One Horse Open Sleigh (Jingle Bells)

Here's one more Christmas tune. This one will be very familiar to most people since Jingle Bells is perhaps the most performed secular Christmas tune (although it was apparently first intended as a Thanksgiving song). I arranged this version for voice and ukulele from James Lord Pierpont's 1857 publication, which you can view via the Library of Congress. The melody is a bit different from the one usually heard, and the chord progression is a little more interesting. Merry Christmas!

Dealing with Nerves During Performance

In this TEDxBoomington talk, Jeff Nelsen offers some great tools for dealing with nerves during performance. Everyone gets nervous when they perform. When you let that take over, it can prevent you from doing your best.

I try to help students cope with performance nerves during the lesson so that they have some tools to deal with it when it comes up in a real-life situation. I've found for younger students, the most important thing is that they know what will happen at their performance and they know exactly what to do. We practice announcing, bowing and what to do if they make a mistake. I also encourage them to perform for their families at home before they have a performance with a large crowd. As students gain performance experience, they tend to cope with nervousness better.

What Child Is This

It's been a while since I've posted a video in my public domain project. This one has double public domain credits. The original tune is a traditional English 16th-century melody called "Greensleeves." It was popular enough in Elizabethan England to be referenced in multiple Shakespeare plays. In 1865 William Dix wrote the poem that we use for the lyrics of the popular carol, "What Child Is This."

This is one of my favorite carols. The melody is what captures me -- it feels old and pagan -- perfect for a long, dark winter night.

Making Music Together Connects Brains

Science Daily

Here's another article on the way our brains work when we make music. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin have hooked up classical guitarists to electrodes to look at their brain waves and they found some interesting things.

Anyone who has ever played in an orchestra will be familiar with the phenomenon: the impulse for one's own actions does not seem to come from one's own mind alone, but rather seems to be controlled by the coordinated activity of the group. And indeed, interbrain networks do emerge when making music together -- this has now been demonstrated by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The scientists used electrodes to trace the brain waves of guitarists playing in duets. They also observed substantial differences in the musicians' brain activity, depending upon whether musicians were leading or following their companion.

This is fascinating to me. It's a confirmation of a phenomenon I've often felt during performance. Being on the same "wave length" is the difference between a good performance and a bad performance  -- and now we find that is true, literally.

You can read the rest of the article at Science Daily.

Fun with Musical Instruments

Jimmy Fallon had a great game on his show Monday night. Keira Knightley, Dave Matthews, Michael Bublé and Jimmy Fallon take turns playing and guessing the names of songs they pick blindly and play on instruments also selected blindly. It looks like lots of fun. I think this would be a great game to play in a music appreciation class. Enjoy!

Do Orchestras Need a Conductor? Yes!

NPR's Deceptive Cadence recently posted an article about an orchestra's need for a conductor. Does an orchestra really need a conductor? A recent study by Yiannis Aloimonos, of the University of Maryland, came to the same conclusion as every orchestra in the world. The answer is yes; and the more experienced the conductor, the better.

When I saw the headline for this article, my first thought was, "Of course an orchestra needs a conductor, this is self evident. We don't need a study to show us that the sky is blue." This is obvious to musicians, but apparently it is not obvious to non-musicians. Now we have empirical proof that the conductor is doing much more than just waving his or her arms. Go read the article to see how they conducted the study.

Ask a Voice Teacher: Why Study Voice?

I'm often asked the same (or similar) questions again and again by those considering voice lessons, current voice students, and their parents. Do I really need to study voice with a teacher; can't I do it on my own? At what age should my child start lessons? How many lessons do I need? Can you help me sound like a specific singer? Why can't I sing this song? And many, many more. This is the second post in this series and it is for those who are considering voice lessons.

Do I really need to study voice with a teacher? Can't I do it on my own?

Of course you can study any instrument (including voice) on your own, but the benefits of studying with a good teacher are numerous. In the case of voice, it can be easy to fall into bad habits that can lead to major issues like vocal nodes. You need an expert's ear in order to help you get the most out of your voice, to make the best possible art, and to make sure your voice stays injury free. A voice teacher will also help you find new songs, try out new ideas and develop performance skills that will make you a better singer. Because there are so many things to keep track of while singing (including breath, posture, resonance, diction, interpretation and all the things that go into them), even professional singers check in with a trusted teacher to make sure they stay on track. If you just want to sing in the shower, you probably don't need a voice teacher. However, most people thinking about taking lessons will benefit from them. If you want to improve your singing for a choir, if you want to sing karaoke weekly, if you want to sing solos at church, if you want to sing in community theater you will benefit from lessons. If your goals include professional or semi-professional singing of any style, lessons are a necessity.

