Sunday 2 July 2017

Choral Chameleon Institute: Day 8

Yaaaass Queen! Two very happy conductors! 
What an amazing end to the Choral Chameleon Institute! It's been a hell of a ride these last 8 days, all culminating in a final concert showcasing all the new works by the student composers, as well as four works conducted by the student conductors.

Even though it was concert day we still began our day with an Ear Training session, the institute ritual. One of the hugely interesting things which has come up from Ear Training is how different the British and American terms in music are. I've spoken in my blog before about how we use different words for note values (a crotchet for the UK is a quarter-note for the US etc), but during the Bach Chorale portion of our sessions we realised that the UK and US have entirely different words to describe cadences. For those of you who have no idea what a cadence is, it is essentially a melodic or harmonic configuration that creates a sense of resolution in music. A harmonic cadence is a progression of (at least) two chords that concludes a phrase, section, or piece, and there are several types of harmonic progression - in the UK we have 'Perfect', 'Imperfect', 'Plagal' and 'Interrupted', whereas in the US they have 'Authentic', 'Half Cadence', 'Plagal' and 'Deceptive' respectively - interesting how 'Plagal' is the same! I'm also told that some of these cadences in the US system can be broken down further with other terms to describe the type (so I believe there is a type of 'deceptive' cadence called an 'eluded' cadence'). It just goes to show how many different ways as people we have come up with to talk about and describe music! But I guess, at the end of the day, music is the universal language, which everyone can understand regardless of how you yourself talk about it. 

Following out Ear Training was final session in choral analysis with Steve Smith, followed by Matt Oltman. Until now, Steve's sessions have been about studying scores with a view to understanding counterpoint and harmonic concepts - in this session, by his own admission, he decided to 'throw out his lesson plan' and talk about the way tuning systems have progressed over the course of musical history. In modern music we are most aware of Equal Temperament, which essentially means that the distance between each semi tone is 100 cents (which just happens to be the term, it's got nothing to do with American money), which means the distance of a perfect 5th, or seven semi-tones, is 700 cents. However, when tuning a 'pure' fifth, which just rings better due to the overtone series, the distance is in fact 702, which means by the time you circulate round the full circle of fifths there's a discrepancy of 24 cents, which is huge! We then got onto the concept of Meantone Temperament, which was developed in order to make the tuning of 3rds purer; essentially the fifth was dropped by 6 cents. What ends up happening here is that certain keys sound hideous to move between, and is the reason you can't jump from say, D major to Ab major. Steve then moved on to the tuning system developed by the composer Nicola Vincentino, who divided each full tone into five parts, creating a 31-note scale using a dotted system over certain letters to signify a slightly heightened tuning - I'll demonstrate using a * instead:   D - D* - D# - Eb - Eb* - E
..... It was at this point I became certain that Steve was trying to melt my brain and have it dribble out of my ears, because he then played a youtube clip of someone playing the Archicembalo, a musical instrument that Vincento designed to be able to play using this system - listening to this was the most tense I have ever been, and I can only describe the feeling that was happening in my ears and head a armageddon, as my perfect pitch went freaking nuts! If you want to torture yourself, by all means, watch the clip here:

- Matt Oltman continued the session by talking to us about the work of Franz Biebl, whom he has been researching for his Doctorate. I was hugely grateful for the recording of his most famous work, 'Ave Maria', as it allowed my ears to 'unclench'. Biebl is somewhat of a one-hit-wonder of the classical world, even though he has in fact written around 2,500 compositions in his lifetime! His 'Ave Maria' has been rearranged into various choral arrangements (the original being for male voice), meaning it has been performed frequently, and has become a staple in the American choral music culture. I myself was unfamiliar with this particular piece, but I love it, and can totally understand it's universal appeal and popularity. It's certainly one I want to sing!   

After an incredible lunch of fried chicken in one of the little hole-in-the-wall cafes in Brooklyn it was back into the church for an epic session of recording the pieces. What's wonderful about this institute is that they endeavour to make sure each composer has the best possible recording of their piece, and not only do they do a full recording session with Choral Chameleon's own sound engineer, they record the concert as well! Recording in a church does have some technical issues to consider: the odd siren going past, creaky church pews etc, but I think the worst part was the heat! It was 30C in New York and humid, and I have never known a church to be so hot! Maybe the Guernsey churches being made out of granite makes them able to stay cooler, but seriously - waaaaaaaarrrrrmmm!! However, the overall outcome of the recording sessions was fantastic, and we were able to finish up with a decent amount of time to relax before the concert. 

