Monthly Archives: September 2013

Building an Encounter with Excellence into Every Lesson or Rehearsal

By Scott Watsonscott_watson

Perfection is a standard that – in almost every case – can never be met.  How many lines can really be drawn “perfectly” straight?  And for those of us working in the arts, what exactly does “perfect” mean?  Can an oil painting, or a musical performance, be considered “perfect”?

But it’s a term I use when teaching music fairly frequently.  A while back I was working with my 2nd-year (5th grade) alto saxophone section.  I was rehearsing a small gesture, just a few notes, and it sounded rough.  Each time we repaired a performance error another one emerged.  Someone missed an accidental.  Another held a note too long for the staccato articulation.  Then another rushed the rhythm… and so on.  I explained that there was no reason that we – as a section – shouldn’t be able to play this small phrase perfectly.  One of the more insightful girls in the section asked aloud, “Isn’t it impossible to play it absolutely perfect?”  This was the perfect (excuse the pun) time to launch into a favorite pedagogical sermon of mine!

Perfection – I pointed out – is not the point, but rather the striving for perfection, or for beauty, or for excellence.  I drew two horizontal lines on the board, one very high near the top of the board and one in the middle.  The top line represented perfection; the lower line represented being average (or with older kids, mediocrity).  If we strive to play our saxophones perfectly but (and here I drew an “x” just shy of the top line) fall a little short, you can see we’re still pretty darn good… some might call it excellent.  But if we only strive to be average (and here I drew an “x” just shy of the line in the middle) and fall short because we don’t care enough, then we’re not even mediocre.  You see, there’s no shame in aiming for a model of perfection.

Those saxes and I played a few more times and eventually they all played together in a way that was really excellent, especially for such young players.  All seven played the right notes, were rhythmically tight, and used the correct articulations.  It was only a small phrase, and frankly I don’t have the time in a 30-minute group sectional to always lead them to an experience with such excellence, but I strive to do just that at least once in every group lesson or rehearsal I lead.

This idea of bringing students into an encounter with excellence at least once each rehearsal isn’t original.  I first heard it from my college mentor and good friend, Ken Laudermilch.  Ken led the Wind Ensemble and taught trumpet at West Chester University when I was an undergraduate Music Education major there.  When he was still teaching, Ken allowed me to use his university wind ensemble to record a piece I had recently written as a commission for a middle school band.  In return, he asked me to talk to the students about teaching in the schools.  I rehearsed my piece for about 15 minutes.  They more or less “nailed it” when they sight-read it!  After polishing a few spots, I told Ken I was ready to record.  Ken gave the students a five-minute break and pulled me aside, saying, “I don’t want them to get off this easy.  Do you mind if I work on the piece a little bit?”  Returning from the break, Ken proceeded to tear apart and put back together every phrase I had thought was fine.  Nothing was overlooked – phrasing, attacks, releases, dynamic contour, subtle tempo shifts.  When he finished, the piece sounded truly glorious!  And better still, these fine university players had an encounter with musical beauty even with a middle school band piece because a master teacher led them there.

Years later, when I read Peter Boonshaft’s Teaching with Passion, I found the same principle.  I think of Peter as one of the preeminent wind band conductors on the planet at this time. He’s also one of the authors of the Sound Innovations instrumental method. In his excellent book Boonshaft suggests that, “in every rehearsal we need to make one beautiful pearl.”  In addition to serving as what he calls a “beacon” of perfection, Boonshaft points out that these moments give our students an example of our expectations, and they encourage progress as students realize they can produce something (no matter how small) that is truly beautiful.

I think it’s no accident that two of the most talented music education professionals that I know – Ken Laudermilch and Peter Boonshaft – both employ this technique of leading students to an encounter with excellence in their rehearsals.  Whether it’s a university wind ensemble or young saxophone section, doesn’t every one deserve to bump up against something truly beautiful, revel in it, and know that he or she is responsible in part for creating that beauty?

