Thursday, August 21, 2014

Instrument Maintenance

As instrumentalists, we are constantly aware of the steps we need to take to maintain our instruments. New strings need to be installed. Pads need to be replaced. Sadly, student musicians sometimes neglect the maintenance due to the expense involved. I am convinced that another type of maintenance is equally important for our success: the personal maintenance of our bodies.

The musician's physical body is integral to the production of good sound. We must ensure our physical health through proper nutrition, exercise, and adequate rest. Additionally, performing artists may find that support devices such as wrist braces allow the body to heal while preventing further irritation and damage from unnatural movements. Massage therapy can also be helpful in relaxing muscles in order to allow them to function properly.

Our mental, spiritual, and emotional health cannot be overlooked either. In order to be a healthy musician, we must seek out methods to release stress. Some find activities such as reading, hiking, or crossword puzzles helpful in calming the mind's activity. I enjoy using prayer journals and meditation to clear my thoughts while connecting me to the strength I find in my own spiritual pursuits. Regular conferences with a trusted mentor or professional counselor can also be useful in dealing with issues related to our mental health. Regardless of the methods you employ, the important thing is to make sure that you are carefully maintaining the most important parts of your instrument -- your body, mind, spirit, and emotions.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sea-Snatch and The Praises of God: A Look at Two of Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs

The summer is winding down and it's time to get to work on some pieces that are scheduled to be performed in the fall. Instead of just learning the notes and keeping all of my thoughts to myself, I thought it would be fun to share what I'm learning about the pieces and any practice tips I discover along the way.

First, we need to know a little about the Hermit Songs themselves. This cycle of 10 songs was composed in 1953 by Barber and was premiered that same year by Leontyne Price with the composer at the piano.

Sea-Snatch is the 6th song in the cycle and features an ostinato bass line in the piano that serves as the unifying figure of the work. The surging accompaniment is mostly in alternating rhythmic patterns of five and four. Melodically, the bass line continually keeps the opening vocal line before us.

One of the technical challenges the pianist faces is exacerbated by the tendency of many singers and pianists to rush the perpetual eighth notes just as the difficult parallel fourths appear in measures 7. A similar passage returns at the song's conclusion (beginning in measure 27). Let's look at the first of these passages. While the musical structure is one continuous legato line, the phrase is technically divided into groups of two; the successive F's in the fourths can easily be played with the index finger, providing a nice anchor for the entire passage.

The interlude between the verses is the most active passage of the short song. Upon listening to various recordings -- including Barber accompanying Price -- it is clear that the passage is demanding and rarely played cleanly. Some pianists recommend dropping some of the octaves for single notes instead. Others opt to simplify the right hand.  At this point, I am not using either of these options. To aid in fitting things together, I continued using block chords as found on the downbeat of measure 20 before slowly breaking the chords into the two eighth note figure.

The most helpful discovery came from listening to the Barber/Price recording. Barber inserts two rather sizable lifts, interrupting the accompaniment's perpetual motion.  These breaks occur at the end of measure 9 and again just before the final two chords in the lowest register of the piano. Additionally, the composer took a bit of time in measure 19 before launching into the massive interlude.

Once the notes are in hand, settling on a tempo that is comfortable for both pianist and singer will be essential. I am certain there will be a compromise made as we prepare for recital.

The 9th piece in the cycle is The Praises of God and poses some challenges for my relatively small hands. The piece is largely built on broken tenths; to further complicate things, the metric organization appears much more complex than what is commonly found in Barber's other songs. What I found most helpful was to begin with the B major section in the middle of the song first. This section begins firmly in 6/8 and remains in that meter through the end of the vocal line. Next, I turned my attention to the postlude and acquainted myself with the broken 10ths of the accompaniment. Most of the tenths move in third relationships (but beware of the fifth movement in measure 28 though!)

