2017 Roundup: Recordings

My listening habits are fairly diverse, and fairly heavily rooted in revisiting music I love. That said, there are plenty of things I discovered this year – either new or new to me. Here are some that I loved.

Elements (The Real Group)

The Real Group’s 21st album is a diverse collection of originals, along with jazz standards like Nature Boy and covers the wide stylistic range that is their hallmark: from Latvian folk songs to pop, gospel-esque, swing, novelty, and music I would file under “contemporary choral.” A must listen.

 

Taking Pictures (Jo Lawry)

I must have first learned of Jo Lawry in the wonderful documentary 20 Feet From Stardom but she really entered my radar after hearing her as a new member of MOSS in October. Her 2015 album Taking Pictures has been in regular rotation at my house ever since.

 

Dream In The Blue (Sara Gazarek)

I guess part of my year has been devoted to catching up on the amazing singers who have come to the forefront in the jazz scene during my hiatus from work in jazz. Among those is the wonderful Sara Gazarek. This duo album with pianist Josh Nelson is intimate, fresh, and moving with a mix of standards and originals.

 

Almost Like Praying (Lin-Manuel Miranda)

Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t need my help with publicity, but Puerto Rico does – they are still suffering in the wake of Hurricane Maria. He wrote, produced, and released this song within ten days of landfall, with wonderful guest artists and lyrics that include the name of every town on the island.

 

 

Coco (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Fun songs, a beautiful message, and of course the brilliant storytelling you expect from Pixar. I especially loved the song Un Poco Loco.

What was the best new music you heard this year?

2017 Roundup: Books

Books remain at the heart of the media I consume – not perhaps the most significant by volume, but certainly by the effect they have on my life. I completed 22 books in 2017: short of my 2016 total, but a respectable number.

Here are a few books I read this year that had an impact on the work I do and how I live in the world.

Upstream, Mary Oliver. (175 pages) I remain enamored of Mary’s poetry, but her essays affect me just as deeply. This new collection is full of important reflections, and her tone even in this longer form is as parsimonious as poetry.

When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön (150 pages) It was my first time reading this classic and oft-referenced book reflecting on mindfulness, dealing with difficulty, and the work of a life. Pema writes with grace and depth and it’s well worth reading and re-reading. (Krista Tippett says she always has a copy with her, “because things are always falling apart!”)

Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown (194 pages) It feels like Dr. Brown has reached a new peak in her books with Braving the Wilderness. Strategies, advice, personal anecdotes, and wide implications for all of us – especially those of us who struggle to responsibly teach young people while still voicing our opinions on the state of society.

Beartown, Fredrik Backman (432 pages) Backman writes beautifully, and is skillful at writing at multiple levels simultaneously – just as Wilde could write a play with plot but still had pithy lines on every page, Backman can tell a powerful story while reflecting deeply on wider culture. This book, which touches on toxic masculinity, youth sports culture, and small-town vibes, seemed to have as much impact on my own approach with students as any non-fiction book I read this year.

Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman (281 pages) My background in Roman culture left me fascinated by the similarities and differences with Norse mythology, with which I am less familiar. Neil always writes compellingly with clarity, wit, and I was fascinated with the balance he strikes between his own tone and the tone of the original Norse myths – the sound is distinct from any other Gaiman writing I’ve enjoyed.

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Amy Krouse Rosenthal (317 pages) Amy was one of the most joyful writers I’ve ever interacted with, and her joy spilled into her children’s books and adult books as well as so many other projects, from films to something like live-art experiments. Such joy. This is her final memoir, released shortly before she died from cancer. This book has a remarkable creative component – you can actually interact with the author and other readers via text as you read the book.

 

Every year I am surprised by what books speak to me, and by what books I’m not thinking about even a few months later. I hope you find some books among this list that speak to you!

Discovery and Familiarity in Balance

Our game closet is overflowing and only gets more so every December. What is it about a new game that attracts and drives us?

I love familiar games like old friends – you fall into familiar rhythms and strategies, and appreciate the nuances of strategy and how they affect success and failure.

But I love new games for the brow-furrowing time of figuring. Trying to understand how rule 3 affects rule 1, what, if any, strategies you should apply. Anyone from the six-year-old up can be a winner in a new game, as we’re all equally in the dark about the right approach.

With a wide lens, I prefer a balanced approach – familiar games interspersed with new ones, allowing all of the brain to fire.

It’s the same with programming music: a balance of tried-and-true chestnuts and things I’ve never tried before is my preferred route to success. Discovery and familiarity in balance.

