Category Archives: Culture of Music

UNDERSTANDING THE CONDUCTOR – Learning the Signals

baton-1People who follow baseball or football know the importance of signals to the successful win.  Not being one of those people, I won’t wade any deeper into it than that, except to say that conductors of music use signals that are of equally crucial importance.

You may have watched a classical performance in person or, better yet, on TV with close-ups of the conductor doing his/her thing.  Have you ever wondered what the conductor was doing, and how in the world the performers of the ensemble were able to follow?  If you have caught any such performances, did it seem to you that the conductor was effective in conveying these things to the singers or players?

(See also previous post KEEPING IT TOGETHER – The Importance of the Conductor)

Of course, every conductor is different.  Some are strict utilitarians, others are showmen.  Some are easier than others to follow, and this varies even among top-notch professionals.  And in any case, some conductors are more, some are less, demonstrative on the podium –  One may prefer economy of gesture, while another may “wear the heart on the sleeve” as it were, giving the full tilt of facial and bodily expressions, hopefully along with clarity of beat.

Speed and Attitude.  There are two basic things the conductor is supposed the convey to the ensemble:

1. Tempo – how fast or slow the music flows, and fluctuations thereof;

2. Mood and Affect – which can be conveyed in dynamics (variations in loudness/softness), accents and articulation, and other more subjective manifestations of expression.   In choral conducting, the attitude of a gesture can even be conducive to the vocal approach of the singers.

Recognizing the Basic Beat Patterns.  

Hopefully, your conductor will know the beat patterns and use them clearly and effectively.  If he/she does, and you the singer can properly discern them, you will have a powerful tool for always knowing where you are (or should be) in any given bar of music you perform.  This is really an essential skill to develop.

Here then are those patterns (customarily delivered with the right hand), each shown from both the conductor’s and the ensemble’s perspective:

The ONE Pattern:  This is basically just a repeated downbeat, creating a simple pattern that can be thought of as a vertical oval (generally wider for more legato effect, narrower for marcato), with the single pulse at the bottom of the oval.

The FOUR Pattern:

beat pattern 4 conductors view

Conductor’s View

beat pattern 4 group view

Group View

 

 

 

 

 


The THREE Pattern:

beat pattern 3 conductors view

Conductor’s View

beat pattern 3 group view

Group View

 

 

 

 

 

 

The TWO Pattern:

beat pattern 2 conductors view

Conductor’s View

beat pattern 2 group view

Group’s View

 

 

 

 

 

 

The SIX Pattern:

beat pattern 6 conductors view

Conductor’s View

beat pattern 6 group view

Group’s View

 

 

 

 

 

So what’s an Ictus?Ictus is simply a term to indicate precisely where the beat pulse falls.  In these diagrams, these pulses will occur at the arrowheads.  In sharp, angular patterns, they should be very easy to discern, but should still be clearly enough when delivered even in a smooth, legato pattern.

While the basic pattern tells you where you are in the measure, it is also important to note the manner in which the beat is delivered, which hopefully the conductor is using in an intentional way to achieve the effects desired.

Size matters – How big the pattern is beaten will indicate volume.  A small beat, as you might have guessed, indicates a quieter dynamic, while large means loud, and all the gradations in between.  If the music calls for it, one or more beats might be delivered larger than the others, indicating sforzando.

Hand shape – The conductor can convey various moods and attitudes by using, for example, thumb and forefinger touching to convey delicate precision; a flat horizontal hand to indicate broad accent; or even a fist to evoke heaviness of beat.

Beat shape – A legato (smooth) feeling will often be conveyed with a more curvy beat pattern.  A sharp, angular pattern, especially with a strong ictus, indicates a marked feel to the music.  A lack of movement between pulses might indicate a detached, or staccato approach.

Conducting in 911 – When during the course of a performance, things might begin to go amiss and the group is not properly together in tempo, the conductor might resort to an emergency procedure which I like to refer to as the white pattern.  This is a large, flat pattern of straight horizontals and verticals with a clear but unaccented ictus.  It’s sole purpose in the moment is to indicate in the clearest way possible that: 1) The group isn’t together, and 2) this is the beat and tempo that must be immediately adjusted to.  Think of it as musical CPR.  Once the crisis has passed, the pattern returns to normal performance mode.

Other “emergency” gestures include:
— Pointing to the mouth – meaning “more (clearer) text”
— Pointing up – meaning “you’re under pitch”
— Pointing down – meaning “you’re sharp” (not used as frequently as pointing up)

Both hands for emphasis – One or more beats may be mirrored in the other hand, such as for a subtle cue, or for a slowing or slight holding of one or more beats.  From the conductor’s point of view, the less often this is used, the more effective it is when needed.

Cueing – Some conductors don’t do this all the time, others seldom do it at all, still others are extraordinarily skilled at it.  Cueing is especially important in music where various parts are entering and cutting off at different times.  Some cues are given right on the entrance beat, others may be given the beat before.  This may depend on how fast the tempo is – in a faster tempo, the cue is generally given earlier.  All of this will hopefully be clarified in rehearsal.

Lesson to be learned:  Don’t rely too heavily on the conductor for your cues, as even the best conductor can and does miss a cue now and again.  Know your music well enough to be able to come in properly if the cue isn’t there.

