New Listening: James Taylor “Before This World”

James Taylor averaged a new original album every 16 months in the 1970s – not counting his 11X platinum Greatest Hits released in 1976.

His album “Before This World“, released on June 16, is his first album of original music since 2002. James Taylor fans have been waiting – which is probably why it’s his first album ever to reach the #1 position in the charts.

It’s an excellent album, among his finest. From the beginning, he sounds at once fresh and familiar. In a recent interview with Howard Stern, he described his music as having a “palliative” effect on his fans – and indeed, there is a a sense of peace that imbues the album.

Of course we see familiar themes – love songs, road songs. But I am struck especially on this album in the way he embraces his troubadour position, writing songs that would not sound out of place on an album of 19th century ballads. Listen to Wild Mountain Thyme and you’ll understand. His mastery includes what sounds like old English folk songs with “Jolly Springtime.”

He also consciously connects himself to his own tradition – for example, the guitar interlude in the center of “Before This World/Jolly Springtime” is closely connected to his “Carry Me On My Way” from October Road.

Enjoy also the lovely contributions from guests Sting, Yo Yo Ma, and of course his own house band, including Steve Gadd, Larry Goldings, Jimmy Johnson and more.

I recommend it!

Programming Ideas Recap

There are lots of things that a good choral program does every year – a little Renaissance, a little Baroque, a little Lauridsen or Whitacre.

Here are three ideas for revitalizing your programming with out-of-the-box ideas.

These are just a few ways to get out of a programming rut – let me know some of yours!

Music Theory Isn’t Hard (Yes It Is)

I came up through the Kostka/Payne theory textbooks in high school and college; a generation earlier and I’d doubtless have been a Piston student.
The first two semesters of college theory, you’ll remember, are mostly devoted to chorale-style part writing. Learn to write a Bach chorale, the thought goes, and you’ll be well-versed in harmony and basic counterpoint.
So we learn the rules and mimic them in exercises graded on parallel 5ths, contrary motion, and so on. And year after year, thousands of lifeless examples are created.
It doesn’t need to be rule-driven. Here’s an approach to have you writing Bach chorales in a year, no problem. Alice suggests in “The Answering Voice” to get a set of Bach Chorales (free online!). Every day, take one chorale melody, and try to write a bass line worthy of Bach. Compare with his original; then try to write two voices to complete the chorale.
Write one a day – 16 to 32 measures – and you’ll internalize the rules in no time, without needing to codify them as memorizable rules.
There are so many skills you can master in this way: write code (and then compare with a completed version); bake a loaf of bread (and then compare to a bakery); write a TV show script on spec (and compare to online transcripts); run (and keep track of your progress).
It’s so easy to say – do a small task, compare with a polished product, and iterate again and again until you’re a master.
So easy, and so hard. We choose to memorize the rules because it’s easy to get from novice to mediocre that way. But then it’s much harder to get from there to music.

A Fourth of July to Remember

One of the high points of the Rockford Choirs 2014 European Tour was undoubtedly a stop en route to Vienna.

One year ago today, on the Fourth of July, we 57 Americans stopped at Mauthausen Concentration Camp. It had been liberated by American forces on May 5, 1945.

This camp is recognizable for its granite quarry (with its 186 “Stairs of Death”), its position in the Viennese countryside (not far from homes) and now its striking sculpture park, with memorial sculptures donated by countries across the world.

Singing together in the Sculpture Garden

Singing together in the Sculpture Garden

It was in that sculpture park that we joined hands closed eyes, and sang Frank Ticheli’s Earth Song. Its first words became the title of our CD, “sing…be…live…see…” and this moment became a touchstone for everyone on the tour.

Here’s our performance about a week later in Riga, Latvia.

Surrounded by Art

I’ve been visiting a home surrounded by books. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves across three stories hold easily 10,000 volumes on every subject imaginable. There are paintings on the walls and several thousand CDs of great music.

How would it affect someone to be surrounded by books, by music, by art when they’re growing up?

There is a profound effect on kids when they see literature and art truly valued by the adults they look up to. All the reading tutors, piano lessons, dance classes in the world couldn’t make up for a home where the arts are marginalized. Conversely, a home full of art can make up for lots of missed opportunities elsewhere.

If you value books, show it to your kids. If you love art, make art part of your life. Your kids will be forever improved by it.

(And thanks, Mom and Dad.)

