Sunday, July 25, 2010

Droplets of Consciousness

Perhaps 'droppings' of consciousness is a better title. But I don't want to go there.

Twitter and Facebook have taught me how to think and write in small snippets. My teaching style has taken on some of this quality, as well. I blurt out directions to my students in short bursts of only enough words to 'fit in the window' of opportunity. I'm even slurring words at times, because I feel like I have to sneak all the information into a nanosecond. I heard myself do this the other day, while working with three young sisters who are exploring singing for the summer. All four of us stopped in our tracks to try to translate what it was that I had tried to say. On the other end of this, more and more my students expect immediate, precise, concise directions from me. If I can't help them make an adjustment in two or three words, they can't wait for it. Sometimes more than a couple of words are required to make a point about technique. Students seem to have no time for or interest in entering a work mode, a focused flow state. They want surface comments to help them make cosmetic adjustments. If students are working as they should be, my comments should be something that they hear, but don't consciously pay attention to. The work pre-exists. The comments are like putting finishing dabs of paint on an already painted masterpiece. (Ah! The old Patricia begins to shine through the acquired habit of exhorting snippets of blah-dee-blah. Feels good.)

As a person who used to write a weekly arts and entertainment column for The Daily News, I find this acquired, disjointed way of expressing myself distressing. I realize that my first blog entries are rather robotically composed. I'm hoping that my blogging will help steer me back toward a smooth stream of consciousness and away from this chronic dripping of tiny tidbits of thought.

That said, here is a loosely developed rant based on the one- or two-liners that recently have buzzed through my brain.

I find it very hard to find suitable song material for very young children (5 to 7 years). By suitable, I mean educational, range-appropriate, not some kind of bippy-boppy, playground voice, yelling, hyper-active car songs or kid pop tunes. Clearly, newer children's music is a response to hyperactivity. If the children are hyperactive, we won't try to settle them down into a learning state of being. We'll just meet them where they live and feed that agitated state. We wouldn't want to take away all the craziness and the sugar. Nobody wants to deal with an addict in withdrawal.

Interesting side note having to do with sugar. I have a bowl of treats in the lobby containing individually wrapped dried plums and chocolate candy kisses. My students of all ages from OTHER countries opt for the plums over the candy. American moms go so far as to tell their children not to bother to try it because they won't like it. Get a grip, America! If a child is curious, let them try it. And YOU have a plum, too, because it is soooo tasty!

Songs for children. I've bought a few books of children's songs that seemed worthy. But most of the books contain camp songs, very babyish songs or saccharin, cheesy texts. Newer composers appear to be stuck on one particular syncopated rhythm. It replaces the need to actually compose something of merit. In the past, I've adapted choral music for children. Recently, I worked with a 10-year-old boy whose sophisticated taste was Weird Al Yankovic. I found one McCartney/Weird Al song that was useable. And I adapted a Bob Chilcott choral piece titled, City Songs.

I don't work with children younger than 7 or 8, as a rule. That said, I have found myself working with an adorable 5-year-old boy. I have scrounged up all of my old Orff-Schulwerk material from over 20 years ago. And I have scoured the countryside looking for more material. There have to be more American Indian chants than the couple I've found. Those are great for teaching rhythm and meter. The range of notes in the chants I've found is small, which is a good thing. A 5-year-old range is somewhere between B next to Middle C and the B one octave higher; however, the usable tessitura is a very limited range within that octave. Inexperienced pre-school and elementary school teachers often sing inappropriate songs in a low range (sometimes down to E or F below Middle C), thinking they are helping the children. But, if the children aren't able to sing the notes, the children will be satisfied with missing the notes. We have to teach children songs that their 'instrument' is capable of playing.

My search goes on for acceptable material. In the meantime, I pulled an old Level 3 Exploring Music book from my shelf the other day. I buy used books like they're going out of style. What a wonderful, wonderful book this is. As I leafed through the pages, I remembered singing these songs in elementary school. I used this book! I wonder how many other people my age remember, "Dip, dip and swing. Dip, dip and swing." Yes! That's the Indian canoe. This edition was published in the mid-1960s by the California State Department of Education. I am prompted to ask, "What has happened to this kind of curriculum, CSDE?" Well, I'm prompted to ask, what has happened to classroom music? So many questions. So few good answers. At any rate, I found one song in a limited range in the book that I can transpose to a slightly lower key and give to my 5-year-old charge. I'll have to alter one note to make it singable. The song is My Farm (Mi chacra), an Argentine Folk Song: repetitive notes and rhythms, animal sounds, introduction to Spanish. THIS is called music education, folks. Are the people who write and publish children's songs listening?

