Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"Extra-Musical" Warm-Ups: Part V


How can we get class started on time, when we have created a totally joyful, social atmosphere in our music classes?  Creating a warm-up exercise that "gets the voice going" and "serves as a cue for class to begin" might be helpful….a warm-up that "reaches out" to connect the students quickly, so that all become a "team" quickly… for an hour or so.

Because of increasing educational demands, students and teachers need all the help they can get in all classes…not just music.  Of course, choral music educators (and many others) truly believe in the value of our subject matter, but for the most part, the population at large has no idea as to the complexity of our art….the nuance….the analysis….the on-the-spot "fix-it" demands….the list goes on and on.  Neither do we know the complexities in most "other" subjects, which we (and students) also need in order to live a fulfilling, happy life.  Have you ever stopped to think about how delighted we all should be that others find joy in different professions?  Maybe one must live "in rural areas" (as I do) to appreciate this fact with a similar level of gratitude.  And…while all who assist us say, "this is my job," their eyes light up when I tell them I write music.  While I see their occupation as the most needed element in my life at "the time," they see it as….nothing special.  I could not live as contently…or do what I do without them.

I am not certain that we ever express gratitude as much as we should for music and all things "music" in our lives.  We are fortunate to be able to attend concerts, create music for performance via ensembles, and "write music for others to teach ensembles who perform for concert attendees who choose to experience the joy of music."  You get the idea….it is a circle of respect….a circle of appreciation and gratitude for others in the mix of our lives….not the least of whom are those wonderful educators who teach other courses that are not as "known" to us, yet equally important in order for our students to become well-adjusted human beings in a complex world.  That's where the "Extra-Musical" warm-up comes in.

At some point in the daily warm-up component, you might want to select a warm-up that assists your fellow educators in teaching something about their classes that might be helpful to your students.  It really can be a good thing to have your name mentioned around your school as giving respect for math, science, geography, history, language arts, and other fine arts subjects.  You can do this in the warm-up, with a little cross-curricular instruction.  How do you know what your students might be studying?  You ask.  At that point, I am certain your memory will take you back to your undergraduate studies and "other points of interest" in your history.  Capitalize on this knowledge, and assist the students in possibly making a better score on future tests….because they have sung their way to "the facts" in your warm-up!

Frankly, the reason I became interested in cross-curricular warm-ups….my good friend Gayle Box works in Adult Education for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  She and others have established a curriculum to assist our state's adult population in furthering their education in some way.  Gayle's colleagues have found that the use of mnemonics is helpful to students as they prepare for required entrance exams, etc.  You likely have used mnemonics at some point to remember facts (i. e., "HOMES" to remember the Great Lakes, etc.), and this process of recall can stay with us for our entire lives.  I still think of some facts with a mnemonic.

As I was searching the internet one day, I noticed a mnemonic to remember the reigning Royal Families of England.  To my amazement, I remembered that very question on the SAT from 40 years ago!  That information would have been so helpful to me at that time….under pressure, wanting to get every question correct, etc.  That's when I realized that if cross-curricular melodies would have assisted me, wouldn't others have benefited as well?

An important fact regarding Cross-Curricular Warm-Ups for Choral Rehearsals:  They are written to be sung by choirs of varying voicings.  That is, your young singers who sing only unison or 2-Part music can just sing the top line in warm-ups….your 3-Part Mixed choir can sing the Bass Clef, and not worry about the optional bass notes…your SATB choir can sing the warm-ups with ease, including the divisi at cadences.  The set is very versatile.

Most importantly:  Enjoy your School year….or Church year….or Community Choir season!!

Best to all!!

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Warm-Up: Getting it "right" - Part IV


One of the things that caused me distress as a choral music educator was the fact that even though my warm-up might have been marvelous and beautiful, with high B-flats ringing from sopranos, rich A's from the altos, incredible B-flats from the tenors, and a maturity beyond words came from the sounds of basses….and….students were more focused during rehearsal….and….students were listening with incredible ears….and….the warm-up would have brought a tear to any eye any time, any day….for the absolute beauty that one might have heard from my group….even though all these things might have been the case while participating in the warm-up….once the rehearsal repertoire began, my choir sounded like a totally different group….a group who did not make all the beautiful sounds of the previous 15 minutes!!  It was incredible….I had no idea what to do….and yes, I know it was my problem….not theirs….mine.  I reminded students to transfer those things experienced in the warm-up to the repertoire, and though the sound improved….it never "happened" in the repertoire the ways it "happened" in the warm-up.  Sigh…..

I am not certain as to why this might have been the case, but I think now that it might have had something to do with the style of music to be studied that day in choir.  I think the "jump" from warm-up to repertoire was a bit too much.  I needed to find some short warm-ups in the styles of every piece I was going to sing that day in choral rehearsal….I needed to include all the elements I had taught in the warm-up that day….and I needed to have them sing this style-specific example just before I began the repertoire selection.  If the piece of rehearsal repertoire were in a Baroque style….I might have written or selected a short 4-8 measure example in Baroque style.   I needed to teach them the Baroque choral style with a short phrase, perfecting it with repetition, before going to the repertoire.  If the Baroque piece were scheduled first in the repertoire section of my rehearsal, my students would need to perform the exact style appropriate for the repertoire the last thing in the warm-up….then move immediately to the Baroque repertoire.  At that point, the style is "in the ear."  And yes….I needed to find the beautiful vowels, crisp consonants, and Baroque style in those 4-8 measures, before I try to find beautiful singing in a 68 measure Baroque choral composition.  It is likely that the vowels experienced in warm-up are going to feel differently (in the voice), when singing in a different style.

In short, if we can't find what we want from a choir in a short example, why would we think we might be able to have it "appear" in a longer version?  However, even if it does come together in the study of an 8-measure example, we will likely find it is necessary to remind students "over and over and over again" to transfer….not that our students lack intelligence….it is just a new way of thinking in the choral process, and it takes….time.  It is an awesome thought:  we are actually teaching students how to think in different ways.

