#65: Friday, November 4, 2020
“Cool Moon” by Richard A. Williamson
SSA, a cappella or optional piano
For those of you familiar with my blog, this piece may seem an outlier as a choice. In general, I try to focus my work on repertoire originally written for women’s/treble voices, not something first written for SATB and then rearranged. And I usually try to lift up the creations of women composers and authors, and/or have texts with strength, often from a woman’s point of view. More recently, I’ve been purposely trying to expand my familiarity with works by authors and composers of color, knowing that I’m lacking in that area. And overall, I try to focus on music that is self-published or from smaller publishing companies, not from the large corporations. I give presentations titled “Fierce and Feisty Repertoire” and the like.
I’ll be honest – “Cool Moon” doesn’t fit in any of those categories. But I will tell you what it is. It is an absolutely perfectly teachable piece for my early-intermediate group, especially in these strange Covid-times.
This semester, like many of you, I find myself teaching in a space that isn’t my regular choir room. Many choirs/schools/states are mandated to rehearse fully outdoors. Whether we are in our assigned “alternate” room, or having rehearsal outside, I don’t have a piano available. Some would argue this is ideal, as it forces me to work on my singers’ musicianship, and their ability to learn music without a piano banging out notes for them. To be sure, we are spending much more time on music literacy this term. (Yay!) And they are getting stronger. (Yay!) But still, finding repertoire that is at the appropriate level for their nascent reading skills, without being “Mary Had A Little Lamb” in unison whole notes, is a pretty short list.
I also have my choirs split up into smaller groups, with fewer singers per rehearsal than normal. For my advanced singers, they can make this work. But for my less experienced students who are used to strength in numbers and group courage and aurally/visually following the leader, it is tough – very tough. They can’t hear each other well, with the masks and 10-12 feet distance and strange acoustics (and distractions from squirrels and airplanes and groundhogs and lawn mowers…). The safety and solidarity of being with, and within, their section is considerably lessened. They feel tentative and scared and shy.
All of which leads me to “Cool Moon.” I first found this selection at a Carol Krueger Music Literacy Workshop, in the music packet. [If you haven’t been to one of her workshops – GO! You will not regret it!] The piece was scored for SATB, but otherwise hit all the criteria for “easy enough to do with beginning literacy skills, and not boring and not childish.” I put a note on it, to circle back and see if an SSA version was available. Fast-forward to 2020, and here it is. Perfect timing.
Some key points:
It is 99.9% solfege-able. (There is one non-diatonic pitch in the whole selection.) And most of the motion is stepwise, with some thirds and the occasional fourth. Once your students learn the major pentachord, and the major scale, and can audiate small intervals within the major scale, they are ready.
It incorporates some repetitive phrases and motives, so singers can latch on to patterns. Additionally, the form is A B A’, so the work you do on the first 15 measures comes back to help with much of the last 15 as well. There is a key change for the B section, which can help cement the idea that “do” is movable.
It is rhythmically readable, very early in the literacy process. I don’t know how many times I’ve finally found a piece with all-diatonic harmonies, only to have the rhythms be too complicated for their reading level. 4/4. Quarter notes, half notes, dotted half notes, and their rests. That’s it. No ties, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, syncopation, or triplets/borrowed. Basic read-in-week-one rhythms.
The tonal harmonies are crunchy enough to be intriguing to my less experienced groups, but not too difficult for them either. My intermediate group is always a little jealous of the crunchy stuff that my advanced group gets to sing; this is a great piece for that niche. “Cool Moon” has some of that crunchy flavor, while still being within the grasp of a less experienced group.
The opening phrase, for instance, starts in unison, but then fans out into a chord with pleasantly-dissonant seconds. It sounds neat, and they can do it. We started work on the song on solfege, in sectional circles outside (with the fully-online students joining via breakout rooms over Zoom, connected to the phone of a designated face-to-face zoom-facilitating partner). They had no idea yet what was happening in the other parts. Then we came together and sang just the first few measures. Everyone got goosebumps. It was one of the first times we sang together this term, and it was magical. They were successful at something that sounded cool, and they knew it. And they were making music together, with other humans, even with masks and distance and everything.
Looking at the text, the subject matter is secular, with just enough depth to find favor with my older students, without being too much for my younger students. It does talk about love, but is isn’t schmaltzy butterflies and flowers. Or whining. (So much historical/secular women’s chorus music is so…whiny! P.S. Scott Tucker’s “No Whining, No Flowers” commissioning project with the Cornell University Chorus is a phenomenal antidote!)
It is an SSA selection with a little bit of part independence, but not too much. My intermediate group usually sings in 3 parts, but they also usually have twice the numbers, or more. The students still want to sing SSA stuff as they are used to, but there are half as many of them, or less, per part. So it needs to be easier than usual. “Cool Moon” keeps them in SSA, but still mostly homophonic movement without tricky entrances.
It has an optional piano accompaniment, but works perfectly well without piano too. So, if you have the ability and desire to use piano, you can. But if you find yourself (expectedly or unexpectedly) without piano capabilities, this works too. It is flexible – just as we all have to be this year. Ranges are limited, which suits beginner/intermediate groups well, especially when singing in a mask may make them more hesitant on higher notes.
There is much phrasing, dynamic contrast, and musicality to include. Plus good vowels to practice shaping and matching (lots of [u]). So even though the base material is at the literacy level of a beginner/intermediate group, the final product isn’t boring or “easy-sounding” by any means. In fact, it has quite a lot of life and energy to it, with some great opportunities for text stress and phrasing and line.
As I said, this usually isn’t the type of piece I focus on, in my research, presentations, or blogs. Not that it isn’t a good piece, but is isn’t the specific niche I usually write about. But this particular semester, with these particular students in this particular rehearsal configuration, it is exactly the piece I need right now. I am thrilled to be working on it with my singers. Take a look. It may be just exactly what you need too.
|Composer:||Richard A. Williamson|
|Date of Composition:||2016, 2020|
|Author:||Richard A. Williamson|
|Ranges:||S1: Eb4-F5 |
|Accompaniment:||A cappella or optional piano|
|Publisher:||Heritage Music Press, Lorenz Corporation|
Until next month!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is Director of Choral Activities and associate professor of music at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.