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Thursday, September 26, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden I

First, you need to know that John Wooden was the most successful basketball coach ever . . . but you still might wonder, what does that have to do with me? As head coach at UCLA, he won 10 NCAA championships in a period of 12 years, including a streak of 7 in a row. This was not only an unprecedented record, but he won with different types of players and teams, from his early championships with small, fast teams, to the teams dominated by Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And his success was not just in winning games, but in building the character of his players. He considered himself a teacher above all, it is from his teaching and leadership skills that we can learn, despite the fact that we're in very different fields.

I'll start with one idea that I found very useful (and mentioned in a blog post last year): that of the difference between scrimmage and drills. 

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, defense, 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 last year (and this one, too), 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 my choir. There are other elements in building this, but I hope you get the idea as well.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Great new blog

It's always nice to discover a great new blog. I follow quite a few (and not all musical . . . hey, I have other interests, too!) and it's fun to find one with some fresh ideas.
J.D. Frizell is a candidate for the DMA at the University of Kentucky and Director of Fine Arts and Vocal Music at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, TN.
His blog can be found here. A recent post deals with the idea that practice does not always make perfect, using the idea of neuromuscular pathways. Here's a sample:
Musicians can benefit from them, too.  The understanding of neuromuscular pathways strongly informs my approach to teaching private voice lessons.  New students coming into my studio often are confused as to why we don't:
  • Learn a lot of new songs often
  • Learn a lot of songs they want to sing
  • Work on much more than a phrase at a time per lesson
I explain to them how neuromuscular pathways work and how, at their age, it is imperative to develop proper habits for singing, since their instrument IS their body.  It is especially important to focus on the repetitive element of building these pathways since singers often have bad habits that have been reinforced for their entire singing life! 

 This concept also applies to my ensembles, whom I often ask while sight-reading, "When does tone (or vowel shape/blend/dynamic contrast/etc.) matter?"  and they answer "Always!"
I highly recommend introducing the concept of neuromuscular pathways in your lessons or rehearsals.  To further the impression for my students, I make an analogy of the pathways being like roads.  When you practice something the first few times, you carve a dirt path.  A few more times, it becomes a gravel drive.  Months of repetition and consistency later, you'll have a paved road.  Eventually, you build superhighways with 10 lanes on each side.

 So no, practice does not make perfect.  Practice makes whatever you do within that time more engrained.  If you consistently play piano with straight fingers, you'll find it difficult to curve them appropriately in your lessons.  If you ignore intonation while practicing scales, you'll always play scalar passages out of tune. 
Explore his blog!
By the way, the best way to follow blogs (especially if you follow a fair number of them) is to use a reader. Many of us lamented Google's deciding not to support their reader, but Feedly's reader is a good replacement. You can find it here.
Up next: what can conductors/teachers learn from Coach John Wooden?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Beautiful interview and music by Peter Hallock

The Byrd Ensemble, led by Markdavin Obenza, has a CD of music by Peter Hallock coming out soon and have produced this video, an interview with Peter along with excerpts from the recording sessions at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle.

Peter's music has long interested me and I loved going to the Compline services at St. Mark's Cathedral. My first CD with Choral Arts was of Peter's music. I've continued doing Peter's music, most recently with my University Singers at UNT last fall.

The music on the video sounds wonderful and I look forward to the CD.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Auditions V - What do you prioritize?

