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Daniel Coyle's The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills Tip #3 is, "Steal without apology." This is something I've long believed—it's one of the best ways to acquire new skills. When you see a fine conductor do something—gesture, rehearsal technique, etc.—that works, follow the advice given in the first post, quoting Coyle, "Many hotbeds use an approach I call the engraving method. Basically, they watch the skill being performed, closely and with great intensity, over and over, until they build a high-intensity mental blueprint." Then . . . add it to your repertoire. As Picasso says, "Good artists borrow. Great artists steal."
 
An interesting example is given:
Linda Septien, founder of the Linda Septien School of Contemporary Music, a hotbed near Dallas that has produced millions of dollars in pop music talent (including Demi Lovato, Ryan Cabrera, and Jessica Simpson), tells her students, "Sweetheart, you gotta steal like crazy. Look at every single performer better than you and see what they've got that you can use. Then make it your own. Septien follows her own advice, having accumulated fourteen three-ring notebooks worth of ideas stolen from top performers. In plastic sleeves inside the binders, in some cases scribbled on cocktail napkins, reside tips on everything from how to hit a high note to how to deal with a rowdy crowd (a joke works best).
I know I can trace some specific gestures or rehearsal techniques I use to particular teachers, mentors, or conductors I've observed. But you have to find a way to make these skills yours. That comes with practice. You have to absorb it so thoroughly that it now belongs to you. And, of course, to quote Ecclesiastes, "There is nothing new under the sun." Those you "steal" from have no doubt "stolen" it from someone else.
 
You can also absorb certain things unconsciously . . . and that can be good or bad. I know some things I learned as a singer in Rod Eichenberger's University of Washington Chorale as an undergraduate—notably a sense of rhythm and phrasing—gradually became a part of me and my approach to music, and for that I'll be eternally grateful.
 
But at the same time sometimes we copy things that aren't an essential part of a conductor's success. If you copy Robert Shaw's rehearsing with a towel around his neck instead of his amazing score study habits, it's unlikely your conducting will improve.
 
So, steal freely. But make sure you practice until the new skill belongs to you . . . and then someone else can steal it from you.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Cal Newport, who writes one of my favorite blogs, posted this summary of a talk given in 1986 by Nobel Prize winner Richard Hamming. The talk he gave, and Cal's post, speak to the value of hard work, time use, and creating conditions to foster creativity. I found it a fascinating read, and super valuable to my work as a conductor, teacher, and creator. Cal's summarized points are as follows:
  1. "Luck is not as important as people think" - The luck goes to the prepared. The harder you work, the more "luck" you will have. Amen.
  2. "Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest" - I wish I could convince many of my undergrad music majors of this when they are thinking of skipping out on practicing.
  3. "Become comfortable with ambiguity" - I have hammer this idea in my choral lit class when they want to know exactly whether this or that piece is a motet. Well, the answer is, a lot of the time, it depends on who you ask. Same with diction. Anyone here study English diction? If you have, you know what I mean.
  4. "Creativity requires focus" - Finding time to clear things away and focus on one thing can be hard. This is especially doing that over long periods of time. 
  5. "Important work comes from important problems" - Hamming says, “If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work.” Yes. Absolutely.
  6. "Keep your door open" - This is hard, and counter to #4. But Steve Jobs thought the bathrooms were important.
  7. "Transform isolated problems into general problems" - I love this. Having problems with this student or this problem or finding this music. Find the answer, and allow the topic to open up into something new and broader.
  8. "Sell your results" - This is the thing we music folks do well. We pitch the why of what we do pretty well. Still, new ideas need to be sold.
Have a look at Cal's discussion, as well as the orginal talk. And while you are at it, read about Steve Jobs' obsession with the bathrooms at Pixar. It will give you somethign to think about for sure.
 
 
CHORAL ETHICS (Part 4): REAPING WHAT WE SOW by Marie Grass Amenta
 
(This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on choral ethics, exploring what it means to be ethical in this often unethical business.)
 
Always do right.  This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” Mark Twain
 
Almost fifteen years ago, I had a wonderful church job and directed a community children’s chorus….but I wanted more musically. I began auditioning for some “plum” jobs. I had the education and experience but before this, the opportunity to audition for those types of jobs had not presented itself in my own community.  I began the rounds of interviews and auditions, some for long established programs, and always made it to the last round.  I got one of the three jobs I auditioned for—a newly established community children’s choir—but didn’t get the others. 
 
Of the two positions I did not get, one was probably over reaching for me but they let me down so kindly, I did not mind. The other position would have been a very good fit for me, for the community and for their organization as well. This was an established choral organization and was considered to be a premier group. I did not get the job for reasons having nothing to do with me or my ability. Knowing what I know now, my not getting the job the first time--and my two subsequent auditions after--had more to do with the “in fighting” within the structure of their Board of Directors, I just happened to be an innocent bystander.  I have never been treated so poorly in an audition. There were nasty comments, inappropriate questions and snide remarks.  The fall after my first audition, the position was again available and I was asked to reapply.  I had hoped the administration or situation had changed but if anything, they treated me slightly worse than the year before. The following year, the position was open again and I was called by the organization’s accompanist to apply.  Since the accompanist called me and others in the organization seemed to want me, I couldn’t imagine being treated any worse, but I was.  My instincts finally kicked in and told me the people running those awful auditions thought it was “professional” to be as nasty, demeaning and dismissive as possible. 
 
