What Music Really Teaches Us

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With eleven years of music study under my belt, I have acquired invaluable knowledge and skills from many different instructors on many different instruments. However, some of the most valuable things I have learned from music are not directly associated with the music itself. Three of the biggest things that music has taught me are responsibility, expression and humility.

 

Responsibility. Music cultivates a great sense of responsibility. If you begin studying piano as a young child as I did, you are taught that you have a responsibility to teacher and parents to practice. Though you are too young to fully understand it at the time, a lot of time and money is graciously given to provide a musical education for a child. When you begin band, choir or orchestra in fifth grade, you are taught that you have a responsibility to your classmates to practice; this sense of responsibility to an ensemble only grows as you age. After all, you are only as strong as your weakest link. In college, you learn that you have a responsibility to yourself to make the most of the opportunities and education provided to you (often for a high price). Part of responsibility is being self-motivated and accountable for your own actions, whether successes or failures.

 

Expression. Not only do musicians learn the art of musical expression, but also personal expression. Music is an avenue in which you can express what is on your mind and in your heart. You learn to do this through your instrument and/or voice, but also in your life outside of performance. While music is a great way to express yourself and ideas that you have, you also can have a great impact on others. I love being able to express my love to God and his people by leading acappella hymns in my church. The joy I receive through leading a hymn or two does great things for my soul. Of course, while we can experience joy in music making, I will never forget going into a flute lesson fuming mad at one of my professors and at the end of playing through one of my pieces being asked why I was so mad, not because she could see that I was upset but rather she said she could hear the frustration through the emotion I put into the piece. Music is a powerful tool in which we are able to convey a wide range of feelings and emotion.

 

Humility. More than anything I have learned humility. The lessons in humility I learned through my first two years of college were difficult, but have shaped me to be a better person and musician. I’ve learned that no one is entitled to anything, and that to achieve positions of leadership in an ensemble, whether as a principle player or conductor, you have to be more than just a good musician. As Henri Frederic Amiel said, “true humility is contentment.” My many experiences in different ensembles and positions have ultimately taught me to be content, and that is something truly invaluable.
I am excited to devote my life to being a music teacher, but hope to teach my students more than just music.

Shape Note Singing

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Sacred harp singing in action

Understanding harmony and how it fits together can be complicated; shape note singing was created to allow a visual aid to the church congregation singing and to better understand harmony, regardless of how much musical training a person has or has not received. Both sacred harp and solfege based shape note singing were created as systems to aid the church congregational singing of harmony. One other thought that shape note enthusiasts had was that if they could create a system in which the harmonies could be more easily recognized and learned, the focus could then be turned entirely to the words themselves. That being said, shape notes were and are meant to only be used until the harmony was figured out and the melody committed to memory. The two main types of shape note singing are sacred harp (four-shape) and traditional solfege shape note singing (seven-shape).

 Sacred Harp (southern harmony)

  • Sacred harp came to be in the 18th century; composers whose style of writing fit the style of sacred harp are American composers such as William Billings and Daniel Read.
  • Sacred Harp has nothing to do with harps; the phrase is referring to our voice and our vocal chords being sacred and made to glorify God.
  • Sacred Harp music is often published by tune name, the reason being that often sacred harp songs are hymns but there are enough cases such as a fuguing tune or a secular folk tunes (What Wondrous Love-Captain Kidd) set to Christian lyrics, that they would publish the songs by tune name.
  • The four shape notes used in sacred harp are –fa-so-la-mi-
  • The music often starts homophonic then moves into a faster polyphonic texture in the middle of the song.
  • In sacred harp singing, each part of music has its own line, making it easier to break off polyphonically.
  • Sacred harp is characterized by firm harmonies and open fifths.
  • Melody is found in the tenor as we have seen throughout the course of music history I.
  • Sacred harp was first composed for treble, tenor (lead) and bass.
  • When singing sacred harp, you go through music once on solfege and then go to the beginning and start on verse one.
  • There is no one director; most people communicate the constant beat through simple group hand gestures.