You might find some helpful materials in either the Cross-Curricular Warm-Ups for Choral Rehearsals or in the Rehearsal Preparation Sheets on the EROP site.  The first set has warm-ups that teach academic subject matter (we'll talk about them in a future blog), and they are intended to be sung in various styles.  You can "hear" the styles of Broadway shows, Hebrew folk songs, Native American folk songs,  Calypso folk music, Jazz, etc.

The truth is, if I had my own choir today, there might be times when I would need to write my own warm-ups in various styles.  See blog posts beginning November 29, 2014, to get some ideas as to how to begin.  There is a four-part series on creating Rehearsal Preparation Sheets you might find helpful in writing your own warm-ups.

It's that time….again.  If you are a music educator in school or church, please know that you are appreciated more than you can imagine.  Enjoy the new year!!  

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Warm-Up: Getting it "right" - Part III

"Real" Words in the Warm-Up

It seems to me that the next step after the unification of vowels and the use of consonants might involve singing words that change per note.  I realize this very practice is what we generally do from morn till dusk in choral music…and we have done this very thing since we began singing as toddlers...but once the mind is engaged in vowel unification and consonant clarity in Warm-Up, it is our hope that students will think of each word in a new way.  Right?  Sing it differently…make certain the vowels are unified….engage the ears, too!  Watch out for those middle consonants!!

You might find some helpful warm-up exercises that will assist in From Concepts to Concerts.  If you have the book, take a look at pages 73-78.  You will see some examples that will assist your students in the very types of ways I think might be helpful.  Basically, it is the same step-by-step process…start slowly, giving students time to think about the voice, the ear, etc., then move to shorter note durations.

Once students have sung individual words successfully, meeting criteria…maybe then it is time to sing a short phrase…a "sentence."  Many of us have sung the "1, 3, 5, 8, 5, 3, 1" phrase "It's a fine day today"….there are a gazillion of them "out there," or we can make up our own meaningful sentence, based on whatever students are experiencing in their lives that day…current events…or…maybe something meaningful in the lives of your singers.  Maybe someone has won an award, received special recognition for an achievement, etc.  Why not a warm-up in regard to that accomplishment?  Celebrate achievement with a Warm-Up!  Celebrate with friends!  A short phrase gets it done…for those of you who have not been lyricists, you will likely enjoy this process…and your students will love it.

Length in the Warm-Up:
For each example, try to keep your tasks limited to 2-4 measures.  Yes…I have written longer examples  in From Concepts to Concerts.  In most cases, we were trying to get everything on a single page…however, please feel free to sing examples in segments.  Students can feel overwhelmed with the length of tasks.  How can I get from here to there?  Just take a segment, go for success, then add a measure (or so) at a time.

At this point, I think it is important to encourage teachers to remember to give 1) positive reinforcement for successful achievement in the Warm-Up, along with 2) all feedback regarding academic (music-related) performance.  In my opinion, the latter is the most challenging area for a teacher in the Warm-Up.  When do you give feedback in the Warm-Up? If you give feedback while students are singing, their own thought process and evaluation might be disrupted…and…if a teacher is speaking, how can they hear?….and….if a teacher is stopping to give feedback between each half-step increment in the warm-up, and if (according to research) stopping a choir functions as can there be a flow to the Warm-Up that will achieve the purpose of the Warm-Up?  How can a Warm-Up be "pleasant" for students and teacher?

Okay…an expressive "face"…and maybe even specially designed "gestures" that mean something to students (you must tell them what they mean…else, they won't "get them")…maybe these types of silent feedback (nod, smile, eyebrows raised, finger pointing to the sky, conducting gestures for dynamics, etc.) would be the best.

Sometimes I just wish there would be an area of teaching that is "easy."  It is all difficult..every bit of it.  "Yea" for choral music educators (church, school, community)…you are the heroes of choral music in every way…you are the reasons many of us are doing the things we love…you are the reasons many of your students are now attending the choral concerts of their children…you are the reasons there are successful doctors, lawyers, accountants, social workers, performers, and all sorts of other contributors to society…attending Handel's "Messiah!"  It is a wonderful and noble thing that you do.  Hallelujah!  So sweet!  Have a great year!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Warm-Up: Getting it "right"…Part II


Yes, we're all trying to "get it right."  What should we aim for in terms of process?  We'll talk about length and other specifics later on, but there are times when we must think #1, #2, #3, etc.  In the Warm-Up, think in terms of short examples, so you can give feedback and change the sound quickly.  Most of my work with rehearsal preparation through Earlene Rentz Online Publications deals with learning specific repertoire…using Rehearsal Preparation Sheets.  Below are some prioritized components for initial use in the Warm-Up.  These might be of some value when considering your Warm-Up structure and content for the coming year.

1)  Pure, Unified Vowels:  
It makes sense to me that the very first Warm-Up component should be "vowels only."  Find a short Warm-Up pattern of 2-4 measures (or write one) that consists of vowels held long enough so that students can hear the unification (oo, ee, eh, oh, ah).  Then, gradually decrease the duration (whole half quarter, etc.). We first get the voice going, but when we are aware the voice is becoming "awakened," then it is great to give feedback that encourages the engagement of the ears and mind as well.  I continue to be amazed that the sound totally changes, when I make a comment that focuses on students listening to themselves and others around them, unifying the sound.  It then seems that unification begins to happen in an amazing fashion.  Start with the closed "oo," then move to "ee"…then to "eh"…then "oh"…then "ah"…and Pandora's Box is open wide for all to hear.  Plan to spend a little time in unifying the "ah" vowel.

2)  Vowels with a Beginning Consonant:
Take #1 a step further, and put a consonant in front of the vowels:  use the same vowel throughout, so students will be able to concentrate on just a couple of things…vowel unification/getting to the vowel immediately from the beginning consonant.  Start simply…consonant with "oo"…consonant with "ee"…you get it.  Popular beginning consonants are "d" and "l"…but remember, the object is to get the consonant "out of the way"…get to the vowel.  Once the consistent vowel has been mastered, have the students change vowels with each note…challenging, but the "real world" of choral diction.

