Author: Joel Snyder

The Branch United Youth Choir Just Received a Grant from Josh Groban’s Find Your Light Foundation!

A few years ago, the Branch United Youth Choir began with the intention of bringing the arts to youth in an (according to the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs) artistically under-served county. With hard work and support from the community, we have changed lives. Children have learned to sing, formed lasting relationships, and created beautiful art.

We could not have started without help from motivated individuals in the area. A former music teacher graciously donated the use of a digital keyboard during rehearsal. It has proved invaluable over the past few years. We would have struggled without it. Unfortunately, the keyboard was feeling its age. It also did not possess a full 88  weighted keys or a sustain pedal.

With this in mind, we asked for a grant from Josh Groban’s Find Your Light Foundation in order to purchase a new keyboard. They are a wonderful group that supports other organizations that provide musical training and enrichment to children. They recently contacted us to let us know that we had been approved! We heartily thank them, and we want them to know how much we appreciate them. This donation will help us greatly as we seek to bring the arts to the youth of this rural community. I am so looking forward to using this when we start at the beginning of October!

What We Can Learn from Adele’s Singing 2

As promised, here is the second and last post in my series about Adele’s singing. For those of you who are interested, you can find the first post here. My first post dealt with Adele’s singing technique, and why she has struggled vocally.

However, there is a lot you can appreciate in her singing as well. Adele has accomplished much during the short years of her career. Her soulful singing stirs the heart, and–unlike much of pop music–her music actually has staying power.

This post highlights some of Adele’s strengths as a singer. These are qualities that all singers should develop. Singers will be much more successful in their performances if they do.

Lesson #1: Communication Is Insanely Important

Professional singers often focus extensively on technique. This is good in that their vocal chops are well developed and they have a much more durable and flexible voice. However, singers often forget about the purpose of singing: to communicate. Singing is an emotionally heightened form of speech.

More open and efficient communication should be the goal toward which all singers strive. Say what you will about her vocal technique, but Adele is a communicator par excellence. One might say that it is her superpower. When you watch live videos of her singing, you cannot take your eyes off her. If singers sought to communicate rather than merely focusing on technique, their singing would be so much more expressive and memorable. (This, by the way, is a major part of the so-called “X Factor” that many talk about).

So, how do you communicate effectively as a singer?

Lesson #2: Honest Facial Expression Is Key

It’s always surprising how emotionless singers look when they sing. Their face is completely deadpan. Not so with Adele. She never looks quite happy, to be sure, but that goes with singing sad songs. She has enough facial expression that you truly believe she is in the moment.

Not only do faces need to be animated, but they also need to be honest. The opposite extreme of the deadpan face is the hyper-animated face. Everything is exaggerated. This tends to make singers look like caricatures of real people. As a case in point: I recently watched on TV a performance of a major choral work with soloists. I was astounded at how distracting the facial expressions of the soloists were. They contorted their faces into some of the strangest shapes. Any emotion you portray on your face must be believable.

Lesson #3: Economy of Gesture Is Powerful

If you ever watch a video of Adele performing, you will be struck by how little she moves. She simply stands there most of the time. Other singers prance around the stage and gesticulate wildly to keep your attention. So how does she hold your interest?

Adele knows how to pace her gestures. She’ll start with very little movement, and increase the amount gradually as the song builds to its climax. It’s brilliant and highly effective. In the context of gesture, less often equals more. This pacing of gesture also lends her an air of gravitas which most singers would love to have.

Lesson #4: Start Small and Build

As a major part of drama, this rule cannot be stressed enough. Adele clearly understands this. Singers frequently begin their songs too loud and too expressive. As a consequence, they have nowhere to grow. Their songs contain no sense of movement towards a climax. Try singing quieter at the beginning of a song. Not only will this save your voice, but it will give your music a sense of forward motion. You will sustain interest, and the climax of the piece will be so much more satisfying.

To Sum Up

Singers all have strengths and weaknesses. Wise students try to learn as much as they can from these other singers. Simply put, learn from their mistakes and successes. This will stop you from repeating the former and enable you to emulate the latter.

