What Have You Found Helpful On Your Way

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Today I received a lovely email from a composer, who is thinking about where to go next in her writing. She asked me “Do you remember how it was to start composing, and what you found helpful on your way?”

I’m not sure whether the huge rant below, that poured out of me in response will help her. I hope so! Composing is hard and lonely and mysterious. I hope she keeps going!

I am a vocal and choral composer, so I will ponder this question in terms of writing for singers and their voices. I will also focus on things intrinsic to composing - developing and finding my compositional voice - rather than career development - how to take compositions to the world - cause frankly I have no idea how to do that! I’m sorry if this is going to seem bombastic or preachy. I’m sure there many possible ways of approaching composing, and my ideas have come from what has worked for me, but I’ve no idea what has worked for other people.

I sing. My mother and her family sang. I am married to a singer. Nearly all of my dearest friends are singers. Until I had my vocal damage I sang all day, every day. My work was with singers, my ‘day job’, then performing work, but also at home, with Emlyn, and by myself. In the car. Even when we’d go away for weekends it would be to music festivals where we’d sing. And often I would jam, just play around with notes and ideas. I’ve always done that. So there was never a moment where I thought - you know I might try my hand at composing, because it’s just been normal.

Singers are their instruments, we are the song. The song is inside us, held in our imaginations then given life through our breath. The membrane between song and human is so thin, the two entities are completely morphed. I don’t know what it feels like for composers who don’t sing to write music for singers, but I can’t imagine it.

The downside of this is a lot of knowledge I have about vocal music is in my body rather than in my head. It has led me to profound frustration at times when I’ve tried to articulate my composing instincts and the ideas are in my pores, and not in my words. I dropped out of formal composition study and the main reason was I couldn’t communicate with my supervisor about my ideas, I couldn’t advocate for my own work because my understanding of why I wrote what I did was a practitioner’s deep gut instincts.

If this was to be turned into a piece of advice it would be SING. a lot. And then hang with singers. In the classical vocal system there are so many different categories of voice types - from light to full dramatic and then bass, baritone, tenor, contralto, mezzo, soprano. Professional singers have different ranges and capacities to students, talented hobbyists and community singers. Children, teenagers and adults have different vocal ranges, capacities and needs. Young men, when their voices change can lose the notes from middle C down to A, G or F for some months or longer. A contralto and a soprano may both welcome an A above the clef in a song, and be perfectly capable of singing it, but a soprano will be able to make it float like a bird soaring on the wind, and a contralto will more likely want to sing it as a fortissimo, and will only appreciate a note this high ONCE in an entire song. A dramatic soprano will often have wonderful rich chest notes, and will appreciate a chance to sing low. But once again, not for too long! There is so much more, and I don’t know a short way to learn these details except to greedily consume the thoughts and sounds of singers, to seek out their company. Performances and recordings are finished product, attending these things won’t always help composers understand how singers sing. Sitting in on singing lessons and rehearsals wherever you possibly can would be the most instructive experience for learning the landscape of different voice types.

Sing folk songs. Folk songs are necessarily catchy and singable. They stick. All the ones we know, we know because they have stuck. The evolution process for aural-tradition folk songs is brutal. Songs that don’t stay in people’s heads and flow on people’s voices and connect to people’s hearts will have all fallen by the wayside. Sing folk songs. Study folk songs. See if you can write tuneful pentatonic songs within the compass of an octave. See if you can create them without writing them down, away from the piano, the computer or manuscript. Go stand in some foggy foggy dew somewhere and write a song. Can you remember it the next day? And the next? If you can write a memorable pentatonic song, can you write a catchy three note song. See if you can sing your simple song to someone else once or twice and then have them be able to sing it back to you, from memory, with every note right. Maybe do this for years, or just from now until you die, ideally. I grew up singing folk songs, and then sang folk songs with my husband. And had always felt unclear about whether I was a folkie or a classicalie. When I discovered Kodaly at university the light switched on - that all the great composers have connected folk music to art music and understood folk’s power and magic, and that there is no dichotomy between the two.

Singers can’t push buttons to create pitches, they have to hold the sound of the song in their heads, often from memory, so it’s incredibly helpful for singers if composers write vocal music that is aurally appealing! Other composers and singers might disagree on this idea - and thoroughly enjoy much more exotic music than I write. So it is.

Do you know what rubs me up the wrong way? When people talk about how composers should study music theory because “you’ve got to learn the rules first and then you can break them.” I suppose theory is taught as a collection of arbitrary rules but it isn’t. Theory is simply a useful description and analysis of how music works, how it expresses and communicates. Music is a shared language - there are shared understandings for successful communication. People who haven’t studied theory will still feel the grammar of the language instinctively. Just like English speakers conjugate their verbs correctly even if they aren’t aware that this is what they are doing. I think theory is a great articulation of how composers can use music to convey what it is that they want to covey

Be greedy about learning these tools. Harmony books are easy to find. Counterpoint books are easy to find. Courses abound online. Sometimes they are written as if they are handing down sacred rules instead of useful tools, and that’s a shame, but read around that to find what is useful. I will say, as a caveat, you’ll know which genre/s of music most connect to your heart, and so obviously researching how the specific music you love does what it does will be important for you. Music is as wide as the ocean, and I know when I’ve been studying theory in music that doesn’t connect to my heart, it brings me down. I like to write lyrical music - I’m quite old skool - and some of the approaches to 20th century writing I came across as a student just upset me, but delighted many of my much groovier colleagues.

I guess the approach I would advocate in studying music theory is not to stress over learning the “right way to do things” or worrying that your unique composing voice will be drowned in a river of rigid, oppressive rules, but to approach the great body of theoretic works with the question “excuse me, I would like to communicate this particular thought or feeling or style, what tools have you got I could use?” Also the very vastness of music knowledge can be daunting. I don’t know if it’s possible to become an expert in understanding many musical styles, and I’ve certainly found I can feel dismayed about how little I know. I haven’t exactly overcome that feeling, but given I’m now 47, I figure I’m more than half way through my life and if I wait til I know everything before I compose more, I’ll be dead!

