Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On the Value of Vocal Music in the Public Schools

Each of us lives with music every day. Be it incidentally, as in a grocery store or as an accompaniment to media, or intentionally and purposefully, music is all around us. Not everyone draws or uses arithmetic or even reads every day, but each of us listens to music. 

There is a path that can lead everyone to develop a  unique personal experience and understanding of music that will stay with us and enrich our lives. That path is through singing, especially in groups or choirs, and it is a path which is best taken in childhood.

At one time, in Hamilton, there were many opportunities for children to sing but these are far rarer now. If most children are to learn about music, and to sing, it must be in the schools.

Unfortunately, educational priorities and changes to scheduling have made it difficult for those interested in this apect of music education to find time for choirs and singing within the school day.

Here are some very good reasons for administrators to make the difficult compromises needed so that schools can have well conceived and implemented vocal music programs which lend extraordinary short and long term benefits to their students.

To begin with, singing in groups acquaints participants first hand with music that “doesn’t come out of earbuds”. Competent music educators always strive to employ varied music of the highest possible quality. In a choral setting it is possible to use quality repertoire almost immediately. A diverse musical experience is the only way to develop discrimination both as a performer and as a listener. It improves everyone’s life to be able to distinguish between music which is only a product, created to deliver an audience, and music which is more about artistic integrity. 

Next, there is the gestalt aspect of group music making, founded in the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Choral singers, most not soloists themselves, participate in the recreation of music which is far more complex, and has deeper meaning, than they could possibly make on their own. Again, this benefit can be experienced with the youngest, least skilled singers.This is a big part of what keeps them coming back.

Choral singing in schools also engages children who would not otherwise be involved in group activities, like athletics. It creates an experience of belonging, sometimes for large numbers of kids. It allows children who might not otherwise do very well in school to find something at which they can excel. 

Finally, while singing in a choir, even (perhaps especially) as a child, one has the opportunity, repeatedly, to be engaged by the aesthetic experience, that ineffable quality of art that transcends normal life, the thrill of being in the presence of artistic beauty and knowing that one had a part in creating it.

The good news for administrators is that all of this is available at very little cost to the system. A capable teacher, a decent electonic keyboard and a library of materals that grow incrementally, and can be reused, are all that is necessary. No huge initial outlay of capital, no  on-going bills for repairs to equipment. The skills the children learn are transferable to whatever opportunities present themselves as the children grow older and move from school to school.

It seems self evident that if you wish people to make authentic connections to ideas or activities it is best done through engaging them directly and actively. For example, those children who play sports, even in an informal way, are far more likely to continue when they are older. Large numbers of them become avid spectators.

So it is with music. Little children who sing, grow into older children who sing. Adult choristers almost always started to sing as kids. So did most adolescents who excel in Middle School music. (Indeed, it would much more efficient use of resources if all children consistently arrived in Middle School band classes having already learned the basics or music making. I never met a child who coud not sing in tune and learned to play an instrument with much success.) Garage bands are full of boys and girls who sang in choirs in school, too.

Thus, music education through singing must be started early, in Kindergarten and Primary grades. Taught by qualified people who are themselves proficient singers, young children should learn to match pitches and sing appropriate songs with their classmates at a time when they have no prejudice against doing so. 

While they proceed through the grades, they continue to sing and build musical skills, as it is an established part of the culture and expectation of their school.

These children transfer their enthusiasm for music and singing to learning a wind or string instrument when the opportunity presents itself.

By the time they arrive at Middle School they will have learned the basics of reading music, because they relate to their personal musical experience, not because their teacher needed a written component for report cards.

Only a few of them will take music in High School and fewer yet study it in College or University.

Yet everyone who receives a quality choral education, even if that person never makes music again, will have established a personal conncection, through active participation and experience, that will enhance their life, every day, for their whole life.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Bach-Elgar sing Rachmaninov Vespers

Hamilton's Bach-Elgar Choir combined with the Oakville Masterworks Chorus for 4 performances of the Rachmaninov Vespers (properly the All Night Vigil) and 6 Renaissance Motets at Melrose United Church in Hamilton and at ClearView Christian Reformed Church in Oakville. I attended the third of these performances on Friday, May 11.

