What is Solo & Ensemble? And What Do the Judges Do, Anyway?

on . Posted in Teaching

Solo & Ensemble (or "Solo-Ensemble") is a yearly opportunity for kids in music programs to perform a solo, duet, and/or a small ensemble piece and get some feedback from a judge. This feedback includes a rating and if it's really high, they can go on to perform at state and receive another critique.

For some students, Solo & Ensemble is the only time they get to perform outside of band, orchestra, or choir. (I'll focus on choir and solos & vocal ensembles in this piece.) It may be the only time that they ever sing a solo or the only time they ever sing outside of choir.

And students sing for so many reasons. Some students sing because they are taking voice lessons and perhaps will go on to study music. Other students sing because their choir directors asked them to sing in an ensemble. Others sing just to sing something with their friends and/or siblings--it's an experience that can last a lifetime and a wonderful way for a friendship to grow. Especially for seniors, this can be a wonderful way to highlight their senior year in choir, singing with their classmates and friends.

Several schools join together and one school hosts a Solo & Ensemble Festival; usually schools rotate the hosting responsibilities between this group of schools. The hosting school sets a deadline for sign-ups so choir directors work with the students to select their solos, duets, quartets, and even quintets. Perhaps the chamber choir will also take part. Practicing and rehearsals take place en masse.

Each solo or ensemble students sign up for is called an 'event' and students are limited to 3 or 4 events per Festival, depending on the state guidelines. Perhaps a student will sing in a solo, a duet, and a trio--that's three events. Their festival events are now capped.

Whoever schedules Solo & Ensemble Events must be a genius. ;)

The day of the event students get ready, warm up, and show up at the specified room in time to sing their piece. For accompanied pieces, they will also have an accompanist with whom they have already practiced their piece. This is what (usually) happens in their short, 10-minute time slot:

They hand over a clean, legal copy of their score and their pre-labeled scoring sheet to the judge.

Students introduce themselves and their piece, perhaps also the high school they attend.

They sing their piece.

The judge takes notes on their performance and only their performance during this, on a standard critique sheet published by the State high school music association.

In the remaining time, the judge can speak with the student(s) and work with her/him/them on a couple of aspects that work well and other aspects that they can improve upon.

At the end, the student takes their materials and depart. The judge completes the comments and scoring.

The next student shows up (if they haven't been listening to the other participants) and the process begins again.

PHEW! That's a lot in 10 minutes. And depending on the Festival, it could be 3 hours or 5.

The judge's job, as I wrote about last week, is to meet each and every student where they are, whether they are a seasoned Solo & Ensemble participant or a total newbie to singing, and to bring them to the next step. A judge has time, perhaps, to affirm 1 or 2 things they've done well, and work with the student on 1 or 2 things they can improve, and the time is up. It's a small, crucial period of time.

Solo & Ensemble is intended to be an educational experience for students and an opportunity for musical advocacy and music teaching for judges (and accompanists and choir directors and band directors and orchestra directors).

It is a not an opportunity for judges to insult students, bring them down, criticize them demeaningly, nor to deem them worthy or not. If you ever have such a judge, report them to your teacher, the Festival director, and your state's music association. Because when judges do that, they destroy a student's interest in a musically creative life. Think I'm being overly dramatic? Think again. This is what we voice teachers and choir conductors hear years later, all of which I have personally heard:

I sang in Solo & Ensemble once. The judge yelled at me, I did so poorly and I haven't sung since.

The judge gave me a bad score last year. There's no point in going again this year.

I was told I couldn't sing so I haven't sung for 20 years. But my baby likes it when I sing--should I sing?

Choir directors also talk about students who won't go to Festival again because the judges were overly critical and not supportive.

What we should hear about judges, when students have had a good experience or they messed up and were still treated with respect:

I forgot all the words to the second verse, but the judge worked with me to help me remember the words next time. So my score wasn't very good, but I learned a lot.

That tip the judge gave me made a huge difference. I can relax more when I'm singing and it's a lot more fun!

I STILL remember the awesome pirate duet I sang with my friend Kelly in Middle School for a solo & ensemble-type event. "The wind, the wind...the wind, their rebels deep..." I will never, ever forget the judge that tore me apart my senior year of high school (and I will never, ever treat students like she did--I sincerely hope that she has changed). This is an opportunity for professional singers and voice teachers to help guide 'the next generation' of singers into college choirs, community choirs, performing ensembles, barbershop quartets--building on the foundation their current choir directors and voice teachers have created, we get to assist them into an even more beautiful life.

*

What do you remember about Solo & Ensemble? Do you remember what the judge said to you? What piece was it you sang?

