The following is excerpted from my proposal for funds to travel to Slovakia for research:
From 1996-1998 I served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Slovakia, namely in Žilina, Martin, and Bratislava. During my time there, I fell in love with the language, the people, and the culture. In a project such as I am proposing, having a grasp of the language and the culture will do much to open doors, create connections, and aid in the research. I would not go as far as to claim fluency in Slovak any more since I have not spoken in conversation in about 15 years, but my knowledge far outweighs that of most other people. I have arranged and conducted Czech and Slovak folk songs with various choirs in Tennessee and Washington.
My time in Slovakia was not as a musician and so my exposure to the music of Slovakia was limited. When I returned to the United States and to my university studies, I began preliminary research into the folk music tradition of Slovakia. Recently, as part of my doctoral studies, I have had the opportunity to begin researching the choral music of Slovakia. I am making contacts with university professors, composers, and conductors in Slovakia that are already aiding my research.
What I have found is that there are limited sources in the United States that write specifically about Slovakian music. The Czech composers of the Romantic era and into the twentieth century such as Dvořák, Smetana, and Janaček, overshadowed the work done by their neighbors to the east. There was not a great deal of compositional momentum in Slovakia during the 19th century in the first place.
The birth of choral music in Slovakia began in the early 20th century with the field research of Hungarian ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók whose work carried him up into the villages of Slovakia to record and collect folk tunes. This important work preserved the indigenous folk music before those that still knew the songs died out. These folk songs served as the catalyst for the choral music movement in Slovakia. At my recent doctoral recital, I conducted Bartók’s Four Slovak Folk Songs in their original language.
Other musicologists soon followed Bartók's lead. Vítězslav Novák, a professor, from Prague, traveled to Moravia and then to Slovakia and learned about the beauty of the Slovak folk melodies. Later, after the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, composers from Slovakia traveled to Prague to study with Novak. He encouraged them to learn and embrace the folk melodies of their people. These composers became the basis for the current choral climate in Slovakia.
I would like to be able to travel to Slovakia for two weeks. In Martin, Slovakia, the national archive for the arts, the Matica Slovenska, houses records donated from Bartók during his studies. These records are not available online or through any other means besides in person contact. I would like the opportunity to see and study these records and trace more exactly how they were instrumental in forming the current choral composers’ musical language. I would also like the opportunity to meet and interview current composers in Slovakia, trace their musical heritage, and gain more exposure to their music - especially those works that are not available in the US.
I am currently running a GoFundMe Campaign to try to raise the funds to travel to Slovakia. If you are in the position to be able to help, please consider doing so. Every little bit helps! You can donate by visiting https://www.gofundme.com/slovak-music-research
Thank you for your support!
I have not hidden the fact that I've had a hard time finding a publisher. I only say that to preface this story.
I received another rejection notice from a publisher today. I've received many from this publisher. I don't know why I keep trying. Perhaps, this particular publisher is usually so blunt and sometime almost harsh in the response that I feel a need to be vindicated and finally submit something that they will agree to publish.
This rejection notice was different, though. In this instance, the rejection had nothing to do with the music, but instead the lyrics. This was my setting of Felicia Heman's (1793-1835) poem entitled The Child's First Grief. I called my setting, Oh, Call Him Back to Me.It's a beautifully haunting piece.
The publisher agreed. The comment was "Such sad lyrics. I don't think there would be many takers. Sorry."
My thought was, "What's wrong with sad?" Has our society become so emotionally unstable that we can't stand the thought of being sad? I get the publisher's point of view...sort of. They have to keep their bottom line in mind. If they believe a title won't sell, they won't publish it. But just turning it down because it's sad, I don't agree with. Sad doesn't mean bad. Sad doesn't mean that people won't perform it (it's been performed twice already - once by a high school and once by a university).
Sometimes we need sad. Sometimes we need a chance to let ourselves feel...anything!
Oh Call Him Back to Me is set for SSA choir and piano.
Sheet music available at CadenzaOne.com
Hear the University of Washington Women's Choir perform this song from May 2017.
There are 5 minutes left in class...
I direct the University of Washington Singers, a non-auditioned group of singers that greatly vary in their ages and abilities. The class meets for an hour and a half twice a week.
We had just had a full rehearsal and accomplished every goal that we set for the day.
There are 5 minutes left in class. "Great. What to do?" I think. Have them sing it again just because, even though we just sang it about 5 times? My solution, "I think you have done a great job today. I'm going to let you out 5 minutes early!"
Immediately I'm greeted by choruses of "No! Let's sing something else! Let's keep singing!"
There is a power in singing that touches the soul. Once you start singing, it's almost easier to keep singing than to stop. Singing is personal. "We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams."