Mixed Meter Christmas

Are you ever concerned about approaching odd-meter pieces with your ensembles? As long as they’re treated well, there’s no impediment to us learning them – 4/4 is no more innate to us than any other metric feel.

Consider this pattern:

A tune of four measures of 4/4. On the second verse, you add an additional bar of 4/4. In the middle of the verse. On each additional verse, you add a single bar, but in 3/4, after the first two measures. EXCEPT the fifth verse, when you add two measures of 4/4. There are more than ten verses, each with different words and a different pattern of 3/4 and 4/4 measures.

Sounds weird and difficult to memorize? Maybe…but children learn it all the time – it’s The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Odd meter isn’t hard; it just needs to feel natural.

Merry Christmas (in mixed meter, of course.)

The Spirit of Christmas

If you believe the true spirit of Christmas is in generous giving, then I’ve got the story for you.

When McNally-Smith College of Music abruptly closed ten days ago, my friends Jen and Shon learned about it in an email that said they wouldn’t be receiving that week’s paycheck – or any subsequent. At ten days till Christmas.

Out of love for their students and community, they leapt to action and have worked tirelessly since then to feed their students and find places for them to continue their education as soon as next semester! They’ve given everything they have and more.

You can read more about their story here on Huffington Post.

Many, many people are having a better Christmas because of Jen and Shon Parker. Their example is one we should all aspire to.

If you’re moved by their story, please consider sending them a little love via GoFundMe. There’s a lot more help they’re going to be giving in the coming weeks and months, and they deserve all the help as they can get.

A Manhattan Transfer Appreciation

I’m not sure any album says Christmas to me more than The Manhattan Transfer’s A Christmas Album.

I got it in 1992 when it was brand new and I was brand new to vocal jazz. I listened to it obsessively every December, long before I was exposed to many of my other favorites – The Singers Unlimited, Take 6, The Real Group.

For me, no album has that “Christmas sound” more than this album – it’s a gem from beginning to end – from the rich Puerling chords to the great solo phrasing and high-energy swing. It was a classic from the very beginning, and a testament to the staying power of The Manhattan Transfer that they released it nearly 20 years into a career that now stands at over 40 years.

Do yourself a favor and make sure it’s in your Christmas rotation. (And this should serve as a reminder to de-professionalize your Christmas listening!)

Gratitude

As you breathe a sigh of relief over the end of the holiday musical rush, take a moment for gratitude.

You get to…

…make music every day.

…inspire young people.

…provide a desperately needed respite from the challenges of modern academic life.

…create a safe space for your students to be themselves and express themselves.

…be part of an extended network of creative and artistic individuals.

Music education is incredibly hard, and we are incredibly blessed to practice it.

Background

Singing in the background can be disconcerting when you’re used to being the sole focus of attention – as most choirs are. However, there are several lessons you can learn from being “background music” in performance.

  1. This is how many musicians work all the time. Performing their best, while knowing they are the secondary or tertiary focus of their “audience.”
  2. Excellence doesn’t require an audience. We perform to our best, whether or not anyone is listening.
  3. Any performance is an opportunity. You can make music for yourselves, learn and improve your art, with expectations that are very different than a rehearsal.

Go carol in a restaurant, or sing in an office lobby. You will get intermittent attention, followed by a respectful ignoring. And you will learn.

Greek Myth Ubiquity

A student and I were discussing his studies of Greek plays in AP Literature class – he’d read Oedipus Rex and Medea. He remarked that because the myths being told were universally known, the artistry of Sophocles is in how he tells the story – what he highlights, what choices he makes, what details he adds and subtracts.

The same is true in jazz. We are working with a repertoire of ubiquitous songs – the so-called Standards from Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers, and the rest, plus all the songs composed by jazz musicians and adopted into the canon.

It isn’t the words and tune of Misty that jazz musicians want to hear – it is the musical choices each musical Sophocles makes when she sings or plays the tune.

The Value of Too Many Performances

Too many performances could be one description of December in a typical choir’s year. But there’s a big benefit that we might not get the rest of the year – particularly when we consider that some pieces get just one performance before they’re put away again.

Too many performances means repetition. We learn what connects, we learn how to connect. We learn what works and what needs work. We learn how to find the humor in our comedy songs, and how to pull the heartstrings in others.

It’s only through repetition that we can learn consistency, and only through consistency that we can achieve professionalism.

With that in mind, don’t lament too many performances in December – celebrate that your singers get the chance to learn deeply about performing their repertoire successfully.