Coastal Sounds: A Case Study In The Power Of Encouragement

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While studying my Masters, I started teaching for The Music Corner, a newly opened music school in Manuels, which is a township of Conception Bay South. In 2006, I discussed with the owners about starting some kind of group singing opportunity through the school. The idea from the beginning was to offer a classroom setting that would be more of a “group voice lesson”, using the choral context as the medium for delivery. Concerts and recitals would happen, but they would be less important than just getting people singing and teaching them to sing well.

Along with The Music Corner, my wife and I started Coastal Sounds (originally called the CBS Community Choir) in January 2007. On the very first night, we had eight people. I really had no idea how many would show up or what the backgrounds of the singers would be. I had prepared Locus Iste from a choral conducting book and an SATB arrangement of The Water Is Wide. Locus Iste was a bit of a disaster (do NOT throw Latin at untrained singers as the first lesson, TRUST me) but the other arrangement ended up being a great first success for the group.

The choir started in unison and slowly built it out into three parts. Because we had so few men in the beginning (in fact, I only had around six guys in the group until a couple of years ago) it was hard to find choral music that included them but didn’t overtax them. Thus began my life long love of the SAB context. I’ve come to realize that SAB repertoire is often underrated and a powerful tool to make group singing happen without too much effort.

We slowly built out The Water Is Wide in three of the four parts. This also taught me a lot about how to plan for three parts in the future. Even in most Level 1 and 2 SATB arrangements, you can sing SAT and the piano will cover the bass notes. I highly recommend using SAB for your community choirs and a lot of SATB arrangements will also have three part, two part or unison alternatives. I continue to use SAB arrangements on a regular basis because they ease the amount of rehearsal time necessary for part singing, and give the men a realistic goal to achieve.

Coastal Sounds amicably broke off into its own non-profit organization three years ago and has continued to grow every year. We now have almost 50 regular members, sing at least two concerts a year, with many more exciting ideas on the horizon for expansion. I teach almost everything by singing and modelling, and I’ll get into more detail about this method in a later post.

The choir has always been available to anyone who has an interest in singing. We have members from many different musical backgrounds. Not everyone reads but the blend of experience with non-experience amongst singers has provided more teaching support that I could have ever anticipated. Those who know more help the ones who don’t. We still bill it as a group voice lesson with no harsh expectation on performance but the choir continues to get better and more capable with each passing season.

As we grew, a very disturbing trend started to emerge amongst almost every person who has ever sang with the group. Year after year, I heard story after horrible story about how a music teacher in the individual’s past told them:

A) They could not sing;

B) They would never be able to sing; and

C) They should only “mouth the words” and not make any sound whatsoever.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that among the vast majority of the people I have taught in Coastal Sounds, someone in their past, directly or indirectly, robbed them of something incredibly important; a lifelong love of making music.

A little tangent. I first met Dr. Doug Dunsmore, now retired professor of choral activities at MUN,  in the summer of 2004 at the Sing Summer Adult Choir Camp sponsored by the Nova Scotia Choral Federation. Of all the wonderful things I came to learn from Doug over the next 10 years, perhaps the most ‘infamous’ one was that he is a lover of sayings; short musical parables that continuously resound over and over, sometimes to the point of polite ribbing from his singers. He has a bunch of them, some of them are even a bit comical, but there’s one, the ‘golden rule’, that came to impact me in a very profound way.

“Singing is 90% brains and 10% talent.”

This echoed because it spoke directly to me and my experience. I had not been a choral singer for very long. Thanks to many great opportunities from 2003 to 2005 in Nova Scotia, I quickly developed enough skills to participate in more challenging music by just doing it as much as I could. Repetition, repetition, repetition. My world quickly became consumed by choir. Meeting Doug was really the turning point for my career. Watching how much fun he had with the singers, along with the positive experiences that I had while conducting, gave me the motivation to make choir and choral conducting my passion.