 Traditional/Modern Shape note singing

  •  Jesse B. Aikin is accredited with developing the seven-note shape note singing in the early to mid-18th The added solfege was a success and began to challenge the four-note sacred harp way of singing.
  • Traditional shape note singing employs the use of seven shapes: one for each note in a scale.
  • This is often found in hymnals of acapella churches.
  • Melody is found in the normal SATB setup.
  • The tradition of listing the tune name as the title doesn’t go away but rather the tune name, if there is one, is listed under the title.
  • The music tends to mostly be homophonic with rare extended uses of polyphonic breakoffs.
  • As is with sacred harp singing, the purpose of the seven shape notes is to learn the music and recognize the harmony.

Lloyd’s Hymnal

Benjamin Lloyd was a Primitive Baptist preacher who published 541 hymn texts in 1841 under the title “Primitive Hymns”. What is different about this hymnal is the fact that there are hymn texts with no melody written out. The melody used is based off of the hymn leader’s choice as well as the hymn meter, which is usually found by the tune name. The hymn meter tells the leader what meter it is in as well as the number of syllables in a line.

Example #1 “Amazing Grace” has the meter 8.6.8.6 or 86.86.  This means that there are eight syllables in the first line and six and then repeated. This is the metric form for “Amazing Grace”.

 Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me,

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now, I see.

 

T’was Grace that taught…

my heart to fear.

And Grace, my fears relieved.

How precious did that Grace appear…

the hour I first believed.

Example #2 “Abide With Me” has the meter 10.10.10.10 and as such the lyrics could be sung to a different hymn of that same meter say the hymn “Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart” which also has the meter 10.10.10.10.

Shape note singing is a wonderful tool that has been used for hundreds of years and is still in use today (mostly by A Capella churches such as my own). Shapenote singing is utilized by both the amateur and expert musician as it allows both to follow written harmony better thus making it easier to focus on the words written as we glorify God with our voice.

 

The Dreamy World of Doo-Wop

I remember the first time I heard the song “Sh Boom”; I was in 8th grade and watching the movie Clue, in which there is a scene with a record player playing the song. I don’t know if it was the catchy tune or the fun words throughout, but I fell in love with the song.  From the first time I heard this gem to the present, I have listened to “Sh Boom” no less than 1,000 times, without exaggeration; needless to say, the song holds addictive power!

The song was first recorded in 1954 by multiple Doo-Wop groups, one of which is “The Crewcuts”. The Crewcuts’ recording of the song “Sh Boom” starts out with a Bari saxophone starting to lay down the groove with its rich pick up notes. As with many songs from the 50s and 60s, the chord progression I-vi-IV-V is prevalent throughout. In fact, the chord progression only changes from the I-vi-IV-V pattern during the chorus.

 

“Now, every time I look at you…Something is on my mind.

If you do what I want you to, baby, we’d be so fine.”

 

Throughout the song, the general verses start with the word ‘If’ and the singer dreaming about what a wonderful life could be had, but at the start of the chorus and for the first time, the singer says ‘now’, talking about what is reality and has happed and then goes on with his dreaming. The progression is changed at the chorus to alert the listener that there is a different mindset at the start but then resumes to close the chorus off by reverting back to the end of the normal progression throughout.

While words and the chord progression are two major factors in considering what is catchy and fun about a song, the Crewcuts employ a typical Doo-Wop technique of using nonsense syllables throughout. The lyrics to the beginning of the song are, “Hey nonny ding dong, alang alang alang. Boom ba-doh, ba-doo ba-doodle-ay.” Do these words hold a deep meaning or portray a deep meaning of importance to the listener? Probably not, but what they do tell the reader is that being in love sometimes just doesn’t make sense! The nonsense syllables, sometimes called scat singing, sets up the first verse by creating a sweeping motion that main vocalist is able to grab the end of and swing into the verse itself.

The song “Sh Boom” is one I never get tired of hearing nor grow weary of tapping my foot to! From the Doo-Wop chord progression of I-vi-IV-V which I love, to the catchy words and scat-like nonsense syllables that put the listener into a dreamy trance, this song is one that is and will continue to be a classic!

