“The primary duties of the conductor are to unify performers, set the tempo, execute clear preparations (upbeats) and beats (meter), and to listen critically and shape the sound of the ensemble..”

Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music (Fifth ed.)


There is a textbook popularly circulated among collegiate conducting courses entitled, Conducting the Music, Not the Musicians, by Jerry and Henry Nowak. In general, it’s a great resource for beginning conducting technique and gesture. Although I taught from Koshak’s The Conductor’s Role, 4th ed. as an instructor during my master’s degree program, I frequently mentioned segments of the Nowak text to show both agreeable and contradictory philosophies.

However, the title of the former has been bugging me lately. A lot. From what little musical experience and success I’ve had as a conductor in my 28 years, I think this is a misleading title. Let me explain… 

First, let’s consider the Nowak brothers’ intention behind the title: 

 

“The path to motivation and inspiration,’ say the brothers Nowak, ‘is through clearly and eloquently conducting the phrases of the music. This approach is distinct from influencing musicians through domination, demonstration of consummate musicianship, telling clever and engaging stories, or employing other purely verbal means. Said another way, we work on being and expressing the musical phrases so clearly that the musicians find themselves naturally creating the phrases with us.” Hence the title Conducting the Music, Not the Musicians.

“Strings Magazine”, August/September 2002, No. 104

Respectable. And I agree…except the title still remains poor. Honoring the authors’ intent, I will attempt to clarify my own intent: I do not mean to sound whiny about mere semantics of a title. Rather, I intend to question the accuracy of this title and its implications and effect when disseminated to thousands of budding conductors every semester…

Let’s look to one of the greats for input:

Leonard Bernstein, conductor and musical wizard.

leonardbernstein

Surely you’ve heard of this guy. A world-renown, consummate musician who led the musical world with daring performances with risk. He receives much credit for shaping the modern conductor of the 20th century. Lenny was so good, so overflowing with creative genius, so confident, and yet so humble that he did this:

Finally, he makes these important statements regarding what is required to be a conductor par excellence:

“Mendelssohn…founded a tradition of conducting based on the concept of precision…There soon arrived, however, a great dissenter named Richard Wagner, who declared…that any conductor worth his salt should personalize the score he was conducting by coloring it with his own emotions. Mendelssohn fathered the ‘elegant’ school, whereas Wagner inspired the ‘passionate’ school of conducting.
The ideal modern conductor is a synthesis of the two attitudes, and this synthesis is rarely achieved. In fact, it’s practically impossible. Almost any musician can be a conductor, even a pretty good one; but only a rare musician can be a great one.”
-Omnibus: “The Art of Conducting” (1955)

 

So, it seems to me that Lenny believes that precision, elegance, passion, and personality create the elusive ‘great conductor.’ Clearly, I agree… Hence, “The Art of Conducting” (much better title). 

But how does this stand with the Nowak title? 

My musical IF/THEN statements…

Looking to Bernstein’s quote as truth, here is what I believe about conducting:

IF:

  1. Music can have precision. Notes, rhythms, dynamics, instrumentation are precise.
  2. Music can not be elegant, passionate, or have personality without people.

THEN: 

  1. People make precise music have elegance, passion, and personality.
  2. Conductors must inspire and conduct musicians to make music thusly.

I think great conductors conduct both the music and the musicians equally.

 

So, I leave you with my own personal rules derived from these thoughts:

 

BE EXCELLENT

Conductors must possess excellent musicianship, 

a keen and accurate ear, clear and effective gesture,

and an unflappable knowledge of the score.

BE HONEST 

Conductors must honor the music and the composer.

BE INVESTED

Conductors must emote and demonstrate investment.

BE PROFESSIONAL

Conductors must be prepared, organized, punctual, respectful

and expect the same from the ensemble. 

BE HUMAN 

Conductors must make a connection with other musicians 

and evoke a human response to create memorable musical experiences.

…so conduct it all. 

 

08 Jul 1970, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA --- Conductor Leonard Bernstein at the climax of Mahler's symphony performed by the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Massachusetts. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
08 Jul 1970, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA — Conductor Leonard Bernstein at the climax of Mahler’s symphony performed by the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Massachusetts. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

“Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune.”

-Igor Stravinsky


do singers have temperament?

I remember being particularly interested about learning two revolutionary concepts in high school and then again in first-year music history courses as an undergrad: Greek modes and tuning methods. Both were completely foreign to my musical knowledge prior to high school, despite having studied music intensively from a young age. But why? Why just talk about major and minor scales? Why minimize these monumental theories of musical history to a 1 hour lecture in a two credit class? Would they not have a practical impact on my musicianship later on in life? Wouldn’t most students find these numbers and patterns in music just as fascinating (if not more) than other elements of history? Many years and pondering later, those questions have led me to the following observation: I clearly take issue with certain keys. Not due to some elitist opinion nor technical ability, but the way that performers (myself included) interact with them. More on this later…

First, let’s look at the modes. 