Now, back to Coastal Sounds. If we hold “Doug’s Rule” to be correct (which I’m living proof that it is), the only missing piece is the amount of time and effort on the part of the singer, and the amount of encouragement and patience on the part of the teacher. After the first few times of being told the same horrible story from a member’s past, I vowed early that I would do whatever I could to encourage anyone to sing who were willing to make a commitment to learn.

Of all these ‘misfits’ who have come to our island to sing over the past 7 years, less than 5% of them have had what society would call ‘tonedeafness’, which is a term I personally hate, because I’ve come to learn it’s actually false. I have come to discover with my private teaching that these individuals actually possess remarkable ability in audiation, but in most cases, there are so many physical barriers (nervousness, upper body tension, poor breath support) that the singer is just completely incapable of phonating the pitch they’re audiating. I have worked with two singers for the past number of months who have come to Coastal Sounds but were having pitch matching problems, and with enough training and muscle development, they are finding way more success than they ever had before. I tell all my private students that from the beginner all the way up to the professional, going to a private music lesson is like going to the gym. Sometimes, no matter how much you ‘know’ something, you need to work it out for it to grow. Corrective repetition.

There are a few other simple factors that create success in Coastal Sounds. Because I do have singers who can read and follow their lines, they end up singing a bit more confidently than the others. While singing in three parts, the right answer in any given part is always present in some capacity. I regularly encourage my singers to become better listeners as well. Take a person who comes in convinced that they would never sing, sit them next to a person who can sing the part, and once the tension of having to sing alone wears off, they succeed brilliantly. Most of the time it’s ‘chickenissimo’ (another Dougism) at first because they lack confidence, but the fact remains that they can do it.

Here’s one of my own musical parables:

“If you have done something correctly once, there’s no logical reason why you can’t do it correctly every single time.”

All I do as the director of Coastal Sounds is to show people how easy singing can be (once you know a few simple rules on how to do it well), give them the experience that they can indeed sing, and encourage them when they do it correctly. With this simple methodology, I have seen the blossoming of incredible amateur musicians who genuinely have a love for what they’re doing. To think that so many of these people lived DECADES carrying around the curse of belief that they could not sing only motivates me to help as many more people as I can.

I have never put too much impetus or pressure on the performances we do. No matter how well I can get something to sound in rehearsal, the spectre of self doubt is still alive and strong in many people. Although I continue to give them positive experience after positive experience in concert, there are those who will always be plagued with stage fright. But even with the occasional ‘improvisation’ from the choir, the looks on everyone’s faces are the true truthtellers. Coastal Sounds members have fun making music. And in the end, isn’t that the most important thing of all?

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Do The Right Thing: BUY YOUR MUSIC (from me!)

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Please share this post with your fellow teachers, conductors and arts administrators.

We’ve all done it. We’ve all copied something we shouldn’t.

We make a lot of excuses for it, we claim to be using it only in a ‘fair use’ capacity, and sometimes our choirs are so broke and desperate that in order to make music happen, it’s either copy or be forced to search even harder for acceptable repertoire in the public domain (which there is lots to be found).

Composers know it happens. Publishers know it happens. Sometimes a choral director at a disadvantaged school has to stand at the photocopier weeping like after a bad night of drinking, chanting “Never again!”. We all know it’s wrong and my hope is that as a choral community, we’re all working hard to minimize it as much as possible.

All that being said, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that from a purely logical and moral standpoint, copying is bad for our art.

I adore Canadian choral music. I’ll be honest, I’ve been an Eleanor Daley fan for a very long time and she motivates me as a truly Canadian choral hero. When I sang with the MUN Chamber Choir during my Masters, we travelled to Toronto and sang in her church. It was difficult to accept she was just a normal individual; even though my life as a chorister is relatively short compared to others, her name popped up a lot with the shimmer of celebrity. Standing in her presence, seeing her office where she wrote and continues to write, seeing her sitting at the organ while the congregation was just sitting and not cheering her entrance in a Justin Bieber type fashion; it was all very surreal. Hey, we’re all welcome to our obsessions, forgive me mine.

