Greetings from the Baltics! We are happy to announce that the Western Michigan University Chorale has won First Prize in the Kaunas Cantat Grand Prix! Not only that, but we won several other awards. They are:

Gold Medal:

Main Competiton Category

Spirituals Category

Modern Category

Dr. Adams also received the Conductor Award!

Overall, this has been an amazing trip. It was exciting to see the spirit of camaraderie. We enjoyed supporting the other choirs and were encouraged by their support of us. We even engaged in some late night singing with a choir of lawyers from Finland, who were our most vociferous cheerleaders throughout the duration of the competition.

Broncos & Fins

We had a great time singing with the Finnish Choir Lain Huuto!

One of the great things about these kinds of choir festivals is that we are introduced to different choral tones and repertoire. Choirs from Serbia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Poland, and Finland each brought their own unique cultures, sounds, and national composers. The scores ultimately were ephemeral, but the spirit of love and learning will last for a lifetime. We greatly enjoyed learning from them and are looking forward to our choir exchange with the choir from the University of Riga, Latvia!

Take a Knee

I Am Traveling to the Baltics!

So, next week, I will be traveling to Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania with the WMU Chorale! I am very excited about this, as it is always fun to write new countries on my list of places that I have visited. So far, I have been to Canada, Ireland, Italy, and Thailand.

Interestingly, almost all of my visits to other countries have been music-related. I have put on concerts in Toronto on two separate occasions. The first time, I sang  with a group of my sisters’ friends at a church up there. The second time, I was the director of a community children’s choir. We put on several concerts and saw some great sights, including the CN Tower and Niagara Falls (the Canadian side of the falls are better). I also took my children’s choir to Italy. My goal was to eat my way through the country. In that attempt, I succeeded! The food there was amazing.

For those of you who may not know, my family sings together. We sang and ministered in churches in southeastern MI. People would always joke that we were the von Trapp family. We would respond that we were the von Schneider’s :). Anyway, my family also ministered in Ireland and Thailand through concerts, masterclasses, and lectures. Those were very memorable trips!

Of all the places I have visited, my favorite was Ireland. The country is verdant and beautiful. We got to see so many great sights. We visited the Cliffs of Moher (the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride), the Dingle Peninsula (one of the few places they still speak gaelic as the first language), and Blarney Castle (I did kiss the Blarney Stone; I don’t know how much gab I was gifted, but whatever).

However, the best and most important aspect of every trip is meeting the people of that country. Forming new relationships is a great experience, and it introduces you to different ways of viewing the world. This might come as a shock, but not everyone has the same worldview as you ;). In Ireland especially, we stayed with Irish families and worshiped with Irish folks. It was a powerful experience that I will never forget and always cherish.

I am hoping this trip to the Baltics will be equally extraordinary. We will be competing in a competition over there. This is a little frightening because of the citizens are pretty hard-core about their choral singing. Their standards are very high. We will also be meeting and singing with choristers in the respective countries. I am looking forward to getting to know them.

I will try to keep you posted as we travel. If you want to hear our repertoire, come to our pre-tour concert at Milwood United Methodist Church next Tuesday, May 16. It will be a wonderful concert. We would be happy to see you there!

On the Wisdom of Trying New Things

Those who know me know that I love to try new things. My classmates at Western sometimes got exasperated with me because I liked to sit in different seats pretty much every class period. Don’t worry, I tried not to sit in someone else’s seat. That would throw off their groove, and would just be plain mean.

When I go to a restaurant, I look over the menu and see if there is something I haven’t tried before. I’ll try the fettucini alfredo even though I know from experience that the pasta primavera is good. It’s a small thrill of exploration. Maybe I’ll find a new, amazing dish.

Over the next few months, I will be working on a lot of projects which I hope to share with you soon. Some of these have to do with my children’s choir. Some of them don’t. Some are collaborative. Some are personal. Some are recent while some I have been slowly working towards completing for years; I am finally close to wrapping them up. After finishing them, I hope to move on to new projects, concerts, and concerns. This helps me grow as a creative, find new opportunities, and meet new people with whom to collaborate.

So what’s my point? My point is that going through life doing the same ole, same ole is boring. It can get you stuck in a rut. Change is invaluable not only for creatives like myself, but also for everyone. Try something new. Sit in a different seat. Talk to someone you’ve never met. Gain a new perspective (literally and figuratively!). Order a dish you haven’t tried before even though you’re comfortable with the veal parmesan. Start writing that blog, book, song, whatever. Read that book that’s been collecting dust on your shelf. Start learning a new instrument. Go on a date with that person who you think might be interesting. Take a risk. Change it up. Your life will be richer for it, and, who knows, you just might like it.