Sing the Body Electric - Adjudicating Solo & Ensemble

on . Posted in Singing

Tuesday evening I adjudicated a Solo & Ensemble contest and was struck by the goals of each of the young singers. While it's impossible to know all their personal goals without having spoken with them, a few things were obvious:  some stood up and sang a song because they love to sing, some because it's what they do in their free time, some want to sing something with their friends, some to learn something, some because they wanted specifically to give the gift of music. Some to do all these things, some just because.

Sing

Sing (Photo credit: Kathleen Tyler Conklin)

In a culture where we are expected to sit back and passively take in something that other people have done, a cultlure that teaches us not to feel what we're feeling and just go with it, whatever "it" is, all these young adults chose to stand up and create. They chose to create an experience, to sing in their other mother tongue (read:  not English), to challenge themselves, to sing something in a language they don't know, to finish full knowing that they've created an experience for themselves that no one can take away.

As an adjudicator, it is your responsibility to meet each and every student where they are. Students are critiqued on their performance only and it takes a lot of skill to figure out where each student is in their own process at that very moment. It is your duty as an adjudicator, and it is your service as a musician to honor each of them.

It is also really fun!

The challenge lies in finding if each singer is singing the body electric--you must ask yourself, "Is this student singing in a way that is connected to the rest of their instrument (their BODIES), or are they singing passively, unconnected from their hearts, dispassionately? What is making them disconnected? And how can I, as their professional resource, help them connect in a way that is meaningful, that is healthy for their voices, and that they can easily remember? THAT is the key.

Any judge can pick students apart. Anybody can be snobbish and practice thorough jerkism. It happens all the time in music, at all our losses.

Short story:  my senior year of high school a judge at Solo & Ensemble came down on me really hard because "I was one of the good ones." (Pretty sick, huh?) I steeled myself for her critique and survived her harsh, egotistical judgement. I took nothing constructive away from that experience because she served her ego. Because she failed to meet me where I was and show me a solid next step in my performance/diction/singing/rhythm/pitch/musicality, she, my accompanist and I all lost that opportunity to grow.

She corrupted that musical experience. With her gigantic ego.

A dedicated teacher shows young singers how they can improve their performance. Professionals use the opportunity to help build the foundation of music in a student's life, whether it's college choir, community choir, a band, karaoke, or simply music at home. As an adjudicator, you are a teacher, a professional, a coach.

So it's up to you as an adjudicator to help connect these students to their bodies, to their voices, to the emotional expression that they are already capable of. It is up to us professional musicians to connect them so they might sing their bodies electric--to sing with their whole bodies, to sing from their hearts, to sing so that the gift of their music increases in dimension--this gift for themselves, this gift for their listeners.

When we work with other singers, we are not only working with bodies and voices, we are working with souls in bodies.

Electric souls in electric bodies giving us gifts of heartfelt sound.

 

Talking Bach with Steve Staruch

on . Posted in Singing

For the video series Conversations with the Bach Society of Minnesota I sat down with Minnesota Public Radio host, violist, and all-round cool dude Steve Staruch to talk about the drama in Bach's oratorios, churches without bathrooms, and roadtrips to Bethlehem.

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Making Music in the Holidays

on . Posted in Singing

The holidays are a feast for the senses—you might not think so, given the sensorial overload that it usually is—but if you stop and think about it, the smells of cookies and meals cooked especially for a large gathering (or a small one), the sight of a Christmas tree, the mood that can be created with just a few candles and dimmed lights.

Getting to that special Christmas mood is also a feat, given the additional school programs, parties, big crowds at every single store, and the Christmas card list that seems to grow exponentially every year.

Being a musician at the holidays is a bit of a different feat, as we’re the ones who are part of the main attraction, but also somehow behind-the-scenes. Can you imagine a Christmas school program without music? Just spoken word. Or a Christmas service at your church without the usual organ and then several slots for special music? Or if all 3 (or 11!) Christmas Eve services were held without music?
All of this music requires special and additional preparation, including purchasing music (months ahead of time), rehearsals, practice, and extra time to allow for all that extra traffic on the way to rehearsal. Christmas Concerts, too, and if you’re a conductor, you’ll be thinking of Christmas in June. Probably earlier.
Christmas in the post-War United States

Christmas in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A couple of years ago I realized that if I was going to have any time to put Christmas decorations up before December 26th, I was going to need to put up just a few things and they needed to go up on Black Friday. So that was indeed what I did. My wreath went up at 10 am on Black Friday, my 2-foot Christmas tree with the special decorations from the Erzgebirge, the tea light holders from Germany, which is it for decorations. Any Christmas cards I might receive in the mail go into whatever basket is handy. I stopped trying to find time to send out Christmas cards years ago.

