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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Creating a Positive Culture in Your Choir - IV

One of the things that makes a huge difference in how much your choir accomplishes is what I'll call the "density" of rehearsal. By that, I mean that the ratio of hard, focused work on those things that need it (versus the time that isn't so productive).

There are lot of things that go into this, much that has to do with you and not your choir: your preparation (knowing the music, knowing what will be challenging or not), having solutions for problems at hand (rehearsal techniques/devices), having a well thought-out rehearsal plan, etc.
However, part of it is convincing your choir (building the culture) for hard, focused work.
I'll go back to Doug Lemov and John Wooden for this (and much more about both in future installments): Lemov (author of Teach Like a Champion) has a new book called Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better. Lemov's rule 7 is "Differentiate Drill from Scrimmage." One of the noticeable things about the way Wooden worked his UCLA teams was to spend much more time in drill (focused on specific skills) than scrimmaging (playing a mock game). The advantage was that in drill, he could focus his players' work on skills and techniques that needed work (passing, shooting, defence, etc.), whereas in a scrimmage, only one player had the ball at any one time and less work for each player.

I introduced this idea to my choir this fall, equating scrimmage with a run through of a piece or section of a piece--valuable for both me and them to see where they were, what worked well and what didn't (and, of course, to get the experience of singing through the entire piece, which is what they'll do in the concert). However, I explained that we would accomplish most with drill, where we worked the difficult sections of a given piece of music, or focused on pitch, vowel, rhythm, vocal technique, or whatever else needed special attention. Sometimes, I simply said, "scrimmage," so they'd know they were doing a run-through, and to work towards what the performance would be (and to note what was and wasn't ready yet).

In drill on the other hand, they knew they were going to do multiple repetitions of something, perhaps only a few notes, but with great focus on whatever elements were brought to their attention.
They got the concept very quickly, which has meant a much greater rehearsal density for this choir. There are other elements in building this, but I hope you get the idea as well.

Of course, the level and age of your choir will determine how much and how long you can focus on small, but important, elements of the music, and how many repetitions are possible before you need to move to something else. We all have to figure out what the attention span is (although part of building a great choir culture is gradually lengthening and deepening your singers' abilities in this regard), how quickly to pace, how quickly to move from one activity to another. However, even with young singers, I've seen incredible concentration and focus --  and not all in "elite" situations. It's amazing how much young people can learn to do, given a wonderful conductor with the skill to teach them!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lovely tribute to Philp Ledger


I won't quote from it . . . just go to the link. From Chris Gillet, free-lance opera singer and former King's College Choir singer.

Monday, November 19, 2012

great NY Times review of J.E. Gardiner Beethoven 9 & Missa Solemnis

Beautiful review--wish I could have been there!

The New York Times

November 19, 2012

Beethoven, With Not-So-Subtle Attacks of Piccolo, Drum and a Standing Violinist

Too often we think of historically informed performances in terms of what is stripped away: less vibrato; fewer players; the muted brilliance of gut strings and natural horns. But as John Eliot Gardiner demonstrated in two red-blooded performances of Beethoven masterworks at Carnegie Hall this past weekend, the period-instrument movement is, at its best, an ambitious grab for big effects and heightened expressive power. On Friday he led his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in a flame-drawn rendition of the Ninth; on Saturday he gave a glowing performance of the “Missa Solemnis.” 

Mr. Gardiner created the Orchestre Révolutionnaire, a large symphony orchestra playing on 19th-century instruments, in 1989, but its sounds still hold surprises. Some are quietly revealing, like the wood-bodied flute that insinuates itself into the soloists’ quartet in the “Et incarnatus” of the “Missa.” Others come as a shock: the kettledrums that sound like cannon fire; the piercing insistence of a piccolo that seems to have been requisitioned from Napoleon’s army. 

But, ultimately, the choice of instruments is like casting in theater: a dream lineup of character actors still needs a director with vision in order to tell the story. For Mr. Gardiner, that vision begins with the text. Even in the purely instrumental movements of the Ninth, there appeared to be words encrypted in the music, so declamatory and speechlike were some phrases. At other times he whipped up furiously fast tempos that left no room for the sort of ponderous self-importance that can sneak into performances of Beethoven’s music and that are deadly in the extensive fugues of the “Missa.” Mr. Gardiner is an expressive conductor, shaping phrases with expansive arm gestures and the occasional sideways flick of a hip. 

In the choral finale of the Ninth and throughout the “Missa,” the primacy of the text was never in doubt. The Monteverdi Choir sang it with crystalline diction and extraordinary flexibility, giving individual words deliberate dabs of color. Rarely has the word “Kuss” — the poet Schiller’s kiss to humanity in the “Ode to Joy” — been delivered with such panache. The “Sanctus” of the “Missa” was uttered in hushed whispers like an incantation. 

