Back to Choral Roots

A couple of months ago I was appointed Conductor of the 40+ year old Clearwater Chorus. It’s an ensemble of people who like to sing, and encourages adults of varying ages and abilities to make and share music together.

At least, that’s what it is now.

The Clearwater Chorus

Although not titled a “Director” that is effectively my role and as a result, I’ve grabbed hold of the reins and am guiding the ensemble through a new perspective: who we have and what we do now is what we are, and as long as we work together to share music, we’ll be doing something of value to the world.

[Click here: I’m giving away four tickets to our concert on Dec 22!]

Why is this so new? Because like so many institutions that are founded and/or led by an individual for so long (in this case, Arthur Goetze who directed the group from 1975-2005), its members can become entrenched in “the way things were.” This is also a very typical perspective of older generations, especially those who have worked their whole lives and are now enjoying a few special comforts in retirement: they expect things to stay the way they know them. But that is so rarely beneficial for anyone, and certainly not how the world spins.

So whilst respecting the past and honoring those who have gained far more experience with this ensemble than I ever hope to, it is now time to focus not on what we don’t have but on what we do…

Doesn’t this pertain to life in general?

For example, over the past 12 years I have mourned the loss of an active performing and teaching career founded in music, something I have known to be a primary part of my existence since I was in single digits. My music career after moving to the USA has been patchy, fraught with unconfidence, some expensive decisions, and a distinct lack of industry contacts that don’t label me an outsider.

But this current appointment has, unexpectedly, brought me right back to square one – the roots from which my fascination with music grew.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown began his musical life as a choir boy in Cuxton Church

The Anglo Saxon village church in Cuxton UK, where I was a choir boy

I was 7 years old when I began playing the piano, but that was after I began singing in my English village church choir. I remember joining the village Junior School choir around the same time, as well, but by the time I had moved to my UK secondary school at age 11, I was fully immersed in singing, piano and clarinet. It wasn’t until just before I moved to the USA the first time that I showed any interest in percussion (and if you know me, it was an incredible 4 years of percussion playing that got me into college at 17 years old! More on that another time, perhaps).

During my college years a budding-conductor buddy of mine, Chris Kiver now a Choral Professor at Penn State University, and I would organize “Scratch” singing sessions in which anyone who wanted to play and sing the repertoire we had planned could do so. Of course we did much recruiting, but giving solo parts to multiple singers throughout each piece enabled them to get much needed experience, and Chris and I to learn many differing needs of accompaniment.

In the years that followed college I conducted various ensembles such as the Ealing Choral Society (thanks to the late great James Gaddarn), the Yalding Choral Society, the Medway Community College Singers, and a whole host of other one-off groups. Four highlights in particular were:

  • Conducting Handel’s complete Messiah with 5 days’ notice when the conductor who was booked fell ill,
  • Conducting a “Marathon Singing Session” in which almost 1,000 teenagers sang hymns, easy listening songs and some chart songs,
  • Conducting the European Premiere of Dawn Mantras (outside, at sunrise) by Australian composer Ross Edwards during the UK’s year-long Millennium Festival in 2000, and
  • Singing for John Rutter at Carnegie Hall in his own composition Magnificat.
British American Conductor Composer sang at Carnegie Hall for John Rutter

Melissa and I hanging out with John Rutter in NYC

In addition, I played timpani or percussion for countless choral societies around the UK in more pieces of music than I can remember – hundreds. And, being a percussionist usually with lots of time not actually playing, I got to listen to conductors rehearse their choirs, listen to the choir members mutter under their breath, and have choir members (usually altos) unsolicitally (?!) share their awe about how anyone could actually play the timpani: “I never knew they had pedals like that!”

Interestingly, only a handful of these choral activities “made the cut” onto my resume, so when most folk read my history of musical performance, they see “instrumental conductor” or even just “music teacher.” It’s quite annoying, really, because although conductors in the UK and Europe are trained to be teachers (hence the general reference to them as “Maestro“) in all genres of “formal” music – orchestral, choral, opera, musicals, some concert/wind band and maybe even ballet – in the USA conductors are labelled at a young age and ‘specialize’ not in leadership or motivation, but as a topical expert in just one of those genres. It’s such a pity.