I haven’t come across a great book specifically on how to compose for singers, working with different voice types, breathing needs, passaggio management, how to construct vocal phrases, what vowels work for long notes or different pitches etc, what intervals are aurally appealing for singers and audiences and so on and on and on. I hope books like this exist. I’ve never found one, but I have substituted for this book-learnin’ the knowledge I’ve gleaned from over 40 years of singing songs, and I think that’s probably OK.

If our job is to give singers a story they can use to captivate audiences, we need to think in terms of plot. What is the introduction? Musically speaking, who is the main character? What is the propulsion? I’m also old skool in that I’m a fan of a narrative structure - of shape. What are we doing to create light and shade and propel the audience along from beginning to end? What are we doing to build up the intensity? Where are we peaking? Are we peaking enough? I wrote a seven minute choral work and realised my peak, my victory verse was only half a bar long. That didn’t seem fair to the audience or the singers! So I rewrote it to go for eight bars. In these #metoo times one must be judicious about one’s metaphors, but if you were to adopt a french accent, waggle your eyebrows and “hor hor hor” about shaping the build up and leading to the dramatic peak, please go for it! It works as a model.

The other thing I have learnt over the years is to forget about trying to be clever. For reasons that no longer make sense to me, when I started writing I crammed a lot of ideas into my works. I think it came from a youthful combination of insecurity and desire to show off. These days I have learnt to respect that a piece needs  a character and a select palate of musical devices. And that the simpler a piece is, the more an audience can access what I’m trying to say. This has meant slowing down harmonic rhythm. Finding ways to repeat ideas. Not being scared of putting unaccented words on the same note. Having breathing space for the song, for the singer, for the audience.

I have also learnt that the things i am trying to highlight must be placed strategically. Like a feature color in interior design. It’s wonderful and highlighted because it’s used strategically and actually quite sparingly. I articulated this when I was writing a piece for Bethany Hill, a coloratura soprano who had mad coloratura and mad high notes. If her piece was just stratospheric throughout, her incredible height wouldn’t be featured, it would just become bland. I thought about how much build up there is to get to the high F in the Queen Of The Night aria, but that one note defines that entire aria. Same with the top C in Allegri’s Miserere. So there’s something to be said for - hold off as long as you can.

I have learnt to write porously. Whenever I can, I give myself a lot of time to write a piece. I know there are composers with deadlines who do not have that luxury and hats off to them, that’s amazing. What i’ve learnt is that in a single sit down session, while I’m working on a piece, I get used to it and I lose a sense of where there is friction, where ideas aren’t working smoothly. After a while in one session, I stop noticing. So I have learnt I need breaks, so I can come back and hear with fresh ears (audience’s ears!) how the piece is, and notice the rough bits. My best pieces have sat on my piano for months, with me spending 15 minutes at a time multiple times a day, just smoothing out the issues. Sometimes changing a single note. I think because I write intuitively a lot of my musical composing process is hidden from me. In the past when an inner voice was whispering I would often ignore it. These days, I try very hard to listen to my intuition. Taking breaks helps this enormously.

The text is a vocal composer’s collaborator. It is where we start and where we finish and our guide on the journey. The words you are setting come with so much meaning, expression, rhythm, inflection, accents and unaccents, sounds, tone, character. Singers have to connect with the text they sing. The text needs to be marvelous for them to sing your work wonderfully. Speak your words, feel them in your mouth. Play around with them. Write them down, layed out like bad teenage poetry - highlight and indent and capitalise and underline. In English we place our accents on beats. This means text meaning and rhythm are the same thing! And why text setting is a fastidious art. Singers know the difference between a modern composition that has meter changes that highlight and accommodate the text, and meter changes that are written in simply because that’s what modern compositions do.

Don’t be scared of using piano where you’ve built up audience expectation for a loud note. Soft singing draws the audience in to the singer and is a most thrilling device for an audience, when managed by a skilled singer. Loud is awesome, but soft is devastatingly beautiful.

I’m never met a trained singer who doesn’t sing a major seventh beautifully. Just saying.

sir take it easy.

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Did you see this rather delightful meme circulating this week?

How marvelous.

It reminds me of inspirobot.

These mirrors we’ve built for ourselves, they bring into relief how ridiculous we are eh?

Surely a reminder of our own ridiculousness is good for our mental health.

To celebrate this loveliness, I wipped up a setting.

If you sing it, I’d love a recording!

Merry Christmas!

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Writing Vocal Music

I believe it’s important to honour the singers who perform our music - and to give them work where the music feels so natural that it flows out of them, allowing them to put all their attention to conveying the story to the people listening. This doesn’t mean the music has to be dull, cautious and non-virtuosic. I think there are three essential elements to writing vocal music that sits comfortably for singers.

The first is TEXT.

TEXT TEXT TEXT TEXT.

Singers sing words. Words come with inbuilt rhythms, pulses, inflections, accents. Words convey meaning. Many years ago I studied acting. The work I learnt then for approaching text - to sit with the text and discover what words to emphasize, what words to throw away, where to pause, where to rush - has been invaluable to me as a composer. It is the same work to compose. I think - write your text down. Read it aloud. Find the most important words in the piece and ensure they are the climax of the song. Find the accented words, find the throwaway words. Find the stanzas, find the phrases. Find the character whose words these are. What will they need musically?

Secondly SING IT.

SING IT. SING IT SING IT

Ask a singer if they can tell when pieces have been written at a keyboard. They’ll probably roll their eyes. A work written at a keyboard might be harmonically marvelous but a singer sings. Over and Under tone singing aside, voice is a one note at a time instrument. A melody instrument. Writing at the keyboard, with the harmony playing won’t give you a sense of whether the work makes melodic sense. How can you do that? Close the lid of the piano and sing it yourself. You don’t have to be able to sing well, you’re the equivalent of a seamstress’s dummy. But if the melodic line doesn’t sit well unaccompanied for you, I believe that’s a great indication the work isn’t finished.

Thirdly LINE.