The English bass Matthew Rose made an authoritative entrance in the Ninth when he jumped to his feet to sing his introductory recitative. In the “Missa” he showed great reserves of power and depth. Some of the most moving solo singing came from Jennifer Johnston, whose mezzo glows with unforced feeling and whose pure style fits well into the period-instrument world. The soprano Elisabeth Meister and the tenor Michael Spyres rounded out the finely matched quartet of soloists.
But certain instrumentalists, encouraged by Mr. Gardiner, managed to steal the spotlight when he invited many of them to stand for their solos. Among them were Peter Hanson, who rose for the extensive violin part that meanders in and out of the “Benedictus,” and the three trombones who acted as a sort of celestial press gang throughout the “Missa.” In the final bars of the “Ode to Joy” the piccolo stood in front of the chorus like a fifer leading his troops into battle.

Philip Ledger dies

Ledger was best-known to most of us as conductor of the King's College Choir from 1974-82, following Sir David Willcocks.

He had a distinguished career, as one can see from his Wikipedia post:

Sir Philip Stevens Ledger CBE (12 December 1937 – 18 November 2012) was a British classical musician and academic, best known for his tenure as director of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge between 1974 and 1982 and as director of Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama from 1982 until his retirement in 2001. He was also a composer of choral music and an organist.

Sir Philip was born in Bexhill-on-Sea in 1937 and educated at King's College, Cambridge.[1] When appointed Master of the Music at Chelmsford Cathedral in 1961, he became the youngest Cathedral Organist in the country.[1] In 1965 he took up the post of Director of Music at the University of East Anglia where he was also Dean of the School of Fine Arts and Music and responsible for the establishment of an award-winning building for the University’s Music Centre, opened in 1973.[1] In 1968 he became an Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, conducting at the Snape Maltings on many occasions including the opening concert after its rebuilding, and playing in first performances of works by Britten.[1] He appears as continuo player on Britten's recordings of Bach and Purcell.

He was Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge from 1974–1982 and Conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society from 1973-1982. During his years in Cambridge, he directed the Choir of King’s College in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, made an extensive range of recordings and took the Choir to the USA, Australia, and Japan for the first time.

He was subsequently Principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama from 1982-2001 where in 1988 new premises for the Academy were opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. Since that time Ledger has appeared as a conductor throughout the United Kingdom, North America, and Asia.

He is also an organist and keyboard player and has conducted many leading orchestras. He has made numerous recordings with artists such as Benjamin Britten, Dame Janet Baker, Paul Tortelier, Pinchas Zukerman and Robert Tear.


Ledger is also noted for his original compositions and arrangements, particularly for choir. After succeeding David Willcocks as director at King's, he wrote a number of new descants and arrangements of Christmas carols, as well as new settings of popular texts such as Adam lay ybounden and A Spotless Rose. His arrangement of "This joyful Eastertide" for mixed voices and organ has been widely performed and broadcast. Many of his compositions and editions have been published by Oxford University Press, Encore Publications, The Lorenz Corporation (USA), and The Royal School of Church Music. His Requiem (A Thanksgiving for Life) is written for soprano and tenor soloists with mixed choir and may be performed with either orchestra, or with chamber ensemble or with organ.

The first recording devoted entirely to his choral compositions, including his Requiem - A thanksgiving for life was recorded on 7 and 8 December 2008 by Christ's College Chapel Choir, Cambridge, directed by both David Rowland and Sir Philip Ledger. The album (Regent Records) was released 16 November 2009.

Ledger has also composed an Easter cantata with carols entitled "The risen Christ". Published by Encore Publications, his new work is composed for soprano, tenor and baritone soli, choir and chamber ensemble. The words of have been compiled from various sources including original texts by Philip Ledger, Robin Morrish and Robert Woodings. The piece also contains words by anonymous authors, two settings that have been adapted from texts by G.R.Woodward and Christopher Wordsworth, as well as a short extract from a poem by Olivia Ward Bush-Banks. The cantata portrays three appearances of the risen Christ. The first of these is to Mary Magdalene at Christ's tomb, the second to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus, and the third to Simon Peter at the Sea of Tiberias. The US premiere took place at Washington National Cathedral on 7 May 2011 in a concert by Cathedral Voices, conducted by Jeremy Filsell. The first UK performance was given at Canterbury Cathedral on 8 May 2011 during Evensong sung by the cathedral choir, conducted by David Flood.

In 2012, Ledger composed another cantata, "This Holy Child", which is a setting of the Christmas story with five original carols, "Jesus Christ the apple tree", "The voice of the angel Gabriel", "In the bleak mid-winter", "Hush! my dear, lie still and slumber" and "A little child there is yborn". The words have been compiled from various sources including poems by Selwyn Image.

Friday, November 16, 2012

New music magazine

Is Sinfoni. Check it out.