A mode is an organization of tones based upon their intervallic relationships, similar to that of a raga in Indian classical music or a pathet in Javanese gamelan music. Throughout western musical history, we have recognized numerous categorizations of modes: Octoechos, Greek, Church, Modern diatonic, etc. 

One specifically fascinating aspect of the developing modal concept through the ages was that of emotional response or elicitation. I will use my good friend, Guido D’Arezzo (c.990-1050), as an example: he proposed the following modes (8-mode system) and emotions were associated:

I. Dorian ——————-serious

II. Hypodorian ———–sad

III. Phrygian ————–mystic

IV. Hypophygian ——–harmonious

V. Lydian ——————-happy

VI. Hypolydian ———–devout

VII. Mixolydian ———–angelical

VIII. Hypomixolydian —perfect

Cool, right? Proposing that a certain collection and organization of pitches would elicit an emotion from those who hear it? Pretty powerful stuff.

Today, modern western modes* include the following:

I. Ionian (major scale – C to C on the white keys)

II. Dorian (D to D on the white keys)

III. Phrygian (E to E on the white keys)

IV. Lydian (F to F on the white keys)

V. Mixolydian (G to G on the white keys)

VI. Aeolian (natural minor scale – A to A on the white keys)

VII. Locrian (B to B on the white keys)

*While the nomenclature remains Greek, it is important to note that the modern modes’ organization and function do not follow that of their similarly named ancient Greek modes.

So what’s my problem? No one seems to care about modal, emotional affect in 2015. Perhaps it occurs in music therapy courses and practices or compositional degrees in certain countries, but certainly not in the North American collegiate system for a performance major. 

Second, let’s mention tuning and numbers.

As you well know, Pythagoras was a theoretical badass. p_pytBeginning with his concepts of just
intonation or “harmony of the spheres”, a mathematical explanation of pitch relationships is born. Millenia later, we know exact frequencies of notes (check out this cool site that quickly charts it for you), we’ve identified all commas in the tuning systems, and thus have a bajillion ways to tune our instruments: just, equal, linear, Kirnberger, Werckmeister, Young, microtonal, you name it. Amazing advances in the world of music theory and performance. Cities, regions, states, countries, and even hemispheres have adopted different ways and opinions of what is appropriate, and it keeps it interesting. (I love listening to Beethoven 7 at A=438 and the Orgelbüchlein organs tuned to A=430 on Kirnberger III.)

So finally, what’s all of this have to do with singers?

 

Having worked with choirs of all levels for over half of my life, I am not sure that *most* singers can conceptualize modes and keys beyond basic intervallic relationships and use of solfege. And why should they? Singers have completely transposable instruments…

…or do they?

What if physiologically we are built to sing better at certain frequencies or pitch organizations? Are we naturally tempered? I have yet to find a choir that can sing a piece in C major or a Phrygian chant in tune. Not once. Ever. G-flat major – you bet! But C major? Not a chance. You know how sometimes we choir directors modulate up or down a half or whole step and the tuning is better…? Perhaps this phenomena may have more to do with us physically rather than our abilities to understand music theory.

Is it our classification of what A4 is supposed to be? Is it because we aren’t taught modes early enough in our music education? Is mi to fa is simply too challenging to sing? (ha) Have our bodies and vocal ranges changed so dramatically over the past 50, 100, 500 years that tuning issues have now caught up to our singers like they once did with our orchestral instruments?

Whether any of these questions have any grounding or not, I try my best as a composer to avoid keys and modes that I believe singers have difficulty achieving – emotionally, theoretically, visibly (‘annoying’ key signatures such as C# versus Db), or due to range. Moreover, I simply hope that those concepts of modes and tuning I learned so long ago cause me to do what I do with intention and hope for some sort of desired response…

In the meantime, go out and Try one of the following today:

  1. Go out and listen to a particular mode and ponder how it made you feel.
  2. Re-tune your instrument to something out of the ordinary and play something. How did it affect you? *Even for singers – pull out the app on your phone and sing an aria a cappella but to A=430.
  3. Try composing or performing in a key that is out of your usual preference. Do it again.

Happy musicking! 

 

 

I was playing a choral rehearsal the other day and the conductor made a joke comparing choirs and orchestras that has left me wondering ever since:

Why such a drastic difference between pre-concert performance etiquette of an orchestra and that of a choral ensemble?

We’ve seen it every time – an orchestra’s members casually enter the stage at their own leisure, walking between chairs to their respective section, to their own stand, and freely warm up their instruments and practice excerpts prior to tuning and the concert master and maestra entering the stage.

MONTREAL, QUE.: SEPTEMBER 7, 2011-- Musicians enter the stage during the inauguration ceremony of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra's new concert hall in Place des Arts in downtown Montreal on Wednesday, September 7, 2011. (Dario Ayala/THE GAZETTE)

What if choirs did this?

