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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

End of an era in Seattle's Catholic and Episcopal cathedrals

I can hardly believe it, but two incredible men and musicians, Mel Butler (St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral) and James Savage (St. James Catholic Cathedral) are both retiring at the same time. I'd know Mel's was coming for a while, but hadn't known Jim's plans. Both have had enormous "influence for good" in their respective denominations and cathedrals and have also been a strong influence in music in general (and choral music in particular) in the Northwest and beyond.

They have both been friends with a positive influence on me as well. I can't thank them enough.

I wish them the very best as they transition to another phase of life.

This article gives a good background for those who don't know them.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Pope Francis's address to the Curia

Totally amazing address by Pope Francis to the Vatican Curia–appropriate not only to Catholics or even to those who are religious, but to all organizations and individuals:


Pope Francis: a Curia that is outdated, sclerotic or indifferent to others is an ailing body

Vatican City, 22 December 2014 (VIS) – This morning in the Clementine Hall the Holy Father held his annual meeting with the Roman Curia to exchange Christmas greetings with the members of its component dicasteries, councils, offices, tribunals and commissions. “It is good to think of the Roman Curia as a small model of the Church, that is, a body that seeks, seriously and on a daily basis, to be more alive, healthier, more harmonious and more united in itself and with Christ”.

“The Curia is always required to better itself and to grow in communion, sanctity and wisdom to fully accomplish its mission. However, like any body, it is exposed to sickness, malfunction and infirmity. … I would like to mention some of these illnesses that we encounter most frequently in our life in the Curia. They are illnesses and temptations that weaken our service to the Lord”, continued the Pontiff, who after inviting all those present to an examination of conscience to prepare themselves for Christmas, listed the most common Curial ailments:

The first is “the sickness of considering oneself 'immortal', 'immune' or 'indispensable', neglecting the necessary and habitual controls. A Curia that is not self-critical, that does not stay up-to-date, that does not seek to better itself, is an ailing body. … It is the sickness of the rich fool who thinks he will live for all eternity, and of those who transform themselves into masters and believe themselves superior to others, rather than at their service”.

The second is “'Martha-ism', or excessive industriousness; the sickness of those who immerse themselves in work, inevitably neglecting 'the better part' of sitting at Jesus' feet. Therefore, Jesus required his disciples to rest a little, as neglecting the necessary rest leads to stress and agitation. Rest, once one who has brought his or her mission to a close, is a necessary duty and must be taken seriously: in spending a little time with relatives and respecting the holidays as a time for spiritual and physical replenishment, it is necessary to learn the teaching of Ecclesiastes, that 'there is a time for everything'”.

Then there is “the sickness of mental and spiritual hardening: that of those who, along the way, lose their inner serenity, vivacity and boldness and conceal themselves behind paper, becoming working machines rather than men of God. … It is dangerous to lose the human sensibility necessary to be able to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice! It is the sickness of those who lose those sentiments that were present in Jesus Christ”.

“The ailment of excessive planning and functionalism: this is when the apostle plans everything in detail and believes that, by perfect planning things effectively progress, thus becoming a sort of accountant. … One falls prey to this sickness because it is easier and more convenient to settle into static and unchanging positions. Indeed, the Church shows herself to be faithful to the Holy Spirit to the extent that she does not seek to regulate or domesticate it. The Spirit is freshness, imagination and innovation”.

The “sickness of poor coordination develops when the communion between members is lost, and the body loses its harmonious functionality and its temperance, becoming an orchestra of cacophony because the members do not collaborate and do not work with a spirit of communion or as a team”.
“Spiritual Alzheimer's disease, or rather forgetfulness of the history of Salvation, of the personal history with the Lord, of the 'first love': this is a progressive decline of spiritual faculties, that over a period of time causes serious handicaps, making one incapable of carrying out certain activities autonomously, living in a state of absolute dependence on one's own often imaginary views. We see this is those who have lost their recollection of their encounter with the Lord … in those who build walls around themselves and who increasingly transform into slaves to the idols they have sculpted with their own hands”.

