Monthly Archives: June 2010

Beginning Conductor’s class – Wed.

First thing this morning, we were subjected to some of the really fun warm up exercises we do semi-regularly at St. George’s – for example, standing on one leg while singing a vocal warm up. This morning, I learned one of the reasons WHY we do that – it’s to remind our bodies of what it feels like when your breath comes in deeply and completely. We were also reminded that doing this with our choirs often will, over time, improve their breathing. Consider yourselves forewarned.

Other vocal fundamentals:

Wake up the head voice first – this lighter sound only uses the insides of your vocal chords, increases overtones and increases the ‘thickness’ (fullness) of the sound without being too heavy.

High pitches DON’T need much force.

Each voice has transition points – Sabine advises that when moving into your head voice (upper register), “leave some of your backpack at home, so that you can climb higher on the mountain.”

Breath comes in from top to bottom – and it’s VITAL that it as far into the bottom (pelvic floor) as possible for proper breathing to take place.

Today, I had my first critiqued conducting. Who knew – this conductor had a hitch in her conducting get-along…apparently I was raising one hip while conducting, without even being aware of it. Giselle stood behind me while I tried again and placed her hands firmly on my waist to ‘ground’ me – and there I stayed for the rest of the exercise.

Our beginner’s class is a really wonderful group – we come from a variety of background and experience levels, all brought together by our mutual love for music and a genuine desire to bring helpful tools and techniques back into our respective conducting homes. There’s lots of mutual support, idea sharing and questions grounded in the reality of the challenges faced by each conductor. There’s also lots of laughing – not AT each other, but WITH each other, as we face and embrace the mutual discomfort of being put on the spot in the front of the room while others observe and comment on how well we’re doing at an activity none of us feels adept at performing. It’s kind of like college speech class all over again – except the script for the presentation is the music and the ‘presenter’ isn’t allowed to speak, but must use facial expression and gesture to get the choir sing the script correctly. All right – it’s late and I’m tired – I guess it’s not really very much like college speech class after all.

Drs. Giselle Wyers and Jim Jordan have been wonderful teachers, giving each of us plenty of individual attention and specific instructions on how to improve our conducting techniques. We also learn from what is being taught to everyone else in the class. We were taught today how to ‘reach our center of power’ – an exercise that consisted primarily of squatting, knees bent slightly, bent forward at the waist, breathing in and huffing deeply and loudly like some kind of gorilla tribe staking out their territory.  It was very primordial, and for some inexplicable reason, it felt REALLY good.

Gems heard in class today:

Singers read the conductor’s ‘center,’ not their gestures. The gestures are just additional information.

If you want to know where artists live, think of plants. Half the plant is reaching for the sun, gathering the elements needed to complete photosynthesis and to achieve growth. The other half is grounded and taking root – reaching deeper for the elements needed from the soil and water to continue to grow. Where those two parts of the plant meet is called the crossing point. Artists live in the crossing point.

More tomorrow,


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Westminster Conducting Institute Day 4

Once again, a full day. Choral warmup with storytelling, rounds and lots of movement.  Can’t wait to try it all out on the troops at home…..

A first: JHV does yoga.  I certainly benefitted from the stretches and breathing, and found that I still have a lot of flexibility for an old guy.  I will say that I felt a general sense of well-being following the session.  More yoga with chakras tomorrow…

Morning Conducting Class – Lots of singing for me, no conducting until the afternoon.

Movement and ear training – Making up vocal compositions with salad tongs, paint rollers, big plastic scissors and a toy rake, then applying the sounds to “The Fall of Babylon” by Darius Milhaud.  Let your imagination soar……but seriously, the tehniques used would work wonders for teaching children to read musical notation. Some of the younger conductors were questioning the use of solfeg syllables.  I told the “The Eyes of All” story and set them straight.

Afternoon Conducting class – After much trepidation and preparation, successful conducting!  Positive comments all around. Big life lessons: 1. All of my groups will sing better if I prepare more.  2. If you sound bad, it’s probably my fault.

Evening lecture – Blake Henson, Composer in residence, shared some info about his composition process.  He just finished his Doctorate in composition at the age of 26, and has written a lot of great stuff, most of which is too big for us.  The one issue with attending these workshops is that the staff are all directing college level or city choruses, large groups, so there’s a lot of 8 part stuff.

