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Thursday, February 28, 2013

More about teaching your choir to sing musically

This is something I prepared for one of my choirs some time ago to help them think about phrasing and musicality. Even though I wrote this some time ago, it still represents much of what I think is important. I began with the quotes I gave in an earlier blog:

Harpsichordist and Pianist Ralph Kirkpatrick: "The essential expressive quality of a melodic interval lies not in the notes themselves, but in the space between the notes, in the manner in which one gets from one note to another."

Conductor Robert Fountain: "Not just the desire, but the passion to keep the line going."

Composer Virgil Thompson: "Is this music just a piece of clockwork, or does it also tell time? . . . have I been moved or merely impressed?"

When we speak of a person or ensemble being "musical," our impression often comes from the ability to sing or play with beautiful phrasing. While this is not the only thing that affects our perception of "musicality," it is hard to imagine a truly musical performance that is poorly phrased. Phrasing is the heart and soul of music-making, and without it our singing will be wooden and unmusical. This is then a primary concern for us, from the very first rehearsal. We can't spend lots of time getting pitches and rhythms right and then "tack on" phrasing at the end--we must begin to know and shape each phrase from the beginning. Decisions about diction, dynamics, articulation, etc. come from our understanding of the phrase, not the other way around.

So, what do we mean by "phrasing?" All analogies are imperfect, but I'll start with an analogy to language: a phrase in a sentence is a unit that makes sense in and of itself (though it may be incomplete by itself), built of smaller building blocks (words). In the same way, a musical phrase is a group of smaller building blocks (notes) that are put together to make sense or cohere. Writers use punctuation to let you know where phrases begin and end, and composers use rests, slurs, breath marks, etc. to give hints about phrasing.

We first have to know how long the phrase is to phrase well, make decisions about whether we have two-bar or four-bar phrases, decide where to breathe, etc.

Next, just as a good public speaker or actor can speak in such a way to communicate the meaning of the words, we can sing in such a way to communicate the meaning behind the notes. Here my analogy breaks down somewhat, as the actor has more freedom than we do (the composer has already outlined rhythms, pitches, etc.). However, it's clear that any good speaker or singer doesn't give everything the same emphasis. Read that last sentence aloud giving each syl-la-ble e-qual em-pha-sis, if you're not sure what I mean. And this leads to perhaps the most important point:

All notes are not equal in a phrase.

We make our decisions about which notes are "more equal than others" in several ways:
  1. sensitivity to melodic shape and contour (rise and fall of the musical line)
  2. sensitivity to harmony (tension-release)
  3. sensitivity to the natural word accents in the language (which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed)
To give overall shape it may be helpful for you to think of a "goal" word or syllable that the phrase moves toward (more intensity, volume, etc.) and then away from. Only rarely will any two consecutive notes have exactly the same volume, intensity or emphasis.

If we are to give phrases shape, we have to know where each phrase is going and how much intensity to give at the peak before we begin the phrase. You have to "hear" it already in your mind. And also remember that the end of the phrase must be as carefully shaped as the beginning.

In addition, we need to have a sense of the character of each phrase (perhaps with emotional terms such as joyful, sad, or majestic) in order to communicate the composer's intention. We have a wide variety of articulations (legato, marcato, staccato and everything in between) to help create the character of the phrase.

In addition, we can deal subtly with tempo--is a tempo rubato important in a particular piece to give shape to the composer's music?

Phrasing creates meaning in what we sing. Therefore we should never sing just collections of notes, but give shape to beautiful and expressive phrases.

