Tag: music and community engagement

Getting Your Hands Dirty (Performing Microtonal Choral Music, Part 2)

A series of three photographs of someone's year.

Emotionalist Preamble

As a choir director, the majority of my experience is with youth and amateur ensembles. Thus, I usually deal with a different set of concerns and priorities than many readers of NMBx might.

Choirs are in it for the community.

The first thing to know about choirs below the professional level is that, in my firm belief, we are in it for the community above all. There is pride in the technical execution, too, of course! But much more so, it’s about conveying emotion, and experiencing the same emotion, and thus creating and maintaining the bonds of community with each other and with an audience.

In addition, it is quite common to encounter experienced choral singers who have limited sight-reading ability, who rely instead on a finely developed skill at retaining and repeating melodies that they hear. The notation then becomes, as it was in medieval Europe, more of a memory aid than a set of explicit instructions.

Medieval Neumes

A facsimile of the manuscript for ‘Iubilate deo universa terra’ which shows a series of unheightened cheironomic neumes added to psalm verses. (Image in the public domain.)

The joy is that it brings the experience of communal music-making into the reach of a very large population. The challenge is that the director is very often, of necessity, a teacher. So, for amateur choirs, there is no guarantee that the singers will have the whole-score awareness that is a hallmark of elite ensembles; and for many, there is basically a guarantee that they won’t!

Why on earth would anyone try to bring microtonal music into this ecosystem? Well, for one thing, it will help hone everyone’s intonational awareness—which can be sorely needed. But, on its own terms: there are new worlds of emotion to be explored that are unavailable with 12 equal tones alone!

However, a director in this circumstance needs to sell the piece in question to a perhaps skeptical ensemble. Use your entire boundless enthusiasm to support the methodical techniques below. If the singers like you, they’ll give it a chance.

If the singers like you, they’ll give it a chance.

With all caveats out of the way, then, let’s get to the technical side.

The technical side

For teaching microtonal passages, I advocate a “bimodal, target-based” approach. I chose this name because I needed a title that was both accurate and impressive sounding for a paper proposal. (It worked.) But here’s what I mean:

Bimodal – Requiring an integrated awareness of both the horizontal and vertical aspects of every pitch change. That is, one must keep in mind a new pitch’s relationship to the pitch it just left, and also its context within the sonority in which it arrives. These are often independent.

Target-based – Relying on anticipating the familiar, whether melodic or harmonic, or indeed both. When this is done, intervening things can more easily fall into place, even half-unconsciously.

These two tactics are already necessary for being a good choral musician within standard repertoire, but it’s important to make them explicit when we’re working with microtonality. A useful step toward using them explicitly in microtonal pieces is using them explicitly for challenging tonal passages. So, a director might work on these tactics during the semester immediately before a microtonal piece is even on the program.

A tonal example of the bimodal strategy

One illustrative passage is in Poulenc’s O Magnum Mysterium. Among many intonational trouble spots in this piece, consider the tritone in the opening tenor, at 0:08 and a few times afterward:

Most singers can pull out a tritone, but it’s not a reliable interval.

Most singers can pull out a tritone, but it’s not a reliable interval. It’s not uncommon to need to be reminded what it sounds like, using Maria or the Simpsons theme as a mnemonic. (Here’s a heartwarming comment thread from the Simpsons video:)

A thread of Facebook comments in response to the tritone in The Simpsons theme. The messages read as follows: “; “lmfaoooo same”; “Me too, but I still don’t know what it is.”” width=”370″ height=”456″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-376411″ />

Even when they have it securely, each person will execute it slightly differently, especially when neither of the tones involved acts as a leading tone. The resultant group pitch can be fuzzy. And, because it’s a “dissonant” horizontal interval, there is often the expectation of a dissonance where it lands.

So, you sing it slowly, tune that chord on a long tone—and it becomes apparent that the “Cb” is in fact a B natural, the third of a G major!

The tenors are now, ideally, experiencing that trouble spot on two levels. In one sense, they’re singing a tritone up from the previous note. But in another sense, they are occupying a very clear “home” in the resultant harmony, a home which has nothing to do with tritone-ish-ness.

In microtonal music, it’s even more important to maintain these two separate levels. This is because such music inevitably calls for singing some unfamiliar horizontal intervals—and the singers’ natural instinct will be to land on a verticality that’s equally “unfamiliar,” i.e. dissonant, and this instinct is likely to be wrong. We will see the unfortunate fruits of this approach in a 1962 performance of the Kyrie from Julián Carrillo’s Misa a San Juan XXIII later in this article.

