Sing Your Part As A Solo

Many vocal groups, particularly vocal jazz groups, place a high value on the ability of each singer to sing her part as a solo. Why?

The reason is that vocal jazz is incredibly challenging both vertically (understanding how your note fits with the rest of the chord) and horizontally (making sense of a chromatic, winding part).

Have you ever had it happen that you hear a song title and realize you don’t know the melody – you only know your part from when you learned it in choir? What that means is that you learned your part well enough to sing it as if it’s a melody.  That’s no great challenge in much classical choral music: well-written choral parts tend to feel fairly melodic. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case in the harmonically sophisticated writing in great vocal jazz.

The sad truth is that your singers will  never be able to consistently sing this music well until they can sing any line as a solo. Any part of any song…get the first note and go. It’s straightforward to do that with, say, the alto part on the Vivaldi Gloria, but given a section of Phil Mattson’s Body & Soul and you’ll be in for a much longer and more difficult challenge. It does come, though. With practice, strange-sounding chromatic lines, diminished arpeggios, and unwieldy leaps can come to feel as natural as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. And that’s when your choir comes alive.

It’s a big challenge, but it’s the right challenge–and it’s the only way to effectively sing challenging music well.

Education Can No Longer Be Done To People

“Education can no longer be done to people. It has to be done with them. A kid is now capable of sitting through almost any class and not getting it – because if they don’t want to get it, they’re not going to get it. But if you’re into baseball cards or into Magic: The Gathering or into Game of Thrones, because into it – because you’re enrolled in this journey – it’s done with you and you eagerly suck it all up.”

-Seth Godin

Education can no longer be done to people. Some might decry this, but I welcome this philosophical change. In the past there was a lot of “because I said so” education – teaching by force of will (and maybe some corporal punishment, back in the day.

Now, educators have to answer the following questions if they want their students to come along:

Why is this skill valuable? and How does this material connect to the wider world.

These are clarifying questions, and armed with answers, teachers will find their teaching clarified, and enriched.

You’re on a learning journey with your students. Explain why this learning is of value, encourage their curiosity, and watch out as they barrel forward to learn what you’re offering.

In The Weeds

A few weeks in from the start of school, and a few weeks out from the first concert. Congratulations, you’re in the weeds!

You’re past learning notes for your music. Your sections are starting to know and trust each other. But you’re not exactly making music yet.

The weeds is the part of the rehearsal process where the choir knows most of the right notes, but aren’t singing them yet with a sense of ensemble, blend, balance, musicality, intonation.

It’s the most frustrating part of the rehearsal process. Here’s a few takeaways that your students (and you) should carry with you:

1. This is a temporary problem. It will not last forever.

2. The reason it’s frustrating is because you want to be better than you are. That’s actually a good sign – if you didn’t want to be better, you wouldn’t be frustrated.

3. There’s no way out but through. Practice and time spent together in discovery will get you to the other side.

4. Don’t let the frustration turn into resentment, mistrust, or finger-pointing. That’s a great way to never get out of the weeds.


Something Different

We all get caught in ruts. Ruts of programming, ruts of yearly events, ruts in the games we play or the meals we cook.

There are multiple benefits to trying something different. Of course, there’s the obvious chance to have a new experience. Humans crave variety, it is said.

But more important is the flexibility your brain gains by thinking in new ways. Learning something new–to speak another language, or cook in a different style, or sing a new piece, or to solve a new kind of puzzle–reshapes your brain with new connections; new connections that will only help you live your life in a more creative and fulfilling way.

Recently some students shared that they are so excited about a human psychology class they are taking. They said it has immediately become one of their favorite classes in high school (besides choir, of course…). The reason, I think, is that this psychology class is rewiring their brain, day by day. It’s a marvelous feeling to have your brain rewired, and to make all the new discoveries and connections that comes with it.

If you’re looking for something new to try, here’s a few ideas I enjoy:

Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest – the crossword is of varying difficulty, and always includes a very fun, brain-twisting meta-puzzle to solve after you’ve completed the crossword.

Four Fours. No link needed – just simple math. Use four 4’s and basic mathematics to create every natural number. For example, (4+4)/(4+4) = 1 and (4/4) + (4/4) = 2

Duolingo. Learn a new language and find new ways to describe your world.

How Do You Get Better if You Can’t Recognize Your Mistakes?

How do you get better if you can’t tell what mistakes you’re making?

If they’re pitch mistakes, you’d better be practicing with a piano, and have enough skills to at least check pitches. If not, get help – a recording you can practice with.

If they’re rhythmic mistakes, you might not even realize you’re dragging, rushing, or dropping a beat. Luckily, around 200 years ago, a machine was invented to help.