 “All of you is in the breath.” – Jim Jordan

Tomorrow evening, an open sing of a shortened version of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.”  I LOVE this town……


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Beginning Conductor’s Class

Boy, am I exhausted…

I didn’t take as many notes today, because I spent most of my day involved with kinesthetic learning exercises – connecting movement with sound and breathing.  We learned how to conduct while sitting on big rubber balls (the right size for each of us – I had the short person variety). We practiced patterns, we all had a brief individual vocal lesson (individual only in that it was our turn to sing in front of everyone else). I’m pleased to report that I was used as the example for good abdominal and back expansion while drawing in the beginning breath. Not quite so  precise and clean with the onset of vocal production, but I breathe really nice. (-:

More conducting drills – a lecture on the Saito method of conducting and incorporating those ideas into the patterns introduced yesterday, some amazing demonstrations on how the conductor’s stance and gestures change the vocal sounds coming from the singers. It’s unbelievable how much difference a slight change in the conductor makes in the sound – even when you’re the one making the sounds.  A lot of it must be subconscious, because there’s no way that we, as singers, had time to react or respond by thinking about it first – the changes in tempo or rhythm, marcato vs. legato – all happened without us thinking about it first.

Heard in class today:

“Take the ‘noble’ posture – it helps your breath, which in turn helps your singers breathe properly.”

“Feel the torque you need in your ribs to hold your sound together.”

“To change (lighten) the sound, take the weight away – created by either acceleration or deceleration. Think of how natural that is – it’s like the waves on the beach that ebb and flow.”

More score study to do tonight – I have to be prepared to both sing (in solfeg for all you solfeg lovers out there) and conduct two pieces – an Aeolian and a Mixolydian exercise. I can only visualize myself conducting the piece – I can’t actually practice the conducting. I have to do that on the fly tomorrow…fun and games!

So who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?


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Westminster Conducting Institute Day 3

The Daily schedule ran the same today, although we’re a little tired.

Highlights of the group choral warmup with Sabina Horstman:

Lots of stretching, breathing and movement, including rhythmic canons on fff, ss, t, and ch.  Humming, descending sighs, Jim Jordan exercises with hand motions and swinging rounds in 3 and 4 parts. Sabina’s quotes of the day:

“That was very romantic, now sing like a German military choir.”

“I’m a soprano and everyone should hear me.”

“If you ask your church choir to move, they will laugh at you, but if you stick with it, eventually they will move a little bit.”

Breathing lecture with Jim Jordan and Weston Noble

Here’s all you need to know: When you take a breath to sing, everything about the music that follows is in that breath.  You imagine the phrase that you are about to sing while you breathe in and then sing it.  Once you start to sing, do not attempt to modify the tone or create any effect. Deep stuff…

A word about Weston Noble:  He just celebrated his 65th year of teaching, much of which was spent as director of the choir at Luther College.  He talked about his musical “aha” moment in concert band rehearsal in 1935, playing the Light Calvary Overture on a metal clarinet.  He is co-author of the warm ups that I use regularly and is active as a choral clinician and speaker. He radiates love and caring and conducts with an elegance that seems to come from on high.  In his own words:

“I have to remove the barriers between myself and my choir, EVERY DAY!”

“In choir, your Linus blanket is the person on either side of you.”

“The eyes never lie.”

Morning Conducting class

A humbling experience.  When you’ve conducted one way for years and suddenly need to change everything about your conducting style, it’s difficult and frustrating.  We’ll try again tomorrow….

Movement and Ear Training with Marilyn Shenenberger

FYI, Marilyn wrote many of the piano accompaniments for our choral warmups.  The class included passing a ball around a circle on the beat, reversing direction on the trills, standing in a circle and manipulating a large stretchy loop to the music as a group, walking on the beat and posing at random times, and of course, learning about solfeg, using the very same exercises that we use regularly.  I felt right at home.

Afternoon Conducting Class

Still smarting from the morning session, I just sang.

Evening Lecture –  Diction and articulation with Charles Bruffy, director of the both Kansas City and Phoenix Chorales.

Charles is both brilliant and incredibly funny.  We spent 30 minutes singing 6 notes to get the consonants right. A luxury for the real world, but a great learning experience. When someone asked how we could devote so much time to the details of diction when we were worried about necessary things like pitch and rhythm in the real world, he responded with a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright:

“If you get the luxury items right, the necessities will take care of themselves.”

Tomorrow, my first yoga class…


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Beginner’s Conducting Class

And here’s the word from the Beginner’s Conducting Class…

Wow. Do I have a lot to learn. This is a real nuts and bolts class taught by both Dr. Jim Jordan and Dr. Giselle Wyers, a Westminster Choir College Alum. A lot of the same material that’s being taught in John’s class is also being touched on here, but in a very basic fashion, which is just what I need. Tocka-Teeka-Tocka-Teeka – yep, much to my surprise, my voice and my movements are not going at the same rate. But that’s the basics…the real work of conducting, I’m learning, is from the inside out.

Heard in class today…

“Conducting begins with the human interaction, not with the patterns.”

“Spend time with yourself – get back to center.” Activities you should engage in include “journaling, sitting under a tree – learn to be quiet and still. Do something for yourself, so that you know (or learn) who you are.”

