Western Michigan University

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.

 

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.

 

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.

When Is New Music Not New Anymore?

Over the past few months as I’ve been pursuing my degree at WMU, I’ve heard quite a few of my fellow classmates groan. What are they groaning about, you may ask? They are groaning about what they term as “new” music.

Enjoyment factor of the music aside, I never liked the term “new music.” The term has several issues. 1) What does “new” mean? 2) Does new mean “relevant?” 3) Is there a qualitative judgment going on?

The Imprecision of the Word “New”

In English, we have one word for something recent. Unfortunately, it is not always accurate when we use it. The ancient Greeks actually had two words for new. “Neos” meant new as in “something that happened recently rather than in the past.” “Kainos” meant new as in “something that is qualitatively different than what came before.”

So what does “new” mean when we are talking about new music in the Western classical music sense, new-in-time or new-in-kind? This is where it gets tricky. Sometimes, we mean that it was composed recently. But this usage is confusing, especially in the current climate. You currently have multiple ways of composing music. The major/minor scale system (tonality) that’s been used since the 1600’s is still wildly popular, and is probably the most widely used. You also have atonality, chance music, musique électronique, musique concrète, as well as other modern modes of composition.

It should be noted here that many of the modern ways of writing are no longer new (in time). Arnold Schoenberg was writing atonal music over a hundred years ago. John Cage’s most famous chance music was 4’33” (1952), which was written 64 years ago. Musique  électronique and concrète also originated in the 5o’s. The search for extended techniques has been happening since that time as well.

Often, however, we mean the type of music that is new in quality. It is different than what came before. The designation of “new” has occurred at least twice in music history: the Ars Nova (new art) from the 1300’s, and the stile moderno (modern style) from the 1600’s. These were drastic changes from the styles that came before. In much the same way, the modern “new” music refers not to tonality, as that was already in use before the 20th century, but to the newer (in time), more experimental ways of music-making. Since they are both being used at the same time, I believe that the term “new” to describe the latter kind of music is a misnomer. Instead, I am going to use the term “experimental music.” If someone knows a better term for this type of music, I would welcome it.

The Need for Relevancy

Part of the popularity of experimental music amongst intelligentsia, particularly after WWII, was a perceived need for music of our time. Tonality was considered too old, stodgy, and incapable of communicating the problems of the modern world. Music needed to be relevant.

In my opinion, this sentiment is wrongheaded.  “Music of our time” to me means “music that is written in our time.” If the music is relevant, people of that time will write and connect with it. People were still communicating with tonality; they still are.

Does experimental music usage count as music of our time? Yes, it does. Does tonality also count? Very much so. Tonality’s enduring popularity proves this. Frankly, the modern, experimental music never really caught on with the musician on the street. It is highly doubtful that experimental music will overtake tonality any time soon.

Avoiding Qualitative Judgments

A danger in modern music is that many modern composers proclaimed that it would be the new way in which all great music would be written. I once had a professor who attended a college in Indiana tell the class that his theory teacher, a student of Schoenberg, covered the tonal era (400 years worth of music) in just two days! The rest of his theory classes revolved around experimental music. This theory teacher thought that experimental music was the future, and took that belief to an extreme. One must avoid this kind of thinking and allow history to decide. Admittedly, this is hard to do for many people, particularly if they love a certain type of music.

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.

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!

WMU School Update and BUYC

With fear and trembling, I started my second master’s degree last week. It has been a whirlwind! I was a little worried since I have been out of schooling for a while. Add to that my choir duties and retreats (one this past weekend and another this coming one), and it has been a very busy week.

I look forward to the work this week. I will be conducting my first rehearsals of the Branch United Youth Choir (Tuesday 4:15-7:00), Campus Choir (Wednesday 7-9), and Collegium Musicum (Thursday 4-5:15). See you at the rehearsals!