Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sweet Freedom's Song

This was originally part of the program notes to my masters recital recently, but in light of current events, I think it is apropos.


One of the most interesting facets of American music throughout the country’s history has been its passionate role in social and political activism. From the tea party protests (the original tea party, that is!) in Boston, to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, music has been the grease on the wheels of democracy.

In 1854, Joshua McCarter Simpson (a “free black” from Ohio who became one of the leading voices in the abolitionist movement) created and published an abolitionist song book. His reasoning in doing so was, he said, because “you can sing what would be death to speak.” His words have proven true over and over throughout American history.

Perhaps the very first such example was My Country ‘Tis of Thee, itself. The tune, God Save the King, was used subversively to defy England and rally the population of the new nation. The words we use now - My Country ‘Tis of Thee weren’t written until 1831; however, there were many sets of alternate lyrics used throughout the revolutionary war. One set of proposed alternate lyrics, published in 1777, in the Boston Chronicle, begins with this verse:

FAME, let they Trumpet sound,
Rouse all the World around,
  With loud alarms!
Fly hence to Britain's land,
Tell George in vain his Hand
Is raised 'gainst FREEDOM's Band,
  When called to arms.

Mild, perhaps, by today’s standards, but in an era where the concept of the Divine Right of kings was still being tossed about, this was musical fuel to the revolutionary fire. Skipping forward some years, slave songs – spirituals such as what you will hear tonight – were instance of musical rebellion.

The history of the music of our nation resounds with such examples – and despite grumbling from certain corners about kids and their music these days it still sparks the imagination and holds influence in the struggle towards freedom. For example, in the mid 90’s, American hip-hop and rap was the foundation for what would become an underground cultural revolution in Iran. Taking the spirit of the genre to heart, a new fusion of Persian poetry and American rap styles was born. It continues to grow in popularity, filling underground clubs with young Iranians – male and female using the music to escape from and oppose an oppressive regime, despite their government’s oppressive attempts to stamp it out.

While my country and its political/social decisions may irritate me quite frequently, I can truly say that I am unabashedly proud of our musical heritage. Our musical inclusiveness – representing a broad sweep of cultures and creeds – is (I believe) the essence of what the U.S. was meant to be and hopefully will someday achieve: a more perfect Union. And until that happens, our music will be there as a symbol to remind us of what being American means: an unbreakable spirit of defiance in the face of adversity – being able to sing...even when we cannot speak.

Kids These Days - Music & Social Change

I've recently been holding a discussion on the (somewhat distressing) fact that one of my students - a thirteen year old - didn't know what folk music was, or who Bob Dylan was. And it's not the fact that she's young and doesn't know that's the problem.

The issue is that by neglecting music and music history in our education system, we are denying kids (and adults) many, many more things - social context for music, social history, the role of music in the progress of civil rights, the power of art to change history... The list could go on and on. What I received from music education has informed many facets of my life. The information gained has allowed me a much higher level of sophistication in my understanding of life.

For instance...
  • Because I know who Palestrina and Martin Luther were, I know of the trends of reform in Christianity that affected and continue to affect the differentiation in religious thought and practice today.
  • Because I know who Wolfgang Mozart was, and because I know his operas, I know about the difficulties that surround patron-sponsored art, and I know of the role music and theatre can play in upsetting regimes and sparking revolution.
  • Because I know who Nannerl Mozart was, I know of the difficulties women have faced in the performing arts, and how far we've come in that direction.
  • Because I know who Gossec was, and his role in the French Revolution, I know how problematic state-sponsored, propaganda-driven music can be. Because I know who de Lisle was, I know also how even music created at the behest of the state and for specific political purpose, like La Marsailles, can rise above all that and take on meaning and life of its own.
  • Because I know who Verdi was, I know how a composer and his music can unwittingly take on a far deeper political meaning than intended, and can become thematic to an uprising.
  • Because I know who Shostakovich was, I know the problems of state-censorship, the problems caused by forcing artists to follow the desires of a political regime. I know how dangerous allowing art to be censored can be for the artist.
And more recently, in our own history...
  • Because I know who Jelly Roll Morton is, I know of the history of Storeyville, how the problems of corruption in Louisiana became so deeply ingrained that it is still affecting the state today.
  • Because I know who Billie Holiday was, I know how effective a song can be against horrors such as lynching.
  • Because I know who Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, William Warfield and Leontyne Price were, I know how a minority can take on the majority in a "non-threatening" way, and open the way for others to follow in their footsteps.
  • Because I know who Sam Cooke was, I know both how a pop song can stir a movement towards civil rights; I also know how dangerous "country justice" can be, and the problems that arise when one group of people are valued above the rest.
  • Because I know who Bob Dylan was, I know how music can slide under the radar of the authorities, and stir people to action, to continue to struggle for the rights of man.
  • Because, even, I know who Madonna is, I know how women have struggled to define themselves in the music industry, and that one woman can become an impresario.
This list could go on and on, but the point remains clear: by denying people the history and experience of all kinds of music from all eras, we are denying them tools to shape and change the future.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Waiting for the Light to Shine

