Monthly Archives: December 2013


CrystalCourt Tree-1

Christmas Tree – IDS Crystal Court, Minneapolis

Earlier this month, I had the privilege and honor to participate in a five-performance run of “Welcome Christmas” with VocalEssence, just as I have for over a decade.  And each year, these concerts are broadcast nationally (on a one-year delay) on Public Radio.

These experiences through the years with VocalEssence have by no means been the first instances in my life of singing Christmas or, for that matter, other church music and classical sacred works.  All through high school and college, I became intimately acquainted with this repertoire.  This is as it should be for any serious student of great music – and I’m deeply gratified by what it has taught me, as a singer, composer and human being.

The first half of the “Welcome Christmas” program consisted of a single work, La Fiesta de la Posada, a joyous holiday cantata by Dave Brubeck, featuring the sort of authentic mariachi music Brubeck grew up with in the small California town of Ione.  This marvelous work alternated some passages of classical grandeur with others of festive Mexican colors, and still other moments of the warm, urbane gentle jazz improv not unreminiscent of that featured in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  And I mean this in a good way.

The second half of the program featured Christmas songs old and new, including – for the 16th consecutive season – 2 new works written especially for the occasion.  We opened with a stunning Leland Sateren adaptation of a German song fitted to a holiday text, and also sang Norman Luboff’s charming “Still Still Still,”  But perhaps the highlight of this second half was Steve Barnett’s very cool arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”  Years ago, Philip Brunelle, founder and director of VocalEssence, specifically asked Barnett to come up with a new arrangement of this classic spiritual.  To hear Philip tell it, he felt that someone who grew up in the synagogue (as Barnett had) might have a fresh musical take on a song that had seen many rather routine renditions.  The notion is fully validated in this rendition.

CrystalCourt Menorah-1

Chanukkah Menorah – IDS Crystal Court, Minneapolis

Steve Barnett was, in his youth, the long-time choral conductor (and arranger) at B’nai Emet Synagogue in Minneapolis, and has since built a reputation as composer, arranger and producer.  His musical affinities seem to lie in the realm of jazz and blues, and he has done some very interesting arrangements of Jewish texts, including a couple of disarmingly jazzy settings of the Chanukkah songs S’vivon and Mi Yimalel, which I had a chance to sing years ago on a holiday program with the Dale Warland Singers.

So why is a nice Jewish boy waxing enthusiastic about Christmas music?  Because not only is it beautiful and fun (and even inspiring) to sing even for someone like me who doesn’t subscribe to the theology of Christmas, but it’s also instructive on so many levels.

And I’ll go further out on a limb and say that the Jewish musical community can stand to learn a few things from the best Christmas music (and other sacred music), about how to sell our own message both to our own people and in an educational sense to the wider world.  I would even say there’s a desperate need for this.  Great music has the power to draw people into any cause, even if it’s just to inform.

Music as a Means.  But what does this mean, exactly?  Does it mean we have to make everything sound like church music?  Of course not.  But we could take a few cues from the much higher choral standards found the churches (at least traditionally), standards of vocal ability, sight-reading and choral art in general.  Let’s begin by developing and fostering our own choral culture to the highest standards possible.  At least two reasons for doing this come to mind.

The Choir as a Musical Instrument.  First, if our Jewish tradition dictates that we use no instruments in shul, then it stands to reason that we can ill afford to ignore the choral medium or fail to develop it to the highest calibre possible.  This is because the choir is the one means available to us of adding musical dimension, color, texture and variety to our shul music, to provide a more worthy and equal complement to the cantor.  And this will certainly help to attract more people to services on a more regular basis.

It’s worth noting that much of the Christian Orthodox tradition, like ours, has also restricted the use of instruments, and those churches have developed their choral art to a very high degree.  Let’s learn something from them.

Cultural Exchange and Mutual Understanding.  Which brings us to the second point:  As we begin to find greater parity in our Jewish choral culture with that of the churches, we might open the door to their greater understanding of and familiarity with our traditions.

While we aren’t out to convert anyone, the fact is that appallingly little about Judaism is known in wider society.  This lack of knowledge and understanding is one of the contributing factors toward prejudice, even the subconscious kind that is harbored in the most open and progressive minds.  It’s incumbent upon us to foster a greater degree of such understanding to our gentile friends, especially if we want to mitigate their fear and prejudice.

Familiarity, in this case, breeds not contempt but greater comfort and less fear of the unknown.  And of course for our part, this is a two-way street.
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rehearsal still life 2-1Nothing is more frustrating than a chaotic, poorly organized rehearsal session.  It is a waste of our valuable time, and quite frankly, kind of an insult.  Whether the disarray comes from leadership or rank-and-file (or both), it seems to make the statement that our time and effort are not worthy of consideration.

There is work to be done, music to be learned and refined, and the more efficiently we can do it, the better our results will be.  Having sung hundreds of choral rehearsals (some well-run, some not so) over the years, and having run quite a few myself, here some things I have learned, from both the leadership and the rank-and-file perspectives.


Positive, relaxed energy equals vocal freedom.
Overall, the less stress and irritation you foster in your choral leadership approach, the better the singing you may get from your choir.  This means better vocal health.  Even a little tension can immediately be sensed, so keep your attitude, and your actual conducting, relaxed and positive.

Know the music you’re going to teach.
When a conductor shows up unprepared, not only is everyone’s time wasted and their efforts hampered, the conductor’s credibility and authority with the choir are diminished.  Set a proper example.  Have at least a practical, working knowledge of the text, notes and rhythms, and be able to convey to your singers a sense of what the piece is about.