Also courtesy of Norman Lebrecht's blog, which is consistently interesting. Well worth adding to your reader (if you don't have one to follow blogs--including mine!--try's easy to use and blog posts can be found at one bookmark).

Dangerous times for music -- The Netherlands

As Norman Lebrecht reports in this blog post:

As part of the Dutch government’s plans to dismantle the Broadcast Music Centre in Hilversum – plans that also involve the abolition of an orchestra and chorus – one of the biggest sheet music libraries in western Europe is going to disappear.

Unless the MCO library can raise independent funding in the next nine months, the scores will be sold to dealers or turfed out into the street. About 5,000 have been digitized, the rest will be lost. You can read more about it here (in Dutch).

What a shame that such a cultural resource would be destroyed or scattered in such a way that they would no longer be generally available.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Creating a Positive Culture in your Choir - III

Last time I discussed Doug Lemov's 100% idea: "There's on acceptable percentage of students following a direction: 100 percent. Less, and your authority is subject to interpretation, situation, and motivation."
So, what are his principles for getting to 100%?
He says there are three principles to ensure "consistent follow-through and compliance in the classroom." The first of these is to use the least invasive form of intervention, and this is so you don't have to interrupt teaching (your rehearsal) to deal with a student who isn't following through (talking, not paying attention, slumping in his/her chair, music in their lap, not engaged, etc.) with your 100% expectation. He then gives a list, starting with the least invasive techniques, which means you should start as close to the top of the list (use the least invasive technique which will get the job done):
  • Nonverbal - gesture/eye contact - keep teaching
  • Positive group correction - quick verbal reminder ("sit tall" "focus" "eyes up")
  • Anonymous individual correction - quick verbal reminder, but makes it explicit that not everyone is doing what they should ("Two people are still looking down")
  • Private individual correction - if you have to name names, if possible do it quietly and privately (after rehearsal, at lunch or some other time after class)
  • Lightning-quick public correction - name the student and quickly give the correction ("Quentin, I need your eyes") - you can also follow up with a positive ("Looking sharp, back row! Thanks, Quentin, much better.)
  • Consequence - external consequences should be used as sparingly as possible, but sometimes it's the only way to deal with an individual (Lemov's further explanation: consequences should be delivered quickly and in the least invasive emotional manner; don't allow it to interrupt instruction/rehearsal; have a scaled list of consequences, so you can match the significance of the response to the level of disruption)
I have to say, there's so much more and the book is well worth reading, so take a look if you find what I've shared from Lemov interesting . . . or perhaps it could be a great dissertation topic for some DMA or Music Ed PhD--adapting some of the principles specifically to the choral situation or observe and/or video "champion teacher/conductors."
Again, a reminder that the goal is not "power" -- as Lemov states, "Students need to follow directions quickly and completely so that they can be assured of having the best chance to succeed." Interruptions, lack of focus, singers who don't use good posture or vocal technique, who are disengaged, lead to a poorer musical experience for all your singers. A choir which is focused, doesn't chat, consistently follows principles of good musicianship and vocal health gets much more done . . . and frankly, the experience is a better one for everyone. It allows you to concentrate on teaching: good technique, wonderful sound, musicality, and expression. Isn't that what we want for all our students?
Finally, why the "thumbs up" at the top of the page when I've been talking about interventions for disruptions to whatever you feel needs 100% compliance? Well, you should also to reinforce those students who are doing what they should. That can be to the group ("great focus today!" "what a fantastic sound you just made!" "did you hear how beautifully that chord was in tune?!"), but can also be to individuals ("I love the way you watch, Megan!" "Thanks for the great posture, Mike"). But I also (usually after talking about something like looking up) find a non-verbal way--and yes, I do use the "thumbs up"--while conducting to a student whose eyes are with me. It tells them that I noticed, that I care about what they're doing . . . and that also makes a difference.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Creating a Positive Culture in your Choir II

