May 13, 2008

Observations

Rehearsal Observation: Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus
I had a great time when I went to observe the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus. I thought it was really neat to see such a quality, non-professional choir. Everyone was really welcoming, friendly and willing to answer any of my questions. I also learned some good techniques and some bad ones.
I was first impressed with their warm-up. There was a lot of talking going on as usual in a pre-rehearsal, choral environment. The director just sat at the piano and started playing an accompaniment. I was surprised at how fast everyone took their seats and started singing. It turns out that this accompaniment was for their warm-up and their cue to get started. The whole warm-up was standard for them. Not only did they do all of the warm-ups accompanied, but also they split harmony and had no one directing them to do so. I guess this comes from working with grown-ups, but impressive nonetheless.
You could tell that the assistant conductor, whom I observed first, was experienced, but he still did a few things that we were told not to do. He did not have a fluid rebound and showed a subdivision as a result. His gesture was very rigid, even in the very legato sections. Sometimes he would do the floppy wrist thing to try to smooth things out.
There were a few things that I will never take into my own career, but they definitely worked for him. He yelled the words if the choir got behind, in order for them to catch up. He would snap very loudly in order to maintain a tempo as well. He would demonstrate how to do something instead of helping them figure it out. (I know this has its time, but knowing the difference between right and wrong is also needed. Here, it was just, “Stop. Like this. Sing again.?) Surprisingly, if something was not working, he just told them what to do instead of changing his gesture. Although I was just observing, I did not think the choir was the only one in the wrong the whole time.
Despite all of the negatives, the choir did sound great. There was a good community, which made everyone have a good time and I am sure made it easier to sing with the other members. They had great intonation and unity in sound. I liked his suggestion that a “w? is just an “oo? sound to start. The conductor gave a story and/or put a meaning behind every song. They had a purpose other than to just sing which made things more “touchy-feely.?-Matt
The head conductor had a similar conducting style to the assistant conductor, but had some other pros and cons. I liked that he worked a lot on vowel unity. I thought they did a great job to begin with, but he was a perfectionist when it came to the vowel sounds. He did a lot of listening. Once he got the choir started, he often stopped conducting, closed his eyes and just listened. However, I did not like the fact that he sat most of the time (there may have been a good physical reason, but I was not going to ask). He also did not always give a clear pick-up, especially on an eighth-note. It almost looked like convulsions.
I was there to be a critic. Although I mentioned a lot of negatives, I enjoyed seeing a rehearsal that was well run. The disruptions were minimal. I know that the choir is already successful and will continue to be so. I am sure it would be a fun choir to sing in.