 How many lessons do I need?

Singing isn't the sort of task that you can take a 6 month class on and then know everything there is to know about it. Even with a doctorate in voice performance I learn new things about my voice every day. For that reason, lessons are open ended.

Sometimes students have a specific goal. For example, they want to learn a role for a musical, or improve an aspect of their singing so that it is more comfortable to sing a high note in their choir. These goals can often be met in several months. Rather than thinking of building a voice for the long-term, this is a coaching session where the student can sometimes learn some long-term skills, but the focus is on a specific short-term goal. Short-term goals are important (even for long-term students), but when the next role comes along or the next technical issue comes up, these students often don't have the skills to meet the new challenges. As a teacher, of course I would encourage students to aim for a lifetime of lessons, but I find that coaching to meet short-term goals can also give students a taste of what they might be capable of in a more open-ended lesson environment.

After You've Gone

"After You've Gone" was written in 1918 by Creamer and Layton. The 1918 recording by Marion Harris was a hit. It has become a jazz standard performed by many others including Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller. I've decided to include the first verse and the refrain (which often stands on its own). I'm also trying out a new mic. I think the sound is much better, but I'm sure I'll find ways to tweak it as I use it more.

Google Universal Orchestra

Google has an interesting lab project called Universal Orchestra. You can participate in live music making with others across the world. The lab is set up in London at the Science Museum where visitors to the museum and those on the internet can collaborate. To participate, you wait in a virtual line to play one of four percussion instruments and then you can select pitches and control rhythm for the different parts of the instrument. The controls are pretty intuitive and It runs in a loop, so you can change the pattern over time. You can try things out on virtual instruments while you wait to play the live ones. There are four additional instruments that can only be accessed by museum visitors. While the music is minimalist in nature, the number of instruments allows for a nice variation in the loops.

Google creates a video of your time with the orchestra; my first attempt is above. I missed the tactile aspect of making music, but I liked the intuitive collaboration with other performers. I think it could be a fun way for new musicians and non-musicians to participate in collaborative music making without worrying about hitting a "wrong" note. Give it a try! Google Universal Orchestra

Ask a Voice Teacher

I'm often asked the same (or similar) questions again and again by those considering voice lessons, current voice students, and their parents. Do I really need to study voice with a teacher; can't I do it on my own? At what age should my child start lessons? How many lessons do I need? Can you help me sound like a specific singer? Why can't I sing this song? And many, many more. I'll try to answer some of these in a series of blog posts. The first post is for those considering lessons for their children.

At what age should my child start voice lessons?

This is a question I'm often asked by parents of young children who tell me, "She just loves to sing at home! Do you think she should have lessons?" This question is highly debated among voice teachers. Generally, I recommend that students wait until they are at least 10 to start voice lessons. The main concern is that a young child should never be asked to mimic the sounds of a fully mature voice, and a naturally mature and full sound is generally one of the main goals for older voice students. The voice is a complex instrument and requires coordination and a certain level of maturity in order to understand and develop the finer points of singing.

I encourage younger children interested in singing to find a great choir and to study another instrument like piano or violin. This way they will begin to work on the basics of singing (good breath, good posture, basic resonance and diction) and they will learn to read music. It isn't that they won't learn these important skills in voice lessons, it's just that they can learn these skills just as well in a good choir and they will learn other excellent musical skills, which will serve them well in future voice lessons.

There are exceptions to this rule. If a child is regularly singing solos in public, a younger student will often benefit from lessons. Also, if a student is experiencing technical difficulty while singing, lessons may be in order. Additionally, some children mature faster than others and may be ready for lessons earlier. I will always agree to a trial lesson with a young student, so that I can give the best recommendation. Above all, it's important to have realistic expectations for pre-adolescent voices.

Elliott Carter: 1908-2012

American composer Elliott Carter died yesterday after a very long life and an excellent career. He died a few weeks before his 104th birthday, composing to the end. His 100th birthday was celebrated by many performances of his pieces, new and old. He had several premieres of new pieces this year and he finished his last composition in August. His music can be challenging for listeners, but often the best music is.

My first exposure to Carter was in college; we sang his setting of Emily Dickinson's poem, "Heart Not So Heavy As Mine." I think it was the most difficult piece I had learned to that point, but it started my interest in "new music." It seems a very appropriate way to remember him.

There are excellent obituaries at the New York Times and NPRs Deceptive Cadence.

Adventures in Teaching: Halloween

Libby Larsen, composer

This year for Halloween I decided that since I was teaching all afternoon, and students would likely come to lessons in their costumes, I would dress up, too. I hemmed and hawed about what to be, but anything too elaborate like a character from an opera seemed too difficult to maintain while teaching. I settled on composer Libby Larsen because I love her music and I look a bit like her if I change the part in my hair.