I am sharing this story not to complain about my treatment by that organization or to tell you I should have gotten that job; I am confessing.  My behavior after those three awful auditions was not stellar. I found myself bad mouthing the organization in public or to anyone who would listen.  I looked small and petty to those I complained to and instead of being sympathetic; I am sure they were uncomfortable and lost respect for me. I was horrified at myself.  One of the reasons I was horrified was it was exactly opposite to how I was raised and of me, as a person.  And I didn’t like it.  It was then I decided I needed to do an overhaul of my own behavior.
 
I began to think about my behavior in a new way and imagined myself in the very position of that choral organization.  My reaction to their treatment was an honest one. If they had treated me differently-- the way the other organization had--I would not have gossiped about them in public. I would have graciously accepted NOT getting the position and moved on. In a way, I was primed to behave the way I did.
 
In short, I believe we reap what we sow. As a result, I am never nasty to someone I audition and reject, or even to a singer whom I have to ask to leave my ensemble.  If you audition for me, I will calmly tell you if you did or did not make it when I told you I would and explain our audition protocol so there is no misunderstanding.  I have to believe my treatment of those who audition for me, if unkind or petulant, will come back to bite me. I try to do right and by doing so, am preventing a world of future bad feelings. And those bad feelings can linger for years.
COMPOSITION SPOTLIGHT ~ by Jack Senzig
 
(Each week we look at one or two of the best choral works posted in the Composition Showcase here on ChoralNet.  This is where we store a treasure trove of works that your choirs will love to sing and your audiences will love to hear.)
 
We Three Kings by Rick Bartlett for TTBB and piano (Click here for PDF and here for AUDIO)
 
Level: Advanced High School or Higher
Uses: Holiday Concert
Program Themes: Footsteps in the Snow, Winter in Sound
This Piece Would Program Well With: A Country Boy in Winter by Greg Bartholomew available through the Composition Showcase
 
I have rarely had the privilege to find a piece as perfect for a particular image as this week’s Silver Platter Award recipient.   Rick Bartlett has created the perfect living acoustic Christmas Card. 
 
The frosty piano part projects every beautiful snow covered lane, red barn, horse drawn sleigh and white-covered green pine tree I have ever seen onto my minds eye.  Maybe it’s just because I live in Wisconsin, or maybe it’s because Rick Bartlett is a choral illusionist, take your pick, but I love this setting of We Three Kings!  Your audience will too.
 
We Three Kings is available from the composer by emailing him at: crickb88(a)cox.net or through ChoralNet http://www.choralnet.org/view/user/6077
Previously we've talked about Scorch as a way to embed notation into webpages and publish music to your ensemble. A new release from Trinket has brought a new level of interactivity to web-based music notation, and while it will likely not replace Scorch from a publishing perspective, it's incredibly exciting from a teaching perspective. The release of Trinket's music notation features comes in support of Open Music Theory, an "open-source, interactive, online 'text'book for college-level music theory courses" published online by Hybrid Pedagogy Press. As part of Open Music Theory's work examples, Trinket gives the authors the ability to write examples and have listeners modify them freely and hear their results. Consider the following standard exercise in counterpoint:
 
(not a live embed - please click through to the interactive version from Open Music Theory)
 
Users edit the music by typing in the textbox at the bottom of the widget. Notation is edited in real-time, and the users can immediately playback their work to listen to it. The commands at the top of the widget allow users to save their results as a new Trinket widget, or e-mail, copy a link, or embed the widget directly in their own blogs or websites. While I have not tested this to confirm, it stands to reason that since these widgets use standard HTML to embed in a webpage, users could embed their answers into submissions through common LMS' used by universities and K-12 institutions to bring into a formal class setting as well. I have successfully tested Trinket on an iPad within Safari for those of you with iPad sets or student devicesl.
 
Trinket requires a free account to sign-up, and once you are registered, choose "New Trinket" and "Music" and the music editing box appears:
(not a live embed - Trinket.io)
 
By going to the setup menu, you can edit the parameters of the excerpt in text:
 
Note that here you can add additional staves, change clefs and edit the key, tempo and time-signature.
 
Both Trinket and Open Music Theory represent a major step forward in our ability to communicate musical concepts on the Web. Trinket is not going to replace Scorch as a publishing tool (there is no import ability and sounds are limited), but as a teaching tool it gives us the ability to present notation-based challenges to our students, and have them edit and submit them without having to have a separate notation program-- all within an existing webpage and software. Furthermore-- it's just fun to edit the textline and have the music respond (and for beginning students, requires constant practice of note names and identification).
 
Can you envision a use for Trinket in any of your instructional materials? If you give Trinket a try, post the link to any of your experiments below!
This next blog series revolves around several books and their perspectives on increasing our skills. Those skills can range from conducting technique to rehearsal technique to score study, if we think of our own skills as conductors. It can also mean the skills we teach our singers, which are equally important.
 
As you've seen in the previous series on Books Worth Reading, I often draw inspiration from books that aren't directly about music—they can range from psychology to sports to . . . well, almost anything.
 
I'll start with Daniel Coyle's The Little Book of Talent, which I referenced here. It developed out of Coyle's research (as a magazine writer develping an article) looking at "talent hotbeds" and how some people or schools or organizations developed an inordinate (and statistically significantly larger) number of exceptionally talented individuals. In essence, how these particular individuals showed such remarkable skill growth. The "Little Book" is his series of tips for improving skills.
 
So, let's get to work!
 
Tip #2 is "Spend 15 Minutes a Day Engraving the Skill on Your Brain" (I wrote about Tip #1, "Stare About Who You Want to Become," in the post linked above).
 
