When you hear the word Improvisation, what's the first thing that comes to your mind? Jazz music? Baroque ornamentation? Cool theater exercises? Something completely different? For some, including yours truly, if someone were to say, "Improvise for us," my heart would start to palpitate, my palms would sweat, and I would think, "Is there any way out?" I know I'm not the only one to feel this way. In Western music, we have moved away from a tradition of improvisation into a world of control and order.
What exactly is Improvisation? Is it really just making things up as you go along? Sure, I guess, at the most basic interpretation of improvisation. But who wants to hear that? No, good improvisation takes a bit more training, practice, and experience.
So, here's my issue. I taught high school choir for 11 years. During most of my time as a teacher, one of the National Standards of Music from NAfME (National Association for Music Education) involved the students being able to improvise. My thought was, "I don't know how to improvise. How the heck am I going to teach them?"
I tried. And I tried. I went to workshops, I read articles, but nothing stuck. Most of the techniques I learned about focused on helping students learn how to improvise a solo. I wanted the whole choir to improvise at the same time! I wanted to have my choir make up a song on stage for all their parents to hear!
But it never happened.
I was still stuck not knowing how to teach what I wanted.
So, now I'm at the University of Washington working towards a DMA in Choral Conducting and I thought, "What a perfect opportunity to finally crack this nut!" As part of my studies, and as one of my three major topics, I am researching improvisation, hopefully with the end goal being able to answer the question, "How do I get a whole choir to successfully improvise at the same time?"
I'm only at the beginning of my research. I have loads of questions, and loads of books. I want to hear from you, though. I want to hear from those that are in the classroom that are either finding improvisational success, or, like me, are experiencing frustrations. I'd love to hear your thoughts to some of these questions:
1) What is your definition of improvisation? Do you think we should broaden the definition?
2) How would you assess an improvisation as being successful?
3) What pedagogical reasons do you see for improvisation?
4) What are your favorite tools/techniques for teaching improv?
5) Why do you think students are hesitant to approach improvisation?
6) What are some resources you think I need to look up/watch/read?
Please comment below with your own thoughts.
I hope that after a couple months of research, I'll be able to write a follow up post about my findings.
Sorry if this post seemed a little rambling...I was just making it up as I went along.
I have been writing choral music for quite a while now. It took me several years before I worked up the nerve to send something to a publisher. I wasn’t expecting much because I’d always been told not to expect much with your first composition.
So, I wasn’t terribly shocked by the rejection letter. It hurt, but wasn’t surprising.
What was surprising was that the rejection letters kept coming. And coming. And coming. I now have a healthy stack of letters and emails saying, “thank you, but no thank you.” Some are quite polite, others are quite blunt. Very rarely is there any feedback besides, “We enjoyed your composition, but it doesn’t fit our needs.” No way to know what they didn’t like. No way to fix it to make it better.
So, here’s my point.
I compose for fun. I compose for choirs. I don’t compose for publishers. I’ve had to come to grips with not being published (while continuing to search), but have had to come up with ways to keep myself composing. These are my five tips for those that might find themselves in the same boat.
Choral music is an interesting field to have interest in. The world of music is huge. Of all the different types of music, classical music is just a small sliver. Then, within classical music, choral music is an even small piece of the pie. Over the years, I've asked myself why I continue to write choral music. It's not for the money, that for sure! ;-)
I asked a question on Facebook in a group called, I'm a Choir Director: Ok, here's a question for you...without mentioning any specific composer or any specific piece, what would you say are the elements that make a good choral work?
Here's a couple of the answers that people wrote in:
There were a couple of other responses as well. I think it's really difficult to nail down what a "good" choral piece is because we all have our own ideas and prejudices. Some conductors are drawn to loud and fast, some to slow and sombre. Some conductors are drawn to Eric Whitacre, some are turned off just by the mere mention of his name. Some love open, lush chords, some love tight tone clusters. Some love Romantic era choral works, and some would spend all day in the Renaissance if they could.
So, with so much subjectivity going in to determining "good" choral music, how in the world is a composer supposed to know how to write music that people enjoy? I don't know the answer to that question yet. What I do know is that I feel music inside that needs to be put on paper. That's why I write. That's why I will continue to write.
In the comments below, tell me your favorite songs and/or composers. What is one song you feel that every choral conductor should know?
I've been silent for a couple of weeks, so it's time to pick things back up again. I finished my second quarter of my DMA program, had a week of Spring Break, and took a trip to New York with the UW Chamber Singers where we got to sing at Carnegie Hall (which, by the way, we rocked!).
I've been silent here, but steadily working on composition. I wrote a new piece for my son's middle school honor choir called Consider the Music. It turned out absolutely lovely. I will share it on my site soon. Soon, but not yet.