The most challenging portion of the song for me was the transition into the B major section (measures 10-12). I'm not sure if this is due to the dastardly annoying page turn separating measure 12 from the others or the inclusion of a measure of 3/8 before shifting back to 5/8. Regardless of the reason, this is the passage with which I will be spending a lot of time in the weeks ahead.

For now, it's time to head back to the practice room and continue working on these beautiful songs at slow tempi before adding the vocal line to the ensemble!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Piano Festival Adjudication

I've been following the posts over at Piano Teacher Central on Facebook (an amazing network and wealth of knowledge if you haven't discovered it yet) and was struck by one post in particular that got me thinking. A teacher had just received comments from a festival her students had participated in recently. As luck would have it, the majority of her highly motivated students had one adjudicator; those who were a little more lax in their preparation had a different judge. When the scores were compared, the better students received scores roughly 5% lower than their less-prepared counterparts because the commentators had different standards for their scores. What's a teacher to do?

My first thought is that this is one of the difficulties (dare I say, failures?) of many piano festivals. When multiple adjudicators are involved, a common standard is needed to ensure fairness across the board. While many of the qualities being judged are subjective and a matter of personal taste, there are some aspects of the music on which we can all agree. I experienced this discrepancy myself as an adjudicator. While listening to students, I was most concerned with their musicality and overall communication. My esteemed colleague was solely addressing the technical aspects of the music. In reality, the two characteristics cannot be separated; it's only when we place greater emphasis on one or the other that scores can become skewed.

When adjudicating, I think it's important to encourage the student in their efforts. Commend them for what's going right. However, we also have a responsibility to offer constructive criticism that will help the student continue to develop. It's a balancing act for sure, and very challenging when we find ourselves making comments in a short amount of time in order to keep the festival on schedule.

Students need to know that judges are offering their opinions . . .and that we may not always agree about subjective aspects of music. In my own studio, I try to prepare students for this aspect of music by offering opportunities to respond to the music they've heard. Sometimes we make comments about performances heard in group classes. We also listen to excerpts in lessons followed by a student critique. I always ask students to comment on their own playing before I begin talking. These exercises allow the student to see that everyone has an opinion about the performance. While we don't always see things the same way, it does give the student a little taste of the hard job of offering feedback while preparing them to think critically about their own playing.

When we teach our students to focus on the experience of performing rather than the scores they receive, we begin to develop artists that are confident in their abilities in spite of less than favorable reviews or harsh criticism. Their focus becomes their personal love of making music and effectively communicating with the audience. And THAT'S the ultimate prize!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The American Sound?

While we celebrated our nation's independence last week, we heard lots of patriotic music. It came in many styles, written throughout our country's existence. While the idioms may have changed, the texts consistently express a willingness to stand for freedom while recognizing the blessings of Heaven on our land.

The sounds, however, have not been as consistent. Take away the words and what's left is a conglomeration of sounds taken from around the world. We hear the influences of the German chorale as well as African rhythms. So it's got me wondering, what is the modern American sound? Can we truly define it apart from the lyrics? I don't have an answer at all at the moment, so I'm hoping to hear your thoughts and insights on this topic in the comments below.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Pieces Every Collaborative Pianist Should Be Acquainted With - Trumpet Edition

I've been in conversations recently with a pianist who is just beginning to explore collaborative work. As we talked, he asked for suggestions of important repertoire to learn. Rather than just spouting off an answer, I asked him which instrument he would most enjoy working with right away. His response? Trumpet.

This got me to thinking. Wouldn't it be great to have a recommended list of repertoire sorted by instrument type that gave pianists a starting point for learning important works they would encounter? I know it certainly would have been a great benefit to me in my early years as a collaborative pianist when I had a bit more time to learn notes at a more relaxed pace.

