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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Learning from Eric Ericson - I

Eric Ericson (1918-2013) was one of the major choral conductors of the last century. His work was influential for many of us and the standards he set with his own Chamber Choir, with the Swedish Radio Choir, along with the men's chorus Orphei Drängar, raised standards around the world. The many tours with those three choirs (and the chamber choir at the College of Music), in addition to his many recordings, were how most of us first knew his work.

While he prepared and/or conducted most of the standard choral/orchestral masterworks, his primary focus and love was for a cappella music. It was always his goal with the Radio Choir, for example, to have 80% of the repertoire the choir sang be a cappella (he wasn't always successful with this).

As the primary teacher of conducting at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm he influenced generations of Swedish conductors from the early 1950's into the 1990s (for a considerable number of those years he was the teacher for all choral conductors, whether music education or church music, and for many years it was also the only place in Sweden where one could study conducting). Later in his career he influenced conductors from around the world through masterclasses and conducting courses.

I've written before about his use of the piano in rehearsal, but we'll explore more of what made Eric . . . well, Eric. And, of course, to ask which of his methods and approaches will be useful to us. A number of posts as well will be guest blogs or interviews with some of my Swedish friends who've known Eric for many years.

A wonderful interview with him from 1997, the 50th anniversary of his Chamber Choir, can be found here. It will tell you a lot to get started.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Young Conductor X - leadership 2

My last post introduced the importance of leadership (or the ability to lead) to be a successful conductor. Most of us learn much of what we know about leadership from our own conductors/mentors/models. This is one of the most important ways we learn.
But one can be more systematic and explore the rich literature on leadership. A quick search on Amazon led to 111,042 books on the topic! So there is no lack of books on leadership--it's more a question of figuring out which ones are worthwhile! Many come from the business world, others from the world of sports. As I mentioned, my series on John Wooden dealt in part with an approach to teaching, but leadership as well. I've read books by Nick Saban, Phil Jackson and others about leadership in the sports/coaching world. While I've read a fair number of books on business leadership over the years, most don't reside in my personal library. But I can certainly recommend Jim Collins' Good to Great and other books. I also like many of Stephen Covey's books and some of Tom Peter's.
In the music world, Benjamin Zander, long-time conductor of the Boston Philharmonic (not Symphony!), has a book co-authored with his wife, The Art of Possibility, plus a number of videos and a TED talk.
Ramona Wis has an excellent book, The Conductor As Leader, which deals directly with all these issues and which I can strongly recommend. She speaks a lot about "servant leadership," which is one model I find very helpful. This means that the leader is also a servant to her ensemble--what do you do to help your singers grow? How do you serve the composer's intentions? This is in contrast to a dictatorial style of leadership (which can also work, of course). I have a recent post on my personal blog about my HS teacher/mentor/friend, Neil Lieurance, who just died Sunday. He's a prime example of a servant leader--I owe him my career.
Kenneth Owen commented on my second post and my statement there that leadership was essential for success (but was rarely taught), with a link to his own blog on choral leadership, and I can recommend it highly.
The point is much the same as with my other blog posts: growth as a conductor is life-long. There's always more to learn. Young conductors who look towards a successful career should be exploring ideas about leadership throughout their careers. Jump in and begin to read more about the topic from the musical world, but also other fields where leadership is all-important. Talk to your mentors/teachers about this topic, ask questions, ask why they do what they do.
Again, the fun of this career is that you can always grow, always be better. And learning to be a leader is an important part of that growth.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Young Conductor IX - leadership 1