“Your thought – your decision – is formed when you breathe in.  When the container (the body/mind) is ‘right,’  then the breath will come in, and the gestures you make will be natural and honest.”

“Affirm others daily. Affirm yourself daily.”

“Keep human beings intact. If the sound isn’t right, the first place to look is at yourself – what are you doing to evoke that kind of sound?”

Jim Jordan told us today that he continues to teach Beginning Conducting each semester (and again now during the summer) to keep himself honest. “It’s just like at universities where they have writing programs,” he says. “Everybody wants to teach creative writing, but nobody wants to teach grammar. But realistically, it always returns to the basics.”

Must sign off for now…I have to watch, study and analyze a video of Jim Jordan’s skeleton conducting and make some notes in my workbook. Perhaps this small glass of Puertas Novas (2006) that John just poured for me will help my concentration…


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Westminster Conducting Institute Day 2

So here we are on Day 2 of a graduate level conducting class that happens in 6 days.  In the immortal words of Jon Bachman: “It’s like drinking from a fire hydrant.” Here’s the schedule for the first full day:

8:30-9:30 – Group Vocal Technique with Sabine Horstman

Stretching, breathing and more descending sighs than you can shake a stick at.  There’s a great irony in being subjected to the same warmups that I foist upon my own singers.  Much of her warmup was done without accompaniment, including a 3 part round that says hello in nine languages.  I’ll be sure to get a copy.  You’ll love the Czech…..Freedom of movement is a big part of the warmup. Point at the ship, make a small circle with your nose, wave to your neighbor. 

11:05-12:20 – Sight reading with Jim Jordan and Weston Noble

We got to sing the Rheinberger “Abendlied” which the Westminster Group performed at St. George’s on the tour.  Also a Russian Ave Maria, Morton Lauridsen’s “Sure on this shining night” and some new music by Blake Henson, the composer in residence at the institute.  There is much to be learned from watching a good conductor.  Everyone should try it… least once.

12:20-2:00 – Lunch

2:00-3:15 – Body mapping with Jim Jordan, featuring Jim’s animated conducting skeleton video

An amazing session that clearly demonstrates how conducting movement and gesture affects overall choral sound.  He conducted the same short exercise three different ways and the sound changed every time. The DVD features software that maps a digital video of Jim conducting onto an animated version of his skeleton.  You can see very clearly how much movement there is and which bones move where.  I have much to do…

3:30-4:45 – Conducting class

I ended up in a class of 8 conductors with two faculty, Dennis Shrock and Jim Jordan.  (Justice at last!)Dennis took the class today, wherein each of us conducts while the rest serve as choir.  I didn’t conduct today, but surely will tomorrow.  There is a great deal of sharing and wonderful feedback from Dennis, who has a solution for every conducting problem at his fingertips.  I plan to work on the The Rheinberger and Lauridsen at least.  We’ll see how it goes.

4:45-6:15 – Dinner in Downtown Princeton

6:15-7:45 – Mozart Performance Practice Lecture with Dennis Shrock

Dennis is writing a book on Classical performance practice.  Using literature, letters, diaries and treatises from the period, he shared comments on tempo. articulation, ornamentation and other facets of performing Mozart and other Classical works.  I’ll never look at “Ave verum” the same way again, nor will you.

Quotes of the day from Sabine:

“If your singers are in misery, they will do it (sing) their way. Misery can come from too many high notes, difficult music or holding up their music for too long.”

“Singing the right pitch at the right time is good, but it is not the music.”

More tomorrow.


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Westminster Conducting Institute Day 1

We’re in Princeton NJ for the Conducting Institute.  Check in at 2:30 PM. We got a warm reception and a hug from Jim Jordan.  He and I are arranging another  performance by one of his choirs.  Conducting auditions began at 3:15.   40+ conductors conducting the same 17  measures of the Lassus motet “Salve Regina” for the faculty, including Jim Jordan, Bruce Chamberlain, Weston Noble and others.  My turn came about 35th. It was strange jumping up and conducting a piece that I’d just sung 30 times.  There were many different styles, tempi and levels of energy.  A nice balance in the choir,with all sections about even.  Tomorrow, we find out who our principal conducting teacher is.  We were asked to list a preference, but I left it blank.  I’ll wait and see what happens. Dinner and a break, then two hours of lecture/reading/score preparation of “Dixit Dominus” by Mozart, led by Bruce Chamberlain.  A very informative session, with many hints on organizing a choir/orchestra performance, liturgical history and conducting technique.

Quote for the day(paraphrase):

“The difference between a composer and a conductor, is that the composer begins with his head full of ideas and a blank sheet of paper and the conductor begins with a full sheet of paper and an empty head.” – Julius Hereford

More tomorrow,



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