Monthly Archives: January 2013

How Do I Tune Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

Chris M. BernotasBy Chris M. Bernotas

Playing in tune is one of the most important concepts of ensemble performance. It is also one of the most challenging to teach and accomplish. There are many ways to tune as an individual performer and as an ensemble member. Tuning presents a challenge because there are many variables that affect the performance. Some of those variables include the level of development of the student, the quality of the instrument, types of reeds and mouthpieces, the temperature of the hall, and even the harmonic voicing of the music.

Awareness. I find that the most valuable tool in teaching students to play in tune is to simply make them aware of the concept. I rarely, if ever, tell a student if they are sharp or flat.  If I tell them, how will they ever be able to figure it out on their own?  Simply telling students, or better yet, asking them, “Does that sound in tune to you?” or phrasing it differently, “Does your pitch sound the same as….” I also like to use other descriptors when bringing a student’s attention to tuning, “Does this sound clear or pure to you?” Coming up with words to describe what sounding in tune means is helpful for students.

Tuner. The electronic/digital tuner is a wonderful tool. Directors are fortunate to have tuning aids available at their fingertips with many tuning apps. They are terrific for finding a reference pitch or for having students use with their individual practice to find out their particular instrument’s tuning tendencies. As terrific as they are, I encourage students to look away from the tuner while they are playing a note and then look only after establishing their natural pitch.  If students are staring at the tuner immediately as they play, they often adjust to the visual element and aren’t developing their aural analysis. Once a student establishes a quality, natural sound they can then look at the visual meter and make adjustments to center the pitch.  In an ensemble setting, beyond the reference pitch, I rarely use a tuner. Encourage students to listen, analyze and adjust. Encourage them to listen to pitch horizontally (as in a melodic/intervallic way) as well as vertically (harmonically).

How? Often we tell students to “adjust the tuning” or “fix that note” and many times that student will empty their water key, push and pull slides, or look at their instrument like there is something wrong with it. Part of learning to play in tune is learning what to do when you are out of tune. I like to give students a partial list of options: for example, a brass player may need to speed up the air, or slow it down. Maybe a clarinetist or other reed player needs to use more mouthpiece, or less, etc. I find that the tuning slide should be adjusted from time to time, but that is not always the first course of action.  Giving students several options will again encourage them to take an active role in their tuning. Encourage students to individually experiment with their tuning adjustments. Let them try to figure it out–they are either sharp, flat or in-tune.  Sometimes the right adjustment is no adjustment.

Reinforcement. Constant reinforcement of the concept that tuning is an ongoing process is important. I have found that by maintaining a consistent focus on in tune playing, there is much less need for having a student play a note and having the ensemble then match as with the familiar tuning procedure. Ways of reinforcing tuning would include spot-checking unison/octave pitches by sections and instrument families, checking chord tuning, passing notes from section to section. I also vary the timing of tuning reinforcement, if we only talk about tuning at the beginning of the rehearsal students may think that after that part of rehearsal tuning is over.

Student awareness of tuning concepts, understanding appropriate ways to use an electronic/digital tuner, sharing the knowledge of how to fix tuning issues, and consistent reinforcement that tuning is a never-ending process will help your students be active participants in your ensemble that is performing at its best.

Different Strokes for Different Folks: Teaching the Individual

Susan JordanBy Susan Jordan
Voice Instructor, Stroudsburg, PA

“She takes each student along a personal journey.” – former student Anthony Nasto, graduate of the Hartt School of Music and member of the barbershop quartet Men in Black.

Since I established my voice studio in 1979, I’ve been privileged to spend time with many special people who have come to me to “learn to sing.” Most of these have been high school students since that seems to be a period when people become aware of the music inside that they want to share. I know that was true for me. I heard a Met broadcast at the age of 13 and was amazed, stunned, and awed by the wonderful sounds I heard. And I knew immediately I wanted to try and do that.

