Music Education

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!

 

Advertisements

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.

 

 

 

An Open Letter to Academic Writers

This past year, I was introduced to something new. My teachers handed me reading assignments. “Is this really new,” you might ask? Okay, it’s not technically true. Teachers have given me reading assignments before. The newness was not in the readings themselves, but in the content of the readings.

I had issues with how the articles were constructed. Since these issues are the subject of this post, I will try to sum them up in one sentence. Please stop publishing painfully pretentious purple prose. Allow me to explain.

Purple Prose

This term means writing that is too ornate and verbose, particularly in an effort to appear artistic and intelligent. In fiction, purple prose at least has the distinction of attempting something artistic. Academic purple prose is much more stale.

For instance, let us take the sentence “the pretty lady went to the grocery store.” You should be able to infer several things from this sentence. 1) There is a lady. 2) She is pretty. 3) She went to a store that sells groceries. In academic purple prose, the above sentence would look something like this. “The pulchritudinous female, who is in actuality merely symbolic of the cultural construct of beauty limited to a certain point of time, individual, and location, ventured outward to the locale wherein items of consumption, indicative of the crass consumerism of the age, are deposited, to be purchased using symbols of labor, otherwise designated as monetary compensation.”

Pretentious

I’ve always enjoyed this word. It is what it means. In other words, the word pretentious is pretentious. Now, is it always wrong to use big words? By no means. I would be the last person to fault someone for using them. If you are a nerd like me, you actually get pleasure out of using words from off the beaten path. For crying out loud, I created a sentence at the beginning of this article that made extensive use of alliteration. I am that much of a nerd. The danger lies not in using big words, but in using big words to sound intelligent.

Painful

The problem I have with pretentious academic writing comes from another area. There is no fun in it. To the contrary, reading horribly constructed articles is excruciating. Due to its lack of readability, it forces readers to slog through the article. Readers are forced to google words constantly and reread the sentence to figure out the context. Even then, they struggle to decipher what the writer means. Ideas, which should only take a short essay to explain, gradually transmogrify into a headache-inducing monstrosity.

Publishing

This phenomenon is not limited to musical disciplines, like theory or musicology. I have seen it in other fields as well. Why do people write like this? They don’t talk in this manner. No one would understand them.

On some level, the writers must believe that “academics write this way.” In order to fit in, gain respectability, and show how profound their ideas are, academic writers create articles that are agonizing to read. Long, ponderous articles are not necessary. As one article I read states, “most people’s ideas aren’t that brilliant.” What is difficult in academic articles is often not the subject matter; it is the writing style.

Stop

I debated whether or not I should try to find a word starting with a “p.” After all, the rest of my sentence was beautifully alliterated. However, I wanted to draw attention to this word. Fixing bad writing will not happen overnight. We will prevent painfully bad academic writing by creating a culture that praises good writing. If writers know that journal publishers value clear, concise writing, then they will start writing clearly and concisely.

Please

I end this post with a plea: no more bad writing, please. Please do not confuse obfuscation with intelligence. Don’t muddy the waters with wordy, overwrought sentences. Grad students hate wading through them.

 

It’s All About the People

Last week, I finally finished unpacking into my new apartment. I want to thank those who helped. It can be daunting when you have as many books as I do! Anyway, the above thank you card from a third grader I once taught was in one of those boxes. I also want to point out the excellent cursive.

Yes, teachers/directors do sometimes keep these letters. It helps us remember why we do this in the first place. When we’re feeling down, those notes can reorient our perspective. A kind word or a warm hug at the right time can make all the difference in the world.

In a previous post, I talked about a tendency some folks have. They see others as tools to be used. They are obsessed with “succeeding.” By that, they mean that they want their ambitions fulfilled. Ascending the corporate and monetary ladder is all that matters. Loving people comes after completing plans.

Today, I want to put forth a different thesis: people matter. If we’re concerned about a legacy, that is where we should invest our time.