If you have ideas to add to this, please do!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Start with Musicality--Redux

In my last post about rehearsing, I made the point to bring musicality, especially phrase shape, into the rehearsal process early. One reader responded (and thank you for responding--I enjoy feedback or additional comments, whether you agree or disagree!) that one has to be careful to balance the various elements of teaching--and that he'd seen young conductors, "spending too much time talking about wonderful phrasing ideas that the students completely miss because they are desperately trying to find the next note!"
I absolutely agree that balance is important. And while I've seen some examples such as he gives, I've also seen conductors spend lots of time teaching notes with no reference to phrase shape, resulting in very unmusical note-by-note singing. And this is what I'm saying is actually inefficient, since now (if the group is to sing musically) your choir has to un-learn they way they phrase and connect from note to note . . . which either takes time to do or your choir never really gets there.
So, a bit more about finding that balance--and I absolutely agree that's the challenge! And thanks to an alert reader to help me explain in more depth!
When I teach a new piece, I use all the teaching/rehearsal techniques that I can (none of these new to you, I'm sure!), given the reading level of my choir and the difficulty of the music. I'll slow down the tempo, take away text and sing on a neutral syllable, count-sing, isolate just the rhythm (or rhythm with text), play the underlying chord structure, etc. I may, for a difficult passage play or sing a part, or isolate a difficult interval or intervalic combination. If two parts have dissonances that confuse the singers, I may play those or isolate the two parts, stopping on the beat where the interval (major 7th or minor 2nd, let's say) occurs, so the singers have time to hear it correctly--and to hear if they are correct or not, etc.
Any of these activities call for repetition--in the repeated tries, essentially, you're shaping the singers' performance from an inability to sing the correct notes or to sing them at tempo with text, to the point where the choir is able to sing a passage correctly, in time, with excellent intonation, the correct vowels, etc. This may well be a process that continues over a number of rehearsals--the shaping may get them part-way there in one rehearsal, the work continuing later.
It's in the repetitions that I feel one has to begin to sing the lines with good musical shape (or as the quote from Ralph Kirkpatrick said, "The essential expressive quality of a melodic interval lies not in the notes themselves, but in the space between the notes, in the manner in which one gets from one note to another.").
So, as we repeat a passage (with the whole choir or just one part) several times, I'm going to start shaping the phrase as well. This isn't usually done by long verbal descriptions, but by demonstration (the old, "a picture is worth a thousand words" is true for musical demonstration as well), by gesture (if on a 3rd or 4th repetition they can now look up), or by a quick reminder to the choir of what I teach all the time as basic principles of musical singing and phrasing. This means that somewhere in the middle of the note-learning process, I start to shape musicality. Even one difficult interval can be shaped musically rather than not. What I don't want to do is to sing a passage or interval 5 times in a row in an unmusical manner--that simply teaches the choir to sing unmusically. Whether through demonstration or brief explanation, I want each repetition (as the choir gets closer and closer to correcting the pitches or rhythms) to be shaped more and more musically as well. And I know they can do that while learning the notes, as long as I feed it to them in a way and at the speed with which they can absorb both. And if I do this well, they'll be learning the music with the beginnings of musical shaping from the beginning--and not learning an unmusical way of singing that they'll have to unlearn later.
This is getting long, so I'll speak more about this in future posts.
But I can't let this go without mentioning a session that Pamela Elrod-Huffman will do in Dallas on the rehearsal techniques of Robert Shaw:
Thursday, March 14, 10:30 a.m. in the City Performance Hall
"In terms of rehearsal disciplines, Robert Shaw believed that attempting to teach “everything at once” led to a confused and imprecise artistic product. In Shaw’s rehearsals, skills were layered one element at a time—as each new element was added, the previously taught elements were further reinforced. Using examples from the standard choral repertory, this session will demonstrate how Shaw progressed from note-learning stages to the final product, utilizing rehearsal techniques that were beautifully efficient and pedagogically sound."
It may sound from the description that this is the opposite of what I'm saying, but I don't think so. What I describe above is the way I go back and forth (but rather quickly) from working on particular elements the choir is learning to another. I don't follow the same rehearsal process as Mr. Shaw, but certainly spend time focusing on individual elements one at a time. My layering simply happens in a different way and sequence.
I was never lucky enough to work with Mr. Shaw, but have had long conversations with others who've worked with him extensively (from those who sang with him in France to several who sang with him in Atlanta). I use some of his rehearsal techniques, but am always interested in learning more. I look forward to this session to add to what I know and do--and perhaps change some of my usual practices.
That's one of the joys of this "job" -- one never knows it all (or even a small part of it) and there's always more to learn!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

More on Eric Ericson

The following is from an earlier post, with an article I wrote four years ago for Eric's 90th birthday. I hope I'll have time for a more personal reflection on Eric and what I learned from him, but it's incredibly busy right now (among other things, I'm chairing a search at UNT), so I'll get to it when I can.

