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Pope Francis: a Curia that is outdated, sclerotic or indifferent to others is an ailing body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

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Building Skills 6

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

Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Most Meaningful Mentor

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Improving Skills 5

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

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Improving Skills 4

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

Friday, October 31, 2014

Improving Skills 3

From Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent: Tip #5 - Be willing to be stupid.
The point, of course, isn’t to be stupid, but to be willing to fail, to take risks. Coyle uses the example of Wayne Gretzky falling in practice and says, “As skilled as he was, Gretzky was determined to improve, to push the boundaries of the possible. The only way that happens is to build new connections in the brain—which means reaching, failing, and yes, looking stupid.”
There is a great Nike ad with Michael Jordan, which you probably already know, but it makes the same point: without taking risks (and failing) you won’t fail . . . but you’re unlikely to grow either.
But what does this mean for the conductor?
It certainly means challenging yourself. How can you push yourself beyond your current boundaries, your current skill level?
Repertoire is one logical area—it’s the basis for all we do, after all. Eric Ericson always maintained that his choirs (and he) grew through the challenges of particular repertoire:
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 naturally from the viewpoint of the Chamber Choir with [Lidholm's] Laudi from 1947, Fyra körer from 1953, then the big pieces of Stravinsky, Nono . . . Dallapiccola perhaps most of all, which is where we learned to read notes and rhythms. And then of course we have a Swedish piece, again by Lidholm [1956--Canto], 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. Canto feels like a final exam for the '50s choral life . . . early pieces that were difficult tonally and rhythmically became less so. Canto combined all the difficulties one was thrown between.
What repertoire will push your musicianship, your conducting technique, your ability to teach a particular style? The risk of failure or looking stupid is there, but believe me, it’s worth it.
Coyle says, “Feeling stupid is no fun. But being willing to be stupid—in other words, being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes—is absolutely essential, because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way your brain grows and makes new connections. When it comes to developing talent, remember, mistakes are not really mistakes—they are the guideposts you use to get better."
Another worthwhile book I’ve written about is Mindset by Carol Dweck—the full post is here.
It deals with two different mindsets regarding learning. From that blog post:
Dweck says, "Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just walk and talk. They never decide it's too hard or not worth the effort. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward."
Somewhere along the line, though, some children learn that they are being evaluated and become afraid of challenges (and paradoxically, continual praising children as being smart or supremely talented can lead to the fixed mindset).
She tells of a study where they offered four-year-olds the choice between redoing an easy jigsaw puzzle or trying a harder one. Even at this age, kids who had a fixed mindset--that is, they believed in fixed traits--chose the safe one. They told the researchers, kids who are born smart "don't do mistakes." The other children with a growth mindset--who believed you could get smarter--couldn't imagine doing a puzzle they'd done before. One girl said, "I'm dying to figure them out!"
Again from Dweck, "So children with the fixed mindset want to make sure they succeed. Smart people should always succeed. But for children with the growth mindset, success is about stretching themselves. It's about becoming smarter.”
All of us have things we’re comfortable with: our conducting technique, rehearsal technique, our usual way of doing things. Sometimes in order to grow, we have to give up our comfortable ways and change our technique—in a very real sense, change who we are. This almost certainly will mean that for a period of time you’ll be uncomfortable and, in fact, probably won’t do as well. But you need the time to grow those new connections in your brain—and perhaps, feel “stupid” for awhile. But if you’re not willing to go through that process you won’t grow.
So, if you want to grow and improve, don’t be afraid of mistakes and failure: "be willing to be stupid.” Challenge yourself, put yourself in situations where you’re certain to struggle. And give yourself the opportunity to change and grow.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Improving Skills 2