An interesting side note. This Level 3 book includes the national anthem. Children in third grade were given the Star-Spangled Banner with an F as a top note. Great time to introduce this to children! Young voices are able to access an F. A few years later, when the voice is changing for girls and for boys, this note may seem 'temporarily' out of reach. But it will come back (for girls and, naturally, as a lower high note for boys) IF THE CHILDREN HAVE BEEN EXPECTED TO SING IT AND HAVE BEEN GIVEN AN OPPORTUNITY TO SING IT. Ha! I'll bet those composers and publishers and educators are listening now! Not.

Monday, July 19, 2010

On the Anthem

We need to keep our national anthem. It isn’t difficult to sing. The tune was sung by everyone when it was just a drinking song. Well, it was sung by everyone who drank wine, anyway. It’s odd that when it accompanied the act of imbibing the song was considered easy and fun to sing. But, later, when the tune was attached to something more sobering, the fun of singing it and people’s ability to sing it were diminished.

To be fair, when the tune took on more serious connotations it also moved into mainstream America. The song praising wine suddenly no longer was exclusive to the barroom or parlor. Mainstream is a dirty word in my vocabulary. The surest way to lessen, water-down and common-ize anything is to mainstream it. But that’s an open sore to be dealt with another time and, maybe, not here.

The range of the anthem is 12 tones. A human adult who learns how to use the voice in a natural way should have access to that many notes. Most military bands play the tune in the key of B-flat. Sometimes we hear it in the key of G. Since most women are sopranos, the B-flat key (taking the voice up to F, just before the register shift) should do nicely.

One of my favorite outings is to the local Scottish Highland Games. I love bagpipes. I usually find my way to the stadium for the entry of the mass pipe bands. After they enter, the national anthems of the United States and the British Isles are played and sung by all the people in the stands. Not surprisingly, a large number of attendees are from Scotland and England. I remember the first time I heard all of these individuals singing the anthems together in the stands. It was like a movie musical. What a beautiful sound. No one had problems negotiating any of the notes. Why would this be? It is because these people have more of a tradition of singing folk melodies, and more of a tradition of music education and singing in schools than we do. It also has something to do with the pitch level at which people speak in Britain, and with the way people use their speaking voices, in general, though the younger generation is losing some of this. The memory of the first sound of those lilting voices in the stadium stands remains in my ear to this day.

If elementary school children were encouraged to sing folk-songs and other level-appropriate and range-appropriate song material in their regular classrooms on a daily basis, and if all schools had quality elementary choirs, we would have a country populated with natural singers who could sing the anthem with no problem. (This is another open sore/soapbox topic with me.) Read it this way: TURN OFF THE POP AND ROCK and turn on a little of everything else. We have such a rich heritage of folk, jazz and classical music in America. It’s a shame we disregard it so.

The way I see it, our national tune is dynamic, stirring, noble and strong. It starts with a definitive 5-3-1, and builds right back up the octave. (Nothing can keep us down.) Then we touch on the 10th, only to return to the interval of the 10th more definitively, then our 8-5-3-1, once again, with resolve. Then, we repeat 5-3-1 (ever stronger and more resolute in our patriotism). Then we depart to the 10th, and hover above the strength and grounding below us between the 10th and the 12th, still strong regardless of this departing flight, because we are rooted to the top octave. We finish the song on the top 5th (because battles of honor remain to be fought and won and our work, like our country and like our spirit, is not finished). And that’s just my interpretation of the music. Add the words, and the Star-Spangled Banner can’t be topped.

The words of the anthem provide us with a glimpse of history and, unfortunately, still speak of the bombs and rockets inherent in times of war. The text is current. I think it beats “To Anacreon in Heaven” by a major long shot.

More on the origins of the National Anthem may be found here
and here

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Taking Care of the Rest

When my students vacate the studio en masse for their summer vacations, I find myself periodically involuntarily idled as a voice teacher, which is a bit of a blessing in disguise. The time off from teaching gives me an opportunity to work on my other projects. And the gaps between students provide me with generous buffer time for my own vocal practice, which I consider to be quite a luxury.

The art of singing suffers a little in this busy world. I used to suggest to my students that they take a walk before their lessons and their practice sessions, to clear their heads of work, school, problems and the rest of life, and to prepare their minds for singing and for developing their artistry. Reading in a quiet room for an hour or taking a power nap for 20 or 30 minutes are also good lesson preliminaries. Studies have shown that nappers are more focused, more receptive and better able to retain information. And quiet time is important. We need to remove ourselves from the din in order to refine and re-set the ear.

My elementary school students dash into the studio at the last minute from school or some other activity, already dressed in soccer uniforms for the practice that follows the voice lesson. Their minds are on where they were and where they’re going next. The lesson is just a blip in a jam-packed day. The rest of the week, daily practice usually is edged out in favor of whichever activities take immediate precedence. There isn’t enough time to learn to sing at all, let alone to learn to sing well. There most certainly isn’t enough time to prepare for the singing experience, to experiment while practicing, or to reflect on it afterwards. If they continue with lessons, these children will become the teen and adult students who chronically offer up reasons for not having practiced.