Life Update May 2017

So, I did it. I finally graduated with my 2nd master’s degree. My first was in voice performance; this one is in choral conducting. I have thus completed one of the most difficult accomplishments of my life! I cannot begin to fully explain to you the hard work it took to get to this point. I am thankful and exhausted.

Let’s just say that I have learned a lot this year. This past fall, I took a very full load and began new teaching duties as the voice graduate assistant. I was privileged to teach voice classes and lessons for the voice department. This was a great experience for me. I got to teach what I consider to be the important fundamentals of vocal skill. The class learned the basics of healthy vocal technique: posture, placement, breathing, and relaxation. I also taught them some slightly more advanced concepts: leaps, dynamics, vowel modification, and registration among other things. I had a blast, and the students seemed very appreciative of my teaching. It’s so cool to see someone grow because of what I taught them!

I also had some struggles. This spring, I performed my conducting recital. It was easily one of the most stressful things I have ever done. The pressure to make the vocal and musical elements as perfect as possible was enormous. I greatly appreciated all the hard work of the singers and instrumentalists. Thank you so much.

A week and a half before my recital, my grandfather passed away. He was diagnosed with cancer several months ago, so I was expecting it. Still, it was very difficult, and it made it hard to concentrate during a crucial time in my life. Thankfully, folks at Western stepped up to help me. I could not have made it without their care and understanding.

Things are starting to settle down. I just have two more major things to do, and then my summer will begin. First, my Branch United Youth  Choir concert is this Saturday, May 6. If you want to come, the concert is at 7 pm. We will be singing in the beautiful sanctuary in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Coldwater, MI. I always love performing in there. The acoustics are superb, and the architecture is stunning. We will also performing with Blarney Castle, a progressive Irish group. They have been winning competitions and performing all over Southwestern Michigan, and I am excited the BUYC will be with them on their first performance in Coldwater.

This group actively sought to collaborate with us, and I am thrilled to perform with them. The children have been working hard on a duet with the beautifully expressive voice of EJ Schubkegel. I made a solo arrangement of “Danny Boy” that I will be singing with the guitarist, Patrick Hartson. He and I have had a great time working through all my funky chords that I made him play! I think it will be a fitting tribute to my grandfather.

Lastly, the WMU Chorale will be competing and touring in the Baltics in a couple weeks. I have been so honored to sing with them over the past two years. This year in particular has been truly exciting. They are an exceptional group of musicians, and I think we will represent the USA well in Europe.

Anyway, thanks for reading. I’ve been wanting to get back into writing for my blog, and now I actually have time to do it! More to come!

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.

 

How to Be a Great Singer

I firmly believe that crossing the final barrier between a good singer and a great singer has little to do with technique. There comes a point when having all the skill in the world won’t make people want to listen to you.

Now, don’t get me wrong. All the elements of singing are important. People want to hear someone who has facility. They want to be amazed at someone who can move up and down their range with relative ease. Technique can enable greatness. If a singer does not sing with healthy technique, he will most likely burn out his voice within a few years anyway.

Timbre (voice color) is also important. I have heard singers who have great technique, but you just don’t want to listen to their voices. There is something intrinsically grating or off-putting about it. These are the folks for whom I feel the most pity. There is little that can be done to make them great.

Today, however, I want to talk about the last major element of singing success. I have heard many singers perform with  beautiful tone and skillful dexterity, yet they are missing something, that je ne se quoi (sorry, I’ve always wanted to use that). The listener might think, “O, that’s nice,” but she won’t be drawn to the performance.

So, what is the last element? Simply put, it is communication. The message must come across. This is particularly true with singing because it is the one instrument that almost always uses text. Communication is inherent in singing.

Emotion first, words second

How does one communicate? First, the singer must connect with the general mood of the music. It must move him before he can move others. There is an intrinsic danger with this. He must tap the power of his emotions without being carried away by them.

I take as an illustration the singing of a sad song. If he taps too much sadness, his voice can close up. His singing will be strained. Conversely, too little sadness can make for a very boring performance.

The importance of the words

Second, the singer needs to understand what he is singing. There are nuances in communication that only understanding the text can bring. This is one of those questions that voice teachers need to ask their students more often. Do you understand what you are singing?

Once the singer does this, he will be amazed at the reception. The listener will connect with the performance, even if she does not understand fully what he is singing. He might be singing in a different language, but she will still enjoy it if he communicates with enough emotion and understanding.

I have seen this barrier arise many times as I have listened to singers. I have heard singers with less technique get a more positive reaction from the crowd than someone with greater. Why is this? The answer is not that the technique was  unhelpful. The answer is often that the skillful singer did not sing with emotional authenticity.  This is incredibly  important. If you incorporate emotional communication in your singing, you will be head and shoulders above most singers. You just might achieve greatness.

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.