≡ Menu

Writing Music

After watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, I realized that I want to write vocal counterpoint. For whatever reason polyphonic vocals excite me more than just about anything, and is I think the main reason I’m falling more and more in love with renaissance madrigals and medieval motets. Hearing the first song in the second act (I’ve read it’s called “Misery and Harmony”) reminded me just how much vocal counterpoint moves me, and how much I want to hear it with the power of modern chords and words. And if I want something done to my taste, well, I probably ought to just do it myself. Of course before I can write anything of value I have to, like, practice, and that’s what this category–music writing–is for. In it I’m going to chronicle in every loving detail my journey into music composition.

I’ve always thought of writing music as being a kind of mystical thing. You hear melodies in your head, you write them down, do a little bit of polishing, and “Voila!” a Masterpiece! The sort of thing only composers are meant to do. Needless to say I never felt quite qualified to do it, and this series is meant to combat that mentality.

My hope is that by writing out my experience of learning to compose music I might inspire you to try your hand at it too. That the messy humanness of writing music makes it a bit more accessible. That initial failure is not a reason to give up. I’ve heard that there was once a time where music students were expected to compose music in the same way that kids learning to read are also expected to write. I’d be very happy if this .was the state of things again, and I’d like to think that this blog could be a force in that direction. And if nothing else, it should be interesting.

So, I’ll probably post about writing music every one to two weeks. Maybe more, probably not less. The first post will be on Friday about my first attempt. Should be fun!


Weekly Vocalize #10 It’s a Cadenza

This week’s vocalize is essentially a cadenza. It sounds like the end of a little piano exercise, and has nice little three note sections that can be used to practice different techniques. It’s also fairly long so breath control can be examined too. Check it out:


Here are a few ideas for how you can use this exercise. You could mix and match crescendo and diminuendo. You could mix and match staccato and legato. You could also change the tempo at different repetitions. Sometimes faster to work on intonation accuracy and sometimes slower to work on sostenuto.

Next week, I’ll write out a bunch of variations on this exercise to show you explicitly just how many possibilities exist.


{ 1 comment }

Weekly Vocalize #9 Raised 4th and Lowered 3rd

This week’s vocalize is fairly straightforward. The purpose of it is to get your choir used to singing non major scales and arpeggios during the warm-up session, and, again, to work on resonance.

Here we go:


Raising the penultimate note (in this case the 4th) is a fairly common occurrence, so it’s good for the choir to get used to it. Also hearing the lowered third going down can be a bit tricky, so again it’s good practice. I’ve used Mi and Ma for the syllables, and the entire exercise is phrased. You could change the syllables to Zi and Za or any combination of the four. In addition you could sing a syllable for each note. (Example: Zi Zi Zi Zi Za Za Za Za Za)

As with the rest of the exercises it can be used for going up or going down. Since it goes up first it’s easier to go up with each successive exercise, but it doesn’t really matter. Lowering the starting pitch at each repetition isn’t really all that much harder given that you start and end on the same note.



Fear: The Bane of the Choir Director

As a choir director, you’re in position of high visibility. At the very least you can expect that each choir member knows who you are and has made some judgment about you. It’s not like worrying about what other people think of the clothes you’re wearing or how clean your house is. In those cases most people probably don’t think about it very much at all, and on the off chance someone actually does think you’re a bad person for not wearing the latest fashion or not alphabetizing your bookshelf they really aren’t worth your time. As a choir director, though, you can be sure that people do have an opinion of you and that to fairly high degree, those opinions matter.

Paranoid now? Well you should be! Sort of… What I mean is you should take some time to think about it. If you’re new to directing how do you plan to deal with not meeting people’s expectations? Can you handle critiques? Can you handle failure? Can you handle people looking to you for direction when you’re making it up as you go along?

I know it’s easy to let this kind of thinking affect your directing, because I’ve had it happen to me. I’m not an expert on singing. I’ve been singing in choirs for the last eight years, but I only had voice lessons for a few months and even then I didn’t learn all that much about about extending range or safe vocal production or anything like that. At the time I wasn’t even planning to be a choir director, I was just trying to improve my own singing ability. So here I am, the choir director for the Collegium, and I want to help the choir improve their singing. How do I tell them what to do when I don’t know what I’m doing? Moreover how do I tell them what to do when some of them have more knowledge than me.