3)  Vowels with a Beginning and Ending Consonant:
Use the same concept of #2 above, but decide on an ending consonant.  By this point, we have the representation of "a word" that requires a choral diction challenge (beginning consonant, vowel, ending consonant).  Then…go back to #1, sing the example that contained all five vowels, and put the same beginning and ending consonant with each vowel sound.  As you can tell, this is a systematic warm-up that becomes more difficult and challenging, one step at a time.

4)  Various words on each note:
A supplementary text that might be helpful in contributing notation to your creative Warm-Up is From Concepts to Concerts, published by Carl Fischer.  The purchaser has permission to make multiple copies of each page.  You can use this supplementary text for all your classes, as they are arranged in order from easy to complex.  Check it out at Amazon!

5)  Preparing for the Day's Repertoire:
This aspect of the Warm-Up has been the primary focus of my choral-music education-writing career.  I try to prepare choral directors to teach my work quickly in rehearsal, so I create exercises that get the process going.  A choral director should keep in mind all that will be required of students in rehearsal that day.  Then…prepare students to be successful in those tasks…whatever they might be.  Rehearsal Preparation Sheets were not my idea…my good friend Gayle Box used them in her classes in Texas, and I saw them in action when I observed student teachers who were working with her.  I give her full credit for teaching me about these wonderful resources.  As you can see, they are examples of sequential steps that are necessary in teaching…they gradually get students to the point of singing right notes and rhythms, and have just a few of the words on the correct notes (Examples 7 and 8).

And so…we have 15-20 minutes (or less) for Warm-Up, but…those 15-20 minutes can be some of the most well-spent minutes in all "choral-dom," if we plan with the same diligence of mind as we require of our students.  Sounds like "a plan," huh?!

These are just some of my thoughts…yours?

Still trying to "get it right"…….

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Warm-Up: Still Trying to "Get it Right"

I attended a convention a couple of weeks ago, and a private discussion once again turned to issues of "The Warm-Up."  After many, many years in "the business," we all constantly seem to be trying to get the Warm-Up "right."

Why is the Warm-Up important?  Should we include a Warm-Up in the rehearsal?  Personally, I would give that a most enthusiastic "Yes!"  Why?  Because my best rehearsals as a choral music educator have included a purposeful, mindful Warm-Up.  That's reason enough for me…my own experience…I heard it "happen."  Other professionals think a Warm-Up is important as well, and I find comfort in "mass agreement" on this issue.

So…some questions to consider:

1)  How long?
2)  What to include?
3)  How to structure?
4)  What is my role?
5)  How might my objectives be known to singers?
6)  What is my process?

I remember so well, the most frustrating part of the Warm-Up for me as a choral director was that of hearing totally beautiful sounds in the warm-up, and then hearing totally "not beautiful" sounds in the repertoire.  Yes…I was teaching for "transfer" the entire time, but I was so aware that there seemed to be two components in singers' minds:  the warm-up…the repertoire.  Never the twain really got acquainted.  But…why?  We seem to still be there…even with professionals conducting other professionals…we are still working on the best ways to do this thing called "The Warm-Up" for maximum benefit.

I am going to toss out some thoughts over time…several days, in fact…you might think them "correct" or "incorrect," but they are thoughts that continue to cause me to think, and that is important to me.  Many of my biases may be noted (no pun intended) in my development of Rehearsal Preparation Sheets that are specific to a piece of repertoire…and some of my warm-ups biases achieve objectives in extra-musical subjects.  However, this blog will be "Warm-Up Thoughts" all week long...general thoughts…and just stay with me, and we will think together.

1)  Mindless Warm-Up...ineffective:
Students are not teachers…teachers are the professionals…in order for students to think with the same purpose as teachers, it must be stated…and re-stated…and re-stated (I was in the classroom for 23 years!).  As you know, students are generally in the "do as I'm told" mode…not in the "this is why" mode.  A brief explanation as "the journey" begins might provide the basis for building components in the Warm-Up.  Of course, constant reference to the purpose of the journey will keep them "on the bus."
Another evaluation for teachers…"How can you tell when they are not 'on the bus?'  

What must I experience in order to feel that my mind is involved in the warm-up?  Just a question that came to mind...

2)  The "Plan:"  
If it is important to include a Warm-Up, then it is worth thought.  The director is the only one who knows the objectives for the rehearsal, and it is my opinion that the Warm-Up should be the first steps toward that goal.  In choral music, most of our objectives are based on areas of needed improvement we hear in the sounds of the ensemble and/or the repertoire.  If that be the case, then our Warm-Up should be the first steps toward improving the choral sound…in some way.

3)  Pearls of Wisdom: 
One of the most respected individuals in "the business"….(in fact, I have only heard positive words  about her my entire life) was the late Dr. Lynn Bielefelt.  We were colleagues for a time, and she invited me to come warm-up her ensemble, just to keep my "chops" in shape (so kind!).

I began giving instructions, stopping, giving students too much to think about…too much for a mid-morning warm-up.  She said to me, "Earlene, most of these students have not been talking very much today, so….just let them SING at the beginning…let them get some of the gunk out of the throat…let them make some sounds before you begin correcting them."

So simple…so true…she was absolutely right…what?…why didn't I get that?…just let them sing…not loudly…but with the purpose of finding the voice that was so very near the same apparatus that chowed down cold pizza a minute or two before the rehearsal started.  Once things are somewhat "settled" in the mechanism, okay…we move on.

Thank you, Lynn Bielefelt!  I'll never forget you!

More thoughts later…your thoughts?

Still trying to "get it right"…


Friday, March 20, 2015

"Amazing Grace" - What more can be said??


