Monthly Archives: July 2012

Billy Strayhorn’s Legacy

By Alyce Claerbaut

Image“….Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.”
– Duke Ellington

Billy Strayhorn is acknowledged as one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. Strayhorn, the primary collaborative partner of Duke Ellington for 28 years, created a compelling musical language that transcended Ellington. His innumerable contributions to the jazz canon create a formidable legacy for musicians from all genres.

Strayhorn’s deep knowledge of both classical and popular music enabled him to create a unique approach to song writing. Elements of his harmonic sophistication and voicing techniques have become emblematic of excellence in the jazz repertoire. Alfred is proud to publish many of Strayhorn’s greatest hits, including a number of never-before-released transcriptions. For a list of current titles, click here.

In addition to his musical achievements, Billy Strayhorn has become identified with the struggle for civil rights. Throughout his career, Strayhorn overcame several stigmas, not the least of which being an African American artist in a society dominated by whites and a gay man in a culture where homosexuality was considered a crime.

In recognition of Billy Strayhorn’s musical, artistic and cultural significance, the Music Institute of Chicago, in partnership with Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc., a family corporation of the Strayhorn heirs, is presenting a Billy Strayhorn Festival on the weekend of October 26-28, 2012. The festival, occurring at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston, features performances by the Terrell Stafford Sextet, Music Institute of Chicago Jazz Faculty, and the Northwestern University Jazz Ensemble; a screening of an updated version of the acclaimed PBS documentary, Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life by filmmaker Robert Levi and a panel discussion, which will be moderated by Richard Steele of WBEZ and will also include Strayhorn biographer, David Hajdu. Click here for more information about the festival.

The year 2015 will mark the centennial celebration for Billy Strayhorn. Find out how you can help celebrate by visiting the official Facebook page.

What is your favorite Strayhorn song? Tell us in the comments field below.

musIc or mUSic?

By Richard Meyer
“What is the number one reason that you make music?”

How would your students respond to this question? When I asked my students three years ago, I wasn’t surprised when over 90 percent of them centered their answers around themselves:

“It makes me relaxed.”
“It gives me a chance to express myself.”
“It’s fun (for me).”

Only a handful mentioned the audience in their answer, “I make music to entertain people and to make people happy.”

From that point on, the music program at my school changed. I implemented a program, called Giving Bach, designed to make my students more aware of how their music has an impact on their audience. I chose as our “target audience” special-needs students, and sought out opportunities for my orchestra to perform for groups of young people that many of them had never encountered.

But just performing for special needs students was not enough, and I knew that to truly understand their audience, my students had to do more than just play a traditional concert. As a result, we developed interactive concerts, which start like every other concert, but end up quite differently – with the musicians and the audience sitting side by side. After performing in a traditional setting, each of my students is paired up with an audience member. They introduce themselves, and explain to their “buddy” about their instrument. They teach them how to care for it and hold it, and how to produce a tone. Finally, we end every Giving Bach concert with the D String Blues, performed by audience members, assisted by one of our students.

I use two of my compositions from this year’s release as part of our Giving Bach repertoire – Q&A and Can Can Basses. Our concerts also include sections features from some of my other compositions – The Billy Tell Overture, Serendipity Suite, Cello Squadron, and Viva Violas! And we like to program Guest Soloist, too. It’s a fun way to feature a single audience member, and kind of “break the ice” with the audience.

As I watch my own students take part in this program, I have seen them become much more confident, empathetic and compassionate citizens, with a better understanding of the power that they have to affect the world with their music.

In the past three years, we have performed for (and with) children from the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles, the Starlight Children’s Foundation, the Junior Blind of America, several therapeutic schools, and for foster children and students in inner-city schools.

I encourage all directors to explore the power of interactive concerts with their own students. For further explanation of the Giving Bach program and ideas for implementing it at your own school, visit

We’d love to hear from you and share more ideas. How do you make your students more aware of how their music has an impact on their audience?

Supporting the Arts

By Sally K. Albrecht

Did you know that many of the works of art included on Alfred vocal covers are hanging on our walls? My husband, Jay Althouse, and I began collecting primarily American and Haitian folk art in the mid-1980s. We feel strongly that artists should support each other, and, as a result, we have a home full of wonderful and colorful artwork that inspires us every day.