The metronome. Use it. Discover your rhythmic weaknesses and correct them. The best news is, every phone, tablet, and computer can now become a metronome for free.

Correct notes and rhythms don’t just happen. Good intonation and sense of time don’t either. They evolve through repeated refinement using the right tools.

What sports?

Parents get this question a lot:

What sports does Little Johnny play?

I wonder what would happen if the response was:

What arts does Little Timmy do?

In 2017 America, organized sports are a rite of passage for children. We have convinced ourselves that a childhood isn’t complete without the team sport experience.

Why do we have such trouble believing that a child’s life is similarly incomplete without extracurricular arts?

Indeed, I would say, our children need arts more than they need sports.

How We Bond

One of the perks to being involved in a school-sponsored group activity (a sport, a club, a ensemble) is the sense of connection and bonding that comes with close proximity to your peers.

But not all activities are created equal – and the different ways that bonding happens makes a difference in outcome.


Some activities bond through a shared opponent.

Some activities bond through real adversity (i.e., hard group work)

Some activities bond through contrived adversity (i.e., hazing).

Some activities bond through common passion.

Some activities bond through common mission.

Some activities bond through open communication and sharing of feelings.


Many activities use a combination of the above to form a team – for example, members of a high school varsity football team face an opponent, real adversity, and hold a common passion. (Let’s hope most football teams have eliminated the formerly ubiquitous hazing at this point…)

How does your choir form as a team? Of course, your singers share a common passion for music; they build their team through hard work preparing for concerts; choirs are blessed to generally not have opponents, per se – allowing them to form a team without a concept of “enemies.”

This weekend, I shared in a choral bonding experience built around open, deep sharing. Singers shared honestly about their hopes, fears, and personal histories. They cried and comforted each other. They were vulnerable and honored each others’ vulnerability.

It will without a doubt pay dividends as these singers work to create art and express communal emotion over the school year. Their strength will be built on this deep personal connection.

I can’t imagine many other activities besides choir being welcoming, accepting, and vulnerable in this way.

The bonds they have built through honest emotional connection will last longer and go deeper than virtually any other type of bond.

We can participate in many activities and finish not knowing each other beyond a superficial level. Choir, with its focus on honest emotion and interpersonal connection, gives a truly special chance to go deeper.

Tired Rehearsals

Student tiredness is cyclical, and doesn’t line up personally across your entire student population. However, we all deal occasionally with rehearsals where, because of other activities, because of personal issues, school calendar, illness, or other challenges, the group as a whole appears to be more tired than usual. What can you do in this situation?

A few options:

  • Run your rehearsal. We all have busy days and need to learn to function while tired.
  • Add time for non-rehearsal. Teach theory concepts, do a team-building game, or give them a few minutes of down time to catch up.
  • Group guided meditation. Meditation can be a powerful tool for calming the mind and enhancing personal energy – things our singers all need to learn to do.
  • Repertoire analysis and discussion. Discuss the music. Take your students through the kind of formal analysis that you might do in preparation to conduct a piece.
  • Guided listening. Listen to music that relates to the music you’re preparing. Let them get comfy (but not asleep) and discuss the music together.
  • Let them out early. Solicit promises of extra rest, and then let them go.

There isn’t only one way to get to success on concert day. Manage your rehearsal pace for efficiency, sure, but also manage your students so that they can perform at peak levels.

Health Care & The Arts

“Universal health care would do more to help artists in this country than any arts organization could ever do. Every arts organization in this country, in my opinion, should stop whatever they’re doing and throw all their efforts into health care reform.”

Austin Kleon

My daily posts here are dedicated to three main topics: choral music, education, and creativity. (Note: none of those is politics.)

Nothing I have ever accomplished in any of those three realms would have been possible if not for the health care provided for my family by my wife’s job, which has enabled me to pursue a freelance career and be an at-home parent.

All the creative work I have done, including composing, arranging, conducting, teaching – even writing daily here – would have gone undone without the safety net of health insurance.

If the USA were to provide the universal health benefits afforded by every other industrialized nation, I believe we would see a groundswell of artists taking risks and creating. Without the risk of an unforeseen health tragedy decimating their bank account, artists would be free to put new, inspirational, powerful art into the world.

The Affordable Care Act hasn’t solved all of America’s health care problems, but it has improved matters for many people.

If it is repealed, I know that I have many artist friends who will no longer be able to make their art.

And the world needs more art.

Support Team

Good teammates know that some of the time, they’ll have to shoulder extra weight. The other teammate will be sick, or tired, or distracted, or in some other need.

Good teammates don’t complain when they have to carry their colleagues load. They don’t accuse, they don’t badmouth.

Good teammates know that there will come a time when someone will carry some of their weight.

Build a team of members who support each other, no matter what.