Daniel Coyle's The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills Tip #3 is, "Steal without apology." This is something I've long believed—it's one of the best ways to acquire new skills. When you see a fine conductor do something—gesture, rehearsal technique, etc.—that works, follow the advice given in the first post, quoting Coyle, "Many hotbeds use an approach I call the engraving method. Basically, they watch the skill being performed, closely and with great intensity, over and over, until they build a high-intensity mental blueprint." Then . . . add it to your repertoire. As Picasso says, "Good artists borrow. Great artists steal."
An interesting example is given:
Linda Septien, founder of the Linda Septien School of Contemporary Music, a hotbed near Dallas that has produced millions of dollars in pop music talent (including Demi Lovato, Ryan Cabrera, and Jessica Simpson), tells her students, "Sweetheart, you gotta steal like crazy. Look at every single performer better than you and see what they've got that you can use. Then make it your own. Septien follows her own advice, having accumulated fourteen three-ring notebooks worth of ideas stolen from top performers. In plastic sleeves inside the binders, in some cases scribbled on cocktail napkins, reside tips on everything from how to hit a high note to how to deal with a rowdy crowd (a joke works best).
I know I can trace some specific gestures or rehearsal techniques I use to particular teachers, mentors, or conductors I've observed. But you have to find a way to make these skills yours. That comes with practice. You have to absorb it so thoroughly that it now belongs to you. And, of course, to quote Ecclesiastes, "There is nothing new under the sun." Those you "steal" from have no doubt "stolen" it from someone else.
You can also absorb certain things unconsciously . . . and that can be good or bad. I know some things I learned as a singer in Rod Eichenberger's University of Washington Chorale as an undergraduate—notably a sense of rhythm and phrasing—gradually became a part of me and my approach to music, and for that I'll be eternally grateful.
But at the same time sometimes we copy things that aren't an essential part of a conductor's success. If you copy Robert Shaw's rehearsing with a towel around his neck instead of his amazing score study habits, it's unlikely your conducting will improve!
So, steal freely. But make sure you practice until the new skill belongs to you . . . and then someone else can steal it from you.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Improving Skills 1

This next blog series revolves around several books and their perspectives on increasing our skills. Those skills can range from conducting technique to rehearsal technique to score study, if we think of our own skills as conductors. It can also mean the skills we teach our singers, which are equally important.
As you've seen in the previous series on Books Worth Reading, I often draw inspiration from books that aren't directly about music—they can range from psychology to sports to . . . well, almost anything.
I'll start with Daniel Coyle's The Little Book of Talent, which I referenced here. It developed out of Coyle's research (as a magazine writer develping an article) looking at "talent hotbeds" and how some people or schools or organizations developed an inordinate (and statistically significantly larger) number of exceptionally talented individuals. In essence, how these particular individuals showed such remarkable skill growth. The "Little Book" is his series of tips for improving skills.
So, let's get to work!
Tip #2 is "Spend 15 Minutes a Day Engraving the Skill on Your Brain" (I wrote about Tip #1, "Stare About Who You Want to Become," in the post linked above).
Coyle says that in learning a new skill, "Many hotbeds use an approach I call the engraving method. Basically, they watch the skill being performed, closely and with great intensity, over and over, until they build a high-intensity mental blueprint." He uses an example of Timothy Gallwey teaching a woman who'd never played tennis how to hit a forehand, without ever saying a word, in about 20 minutes. He also uses the example of Suzuki teaching, where a particular song is engraved by listening intently (and over and over) in the students' brains.
There are many ways to use this idea (which isn't new, of course).
I remember learning to do a "kip" on the high bar as a junior high school student (this video shows a kip as a way to get onto the bar—it's only a little humiliating that the person doing the kip—and something much more difficult afterward—is a 6 year old girl!). It wasn't until I'd watched it done by my fellow classmates many times that I could imagine how it felt in my brain, that I could do it myself. I had to internalize and imagine doing the move before I could do it. But it was visualizing the move intensely that made that happen.
How can this apply to skill development? Lots of ways, of course!
  • Learning a new conducting technique, watch someone intently on the particular technique/move (someone who does it well, of course!). Given today's video capability with our phones, get video of someone (a colleague, your teacher, fellow student) doing it. Spend 15 minutes a day watching intently and absorbing the move until you can feel it in your brain. Then see if you can do it, having absorbed it into your own physical repertoire.
  • For singers to recreate certain kinds of sounds we can teach in a variety of ways, but models—sound models—can be the most effective. If a picture is worth a thousand words, can't we say the same thing about sound? Demonstrations (by yourself if you're skilled, by another member of the choir, or by a guest—perhaps a voice teacher) can help create the sound you desire from your choir, often more quickly than other methods. Of course, you have to be careful about this. In any demonstration you may inadvertently create some things you don't want. Intonation is a particular one—a good example of quality of sound may be sabotaged by your not paying attention to your intonation. Recordings can also be used, but care needs to be taken to give examples that are possible for your singers. I wouldn't use the Swedish Radio Choir for a middle school choir! (But I might use a recording of a great middle school choir—for example, a recording of boys singing with the best possible sound for male singers that age)
  • Style can also be taught/absorbed through excellent recordings. Long ago, when I was preparing the Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer with my choir at PLU, I began every rehearsal playing recordings of Strauss waltzes by the Vienna Philharmonic. It was to absorb the style (very natural to those musicians) of playing a waltz: the right kind of lilt, where the 2nd beat gets placed rhythmically, the difference between a waltz and a Ländler). How much did it help? I can't separate it out, but I believe much is absorbed unconsciously in doing this kind of listening. I should also say that I had a waltz party with our dance teacher coming in to teach the singers to dance the waltz!
Think of your own examples! Please reply and share your ideas with everyone!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Books Worth Your Time IX