Matthew Oltman conducting the Choral Chameleon Singers
The concert itself was wonderful - all the compositions composed this week were of such a high standard, and the choir really pulled it out the bag for the big night. There was a few moment were I was worried we were going to have to battle the looming thunderstorm, but we only had to contend with a few distant rumbles, which, in some cases only added to the piece! From a conductor's point of view I am so pleased with the way my pieces turned out - if you asked me on Monday if I would have been this happy I probably would have cried and asked you why you were being so mean to me, but the outcome could not have been more different! One of the tenors approached me to tell me that the progress I've made in this week has been astonishing, and that I should be very proud of what I've achieved - and I really am! I have so much to explore as a choral director now, and I feel much less like a rabbit in the headlights! Huge thanks to Vince, Matt, my fellow student conductor Tegan, and a few of the composers who have conducting experience; you have all given me so much support and taught me so much. From a composer's point of view, I'm ecstatic - my piece was everything I hoped it would
Post-concert piccie with my fabulous tutor
Jeffrey Parola
be, and judging by the reaction it got from the audience and all the faculty, it was a huge hit! There is something really special about this piece, and I really hope it gets published and performed an insane amount of times! Personal highlights of the concert include Bryan Lin's 'I miss you', which is an incredibly humorous, but brave setting of social media texts (and certainly caused a few laughs and raised a few eyebrows), Yangfan Xu's piece 'Fu You', complete with choir choreography, and Michael T. Robert's delightful closing number 'A Prayer in Spring', which I'm pretty sure was stuck in everyone's heads for hours after the concert!

- Following the concert was a reception in the Parish Hall, with beers donated by Brooklyn Brewery, a sponsor of the Choral Chameleon Institute, before a bunch of us headed off to a bar nearer downtown Brooklyn for much need refreshments, discussing, and a great deal of hugging! It really has been the most warm and friendly experience, with, as Vince said on day one, everything coming from a place of love.

As always with my final blog about these musical experiences, I like to give a list of the people I have met, along with their professional website so that you can check them out for yourselves

Composers & Conductors:
- Evan Crawford: TBC
- Jared Field: 
- Bryan Lin: 
- Tegan Miller:
- Lydia Jane Pugh (aka, me!): 
- Michael T. Roberts:
- Brian M. Rosen:
- Joshua Saulle:
- Emily Joy Sullivan:
- Edward Thompson: TBC
- Nicholas Weininger:
- Yangfan Xu: TBC

List of Faculty and Guest Speakers:
Vince Peterson:
David Dabbon:
Mario Delollio:
Rex Isenberg:
Matthew Oltman:
Jeffery Parola:
Mark Shapiro:
Steve Smith: TBC 
Joseph Stillwell:

And of course, the institute website itself, for good measure, because more people need to know about this institute! 

It has been an absolutely incredible experience; a truly special endeavour, and I hope to return one day soon! Thanks Choral Cameleon Institute - #artisworkbutitstimetosleepfornow

Everything at this institute is done with love - and I very much needed that hug! Thanks for everything Vince! :D

Friday 30 June 2017

Choral Chameleon Institute: Day 7

Day 7, the penultimate day of prep before the big finale tomorrow! It's been another fabulous day at Choral Chameleon, and one demonstrating a hell of a lot of excellent music and musicians!

We started the day with, you guessed it, Ear Training. Well, actually, I started my day with Vince coming up to me before class to tell me he was up at 6am reading all my blogs and had a LOT to say about Solfege..... couldn't help but feel like a naughty school child at that point, haha! I do want to reiterate here, I'm not dissing Solfege: I totally understand what it is, and why it is so favoured, and it's not like I'm not trying to get my head around it, because I really am! But the way I view this is, it's a method: a method of teaching/understanding pitch. But much like in my vocal teaching practice I do not teach any one method as my preference (I will use a wide range of all the methods and tools at my disposal to suit the student), I can't see Solfege becoming my 'preferred' method - although it will probably make it's way into my lexicon and 'bag of tricks' when working with harmony. And, if I continue this trend of attending these workshops and institutes in the USA, I'm probably going to need to understand it much better than I do now! Another system which our teacher Joe explained to us was a method of counting rhythm, using a system of numbers, dashes and 'checks' - I will fail to explain it well in this blog, but what I can tell you is that I grasped this new method much more easily than I have Solfege. I'm starting to wonder if my Dyslexia is playing a part in this: when I play Countdown at home my ability with numbers is far superior to my ability with the letters, and perhaps this is another layer to the Solfege-frenemy cake I need to consider.