In each meeting with your instrumental students at any level, I’d like to recommend you find something, however small, to give them an “encounter with excellence” to serve as a model, a “beacon of perfection,” for all their music making!

Piano Teaching Tips from Dennis Alexander

Dennis AlexanderAbout a year ago, I became enamored with the tango when I was introduced to the music of “QTango,” a professional music ensemble that performs regularly in Albuquerque and throughout the United States. Their music immediately captured my attention, and ever since then I have been interested in writing more music for students in this wonderful, rhythmical, and musically appealing style!  MTNA recently commissioned me to write a chamber music work for their 2013 National Conference in Anaheim, and my “Dance Suite” for violin, cello, and piano (of which the first movement is an “Introduction-Tango”) was premiered at that conference last March.

A Splash of Color, book 3Tango a la Mango” is now one of my favorite pieces in A Splash of Color,  book 3 and I am delighted that the National Federation of Music Clubs has included it on their new 2014-2016 syllabus. This collection contains seven colorful solos in romantic and contemporary styles designed to enhance an awareness of imagery in performance. When performing this piece, the performer needs to envision the seductive sounds of the tango style, along with the elegant and beautiful dancing that accompanies the music! The musical element that really sets tango apart from other dance styles is syncopation. Most often seen written in 2/4 time, it is characterized by being in a duple meter. Simple, repeated syncopated rhythms (like this one: dotted 8th, 16th, 8th, 8th) are very commonly heard. Since the dance is supremely rhythmic in nature, it is important that any performance of a tango is accurate and very well controlled from a rhythmic standpoint.

Tango a la Mango

Tango a la Mango, from
A Splash of Color, book 3

I have thus marked the opening tempo moderato e deciso in the hope that all of these rhythmic figures will be played “decisively” and no faster than quarter note = 63-69. The pedal markings should be strictly observed to create the correct articulation and color of the dance. Be sure that students count the triplets in measure 2 as two even sets of triplets (and not as two 16ths, followed by a triplet). Saying the words “trip-e-let, trip-e-let” at the very beginning of the measure starting on the 8th rest might be helpful for some students.

In measure 6, be sure to cross the LH over the RH following the rapid group of 32nd notes. This makes the execution of this rhythm easier and more pronounced. Voice out those top notes in the RH chords from measures 9-15.

The B section starts suddenly mp and is seductive, warm, and passionate. Listen for an ultra smooth, legato line; take a little time going into the beautiful D major chord in measure 17. This is often referred to as “rhythmic placement”. This section modulates through several different keys, including a deceptive cadence at measure 27, and leads into a dramatic cadenza beginning in measure 31. Take some time in measure 30, with big sounds in the LH last two 8th notes. Start the cadenza slower, and then accelerando into measure 33…count that half note at its full value, and then just “melt” into the return of the A section in measure 35.

Again, voicing in the RH is important, just like in the first section. The piece ends quietly and mysteriously. Observe the pedaling; listen for exact rhythms in the LH patterns of measures 49-51. In measure 52, a quarter pedal with the staccato notes helps create a wonderful color.  Play the last two-note slurs delicately and stretch the last 16th note slightly, again placing the last 8th note just slightly past the down beat.

Teachers and students might enjoy hearing me perform this work by going to my personal website ( and clicking on my “compositions” link. Simply click on “New Releases,” scroll down until you see the cover for A Splash of Color, book 3. Then click on the second arrow on the right for “Tango a la Mango.” I hope you have as much fun teaching and/or performing this piece as I had composing it!

Dennis Alexander
Author, Arranger, Composer

Exploring Holiday Songs, Carols, and Customs

By Sally K. Albrecht, Composer/Conductor/Clinician

Sally K. AlbrechtThe holidays are the perfect time to explore, study, and celebrate the music from other lands. Through music we can learn so much about people and traditions around the world. Alfred’s new publication A World of Christmas was put together with that in mind—to teach young singers about the cultures, customs, languages, and music of other countries.