A note on targets

We now move on to the “target-based” part of the approach. In microtonal music, for example, if your choir needs to sing an unfamiliar chain of small intervals—then give them a rock-solid idea of the interval they are encompassing, and the intervening tones can almost unconsciously fall into place. They can be refined later, in a second step.

To reinforce how easy this can sound when modeled, here’s Jacob Collier blithely doing that sort of thing to a minor third:

(His full discussion of this really starts at 10:12, but come on, go watch the whole thing. The guy is so hip, it’s surreal.)

The target-based approach is not limited to melodically filling in familiar intervals. On a broader scale, it’s about providing a series of conceptual anchors throughout a piece—where singers can regain their footing, if they happen to lose it on the way. This can be target melodic intervals as above; but also target harmonic intervals to tune to (e.g. for entrances), or target chords.

The novelty here is that the targets need not be musically prominent within the piece—they can occur on weak beats, or at de-emphasized places within a phrase, etc. They only need to be already familiar to the singers, who can then use them to recalibrate. For example, an exotic cadential sonority might be the musical goal, but does not need to be the conceptual target—that role could be an adjacent, less important, more familiar sonority. Here’s an instance of that in a piece I wrote (which will be hosted on NMBx after its premiere on January 24):

An excerpt from the score of Robert Lopez-Hanshaw's microtonal choral composition vokas animo.

An excerpt from the score of Robert Lopez-Hanshaw’s microtonal choral composition vokas animo.

This goes from a Just A major chord, to a 7:9:11 in the harmonic series of B twelfth-flat (in my preferred 72edo notation). The latter is surprisingly easy to nail, because you’re leaving a very familiar place, each part moving basically by quarter step—a distance which can easily be practiced. The common tone also helps.

Building the scaffold

The other thing that should guide your microtonal teaching is the educational idea of scaffolding, or the “zone of proximal development.” All this means is that every new concept needs to relate to immediately adjacent concepts; and the adjacent concepts give rise to insight at the individual level.

For example: You don’t learn to read by someone telling you how to read. There is no way to do it except making the connection on your own between individual letter-sounds and the way they combine into words. Your grade-school teacher just provided the conditions for you to make that leap, by making you memorize the letter-sounds, then confronting you with easily decoded combinations (and then, not-so-easy ones).

The principle here is important. Despite the appeal of a “brute force” method, such as learning a piece by rote from a synthesized recording (newly easy to produce, due to technology!), that tactic will not succeed for most people—because they haven’t internalized the building blocks to make the new intervals “stick.” And many might be unwilling to make that huge technical leap in the first place; it’s not why they’re in choir.

So, we need to look at how we can provide the scaffolding.

There are two pathways, a Just Intonation path and an equal-division path.

We’ve already covered two important things, which happen in normal choral singing, and can be applied to microtonal singing. What now follows is a list of additional concepts, each building on the previous, and some resources to master them. There are two pathways, a Just Intonation path and an equal-division path.

Just Intonation Path: Expressive Intonation

Ironically, this path begins with the opposite of Just Intonation: “expressive intonation.”

None other than Ezra Sims, the great exponent of 72edo, was set upon the microtonal path by his undergraduate choral conductor, Hugh Thomas. Thomas insisted on his ensembles singing very high leading tones when resolving to tonics, and very low 4ths when resolving to 3rds, among other things. Under such influence, says Sims, “you are liable to find it hard ever again to believe (no matter how much the keyboard instruments may try to convince you it is so) that there is, for example, one thing which is G-sharp, one frequency that defines it for ever and ever, Amen.”

Expressive intonation, at its crudest, is very intuitive. (Exaggerate the tendency of the tendency tones!) So, if it can achieve the goal of knocking singers out of a fixed-pitch way of thinking, then it smooths the way forward considerably.

Actual Just Intonation

Fahad Siadat has a series of articles, to be continued, on the website of his publishing company, which introduce the subject of Just Intonation for choirs. Some fuller resources currently available include Harmonic Experience by W. A. Mathieu, which I mentioned in the last article; and The Just Intonation Primer by David B. Doty, which is rather more direct.

A practical choir director might choose only a few intervals to work on.

