Music Business

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.

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.

 

Staying on the Front Lines

I recently spoke with a well-known music teacher and clinician. Sometimes, you don’t know what to expect when talking with someone who has achieved a high degree of success in their career. This person, however, owned that special combination of being very philosophical and yet very practical.

We were talking about music education. This teacher stated that many music ed professors on the collegiate level had not stepped foot in a k-12 classroom in years. They needed to be in the field. How else would they know how the changes in culture and technology were affecting music education? I thought this was an interesting idea. I made a comment, something to the effect of “so you want them to spend time on the front lines?”

While I do not know the extent to which someone needs to be on the front lines (perhaps it is different for everybody?), I do believe this teacher was correct in principle. Successful directors and profs often become removed from the day-to-day grind that they went through at the beginning of their career. They’ve taught college students the same lectures for twenty years. Over time, they can forget what it is like  to be on the front lines. They are so used to being generals that they have forgotten what it is like to be lieutenants.

I believe this can do a couple things. 1) This can decrease their empathy. Some profs have lived somewhat comfortably for many years in the ivory tower. They simply do not remember all the sacrifices they had to make, the exhaustion that comes at the end of the school year, the frustrations that can arise in working with admin and parents, etc. 2) This can make those profs unaware of the changes in culture and development that affect children. Simply put, life has changed drastically even in twenty years. The ubiquitous presence of electronic devices, video games, and instant information has dramatically transformed the education landscape. Family life has changed as well. I’ve known many parents who have their kids heavily involved in multiple after-school activities. College profs should know what that functionally means when teaching the next generation.

This is partly why I enjoy my choir camps that I run in the summers. This last week, I was able to direct and teach children in the downriver area of Detroit for a four-day seminar. The extent of their vocal and musical training varied widely. Many of them had never sung in a choir. Several hadn’t sung harmony before, much less learned to read a piece of music. I taught them the very basics of singing and making music. The kids loved it and grew so much. It was a great time!

This next week (July 11-14), the Branch United Youth Choir will be hosting a choir camp in Coldwater, MI. If you know of any child or family who wants to learn to sing, please contact us. I am excited to work with this new batch of kids. I love the challenge of starting at square one, giving the children the skills to succeed musically, teaching them to create and have fun with music, and bringing it to a conclusion with an enjoyable performance at the end. They work hard and learn much.

Additionally, teaching on the grunt level refreshes in my mind what it is like to work with the populace at large. Many times, the children’s parents aren’t musicians. They aren’t signing up to support the arts in schools. They just know their kids seem to like music. Perhaps the kids sing around the house all the time. Maybe the kids were told by their friends that choir camp was a lot of fun and that they learned a lot. Understanding this keeps things in perspective when I advocate for music education.

In whatever field, it is important for professionals keep abreast of current developments. This is also true in music education. We should never forget from whence we came. For me, teaching young musicians is an excellent way to do that.

 

 

 

Singing Is a Skill

Throughout my career as a voice teacher, I have been amazed by a common misconception. Namely, that learning to sing is somehow different than learning to play any other instrument. People will shell out a lot of money for piano lessons, but they won’t for voice lessons. There are several assumptions underlying this misconception.

Pop Music

Many pop music singers are self-taught. I would say more so than pop music pianists. When people see someone with no training become a successful singer (i.e. gain lots of money and popularity), they assume that training doesn’t matter. Singing must be an ability this singer naturally has.

Youth can also play a factor. The past couple generations produced the Charlotte Churches and the Jackie Evanchos. These singers grew to be popular and monetarily successful without the corresponding years and labor that other singers have put into their craft. Naturally, the man and woman on the street assumed that singing was a gift that some people have and not a skill to be developed.

Mimickers

No one disputes that some instruments are more difficult to learn than others. It takes more time to learn the french horn, I am told, than to play the trombone. In the case of the voice, I have known some folks who never sang until college, but quickly learned. They excelled because of innate talent. It would be far more infrequent to hear of someone picking up the violin or the piano as quickly and easily.

In my experience, the older singers who quickly learn are what I call “mimickers.” Mimickers are people who own the ability to almost instantaneously copy with their vocal apparatus what they hear. Naturally, they are very adept at learning to sing quickly. Mimicry has its strengths and weaknesses. However, that is outside the scope of this post. I will deal with that topic at another time.

The majority of singers are not mimickers. They work long and hard to learn the instrument. It can be very frustrating to them when they see someone with a natural vocal gift progress to the same level as them. Unfortunately, that is the name of of the game, the nature of the instrument.

The Voice Is Built-In

Unlike singing, most other instruments are not built into the body. Because the voice is genetically made and not manufactured, the voice is very personal. Some folks might even be technically proficient but not have a voice that is pleasant to listen to, and vice versa. This makes singing more esoteric than other instruments. The “It Factor” is much more prevalent.

Conclusion

These reasons are not really good ones. Pop singers are notoriously unhealthy when it comes to preserving their voices. It is not uncommon to hear of a pop singer needing vocal rest or even surgery. Mimickers-due to the speed at which they learn-don’t always master the fundamentals or develop their own, unique sound. Just because someone has a voice that sounds nice does not mean that they are singing in the most healthy way.