“The ailment of rivalry and vainglory: when appearances, the colour of one's robes, insignia and honours become the most important aim in life. … It is the disorder that leads us to become false men and women, living a false 'mysticism' and a false 'quietism'”.

Then there is “existential schizophrenia: the sickness of those who live a double life, fruit of the hypocrisy typical of the mediocre and the progressive spiritual emptiness that cannot be filled by degrees or academic honours. This ailment particularly afflicts those who, abandoning pastoral service, limit themselves to bureaucratic matters, thus losing contact with reality and with real people. They create a parallel world of their own, where they set aside everything they teach with severity to others and live a hidden, often dissolute life”.

The sickness of “chatter, grumbling and gossip: this is a serious illness that begins simply, often just in the form of having a chat, and takes people over, turning them into sowers of discord, like Satan, and in many cases cold-blooded murderers of the reputations of their colleagues and brethren. It is the sickness of the cowardly who, not having the courage to speak directly to the people involved, instead speak behind their backs”.

“The sickness of deifying leaders is typical of those who court their superiors, with the hope of receiving their benevolence. They are victims of careerism and opportunism, honouring people rather than God. They are people who experience service thinking only of what they might obtain and not of what they should give. They are mean, unhappy and inspired only by their fatal selfishness”.
“The disease of indifference towards others arises when each person thinks only of himself, and loses the sincerity and warmth of personal relationships. When the most expert does not put his knowledge to the service of less expert colleagues; when out of jealousy … one experiences joy in seeing another person instead of lifting him up or encouraging him”.

“The illness of the funereal face: or rather, that of the gruff and the grim, those who believe that in order to be serious it is necessary to paint their faces with melancholy and severity, and to treat others – especially those they consider inferior – with rigidity, hardness and arrogance. In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity”.

“The disease of accumulation: when the apostle seeks to fill an existential emptiness of the heart by accumulating material goods, not out of necessity but simply to feel secure. … Accumulation only burdens and inexorably slows down our progress”.

“The ailment of closed circles: when belonging to a group becomes stronger than belonging to the Body and, in some situations, to Christ Himself. This sickness too may start from good intentions but, as time passes, enslaves members and becomes a 'cancer' that threatens the harmony of the Body and causes a great deal of harm – scandals – especially to our littlest brothers”.

Then, there is the “disease of worldly profit and exhibitionism: when the apostle transforms his service into power, and his power into goods to obtain worldly profits or more power. This is the disease of those who seek insatiably to multiply their power and are therefore capable of slandering, defaming and discrediting others, even in newspapers and magazines, naturally in order to brag and to show they are more capable than others”.

After listing these ailments, Pope Francis continued, “We are therefore required, at this Christmas time and in all the time of our service and our existence – to live 'speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love'”.

“I once read that priests are like aeroplanes: they only make the news when they crash, but there are many that fly. Many criticise them and few pray for them”, he concluded. “It is a very nice phrase, but also very true, as it expresses the importance and the delicacy of our priestly service, and how much harm just one priest who falls may cause to the whole body of the Church”.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Building Skills 9

More from Daniel Coyle: Tip# 13 "Find the Sweet Spot." Once again, I recommend Coyle's book highly.
 
For this tip, Coyle speaks of finding "a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It's called the sweet spot."
 
He then gives hints on finding that "sweet spot" of learning by comparing the "comfort zone," where the sensations are, "Ease, effortlessness. You're working, but not reaching or struggling," to the sweet spot where the sensations are of, "frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You're fully engaged in an intense struggle—as if you're stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again." And finally, to what he calls the "survival zone," where the sensations are "confusion, desperation. You're overmatched: scrambling, thrashing, and guessing. You guess right sometimes, but it's mostly luck."
 
Coyle gives the example of a 13 year old clarinetist, part of an Australian study, who in a particular practice session, suddenly focuses intensely on her mistakes, figuring them out, and fixing them. The author of the study noted that the girl "learned more in that span of minutes than she would have learned in an entire month practicing her normal way, in which she played songs straight through, ignoring any mistakes."
 
This is analogous to my prior discussions of "drill" versus "scrimmage" (borrowed from the studies of John Wooden's teaching/coaching techniques), which you can find in this post, this one, and here.
 
