Music Teacher

Life Update October 2017

Well, it’s that time again: time to let the world know what is going on in my life. I’m excited about finishing several projects, some of which have taken years to come to completion!

Non-fiction Book on How to Sing

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I like to write and teach about singing. Helping students sing more healthily is a passion of mine. It is something I’ve worked long and hard at for several years. Through that time, I distilled the main elements of healthy singing into four easily understood categories. Most vocal problems can be reduced to one or more of these singing fundamentals.

Well, I finally put these awesome materials down in writing! I’m polishing some things in it and making helpful how-to videos that will make this book even more useful to the beginning singer. This book will enable the beginning singer to gain a clear understanding of the voice as an instrument. It will also help voice teachers who want to know how to teach beginning singers. My goal is to publish this by the end of the year.

Young Adult Fiction Novel

Yes, you read that right. I’ve been slowly writing my first fiction novel. I would have finished it sooner, but school and other priorities tend to take precedence. Thankfully, the book is nearing completion as well.

The book has it all: an evil conspiracy, monsters, hunters, lots of action, and martial arts! Ultimately, though, the book is about family, and how the choices they make impact their lives. I also plan to publish this soon!

Solo Singer Benefit Recital in November

I’ve wanted to sing a recital in Kalamazoo for a while. Now, I’ve made time to do it! I will be raising money for charity at the concert by singing a lot of different repertoire. There should be a little something for everybody. I will be performing jazz, choral, baroque, classical, and other styles of music. A lot of great musicians will be joining me for this event, so the music will be stellar. I will announce dates and what we’re raising money for soon. Stay posted!

Choral Extravaganza Next April

I have been working with several choirs in the south-central MI to host a benefit concert in April 2018. I’m really excited about this, as it accomplishes several things I’m passionate about. I love helping people, and I love collaborating with talented, motivated individuals. More to come on this as we get closer.

Regular Work

I’m also continuing to teach voice lessons and martial arts, conduct the West Michigan Homeschool Fine Arts Kalamazoo Choir, lead worship at Calvary Baptist Church in Quincy, and direct the Branch United Youth Choir in Coldwater. Life is busy, but good!

 

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How to Choose a Voice Teacher Part 2: What Do You Want out of It?

In a previous post, I wrote about pitfalls to avoid when looking for a voice teacher. Knowing what to look for is very important, because there are a plethora of bad ones out there. Many teachers don’t know what they are doing due to either lack of education or experience. Some are lazy. Some find that it is easier to have low standards than than to push someone to excel.

It is incumbent upon a student to find the right teacher. This can be difficult, because the right teacher for someone else might not be the right one for the student. One of the first things to do is to decide what you want out of the lessons. Accordingly, here are a few questions you should ask yourself before you start looking:

Question 1: What Specifically Do I Want to Get out of These Lessons?

Many students go into voice lessons without a clue as to what they want to accomplish. This is a problem. How will you know the teacher can give you what you want if you don’t even know? Determine what you want to get out of the lessons.

Here are few beneficial goals: 1) You want to sing higher or lower than you currently do. Some teachers are very good at range extension. Ask them how they would teach this. 2) You want to sing with better breath control. Using breath properly is fundamental to healthy singing. 3) You want to sing that one song that you just can’t quite work up by yourself. A good teacher will tell you what skills you need to sharpen in order to perform it.

Question 2: Will I Get Along with This Teacher?

Due to the one-on-one nature of voice lessons, the student’s personality must click with the voice teacher’s. If the student or the teacher is not comfortable, the lesson will suffer. The voice is a temperamental instrument, and it will close up if there are personality clashes.

Question 3:  Do I Want a Teacher Who Will Push Me or One Who Will Make Me Feel Good?

Some teachers are better a pushing their students to new heights of skill. They know what the student needs to learn in order to be a better singer. Some are very talented at affirming. You feel good after a lesson. Figuring out what you want in this regard is crucial.

The pushy teacher might not be warm and fuzzy, but she will not be lazy. You will grow in skill in a short amount of time. On the other hand, the warm, affirming teacher might be able bring out more emotion in your singing. You will grow as a singer, but it will take longer to master skills. On the other hand, you will possibly feel more confident.

It should be said that this is more of a spectrum than a firm set of categories. Still, most teachers will fall more on one side or the other. Deciding which you want is crucial to choosing the right voice teacher for you.

Conclusion:

I would like to end with a personal anecdote. I find that I learn best from teachers that are not as affirming, but are good at increasing my skills. I like to know that I learned something in my lesson. I once took from a teacher that was emotionally warm, and yet this teacher failed to teach me specific, attainable skills. Because this teacher was more emotional, this teacher was sometimes emotionally unstable. This was highly destructive to me as a singer. I found that I was dreading my voice lesson, which is a horrible place to be. A little while later, I took from a teacher who was emotionally stable and focused on building my abilities. Through her wonderful training, I mastered singing in my high range and low range. She helped me seamlessly transition from my high range to my low range, as well as a bunch of other skills that I needed.

When to Change a Tradition

As someone who is on the opposite end of the spectrum from traditionalists, I sometimes become restless. When I go to a restaurant, I like to try new foods. When I’m in a class, I seek out a new seat in every session.  Repeating old projects verbatim-to me, anyway-is boring. Can I do or try something new? This is part of the reason I enjoy the arts. It is project-oriented (e.g. the concert, the recording, the fundraiser, etc.).

In the past, this has sometimes caused friction. People like tradition, and tradition isn’t inherently bad. The problem comes when tradition transmogrifies into traditionalism. Tradition becomes an end in and of itself. It hardens into a mindset. The tradition is “the right way” to do something. Why change the tradition if it still kinda sorta works?

What does tradition provide? Tradition provides continuity and community for an organization or individual. At Western Michigan University, the choirs often sing the alma mater before concerts. The college students link arms and sway back and forth as they sing. While to some this may seem cheesy to some, the students like it. It is something distinctive and special. It gives them a sense of belonging. It connects choral singers-past, present, and future.

With all of that said, I think there are several reasons to change a tradition:

  1. Perhaps the old way is not as effective, and needs to be tweaked. The results of doing the tradition are diminishing, and it needs updating to be more effective. Maybe you should use technology to speed up the process. Maybe a certain step in the operation is redundant.
  2. Perhaps you’ve found a much better way. You went to a workshop, and they showed how the such-and-such Master Chorale of someplace does this awesome thing in their rehearsals that will make your life as a choir director better. This new thing might work for you; it might not. You will never know until you attempt it.
  3. Perhaps you want to put your own stamp on an organization. The organization just does not feel like it is yours. It feels like the old director’s. You know that if you do this new thing, then you will establish a new tradition, your tradition. The danger with this lies in trying to change things too fast, particularly if the previous director was popular. If you change things too quickly or flippantly, there will be a backlash against you.
  4. Perhaps the people in the organization have become complacent. They do the same ole, same ole. Because they are content treading water, they are not going anywhere. The organization is not growing, and is often shrinking. As someone once told me, an organization that refuses to change refuses to live.
  5. Perhaps you want to prepare them for a much bigger change in the future. People tend to do what is comfortable. In order to prepare them for a big change, maybe a smaller change will help them accept the larger one.

To be clear, I’m not talking about completely jettisoning tradition. Throwing out a tradition simply because it has been done before is foolish and arrogant, and will likely cause problems. It will make you look like a dictator. However, methodical change, when wisely implemented, will enable your organization to grow.

 

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!

 

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.

 

 

 

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.