As I mentioned earlier in this series, it's rare that there's a place in any undergraduate music education curriculum, or even MM or DMA curricula in choral conducting on the topic of leadership. This is one of those things that's incredibly important, but rarely taught directly. It may be that your music ed or conducting teacher talks about this informally or in an open choral seminar, but most of us have to pick up ideas about leadership by ourselves.
And what do we mean by leadership? Martin Chemers, in his An Integrative Theory of Leadership, says leadership is, "a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task."
That is not a bad definition of leading a choir. Ask yourself how your mentors/conductors do (or don't) enlist the support of their choirs towards to common task we have of making music and presenting it to the public. When we discuss leadership, we aren't talking about "management," although our administrative skills are also important. For me, the leader is one who inspires, who gets her choir to achieve beyond the level that they (and perhaps others) thought was possible.
Of course, most of what we learn about leadership comes from observing and being part of choirs led by our own conductors/teachers/leaders. This kind of modeling, whether explicit (discussed directly) or implicit (observed by you, perhaps absorbed unconciously), is enormously powerful. This unconcious learning can be positive, but also negative. We all tend to emulate what our mentors do and how they do it, for good or ill. It's possible to pick up good leadership traits from our mentors, but also to absorb traits that might not be so positive.
For the young conductor, whether an undergraduate music education student or a graduate student with considerable experience, I believe that thinking about leadership directly is an important factor in your success. Ask yourself what you admire about your mentors or other conductors (All-State/Honor Choirs/Church Choirs/Community Choirs, etc.). What are the characteristics about them that inspire you and other members of the choir? How do they communicate their excitement about the music, the choir, you? Simply put, what makes them an inspiring leader?
Talk with your peers about these issues as well. Peer to peer learning is incredibly powerful. I always felt as a graduate student that I learned as much or more from my fellow students as I did from my teachers.
And, of course, we also learn from negative models. We've all had conductors who did not inspire. Or you may have a wonderful conductor who has an area or two which is ineffective. Sometimes we make mental notes to ourselves that we'll never do that particular thing when we have our own groups! That's valuable, too.
When you make more of what you observe of good models conscious, it allows you to work on particular aspects of leadership on your own. It may even make you aware of negative habits you've picked up from one of your models.
If you're already a conductor, ask yourself how you're doing in inspiring your choir to achieve--how are you doing as a leader? An important question!
Coming up: reading about leadership. We can learn from many leaders, from business to sports--my recent series on the basketball coach John Wooden is one example, but there are many more.

Neil Lieurance - follow up

Many of you saw my blog post about Neil Lieurance Sunday. Those in the know were aware that Neil didn't have much time left. He's been fighting pancreatic cancer for some time (he missed ACDA in Dallas for a surgery). Well, that fight came to an end Sunday, ironically the same day of that post. I  talked to Rick Asher, another long-time friend, yesterday and he let me know. He and others have been there for Neil throughout this long fight and I an only wish I was to be able to be there in person as well.

I talked with Neil about 2 weeks ago and had a wonderful conversation with him, even though Neil was dealing with some painful fluid build up in the lungs. Rick said he was lucid to the end. 70 is far too young for an end to such a wonderful life, but Neil will live on in all of us who knew him--and that's a lot of people. He lived a great life and has been an influence in so many lives, mine only one of them.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Neil Lieurance -- an appreciation

I've been thinking for a while of doing an "appreciation" post for my teacher, mentor, and friend Neil Lieurance and now's the time.

While I'm lucky to have lots of mentors/models/inspiring teachers (I'll write more about them sometime), Neil is my "Ur-mentor" and it's doubtful I'd be doing what I'm doing today if it weren't for him and his influence. He student taught at Shorecrest HS north of Seattle my sophomore year and then the next year took a position at Shorecrest as a special ed teacher, but continued to accompany the the small ensemble. I also began to take voice lessons from him that year. At some point he asked, "What's your major going to be?" I answered that I wasn't sure, maybe English or History. At that point he said, "Have you ever thought about majoring in music?"

Well, that was the beginning and is the reason I'm in music.

Neil became the choir director at Shorecrest the next year and I started to think seriously about the goal of becoming a HS choral director. Neil gave me my first chance to conduct something with the choir ("On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever") and began a sharing process that has lasted all my career.

Here's Neil around the time of my senior year:
When I graduated, I started studying at the University of Washington, but this didn't mean the end of his influence. I'd show up at his house now and then and we'd listen to the latest recordings he'd gotten or the newest music he'd discovered. I can trace the beginnings of my love of choral repertoire from those sessions together. He's always been deeply curious and that definitely rubbed off. He'd also would play recordings and ask what I thought of the differences in sound between, let's say, Robert Shaw's and Gregg Smith's choirs. This interest in choral sound (and the many varieties possible) began here and would later be expanded by my experiences with Rod Eichenberger).

I think another marvelous attribute of Neil's (and one I've tried to emulate) is that once I wasn't his student, he immediately treated me like a colleague. I was treated like an adult from day one.

He began graduate work at Western Washington University during the summers when I was an undergraduate and that became my connection to Bob Scandrett and his work. Because of that, I started going to Bob's summer workshops with, among others, Gregg Smith, Louis Halsey, and Günter Graulich (publisher/editor for Hänssler/Carus Verlag). Bob, even though he was never my teacher, became a big influence in many ways.