Of course there are exceptions such as James Levine. Kind of. And the incomparable Leonard Bernstein. But generally, conductors in the USA are rarely recognized as even “capable” of conducting well in more than one musical genre. You can tell when a choral conductor has an orchestra in front of them, and you can tell when an orchestral conductor now has to deal with a choir, too. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was taught and expected to work with both, so now that I’m working with the Clearwater Chorus (this links to our Facebook page – please Like it!), not only do I feel comfortable and confident that I can help produce a good sound, help the singers sing together, and focus on sharing good stories and music with others (including the audience), but it is also bringing me back to my roots in music – as that little angelic Church of England choir boy in my village.

For your entertainment: This is one of my favourite Bernstein performances of showmanship, especially around the 5 minute mark. It’s even more engaging because of the video/ audio mis-synching!

Another Absolutely Best Of!

I’m working on some project documents and listening to Classic FM’s David Mellor (ex-Member of Parliament and even Cabinet member) enthusiastically share his top 20 classical music recordings of 2012 – both new and re-released. Sometimes it’s quite fascinating, especially Max Richter’s rewriting of Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons violin concertos, two very different versions of Rachmaninoff’s beautiful Symphony No.2 even though the different albums won in different categories, and even Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” by Alexandre Tharaud. Yes, I’m just as confused as you. (Amazon affiliate links)

Top Ten List EVER?!Well, I’ve never been much of a fan of “Top” or “Best of” lists, even though it is clearly a marketing gem and seems to engage a great many people. (The fact that such programs can be prepared in advance so they can be aired during the holidays with no-one actually present at the radio or TV station isn’t lost on me.)

So, whilst wondering what gives David Mellor the right to pick and choose classical music recordings, and whether or not he’s just presenting someone else’s research/ compiled list (such as EMI, Sony, Virgin Classics, or any of Global Radio‘s other regular bed partners), I wondered what other lists are out there this year. I typed “Best of classical music 2012” into the centrally focused white box on the Google homepage which took a moment (0.44 seconds, to be a little more pedantic) to produce the results below.

And there we have it! These must truly be the absolute best of the best of classical music for 2012. Make of them what you will, and take particular note of the handful of references to live music (such as concerts). In fact, the exact opposite occurred – included in this “Best of” list are notable deaths! Can you and I change that? I think so. Maybe next year we can come up with our own “Best of 2013’s Classical Music” and make them ALL concerts!

My (or, in fact, Google’s) “Best of ‘Best of Classical Music 2012:'”

  1. 54th Annual Grammy Awards Nominees for Classical Music (2012)
  2. The Best Classical Music Recordings of 2012 – NYTimes.com
  3. The best classical music of 2012 | Music | The Guardian
  4. Amazon Hot New Releases: best Classical Music
  5. Classical Music and Opera: The Best of 2012
  6. 2012 in review: Notable deaths in classical music and dance
  7. Remembering the best classical music of 2012 – Times Union
  8. The Best in North Texas Classical Music in 2012 | FrontRow
  9. The Orchestra: The best classical music iPad app
  10. Best of 2012: Classical music | Mark Swed – latimes.com
  11. The Best and Worst of Classical Music in 2012 – WQXR
  12. best classical music songs
  13. best sad classical music
  14. best classical music for studying
  15. best classical guitar music

Do you agree with any of these? Put your own “Best of classical music 2012” list in the comments below. Even one entry will help us focus our efforts!

Really – what music or performer do you think we should look out for in 2013?

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You certainly asked!

THANK YOU to all who participated in the 3rd Annual #AskAConductor Day on Twitter earlier this week. Remarkable stuff! Some friendships were rekindled, some new ones made, and I’m hoping that those who like live music (orchestras, choirs, musicals, opera, film, etc.) are now more aware of what conductors actually do, how they do it, and why.

After all, that’s the purpose of giving you a global opportunity to ask a conductor whatever you want!

If you missed it, glean the incredible list of original tweets from the transcript linked below and make sure you join my mailing list so you get to hear about next year’s event ahead of time.

But grab a last-minute chance now – add your question in the comments below and I’ll put it to ‘the crew’ and have a go at answering it myself. We don’t want you non-Tweeters to be left behind, so ask away!

Here are some 2012 #AskAConductor stats:

  • 1028 total tweets between December 11 & December 13 (Eastern Time)
  • 860 original tweets, 68 Retweets
  • 56 participants
  • Most questions from gabriela_hb in El Salvador
  • Top 3 tweeting conductors (excl. me):

Be sure to join in the fun next year!