I was asked by the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet to write a piece for their essay page (Under strecket) to be published on Eric's birthday (tomorrow--Sunday--he's 90!). They wanted a piece that evaluated Eric's contributions to choral music, both in Sweden and abroad, but from a strictly journalistic perspective . . . in other words, even though it is published on his birthday, they didn't want a piece that was only laudatory, but with a critical perspective. Given the length, it was difficult to do (my original draft was about a third longer and too personal), but here it is. They have translated into Swedish for the edition of the newspaper, of course.

Eric Ericson’s Impact on the World of Choral Music

The noted choral conductor, Eric Ericson, turns 90 today. What has been his impact on choral music in Sweden, the Nordic countries, Europe and the world? How has the choral world changed because of his work? How and why did this happen? Why Sweden?

These are questions I first asked myself some time ago—as a choral conductor, I learned of Ericson’s work through his recordings, then hearing the Swedish Radio Choir on tour in the United States in 1983.

My curiosity didn’t end with those early experiences.

This interest in Swedish music led me to write a doctoral dissertation on the topic: Swedish a cappella music since 1945. The question of “why” became a secondary focus of the dissertation and book which followed: The Swedish Choral Miracle: Swedish A Cappella Music Since 1945.

In many ways, it is a tale of the right person being in the right place at the right time.

One has to begin with an individual with enormous talent and skill, which Ericson has had in abundance. He grew up the son of a Free Church preacher, so became involved with music from an early age, studying piano and organ, and directing a choir from his early teens. When he reached the conservatory he excelled.

It isn’t enough, of course, to have talent—one must also have character, drive, ambition and (especially for a conductor) the ability to inspire others.

Even with those qualities, the impact one makes is dependent on outside circumstances, and in this Ericson was fortunate.

During his time at the Conservatory, he made friends with a talented and diverse group of people who gained the name The Monday Group, because beginning in 1944 and continuing until the end of the decade, they met on Monday afternoons in the apartment of composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl to discuss and study music. They were dissatisfied with what they perceived as too conservative training at the school. The group also included composers Sven-Erik Bäck, Sven-Eric Johanson, and Ingvar Lidholm, a number other musicians, and the musicologist Bo Wallner. Bäck and Lidholm would remain among Ericson’s closest friends.

The Monday Group became important, because as Lidholm would later say, “We sat on the floor at Karl-Birger’s Drottninggatan 106 and saw ourselves, in all simplicity, taking over all the institutions.”

They did just that. Sweden was a conservative country musically, but the members of the Monday Group ultimately took over and remade the main musical institutions: Blomdahl was Professor of Composition at the Conservatory from 1960-65 and head of music at Swedish Radio from 1965-68; Lidholm was head of chamber music at the Radio from 1956-65, edited the Radio’s Nutida Musik (literally, “New Music,” the title of a radio series and the journal that originally accompanied it) from its beginnings in 1954 to 1957, then Professor of Composition after Blomdahl in 1965; and Bo Wallner would become an influential musicologist at the Conservatory and edited Nutida Musik beginning in 1957.

And of course, Eric Ericson began teaching choral conducting at the Conservatory in 1951, became conductor of Orphei Drängar in the same year, and conductor of the Radio Choir (RK) in 1952.

Of course, when one person holds in his hand the major institutions in a country for so many years, one can expect that there are some negatives to go along with the positive. This was true in the following way: given Ericson’s dominance in Stockholm and the resources at his command, some very talented conductors had nowhere to go. The most prominent example of this is Karl-Eric Andersson, an immensely talented conductor, about five years younger than Ericson , who led the Bel Canto Choir. By all accounts both an extraordinarily talented conductor and teacher, his career could only go so far and this sadly affected his personal life.

