Monthly Archives: April 2014

Poetry in Music

Vicki Tucker CourtneyBy Vicki Tucker Courtney

Poetry is defined as the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts. But poetry can also be sung! The initial task for both of my Contemporary Art Songs collections was to find poems with topics that were relative—the language understandable and not too archaic—and that could, of course, be captured in song.

Musically, my goal was to provide a variety of styles and vocal ranges. But it was the subject matter that inspired the melodies. Subjects range from morning to the stars of night, from nature to the seasons, from birthdays to holidays, from the world of dreams to the reality of love, and, of course, music. But it was also the subject matter that inspired the passions of these melodies, ranging from excitement and joy to disappointment and distress. As a pianist, I found it very satisfying to craft a memorable melody and an interesting accompaniment for each.

Additionally, the men’s songs were written by male poets and the women’s songs were written by female poets. Poems that were written as early as the eighteenth century by well-known and some not so well-known poets are included. I found their backgrounds fascinating and would encourage the singer to read about them in the short biographies provided in each collection.


An Interview with Mary McDonald

Mark Cabaniss

Mark Cabaniss

Mary McDonald

Mary McDonald

Alfred Sacred’s Managing Director Mark Cabaniss sat down recently with Mary McDonald for a brief chat about her writing career and her upcoming new Christmas musical Darkness into Light, to be released this June. Keep watching Ledger Lines for more details!

Mark: Mary, it’s a pleasure to sit with you and thank you for sharing some time with our readers in the midst of your busy schedule!

Mary: Thank you, Mark. I’m happy to visit for a bit.

Mark: First, how did you get started writing music for the church?

Mary: My story is not typical in that I have not studied music all that many years. I entered college on a Home Economics scholarship but was self-taught in piano and organ. I have played “by ear” since the age of five and have been creating music before I was able to read it! Music professors encouraged me in music in college and I eventually switched majors to Church Music with an organ emphasis. Assuming my first job as a church organist post-graduation, I began improvising my service music and was encouraged to write down a few of these, which were picked up by Pedalpoint magazine in the late 70s. From there, I progressed into choral writing and have been doing it ever since.

Mark: How many publications have you had released over the years?

Mary: Including keyboard, cantatas, and choral anthems, somewhere between 700 and 800 publications.

Mark: Wow! That’s quite an accomplishment. Congratulations! Tell us about your newest musical, Darkness into Light.

Mary: It’s a new 40-minute musical that blends new anthems with classic carols, all woven together with narration. The idea is that just as Mary and Joseph traveled from darkness into light, and Jesus brought the world from darkness into light, we too can choose a path of moving from darkness into the Light of Christ.

Mark: What did you enjoy most about the writing process for this musical?

Mary: Perhaps the most enjoyable part was all the various styles that emerged in a concerted effort to make the music both interesting and inspiring. Each song seems to have a fresh approach and came to life even more with the orchestrations of Ed Hogan.

Mark: Thank you, Mary, for your time today. I’m excited about Darkness into Light and look forward to its release in June!

Mary: Thank you Mark!

Sing & Play Guitar at the Same Time—How to Teach It!

Nikki O'NeillBy Nikki O’Neill
Author, Songwriter, Teacher

While many guitar students want to learn how to sing and play songs, there are also many guitar instructors who don’t sing. The main challenge for most beginners in this area has to do with polyrhythms, not melodic pitches. It’s about singing the different rhythms of the vocal lines while keeping the strumming rhythm of the guitar constant. The most common mistake is when the strumming hand tries to mimic the various vocal rhythms. So if any guitar instructors are intimated by singing in front of their students, remember that it’s okay to just “talk-sing” the lyrics á la Tom Waits as you coach your students! Here’s my step-by-step approach:

1. Pick a slower song in 4/4 time with a very simple and straightforward rhythm guitar part. A ballad like “Let it Be” by The Beatles is a great one to start with; all you do is play two quarter-note down-strums for each chord. Next time, try “From Me to You”—also by The Beatles—and play it with a simple down, down-up type of strum.

2. Analyze the guitar part from a rhythmic perspective. Count the four beats out loud in each measure as you play. Which beats are the strums on?  Is every strum on the beat, or are some strums in-between the beats? Take a look at the excerpt below from Women’s Road to Rock Guitar for more on teaching strum patterns.

Excerpt from Women's Road to Rock Guitar

“Must-Know Strum Patterns in Rock”

3. Memorize the guitar part (chord changes and strum rhythm) and play it with rock-solid time before you sing anything. Then put the guitar away. Now it’s time to analyze the vocal part.

4. Start speaking the first lyric line of the vocal part. Don’t even worry about singing the notes — just speak the lyrics with the same rhythm as if you would sing them. Tap the four beats in each measure as you speak. Which beat does the vocal start on? Do a couple of beats go by before it starts? How many? Pay attention to rhythmic patterns (numbers of syllables could repeat in another line.)

5. Once you know how the guitar and vocal parts each relate to the beat, it’s time to try both together. You might need to work at it one syllable at a time. Next, it’s one line… and eventually you get a whole section. Talk-sing the vocals at first while you play, then you can start singing the actual melody notes.

If your student has trouble singing the correct pitches, let them play the melody on their guitar and try to match each pitch with their voice.

To help your students improve their rhythm and sense of musical time, while learning lots of great strum patterns in rock and pop, and getting rhythm-related tips from guitarists Orianthi and Ann Klein, check out Women’s Road to Rock Guitar.