New Website

I’ve been working for a couple of months developing a new version of my home on the web. Please take a minute to poke around!

Construction is non-stop in websites and I have some things to clean up, but overall I’m pleased with the design. The blog should continue unabated, though the links will change, and hopefully both work better and look better going forward.

It’s been a long time since I have done any hand-coding (check out my early design of the Gold Company Website here). I’m glad I don’t do it every day, I’m glad I can do it if necessary, and I’m glad to have had help from the _s theme tutorial.

Sing With Your Kids

“Ah, music! A magic beyond all we do here!”
– Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone


The value of reading aloud to your child is well-documented. And the joy of sharing books like the Harry Potter series with your kids can’t be overstated.

Just as important, though often overlooked, is singing with your child.

We know that making music helps establish and enhance many brain functions – and kids love to learn and sing new songs.

Our current anti-amateur approach to music means we tend to leave the music to the professionals – a Pandora Children’s Music channel, perhaps? But singing together with your child will do far more for them on many levels.

Don’t worry about your voice, your ear, your sound. Just sing with your kids. Every day.

[PS: this goes for all elementary school teachers, too. Never let a day go by without singing in class.]

Practicing Compassion

Piano. Reading. Yoga.

We learn to practice the skills that we value in life, but many think of compassion as a trait, not a skill. What if it isn’t? What if compassion is a muscle we can exercise and build? Who would then argue that we shouldn’t teach, exercise, cultivate compassion?

In a November 2009 broadcast of On Being, Krista Tippett interviewed Buddhist monk and neuroscientist Matthieu Ricard. He had this to say:

I mean, you cannot, in the same moment of thought, wish to do something good to someone or harm that person. So those are mutually incompatible like hot and cold water. So the more you will bring benevolence in your mind, at every of those moments there’s no space for hatred. It’s just very simple, but we don’t do that. We do exercise every morning 20 minutes to be fit. We don’t sit for 20 minutes to cultivate compassion. If we want to do so, our mind will change, our brain will change. What we are will change. So those are skills. They need to be, first, identified, then cultivated. What is good to learn chess, well, you have to practice and all that. In the same way, we all have thoughts of altruistic love. Who didn’t have that? But the common goal, we don’t cultivate that.

Do you learn to piano by playing 20 seconds every two weeks? It doesn’t work. So why, by what kind of mystery some of the most important quality of human beings will be optimal just because you wish so, doesn’t make any sense.


What are you doing to cultivate compassion? 

Composing Sight Reading: Priorities

I’m in the midst of writing sight reading exercises for MSVMA 2016 Festivals; here are my top-5 criteria in composing the exercises.
5. Appropriate intervallic material. MSVMA designates three levels of sight reading at the high school level, each with specific permitted intervals.
4. Appropriate rhythmic material. Same as 5.
3. Progressive challenges on the page. The three excerpts should build on one another, with more challenges coming later as the students integrate the musical perspective of the exercise.
2. Knowledge of what is tricky at various levels. I want to write materials that challenge the students without resorting to strategically placed mines. (For example, establishing tonality and fundamental rhythm in measure 1 of an exercise makes the entire excerpt more successful; writing m.1 so that students build confidence means that later measures can be more challenging.)
And most important,
1. Musicality. Sight reading excerpts are very easy to write as intellectual hurdles – the musical equivalent of an SAT math test. The end result of that approach is an exercise that isn’t musically satisfying or intuitive. If, instead, you write with musicality as your priority, you can actually write more challenging music and offer a truer test of the students’ musicality – it sings like music and offers a consistent musical perspective.
It’s one of the most challenging commissions I get each year to meet the goals I’ve set for myself; I liken it to a three-dimensional crossword puzzle. Every measure interacts with the rest in intricate ways to create the whole.


The end result is worth it, though – if students walk away from their festival feeling as if sight reading was a rewarding and musical part of their experience, then they are more likely to continue doing it!


Sunsets draw people in almost without fail.
Why? What is it about a five-minute daily occurrence that transfixes us and nourishes our souls?
For me, it’s a primal connection – it’s the same sunset that my ancestors have experienced; it connects me to a constancy in the world.
Further, it’s a way to mark a daily cycle. In a 21st-century world that includes 24-hour cable, Netflix, and social media always ready for browsing, it reminds me that every day has a beginning and an end.
Last night’s sunset…



I need that reminder; don’t you?