Because of this I ended up going on a summer study tour to England that Bob organized (see here for the series of posts on this trip--which was amazing), along with Neil, Rick Asher, Rich Nace, and others.

Neil grew up in Castle Rock, WA in southwest Washington State on a small family farm. His HS teacher was Howard Meharg, well-known to anyone in the NW and editor of ACDA's NW Notes. Consequently, I've always considered Howard my musical "grandfather," and a few of my students have called Howard their "great-grandfather."

Neil attended Lower Columbia College before going to Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, where he worked with Bernard Regier. He ended up staying at Shorecrest HS for his entire HS teaching career, until "retiring" in 1993. During his time at Shorecrest his choirs were selected to perform at many regional conferences and the national conventions of both ACDA and MENC. Selected as the 1991 “Teacher of the year” in the Shoreline School District and the 1988 Washington Music Educators Association “Outstanding Music Educator,” Neil was also inducted to the WMEA “Hall of Fame” in 1998.

He was a longtime church musician, with positions at both Seattle First Baptist and First Methodist. 

I put "retired" in quotes because Neil has remained incredibly active as an adjudicator, clinician and guest conductor. He became an adjunct professor at Seattle Pacific University, teaching ear training, supervising student teachers, and directing their women's chorus. He was also Associate Conductor for the Choir of the Sound, a community choir based at Shoreline Community College.

Neil has so many former students who've gone on to be successful, whether in music or another field. His work has influenced so many of us and that gets passed down to our students.

Of course, Neil's best attribute is just who he is--a terrific person and friend.

Neil has many other interests as well. He's a fantastic photographer, who did workshops with National Geographic photographers and trips to photograph on an African safari and grizzly bears in Alaska. He's also a wonderful gardener with particularly beautiful dahlias.

I was able to see Neil this past summer, which was great. I can't give him enough thanks for my career, for support throughout the years, and for being a magnificent model as teacher and person.

I'll close with a picture from this past summer. Many thanks, Neil!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Young Conductor VIII - gaining experience 3

More about starting your own group to gain experience (since we learn by doing!):

First, I would check out Chorus America. It's an organization dedicated to the independent chorus--one that has its own board, leadership, etc., rather than being attached to an institution (church, school, etc.). They publish a Chorus Leadership Guide, which gives you an enormous amount of information about the details of starting and running an organization. Check out this preview to see what it offers.
I had a conversation with a young colleague who wanted to start a choir where he'd just moved. These are some of the things I said:
  • What's your passion? What gets you excited musically is more likely to excite the singers you hope to attract! Whether it's renaissance music, barbershop, or gospel, you will have a better chance of success if you choose something you love.
  • You always have to decide if you want a group that specializes (see the examples above) or which does a variety of repertoire. A non-specialized ensemble was often my interest (because I love lots of music and styles), but I also had a group devoted to Bach cantatas. But it may be easier to market to a particular niche.
  • What's the competition in your town/city? If there are already two wonderful early music choirs, what can you offer that they can't? Is there an area not served in your area? A good chamber choir? Perhaps a good large choir to sing with the local orchestra? Try to find a gap and fill it!
  • When you publicize that a new group is starting, you want to give singers a good enough idea of what the group will be to attract singers to it. In the flyer for my first group, shown in the last post, I emphasized potential repertoire and that it was a chamber choir.
  • Publicity has changed since I started that group (social media, for example), but not that much! Flyers (placed where the singers you want to attract will be) can give great information to those who might be interested. The flyer announcing the Bach Ensemble is below (yes, I was crazy and planned to do cantatas twice a month--which we did only the first fall!). But the point for this focused, niche ensemble was made clear. And I was successful in gathering singers (some were from the chamber choir I'd started the year before, who then sang in both groups) and instrumentalists for the project. A harpsichordist/organist showed up and volunteered not only to play, but brought his own harpsichord as well. I got enough string players and a couple very fine oboists immediately. One of the Seattle Symphony bassists came and said he wanted to play, even though there was no money for it--he just wanted to play Bach.
  • Of course, the success of your first concerts (and I hope they're successful!) will mean your singers will want to continue! And it can also attract new singers to your group. Word will get around.
This is just the beginning, of course. But if you have a passion for this and want to grow as a conductor--it's a great way to do it. As I've said before, the Seattle Pro Musica ensembles were my real graduate education. It's an enormously important part of my development as a conductor.
Next time: learning about leadership.