It's our job to try to keep the choir as often as possible at that sweet spot, where they're having to stretch hard to accomplish something (learn a difficult passage, rhythm, vocal skill, etc.). This way, their learning will be at the optimum speed. That isn't all we need to do, of course, since we need to run through passages or pieces as well ("scrimmage"), but you can read about that in the other posts.
 
But our choice of repertoire is also something that needs to push our ensembles beyond their comfort zone. Finding the balance of some music that they can achieve more easily, but some that is almost beyond their abilities (but not pushing them into the "survival zone") is our challenge as a conductor. I've posted earlier about choosing repertoire, and often have tried to find one piece (often contemporary) that will push my students in ways they've never been pushed before. Since I've been involved with Swedish music, that's provided some of this music for my choirs (in recent years with the University Singers at UNT, Sven-David Sandström's Agnus Dei and Thomas Jennefelt's O Domine). But the specifics can and must vary, depending on the level of your choir—children, middle school, high school, college, or perhaps a program you've built versus a poor one you've just taken over—it's our job to find something that will s-t-r-e-t-c-h our choir's abilities. I've found it's often just that piece that the choir struggles with at first, perhaps dislikes, that they like best by the time they perform it. And it's those pieces that push your choir's abilities ahead faster and further than any others.
 
This is my last post before the holidays—have a wonderful break—and I'll "see" you again in January.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Building Skills 8

More from Daniel Coyle: Tip#11 "Don't Fall for the Prodigy Myth."
 
Coyle makes the point that prodigies (talent expressed at an early age) aren't really predictors of ultimate success. He gives some examples:
Many top performers are overlooked early on, then grow quietly into stars. This list includes Michael Jordan (cut from his high school varsity team as a sophomore), Charles Darwin (considered slow and ordinary by teachers), Walt Disney (fired from an early job because he "lacked imagination"), Albert Einstein, Louis Pasteur, Paul Gaugin, Thomas Edison, Leo Tolstoy, Fred Astaire, Winston Churchill, Lucille Ball, and so on.
He then mentions Carol Dweck, whose research I profile here and here. Her work involves two mindsets, one that is fixed and where the individual assumes that their talent is fixed (and therefore failure is not a good thing); and one that she calls the growth mindset, where growth (and the failures that go with the attempts to do things one can't yet do well) is valued.
 
He also speaks of various sports "talent hotbeds," where they are, "not built on identifying talent, but constructing it."
 
While this feeds into our own skill building (and our willingness to explore things we don't yet do well and accept failure as a way to learn new things), I think it goes more to the development of our own singers'/students' skills.
 
It tells us that we must be careful not to assume too much from the current level of some of our students. We don't really know who will develop and who won't. It's our job to do everything we can to build the skills of each and every student. Coyle quotes Anson Dorrance, head coach of the University of North Carolina women's soccer team, who's led his team to 21 championship wins: "One of the most unfortunate things I see when identifying youth players is the girl who is told over the years how great she is. By the time she's a high school freshman, she starts to believe it. By her senior year, she's fizzled out. Then there's her counterpart: a girl waiting in the wings, who quietly and with determination decides she's going to make something of herself. Invariably, this humble, hard-working girl is the one who becomes the real player."
 
What does that tell us about how we treat our young singers?
 
Think about it!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Building Skills 7

More from Daniel Coyle: Tip#10 “Honor the Hard Skills"
 
From Coyle: "As you probably recognize, most talents are not exclusively hard skills or soft skills, but rather a combination of the two. For example, think of a violinist's precise finger placement to play a series of notes (a hard skill) and her ability to interpret the emotion of a song (a soft skill). . . The point of this tip is simple: Prioritize the hard skills because in the long run they're more important to your talent."
 
This goes to the challenge of building hard skills—whether in yourself or in your singers—while still making progress in the creative soft skills. Coyle's saying to prioritize the hard skills . . . but how do you do this?
 
We can relate it to research on the imagined ability of the brain to multi-task. I say "imagined," because all recent research shows that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, but that your brain has to switch back and forth between tasks. And that switching is not efficient. There's even a recent study that suggests that multi-tasking can damage the abilties of the brain!
 