A practical choir director might choose only a few intervals to work on. Major thirds and harmonic 7ths are useful to start with, because they are easy to demonstrate. Bring in a cellist to play natural harmonics and compare them with the piano! Bring in a high-level barbershop quartet to “ring” some chords! At first, you’re just developing the idea that there are several available “flavors” for a given interval, each with a different function.

Use what’s relevant to the piece at hand. If your choir adds only the harmonic 7th to their vocabulary, then that’s enough to start working on Ben Johnston’s I’m Goin’ Away.

Quantifying Comma Shifts

Ross Duffin is well-known for his book on meantone and well temperaments, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (And Why You Should Care). But he also wrote a wonderful defense of, and method for, Just Intonation practice, which hinges on locating and using the syntonic comma. This is a very helpful way of thinking systematically about tuning 3rds, 6ths and 7ths compared to 4ths and 5ths. It is freely available here. He even includes exercises for practicing typical problematic intonation situations that can occur.

The Hilliard Ensemble and Nordic Voices regularly incorporate this basic system (different in the particulars) into their practice. If your choir sings Renaissance counterpoint one semester, looking at intonation through this lens, then the following semester could extend the microtonality further:

Extended Just Intonation

Now we get into the weird stuff. It is possible, with much repetition and a rock-solid reference, to memorize and reproduce intervals of the higher overtones of the harmonic series.

One possible reference is overtone singing (Fahad Siadat, personal communication), which—on a low fundamental—can reliably produce harmonics at least up to the 14th, and perhaps further. A retuned digital keyboard is another potential resource.

But there is a remarkable set of exercises available, too: Andrew Heathwaite devised a system for singing through every possible interval that occurs between members of a given group of overtone-based pitches, charmingly called Singtervals. Others have elaborated on this. It is surprisingly logical and intuitive, using a slight alteration of solfège syllables.

If a singer were to make listening to, understanding, and singing this type of matrix a part of their daily practice, they would soon be able to approach a strictly overtonal (or undertonal) piece like Henk Badings’s Contrasten without much suffering.

Quarter-Tone Path: In-Between Tones

We can use people’s ability to sing in between the pitches of a small and familiar interval to develop a true quarter-tone framework.

Starting again at the beginning of a different path, we can use people’s ability to sing equal-ish tones in between the pitches of a small and familiar interval, to begin to develop a true quarter-tone framework. At first, you could simply add an exercise to normal warmups: Sing F – Gb, then F – F quarter-sharp – Gb, and then the same in the opposite direction. The outer tones are, of course, easily checked on the piano.

The Tucson Symphony Chorus warming up prior to rehearsing my piece vokas animo.

Full 24-Tone Scale

Where it gets interesting is extrapolating this simple technique to all intervening positions in the chromatic scale. Robert Reinhart, who teaches music theory and aural skills at Northwestern University, assigned intermediate vowels to the quarter-tonal pitches between solfège notes, such as ra-reh-re-rih-ri for all varieties of the second scale degree re. He then designed—and used in the classroom—progressive exercises to train the ear on the new intervals. In many cases, these involve first singing known intervals; then filling in the gaps with quarter tones; and then ultimately singing only the altered pitches, while audiating the more familiar surrounding pitches.

This is just an extension of sight-singing pedagogy in movable-do systems! For example, to teach the pattern do-fa-la (difficult for beginners), one can repeatedly sing a major scale, and gradually remove the intervening tones re, mi and sol; first audiating them, and then making the cognitive leap to simply singing do-fa-la without any crutch.

Reinhart has presented on this subject and is currently working on a systematic collection of quarter-tone solfège exercises, graded by difficulty.

You, too, could use this basic framework to divide, say, semitones into groups of three sixth-tones—or whole tones into fifth-tones, if you’re singing Renaissance enharmonic music. The specific vowels in your extended solfège don’t matter that much, as long as they’re consistent.

Going Deeper: 72-Tone Scale

Julia Werntz is the current bearer of the 72edo aural skills tradition at the New England Conservatory, succeeding Joe Maneri. She teaches students to hear, perform, and compose with twelfth tones—that is, quarter-tones each further divided into thirds. Her class begins by developing a quarter-tone framework, and elaborates from there. The course textbook, Steps to the Sea, is both highly accessible (with plenty of audio examples) and readily available.

By the time we’re getting into twelfth tones, the Just Intonation and equal-division paths begin to merge.