The Rachmaninov piece is a 15 movement work for a cappella choir which takes more than an hour to perform. In this performance, only the Magnificat was omitted. The choir, a 4 part chorus including basso profundo, must sing in as many as 11 parts.

Sergei Rachmaninov

Most published a cappella music has piano reduction which is marked "For Rehearsal Only". It became clear how far out of their depth these choirs were when Bach-Elgar conductor Alexander Cann began to play along with the singers in the second section while Masterworks Artistic Director Charles Demuyuck conducted.

Put simply, this piece was too demanding for these choirs. There were tuning problems among the choirs, piano and soloists. The men were far from numerous enough as was most evident in the 4-part male voice passages.

I could only sympathize with those choristers who had put in the time to learn their notes and to read and pronounce the enormous amount of Russian text.

Tenor Stanislav Vitort was loud enough to be heard over the 120 choristers. He sang throughout with an overly dramatic approach which seemed at odds with the style one expects in a liturgical piece.

Mezzo Alla Ossipova was vocally impressive in her one short appearance, but gestured inappropriately with one hand while holding her music in the other.

One could speculate about why the Artistic Directors of these two choirs decided to perform the Rachmaninov. A better question is why they chose to sing it four times. They must have known it would be a hard sell. There were nearly as many performers as audience on Friday night and, I was told, it was the same in Oakville last weekend.

After the intermission the choirs, accompanied by 9 brass players, performed 6 Renaissance poly-choral motets by Palestrina, de Lassus and Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli.

The choirs did better with these pieces which are, to be fair, much less difficult.

As Mr. Cann pointed out, we do not know how these works were performed.
In this performance, the brasses played along with the choirs the entire time. I would have preferred that the choirs sing alone part of the time, the brasses play by themselves sometimes, perhaps having the instrumentalists answering a choir antiphonally. There are many possibilities. The pieces are rather similar to the modern ear and a little variety would have better engaged the audience.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Symphony Hamilton Piano Celebration

This concert, in the afternoon of Sunday, May 6, was presented to introduce the Burlington Performing Art Centre's new Kawai grand piano. It was played in two of the three works performed.

Andrea Battista was the chair of the Keys to the Future campaign to raise the money to acquire the piano for the BPAC. She usually plays second violin in the Symphony on the Bay, previously Symphony Hamilton. Today she was the soloist, not on the violin, but on the very instrument for which she spearheaded the funding.

She and the strings of the orchestra, conducted by Pratik Gandhi, played J.S. Bach's Third Concerto in D major.

Battista played very well indeed. Much of the familiar music of Bach is religious but, in this performance, I was reminded that Bach was also an extraordinary court composer. This was a truly moving performance of a sublime piece, portraying the shadings and moods Bach incorporated into this work which he surely composed to present himself as soloist.

Valerie Tryon next played the Lizst Eb Major Concerto, with the orchestra conducted by Maestro James McKay. I've no idea how often Tryon has played this piece but it must be into the dozens of performances. She wears the piece like a glove, tossing off Lizst's piano pyrotechnics by the handful.  Music of the Romantic piano masters is her specialty and it surely showed.

Once the brasses got past a squelched opening chord, the concerto unfolded as the composer intended, much to the delight of the audience.

In the second half, the orchestra played the Rachmaninov Second Symphony. I'll admit, at the outset, to having misgivings about Rachmaninov's orchestral music.

In the two very popular piano concertos (#2 and #3) of which I am personally very fond, the percussive qualities of the solo instrument, which plays most of the time, contribute clarity and rhythmic impetus. In the orchestral music this is missing. The textures are frequently thickly contrapuntal. For great stretches, the overall effect can be muddy and the development of the thematic material seems to lack definition. None of this is the fault of the performers or conductor.

In fact the orchestra's rendition of the piece was acceptably accurate and suitably Romantic. Kudos to principal clarinetist Zoltan Kalman and Concert Master Corey Gemmell, and to the horn section who rose to the occasion in their featured passages.