The paintings used for both American Folk Songs for Two and American Folk Songs for Solo Singers were created by Debbie “Mama” Criswell, a self-taught artist from Clinton, Tennessee. Debbie is a single mother of two girls and a boy, who has primarily sold her art on eBay since 1999. She was inspired by the rolling hills, tall farm houses, and Amish families she observed while living in a small Missouri town. We discovered her striking, clean, and attractive work in a small gallery in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

We met Zernie Smith during the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, several years ago. He created a trio of pastel paintings especially for us to use in our Ready to Sing . . . Series. We love the all-red traffic light that appears on all three covers (Folk Songs, Spirituals, and Christmas). Zernie’s imagination is amazing. He uses diverse icons of many cultures, presenting them in a rich, bold palette of colors. Check out his website:

Jay was compiling a vocal collection entitled International Folk Songs for Solo Singers when we found the perfect painting by Massachusetts illustrator and artist Jacob Jaskoviak Knight (1938-1994) at a folk art show in Atlanta. The oil painting Lions Are Wonderful caught our eye, as each of the five gentlemen perched on the lion’s back has a distinctive face plus holds an item of interest, three of them musical instruments.

Barbara Gurwitz’s painting Down by the River inspired the Alfred vocal collection Ye Shall Have a Song. This fabulous painting is the focal point of our dining room. We discovered Barbara’s works during a visit to Scottsdale, Arizona. She paints primarily vibrant, colorful, and expressive landscapes that surround her Arizona home.

On the same trip, Jay fell in love with the woman in Linda Carter Holman’s painting Yellow Rose. He teased me that he’d search for that haunting woman for the rest of his life . . . unless I bought the painting for him (which hangs now just outside his office). Linda’s subject matter is frequently women in colorful, imaginative costumes. We used this lovely image for the Alfred vocal collection Nine Latin American Folk Songs. More of Linda’s art can be viewed at

Both Carols for Solo Singers and Christmas for Solo Singers feature intricate paintings by Sancilius Ismael (1940-2000), a Haitian folk painter known for his refined, meticulously detailed, and colorful works. They are truly magnificent, and often feature intricate painted “frames” along the edges, as our two paintings do.

It’s a joy and an honor to select appropriate artwork for our distinctive vocal covers. And we certainly enjoy having the opportunity to share our art with all of you and your students. We hope it’s an inspiration to you as you teach and perform the wonderful music that’s featured inside!

Alfred Vocal Covers

Magical Travel Tips: Traveling Efficiently

By Elizabeth Geli
Posted June 2011
Courtesy of

Traveling with hundreds of marching band students can sometimes be a headache, but with proper preparation and communication, your trip can go smoothly and without hold-ups. Band Director Matt Lovell from the Burlington (Mass.) High School “Red Devil” Marching Band shared some of his tips for efficient and speedy travel.

Evaluate Your Students For smooth travel, a good ratio is to have one adult chaperone for every six to 10 students.

Before he even starts to pick a trip location, Lovell carefully evaluates that year’s band — including the students’ level of maturity, behavioral history and the strength of the student leaders.

“That’s the key to it: the first thing is you have to make sure that the band you go with is a band that can take the responsibility of a trip,” Lovell says. “I know them at their best, and I know them at their worst. The question is not how they are at their best but how will they be at their worst. If I know that they will fulfill their responsibilities even when they’re not ‘on,’ that’s a group that can go.”

Find a Travel Planner

Once Lovell has decided to go ahead and take a trip, he looks for a good travel planner or student tour operator related to the trip location, in this case, one with personal contacts at Walt Disney World and Boston Logan Airport.

“Travel has gotten a lot more complex since 2001,” Lovell says. “We used to be able to be pretty happy with putting the trip together ourselves, but now we go with a travel planner who works specifically with bands, and it was much more successful.”

To read the full article, please visit

Growing as a Music Teacher: An Interview with Anne Caton

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Anne Caton, an experienced musician and educator who has been teaching elementary music since 1976. She currently teaches in the Sherburne-Earlville Central School District in upstate New York. Read on as she offers advice on selecting repertoire and concert programming, maintaining passion in the midst of a busy music teacher’s life, and continuing to learn and grow throughout your career.

Tell us how you became a music teacher.
I became a music teacher in 1976, but I knew I wanted to be a music teacher long before that. As with many musicians, my initial influence was first and foremost in my home. My mother, a 1951 graduate of the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, was a music teacher for many years. She also was a director for our local community theater productions, so you could say that “life was a stage” for most of my life. My mother was also extraordinary by virtue of being the mother to seven children. It doesn’t stop there. My father, a dairy farmer, was known locally as the “singing farmer.” An Irish tenor, he performed locally, in particular at St. Patrick’s Day events and as the lead in the local Gilbert & Sullivan Society performances. Our family used to sing 4-part rounds in our station wagon on camping trips, and every Christmas Eve, we children donned our best (sometimes bed sheets to give the effect we were angels) and performed a Christmas concert for our parents in the living room. Growing up in this world made musicians of all of us.