Click here to download the full transcript (131KB. Need Adobe?)

 

Ask A Conductor?

Two years ago two of my dear Tweeps @mcmvanbree and @laceyh started an awesome day of musical questioning. Including myself, Lorin Maazel, Sasha Makila, Vladimir Ashkenazy (through the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Twitter account) and a whole host of others, the general public got to ask us Conductors from all over the world… whatever they wanted!

It was challenging and exciting at the same time, yet experts such as Mike Seal and Kenneth Woods provided much insightful entertainment and I look forward to their participation again this year, too.

This year’s event will be on Wednesday, December 12 YOUR LOCAL TIME. That means, the ‘day’ could last up to 48 counted hours!

Anyway, click on this link to see details, including the specific link and hashtag to use when asking your questions:

Ask A Conductor Day 2012

Then spread the word, line up your questions, forward this page, and post, post, post the event everywhere. This really is your annual opportunity to drill us baton-wavers and ask some great or simple questions!

DO IT.

 

 

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Composing D: Development

In Sonta Form there are usually two themes (see last week’s post for the Main Theme of our new piece). This past week that theme and the complimentary Secondary Theme were added to the score, twice each, and spread amongst all the instruments. When these two themes are presented for the first time in their entirety, it is usually in a section called the “Exposition” and this is what it sounds like in our “Sonata for Chamber Orchestra”:

[ca_audio url=”https://www.stephenpbrown.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Sonata-for-Chamber-Orch-Expo.mp3″ width=”500″ height=”27″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player”]

 

Now it’s time to move on to the “Development” section. This is usually the longest section of a piece in Sonata Form as the composer can take snippets of both themes and twist, turn and combine them. They could also be played backwards, upside-down and of course, backwards AND upside-down! These compositional techniques serve to add variety, interest and keep the attentive listener guessing or trying to figure out what’s happening to the music.

Tweetable!
Add variety to your work – can you do something in reverse, upside-down, or another zany way? via @Stephen_P_Brown

 

As an example, let’s take these four notes:

 

Now let’s place those notes in reverse, like a mirror image. You don’t have to be able to read music to see the “Retrograde” pattern: 

 

Ok, now it gets a little tricker. Notice the way the original notes move up (higher) first, and then jump down at the end. Then look at the second bar and see the opposite – the notes move down (lower) first, and then jump up at the end. The melody has been “Inverted“:

 

Finally, let’s try and combine these two elements together. In this example, we first inverted the melody and then took its mirror image. See how the first note of the original (E, in between the top two lines) is also the last note in the Inversion Retrograde variation:

 

There was a time when audiences didn’t have the kind of soundbite distractions we do today, and many could actually HEAR these variations as the music was being played. What a skill! Nowadays we’d consider someone who could do that a genius, in the same way anyone under 18 would call someone who can legibly write cursive/ joined-up text must be a genuis (since public schools in the USA stopped teaching it).

For our new piece “Sonata for Chamber Orchestra” here are some of the snippets from the main themes that appear throughout the Development section:

 

 

 

 

And you’ll just have to wait to hear the complete Development section, I’m afraid!

Tell me below one thing you found fascinating about today’s post. Next week we should have the introduction and Coda (ending) completed, which means the entire composition will be ready! This is your last chance to have an influence on our new piece of music!

Composing C: The Main Event

Well, it’s not an event as such, but it makes for a great blog title, right?!

Today we develop the Main Theme of our piece. In music, a theme is usually a melody but it could refer to an accompaniment or even just a rhythm, but we’ll stick to something conventional this time.

How is a melody created?

My first task is to decide how often to have different chords played. Most of my tonal pieces have one chord per bar (or measure). In our piece, that would mean we play a G Major chord for four beats (a G Major chord is made up of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the G Major scale – refer to last week’s post for info about that, or check out Wikipedia for a communal explanation about chords).

In the second bar, we’d play a different chord, but one that is closely related to the previous one. Perhaps D Major. Maybe then back to G Major, followed by C Major, and for the next four bars, G, C, D and finish on G again.