Coyle says that in learning a new skill, "Many hotbeds use an approach I call the engraving method. Basically, they watch the skill being performed, closely and with great intensity, over and over, until they build a high-intensity mental blueprint." He uses an example of Timothy Gallwey teaching a woman who'd never played tennis how to hit a forehand, without ever saying a word, in about 20 minutes. He also uses the example of Suzuki teaching, where a particular song is engraved by listening intently (and over and over) in the students' brains.
 
There are many ways to use this idea (which isn't new, of course).
 
I remember learning to do a "kip" on the high bar as a junior high school student (this video shows a kip as a way to get onto the bar—it's only a little humiliating that the person doing the kip—and something much more difficult afterward—is a 6 year old girl!). It wasn't until I'd watched it done by my fellow classmates many times that I could imagine how it felt in my brain, that I could do it myself. I had to internalize and imagine doing the move before I could do it. But it was visualizing the move intensely that made that happen.
 
How can this apply to skill development? Lots of ways, of course!
  • Learning a new conducting technique, watch someone intently on the particular technique/move (someone who does it well, of course!). Given today's video capability with our phones, get video of someone (a colleague, your teacher, fellow student) doing it. Spend 15 minutes a day watching intently and absorbing the move until you can feel it in your brain. Then see if you can do it, having absorbed it into your own physical repertoire.
  • For singers to recreate certain kinds of sounds we can teach in a variety of ways, but models—sound models—can be the most effective. If a picture is worth a thousand words, can't we say the same thing about sound? Demonstrations (by yourself if you're skilled, by another member of the choir, or by a guest—perhaps a voice teacher) can help create the sound you desire from your choir, often more quickly than other methods. Of course, you have to be careful about this. In any demonstration you may inadvertently create some things you don't want. Intonation is a particular one—a good example of quality of sound may be sabotaged by your not paying attention to your intonation. Recordings can also be used, but care needs to be taken to give examples that are possible for your singers. I wouldn't use the Swedish Radio Choir for a middle school choir! (But I might use a recording of a great middle school choir—for example, a recording of boys singing with the best possible sound for male singers that age)
  • Style can also be taught/absorbed through excellent recordings. Long ago, when I was preparing the Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer with my choir at PLU, I began every rehearsal playing recordings of Strauss waltzes by the Vienna Philharmonic. It was to absorb the style (very natural to those musicians) of playing a waltz: the right kind of lilt, where the 2nd beat gets placed rhythmically, the difference between a waltz and a Ländler). How much did it help? I can't separate it out, but I believe much is absorbed unconsciously in doing this kind of listening. I should also say that I had a waltz party with our dance teacher coming in to teach the singers to dance the waltz!
Think of your own examples! Please reply and share your ideas with everyone!
 
CHORAL ETHICS (Part 3): KINDNESS IS NOT FOR WIMPS by Marie Grass Amenta
 
(This is the third installment of a five-part series on choral ethics, exploring what it means to be ethical in this often unethical business.)

“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” Jean-Jacques Rousseau
 
It is easy to forget we need to work regularly with others.  Unless you are a soloist all the time, you must work with other musicians. Unless you conduct exactly the sort of ensemble you wish, with the musicians you wish, you must work with whom you are given. I like clever comments and witty repartee as much as the next person, but when it is mean spirted or at the expense of others feelings, it is unkind. And it’s easier, and much more productive, to work with others when they respect us because we are kind.
 
In order to be kind, we must have been shown kindness. We should learn kindness in music lessons with our first teachers because the best teachers are kind.  They critique your technique or interpretation but never you as a person. They take the personal criticisms out of their teaching.  Whether they see talent or nothing but interest, they are kind. They may believe you have no talent or business hoping for a career in music but will be the first to praise other aspects of your personality.
 
It is the lack of kindness, the obvious disparaging comment and the mean spirited criticism that makes a world of difference in our students’ and ensembles’ perception of us as directors and as people.  My Mom would call it “being ugly.”  Your own Mom may have called it “snotty” or just plain “nasty.”  Must we refer to our soprano section as “cackling hens” or say the basses sound like “bottom feeders” or tell the tenors to “loosen their neckties because they sound like they are strangling” or ignore the altos, occasionally call them “Joanie-One-Notes?” Do we need to call our accompanist “Fumble Fingers?” As soon as those “cheap shots” come out of our mouths, our singers and accompanists begin to lose respect for us. We should be honest but not nasty!
 
I admit I had my own misguided notion of what it means to be “kind” in rehearsal.  For many years, I thought it unkind to be brutally honest in my criticism because I wanted to be kind. I would say something was “mediocre”--not dreadful or wrong or terrible--as I pointed out what needed to be done to correct a mistake.  I used the term with my adult choirs and childrens choirs as well and noticed something interesting…..the children would laugh at the word, and then fix the problem very quickly but it would take the adults a bit longer to grasp what needed to be done. I couldn’t figure out why. 
 
A few years ago, a singer in my auditioned chamber choir shared she HATED when I used “mediocre” as a criticism because I never praised them after the correction was made.  I had to think about it but had to agree with her.  I didn’t want to be unkind but I suppose I didn’t want to be perceived as “weak” by being too pleased. Now I use a rule of 2:1---for every two critiques, I praise one thing or for every two things I praise, I critique one. And when I make a correction, it is done very succinctly, no extra words to confuse, just the facts. It’s amazing how this strategy has improved the rapidity of my chamber choir grasping a correction.
 