Living in a time when there was little television and certainly no technology, music (along with books, an imagination, and an active farm life) provided hours of entertainment. I was the oldest daughter and my mother made it a point to take me to many local concerts. She also arranged to have me start piano lessons at age five. My first teacher was very strict. For some reason, that didn’t keep me from loving and playing piano. I do remember thinking at a very young age that I was never going to be a strict teacher like her, so obviously the idea of teaching was there from a very early time! At age 11, my mother knew that I needed to move on, and she found an extraordinary piano teacher for me. This was a point of discovery for me, and a breakthrough in my piano playing. I learned the importance of phrasing, touch, and musicality at the keyboard. This influential new instructor opened my eyes to a vast repertoire—everything from Bach to Bartok, Czerny to Kabelevsky. Having knowledge of the shape and form of music, going behind the notes, digging into the meaning and substance of a musical selection—it was as if I was given a secret that no one else knew. My mother also found a superb flute instructor for me, which took me to the next level of performance on that instrument as well. I started teaching private piano and flute to local children in my neighborhood during the summers, and I would replicate the instruction tactics that my private teachers used with me. I found that I loved teaching. I went on to receive my bachelor’s degree from the Crane School of Music and my master’s degree from Central Connecticut State University.

Describe a typical day in your music classroom.
My day in the classroom has changed over the years. I have taught in schools where the music classroom has been the stage, the gym floor, and the school’s boiler room. I also did the “music on a cart” tour of duty! But I have taught the same thing since 1976—primarily pre-K through sixth grade elementary music. It was my first job and I have never left it. My day is peppered with the different age groups coming in throughout the day. Our school district has over 600 elementary children, all receiving music twice a week. We are most fortunate! There are two elementary music teachers, and we both have busy and tight schedules. Preparation is key to managing a successful classroom. When one class is exiting your room and another class is entering, there is little time for setting the “musical stage” for that day’s lesson. At the end of the day, I direct a fourth and fifth grade chorus.

How do you select repertoire for your chorus?
I search out professional choral sites online. I also belong to several professional organizations. State music associations and ACDA are wonderful resources, and their online forums can be so helpful. I subscribe to newsletters from all of the publishers that interest me. I attend workshops—that keeps me abreast of the latest trends and new composers. I am thrilled with the creativity of the new music out there. The materials that are available and the access teachers have to them is phenomenal. I often think back to 1976, when I had only a handful of clever things to do with my elementary choruses.

I balance my repertoire with four or five selections in varying styles and contrasts. I like to open the students’ ears and eyes to things they may otherwise never know. And I search out selections that have vocal challenges, keeping a close eye on range. I like to “trick” my kids into singing in an upper register, higher than they think they can go. I always include a novelty number, which the students love from the beginning. I also program traditional folksongs, spirituals, and patriotic songs, including one foreign language piece in one of my concerts each year. And I usually include one soul-searching or sentimental piece that sends a heart-warming message. I enjoy seeing the kids transform between the moods of the songs. This goes right to the core of what is special about music.

What is your typical schedule of performances over the school year?
Our elementary choruses have two performances a year, one in December and one in May. We perform at night for the parents and during the school day for the other students and teachers. It’s important that the classroom teachers see their students perform music. They often discover something about their students that they didn’t see before. These performances also become our recruitment tools for band and chorus!

Personally, my most memorable performances were when I conducted all-county choruses. What a joy. Every music teacher should throw themselves into those kinds of opportunities. Other memorable times have been when we joined all of our singers together, grades 4 to 12, for a finale at one of our school concerts. The logistics of pulling this kind of performance together are difficult, but it is so worth it! And then we do plenty of musicals with our youngsters—you can only imagine what happens when live theater and children combine. Sometimes my colleagues and I think we do this for our own entertainment!

How have you grown as an educator over the years?
Over the years, the one thing that has changed the most is me. I have learned so much over the years. And the more successful I am in the classroom, the more confident I become, which results in better learning on the children’s part. It’s important to be inquisitive. Early on in my career, I immersed myself in Orff and Kodaly pedagogy. I took many music education workshops, and today that material forms the core of my teaching. My classroom is not a “sit in the chair” classroom. We move. I took an intensive folk dance workshop back in the 1980s, and my teaching hasn’t been the same since. Getting the child to feel, understand, and learn music through movement is a basic philosophy of mine. Dance is something that little children do innately when they hear music, and I like to keep that going as long as possible. All of these teaching methods speak to one thing—the whole child is making and learning about music in “real time.”