After the long audition process you've gone through (well, long enough, anyway!), you have to make decisions as to who's in your choir(s). Difficult choices will always be a part of this if you have an auditioned choir. What do you prioritize? How do you make these choices?
The comments here are for those who have relatively advanced singers, so this (as with much of this series) might not speak to as large a number of conductors. But I hope it's still helpful and of interest.
First, how do you treat returning members of the ensemble? Are they automatically in? Do they have any "skin in the game" during auditions? I've almost always required re-auditions, but it's been incredibly rare for me not to take a previous member of the choir. Loyalty (assuming they've been a responsible member of the choir) goes both ways!
However, I've known of a few conductors who rate their singers on a scale and take the top rated singers, without regard to previous membership. A legitimate choice--but what do you think? Do you do this? Could you do this?
Second, one can prioritize (this is broadly stated!) either vocal sound or musicianship/ear. What's most important to you? The very best voices? The best sightreaders?
Obviously, this is a vast oversimplification, but there is an element here that is important--your choices will have consequences. If you find yourself frustrated with the speed with which your choir can work, did you prioritze quality of voice too highly? Or, if you're unhappy with the sound of your choir, did you leave some really fine singers with great instruments out of your choir because their reading was poor?
If we all had the perfect situation, we'd have fantastic voices connected with unbelievable musicianship and experience--but then we probably wouldn't be a good enough conductor to work with them!
In reality, choices are a balance--one looks for the combination of voice/musicianship which will create the best choir. The real choices are at the margins--with the majority of the singers it'll be pretty clear whether they belong in the choir or not. But decisions for the last few singers in each section can be difficult (even agonizing) and here's where the needs of the ensemble can help with the decision. Do you need a particular voice type (a high soprano? soprano with a warm lower voice?)? Have you already chosen some beautiful voices for the section, but some whose reading is poor? In that case, you might choose a fantastic reader (without a great voice) who can help that section learn more quickly and give musical leadership. On the other hand, you might need a voice that other voices can use as a model of the kind of sound you need--even if their musicianship isn't of the highest level.
And what about the intangibles (perhaps not so intangible!)--personality, leadership qualities--those things we might put into the overall term, "character." Is the singer committed, enthusiastic, energetic, a good leader? These are elements we also should consider.
If you have thoughts about how you make your final choices, please share them!
All the best with your choirs this year--may your audition choices turn out to be wonderful ones.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Auditioning Singers IV: Group Auditions/Recalls

For many of us with advanced choirs, a group recall audition by section is an important part of the selection process. It's a possible next step after the individual auditions, which can serve several purposes:
  • a chance to compare voices that you may have heard over several days (we just heard around 200 singers in our auditions)
  • trying out different combinations of voices to see which voices work together best in a section
  • to check musicianship and ability to follow rehearsal suggestions in a different way
  • to set placement within the section
It takes time to do this, but it can be quite valuable.
It's challenging to remember specifics of voices (when you don't know them) across several days--some conductors video-tape singers so they can go back. But even with that, the direct comparison of voices is far more accurate. Size of voice, color, and other attributes are then heard in context.
I typically have called back 4-5 more singers than I will take in a section--if I'll take 12 sopranos, for example, I might recall 16-17 singers. I've done either a familiar song ('My Country 'tis of thee') or some repertoire from the upcoming year. My Country 'tis of thee is done in Bb (lower voices) and F (higher voices), with the key of G for first sopranos and tenors, which tells me a lot. I've also used music that's new to the singers, where I want to hear how quickly they may pick up ideas for phrasing or sound that I may suggest.
Joshua Bronfman wrote an interesting post on how preconceptions may affect our perceptions of the singers we hear and asked if any of us did blind auditions (that's the norm in the professional orchestral world). I did exactly that for about 8 years at PLU. I wrote about it in an earlier blog:
With my PLU choirs I always had a group audition, by section, after the individual auditions. This allowed me to find a bit more about musicianship, how quickly the singer could apply musical ideas, and to see how voices might work together.
If, for example, I were considering 16 sopranos for 12 spots available in the Choir of the West, I’d have an hour to work with them. In the last ten years or so of these auditions I did them “blind.” When the singers came in they’d pick a number (1 through 16) out of a box (they’d write their names on the piece of paper and hand it back at the end, so I’d have my “key” to who I was listening to). After introducing the process, I’d turn my back to the singers and call out numbers for particular singers. Of course, I could identify some singers’ voices right away, but I didn’t focus on guessing—simply on listening to the voice. I think new singers liked this “anonymity,” and later I was sometimes genuinely surprised by the results as I ranked the singers.
I’d usually begin with a vocal exercise, and hear all singers one after another. Then we’d work on a passage from a work I’d chosen (usually something from upcoming repertoire). This helped me find out how quick singers were in learning something new and how musically they might sing. I’d then begin to combine different voices to see how they worked together.
I found this a valuable part of my audition process.
Sorting out how voices work together can be done in a variety of ways. If you have a choir with a large number of returning members, this part of the audition can put new singers amongst returning ones, which allows you the possibility of "plugging in" the new singers and hearing how they fit. My colleague, Jerry McCoy, uses his recall in this way.
My former colleague at PLU, Richard Nance, uses his group recall for placement in the choir, but by arranging the voices from bright to dark color, which then will help him determine the arrangement of singers.
If you haven't done such a group recall, give it a try!