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Thursday, May 21, 2015

An Interesting Year

As I mentioned, I'm leaving ChoralNet blog posting in another week. Next year will be interesting, to say the least.
l'll be taking over Jerry McCoy's Director of Choral Studies duties in an interim year at UNT, so conducting the A Cappella Choir, being the primary teacher of conducting for our graduate choral conducting students, being primary in creating their comprehensive exams and advising on dissertations (and four to six will be doing them this year!), and administering the choral program. I'll still be conducting the Collegium Singers (who will sing at the Boston Early Music Festival in June and at the NCCO conference in Portland, OR in November), and will remain chair of the Division of Conducting & Ensembles at the College of Music.
For A Cappella, I'm still planning much of the repertoire, but know I'll do Stravinsky's Les Noces in the spring. And I'll conduct the Grand Chorus (the three UNT mixed choirs) and Symphony Orchestra in Haydn's The Creation at the end of the year. This is part of the score study work to be done this summer. But that's one of the processes I really enjoy.
I've conducted Les Noces before, but one of the nice things is there's a very good new edition out. Any time I do this kind of work again, I usually want to completely re-study, but the new edition makes it even more important.
And with The Creation there are lots of things to decide. We'll do it in English and the libretto by Van Swieten has "issues," to say the least! There are other versions, including the Shaw/Parker translation, one by Nicholas Temperley and another by Neil Jenkins, who has several wonderful articles (1, 2, and 3), plus his own translation. This is the kind of research I love doing and I'll ultimately make individual decisions (collaborating with my soloists) on choices, but probably staying closely with the original text.
Peter Brown's book about the early performances of The Creation is wonderful and leads to all sorts of questions to answer, particularly about the size and disposition of the orchestra. In most of Haydn's performances with large forces, he had three sets of woodwinds (Harmonie), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassons, and two horns. In addition his trumpets (2) were doubled, as well as the 2 trombones (he usually also had two sets of timpani). And he scored for contrabassoon and bass trombone (not doubled). The set of parts that Haydn used (and which have markings in his hand) also had extra parts for the contrabassoon and bass trombone, which I'll certainly use. All three of the Harmonie were not used all the time, but surviving evidence shows that it was likely that Harmonie 1 played everything (meaning some solos in the arias), Harmonie 2 on most big tuttis (even in arias), and Harmonie 3 in choruses and at other special places ("Let there be LIGHT").
If I can manage to use the triple Harmonie, it changes the balances and color . . . and in some moments, such as the "roar" of the lion, it will mean that the low Ab will be played by all cellos and basses, six bassoons and contrabassoons, plus bass trombone. A mighty roar, indeed!
It's these kinds of things that come from research that I enjoy doing. And hopefully it all comes together in an interpretation that is not just about being "historically correct," but gets to what Haydn wanted to express and how he expressed it. For me, that's part of all performance practice—figuring out how better to express the emotion and ideas of the composer.
Wish me luck!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Lessons from Daniel Coyle

As you know if you've read many of my posts, I enjoy reading in other areas, from psychology to sports/coaching, and trying to learn things from them I can apply to music and conducting.
I think that the biggest thing I've taken from Daniel Coyle's two books has been the idea of gradually building the "white matter," or myelin, in the brain. If you've read much about the brain over at least 50 years or so, some of the structures (neurons, axons, dendrites, the synapses, etc.) have been understood to some extent for a long time. The idea of the insulating properties of myelin, which is much more recent, which gets put down only as a connection is fired, and builds gradually, is a great help to understanding how practice works. It tells how important it is to practice the correct things in the correct way (because you don't want to lay down myelin—or reinforce—the wrong things). And it also tells us about the patience needed as our brains repeat the correct actions many times and gradually build stronger and stronger connections as the correct skills are ingrained and gradually become more automatic, more unconscious . . . so your conscious brain can do what only it can do in leading the whole show.
It changes the nature of how we practice our own skills (conducting & rehearsal technique), but also, how we teach our singers to sing better, to be better musicians, better ensemble singers, better expressive singers. I know I will think much more about my own skills and these processes because of this.
And on to an announcement that I'll finish up being a ChoralNet blogger soon. For one thing, I've written a lot and need to work on some other things. But primarily, my life will be especially busy next year. Now, all of us are busy—I'm not special in that way, given the lives we all lead as conductors and teachers! But next year, with Jerry McCoy's retirement at the quickly-approaching end of this  school year, I'll be taking on his role for the 2015-16 academic year, administering the choral program, conducting the A Cappella Choir, and teaching all our graduate students in conducting (including writing and running their exams and supervising quite a few final papers). At the same time, I'll keep conducting the Collegium Singers (our ensemble that sings with our period-instrument orchestra) and remain chair of the Division of Conducting & Ensembles.
It'll be busy, but a great challenge and great fun at the same time—Jerry set very high standards. I'm looking forward to it . . . but trying to keep up with writing a weekly blog is a bit much.
I'll say more later, but it's been a great privilege to be able to share with (and learn from) you over the past several years. Thanks to Scott Dorsey and Phillip Copeland for asking me to do this—it's been fun!