One more book before I go in a new direction: Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.
I'm fascinated by creative people in other arts than music. Since I'm married to a visual artist (who loves music, luckily), I often get cross-pollination of ideas from another viewpoint (and she has good ears, too!).
Twyla Tharp is a choreographer who's done work that ranges from her own company, choreography for other companies (premieres of 16 of her works at the American Ballet Theatre), Broadway (particularly her successful show based on Billy Joel songs), and film (she worked with Milos Forman on Hair, Ragtime, and Amadeus).
Her underlying point is that creativity is a habit, a product of preparation and effort, and she then explores the exercises she does to create ideas.
She begins each day going to the gym. As she tells us, rituals of preparation are important to the creative artist—the habits we build. She says the ritual is not the exercises she does, the ritual is the cab. "The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual. . . . It's vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behavior—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way." She gives examples of different artists' rituals, including Igor Stravinsky, who played a Bach fugue at the piano every day when he entered his studio.
A list of chapter headings is vague, but will give you a few ideas:
  • Your Creative DNA
  • Harness Your Memory
  • Before You Can Think out of the Box, You Have to Start with a Box
  • Scratching
  • Accidents Will Happen
  • Spine
  • Skill
  • Ruts and Grooves
  • An "A" in Failure
  • The Long Run
As "recreative" artists we may think that the kind of creativity needed by a choreographer, visual artist, playwright, author, composer, or architect has little to do with what we do. But we have to "re-engineer" the compositions we perform, imagine them through the composer's mind and spirit. Programming is a mightily creative act (or should be)! And, although I've spoken of rehearsal technique as craft, it is also art when we're at our best. With one of my choirs right now I've needed to re-think aspects of how I normally rehearse—and the creative energy I put into planning those rehearsals will ultimately affect what I do in other ones. There are so many ways in which creativity is at the heart of what we do. Following a great creative artist such as Twyla Tharp through her process, seeing her "toolbox," and getting inside her mind is enormously helpful.
I hope you get a chance to enjoy and learn from it!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Books Worth the Time VIII

I think the best of the books about John Wooden's teaching (which really was the bulk of his approach to coaching) is You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned, by Swen Nater (one of Wooden's players at UCLA) and Ronald Gallimore (a psychologist whose research was in teaching, and who with his colleague Roland Tharp did research with Wooden back in the mid-70s when he was still coaching). I talked about this in a previous series about Wooden, all of which can be found here and the particular posts that involve Nater & Gallimore's book here, here, here, here, here, and here.
While those posts will tell you a lot about the book . . . there's no substitute for reading it yourself. I believe there's a huge amount to think about (and learn from) in it.
By the way, I've been giving links to Amazon, just for convenience. When I'm buying a used book I also check Thriftbooks, since they often have great prices and free shipping (they work with independent bookstores from all over the country). My copy of this book came from them, although I see right now that it's out of stock (they have an earlier edition, but I'm not sure that's the same). You may have other places to look as well–let us know if you do!
A new series coming soon!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Books Worth Your Time VII

For this blog series I started out with the idea of alternating books on music with books on other subjects. But I've realized that most of the great music books are fairly well known or are are so specific that they might have limited interest (maybe I'll combine some in a post later).
So I'm going on with books on other subjects that I hope you'll find of interest.

Next we go to Daniel Coyle's The Little Book of Talent--52 Tips for Improving Your Skills. Coyle is the author of The Talent Code, a book I can also recommend.