LINE LINE LINE LINE

The rainbow shape of a phrase line is telling isn’t it? I find it hard to stay attentive when I listen to vocal lines that are agile and jumpy without a helpful overall phrase shape I can relate to. I think agile lines most need the scaffolding of carefully architected shape. And like interior design where a feature colour means two throw pillows and one pot plant against a neutral background, an exotic interval will become a feature by being used sparingly and strategically placed.

I’m currently setting some of Psalm 22 for a lent piece for Emlyn. Here, I want the anguish of major sevenths and tritones. I’m only setting the first part, the most bereft text of the psalm. But I don’t want Emlyn or his audience distracted by the jumps - ooh tricky, can he do it? It’s not a stuntman show! I want him to find the line natural and expressive so he can put all his attention to conveying the anguish and despair of the text for his audience.

This is my work then. I’ve decided YOU HAVE LAID ME IN THE DUST OF DEATH is the climax of the piece. Because Jesus is quoting this psalm and addressing God, I think it is important that “You” (God) is a high note in the phrase. If it was a different character, appealing to a different “you” this might not have made sense.

I have decided to end high - and jump the line up for the last three words. It’s only a C, which a baritone can sing comfortably quietly, but higher would be thoughtless on my part. Lower voices - basses, baritones, contraltos and low mezzos, can sing high notes. They’ll let you know how high they are comfortable. But the key is to use the top notes sparingly and for the lower voices they tend to be easier loud. A beautiful high, soft, floating melody is something to leave for the tenors and sopranos. However I suspect, having lived with a rather representative baritone for twenty five years, I’ve got a good feel for baritonial comfort and this jump up for this last three notes will be low enough to sing quietly and can offer more room for emotion than staying low. My instinct is also that the current notes for “fragments of pottery” are a bit twee. But it might be alright. Things to ponder.

 


Still playing a few chords for security so there’s still work to do!

Helping the Low Ladies Feel More Confident

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The most accessible, most open doored, most everyone’s welcome community choirs can end up with folks who haven’t sung a lot before. These choirs do great work for people. People who may have had a non musical life, a life busily filled for decades with work and family responsibility where finally at some stage, work becomes steady, even pleasant, children grow, and a long held dream to sing in a choir becomes feasible. Magnificent. And how bloody marvelous that there are welcoming choirs with friendships, connections, low requirements and accessible repertoire for people to find.

Musical directors who specialise in working with these choirs have to develop a raft of particular skills that are quite different to those who lead more musically ambitious choirs filled with trained choristers.

One of these skills is in group vocal training. And one of the biggest vocal issues facing choirs of older beginners is a dearth of sopranos. This isn’t because there aren’t any sopranos. It is because most women new to singing technique don’t feel comfortable in their lighter mechanism/head voice/upper mode/tilted larynx. For directors, shouting at untrained singers to ‘lighten’ or ‘lift’ is not only mean, but musically pointless. Untrained singers don’t know what this physiologically entails so they are likely to just increase tension, choke back their sound, gain less enjoyment from singing and never find those upper notes. I believe it’s essential that directors address this in a step by step way, in a way that fits the culture of a welcoming beginners’ choir - playful, manageable, respectful of people’s comfort level with learning, and handing out technique in small chunks so choir time doesn’t feel like endless, dull vocal drilling.

The upper, lighter mechanism is physiologically a tilt forward of the larynx - stretching and thinning the vocal cords. As you know the voice is a wind instrument - powered by air. The upper mechanism needs LESS air than untrained women normally use as they ascend in pitch. Now, for community choristers, addresing this by focusing on engaging trunk muscles to exhale more slowly is fraught. Because you aren’t teaching one on one, but to a group, it will be hard to stop and correct tension that will very likely creep in to shoulders, throat, jaw, ribs. Consequently, when I work with new singers in groups I don’t focus on holding the air. I use the humble “V” - a consonant that requires very little air. Below are videos going through a sequence I would recommend for how to - pleasant step by pleasant step - use V and then progress to a real song. This sequence could cover several months of time in your choir. Each step needs to be not only intellectually understood and doable, but through repetition, become habitual. When I conduct open adult choirs, I try not to expect homework. People’s time away from choir is filled with other things. But I certainly do welcome habit establishment. “if you have the time and energy, singing at home on V when you can will really help.” I’m sure we all have our own ways of saying this!

Please feel welcome to ask me any questions about any of the steps. I have sung quite quietly, which is not necessary, but certainly makes less air more likely. I prefer to model quiet singing rather than ask for it because folks can easily tense up in an effort to quieten. I have also stayed in the middle range and not gone stratospheric. (I sing alto myself, so I physically can’t!) This is important. For the women who actually have lower voices, they won’t need to sing higher than this in choral repertoire. For women who on the other hand discover they comfortably sit in a higher range, the technique for their very top notes relies on technique in the middle of the voice - the way to the top is through the middle. So this work in the middle of their voices needs to be done before they can access their top.

Why I Wrote Singing The Dots

This week we’re in Las Vegas. Emlyn has a conference on AWS, along with 50 000 programmer types. So I’ve come along to experience the razzle dazzle that is Vegas. But after a day on “the strip” I’ve scurried back to the relative peace of our hotel. Today, I was reading through the Singing The Dots workbook, because I’m preparing a catalogue of the songs as individual pdfs for choirs who just want to sing them as songs. And it got me reflecting on why I wrote the book. I got my ranting mcrant pants on and wrote about some of my experiences with sightsinging education for adults. It's a bit first draft at this stage.

During my time teaching community choirs and adult beginner singing students, I was driven batty with frustration by the amount of time non music reading choirs who work from sheet music need to devote to teaching EVERY SINGLE NOTE by ear. I loved working with adults. They are respectful and self disciplining, on the whole kind to themselves as learners, and able to put choir and most things, really, in perspective. I think my frustration is at the way many choirs approach note learning via rote, and avoid teaching sightsinging.

This means for most rehearsals, choristers who have given up Wednesday nights at home to come out to sing, actually spend three quarters of the time sitting in a dulled stupor, while the other parts of the choir learn their notes. How can this be a joyous experience? How can this be better than staying home, with a nice glass of wine and the latest episode of the British Baking Show?