I thought Larsen would be a great choice, since most young musicians think of composers as old (or dead) European men like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. She certainly goes against that type as a living American woman. Larsen has an excellent section for kids on her website. She includes a letter to students, an interview, and a section on composing music. From the interview:

What advice would you give to a person who wants to compose for a living?

Listen to all kinds of music, as much as you can get your hands on. Make friends with creative and artistic people. Learn to read and notate music very, very well. Listen some more. Work at your music every day. Study the music of other composers. Write everything down. Talk to musicians and music teachers as much as you can. Perform: sing, play instruments, make up your own instruments, and of course, dance!

Read the rest at Libby Larsen's For Kids page.

Give My Regards to Broadway

Here's another tin pan alley tune for my public domain project. This one is perhaps the most famous of those I've recorded so far. George M. Cohan wrote this tune for his musical Little Johnny Jones in 1904; wherein he sang this song in the title role. It has been performed by many, including Billy Murray in a 1904 recording, James Cagney for the 1942 movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Judy Garland in 1966 for the Sammy Davis, Jr. Show.

How to Practice: 10 Tips for New Voice Students

Many new voice students do not have a full understanding of what it means to practice between lessons. Singing through your pieces several times may help you memorize them, but you won't learn how to correct musical and technical mistakes. Students should approach each practice session as they should each lesson; with an open mind, and willing to experiment. This list is by no means complete, but here are 10 tips to incorporate into your practice time.

  1. Record your lesson. This is useful for remembering what to work on between the lessons since there often isn't time for your teacher to make written notes for you. You will also be able to hear the difference your practicing makes over time.
  2. Practice often. It is much better to work on your singing a little bit each day rather than one longer session the day before your lesson. Singers are like athletes; we are training our muscles to perform special skills. Like athletes, waiting until the last minute and doing one long prep session will get you nowhere.
  3. If you are ill, feel pain in your throat, or if you begin to loose your voice, stop singing. Singing should always feel free, not forced. If there is pain or you become horse, you are doing it wrong or there could be a medical issue that may need to be addressed by a doctor.
  4. Warm-up using exercises your teacher introduced in the lesson. Take this time to focus on different technical aspects of singing such as breath, posture, resonance and diction. Often, each exercise is meant to work on a particular skill. If you are unsure what skills go with each exercise, ask your teacher. If you work better with imagery, use the image you've worked out with your teacher for each exercise.
  5. Work on pieces in sections of 4-8 measures. You can do various exercises in each section to work on different technical aspects. For example: to work on breath, sing a section on a tongue trill (rrrr); to work on phrasing sing legato on a vowel instead of the words; or to work on rhythm, count a section while singing. Once each section is perfected you can put the piece back together by grouping sections together.
  6. Take note of trouble spots. If you make a mistake more than once, go back and correct it. Sing the notes on different vowels and then with the words. Then put the trouble spot back into the rest of the phrase to give it context.
  7. Remember that the way you say the words matters as much as the meaning. Work on correct diction as part of your practice time. One way to do this is to speak the words with a resonant voice, both with the rhythm and as you would if you were in a play.
  8. Learn to read music using solfeggio (do, re, mi, etc.) or another system. Learning notation and music theory will help you learn pieces more quickly and you will understand them better. Learning another instrument is a good way to achieve this.
  9. Approach each piece as an actor. Your job is to interpret the intent of the composer and poet/lyricist for the audience. This means you must understand the meaning behind the words and the notes. Practice time needs to include some time for research.
  10. Take time to listen to many other singers in many different styles. You have a unique voice, so listening to others, both those who have voices similar to yours and those who are very different, will give you a better frame of reference for your own voice.

Adventures in Teaching: Women in Music

Wilhelmine von Brandenburg-Bayreuth

Last week, a young pianist was working on a piece by J.S. Bach. I mentioned that his family was full of musicians, his father was one and so were many of his children. She made the point that it was his sons, since women weren't allowed to have jobs, they "just cooked and cleaned." While this is partially true, I told her that women have been well respected as excellent composers and performers as long as we have been making music.

So, in honor of that student, here is part of a list of women in music from Oxford Music. I'm listing a few from those that lived around the time of Bach, but go see the list for important women in music from the year 810 to 2000.

1736 - Julie Pinel publishes a collection of French airs.

1740 - Wilhelmina, Princess of Prussia sees her opera Argenore performed at the court opera in Bayreuth.

1740 - Elisabeth de Haulteterre publishes her Primier livre de sonates for violin and continuo.

There are many more at the link. Timelines in music history: Women in music in Oxford Music Online.