When you were born, the longest cycle you knew was eating. A few hours.

A little later, you understood the cycle of a day, or the cycle of mommy leaving for work and coming home.

By elementary school you could start to feel the cycle of a year – birthday to birthday, Christmas to Christmas.

We live our life in cycles. School years, semesters, birthdays, decades, generations.

The more cycles you experience, the more you can start to feel longer cycles. You can’t feel the cycle of a decade until you’ve lived a lot of years. Understanding the cycle of a life takes a lifetime to feel.

Even longer cycles – the life of a city or a country, an era, the climate – we can only comprehend, but not feel. I can put my hands around a year; I’ll never be able to feel the Baroque era in the same way.

It’s a struggle to want to understand these bigger and bigger things, but to know that you can never make them as visceral as the things you’ve lived again and again.

Acknowledging that they will not escape the intellectual is important.

Delving Into Your Art

I’m currently reading Mary Oliver’s wonderful book about writing poetry, A Poetry Handbook. (It’s essential, even if you have no intention of writing verse.)

Her very first chapter is about the primary importance of reading poetry. She writes, “Many of my students would spend almost of their time writing, and very little of it reading the poems of other poets, if they and not I were setting the assignments.”

“But,” she goes on, “to write well it is entirely necessary to read widely and deeply. Good poems are the best teachers. Perhaps they are the only teachers.”

It’s the same for music. Until you have really delved into the great works of your chosen genre, how can you hope to say something new of value? In vocal jazz, I had to internalize Puerling, Meader, Tormé, The Real Group, Take 6, the Four Freshmen, the Boswell Sisters, and on and on before I even began to have a perspective on my own music.

Oliver adds in the same chapter, “The truly contemporary creative force is something that is built out of the past, but with a difference.” Mistrusting or ignoring of the past isn’t a recipe for great new art: it’s a recipe for ignorant art. Picasso felt he had to become a great artist in the traditional styles before he could leave them behind; we all must know our lineage better.

Oliver ends he first chapter on reading with this beautiful image of creation:

“To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain. Only a heat so deeply and intelligently born can carry a new idea into the air.”

It’s Tradition

Every year I make a couple of pies that I’ve had at every Thanksgiving since I was a toddler. Lemon and Chocolate Chess pies are part of my family tradition; they found their way there because when my mom tried one out of a cooking magazine in 1979, she walked into the kitchen to take it out of the oven and was transported to her own childhood and pies in her grandmother’s house.

The tradition is strong. And that sense of tradition applies to lots of dishes we’ve adopted into our meal over the years – some new, some decades old. This year I was able to look at our 2014 google doc and say, “that’s about right.”

The challenge, then, is to keep it fresh and new despite the repetition. Try a few new things, sub out some tired recipes or rotate things in and out.

Balancing tradition and innovation is hard, whether it’s on Thanksgiving or in your choir program. I both admire and don’t envy the conductors who are in their third decade (or more) in one spot. By then, so many traditions can build up, it’s hard to change anything at all. Even if you’ve outgrown that recipe, your community is hungry for it.

What do you do to keep your choral program fresh? How do you balance building traditions that are rewarding with reflecting what you are passionate about today? Continuing to cook recipes that no longer excite you is a great way to burn out – not every tradition is as timeless as the chess pies are for me and my family.

I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving full of old traditions and new favorites.

Thanksgiving Playlist

If you’re like me, you’ve already loaded up your CD player and devices with Christmas music; but today you should give it a rest. Celebrate Thanksgiving with some classic Americana on the stereo.

Here are a few listening recommendations to accompany your time in the kitchen and at the table.

A Harvest Home (Cantus) – a recording of one of their annual Thanksgiving with Cantus NPR broadcasts.

Harvest Home (Dale Warland Singers) – Beautifully sung Americana in lovely choral settings.

Blue Wheat (Dale Warland Singers) – More Americana from Dale Warland et al.

Saints Bound For Heaven (Alice Parker/Melodious Accord) – A collection of Alice’s settings of folk songs, spirituals, and hymns.