Music directors have to fight the stupor - with careful rehearsal planning, razzle-dazzle showpersonship, and judicious repertoire selection - songs need to be simple enough that choristers can learn each part very quickly so songs can ‘come together’ before everyone is so bored they want to stab themselves in the eye. I have no complaints with repertoire this simple - a choral piece where every line is catchy and simple is a treasure indeed. But, if that’s all a choir does, week after week, year after year, the singers will remain at the level of this simple repertoire, excluded from singing choral work with any musical sophistication.

But I think much, much more importantly, ongoing illiteracy stunts choristers from growing and developing in musical ability and skills. Choristers stay at the same level of musical development, despite pursuing their musical endeavour for years. Surely we all want to grow, to improve, to develop, at our endeavours? Surely?

Language illiteracy is a failure of society, it dooms people to a poorer, more vulnerable life with reduced access to nearly every aspect of their community. We all know this as a basic truth.

Imagine if for some reason, children weren’t educated in literacy at school and arrived at adulthood unable to read. Would book clubs exist, where instead of teaching adults how to read, illiterate adults were instead forced to learn books by excruciating rote? The idea is ludicrous. But that’s how adult community choirs run. Who in their right mind thinks this is OK?

I want to say right here that I love a good jam as much as anyone. Some of the best nights of my life have been spent in various states of insobriety, roaring out improvised harmonies to beloved folk songs with good friends. I love this experience. And I know that the musicians who work only by ear can of course be spectacular musicians. Absolutely. But do you know, learning to read music doesn’t exclude singers from doing this! On the other hand, there is SO MUCH MAGNIFICENT CHORAL music that requires literacy to sing, which illiterate choristers are doomed never to have access to. I also know I’m white, and I’m talking about the traditions of white choral music, and that there are other choral traditions that don’t use sheet music, and get along just fine. Of course. And yet, this doesn’t change that Wednesday night at the local sheet music based choir is three quarters stupor time.

I do also need to acknowledge my own position - I believe that music making is essential to being fully human. I believe over the last hundred years we have largely replaced active music making with more passive music listening. Go read John Philip Sousa if you want the perspective of someone who saw this change coming in 1906. When you first read John’s raging against technological change you have to giggle but then he asks WHAT OF THE NATIONAL THROAT? Ie what will happen to our music making, when recorded music becomes ubiquitous. Well we can answer John now! The idea of a national throat has evaporated for a start! A person’s entire musical expression can be reduced to a connoisseurial curatorship of their collection of other people’s music making. When I was a child this meant having a record collection. These days it’s a less concrete, online collection of music. Everyone can have music in their lives, without needing to actively make any music. I don’t think this is as good for us. Just as watching people talk on TV isn’t the same as conversing. It isn’t as good for us. To be clear I’m not saying that listening to music is terrible. I’m not advocating that you burn your beloved record collection. I am saying replacing all active music making with listening is a bum deal. My Aunty Ann, in her 70s told me a few years ago about the formative day in her childhood when the piano was sold to buy a grammaphone. She didn’t think it was a good day. She said the family used to sing together around the piano.

In this environment of passive music engagement, why would anyone value universal music literacy education? For children. For adults? To be musical we need paying jobs so we can buy records, or blueray speakers.

In Australia where I taught, plenty of people arrive at adulthood with somewhere between 13 and 20 years of formal education, functionally literate, numerate, with an employment ready threshold for institutional boredom, a lovely collection of recorded music, limited experience at making music and no ability to read music. In South Australia where I lived, there is a mass choral performance for year 6 and 7s from all over the state each year. It’s a wonderful performance experience. And creates treasured memories for everyone involved. All of the parts are taught through rehearsal tracks. It’s a great experience, but it’s not about literacy education. Kids don’t walk out of it with more developed musical skills.

However, adding to the complexity of Wednesday night, an absence of music education isn’t universal amongst choristers. Some choristers have had a musical education through their schooling or private lessons, so choirs often end up with a range of music reading abilities, which can make life more challenging for music directors.

It is wonderful, WONDERFUL, that adults decide to join choirs and become music makers. But here’s an interesting thing - choristers themselves are often invested in not learning sightsinging. A dear colleague told me he was a replacement music director for a choir, after the previous director had been fired by the choir for doing sightreading training every week!

I’ve been working in this field for decades, I’ve heard a lot of reasons.

A big reason is that the music literacy needs for singers are special. Normal “how to read music” education doesn’t help singers very much. To play most instruments, a musician reads a note on the music and pushes the corresponding button or level or covers the right hole. Singers however have to see a written note, and then imagine the sound of it, before they can sing it. This requires specific education to develop the ability to imagine or “inner hear” the sound of a written note. Simply knowing that every good boy deserves fruit doesn’t help singers with this!The term “sightsinging” is used to differentiate from a more general skill of being able to read music. Choristers who have had some exposure to normal music theory can rightly feel that they already know music, and that it doesn’t help them sightsing. In fact, in my experience, musically educated folks who can’t sightsing, are the most resistant to learning sightsinging specific tools, even when it’s painfully evident to me, that they would benefit immensely from it!

Music directors might not be trained in how to teach sightsinging. Even if they are, training and materials available for sightsinging tend to focus on how to teach children. The techniques I was taught work beautifully for children, but I have learnt that they need to be adapted to work for adults. Community choirs tend to be filled with middle aged and older adults, and as we age, our working memory changes. I believe sightsinging relies strongly on working memory - whilst singing a current note, choristers need to read ahead to the next note, imagine its sound and then be ready to sing it, at the right time. This involves a part of the brain that works better for young people than old people. This is not fair, adults don’t deserve to have their working memory reduce. But it doesn’t mean community choirs can’t develop their sightreading. I’ve seen it. It does mean sightsinging needs to be taught with sensitivity and awareness for older brains.

Given this, another issue is that literacy training takes time, and develops slowly. It may take years of learning before sightsinging skills can be applied to the choir’s sung repertoire. This means, rightly, sightsinging training will feel completely irrelevant to the music at hand. Choristers can justifiably feel - what is the point? And feel that the sightsinging material is babyish and insulting.