Use A World of Christmas as a songbook (approximately 30 minutes) or add the optional script to create a full-fledged global musical (approximately 50 minutes). The publication contains an opening/closing theme, plus songs from 15 countries around the globe. Feel free to add other holiday songs from other countries, or select only your favorites for a shorter program. The optional script includes lines for 10 narrators, who introduce the customs of the featured country before each song. Use the same 10 speakers throughout the program, or change before each song—it’s up to you.

If you teach many different classes, consider having all your children perform the opening and closing theme, with different individual classes performing one or more songs alone. A World of Christmas may be performed simply on risers, with narrators coming forward before each selection.

You can easily turn this program into a full-school project, inviting fellow teachers or people from your community to join in on the fun. Consider using the study of this material to develop further interdisciplinary study:

  • Invite a geography teacher to talk about the different countries that are featured: the locations, hemispheres, longitudes and latitudes, major cities, topography, imports and exports, major crops, etc.
  • Invite a language specialist to teach a few important words in each country’s native language: yes, no, hello, goodbye, bathroom, numerals from 1-10, please, thank you, etc.
  • Invite an art teacher to help students draw a map of the country, the flag, or even children wearing typical costumes of the country. Plan an art project or exhibit based on the particular art styles of the country or specific region.
  • Invite a history teacher to talk about past and recent developments in the country’s politics, borders, rulers, etc.
  • Invite a chef to talk about foods and perhaps cook a typical dish from a few of the countries.
  • Invite a banker to show your students currency from each country.
  • Invite an ethnomusicologist to demonstrate musical instruments or play examples of folk music from each country.
  • Invite a music specialist to talk about and play examples of the music of famous composers from each country.
  • Invite a zoologist to talk about each country’s native animals and what they eat.
  • Invite a meteorologist to talk about each country’s climate and typical weather patterns.
  • Invite a travel agent to talk about the highlights of each country, things to see and do, and how to get there. Collect some travel posters for your hallways and classrooms.
  • Invite a costume designer to show examples of the typical dress of each country.
“We hope you enjoy introducing your students to The World of Christmas

Put the “WOW” Factor In Your Choir

Mark CabanissBy Mark Cabaniss
Managing Director, Alfred Sacred/Jubilate Music

I’ve sometimes heard from directors over the years that choir programs are “just too much work.”  Well, a lot of things in life that are really worthwhile are hard work.  From putting a man on the moon to utilizing the transforming power of music with a bunch of volunteers singing together, it’s not going to be easy.  But, oh, how sweet it is!  The most successful choir programs have something I call the “Wow Factor.”

That “wow” factor is intangible in some ways, but I can pinpoint several common (and basic) denominators these choirs have:

1.  Organization and discipline.  Start and end things on time; have a rehearsal plan and goals…etc.  Show your choir you personally are organized.  Don’t plan your rehearsal in front of the choir five minutes before rehearsal begins.

2.  Musicianship.  As the old hymn says, “Give of your best to the Master.”  God is our audience in worship and He deserves our best efforts.  And if we build strong, musically excellent choirs they will attract people who want to be a part of something that is excellent.

3.  Variety.  Use a variety of musical styles (that are in keeping with your church’s overall worship style).  However, don’t be afraid to occasionally stretch those boundaries.  This will help keep things interesting and inviting to a wide age spectrum…and continually attract those 20 and 30 somethings.

4.  Fun.  Always build in fun experiences for your choir.  Before, during or after each rehearsal.

5.  Spirituality.  You would think this goes without saying, but I’ve seen some church choirs where no devotional ideas or prayer were ever offered.  Of course, the music itself can be devotional, but I don’t think that’s good enough when you’re hammering notes and rhythms.  Make sure you budget some time during rehearsal for an authentic spiritual connection with your group.