Back to my friend. Since I had spent a lot of time playing in the trumpet studio in graduate school, I was able to come up with suggestions based on my experiences fairly quickly. My recommendations were (in no particular order):

  • Paul Hindemith, Sonata
  • Halsey Stevens, Sonata
  • Kent Kennan, Sonata
  • Joseph Haydn, Concerto in Eb Major
  • Georges Enesco, Legende

What pieces would you have included in this list? I still wish we had a list like this for the major instruments....with comments about some of the challenges and maybe even a little historical background on the piece. (Could this be a project for me to tackle? Hmmm....) Does such a list exist somewhere that you are aware of? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Change of Scenery

Our practice routines are normally quite structured and regulated. I tend to begin my day at the piano with scales followed by either Czerny, Hanon, or the opening section of some Baroque or Classical piece that gets my fingers moving. After this, I'll begin to move to issues in my repertoire that need attention or polish before moving on to learning notes in new pieces. It's not uncommon to hear a few measures repeated multiple times to gain control or commit the passage to memory.

Not only are our processes marked by routine. I tend to enjoy practicing late in the morning and then again before dinner. There is a dent in the floor below my piano keyboard where I have regularly placed my feet while playing. The routine of our practice can sometimes become a hindrance as well. At times, our practice sessions can benefit from a change of scenery.

Last week, a black key (specifically the D# above middle C) detached from my piano while I was practicing Jeux d'eau by Ravel. Who would think that a single key would have such an impact on the rehearsal process? With auditions and performances on the horizon, I couldn't spare the time off because my piano was out of commission. I needed to find an alternate space to practice.

What I found was the sanctuary of the church I'm currently attending. That single session was invaluable! Because of the size of the room, I began to hear things I hadn't noticed in my home studio. For pianists, a new space also involves a different instrument. The sanctuary grand, a Baldwin, had a very sluggish action that didn't respond as I had hoped. (Am I the only pianist that CRINGES when I see a Baldwin that I'm expected to play? Inevitably, I tend to find them everywhere I go.) Even though I wasn't immediately getting the warm tones I desired, I was getting an opportunity to work on my adaptability to new situations.

This summer, take a chance, break out of your comfortable routine, and schedule a rehearsal in a different location. In addition to churches, you might investigate theater spaces, libraries, or even a private home with higher ceilings. If your instrument is easily moved, think about practicing in a secluded park among a cluster of trees. Wherever you choose to practice, the unusual setting will reveal aspects of your playing you weren't hearing before. Who knows? You might even find yourself inspired with a new interpretation or approach to the music. That's the ultimate goal of all of our practicing, after all.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Recruiting Students

In a recent conversation with a colleague, the topic of student recruitment was raised. As we talked about the necessity and challenges of recruiting quality students to our college programs, I began to realize that the challenge is much the same for a private teacher as it is for the college music department. As I've continued to reflect on this topic, these are a few key factors that came to my mind.

  • Visibility is essential. In order to draw students, they must know where we are and what we have to offer. A teacher or music department that does not have an active performing and/or lecturing schedule is certain to fall away into obscurity. What does this look like? In addition to recital appearances, the teacher should also actively participate in adjudication and master classes as a clinician whenever possible. Visibility is further enhanced through a powerful presence on social media outlets. Hosting various workshops, festivals, and group instruction opportunities can also put a music department on the radar of potential students.
  • Know your limitations! No teacher is strong in every area of musical instruction. Know where your strengths lie and focus on recruiting those students. A small music department with strengths in musical theater, accompanying, and classical performance should not focus their recruitment efforts on jazz players. The students will be disappointed, the faculty will not shine, and a negative reputation for the institution will result. Focus on what you know best and do that with excellence!
  • Don't ignore the community's impact. Some of the best marketing around comes by word of mouth. Look for opportunities to involve the local community in your music making and reap the benefit of positive feelings about your program. Music departments might host a community choir or theater group. To reach families with young children, a school could offer quality musical instruction at a reasonable price through a community music school. The private teacher can be an active participant in their local chapter of MTNA and participate in local amateur activities while establishing themselves as a gifted professional. Additionally, the private teacher might provide short seminars through a local arts council. Interactions of this type can often lead to greater involvement in the future.
  • Foster a sense of stability. If a private teacher wants to recruit a number of new students, families must sense that you are investing in the long-term development of the students. You have to put down some roots in the community. Music departments must make strides to eliminate constant faculty turn over. What serious student in their right mind would plan to attend a school where there is a high probability that they will have two or three different master teachers over the course of their collegiate career? That's the Catch-22 in higher education. Many small schools want to develop greater draw and retention among music majors, but they are unwilling to invest the finances to permit qualified, passionate faculty to make a long-term investment in the department necessary to build the program.
What other actions that lead to successful student recruitment and retention come to your mind? What has been most effective in your personal studio or college music department? What challenges have you faced? I'd love to hear about it all in the comments below.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Online Marketing for the Musician

