Branch United Youth Choir

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!

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!

 

On the Wisdom of Trying New Things

Those who know me know that I love to try new things. My classmates at Western sometimes got exasperated with me because I liked to sit in different seats pretty much every class period. Don’t worry, I tried not to sit in someone else’s seat. That would throw off their groove, and would just be plain mean.

When I go to a restaurant, I look over the menu and see if there is something I haven’t tried before. I’ll try the fettucini alfredo even though I know from experience that the pasta primavera is good. It’s a small thrill of exploration. Maybe I’ll find a new, amazing dish.

Over the next few months, I will be working on a lot of projects which I hope to share with you soon. Some of these have to do with my children’s choir. Some of them don’t. Some are collaborative. Some are personal. Some are recent while some I have been slowly working towards completing for years; I am finally close to wrapping them up. After finishing them, I hope to move on to new projects, concerts, and concerns. This helps me grow as a creative, find new opportunities, and meet new people with whom to collaborate.

So what’s my point? My point is that going through life doing the same ole, same ole is boring. It can get you stuck in a rut. Change is invaluable not only for creatives like myself, but also for everyone. Try something new. Sit in a different seat. Talk to someone you’ve never met. Gain a new perspective (literally and figuratively!). Order a dish you haven’t tried before even though you’re comfortable with the veal parmesan. Start writing that blog, book, song, whatever. Read that book that’s been collecting dust on your shelf. Start learning a new instrument. Go on a date with that person who you think might be interesting. Take a risk. Change it up. Your life will be richer for it, and, who knows, you just might like it.

Life Update May 2017

So, I did it. I finally graduated with my 2nd master’s degree. My first was in voice performance; this one is in choral conducting. I have thus completed one of the most difficult accomplishments of my life! I cannot begin to fully explain to you the hard work it took to get to this point. I am thankful and exhausted.

Let’s just say that I have learned a lot this year. This past fall, I took a very full load and began new teaching duties as the voice graduate assistant. I was privileged to teach voice classes and lessons for the voice department. This was a great experience for me. I got to teach what I consider to be the important fundamentals of vocal skill. The class learned the basics of healthy vocal technique: posture, placement, breathing, and relaxation. I also taught them some slightly more advanced concepts: leaps, dynamics, vowel modification, and registration among other things. I had a blast, and the students seemed very appreciative of my teaching. It’s so cool to see someone grow because of what I taught them!

I also had some struggles. This spring, I performed my conducting recital. It was easily one of the most stressful things I have ever done. The pressure to make the vocal and musical elements as perfect as possible was enormous. I greatly appreciated all the hard work of the singers and instrumentalists. Thank you so much.

A week and a half before my recital, my grandfather passed away. He was diagnosed with cancer several months ago, so I was expecting it. Still, it was very difficult, and it made it hard to concentrate during a crucial time in my life. Thankfully, folks at Western stepped up to help me. I could not have made it without their care and understanding.

Things are starting to settle down. I just have two more major things to do, and then my summer will begin. First, my Branch United Youth  Choir concert is this Saturday, May 6. If you want to come, the concert is at 7 pm. We will be singing in the beautiful sanctuary in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Coldwater, MI. I always love performing in there. The acoustics are superb, and the architecture is stunning. We will also performing with Blarney Castle, a progressive Irish group. They have been winning competitions and performing all over Southwestern Michigan, and I am excited the BUYC will be with them on their first performance in Coldwater.

This group actively sought to collaborate with us, and I am thrilled to perform with them. The children have been working hard on a duet with the beautifully expressive voice of EJ Schubkegel. I made a solo arrangement of “Danny Boy” that I will be singing with the guitarist, Patrick Hartson. He and I have had a great time working through all my funky chords that I made him play! I think it will be a fitting tribute to my grandfather.

Lastly, the WMU Chorale will be competing and touring in the Baltics in a couple weeks. I have been so honored to sing with them over the past two years. This year in particular has been truly exciting. They are an exceptional group of musicians, and I think we will represent the USA well in Europe.