“I can name that tempo in one beat.”  Depending on how experienced you and others in your group are in your ensemble performing, you may eventually be able to make this claim.  If the conductor can do it properly, it is possible for the ensemble to begin a piece (or section of a piece) in the proper tempo with a single beat.  (This is usually the beat before the entrance of the group).  But for many non-professional level groups, such as a congregational choir, it may be necessary to have two or more beats (or a full measure) to lead the group into the tempo.  The jargon for this has customarily been something like “one bar for nothing.”

The final beat of this lead-in is really a cue.  As such, it will properly be delivered with size and clarity by the conductor, who may even mirror it in the other hand.

Performing at the speed of light.  Remember that, as we have said before, light travels much faster than sound, and while the listening method is often very useful in staying together as a performing group, it’s always best to at least combine it with the watching method.  And there are times when you must rely completely on watching the conductor.  In the recent VocalEssence U.S. premiere of  Jonathan Dove’s “There Was a Child,” our acoustic circumstances were such that this was the only reliable way to go.

Baton or No Baton – This is really up to the conductor’s discretion.   The baton customarily being white, it often serves the purpose of aiding visibility from the orchestra pit of a darkened theater.  It is less frequently used in purely choral performances, especially those without orchestra or other instrumental ensemble.  In its absence will come more opportunity for expression via the unaided hand.            Join Email List

SING A NEW SONG – Introducing a New Tune: Part II

guitar angled-1Part II:  Teaching Your New Tune

In  Part I of this post, we explored some possible criteria for choosing suitable melodies for congregational/communal singing.

Okay, so you’ve found this great new melody that you’re sure your congregation or group is going to just fall in love with.  Make sure you’re well-prepared to teach it in a fun, engaging, positive and most importantly, non-tedious way.

Mission possible.  Be quick and effective in your teaching method.  Think of it as though you were pulling a daring rescue raid – time is of the essence, and you’ve got to “get in and get out,” do your job fast and well, because before you know it, people will get bored.  This means being thoroughly prepared beforehand, knowing your material and your teaching plan inside out before you even begin.

Always be positive.  Be encouraging when you teach (but don’t overdo it).  Always make a point of complimenting them when they get it right, but even when they don’t, precede your corrections with an encouraging “great job” or “good for you” maybe along with some good-natured humor.  Never show scorn or frustration, which are as contagious as enthusiasm.

Know and understand your text – as you always should.  You need to sell the song, so be ready and able to explain and convey its meaning and significance (for example, its place in the liturgy, or informational tidbits about the poet or composer) to your group.  You’ll be amazed how much more meaningful and compelling this can make the experience for them and for you.

Break it down, put it together.  Teach a song phrase by phrase.  Sing each phrase by yourself while the group listens, then have them sing it.  Repeat this process at least twice for each phrase, perhaps even more for tricky passages, then go back and combine phrases, slowly building the tune.

If either the text or the tune is particularly challenging, start with one of these elements to get it right, then add the other element.  For example, say the text without pitches or rhythm, perfecting the diction.  Then say it in rhythm.  Finally, add the tune itself.

Use the “listen, then repeat” method.  Whether you’re the teacher or the student, remember this important learning principle, as mentioned above.  If your audience is singing (or talking), they’re not listening.  Listening means absorbing the music in one’s ear, then actively repeating it.  It is the quickest way to learn – and to teach.  Repeat again to make sure they have it.

Be accurate the first time.  Another important learning principle, especially in music:  If you learn something incorrectly at the outset, it can be exponentially harder to unlearn the mistake than it would have been to learn it correctly the first time.  Don’t be afraid to correct them quickly and repeatedly.  But be positive and encouraging.

Start easy, get harder.  Start with simple and/or repeating parts to help them feel encouragement right off the bat, then graduate to the more challenging passages.  You’ll often be able to tell them “You’ve learned half the song already!”

Start slow, get faster.  For a fast song, start with a slower tempo for learning purposes.  Then gradually speed it up to its actual tempo.

Use it or lose it.  Once you’ve gone to the trouble of teaching the new melody, and they’ve made the effort to learn it, don’t just chuck it aside.  Even if it doesn’t seem an immediate hit, make a point of using it frequently, at least for a while.  Chances are the congregation will come around and embrace it.  Then, if it’s really worthwhile, it may become a permanent choice.
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RUMINATING ON PROMISES CUT SHORT

This last Sunday of October 2013 was yet another of many momentous communal concertizing efforts in which I’ve been privileged to participate.  It succeeded another recent such Sunday at the same venue, the stately Central Lutheran Church in the southeast corner of downtown Minneapolis.

That first Sunday was a coming together of several premiere ensembles in the Twin Cities choral community, a show of solidarity with the Minnesota Chorale, the official chorus of the long-silenced Minnesota Orchestra.  It was a wistful occasion, joyful as an opportunity for several ensembles to sing for one another, yet mournful, rankling, and frustrating with respect to the underlying events which prompted it – a protracted year-long contract dispute between management and players of our Minnesota Orchestra which has resulted in the recent resignation of its great music director Osmo Vanska, and the apparent exodus of many of the principal players.  All of this represents a promise cut short, just at a time when this orchestra had reached what was arguably its zenith of world reputation and artistic standing.  They have recently made a widely acclaimed recording cycle of the entire 9 symphonies of Beethoven.  In 2010 the MO had the honor of performing twice in London at the BBC Proms.  They were considered perhaps one of the top five orchestras in the world.