Similarly, composers who were more conservative in style, such as members of the "Samtida Musik" circle ("samtida" is another word for "contemporary," so the name was chosen in opposition to "nutida musik")--Erland von Koch, Hans Eklund, Jan Carlstedt, and others--found it difficult to get performances. Von Koch later wrote about this in his memoirs with a chapter titled “The Monday Group—Mafia and Opinion Dictatorship,” and noted that RK never performed any of his works.

This is as much a function of Sweden’s relatively small size and centralization in Stockholm during this period, as of Ericson’s having those positions. At the Conservatory, for example, composition and choral conducting were a “one channel” system—one person was in charge of those programs and for much of that time, Stockholm was the only place one could study those subjects. Yet it made life more difficult for some.

Sweden’s neutrality in the Second World War was also a contributing factor. Since Sweden didn’t suffer the loss of a generation of talented people and the extraordinary damage of infrastructure that was seen in most of Europe, this allowed for the quick rebuilding of its economy.

Because of this, most of the The Monday Group traveled abroad after the war, Ericson making an important trip to Basel, spending a whole year there, studying early music and observing the Basel Kammerorchester, which commissioned important works by Honegger, Hindemith, and Stravinsky.

Eric Ericson began the Chamber Choir (or KK) in 1945 with a group of 16 friends (who included the composer Lars Edlund and the important conductor/teacher Bror Samuelsson) primarily to sing the madrigals and other music from the renaissance that they’d read about, but not heard. Ericson has always readily admitted his important predecessors and teachers, including David Åhlen with whom he’d studied and sung with at the Conservatory, Johannes Norrby (and his ensemble Voces Intimae), and Mogens Wöldike (who’d come from Denmark at the beginning of the war and was known as an early music expert—he did a number of productions with RK at this time and helped stimulate Ericson’s interest in early music).

It was, however, a new piece, written for KK by Ingvar Lidholm in 1946 and premiered in 1947—Laudi—that called for new resources and led Ericson and the choir in new directions. On the technical side, it demanded skill with new and difficult intervals—Ericson said, “I think we went on for six months to try to nail down that difficult sixth measure in the first movement. I remember how we sighed over the difficult intervals.” Laudi also called for a more dramatic style, Lidholm asking for extremes of dynamics not seen in the madrigal literature: “full voice, as loud as possible without forcing.”

There followed other new and difficult works by Bäck, Schoenberg, Bartók, Hindemith, Milhaud, Stravinsky, and then Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé (the performance also included prominent Swedish singers Nicolai Gedda, Elisabeth Söderstöm, Erik Saedén, and Kerstin Meyer), which took nearly a year of preparation.

In 1952 Ericson was asked to take over and reorganize RK, with most of the members replaced by members of KK, expanded to 32 singers, and began rehearsing three times a week (KK continued with one rehearsal a week).

As Ericson has said, “The music department of the Radio had many competent people who really jumped on impulses and picked up on all the big personalities of the 1950s. I sat there with my choirmaster position and was ordered, here comes Stravinsky, here comes Hindemith, and they want to guest conduct their pieces with the Radio Choir, etc.—and I had to be able to study all that. But of course it also meant incredibly inspiring contacts and demanding jobs—‘Here you go—study this Dallapiccola . . .’—that was horrendously difficult at that time! So we stood there with our assignments, and it was exciting for us to jump into all this modern music.”

Ericson has always maintained that the repertoire developed the choir: “You asked how technique and proficiency developed, and I can almost mention certain pieces which were ‘rungs on the ladder,’ because that’s how I feel so strongly when we’ve learned a difficult and very good piece. I’m thinking of KK with Laudi from 1947, then the big pieces of Stravinsky and Nono. Dallapiccola, perhaps most of all, is where we learned to read notes and rhythms. And then of course we have a Swedish piece, again by Lidholm [1956—Canto 81], that we struggled with for half a year. I have a certain sense that, when you ‘come out on the other side’ after having done a piece like Lidholm’s Canto, you are a better musician, a better conductor, a better chorister.” Additionally, Ericson’s emphasis on a cappella music (his stated desire was always to have his ensembles perform 80% a cappella music) has inherently demanded higher attention to the skills of intonation, blend, and ensemble.