Much of modern business is done digitally. We go to the Internet to find services we need while making comparisons and seeking the best value. Music is not exempt. Music professionals must have an online presence to establish their credibility and reach a wider audience.

I was reminded of the importance of my own Internet presence last spring. I received a phone call from a music professor in central Mississippi asking if I would adjudicate a piano festival. I was excited to participate and wanted to thank whoever had recommended me. As our conversation continued, I learned that my blog, Facebook page, and video performances led him to his final decision.

When I first began my career, I had no idea how to begin marketing myself. I still do not claim to be a master in this area and have much to learn. Here are a few things that I have learned about over the years that I offer as ideas to get you started in online marketing.

  • Create a website. This is the first point of contact for most people on the Internet. It sort of functions as your home base. Many sites offer inexpensive hosting and make basic designs accessible for the beginner. I highly recommend purchasing a domain name that is easy to remember and allows your clients to find you.  (My website is currently used exclusively to schedule rehearsals with me.)
  • Blog regularly. I've struggled with this point myself. Nothing draws attention better than regularly written posts that are honest, informative, and thought provoking. Collaborations began as a blog focused on chamber music; its focus quickly broadened to include teaching, rehearsal techniques, pedagogy, and anything else that came about as I began to pursue a career as a pianist. It's fine to have a mix of humorous and scholarly posts. The most important thing about blogging at the start is consistency.
  • Make video and audio recordings available of your work. Most of us immediately think of uploading videos to YouTube.com. If you are like me, I also have audio files that would get lost on the video-based site. I have found Soundcloud.com to be an easy alternative for housing these audio files. Ideally, you will include links to your sample performances on your website. Just remember that these sites also benefit from fresh material; update your recordings as often as you can.
  • Offer scheduling of rehearsals and lessons online. This has been a life saver for me! Rather than rehashing the details here, check out this post from November, 2013 for information about my positive experiences with the website web-appointments.com.  
  • Facebook pages are relatively easy to set up and can reach a wide audience. Posts can include links to blogs, audio and video files, announcements about upcoming appearances, as well as sharing information about your daily musical life. Your goal is to get people talking. The problem can sometimes come in finding the balance between too many and too few posts. It's a balancing act that depends upon your audience.
That's just the tip of the iceberg of online marketing for musicians. The summer is the perfect time to begin exploring one or two of these. If you begin a blog or Facebook page, add a link in the comments section below. I'd love to follow you and find out what's going on in your corner of the musical world as well.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

An Example of Failure in Public School Music

A few weeks ago, I attended my niece's middle school choir concert. I have never been more appalled by a student concert! The program featured 3 choirs -- a girls' advanced ensemble, a beginner girls' chorus, and a traditional mixed group -- and 8 soloists selected from the groups through an audition process. If I didn't feel the need to support my niece, I would have walked out as soon as her choir had finished singing.

Let's examine the concert. Truthfully, the choirs did not sound that bad -- they were just very young. The tone quality was certainly not on par with other middle school choirs in the area. The repertoire was exclusively arrangements of pop songs. I realize this is the music the students enjoy, but the one-sided approach does little to develop their skills and prepare them for success as they enter the high school program.  Of the 8 soloists, only 3 or 4 showed the ability to confidently maintain pitch. To go further, only 2 of these students displayed appropriate polish to be included in a public performance. The evening's pianist did not provide the driving rhythmic vitality the young voices desperately needed.

