Music Group Class Round 1 Reflections

Well, students and teachers of Musespeak Studio and To the Wind Studio have survived the first round of music group classes with this new format.  I learned three main lessons:

  1. I have gotten too complacent as far as teacher-student communications go. My students, their parents and I have an established rapport. I'm starting virtually from scratch with my brother's students. Sure, we've chatted at recitals, but a five-minute chat and teaching in 90-minute stretches are two totally different things.
  2. It is important to over-plan and have several back-up activities up your sleeve. My pacing for one of the group classes was perfect. One was all right but could use a few more activities, while the other - well we raced through my lesson plan and I wound up flying by the seat of my pants for a very long time. I have Divine inspiration to thank for the "Let's Make Up a Story with Sound" exercise that I did with yesterday's students when improvising. 
  3. When teaching at another studio, have a studio contact list on hand in case you need to contact a parent in the case of an emergency or behavioural issue. 

Overall, it was a positive experience. I've learned which students I need to be firm with and which ones I can recruit to take more of a mentoring role with the junior students.

I enjoyed teaching four lovely girls basic conducting gestures and beat patterns.  They giggled a lot and had a great rapport with each other.  

The "Get into The Groove" class challenged me the most. I will need to plan more rhythm exercises, especially ones where they split off into smaller groups. As for the stubborn ones - let's just say that I'm just as good, if not better at digging in my heels. "The Art of Practicing" also wound up being a great group of music students who were very engaged. In discussing how to practice music, we discussed stretching as well as their learning styles and practicing challenges (e.g. "When I Don't Feel Like Practicing"). The conversation also lead to areas I had not thought of incorporating into my presentation - and they should be. Thanks to them, talking about how to practice when injured and speed learning will be incorporated into my presentation. I look forward to the next round of music group classes.

The Big Reveal of Virtual Choir 3.0's Water Night

Yesterday was truly a magical day. After going through a rough morning (Murphy's Law prevailed), I was looking forward to seeing the cheerful faces of my students and the "premiere" of Virtual Choir 3.0. Both were the balm that I needed.


My students had heard about me struggling with my submission for Virtual Choir 3.0 (those pesky trouble spots). How apropos that I watched the premiere with two of my music students via Lincoln Center's live stream.


From the moment that lone water drop touched down and we sang our opening chord, the hairs on my arms stood up and my arms tingled. My students and I were just speechless for several minutes:

Our "performance" of "Water Night" by Grammy-winning composer Eric Whitacre, is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Spiritually, it's a balm and a booster. Truly magical. 

It's a powerful reminder of the power of music, of how art builds community and breaks barriers. A total of 3,746 videos from 2,945 people (singing one or more parts) in 73 countries were submitted.Now pundits can complain about how the cut-offs aren't exact and those "esses" drag on forever, or that we were blended together artificially. To them, I say that the virtual environment is never meant to replace the live environment. Just augment it.

I already sing in my church choir (and play piano AND cajón). I do a bit of collaborating with other musicians. Virtual Choir gives me a new world to explore. Technology to master. "Rehearsals" and "performances" that don't require me to give up teaching time. New repertoire to challenge myself with. New friends.

The singing part of Virtual Choir is only a fraction of the entire experience. I blogged about my Virtual Choir preparation and recording experience here. The real magic of Virtual Choir is "virtual choir makes real connections".

Some Virtual Choir members have been inspired by their experience to join a choir in their neighbourhood. I know of a couple who have signed up for singing lessons as a result of their Virtual Choir experience.

People from my generation may remember having international pen-pals as a child. Now, I have a whole army of pen-pals. With a VC member in numerous timezones, there is always someone available when I am.

We're exchanging gifts, planning visits and so on. I know of one couple who have come together through Virtual Choir.

We celebrate the joys, such as a job interview, a new composition or relationship. We support each other through the rough patches, such as surgery, relationship break-ups and cancer.

I was chatting with some of my choir buddies from the Virtual Choir Army last night and after celebrating the culmination of our hard work with "Water Night", we looked towards the future. Immediately on the horizon is our next multi-track project (singing Morten Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium"). We dreamed about future real-life reunions and Virtual Choir 4.0. We are riding the wave of community and artistry created by Virtual Choir and seeing where it (and technology) will take us next.