Coyle is a journalist who, for an article, researched places—training centers, camps, charter schools, etc.—which created a much higher level of talented people than others ("hotbeds of talent"). He also visited with scientists doing research, notably K. Anders Ericsson from Florida State University, who coined the term "deliberate practice" to describe a very focused, intense type of practice (it's also his research that led to the "10,000 hour rule," which Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book, Outliers, the Story of Success). And if you want to know more about deliberate practice (it's worth it), this article has some great links.

Honestly, all of those books are worth reading, but The Little Book of Talent is exactly that, a little book, the hardback edition the physical size of a paperback, 119 pages long. Since Coyle himself is a "father, volunteer basketball coach, and husband of a hockey-playing wife," while he did his research he wondered about all sorts of practical problems:
As a family, we struggled daily with the usual questions and anxieties that revolve around the process of acquiring and developing skills. How do we help our daugher learn her multiplication tables? Howe do we tell a genuine talent from a momentary interest? What's the best way to spark motivation? . . . As it turned out, visiting these remarkable places was not just a chance for me to be a journalist. It was also a chance to become a better coach and a better dad.
So, he started taking notes when he spotted a great tip for teaching or learning. And those notes became the basis for this book, divided into several categories (his words quoted below):
  1. Getting Started: ideas for igniting motivation and creating a blueprint for the skills you want to build.
  2. Improving Skills: methods and techniques for making the most progress in the least time.
  3. Sustaining Progress: strategies for overcoming plateaus, keeping motivational fires lit, and building habits for long-term success.
Tip #1 is "stare at who you want to become." This is about using role models—those people who already can do those things you'd like to be able to do—and truly and deeply observe what they do and how they do it (in Coyle's words, "the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats or newborn babies"). For example, very early on I started to focus on and track how the conductor of the choir rehearsed (Rod Eichenberger was my undergrad teacher). After doing this for awhile, I would try to guess what Rod was going to do when he stopped the choir. Would he address pitch, rhythm, sound, intonation, phrasing? Did he stop to address the altos or the tenors? And I got pretty good at knowing what he was going to do. I was not analyzing what he was doing—I didn't write things down or classify the kinds of things he'd did. I was simply absorbing how he prioritized in a rehearsal and, of course, was listening intently to what the choir did. And in doing this, I was absorbing a chunk of his rehearsal technique without thinking about it consciously. I continued to do this with any conductor I worked with and could often start to catch on to what a conductor would most likely do after a relatively short period of time. This was even true when I visited Wilhelm Ehmann in Germany when I was 21. I didn't understand any German at that time, but could still begin to make good guesses at what he'd do after even a few days. We all have people we admire. Don't be afraid to do all possible to absorb what they do.

Tip #15, "break every move down into chunks."
Every skill built out of smaller pieces—what scientists call chunks.
Chunks are to skill what letters of the alphabet are to language. Alone, each is nearly useless, but when combined into bigger chunks (words), and when those chunks are combined into still bigger things (sentences, paragraphs), they can build something complex and beautiful. . .
. . . ask yourself:
  1. What is the smallest single element of this skill that I can master?
  2. What other chunks link to that chunk?
Practice on chunk by itself until you've mastered it—then connect more chunks, one by one . . .
. . . Musicians at Meadowmount [one of his hotbeds of talent] cut apart musical scores with scissors and put the pieces into a hat, then pull each section out at random. Then, after the chunks are learned separately, they start combining them in the correct order, like so many puzzle pieces. "It works because the students aren't just playing the music on autopilot—they're thinking," says one of the school's violin instructors, Skye Carman.
In teaching vocal skills, most teachers separate out elements of good singing—posture, breathing, onset of tone, vowels, etc.—and work on each separately, then combine in order, since breath builds on posture, etc.. However, I found the Meadowmout idea fascinating and it reminded me of some aspects of Eric Ericson's rehearsal technique. He'd often take a piece and work on just one section of it in a rehearsal (the one that needed most work, of course!). But over the course of the rehearsals, all would gradually fit together and make sense.