Also...in other news, I've had directors from Canada, Utah, and Mexico saying that they've downloaded some of my hymn arrangements and will be performing them. I guess that makes me an international composer now! :-)
I posted this on my Facebook page, but wanted to put it here as well...I won a composition competition sponsored by Opus 7, a Seattle-based choir. They selected my piece In Turba as the winner of their Graduate Student level winner. They'll premiere the piece on May 13. I'm pretty darn excited.
My friend and colleague, Sarah Riskind, is starting a blog featuring choral works. I may start doing something similar. I wrote a post for her and I'll let you know when it's been uploaded. Check out her page in the meantime.
Exciting times at SDCompose!
This is a copy of a letter that I wrote to the Olympian.
Nothing earth-shattering, but I thought I'd share.
I appreciated the article from March 9 by Molly Gilmore about the "Pirates of Penzance" performance that will be coming to Olympia. In her article, she says that W.S. Gilbert softened his satire and hid it in silliness to avoid censorship. He allowed us to "laugh at the absurdity of human existence." She is right in her assessment. This is why the show has gone on to become a classic which is performed again and again. Shows that become classics do so for a reason. They are show that teach us something or make us feel something. Whether we are talking about Golden Age classics such as "Oklahoma!" and "Showboat;" or newer classics like "Ragtime" or "Phantom of the Opera;" or even current hits like the ubiquitous "Hamilton" mentioned in Gilmore's article. People want to return to shows that make them think differently, feel something, and separate themselves from monotony of daily living. It takes good music. It takes good acting. It takes good staging. But it's all nothing without a good story (with the exception, perhaps, of "Cats"). So, I applaud the Gilbert&Sullivan Players for their efforts to bring these classic operettas to the world. We need more stories that inspire and help us feel again. We need storytellers to keep them alive. And sometimes, we just need some good, clean fun.
One of the projects that I'm working on is a Passion based on the story of the Book of Mormon. Several composers of late have written passions based on stories besides the crucifixion of Christ. I decided to use the Book of Mormon as inspiration. A friend and colleague of mine, Jen Rodgers, who is studying passions asked me about my project and gave me permission to include our interchange.
Q: What text(s) are you using for your Passion?
A: Currently the only definite text I am using (I'm still in the very beginning stages) is from the Book of Mormon, Mormon 6:17-20 (you can read it here if you'd like https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/morm/6?lang=eng). I have plans of using other texts from the Book of Mormon, but will also be writing narration and other poetic texts based on the stories in the Book of Mormon, but not necessarily quoting the scriptures.
Q: Who are you writing it for (out in the world, not the performing forces)?
A: At first, I think the easiest to reach audience will be an LDS audience. I would hope that it would have enough appeal outside the LDS community that others will want to hear/perform it.
Q: Why is a Passion relevant for you now?
A: The idea of setting the story of the Book of Mormon in a semi-oratorio style is something that I have been playing with for a long time, but never really had a sense of direction. When we started talking about passions in class, the lightbulb suddenly went on and I knew the direction I wanted to take the story.
Q: How do you think/write about suffering through this work?
A:The genesis of this project was my reaction to the Book of Mormon musical on Broadway which, though it's highly popular and well written, doesn't come close to actually telling the true story of the Book of Mormon. The story follows a group of people (centralized in the prophet/historian Mormon) who obtains and strives to live promises from God, but in the end, turn away from those promises and fall to destruction. The end of the Book of Mormon is one of the most tragic of events as Mormon watches his people, the people who have rejected God's promises, be destroyed out of existence in an epic war. My heart always aches as I read the passage I referenced earlier.
I think that other people, not just Mormons, will be able to relate to his feeling of loss as we've all dealt with losing things precious to us.
Q: For this Book of Mormon text you are starting from (and without, right now, other texts and and poems): would you talk a little about Requiem vs. Passion and why Passion is the direction you are choosing?
A: Hmm...Requiem vs. Passion? I think the Requiem is a memorial piece. It's told from the outside, whether that means one person memorializing another person, or someone remembering an event. The Passion is told from within. Characters within the story tell how the passion unfolds and how it affects them.
I chose to use a passion as my construction tool because I feel that the overarching story in the Book of Mormon is filled with tragedy as the people continually reject the promises made to them by God. It culminates in a central figure (Mormon) who can see, know, and feel the entire story from beginning to end.
iPods Killed the Folk Songs
OK. Admittedly, folk singing was on its way out before the advent of the iPod, but hear me out.
Before the ability came along to record sound, if you wanted to hear music, you really had only two options: 1) Go to where the music was being made, or 2) Make it yourself. Going to the music was often easier said than done – especially in the Western Art Music tradition where most of the music was performed in concert halls or in ballrooms of the royalty or aristocracy. Or, there was always church. Lots of good church music out there.
But the rest of the time, how did people pass the time? If you worked in your fields, you sang. If you washed your dishes, you sang. If you travelled down the road to the next town, you sang; sometimes, other travelers would even sing along. When you got together with your friends, you made music: singing, dancing, fiddling, jug-blowing…well, you get the idea.