In my opinion, the failure of this concert rests firmly on the shoulders of the director. Her comments throughout the concert gave some insight. She did not speak with authority or conviction; rather, her comments came across as bumbling because of lack of preparation. She constantly referred to the fact that these songs represented artists she enjoyed. I wonder how much thought was given to their educational value for the young singers? Most damning, however, was her statement that this was the first departing class that had been entirely under her direction. In other words, the choral program no longer reaped the benefits of the teachers who came before her.

Perhaps this concert was an abnormal performance for this choral program. Every musician knows that you are only as good as your last performance. Sadly, I can now understand why funding is being pulled from arts education in the public schools if this is the result. It's time to make it a viable option financially for excellent musicians to teach our children rather than having to settle for anything less than excellent musical training.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lessons School Didn't Teach

School doesn't teach everything we need to know for a career as a collaborative pianist. We definitely get a solid grounding in music history, theory, and performance. What I have found most difficult to learn are the important lessons rarely discussed in the classroom. Here are a few of the conversations I wish someone had had with me before leaving school.


  • Repertoire lists are important...and challenging! Every music school should advise students to maintain a thorough repertoire list on the first day of class! It's also important to determine what material is included. Is it limited to only works performed publicly or does it include every piece of music I successfully navigate in lessons? Should it only represent what I'm prepared to perform at a moment's notice? Those questions just address content, too! There are issues of organization and layout as well as developing a plan of how and when to update the list.
  • Practicing smart is essential. If you are working as a musician, the reality is that you may not have large chunks of time to devote to personal practice. It's important that you learn how to make the most of short segments of time scattered throughout the day as well as developing skills to learn music very rapidly.
  • Knowing how to play does not completely equip you to teach. Teaching is an art that every pianist should develop. You probably don't want to start with more than 3 or 4 students though. There is much more involved than simply showing a student where to place their hands on the keyboard! It takes time as well as trial and error to develop your skills as a pedagogue. Teaching group lessons and lecturing about music are also challenging (and fulfilling) opportunities the pianist should explore.
There are many other topics such as pricing, scheduling, and turning down gigs that need to be discussed as well. What lessons have you learned? Share your advice and experiences in the comment section below.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Playing Through the Pain

The Spring 2014 semester at Union University has closed and it's time for some reflection. The term was filled with joy and sorrow for the entire campus, but was especially felt by the music department. In the midst of all of this, I struggled with severe headaches just as the bulk of my recitals came to the stage. For the first time in my career, I found myself needing to play through the pain.

As pianists, we are ever mindful of our hands and arms. Before proceeding, let me be perfectly clear: I DO NOT ADVOCATE PLAYING WHEN PAIN OCCURS IN THE HANDS OR MUSCLES ASSOCIATED WITH THE PHYSICAL MOVEMENT OF PLAYING. There are times, however, when we are dealing with pain in other areas -- physically or emotionally -- and do not have the luxury of canceling. These are the times that the show must simply go on. Here are a few things I learned that helped me play through the pain.