Anyway, thanks for reading. I’ve been wanting to get back into writing for my blog, and now I actually have time to do it! More to come!

August 2016 Life Update

The past several months have been eventful! Life has been busy, but good. I ran two of my most successful children’s choir camps (Detroit and Coldwater, MI). Both of them were the best attended of any of the camps I’ve conducted in their areas. The kids responded in ways that I did not expect.

This year, I used a new theme: the African-American Spiritual. I have always loved spirituals, but I was initially at a loss as to how to teach about them. A couple months passed until the curriculum formed in my mind. In fact, the deadline to complete it was quickly approaching.

Thankfully, inspiration finally came knocking. I approached the four-day camp this way:

Day 1: What is a spiritual? (Roots of slavery and how spirituals are a fusion of African music and European hymnody/folk music)

Day 2: The Fisk Jubilee Singers (How they popularized the spiritual and used it to fund Fisk University)

Day 3: The Spiritual and the Civil Rights Movement (How spirituals were adapted to help end Jim Crow and encourage racial integration)

Day 4: The spirituals go mainstream (How choral groups all over America frequently sing the well-loved spirituals)

The kids really connected with the curriculum, but not like they did in years previous. They weren’t bubbly excited; they were seriously interested. They loved singing the spirituals. They understood the plight of slavery and the struggles of black Americans as they have worked to rise from it. I think the spirituals helped personalize this history in a way that only teaching about it can’t.

I had no idea when I came up with the idea for my theme that racial tensions would be this high in the USA. However, I’m thankful that I did it. It is only through understanding that we can truly empathize.

The rest of my summer was spent working. The Lord provided me with a job at a nearby hospital. I have been both blessed and extremely taxed by this job. I work with folks who need to be watched for various reasons (suicidal, homicidal, addiction, dementia, head trauma, etc.). It has definitely caused me to consider things about the world in a different, perhaps deeper, light.

I was also prepping for the upcoming school year at WMU. I will be starting a graduate assistantship in the vocal and choral departments in a few weeks. I am looking forward to the challenge. I love teaching voice lessons and conducting, so this seems right up my alley. I am also choosing repertoire for my graduate conducting recital (Spring 2017!) and my various and sundry choirs.

Lastly, I will be leaving in a few days for the Norfolk Chamber Choir and Choral Conducting Workshop. It is hosted by Yale University and directed by the inimitable Simon Carrington of King’s Singers fame. I’m very excited about it. I believe I will learn a lot about choral singing. Hopefully, it will lead to more choral singing gigs, which I am keen to be doing.

Anyway, that’s about it for now. I will keep you posted as new opportunities and the like happen in my life.

 

Five Reasons I Love the African-American Spiritual

In the next couple weeks, I will be directing some children’s choir camps. One will be held in Detroit (June 27-30), and the other in Coldwater, MI, with the Branch United Youth Choir (July 11-14). I always agonize over what my theme will be.

This year, my theme is Onward and Upward: Songs of Freedom and Hope. We will be looking at spirituals and their uses, along with studying people who have had an impact on racial freedom in this country. My goal is to be positive and uplifting.

I have seen too much negativity in our country over the past several years. It seems like the tension is at an all-time high in my (admittedly brief) life. We can do better as a country.

Which brings me to my theme. What business does a non-African-American have teaching a whole week on spirituals? What part do children of other ethnicities have in that narrative? Here are several reasons why I love spirituals, and why I think we should all sing them.

Reason #1: It was the only syncopated music I was allowed to sing while growing up.

I grew up in a very conservative Christian community and attended a very conservative Christian school. While I appreciate many of the things I received from this upbringing (The gospel! A good education! An emphasis on excellence!), I missed the opportunity to sing many different kinds of music–specifically, music with some rhythmic energy. The only syncopated music we could sing was spirituals. I always looked forward to singing them.

Reason #2: They are a unique part of our American heritage.