Concert Observation: Metropolitan Boy’s Choir
I had been waiting for this concert for months. I was so excited to involve my son in this choir in the near future, especially after our cooperation in Carmina Burana. However, The concert left me very disappointed.
I dragged my poor girlfriend along to this concert. We ended up having to leave early because of another meeting. However, this early departure was after 2 ½ hours with 8 songs left to be sung! First lesson learned (even though I already know, but indeed confirmed), take the length of the program into consideration. People lose interest after that long. I love music just as much, if not more than most other people, but I too was looking at my watch toward the end of the show.
Aside from the length, I enjoyed their program setup. There were 3 boy’s choirs, 1 men’s choir, 2 girl’s choirs and Dorothy Benham as a guest soloist. No choir did too much music, there was just a lot in general.
I was impressed with all three boy’s choirs. It looks like their feeding system between the three choirs is very good. It was also neat to see the progression in the different age groups (almost like a live time-lapse). They sang a blend of classical and popular choral literature and did both well. At times, they had some well prepared and executed choreography, which added to the music.
The girl’s choirs were on the same level as the boys’. I was impressed again with the feed. As in the boys’ their intonation and musicality was awesome. However, the choreography was too much with the girls. I noticed, especially in the high school group, that the quality of music dropped considerably when they added choreography. Despite the fact they were singing a gospel song, I think they would have been much better keeping the motions smaller and focusing more on the music.
With all of the young choirs, I noticed a slightly more childish version of conducting. Each of these groups had a different conductor, but there were many similarities among them. I noticed a lot of conducting from the body. They would make cutesy motions and be overly dramatic about dynamics and mood changes within the lyrics. I, by no means think this is bad, but never realized that the difference in age affected the conducting style that much.
I do not know what it is like to conduct children, but there were a few things I would not do. Sometimes, the conductors’ motions took attention away from the choir since they were so exaggerated. One conductor was singing with her kids in order to keep them together. I understand that they are really young, but the parents did not come to see and hear her. Also, I would never discipline a child on stage, in the microphone, at a concert, in front of a few hundred people. I do not think that is good for the child or your reputation as a conductor.
I was mostly disappointed with the men’s choir. This is the reason that I am not sure about my own son being a part of this group anymore. This would be the choir that the boys move into after their voice changes. However, the group was made up of approximately 20 men ranging in ages from around 15 to 65. I could rant for a long time on this part of the concert…and I have, but I will keep it minimal. Their intonation was off. There was not a unity in their sound. Their music was not prepared well and the preparation that was done was not adequate. One thing that makes the Lacrymosa from Mozart’s Requiem so amazing is the dynamic contrasts. There were none at this concert. Tempos were off, dynamic contrasts were not there or in the wrong place and it was flat out boring.
Again, I was there to be a critic. I left really disappointed and could go on about this concert for hours. Even so, I learned things that I will keep and things I will shun. However, that is the reason we were to do this I imagine.

Rehearsal and concert observations

Rehearsal

On May 11 I attended a church choir rehearsal at my parents’ church in Minnetonka called Ridgewood Church. I noticed several things about the conductor that would have been difficult to follow had I been a member of his choir. First, his beat pattern was rather circular, maybe to a fault. It was hard to tell where the downbeat was because his “scooping? motion was almost constant. This “upward? beat pattern made the ictus appear to be placed somewhere around the conductor’s eye-level. Such a highly placed release of energy made it difficult for the choir to breathe deeply and produce a supported sound.

Even his cutoffs were rather difficult to follow. He seemed to make a jerking motion with his hand when he wanted a cutoff. Instead of releasing energy on the lowest point of his cutoff, he released energy at the highest point. This of course created confusion among the choir and resulted in a consistently messy cutoff.

The final thing I learned about rehearsing with a volunteer choir is the need to start the rehearsal period on time. Starting on time is the first step to creating a successful choral experience. This particular choir has a history of starting fifteen minutes or even a half-hour late. I’ve even heard the director tell certain members (who always show up on time) to go ahead and come later than usual because people won’t actually show up until twenty minutes after the official start time anyway. Such habits severely undermine one’s authority as the choral director and should never be allowed to take root. As my high school choir director used to say: “To be early is to be on time, and to be on time is to be late.?

Concert

On April 5 I attended a concert by the Commodores, an acapella men’s group of 75+ members ranging from college students to retired veterans. The theme was a tribute to Disney, and several barbershop groups were included as well. Since the group was so large the director had to use rather large gestures to communicate dynamics and cutoffs. I learned that it’s okay to use extreme motions for important cutoffs, especially if you are working with a relatively untrained group. Anything you can do to make important transitions, dynamic changes, and articulation obvious is good!

Another thing I learned was the importance of having fun as a conductor. If the group sees you smiling and enjoying yourself then they will loosen up as well and get into the music. This was obvious throughout the evening as the entire choir was quite animated and unafraid to incorporate some choral-movement into their pieces. It is really true that your choir often reflects the amount of energy you give it.