Amazing Grace is probably the most beloved hymn of all time.  Appropriately, there is an amazing story behind John Newton, the person who penned the words to this favorite hymn of hope and promise.

There are several "amazing" things about John Newton…1)  he was a slave trader who experienced more than one conversion along his journey of faith, 2)  he continued as a slave trader after his conversions, 3)  he eventually came to the point of realizing a disconnect as to what conversion means in comparison to the way he was living his life, 4)  after his second conversion, he eventually left the slave trading profession, knowing it was incompatible with the principles of Christianity, 5)  he became an inspirational element in the activism of young William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament who is credited with leading the charge to abolish the slave trade in England, and 6)  he eventually became an Anglican priest, and served churches for approximately 25 years.

In 2005, I was delighted to visit Newton's vicarage in Olney, where he penned the words…Amazing Grace.  I saw the original words there….numerous verses….most of which I had never heard.  I saw the very modest cottage where all of this had occurred, and realized yet once again that words and music can change the world in many ways, no matter the "home."

I also visited the grave of John and Mary Newton in the Olney churchyard cemetery.  It was summer, and the tall grass was almost waist-high.  Though no one had a map, or knew exactly where Newton's church might have been, we just started walking, looking for a church that looked like "it," and then….we found a single mowed path…we started walking on that path (no signs), and eventually came to the Newton's graves.  Such history, such a life, such a story, and such….grace.

John Newton's life was representative of his own words "was blind, but now I see."  Tears can be seen in the eyes of many, as individuals relate to the "blindness" in their own lives.  It was wonderful and amazing that there was a desire to see clearly…to change his life to be consistent with his declared convictions.  William Wilberforce was ready to leave politics, but Newton reminded him that he could make a difference where he was…in Parliament.  Though frustrated, Wilberforce was alive with conscience and a desire to "do the right thing."  Through the encouragement of Newton and the work of Wilberforce, the slave trade was eventually abolished in England.  Praise God!!

Why do I write this blog about Amazing Grace?  For longer than three months, I have been writing an SSAATTBB a cappella arrangement of Amazing Grace to celebrate Dr. Everett McCorvey's appointment as Artistic Director of The National Chorale in New York City.  It has not been easy (three weeks on the introduction!), but I tried to artistically express many of these ideas regarding Newton and the history of the hymn.  The "dangers, toils, and snares" were so "there" in Newton's life.  However, he was absolutely certain that grace would "lead me home."

I tried to capture the journey "home"…to an actual place…to a moral center…to that place where we find that "right" can prevail…to whatever "home" might be to the listener when the text is experienced.  We are all on the journey "home" in whatever way we have chosen to travel.  We'll get there…through grace.

My mother had a good point, as she asked, "What could you possibly do to that beautiful hymn to make it any better?  It is absolutely beautiful…just the way it is now."  That is the challenge of arranging such a beloved hymn.  "Don't mess with it!" is the general consensus.  Do they know the story?  Do they know that John Newton continued to trade human beings after his conversion?  It is through the knowledge of facts that we sometimes gain new understanding of lyrics we have heard all of our lives…and it is through renewed understanding that we become freshly acquainted with Newton's long journey "home," and really "get" the words…."was blind, but now I see."

Monday, February 9, 2015

"The Presence of the Lord" - a unique story...

The Presence of the Lord

Once a choral octavo has been published, it is almost impossible to know of its journey, unless someone "out there" relates the stories associated with the piece.  One of the most interesting journeys of my music has been the inspirational path of The Presence of the Lord, (Lorenz 10/3640LA), related to me by Dr. Stephen Bolster, choral director at Berea College.

When I visited Dr. Stephen Bolster's choral rehearsal at Berea College, I was impressed with his students' work ethic, and I asked if I might write something for the choir to sing.  He agreed, and I began looking for appropriate material for the composition.  I really didn't need to look too far, as the founding principles of Berea College are truly amazing.

The college was founded by John G. Fee (an ardent abolitionist) in 1855, built on the convictions that every person is equal.  He believed that every individual should be provided equal opportunity for education, regardless of race or socio-economic status.  He set about trying to find a way to do just that, and most of his guiding principles are the cornerstones of the college today.  For example, Fee valued the idea that students work for their education, and every student at Berea works at least ten hours a week at the college.  They invest in their futures through working…there is no tuition fee charged at Berea College.  Any student from the Appalachian area may apply, and acceptance is based on secondary school success and qualifying "need."  Wonderful!

With the assistance of Rev. Kent Gilbert, I obtained texts containing words from speeches and sermons by John G. Fee.  The words were beautiful, but I could not get them to come together for any reason.  I worked and worked, deleting many files along the way.  Until…the morning of the horrible events at Virginia Tech in 2007.  As I watched the events unfold, my heart sank with every tragic bit of news…faces…stories of heroism…every sad fact shared by the media.

I came to my office, took a look at Fee's words, and the music flowed out as never before.  I connected with what Fee had said, and I saw those words as the exact ones I might want to share with the entire Virginia Tech community.  I realized long ago that my heart begins to heal through the process of writing music, and I looked at the words one…more…time.  Finally, words came together:

When trials come, friends fail,
and the heavens appear as brass;
When earth appears as iron, 
when all hope is gone,
hold on, stand still,
and you will see the face of God.
the Holy Presence, "Shekinah,"
will lead you across Jordan.
Hold on through the storm,
Our God will comfort and restore you.
The Presence of the Lord will go with you.
God will go before you, always watching o'er you.
You will see the face of God.
The Presence of the Lord will go with you.

Thus, The Presence of the Lord was born…

I almost completed the piece in one day…I felt it.  I could never know what those parents, school officials, students, and others were feeling, but I could pray for the Presence of the Lord to be with all who remained.  I sent a "progress report" to Stephen Bolster that day,  just mentioning the fact that I had been incredibly moved by the horrible events.  I told him the story of how the piece had come together, and them promptly forgot it.  At the premiere performance, Stephen had written about how the piece was born...