Building Skills 25

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #52 - Think like a Gardener, Work like a Carpenter
". . . the truth is, talent grows slowly. You would not criticize a seedling because it was not yet a tall oak tree; nor should you get upset because your skill circuitry is in the growth stage. Instead, build it with daily deep practice."
Coyle mentions hearing the phrase, "Think like a gardener, work like a carpenter," at Spartek, the Russian tennis training center that's shown enormous success.
Whether it's our own skills or those of our singers, we have to understand that, like gardens,  we take tending and only grow and develop over time.

Building Skills 24

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #50 - Cultivate Your Grit
"Grit is that mix of passion, perserverance, and self-discipline that keeps us moving forward in spite of obstacles. It's not flashy and that's precisely the point. In a world in which we're frequentlly distracted by sparkly displays of skill, grit makes the difference in the long run."
There's been a lot written in the past few years about the concept of "grit" and it's importance—much of this comes from research by Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania (and a winner of one of the McArthur "genius grants)," who studied what made a difference in cadets doing well in or just surviving the famed "Beast Barracks" training at West Point. Beforehand, a brief test was given (you can find a version of it here),  "questions that asked them to rate their own ability to stick to goals, to be motivated by failure, and to persist in the face of obstacles." Grit proved extraordinarily successful in predicting success (much more so than intelligence and many other measures) and has also done well predicing success in many other areas.
As Coyle says, "Grit isn't inborn. It's developed, like a muscle. . ." and it's a muscle that's important to develop in ourselves and in our singers. The ability to persevere through learning challenging music, complicated musical and vocal skills, to persist in what Coyle calls, "deep practice," is what brings success.
If you find this interesting, a longer interview with Angela Duckworth is here. For a look at an opposing opinion, however, writer Alfie Kohn has a very good article questioning the concept of grit here.
What do you think? How important is it to success? If you believe it is, how do you cultivate grit—perseverance to reach difficult goals—in your singers/students?

Building Skills 23

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #42 "Six ways to be a better teacher or coach"
More than one tip, but six for improving our skills!
  1. "Use the first few seconds to communicate on an emotional level - Effective teaching is built on trust . . . . There are lots of tools for making this connection—eye contact, body language, empathy, and humor being some of the most effective—but whatever you use, make sure you prioritize that connection above all else. Before you can teach, you have to show that you care." I won't add anything to that—we can all see the connection to what we do as conductors.
  2. "Avoid giving long speeches—instead, deliver vivid chunks of information." Coyle talks about the inspiring speeches we see in movies . . . but which rarely work. He says, "When you're coaching [teaching, leading a rehearsal], picture the person's brain lighting up . . . reaching to make new connections. The question is not what big important message you can deliver. The question is, what vivid, concise message can you deliver right now that will guide her [them] towards the right reach?"
  3. "Be allergic to mushy language." We all can be guilty of this. Our instructions need to be clear and concrete. Specific, not general.
  4. "Make a scorecard for learning." Make sure that the "scorecard," however you are measuring the performance of your choir, is measuring the things you want. Think of process (means), not ends. Think about how many of them are physically, visually involved in the rehearsal, how many are using the posture you've modeled for when singing, etc. It's the processes that will lead towards great performances—and your goals (and praise) should be for meeting those means towards better performance.
  5. "Maximise 'reachfulness'. Reachfulness is the essence of learning. It happens when the learner is leaning foward, stretching, struggling, and improving." Make sure your singers are actively involved, singing, trying, thinking, helping each other with feedback. As Coyle asks, "How can you replace moments of passivity with moments of active learning."
  6. "Aim to create independent learners." Work to teach skills, both of technique and of listening, so they can eventually make lots of corrections themselves, can begin to phrase musically themselves. Someday they'll be the ones preparing and performing without you, and perhaps teaching themselves. What have you given them to set them free to make music when you're no longer there?