Our Musical Footsteps

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Music has a great impact in a person’s daily life; it can evoke memories of times gone past and stirs hope for times to come, has the power to draw out emotions and inspire us to create. Music reaches out to fill places in our life that would otherwise be void of meaning. To quote Plato, “music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.”

Music truly plays an important role in our daily lives but how does music have a different effect in a Christian’s daily life? In a Christian’s life, music serves as a source of praise (Psalm 135:3 Praise the Lord; for the Lord is good: Sing praises unto his name; for it is pleasant) and comfort. The words to the hymn God Will Take Care of You by Civilla D. Martin based from Hebrews 13:5 “…I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” Verse three of the hymn says:

 No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you,
God will take care of you, through every day, o’er all the way;
He will take care of you, God will take care of you.

In a Christian’s daily life we are instructed to praise God through song. (Psalm 95:1) In Psalms, the admonition to praise God doesn’t say “if you have a good voice then praise the Lord through song”, but rather that the call to praise is an open call with the focus on praising God for who he is, not a performer and what they do. I know that at times I have been in my room and hear my mom humming a hymn in the kitchen and I start thinking of the words and through the words have a worship opportunity. In no way is my mom a professional singer but praise to our great God is not a performance but rather a show of our love to him with music being a tool that allows us to express this. Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote, “When words fail, music speaks”

Music has the power to comfort when words alone cannot console. The best hymns ever written are the ones that are based from scripture in God’s word. Lina Sandell wrote the hymn “Day by Day and With Each Passing Moment” based off of Deuteronomy 33:25. The second verse in this hymn is as follows:

Every day the Lord Himself is near
me with a special mercy for each hour;
all my cares He fain would bear,
and cheer me, He whose name is Counselor and Power.
The protection of His child and treasure
is a charge that on Himself He laid;
“As thy days, thy strength shall be in measure,”
This is the pledge to me He made.

On January 13th of this year my best friend passed away. People came to me and tried to comfort me with sweet words, hugs, and all the love you can imagine, this got me through the visitation. The following day I stepped up to speak at the funeral and was overcome with tears, as my heart seemed to melt from within me. I took a step back and said a quick prayer for strength to get me through the day and was able to shakily finish my remarks. As I sat down and we were getting ready to sing a hymn my thoughts went to those of comfort as I read the first phrase of the hymn above, “Every day the Lord himself is near me with a special mercy for each hour”.

Our heavenly father knows all we need before we ask and is worthy of all our praise as well as he gives us great comfort in times of need. Music is a wonderful way to both express our praises to God and wonderful gift to be able to take refuge in. Psalm 100:1-2 “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.”

Collaboration

Collaborating with another musician is wonderful way to become more versatile as a performer. It is one thing to be able to play music in a lesson or even in band, but putting together parts, extensive enough to be solos, from two different players in a way that is fluid and expresses one harmonious musical thought is challenge. I have recently had the opportunity to start collaborating with another student at UMHB and together we will play the first movement of the Prokofiev Sonata for flute and piano. This work is one of the staple and upper level works in the flute repertoire; from its lyrical motifs to its spasmodic thirty second notes that appear out of nowhere, this piece is a challenge to the flautist. The pianist must be able to change style in a heartbeat as Prokofiev throws quick, almost second-thought-like sections into the piano part. When examining the difficulty of the sonata and its four movements you can’t help but wonder if Prokofiev knew he would write only one sonata for flute in piano throughout his composing, and as such decided to throw in all the many ideas and thoughts he had into this massive work.

After having the piece for about two months and working to conquer the technical aspects as well as developing the musical phrasing, I met with my pianist. When we began to rehearse together for the first time, we decided to go straight through the piece so as to get a feel for its entirety. I am used to playing with a pianist, but playing off a pianist was a completely different experience. Prokofiev’s Sonata is a 20th century piece and the first major 20th century work I had tackled, so playing off of each other rather than with each other it was a challenge to do. Prokofiev loves to toss his playful motifs back and forth between the piano and flute often times overlapping each other. Needless to say, neither of us was expecting something so abstract. As the weeks go by and we keep collaborating together we have come to appreciate and enjoy the way Prokofiev has layered these two great parts into a magnificent work. When I get together with my pianist the first question he always asks me before we play is, “so what do you think of the piece?” and through time my answer has slowly turned from unsure excitement to pure devotion and love of the daunting and restless melodies of this wonderful work.