I would say the third thing that I learned was subtle ways to encouraging a particular tone from the group during a concert. Although the group was mostly untrained singers they were incredibly responsive to the conductor’s motions for fuller tone and pitch unification. To get a fuller tone, the director opened his own mouth in a round “oh?, raised his eyebrows, and made an “expansive? motion with his hands by pulling them away from each other. The change in quality and richness of sound was phenomenal! To remind the choir members to match one anothers’ pitch he tipped his ear toward the choir, raised his eyebrows, and looked intently at the group. This signified that something wasn’t quite right and that the group needed to fix it.

Rehearsal and Concert Observations

Rehearsal Observation:

On 4/24, I attended a choir rehearsal at Totino-Grace High School and observed the Concert Choir. It began like any other rehearsal, with Terry Voss, the director, warming the students up at the piano with various scales and arpeggios. The only problem, was he failed to tell me that the kids were going to be working on their Pops Concert material so the students were working primarily on choreography for the rehearsal. After that, I left bummed, wondering what I was going to write about, but to my luck, when we went to Central High School for our final rotation, we were not actually supposed to be there so Martha let us observe her leading the rehearsal. So, my observation is of the women's choir we have been working with, also the men's choir which meets right after the women's choir. The best part of this rehearsal observation is that we have been working with these girls, but have never seen Martha work with them. For this rehearsal, she worked primarily on sight reading in both choirs, but it was probably the most helpful rehearsal I have gone to in a long time. I had no idea where to start with sight reading with my students in the future but I learned many things. Among the things I learned are :

1.When using sight-singing and warm-ups with the men's choir, using these exercises as a chance to try to get the guys' changing voices to match pitch is a great idea. Some struggled more than others but by the time she was on to sight-singing, more of the guys got the hang of where their voices were supposed to be.

2. Don't ALWAYS sing with the group during sight-singing. I feel like it might be helpful if they get stuck in a rut or need a little help, but singing with them all the time does not encourage them to try to learn the sight-singing on their own.

3. Ask questions! I remember in high school when we did sight reading, we never were asked any questions about the example. We were give the first note and were told to go. I think I would have learned more if the director would have asked us analytical questions about the example like Martha did (i.e. what key? what scale?, etc).

CONCERT OBSERVATION:
For my Concert Observation, I attended the "Divas and Desserts" concert put on by the Twin Cities Women's Choir on 5/3. This choir is directed by Mary Bussman, who oddly enough just happens to be the principal of the elementary school I will be student teaching at next spring. It was a great concert not only because of the music, but because watching Mary was always interesting. She made conducting look really easy. She always had clear prep beats. For a song in 4/4 she gave two prep beats, and for a song in 2 she just gave one. Her cutoffs were always clear and her left hand independence was always used very clearly. She started things low enough that she never ran out of space in the air with a gesture. She also incorporates her whole body into her conducting which seemed to make it easier to keep the choir involved. The choir as a whole had amazing vowel formations, so while the singers were not all professionals and classically trained, because they had matching vowels, their colors matched. There were only a few things about her conducting I was unclear of. Firstly, whenever there was a cue for a suspension, she would do this very unique hand flick gesture, which seemed to work very well with this choir, but I am not so sure it would work well with every choir. Also, sometimes her left hand independence got repetitive and she used the same gesture over and over again and I can see how that would be a bad idea for a choir because she got some of the same sounds on parts I don't think she wanted to happen. Overall, it was a very good concert and her conducting made me very excited to get out there and conduct!!

Britten

The first time we did Britten, I admit that I was probably a bit more unprepared than I wanted to be but this was because I was busy focusing on my piece for Central High School. After looking at the tape from last Friday, I realized that, yes, Matt was right in telling me that I needed to spend more time on the compound beats. But, on the other hand, I think that the speeding through those compound beats was a result of me messing up the pattern when it was a weird symbol written in my score. Overall, however, I think this last Friday went much better than the previous and I feel very ready to conduct tomorrow and I think that I finally know and understand this score and am actually excited to conduct. And, that was probably the biggest run-on sentence I have ever created!