Building Skills 22

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #37 - To choose the best practice method, use the R.E.P.S. gauge. (as always, consider reading the book yourself!)
Coyle says to find the best practice strategy, measure the options with the following gauge, remembering the elements with an acronym:
R: Reaching and Repeating
E: Engagement
P: Purposefulness
S: Strong, Speedy Feedback
Coyle gives great examples of each:
Reaching and Repeating: "Does the practice have you operating on the edge of your ability, reaching and repeating?" For us, we have to find ways to keep our choir members working hard on things that are possible for them, but outside their current ability. There's always something to strive for, not only the difficulty of the music—we can push them to sing with more beautiful sound, more musically and expressively. But it should be rare that we don't demand the singers do something at least a bit outside their current comfort zone. And, of course, repetition or practice (if done correctly) is the way we improve.
Engagement: "Is the practice immersive? Does it command your attention? Does it use emotion to propel you towards a goal?" He uses the example of two trumpet players practicing an excerpt, one just running through it 20 times, the other setting a goal of playing it five times perfectly . . . and if she makes a mistake, she starts the count over again. I know many stories of athletes who do this kind of practice—that they have to make so many shots in a row before they can finish practice, for example. But we also have to find ways to involve his last question about whether it uses emotion or not. If our rehearsal is only technical (even though that may be a part—perhaps even a large part some days—of our practice time) it's unlikely to engage the singers fully. What is the composer trying to express? How is the text expressed through the music? How can the singers express emotion? These are important questions for us and, if we're successful in answering them, we'll engage our singers much more effectively.
Purposefulness: "Does the task directly connect with the skill you want to build?" Coyle uses the example of practicing free throws: one team waits until the end of practice and each player shoots 50 shots—the other scatters free throws throughout the scrimmage so the player has to shoot "tired and under pressure, as in a game." The second is more successful because it has the players practice what they'll actually do in a game (they won't shoot 50 free throws in a row!). I've talked before about finding ways to do intense, short drills to improve what the choir does (related to my series on coach John Wooden), but also  that you also have to find ways to scrimmage/run through music so the choir has the ability to do what they'll need to do at the concert. Right now (as I write this, it's March 26 and our concert is April 14) I'm working with Jan Sandström's challenging (but fun!) Biegga Luohte with my University Singers. There's much that needs to be drilled over and over in short chunks to make the piece work (and for them to master the tricky rhythms and clusters)—but it's also necessary for them to be able to put it all together. So today we rehearsed a few difficult transitions and then ran it for the first time. I will need to continue to mix the two types of practice, gradually moving towards more and more runs of all the repertoire on the concert, so when we get there, we can sing it all confidently, musically, and expressively.
Strong, Speedy Feedback: "Does the learner receive a stream of accurate information about his performance—where he succeeded and where he made his mistakes?" Most of us are used to doing this, of course. It's a major part of what we do in rehearsal. But we need to be reminded that the feedback (to be speedy!) needs to be concise and clear. Don't use more words than necessary. Sometimes it can be general: "You're not together—better ensemble!" At other times it needs to be much more specific: "You're dragging behind because consonants are late--put the vowels on the pulse," or "Altos, you're late after the dot." You have to decide quickly why it isn't right, determine what the necessary feedback is, tell them (or show them) in the fewest words possible (speedy!), and get them singing it again . . . either correctly, or better (after which you might need to refine your feedback so it can be correct).
So for better rehearsals, remember your R.E.P.S.