So, what did I do? I froze and didn’t really offer any actual guidance. o.O Mostly I was afraid to discuss my ideas with the more knowledgeable choir members, and rather than be called out on my ignorance opted to do nothing. What I should have done was, of course, start a conversation with the experienced people to see what they had to say about my ideas. That way there’d be no awkwardness at rehearsal, and we’d all have a greater understanding of each other. Yet, oddly enough it never really crossed my mind to try to solve the problem. I never thought to go talk to them first. I was too preoccupied with getting called out on my inequities. And that, really, is one of the bad things fear does… especially the fear of failure. It paralyzes you. It says things like “Better to do nothing than to make a fool of yourself”. It’s bad enough in general, but as a choir director it’s especially bad because it makes you ineffective.

Dealing with Fear in General: Aim and Shoot

So, you’ve decided that you don’t want to let fear keep you from being the best director you can be. Now, how do you deal with it? For me it’s a two step process: 1) determine what it is you’re afraid of and why (Aim) and 2) figure out a way to combat it (Shoot).

There isn’t one way to determine what you’re afraid of. Sometimes it screams at you–like the fear of being called out on my ignorance–and sometimes it’s a whisper–really I was afraid of talking with my singers. If something’s been screaming at you for a while and you still don’t have a solution chances are good that the problem is deeper. Start there.

If no fears are screaming at you or whispering to you, then look at areas in your directing where you’ve been meaning to improve but for some reason haven’t. If you aren’t doing what you intend to do, then something is holding you back… and if it’s a mental thing it’s probably fear.

You’ll know when you’ve correctly identified your fear because it’ll *feel* right. It’ll be a “moment of insight” type feeling…. an “A-ha” moment. A moment like in school when some concept finally makes sense.

Once you’ve identified the fear, finding a solution should be trivial. If it’s not then you need to look deeper. Going back to the example, after identifying the surface fear, the fear of being called out on my ignorance, trying to solve it just sent me in circles. I’d think things like, “If I attempt to give instruction my fear might come true. If I don’t I’ll never gain experience.” Digging deeper, I found an irrational fear, talking to my singers, which as I found it I knew how to deal with it. (I said to myself, “Clearly that’s stupid.” And started coming up with topics to discuss with my more knowledgeable singers.)

Dealing with Fear of Failure: Acceptance

A common fear for many leaders is the fear of failure. You don’t want to let your people down, yet at the same time you’re only human. Failure is inevitable. So, how do you handle the fact that you will screw up from time to time? The short answer is that you accept it.

Accept it? What? Doesn’t that mean giving up? Like “I’m a screw-up so I might as well accept it. There’s no hope.”? No, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that you acknowledge that failure is going to happen. You have to acknowledge it in order to be honest with yourself, and honesty is a prerequisite to dealing with your fears. If you skip the acceptance step you’ll have a much harder time getting over your fears. Now, once you’ve past that step, you’re free to take the failures and learn and grow from them. In committing to learn from your mistakes, you’ve taken care of most of the worries associated with failing. You’re not expected to be perfect, but you are expected to grow.

Any choir member who expects perfection instead of a commitment to improvement isn’t worth your time. (Well… unless they’re paying you… then that’s a different scenario. :-P)

{ 1 comment }

Weekly Vocalize #8 Slurs and Staccato

Here’s a vocalize I learned from singing in the Arbor consort. It uses the arpeggio in an interesting way to work on connecting notes separated by a considerable distance (a fourth) and singing staccato down an arpeggio.


The tendency will be for singers to accent or “punch” the upper c effectively disconnecting it from the g preceding it. They’ll also tend to sharply jump off the c too. If notice them doing either of these things remind them connect the notes together (i.e. sing legato) and to disconnect from the upper note gently. The second half of the vocalize can also pose problems. Intonation can be an issue because you aren’t on the note long enough to correct yourself, and articulation can be an issue in that the staccato may not be sharp enough. Alert your choir to these issues when you notice them doing them.