The German recording company EMI recognized the extraordinary quality of Ericson’s choirs, and commissioned a four-LP set called Europäische Chormusik aus fünf Jahrhundert, first issued in 1971. This gave Ericson the reason to tour and then record, with both KK and RK, many of the great works for a cappella choir. This was an enormous success, winning several prizes, and led to a second four-LP set, Virtuose Chormusik, in 1978 (both are still available on CD). These recordings helped disseminate knowledge of Ericson’s work around the world, and the high standards set by these recordings had a major influence on other choral conductors and choirs.

Teaching has also been an important part of Ericson’s career, which spanned four decades at the Conservatory. In the ‘50s and ‘60s he taught both church musicians and choral conducting students—40-50 students each year. As Lennart Reimers notes, in 1933 Sveriges Körförbund (the Swedish Choral Society) had 503 members, 40 of whom had a degree from the Conservatory—and during his time there, Ericson taught more than 1500 choral conductors. Consequently, he had an enormous influence on conductors in Sweden.

As Ericson’s singers and students went on to lead their own choirs, they began performing much of the repertoire first done by KK or RK. This raised the level of many choirs, which is in part responsible for the high standards of choral singing in Sweden today. That influence has not only been in Sweden, since many conductors from other countries have also come to Sweden to work with Ericson, whether formally or informally. And since retiring from the Swedish Radio in 1983, he increasingly traveled abroad to teach master classes and guest conduct. Foreign choirs have also inspired by Ericson’s model, for example, the outstanding French choir, Accentus with its conductor Laurence Equilbey.

Ericson has long fought for new repertoire for the a cappella choir and this was an important part of his work. Certainly, the great works by Ingvar Lidholm would likely not have been written were it not for their friendship. There is a long list of works premiered by him or dedicated to him. This has been an important legacy. Many of Ericson’s students have also been active in commissioning new works—prime examples in the last fifteen years or so being Robert Sund, Erik Westberg and Gary Graden. In his travels, master classes, and guest conducting, he’s also been an ambassador for Swedish music and composers throughout the world.

Overall, Eric’s career has been extraordinary. He built ensembles (now nearly 65 years with the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir) with a technical quality unmatched by others in their era, made recordings that still hold up as models many years later, stimulated numerous composers to write for the a cappella idiom, taught four decades worth of choral conductors in Sweden and many abroad, and has inspired choral conductors throughout the world.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Eric Ericson passes at 94

I won't say much now, as there's too much to say about Eric and his impact on so many lives, but it was with mixed emotions of sadness for his loss, and joy at the wonderful life he led that struck me when I heard the news via Facebook this morning.

While I would never dare to say I was his student, he was a huge inspiration, mentor, and friend. Though him and his influence many wonderful things came my way.

He was an amazing musician and man--he will be greatly missed by thousands around the world.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rehearsing well--Start with Musicality

For me, it's important to include musicality and expression, particularly that of phrase shape, from the very beginning of the learning/rehearsal process. The problem with ignoring the shaping of phrases (dynamic, agogic, stressed and unstressed syllables, etc.) is that the choir learns an unmusical shaping of the phrase which then has to be un-learned (and that can take much longer than learning it correctly to begin with).
Of course, we all isolate elements (pitches, rhythms, text, intonation, etc.) in rehearsal, and sometimes the writing is too difficult for our groups to do without some drill. But . . . while drilling pitches or rhythms (let's say text on rhythm only), one can still begin the process of shaping the phrases. Robert Shaw style countsinging can also have phrase shapes built in--this technique doesn't mean to sing without shape or sense of where each phrase is going (make sure you come to Pamela Elrod Huffman's session at ACDA in Dallas, where she'll focus on Shaw's rehearsal techniques).
Ultimately this is much more efficient and the choir will begin to sing music, not just notes, from day one.
The other part of this is that your singers become involved with the music more. Since I work on musicality and expression all the time, sometimes it only takes a reminder from me ("sing more musically") and the choir will know what to do. It's important to teach the whys and hows of this as well (part of teaching them to be better, more expressive musicians). What are the clues to musical phrasing? They need to listen for harmonic dissonance and release, think about text stress, become aware of the important words in a phrase, to be aware of musical contour (the rise and fall of the musical line). They need to know what the overall shape of a phrase is (where does it begin and end? we can sometimes disagree about that!) and how to determine the "goal" of each phrase (where is it going? what's the most important syllable or beat towards which one phrases?). . . and especially to remember that all notes are not equal in a phrase!
Some elements of expression may have to wait, but don't wait too long!
And finally, some of my favorite quotes about phrasing:
Harpsichordist and Pianist Ralph Kirkpatrick: "The essential expressive quality of a melodic interval lies not in the notes themselves, but in the space between the notes, in the manner in which one gets from one note to another."
Conductor Robert Fountain: "Not just the desire, but the passion to keep the line going."
Composer Virgil Thompson: "Is this music just a piece of clockwork, or does it also tell time? . . . have I been moved or merely impressed?"

