR and wanted some other opportunities for the choir. So I built the PLU Summer Choral Workshop around Eric and the choir. They were in San Francisco before coming to Tacoma, so Eric flew up and the choir came a day later on their tour bus. This was my first time to get to know Eric, watch him work on conducting technique with the whole group and a small group of master class conductors who worked with the Chamber Choir. It was an amazing experience.
 
About a year later I participated as a singer in a choir put together by Bruce Browne for his Haystack Workshop for which Eric was the clinician, I brought Eric and the Conservatory Chamber Choir back to PLU's summer workshop a few years later as well.
 
When I began thinking of a topic for my dissertation, I knew it would be about Swedish choral music, so I traveled for the first time to Sweden in April of 1989, where I searched for "the" topic, and Eric was the guide, introducing me to lots of people and resources. I sublet the apartment of one of his wife Monica's sons. I would then return for the full summer of 1990 to do research (and sublet the apartment of another of Monica’s son’s). Given the topic of my dissertation, Swedish A Cappella Music Since 1945 (published later here) I spoke with Eric numerous times, spent time in the Radio’s library, spent time going through Eric’s personal library of scores in his apartment, and Eric made connections for interviews with virtually every important choral composer of the this time period, plus many conductors and administrators.
 
I’ve also seen Eric work many times with his various choirs in rehearsal, recording sessions, and concerts. He was also the first conductor with a group of singers that would become Choral Arts. I’ve had numerous discussions with him (and those close to him) about his art. Eric was eternally curious about anything choral—always wanted to know what you were doing, what others he knew were doing, what repertoire you were doing (and it wasn’t easy to stump him about a huge range of rep: “Oh yes, I did that in the late ‘60s" or (about some obscure American piece), "Yes, I know that."
 
It’s hard to separate out all aspects of Eric as mentor, but so many opportunities have come from my work with him. There’s so much repertoire I’ve learned due to him. Approaches to sound (even though few of us have the level of voices of the Radio or Chamber choirs), and intonation have also come from him. And incredibly important is his work ethic and dedication. Eric lived for music and this showed in his every approach to music, music-making, and his choirs.
 
I owe him an immense debt. And thanking all my teachers and mentors, I hope I have been a mentor to those students and conductors I’ve come worked with over the years. That will certainly continue as long as I’m able to help. It’s an important way of giving back all that I (or you!) have been given over the years.
 
ACDA has a great new mentoring program and I hope you’ll consider being a mentor or mentee. Make sure you check it out!
 
(Will you one day be someone’s most meaningful mentor? Plant the seeds today for tomorrow's choral world. ACDA Mentoring.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Improving Skills 5

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #8 - To Build Hard Skills, Work Like a Careful Carpenter
 
To develop reliable hard skills, you need to connect the right wires in your brain. In this, it helps to be careful, slow, and keenly attuned to errors. To work like a careful carpenter. . . . Precision matters early on, because the first reps establish the pathways for the future. Neurologists call this the “sled on a snowy hill” phenomenon. The first repetitions are are like the first tracks on fresh snow: On subsequent tries your sled will tend to follow those grooves. “Our brains are good at building connections” says Dr. George Bartzokis, a neurologist at UCLA. “They’re not so good at unbuilding them.”
 
This can have to do with building conducting skills, but has more to do with teaching our choirs.
 
As we rehearse, we help our choirs build all sorts of hard skills: the rhythms and pitches of the music we’re teaching, the way they approach a high note vocally, proper intonation, etc.. It means making sure that you build each of these correctly. It’s necessary at some points in the learning process to isolate elements to do this.
 
It’s one of the keys to Robert Shaw’s rehearsal process, which developed through his work with his large symphonic choruses (the Collegiate Chorale, Cleveland Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus) in order to build in all the different elements correctly. He’s been known to say, “You have to clean the floor before you hang the drapes.”
 
Pamela Elrod Huffman, who sang with Shaw, has written about Shaw’s techniques and done workshops on them. Here’s an article by Dr. Elrod from Southwest Musician (the journal of the Texas Music Educators Association).  Think through what this means in the careful building of the skills (rhythm, pitch, dynamics, text) to sing a given piece of music.
 