Building Skills 21

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #35: Use the 3x10 technique.
This is an interesting idea, coming from a neurologist, Dr. Douglas Fields, "who researches memory and learning. He discovered that our brains make stronger connections when they're stimulated three times with a rest period of ten minutes between each stimulation. . . . 'I apply this to learning all the time in my own life,' Fields says. 'For example, in mastering a difficult piece of music on the guitar, I practice, then I do something else for ten minutes, then I practice again."
I've used something similar in my rehearsals with a tough passage, working on it, then putting it aside and working on something else, then coming back to it in the same rehearsal. I've done this primarily with relatively short passages, but it has worked well. I think it'll be interesting to try it in a more organized way, working three repetitions and spacing close to 10 minutes apart.
I've mentioned this in the past, but when I conduct the St. Matthew Passion the sudden and dramatic "Barrabam" (Barrabas) chord is a challenge for the choir. After I've worked on it a bit, I tell the choir that whenever they hear the recitative lead-in, they have to be ready to sing it . . . and I sprinkle it throughout the rehearsals here and there. It becomes almost an automatic conditioned response. By the time of performance there's no fear and the entrance can be confident and dramatic.
The idea of enhancing learning by spacing repetitions has been researched extensively, with the quickest and most thorough learning coming from timing each review so it happens just before one would be about to forget (i.e., just before it passes out of short-term memory). This particularly works well with individual facts, vocabulary, etc., with the timing of review periods (gradually getting further and further apart) the quickest way to put them into long-term memory. There are systems for spacing repetitions of material and one of the best is available for free through Anki (essentially it's a computerized—and scientifically spaced—version of flash cards). If you're learning a language or anything that involves this kind of knowledge, try it out.
I think the same idea might be interesting to experiment with when learning scores (not Anki! the 3x10 idea). As you practice or work on a particular passage or section of music and try to get it clearly in your mind, after an intense study period, put it aside, work on something else for 10 minutes or so, work on it again, and do it one more time. I suspect it will get it into your mind more quickly and efficiently. Something to try!

Building Skills 20

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #32 Make positive reaches
"There's a moment just before every rep when you are faced with a choice: You can either focus your attention on the target (what you want to do) or you can focus on the possible mistake (what you want to avoid). This tip is simple: Always focus on the positive move, not the negative one. . . .
A violinist faced with a difficult passage should tell himself, 'Nail that A-flat,' not 'Oh boy, I hope I don't miss that A-flat.' Psychologists call this 'positive framing,' and provide plentiful theories of how framing affects our subconscious mind."
So, do we ask our choirs to focus on the positive, on the goal? Or do we say, "Watch that pitch, it's a little under?" Demonstrate (play or sing) the correct pitch and make that the focus.
When the ensemble isn't precise, have them count-sing and focus on singing precisely together, then (when the count-singing is together) have every other one count-sing and and the other half sing the text, making sure that the consonants are line up exactly with the count-singing members of the ensemble. Then switch it around.
What are other ways you can make sure your ensemble focuses on the goal, not avoiding a mistake?

Building Skills 19

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #31 To learn a new move, exaggerate it.
"Going too far helps us understand where the boundaries are. . . . Don't be halfhearted. You can always dial back later. Go too far so you can feel the outer edges of the move, and then work on building the skill with precision."
This has multiple uses:
  • Many things a choir does need exaggeration at first—dynamic shapes and all kinds of expression. Then they can be brought back to the desired level of subtlety.
  • In teaching a new concept to your choir (let's say the difference between bright and dark sound), an exaggerated example will make the concept clearer—not intellectually, but in concrete terms—faster than anything else. Royal Stanton used a great example: asking your choir to sing a passage as if they were a country western singer . . . then as an operatic basso. It's a quick way to fully understand what you mean. After that the concept can be made more subtle, to the point that your choir knows exactly what you mean when you ask them for a little brighter or darker tone quality.
  • Much as mentioned in the earlier post on slowing things down, exaggerating slowness can make certain things much clearer to the choir.
  • And in conducting, for yourself or for a student of yours, a new move can be exaggerated until it becomes natural. If you have a particular habit you'd like to change, practice the opposite in an exaggerated way—the new habit (the way you'd like to do it) will feel quite natural fairly soon.
Think of other ways you can exaggerate . . . to get to where you or your choir need to be.