It "so happened" that Stephen and his Berea College Concert Choir were on tour the next year (April, 2008), and were scheduled to perform at Blacksburg Baptist Church, near the Virginia Tech campus.  Although it was nearing the one-year anniversary, Dr. Bolster had no idea as to how this church had been involved in that horrible day's events:  the pastor of the church was the Police Department Chaplain - the person responsible for telling many of the parents their child was gone; many college students were faithful attenders in worship and activities, and some of those who lost their lives had been members of the church.  None of these facts were known to Dr. Bolster at the time of this concert.

At the end of the performance, there was a long silence…tears were flowing from Dr. Bolster, the choir, and the audience…and then…there was astounding applause…there was an ovation…the longest ovation Dr. Bolster could ever ovation of thanks, connection, and appreciation for "remembering."  I was reminded yet again as to why I am in this business…we all "do our jobs," but at some point, the universe connects us all in ways beyond our understanding.  For these glorious moments, we offer our gratitude for the power of heal…to make a difference.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Earlene's Commission Process: Part IV (Partnership)

Many composers would differ with me in my quest to involve the representative in the composition.  Most of the time, I find the involvement of the representative very helpful.  I realize that the composer is not right all the time, and I also know respect for one's colleagues in the profession is a good thing.  My ears are a product of my musical journey.   The melodies and chord progressions I hear are the result of many years of hearing...and being…and doing this "music thing."

The final decision to include or not include something is my own.  I must make and own that decision, but I really do enjoy having others feel a part of the entire process.  I want the rep to feel ownership of the product as well.  Feeling ownership ensures that the composition is approached with a "team work" attitude, and it fosters a sincere desire to make a quality performance the goal.

I understand the necessity of being a positive part of a huge circle of contributors to music education.  We are not "islands"…we need each other in our profession.  I love the idea that I might create a product that is studied in a choral classroom.  It is a sobering thought, but…it is a thought that permeates every piece of music I write.  I have a responsibility for creating an artistic product that contains elements worthy of inclusion in the education process.

When I write a commission, I keep in mind the same three questions I use to evaluate the artistic value of all of my work:

1)  Will the student be a better musician for having studied this piece of music?
2)  Will the student's love of music be enhanced in the study of this piece?
3)   Is it worth a teacher's budget and time?

If any of these questions yields a "No," why should I continue?  Many files have been "deleted" on my screen.  If the piece did not reach me, why should I put it out there for you?

I like involving others in the creation of the commission:  text, length, voicing, instrumentation, structure, knowledge of inspiration, etc.  A composer, however, should make the final choice in regard to the music.  However, to receive feedback of a "strange-sounding" place, is very helpful.  My husband Bill comes to my office frequently to listen to passages that I have created.  He gives me feedback about any passage that sounds a tad "off."  I could dismiss his comments, but I have found that editors said the same thing.  So…I listen to my husband, knowing that his fresh ears are the norm, and I work from there.

We can involve many musicians in the commission process.  However, a decision of some sort must eventually be made.  We are all products of our journeys in music, and the degree in which we want to involve others must respect that we have traveled different paths to success.  Partners on the journey?  The composer's choice….

Monday, January 26, 2015

Earlene's Commission Process: Part III (Vocal Considerations)

Another huge factor in my personal writing of a commission has to do with obtaining all the information necessary about vocal sounds/ranges/abilities, etc., so that when I write, the choir's strengths are maximized.  When possible, I want to actually hear the choir sing in performance in some manner:  You Tube, compact disc, formal concert, rehearsal, mp3 recording, etc.  As a composer, I need to always hear the choir in my mind's ear.  In my opinion, the most successful commissions I have written were commissioned by choirs whose sounds were familiar.  I want to know everything about the vocal sounds of the choir.  I want to speak with the choral director in a private conversation, listening carefully as the director talks about the choir's sound.  It is in these conversations that I can confirm or dismiss some of the vocal characteristics I think I am hearing in a recording.  If I am lucky, I will obtain other pertinent information as well.

Listed below are some of the main facets of my experience that contribute to writing appropriate vocal parts in a commission:

1)  Number of singers - In most choirs, there are unequal numbers in various sections.  The strengths differ:  some choirs are small, other choirs might be larger, and have a very strong men's section (Bass and Tenor).  However, some may have one tenor...a very good tenor…in fact, a solo tenor that the world would be fortunate to hear, etc.  By design (audition), some choirs might have absolutely equal numbers per section.  Some might have an incredibly strong soprano section, with a very marginal alto section, and a solo tenor extraordinaire, and three basses.  You get the idea…I must know the musical make-up of the choir in regard to what might be possible…I must know how to bring forth the very best presentation of choral performance from the ensemble.

The aforementioned information is crucial.  It totally structures the commission.  If the above personnel might be true, I could write a composition with a tenor solo, using the soprano section as a focal point at times in the more difficult passages.  I might focus the less challenging material in the alto section…find  a passage in the basses' ranges that will allow them to shine forth at some point, making them "known" as a viable part of the total sound.  I must know the ensemble, bring forth their strengths, and make sure all sections are contributing to the overall positive effect of the performance.

2)  Range - I need to know the upper and lower range of every section of the choir.  I need to know the capabilities of each section, so that whatever I decide to do with melodic and/or harmonic movement, results are artistic and vocally successful!  I need to know what every section can do well, and I write accordingly.  If there are limitations, I must look to prominent sections for the best ways to present the musical material.  Know where your "go-to" sections are located in the choir…then keep that in mind when writing the composition.  Make the piece happen!!  Make "it" happen with good decisions by the composer…good decisions that make sense!!

3)  Vocal Quality - If I find there are vocal qualities in your choir that resemble voices in the Metropolitan Opera,  I might want to write something that "showcases" their abilities.  Several solos?  Prominent sectional writing?  How can I make those voices "work" in the midst of "standard" sounding voices?  Alternating sections of homophonic/solo presentation, with other non-solo homophony at other times might be another option.