Every teacher who works with vocalists knows that what we do in the studio is just the beginning of each student’s journey. Our primary responsibility is to provide them with tools they can learn to use to unlock their voice; how well they succeed partly depends on how hard they are willing to work, and how much time and effort they will devote to one of my favorite words: practice. It is indeed a journey, and every student’s path is unique, because every voice is unique . . . which is what makes what we do so fascinating.

One of the first students who came to me exemplifies a path that very few students can follow. A 14-year-old high school sophomore when she began to study, she had a true and complete gift: a voice of exceptional natural beauty, and an innate sense of musicality. She almost immediately absorbed every concept I shared with her. Of course, with this ability, her voice blossomed and her singing was a joy not only to hear but to see as well. The love she experienced and could release through singing was very evident. Since she learned quickly to sing with ease, she was able to make music . . . the goal we have for all our students.

The path most students follow is generally not so smooth, as is evident in another high school sophomore’s story. Thanks to a very good cheerleading coach (yes, cheerleaders can also be singers!) she had a good understanding of using her breath correctly. There was a lot of promise in her voice but it was very far back, so obviously that was the challenge. It was slow going, but she was determined and we worked together on vowels, combinations of vowels and consonants, and forward focus. Then I gave her a song she fell in love with, and she was able to incorporate all the concepts we’d been working on . . . and music happened! From that point on it was smooth sailing, and she wound up as a vocal performance major at an excellent school.

One of the most important things I need to do as a teacher of young talent is to have a sense of each student as an individual. Knowing this girl is painfully shy or that boy is filled with insecurity means I need to help them develop the confidence to perform as well as teach them to use their voice correctly. With some students, I find I have to explain concepts in several different ways before I see the light go on! I always tell my students to ask questions if they don’t “get” what we’re trying to do. Picking up on visual and aural cues is important, but questions from the student are direct and cut to the chase.

As teachers we all have a set of exercises that seem to work well with the majority of our students. Sometimes the trick is to modify these, or to consider what else might work. Since singing involves some muscles that we can’t directly see, we often try different ways to find what imagery works best for a particular student. Moving jaw, shoulder, and neck tension to another part of the body where it’s a help rather than a hindrance can vary from simply walking around while singing to one of my favorites, facing the door and pressing with the hands against the frame while leaning forward. (I tell my students to try and push my house down.) This activity engages the intercostals and makes the student aware of how important muscles from the chest to the floor are for a singer. I’m sure all teachers have similar items in their bag of tricks.

Patience is a huge part of teaching teenagers. I have had more than one student who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. With these students, I find less talk and more action works best. Generally, focusing on one element at a time has been most successful. It’s not ideal but eventually we can put the pieces together and move forward. I constantly encourage these students to explain to me exactly what they are doing when they’ve been successful, and this helps them to retain the concept.

I’ve had students who were very, very serious about “learning to sing.” I appreciate their passion and determination, but these are the students I have to sometimes remind not to over think what they are doing. Singing is hard work, but it also needs to be a source of joy! Sometimes I will tell these kids to stop thinking, take a deep breath, love the music, and just SING.

I recently explained to one tremendously talented boy I have as a current student that I’m trying to provide him with the tools to share his soul through his music. That was a revelation for him. He has the same incredible gift of vocal beauty and musicality as the young woman I mentioned earlier. They come to us from time to time!

About Susan Jordan
After attending the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, Susan Jordan moved with her family to the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania in 1971. She established her voice studio in 1979 and has had students accepted into such schools as the Eastman School of Music, Peabody Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, Hartt School of Music, Westminster Choir College, Cincinnati College-Conservatory, and many other fine programs. Former students have performed on Broadway, in the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, on national tours of Broadway shows, and in regional theater. Some are also teaching either as school chorus directors or in private voice studios. Since 1984, she has directed some 80 high school and community theater musical productions. Currently, along with private teaching, she operates the music notesetting business established by her late husband, Jordan Music Engravers. She is a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing and was recently honored locally by being inducted into the East Stroudsburg Area School District Music Hall of Fame.
Please visit for more information.