[Source: CHRISTOPHER MACSURAK at http://flickr.com/photos/60877182@N00/3211379321. License:  cc-by-2.0.]

What We Can Learn from Adele’s Singing

For those of you not up to date on recent events in the musical world, the world-famous British singer Adele had to cancel the remainder of her tour this year due to vocal troubles. This was not the first time she has struggled with vocal issues. In 2011, Adele had to get surgery for a polyp (a word which should send shivers down the spine of any singer) on her vocal folds.

Her troubles set the vocal world abuzz with comments on her vocal technique, as well as over-singing in general. Finally, a writer posted an article about how we should “Stop Shaming Adele.” He made several interesting comments, and I agree in general with them. When someone has a vocal issue, we should not self-righteously point fingers at them and say, “See, I told you so.” My heart goes out to her, and I hope she recovers.

With that said, I do believe there are things we can learn from any singer, both positive and negative. I wanted to put on my voice-teacher hat in this post to look at a few of them. Part one will deal with the issues of vocal technique. Part 2 will deal with where I believe Adele truly shines: artistry, honesty, and communication. Again, my goal here is not to gleefully point out her vocal foibles, but to observe some things that might help others out there in the world who want to be singers.

Lesson #1: Be Careful Not to Over-Sing

Over-singing can happen to anyone in any genre or style. Classical voice students spend years trying to perfect healthy vocal technique. Many of them take lessons from teachers with doctorates in singing from prestigious universities. Yet, even they struggle with vocal issues. I have known many classical singers who have been forced to go on vocal rest.

In the pop music world, it is not uncommon for singers to tour with several concerts a week. Even if they had perfect healthy vocal technique,  the voice is not a sturdy instrument. It is no wonder singers like Adele, Sam Smith, and Meghan Trainor have had issues. It is exceptionally difficult to sing with such frequency.

When someone sings too much, it can tire the voice. This is why a lot of singers talk about “saving their voice” before a performance. When they say this, they mean talking less during the day, singing more lightly and delicately when they are practicing or doing a sound-check, etc.  Singing is a marathon, not a sprint. Singers need to pace themselves accordingly.

Lesson #2: Breathing Is Foundational to Healthy Singing

Some vocalists and teachers I have known believe there is only one “good way” to sing. I always try to avoid the word “good” when talking about singing. That particular word is imprecise and subjective. However, there are principles of healthy vocal technique that I believe are the same no matter the genre or style. Perhaps the most important of these is what we call “breath support.” Singers need to expel just the right amount of breath in order to sing healthily. Using too little breath can cause an airy or throaty, sound; using too much can cause a pressed sound.

When I listen to Adele, I hear both over-expelling and under-expelling of breath. This causes the tenseness and throatiness which she uses for great emotional and communicative effect. That gritty, gravelly sound evokes the pain of how one feels when going through relationship problems.  However, if one sings too frequently with throaty technique, it can result in severe vocal issues. A technique like that should probably be used sparingly and with great sensitivity to how the voice feels. This leads me to my last point.

Lesson #3: Be Sensitive to Your Voice

Singers should be sensitive to how their voices feel.  If the voice hurts or feels exhausted, singers should pause and reflect, because they are entering dangerous vocal territory. Typically, they are either singing in an unhealthy manner, and/or they are over-singing. If they want to keep singing, then they need to make some changes (under guidance of a well-respected voice coach/teacher). If they are not planning on singing long-term, then they can keep singing the way they always have. That is a personal choice, one each singer has to make.

(This is the first in a two-part series on Adele’s singing. You can find the second post here.)