Does the entire choir consist of standard-quality voices?  I might want to write a commission of primarily unison/2-part vocal voices, with a more complex accompaniment.

Is there at least one incredibly strong singer in each section?  If so, I might want to write a commission that uses a homophonic choral foundation, with the addition of a featured quartet in refrains or repeated sections.  Use those strong, gifted voices in your choir in creative ways!

As you can guess, there are a zillion ways to bring forth the strengths and abilities of an ensemble.  However, a composer must do one's homework to listen and discuss all of these aspects with those who know the voices the best…the group's choral director…then make a decision.

4)  Other Musical Abilities - A group's performance can also be a window into their grasp of ideas in areas such as breath support, the production of vowels, the use of consonants, proper intonation, etc.

Breath support:  If a group has a difficult time in singing long phrases, then I would likely write shorter phrases, with definite breathing places, instead of long, arduous phrases that require a keen understanding of "staggering the breath."  YES…we need to teach those things, but I will probably write for the things I know a choir already does well.  There is generally a reason choirs sing as they do.  Some choral techniques might have been stressed more than others.  Let's say….diction might be the primary focus of a choir director.  If the choir director is an instrumentalist, it might be that the teaching of proper vocal breath support is something that the choir might not demonstrate as proficiently as a person who actually understands more about the voice than their teacher.  My experience:  I came through the public school ranks as an accompanist, and when I finally wanted to audition for Robert Shaw's Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, I knew I needed help!  "Thank you, Betty Jane Grimm at Florida State University!"  She agreed to assist me in getting prepared for that audition, and I made it!  Singing is not my strength, but I am a choral director.  I had to really dig for any vocal knowledge obtained in the area of vocal technique…it…can…be…done!

Vowels:  I might find through listening to the choir that correct vowel production is lacking.  I would need to keep this in mind when considering range.  How can I keep the sound out of the "chest" and are focused more in the vocal mask?  Taking the basses too high on closed vowels would likely not be beneficial in assisting singers in creating a warm, beautiful tone.  There is no need to write such that a singers' limitations are propelled into the forefront.  I try to write commissions with weaknesses minimized and strengths maximized.  It makes for a more positive experience for all involved…make the performance a good memory!

Consonants:  A choir's ability to produce clear, crisp consonants is paramount to conveying the text.  That said, anything that does not allow one to clearly hear the text might need to be avoided.  The size of the choir, vocal and musical abilities, and the skill with which they have been required to habitually demonstrate clear consonants...all affect textural options…the complexity of the accompaniment.  If the texture is too thick, singers with limited vocal consonant skills cannot be heard through the accompaniment.  For example, if I realize that these skills are limited, I might use some a cappella singing in some sections, so that the voices can be heard clearly, but not too much a cappella singing if the choir is challenged with intonation issues.  These types of abilities or the lack thereof can be heard in the pre-composition stages.  One's ears are "the friend" in preparation for writing.

Choirs who are skilled in exploding consonants might enjoy an involved accompaniment…brass, organ, strings, woodwinds.  An important question:  "Is there a particularly strong  instrumental solo performer that you might want to include?"  For example, I submitted a piece to a high school choral director, and wrote for a solo cello/keyboard accompaniment.  However, there was a wonderful violinist on his faculty, and the choral director asked if I might write something for solo violin instead.  I write for the best person available to the choir director.   If I write for a specific instrument, I want to make certain the instrument is available to the choir.  That is, I write a viola obligato part…if the choir can get a violist!!  Makes sense??

At this point, I would highly recommend my book From Concepts to Concerts.  It focuses on teaching choral concepts.  I wrote this as a "handbook for early days of teaching" type of experience.  I truly wish I could have found a book just this one for my days at Habersham Central High School in Georgia.  It would have made my students' lives so much more pleasant and meaningful.

Proper Intonation:  This is probably the most sophisticated concept of all considerations.  There is generally a reason most choirs sing with correct intonation (posture, breath support, vocal awareness, etc.).  As I prepare for writing a commission, I listen to the intonation of the group who will be singing my piece.  If students sing below pitch, then a cappella singing must be kept to a minimum.  I would also try to select brighter vowels, higher range (keep it out of the chest), and I would likely incorporate unison singing in a larger amount, for an energy boosts.  The tempo would also likely be faster, with a driving energy toward the final cadence.  I would probably not include many ritardandos, if intonation problems were evident.  However, if the singers sing above the pitch, I might make different choices.

AS YOU CAN SEE, there are many, many vocal considerations that a composer must address before writing a commission.  I cannot accommodate all aspects of concern, but through listening to a choral director's description and a choral group's performance, I can prioritize a list of things that might enable me in writing a successful commission for a special group of singers.  As always, the goal becomes that of writing a piece of music that contributes to a singer's love and enjoyment of choral singing.  May we all be fortunate enough to achieve that goal!!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Earlene's Commission Process: Part II (Structural Considerations)

COMMISSIONS:  PART II (Structural Considerations)

After the text has been determined, I begin to think about the structure of the piece.  What should be the focus of the piece?  Should the piece convey reflection, celebration, gorgeous lush (I think my friend Beth Shugart gave me that phrase), whimsical fun, cleverness, or a combination of several?  How should I convey the chosen text?  Is there a common theme?  If so, how do I introduce it, develop it, and create unity in the composition?  And…some would say, "Most importantly"….How do I end it?  The ending is generally my greatest struggle, but it all comes down to how I want the listener to feel, once all has been said and done.

Structural considerations actually become concerns of the compositional process.  When I write a commission, I want the person commissioning to have some input into the process.  So…I talk this through with the representative….telling the person what I'm thinking….discussing the general "flavor" …verbalizing the overall musical journey.  This discussion takes place after I have written down the text in an orderly sequence.  That does not mean that I must stick to the plan in a rigid manner.  Sometimes the music demands my flexibility as much as those commissioning the artistic product.  I will "strike through" some phrases, retain or omit other phrases (if possible), combine ideas….whatever I must do in order to achieve the desired musical/artistic effect…and continue the energy of the composition.