All God’s Children

Dear Alfred friends,

Last April, I had the honor of conducting a special multi-generational, ecumenical choral festival in Mystic, CT. We premiered a new composition of mine entitled “All God’s Children” for SATB with  children’s choir and narrator.
> Read more.

At the time, certainly none of us could have imagined the grievous event that recently occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in nearby Newtown, CT. I recently received this email message from my festival host, Michael Noonan.

Well, as I ponder this tragic event that happened in our state at Sandy Hook Elem. in Newtown, CT (about 1 and 1/2 hours from here), I could not help but think of your new anthem you wrote for our festival—All God’s Children. How poignant those words are, and the tune just keeps ringing in my head.

I just wanted you to know that those words and music have given me comfort as I mourn all those who lost their lives [that] Friday. I hope Alfred Publishing promotes that anthem as a source of comfort. As I listened to President Obama speak, he used those words of scripture you selected for that anthem in the narration, “Let the little children come to me.”

It is said that music touches us like nothing else, and can help us heal. It moves me greatly that this piece might bring some comfort to those who are in need.

I have chosen to donate my royalties from this piece to the United Way of Western Connecticut’s Sandy Hook School Support Fund (see below). And I’m proud that Alfred Music Publishing has chosen to match my donation. Perhaps your choir may also choose to perform this choral as part of a special tribute or event in the future, honoring those who were lost or celebrating the children in your congregation. Or perhaps your church will take up a special offering in memory of those who are gone or who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

Sandy Hook School Support Fund
c/o Newtown Savings Bank
39 Main Street, Newtown CT 06470

United Way of Western Connecticut [(203) 792-5330] is committed to providing support and resources where and when they become identified and needed. As people from our area and beyond respond to this heartbreaking tragedy, they are turning to United Way looking for ways to help. In response, United Way of Western Connecticut in partnership with Newtown Savings Bank has created the ‘Sandy Hook School Support Fund’ that will be able to provide support services to the families and community that has been affected.

For more information or to make online donations, visit:

In peace,
Sally K. Albrecht

All God's Children

Piano Teaching Tips from E. L. Lancaster – Etudes Can Be Artistic Recital Pieces

E. L. Lancaster

The French word etude simply means a study. Students often regard etudes as boring exercises that teachers think are necessary to develop proper technique. Typically, etudes are relatively short and focus on one specific aspect of technique. Czerny etudes conjure up this image and it is hard to imagine attending a recital featuring Czerny etudes. However, etudes such as those by Chopin, Debussy, or Stravinsky are different. While they do typically focus on one technique, they are artistic pieces in their own right and are frequently performed on recitals.

Like Chopin etudes, the Artistic Etudes in the Technique Books of Premier Piano Course make beautiful recital pieces. While they do reinforce technique tools introduced in the course, they also focus on an artistic concept that requires students to think about style and interpretation. “Midnight Adventure” from Premier Piano Course Technique Book 4 is a perfect example of a piece that helps students develop rhythmic freedom and flexibility in their playing.

The tempo marking of “Midnight Adventure” is “mysteriously.” While students often think a mysterious tempo is slow, this piece should not be too slow. The mysterious quality is heightened by the changes in tempos and especially the accents that appear throughout.

Students should first learn the left hand alone through measure 26. While learning the left hand, a small crescendo on ascending lines and a small diminuendo on descending lines will help shape the phrases. Build slightly to the top note of each ascending line (marked with an arrow on the score). After the crescendo in measure 10, cut back a little to be able to build up again to the forte in measure 13.

In measure 27, the melody shifts to the RH. Students should practice the LH of measures 25-26 (starting mp with a small crescendo) and immediately move to the RH of measures 27-28 (starting mf with a small crescendo to the f in measure 29).