Those who cry “he or she isn’t tough enough to survive in this business” never show a smidge of kindness so as to not appear “weak,” however, the strongest among us are the most kind.  You can be tough, uncompromising and not be willing to “settle” and still be kind. It takes intelligence to be kind, it’s tougher than being nasty but the reward of respect is great.  When there is true respect from your singers and the others you work with, there is a sense you are able to accomplish anything and a certain freedom…and peace.  Think how much easier it will be for our singers to not always be waiting for the barb, the castrating comment, the “other shoe” and we can just concentrate on being the best teacher/director/conductor/performer we can be!
COMPOSITION SPOTLIGHT ~ by Jack Senzig
 
(Each week we look at one or two of the best choral works posted in the Composition Showcase here on ChoralNet.  This is where we store a treasure trove of works that your choirs will love to sing and your audiences will love to hear.)
 
The Birds by David Basden for SSATBB a cappella (Click here for PDF and here for AUDIO)
 
Level: Advanced Church Choir, or College
Uses: Baptism of the Lord, Holy Family or Concert
Program Themes: The Christ Child, Creation, Clay, Angels
This Piece Would Program Well With: O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen available from JWPepper and Sheet Music Plus.
 
 
David Basden has set a beautiful poem by Hilaire Belloc that reads like a lost verse of scripture.  The four year old Jesus forgoes playing with golden toys delivered by angels to make birds out of clay.  He blesses them until they fly away.  
 
Unexpected turns of harmony within a homophonic structure make this piece very much worth a deeper look.  Notice how the beautifully simple rhythm of two shorts and a long at “four years old”, “toys of gold” and similar places is used to propel the piece along. 
 
The Birds is available from the composer by email: deebee(at)pacific.net.au
Do working mothers face specific vocal challenges?  Are those women/mothers working in specific vocally-intensive professions more susceptible to issues related to vocal health?
 
A new study currently underway at the Northern Illinois University seeks to understand such issues.  One of the co-researchers, Mary Lynn Doherty, has commented frequently about vocal matters both on this site and in the pages of the Choral Journal.
 
If you are a working mother (full- or part-time) for whom for whom significant occupational voice use is required, you are invited to participate in a survey that evaluates your vocal health.
 
 
One more book before I go in a new direction: Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.
 
I'm fascinated by creative people in other arts than music. Since I'm married to a visual artist (who loves music, luckily), I often get cross-pollination of ideas from another viewpoint (and she has good ears, too!).
 
Twyla Tharp is a choreographer who's done work that ranges from her own company, choreography for other companies (premieres of 16 of her works at the American Ballet Theatre), Broadway (particularly her successful show based on Billy Joel songs), and film (she worked with Milos Forman on Hair, Ragtime, and Amadeus).
 
Her underlying point is that creativity is a habit, a product of preparation and effort, and she then explores the exercises she does to create ideas.
 
She begins each day going to the gym. As she tells us, rituals of preparation are important to the creative artist—the habits we build. She says the ritual is not the exercises she does, the ritual is the cab. "The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual. . . . It's vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behavior—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way." She gives examples of different artists' rituals, including Igor Stravinsky, who played a Bach fugue at the piano every day when he entered his studio.
 
A list of chapter headings is vague, but will give you a few ideas:
  • Your Creative DNA
  • Harness Your Memory
  • Before You Can Think out of the Box, You Have to Start with a Box
  • Scratching
  • Accidents Will Happen
  • Spine
  • Skill
  • Ruts and Grooves
  • An "A" in Failure
  • The Long Run
As "recreative" artists we may think that the kind of creativity needed by a choreographer, visual artist, playwright, author, composer, or architect has little to do with what we do. But we have to "re-engineer" the compositions we perform, imagine them through the composer's mind and spirit. Programming is a mightily creative act (or should be)! And, although I've spoken of rehearsal technique as craft, it is also art when we're at our best. With one of my choirs right now I've needed to re-think aspects of how I normally rehearse—and the creative energy I put into planning those rehearsals will ultimately affect what I do in other ones. There are so many ways in which creativity is at the heart of what we do. Following a great creative artist such as Twyla Tharp through her process, seeing her "toolbox," and getting inside her mind is enormously helpful.
 
I hope you get a chance to enjoy and learn from it!
CHORAL ETHICS (Part 2): AMATEUR VERSUS PROFESSIONAL by Marie Grass Amenta
 
(This is the second installment of a five-part series on choral ethics, exploring what it means to be ethical in this often unethical business.)
 
“Every artist was first an amateur.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
 
The word amateur is taken from Old French and means ‘lover’.  Many definitions of the word speak of doing something for pleasure and most of us, I am sure, became choral conductors because we found pleasure in singing or leading singing. Is it the other definition of amateur we are really afraid of? How many of us have ceased finding pleasure in music and are just plain cranky? Is that what being a professional means?  And why is it so important to be referred to as “professional?”  We all have worked with people who feel they are the professional but who behave any way but professionally.
 
A friend of mine recently brought up an experience she had in grad school.  She attended a Roman Catholic university and had a church job to supplement her tuition loans.  One year, Easter was quite early and her elite choral group had a concert the next week.  Their conductor arranged to have the first orchestral rehearsal on Holy Thursday, from 5 to 7 pm and arranged it only a few weeks before.  He didn't ask any of his singers if they were available. He just did it, declaring it a mandatory rehearsal. Several singers in addition to my friend also had church jobs and could not attend that rehearsal and told him so as soon as they realized the conflict.  The conductor was livid, went to the Dean who threatened to throw them all out of school if they didn't attend that rehearsal.  The conductor also called them--which is why my friend brought this up--"unprofessional". Now this was a Roman Catholic university and Holy Thursday is quite a big deal in the Roman Catholic Church if memory serves, and the singers let him know they would be unable to attend in a timely fashion.  But this conductor, who should have known church musicians earning money to go to school would be busy on a Big Deal for the Roman Catholic Church, called them unprofessional.  All of them arranged for substitutes at their churches, but how silly is that? Another friend, a retired Music Ed professor, wondered what kind of an example the conductor set for his students.  It's okay to schedule--at the last minute mind you--a rehearsal when many in his ensemble might have a very predictable conflict? And then throw a temper tantrum? Is this a version of professional I don’t know about?
 