Re-reading that little tip was already worth it for me! See if the book can offer you some ideas as well.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Books Worth Your Time VI

How do we, given the enormous number of things we do in our jobs as conductors, keep sane and healthy? How can we deal better with stress?
Are there ways for us to do what we do with joy, full energy, and full engagement?
This week's title is The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The subtitle tells the story: "Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal."
Jim Loehr has been a coach to hundreds of athletes, working with, among others tennis players Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, and Monica Seles; golfers Mark O'Meara and Ernie Els; basketball players Nick Anderson and Grant Hill; and speed skater Dan Jansen. Loehr's coaching was not about their athletic skills or technique, but in helping them manage their energy more effectively. After those successes, Loehr's company expanded to corporate clients and entrepreneurs.
In his language, you have to become a "corporate athlete"—we might say "conductor athlete" or "teaching athlete."
In order to achieve great performance he outlines several principles:
  1. Full engagement requires drawing on four separate but related sources of energy: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual
  2. Because energy capacity diminishes both with overuse and underuse, we must balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal
  3. To build capacity, we must push beyond our normal limits, training in the same systematic way that elite athletes do
  4. Positive energy rituals—highly specific routines for managing energy—are the key to full engagement and sustained high performance
This has to do with all the elements that go into those areas of energy: what you eat, how you exercise, how you rest and sleep, etc. He says, "The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal. Instead, many of us live our lives as if we are running in and endless marathon, pushing ourselves far beyond healthy levels of exertion. We become flat liners mentally and emotionally by relentlessly spending energy without sufficient recovery. Either way, we slowly but inexorably wear down."
The space (and time to write!) I have for this blog is far too short to fully describe the book. He uses a hypothetical example of a stressed out manager who's falling apart that they work with in order to go through the steps of building capacity (in all the areas: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual). It's a good way to illustrate the process they take clients through in their work (and to imagine your own challenges).
I've found this immensely valuable, although I'm not equally successful in all areas! However, this year is a good test for me: last year, in addition to my teaching and administrative job at UNT, I became Interim Chancel Choir Director at the largest Methodist Church in the world: Highland Park UMC. This year, however, I've added the title (and most of the job) of Interim Director of Music & Arts in a program with a big concert series and many other things to administer. I have help, of course, and the staff at HPUMC is wonderful. But I still have to find the time to get all the work done at both jobs and not short either place.
I'd already learned one of the biggest lessons from the book, which is that humans work best naturally in a rhythmic, pulsing way—i.e., we need to regularly exert effort, but then disengage, even if briefly. Over the last decade or so I've gotten much better at being able to work intensely with lots of focus and energy, but then disengage for a short time with an activity (which can be surprisingly short) that allows me to recharge my batteries. Much like the waves in the ocean, the energy we exert needs to be used in pulses of both energy and rest and renewal.
I'm much better at giving myself time for mental, emotional, and spiritual renewal. And I find ways, when I have a day off to truly disengage, renew and recreate (and I usually schedule a massage!). All of that is invaluable.
I'm not nearly as good keeping up with the physical side: making time for regular exercise, eating better, and getting enough sleep . . . but I'm working on it!
I think you'll find this book and its ideas a valuable addition to your library. All of us need to find ways to renew ourselves to be able to give our choirs the best we have to offer! And we need it to truly live life and not just survive it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Books Worth Your Time V