May 2 - Wide Missouri

I remember being very frustrated after this day because I felt asd thought no one was with me. Watching the tape, though, I like the line in my conducting, the smoothness, and the (gasp!) control of the tempo. Matt made the point that not being together isn't always the conductor's fault, but when it does happens, it is better to bring everyone together than try to pinpoint what occurred.

Much of the session was devoted to finding a downbeat near m. 50 that the accompanist needs while keeping the choir sustained. Again, watching the video, I saw a downbeat. It was said "All I need is a quarter of an inch.." ... and I thought I saw even more than that. BUT even if it's there and even if you think it's there, I suppose as a conductor you have to give people what they need to be successful, if it's a bigger downbeat, then so be it.

Near the end, Matt suggested doing the entire section in 2 instead of switching to 4. To be honest, I was thinking more of it as a conducting exercise in transitioning between patterns than doing anything very musical. In which case, I feel completely justified in the decision. I do see that the four gets to be a little much when it's mostly sustained notes in the choir.

May 9 - Britten

It was abundantly clear to me that I was stuck in my head last Friday. Watching my tape, my face is buried in the score and even when I look out, my eyes are disengaged. Next week, I'd like to see more "in the moment" conducting. I think this will not only help my involvement with the singers, but also keep my tempo controlled and my rebound more relaxed. Even when Matt demonstrated the more controlled rebound, mine was substantially faster. This type of beat may work sometimes, but throughout this entire section. The faster rebound also makes the triple beats look faster than the duples.

I did try a new pattern for the "dance" part. I think there was a melding of my triples and duples the first time through where I got off. I thought it worked well the second time and people were able to follow no problem. I feel more comfortable doing this as the music is written this way. I like Matt's creativity in rearranging the barlines, but it makes the music sound different to my ear. Perhaps this is not how Britten would have wanted it. Of course, it's a great conducting exercise and a wonderful tool to have, but I think I'll stick with the page for now.

I'm very happy I had this recording to look at. It showed me that much of what I thought I was doing clearly could be improved upon.

May 12, 2008

Choir Concert Observation

I went to Minnesota Chorale's Bridges Concert: African Voices. It was a very interesting program. There were over 5 groups performing, so there was a lot of diversity. It was also interesting to hear the differences in performance practice between the ensembles. Although all the groups were singing African music, they each delivered it very differently. The African International Ensemble had a bright, forward sound that was delivered with a casual and entertaining voice. There were yelps and drumming and clapping. Whereas, the contemporary music ensemble of St. Olaf had a darker, more rounded sound. The swayed to the music but the were much more uptight.

The conducting really varied as well. The director of the African Ensemble was similarly laid back and did not beat patterns but game simple cues for entrances and showed the music through the movement in his body. He was showing his enjoyment of the music rather than keeping track of each microbeat. In the more "European" ensembles, the directors kept a constant beat, although it seemed as if their patterns were more relaxed than they would be in other types of music.

The concert showed a wonderful variety of choral sounds, delivery, and conductors. It was great to see that although there are millions of ways to perform or interpret a piece of music, if you pick one and execute it with confidence and intensity it will generally end up a positive experience. The concert showed me that things CAN be done in several ways.

May 9, 2008

Choir Rehearsal Observation: Armstrong HS Concert Choir, 4/21

On 21 April, I observed the Armstrong High School Concert Choir in a rehearsal with their director, Stephanie Trump.

Ms Trump started the rehearsal with warmups, which were more extensive than other high school choirs I have observed in the past. She devoted the first 15 minutes of class to warming up and sight-reading. She projected the sight-reading material on an overhead in the front of the class and had the students sing the scale of the key they were to sing, which was the only part of the entire rehearsal where she conducted them (in a 4 pattern). When they had trouble with a line in c minor, she had them sing the pitch she named aloud (do, me, ti, te, etc.), which helped them notice and perform the notes with accidentals more clearly and their relation to one another.