I have an acquaintance who brags every chance she gets she is more of a professional than I. She’s a fine accompanist and quite a good musician but she is a soprano, and every once in a while, she lets her “inner diva” fly. She’s the type to play that “diva card” quite often and will scold me—in public—when she thinks I am not treating her with enough deference. I might not even be aware of whatever slight she thinks I made.   I recommend her for jobs, talk her up and have even used her as a coach but something or somebody gets her in a kerfuffle and I am facing the firing squad. She complains to me often she doesn’t always get the jobs she wants and it’s “not fair.” But perhaps her supposed professional behavior is the reason.
 
Many people, even those who are the supposed “professionals,” think it is the drama, making a scene and the last minute changes and the lack of schedules because their ensemble should be the only important thing in your life that makes you a “professional.” I believe it to be the opposite.
 
The true professionals in my life have been those who respect my time and theirs as well.  It is not just letting musicians know a rehearsal schedule ahead of time which makes them professional, it shows they are organized and thinking ahead.  We all have occasion to do things at the last minute or to be upset over something. But when it is always that way or appears to be that way, it is rather unsettling. And makes me wonder if they are as “professional” as they claim to be.
C.S. LEWIS & CHURCH MUSIC by Thomas Vozzella
 
I recently came across this essay by C. S. Lewis entitled On Church Music from the book * Christian Reflections. It does not need much introduction as C. S. Lewis has been a voice in the Christian community for decades. Yet, I have never read his views on music in the church. I found it insightful and apropos, especially being several decades old and remains relevant today…you decide.
 
Musical Taste "There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect. Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense. But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste – there, we may be sure, all that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost."
 
Musical Intention - "It seems to me that we must define rather carefully the way, or ways, in which music can glorify God. There is … a sense in which all natural agents, even inanimate ones, glorify God continually by revealing the powers He has given them. And in that sense we, as natural agents, do the same. On that level our wicked actions, in so far as they exhibit our skill and strength, may be said to glorify Good, as well as our good actions. An excellently performed piece of music, as natural operation which reveals in a very high degree the peculiar powers given to man, will thus always glorify God whatever the intention of the performers may be. But that is a kind of glorifying which we share with the ‘dragons and great deeps’, with the ‘frost and snows’. What is looked for in us, as men, is another kind of glorifying, which depends on intention. How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and the disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry and ambition, which precede the performance of a great work, I (naturally) do not know. But it is on the intention that all depends. When it succeeds, I think the performers are the most enviable of men; privileged while mortals to honor God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall."
 
(N.B. * This was taken from an essay entitled "On Church Music" by C. S. Lewis. It can be found in a current publication called Christian Reflections published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; ISBN: 0802808697)
Last week's discussion of software to convert PDF examples from public domain sites into editable documents elicited a reaction from one software group eager to be recognized:
 
 
MuseScore is a free and open-source notation program for Windows, Mac and Linux. The software is an alternative to the big two of Sibelius and Finale, and users of those programs will find MuseScore to be familiar. As with other open-source programs, it's not a straight transition from the programs you know and love to a "work in progress" that's constantly under development, and open-source software usually operates with less of a safety net in terms of documentation and support than commercial products. That said, there are certainly advantages to open-source software, none more obvious than that "free" word. 
 
I left MuseScore out of our initial conversations because I wasn't aware that they had a feature to import PDFs into editable files... they call it an "experimental" feature (link behind login- free MuseScore account required). It is, however, a valid option for processing files into MuseScore from public domain sources as .PDF. So how does it work? In their demo, MuseScore sent two files: the original PDF downloaded from CPDL (Per Avem, ed. Marco Croci), and the processed MuseScore output file (they present it as "the result with zero clean up").
 
(original)
 
(processed into MuseScore)
 
After comparing them side-by-side, a few things become apparent. First, there is a very high degree of accuracy with regards to the notes. The SAT lines are accurate, and two notes are missing from the Bass, easily re-added in editing. Certainly had the original been a handwritten manuscript, there would be more issues with pitch accuracy, but analyzing a printed score is fairly reliable at this point. Second, the text is a mess in the output. This is pretty standard for many OMR programs, and it's just hard to accurately detect which notes the text should be attached to. I often find that this is less of a burden than you might think: if I'm importing a file back into a notation program, I'm usually doing it to produce a recording (which will not require the text) or to re-arrange or re-structure the piece, in which case I'll have to revise the text setting anyways. 
 
The more suspect areas of OMR processing usually involve rhythm, and here we do see some issues that will require cleanup: 
(edited MS file, ex. 1)
 
Do you see the issue? Hint: it's not the pp high F. The scan has inserted eighth-rests behind some of the printed notes. Easy to delete, but they should be removed in editing.
 
(edited MS file, ex. 2)
 
This is a little more obtuse.
 
Aside from rhythms, the dynamics and articulations are the next categories of markings most likely to have issues, and here there are some errors as well. As with text, asking a piece of software to make an accurate determination of where dynamics are supposed to be attached, as well as assigning floating markings such as articulations, steps far outside the comfort level of computer processing. Again, how much editing this requires will largely be determined by what you want to do with the finished file (and how erroneous the markings are).
 