Some choristers have a general sense that they don’t want to spend choir time learning. I suspect they are concerned it will turn choir time (fun if porous) into something more like school, which many adults are thrilled to have left behind forever! Particularly if they are concerned it will be taught in a chalk n talk kind of way, and take valuable time away from singing. We are about fun, not education. We work all day and just want to come to here to sing. (Even if it’s 25% of the time?)

Sometimes choristers are invested in keeping musical activities in choir simple and accessible to ensure the choir feels it is an open and welcoming entity in the community. If the choir skills up, this will challenge the choir’s self perception.

On self perception, adults who haven’t learnt how to sightsing can have a very strong identity as non readers. Changing this can be quite confronting and hard to deal with. To make this more challenging, choristers might also find it hard to articulate - I don’t want to learn to sightsing because that’s not how I think of myself.

There are good ways to address all of these issues. But I think a lot of the reasons really boil down to the great truth - people don’t like to change.

Reading back through these reasons I have encountered I have to reflect on whether my work in adult music literacy was misguided. If choristers are happy, in fact prefer to stay illiterate and learn simple songs by rote, why should I interfere? Who am I to say that reading music is better than not reading music for these people? I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about this over my working life. My briefer, contrasting experiences of teaching children has felt like knife through butter compared to working with community adults. And I’ve often wondered if I was on the right track. Obdurance isn’t necessarily right.

But I have to believe the arguments folks like Richard Gill and Zoltan Kodaly have for why music education matters for children applies equally to adults. I can’t see a reason why this isn’t so. James Cuskelly is one of my favourite people on the planet to talk with about these issues. Working on Singing The Dots, we really had to reflect on these issues. He believes in the ability of adults to learn, and music directors to teach, and that literacy is the way to full musical citizenship. I think so too.

Simpkin

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It’s been cold. A surprise early cold snap. SNOW level cold!

Admittedly not much snow. The lightest dusting. But legit SNOW. And for an Aussie girl, that’s pretty exciting indeed.

Except we weren’t prepared and hadn’t bought winter clothes, so I spent a few days inside, next to the heater.

One of my composing projects for Nashville is to rework the setting of Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor Of Glousester I wrote a few years back. It’s part story with a spoken narrator, and part musical, with a choir, soloists and string accompaniment. I am happy with the vocal and choral parts. The musical themes come from folk tunes from that part of England. After our first public performance, an audience member was in tears because as she said, “you used the songs from the West Country. These are my songs!”
I used Beatrix Potter’s text, abridged and in some cases slightly re-arranged to suit lyrics. But I wanted to keep the charming poetry and bucolic-whimsy of her authentic text. This means Simpkin is not verbal. But he is very important - I suspect Simpkin is the main character. He certainly undergoes a hero’s journey of behaving badly, then feeling terrible remorse, leading to renounciation and renewal/reward.
So it’s important he has his I AM/I WANT song. All Potter says to introduce Simpkin is “The tailor lived alone with his cat Simpkin; and he also was fond of mice, though he gave them no satin for coats!” In the original version of my show, Simpkin chased a mouse and hid it in a teapot, to be clear to the young people in the audience what Simpkin’s fondness for mice entailed. This was done in silence. During the cold snap, I wrote a narration for the strings to accompany this action. Because Simpkin starts his journey as somewhat of a villian, I wanted an uneasy, dissonant sound which is quite different from how I normally write for singers! This first video is the original folk song, the hilarious drinking song The Barley Mow, which I’ve used for Simpkin’s theme in the work.

 

Isn’t that marvelous?
Here’s what I’ve done with it for this scene. Can you hear the original theme in there still?

 

The Wu

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Contraltos complain that the only roles composed for them are Bitches, Witches and Britches. Years ago, on hearing that one must have a Mozart aria for audition purposes i looked up a Mozart aria database for something suitable. After scrolling past the many pages of soprano arias, and then the pages of mezzo arias, I arrived at the single page, and uh single entry for the contralto arias written by Mozart. And it wasn’t the genuine article at any rate, it was composed for castrato. Why don't composers write more works for low ladies?
It's been slowly dawning on me that I compose and have the instrument at hand to work with, so maybe I could stop complaining and write some work for contraltos.

This thought brings me back to a work I abandoned a few years ago - THE DAY - a sort of Taoist oratorio drawing on stunning ancient Chinese poetry. I shelved it after I made the regrettable decision to go back to uni to pursue composing studies, where I had been working on this piece. Originally, based on my supervisor's advice, I had scored the important female role in this work for Soprano. The Wu, a Chinese, female rainmaker. Basically a shamanness archetype who can summon the rain amongst other talents including ‘sight'.
It's taken me a few years to shake off the feelings i had around uni and this work - the deep frustrations of being unable to articulate and justify my instincts with words, to my lecturers. I certainly have taken my musical education seriously, but many of my compositional ideas are instinctive, and based on soundfeel and because I sing as I write - mouthfeel. I found I couldn’t translate this to words when called upon (and this is a perfectly reasonable expectation of a university supervisor) to discuss what I was writing and why. I just got tongue tied and miserable, depressed about the suggestions and alterations my lecturers offered.
Any way, that seems sufficiently long ago for me to come back to this work and follow my own instincts. Onee of my ideas is that The Wu could be for a low voice. What I'm going to do to come back to writing the work, is focus on her songs and create a stand alone song cycle.
Here's a sketch of her telling the humans to "go walking." I pulled it out yesterday to start thinking about.


Dance Of Darkness

I've spent more time on this 5 minute anthem than I spent on the 45 minute wine and cheese cantata. It’s finally finished. It’s been hard work and a lot of revision. The move I suspect, has disrupted my instincts. Still, whether it's the high road of inspiration or the low road of deliberate craft and much redrafting is irrelevant to an audience. Because I’m writing the anthem set in Egypt, I based the piece in Dorian mode, which apparently appealed to ancient Egyptians because it has the same tone/semitone pattern ascending and descending. It was good to explore dorian for a choir ie harmonically. The progression of chord III to IV to V (with a raised leading note) has three major chords, a tone away from each other. Which makes for a bright sentence! I’ll be able to share it with you after it’s premiered in December.