The Art of Deliberate Practice

For as long as most of us can remember, we have heard the saying “practice makes perfect”. The problem with that in the music world is that many instrumentalists don’t know how to practice. They may think they do, but more often than not they spend a lot of time getting very little done, and eventually get so frustrated with their lack of progress on their instrument that they begin to spend no time at all. These musicians use lack of practice as an excuse for their musical failures because not practicing and playing poorly is much less embarrassing than putting in practice time and still playing poorly.

The key to success in practice is to practice deliberately; many people practice in one of two ways: the loop method, or the autopilot method. In the loop method, musicians focus on one particular passage, often something technically difficult, and play it over and over. It may seem like practice, but it is really only mindless, goal-less repetition; little to no effort is paid to important details like style or dynamics and the passage never gets played in context until the performance day. In the autopilot method, musicians do nothing in practice but run through their music from beginning to end; mistakes are ignored and nothing is accomplished. Deliberate practice requires careful thought and planning; not only do you address the technical mistakes themselves, but you seek to discover why those mistakes are happening. Is your tempo inconsistent? Do you consistently overshoot the pitch on that note? Is there a flaw in the fundamentals of your skills that needs to be addressed before progressing? Practice time is approached with goals in mind, and each minute is spent working to accomplish those goals. It may seem like a slow process; with so much repertoire to address between ensemble music, solos, and technique books, it is hard to sit down and focus on small details of specific measures in a piece of music. However, over time you will find you are making more progress than you would have been had you cut corners and practiced larger chunks of music with more allowance for mistakes.

One important trick to getting the most out of your practice time is to divide your practice time. Renowned violinist and instructor Ivan Galamian suggested dividing practice time into three even sections. One third of practice should be conceptual practice in which you decide, through analysis of the piece and personal stylistic decisions, what you want a phrase to sound like. One third should be technical practice in which you practice the execution of the choices you made in your conceptual practice. Finally, one third should be performance practice, in which you figure out how to put everything you have worked on in context from beginning to end, as you would in a formal performance. All three sections of practice, in order, are essential to a good performance; you cannot have a productive technical practice unless you decide in conceptual practice what you are aiming to achieve. Similarly, you cannot execute what is done in technical practice in a performance unless you practice those things in context.

With deliberate practice, you can accomplish in thirty minutes what would take a loop or autopilot practicer hours, if it is ever accomplished. Practice, especially in a busy college setting, is a game of getting the most out of the smallest amount of time; by focusing your practice, you can better use the time you are given.

Praise to God

I attend a Primitive Baptist church where we do not use musical instruments in worship, but rather sing purely acapella. There is nothing that draws me closer to God than to sing traditional hymns without accompaniment. To hear a gathering of Christians singing and lifting up their voices to God is truly an amazing experience.

In the summers, there is a camp called Harmony Hill. Harmony Hill is a Primitive Baptist singing school; what I mean by singing school is that every summer, families from many different Primitive Baptist churches across the United States meet together during the course of a week for a time of family bonding, Christian fellowship and, of course, singing. One thing that makes Harmony Hill different than other music camps is that it does not utilize any instruments. With it being a singing school you would think there must be instruments of some kind; at very least a piano. But no, there are no instruments. Every bit of singing is done during the week is purely acapella. We sing morning, afternoon and evening, with added breaks in between. Every afternoon and evening, all of the kids, young, old and parents alike meet together for a small service and great singing. The whole week is truly a meditative time.

One of the most influential worship times I have had was at Harmony Hill on a warm evening night when we were all gathered together for our evening service and singing. As we started to sing those wonderful hymns you could feel the spirit of God moving throughout the building. As all 200 of us began to sing “It is well with my soul,” many people started bursting into tears; not tears of sorrow or sadness, but tears of joy.  The service as a whole was a powerful and moving experience.