By the time we’re getting into twelfth tones, the Just Intonation and equal-division paths begin to merge. For singers specifically, the simpler Just Intonation intervals correspond so precisely with pitches in the gamut of 72 tones per octave, that the difference—a maximum of about 5 cents, and usually under 3—is literally impossible to produce with the voice.

In fact, a recent study by Matthias Mauch et al. shows that, even for experienced singers, the Just Noticeable Difference and the median pitch production error on a given note both hover around 18 to 19 cents—a bit over an entire 12th-tone! The study dealt with solo melodic singing, and intonation accuracy can be somewhat higher in harmonic singing (especially in barbershop); but not by as much as you think.

(Different sources give different amounts for the Just Noticeable Difference in various contexts, and 5-8 cents is the usual value cited. But in the case of sung pitches, a little more chaos seems to reign.)

Thankfully, in case you were wondering, microtones really can be learned, and ear-training in 72edo really does have the effect of increasing pitch discrimination and production ability. It tames some of the latent chaos of music-making.

The End Result

If you’ve gone through all of this with your choir, then you’re obsessive, and they’re all saints.

If you’ve gone through all of this with your choir, then you’re obsessive, and they’re all saints. What you should really do is pick and choose among these possibilities, based on what’s going on in the piece itself. This is what I have done. But where I might not yet have used a particular technique myself, it has been field-tested by others. They all really do what they claim.

Potential Bad Results

As I promised earlier, here’s the first movement of Carrillo’s Misa:

This is not, shall we say, a touchstone performance. The singers may have assumed that the goal was an “other-worldly” sound, and presumably claimed enough success to release the recording. But unfortunately, they performed the whole score inaccurately, including what should have been the “this-worldly” parts.

They are pitchy from the very beginning. By 0:58, the tenor is an entire semitone flat compared to the others, leading to a sounding Ab major in first inversion, instead of the written C augmented chord. (When it happens again at 1:07, you can hear him drift upward to try to correct it.) In the music that’s in frame starting at 1:32, the poor Bass 1 sings written perfect 5ths as tritones, because he can’t get the lower note to go down far enough. And so on. If one heard this as an exemplar of microtonal choral singing, one might be forgiven for souring on the idea.

But despite the deficiencies of this particular performance, the piece was actually written in a way that could be easy to grasp—using the tactics I’ve outlined above. It could even work as a first venture into microtonality for a choir!

Here’s how I would approach it.

  • First, I’d add quarter tones to the warmups at the beginning of rehearsals—simply splitting a semitone. This happens constantly in Misa, so the choir would get a lot of mileage from just that exercise.
  • Then, also in warmups, we would build augmented chords and other whole-tone sonorities, like [046] and [024] in different inversions. These are Carrillo’s building blocks for the piece. They are somewhat uncommon as structural elements in conventional choral repertoire, so they would require reinforcement in order to be useful as targets.
  • Then, going to the piece itself, we would sing segments without the quarter tones that intervene, and make sure the choir has memorized the target whole-tone sonorities in their larger harmonic framework.
  • Finally, it’s time to insert the quarter tones. We would do this one part at a time, at first, to cement melodic awareness.
  • Now, the surprise! Carrillo helpfully puts all quarter-tonal changes in vertical alignment, other than some suspensions. The piece alternates between one 12-tone “world” and the complementary “world” in 24edo. So, the sonorities built by the altered pitches are generally familiar. The sonority at 1:11, on the second beat of the last measure in frame, is in fact an A quarter-flat major chord in first inversion—so it should sound like a major chord in first inversion! Everybody knows that sound.

All of this is entirely lost in the wailing, loosey-goosey intonation of this performance. I believe an accurate interpretation, on the other hand, would reveal a piece of extraordinarily different character than what’s presented in the recording: perhaps startling in just how accessible it really is.

Conclusion: Practicalities

Here are a few miscellaneous suggestions I can give about teaching microtones to choirs.

Use warmups to reinforce new musical concepts, if that wasn’t clear already. Why waste time singing major scales or arpeggios the whole warmup, when you could be practicing quarter tones by repetition, or building harmonic-series chords? This reduces the teaching time on the microtonal piece itself.

Absolutely do not play a tone cluster in place of an intervening tone, if you are modeling a microtonal melody on a standard piano. This does nothing for imagining the pitch (do we “hear” a D, when C-E is played? Hell no! So why would we hear a D quarter-sharp when D-Eb is played?), and it models a dissonance, which the choir will obligingly give you. Better to skip over the altered pitch—or better yet:

Model with the voice whenever possible. This is not only easier to follow than a keyboard, but it also demonstrates that the passage is, in fact, performable.