Eleanor is just one of Canada’s most prized composers and all of these giants have paved a great road for the future composers of Canada’s choral music. Choirs who performed at Podium 2014 (naturally) had significantly featured Canadian choral works, some of them brand spanking new. I get a real charge from seeing the celebration of our own music and of these emerging composers who, with encouragement and support, will flourish for decades to come.

I am proud to say that the Coastal Sounds Community Choir has had a policy in place since its inception that choristers would be responsible for purchasing their own music. It’s exciting for me to think that in the homes of all my singers, there exists a personal choral library that may one day be handed down to others who will celebrate it themselves. The choir subsidizes the shipping and a portion of the cost, so it does not become too much of a cost burden on the singers. Pieces often get reused, anyway. It becomes theirs for life, their markings and their notes.

We must do what we can to support the Canadian composers and publishers who continue to furnish our art with beautiful fuel. You can help them and also help support my writing simultaneously by considering Sheet Music Plus for your music purchases. I have been using SMP for Coastal Sounds for many years and I have always had great success with them. Not only do they have a wide and assorted variety of choral music from a bevy of publishers (including Canadian ones), but their website is supremely easy to use. Most pieces come with inside peeks and often full recordings. There is also a very large digital print library where you can print your purchases for immediate use. I find the website is very handy for aiding in the research for new music, which is often already a time-stealing task.

If you click on any of the ads on my website and purchase through Sheet Music Plus, you will help support my blogging and choral efforts in the future. You can also bookmark and use this link, it will take you to their Choral Music landing page:

www.sheetmusicplus.com/m/AndrewCranston

I appreciate any support I can get. We all normally do, and all should buy everything we use. Please consider buying it through Sheet Music Plus and supporting my website.

Whenever I mention a piece of music in my blog posts, I will link to its page on the Sheet Music Plus site. I have already collected a list of favourites from Coastal Sounds and other works I’ve conducted, which you can find here. Soon I will be blogging about the generous and passionate choral publishers we have in Canada and my positive experiences with them at Podium 2014.

Thank you for your support and thanks for reading!

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What It Was Like To Sing and Conduct In Carnegie Hall

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I said in my last post that I wouldn’t list any specific NL choir for fear of forgetting someone, but you’ll have to indulge me a little bragging about my own amazing choir families (“like you would”, as the Newfoundlanders say). My bias may be showing but singing in the Quintessential Vocal Ensemble has given me some of the best musical experiences of my life. And on May 24, 2014, it gave me the greatest of them all (so far, anyway).

Back about a year ago, our gregarious and fearless leader, Susan Quinn, was invited to bring QVE down to New York City for a MidAmerica Productions concert. Susan had her Carnegie Hall debut in 2010 when she conducted Vivaldi’s Gloria for MidAmerica. In agreeing to participate in another mass choir/orchestral offering, Susan was granted a half hour spot on this concert for QVE alone. Needless to say that once we learned this, we were bouncing off the walls with excitement. Fundraisers and plans began immediately.

With over 200 voices, a children’s choir, soloists and the New England Symphonic Ensemble, the mass work we performed was “To Be Certain Of The Dawn”, a Holocaust memorial oratorio by Stephen Paulus with libretto by Michael Dennis Browne. The work was challenging but very musically rewarding.

The original plan of this concert was to sing the “Sunrise Mass” by Ola Gjello which the choir was excited about at first because we had recently performed it back in 2012. Here’s a few highlights from us singing it.

We started preparing in January, premiering our repertoire for the hometown crowd on April 27th before we left. Our Carnegie Hall set list was as follows:

“Te Lucis ante terminum” (Gyongyosi Levente)
“Water Night” (Eric Whitacre)
“Searston Beach” from “The Al Pittman Suite” (Kathleen Allan)
“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” (arr. Moses Hogan)

The last two pieces were both by Canadian composer Leonard Enns, the first being “As On Wings”, a newly commissioned work by QVE commemorating the Newfoundland connection to 9/11, and more specifically, the involvement of Holy Heart High School, where Susan has been the music teacher for many years.

I … saw these huge planes coming, one at a time, through the Narrows and I thought how after hundreds of years people are still seeking the shelter of our harbour.