Building Skills 18

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #29 - When you get it right, mark the spot
Coyle: "One of the most fulfilling moments of a practice session is when you have your first perfect rep. When this happens, freeze. Rewind the mental tape and play the move again in your mind. . . . The point is to mark the moment—this is the spot where you want to go again and again."
We can look at this in two ways. When we as a conductor, get something right—a conducting gesture, a tempo, a particular rehearsal technique—we need to do exactly as Coyle says, "Rewind the mental tape and play the move again in your mind." It's one of the ways that we improve, that we incorporate something new into our repertoire of skills.
But it's also true for our choirs. I know when my choirs have accomplished something very difficult that they've struggled with, they need that moment of marking and remembering . . . but it is also something else—the feeling of accomplishment and pride—that I want them to remember. If it's singing a chord beautifully in tune, make sure they realize how wonderful it is, and feels, and help them want to go back to that sensation again and again. My colleague at PLU, Richard Nance, and I used to joke that we should have electrodes implanted in our students' brains, and when they sang in tune, we could push the button to stimulate the pleasure center and say, "Oooh, see how good that feels!"
But the truth is, it's already built into our brains. If we make our singers aware of the pleasure of an in-tune chord, or a beautifully turned phrase, or singing in perfect ensemble—we should freeze it for them, rewind and sing it again, and help them mark that moment so they can go there again . . . and again.
Coyle finishes by quoting Kimberly Meier-Sims of the Sato Center for Suzuki Studies: "Practice begins when you get it right."
And that's something we all have to remember.

Building Skills 17

More from Daniel Coyle:  Tip #27 Close Your Eyes
As Coyle explains, "One of the quickest ways to deepen practice is also one of the simplest: Close your eyes. . . It sweeps away distraction and engages your other senses to provide new feedback. It helps you engrave the blueprint of a task on your brain by making even a familar skill seem strange and fresh."
I realized while reading this that I've asked my choir to close their eyes and sing in the past, but I haven't done it for quite a while. This does several things: as Coyle mentions, it "sweeps away distraction" and makes "even a familiar skill seem strange and fresh." But it also forces the choir to listen much more intensely. They have to listen and use other skills (maintaining an inner sense of pulse) to stay together as an ensemble without watching you conduct (and perhaps you realize you aren't as necessary as you thought! Or better, you can use your gesture more for shape and direction than keeping time).
I do sometimes stop conducting and ask my ensemble to sing without me—I want them to shape phrases independently, to concentrate on subtle details of ensemble, even learning to feel ritards together.
But I'll remember to ask them to close their eyes now and then

Building Skills 16

More from Daniel Coyle: Tip #26 Slow It Down (Even Slower Than You Think).
Coyle: "This urge for speed makes perfect sense, but it can also create sloppiness, particularly when it comes to hard skills (see Tip #8). We trade precision—and long-term performance—for a temporary thrill. So slow down. Super-slow practice works like a magnifying glass; It lets us sense our errors more clearly, and thus fix them."
Coyle also has a nice post on his blog about called, "Slow is Beautiful," which includes video of golf great Ben Hogan showing how he uses slow practice.
This is a critical rehearsal tool for the conductor, but there are various ways to use it. And surprisingly, I see it used infrequently by too many conductors.
In a fast passage, at a certain speed some members of the choir will never perceive the pitches (or patterns) accurately. You can practice the passage 20 times at a fast tempo and it'll still be sloppy. But a fewer number of repetitions at a slower speed can allow the singers to absorb the pitches and build them in correctly. The same thing is true for instrumentalists. When I rehearse strings, for example, if the music has awkward string crossings, difficult bowings, or simply calls for extreme speed, the only way to make it better is to slow it down. For both singers and instrumentalists, "muscle memory" must be developed that allows passage work that can be done accurately without consciously thinking of every individual note.
With a choir, it also makes it even easier if you take away another variable (text) and sing on a neutral syllable or count-sing (if your choir does that regularly). Since I do lots of baroque music with my chamber choir that specializes in early music, this is always the first tool of choice with a fast melismatic passage or fugue: take away the text and slow it down.
It's the same when performing (or learning) an unfamiliar language. I'll usually do a "repeat after me" session when first going through an unfamiliar text in another language. My going too fast only means that the choir can't even perceive the sounds correctly, much less repeat them accurately—and it will waste time, rather than saving it.
And sometimes to shape a phrase with subtlety, a slower rehearsal speed allows the ensemble to feel and shape phrases together in a way they can't at a faster speed.
Slower can be faster. And slower can much more quickly get the ensemble to a fast, yet clean performance.