My next recommendation is a book by Doug Lemov, who you may know from the book Teach Like a Champion or it's follow-up, Teach Like a Champion Field Guide. Both are terrific, all about better ways to teach. I recommend them, too!
But today I'll look at Doug's most recent book (along with co-authors Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi), Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better.
This is all about the art (and science, in some cases) of practice. Using examples from top-level athletes and established teachers, as well as those in business or even long-time surgeons, the authors show how deliberately engineered and designed practice can make us better at almost anything we do (this quoted from the inside dust jacket, but very accurate. The fact that they don't use musicians in their examples won't get in the way of figuring out how better to teach your students, or rehearsing/practicing with your choir to make them better.
Since much of what they did in looking at champion teachers was to try to find ways to get other, less experienced or less skilled teachers to learn how to follow those models, they discovered that it was important for them to find better ways for the teachers to practice their new skills. Otherwise they weren't successful. So now they had to discover the rules of successful practice, or their teaching technique wouldn't improve.
I'll give a random set of examples of chapter titles ("Rules") to give you an idea:
Encode Success
Let the Mind Follow the Body
Unlock Creativity . . . with Repetition
Practice "Bright Spots"
Correct Instead of Critique
Isolate the Skill
Integrate the Skills
Make Each Minute Matter
Shorten the Feedback Loop
Describe the Solution (Not the Problem)
Break Down the Barriers to Practice
Make it Fun to Practice
Leverage Peer-to-Peer Accountability
Walk the Line (Between Support and Demand)
Some of these won't be clear until you read the chapters (and remember, there are 42 "rules"). But it should give you an inkling of what's going on here.
Just as an example, "Shorten the Feedback Loop." This built on John Wooden's teaching (you can find a series I wrote about him here, fourteen posts about Coach Wooden's technique and approach): as a former player noted, "he believed correction was wasted unless done immediately" -- in other words, without quick correction, the player was building in the wrong thing--practicing the incorrect thing.
I wrote about this in terms of work with my choirs telling them the difference between scrimmage and drill. In a scrimmage, we're looking at a game (for us, concert) situation in practice--running through a section or complete piece. Whereas in drill, we focus on fewer things, much repetition, and constant corrections. While we need both (and the percentage spent in each will change as we get closer to the concert), without lots of drill, certain things simply won't get better. It's focused drill, with constant feedback, that will make the choir better in the shortest time. We still have to mix in scrimmage, otherwise they don't know how to get through a section or piece, but that's a matter of balance. I also discovered that my students quickly got the idea of the importance of drill and this made them much more patient with the quick start/stop/correction/sing it again of drill. As I put it in an earlier post, it greatly increased the density of accomplishment in my rehearsals.
I'm still reading and re-reading this book in little chunks, then thinking about how a particular technique or way of thinking might apply to me in my work with choirs. I suspect I will for a long time. And I hope you'll find it valuable, too!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Interrupting our current program . . . (Eric Ericson)

I finally found my copy of Ron Jeffers' notes from attending a workshop with Eric Ericson. These are fantastic and illustrate many aspects of Eric's art, so I thought it worthwhile to interrupt my current blog series on worthwhile reading to give this. As the pdf states, it's from a workshop in 1981 (Haystack is a large rock--shaped like a Haystack--at Cannon Beach, OR).

Most of you will know Ron as the owner of publisher earthsongs or for his (invaluable--and this really is a book you want on your shelf!) book on translations of Latin texts (or the follow-ups in other languages by different authors). But you may not know that Ron was an absolutely first-rate choral conductor at Oregon State University and other places.

Well, so I did recommend a book after all!

Enjoy Ron's notes!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ivan Fischer's Budpest Festival Orchestra sings!

It's remarkable to hear a professional orchestra--and I can think of hardly anyone else other than Ivan Fischer who would do it!--sing some a cappella Brahms:

Message from Ivan Fischer:
"Dear Friends, on this present tour I asked the Budapest Festival Orchestra to start a new life – to sing regularly. At the end of the Proms and elsewhere on tour we performed Abendständchen by Brahms as an encore only after three days of practice.

"Why? Because people should sing! Mothers should sing to their babies, children should sing in children’s choirs and adults should rediscover this wonderful communication tool. So we should set an example and start to show that it is possible to overcome fears and inhibitions.

"If you want to hear our very first attempt, please scroll to the end of the symphony, ca 45 minutes on this link."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Books Worth Your Time III

This one will be short (busy week!) and is not a book to read, but a great reference to have on your shelf: The A to Z of Foreign Musical Terms by Christine Ammer. Scores often have terminology in foreign languages and since the composer put them there to give you information about performance (calando, marziale, etc.), it's imperative to know what they mean. I've almost never found a term that isn't included in this lovely, compact, inexpensive (currently $9.68 on Amazon) reference! Incredibly helpful. For "calando," for example, it tells you that it's Italian and that it means, "Becoming softer and slower." That's opposed to "calcando," which means: 1- "Forcefully, pressing on" or 2- "Imitating, copying."
Definitely worth having on your shelf!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Books Worth Reading II

Thomas M. Sterner's The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life. Sterner is a musician, worked for years as a piano tuner/technician, as well as having an interest in Eastern philosophy. It's one of the best books I've read about developing better habits of discipline and focus. He has a wonderful little section that speaks to our habit of rushing through things and multi-tasking: with a day ahead that included getting two pianos ready (one for the piano soloist with the local symphony), then travel to do other tuning work, then back in the evening to check both pianos before the concert. He notes that he'd done this kind of thing many times and knew very well how much time it took, and that it was about two and a half times the amount considered a day's work in the trade. I'll let him speak from here:
When I started on the first piano, I put all of my effort into "being slow." I opened my tool box very slowly. Instead of grabbing a handful of tools and thinking I was saving time, I took each tool out one at a time. I placed each tool neatly in position. When I began setting up the piano, I performed each process individually, trying to deliberately work slowly.