Do you have any advice for new music teachers who are just beginning their careers?
First and foremost, become the most well-rounded musician you can possibly be. But in terms of becoming an educator: learn more. Be inquisitive. Get every bit of experience you can. Watch the success of others and analyze their strengths. The bottom line is that college alone will not do this for you, and you will need to search it out for yourself. Become involved and participate in music associations on the local and national level. Get to know other music teachers and share, share, share! Commit yourself to learning something about music education that you could actually present as a workshop for other music teachers. Even after you have achieved your master’s degree, keep taking new music workshops to keep the “fire in your belly.” Teaching children is not easy; it is hard work. When I do these things for myself, it reminds me why I went into this amazing profession in the first place.

The other day I went to a meeting at the county level. We were a group of music teachers, just coming off a season of “end of the year” performances and reeling from events that were happening among music teachers in the area—cuts and so forth. As we chatted, we found ourselves talking about all of the wonderful (and hysterical) things that happened over the year with some of our kids. Everyone had a story. This wasn’t planned; it just happened. Here we were, tired, worn out and even a little burned out, but strangely enough, after about ten minutes or so of decompression, the little complaining there was about matters in music education turned to optimism and hopefulness. As I drove home from the meeting, I thought to myself, how cool is it that I get to teach music to kids? Now if I can hold on to that for the next two years until I retire . . . !

Teaching Tips from Alfred Author, Dennis Alexander!

Dennis AlexanderAs many of you might know, I am a “dyed in the wool, hopeless Romantic” and have always loved the music of Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and other wonderful composers from the Romantic era. As a teacher, I’m also particularly aware of just how difficult and challenging it can be to get students to understand the many facets of performing romantic-style compositions. I’m delighted to share with you some “teaching tips” from one of my personal favorite collections, Especially in Romantic Style, Book 2. The piece is entitled “Impromptu in G minor”, and is a colorful, expressive piece that will help students at the intermediate level become more aware of these essential qualities that allow for a beautiful and artistic performance. As an added bonus, I am including this entire piece with notes (click here to view).

One of the first things I do when teaching a new piece is to go through the score with the student and determine the location of the “heart” of each phrase, i.e. the focal point, or most important note within the phrase. For many students, putting a few words underneath the melody line can help to achieve the correct shaping of the phrase. I also like to pencil in a little heart directly above the note that serves as the focal point of the phrase. Then, when the student goes home to practice, he/she will be more apt to shape the phrase correctly!

Notice that I have indicated “Dolce e con anima” in the beginning of this piece. It is tender and sweet, but also has many opportunities to push forward and then relax throughout, which helps to give it an impromptu or spontaneous character. Of course, what we’re really talking about is subtle rubato (I have indicated a tempo of 58–63 for the half note). This piece would sound deadly if played with the metronome throughout. There are ample opportunities throughout this piece to reinforce a floating, rising wrist at the ends of phrases.

In measure 16, ask students to slightly exaggerate the “and” of beat 2, which helps to create the musical placement of that downbeat in the following measure. Work on bringing out the top of RH chords in measure 17–20.

Between measures 22 and 23, take a little time between the E-natural and the A to help make this sound more tender and expressive. In measure 29, linger slightly on those descending eighth notes to create a warmer color and mood. Relax and breathe before the return to a tempo in measure 33. In measure 41, listen carefully to the balance of LH melody with RH accompaniment (work to bring out the top of the LH chords in measure 41–44). Again, I’ve made this a little easier for the student by using strong fingers on the top of each chord.

Use full arm weight behind the fingers in measure 45 to get a nice, rich tone in this RH melodic line, pushing the tempo ahead slightly into measure 51. Going into measure 53, do a graceful arc in the RH over that big leap into the 3rds of that downbeat. This also helps to place the downbeat rhythmically. The ending of this piece will feel very solid in the hand if your student blocks the groups of notes as indicated in red. Ask them to practice blocking this backwards as well, starting at the top and going “downhill”. This is harder, which in the end makes going up feel so very easy and secure. Then, take time at the end, and don’t be in any hurry to release the final chord; an elegant, beautiful rising wrist will help give the ending the right character and convincing choreography. It is always important to give a memorable last impression!

Working on pieces like this will help students understand the complexities of Romantic-style practices. When they get to their first Chopin waltz or mazurka, they’ll have the necessary tools to make those pieces come alive with color, choreography, and style!

Best Wishes,

Dennis Alexander
Author, Arranger, Composer

Especially in Romantic Style, Book 2

"Impromptu in G Minor" with Teaching Tips