As a general rule, I have found that in structural content, "less" is "more."  Say what you want to say, don't say it too long…..move on to the next thing….remember the first thing….end it…say, "YEA!!"

In my early writing, my endings went on and on….so I shortened them…then it was suggested that I might not be saying enough in the endings.  You get it….it is all "relative, but true" for whomever the listener might be.  It is all right for that person, in that moment, with that person's expectations, etc.

In writing commissions, you are working within a representative's concept of how he or she might want the commission to be remembered.  After discussing the overall piece with the representative, the composer should be able to draw that conclusion.  There are many ways to write a piece effectively.  As I said earlier, when a person is purchasing the first performance rights…it is my opinion that I should do whatever they want me to do…if possible.  As for my perspective, I have often heard the great poet Maya Angelou say that a person might not remember what you said, but they always remember how you made them feel.  I have actually had times when the honks and tweets of my own computer actually made me cry….because I could "hear it in my head" as a wonderful performance.  I have never been disappointed with the final product, when such a thing has occurred.  It moved me…it moved others…and that is the ultimate goal in all of my writing.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Earlene's Commission Process: Part I (Text)


I have no idea as to how other composers might go through a commission process with a representative.  I only know my process, and for the most part, I have found that it works quite well.  I'll discuss some general factors of my process...then we'll see where it might go from here.

A commission is a piece written specifically for a person or group, based on the desires of a representative who contacts a composer.  I have had representatives contact me, and I've been "up to the gills," so I've sent them to other composer friends who I have thought might connect and do well with the commission project.  However, most of the time, I have enjoyed working with the representatives to find a schedule where creating the musical product is possible.

Because a commissioned choral work is for a specific group, I have frequently had a difficult time publishing many commissioned works.  In order to compensate a composer for the work of creating a commissioned choral work, establishing a commissioning fee is the normal process to follow.  A commissioning representative is not purchasing the piece (I suppose one might do so…I've just never known of anyone who does this type of thing), the fee purchases FIRST PERFORMANCE RIGHTS.
Because in my earlier commission-writing, I have had representatives who have not understood that concept, I have developed a contract for clarity.  It only takes one negative experience, and one learns to officially establish expectations and policies.  I have had no problem with understanding, since the contract was developed over a decade ago.  Here is a sample of the contract I use for commissions:

Personal theory:  "If a person is paying me to do this project, then I should do exactly what they want, to the best of my ability."  Other composers will write for "chorus at-large," and write a piece that may indeed be for the larger choral community, but also a piece that is appropriate for the commissioning ensemble.  "Whatever works" is the best way I have of describing my journey through this facet of composition and arranging.  Clarity is the most important aspect of preparing to write the commission.  You will also note that I require "up front" payment.  The check is held until the work is completed, but I have learned through past experience that such a request is wise.

Does the commission always work out for me?  No.  Just recently I was forced to terminate a commission process, when I realized that my style was likely not a style that was compatible with a choral group's preferences.  I was delighted to submit other names as possibilities for the representative, but my mental focus was too "cluttered" to be able to come up with creative material I loved...I was uncertain that the choral group would enjoy my work.  It was clear that I was not "the person" for this task.  My musical journey is personal, and it may or may not fit with the compatibility of some ensemble styles.  Other experiences have been wonderful for me, and I think I was able to give the group a worthy product.


As a choral music writer, I cannot begin without the text.  I have had a great time putting texts together for commissions, and I have had many different processes toward text-selection.  Sometimes the representatives have no idea as to where they want to begin, so I just start asking a few questions.  For a youth choir, I heard a statement such as, "Well…they really seem to do well with nature themes."  So…I wrote a piece with original material based on God's Grandeur (poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins)…then went into the familiar hymn This is My Father's World….but changed the words to "This is God's wondrous world" (gender sensitivity)….then found that I could put the two together, etc.  The piece became The Grandeur and Glory of God, and it was totally fun creating this piece!!  It took some "thinking"….it took some "time"….but….the product was one that "spoke."  That's where we're headed….find a text that speaks to all….including the composer!  I must stay interested and engaged throughout a commission project, and it generally takes quite a long time (few months)…so….make the text interesting, so that everyone benefits, and everyone is always getting my best effort as well.

In another commissioning project, a poem was requested from a church member, and coupled with My Faith Looks Up to Thee, became a 25th Anniversary anthem.  In yet another situation, a celebration of "being," when a church sold its property, and moved to a new church…in a new location….with a new pastor…it just seemed fitting to "sing a new song"….and the title of the piece was Psalm of New Beginnings.  I was also delighted when Don Neuen's Hour of Power Choir sang this piece for the first service in their new location as well... when they moved to Shepherd's Grove.  The piece eventually came around to congregation participation in the familiar hymn tune to Come, Thou Fount.  The congregation had submitted poetry and "ideas"…phrases of who they wanted to be in this new place.  The first verse consisted of a combination of their words and my words, based on the information I had gleaned  as I spoke to the representative and other church members.  Most of the text centered around the "new" theme.  I selected most of their phrases, and created the second verse.  Lastly, my husband was a former pastor of this church (Central Baptist in Lexington, Kentucky), so I had him put the last verse together about future directions and moving forward with energy and passion.  It worked….the congregation sang their socks off!!

For public schools, the task is a bit more difficult.  Some choir directors want choral arrangements based on favorite folk songs…or they may find a poem based on a certain characteristic of an individual they are honoring…or….in both sacred and school commissions, the representative may have no idea as to what text they would like.  So…I may suggest a few.  I keep a notebook of many, many texts.  Some people suggest copyrighted poetry, and the hoops through which they must "jump" are outrageous at times.  If you have an "in"….a person you know who might make it easier (a poet's spouse/friend of the poet), life is good.  Sometimes you  have an entire Foundation, as in the case of Thomas Merton's words.  Luckily, the board was terrific, but there must be an agreement between the publisher of the work(s) and the publisher of the music.  So….I love to set public domain material.  It is just easier to make it happen.

