First Inversion

In Friday’s RAMChoir rehearsal, I had 40+ tenors and basses in a room, learning four pieces for an hour and half. (After school on a Friday!)

As an arranger at heart, I love to pepper my rehearsals with theoretical questions and an eye to what’s happening musically. Friday, that ended up being about first-inversion chords.

First-inversion chords are inherently unstable. They want to move.

In Hard Times Come Again No More, Alice Parker’s arrangement begins the third verse with a cappella 4-part harmony. A three part “Ah” supports baritone melody – first in an inert, close root position chord, but then, two beats later, she widens to an open position with the third in the bass (a low G).

I argued with myself for a split second about taking a minute to explain this, and how it propels the music forward. There is a lot to work on, and we are performing five pieces with only about 7 hours of rehearsal over six weeks.

But in the end, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend 90 seconds than to help my choir zoom in and out from a birds-eye-view to a microscope. I want my singers to understand the detail that goes into effective music making, and how their singing can acknowledge the detail to great effect.

(Subsequently, we were able to find similar uses of first-inversion chords in two other places, in Hard Times and in a piece I arranged; this continuity of function helped to drill home the method and, hopefully, turn first-inversion chords into a recognizable phenomenon in future music they sing.

Smart musicians make good music.

Shaw Centenary

Robert Shaw, arguably the most influential American choral conductor of the 20th century, would have been 100 today.

He left us before I had moved from vocal jazz to a wider love of choral music, so I never had the chance to experience his legendary conducting, as so many of my colleagues did. Nonetheless, he has profoundly affected my work as an arranger and conductor, through his writings (remarkable letters), through my teachers (Alice Parker and Duane Davis), and through his music (recorded and co-written with Alice). Even now, I don’t think I have had a conversation about music with Alice that didn’t include her saying, “As Shaw used to say…”

Take a minute to celebrate his remarkable legacy with listening and reading. Here’s a favorite quote to get you started.

“You don’t join the Collegiate Chorale. You believe it. It’s very damn near a religion. It’s a way of life. Either you feel the fellow next to you is an important human being and you like him and you try desperately to understand how he feels about what he sings about, and pool your creative passions to make something a damn sight bigger than either of you could make alone–or this isn’t your kind of choir. Either the music you sing is torn out of you–or you ought not to be singing.” (1943)

Thank you, Maestro, for the wonderful push you gave to our profession.


Mandatory Sports

Tim Ferriss’ podcast can be excellent: he brings on smart, wise guests and gives them the space to tell stories worth listening to.

But sometimes he can say pretty crazy stuff. Indeed, he’s known for pushing the envelope of sanity in personal development.

But what got me calling him “Crazy Tim Ferris” was when, in his most recent podcast, he said that “I think that sports should be mandatory in elementary school and high school.”

This is crazy.

Let me be clear: I am writing this as an arts educator and advocate. But I don’t think performing arts should be mandatory in high school, either.

His logic is fairly sound – “Sports enable you to inoculate yourself against fear and failure because you are constantly delivered small doses of both, and you have to contend with them in a sports arena, where success is objectively determined.” Well, relatively sound.

But this is true in virtually every properly administered educational experience. Math class. Voice lessons. Literally every learning opportunity.

Athletics have a place in education, and we certainly should provide opportunities for every student to learn how to care for her physical health. And compete if she so desires.

But mandatory? That’s crazy.

Go Big Or Go Home

That’s the unofficial – and very popular – motto of my school district. It’s profoundly affected my aim.

The intent isn’t “succeed or quit”. The idea is, a failure from aiming high is way more worthwhile than a success from aiming low.

What you have to lose from chasing outsized dreams is much less than you think.

What you have to lose from only pursuing modest dreams is profound.

Go big. Raise $25,000 in two years for autism research with A Cappella for Autism.

Go big. Livestream your concerts from Europe and produce daily update videos.

Go big. Take your downtime between shows and write an original duet show – and premiere it at Birdland.

Go big. Audition. Apply. Commission. Dream. Travel. Learn. Experiment. Fail and try again.

May Premiere

Commissioned premieres are a special kind of anxiety and stress.

First comes month of discussion, negotiation, waiting for the piece to arrive.

Then, if you’re lucky, the piece is a beautiful, challenging piece that pushes your ensemble in the best possible ways.

Hours spent in rehearsal, interaction with the composer, feedback, revisions, more rehearsal.

Finally the day comes, and you stand in your concert attire and present the piece to its first audience. Your choir is ready and bring it to life for the first time.