As a variation, you can alternate between having the descending arpeggio be staccato or legato to keep your singers on their toes. Not to mention just having the entire exercise be one long phrase or every note be staccato. As with all the exercises up till now, there are lots of options.

There’s quite a bit going on with this exercise, but one thing it doesn’t showcase is resonance due to the fact that you aren’t on the notes long enough to really feel it. I suppose advanced singers could execute resonance, but for ye average choir there are better exercises for that.

You can perform the exercise moving up or down chromatically or you can move by thirds or how ever you’d like. For example if you’re moving by thirds the next note after starting on g would be b. Experiment to see which sounds best to you.



How I Would Start an SCA Choir

When I started directing the Collegium last fall, I was taking over an already established choir, a very different task than starting a choir from scratch. It has it’s own perks (don’t have to do much recruiting) and pitfalls (high expectations), but it’s not the same thing as starting a new choir from nothing. I’ve thought about what it would be like to start a new choir quite a bit because I don’t know how long I’ll be in Ann Arbor and there’s a pretty strong chance that my new Barony or Shire or whatever won’t have a choir. So if I were to start a choir tomorrow here’s how I’d go about it.

Step 1: “Blow Thy Horn”

First I’d try to get an idea of who the musicians and singers are in the local group. If they have dancing I’d join the dancers because chances are there’d be an overlap between singing and dancing. I’d also send some feelers to the fighters and whoever else is in the group. Let them know that I’m interested in getting it started. Truthfully my minimum for starting a group would be pretty low. As long as I had two other people interested I’d probably try to start something. There’s plenty of one, two, and three part music out there… especially medieval and renaissance music, so there’s no real absolute need to have more than that. Not that I’d be complaining if we had 12 people show up to the first rehearsal, though. ^_~

Step 2: Find a Place and Time to Practice

Next I’d talk to other groups in the local chapter to find out where and when they practice. If there’s one big gathering of all the SCA activities I’d be set. We’d just practice then. If practices are on separate days, I’d see if it’d be feasible to use the same space the dancers or fighters use for choir practice. I could also try to coordinate times with those groups too. Many people prefer having only one or two nights dedicated to SCA stuff, so having choir rehearsal before dance practice can be a good way to encourage dancers to join the choir. If you’re wondering “Well don’t you need a piano?”, I’ve been using a fairly portable keyboard for the past year. It’s a lot more freeing than depending on a piano.

I’d also see how people felt about having rehearsal at someone’s house. When I was living in Bryn Gwalad (Austin, TX) their music guild did just that, and I must say there was something really homey and comforting about playing music in someone’s home. I’ve also had music rehearsals at my 500 square foot apartment (both choral and instrumental), and while a bit cramped it still worked. Chances are there won’t be 15 people at the first rehearsal so space probably wouldn’t be a concern. We could always look for bigger places later.

Step 3: Selecting Music

In general cpdl is your friend. You’ll find lots of public domain sheet music, and by public domain I really mean free. Just keep in mind there’s a lot of stuff on there that’s not within the SCA’s scope.

In my hypothetical new choir of 3 people, I’d probably start with the following categories:

  • Music from Carmina Burana
  • Rounds / Canons
  • Music by Thomas Ravenscroft
  • Motets (specifically ones without sharp part divisions)

There’s some music in the Choral Music Editions section of the site. Some of the songs in there aren’t really appropriate for the tiny, choir though. Here’s a short list of songs I’d start out with:

  • Summer is Icumen In
  • Five Reasons by Henry Purcell
  • Tosse the Pot by Thomas Ravenscroft
  • We Be Three Poore Mariners by Thomas Ravenscroft
  • We Be Souldiers Three
  • Bacche Bene
  • Tempus Transit Gelidum
  • In Taberna
  • Non Nobis Domine
  • Now Wolde Y Fayne

