Choral Repertoire

On Floaters and Burrowers, Or Reflections on My Kalamazoo Ensemble Concert

I’ve been recently reflecting on an old TV episode I watched once. In the episode, one of the characters mentions that another character is a floater—he would float through life and things would just kinda work out for him. We’ve all met people like this. They always seem to be in the right place at the right time. Others naturally like them, want to do things for them, and give them things/opportunities. And since they are floaters, they probably don’t even know that they are. If you’re this person, count yourself blessed.

Then the TV character mentions the other kind of people—burrowers. These are the people whose faces are always buried in the mud and dirt of life. Any opportunities they get are the ones that they made happen through blood, sweat, and tears, and it’s usually half of the opportunities that the floaters get. Frankly, I’ve always felt like a burrower. I work hard on projects, always going two steps forward and getting pushed one step backward. On the plus side, I always feel like I’ve really accomplished something when the project is finished and I can reflect on a job well done. Wearing the dirt feels like a badge of honor. The dirt makes you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.

Which brings me to the ensemble concert last night. I remarked to one of my ensemble members how much easier this particular project has been to create than others I’ve done. Sure, there were struggles and the obligatory musician who drops out at the last minute (honestly, guys, we gotta start doing better about that), but overall it went pretty smoothly. The singers came with their notes learned. We got things done in the rehearsals, which were still fun. Everyone pulled their own weight. We created beautiful music.

So I want to thank everyone that helped with last night: the audience that came and enjoyed our hard work, our recording engineer who was willing to come and was easy to work with, the ensemble that worked hard and sang well, the good folks at Bethany Reformed Church who welcomed us with open arms, and those that supported us financially as we try to get this ensemble off the ground. You are all wonderful people. I’m so privileged to make music with all of you.

Here’s some video from the concert!

Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal (arr. Alice Parker)

 

Danny Boy (arr. Ryan Block)

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Brand New Choral Ensemble in Kzoo!

Hello Everyone,

I thought I’d take a break from promoting my young adult novel and talk about a new ensemble that I formed! We’ll be singing our inaugural concert at Bethany Reformed Church in Kalamazoo on Tuesday, May 22 (7:30 pm).

I guess I should give you some context. During my time at WMU, I met a bunch of wonderful, talented, and committed singers. It killed me that I could no longer consistently sing with them or at that high level of artistry.

The goals of this small ensemble are to unify the community through love of music, empower musicians young and old through education and presentation, enrich the artistic life of the community through creative collaborations performed at a high level, and enkindle a love of music through engaging performances in new places. I’m open to innovative ideas performed in interesting places!

Though we’ll sing music from a bunch of different eras, we’ll be specializing in early music, jazz, and contemporary music—these are strengths of the music scene in Kzoo, and I think we can add to it. We’ve got an amazing group of singers, including Bri Rigozzi, Melanie Walker, Laura Healy, Libbie Hayden, Max Wagner, Ryan Block, and myself. We’ll be singing music from the Middle Ages (Machaut) all the way to a brand-new arrangement of Danny Boy composed by local jazz pianist and singer Ryan Block!

Since this is a new venture, we really need your support! We’ll be asking a suggested donation of $10/person for the concert. If you want more choral awesomeness in Kzoo and the west Michigan area, you are free to give more! Please support your local artists. Regardless of what you can give, we want you to come and enjoy it! 

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!

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.

 

First Conducting Concert at WMU

This is an announcement that I will be conducting my first piece in a concert at WMU! I will be conducting a Telemann cantata with the Collegium Musicum. This includes choir, soloists, and strings! It has been very exciting to work with these talented and dedicated musicians.

If you are able/interested, mosey on over to the Dalton Center Recital Hall tonight at 7:30 pm. There is no charge. You’ll hear some great music conducted by Dr. Matthew Steel, Kristina Read, Ahmed Anzaldua, and yours truly. We would love your support!