With our ears nicely tuned in to music, it was time to begin the mammoth task of the day's rehearsal, which would require the full ensemble of the Choral Chameleon Singers to make their way through each composer's piece, as well as the 4 pieces for the student conductors, making 16 pieces in total. That is one HELL of a task, and I've got to say, these guys are serious pros! They really know what they're doing, and they managed to pull off a 6 hour rehearsal process without any fatigue in the voice. One of the sopranos (Liz, I believe) has the purest most etherial voice I've ever heard, and she just kept hitting top A after top A without so much as a glimmer of tiredness creeping in - super impressive! The quality of the compositional work is also pretty amazing. There's a really diverse mix of technique, style, and I really love how well matched each composition is to each composer's personality. One moment which will really highlight the diversity of the concert will be Yangfan Xu's piece, which is highly ambitious and featuring a vast array of complex techniques (as well as being in Chinese), followed by my piece, which actually has a slight air of classic Elgar about it - when I heard the choir sing the opening this afternoon I could suddenly hear an element of 'Nimrod' within it. From the intricate and impressive sounds of Asia, to the classic simplicity of Britain, it will take the audience from a piece that will need them to get their teeth (or ears) stuck into it, to a something to cleanse a palette - it's going to be awesome!

Fun times with the lymphatic system - wooooooo! #nerds
One thing that I've also really enjoyed at this Institute was the sense of equality - I don't mean that in the political way, but rather in the professional way. Even though I am here as a student of composition and conducting, I feel like my expertise in other areas of my career are welcomed and valued - as a vocal teacher I have a lot of understanding and instinct about how the voice works, as well as other holistic approaches to the voice and body on the whole which I have really enjoyed sharing with other participants and faculty. Steve Smith, our choral analysis tutor, and I have had several discussions regarding vocal technique, and today I was able to show him two methods I use to aid my health as a performer: lymphatic drainage massage (which is far less invasive and disgusting as it sounds, I promise), and a shoulder tension releasing exercise. The shoulder tension release was actually quite amazing on Steve, who has a mis-aligned posture to begin with - it evened out his shoulders, and I'm pretty sure he spent the rest of the day walking around two inches taller!

After the epic rehearsal, there was a definite sense of needing to chill out in a big way, which is when the amazing offer of 'Happy Hour Wine' at composer Nick Weiniger's place came up - pretty safe to say, that was a very popular suggestion, and it wasn't long before the place was jumping with choral nerds needing to unwind. Wine, cheese, cookies from Hot Mike at (in-joke, #sorrynotsorry), followed by heading off to Clover Club for food and cocktails. This is pretty much the first time that any big social gathering has happened at this institute other than the welcome dinner - there's been small gatherings, and we all seem to congregate in Carroll park for lunch everyday, but this was a great night of everyone having a good old laugh over cocktails and institute in-jokes - definitely the best way to relax after a hugely stressful, rewarding, and loooooooong day.

Happy Hour time for the Choral Chameleon Crowd - work hard, play hard #artiswork #wineisart therefore... #artiswine

Thursday 29 June 2017

Choral Chameleon Institute: Day 6

It's the home stretch now, which means everything's kind of ramped up a gear in terms of intensity and drive. Wednesday was a biiiiiiiig day!

Once again, the morning started with the usual Ear Training class, which, I've actually got to say, I'm enjoying as a habit! Much like I will always start my singing practice (as well as my student's lessons and my choir rehearsals) with a tailored warmup or specific exercises, doing these ear training exercises each morning has really got my brain to focus in on the music each day, and much like I warm up my voice, this is warming up my ears.... and in a way, my soul as well. Following that it was time for the really big part of the day to start; another stab at the student conductor pieces with the full choir, followed by another read-through session with the Choral Chameleon Singers, this time with the other half of the choir that didn't read our pieces on Monday. After my somewhat emotional breakdown/breakthrough on Tuesday, I came into the conducting session feeling, in a word, lighter than I did on Monday. Everything about it felt easier, more relaxed, and I felt like I was able to absorb everything that was being said to me properly. On Monday, because I was so anxious and overwhelmed things just couldn't sink in, but having that chat with Vince on Tuesday allowed all of that information to be absorbed, and leave me open to take in more today. There's still a lot of work to do, that's for sure, as Vince's piece he is having me conduct is not easy - but I feel much more up to challenge now!