Picture source: {{Information |Description=Adele – Seattle, WA – 8/12/2011 |Source=[http://www.flickr.com/photos/nikotransmission/6037325659/ Adele – Seattle, WA – 8/12/2011] |Date=2011-08-13 01:29 |Author=[http://www.flickr.com/people/53261981@N03 Niko D] from Sammamish  Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

BUYC Choir Camp 2017 Recap

Choir camps always prove to be enjoyable, busy, and exhausting weeks. Last week was no exception. We played games, worked hard, learned much, and sang a lot! Our theme this year was Songs of Childhood. We learned about how children are raised in different countries, and we even played children’s song games from all over the world. We will be doing one more this summer in Detroit (July 17-20). If you’re interested, here’s the site you need to visit!

Every year, I am amazed how much the kids can learn in 4 days, especially since some of the children have had little to no musical training! Here’s a quick overview of what I taught them:

IMG_1412Day 1:

First we started out with some fun camp songs. It is a choir camp, after all. You have to start with singing :). We then learned how to sing with good posture and how to sing in tune. We also began working on some songs that we would perform at the concert on Thursday. I made a new arrangement of “A la puerta del cielo,” which they sang pretty well.

Day 2:

We reviewed the words and melody to an Argentinian children’s game called “Caracol.” The game is kinda cool, but it takes a little while to be able to sing and play it at the same time if you don’t know Spanish. The kids played an Indian (from India) game called “Fire on the Mountain,” which they liked a lot.

Day 3:

IMG_1415The kids finally got to play “Caracol.” The word means “snail.” It’s a line game where one side of the line twists the other into “the shell.” Then, the opposite side of the line pulls everyone out again. The group picks up speed, and the children are flung outward onto the ground. Children love these kinds of games; they are played all over the world. Learning these games are a great way for kids to connect with other cultures.

Day 4:

IMG_1418One of our board members also leads a drumming circle at her church. She led a short djembe drumming class. This provided a nice change of pace as we were preparing for our end-of-camp concert later that night. The kids sang four songs. Some had harmony, because it is very important for children to sing in harmony if they want to grow musically. Children need to develop their ability to hold their own part while other parts are happening. This grows their musical hearing and performing skills.

IMG_1416Well, that about sums it up. The kids had a great time. They really seemed to enjoy learning about children from other cultures. They immensely enjoyed playing children’s games from other countries. What a fun and informative trip through the musical world!

 

My Recap of the Composers’ Workshop

Composing has always been a little intimidating for me. I enjoy doing it, but can never escape the feeling that I could be doing it better. Additionally, finding people who are open and honest about the craft can be difficult. For this reason, I was drawn to the John Ness Beck Foundation Choral Composers’ Workshop that I attended last week. The workshop is presented through Beckenhorst Press. This publisher has always been one of my favorites. They strive for accessibility without sacrificing artistry.

Anyway, it was an excellent workshop, and I learned a great deal. There was so much information that I often felt like I was taking a drink from a fire hose!  Consequently, I don’t feel like I am doing the workshop justice by condensing it to a short blog post. However, it would be a greater injustice for me not to try. So here goes nothing:

First off, let me say that Dan Forrest, Craig Courtney, and Howard Helvey are wonderful teachers. Having worked in the industry for years as composers, editors, and pedagogues, they brought a wealth of wisdom and experience to the workshop. Additionally, each participant had the opportunity to present pieces for critique. That can be a terrifying proposition, but Dan, Craig, and Howard tempered forthrightness with kindness. They took a scary situation and made us feel at ease. This is no easy feat!

They also taught us to delve into our compositional process. When are the best times of day for us as individuals to compose? How long should you try to compose per day? They answered these and many other questions with personal anecdotes as well as stories from other composers.

This year, they invited lyricists to join us for a day, and we got to pick their brains and collaborate. This experience was very exciting. Working with lyricists gives you a different perspective. You gain a new appreciation for the craftsmanship of the words, as well as an understanding of how much effort goes into choosing each word.

Lastly, they told us about the composing industry. Specifically, when are the best times for submitting pieces for publication? What about self-publishing? How difficult is it to get published? To which publishers should I submit my pieces? They answered all these questions and more.

Composing was always something I wanted to do better. I had ideas, but they did not always come together into a coherent whole. The composers’ workshop I attended this past week helped me figure this out. I think this will make my future compositions more cogent and compelling.