In the meantime, I have also been working on a poem in response to a stunning dance company's work on the stories of people from Fukushima and their experience of the 2011 tsunami. It felt similarly hard to write about, I was collecting more and more pages of notes and snippets. But the emotion is too big to try on - to write from inside - it's too much. Thankfully the muse turned up and said the beauty of the dance came from reporting the facts. Just be matter of fact. Hopefully that'll work for the anthem too.

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Daughters Of Rachel

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The Magnificat! What a text. It makes you think there was a lot more to Mary than meekness and mildness!

I am writing a piece for Downtown Presbyterian Church’s Lessons and Carols. Because the church has this stunning Egyptian Revival Architecture I was inspired to write about when the Holy Family fled to Egypt, escaping the massacre of the innocents.

How was it for Mary, hiding in a cave, holding on to her baby? Was she haunted by the thought of the mothers who were left behind? Did their cries come to her in her sleep? If Rachel wept from the dead, surely her voice travelled to Egypt?

We don’t have a car in the US yet, so I’m walking a lot. I walked for days thinking about Mary and the Magnificat. This experience of being a refuge in a cave with a baby, and she was only a girl herself! How this must have stealed her mind to the way she would raise her son.

I have been thinking about what writing an anthem means. Anthems are sung by church choirs. Often competent readers and singers. Maybe drawn from the congregation, maybe paid singers, likely a mixture of both. Church choirs are working choirs. They have a performance each week so there just isn’t a great deal of time for rehearsal. Anthems need to be written with this in mind. I have found it hard to put into words what this means exactly, but it basically requires that the song doesn’t have features that take getting used to, to sing well. Exotic chord changes that work because during rehearsal you get the feel for how the harmony sounds as a whole. That’s a brave move for an anthem. Or phrase shaping that relies on singers really knowing the piece. I was describing this to Emlyn - and he was saying that like Shakespeare, I need to write with no subtext! That is a good way to describe it, and it’s quite different from writing for community choirs - anthems will be read, by good readers. I’ve found this quite challenging to be honest. It’s a new angle.

The music has been hard. One by one I’ve been disgarding the ideas I started with, as the song has slowly emerged. This has taken some time. I have been working on this piece for weeks, and have only started to feel like it was going to work, two days ago. It started in 6/8 and felt crowded and rushed. I put it in 6/4. Normally I prefer the softness of note seven a tone below the tonic, but I had to face that this was getting oppressive and perhaps a major chord V was going to bring some welome light to the piece. The tune I started with wasn’t working - it didn’t translate to a choral setting - so I threw half of that away yesterday. And now the 6/4 doesn’t always allow the singers to express the words, so that has gone too. The more I’ve given away of what I originally wanted, the better the piece is working. But it’s been a wrestle. Every time this happens, which honestly is most times I create anything, I wonder - have I peaked? is it all down hill from here? Maybe. One day. I’ll reserve judgement til I finish this one, but I think I’m still ok.

Now I need to go over every part with a fine tooth comb to make sure each part is good to sing, and good to sightsing. I have one thought I wanted to share on this. In my experience when a note that is suddenly sharpened a semitone as part of some harmonic movement, it is easier for singers to pitch if they descend to the new note. Rising to a recently sharpened note is harder and likely to be flat or insecure. For example, a tierce de picardie moment will be easier for the folks singing the brightened, major third to find it by falling a semitone. Hmmm. Maybe this isn’t such a good example because singers tend to know and recognise this harmonic movement and will be secure whatever you do, but if there are other places with sharpened notes, I think it will be easier for singers to fall to them, when they come across them for the first time in a piece.

The Crossing Point

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Along with our move from Australia to the US, I guess it’s not a surprise that my life is changing in some significant ways. We have come here partly for Emlyn’s job, partly for an adventure, and partly for me to have some space and time to consider what to do next and how to set about doing it. At any rate, I don’t have permission to work in the US yet. It takes about six months to process, so I am having an enforced retreat.

I have left teaching students and choirs behind. I miss this work, but my voice doesn’t seem to have the stamina it had before the surgery - last year my voice was worn out by teaching during the day, and my singing, initially feeling easy and exciting after the surgery, got harder and more miserable as the year went on. So leaving that work was a wise thing to do.

I’ve been teaching and conducting for many years now, it’s been a big part of who I am, so the space is big.

Not to mention when we moved, we left our children behind. Somehow they grew up and became adults and despite the impossibility of this, it has happened. So there’s that space too.

Because I’m not directing community choirs, I am not composing as a part of this. So this blog as it currently stands, where each week I share pieces I’ve written for the choirs I’m working with doesn’t relate to my life. I’m not whipping up arrangements and short pieces. I’ve run out of back log too, I’ve shared with you what I have to share! I’ve been wondering about whether to just gently close this blog down.

But then, this blog has been part of an important transition for me over the last few years. Where I slowly became aware of a huge pivot - where the writing I have always done as a sort of adjunct to teaching and conducting, often literally squeezed into the gaps between lessons, has become the main focus of work.

One of my challenges has been pondering how to do this - how to become a composer at large. I wondered if I should go back to uni. Partly to address gaps in my knowledge and skills. (I’ve no idea what they might be because if I had the knowledge to identify what they were, I wouldn’t have them.) And partly for opportunities, connections, and immersion in a musical community. Emlyn was quite disparaging of this idea. He said something along the lines of “I know your work, I listen to it every day. You’re going to have to trust me on this. You are a composer not a composition student.” There was a lot more but you get the jist. Then I read advice from Eric Whitacre on how to become a composer and he said find a choir that will sing your work and take notice of everything they like and don’t like, find hard, find easy etc. Well I’ve done that for twenty years. So I guess I can cross that off the list too.

Beyond this, I’m not sure. Yet.

What I have got is a room of my own to write it. A QUIET and rather lovely room. In two weeks it will have a piano in it. And I have a pile of projects. Works started and not finished for various reasons, from sketches to works that have been workshopped even performed, and need final tweaks, all waiting for “I’ll get to this when I have time”. I have a sense of purpose, an underlying drive with my writing. A life filled with singing and singers means I am saturated with song. The challenge isn’t scratching around desperately looking for musical ideas, it’s sorting through all of the jumbled options and teasing out single threads to work with. I also believe the canon of vocal works needs female librettists to round out the full human stories, and I have much work to do to develop as a librettist.