Imagine each member of the choir making their way to their place on the risers as individuals, each to his or own music stand, immediately commencing with lip trills, body kinesthetics, sighs, excerpts from an aria, clearing phlegm, and other things that singers do before they ever reach the stage. Finally, the tenor section leader draws his trusty tuning fork and the entire choir agrees upon pitch and tunes a chord before the maestra enters the stage…

I was in Salt Lake City for the 2015 ACDA National Convention and I had the privilege of hearing the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir perform. It was a euphoric performance full of deep artistry and masterful professionalism. Among other pieces they performed Pärt’s “Adam’s Lament,” a wickedly challenging dose of repertoire. Every vocalist had his or her own stand, and even more striking, actually had their own tuning fork to assist in finding their pitches. Of all choirs I have ever seen perform, they could have certainly made their entrance to the stage similar to the aforementioned description. But alas, they did as all choirs do – processed onto the stage in single-file fashion. They have the street cred and talent to perform such an entry, but they didn’t…

…Why not? What’s the big deal and does it really matter?

I suppose one could argue that carrying instruments is more cumbersome. Vocalists naturally carry their instruments with them wherever they go. Choirs are intended to represent a blend of voices and colors…but isn’t that the same intent of a string section? I have also heard a myriad of other pejorative comments toward either singers AND instrumentalists that could sway the reasoning behind the enormous differences between pre-concert rituals. However, none seem to hold any validity or HISTORY behind why this dichotomy exists between practices.

Frankly, per the choral rationale, the adages expressing first impressions and the audience “hearing first with their eyes” are rather tiresome in today’s age of stimulating concerts. What if we want to see and hear and witness each singer as an individual, a professional, an artistic technician? I saw that in Salt Lake, but would have loved to see and hear those Estonian first sopranos vocalize just as much as I enjoy seeing The Philadelphia Orchestra’s tubist play her long tones to warm up her embouchure (she’s a rockstar). 

I say what seems bizarre or uncouth in choral performance practice today may be tomorrow’s innovative move toward genius.

Maybe, just maybe, you may see a choir in Denver make their way to the stage in ways you wouldn’t expect…


“A lot of political music to me can be rather pedantic and corny, and when it’s done right – like Bruce Springsteen or Jackson Browne or great satire from Randy Newman, there’s nothing better.”

-Bonnie Raitt (b.1949)


Choir Politics

No, not that kind. Yes, it would be fun to compare the most commonly seen politics of an average choir (sopranos insulting altos, treasurer dominating repertoire conversations, senior member refusing to change seating, so-and-so must get HER copy of the Messiah that she’s used the past 25 years, clergy  vs. musicians, etc.). But no, I’m talking about political satire within choral music.

Political satire has been a part of music for centuries. Great examples include the Shostakovich 5th Symphony and other works, Thomas Arne’s Rule, Britannia!, Menotti’s The Hero, Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, and even Beethoven’s 5th and 9th Symphonies. Today, when we think of music and politics, we think of Springsteen, Dylan, Rage Against the Machine, Pussy Riot…so many great songs about political systems. And yes, political satire still occurs in modern opera (new works as well as re-tellings of classics) and orchestral works…but what happened to politics in today’s choral compositions? 

I find myself pondering this question because The Colorado Chorale, the sibelius picchoir which I serve as Artistic Director and conductor, embarks on performing Jean Sibelius’ Vapattetu Kunigatar (The Captive Queen) in October as part of a celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth. I have a passion for performing Sibelius choral works as they are often overlooked and rarely performed. Sibelius was a great political musician and many of his works, like his well-known Finlandia, were protests against the censorship of the Russian occupation. 

The text for The Captive Queen, based on a ballad by Paavo Cajander,[1] can also be found compiled in the Kalevala. This particular text and musical setting is one of the most intriguing among Sibelius’ choral works as it has fairly blatant political allusions to the volatile national status of Finland at the time it was written. As the chorus sings of a queen held captive in a remote prison tower and of the heroic young man who hears her mournful song, one can see the implied political message behind the text:

The captive queen was Finland; the young man hearing the queen singing her heart out in the prison where she had been immured by tyrant was the young and growing force of liberation in the country. …It is a manifesto, not easy for a foreigner [of Finland] to savour fully, though it can be understood for what it is: a call to revolt.[2]

[1] Jackson, Timothy and Veijo Murtomäki. Sibelius Studies, 138

[2] Abraham, Gerald. The Music of Sibelius, 139

So, great examples of choral satire DO exist…but who’s writing them today?

they do exist meme

Even though there is a wealth of composers writing quality literature (see MusicSpoke or Independent Music Publishers), I am not seeing much political satire finding its way into new literature. Now, let me point out that this is simply an observation. IT MAY BE A GREAT THING THAT POLITICS HAS FOUND ITS WAY OUT OF CHORAL MUSIC. Or, it may not be. Who knows. And there is a wealth of good choral music that focuses on human rights and social justice. But a strong ‘&@#$ you’ from the 99%? I’m simply not seeing it. And if it does exist, this is probably because the music publishers won’t touch it.

Clearly, it’s harder to ‘hide’ satire in music with text as opposed to instrumental music. And yet, with more people than ever making their way into choirs and finding their voice, the time is ripe.

“Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited. When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.”

-Plato

lets-do-this-meme-no-cuss-words