Music is a gift from God and has a great power, a power that is only able to begin to show us how great God’s love for us is, as we lift our voices singing praises to Him. No song directly gives Praise to God better than The Doxology; I leave you with the words to this great hymn by Thomas Ken: “Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Theory: A Practical and Bewitching Part of Music

As a senior in high school coming from a small band, I never thought about what different challenges jazz music held. You see, our program was so small that we didn’t  have a jazz band, so my opportunities were limited. I knew that there were swing styles and I could recognize staple jazz tunes, but other than that I had never been involved in the art of jazz music.

My senior year in high school I attended a region clinic on saxophone. The days flew by and we put on a great concert, after which thanked our clinician for a great experience, never thinking that I would come into contact with Mr. Nils Landsberg again, much less within a few weeks. The next thing I know I get an email from Mr. Landsberg asking if I would want to join the UMHB jazz ensemble that spring to fill the spot of second alto. My heart was tossing with feelings of joy and excitement, not knowing what to expect! Thus I began my journey into the vast world of jazz music.

Having finished my senior year of high school, and gotten to play and go on tour to Omaha, Nebraska with the UMHB jazz ensemble, I made the decision to attend UMHB. During my first year as a freshman at UMHB I would sit in jazz rehearsals and look at the music much as I had before, through eyes that read the notes on the page, paying no attention to improv sections with strange chord changes. I knew little about chord changes, much less how to use them to develop a solo.

My first semester went by and I started Theory II where we went into detail about what exactly all the different chord symbols mean and how to quickly identify what notes fall in the chord. Having to be lightning quick at recognizing thirds above the base notes of chords is just the start of understanding the extent theory has in music, all of which started to be ingrained in my mind! Theory is a practical skill to understand and be able in music every day, imagine that!

Given my first of a few improv solos during my time in the jazz ensemble, I was able to better understand the workings of an improv solo with chord changes and so much more. Theory really is a practical skill to have and understand as a musician. Theory guides and makes clear so much, from the way that you look at a piece of music to the way you can create an improv solo. Don’t settle for a one dimensional world of music, but rather peer through the looking glass of theory and be amazed at the beautiful depth of music.

The Three C’s of Leadership

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What is leadership to you? That question is one that is often asked and seldom truly answered. To understand what leadership is, we should first take a look at what it means to be a leader. A leader, by definition, is “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country.” When you are looking to reach a destination and someone else is counting on you to lead them to that destination, you probably want to know where you are going, right? Otherwise, how can you lead someone else there? It seems like a simple concept, but too often people in leadership roles do not have a clear goal or direction in mind and can end up doing a disservice to those that they are leading. In trying to better a group of musicians, it is important to know where you have come from, where you are now, and where you hope to be. If you cannot answer these questions to yourself or in front of those who it is your job to lead, then you will be in big trouble.

When it comes right down to what leadership is to me, I find that there are three traits that a person must have to be a strong and effective leader: confidence, clarity and care. Let’s first look at confidence. If you stand in front of a band unsure of yourself, much less of what you have to tell them, why would that motivate them to trust and follow any of what comes after that? To be a leader you must have a strong level of confidence in what you have to say. Many people are scared that if you seem to have too much confidence you may come across as arrogant. The simple fact is that people want to know what you know and it is your job to communicate that to them; the position of leadership that you occupy would not exist if those you are entrusted to lead did not need your guidance. But with that, don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know the answer to a certain thing; in all things, be honest and speak with confidence and surety in your voice. It does no good to dance around a question you are unable to answer at the time and waste time, or worse, confuse your ensemble and yourself.

The only way you can communicate confidence in what you have to say and inspire others to want to follow is to express what you know in a clear way. This takes preparation on your part to ensure that you know what you are speaking about as well as how to best present it to your audience. In the band world, this means taking into account the level of your students in regards to both age/maturity and musical ability. It does no good to explain things beyond younger students’ level of understanding just as it is unproductive to over-simplify and fail to challenge the minds of older students. Clarity in your directions, critiques and answers is vitally important to the success of your band and should be tailored to suit the maturity level of the students.