After warmups Ms Trump worked with them on a piece they had started on in a past rehearsal but had not gotten very far into yet, "Congori Shango". They performed the part they knew, which was the first two repeated sections. When Ms Trump didn't stop them, they attempted to sight-read further, but couldn't stay together well enough. Ms Trump slowed the tempo way down and had worked with each of the four sections individually. In contrast to her other choirs, this group was much more well-behaved when they were left unattended while she worked with other sections. It was obvious throughout the rehearsal the amount of respect they had for her and their fellow students to be so well-mannered.

It was harder for most of the sections to agree on the correct rhythm, so Ms Trump taught the remaining parts of this song mostly by rote, which worked fine. It was harder for the choir to remember to take the different endings at each repeat, but Ms Trump let it slide most of the time so they could focus more on learning the bigger parts of the piece. When all parts were learned, she had them sing it all the way through a couple times (with Ms Trump playing along with the section with the hardest part) to moderately high success. The biggest issue was remembering to take repeats, but overall the parts were well-learned. As previously mentioned, Ms Trump didn't conduct them in this piece, but counted them in at the beginning, and would occasionally remind them to take repeats when necessary, but she didn't do a whole lot of counting aloud, even during extended rests. I was impressed that the choir was able to stay together without this type of guidance.

With the remaining time (less than five minutes) Ms Trump had them sing a piece that they had obviously been working on for quite a while, as it was memorized. They didn't get all the way through, but they did the first part pretty well. Since they knew it so well, they paid less attention to scoops and small rhythmic inaccuracies, which Ms Trump didn't point out to them. I suspect it is a piece that they probably do frequently, if not annually, so she has confidence in their preparedness for the actual performance, and wasn't concerned with pointing out minor mistakes. Overall I was impressed with this choir and their response to a director who was a very good leader.

Choir Concert Observation: The Singers, 3/29

On 29 March I observed Matt Culloton's choir at St. Mary's Basilica. I enjoyed this program very much. The six different sets each had a theme, and consequently a different feel about them. I was impressed with how the weight of the production changed between sets. In the "Illuminate" set, they performed Bach's "Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf", and Culloton elicited the perfect lightness from his choir to make it sound effortless and delicate when it needed to. In the compound-meter section of the piece, the choir manifested the beat physically, and they were all perfectly in sync. It was almost as if it was planned, but it seemed more like they were reacting to the conductor's movement.

In contrast, during the last set, which included Paulus's "Hymn to the Eternal Flame" and Gilkyson's "Requiem", the tone was much more solemn, and the production was weightier without dragging. It was an impressively grounded, expressive sound.

Overall, the elements that stood out strongest to me were the attacks and releases, which were executed perfectly in sync. The diction was remarkably clear, which is hard to accomplish in a space of that size, so it was very enjoyable to listen to. All in all, I was very impressed by Matt Culloton and The Singers.

Blogging?

So.. I only have 4-5ish blog entries as I was waiting for videos to be posted. It's too late now to remember how I was feeling about how things went on a particular week, so .. I hope this is ok. Right. Thanks. CK

Tempo, tempo, tempo!

Hello, My name is Claire, and I conduct pieces too quickly.

I've been doing some thinking since out experience at Central yesterday. After my little trouble getting things going with "Les Estoiles," many of you had very supportive things to say, which I appreciate. At the time, I had many hunches as to why things went the way they did - nerves, transitioning from the previous piece, having never been there before, interpreting the piece at a fast tempo - but, really, this tendency to go fast is global and can be traced back to my beginning conducting days. Reviewing the last few videos that were posted, I can hear the piece at the tempo I'd like to take it, see it wanting to come through in my body, and actually portraying something completely different. It's like I'm missing a connection somewhere. Watching my "Wood River" video, I feel like the tempo in my arms could work if I were to use more space (same velocity, bigger beat) or use the same size with slow velocity. I'm thinking I could benefit from expanding the amount of space between 2-3 so that there is an equal ratio of space for equal time. AND I would like to think about taking more time within the beats, being in the moment, breathing, and slowing down. Last week, Matt mentioned how the tempo sometimes ends up matching your heart beat. It's funny - I don't really feel nervous until I get to the podium and I my have the physiological symptoms of nervousness... including a racing heart! I'm sure this affects my performance.

