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"…