The examples that MuseScore provided are great demonstrations of both the capacity and limits of OMR software designed to convert scanned or downloaded .PDF files into editable notation. Where even until recently, reasonable minds differed on whether OMR software saved time over re-inputting a score from scratch, I believe that these two scores side-by-side show that processing and editing a digital file downloaded from a public domain source is a relatively easy process. In addition, now the MuseScore has this capacity, this may be a viable option for you if you did not previously own one of the commercial programs we discussed last week.
I think the best of the books about John Wooden's teaching (which really was the bulk of his approach to coaching) is You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned, by Swen Nater (one of Wooden's players at UCLA) and Ronald Gallimore (a psychologist whose research was in teaching, and who with his colleague Roland Tharp did research with Wooden back in the mid-70s when he was still coaching). I talked about this in a previous series about Wooden, all of which can be found here and the particular posts that involve Nater & Gallimore's book here, here, here, here, here, and here.
 
While those posts will tell you a lot about the book . . . there's no substitute for reading it yourself. I believe there's a huge amount to think about (and learn from) in it.
 
By the way, I've been giving links to Amazon, just for convenience. When I'm buying a used book I also check Thriftbooks, since they often have great prices and free shipping (they work with independent bookstores from all over the country). My copy of this book came from them, although I see right now that it's out of stock (they have an earlier edition, but I'm not sure that's the same). You may have other places to look as well–let us know if you do!
 
A new series coming soon!
CHORAL ETHICS (Part 1): SONGS MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME by Marie Grass Amenta
 
(This is the first installment of a five-part series on choral ethics, exploring what it means to be ethical in this often unethical business.)
 
Choral Ethics isn’t rocket science, complicated or anything we haven’t heard before, we just need to be reminded. Regularly.
 
I had planned to spend the summer much as I always do—relaxing with a bit of travel, doing research for future concerts for my chamber choir and concentrating on whatever writing projects I have on my plate.  This summer’s writing included finishing editing a book of essays and work on my Choral Ethics book.  I did not do anything because beginning in mid-June my Mother’s health rapidly deteriorated and she passed away in late July.
 
Mom was an opera singer (pictured in the accompanying photo), singing the role of the Queen of the Night and many operettas as well.  As her six children came along, she specialized in oratorio work and was a paid church choir ringer until she was in her early 70s.  We didn’t think it strange to have a mother gone several evenings a week for rehearsals or to be asked to help figure out what jewelry would go with which gown.  During one of her hospitalizations last February, my brother and I agreed in the hospital corridor outside of her room she must be feeling better because she “had her Diva back” much to the horror of one of her nurses.  We explained she had been an opera singer and we meant “Diva” in that sense….and it was good she was asking for her lipstick! 
 
Mom’s death wasn’t a surprise but the quickness of her downhill spiral was. Driving back and forth to my parents’ home gave me time to think about Choral Ethics and my book. And I came to the conclusion the real inspiration for Choral Ethics and the whole concept was because of my mother, the coloratura soprano Rose Marie (Ditto) Grass. And in my drives to my parents’ home, it became clear those lessons occurring at Mother’s knee were attitudes I have brought into my adult life.  I kept thinking about Mom in various situations and how she practiced what she preached. Through all the opera productions, concerts and worship services where Mom was soloist or Prima Donna, she had a graciousness, humbleness and kindness I thought everyone who was a musician possessed.  She taught me much by the way she lived; managing to have a bit of a singing career, raising six very different individuals while being married to the same man for almost 60 years.
 
There is an incident when I was in high school which sticks in my mind.  I was a junior and had just auditioned for the school musical, with my audition being pro forma since it was already understood I would have the lead.  I came home from the audition gloating and, as Mom would say, “being ugly.” She snapped at me about my behavior.  She told me not to get too comfortable about “always” getting the part and there would be plenty of times in my life I wouldn’t.  She told me to treat everyone the way I would like to be treated if I hadn’t gotten the part. And she said if I didn’t behave as a “gracious winner,” she would pull me out of the show.  I shaped up pretty quickly!  Being a gracious winner, in addition to being a gracious loser, was just one of her lessons.  We were expected to not gossip, be on time if at all possible and to pick up after ourselves.
 
As an adult and conductor, I try to uphold her values …but it is difficult.  The evening she lay dying, we sang songs she taught us…songs no one sings anymore because they are old fashioned. I like to think her legacy besides those old songs will be the Choral Ethics Movement and being an ethical, moral choral conductor will never be out of fashion.  It will be another “song” she has taught me.
COMPOSITION SPOTLIGHT ~ by Jack Senzig
 
(Each week we look at one or two of the best choral works posted in the Composition Showcase here on ChoralNet.  This is where we store a treasure trove of works that your choirs will love to sing and your audiences will love to hear.)
 
Psaume 42 by Anthony Sylvestre for SATB piano and flute (Click here for PDF and here for AUDIO)
 
Level: Church Choir, or High School
Uses: General Anthem or Concert
Program Themes: Faithfulness, Deer, Love of the Divine
This Piece Would Program Well With: Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks by Herbert Howells available from Sheet Music Plus and JWPepper
 
The delicate opening measures harken to Prelude in C from Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier mixed with a little of Franck’s Panis Angelicus. This sets the tone for an uplifting hymn-like work.   Psaume 42 is worth more than a 30 second listen. Stick around for the whole picture as it unfolds and develops.  The French text is based on the “Like as the Hart doth pant for fountains of water” text you are probably familiar with. The flute adds to the heavenly timbres that Anthony Sylvestre shares with our ears.   
 