This second Sunday saw another mass gathering of players and singers, including the Northfield (Minnesota) Youth Choirs, the St. Olaf Choir, and VocalEssence Chorus and Ensemble Singers, two fine soloists, soprano Maria Jette and tenor Dan Dressen, and a fine group of orchestra players, to present the featured work, the U.S. premiere of Jonathan Dove’s “There Was a Child.”  The work, which might be called an oratorio or cantata, features vigorous cross-rhythms and other fascinating rhythmic permutations, brilliant and picturesque orchestration, and insightful settings of such great poets as Walt Whitman, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and others.  It was commissioned as a tribute to a young man whose promise was cut short. 

Third Grade Photo of Michael Reid Winikoff

Michael Reid Winikoff – 3rd Grade

Dove and his poets present many memorable musings on childhood:  the desperate euphoria of daily escape from the “prison” of school; the joys of our first fleeting independence, of first discovering and partaking of nature, of flying effortlessly over the smooth ice on blades as evening casts its spell.  When such youth is robbed in death, there is mortification on discovering the fleetingness and apparent insignificance of our lives, as we ruminate on the tragedy of “what might have been.” 

The work was not easy to learn, and it proved to be a full-throated sing.  For the rhythmically challenged like me, learning and performing it demanded great concentration and careful counting of beats.  The change of venue from what would have been the premiere performance in the newly refurbished Orchestra Hall to Central Lutheran, which was necessitated by the effects of the Orchestra’s contract dispute, proved challenging given the sheer number of performers (about 300 in all) which had to be shoe-horned into a wide, shallow space.  This configuration was cramped, hot and acoustically problematic for the performers, and the principle of light travelling faster than sound took on profound importance as we were compelled to rely (almost solely in some passages) on the able baton of Philip Brunelle rather than on hearing one another. 

All of which is to say that, as a composer myself, it was well worth such hardship to participate in mounting such a powerful work, and the promise of this performance effort was wonderfully fulfilled.  As it always has been in my 11 seasons singing with VocalEssence, there was a great deal to be learned, and I was stirred to my very core.  But this time, the resonance was even deeper.

Each time I pass by Orchestra Hall, the pangs of tragedy and loss reassert themselves.  Here is our newly refurbished venue, all dressed up with no place to go.  Of course, as tragedies go in this world, there are far bigger ones than our cultural loss.  But we feel it nonetheless.

Jonathan Dove’s “There Was a Child” is a piece that seems emblematic of this monumentally troubled era.  So much that needs to be done, so many promises cut short in such an unnecessary and avoidable way.  Dare we hope for more promises fulfilled?        Join Email List

SING A NEW SONG – Introducing a New Tune: Part I

lyre and pitchpipe-1PART I:  CHOOSING THE TUNE

I’ll start this post on introducing a new tune by saying “don’t do it.”  At least, don’t try to introduce too many new melodies at once.  And avoid incessantly changing tunes for the same prayer or hymn in the service, unless they are all familiar tunes.  Variety is nice, but consistency and familiarity can be reassuring.

That said, it is nice to change things up from time to time with something brand new, so here are some helpful thoughts:

WHAT IS A GOOD TUNE?

Words and music.  Choose tunes that are appropriate to the text and its meaning, and especially choose tunes that scan well with that text.  Too many times we hear a tune that has been poorly “retrofitted” to the text (or vice versa), and we have to fit 3 or 4 syllables to a note.  A little of this isn’t bad, as long as the rest of the tune fits well, but remember that the catchiest and most memorable songs are those where the text and notes fit together hand-in-glove.  If they don’t fit at least reasonably well, consider not using the song.

Be apropos to the occasion.  Emphasize those prayers and tunes that are unique to the day or season.  After all, most of these observances only happen once a year – seize the opportunity.  Try to use tunes that relate to the nusach of the day.  (More on nusach in a later post, but for now suffice it to say – if you don’t have a good knowledge of our chant modes, you’re missing out on a powerful musical resource and an opportunity to help perpetuate Judaism’s great musical tradition.)

Be practical to the occasion – Consider how you’ll use a tune in the context of a service.  Remember that much of the liturgy must be done according to certain procedure, such as with responses or specific repeated verses (as in Hallel, Kaddish, or Kdushah).  When in doubt, be sure to discuss this aspect of any new tune with the rabbi or cantor before introducing it.

Make it interesting and singable.  If a tune isn’t at least somewhat intuitive to its audience, it won’t be quickly or happily received, and will be less likely to stay with them.  Some groups are more musically skilled than others.  Judge accordingly.  A good communal tune should be interesting but without too much chromaticism or too many weird intervals.

Get a round, have some fun.  For extra fun and musical substance, try teaching a 2, 3 or 4-part round.  Instant harmony! 