I love those "5 minutes left" moments where the soul takes over and says,
"No, let's keep singing!"
I had an interesting conversation yesterday...
At the University of Washington, the Choral Conducting graduate students are gathered in to what is affectionately referred to as "the Cohort." Yesterday we had our annual retreat at Dr. Boers home. We were asked to think about our strengths, or the thing about our artistic selves, that we are most excited about at the moment. We were also asked the think about our greatest challenges - what's holding us back from our progress, especially in regard to our artistic growth.
My greatest strength, I feel, is my ability as a teacher. When I am in front of a classroom, I feel that I come alive: I'm more empathetic, I listen, I adjust, I teach. I feel like that is a gift that I have been given and I'm working on cultivating that gift.
My struggle, though, comes from a deep desire for validation. I have been composing music for a long time now - long enough that I realize that I will never be a master composer. I won't been a Beethoven, or a Dvorak, or a Whitacre. I'm ok with that. What I long for is for someone to say, "Yes, what you've created is good." Though the course of the discussion yesterday, I realized that isn't quite true. I'm not waiting for just anyone to say it. I'm waiting for particular people to say it. People who, in my mind, know what good compositions should sound like. Whether that means certain other composers, certain college professors, or certain (or any) music publishers.
So through the course of the discussion, I started asking myself, when will it be enough? Will there come a point that I get the validation from all those people and then think, "I've made it. I can stop worrying about what other people think about my music"? I mean, what else do I really need? I've had church choirs, middle school choirs, high school choirs, college choirs, and a professional choir, perform my works. What more am I waiting for?
So my new goal, my new outlook, is to just let it be enough. When I compose, it's because I have something inside of me that needs to be said. I need to say it, make it available to others so I can share my story, and then let it be enough. I'm going to focus more on my strength and cultivate being a master teacher - a maestro. I won't stop composing. I won't stop posting to my site. But I won't let it eat me up anymore that I'm not published or that so-and-so's music is more popular, or that such-and-such choir hasn't performed my piece. What I've done so far is enough.
What happens next? I'll watch, work, and wait, but it will be enough.
So, today I started back to school as a 2nd-year DMA student at the University of Washington. For those not familiar with that term, that’s Doctorate in Musical Arts. As you might guess from the title of my website, I’m studying Choral Conducting.
I also celebrated my 40th Birthday a couple of weeks ago (September 7, by the way, in case you want to get me a gift next year). Turning 40 gave me a cause for some reflection about my life: things I’ve done, things I may have (or not) accomplished, etc. I especially started thinking about this journey I’m on right now going through graduate school.
So, here are some of my reflections – some things that are hard, and some things that are awesome!
Oh, and Go Dawgs!
When you hear the word Improvisation, what's the first thing that comes to your mind? Jazz music? Baroque ornamentation? Cool theater exercises? Something completely different? For some, including yours truly, if someone were to say, "Improvise for us," my heart would start to palpitate, my palms would sweat, and I would think, "Is there any way out?" I know I'm not the only one to feel this way. In Western music, we have moved away from a tradition of improvisation into a world of control and order.
What exactly is Improvisation? Is it really just making things up as you go along? Sure, I guess, at the most basic interpretation of improvisation. But who wants to hear that? No, good improvisation takes a bit more training, practice, and experience.
So, here's my issue. I taught high school choir for 11 years. During most of my time as a teacher, one of the National Standards of Music from NAfME (National Association for Music Education) involved the students being able to improvise. My thought was, "I don't know how to improvise. How the heck am I going to teach them?"
I tried. And I tried. I went to workshops, I read articles, but nothing stuck. Most of the techniques I learned about focused on helping students learn how to improvise a solo. I wanted the whole choir to improvise at the same time! I wanted to have my choir make up a song on stage for all their parents to hear!
But it never happened.
I was still stuck not knowing how to teach what I wanted.
So, now I'm at the University of Washington working towards a DMA in Choral Conducting and I thought, "What a perfect opportunity to finally crack this nut!" As part of my studies, and as one of my three major topics, I am researching improvisation, hopefully with the end goal being able to answer the question, "How do I get a whole choir to successfully improvise at the same time?"
I'm only at the beginning of my research. I have loads of questions, and loads of books. I want to hear from you, though. I want to hear from those that are in the classroom that are either finding improvisational success, or, like me, are experiencing frustrations. I'd love to hear your thoughts to some of these questions:
1) What is your definition of improvisation? Do you think we should broaden the definition?
2) How would you assess an improvisation as being successful?
3) What pedagogical reasons do you see for improvisation?
4) What are your favorite tools/techniques for teaching improv?