It was fun. It was social. It was folk music.
Folk Music: noun 1. music, usually of simple character and anonymous authorship, handed down among the common people by oral tradition.
2. music by known composers that has become part of the folk tradition of a country or region.
But then, near the turn of the 20th Century, something happened. For the first time, we could record sound and play it back later. The world was changed! Suddenly, you weren’t required to go to where the music was; you could go to the music! Jazz musicians in Chicago could now hear music being playing in New Orleans without having to travel there. A pianist in New York could hear a concert from Los Angeles from the comfort of his own living room. The world suddenly got a lot smaller.
Check out these dates: (thanks to Audio Engineering Society for helping me put together this list)
Now, if you go to work, select your playlist. When you wash the dishes, stick in your earbuds. When you travel, listen to your MP3s while everyone else in the car does the same. No one has to be burdened with the task of actually talking to someone else.
The world of music consumption has become very individualistic. Unless you are in a school or community music group, music is no longer social. Nothing is social in fact. I ride the train from OIympia to Seattle and back every day and the majority of people I see have earbuds in, blocking out the need to communicate or be social. People aren’t singing anymore. The folk songs of the past, even the ones written in the 1950s and ‘60s are being forgotten.
How do we bring back the music of America? I’m talking the music that grew out of the traditions that the initial immigrants brought to this country. I’m talking about the music of the Native Americans. I’m talking about the music from the hills of Appalachia. I’m talking about the music that is currently in the hearts of the current mish-mash of cultures that is our America today.
It’s time to take out the earbuds and sing again! Who's with me?
Music, inherently, breeds thinking about numbers. One of the first things you learn as you begin a study of music is numbers. "There are four beats in this measure." "What key are you in when there are three flats in the key signature." "Use fingers 1 and 3 to properly finger that note." And on, and on...
Why such a focus on numbers in music?
Music is abstract. It's not concrete. The notation that we see is mere symbolic representation of what will eventually be turned into music - an art form that exists in time. We need a way to organize and understand the symbols on the page and translate them into something more or less recognizable. Numbers are super helpful in that area.
Composers have often played with the ideas of numbers. In 1974, Randolf Currie published an article for the journal Bach entitled, A Neglected Guide to Bach's Use of Number Symbolism - Part I (yes, Part II came later). Bach was especially fond of the numbers 3 (divine) and 4 (humanity) and the combination of those numbers (3+4=7, 3x4=12, 7x12=84). Tom Service wrote a great blog post for the Guardian listing how different composers - from Bach to Schubert to Schoenberg - used numbers to their advantage. Ever heard of 12-tone music? Yep, numbers. More recently, Estonian composer, Urmas Sisask, used math and observations of the rotation of the planets to create what he called the Planetal Scale - C#, D, F#, G#, A. Pretty far out stuff (Sorry...). And don't get me started on harmonics - Good grief! The numbers of it all!
One of my favorite attributes of numbers are numeric palindromes. There's something immensely satisfying about numbers that are the same either direction you look at them. When I get gas for my car and the pump stops at $35.53, I know it's going to be a good day. When I look at the clock and it's 10:01 PM, I know it's time to get ready for bed.
Several musicians love palindromes as well. Mozart, Bach, and Haydn all have examples in their works of using palindromes in their music. See this post from Miss Jacobson's blog to read more about musical palindromes.
Around 2002, I got interested in the idea of musical palindromes as well and manipulating a piece to still make it sound good. The pieces I wrote weren't exactly palindromes, but more related to the idea of symmetry, or mirror composition. I found five ways to play with the idea of symmetry in short piano works. I posted the first one on my site this morning. The other four will come each day this week.
Are we not pure? “No, sir!” Panama’s moody Noriega brags. “It is garbage!” Irony dooms a man—a prisoner up to new era.
Next Friday night, LDS singer/songwriter Hilary Weeks will be in concert in Seattle performing with the Ensign Symphony and Chorus. I happened to make contact with their director, Rob Archibald, just as he was looking for composer/arrangers to help make piano reductions and write choral parts for Weeks' songs. I was able to write parts for 4 of them: I Will, Say Love, A Beautiful Heartbreak, and, Win the Day. This should be a great concert and I'm looking forward to being there!
Less than a week ago I blogged about the Eric Whitacre Virtual Choir experience. Now, less than a week later, I'm happy to report that I'm involved in another virtual choir experience...but this time on the creating end. I don't want to say too much yet, so I'll just say this. Because of my post, I had a composer in California contact me about wanting to create a virtual choir for part of a large choral/orchestral work he's written and has been turned into a PBS television event. We're working out the details still, so stay tuned. I'll be a major contact point for this project. This is exciting!
Get your singing caps on and be prepared for an announcement, hopefully, in the next couple of weeks. Spread the word!!
Composer, Choral Conductor, DMA Student,