So when we see that video, we see the breakdown of barriers. People in isolation coming together. People from countries who aren't on amicable terms singing "beside" each other. We see the we see the growth of those connections. We hear the magic created by people who may never meet, in communion with one another, drawn together to bring the haunting strains of "Water Night" to life.

Bravo Eric! Bravo VC Team! Bravo to all of you, my fellow choristers in Virtual Choir. We've made something truly special here.

Click on image below to check out Eric Whitacre's newest CD, Water Night:

My Virtual Choir 3.0 Experience

Last year, a friend introduced me to the music of Grammy winning composer Eric Whitacre. Within hearing the first two notes of "Sleep", the hair on my arms stood up, as if to say, "This is really something!"
When the announcement was made about Virtual Choir 3.0, I eagerly signed up. Little did I know how eye-opening and how dramatic, the experience would be.
"Water Night" is a haunting piece. Sometimes, I get poetry, but just sometimes. With "Water Night", certain phrases called out to me: "The secret kingdom of the water opens, flowing from the centre of the night," was by far my favourite line, followed by "And if you close your eyes, a river, a silent and beautiful current fills you from within."
I'll say this straight up, "Water Night" is by far the most technically challenging choral piece I've sung. Strong breath support is required to make it through those long phrases. I didn't have it when I began but I have it now.
However, "Silence and solitude, two little animals moon-led, drink in your eyes, drink in those waters," proved to be my nemesis. Bars 27- 28 soon became highlighted, circled and covered up in rainbow colours:

My Water Night Score. How did you guess that I'm a visual learner? Photo by R-M Arca.

It was a hard fight, but my ear training improved to the point that I nailed that interval on the final take.

One month of drilling came down to four days/nights of recording. Four frustrating days and nights of tweaking and re-recording (usually done in the wee hours of the night, after teaching):

Night 1 (January 27 and 28): recorded in piano studio. Discovery: it was too wide of an area. Eight-plus takes coughed up one mediocre track. After experiencing uploading issues to the site, I gave up just before sunrise and sent a call for help to Tony Piper at Virtual Choir HQ.

 Day #2 (January 28): I put a box around the mic to limit what it picked up. All was good until someone walked on the area above my studio within the mic's recording range (at least I knew the mic was good).

Then, there the countless lagging video issues with the conductor track and dropped frames in my recording. Discovery: Someone from Virtual Choir was online, ready to lend a helping hand (usually Jack Rowland in Florida, Kevin Callahan in Maine and Holly Christine Brown in Illinois). I wound up with three mediocre tracks (Bar 27 - 28 was still wobbly at this point). I did another 10 tracks that day, more if you include what I deleted right away.

Day #3 (January 29): While visiting relatives, I tried recording in a spare room. The sound quality sky rocketed. I came up with a work-around to the lagging video issue with some help. Three takes resulted in two good takes. I started ending each take with, "If this is the winning take, thank you to everyone involved with Virtual Choir...."

Water Night Recording

Night #4 (January 30 and 31): Entering the day of the final submission day. I decided to try "one more time" but in my studio bathroom. Takes had to take place whenever the furnace shut off for a spell (it was a cold week). Three takes garnered one that stood head an shoulders above the rest.

But that's just the music side of things. Virtual Choir 3.0 has introduced me to a multitude of choir geeks from around the world. When Eric spoke about the community that has built up, he wasn't exaggerating:


After posting the final take, I joined the throngs who kept checking the submission numbers and encouraged other members who were still working on their recordings. I also couldn't help checking (and re-checking) to make sure my submission was showing up in my VC profile.

Maestro and I celebrated the record number of submissions (3,746 from 73 countries) with people (and pets) from the UK, Australia, Puerto Rico, Canada and the US via Google Hangouts. As a group, we've helped each other with Virtual Choir submissions. We've supported each other through bad days, sad news, health and work problems. We've also celebrated each other's victories - great or small - a good performance, a great shopping spree and most recently, Maestro's birthday. And sometimes, we just hang out e.g. one person knitting, two working, one cooking. There is even talk of having Virtual Choir reunions around the world.

Some of us in Virtual Choir 3.0 are working on more projects together.

This was and continues to be an exciting experience. And speaking of projects, I should start practicing on our next one:

(c) 2012 by Musespeak(TM). All rights reserved.

