Positive or Silent

I give myself two choices with my opinions: have something positive to say, or be silent.

Life is beautiful, and complex, and I want to add positivity and light into the world. So if I’m speaking out loud, or writing here or anywhere, it’s either positive skipped.

It’s easy to write criticisms of things, but there is already a surplus of negativity. Takedowns can be fun, but they don’t make the world better.

What do you choose for your discourse? Positive, negative, neutral? Silent or out loud? Additive or subtractive?

Join me in limiting your choices to positive or silent.

Put Play Back Into It

This time of year is a great time for most choral professionals to take a step back and try to put play back into the work they do.

You got into this work because you loved it. Because it brought you joy. There was a time when making music with a choir, for you, was like playing a game.

Maybe it still is – but you likely get bogged down in the drudge work that accompanies any job, and you can forget to play with your passion.

Now is a time to play, laugh, experiment. Put off the paperwork and only do parts of the job that bring you pleasure. Many choral directors are pianists, so maybe that’s an hour with Chopin. Or maybe it’s doing a summer group sing sponsored by another organization – don’t conduct or play, just join a section and sing! Or maybe you want to pick up The Real Book and figure out how to play a bunch of songs in 5/4. Or maybe you invite a group of friends for an evening of singing madrigals or Stanford or Abbie Betinis.

What part of your choral job feels like playing a game? Do more of that.

The Liability of Streaks

I’ve become a big believer in using streaks as a way to develop habits and skills.

But there’s a liability with resting your motivation on your streak. Every streak is temporary. Literally every streak.

If your motivation comes entirely from the streak, it’s easy to lose motivation, momentum, and all progress when you lose your streak.

But think: say you had built a 100-day streak of practice. Missing a day, in the grand scheme, is minor. But missing the subsequent week after that first day has two big consequences.

  1. It stops forward progress in its tracks.
  2. It actually goes back in time and erases some of the progress you made previously.

Keep track of the streak, yes. Be proud of the number you’ve reached, of course. But don’t quit when you make a tiny misstep. You owe it to the work you accomplished in your recently-ended streak to not let one missed day end your pursuit.

Start again. Begin building a new streak, mindful of both its value and its impermanence.

Summer Technology Assignment

There are so many available technologies to make choir directors’ lives easier. But I don’t think any is more useful than InDesign.

Here are some of the many ways I use InDesign on a weekly basis:

  • Concert Programs – Unlike word processing programs (e.g. the ubiquitous  MS-Word), In InDesign objects and words stay where you put them. No more wrestling with the strangeness that is program layout in Word.
  • Social Media – Instagram/Facebook/Twitter images with text are easy to put together in InDesign and export at just the right resolution.
  • Shirt Design – Easy to do in InDesign and export for your shirt printer’s use.
  • Posters – Again, a desktop publisher like InDesign is much better suited to this than a word processor like Word.
  • CD Graphic Design – I save hundreds of dollars on every CD by not outsourcing the layout and design work.

Learning the software is fairly straightforward, and the results are tremendous. My suggestion is: take the summer to learn how to use the software! My plan is to get as much design work done this summer for the entire year – I may need to change some details or drop in a new image, but I can do most of the work now, now that the calendar is done. No more rushing to get things done!

And good news: for educators and students, the entire Adobe Creative Cloud (including Photoshop (image), Illustrator (vector), Premiere (video), and comprehensive mobile apps) for 60% off – $19.99/month. They’re all great tools. I use InDesign the most, but you may find a workflow that works better for you.

Your summer technology assignment: subscribe to Adobe Creative Suite, learn InDesign, and get a head start on your graphic design for the next school year.

Note: Nobody pays me anything to write – I just really love this software.

How To Become An Expert

  1. Use what you know now to get curious.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. Discover their answers.
  4. Repeat from Step 1.

Follow for 10 years, and discover your expertise.

New Dishes

We all get into ruts in our cooking – week after week, the same meals in tight rotation. The challenge is boredom with the food. The advantage is the recipes is familiar, so it takes less thought to prepare. You can make mac & cheese in your sleep, and even some tricky recipes can come together almost mindlessly with enough repetition.

When work commitments slacken, it’s time to be adventurous – pore through cookbooks and magazines, try new recipes, buy ingredients to force yourself to use them. Ultimately, you hope that some will make it into the rotation…maybe superseding a tired dish. Others will be failures that you never make again. That’s the price of the adventure.

The same is true of the music we select for our ensembles. We can lean heavily on a piece, a composer, even a period. Eventually, the patterns begin to get tired or repetitive.