Tomorrow I need to: Think about the fastest rhythmic sections of the excerpt before conducting, taking time to place myself in the music, breathing, and using the space of my conducting accurately.

...we'll see how it goes!

May 8, 2008

Friday, May 2nd: "Rejoice in the Lamb"

Considering this was the first time conducting this difficult piece in class, I think it went pretty well. I was pleased that I was able to show the different dynamics; it sounded like the ensemble really responded. I was also pretty confident with the different conducting patterns. This was something that I was concerned about and I think I will get more confident with this with more time and practice.

For things to work on for the next run through, I can make the "3" in my gesture bigger. Dr. Mehaffey and Andrew commented that they were not as large as they should be; they were actually looking like the other beats. I am glad that this was brought to my attention because I am currently working on it. Also, I need to learn when to listen and when to not listen. This piece is tricky and sometimes you need to just get out of the way and just conduct.

May 5, 2008

Britten

I think that part of the reason I rushed the piece so much on Friday was due to the fact that I practiced it that fast. I know that is not that quick, but when it is ingrained in your mind at that temp, it is hard to switch. I will just need to work on keeping it slower and consistent.
Another reason for rushing is the quarter notes. Since most of the piece moves on eighth and sixteenth notes, I feel like the quarter notes are too long. I will have to work on pulsing the eighth note when I am conducting.
I feel like I have the piece technically worked out. I know all of my beat patterns pretty well, but I do not know what to do with the dynamics. i did talk with Matt and Andrew after class about changing the plain of the gesture. I think this will work well, but it is not something I am used to. I like making the soft gesture small and the loud gesture big. I will just need to develop a larger level of comfort with the planar adjustment.
I was thinking about things and am really disappointed this is almost over. I feel like I am just now starting to get comfortable with conducting. I wish we had one more class to improve even more. I know I still need to work on things like my big gestures, keeping myself grounded and my cutoffs. I know I can do this on my own, but it would be nice to be able to work on these things for another semester and especially with a choir...sort of. I have a fairly open semester next fall. Is there anything we can take?

Britten

I really surprised myself this week in conducting. I think that although I am invested, the best thing for me to do is not agonize about it and think about other things before I get on the podium. At this point in my conducting career, I can't get on the podium without worry. Its just my personality. I think the fact that I didn't obsess about it, made me relax and just do my best. I was surprised with the ease in which I changed meter. I think that the comment about creating a larger 3 will really help a lot. Going back and practicing it, I realized that it creates an ease in consistent tempo. Also, thinking about a smaller face really seemed to make a more dramatic difference when I really wanted it. I think these are two good things for me to continue thinking about.

April 29, 2008

Friday, April 25: Les Etoiles

I believe this was the second time that I conducted "Les Etoiles" and I think I improved. I think I was able to clearly represent the duple and triple meter. My gestures seemed clearer this time around because the ensemble really seemed to follow me. I struggled last time with the final page (with the ritard and alto movement) but this was a lot smoother this time around. I also think that I was much more comfortable with the active and inactive beats. This is a great piece to practice this on and I think it went well

With things to think about before conducting this at Central High School, I will need to monitor what is happening with my left elbow. I didn't even realize I was doing this but hopefully I can remember this while practicing. I have already worked on keeping my left hand under control. I have been rehearsing "Rejoice in the Lamb" with Matt Culloton and I am already making sure it is only used when necessary. I think this was a good week and I look forward to conducting the ladies at Central High School.