The composition read-throughs were once again really wonderful. By this point the composers have had another day to work on them, and so at this session we were getting much more completed pieces, and could really begin to hear the full extent of ideas coming from each composer. From my own perspective, I am thrilled to bits with my piece - everything about it is what I hoped it would be, and the choir just bring it to life in such a magical way. Vince (because I believe he's actually trying to break me at this institute) had me, once again, stand in the middle of circle of singers as they sang my piece, and there are moments that are so visceral that I was close to tears - not going to lie, I fully expect I will actually weep like a child when the full choir sing my piece tomorrow #dealwithit
- The only downside of being in two groups is that I've not heard half the pieces yet, but I've gotten to know this particular half quite well. Bryan Lin's piece 'I Miss You', inspired by text messages from (as he puts it) some 'sad exes' of his is both hugely entertaining, and hugely risky, and I actually love the strangely 'digital' sound he's somehow getting out of this choir. Nicholas Weininger's piece has some really great moments in it (which, as you know, I like to call #chordporn), and I'm really enjoying Jared's piece 'Shells', which is conjuring up images of the seaside back in Guernsey beautifully for me. However, Just when I thought I had everything down, Vince throws another task at me, as Tegan and I are responsible for helping to put the program together for the concert on Friday! Safe to say, I'm not stupid, I've let Tegan take the leadership role on this one so I can concentrate on my conducting pieces, and I will take more of an proof-reading/editing role. Know yourself, and know when to take a step back!

Thinking that the day was over, I was about to head home when the opportunity arose to sit-in on an a cappella group's rehearsal. Blackout are a mixed voice a cappella group, who arrange all their own music within the group, and cite themselves as 'semi-professional'. Now, 'semi-professional' can be a really misleading term - I mean, how can one only be 'half' professional right? But all it means is that the standard of the group is that you would expect of a group who's full time profession is singing in an a cappella group, but that some/most of the group have 'real' lives outside of the group that is their main profession. The choir I sing in back home, The Accidentals is another such choir your could consider semi-professional. I was so pleased I turned up to this session, as we were invited to question and comment on the songs they were performing. One thing that is really evident with this group is that they really understand their own group dynamic, and the arranges know how to utilise each of the voices to it's potential. I have to give credit to Brad Booker, who sung the solo in their first arrangement of the evening, a song by Labyrinth. Brad is one of those who is not a professional musician with his day job, and in fact, he is an untrained singer (*untrained in that, he sings because he loves it, and has had minimal if any singing tuition) - seriously, there is HUGE potential with that voice! I was really pleased to be able to give Brad a few quick pointers in technique, and I hope to work with him further in some capacity, because.... daaaaammmmn.....

Here's a little clip of their fabulous work tonight :)

A really awesome end to a full on day of music making - make sure you check out both Choral Chameleon and Blackout from the links below, and just go and support awesome live music in your area or wherever you can! #musicisart #artiswork

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Choral Chameleon Institute: Day 5

Another roller coaster of emotions today! This institute really is like some crazy soul-driven discovery of self - which I guess is actually kind of the idea!

Met these guys last year at Lehigh! It's a #LePie reunion!
After the usual ear training session in the morning, it was on to another session of choral analysis with Steve. Now, to the average non-muso, this probably sounds terribly dull, but to music nerds this is terribly fascinating, and can be fun, believe it or not, and surprisingly useful! One of the big areas of focus in the session, in dissecting Bach Chorale's and other four-part choral works, was that sometimes the key notes in a melody are not necessarily the ones you might think. When reading a melody it can be easy to focus on the area where there's a big intervallic leap, or a passage that contains a lot of intricate accidentals; in actual fact, if you take the time to look for the key melodic interest, or make a note of how your part relates to another part's movement, the 'tricky stuff' suddenly becomes much more straight forward. This also got me thinking about the way songs are written, especially after a well-timed text message from a student back home wanting to know how to 'control' her high notes for a concert that night. I asked her the rhetorical questions - What is the purpose of the high note? Why is it there? When you're singing, you're story-telling, whether you're singing Opera/Musical Theatre, Pop, Rock, whatever - the high notes were not put in by the composer for no reason (or, at least, they shouldn't have been!) - They have a purpose, and it's up to you as the singer to figure out what their purpose is! For example, in the song 'Bring Him Home', there are two high G#s, and two high A's - all four of them are completely different, and are there for different reasons and to create different emotions within the piece, and how the singer chooses to sing them will greatly change the way the piece is received by the audience. If you want to do a little experiment yourself, look up Colm Wilkinson (10th Anniversary Les Miserables), Alfie Boe (25th Anniversary Les Miserables) and Hugh Jackman (Theatrical Film) all singing this same song, and listen to just how different the interpretations are! 