The Stephen Foster Songbook (Robert Shaw Chorale) – Parker/Shaw tackle the great Stephen Foster.

The Hi-Lo’s Happen to Folk Songs (The Hi-Lo’s) – really, anything by the Hi-Lo’s is great and sounds like America to me.

There are two radio programs to stream from Minnesota Public Radio: Thanksgiving with Cantus and Giving Thanks.

Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, John Williams, George Gershwin – what sounds like America to you this Thanksgiving? Let me know!

Stock Up

Choral conductors – time to stock up.

Here’s hoping today begins a few days of breathing, gratitude, food, family. It will for me.

I am also trying to be intentional about filling up on patience and restfulness.

December is when everyone remembers about the beauty of choirs – and wants to hear them. You’ll spend the four weeks slammed with gigs, gig requests, caroling parties, tree lightings, concerts, and on and on. To say nothing of the universal business of parties, shopping, and school events that come along with December.

Exactly a month from now you’ll be sitting Christmas morning, taking your first deep breath since… right now.

There’s no avoiding it; just keep moving forward and stock up now, while you can.

Simple Gifts

Have you ever really read the words to this classic Shaker tune?

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

When you find yourself and the clarity of love and freedom, you don’t have to be rigid in your dogma, in your interactions, in your life. Flexibility is the natural state for someone who comes from a place of love.

The window for “Thanksgiving music” is so very brief – especially if, like me, you’re already listening to Christmas music. But there’s a lot of beautiful music especially for this week, and much of it is choral. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.


How The Story Ends

Do your singers know how the story ends?

When you read a story, there are dozens of little clues that can help you know from the beginning how it’s going to end. the cover art, the blurb, past stories by the same author, the genre, the tone of the opening paragraphs.

You take all this in subconsciously. Without these clues, reading a story can be unsettling. You literally don’t know what will happen next. That unease can lead to a negative impression of the story.

What about the story of your rehearsal. Do your singers know what’s going to happen? You don’t have to hand out your rehearsal plan, but you should have milestones, signposts.

Be unpredictable, but within a framework they understand. Be creative, but not so unfamiliar that they are grasping at straws to keep up with you.

If your singers know, generally, how the story ends, they are more likely to stick with it – and you.

Coping with Adversity in Performance

The deck isn’t always stacked in your favor in performance.

Maybe the acoustics of the hall make it difficult to hear; maybe your section leader double-booked himself and is missing the performance; maybe other members are sick and throwing up just off stage.

Maybe it’s all three of those things. Or any number of others.

No performance is perfect and no performance has to be catastrophic.

It is your responsibility to deliver the best music you can. Sometimes that’s relaxing into the performance you are comfortable giving.

Other times, it’s resolve: intently giving the performance you want to make despite adversity.

It requires strong will and confidence; it requires the hard work of knowing your part so well you can sing it when you are the only one left. It requires trust in the singers around you.

Music is waiting to be made every time a choir begins to perform.

Do not let temporary challenges get in the way.

Publishers’ Errata

This is an open call for publishers and/or composers to maintain errata online.

This week I caught two errors in two different scores (of the three I was conducting). I looked on publishers’ websites to no avail – not only did the individual score page have no information, there was no centralized location for errata.

Considering the breadth of publishers’ sites, it should be simple to add a source to check for possible errors. Until they exist, these are the possible outcomes:

  1. Composers receive repeated calls/emails with the same questions.
  2. Conductors edit pieces without knowing the composers’ intent.
  3. Pieces are performed wrong because typos aren’t corrected.

Errors happen, of course. Let’s work together to fix them.

If I were a publisher, I might even propose a small typo reward. If you’re the first to catch an error in a score, you get a $1 credit toward a future order.

Let us help you.

Love Your Choirs

If I always show love to my choir, I run the risk of having a bad egg taking advantage of me.

If I don’t show love to my choir, I run the risk of having good eggs go bad.

The world needs more love. In my rehearsals, in my interactions, in my life, I choose to show unconditional love.

Everyone is deserving of love. Everyone.