Your audience is going to love this!
 
Psaume 42 is available from Asturia Music:http://www.asturiamusic.com/
We have no scientific data to support this, but it seems reasonable to guess that many (dare one say “most”?) current choral conductors were at one point in their very young lives singers in an honor choir.  The present writer was certainly one of those kids; weren’t you?
 
But what about the next wave of choral musicians?
 
There is the possibility that a potential Weston, Eph, or Robert is sitting in your classroom this semester.  Are you going to give that young choral mind the incredible experience that launches them to the musical moon by helping them apply for an ACDA honor choir?
 
During the upcoming national conference, the American Choral Directors Assoiation will offer FIVE exceptional honor choir experiences that will involve a wide range of students:
     Children's Honor Choir
     Middle School/Junior High School Boy's Honor Choir
     Middle School/Junior High School Girl's Honor Choir
     High School Mixed Honor Choir
     College/Community Latin American Honor Choir
 
There is a great deal of information about this offering at your fingertips, including basic data, audition hints, conductor bios, and the application.
 
Have you been thinking about an application for one of your students?  Well, it’s time to stop thinking and START DOING.  The deadline for honor choir applications is 11:59 p.m. (CDT) on TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 30.
 
 (img src:sibelius.com)
 
We are fortunate as Internet-era musicians to have access to a vast collection of music resources online through collections such as the Choral Public Domain LibraryInternet Sheet Music Library Project and Mutopia. With such a volume of music available for free use, ranging from new compositions shared under public license to editions of standard rep from chant through the Romantic era, it is possible to do a large portion of our programming at no cost and save our limited music budget for new compositions and settings or editions. Cost aside, there is a valid musical case to be made for utilizing public domain music projects-- the ability to create your own settings or voicings to fit your ensemble or program. While you can recreate a score in your notation program of choice by re-entering an entire printed composition, the fact that public domain music sites give you your desired scores in an existing digital format makes it much easier to input them directly into a notation program for your own arranging needs. From something as simple as changing the key to fit a young ensemble to adding voicings or accompaniment, being able to create your own editions gives you incredible flexibility in your programming.
 
Know Your Software
Both Sibelius and Finale have built-in score scanning software that will allow you to scan music directly into the program. The scanning software will make a best guess as to the manuscript and convert it into an editable score in either file type. In my own experience, I have had better results with Sibelius' PhotoScore package than Finale's SmartScore, but the difference is nowhere near large enough to advocate for Finale users to jump ship to Sibelius, for example. In each case, some editing is usually required, especially to clean up text or articulation markings. This works well for hand-written scores, although the results are highly influenced by the neatness of the score, especially as it comes to spacing of rhythms and barlines. For our purposes, though, we can use the scanning software but bypass the scanner entirely-- again, since we get the files digitally from the public domain sites, we can avoid having to print and re-scan. This saves us two ways: first it saves us time by eliminating steps, and secondly it preserves the files' resolution in as high a format as possible to reduce the risk of scanning errors.
 
Input Types
Each of the three sites I mentioned above have different dominant file types, which will inform how we process a composition. ISMLP stores most pieces as image files or PDF documents. Since they're high-quality scans from libraries around the world, they are often very clear and easy to read (and very large!). They're also usually hand-written, which can introduce a layer of complexity and usually a bit more editing. CPDL primarily uses PDF, although users can submit compositions in a wide range of formats, including MIDI, Postscript or Lilypond (more on that in a moment). Mutopia primarily uses LilyPond, although PDFs and MIDI files are usually available. When you have a choice, the files will each give you different advantages:
  • PDF files will usually include the text, articulations and dynamics in a complete "ready-to-print" format. These tend to also be generated by a notation program, which means fewer errors to correct on importing.
  • MIDI files will import with 100% accuracy of pitch, although not always note (enharmonic misspellings are frequent, and should be double-checked in the editing phase). Depending on how the files are generated, rhythms are normally accurate and straightforward, but can sometimes throw you a curveball. Text, dynamics and articulations are very rarely found.
  • Image files will obviously include anything you see in the scan, although these have the highest error rate since the computer has to interpret handwriting rather than computer-generated text.
  • LilyPond is the Linux or GIMP of the music typeset world. If that sentence means nothing to you, you may want to skip it. LilyPond is a music notation language, created for use with several open-source (and free) software programs. It gives incredible control over the fine details of engraving and printing, and has the advantage of being free (as opposed to the cost of Sibelius or Finale). That said, like all other open-source programs, it requires an extreme comfort level with operating complex programs with minimal documentation, help or peer support. And like with any other open-source program, it has passionate and vocal proponents. Just use discretion on whether you want to walk that far down the path of notation control at this point.
 
Importing Files
Sibelius can import .PDF files directly as well as the image files and MIDI. PhotoScore (Sibelius' scanning package) will make its best judgment about the intent of the printing and create the file as a score within Sibelius, ready for your editing and arranging. From there, you can save it as a Sibelius file to preserve your work and use any of the recording/playback features you may need there as well. Finale will import the MIDI files, and any .TIF image files, but can't take .PDF or .JPG image files natively. Thankfully, it's very easy to find converters online or use a virtual print driver to print an image file or .PDF as a .TIF and import that into PhotoScore (Finale's scanning package). Again, once it's in Finale, it can be manipulated and treated as any other Finale file.
 