A Few Tips on Selecting Your Halftime Show Music



By Michael Story
Composer, Arranger, & Editor

Times sure have changed since I was in high school band. We used to perform a different halftime show for each home game. Nowadays, most bands perform just one show a year, which makes it even more important to select a show that truly fits your band. Although marching band students are not exposed to as much music as we were, the advantage to doing just one show a year allows for a much higher level of achievement in performance quality. Here are few tips to help you in your halftime music selection:

  • Type of Music: Although many bands have had success with original compositions for their show, there are many good reasons to consider a show based on pop music. Sure, there is good and bad pop music (just as there are good and bad original compositions), but many popular songs offer great teaching opportunities. The added benefit is that you will generally have a better opportunity to connect with your audience.
  • Difficulty Level: You want to choose music that is neither too easy nor too hard. Students will become bored with music that is too easy, and discouraged with music that is too difficult. Choosing music that is right at your band’s ability level (or slightly easier) allows you to focus on increased musicality and polishing the drill.
  • Quality: Are ALL the parts (not just the melody) interesting, musical, idiomatic, and written in a comfortable range for your students? Has the composer or arranger chosen an appropriate instrument or section to play the melody? Do the interior parts, countermelodies, and bass lines make musical sense?
  • Form: Does the show achieve a balance of REPETITION and CONTRAST? Examples of repetition include recurring themes or ideas, or an ending reprise of the opening melody to tie the show together. Contrast is achieved not only from varying the musical content, but also through textural and instrumental changes, including solos or ensembles within the show, musical highs and lows, and percussion or other section features.

Good halftime show music can come in all shapes and sizes–there can be great educational opportunities in all genres. Whatever music you choose, have fun with it, and have a great year!

Skyscraper: A Beautiful View into the MTNA Collaborative Commissioning Project

Wynn-Anne Rossi

By Wynn-Anne Rossi
Composer, Arranger, Teacher

Following the premiere of Skyscraper at the 2014 MTNA National Conference, I walked to the John Hancock Center with a friend and took a speedy elevator to the 96th floor. In a quiet lounge, I gazed over the many skyscrapers of Chicago. I could see Lake Michigan and the famous ferris wheel at Navy Pier, so tiny from this perspective. The jazzy sounds of the new piece were fresh, and they played in my mind as I watched the tall, twinkling lights of the city. What a day!

This experience all started about a year ago when I got a phone call. Ann Witherspoon, director of the MTNA Collaborative Commissioning Project, asked if I would be interested in being one of two commissioned composers for the 2014 MTNA National Conference. This was not a difficult question to answer. Yes! The commission was for a late intermediate trio, and we discussed possibilities for instrumentation. My inklings were towards jazz, and we settled on Bb clarinet, Eb alto saxophone, and piano.

When I compose, I usually begin with a seedling of an idea. In this case, it was…skyscraper. I came to Chicago as a child, and these towering giants made a huge impression on me. As a composer, I love the presence of architecture in music. My mind went to the skeleton of the structure, full of steel girders forming squares and triangles. I liked the idea of representing these shapes through my harmonic and melodic choices using minor 3rds and 4ths (quartal harmony). I also looked up the famous “Chicago Poems” by Carl Sandburg.

“By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars and has a soul.”
–final line of “Skyscraper” from Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg

Nighttime view of Chicago from the 96th floor of the John Hancock Building.

Wynn-Anne’s nighttime view of Chicago from
the 96th floor of the John Hancock Center.

Full of inspiration, I sat down at the piano.  After briefly experimenting with ascending and descending 3rds and 4ths, the music began to take shape.  As many writers will admit, a piece will take on a life of its own, and you enter a place of trust as it creates itself.  I was particularly pleased with a “nature break” that happened in the music, featuring two gliding birds.  Then came the revision stage!  In fact, I wrote two entirely different endings.  One landed gracefully at ground level, and the other flew off the top!  I hope listeners are pleased with my final choice.

Click the button below to listen to a recording of the MTNA performance of Skyscraper with Janice Wenger on piano, Leo Saguiguit on saxophone and Paul Garritson on clarinet.

The first rehearsal with live performers is always a magical moment. Imagination becomes reality! Through the incredible talents of faculty musicians from the University of Missouri-Columbia, the skyscraper emerged with Janice Wenger on piano, Leo Saguiguit on sax and Paul Garritson on clarinet. By the time the audience arrived and the actual performance began, my bubbly nature had bubbled over. I would like to say that I am always calm and professional in these situations, but I simply had too much fun to behave!

Wynn-Anne Rossi with Janice Wenger, Leo Saguiguit and Paul Garritson.

Wynn-Anne Rossi with Janice Wenger (center),
Leo Saguiguit (left) and Paul Garritson (right).

The MTNA Collaborative Commissioning Project is a valuable gift to composers, performers, and teachers. Ensemble music is particularly exciting, bringing musicians together to celebrate new works. From small local groups to national organizations like MTNA, commissioning programs such as these help to inspire new works well into our future. No group is too small. LAMTA, with four teachers in Langdon, North Dakota sets an excellent example. They are hosting a Latin Festival in May, 2014 with a commissioned finale. As a composer, these projects are incredibly energizing, and they help me discover the inspiration to keep doing what I enjoy the most.