Retune the keyboard, if it’s digital. The task is now basically trivial, with available technology; but it may not be so for you personally. If that’s the case, and you’re a person who would read this, then you assuredly have friends who are big nerds like you, except with computers. You can ask them a favor or hire them to do it for you. BitKlavier is free software with an easy learning curve; if they can program in Max/MSP, then they should be able to use Pure Data without much fuss, which is also free; or you could shell out for PianoTeq Standard, which has professional-quality sound and very good microtonal tuning controls. There are many other options, but these are a start.

Working closely with your accompanist is critical, especially if any keys are remapped drastically! But again, if you’re a person who’s reading this, your accompanist is probably game for it.

Do all the normal choral stuff first – speak the piece in rhythm, aim for precise cutoffs, use expressive phrasing, interpret the lyrics – so that they realize how much they already know how to do.

Proper breath support is absolutely indispensable. Unfamiliarity causes uncertainty, and uncertainty causes improper support, and improper support creates sagging pitch and bad timbre, which makes the project infinitely harder. So, never lose sight of that bedrock of a well-supported sound and come back to it often.

You have to convey joy in the music.

Most importantly, you have to convey joy in the music. And isn’t that what it’s always about?

Together We Can

Craig Shepard leading a silent walk in Aubervilliers on September 29, 2019

In 2010 I had more or less stopped making music. I was despondent, negative, and cranky. To anyone who would listen, I complained about other musicians, arts funding, and how much better the European cultural infrastructure was. I’m so glad I’m not there anymore, and want to share what I did to get out of it and some of the results.

Things began to shift when my friend, the composer, conductor, and pianist Paul Leavitt, said that I was probably right about my complaints. He suggested that instead of complaining that Brooklyn wasn’t like Europe, I contribute to the community where I lived. I began looking for opportunities in walking distance from my home. I didn’t anticipate how far this decision would lead me in realizing Music for Contemplation concerts, Creating Music Together workshops and retreats, On Foot walking projects, and Broken Silence concerts.

On February 6th, at 4:00 pm, at St. Cecilia’s Church in Greenpoint, I played the first concert under the name Music for Contemplation. I performed a fifty-minute organ piece called “Elizabeth.” I can still clearly see the sun streaming through the window and hear the silvery jingle of one listener’s bracelet. More than thirty members of the parish came to listen and to rest in the sound on a Sunday afternoon. I saw how music could support listeners in practical ways.

I saw how music could support listeners in practical ways.

In 2013, with the cooperation of Fr. Michael Lynch and Msgr. Joseph Calise at Our Lady of Mount Carmel – Williamsburg, Tyler Wilcox, Andrew Christopher Smith, Erik Carlson and I continued Music for Contemplation. Again, we were surprised and nourished by the resonance with long-time Brooklyn residents. Dan Joseph joined the organizing team, and we put on a series of concerts at the Church of the Annunciation.

We wanted to offer people time to sit and listen and not have to think about anything, choosing pieces by Eva Maria Houben, Alvin Lucier, Shelley Burgon, and Christian Kobi. As the series continued, I noticed programming and pieces themselves took on more of a community aspect. Tyler invited Andrew Lafkas, who wrote a new work for eighteen improvisers. Dan organized Stuart Dempster and twelve trombones, and Tony Geballe led seventeen members of the New York Guitar Circle.

Often, we reserved the entire day on Saturday, rehearsing in the morning and evening, and performing in the evening. The rehearsals and concert became almost a day-long retreat, with energy flowing in the community that came together just for one day.

This lead to Creating Music Together workshops and retreats, where participants realize each other’s work. Everyone writes and everyone performs. To create common ground for the mix of professionals and non-professionals who participate, all work is for voice and hand percussion. Everyone has to develop and communicate their pieces in such a way that other participants can honorably perform them.

The day-long workshops begin with a sitting, followed by listening exercises and an introduction to composition. After a pot-luck lunch, everyone makes a piece of music and writes it down however they are able. Traditional music notation is not necessary, and we’ve seen some gorgeous graphic scores. We then rehearse everyone’s pieces, usually learning them by heart, and perform for friends in the evening.

In the week-long residential retreats, the day begins with a silent sitting followed by breakfast. Days include sessions with listening and composition exercises, silent co-working time, rehearsals, and informal performances. We take turns cooking for each other and caring for the house. There are usually three performance cycles. At the end of the day, there is an optional session where participants report notable moments from the day.