Leslie Kennedy, English teacher, Holy Heart High School, used as text for “As On Wings” by Leonard Enns

The second Enns piece was “Te Deum Brevis” and Susan generously gave me the life changing opportunity to conduct this piece in Carnegie Hall. As excited as the choir was about going, it was all I could do to contain my own excitement as the date got closer. Since joining in 2012, I have conducted them in performance a couple of times and working with them has been incredibly influential in my development as a conductor. Here is a video from my YouTube channel of me conducting them through Whitacre’s “A Boy And A Girl”.

Leonard graciously came to the concert and even worked with us on the Friday evening before. It was awesome that he was there to share it with us, along with many of our family and friends.

Once we got into the hall the first time on Saturday for a dress rehearsal, we were all immediately astonished by the acoustics. They can only be described as ‘perfect’. The stage forms into a bowl shape and as you can see from the above photo, we were able to stand in our normal formation and you could hear everything. To give you an idea of what I mean by perfect, in between one phrase I remember, many members of the choir collectively swallowed and you could hear it clear as day. But as we sang, you could also hear every member of the choir clear as day as well. We blended together beautifully because unlike most of the venues back home, everyone could hear everyone else. Like I said, perfect.

After a great dress rehearsal, we were on pins and needles until the curtain time finally came. Being led onto the most famous stage in North America to a nearly full house was a truly surreal experience. The performance was incredible. We sang as well as we possibly could and the audience awarded us with a standing ovation along with the loud cheers of those who had come so far to see us sing.

When I stepped out of the choir to conduct the Enns, I was not nervous at all. I was filled with nothing but trust that I had done everything I could to prepare them and that they would absolutely kill it like the professionals they are. I was not to be disappointed.

I knew that as soon as I came home, I was going to be inundated with the question from all of my choir families:

“So, what was it like to conduct in Carnegie Hall?!”

I knew the question was coming but it wasn’t until days after the concert that I was finally able to form a cogent response.

It was as close to God as I’ve ever been.

In order to explain what I mean by this, you need to know just a little about the ‘religious’ me. Without getting too boring and technical, my main metaphysical viewpoint in life is that we are all sharing energy with each other everywhere we go. Good energy and bad energy. I heard John Leguizamo on TV the other day refer to it as a “soul exchange”.

I’m going to give you a little piece of my soul tonight, and if you give me a little piece of yours and we do this right, we’re going to have a soul exchange right here on this stage.

John Leguizamo

When I’m with my choir in church, I get the honour of helping people participate in their own personal worship every week through the power of music. You can feel the energy being sent upward by everyone. You can then feel it rain gently and mildly back down on all of us. I find prayer can be a very real force in the world if looked upon as simply the generation of positive energy. Not to mention the powerful energy I get from my choir as I lead them to share their gifts with the congregation.

The energy amongst QVE was high the minute we landed in NYC and grew exponentially with each passing day. As I was conducting them, I felt the choir releasing that pent-up energy like white hot blazing arcs of lightning, hitting me all at once. It was overwhelming. It was the greatest high I’d ever experienced as a musician. I felt myself outside of my body and floating inside the music. Gestures flew out of me that I had not known were possible. At the end I threw my hands up in the air because I wanted to hear the last chord of the piece ring in those beautiful acoustics as long as I could. It was an intense few minutes to say the least.

Afterwards, as we were leaving the stage, I wept inconsolably for a good 10 minutes. I had shared more energy at once than ever before in my life. I can only describe it as a religious experience, something that cannot be put into words or quantified with measurement. It changed me irrevocably. In those few moments, I truly felt like a conduit for the choir to share their pride and talent with the audience and I can’t thank them enough for allowing me to share that with them.

This trip would not have been as successful without the awe-inspiring talent that is the Quintessential Vocal Ensemble, and our dear leader, Susan Quinn. Susan has inspired me in so many ways as a singer, conductor and teacher. I owe her everything for giving me this privilege and QVE is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

I love you, QVE. You’re the best.

We took this selfie just after walking off stage from our brilliant performance.  Ellen, eat your heart out.

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