Once again, the idea behind this series is how to build a positive culture in your choir.
John Wooden, the most successful college basketball coach in history, was famous for the structure that he built into his practices (rehearsals) and the clear expectations for each player on the floor. He was amazingly detail oriented and believed that "little things make big things happen" (the title of one chapter in his book, Wooden on Leadership). For example, he talks at one point about how at the beginning of the year he personally taught his players how to put on their socks and tie their shoes--because if their socks were not put on properly, the player could get a blister and affect his performance--and shoes not tied properly could come undone in a game and cost points.
A few thoughts about "little things" to build into your choir's culture:
  • be on time (how does your choir expect to begin the rehearsal? In seats? quiet and ready to work?)
  • be prepared: have your music and pencil
  • use your pencil (which means teaching choir members how to mark their scores)
  • how to sit ("tall," feet on the floor)
  • how to hold your music (up so you can see music and conductor)
  • how to focus during rehearsal (is talk/chatter tolerated?)
One could go on -- I'm curious about what things you think are essential "little things." Let me know!
But once you've decided what your choir will "look/act like" in terms of those little things, fundamentals (or whatever you wish to call them), how do you build them into the choir's culture?
Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion is a really wonderful book. Lemov is managing director of Uncommon Schools and concerned with how to take lessons learned from master teachers and teach young teachers to do this same. If you're interested, check out the website for the book, which has video examples and excerpts. The book itself comes with a DVD that contains real-life examples illustrating the principles in the book (the subtitle is "49 techniques that put students on the path to college").
One of the techniques is simply called, "100%" (technique #36, by the way!). The key idea is, "There's one acceptable percentage of students following a direction: 100 percent. Less, and your authority is subject to interpretation, situation, and motivation." Here's a bit more of what he says:
The assertion that the standard, not the goal, is 100 percent compliance may sound terrifying and draconian: a power-hungry plan for a battle of wills or the blueprint for an obedience-obsessed classroom where little but grinding discipline is acheived. The classrooms of champion teachers belie this expectation, however. They finess their way to the standard with a warm and positive tone. They are crisp and orderly; students do as they're asked without ever seeming to think about it. Yet the culture of compliance is both positive, and, most important, invisible. Not only can these two characteristics be part of a classorom with maximum order, but in the end, they must. Discipline that is most often positive and invisible (that is, a matter of habit) is, arguablly, the only sustainable variety.
Note the statements, "Yet the culture of compliance is both positive, and, most important, invisible. Not only can these two characteristics be part of a classorom with maximum order, but in the end, they must. Discipline that is most often positive and invisible (that is, a matter of habit) is, arguablly, the only sustainable variety." Those are my italics, of course--it is building a positive culture (habitual ways of doing things) that reinforce themselves . . . ultimately leading to a much more positive (and effective) experiene for everyone in the choir.
This is getting long, so I won't outline Lemov's ways of achieving 100% here (next time!), but you may say, "This just seems like the old lessons in classroom management." Well, that's true, in part. But unless these "little things" and the concept that everyone in your choir will do things a certain way takes hold, it's very hard to achieve what you want musically.
But just to show that the "cultural" things I'm discussing are not just "classroom management," but can musical habits as well, an example from several years ago when I guest conducted the wonderful Exsultate Chamber Singers in Toronto. At that time conducted by John Tuttle, the choir's musical culture was decidedly Anglican/British choral tradition. One thing I noticed right away was that they took a "lift" after every single instance of punctuation (comma, semi-colon, period, etc.). It was their culture to do this. Any new member coming into the choir would have figured it out quickly and done the same. This meant I didn't have to tell them every time I wanted them to breathe or take a lift in a phrase. In fact, I needed to tell them if I didn't want a lift, but to carry through. However, it meant that this musical element was automatic with the choir.
Let me know what you think!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Creating a positive culture in your choir

This will be a short series about the idea of creating a  "culture" in your choir.

I've thought about this a lot over the years. By "culture," I mean those things about the way the choir operates, what the singers do, that become normal and expected--and once established are "enforced" or maintained by the culture. When a new member joins the choir, how much do they pick up about how to behave in this choir simply by being a part of it for a few rehearsals? If you've ever had a cultural anthropology class, you know that cultures develop ways of interacting, social strata, and behaviors that don't need to be externally enforced, but are simply a part of that culture, so anyone growing up in that culture learns many (not all) of those expectations by osmosis, rather than direct teaching or rules.

Of course, one can build a negative culture as well as a positive one!

I remember a few years ago having a great discussion about this topic over pizza with Robert Vance, a terrific young choral conductor, now the Associate Director of Choral Studies at Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music, but then a student at CCM/University of Cincinnati, where I was a guest professor. The discussion ranged widely over ways to do this (he'd just done an interim posiition or sabbatical replacement), what to expect of your singers and how to change an establlished culture. Since he'd been a student of Joe Miller, who'd fairly recently moved to Westminster, we talked about the things Joe had built in his previous position and how that would translate to Westminster, which had gone through a couple interim years after Joe Flummerfelt (who'd built his own, great culture) retired. Having been part of transitions myself, I know how important it is to think of what to build into the new culture (and to be aware of what aspects of the pre-existing culture you might wish to change).

So, what are some things to think about? A few examples:

What does your choir expect to do when they walk in the rehearsal door?
What about posture in rehearsal?
Do they talk?
What do they know to do in terms of choral sound/vocal approach?
What's the approach to working on a new piece?
And one could go on and on.

How much do you consciously build the habits, behaviors, approaches that you expect from your choir, so the way the choir works (or older members of the choir) inform newer members about what it means to be in that choir? How much can ultimately happen without having to talk about it?
These are just a few of the things I'll talk about in the next few posts.