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Rehearsal Pacing

We all recognize a well-paced rehearsal when we experience one.
What does it mean to create a well-paced rehearsal?

I think one of the most important things is to plan in advance for variety: hard work on some individual pieces or sections of pieces, run-throughs of more familiar music, alternating faster with slower music (or music with a jubilant mood with something that is more restrained), music that is easier vocally with music that's more demanding. Vary how much time you spend on each piece as well: one piece might have a run-through, one might have just a short rehearsal on the chords that are still not secure, while others get extended rehearsal time. You get the idea.

What's best to start the rehearsal? Think about what will get the group focused. Do you open with vocalises? Do you connect vocalises with the first piece you'll rehearse? What music will get the choir involved?

Where should the hardest work of the rehearsal go? I'd suggest somewhere around the "golden mean" (meaning a bit more than half-way through the rehearsal), so the group is well-warmed up, they've already done some work to prepare them, and are ready for a challenge. Too early and they're worn out for the rest of the rehearsal. Too late and their focus or energy might not be as sharp. If you have a longer rehearsal and take a break, I'd suggest before the break--that gives them a chance to recuperate before the last half of the rehearsal (and when I say "half" I don't mean literally--the first "half" should be longer than the second!).

End with something the group will enjoy--it can be a favorite piece or simply the chance to run through some music without stopping. Send them out of the rehearsal feeling good about what they've done and wanting more.

Speaking of stopping, too much stopping is frustrating for the singers. Make sure that the kind of detailed work that requires lots of stops and starts doesn't go on too long and you give the singers the relief of being able to sing through a complete piece or section.

Your literal "pace" (how quick the instructions with little downtime for singers) is also important. Too quick a pace can be as enervating as too slow. Even that can be varied through the rehearsal. One piece can be rapid-fire and another give them time to breathe (your instructions can be at a slower pace). If I've been working them very hard (although ideally I don't want to talk too much--quick instructions, then back to singing), a short mental break for them to slump and listen can be helpful: talk logistics of your upcoming concert, or take the time to explain something about the music or composer (if it doesn't go on too long!) can be helpful--a mental and physical "mini-break" if you will.

Of course, different groups (age groups, experience level) will have different tolerances for hard, detailed work. Given your group (and you know them best), you want to push the boundaries of how long they can focus and concentrate, but not so much that they get frustrated. But improving their capacity for hard work is important.

But even the same group will have days of high energy and days when they can't seem to focus. Sometimes you can push, cajole, or charm them into working at their peak level after a slow start. At other times you may recognize that it's best that day to ease off a little, change your rehearsal plan, and spend more time on music that's easier, less time on detailed rehearsal and more time on run-throughs or favorite music for them to sing.

The goal is to pace so as to get the maximum out of your singers in the time alotted--but to keep them motivated and loving to sing. I still remember a line from Brock McElheran's wonderful short book on conducting where he says (I don't have it in front of me, so this might not be exact), "It does no good to memorize long lists of baroque ornaments if no one wants to play them for you."

I try to remember that.

Happy rehearsing!