Quality should trump popularity.  Try to avoid choosing a song or style just because it’s in vogue.  Although chances are if it’s popular it must have something worthwhile to offer, this isn’t always the case.  Make sure it’s a good tune, appropriate to the dignity of worship.

Don’t give in to pandering or “selling out.”  It’s incumbent on song leaders, cantors, rabbis, to maintain and observe standards of quality, dignity and appropriateness in our Jewish worship.  Avoid the syndrome of “lowest common denominator.”  And keep in mind that for every individual you may attract to services by doing what’s popular, you’ll possibly be chasing someone else away.  Make it your business to choose and teach the most beautiful, authentic, appropriate and dignified music you can find.

Use the definitive version.  Pretty much any tune (old or new) you’re likely to be teaching has been composed by someone.  As a composer myself, I can attest that, grateful though we are that our music is being sung and enjoyed, no composer appreciates hearing his or her work devolve into a dozen permutations – an all-too-common occurrence in the world of Jewish congregational music, as tunes are often spread around like gossipy rumors.  Sometimes the damage has already been done, and may not be readily reversible.  But when introducing a new melody, be sure to rely on an authorized source, and be scrupulously accurate in transmitting it to your congregation or group.  You owe the composer at least that.

Keep the Old.  Not all our tunes have to be new or in vogue!  Occasionally it’s good to bring out an old melody that is perhaps more authentic than many of the new ones.  They are often worthy of being called classics, and they keep us connected to our history.  Hearing such old melodies can invoke memories in a powerful way, and make the worship experience more authentic and meaningful.

In PART II of this post, we’ll get into teaching the tune.

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KEEPING IT TOGETHER – The Importance of the Conductor

baton-1Whenever a group of singers or players performs together, no matter if they are soloists, choir, chamber group, orchestra or any combination thereof, it is essential that someone lead or conduct the group.  With a small group, this may entail no more than a subtle visual cue by the first violinist, or the lead player in a rock band or jazz combo, occurring at a few key moments such as the opening attack or a final cutoff.  In Baroque ensembles (which generally aren’t exceptionally large), the keyboardist may conduct the group from the keyboard.  A similar situation often happens with church choirs.  But for most larger groups, especially of a non-professional level, someone will be conducting the entire piece.

For choirs, the person who conducts often holds the title of choir director, and one is tempted to picture them under the cliché of film director, sitting in a director’s chair with a megaphone and shouting “Work with me, people, work with me!” or “Action!” or “Cut!” or standing in a corner with a performer discussing motivation.

Actually, the more appropriate cliché here (as it is so frequently parodied in popular cartoons) would be the long-haired orchestra conductor performing histrionics with his baton a la Toscanini.

So what does a conductor really do?

  • Rehearsal – The conductor facilitates learning and rehearsing music, discussing dynamics (loud and soft), tempo (speed), articulations, and the general matters of interpreting a piece artistically.  He or she will also inform the group of certain particularly challenging passages where special signals will come into play, such as beating “in one” rather than in the pattern of the meter signature, or how a particular transition from one tempo to another will be conducted.
  • Performance – The good conductor performs some version of those fabled histrionics with expression as well as precision, since performance is not just about getting it right (although that is a prerequisite!), but also about making the artistic statement, indeed conveying to the performers in the visceral sense each expressive nuance throughout a piece.  The ensemble members are obliged to follow the conductor and serve that interpretation.

Light Travels Faster Than Sound.  There are two basic approaches to ensuring an ensemble staying together in performance:  by listening or by sight.

  1. Listening is the frequent method for small vocal groups of no more than, say, 6 or 8 voices; or for jazz or pop instrumental combos, especially since it is easier to hear wind instruments or amplified guitars or keyboards than unmiked voices.  Yet even in these small-group situations, more often than not at least some visual cueing is in play.
  2. Sight or visual coordination is perhaps the more reliable method, especially for larger groups such as large choral groups or orchestras, and certainly in those special scenarios where smaller groups are placed off-stage, or across a large room from other groups.

Our natural tendency is to try and stay together by sound, but we know that sound travels much more slowly (1,100 feet/second) than light (186,000 miles/second), and while this difference is negligible at a small distance of perhaps 10 feet or less, it becomes more and more of an issue as that distance grows to 30, 40 or 50 feet and more.  And so the conductor’s role becomes crucial, and it behooves the performers to rely on sight rather than sound.

Seeing the Conductor.  Some performances are done from memory, while in others, score and/or parts are used.  Performing from memory has the advantage of allowing the performers to give undivided attention to the conductor, especially in non-staged performances.  For some highly accomplished choral groups, this is standard procedure, though not always.

Most choirs, including some very highly regarded ensembles, perform at least some of their repertoire using music, and this is the usual procedure for oratorio and cantata performances, as it is for church and synagogue choirs.

Looking in Two Places at Once.  So the question for the choral singer becomes: “How do I watch both my music and the conductor at the same time?”  This is not as difficult as it sounds.  We hold our music high enough so we can look at the score and still perceive the conductor peripherally.  Ideally, we get to know the music well enough to find places where we can get out of the music and watch the conductor directly.  During the rehearsal process, we also note and mark clearly the places where it is particularly important to pay attention to the baton, such as a ritardando or accelerando, fermata or to accommodate a soloist.