The Danger of Extremes: Robbie Gennet and Notation-free Music

Recently, Robbie Gennet, a musician and blogger at the Huffington Post, posted an article claiming that teaching reading and writing was unimportant in today’s world. My gut reaction was to quickly disclaim such an idea. However, I like to chew on ideas for a while. This allows me to choose what to say and how I want to say it.  Here is part one of my response to Mr. Gennet.

First, let me list some ways in which I agree with him. It’s easy to shoot from the hip when there are a lot of incorrect ideas to focus on. I want to be fair.

Notation is a written record of music

Sheet music is a visual copy of a piece of aural art. If you want to reproduce something like what the composer intended, then a copy of sheet music can be indispensable. This is particularly true the older or more complicated something is.

In undergrad and grad school, I learned to read notes precisely. I am very thankful for that focus. It has helped me immensely over my career. Sloppy musicians do not last long in professional music.

A lack of Improvisation

With that said, there does seem to be an overemphasis on reading notation as opposed to improvising in our universities. I received lots of training in reading music; I received little to no instruction on how to improvise. The majority of my training taught the opposite. Read the notes! Get it right! Now! Don’t be a hack!

I learned improvisation by singing melodies and harmonies with my family as a child. It was these unstructured, low-pressure times where I felt free to play. I experimented. I grew.

Some genres do not want exact reproduction. I believe these genres are what Mr. Gennet is talking about-genres like jazz, pop, rock, and others. Even classical music does not always insist on exact reproduction. In other words, some composers assumed that the performer would do improvisation on the written notes.

Too much emphasis on following the rules, not on what sounds good.

Certain minds love rules, and I thank them for it. They establish guidelines so that music-making becomes streamlined. These folks impose order on the chaos. Even musicians untrained in notation use these rules that were developed. They might not know it, but those three chords that they use were codified by others who knew notation. It was preserved for us by our forebears.

Rules create framework, but they do not create art. Musical order is good, but not as an end in and of itself. This is where some musicians, composers, and theoreticians go astray. They exalt the rules™ and are more concerned if a piece of music has parallel fifths than if it sounds good.

You do not need to know how to read to become successful in the music industry.

I concede this point to Mr. Gennet. There are many popular musicians who can’t read a lick of music. They make a whole lot more money than I do. I say, “More power to them.”

Which brings me to Taylor Swift’s quote that Mr. Gennet shares. “I would not have majored in music because when music becomes technical for me I don’t like that part of it. I can’t read music.”  An obsession with getting it right misses the boat, quite frankly. The point of notation is to provide a framework for making and understanding music. Creating a good song should not be about how many rules you got right, but how it sounds. A well-trained ear trumps a well-trained eye, but both are necessary in order to be a well-rounded musician.

Mr. Gennet is right in these areas. Unfortunately, he comes to an extreme, erroneous conclusion. Rather than say that we need to properly emphasize the primacy of the ear in writing music and promote training in improvisation, he advocates blowing up the system. If you can be successful without learning to read, in his mind, then reading is worthless.

The ability to read music is an extremely important tool. I am saying this as someone who learned to read later in life. Reading has helped me immensely. It opened vistas of great music and helped me understand my craft.

In addition, basic notation is not hard for folks to grasp. I have taught basic note-reading to many classes and choirs with ages ranging from 6-80. Musicians young and old can easily learn to read.

Mr. Gennet is mistaken when he says teachers should not teach notation. If taught correctly, it should not create a barrier to understanding and writing. It should only enhance it.

World Music Listening Examples for Music Ed

Well, my last choir camp of the summer is winding down. I’ve been teaching the kids world music this year. Accordingly, I had to find some recordings for them to analyze. I wanted to share a few of them with you because the singers and I liked them so much. Here is one by Aleksei Arkhipovsky playing a Russian instrument called the balalaika.This guy is fantastic.

The next one is a performance the African Children’s Choir. These children radiate sheer joy.

I think it is awesome that there is intermixing of instruments from different cultures in this day and age. This is performed by Mitchell Cullen and features a 12-string guitar, drums, and a didgeridoo!

I am happy with the singing and learning my choirs did this summer. We squeezed so much into just four days!