6.  Plan strategically.  We know that the fall is a busy time for choirs…everyone gets back in the swing of things and you’re rehearsing Christmas music heavily.  Sometimes when we plan our fall anthem schedule, it’s been like “shopping on an empty stomach.”  In June or July, the idea of doing various anthems plus a Christmas cantata seemed great at the time.  But then the crunch happens…suddenly it’s late October and you’ve got too much music that’s too difficult and there are all the Christmas services coming up soon.  Help!

In this email, we’ve provided some great “last-minute Christmas ideas.”  The anthems featured are easy to prepare and present during the busy fall season, and will help you sleep better at night in late October and beyond…especially if you’re a “last-minute shopper” and still haven’t finalized your anthems for fall and the Christmas season.

Finally, you must continually renew yourself with fresh ideas.  Go to conferences; read great new books on leadership, creativity, etc.; reach out to fellow worship leaders for unique ideas, etc.!  If you are burned out, your choir will be, too.  Current and vibrant choirs help build churches and God’s Kingdom.  And that’s the biggest “wow.”

Classics from One Generation to Another

By Douglas E. Wagner

Douglas WagnerIf there ever was a blast to the past in my life, it happened this past spring when I began to write concert band and string orchestra arrangements of The Who classic single, “My Generation.” That day, it was 1965 and I was 13 again.

While not fitting the mold as the stereotypical angst-ridden, anti-establishment teen of the time, the words didn’t hit me as strongly as they did some of my friends. For me it was all about the beat — that driving, pulsating forward motion and unrelenting call-and-response pattern. I remember hearing it for the first time, being jolted to a new awareness of the world around me, of life, of the freedom that only music can bring. And so it has been I’m sure for millions through the decades whose lives have been forever affected by this quintessential British Rock standard.

My five-year-old granddaughter happened to be in the house when I was listening to the playback. She exuberantly came running up the stairs exclaiming: “Papaw, Papaw, what is that?” “My Generation, Alex … and now it’s yours.”

Hope you and your students like the charts!

Music in Your Community

By Julie Lyonn LiebermanJulieLL

Imagine a wedding without music. Impossible, isn’t it? How about a movie or TV show, a party, the doctor’s office, an inauguration, a worship service, or a sporting event?

Music has been inextricably connected to social events and spiritual worship throughout the world for eons. Music is to the human spirit what skin-temperature water is to the human body — an environment that provides transformation and unity through engaging in an activity that is larger than self.

Introducing the art of performance to a young person without a focal point or a higher purpose is, to my mind, backwards and bereft. Performing for its own sake —a relatively new addition to the use of music historically speaking— tends to focus a young, inexperienced musician on fear and on first person thinking:  How am I doing? What will they think of me? Am I good enough? Will I make a mistake? It’s also a missed opportunity. Music is about community and sharing. It’s an act of nonverbal communication.

There are at least three approaches you can employ to transform the performance experience for your students while providing your community with something special: 1) Intergenerational/interschool, 2) Theme-oriented, and 3) Location-oriented.

1) Intergenerational — Interschool 

Everyone immediately notices the spark and learning curve an inter-generational concert can generate within the student body and community versus the traditional “my age group plays, followed by your age group, followed by …” When you have everyone on stage together creating music, the excitement in the hall is tangible.

I first began to develop scores with interlocking parts decades ago for school systems that couldn’t afford to bring me in to do a residency for a single age group. I use the term “flexi-score” to describe a score that has an middle school part and a high school part that each work perfectly well on their own, yet interlock to create a rich, whole-group interaction. My newest flexi-score, Newtown Peace Anthem, offers this opportunity.

There’s very little published music designed to support this kind of intergenerational all-community event, but it isn’t that difficult to take a high school piece and write a simpler version of it for middle school. In fact, you can turn this into a class or student project, thereby satisfying National Music Standard number four, “Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.”

Since it’s important to respect copyright laws, you can write to the publisher or the composer and either ask for their permission to develop a complementary part or commission them to do so for you; or choose a published arrangement of a traditional piece of music and create your own level-specific arrangement that complements an arrangement in your music library.