I’ve found a deep connection with participants in Creating Music Together. The atmosphere of mutual support is genuinely nourishing. One of my greatest joys as a musician in the past twenty years has been witnessing the satisfaction when someone hears their first composition for the first time.

Essential to being able to support others in their creative work has been identifying and meeting my own creative needs. Time alone in the music studio has been crucial; I’ve also structured projects, such as On Foot to have time alone as well as time supporting the group.

Essential to being able to support others in their creative work has been identifying and meeting my own creative needs.

In On Foot: Brooklyn, I walked everywhere I went for ninety-one days from February 21 to May 21, 2012. During the week, I walked alone, composing a new piece. Each Sunday, I led a group in a silent walk, and performed that week’s piece on the street.

In 2019’s On Foot: Aubervilliers, I designed and lead twenty-four silent walks in twenty-four days. In the design phase, I spent time alone freely wandering in and around Aubervilliers—letting my feet go where they would often getting lost. After following my curiosity, I looked at what route might work for a group. We began and completed each walk at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers. In the middle, I made a thirty-minute field recording. After the walk was over, we played the recording back in the theater at Les Laboratoires. Participants were asked to commit to stay with us in silence until we returned to the theater.

Craig Shepard instructing participants to walk in silence (Photo by Adele Fournet)

Craig Shepard instructing participants to walk in silence (Photo by Adele Fournet)

During the group walks, silence depended on attention. I asked participants to refrain from speaking with the mouth, with the eyes, and with the hands, and to refrain from using cell-phones, cameras, or other devices. I asked participants to leave devices at home or securely at the meeting point; I’ve noticed that when walkers had devices on their bodies, even when they were turned off, there was a different quality to attention.

In going over the parameters of the walk, I offered two simple attention exercises to support participants to stay present when their attention may have wandered. The first I learned from Alexander Technique teacher Frank Sheldon: notice what moves in your body when you breathe. The second I discovered during the walks: place part of your attention in your rear foot, alternating with each step.

[Ed Note: A short Arte documentary about On Foot ia available in French and in German.]

Silent walks have lasted between three and fourteen hours. The first forty-five minutes were usually a settling period. I’ve noticed the deepest silences after walking together for three hours. We took brief pauses to stretch. On longer walks, we took breaks to sit down for silent meals. At the end of each walk, I broke the silence by saying “thank you” and making eye contact with each member.

After the end of the walk, many participants enjoyed sharing what they saw or heard. Most participants reported hearing sounds they had never heard before. Others noted the arc of the day, a keener awareness of weather, and what it felt like to have extended time in silence.

While I do enjoy walking alone – usually in silence – I’ve noticed a different quality when walking together. Because silence depends on the level of commitment and attention of the participants, the experience depends very much on those who show up for it. Sometimes, we really connected—even when we began as perfect strangers. There were moments where were together—really together—in one moment. And then it was gone.

While I do enjoy walking alone – usually in silence – I’ve noticed a different quality when walking together.

This experience of being together has also been essential to Broken Silence, in which music supports listeners engaging with the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

The idea first came to me in 2014 on a Guitar Circle course. There was a long development in consultation with Pauline Oliveros, Chris Mann, Tony Geballe, Mary Madigan, Deborah Steinglass, and Fr. Michael Lynch. We gave careful consideration to all aspects of the situation: sound, content of the text, location, location of the chairs, how listeners enter the performance space, and money. Elisa Corona Aguilar, Erin Rogers, Kristen McKeon, Katie Porter, Alex Lahoski, Dev Ray, Patrick Grant, Jon Diaz, and Dan Joseph performed a series of workshop performances and gave valuable feedback on the piece.

In its final form, two saxophones and three steel-string acoustic guitars build long slow chords as I read text drawn from court testimony about the scandal. The music has three fifteen to eighteen minute parts with silence in between. Each part begins with a pure tone, which the musicians pass across the circle. Over five to ten minutes, tones are added one at a time, building a pulsating chord. Then tones fade out one at a time, often imperceptibly.

Musicians sit in a circle surrounded by listeners in concentric rings. I sit at one end of the concentric circles, directing my attention to the atmosphere of the room. Working intuitively, I sense the flow of the piece for that particular group of people. I make chords, text, and silences faster or slower depending on the energy in the room. As in the silent walks, the listeners attending have a direct effect on the music.