Checking In With Your Eyes.  As many conductors will tell you, there is nothing more  frightening from the podium as seeing members of the group with their eyes buried in the music.  Make a point of checking in frequently with the conductor using direct eye contact.

Practicality.  That said, the pragmatic conductor will be accommodating to the group’s need to use music, and realize that beating a clear and large pattern is more likely to be perceived peripherally by the group looking at the music in performance.  Be sure to insist that they hold the music high so they can catch you in their view.  In the happy instances where the repertoire is familiar, there can be more insistence on getting out of the music and giving fuller attention to the podium.

In a future post, we’ll have more discussion about the basic language of the conductor’s hand motions.        Join Email List

ENERGY IN PERFORMANCE – Engaging Your Audience

Photo of candle flameHave you ever gone to a concert – any kind of concert – and felt completely “underwhelmed” by the performers even though they were performing competently, doing everything right as far as the music itself was concerned?  What was it that struck you as less than engaging about the performance?

I’ll wager it was a lack of commitment to the audience – a lapse of energy – that your were sensing.  It could stem from a few different things, such as:

  • Inexperience – Unless you’re at least somewhat experienced in the art of performing, you might have an insufficient insight as to how much you might have to do in order to have it “read” properly from the audience.  You may think you’re overdoing it, when in fact it could prove to be not nearly enough.
  • Tentative grasp of the material – Without the confidence that comes with full mastery and internalization of what you’re performing (be it music, a play, a comedic bit, etc.), your delivery might come off as tenuous and uncertain.
  • Stage anxiety – Sometimes nervousness can actually work in a performer’s favor, but just as often it can serve to quell the best aspects of delivery.
  • Fatigue or illness – Here again, nerves might prove beneficial in compensating for otherwise low energy.  Failing that, experience should tell the performer when that extra effort will be needed to make up for when we are tired or sick.
  • Lack of enthusiasm (“I’ve done this so many times….”) – This may be the most challenging barrier of all to giving the audience a scintillating performance.  If you ever acted in high school or college theatre where the production ran for more than 1 or 2 nights, you might recall that by the 3rd night, it was tough to summon the same kind of commitment onstage.  Now try and imagine yourself (as I often have) as a professional having to go on night after night for weeks or months in an ongoing Broadway production!

Regardless of the reason(s), a lack of full and complete commitment (aka “phoning it in”) will be all too apparent to the audience – as a lackluster performance, one with no “sparkle.”  Imagine whether Bruce Springsteen would be as successful as he has been without his fabled stage energy!

The fact is – whether you are singing or playing in a solo role or in an ensemble, whether popular, classical or ethnic music, whether it’s a concert or a sacred ceremony, or even a speech – energy and vitality in performance is absolutely key to engaging your audience.

Sometimes the energy lapse is limited to specific aspects such as diction, or facial expression, or musical line.   But even just one part of the performance that doesn’t quite sizzle can make all the difference between an “okay” performance and a truly exciting one.  And quite often having that sizzle can more than make up for other shortcomings.  An audience is far more likely to forgive an innocent mistake in notes or the occasional crack in the voice than they are to accept an overall tentative performance.

High Energy Doesn’t Mean LOUD or FAST.  While volume and speed can sometimes serve to convey a sense of engagement and immediacy, we can’t always sing everything loud and fast.  And yet the energy has to come from somewhere.

A classic example of this sort of challenge is in singing a very slow piece.  This often means having to sing long held notes.  You may feel it’s so slow, it’s like swimming in molasses.  The all-too-typical fix is simply to speed up the tempo.  But even this won’t make up for all of the energy deficiency, so why not deal with the problem head-on?

Listen to a good recording of Bach’s famous “Air for the G String,” or Handel’s equally celebrated “Largo” from Serse [Xerxes], two classic examples of very slow pieces which would lose their very identities if they were taken even just a little faster.  As you listen, try and notice how the initial very long notes are given life and energy, how they are made to “bloom” as they lead seamlessly into what follows.

No Rest for the Musical.  What you might notice is a feeling of crescendo without an actual crescendo, along with a sense of urgency without an actual speeding up.  These add up to a feeling of heading toward a destination.  This is the secret to singing or playing with a proper sense of “line,” of giving it shape and contour.  Although we are listening for it in those long-held notes, it must ideally be present in every note – long, short or in-between, and even through the rests!

Quiet Urgency.  This sense of constant energy is especially important when singing softly.  In fact a good rule of thumb is to increase your energy as you get softer.  Think of that urgency, that near-crescendo, and of diction, especially consonants (always important, but especially in those quiet moments).  Spit them out!

Learn to Gage How to Engage.  Energy does not mean OVER THE TOP, nor does it necessitate a lapse of dignity or good taste.  But it often does mean going farther than you as the performer might think is necessary or appropriate – exaggerating diction, facial attitude, dynamic changes, etc.  Let your conductor or other reliable advisor watch and listen from the house during rehearsals to gage what does and doesn’t work.