Step 4: Rehearse

After that it’s time to have some rehearsals. I’d email people some of the music of varying difficulty ahead of time and have them send me more music suggestions if they have any. Then at the rehearsal I’d assess the skill level of the choir and figure out where to go from there. And then there’s the whole having fun making music thing. ^_~

Step 5: Find Opportunities to Perform

Especially at the beginning I’d limit performances to just within the SCA so that I could make a sincere attempt to recruit people to join us. Also it gives us a chance to hone our skills before inflicting ourselves on the public. So basically I’d try to get us to sing before court or before feast or things like that. We could also hang out and sing at fighter practices. You get the idea. I’d also have the choir go caroling since it’s a low stress kind of gig.

From there it’s just sing and grow. There’s a bit of upfront work to get started, but really it’s not all that complicated or difficult. Yay Choir!


Weekly Vocalize #7 from “Now Wolde Y Fayne Sum Merthis Make”

Here’s the third “Now Wolde Y Fayne” vocalize. The other two can be found here: Now Wolde Y Fayne 1 Now Wolde Y Fayne 2

This week’s vocalize is the entire final phrase of the top line. It should all be sung in one breath, thus it’s a good exercise for breath control.


For this passage I suggest that you start at a fairly brisk pace so that your singers don’t have any trouble singing each and every note. If you find they’re having trouble with intonation either sing on solfege syllables or first work on smaller sections of the passage. The first two vocalizes in the series are essentially bitesize versions of the passage so you can start with those. If their intonation is good, gradually bring the tempo down until they aren’t able to sing all the notes in one breath. Then bring tempo back up again.

In addition to breath control you can work on dynamics: have one or more climaxes, have different dynamic levels (i.e. mostly loud, mostly soft, etc.), or have different dynamic ranges (i.e. very soft to very loud, medium loud to very loud, etc.).

The range is a little bit more than an octave, so feel free to go up the keyboard and back down a couple of times so that there’s been enough breath control practice.

And don’t forget resonance! The “e” in “Be” should be accompanied by a buzzing feeling in the face.



Directing With Confidence

I’ll start with a fairly intuitive statement: “Directing with confidence is more effective than directing with timidity.” This is pretty obvious, right? If the director is wishy washy about what he/she wants then the singers won’t be sure about what to do, how to perform, or how they’re doing. Rehearsals get muddled and will likely be dominated by one or more charismatic choir members. So here’s a question, “how do I gain honest confidence with conducting when I don’t know what I’m doing?” because, lets face it, if you haven’t already done some directing you don’t know what you’re doing. There are a lot of skills that can’t be fully developed unless you’re in front of a choir. It’s a hard thing to do with integrity, so I’ll explore four techniques for overcoming timidity.

Realize that Your Choir Wants to be Directed

From my experience being in several choirs and from what I’ve heard others say about being in choirs, it seems that the default scenario is the director is essentially dictator of the choir…. and this is a good thing. A confident conductor, one who gives lots of instructions, interrupts the choir fairly frequently with notes, and knows what he/she wants is considered a good thing by many singers. You can interpret this as the following: your singers wants to put their faith in you to understand the music and how it should be sung. They want you to tell them what to do. This is OK.

I use this piece of knowledge when I want to experiment with techniques. When I’m only 75% sure that something will sound good and is a legitimate way of executing something I’ll tell myself that they want to be directed and if it doesn’t turn out well we can just change it. If a suggestion flops it’s not the end of the world.

On the other hand dictatorial direction can be taken too far. If you consistently tell your singers how to sing a piece of music without putting the time in to study it, your better singers will begin to notice and may mutiny. Also speaking as though you know what you’re talking about when you actually don’t will only work as long as the rest of your singers remain ignorant of what you’re talking about. For instance, I direct a medieval and renaissance choir so if I start picking out music by Bach, and then proclaim it to be perfectly in period than those with any sense of musical time periods–Bach is from the high Baroque era–won’t be happy with me. Stability only occurs as long as the singers are either ignorant or afraid of me. (The latter is of course unlikely since it’s a volunteer group with few if any social repercussions associated with quitting.) Moreover it shows that I’m incompetent and don’t care about the choir or the music. Not good.