For many of us, summer is the time to try out new things – read through literature, program adventurous new pieces for the fall, maybe grab a few friends to read music together.

You might program some duds. You might pick things too hard, too easy, too esoteric. Things that don’t engage your students or don’t teach the lessons you want to teach.

But you might also find that remarkable piece that does exactly what you need it to do – one that you’ll return to again and again during your career.

You might find a new favorite dish.

Rules and Insiders

I saw an improv comedy show this weekend, and it left me reflecting on rules and insiders.

Improv has a lot of rules guiding the behavior for participants. (Here’s Del Close’s 11 Commandments). Until you really know the rules, you might feel in the dark. You will be entertained by good improv, but until you understand the rules – until you’re an insider – you won’t be able to really speak to why certain performances are better than others.

The same is true in many fields, particularly insular ones with avid insiders. Consider vocal jazz. There are a lot of specific rules to effective jazz vocal group singing. Many of them are rarely made clear in advance: they’re learned through participation. That’s fine – sing in a good vocal jazz group and I’ll guarantee that (a) you’ll learn these rules, and (b) you’ll want to do it again.

But it leaves uninitiated people feeling a little clueless – makes it difficult for them to join in.

It was when Del Close and others started teaching classes in improv that it really took off – because actors and others could learn the rules, which were then further clarified and written down. He made outsiders into insiders, and they helped spread it further.

We in the vocal jazz world need to do a better job of the same.

The Music of Jeremy Fox

Dr. Jeremy Fox is a wonderful, Grammy-nominated jazz/choral composer, arranger, and conductor. He has been on the faculty of Indiana University and Southwestern Community College (Iowa), where he will return this fall. He is brilliant, humble, and incredibly big-hearted.

He leads marvelous week-long summer camps, including the SMV Vocal Jazz Camps around the country, as well as The Jazz Harmony Retreat, a workshop designed for choral educators interested in expanding their knowledge of vocal jazz.

In that vein, it seems to me that Dr. Fox, while well-known in the vocal jazz world, is woefully under-appreciated in the choral world. He is currently published by UNC Jazz Press, Sound Music Publications, Alfred, and through his own website.

With that in mind, here are a few of his vocal works that would be suitable for performance by choral ensembles as well as vocal jazz groups. You can click the links above for full lists of his pieces; I’ve selected three for you to start with.

 

I Will (Lennon/McCartney)

Who doesn’t love this Beatles song? Jeremy has written this beautiful arrangement to feature a female soloist with beautiful background vocals and a fully-written piano part (perfect for a pianist not conversant in jazz). I’m totally in love with this arrangement since hearing it performed by several ensembles in March.

 

Amazing Grace (Gospel style – SSAA or SATB)

Fun, gospely, driving version of this classic song. Again, it’s fully notated for the jazz newbies, but features chords for more advanced players. Includes full rhythm section.

I’ll Be There (a cappella)

Jeremy’s a cappella writing is lush, harmonically fascinating, and features great voice-leading. A cappella jazz ballads are a great place to start, in my opinion, for a choir trying vocal jazz – you learn to hear the harmonies without anything else happening.

 

As I said, Jeremy has dozens and dozens of beautiful charts available – I highly recommend you check out all the samples on the websites for his publishers. I know he also takes commission work, and I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed with a custom arrangement from Jeremy Fox.

Silence

Film composers have many moves they rely on to amplify our emotions. It’s a powerful bag of tricks, and I’m not sure any era of composition has been more adept than contemporary film composers.

Today, I was reminded of a powerful and unexpected trick from that bag: silence.

Pixar movies are aggressively and wonderfully scored by some of the best composers around: Michael Giacchino, Randy Newman, and others. But at one of the most aching emotional moments of Cars 3, (spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen the trailer) when Lightning McQueen crashes early in the film, all music drops out and the silence is more powerful than any music could have been.

Composers, regardless of genre, should take heed of this film knowledge and remember to spend time to consider the gaps in the music.

Conductors, also, ought to consider the value, emotionally and musically, of silence. We spend so much time rehearsing and focusing on the notes, but the story we try to tell with choral performances can benefit as much from attention to well-designed silence.

What I Did This Summer (Guest Blogger Edition)

I am honored to write a guest post today to expand on Jed’s post “What I Did This Summer (Preview Edition)” and share more of what I hope to say at the end of August.

I celebrated with family and friends
I kayaked
I traveled
I cooked
I composed music with my husband
I spent time walking in nature
I snuggled with my kids
I decluttered
I meditated
I read

May all of your summers be filled with the space to find rest and deep contentment!

Mandy Scott