2) Theme-oriented

Choosing a theme for your concert can provide a positive and creatively challenging point of focus for the students. For example, this fall I’ve invited NewtownPPstring teachers nationwide to schedule something in their December concerts in honor of the 20 children and 6 educators killed in my town, Newtown CT, 12/14/12. The overall project, Newtown Peace Park, invites students to conceive of ideas they can implement in their community to foster a culture of kindness in the names of Newtown’s fallen angels.

Virginia-based string educator Laura Parker approaches each concert with a theme. Her last concert theme, “Spread Your Wings,” focused on the life cycle of the butterfly. She covered the four stages of the butterfly musically through four carefully chosen pieces of music, challenged her students to identify four stages in their own musical development, and included the art department, the dance department, and many individuals outside her string program in the process. Her next theme is called “Reaching for the Stars.” You can read more about her butterfly concert here.

Whether it’s a local topic  (tragedy or good fortune), a national topic like the environment, or a personal one, the school concert can provide a model for a caring community that can accommodate many opinions, many points of view —all presented in a creative fashion while providing a unique opportunity to its music students.

3) Location-oriented

As referenced in Richard Meyer’s article, Giving Bach, moving your concert out of the auditorium and into the community can help shift your students’ focus to groups within their community that can benefit from or even be healed by their music making. Whether it’s for a school that doesn’t have a music program, a retirement home, house of worship, sporting event, or town hall meeting, giving to the community can achieve wonders for all those involved.

The History of the Christmas Carol

Anna WentlentBy Anna Wentlent, Managing Editor of School Choral and Classroom Publications

Not a holiday season goes by that we musicians are not involved in a performance of some kind, whether it be a professional concert, school performance, church pageant, or sing-a-long around the piano at home. Undoubtedly, carols will form the bulk of the repertoire. More than any other time of year, the holidays are distinguished by music. We have a shared repertoire of music that is known and sung by people of all ages and ethnicities.

Hymns written specifically for the holiday of Christmas first appeared in fourth-century Rome. These were Latin statements of Church doctrine, such as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” which is still sung in churches today. In the twelfth century, Adam of St. Victor, a Parisian monk, began to derive music from popular songs, introducing something a bit closer to the traditional Christmas carol that we know today.

Under the influence of Francis of Assisi, a tradition of popular Christmas carols in native languages began to develop in England, France, Germany, and Italy. The first documented appearance of English carols is seen in the work of chaplain John Awdlay, who lists twenty-five “caroles of Cristemas” that were sung by groups of “wassailers” who went from house to house. Derived from traditional drinking and folk songs, these songs were often accompanied by dancing (in fact, the word “carol” comes from an Old French word meaning “circle dance”) and were probably written for many important celebrations, such as New Year and the harvest, in addition to Christmas.

Originally, carols were festive, up-tempo, and followed similar Medieval chord patterns; classic examples of this are “Good King Wenceslas” and “The Holly and the Ivy.” Amateurs outside easily sang them. But by the Victoria era, carols were being sung in churches and performed by local orchestras and choirs. This time period is when many of the carols that we sing today were first written and published. New carols in varying styles were added to the repertoire, such as Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night.”

“Silent Night” was first performed on Christmas Eve in 1818 in the small town of Oberndorf, Austria. The young priest of the parish church, Father Joseph Mohr, brought his lyrics to organist Franz Gruber just before the evening service and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment. Since that first performance, “Silent Night” has become one of the most well-known Christmas carols of all time. During the World War I Christmas truce, an unofficial ceasefire on Christmas Eve in 1914, it was one of the carols that British and German soldiers sang together between the trenches, each in their own language.

Today carols continue to be written and performed in both sacred and secular settings. We hope that you will include one or two (or more) on your program this holiday season, whether traditional or entirely new. Who knows what piece will be the next “Silent Night?”