Essentially the relationship between the director and the singers is just that: a relationship. The singers are probably more willing to give you a the benefit of the doubt than you may realize, but by the same token, if you abuse their good faith the good ones won’t be happy about it. As long as you’re putting in the time and the effort (i.e. showing you care), they’ll most likely be forgiving when you screw up.

Join another Choir

This is probably the best thing you can do to improve your directing skills. After you’ve been directing for a while you forget what it’s like to be a choir member. Things like what it was like to just have to worry about the music and just do what the director tells you to do. Being the choir member of a different choir gives you that experience again. And on top of that you get to watch another director direct, which is an incredibly good thing. If the director is bad then you’ll probably feel less critical about how you direct, thus gaining more confidence, and if the director is good you can a learn a lot from him/her. Chances are you’ll notice a bit of both. There are some areas where do things better and other areas where you could stand to improve. Other benefits of singing in another choir include borrowing vocalizes and discovering new music for your choir to sing. So, lots of good reasons to join one.

I started singing with the Arbor Consort a couple months ago and there has been measurable improvement in my directing ever since. It’s seriously the most useful thing I’ve done to make myself a better director.

Know What You Want

It’s a lot easier to be confident when you know what you want out of your singers. When you’re having a hard time coming up with performance suggestions it’ll look like you’re not being confident. Moreover if you don’t give any suggestions you’ll still look incompetent. So you’re caught between a rock and hard place if you haven’t done your homework. Conversely when you’ve studied the music and can hear what you want in your head you’ll know what to listen for when your choir is singing and you’ll probably find that your practices are much more fruitful, you’re acting more confidently, and you actually are a fairly competent director.

Be Organized

Similar to knowing what you want is being organized. Having an agenda for the rehearsal and practicing for the rehearsal are easy ways to offload some of the mental tasks of directing. The more tasks you struggle to juggle at rehearsal the less prepared you’ll look, and not surprisingly you actually aren’t prepared. Again, do your homework. Know what you’re going to work on and prepare for the rehearsal. It’ll make your rehearsals so much better.

A Little Note on Confidence

Technically confidence is an internal issue. You don’t actually have to have any knowledge or experience in order act confident. It’s about trusting yourself and your ability to deal with the tasks at hand. So technically you shouldn’t have to do anything to be able to direct with confidence. That being said blind, ignorant, arrogant confidence doesn’t do anyone much good. Ideally you want to have a foundation for self-trust, and things like increasing your knowledge, joining another choir, knowing what you want, and being organized help to form that foundation. You actually have skills and knowledge you can draw upon.

To illustrate the point further, take this example. Strictly speaking you can jump off a building with full confidence that you’ll be just fine. The thing is having confidence where you haven’t take precautions doesn’t make hitting the ground any less effective at killing you than jumping without confidence. In fact your lack of confidence might stop you from jumping in the first place! This is akin to arrogantly leading a choir without having put the time in to study a piece of music. Not good. You just look stupid to those who know any better. At the same time there is such a thing as irrational self-doubt. If you’ve studied bungee jumping, have the right equipment, and have an expert at the jump site then you should with could conscience be able to jump off that bridge. Yes something could go still go wrong, but you’ve prepared yourself as best you can. If you’re in this situation and still have a hard time trusting yourself, that’s when it’s time for affirmations. With choir directing this would be the equivalent of still being timid even when you’ve prepared. That’s when you tell yourself things like “the choir wants me to be an assertive director.” And unlike bungee jumping, if something goes wrong with choir directing your most likely not going to die.

If you want to have self-confidence that’s based on knowledge and experience then you have accept the fact that you won’t have it right at the beginning of your career. You simply don’t have the knowledge and you don’t have the experience. With some work on your own, though, you can minimize the time that you’re in this stage such that you soon have that real grounded confidence you’re looking for. So what do you do during that period of inexperience? Consciously fake it. What I mean by this is that you fully understand and accept that the way you’re acting is not based in actual experience and knowledge, and that you commit to making that state of ignorance and inexperience as temporary as possible. As long as you graciously acknowledge your mistakes when you inevitable make them your choir won’t think worse of you for it.