In a shift in the schedule, an extra masterclass was added in, given by Mario Dellolio, who just so happens to be course director Vince Peterson's old High School music teacher! Mario's focus for the masterclass was that of choral repertoire, specifically (as a composer or a conductor/choir director), "do my choices matter?" - which, the short answer is obviously, yes, but we were able to explore the why's and wherefores in much more depth. Many things need to be considered when you're writing for, or programming music for a choir: What is their skill level? What division/parts do you have? Who is the intended audience? What is the occasion this piece will be performed at? etc etc etc.... We also considered what the market place is like for choral music, and what areas are in dire need of new music or arrangements, as well as the joys and pitfalls of writing for specific ensembles - for example, writing for 'middle school' voice (between the ages of 10-13) can be really challenging. As a vocal coach I can attest that it's even challenging finding appropriate solo repertoire for that age group, so image trying to find something that appeals to a group of singers in that age bracket, who all have very different levels of taste and maturity! What seemed to be the big take away from this masterclass was the importance of making connections. Writing for yourself is one thing, but if you want music performed, you've got to get it out there, and it might be that you need to write something that's not as soulfully satisfying to you as the artist, but gets you a great connection with an ensemble who repeatedly want to perform/record/commission your work, and could be the stepping stone for getting your more challenging pieces performed. As Vince said (and keeps saying) - Art is Work.  

Following the masterclass was a real mishmash of individual moments, as everyone flitted between their one-to-one composing lessons, one-to-one 'heart-to-heart' sessions with Vince, and Tegan and I had an informal 'conductor's debriefing' with Matt at the coffee shop around the corner. There is something wonderful about doing these important sessions in an informal way, as it keeps everything grounded, I feel, and connected with the humanity involved in art. It's way to easy to get bogged down with the technical things and miss the beauty in it, and that's what I find a simple 'chat over coffee' is able to do. There's also nothing quite like practicing your 7/4 conducting technique in a trendy upmarket coffee shop in a room full of people on laptops! Matt was able to help me digest all the suggestions and the experience given to me the day before, and give me helpful insights into the things that went really well that I might have missed - for example, there's a moment in one of my pieces which requires the tenors, altos & sopranos to come off the word 'est' at different times. Matt said to me, "Did you notice that no one mentioned anything about that entire section of the piece?.... That's because it was spot on - there was nothing to mention!" - And this is another thing that we, as musicians are to eager to do: focus on the critique, the negative. We are so involved in what's wrong that we completely miss the things we did right, that actually bear no comment whatsoever!

I do love it when a plan comes together....
Following the coffee shop conducting, I had my one-to-one with Vince, but I'm going to skip ahead to my composing lesson for a bit. My lesson was really great, as Jeff was very pleased with my work, and even congratulated me on a superb first read through. The main debate of my piece going forward was whether I needed to write a 'middle section' using the remaining words of the Psalm I had chosen to set. When I presented the first draft to the choir, I had the beginning and the end sections, and just left a few empty bars in the middle to signify that there was a bit missing. The choir, when reading through it just read straight through, and in a happy accident I heard that these two sections actually connected up beautifully. My worry, however, was that this would make the piece quite short - Jeff assured me, this piece needed nothing more than what was on the page, and just the odd corner of tidying up. It's important when you're writing music to know when to stop, and sometimes you think you need to add things to a piece because it's 'lacking complexity' or 'not long enough' - to quote another one of Vince's mantra's "There's beauty in simplicity" - sometimes, less is indeed more.

Regarding my heart-to-heart with Vince now, I'm going to be completely honest: this was incredibly emotional for me. After a brief discussion about my anxiety issue with conducting, and explaining what I thought was the issue (and thinking we were moving on from the conversation), Vince asked me if perhaps there was something deeper that was upsetting me, that perhaps I wasn't divulging because I was being 'too british' about it - of course, he was right, which promptly caused me to burst into tears - this isn't the first time I've had an emotional breakdown at one of these courses/institutes; last year at Lehigh as fellow composer's (Mike Fairbairn) work brought me to tears because it was just so moving, and brought up emotions that had be buried and not dealt with. This time though, it was something much more deep-seeded in my own being, and Vince was able to deduce that the feeling of being overwhelmed that I have is not down to my inadequacies (or perception of), but simply that my love of choral music (and voice in general) is so big that this opportunity itself is just overwhelming me with emotion. And he's right! This is a huge deal to be able to stand in front of these professional singers and lead them, and the sound they can make is incredible - why wouldn't you be overwhelmed by that?! There have been moments when I've been conducting my own choir, The Guernsey Glee Singers, when they've just got everything right and the sound they make at that moment makes me want to cry. The basic gist of this session was that, it's ok to feel that way, and that I'm not alone in that feeling (Vince himself said his first few years of conducting had him feeling much the same as I do now), and that this really is a safe space to explore these emotions. I've also got to hand it to Vince - the man knows just what to say to you when you need it most. He's said to me at least six times this week, "I'm so happy that you're here..." - and you know what?.... I'm happy that I'm here too!