A year of preparation is transformed into three or four minutes of sharing on a stage. The circle is completed from composer to conductor to performer to listener.

The next day, you rest and reflect on the journey. You are tired, but you are ready to try again.

A hearty thank you to Michael McGlynn, the Rockford Education Foundation, the Rockford Choirs and families, and most of all the thirteen Rockford Aces for a wonderful premiere of May last evening. I think my job is to be a midwife in the delivery of the new work to the world, and I’m so proud to be a part of this one.

What’s next?

Discipline in the Downtime

I get the value of procrastinating; creativity can require the pressure of a looming deadline to flower. As Calvin tells Hobbes, “You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood. … Last-minute panic.”

The danger is that we all have decided to apply this same logic to non-creative work.

The deadline is looming for paperwork…tidying the living room…signing up…buying tickets to a concert.

Why am I waiting? What value is there in procrastinating this work? I won’t do it more creatively down the road. I will just do it with the added pressure of no wiggle room.

At this point in the school year, all the events have bunched up and there is no time left for anything but grabbing as fast as you can at spinning plates.

It’s about having the discipline in the downtime to work ahead on as many projects as you can. Pre-crastinate on the non-creative work, so you can be creative on creativity’s timeline without so many plates to spin.

Learn to differentiate between valuable procrastination and worthless delay.

Does it Write?

I recently enjoyed a small excerpt from Louis CK’s recent conversation with Marc Maron on his podcast. In describing the development of his new show, Horace and Pete, Louis describes the ultimate test of your ideas.

“Does it write?”

All the good ideas in the world are nothing if they don’t flow into something worthwhile.

Have a great concept? Don’t spend too long dreaming before you try implementing it.

I have certainly seen musical ideas, writing ideas, family strategies go unfulfilled because while they were great in concept, they didn’t write.

On the other hand, I have felt the exhilaration of having an idea work in practice, spurring continued growth.

Anytime you’re beginning a new creative endeavor, the question “Does it write?” is essential to ask early in your process.

Keep Singing In College

It’s that time of year where we watch seniors get ready to go. Many have made their post-high school plans and are starting to wonder whether they’ll sing in a choir again.

In my experience, if they don’t join a choir as soon as they start college, they never do. They get busy with other social activities and never find their way back.

That’s where we come in as high school choir teachers. It’s our job to remind them that their journey isn’t over when they sing at graduation: there is a lifetime of music to make, and experiences we couldn’t give them while they were with us.

Best of all, it’s where Andrew Minear and his team come in with the Keep Singing Project. Their mission is to connect graduating high school students with college choral conductors to help a bigger percentage of them to find the right choir in college.

I just tried the form – it takes 3 minutes or less to complete. Every high school choir senior should be completing this! In class!

I find abiding joy in seeing my students continue to sing – and dearly wish more of them did. This initiative helps.

And a sustained shout out to Andrew and his growing team (30 states are now represented with local assistance). Andrew had a big, audacious dream and is making it happen.

Pout or Create

Wise words from Duke Ellington this Saturday:

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.”

First, let’s just acknowledge that if his music had been expressed in pout form, it would have been the most epic, legendary pout in history. That is some substantial pain he alchemized into music.

Second, ask yourself: Am I pouting or creating?

How can you transfer your own pain into art? What would you gain if you made art every day?

Broadway Story

Students – and my own children – respond so passionately to musical theatre music. Many of them live and breathe it.

(Judging from the increasingly dysfunctional college audition process, this is true across the country. I’m told it’s harder to get into a top 10 music theatre program than it is to get into Harvard!)

I think I know one of the reasons. We are hardwired for story. As humans, we crave storytelling and gravitate to a well-crafted story.

Broadway in the post-Rodgers & Hammerstein area has prioritized storytelling at multiple levels, from the plot of the show to the individual song. A well-crafted contemporary “show tune” conjures up an entire world with its storytelling. Among his many skills, Stephen Sondheim is a master storyteller.

It’s ironic that as Broadway has evolved to more storytelling, my favorite music, jazz singing, has evolved away from storytelling. Billie Holiday was nothing if not a storyteller. But we use songs from the pre-storytelling Broadway era (Gershwin, Porter) and focus increasingly on harmony, improvisation, intellectual games.

Is it any wonder that it’s harder to sell students on Jazz than on Broadway?

I leave you with a fully-conjured world in four minutes, from an old friend and brilliant storyteller, Celia Keenan-Bolger.