When announcing the next piece, starting places, and any and all other information, be loud and clear with it, making it less likely you’ll have to repeat things.

Rehearse no more than two hours, and take a break.
For an extremely dedicated choir, perhaps two and a half hours of rehearsal is do-able.  That is about as much singing at a stretch as is healthy for any singer.  Plus, after this much time, concentration begins to flag.  Either way, plan on a 10-minute break.

Be organized.

  • Make and distribute an agreed-upon schedule of choir rehearsals, and stick to it.
  • Learn new repertoire over a long period and several rehearsals.  Time (along with repetition) helps to solidify new ideas.  Try to avoid cramming new things into just 1 or 2 sessions.
  • Have your sheet music organized for easy distribution.  Keep a few extra copies of each piece.  Make sure each score you are working with has clear page and rehearsal numbers.
  • Have a supply of pencils in case someone needs one.
  • Plan out your rehearsal agenda.  Here’s a suggested general plan:
    1.  Start with 5-minute choir warm-up, including training execises in vocal technique and musicianship.
    2.  Sing through and work on one familiar major piece.
    3.  Move on to new or challenging music.  Think of this as the core of the rehearsal.
    4.  10-minute break.
    5.  Spend the remainder of time with other familiar music, and to rehash new pieces.

Keep the rehearsal moving along.
Work diligently on each trouble spot, but don’t beat a dead horse.  If it doesn’t work after a few tries, come back to it later.  Try to minimize tedium.  If possible, avoid working only on new pieces, and work on those new things earlier rather than later in the evening, while minds and concentration are still fresh.  Try to intersperse easy, familiar, well-liked pieces with new music to keep the session fun and gratifying for your singers.

Be gracious.
I always try to remember this valuable principle of interpersonal relationships:  Preserve and enhance the dignity of others.  Avoid humiliation, embarrassment, shaming or being patronizing – which are never helpful or constructive.  A good thing to remember in all of our interpersonal dealings! 

Be patient, encouraging and positive; be exacting, but avoid brow-beating.
More than likely, your rehearsal is happening on a weekday evening, and the last thing anyone is in the mood for after a long work day is unnecessary abuse.  And it’s not likely to foster vocal freedom.  Stick to the goal of making your rehearsal a fun, positive, challenging and gratifying experience.  When the choir does something well, reward them with an honest, but not overdone, compliment.  When you hand out constructive criticism, precede it with a “good work!” and then tactfully communicate your concern.

Accept and answer questions gracefully, and don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know the answer.  And even as you are the leader, make it feel like the collaborative effort that it is.

Get it right first time every time; avoid mislearning.
Take it from me, it is much harder to re-learn something previously learned the wrong way, than it is to learn it correctly the first time.  It’s like a stain on white fabric — much easier to avoid it in the first place than to try and completely eradicate it afterward.  Make sure to be correct from the outset.  And when something does get mislearned, make sure to correct it without delay.

Where are you starting?
This is an essential example of good rehearsal communication.  Nothing wastes more time at a rehearsal, with all of its starting and stopping, than unnecessary confusion about where you’re resuming from.  It’s important to communicate loudly and clearly to the choir, each time you resume singing, the following:

  1. which page
  2. which system
  3. which bar
  4. which beat – you’re starting at.

Always count into the entrance.
Most music exists in the strict context of time.  The choir can’t just start singing at random and hope to enter together!  So once you have established where you’re starting, always guide the choir into the entrance by loudly counting into it.  Example:  In 4/4:  “1, 2, 3, sing!” (choir enters on beat 1 of the following bar).  Of course this won’t happen in actual performance, but in a rehearsal context, it speeds things up and ensures proper learning.

Use the “Listen then repeat” method
When working out a tricky passage, be sure you and your singers use this approach.  Play or sing the notes correctly in rhythm while they listen carefully (no singing along), then have them immediately repeat.  If they are singing along (or talking), they aren’t really listening and absorbing those correct notes.

Rehearsal accompanist
If you have access to a good rehearsal accompanist, try and take advantage of this.  To make optimum use of their skills, be disciplined about communicating starting points, and about counting into the entrance.


Avoid unnecessary talking
Extraneous conversation is distracting to your conductor, and slows the rehearsal down!  If you must clarify something with your neighbor, do it as briefly and quietly as you can, then immediately tune back in to the conductor.

Listen and pay attention when not singing
These are the times when you’ll be getting important instructions.  Don’t make it necessary for the conductor to repeat information that has already been clearly communicated to you.  It’s a waste of time, and it doesn’t ingratiate you with your colleagues.

Even when other parts are singing but your part is silent, try very quietly humming your part along in the passage – you’ll end up having a head start when it’s your turn.

Organize your music
Arrange your folder or binder so you can easily locate any piece within 10 seconds.  Always bring your music to rehearsal, and don’t lose it – it’s expensive!

Know the score.
Know your way around it, that is.  You’ll find it very helpful to familiarize yourself with the overall visual layout of your sheet music, which can vary greatly from piece to piece.  You may encounter published scores, some of which are very poorly notated, or very hard to read.  Or you may have to read off of photocopied manuscript, which may be even worse.  Get to know where your voice part is, and mark it clearly on each system.  Then mark your part so you don’t get lost (as even experienced musicians sometimes do!).  When in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Mark your music.
Always bring a pencil to rehearsal.  Mark everything in pencil – breaths, breaks, volume and tempo changes –and assume you’ll have to erase it later.
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