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Choral Chameleon Institute: Day 4

Boy, what a day Monday has been! The full spectrum of musical knowledge and human emotion went into it for sure, and I think I've just about come out the other side - not entirely unscathed, but relatively intact!

Brain fried yet?....
Beginning the morning with ear training (as so many of the mornings here do), I think I've decided what my issue is with Solfege..... and that is that it is literally just requiring me to rename everything, and actually, for no good reason that I can see (or hear). If I was a complete beginner, then sure, I would relish the need for notes to be named in some way so that I could try to reference - but my problem is, they already ARE named! I use the musical alphabet! And if you compare the system of the musical alphabet and Fixed Doh, the only difference is what each note is called. There is no additional benefit to me singing 'Re' instead of a D, or a 'Sol' instead of G - I actually tried this in my own time, by sight-reading a piece using letter names, and then sight-treading another (similarly difficult piece) in Solfege, and what I found was that with letters I had no problems at all, but with Solfege I kept singing the wrong syllables, found my pitch was wavering in places, and I even just reverted to letter names at one point because it's so ingrained! I think my real bugbear is that, with the course participants that have learned Moveable Doh, I can see the benefit in them learning how to use Fixed Doh, as it's a variant of the system that they already use that they may come across - for me though, like I've said before, it's like asking me to think in French for no reason!

Soon after we were off to meet the Choral Chameleon Singers for the first read-through sessions. Up first was conducting, which meant that Tegan and I were to conduct this professional group of singers for the first time. In total honesty, I was terrified. This is so far out of my comfort zone I have to admit, my anxiety levels are through the roof, and I found myself retreating into myself when it was my turn to conduct, which those of you that know me would probably have been really shocked to see! Perhaps it's the fact that these are professional singers who really know their stuff and I, as the amateur am expected to lead them.... perhaps it's realising that Tegan is so much more experienced and at ease with this than me that I feel not up to par..... or perhaps there's some other mental block that's going on - whatever it is, I know I need to take some time and figure it out, because the concert is on Friday and I really don't want to suck at this! All that said, the faculty we had on hand were superb, and were really able to get the needed teaching across: at one point I was surrounded by the choir singing at me, and having to run around and look them all directly in the eye, really listening to each individual voice, which was just the right amount of silly to sink in as an important lesson! The singers themselves are also truly lovely people, who you can tell are willing you to do well, and want to help you in anyway they can, always giving feedback with a compliment as well as a suggestion.

In session with Choral Chameleon (or half of them at least!) 
After a short break to compose myself (ha, pun intended), the choir split in half so we could begin to read-through everyone's first drafts of their piece, using two separate groups. I was up first, and I soon realised just how much more comfortable I am having a choir sing my music at me, rather than lead them in performing the music - I just felt much calmer and my piece really started to come to life. Although it's not finished yet, I'm really pleased with where it's going, and several of the choir, other composers and even the faculty were saying how wonderful it's already sounding. A fab little pick me up to get me back in the zone, and I can't wait to hear my next draft, and indeed the finished article with the full ensemble on Friday!

Yaaaaay! Singing Nerds! (Me with Justin Stoney,
post-vocal workout)
Taking a little detour from the Institute, I spent the afternoon back in Manhattan, as I had booked myself a singing lesson with Justin Stoney from New York Vocal Coaching. I came across Justin's youtube channel from my research for my Singing Teaching Diploma with The Voice College, and found I really liked his approach to both teaching and singing, and found it complemented everything I was learning and my own approach to music on the whole. So, I thought, why the hell not book myself a lesson with him while I'm in New York?! And I am SO glad I did, as it was a truly awesome lesson. Justin is every bit as knowledgeable and compassionate in person as he is on youtube, and we were able to jam in about 5 lessons worth of material into my one session, getting sounds out of my voice that I didn't know I could do! He was also really complementary on my voice on the whole, and seemed rather impressed with my vocal range, which was just an awesome icing on the cake, and just the boost I needed before having a good old stomp through Central Park: a glorious piece of nature in the middle of a busy city - fabulous!