Put On a Happy Face (Or At Least An Engaged One).  If you’ve watched truly top-notch classical performers, they may not be putting on the smiley faces as they play or sing.  But they truly look engaged.  Solo and chamber players, and even orchestral players move and sway with the phrases.  And it’s a good bet they’re not faking this.  A solo singer communicates the song or aria on his/her face.  Choral singers should likewise be able to convey the mood and context of what they are singing facially.

In short, really get into your performing, and show the audience that you are enjoying it, even if it isn’t necessarily happy material.  If the music is sad, revel in that sadness and gloom, or whatever the mood and emotion might be.

If you want to engage the audience, be engaged.  But whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to commit the cardinal sin of performing – boredom!     Join Email List

WHAT IS GREAT MUSIC?

Photo of Ravel piano score excerpt painted on a city building in Minneapolis.

Ravel in Minneapolis

A good question to ponder, with perhaps a different answer for each of us.  For some, great music is music you can dance to.  Or make love to.  For others, great music can lift the spirit from the depths of despair.  Or maybe it’s just relaxing.

I have to admit, I’m not much of a dancer, and frankly, for my money, music and sex make for a rather uncomfortable mix.  But I am a sucker for those romantic, poetic images that can be found in many of the great standard tunes sung by the likes of Sinatra or Nat King Cole, or in the great art songs of Schubert, Brahms, Debussy or Fauré.  For me, great music can be a voyage of mystery, nostalgia, and fantasy.

How About You?  Think of your favorite popular songs or classical works.  Is it the lyrics that get your attention?  Are you hooked by melody, harmonies, or perhaps the backbeat?  Better yet, is it some combination of two or more of these elements that produces a synergy that “sends” you?

It’s Personal.  Back in the mid ‘70s, before the days of “big-box” stores, the internet or MP3 downloads, I worked a summer or two in the records & tapes department of one of our big downtown department stores.  As sales staff it was our job to help customers find what they were looking for.  But unlike with other kinds of merchandise, we found that most of our customers came in already knowing what they wanted, jealously guarding their preferences, and unwilling to consider other things.  And while there might have been a handful of hits that drew lots of sales (that summer the big album was Rumours by Fleetwood Mac), I was struck by the wide variety of artists and genres that met these individual tastes.

My Classical is Your Renaissance.  The same might be said about classical music lovers.  Someone who enjoys opera may not care much for Brahms (who never wrote an opera), whereas a Brahms fan may turn up the nose at Donizetti or Rossini (who wrote mostly opera).  Some prefer symphonic music, while others live for chamber, solo voice or choral.  In other cases, preferences fall by historic period, for example, Baroque vs. 20th Century avant-garde, or Renaissance vs. Romantic periods.

What’s the Matter with Kansas?  I can relate to having those deeply held personal preferences and the frequent myopia that accompanies them:  When I was younger, it was all I could do to get myself to listen to anything new, especially popular music.  I had always had to “be sold” first.  I came to enjoy the group Kansas only after having sat through many card games with friends who constantly played that music.  At first I didn’t care for it, but before long I owned a few Kansas albums.  If I still couldn’t regard it on the same plain as Bach or Rachmaninoff, nonetheless I found the music far more complex, sophisticated and affecting than I would ever have dreamed.

This pattern has repeated often in my musical life.  As I trained to be a classical singer, I only very slowly acquired an appreciation for the rich culture of opera.  Over time, I’ve gotten to know and appreciate the tranquil dignity of Baroque, or the intimacy of chamber music.  Even with my favorite composers my full embrace of some of their pieces took time and patience to achieve.  But once I had, my world was so much the richer from then on.

Make an Investment.  Sometimes the most rewarding musical experience, in the end, is that which requires an investment of time to get to know it.  For example, If you’ve never really familiarized yourself with a work of classical music, why not try this “investment” exercise?  Maybe you’ve had a curiosity about a famous piece or a great historic composer, whether Gabrieli or Gershwin, but never got around to looking into it.  If it’s famous, it’s probably great, having withstood the test of time, and is therefore worthy of your time.  And you’ll probably be able to find it easily online.

Let the Music Learn You.  You can listen to music actively or passively, while doing something else, allowing it to insinuate itself into your ear.  Listen to your chosen work once or twice a day for, say, two weeks.  Then leave it alone for another two weeks, then come back to it.  You may just find it has grown on you!  If it’s well crafted, you’ll begin to appreciate the finer points of it.  You might even gain a background curiosity about the piece and its composer, history, cultural context, etc.

You Don’t Have to Be a Genius.  Such an exercise doesn’t require you to be a musicologist.  You need only the ability to listen, or at least to hear.  In the process, you’ll be developing, over time, a more discerning ear.

Take the risk!  The most you stand to lose is a little time, a little effort, and maybe the acquaintance of music you end up not caring for.  (If you don’t like the piece, try another work in a contrasting period and style.)  What you stand to gain, however, is the enrichment and gratification born of something truly high-quality that you’ll always have.     