It also helped me as a conductor. Good conductors must understand why the composers and lyricists made the choices they did. This understanding, in turn, enables conductors to perform pieces precisely and expressively. The workshop provided that insight.

I would highly recommend this workshop to aspiring composers of choral music (particularly church music). The teachers are honest and kind, the fellow participants are talented and affirming, and the sessions were informative and life-changing.

I’m Heading Back to Greenville!

Next Week, I’ll be heading back to a city I have not seen since 2010: Good ole Greenville, SC. I’m going there for a week-long composition seminar with Dan Forrest, Craig Courtney, and Howard Helvey! Over the years, my choirs have sung much of their music, and I am thrilled to finally meet them in person. They are all highly successful composers, their music is frequently published, and–most importantly–they strive for that elusive balance of artistry and accessibility in their pieces.  In particular, Dan Forrest has become one of my favorite contemporary composers. His pieces are beautiful and lyrical.

I am extremely excited and just a little nervous. I’ve done a lot of conducting and a ton of singing, but composing is something I’ve always done on the side. I write a piece every summer for my children’s choir camps. I’ve also composed pieces for my choirs to use in concerts and tours. I am truly honored to be allowed to attend this workshop, and I am hopeful that I will gain a great deal of insight into the composition process. I’m also looking forward to making new friends and meeting with old ones!

Plus, I’ve heard Greenville has extensively renovated its downtown. Greenville is consistently ranked as one of the best towns in the South. It will be fascinating to see how much it has changed and grown. On to Greenville!

Old Friends in New Places

The past few weeks have been momentous. I traveled with the Western Michigan University Chorale to the Baltics. For those of you who might say, “Where?,” the Baltics are a set of three very small countries (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) in north-eastern Europe. They were part of the former Soviet Union, although they would be the first ones to tell you that it was not a willing union :).

How was a trip to three little countries life-changing? Well, it boils down to three things: 1) What we did, 2) What we saw, and 3) Who I was with.

Western Michigan University is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated music schools in the country. Most people haven’t heard of it, yet its graduates are regularly admitted to top schools, gain consistent employment, and perform in music ensembles across the country. In the choral world, the only American member of Voces8 as well as two current members of Chanticleer are WMU alumni.

With this in mind, the Chorale was one of the best groups I have ever had the pleasure of performing with, particularly this year. We sang superbly and sensitively, and we brought this musicianship to the Baltics. The first three days were spent in a resort town, where we competed in the Kaunas Cantat against choirs from all over northern and eastern Europe. Some of them were quite good. The Chorale performed admirably, and we won the overall competition. Not only that, but we were able to sing with other groups and form relationships. It was truly a wonderful time.

Broncos & Fins

We also got to tour these three countries. Growing up in America, it is easy to think of the Soviet Union in abstract terms. Visiting these three countries made its evil real. Twenty-something years after they gained freedom, they are still struggling to rebuild from the repression and economic depression of communist Russia. Monuments to freedom were erected in every country.

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Freedom Monument-Riga, Latvia

I would not have enjoyed this trip nearly as much if it weren’t for the fact that I traveled with such great people. This wonderful group of humans continually amazed me. They were open to me randomly coming and sitting with them. During the awards ceremony (where we did quite well), they cheered every other group that was mentioned. This was not was not arrogant patronizing either. Chorale members were genuinely happy for other people’s success. Incidentally, this is something that has not always been the case at other schools I have attended.

I entitled this post “Old Friends in New Places.” I meant that in a couple ways. First, it was truly an honor to sing with the kind, talented people I have gotten to know over the past two years. I will miss them greatly. Second, we sang pieces that I have come to know and love over my career. We even sang a few that I performed back in high school (my high school choir was pretty good). It’s fascinating to return to pieces and see how you’ve grown as a musician both in appreciating them and in performing them. All in all, I was blessed during this trip. We made great music, met incredible people, saw fascinating sights, and forged strong relationships which will hopefully last a lifetime.

Now, back to real life…