O Come, O Come Emmanuel

This setting of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was among my first exposures to the compositional style of Alice Parker and Robert Shaw, and it remains for me a fine example of Alice’s way of thinking about arranging. I sang it hundreds of times with my caroling group in the late ’90s.

(Here’s the Robert Shaw Chorale recording.)

Note the emphasis on the melody at the start and throughout – unison bass voices, unison treble voices, unison bass voices for the first half of each verse. On the refrain, the harmony blossoms into three part TTB on the first and third verses, and SATB homophony on the middle verse.

My favorite part, though, is the way she “harmonizes” the second and third verses over the unison melody. In the second, Alice made the lovely discovery that the melody could be augmented rhythmically to produce a countermelody. Listen just to the bass voices starting at around 0:52 – it’s the same melody, just slower, until the very end.) This is so Alice – harmony is resultant, never the first thought.

In the third verse (1:39), she crafts a beautiful rhythmic counter-rhythm in the treble voices, spinning away on just the words “O Come” – the core text of the piece, repeated for emphasis. It reminds me of the Hallelujahs in the later part of her setting of “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal” – a mantra of sorts on just one textual element. Note, too, that the repetition allows her to find some striking dissonance without challenging the ear – because, again, the harmony is resultant of strong melodic material in all voices.

I love this setting of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” for its sparkling clarity, its avoidance of unnecessary complexity, its intentional focus on text and melody. For me, it’s a prime example of the elements that form the core of Alice Parker’s compositional style.

Five Minutes a Day

I’ve been repeating my mentor’s mantra for years: “Five minutes a day” was what Steve Zegree constantly encouraged his students to put in on various skills, from ii-V-I’s to sight reading to improvisation.

I’ve repeated and believed it, but somehow I always put subconscious exceptions in, without even realizing it. That was a mistake.

Yesterday, Duolingo gave me a little update, saying I’m now 20% fluent in Swedish. This over about two months of daily practice (I broke my streak for one day on November 9), spending as little as 5-10 minutes per day.

What. #duolingo #svenska

A photo posted by Jed Scott (@jedscottmusic) on

I had never exactly ruled out achieving fluency in a language from those same five minutes a day – but I hadn’t ruled it in, either.

My message to myself and to you is that you should rule it in. Whatever you want to learn to do, assume that the five-minute rule applies, and start putting a streak together.

In 2016, the tools to achieve fluency – in music, language, cooking, or any other skill imaginable – are more available than ever before. So what are you going to do with five minutes a day?

Musical Gratitude

Dear choir directors in December:

This is just a reminder that you get to make music every day for a living. As you proceed through another stressful December of tree lightings, Madrigal Dinners, caroling nights, solo auditions, extra rehearsals, and more, be sure to take a minute for gratitude. It costs nothing to feel grateful and it will give you strength to just keep moving forward.

Right now, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that you get to bring music to the world.

Feels good, doesn’t it?

The World For Christmas

Every year December arrives and with it, this beautiful, powerful message from Anders Edenroth and The Real Group. It’s now published so you can sing it with your own choir.

I only want the world for Christmas,
The blue-green, forever turning
World for Christmas.
Nothing more, and nothing less.
I want it for keeps and I promise to share,
So that everyone who wants can cuddle and care.
I only want the world for chistmas,
The blue-green, forever turning
World for Christmas,
To restore, to repossess;
Please make it last, my fate is in your hands.
Oh give me a present for the future.

Wooden Wednesdays: Intentness

Note: this is the ninth of a series of posts investigating the leadership style of John Wooden and its applicability to choral music education.

John Wooden’s fourth and final block in the second tier of his Pyramid of Success is INTENTNESS.

Wooden says, “This personal quality may be as important as any within the Pyramid. It is the ability to stay the course even when that course is most difficult and the obstacles seem insurmountable. You do not quit: Intentness.”


I use a different word when I think about this: grit. Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk and book address in compelling detail the importance of teaching and encouraging this skill in students. It goes to show that Wooden was dealing with timeless concepts and his pyramid, completed in 1948, focused on concepts that remain relevant to us all.

I’ve written about grit and perseverance before, and I’ll avoid repeating myself, except to say this: viewing failure as a temporary setback, not a permanent condition, seems to be a core part of developing grit. Additionally, intentness is is skill, not an innate ability. It can be encouraged, enhanced, even taught.

Wooden says, “Be persistent. Be determined. Be tenacious. Be unrelenting. The road to achievement is rocky, hard, and long. Things easily achieved are rarely long-lasting or significant.”

How do you teach intentness? We can take steps to encourage it, but I don’t think it’s a skill that develops quickly. In fact, that might be an argument for music class as a prime place to learn it. The simple fact of teacher continuity across four or more years enables students to really internalize the lesson of intentness.

We can of course teach by example: by leading the charge of struggle through the hard times, the tough rehearsals, the out-of-tunes problem spots. By seeing us struggle and overcome obstacles, our students will internalize this as the normal process.

Second, we teach by explanation. Clear communication about what constitutes failure, and strategies for moving past temporary failure, must be a regular part of our in-class discussions. Giving our students the means to think about failure as a vital part of the process, empowering them to have the INTENTNESS to overcome that failure, and sharing with them the tools to move forward: these are our responsibilities as teachers, far more than any specific musical skill we might teach.

As Wooden says, “If you have Intentness and your ability warrants it you will eventually reach the top of the Pyramid.”