There is work. It will be different. Rather than close this blog down, I will keep sharing my work with you, but it will be a different style of sharing. I will share the process, checking in weekly on where I’m up to. Now that’s not what you initially came here for, so if you unsubscribe, well fair enough! And if you wish to stay and follow my adventures, next up my work begins on the Holy Family hiding from Herod in Egypt.



Sacred Songs

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This week a summary of the sacred choral pieces I’ve written. Organised into four categories- Very Simple, Medium, Sophisticated and Christmas. I’ve included recordings where I have them, of various quality and level of rehearsal! If you perform any of my works and record it, I will happily share it here.

Very Simple

These two pieces are from the book Singing The Dots and are designed to be accessible for community choirs.

An Irish Blessing
SATB

 
 

Psalm 23
SATB

 
 

Medium Challenge

These are three gospel pieces arranged for acappella choir.

Michael Row
SATB with Soprano Solo

 

Balm Of Gilead
SSATB with Solo

 
 

This Train
SATB with divisi in every part

 
 

Sophisticated

These two works have divisi in every part.

Prayer For Sanctuary
setting of Psalm 23

 
 

Gloria
setting of the latin Gloria from the Ordinary Mass

 
 

Christmas

Still Still Still
SA - simple setting of An Austrian Carol

 
 

Mary Had A Baby
SATB - simple arrangement of a traditional gospel piece

 

Rolling Downwards
SSA - simple arrangement of a Southern Baptist Carol

 

A Child Is Born
SATB - Medium - arrangement of a medieval carol

 

The Nativity
a 15 minute work with ten small sections
Medium -SATB with some divisi and solos and piano accompaniment

 

The Nativity

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Last year I dusted off this Christmas work which I'd first written about 10 years ago. I rewrote it in sections, and whisked it off to my choir while the ink was still drying so we could learn the work in time for our Christmas concert. I shared it here,  published as five discreet parts. My lovely choir Voices In The WIlderness sang it at the last concert we did together. In fact it was the last concert I conducted. Funny how things change, after directing happily for hmmm somewhere between fifteen and twenty years, I don't know if conducting is in my future. It's been a gradual shift in my heart. I am still as passionately committed to choirs, and what singing with others means for us as humans, but my sense of where I want to put my energy has slowly changed. 

Anyway, I've spent the last week putting the pieces all together, smoothing out the transitions and tweaking little bits here and there. And here it is. We are staying in an apartment temporarily, where I don't want to make a lot of noise and annoy my neighbours. I also don't have a piano and I tend to write piano accompaniments at the piano, my fingers feel what goes. So I've been playing the air piano to write bits. 

This piece goes for about fifteen minutes. It's middle level complexity. When I first wrote it I was conducting a choir who liked to sing medleys, so it's in that style, with ten small sections. This means if you have multiple ensembles this would be a piece everyone could do together, allowing different groups to take different sections. 

And here's a rinky tinky Sibelius version of what it sounds like.

Songs From The Shed

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Well I don't know what sort of fancy shmancy recording studios you record in.  To record the songs for the sightsinging book Singing The Dots, Emlyn and I were joined by Australian Soprano Bethany Hill, and Tenor Hew Wagner, for the most rustic recording session of my life. We ferried to Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia for a camping weekend with Beth's boy's fam and friends. During daylight, we recorded in an unpowered tin shed using a single battery powered H2N. To give you an idea of the rusticness of our recording situation, the photo on the left is the view from the outdoor facilities. 

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I'll give you a sample here - Break Break Break, a setting of a beautiful poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.This song  introduces quavers. The main tune is just do, re and mi. All seventeen tracks,  recorded in a weekend, in a shed, and the books with the sheet music and teaching notes are available here.

 

 

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10 000 Miles On A Fish

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We did it! We travelled 10 000 miles on a fish!

And now here we are in Nashville Tennessee.

I found this picture just off 12 Street South. I often see people snapping it. 

I've got two updates for you plus a new song.

 

Wine And Cheese Cantata

Firstly - before we left , I grabbed some opera buddies, and we had a bash through the Wine And Cheese Cantata. It was a roaring success, and Emlyn's brie was the star of the show. It truely was Gooey Superb!! The cantata worked well, and it was, as I'd hoped, totally singable. After we did it, I did make a few adjustments. The three male characters - the Cheesemaker, the Winepairer and the Judge are all scored for baritones, because, as you know, they tend to be findable. But I thought when we sang through it, having the three voices close in Fach meant the texture of the work wasn't as varied as it could be, and the music didn't help define the characters. I've tried to keep the parts in a baritone range, but I've given the Cheesemaker a more tenorial feel. Similarly I've made the Judge feel bassier. The other changes I made were to smooth a few transitions between sections so directors and singers can be clearer about time signature changes.

Prayer For Sanctuary

Secondly - a few things about this piece have been niggling in the back of my mind for a while. The top and tail really! I have simplified the first verse, pruned it back. I also realised the climactic moment of the piece - the Victory Verse - was only half a bar long. That's out of proportion for a piece that's around seven minutes long. So I worked into and expanded that and feel much happier with the balance of the work now, I think it will be more satisfying for singers and listeners. I've got a recording of the way it was before I made these changes. Hopefully I'll find a way to record the updated version here in Tennessee.

The Parting Glass

This one is a tribute to the darling humans I've left home in Australia. My heart has been reminding me that leaving loved ones is a tough thing to do. Certainly this song helps. You know sometimes I like to get in there and really compose, and sometimes, with a song like this, I just transcribe the simplest version of the harmony. This song is so very simple and its beauty is in that simplicity, I didn't want to do anything other than write out what any good bunch of folk singers would get together and instinctively do. The tenor line divisi comes from having female tenors in the tenor section who didn't like to sing too high. So for my community choir, the female tenors actually sang the second tenor line.  But the first tenor line could be given instead to altos 2s, if you don't want to divide your tenor section. Finishing on chord IV is from The Wailin Jennys and it's a killer eh? Who wants to say goodbye on I? IV means we'll meet again!!