The RH chords in measure 1 and similar places should not be too loud. Avoid holding these chords into the measure that follows. Lift for the rest (Also lift the LH in measure 32). The accents that follow in measures 4 and 5 should be played very strongly. Each RH accent is followed by a staccato note. Think of the two RH notes as a two note slur (strong-light). Students will want to isolate and practice measure 3 through the second beat of measure 4 hands together to develop the coordination necessary for these measures. Practice measure 7 through the second beat of measure 8 in a similar manner.

Three other places can be used to enhance the mysterious quality, highlight the rhythmic freedom needed to perform the piece effectively, and provide a dramatic ending. First, hold the fermata in measure 16 for a long time. Use less weight on the LH of measure 16 to get softer sounds on the diminuendo. The poco ritardando in the previous measure also enhances the mood. Measure 17 is identical to measure 1 except that it is played an octave higher and softer (mp instead of mf).

Secondly, the cadenza serves as a build-up for the exciting ending. Start the cadenza slowly and gradually increase the speed of the eighth notes until reaching the quarter note B. Take plenty of time on the final four quarter notes in the cadenza.

Finally, the accelerando (starting in measure 32) sets the stage for a strong ending. Play the final chords with strength and conviction.

Enjoy teaching this exciting etude and explore other artistic etudes in Technique 4. You’ll find that the other artistic etudes in the book will also make interesting recital pieces while reinforcing playing chromatic passages with ease, changing tone by weight transfer, choosing the high points of phrases, and playing expressive jazz.

I do hope that your 2013 is off to a great start both personally and professionally.

E. L. Lancaster
Premier Piano Course Co-Author
Senior Vice President, Keyboard Editor-in-Chief



The Journey from Music Student to Teacher

Valerie DemmaAn Interview with Valerie Demma, Winner of Alfred’s 90th Anniversary Sweepstakes and recent music graduate from St. Xavier University

By Anna Wentlent, Editor of School Choral and Classroom Music

Did you begin making music with your family, or were you introduced to it in school?
My musical upbringing started in fifth grade when I first joined my grammar school’s choir. I initially joined because a few of my friends did, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to stick with it!

Do you have any favorite Alfred choral pieces?
My favorite Alfred piece would have to be the piece that Sally K. Albrecht dedicated to my grammar school’s district choral festival in 1997 when she was our guest clinician: “Gloria Deo!” (2-part, 00-16955). Out of the hundreds of choral pieces that I’ve sung in my life, I can actually remember singing this one! The memory of this particular choral festival is one of my favorites, because as a young singer, I thought it was neat that we were actually working with the person who wrote the song that we were singing (and that she autographed a copy of the music for me).

Why did you decide to become a music educator?
I first thought about becoming a music educator after seventh grade, when working with Dr. Sandra Snow, another guest clinician at one of our district choral festivals. She is the most supportive person that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. She made me feel so positive about singing that I decided that I wanted to devote my career to inspiring students in the same way that she inspired me.

What has your experience in music school been like so far?
Collegiate music has been a welcome challenge. As a choral singer, I have been eager to get into the “meat and potatoes” music—major works that require a substantial, large chorus. I’ve had the opportunity to sing works like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Handel’s The Messiah and Coronation Anthems, and Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder and Neue Liebeslieder.

What do you plan to do after school?
I’m planning to obtain my graduate degree in choral music education. After completing that degree, my career goal is to teach high school choral music and sing in a professional chorus.

How do you plan to use your prizes from Alfred’s 90th Anniversary Sweepstakes?
I have actually decided to donate the majority of my prizes from the Sweepstakes. I kept three of the smaller prizes for myself, and then I donated the other prizes and split the online credit to the Alfred website between two very deserving choral music programs: my former high school director’s choirs (Meredith McGuire at Oak Lawn Community High School) and my current voice instructor’s choirs (Dr. Stacy Eckert at Providence Catholic High School). The decision was immediate; I didn’t even give it a second thought. I have been looking for the opportunity to give back to these two very deserving teachers who helped shape my musical career, and winning this contest provided me with that opportunity!