So, the skills we have to teach our singers have to be prioritized: vocal skills, ensemble skills, musicianship, etc.
 
This is a challenge, because our groups also have to perform . . . and they also need to learn how to sing musically and creatively. We can't work exclusively on exercises and hard skills.
 
This was perhaps possible in an earlier era—for example, the stories (probably exaggerated, of course!) that the famous voice teacher Porpora had the singer Caffarelli train on a single page of vocalises (and nothing else) for five years, then saying, "Go young man. You have nothing more to learn. You are now the greatest singer of Italy and the world."
 
And in a contemporary version of this noted by Coyle, "At Sparktak, the Moscow tennis club, there is a rule that young players must wait years before entering competitive tournaments. 'Technique is everything,' said a coach, Larisa Preobrazhenskaya. 'If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake.'"
 
So, what do we do? I think we have to follow the research about "multi-tasking." In other words, there's no such thing as being able to practice both soft and hard skills at the same time. But we can alternate work that allows both (and not in such a quick way as to pretend to multi-task and do both at once).
 
I've written before about drilling a particular passage, for accurate pitches, rhythms, vowel, intonation, etc. (some of which may well have to be isolated one element at a time), but then after that (see my various John Wooden posts about drill), work with the choir on singing that passage musically and expressively. Or being able to conduct them with freedom of tempo (rubato) or different phrase shapes and dynamics, since the singers are now confident enough to be able to watch and respond. Some of this can be practiced fairly soon—after even a few repetitions in some passages, the choir can master enough of the music necessary to focus on musicality.
 
And also important is that work on basics (most likely through vocalises or other exercises) is something even an advanced choir needs. Again from Coyle: "The cellist Yo-Yo Ma spends the first minutes of every practice playing single notes on his cello. The NFL quarterback Peyton Manning spends the first segment of every practice doing basic footwork drills—the kind they teach twelve-year-olds."
 
This means finding ways to carefully balance basic work on hard skills (some of which are basics which need continual repetition, no matter what the level of the choir) and working on the soft, creative skills of musicality and projecting the emotion the composer attempts to express.
 
It means re-thinking our rehearsal technique. It means rehearsing with an eye towards balancing the absolutely important building of hard skills (see my earlier post relating to Robert Shaw's techniques) and the need to build in musicality early on as well. It's part of what makes what we do endlessly fascinating. Rehearsing is craft, but the combination and balance of techniques can also be art.
 
P.S. speaking of mentors, Robert Scandrett died on Tuesday—Bob was another important mentor to me. You can find my response to his long and meaningful life here. An amazing musician and person, the study tour of England he planned and led in 1975 changed my life in many ways—take a look, you won't believe what we got to do, who we got to meet, and the performances we heard.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

More about (from) Bob Scandrett

As I mentioned in the previous post, Bob was an excellent pianist who was still working in the Bach Goldberg variations.

Here's a note he put up on Jeremy Denk's blog (Denk, a wonderful pianist, was awarded the MacArthur prize this past year) in 2009 about the Bach:
After a full life of college teaching and choral conducting, at age 83 I needed to renew my contact with JSB. I was missing the intense pleasure of preparing the Mass, Passions and cantatas, and although I had not seriously practiced the piano since college I decided to climb Mt. Everest and challenged myself to learn the Goldberg.

Listening to the Goldberg can never equal the experience of putting this music into fingers, mind and soul. As amazing as the sacred choral music is, it does not give a complete picture of that incredible mind and spirit. And some of the Goldberg is surely sacred. Variation 25 and 15 would be at home in the Mass, and even #3, indulged at a slow tempo is not unlike a cantata duet for two sopranos. But the humor, the robust vitality, practically everything you can think of as being the realm of music, from profound sadness to a sly sense of the showoff virtuoso, is there. I think I know Bach more as a human being than was ever possible without studying this piece.

I live just a short walk from the Lakeside School in Seattle, and so of course have often heard you play. This unique possibility to hear you as soloist and chamber music partner is one of the special pleasures of this series. Your gifts are abundant, but I have particularly enjoyed the energy and commitment of your ensemble playing. Your last, intense glance at your fellow musicians before you begin is symptomatic of what we can expect to hear. I am deeply disappointed that you will not be playing the Goldberg, but perhaps another year? In the meantime, I will enjoy your blogs.