One of the biggest concepts in (successful) vocal pedagogy is that the students needs to physically experience in an overt, non-subtle way what it is you are trying to help them do.

To explain - learning how to sing is a process with many, many small steps. Each step is (usually) an actual physical achievement, even though they may not be perceived as such. For instance, if you asked someone to sing something sadly, or brightly - even though those are abstract concepts, you have to make physical adjustments with muscles and such to do so.

So - when you are trying to help a student learn the next step, they need to clearly feel and understand what it is you are teaching them to do. You can guide them blindly with exercises (as many teachers do), but that's not really helpful because they won't know how to recreate it on their own.

Sometimes this is very hard to do. We don't have direct control over the muscles that we use to phonate; we can only make adjustments with our tongue, jaw, etc. So, it's beautiful when nature provides a very, very clear way to demonstrate what it is you are wanting to do. One of the lovely examples with this is demonstrating to male singers the difference between their chest voice (the lower, heavier part of their voice) and head voice (the higher, lighter part of their voice).

I'll spare you the physics/acoustics lesson, but suffice it to say, by the nature of how you create the sounds, certain vowels encourage singing in the head voice, and other vowels encourage singing in chest voice. For men, singing a "heady" vowel in the top of their range, then singing a "chesty" vowel in the bottom of their range provides such a crystal clear example of the difference between the two parts of their voice (called "registers").

I love the look on a new singer's face when you have them do this. Singing is sometimes so abstract and confusing, but then you have these moments of clarity and, well, out of nowhere, the light begins to shine.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Ensemble - The Art of Making Music Together

Something we've been exploring over at Google + is using the group video conferencing ability ("Hangouts") to try to make music together. Yesterday was our first, trial run.

As one might imagine, it was not without its difficulties. Lag can turn the simplest four part hymn into a Ligeti-esque work of sound painting. Still, the process was not without its own sort of satisfaction.

What the experience reminded me of, however, is how important the shared music making experience can be. Even if the musical product created isn't the highest quality - maybe it's a bit ragged, maybe it is laggy - there is still something fulfilling about coming together to sing or play.

As a professional musician, that sense of music-making-for-the-sake-of-music sometimes seems to get lost in the demands of the career, itself. It's understandable, but also a bit sad. As may be obvious by now, I'm a firm believer in the joy of music-making. If that isn't there, the product, however fine it may be technically, is incomplete.

This chance to come together with musicians I might not otherwise have ever met or collaborated with was a nice reminder that (thanks to technology), we have more ways than ever to connect, to experience the joy of music together.

It was nicely symbolic, too, that what ended up working the best for our first online music-making venture was a 16th century tune from the Genevan Psalter -- a hymn book originally written (at the directive of John Calvin) to allow the congregants the opportunity to participate in group music-making as a part of the liturgy.  Fitting, then, that Old 100th should be a successful inaugural run for a new tradition of group music making

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Wondering Minstrel, I

Well. It's been awhile, hasn't it? This bovine got caught up in the particulars of going back to school. Sadly, whilst I spent most of my time writing about music, there was no space left for writing here. But now!