While it is important to be a strong leader and maintain control and discipline in your band, it is equally as important to express to your band members through both words and actions that you care for them and want them to succeed. Critiques and criticisms of both musical performance and behavior are essential in shaping a musician, but it is also important to build confidence (and not false confidence) in the student by highlighting what they truly do well and acknowledging them for it. When they are recognized and appreciated for the results of their hard work, they will be more apt to continue to work hard in the future. Additionally, while there are appropriate ways to encourage individual band members in and outside of rehearsal, it is important to maintain focus on the success of the group as a whole and encourage band members to consider their individual talents and practice time as a contribution to the good of the band rather than as a solo, self-seeking effort. The word “band” literally means “a group of people working together” and any ensemble should realize the necessity of good teamwork. Avoid showing favoritism; while you may think that giving a little extra attention or consideration to certain people is innocent, there are many watching eyes in the band that, even though they may never say anything to you, can become discouraged when comparing the amount of attention you give to your “favorites” to the amount of attention that they receive from you. As a leader, you must put personal preferences aside and take very seriously the spotlight that you have been given. Your actions both in and out of rehearsal do greatly affect the attitude and performance of your band program and your responsibility as a leader in that way should not be taken lightly.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “if you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” In music, this means that if you want your students to give a good performance, don’t spout off instructions and assign excerpts for practice, but show them through your teaching that music is a beautiful art. When musicians truly love their instruments practice becomes a source of enjoyment. To get the best results out of your band, your students need to know what they are putting their time and effort in for and must want it. You can’t want it for them, but you can inspire them to want it for themselves.

The Vibrancy of Vibrato

For most instrumentalists, the concept of vibrato is introduced at a relatively early age, especially among those who take private lessons. As a saxophonist and flautist myself, the concept of vibrato was introduced to me at older age than most. Unlike most eager music students in middle and high school, I didn’t have lessons until my junior year in high school. Due to this small fact, and much experimenting, reading, and listening, the way I approach and view vibrato is as follows.

When beginning to think about vibrato, we must first understand what it is. According to Wikipedia, “vibrato is a musical effect consisting of a regular, pulsating change of pitch.” That is a very technical definition of what vibrato is, but if I were to stress one thing from it, it would be that, right from the beginning, vibrato is introduced as a musical effect. Too many times I feel that we tend to think of vibrato as a necessity of flute or saxophone playing, and not as much as a musical tool. When we think of it as purely an effect that is turned on and off on demand, we tend to lose sight of the musical power vibrato can have.

Meaningful, true vibrato comes from deep within an individual. That is not to say that one doesn’t have to have proper understanding on how to pulsate air or move the jaw correctly to create the sound of vibrato. While one must understand the mechanics of vibrato to produce it, you must dig deeper to put meaning, and thus musical thought into it. Having not previously taken lessons or been formally introduced to vibrato, when I started taking lessons in 11th grade and my instructor explained and demonstrated the concept of vibrato, it was interesting to see how much of the natural instinct was already ingrained in me. Naturally, what I had been doing was not lovely or perfect, but with some minor changes and adding of technical thoughts to the approach, I was off and flying. This is what I call instinctive musical vibrato. Few things are more bland and useless than meaningless vibrato.

The drastic difference vibrato can bring to a piece of music is truly amazing. With the ability to waver the pitch of a single note, you open a whole new emotional side of the note, not to mention the entire phrase.  As with anything in music, too much vibrato or vibrato done in the wrong way can have negative effects on a piece of music. Vibrato at too slow of a speed can sound like a drunk note or, the reverse, like a bleating goat if too fast. As always, be sure to evaluate the given musical situation before using this musical tool. When you are ready to use the wonderful tool of vibrato, be sure not to over restrict yourself in regards to where to apply it, but rather let your musical instincts be the guide. The result is a meaningful piece of music, overflowing with the entire warmth and color that tasteful, musical vibrato adds.