The rest of the time is filled with rehearsals, practicing, worrying about how bad the next snowstorm will be and if I shouldn’t just leave an extra hour early, trips to the dry cleaner’s to pick up a concert dress, yet another email to my cousin saying that I won’t be at extended family Christmas this year as much as I’d love to be, I’m working; luckily my family knows that the holidays are when musicians work the most. There might be time to curl my hair before the early rehearsal on Christmas Eve, there might not be. Outfits are planned weeks in advance.

The time between Christmas and New Year’s (appropriately known as zwischen den Jahren in German—“between the years”) is a blissfully quiet time.

It’s when we sleep.

3 Tips for Not Crying While You're Singing

on . Posted in Singing

Or How Not to Cry at a Wedding. Or a Funeral.

Or at the End of Mahler's 2nd Symphony

Singing is an emotional venture. Listening to singing can be wrenching when you're emotional and it hits you right there--and it can be even harder when you're doing the singing. So imagine you're singing at an emotionally charged event like a wedding or maybe a funeral, or someone close to you has just passed away and you're on to sing Mahler's 2nd Symphony (known as the "Resurrection Symphony").

An excerpt from the German text

Sterben werd' ich, um zu leben!
Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n
wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!
 

translates roughly to:

I will die that I might live!
Rise again, yes, you will rise again,
my heart--in a heartbeat!
 

Moments like this can take your legs out from underneath you if you're already feeling emotional, that's for sure. It can also blindside you in a performance. Here are 3 few tips for creating an emotion-invoking performance without losing it yourself.

1. Lose it ahead of time.

If you have any amount of time prior to the performance, whether it's 5 weeks or 2 hours and you think it's going to be rough emotionally, allow yourself to lose it--just cry. Do it as early as you feel it. Even if it's a few tears 5 minutes before you need to stand up, shed a few tears. If you don't let it out, it will come out whenever it wants, and that will most likely be at the high point of your piece.

2. Breathe actively.

A lot of people are helped by the simple instruction "Just breathe." Frequently this is enough, however if you're having a hard time in your life and you have singing to do, it may not be enough. So breathe actively, be engaged with your own breath, and follow it in and out of your own body. Write in large notes or symbols for taking active breaths in your music.

3. Ground & Center

If you don't know yet what grounding is, click here. (It gets a little woo-woo, so just see what speaks to you and leave the rest.) Practice grounding and centering regularly before rehearsal, before and after practicing, and before concerts. The more you ground & center, the easier it gets. And during a performance, you may have an opportunity to flex and rotate your feet and ankles without anyone seeing. Or just wiggle your toes slowly and deliberately if you feel the tears come creeping up. Try to keep both feet on the floor; it will help you stay balanced emotionally and will help prevent you from getting light-headed if you have to stand up quickly.

What about you? What do you do to keep from getting too emotional in a performance? Comment below.

How Many Languages Do Singers Need to Speak? Part 2

on . Posted in Singing

In Part 1 you discovered just how skilled at foreign languages singers need to become. It takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of time to pronounce a foreign language accurately or to learn to speak it. One element is vitally important:

the meaning.

The meaning of the words and their expression is of utmost importantce in any performance, whether it's a concert with thousands in the audience or a nighttime lullaby for one little child.

This is a vastly different performance philosophy than the park-and-bark methodology of previous generations of singers (which still has a lot of influence today). The focus was on the costumes and the sound, but not necessarily on the meaning of the words and the emotional communication between the performers and the audience.

Here's a bad example:

The European Football League is an American football league (not soccer but real, American football). At one of their games in Frankfurt several years ago a vocal quartet sang the National Anthem just like we do here in the States. It's a meaningful anthem for Americans and it takes on a whole new dimension when you live in a foreign country. So while I was living abroad, every time I heard our national anthem I'd cry.

Except this time.

This quartet took it upon themselves to create a new arrangement in which the actual melody could no longer be distinguished and the harmonies were so crazy, no one could sing along. And trust me, Americans know their anthem well and they sing along no matter where they are in the world. The Germans in the stadium could forget seeing how much they could understand because there was nothing to understand. The beautiful meaning of our national anthem was gone. It wasn't there for the Americans in the stadium and it most certainly wasn't there for the Germans.

In fact, it was so bad that the native German woman standing next to me turned to me and said, "This doesn't sound right."

Here's a good example:

Listen to this, the "Song to the Moon" from the opera Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák, as sung by Leontyne Price. When you're done, scroll down.

 

Did you catch the passion? the longing? Incredible, isn't it?

Read a bit of the background of this piece and read the translation to the text here.

Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about.