What really struck me today was just how much of a different person I was in each of these four activities - in Ear Training, I would be more confident if I was allowed to do it my way (haha!), but generally speaking I'm solidly comfortable - in conducting I could not be more uncomfortable right now, which is actually somewhat of a shock to me! It's not even that I think I can't do it, because I know I can - there's something else going on which needs working out.... With composing I'm more than happy to sit and listen to a choir sing my music and then talk about it - and well, having a singing lesson and nerding about the voice is basically my life, and it was clearly the happiest and most energetic I'd been all day! It just goes to show that every musician has their strengths, weaknesses and underlying anxieties, and, harkening back to Vince's masterclass on Sunday, it really is all about knowing yourself if you're going to succeed.

A little bit of the good stuff at the end of a very busy day....

Monday 26 June 2017

Choral Chameleon Institute: Day 3

Perfect little artist's corner!
Sunday morning in Brooklyn, and it's a bit of a nice lazy start to the day - which is a good thing, because last night it was muggy and hot and horrible in my apartment, so it took me a while to nod off! Safe to say though, I got started on my piece, and decided to spend the free morning at a neighbourhood coffee shop enjoying some people watching while I continued on with my piece. It really is a lovely area of the city this little corner of Brooklyn, and with the sun shining, it was the perfect time to crack on with some creativity!

Starting off the afternoon it was back in with some more ear training, which included an interesting discussion of the concept of perfect pitch, and yet more discussions about Solfege, specifically 'Fixed Doh vs 'Moveable Doh' ' - probably time to explain the difference! - The Solfege system relates to the 'musical alphabet': C-D-E-F-G-A-B = Doh-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti Fixed Doh means that 'Doh' is always the same note, regardless of what key you might be in. For Moveable Doh, 'Doh' will be whatever the tonic/root note of the key you are in might be - so if you are in A major; A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G# = Doh-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti. The debate that arises is which one is better, and why you might use one over the other. Many of the participants on this course have been taught Moveable Doh, and are thus struggling to wrap their head around using a different system, unlike me, who is just struggling to 'speak in another language'! Generally speaking, what I’m finding most difficult of this whole ‘ear training experience’ is learning to use completely different words to describe the notes I already hear in my head - for example, if I see an A on a score, I will hear the A, and would want to sing ‘A’, but the Fixed Doh Solfege system requires me to sing ‘La’ - when you then have to do them all in quick succession, that’s when the ‘fun’ really begins! I’m not entirely sure I’ll have it down by the time I leave the institute, nor am I sure I’ll use it in any real way when I leave, but it is fascinating to be learning about it and approaching something in a completely foreign way. 

Everyone hard at work!
Our masterclass for the day was with course director Vince Peterson, on the subject of 'Your Career in Music'. A hugely honest and insightful masterclass, which Vince delivered with both compassion and humour. The overall premise what how 'Art is Work', and that what a lot of people view as 'talent' is actually completely overrated. Having a career in music is based on knowing yourself, REALLY knowing yourself: your habits, your needs, your goals, things that help you work, things that distract you, your personal triggers and admitting your fears. It's about understanding what you're great at and who needs/wants what you have to offer, and likewise what are bad at and what do people not want from you. There was discussion on the Myers-Briggs Test, which essentially gives you insight into your true personality type, and how this can be related to your career, and discussion on how versatility in the music business essentially if the path to money! Overall, this masterclass was a full package of useful information, which I liken to the masterclass I experienced with Lawrence Dillon at Charlotte New Music Festival - a little bit of a life changer!

In my conducting session I tackled my second piece that I will conduct with the choir, which just so happens to have been written by course director Vince Peterson, and heavily features irregular time signatures in 7/8 and 5/4 - oh yeah, no pressure then.... That said, I'm up for the challenge, and this piece poses itself as a massive learning tool. A lot of my focus with this piece was learning how to beat the irregular time signatures, as well as more on the subtleties of what your hand gestures actually mean for a choir. I'm very much looking forward to trying all this new stuff out with the Guernsey Glee Singers when I return to Guernsey! - Finally, having got some notation on the go, my composition lesson with Jeff was also very productive, as I was able to show him how my piece was developing, and likewise he was able to make suggestions on how to expand on my ideas, and push the harmonic language a bit more. Jeff seems to really understand how I operate as a composer, and has a really warm way of discussing ideas which I find extremely helpful, so I'm really positive as to how my piece is going to turn out.

All in all, a shorter, but jam-packed day of music exploration, which was rounded off with a nice little dinner with a couple of my fellow composers in a local Venezuelan cafe, and a brief moment watching a live production of Shakespeare's Richard III in Carroll Park - #artiswork #artiseverywhere

Richard III - in the park on a Sunny Sunday evening!