It's a funny feeling when you try this. At first, your internal dialogue is howling at you to get going and pick up the pace. It is screaming at you, "We'll never get this done, you are wasting time." It is reminding you of the whole day's worth of work you have to get done to meet everyone's approval. You can feel the anxiety start to build and the emotions floating up to the surface. However, your ego quickly loses ground to the simplicity of doing one thing at a time and doing it slowly, on purpose. It has no place to build stress and work up internal chatter. That is because working slowly in today's world goes against every thought system. You can only work slowly if you do it deliberately. Being deliberate requires you to stay in the process, to work in the present moment.

After I finished the first instrument, I even went through the process of packing up my tools with meticulous care, just to walk ten feet away and unpack them slowly, one at a time, to start the second piano. Usually I would grab two handfuls of as much as I could carry and scurry through the orchestra chairs on stage trying to sve time. Not this day, however. I was determined to carry out my goal plan of just trying to work slowly. We spend so much time rushing everything we do. Rushing had become so much of a habit that I was amazed at the concentration it took to work slowly on purpose.

I took off my watch so I wouldn't be tempted to look at the time and let that influence my pace. I told myself, "I am dong this for me and for my health, both physical and mental. I have a cell phone and, if need be, I can call whomever and tell them I am running late, and that's the best I can do."

Into the second piano, I began to realize how wonderful I felt. No nervous stomach, no anticipation of getting through the day, and no tight muscles in my shoulders and neck, just this relaxed, peaceful, what-a-nice-day-it-is feeling. I would even go so far as to describe it as blissful. Anything you can do in a rushing state is surprisingly easy when you deliberately slow it down. The revelation for me came, however, when I finished the second piano. I very slowly put my tools away one by one with my attention to every detail. I continued my effort at slowing down as I walked to my truck in the parking garage a block away. I walked very slowly, paying attention to each step. This may sound nuts at first, but it was an experiment on my part. I was experiencing such an incredible feeling of peacefulness in a situation that usually had every muscle in my body tense that I wanted to see just how far I could intensify the situation with my effort.

When I got to the truck, the clock radio came on with the turn of the key and I was dumbfounded. So little time had passed compared to what I had usually experienced for the same job in the past that I was sure the clock was incorrect. Keep in mind that I was repeating a process that I had done for many years. I have set up these pianos together sometimes five and six times a week. I had a very real concept of the time involved in the project. I pulled my watch out of my pocket as a second check. It agreed with the clock-radio that I had cut over 40 percent off the time. I had tried to work as slowly as possible and I had been sure I was running an hour late. Yet I had either worked faster (which didn't seem possible, given my attention to slowness), or I had slowed time down (an interesting thought, but few would buy it). Either way, I was sufficiently motivated to press on with the experiment throughout the remainder of the day. I got so far ahead of schedule that I was afforded the luxury of a civilized meal in a nice restaurant, instead of the usual sandwich in the truck or no lunch at all.

I have repeated these results consistently every time I have worked at being slow and deliberate. I have used this technique with everything from cleaning up the dishes after dinner to monotonous areas of piano restoration work that I don't particularly enjoy. The only thing that foils the result is when I am particularly lacking in stamina and find myself drifting back and forth between working with slowness and succumbing to my feeling of, "I have to get this work done quickly."
The rest of the book is certainly as good and as interesting as this passage.

How often do we rush our own work? Whether in preparation (score study, prepping for a class), teaching or rehearsal, does rushing (because we know we have so much to cover!) help?

One of the notable things about the Swedish Radio Choir is their ability to work in a slow, concentrated way on different elements in the music, for example, intonation--it's quite extraordinary. And I had a rehearsal on Rachmaninoff's The Bells with them where I moved at too fast a pace, which resulted in frustration (and not faster results). We need to think of this in our rehearsals: rushing (and not really mastering a passage in the music) rarely accomplishes much and may in fact build in bad habits or mistakes. But it also means we have to build up the ability of our singers (at different levels, of course) to focus, concentrate, and do the patient work necessary to succeed in difficult music. This is perhaps even more true today with all the distractions (cell phones, instant messaging, Facebook, etc.) of the modern world.

Lots to think about, but this is certainly a book that's worthwhile!