Check your Licenses
Public domain works are free to distribute and use as-is, and all three of these services host works explicitly for you to use as a musician. Copyright and fair use doctrines apply to the process of creating new arrangements based on someone else's work, though. In essence, the copyright applies not to the original composition (copyright there having expired), but the edition that someone created and uploaded to the service. Check the copyright rules on the server you're planning to utilize to ensure that you're operating correctly. As of today (Sept 25, 2014):
  • CPDL states that you can use and distribute materials hosted at CPDL. If you modify any materials, though, you must keep the copyright license conditions the same. In other words, no fair downloading a score, editing it, and then selling your new edition.
  • Mutopia has three possible levels of license, which contributors can select for their work.
  • IMSLP makes all work available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike, which means that you must give the original contributor credit and retain the same license conditions.
 
Using the scanning tools built-in to Sibelius or Finale, you can import files directly from public domain sites to re-arrange or edit as necessary for your ensembles. While a careful eye is still needed to proof-read the scans once they're in, being able to import files directly reduces import errors and gets you to the work more quickly. In addition to new works shared by the composers, these sites are filled with standard literature representing some of the richest eras and composers of our art, and can be a cost-effective way to access great literature in ways that you know directly fit your ensemble's needs.
For this blog series I started out with the idea of alternating books on music with books on other subjects. But I've realized that most of the great music books are fairly well known or are are so specific that they might have limited interest (maybe I'll combine some in a post later).
 
So I'm going on with books on other subjects that I hope you'll find of interest.
 
Next we go to Daniel Coyle's The Little Book of Talent--52 Tips for Improving Your Skills. Coyle is the author of The Talent Code, a book I can also recommend.
 
Coyle is a journalist who, for an article, researched places—training centers, camps, charter schools, etc.—which created a much higher level of talented people than others ("hotbeds of talent"). He also visited with scientists doing research, notably K. Anders Ericsson from Florida State University, who coined the term "deliberate practice" to describe a very focused, intense type of practice (it's also his research that led to the "10,000 hour rule," which Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book, Outliers, the Story of Success). And if you want to know more about deliberate practice (it's worth it), this article has some great links.
 
Honestly, all of those books are worth reading, but The Little Book of Talent is exactly that, a little book, the hardback edition the physical size of a paperback, 119 pages long. Since Coyle himself is a "father, volunteer basketball coach, and husband of a hockey-playing wife," while he did his research he wondered about all sorts of practical problems:
As a family, we struggled daily with the usual questions and anxieties that revolve around the process of acquiring and developing skills. How do we help our daugher learn her multiplication tables? Howe do we tell a genuine talent from a momentary interest? What's the best way to spark motivation? . . . As it turned out, visiting these remarkable places was not just a chance for me to be a journalist. It was also a chance to become a better coach and a better dad.
So, he started taking notes when he spotted a great tip for teaching or learning. And those notes became the basis for this book, divided into several categories (his words quoted below):
  1. Getting Started: ideas for igniting motivation and creating a blueprint for the skills you want to build.
  2. Improving Skills: methods and techniques for making the most progress in the least time.
  3. Sustaining Progress: strategies for overcoming plateaus, keeping motivational fires lit, and building habits for long-term success.
Tip #1 is "stare at who you want to become." This is about using role models—those people who already can do those things you'd like to be able to do—and truly and deeply observe what they do and how they do it (in Coyle's words, "the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats or newborn babies"). For example, very early on I started to focus on and track how the conductor of the choir rehearsed (Rod Eichenberger was my undergrad teacher). After doing this for awhile, I would try to guess what Rod was going to do when he stopped the choir. Would he address pitch, rhythm, sound, intonation, phrasing? Did he stop to address the altos or the tenors? And I got pretty good at knowing what he was going to do. I was not analyzing what he was doing—I didn't write things down or classify the kinds of things he'd did. I was simply absorbing how he prioritized in a rehearsal and, of course, was listening intently to what the choir did. And in doing this, I was absorbing a chunk of his rehearsal technique without thinking about it consciously. I continued to do this with any conductor I worked with and could often start to catch on to what a conductor would most likely do after a relatively short period of time. This was even true when I visited Wilhelm Ehmann in Germany when I was 21. I didn't understand any German at that time, but could still begin to make good guesses at what he'd do after even a few days. We all have people we admire. Don't be afraid to do all possible to absorb what they do.
 
Tip #15, "break every move down into chunks."
Every skill built out of smaller pieces—what scientists call chunks.
 
Chunks are to skill what letters of the alphabet are to language. Alone, each is nearly useless, but when combined into bigger chunks (words), and when those chunks are combined into still bigger things (sentences, paragraphs), they can build something complex and beautiful. . .
 
. . . ask yourself:
  1. What is the smallest single element of this skill that I can master?
  2. What other chunks link to that chunk?
Practice on chunk by itself until you've mastered it—then connect more chunks, one by one . . .
 
. . . Musicians at Meadowmount [one of his hotbeds of talent] cut apart musical scores with scissors and put the pieces into a hat, then pull each section out at random. Then, after the chunks are learned separately, they start combining them in the correct order, like so many puzzle pieces. "It works because the students aren't just playing the music on autopilot—they're thinking," says one of the school's violin instructors, Skye Carman.
 
In teaching vocal skills, most teachers separate out elements of good singing—posture, breathing, onset of tone, vowels, etc.—and work on each separately, then combine in order, since breath builds on posture, etc.. However, I found the Meadowmout idea fascinating and it reminded me of some aspects of Eric Ericson's rehearsal technique. He'd often take a piece and work on just one section of it in a rehearsal (the one that needed most work, of course!). But over the course of the rehearsals, all would gradually fit together and make sense.
 
Re-reading that little tip was already worth it for me! See if the book can offer you some ideas as well.