  • Consult your doctor quickly. Pain is not normal and should not be ignored. A visit to the doctor can put your mind at ease, (hopefully) diagnose the problem, and provide information and relief from the pain. (At the time of this writing, my doctors and I have not determined the cause of my headaches. I'm taking comfort in the fact that some things have been ruled out and the pain is being effectively managed with medication.)
  • Rely on your preparation. You learned the music when you were feeling better. You invested the necessary time to thoroughly prepare the repertoire for performance. Now is the time to have confidence in the process and allow some aspects of the music to happen automatically.
  • Adjust your expectations. When feeling less than perfect, most musicians will not play as well as they normally would. Rather than becoming frustrated with the results, acknowledge the effect your health has on your playing and know that you will play as beautifully as you possibly can in the moment.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for adjustments. Are the lights exasperating your ailment? Can an adjustment in the stage arrangement make movement less painful? You are an integral part of the performance, so ask for modifications. Those sharing the stage with you are probably aware of your health issues and want to be accommodating if at all possible for the benefit of the performance as a whole.
  • Breathe! Now that the concert is under way, it's time to enjoy the music as much as you can. There's no harm in taking a cleansing breath on stage between movements or slightly extending your time off stage.  If an extra moment allows you to communicate more effectively, your audience will graciously wait.
I hope none of you ever find yourself needing to play while in pain. If you do, take comfort that many times your audience will never know if you take the necessary steps to relax and give the best performance you can in the given circumstances.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Symphony Surprises

On Monday evening, I returned to my alma mater to hear the University of Memphis Symphony Orchestra present its first concert of the semester. While many of the faces on stage have changed, I was extremely impressed with the quality of music coming from the stage.

When I looked at the program upon taking my seat, I didn't have high hopes. The performance featured winners of the 2013 Soloist Competition. There have been some wonderful winners in the past; my problem was with the instruments listed.  Winners played clarinet, cello, and EUPHONIUM! Really? I was expecting a night that I simply had to get through without falling asleep.

The opening piece, Concert Fantasia on Motives from Rigoletto by Luigi Bassi, was lively and well played. I was mesmerized by the student's technique; I was distracted by my dread of the next piece on the program. (Hey! I'm just being honest!) When John Stevens' Euphonium Concerto (2004) began, I was delighted to realize just how wrong my preconceived ideas had been. The first movement of the concerto was an adventure in sound that delighted. Soloist Geoff Durbin displayed absolute control of the instrument and masterfully colored sounds.

The highlight of the concert, however, was Schelomo by Ernest Bloch. The piece for cello and orchestra is described as a Hebraic Rhapsody, inspired by the writings of Solomon in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Cellist Nathan Cottrell's playing grabbed my ears and refused to let go. His passionate performance conveyed a sense of the questioning and searching of the Hebrew people. I was reminded of how much I have enjoyed listening to Bloch's music and again made a mental note to check out more of this composer's repertoire.

One of the things I love most about music is its ability to surprise and invigorate listeners despite their expectations. That's the mark of great music and powerful performances.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Bach Documentary

While surfing the Internet looking for material to share with my online music appreciation class, I found an amazing documentary on the life and music of J.S. Bach.  Bach: A Passionate Life was produced by the BBC with narration by the English conductor, John Eliot Gardiner. The documentary is extremely interesting and contains excerpts from many of Bach's sacred works, including the St. John and St. Matthew Passions as well as the Mass in B Minor.  Approximately 90 minutes in duration, it is a worthy investment for every musician and music lover.


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Voices of the Oppressed

I am in the process of slowly reading Rebecca Rischin's For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet. I find myself deeply moved to think that such tremendous music could have possibly been produced in the midst of the tragedy of the Holocaust. I've never had the opportunity to perform any of the Quartet for the End of Time, but it is definitely on my bucket list.

Last week, the arts and humanities faculty at Mid-South Community College were challenged to brainstorm possible topics for inter-disciplinary courses that we might develop in the future. Since my mind was already dealing with the Holocaust, I immediately began to think of an appropriate way to work the Messiaen into a larger course for non-musician undergraduates. My thought was a course combining history, literature, music, and art that focuses on the oppressed.

At first, I thought the topic would be far too disturbing for most students. Then I began to realize that in many of these situations, the creative arts express a level of hope that exceeds the bounds of the victims' situations and looks to the freedom that is promised in the future. Many of the works are grounded in a common faith that there is a Higher Being at work in our lives. I was encouraged to think of the impact such a study might have on students who are facing personal difficulties in the Delta.