 

 

 

Backson

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We are packing our pot on a stick, jumping on our fish and heading off, moving from Adelaide Australia to Nashville Tennesse. Emlyn (husband/baritone/IT guy) has a job opportunity there and we are off.

I'm a bit distracted winding things down here and wondering about Nashville life - not a big country music girl but google says the city is alive with many different musical genres - so I'm going to sign off for a month or so and see you on on the flip side!

Wine And Cheese Cantata - Its Done. Booyah!!!

 
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oh yeah. yeah. yeah. yeah.

So Bach can write a cantata in one week and it has taken me six but I did also write the libretto so you know, there's that. And Bright Spark #3 is a beat poet. There's that too!

Ok. The sheet music:

And some rehearsal tracks. The full mix might be most useful for the soloists.
 

1. Blessed Are The Cheese Makers    0’0
2. Curds In A Mold    1’31
3. The Brie Fanfare    3’07
4. The Cheese Is Complete    3’17
5. The Company Yums In Chorus    4’34
6. The Wine Pairer interrupts Proceedings    5’23
7. The Company Resolutely and Desolately Agrees    7’32
8.  Everyone Seems Much Happier With An Onerous Task    8’44
9. And So To The Judge    10’44
10. The Candidates Are Summoned    12’32
11. Fruity Merlot   13’08
12. The Judge's Premature Ruling    15’20
13. Bright Spark #1 Earns Their Name    15’41
14 Judge And Company Summon The Second Candidate    16’59
15. The Lovely Chardonnay    17’14
16. Bright Spark #2 Rejects The Dichotomy     20’18
17. Judge Is Awake Now, If He Even Was Asleep    21’54
18. Champagne    22’15
19. The Company Reflects On The Options     24’58
20. Despair Descends    25’30
21.  The Extraordinay Proposal Of Bright Spark #3     28’21
22.  Joyous Outpouring Of Delirium And One Niggling Doubt     30’22
23.  The Benevolent Magnificence Of  The Judge's Final Ruling     31
23.5 Joyous Outpouring Continues As Various Folks Weigh In      32’36

Last week I included an alternative solo for Champagne, because the original is quite stratospheric.

Wine And Cheese - the 25 minute mark

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So much for writing a Cantata in a week!! Last night somebody suggested Bach managed his extraordinary schedule because he had 22 children. It's obvious when you think about it eh? I only have 2, and one doesn't even live here any more. How could I possibly expect to write a cantata in a week with such meagre progeny? (Lovely quality but low in numbers.)

It's been five weeks and we're up to 25 minutes. I'm putting the whole thing up from the beginning. You'll notice Champagne's song is composed for someone stratospheric. I have one of those people in my life but they are rare. So down the bottom you can find an alternate version without quite so many ledger lines.

Rehearsal Tracks

For the rehearsal tracks, I've included a general mix, as well as mixes with each of the parts boosted. The general mix may be usefulest for the soloists.

The approximate times on the tracks for the different songs are:
1. Blessed Are The Cheese Makers   0’0
2. Curds In A Mold     1’31
3. The Brie Fanfare    3’07
4. The Cheese Is Complete    3’17
5. The Company Yums In Chorus    4’34
6. The Wine Pairer interrupts Proceedings    5’23
7. The Company Resolutely and Desolately Agrees    7’32
8.  Everyone Seems Much Happier With An Onerous Task    8’44
9. And So To The Judge    10’44
10. The Candidates Are Summoned    12’32
11 Fruity Merlot    13’08
12. The Judge's Premature Ruling    15’20
13. Bright Spark #1 Rejects The Dichotomy    15’41
14 Judge And Company Summon The Second Candidate    16’59
15. The Lovely Chardonnay    17’14
16. Bright Spark #2 Earns Their Name    20’18
17. Judge Is Awake Now, If He Even Was Asleep    21’54
18. Champagne    22’15

Alternate Champagne

 

 

 

 

wine and cheese cantata - so far!

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I really want you to have a chance to listen to the piece so far. The full work will be about 25mins, and this is 15 mins. So two more installments and we'll be there! I just listened to it and really wanted to share.

I'm not trying to change the world with this piece - just write something that will be great fun to sing! But it's turning out to be a little gem. Woohoo.

I've added a few bars of silence in the winepairer's solo, so the poor fellow (and his audience) can catch their breath. This means if you have printed out previous instalments, you may need to find a way to cope as your bar numbers after this insertion will now be out. All part of the joy of being involved in the process!!

Go on. Pour yourself a Merlot and have a listen!!!!

Non Verbal Scaffolding

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A break this week from the wine and cheese cantata cause I've reached the difficult third section and tripping over myself - the notes want one thing, the words want another, the larger piece a third. I have learnt these things are surmountable and can lead to lovely results, but not yet my friend, not yet. 

A little while ago, I shared some sheet music for the rockin thirteenth century piece Alle Psallite with more sophisticated parts here. This week a very bright and committed young teacher asked me for some thoughts on running short workshops on singing. This sort of thing comes up eh? You get asked to run a little singing or choir workshop for beginners and maybe you've got an hour, and you want everyone to have fun, walk away with a feeling of mastery and accomplishment, and learn a useful idea or two about healthy technique. The big challenge here is repertoire! There's nothing boringer than note bashing and for a short workshop it's a total sapper of valuable time and enthusiasm. The more you can dispense with sheet music the better too. When I prepare for these sorts of workshops I think through what repertoire I can select and how I can teach it without sheet music and with minimal note bashing.  A tenant of Kodaly philosophy is to use non verbal communication to maximize the amount of time everyone is making music -at uni we had a prac where we had to teach the class a song without talking. To prepare a workshop I plan and rehearse non verbal scaffolding to help my singers pick things up quickly. I made a short video to show this. I'm pleased to say it's about three minutes long! If I tried to teach this song by note bashing with sheet music, it would take hmm ten times as long!