5) Why do you think students are hesitant to approach improvisation?
6) What are some resources you think I need to look up/watch/read?
Please comment below with your own thoughts.
I hope that after a couple months of research, I'll be able to write a follow up post about my findings.
Sorry if this post seemed a little rambling...I was just making it up as I went along.
I have been writing choral music for quite a while now. It took me several years before I worked up the nerve to send something to a publisher. I wasn’t expecting much because I’d always been told not to expect much with your first composition.
So, I wasn’t terribly shocked by the rejection letter. It hurt, but wasn’t surprising.
What was surprising was that the rejection letters kept coming. And coming. And coming. I now have a healthy stack of letters and emails saying, “thank you, but no thank you.” Some are quite polite, others are quite blunt. Very rarely is there any feedback besides, “We enjoyed your composition, but it doesn’t fit our needs.” No way to know what they didn’t like. No way to fix it to make it better.
So, here’s my point.
I compose for fun. I compose for choirs. I don’t compose for publishers. I’ve had to come to grips with not being published (while continuing to search), but have had to come up with ways to keep myself composing. These are my five tips for those that might find themselves in the same boat.
Choral music is an interesting field to have interest in. The world of music is huge. Of all the different types of music, classical music is just a small sliver. Then, within classical music, choral music is an even small piece of the pie. Over the years, I've asked myself why I continue to write choral music. It's not for the money, that for sure! ;-)
I asked a question on Facebook in a group called, I'm a Choir Director: Ok, here's a question for you...without mentioning any specific composer or any specific piece, what would you say are the elements that make a good choral work?
Here's a couple of the answers that people wrote in:
There were a couple of other responses as well. I think it's really difficult to nail down what a "good" choral piece is because we all have our own ideas and prejudices. Some conductors are drawn to loud and fast, some to slow and sombre. Some conductors are drawn to Eric Whitacre, some are turned off just by the mere mention of his name. Some love open, lush chords, some love tight tone clusters. Some love Romantic era choral works, and some would spend all day in the Renaissance if they could.
So, with so much subjectivity going in to determining "good" choral music, how in the world is a composer supposed to know how to write music that people enjoy? I don't know the answer to that question yet. What I do know is that I feel music inside that needs to be put on paper. That's why I write. That's why I will continue to write.
In the comments below, tell me your favorite songs and/or composers. What is one song you feel that every choral conductor should know?
I've been silent for a couple of weeks, so it's time to pick things back up again. I finished my second quarter of my DMA program, had a week of Spring Break, and took a trip to New York with the UW Chamber Singers where we got to sing at Carnegie Hall (which, by the way, we rocked!).
I've been silent here, but steadily working on composition. I wrote a new piece for my son's middle school honor choir called Consider the Music. It turned out absolutely lovely. I will share it on my site soon. Soon, but not yet.
Also...in other news, I've had directors from Canada, Utah, and Mexico saying that they've downloaded some of my hymn arrangements and will be performing them. I guess that makes me an international composer now! :-)
I posted this on my Facebook page, but wanted to put it here as well...I won a composition competition sponsored by Opus 7, a Seattle-based choir. They selected my piece In Turba as the winner of their Graduate Student level winner. They'll premiere the piece on May 13. I'm pretty darn excited.
My friend and colleague, Sarah Riskind, is starting a blog featuring choral works. I may start doing something similar. I wrote a post for her and I'll let you know when it's been uploaded. Check out her page in the meantime.
Exciting times at SDCompose!
This is a copy of a letter that I wrote to the Olympian.
Nothing earth-shattering, but I thought I'd share.
I appreciated the article from March 9 by Molly Gilmore about the "Pirates of Penzance" performance that will be coming to Olympia. In her article, she says that W.S. Gilbert softened his satire and hid it in silliness to avoid censorship. He allowed us to "laugh at the absurdity of human existence." She is right in her assessment. This is why the show has gone on to become a classic which is performed again and again. Shows that become classics do so for a reason. They are show that teach us something or make us feel something. Whether we are talking about Golden Age classics such as "Oklahoma!" and "Showboat;" or newer classics like "Ragtime" or "Phantom of the Opera;" or even current hits like the ubiquitous "Hamilton" mentioned in Gilmore's article. People want to return to shows that make them think differently, feel something, and separate themselves from monotony of daily living. It takes good music. It takes good acting. It takes good staging. But it's all nothing without a good story (with the exception, perhaps, of "Cats"). So, I applaud the Gilbert&Sullivan Players for their efforts to bring these classic operettas to the world. We need more stories that inspire and help us feel again. We need storytellers to keep them alive. And sometimes, we just need some good, clean fun.