As I’ve stated before, I use some of Shaw’s techniques but work in a different way—and in doing so, run the risk of moving too quickly and the choir learning some things incorrectly (and then having to spend time unlearning them). It’s definitely something for me to think about!
 
One of the areas I’ve learned you have to be very careful is in working with intonation (you can find my Intonation series on this blog). Allowing your ensemble to sing (even for a surprisingly short period of time) under pitch can build that in so it’s very difficult to overcome.
 
Think carefully about those hard skills you teach your choir . . . and how you can work more “like a careful carpenter."

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Improving Skills 4

From Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent: Tip #7 “Before you start, figure out if it’s a hard skill or soft skill.”
 
Coyle divides up the skills we learn into two basic types:
“Hard skills are about repeatable precision, and tend to be found in specialized pursuits, particularly physical ones.” He then gives examples, such as swinging a golf club or tennis racket, learning the multiplication tables, or a worker on an assembly line. “Here, your goal is to build a skill that functions like a Swiss watch—reliable, exact, and performed the same way every time, automatically, without fail. Hard skills are about ABC: Always Be Consistent.”
 
“Soft, high-flexibility skills, on the other hand, are those that have many paths to a good result, not just one. These skills aren’t about doing the same thing perfectly every time, but rather about being agile and interactive; about instantly recognizing patterns as they unfold and making smart, timely choices. . . With these skills we are not trying for Swiss watch precision, but rather for the ability to quickly recognize a pattern or possibility, and to work past a complex set of obstacles. Soft skills are about the three R’s: Reading, Recognizing, and Reacting.”
 
It’s an interesting and helpful way to think of particular skills we want to master, or those we want our choir to master. In the next two tips, Coyle talks about how to develop either a hard or soft skill and I’ll deal with that in the next couple posts.
 
However, I think that one builds on another. You can’t be truly creative until you’ve mastered some of the underlying hard skills.
 
I’ll go back to John Wooden again, drawing from Ronald Gallimore and Swen Nater’s book on his teaching/coaching: "drill for Coach Wooden is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Drilling is intended to achieve an automaticity or mastery of fundamentals that opens up opportunities for individual creativity and initiative.”
 
In other words, the soft skills can’t come until the hard skills are well established.
 
If you want to improvise well, you have to have an incredibly thorough understanding of the fundamentals and great technique with your instrument. A friend told me a story recently about the late Gerre Hancock (marvelous organist and choral musician who was a prodigious improvisor) going to Paris to study improvisation with the noted pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger. He came to her apartment the first time, expecting a lesson on improvisation, but instead she handed him a fugue subject and asked him to go write a fugue. He was a bit confused, but did so (one wouldn’t argue with Madame Boulanger) and came back at the next appointed time, fugue in hand. She corrected it, then handed him another fugue subject. This continued for months. One week, after bringing his fugue, he took the subject she handed him and began to leave. “But no,” she said, “now you will come in and play a fugue based on this subject.” In other words, he’d so thoroughly mastered the art of writing a fugue that he could now begin to improvise one on the spot.
 
For conductors, clearly, developing the hard skill of a reliable conducting technique is a necessary prelude to being able to improvise gesture that fits the music one is conducting. As I tell my conducting students, I rarely think about my gesture—but if I know the music really, really well—have internalized it—then my gesture should do what it’s supposed to do, elicit the music I hear internally from my singers and instrumentalists.
 
The same is true of rehearsal technique. I’ve written about it here, here, and also here. As your rehearsal technique becomes more and more secure, it allows the freedom to improvise in rehearsal. Just as mastering the skills of cooking and an understanding of how different ingredients will combine allow a great chef the freedom to modify a recipe to great result.
 
In this sense, so much that we do is both craft and art: we have to work incredibly hard to develop our skills, our craft . . . but after that art has the possibility to flourish.
 
One of my fondest memories at PLU was taking the choir on tour and getting to that point where the details of performing our repertoire were secure in such a way that on a given night I could “play” with the music and the choral "instrument." But this was always a two-way street—the singers’ response (to the room, to the music) could also influence me—in that way at its best, performance becomes a complex, creative, and artistic dance between conductor and ensemble (and room and audience). Those are the moments (not always present, of course) when the experience transcends our usual music making. And those transcendent moments and performances are what makes it all worthwhile.