Hopefully, this blog entry has assisted you in thinking about future commissioning possibilities.  Find the composer whose style appeals to you….then….find a good text.  Part II will cover other considerations for commissions.

Enjoy your day!!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Why Online Publishing?

I have often been asked about selling my work online…why?…is it working?…how do you do it?  The answer is partially professional, but mostly personal.  Why?  I have published with national publishers since 1994, and I just wanted to do something different.  In addition, my husband is more flexible in summer in his work, but summer is the "big push" for publishers.  Our schedules just weren't "fun," when it came time for being with a loved one for a summer afternoon of relaxation.  There had to be a way I could enjoy both aspects of my life……..I went about "creating it."

On a spring evening in 2010, aboard a recumbent bike, Earlene Rentz Online Publications, LLC, was formed.  A thought occurred to me, "With all the technology in the world, is it so far-fetched to think that I might be able to sell my work totally online?"  I could pace myself….work only for myself….and our lives would be much more compatible for my husband, our families, and me.  I began thinking about it….really thinking creatively and diligently.  I had to know exactly what I wanted my business to DO…and I had to know HOW to do it.

After I had the basic idea formulated in my mind, I called my webmaster from the recumbent bike.  I told her I wanted to sell my work, be paid for it, have the customers immediately receive their music, send the customer a receipt, and be notified of the sale…without having to leave my computer.  I wanted to write music.  She said, "I have no idea, but I will check this out and do some research, and I'll get back to you."

She called 2-3 weeks later, and said she had found a company specializing in the sale of artistic products in several types of files…PDF files were included in that list.  In addition, this company worked cooperatively with a payment company (there are several types in the technology world).  Following purchase, the payment company would send a confirmation message to the first company, and then the first company would send the PDF file to the consumer.  Easy enough…I must say, it has never failed me…wonderful job by both companies.  So…I sell PDF files of my music to customers.

I also had to decide about copyright issues.  In recent years with other publishers, some collections and congregational participation have allowed for copying.  So…I decided to have a set price for each file of my work, based on the complexity of the product.  I determined that it made sense for voicings to determine the price, with a statement at the bottom of the page to allow for reproduction.  One set price would allow a choral director to make multiple copies for their choir only.

Some advantages of online publication:  1) Immediate product delivery, 2) Individualized additional voicings, 3) Individualized desired keys, 4)  Individualized accompaniments, 5) Use of foreign languages (based on access to language resources).  Custom-made arrangements and compositions are now available to the choral music consumer!  This "world" is timely, and allows music educators to request material, based on their current demographics, instead of general choral populations.  It is exciting, and it is the world in which we live.

For those of us who are participating in online businesses, online advertising and social media are the ways in which we get out information.  The old fashioned "word of mouth" works beautifully, and sharing the "good news" through music organizations is also effective.

There are some situations that have "evolved" since having begun my company in 2011…most having to do with payment.  In the beginning, purchase orders were more popular than actual credit card purchases.  I gladly worked with these customers, though the process was a bit slower.  I have recently asked choral directors in my sessions about payment using credit cards, and found that it is very unusual to find that same impediment these days.  In most sessions, 100% say that they are able to use credit cards, and be reimbursed from their school systems or booster clubs.  Wonderful!  I can spend my time writing music!!

Do I enjoy my online business?  Love it!!  Love it!!  Love it!!  I write the things I want to write…my heart  is the inspiration, not-so-much "the market."  For 20 years, I wrote the things that were accepted by publishers, and I am totally grateful for that experience.  In fact, because I love the folks so much in "the business" (they have been good to me), and because I would love to assist my lyricists in their "journey" with established publishers, you might find that I occasionally write for another publisher.  However, the truth is that sometimes I did not get to write the things I wanted to write, for all sorts of reasons (mostly determined by the market…writing is a business).  I really want to write the things I want to write….for the next 20 years!!  Life is fragile, and I want to know that I have said everything I want to say in the ways I want to say them.  I also want to use my time in the most efficient way possible.

Of course, it is expensive to have an online business, if you assign the computer work to others.  Again…I want to write music, and I do not want to spend my time in computer or website issues.  Fortunately, I have someone who is working with me, understands my business, and knows exactly what needs to be done, so life is good.  However, because I use technology, and technology is always changing, I must make adjustments as well.

I do not have the most sophisticated online business in the world.  However, I have an online business that will do what I want it to do.  Everything is working properly.  I am continuing to write music, and my music continues to sell…increasing sales each year.  My goal is to add to those existing titles, knowing that my life is happier and more compatible with the most important person in my life.

If you are interested in creating your own online business, go online to, and spend time exploring the ways in which the business works.  Feel free to ask questions regarding the site (not everything has been covered in this blog).  I am happy to share general information regarding the process.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

EROP Artists: Meet Susan Thrift!


Susan Thrift taught middle school and high school choral music in Texas for 16 years, until her retirement in 2011. Currently, she serves as Minister of Music in her Waco-area church. She enjoys writing music for church and school choirs, and in addition to her publications with Earlene Rentz Online Publications, she has pieces published with BriLee Music and Shawnee Press.

Susan is a specialist in knowing the needs of many choral directors in "the field," as they prepare for special events like festival and contest.  She realized a need for a cappella 2-part choral music, and that is exactly what she has done for EROP.  When we published it, we actually added an optional accompaniment, but My Shadow is specifically written to be performed a cappella. Her writing is always creative, incorporating challenge, beauty, and sophisticated choral elements that assist in developing music intelligence in middle school and high school singers.

Welcome, Susan Thrift!  We love having you as a writer with Earlene Rentz Online Publications!!