If there's one thing I did bring back from my dip into the educational pool, it was reinforcement of how important it is to keep and/or cultivate a sense of wonder into what we (as musicians, music educators, music critics) do. Music has so much power, particularly to help children develop as thoughtful, creative, expressive adults. But once it has become a bludgeoning stick of "You must listen to this! You must practice that!" - it loses much of that power.

This is not, of course, advocating a lack of discipline, completely free-form noise, or any such nonsense. It's merely that whilst we're practicing, whilst we're rehearsing, whilst we're teaching, whilst we're performing -- we need to remember that music is magic. The prosaic has its place, but step back and just enjoy it!


I shall be attempting to see and review Brook's stripped down version of Magic Flute this coming week. I'm looking forward to seeing what he's done with the piece, particularly as it's an opera so frequently subjected to the depredation of tacky sets, horrible costumes, and schlocky directing...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Creative Performing & Getting an Audience

[This is partially an x-post from a discussion I've been having on another blog and multiple private conversations with a variety of people.]

Lately I've been going to a lot of experimental or avant-guard theatre in a variety of genres -- straight plays, musical theatre, dance, etc. And each time, I am struck by how absolutely retarded classical music is in its evolution. The most "radical" or "experimental" thing related to classical music or opera that I can think of here in NYC recently was maybe the production of Die Soldaten at the Armory and La Didone by the Wooster Group that I saw some months back.

Part of it is the old guard audience who are constantly reactionary to anything that could even be mildly perceived to be "new." See: the bitter anger, reactionary comments, and expressed desire to kill Mary Zimmerman over her recent Sonnambula production (and boy, that bit of reactionary nonsense still has my dander up).

However, I also think that that sort of conservative, "we must preserve this as a museum piece" attitude in the audience has been (at least in part) fostered and encouraged by the classical music industry, itself.

When media/technology began to change in the 70's, instead of adapting and embracing, the classical music community held on, kicking and screaming, to the "Good Old Days" and tried to sell itself as an elitist, separatist sport. I.E., only SPECIAL, really INTELLIGENT and DISCERNING people go to the opera, or whatever.

Which, of course, is death for an art form. The Met/Gelb has understood this, I think, and is trying to move forward without alienating the Old Guard, but even his very conservative movements forward receive such fury!

What it boils down to is this: this stuffy, we-must-hold-on-to-the-past attitude makes it extremely hard to get an audience for any sort of recital program here (the only exception being if you're a huge name doing it at Carnegie Hall, and then, it's still hard). Recitals are only attended out of a sense of duty, and the impression outsiders get is that recitals are dull and boring and a relic of the past. There's so many other art forms in NYC that are vibrant and exciting and forward thinking, so why WOULD someone want to come to a boring, snooze-fest of Schubert lieder?

So, even if you try (and I do!) to make something new and innovative, etc, it's nearly impossible to get an audience (outside of your friends, family and colleagues).

I was speaking about this with someone the other day -- I never do the "normal" concert or recital format, other than 2 acts and an intermission. I theme the recitals, use a combination of new, old, familiar, unfamiliar music, group them so that the concert has a story, or an arc, or SOMETHING other than me just standing there, aloof from the audience, parked and barked. And the people who do attend always tell me, oh, it was a great time! that was interesting music! this was fun!

And yet, I can't seem to move this out into the wider community. I don't know how to drag my art form kicking and screaming into this century. I don't know how to create something with my art that will grab people, grab an audience, like other experimental theatre does.

I have been thinking about this a lot. I am trying new things each time, learning from the experience, etc, but it's just me behind this effort. I don't have the resources to make a huge splash or rent out Zankel Hall or create splashy ads, currently.

I do perceive that this is two problems -- one of image and one of content.

Content is important. That's the foundation of anything. Still, you can have all the great content in the world, but image is what gets butts in seats. The days of people coming to your show just because it's there have long since past. You can't, as so many do, ignore marketing, image -- all the tedious promotion work. There are so many choices to fill our free time these days, you have to stand out from the herd to get peoples' interest.

So, what to do?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lo and Behold! She lives!

FYI, I have been on hiatus for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is trying to get a lot done during the summer so my fall season is a little bit easier. I will be returning, and soon, to write on such fascinating topics (ha!) as "what rap and baroque counterpoint have in common," "making music interactive," and more!