Robert Scandrett 
Say a lot about Bob, doesn't it!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Robert Scandrett—Another passing

Robert Scandrett died on Sunday of a heart valve failure. Bob was hugely influential to a large number of conductors and singers throughout the Northwest and beyond, and will be greatly missed.

Bob was a wonderful musician, extraordinary pianist, and someone whose interests were far broader than just music, from a wide range of literature and history to great food.

He had a great career with a long tenure at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle (building an unrivaled program at the time) followed by an equally long tenure at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, where he influenced multiple generations of students. His Ph.D. was in musicology and his dissertation was an edition of the many anthems of William Croft in multiple volumes (I remember looking through them when an undergrad at the University of Washington and asking Bob for a recommendation for some Croft anthems to perform—he generously gave me several editions to use). He later put this skill to good use in editing a number of works by Domenico Scarlatti for Carus Verlag. He conducted other church choirs (University Congregational after his retirement), community choruses (the Whatcom County Chorale), and the Seattle Symphony Chorus for 12 years (I was lucky enough to follow him there). He was an active pianist and I remember a wonderful performance of Die Winterreise at Western. In his later years he worked regularly on Bach's Goldberg Variations and did a recital of them last year (this I heard from Neil Lieurance, who was present). I'm sure I'm missing many other important things!

While I was never a student of Bob's, he was an enormously important model for me. His musicianship, his love of music and immense knowledge (of many things, not just music) were hugely influential.

As I've noted before, I was introduced to Bob by Neil Lieurance, who was my high school teacher and who was working on his master's at WWU after I graduated and was going to school at the University of Washington. Bob did a memorable series of summer choral workshops at Western in those days and I attended workshops led by Gregg Smith, Günter Graulich (who would own Carus Verlag), and Louis Halsey (his son, Simon—well known now for his connection as Simon Rattle's choral conductor in Birmingham and Berlin—would spend a year studying with Bob at WWU).

Because I'd made this connection, I was invited to go on a study tour of England he organized in 1975. This was a watershed in so many ways—I've posted about it on my blog previously in 14 different posts. I think you'll be astonished at the experiences we had and the people we met or concerts we heard: Roger Norrington (we met with him in his home and the rehearsals we observed were my introduction to the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers), Alfred Deller (we heard the Deller consort in a program and went to a reception at his home), Simon Preston (then at Christ Church College), Louis Halsey, David Munrow, composer John Gardner, Daniel Barenboim conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra in (among other things) Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer with Janet Baker, Solti conducting Die Frau ohne Schatten, Colin Davis conducting Cosi, Falstaff with Sir Geraint Evans in the title role, Death in Venice with Pears, Colerige-Taylor's Hiawatha's Wedding Feast and Purcell's Hail, Bright Cecilia at Aldeburgh with Pears, John Shirley-Quirk, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, and Charles Brett (we also saw Britten riding in his open convertible with Pears and Imogen Holst after the concert); also part of the Aldeburgh Festival, but out of doors at a nearby ruined castle, Imogen Holst conducting her fathers E-flat Band Suite; a performance of the Britten War Requiem; meeting with the young Fitzwilliam String Quartet, who had a close relationship with Shostokovich and played his 15th string quartet for us; the young King's Singers at a festival at St. Alban's (along with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in a baroque program, the English Chamber Orchestra, which did the Poulenc Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani with Peter Hurford, and a recital by James Bowman with Robert Spencer on lute).

As you can imagine, this was an amazing and life-changing experience . . . and Bob organized all of it!

I also have to say that Kathryn and my wedding included Bob's setting of Psalm 91, for men's voices, organ and 2 horns—beautiful!

Bob and his wife Sandy are simply wonderful people as well—gracious and welcoming in all ways. They've had a marvelous influence on so many lives. We can all thank them for that and I certainly do.

In particular, my thoughts are with Sandy, who has to deal with the loss of her husband and partner of so many years.