In general, I love music from the American folk tradition. It connects me to my roots. There are very few things more distinctly American than the spiritual. No other country has them. It is the perfect blend of African music and Anglo-American folk traditions. And, because spirituals are folk music, there has already been a certain amount of natural selection of the songs. We get the best, highest quality spirituals.

Reason #3: They explore the whole range of human emotion.

Spirituals run the gamut between happy and sad, joyful and sorrowful, hopeful and forlorn. Spirituals can be sung at pretty much any occasion. Have a death in the family? Try singing “Deep River.” Need to be comforted? “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” or “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Is it Christmas? Sing “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” or “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” This song tradition owns such great variety!

 

Reason #4: The words are simple, but the meaning is profound.

I love songs that can take deep truths and boil them down to simple, easily grasped text. Spirituals excel at this. Like much folk music, you will not find many five syllable words. Yet, the words mean so much. The word pictures are vivid and deep and dark. The truths are timeless.

Reason #5: They come from a sad part of America’s history, yet are profoundly hopeful.

Slavery was, and continues to be, a terrible evil in this world. America fought its own struggle to overcome that wicked practice. The spiritual is a musical record of that time. Far from being accusatory or negative, spirituals communicate a sense of joy. There is an underlying current of hope. Sorrow doesn’t last always. You will be freed, either in this life or the one to come (and there’s this little group called the underground railroad that just might get you to freedom if you keep your eyes and ears open. Be ready). Spirituals record all of this.

While its easy to focus on all that still needs to change in our country to fix race-relations, I think we should take a long look at the positives in our history. There has been much improvement since 1776.  That gives me hope for the future, and hope is what I want to give to the children in my choir camps this summer.

I’m going to close with one of my favorite passages from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning: “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

What I Learned at WMU in School Year 2015-2016

So, I finally finished the first year of my second graduate degree. It was very difficult, and I am glad it is over. Any time I finish something, I always like to analyze it. What could I have done better? What do I need to do differently for next year? Here are my thoughts on the subject.

1. Don’t Work 5 Jobs and Go to School Full-time

Some of you might think this to be self-apparent. However, this was something I had to learn. After several months of searching for jobs that would fit my school schedule, I pretty much took every job that I could. This helped pay the rent, but it did not help my sanity.

Things are finally winding down. I have my children’s concert this Saturday, May 14, and then I’m mostly home free for the year. The summer will have its own challenges, but I’m gonna do what I can to rest up and prepare for next year.

2. Stretching Yourself Is Good, But Moderation Is Key

I also decided to take a crazy-hard 20th century music theory class. I had not had the opportunity to take a class on this subject in my previous degree programs. It was an area of musical weakness that I needed to shore up.

As I stated previously, it was really difficult. I had to work very hard to get through it. If you couple this class with my overloaded work schedule, then you can see that I was running on fumes by the end of second semester! I am thankful to God that I survived.

3. Existential Crises Can Be Good Things

Towards the end of second semester, a classmate asked a couple of us graduate students if we were having an existential crisis. He stated that many graduate students have one after their first year. Oddly enough, I hadn’t had one during my first grad degree. I had one this time around. Perhaps it was exacerbated by my exhausted mind and body. What was I going to do with all this education? What’s the point? Am I getting better at my craft?

Wrestling with these questions is a good thing. It grows you. You learn about yourself, and it helps you understand others. Plus, you come out on the other side of these questions with a renewed understanding of your purpose.

4. Patience Is a Virtue

I’ve had to work hard to learn the truth behind this saying. I don’t mean intellectually. I mean truly understand it in your heart. You’re only going to grow so quickly, and only have so many opportunities. You can chomp at the bit, but that’s not going to make you get there any faster. Success will come with pushing yourself just enough that you grow, but not so much that you burn out.

5. God Is Good

God has provided for my needs many times over. I’ve always had food to eat, gas to put in my car, my bills paid, and a roof over my head. I made wonderful friends and colleagues, without whom I would not have finished. There were some amazing musical triumphs.

God gave me exactly what I needed. Even more importantly, He allowed me to grow. He showed me things I need to work on in order to become more like His Son and my Savior, Jesus Christ.