Weekly Vocalize #6 Counting

Here’s a tongue twister exercise. In form it’s really simple, but in practice it’s trickier than it looks. Take a look!


Again you can go up or down the keyboard, whichever you feel like doing. Starting slow and then ramping up the speed as you go is a good way to lead the exercise. When you’ve reached the extreme end of your singers’ range you start going back toward the center to continue working on annunciation at higher tempos. (Don’t forget to remind them to remain relaxed as the tempo increases!) Solfege syllables are a bit easier to annunciate at faster speeds than numbers, although numbers tend to be easier to remember. Either will work for this exercise, and you could even experiment with changing between the two to keep your singers on their toes. ^_^

This is a great exercise for when your singers seem a bit listless because it gets them to concentrate on what they’re singing and it moves quickly. Plus it’s good practice for singing at high tempos. Very fun!


Getting Started On Recorder (Part 2)

Here’s the second part of Getting Started on Recorder.

Should I get private lessons?

I’m of the opinion that it’s better to teach yourself first rather than starting out with private lessons because by teaching yourself you by definition have to be an active learner. Going to a teacher, having him/her give you exercises to do, and brainlessly practicing them at home isn’t really good for you as a person, and it’s really tempting to do during your first lessons since you’re a novice and he/she presumably isn’t. Besides passive education not being a good thing in general I’ve also found that it’s not nearly as motivating as taking control of my education.

And then there’s the fact that there aren’t very many private teachers for recorder anyway. Kind of like with buying a high quality wooden recorder, it’s probably better to wait to get private lessons until you’ve realized you can’t make any more significant progress on your own. By that point you’ll know what you’re looking for in a teacher and will get a lot more out of your lessons. Where to look for lessons is something I’ll cover in more detail in another post, but as a general rule, if you know someone locally whose recorder playing you admire you should talk to him/her and see if he/she would be willing to give you lessons or answer your questions. While not foolproof since not all practitioners are good teachers, it’s certainly better than just picking someone out at random.

I’ve finished the Method Book. Now What?

Now it’s time to start playing music. If there’s a music organization in your local SCA group you can probably join that. Talk to the person in charge and explain where your ability is right now and see what he/she has to say. Chances are you’ll be allowed to play with them and they’ll point you to the music they use.

If there is a European Dance group, but no music group you can approach the Dance Master/Mistress and see if he/she is interested in having live music at practice. If there’s interest you can get a list of their usual songs and play for them. You can find arrangements for most SCA dance tunes here. To get an idea for the tempo of the songs attend a few dance practices. Chances are the songs move quite a bit faster than you’d expect. Once you start playing regularly for dancers more musicians will likely come out of the woodwork to play too.

If there isn’t a dance group or a music group you could just start a music group directly. Find out if any of the fighters or artisans or whoever are also musicians and see if they’d like to meet once a month to play some medieval or renaissance music. You can still use the dance music site listed above to get started.

I’m not in the SCA, but I still want to play!

If you aren’t a part of the SCA, but would like to play the recorder with other people find out if there’s a beginner friendly recorder consort in your area. The American Recorder Society has information on Recorder Consorts throughout the US, although I’m not sure how up-to-date those links are. Still it doesn’t hurt to call and find out. Just because a group hasn’t updated their website doesn’t mean the group doesn’t exist! You can also google “recorder your_city” or “recorder consort your_city” and see what comes up. For instance when I a search for “ann arbor recorder”, the fourth listing is for the Ann Arbor Recorder Society.


So, getting started on the recorder is fairly straightforward. Buy an inexpensive high-quality plastic recorder and a method book, play through the method book, look for others to play music with, and start playing. I especially like playing for dancers because it makes the music feel less abstract and it’s less nerve-wracking than a straight-up performance. Dancers appreciate the music but tend to concentrate more on doing the right steps than listening for errors in my playing. Also I’ve had some really great music highs when playing for dancers. ^_^