Sunday 25 June 2017

Choral Chameleon Institute: Day 2

After the baptism of fire that seemed to be the first day of the Institute, safe to say the second day felt a little bit calmer, with everything seeming to seep in a little bit more and ideas beginning to grow.

Are you scared yet?....
I began my morning with another ear training session, which was not as hair raising as I had expected it might be - the day before we all had a short assessment of our aural skills, which was a little intimidating, but this mornings sessions was just the right amount of 'I know how to do this' and 'hmmm, that was a little more challenging than I thought!' - One particular exercise which was a little bamboozling was a two part rhythm exercise, where we were singing the top line, and clapping the bottom line. As a self-accompanied singer I thought I'd have this down, but alas the odd corner or two was seeming to throw me off! It took a few goes to figure out the best way for my brain to handle it, that's for sure - can I put that down to it being morning and the coffee not kicking in yet?.... I'm going to go with yes....
- For the rest of the morning we were treated to a master class with David Dabbon, who works as a vocal arranger for broadway musicals, and even Disney! This was a HUGE treat, especially for me as a musical theatre nerd - as a composer I also spend my 'downtime' between writing my own choral music arranging choral music, quite often from the rock, pop and musical theatre genres, so it was great to get the insight and tips and tricks from someone who actually does it for a living, and clearly, very successfully! One of the biggest considerations, particularly for musicals is how heavily dance features in the number in question - for example, if you listen to the title number of 'Oklahoma' there is a lot of complex harmonies going on - not surprisingly, this is a number which is done with the actors just standing and singing. In a number where there's a huge dance break, in a well written arrangement you'll notice that the singing comes back in in unison, or with the soloist featured so the chorus can catch a breath. Another interesting statement David made was that, "If your writing is good enough then it doesn't matter how good the singers are!" - which is a really, REALLY good point to consider!

One thing this institute has been full of the 'inspirational quote', most often supplied by the course director Vince Peterson - one that has particularly resonated with me is; "Don't over think! There is beauty in simplicity! Go with your instincts!" - This is a great statement for me, as I've often wondered if my compositions are 'complex' enough, or 'sophisticated enough' - but it really is true that sometimes, less is indeed more. Another great quote came from David Dabbon (who was actually quoting someone else), to round off his masterclass:

"Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes - art is knowing which ones to keep" 

After the lunch break it was back to the conducting for me, and boy, what a difference a day makes! After my slightly flustered start yesterday I spent some time with the score back in my apartment, just singing through each line, noticing the dynamics, any tempo changes, key moments etc. When I got up to conduct today I certainly felt much more at ease, and Vince even commented on how much more musical my piece was sounding, which is a big boost. Until you've actually tried to conduct, you have absolutely no idea of the intricate techniques required to do it well - it is SO much more than just flapping your arms around in time to the music! As pretty much a novice conductor I really am getting a huge body of knowledge thrown at me, and the biggest insight I've learned is that 'conducting is just a series of preparations' - it is all about being, literally, one step ahead of the game! It's also great to watch Tegan, the other student conductor at this institute, as I'm learning so much from watching her session as well as participating in my own.

Not a bad view from my 'classroom'...
Following on from my conducting session it was time to dash over to the choir loft for my composition lesson. As I'm the only participant doing both composing and conducting, my time management this week is somewhat spectacular! It's also unsurprising that I hadn't managed to get any notation on the go yet for this lesson, but I had managed to do some sketches relating to the two texts I was umming and ahhing between. If you're unfamiliar with the term, composers will often sketch out their ideas for their pieces, and there is no set way to do this - each composer will have their own way of doing it which reflects their process and their ideas. For me, this can include what I call 'harmony stacking', in which I write chord pattern ideas with letters in columns, melodic riffs, and in this particular case, a diagram of the proposed structure of the piece, which I often do by using block lines to signify parts moving together, and interweaving wiggly lines to represent parts moving across each other. From this sketching I can then start to 'noodle' on the piano, trying out melodic ideas or chord progressions, and the piece starts to develop from there. Safe to say Jeff (my tutor) was happy with my sketched ideas, and even said he might steal my sketching process to use himself, which is nice to hear! I'm certainly looking forward to my piece starting to develop now.

A hugely productive day at the Choral Chameleon Institute - I'm very much enjoying the positive vibe here at St Paul's. There's an excellent balance of focus and fun, as well as the hugely encouraging personas of each of the staff. So, it's time to get back to work, which in my case means translating scribbles into notated music and practicing my conductor arms in the mirror! #nerdalert

There beautiful evening light on St Paul's church