This is what it would sound like:

[ca_audio url=”https://www.stephenpbrown.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/untitled-2.mp3″ width=”500″ height=”27″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player”]

 

However, there are other options, and I’ve opted for a pretty challenging one: to make the melody an eight-bar phrase but keep the same chord throughout. It’s possible! A lot of classical era composers managed it, so I’m going to attempt it. Why is it a challenge? It’s going to be tough to make it interesting and likable over such a long period of time.

Tweetable!
One type of challenge is to make something interesting and likable over a long period of time. via @Stephen_P_Brown

First, just for reference, the primary (root) note of each chord is placed in every bar in the bass part. I can build the composition from there. In some complicated pieces I’ll add a piano part with all the notes of the chord in it but delete the piano part before I finish.

Now I’m taking the chord of G Major and making up a rhythm as I plug in notes from the scale of G Major into the violin part. It’s that [easy]. Here’s our main theme:

Score of Main Theme

Chord sequence (in bass part) and main theme (in violin part)

 

Click here to listen to it:

[ca_audio url=”https://www.stephenpbrown.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Untitled-120923.mp3″ width=”500″ height=”27″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player”]

 

Notice how the first two bars repeat in bars 5 & 6 – that creates familiarity and gives the listener something to hold onto. The melody also ends on G, the root of the home key. Next we will add the second theme and expand the exposition, adding things like ‘bridges’ and ‘interludes.’ Exciting stuff! Really !!!

Today’s choices

I first came across Chris Guillebeau in early 2012, stumbling upon one of his posts about his travelling the world. Literally. He set himself the goal of visiting every country in the world by the time he turns 35 years old. He currently has eight (that’s “8” out of 200 or so) countries left.

Most interestingly, on his travels he has met hundreds of self-made people. People who found a passion and are earning their living at it. People who saw a need and earn a living filling it. People who had an idea and earn a living selling it.

So he interviewed them and came up with a great book: The $100 startup (Amazon affiliate link)(You will get a lot out of this book, folks).

But, when recently asked by Marie Foleo what the one single most important feature these hundreds of successful people across the globe shared was, he replied:

The choices we make now affect the opportunities available to us in the future. @ChrisGuillebeau via @Stephen_P_Brown
(Click on it to tweet & share it with your world)

Right now, think of three choices you have to make today, and share in the comments below how you think they may affect your future.

 

 

Speaking of sticks…

Last week’s post was about a global traveler who should be using a stick (according to some conventions), but as noted he often doesn’t. Was it lost? Did somebody steal it? Was it delayed with his luggage? Well, we may have found it.

Fellow conductor and excellent classical music online blogger Kenneth Woods offers an explanation that I think may lead to the culprit: The Timpanist.

 

 

If you’ve ever wondered why the ‘drummer’ at the back of an orchestra needs so many sticks, read Kenneth’s post that explains it all as well as the exploration of the fact that some conductors request specific tools of the trade, and why.

http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/2012/08/05/more-secrets-of-the-timpanist-revealed-the-third-stick/

Think of three tools of your trade that you regularly use, are comfortable with, and consider yourself more of an expert than your boss may be. What are they?

Feedback for Tapestry Tampa Bay

Watch the whole video below…

Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown presented his brand new composition “Tapestry Tampa Bay” to a new audience in Safety Harbor, Florida, on March 23 2012. Feedback has been amazing and very positive, with requests to orchestrate some of the movements as well as over 5,000 views of the concert video.

Check out why…

“Brilliant composition. Those of you that missed this concert, you missed out on a great night of beautiful and entertaining music.” -Barbara

“Tapestry Tampa Bay” simply amazing.” -Hamby

“Absolutely inspiring.” -Bill

“I’ll be Back for More!” -Mary

“Excellent. Can’t wait for the CD.” -Carlos

“Stephen is fearless in a new adventure, ready for a new challenge with a quiet confidence.” -Dale

“I love the stories, and then the music plays them out.” -Vanessa

“Totally refreshing and enjoyable. Please do it again.” -Ron

“What a wonderful surprise. I hope a tour comes out of this.” -Jill

Check out the video of Tapestry Tampa Bay on YouTube, and remember to LIKE it! (Give it a thumbs up). Also add your comments, similar to those above, to the video site:

Remember: Stephen is on a mission to RECONNECT hard-working, leisure-seeking people with that inexplicable element of music that affects us with laughter, crying and goose bumps. You can help by sharing this post on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even your own blog! Thank you.
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