Which oppressed groups would we explore? That's still open for debate. From a musical perspective, I clearly thought of the spirituals of the American slave as well as the importance of music in the 20th century Civil Rights movement. Messiaen's quartet represents the music of the Holocaust as well as the piano solos of Gideon Klein. It would also be interesting to compare the music of South Africa during the days of Apartheid with the American Civil Rights songs, as well.

When you think of music of an oppressed people, what music comes to mind? I'd love to have your feedback and ideas.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Understanding Classical Music: Texture

Many children discover that they prefer food of a specific texture. Toddlers tend to prefer foods that are smooth and easy to chew.  As the child ages, he becomes more willing to explore new textures as long as there is a comfortable and appealing taste at the forefront. With maturity, we learn to appreciate the variety and contrast that vegetables and delicate sauces bring.

Music can also be described as having various textures. Some compositions have a single melody line that soars above an unobtrusive accompaniment. Others are marked by a single musical line that dances about our ears without the aid of any other sound. Still others delight our senses as the multiple melodies intertwine, making a beautifully complex sum of its individual parts.

There are three basic types of musical texture.  First comes monophony. Monophony literally means "one sound." Monophonic music is the simplest in texture, having only one musical line. No contrasting accompanying figures compete or support the line. It is not a matter of how many voices or instruments are involved, but rather that they are all "singing" the same musical line.  A child singing a familiar nursery rhyme alone on a playground is an example of monophony. A classroom full of children singing the same nursery rhyme in unison without an accompaniment also constitutes monophonic music.

In art music, monophony is most obviously found in Gregorian chant of the Medieval era. Monophony can be used in later eras as well when a composer wants to draw special attention to the melody. To hear an example of monophony, listen to this Kyrie.

Homophony implies "same sound." Homophonic music has multiple voices (or musical lines) that are all supporting a single melody.  In other words, a simple melody is set against a chordal accompaniment. The supporting voices never threaten to take the interest away from the melody. Many early art songs and arias are homophonic in texture.  The aria "Tu se morta" from Monteverdi's Orfeo demonstrates the use of homophony in early opera. The texture can also be heard in Chopin's Nocturne in Eb Major. (While the accompaniment of both pieces is rather active, notice that the melody is always the focus; the accompaniment simply serves to propel the piece along.)

Polyphony is quite possibly the most commonly found musical texture. Polyphonic music has multiple voices that are all of equal importance. That's why we call it polyphony, meaning "many sounds." Polyphonic music is the most complex texture and the most interesting to our ears. As an example of polyphony, listen to this fugue by J.S. Bach as well as the energetic "Gloria" from Bernstein's Mass.

It is important to remember that textures can change within a single composition. So a composer can begin with polyphony, briefly shift to monophony and/or homophony, before returning to polyphony. Want to hear an example of mixing textures? I can think of no better example than Handel's glorious Hallelujah Chorus!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Preparing for the Olympics

I am not an athlete. Any activity that involves a ball or blades is simply not for me. Every few years, though, I become an armchair athlete as I root on the Olympians gathered to represent their nations in sporting events of all kinds. One of my favorite parts of the Games is watching the medal ceremonies. I'm moved by the passion of the athletes who have dedicated so much of their life for this moment. I also enjoy hearing the national anthems of the triumphant nations.

I don't think I am in the minority when I admit that I am not very familiar with many national anthems. In addition to the American anthem, I feel confident that I could pick out the Canadian, French, English, and German anthems. Beyond that, I'm at a loss! If you are as interested in the music as I am, I may have found a website that you will also enjoy.

Nationalanthems.info contains historical information about the development of the anthems as well as mp3's and sheet music for many of the national pieces. I found myself surfing the site for quite a while, learning about the music's transformations over time.

As the Olympic Games draw near, it might be interesting to have my students compare the sounds of anthems from different parts of the world. By having them describe how the sounds of the Italian anthem differ from that of the Turkish, students begin to explore the similarities and differences between the various musics of the world.

Happy surfing!