Never Static

Music preparation is never static.

Even a few weeks without rehearsal can profoundly affect the level of performance of the most polished pieces. The most challenging music requires daily interaction to be performance-ready.

Students can easily forget the dynamic nature of music preparation. It’s worth occasionally revisiting previously-performed music in rehearsal, to give students a concrete sense of this fact.

In other words, let students fail at music that they previously succeeded at: it keeps them humble, helps them keep the big picture in mind, and gets them back in the practice room to touch on the “old” music.

Rehearsals While Sick

Rehearsals while sick can be a blessing. No matter what role you are in the ensemble.

As a singer, you can take notes and listen, often learning more than you usually do in rehearsal. Even if you can’t sing a note, being at a rehearsal can be so beneficial.

As the conductor, I often find that a two-hour rehearsal while sick can be a big part of getting myself over the illness. Now, there is a certain level of sickness above which I will not drag myself to rehearsal – I’ll get a sub or have my rehearsal run by section leaders. But below that level, I find that rehearsing through my sniffle, headache, post-nasal drip, etc. can be invigorating. I often have particularly effective rehearsals when I have to fight through an illness-induced headwind.

I don’t wish for illness. I’m happy to be well on rehearsal nights. But I don’t discount the progress, the fun, or the personal improvement that will come during a rehearsal while sick.

Underrated Harmony Singers

The Beatles are rightly praised for many things they did well as a performers, as collaborators, and as composers.

One thing they aren’t praised enough for is their brilliant harmony singing. Today it seems we have two tracks – the harmony group, a.k.a. boy band, that sings bland pop music, and the artful band or solo artist, who rarely features more than a single singer. I know exceptions abound, but in broad strokes, that’s what we’ve got.

Go listen again with an ear not for the melodies, the iconic bass lines and grooves, or the production. Listen for the background vocals and the harmonies.

We just finished a series of concerts focusing on the music of this amazing band, and the one regret I have is that we weren’t able to better highlight this unique strength of The Beatles.

Listening and Reacting

As someone who primarily works with student musicians, I always appreciate the chance to collaborate with professionals – it makes me up my own game, and I always learn from watching them work together. I left last night’s rehearsal with a pro rhythm section impressed with how quickly and intuitively they reacted to what they were hearing.

They started by simply playing what was written, more or less – with space, grace, and musicality. Then they began assessing what each singer needed, and adjusted. If the singer needed more support, they reacted. If the singer was very confident, they played out more and gave the singer more musical excitement and creativity to play against. If the singer needed a different tempo or was implying a different feel, they reacted and adjusted.

That kind of constant, immediate assessment of the situation, and continuous adjustment to what is happening, is and important part of what distinguishes professionals from students. The players I’m working with this weekend learned this skill in school but likely more through countless collaborations over many years; even so, we can all aspire as teachers to model, teach, and expect more listening and reacting musically to what is happening around us.

I Don’t Know Where This is Going

At every stage in a creative career, you need to be able to say “I don’t know where this is going” – and then keep working.

In a culture of lockstep education, of factory-modeled jobs, of paint-by number culture, it’s increasingly difficult to say “I don’t know where this is going” and not quit. We do almost everything with fairly clear knowledge of where it will take us and why we are doing it. It’s cannot be that way for creative work: we must do the work, and then see where it takes us.

At the beginning of a creative career, it can be easier to take risks, and to honestly accept the lack of future insight.

Later, when established, we can find it harder to risk at all in this honest assessment. But creative work requires ditching plans, exploring roads with unknown destinations. Fear of not knowing can be paralyzing, but honesty about the process can help you overcome that paralysis and create.

In your creative work today, why not honestly say, “I don’t know where this is going,” and then pursue an idea down the rabbit hole. Even if it’s a false start, it’s the best way to create something new and honest.

If you don’t regularly do anything that requires you to set aside detailed planning and create: what are you waiting for? Create! Abandon sureness and head off into the unknown!

Learning Ahead

Students learn at different speeds; too often we can lose the fast movers as we continue to teach notes to the ones who struggle a little more.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. We only lose those bright students because they’ve been taught through lockstep education to do what is expected and no more. 

Regularly remind your students when you’re learning notes that they can be learning ahead:

If you have your notes learned you can work on memorization.