The voice is not some magical thing. You can learn it the same as any other instrument. Singing is a skill. Like all other skills, some people will have more aptitude than others. The length of time this takes will vary based on the aptitude of the student and the teacher. That does not mean the skill cannot or should not be developed. With the proper voice teacher or coach, people can master their voices and sing healthily and beautifully for the rest of their lives.

March 2016 Life Update

Well, it’s been a while since I posted on here. I blame busyness. And boy, have I been busy!

It’s been a good kind of busy, though. (1) I have been diligently working through school at Western Michigan University. (2) I started a new job at Borgess Hospital. I’m still teaching voice lessons through Marshall Music. (3) My children’s choir in Coldwater is still going strong. (4) I direct church worship on Sundays. (5) I even had a gig singing Faure Requiem here in Kalamazoo!

WMU has been a great school to attend. My conducting prof, Dr. Kimberly Dunn-Adams, is awesome. I have learned so much from her! Under her direction, the Chorale this year has sung for the state ACDA conference, the Michigan Music Conference, and the regional ACDA conference. I sang solos at the latter two, which was a blast.

In January, I started a new job as a Patient Sitter at Borgess Hospital. For those of you who don’t know what a Patient Sitter is, it is what it sounds like. I sit with patients who need supervision so that the nurses can do their job of providing care. Needless to say, I have had some very interesting shifts, including one very eventful night in the psych ward.

I’m still teaching voice lessons at Marshall Music as well as privately. My students are learning. It’s always nice to see singers who are passionate about growing, singing healthily, and learning to read. I even have one student who regularly does her sight-reading practicing! That’s crazy, right?

My Coldwater responsibilities have kept me busy. The Branch United Youth Choir finished their first official Christmas program in December. We have a Butter Braid fundraiser coming up, and we are eagerly preparing for our spring concert in May. The kids are singing well. I have been especially pleased with my younger choir’s growth this semester.

My church in Coldwater has been very supportive during my time at WMU. They are wonderful people. Balancing school, work, and church responsibilities can be tricky. I am thankful for a loving church body that has shown patience and kindness to me.

Yesterday, I sang the baritone solos for the Faure Requiem. It was a great experience singing with the folks at Portage Chapel Hill United Methodist Church. They were very appreciative. We were able to sing some wonderful music together.

I look forward to singing the part of Pilate in Ars Voce’s upcoming performance of Bach’s St. John Passion (March 20). I will be singing with members of the Chicago Lyric Opera and other great performers in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. I would love to see you all there!

Anyway, so that’s it for now. Thanks for reading. I hope you all have a great day! I’m going to keep enjoying my Spring Break.

BUYC Christmas Concert Dec. 19

This is a friendly reminder that the Branch United Youth Choir will be performing their first concert of the season. Come to St. Mark’s Episcopal in Coldwater at 7:00 pm on Saturday, Dec. 19. You’ll hear the hard work our kids have put into this concert, solos by me, and some other musical offerings as well!

There is no cost, though we will take up a free-will collection. Reception afterwards. We would love to see you!

People Are Not Tools

This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the ACDA MI state conference. I had a wonderful time with my classmates, heard some great choirs, and was able to network with other directors in the state. I recommend ACDA conferences. You learn a lot, meet great people who are passionate about the craft, and get to take some time off to recharge your artistic batteries. Today, however, I want to talk about one aspect of conferences that can be dangerous. I want to talk about networking.

Don’t get me wrong. Networking in-and-of-itself is a good thing. Sometimes, though, it degenerates into brown-nosing.

I have a confession to make: I am psychologically incapable of brown-nosing. How did I come by this realization, you ask? It all started a few years ago when I attended an ACDA conference. There were bigwigs there, and I must confess. I was tempted to kiss up. You see, I had met a fellow conductor at the conference who was an amazing kiss-up. This conductor was so good at name-dropping and all-around butt-kissery that he seemed to be getting the right amount of attention.

So I decided that I would try too. At the conference was a clinician who was well-known in conducting circles. I went up to the clinician with the intent to at least try to make an impression. But something terrible happened. I froze. My mind went completely blank. I tried to force something intelligent to come out of my mouth, but found nothing. I finally just shook the clinician’s hand awkwardly for what seemed like an eternity, hastily mumbled a few words of thanks, and walked away. That was when I discovered I could not brown-nose.

Kissing up to folks always seemed dishonest to me. If I were on the receiving end, I would wonder if this person is only talking to me because they want to get something out of it.

This dishonesty is not confined to the relationship of inferiors to superiors. It can also be seen of those in a managerial capacity. You get the impression some managers talk to you only because they want something from you. They can be warm, but it is a superficial warmth. Something cold and lifeless lives behind that smile. You are simply a means to their end.

People are not tools. They should be treated with love, respect, and dignity. When you talk to others, it should not always (often?) be because you want something or need something to be done, but because you genuinely want to know them. In other words, you should actually care.

You’d be amazed at how well people respond when they know you honestly and sincerely care about them. They will do things for you. They will forgive you if you do or say something insensitive. They will answer your questions. They will forward your name. They will enthusiastically follow your leadership. You will earn real and lasting respect. You won’t have to be a sycophant or a dictator in order to succeed.