World Music Exploration - Kanno Yoko's Song for the Victims in Japan

Japanese composer Kanno Yoko has uploaded her latest song, Kimi de Ite, Buji de Ite (Please be yourself, please be safe on Youtube. This song is a tribute to the victims of last week's massive earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan. One cannot help but get teary-eyed while listening to the melancholy, yet hopeful song. Kanno Yoko has composed music for many popular anime, including Cowboy Bebop, Escaflowne, Cardcaptor Sakura and Darker than Black.

Words cannot express the sorrow I feel for all those affected by last week's tragedy. However, the notes of Kanno Yoko's song come pretty close. Hoping and praying for everyone affected, and by all who are affected by natural disasters throughout the world.

(c) 2011 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.

Choir Music Musings

This semester, I'm filling in for the pianist of Okotoks Alliance Church Choir. They are busy preparing for the Christmas concerts. Yes, I know, we're not even past Thanksgiving yet but these things take time to prepare! I haven't sung in a choir since university and it's been a few years since I've "accompanied" (or shall I say, worked as a "collaborative pianist") in this capacity.

I forgot how much fun it was.

There is such a rush when you hear all the voices blending in and filling the room. It's somewhat similar to the rush I got playing in the jazz combos at jazz camp this summer, especialy when we fed off each other's energy and ideas.

I find myself itching to practice Michael W. Smith's setting of Gloria/Lux Venit, because if some of the youtube videos are any indication, the build-up in Gloria is going to give one huge rush to performers and listeners alike.

[Note to those who've heard this - yes, I'm drilling that transition from Lux Venit to Gloria like crazy!]

This is serving as a reminder of how important it is for pianists - who play mostly solo repertoire - to engage in group music activities.

It provides balance, works on our teamwork skills but most of all - it's just plain fun to do.


Here's our performance of Gloria with Lux Venit:

(c) 2009 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.


Post-Examination musings

I had a terrible dream the other night that I got an 83% on my Conservatory Canada Level 7 Contemporary Idioms examination. Normally, I'd be happy with an 83, which is First Class Honors. However, having turned music into a profession, I was aiming for higher. I also wanted to beat my highest exam mark from my youth, an 88% on my Grade 8 RCM practical, which I got on my second attempt.

[Note to students: Get a good night's rest the night before an exam and don't spend it staying up all night to read a juicy novel or else you wind up botching your exam and need to re-take it.]

I digress. I was therefore delighted to log into ConCan's site and find that I scored 88.7% (on my one and only attempt). Now I'm itching to see my exam comments.

So, how was it, you ask?

What a surreal experience. It didn't feel like an examination at all. It was far more relaxed than my RCM examinations in my youth.I vacillated from feeling calm, almost lackadaisical to thinking, "Oh my God! This is my exam. For real. Eek." It felt more like a lesson with a very relaxed examiner. As for the improvising section, I was just jamming along with another teacher.

I felt pretty confident in my technical elements, although my hands weren't completely in sync on my first mode (B Aeolian). Growing up, this was one of my weakest areas so I was determined to show that I've matured.

The same goes for ear, rhythm, sight-reading and keyboard harmony. Gone are the days when I was a panicking mess over two lines of sight reading, stumbling and pausing all the way through. It's amazing what a difference a slow, steady tempo makes, as well as counting out loud!

The repertoire went generally well. A few tiny slips in Gershwin's I Got Rhythm and a few more oddities in Vince Guaraldi's What Child is This? Hey, I was just glad my tempo was there for both. Manteca went quite well as did Thriller Rag.

The examiner stumped me on one of the Viva Voce questions. I didn't research jazz waltz enough so I was winging it with my answer. When he asked about Dizzy Gillespie and Manteca. I said the first thing that popped into my head, "He had big cheeks...I heard him play a while back."

It didn't help that the room had many hard surfaces. I should have compensated more for it but the excitement of the moment kicked in. So, the examiner said I was a little percussive and not melodic enough. Too technical. I've never considered myself a technical player. I've been called "expressive" and "analytical" but never "technical". Until now.

I thought I had dynamics but if anything, I suspect he'll say I needed more contrast and shaping (it's something we always say to our students, why should this time be any different?).

I had a mini-lesson afterwards which was basically like a master class. This added to the "non-exam" feel of the experience.

I felt all right about the exam. I didn't feel terrible either. I simply felt that I could have done better. That is probably what fuelled my dream the other night.

One colleague asked whether I'll prepare for the Level 8 exam. I'd have to think about it. I'm too busy trying to incorporate all these new tricks I learned into my gig repertoire.

(c) 2009 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.