If you have the piece memorized, you can concentrate on tuning.

If you are tuning well, you can concentrate on balance, vowel matching, and timbre.

If you have all those things nailed, then you can work on harmonic analysis of the piece.

And if you have all that done, for every piece, then congratulations – you’re in the King’s Singers!

It’s Not Personal – It’s Interpersonal!

Students regularly need to change teachers, find a different mentor. It happens in private lessons, it happens in creative and in academic subjects at every level. The wise teacher and the wise student both understand not to blame the material.

And they know not to blame themselves or each other. It’s not personal – it’s interpersonal.

Even the best teacher won’t be the best teacher for every student. And even the best student won’t respond to the teaching of every teacher. A great teacher and a great student might sometimes not connect in an educationally effective way.

I encourage my students to be aware of this – and to seek a better situation if it’s not working for them. When I teach privately, the fact that they might need to change teachers is covered in the first lesson.

And when a student does decide to go a different direction, I don’t use it as a reason to direct blame at myself. I remember that it’s not personal – it’s interpersonal. While our connection wasn’t conducive to the best learning, I trust that someone else is waiting who needs what my teaching has to offer, and that my current student will better flourish in a new situation.

Better Late Than Not At All

I remember the feeling of being late to class in college (trekking across campus through the snow, or getting caught up in the practice room, or just missing an alarm…). It often took all my willpower to enter a classroom late, even if only by a couple of minutes. The disruption, and the attention, were too much – plus a voice inside that said, “You’re already getting dinged for being tardy…what’s the difference if you’re just absent?”

It took time for me to learn to be OK with walking in late. Tardiness is a problem, and we should all try to avoid it. But it’s better to be there late than to not be there at all.

Now, as a teacher and conductor, I seek the same thing from my students. An understanding that their tardiness might briefly disrupt, but their absence will be a much deeper disruption to their success and to the success of those around them.

Don’t be late, of course. But better late than not at all.

Some Good Jazz Songs

A common inquiry: “Hey, can you tell me some good jazz songs? Like Frank Sinatra’s Misty?”

(First, ignore that Misty isn’t Sinatra’s any more than Over The Rainbow is Judy Garland’s. We’ll get to that, later.

I try to recommend a classic interpreter of jazz standards, which most often to me means suggesting a deep dive into Ella Fitzgerald’s works.

I don’t think you can do better than the recently released Twelve Nights In Hollywood – a complete record of basically her entire book, circa 1961-62. (Amazon) (Spotify)

Then I like to make a personal recommendation based on what I know of that individual. Here are a few that turn up a lot.

Joe Williams – The Best of the Verve Years

Shirley Horn – Anything!

Chet Baker Sings

Sarah Vaughan – Live in Japan

Mel Tormé – Live at Marty’s

Carmen McRae – The Great American Songbook

What do you recommend to the newbie who wants to dig deep?

This is my first “Vocal Jazz Monday”, a planned weekly focus on topics explicitly vocal jazz styles and issues.

Make the Music You Want to Make

There are a lot of voices out there telling you what kind of music you should teach. Simon Carrington says every program at an ACDA conference should include some Renaissance or Baroque music. Your state organization might insist that you program from a certain list to participate in festivals. I strongly suggest that you program more accessible jazz repertoire as part of your concert season.

But beyond all those voices, your baseline standard should be, make the music you want to make. There are countless ways to teach the musical concepts, the interpersonal lessons, and the overarching philosophies that you want to teach each year. You can teach light, dancing rhythms with a Bach motet, but also with a salsa-tinged jazz piece, a doo-wop 12/8 piece, or an Alice Parker folk arrangement.

Solfege is solfege regardless of the composer, era, or style. (Though you will probably be more successful with Part than with Stravinsky…).

Blend, balance, tone, vowels: they all remain teachable across the entire range of choral repertoire. And while not every piece will be perfect for every concepts, a well-balance year-long program will give you ample opportunities to teach everything you want to teach.

So, then, make the music you want to make. You will teach better if you’re teaching music you love, and your enthusiasm for the music you’re rehearsing will be infectious.

I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the other voices out there telling you what to program. But balance all of those voices. But make sure you take their advice only so far as it agrees with your core instincts, passions, and predilections.