Regardless of the particular pyramid you want to conquer, intentness is necessary to get you there. It’s true in basketball, it’s true in choir, it’s true in politics, law, medicine, and every other career you might pursue.


How To Think

During rehearsal last night, I misremembered a quote in a TV news story. Here’s how I stated it, as a jumping-off point. “It’s not teachers’ job to tell us how to think.” That’s a misquote, but a useful place to start in discussing metacognition and the value of cognitive dissonance.

Here’s the letter I wrote late last night, correcting the quotation and expanding my thinking.


Just an update with clarification and a nod to B., who accurately remembered the quote from the TV story (I sadly misremembered and misstated the intent.) Here’s what the interviewee actually said:

“We are here to learn, not hear about what people think.”

Regardless of whether you agree with the meaning of that statement, it’s different than what I wanted to discuss, which is that I’m here to teach you how to think. It’s really the most sacred duty I have, and I think every teacher has: to teach students how to assimilate new information, recognize and correct bias, and expand their worldview when confronted with new information.

That is, how to think.

I teach it through music – whether it’s critical thinking about musical analysis, composer’s intent, phrasing, vowel shape, musical decisions, or larger philosophical questions. (Guess what? Tonight we thought as a group about each of those.)

I hope you leave every rehearsal having thought, and having gotten better at thinking.

I know most of you will not pursue a career in music (though I hope each of you keeps singing for the rest of your life). Why do I place importance on the music theory, the critical thinking, the pursuit of excellence, the rigors of musicianship? Not because I think you’ll necessarily use them, as such, in your career in law or medicine or real estate or elementary education. It’s because I think by approaching these questions with a seriousness of purpose, and honoring them with deep thought and respect, you will become better thinkers – and that cannot help but improve your future.

Of course, I do think you need to hear what I think. Not about politics, though–about music. And I need to hear what you think, too. We make our best music when we care and listen; and music is a subjective art, where what we think is front and center. (Algebra doesn’t care what you think; music does.)

Keep thinking. And keep getting better at it.

The Choral Month

The next month or so is the Choral Month. I mean it in two ways.

First, this is the month everyone wants to hear choirs sing. A well-placed Silent Night or Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas is exactly what people are seeking right now. Nostalgia, sentimentality, long memories: these combine to make people crave the sound of people singing together.

Second, this is the month when everyone is willing to sing along. Aside from the seventh inning stretch’s Take Me Out to the Ballgame, it’s hard to think of another time when people willingly sing along. (Even the National Anthem has become professionalized, and people stop singing.)

But in December, you’ll find many people willing to jump into multiple verses of Deck the Halls, add the “hey” to Jingle Bells.

As the choral leader in your community, it’s up to you to capitalize on both of the meanings of this Choral Month. First, let people hear your choir. Second, be the one starting those sing-alongs. Anytime you are together with a group, see if you can’t get a carol started. In the last three days, we’ve gotten a bunch of strangers singing along while getting our Christmas tree, going for a carriage ride, and around a house full of kids and non-musicians. It’s simple: start singing, make eye contact in an inviting way, and keep singing!

Of course, you don’t need to be a conductor to start a sing-along…just the boldness to start. And couldn’t we all use a little more group singing?

MiniBreak Fever

Over the last 30+ years of being involved in education (on one side or the other), I can’t remember a time when I didn’t come down with MiniBreak Fever after a hiatus longer than 4 days.

MiniBreak Fever symptoms include:

  1. Certainty that you no longer know what you’re doing.
  2. Feeling so far behind you’ll never catch up.
  3. Fear that you no longer know any of the other people involved.

It’s real; you may suffer from it, and certainly so do many of your students.

So go easy tomorrow. Go easy on yourself, go easy on your students.

MiniBreak Fever dissipates within a few hours of returning to school. Your calm, welcoming, non-judging attitude will help it to resolve even faster.

Head Voice Example

I am always on the lookout for examples of men using their head voice effectively. A well-developed head voice is one of the biggest keys to a vibrant and healthful TTBB choir sound. Students need to hear and assimilate this vocal technique.

Which is why I’m so happy that Leslie Odom, Jr.’s star has risen alongside Hamilton. As Aaron Burr, and more recently with his two solo albums, he typifies for me the healthful and potent use of head voice. As far as I’m concerned, my students can’t listen to his singing enough – and try to imitate his sweet, smooth sound.

Now that we’re past Thanksgiving, I encourage you to put his brand new Christmas album into regular rotation. It’s a fabulous listen, and it’s educational to boot!


The Journey May Leave a Scar

Sometimes the world seems against you.
The journey may leave a scar,
But scars can heal and reveal
Just who you are.
The people you love will change you,
The things you have learned will guide you,
And nothing on Earth can silence
The quiet voice still inside you.

I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors), lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Disney’s Moana is an outstanding animated film, not least because of the excellent contributions of Lin-Manuel Miranda as songwriter. (He wrote seven outstanding songs, including my current favorite, Shiny.)

But I love the message of the lyrics above best. (This was one of three moments I teared up during the movie).

We all have to learn to let our scars heal and guide us without letting them define us.

Go see this in the theaters while it’s there. The beautiful panoramas, the epic nature of an adventure across the Pacific: these warrant an immersive experience. And then be thankful that master storyteller Jon Lasseter is the guiding hand behind both Pixar and Disney Animation.