Make New Friends.  Once you get to know a great work of music, it’s like making a new friend for life, one you’ll never tire of.  Then, along with the familiar, you’ll keep discovering new qualities (or foibles) that will engage and fascinate you.  Besides those things that have attracted you to your favorite songs, you’ll come to appreciate other elements of this music, and of music in general, that will “send” you.  And – dare I say it? – your tastes will be elevated and refined.
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GIVING BIRTH TO MUSIC – The Thrill (and Fright) of Showing a New Child to the World

Hayom T'amtzeinu by Michael Reid Winikoff - photo of sheet musicTo Change the World?! – One of the great dramatic prayers of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins, “Today the world is born.”  The old traditional interpretation of this is that Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of Creation.  Another even more compelling version is that today, each year, the world is re-born, created anew.  Each of us has the opportunity to re-create our own world, and by extension the whole world, for the better.

As composers, many of us hold the audacity of hope that each of our new compositions, to which in a very real sense we give birth, and which we often think of as our children, will in some small way make the world better, will introduce into it a tiny sparkle of joy, of hope, of inspiration, of a more profound understanding of things.

This past week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I had the great honor of having one of my liturgical choral works, a setting of the concluding litany Hayom T’amtzeinu, introduced to my lifelong home congregation.  Although I was leading services at another synagogue and so wasn’t able to hear it sung for the first time in situ as part of the service, I had been attending the choir rehearsals and helping them to prepare the piece, and had the privilege of hearing it come into full flower.

Winning Over the Performers – I was delighted (and relieved) at the very positive response to the work by everyone involved.  While the parts are occasionally tricky with unexpected melodic turns, I knew pretty much from the first read-through that the group would be able to tackle it quite easily – that they “got” it.  Much of the harmony came through immediately, and they seemed to catch on quickly.  It also didn’t hurt that they found the parts vocally comfortable.

I’ve been fortunate not only that we have a particularly fine choir this year, but also that the two cantors and the conductor have all been strong advocates of my new piece, both in deciding to take it on and in ensuring meticulous preparation of the choir.  They too seemed to “get” it, and I didn’t need to say very much.  By all accounts, it came off very well in the service.

The Best Laid Plans – There was, unfortunately, one frustrating aspect of this wonderful adventure.  This year the synagogue is using a new prayer book, in which the editors felt it necessary to change the order of verses in the text.  It’s the sort of frustration that undoubtedly many composers of sacred settings in many faiths have had to experience – that of having to try and accommodate text changes for an existing musical setting or risk that setting becoming unusable and irrelevant.  Fortunately, I think I’ve found a way to address the changes.

Winning Over the Audience – Given that this place in the service is a beloved opportunity for congregational song, it can be daunting and risky indeed to dare make any change of tune, let alone introduce a choral setting.  This is perhaps the chief reason my Hayom was sung only once, on the second day, so that congregants would only be confronted with it once, after they’d gotten to sing the old tune on the first day.  But mine features a very singable, congregation-friendly melody, and I’m hoping they’ll come to embrace it and not resent the change too deeply.

What’s So Good About It?  In the wake of this gratifying experience, I’ve been trying to understand the possible reasons why my setting has been so well-received by the musicians.  Here are some thoughts:

Consider Both Performer and Listener.  I tried to think of both as my audience, and to know that audience.

Make it Accessible – For this particular audience, I ensured it wouldn’t be too avant-garde or esoteric – this is not the place for experimentation.  On the practical side, it couldn’t be unduly difficult, either musically or vocally – it would need fit the resources of the average synagogue choir.

Appropriate.  I endeavored for something not only beautiful and memorable, but especially apropos of the particular mood and occasion.  In this case, it meant knowing and making creative use of the special chant idioms for the High Holy Days and, of course, understanding the meaning and significance of the text.  Thus the old adage of authors – “Write what you know.”

Singable.  I made certain the music was tuneful and coherent, taking special care to fit the music to the rhythm of the text in an optimal way for maximum singability.  In our Jewish community at least, all too often we encounter a congregational melody that doesn’t really fit the text, which has been shoe-horned in.  This doesn’t make for a very satisfying singing experience.

Concise.  I knew this would be no place for undue length, so I got to the point, avoided repetition and stayed within two minutes.

Ledgible.  I also made sure the score was easy to read – this seems obvious, but is not to be underestimated, and too often it doesn’t happen.  In general, if the performers are presented with too many obstacles, the frustration and wasted time can prove counter-productive.  This is especially true with an orchestra, but it applies here as well.  I try always to grease the skids in introducing new music by making things as easy as possible for everyone.

Interesting.  Finally, I tried to achieve some degree of musical depth and substance.  A bit of harmonic interest, a touch of counterpoint, a compact and cohesive sense of form, all sprinkled with occasional subtle touches of the unexpected.  This may constitute a bit more challenge in learning at first, but properly done it can increase the gratification factor for both performer and listener, and might increase the durability of the piece in your repertoire over time.  Boring pieces can quickly become passé.

Think of your perennial musical favorites, and try to figure out some of the things that make them work so well for you.  Then apply those principals to your own creations.  It’s sure to make for more successful, well-bred “children.”       Join Email List

CHOIR & COMMUNITY

Stained Glass Panel - Rosh HashanahThis month-or-so period preceding the High Holy Days holds a special place for me.  For one thing, since it is for many communities a time of musical preparation for these monumental holy days and their extended liturgy, many cantors and choirs are busily preparing their soul-stirring renditions.  And as we become re-infused with this music in rehearsal, the mood of the Yamim Noraim extends far out ahead of the Days of Awe themselves like the anvil top of some magnificent August thunderhead.

My home synagogue (since I was very young) has been Beth El, a large Conservative congregation with a long history of fine choral singing (not surprising here in Minnesota) both in this season and throughout the year.  I’m proud to have been a part of that history, with a few breaks, over the past 40+ years.

I have officiated cantorially for these holy days for over 30 years.  This will be my seventh year in this capacity at Sharei Chesed, a wonderful little congregation in a western suburb, where we have a small group of singers who sing lovely (mostly unison) tunes during our services.

At the same time, I make it my practice to attend the Beth El choir rehearsals in a kind of unofficial advisory capacity, singing with the bass section (or in falsetto with the altos) through the first several practices, then being a listener and offering occasional feedback and advice as asked, even though I won’t get to join them for the actual services.

It happens that this year, Sharei Chesed has taken on the task of hosting our community Slichot service involving several of the local congregations, with the joint choirs of these participating shuls adding their voices to those of our fine rabbis and cantors.  I have had the honor and privilege to be involved with the planning and coordination of this service.

The sense of communal purpose during these harried weeks preceding the High Holy Days is wonderfully palpable.  And choral singing is a quintissential embodiment of community.  It is in all senses a team effort, a cooperative venture, that will culminate in a synergistic way late on Saturday evening and again in the following weeks, as we enter the gates of repentence and raise our collective choral voice in the uniquely plaintive melodies and stirring harmonies that characterize this season of awe.

Hopefully we can carry that musical synergy through the rest of the year, to enhance our Shabbat and festival services with the same seriousness of musical purpose and choral cooperation, to bring the same degree of beauty, power and grandeur to those occasions that we create on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I do hope you will have such an opportunity, this year or in the future, to feel and fuel this communal awe by participating in the communal act of choral singing, both for these Days of Awe and throughout the year.

Here’s wishing you a happy, healthy and prosperous 5774.  L’shana Tovah!

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FACING THE MUSIC – Daring to Explore New Territory

photo of orchestral score pagesLike most of us, you have certain kinds of music you really prefer over others.  It’s a very personal choice.  And like most of us, you might have certain kinds of music you’re sure you don’t like, don’t care about or just don’t know much about.  You might even find it intimidating.  This is your golden opportunity to challenge yourself, and try something new.

On Its Terms Rather Than Yours – This challenge is about the willingness to forgo your pre-existing musical preferences and expectations, and look at this new kind of music without prejudice or preconceived notions.  Think of yourself as the intrepid cultural explorer of a landscape strange to you – a horizon-broadening musical adventure.

I personally find this process useful when I’m to perform a work I’m not sure I want to like.  More often than not, I end up finding at least one thing to admire about the piece, genre or style, and I learn about the culture behind it.  Not only is my mind is opened a little wider, but I’m able to give full and proper commitment to the performance.

Buying In – The first step in this approach is the willingness to overcome our misgivings.  We know how we feel, but we still put those feelings aside for the moment, and consider the new territory without pre-existing notions.

Crashing the Barriers of Prejudice – Sometimes it’s not the music itself that presents a barrier to our appreciation, but what it represents, culturally, socially, personally.  Some people don’t like Haydn or Mozart because they associate it with elitism and all its disagreeable aspects.  Other people don’t care for country music because they have come to associate it with some other set of negative cultural trappings.   Or perhaps we associate a certain kind of music with a particularly traumatic or unfortunate aspect of our own life.

Whether or not you feel you can work through such barriers is of course an individual determination.  But if you can manage it, you might be surprised in the end to find something intrinsically worthwhile despite your initial ambivalence.

Once you’ve decided to be brave, the next step is to have some fun and explore the music itself.

sheet-music-still-life-1.jpgListen – Do this repeatedly over a long period (perhaps once or twice a day over two weeks), and preferably with a good pair of full-spectrum speakers or headphones, which will help you to hear all the details of the song or piece.  If you have access to the score and are adept at following along in it (but it takes practice), this is an excellent way to learn the true construction of a classical work, for example.

After your listening period, if possible, leave it alone for a month or two, then come back to it.  Chances are you’ll hear it with a new appreciation and perspective.  

Research – Your appreciation may be enhanced by knowing the backstory of the piece:

  • Who is the composer or artist who created it?  Learn about their life.
  • What was their purpose, if any, in creating the piece?
  • What compelling circumstances might have influenced the composer?
  • What about the era during which the work came to be?
  • What have critics and enthusiasts said about the work? 

Evaluate – In your opinion:

  • How well does the piece do what it does (even if you don’t necessarily like what it does)?
  • How unique and original is it?  Is it done in a well-worn style?
  • Does it have technical brilliance (i.e., is it showy)?  Does this enhance or detract from the effect?
  • If it’s a well-known classical work, compare recorded performances.  This is an especially popular pastime among opera lovers.

At Least Try It – To go to such an effort doesn’t obligate you to end up liking or embracing this new music.   If you find you still can’t relate to it, maybe you’ll be induced to think about why, rather than just relying on your established tastes.  And at the very least, you’ll have made the honest effort to explore this new territory, and in the process learn something about how to understand and evaluate music.                                                      Join Email List