One thing we’ve found is that the group of musicians and listeners supports each of us—holding the space—as we engage with the challenging text about the abuse scandal. This is a difficult subject for contemplation, and many of us cannot bear to “touch” into it on our own. In the concert situation, with the support of the group, we have been able to stay with it—to be present for it—in ways we haven’t been able to alone. This is what workshop listener Jaime Beauchamp called “the light of awareness.” In this awareness, the scandal is only as big as it is. Many of us have found a new hope after listening to the text together. This light of awareness on the specific situation in the Catholic Church has also resonated for those outside the Church in contemplating corruption in other parts of our society.

When really connecting with others, I’ve noticed another presence beyond me and the others—a subtle atmosphere, incense, electricity, or heat. This presence has supported me and others to go beyond what was possible on our own. This connection in music has nourished and sustained me through most of my work of the past ten years, it has become both the aim and the means.

When really connecting with others, I’ve noticed another presence beyond me and the others—a subtle atmosphere, incense, electricity, or heat.

I didn’t anticipate this when I began to think about how to support others with music. Nor did I imagine that some of my happiest and most fulfilling moments making music would be working in this way.

If you’re feeling frustrated, angry or depressed about the world around us, you’re probably right. My suggestion to you is to (1) pick a problem right where you are, (2) focus your energy and attention on what you can contribute to a solution to that problem, (3) do what you can to support others.

I’m very curious to see what happens.

Charlottesville and Citizen Artistry

Mixed instrument ensemble

It all started with a conversation. My colleague across the hall at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music, percussionist Kim Toscano, came into my office one day and we talked for a long time about racism in the United States. Kim is married to Timothy Adams, professor in music and chair of the percussion department. He’s also a composer (and that’s going to be important in my story). Tim is black, Kim is white, and they have an adorable baby boy who melts hearts with kind, innocent eyes. Kim was worried (and still is) about the kind of world that her baby was growing up in. I was outraged at…well…any number of things that had happened in the previous year. What could we do as teachers? As artists? As conductors? As drummers? What could we possibly do to make things better? That’s kind of how the conversation went. Lots of questions, some rage, a lot of sadness, some hopelessness, some feelings of inadequacy and irrelevance, more questions. We talked again and conjured up some ideas for getting out of the university and reaching out to the community in Athens, Georgia through music. Sure, we’ve all done that—“outreach” concerts, teaching, church services, tours—but we wanted to do something more profound, more long-lasting and impactful. The kind of citizen-artistry that Eric Booth talks about: “a revolution of the heart within the arts.”

  • What could we possibly do as teachers and as artists to make things better?

    Cynthia Johnston Turner, conductor
  • Trite as it may sound, I believe music can make a difference.

    Cynthia Johnston Turner, conductor

I knew we had to get Connie Frigo involved. Connie is the saxophone professor at the Hugh and she’s incredible. I’ve seen both her and her students do innovative and meaningful performances, and I had recently attended an event called “The Innocence Project,” which Connie brought to the University of Georgia that involved an unlikely but powerful group of diverse participants. The three of us met a couple of times and although we found the conversations important, even helpful, we talked in circles. Lots of ideas, a few leads, some phone calls, we even bandied around some dates, but nothing really landed. And we weren’t even sure what we were planning.

Then, two things happened.

One, Connie and I went to “Athens in Harmony,” which brings together black and white communities in song. And here we were introduced to Mokah-Jasmine and Knowa Johnson. Mokah is the co-founder and president of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, a grassroots organization in Athens, Georgia, that aims to combat discrimination through education and activism. She is also the co-founder and owner of the United Group of Artists Music Association (UGA Live), a business that specializes in music promotion and event production. She and her husband Knowa founded the Athens Hip Hop Awards, the Martin Luther King Jr. Parade, and Music Fest in Athens.  We knew that Mokah and Knowa had to be involved in whatever we planned.

At around the same time, Tim saw me in the hall one day and said, “Hey, I’m writing a piece for you.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you, Connie, and Kim. You’re the narrator. It’s about what happened in Charlottesville.”

He was talking about August 12, 2017, when “Unite the Right” white supremacists marched, violence broke out, and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was murdered when she was mowed down by a man slamming his car into a group of counter-protesters.

We met several times with Mark Callahan, an incredible “connector” and thinker, at Ideas for Creative Exploration (an interdisciplinary initiative at UGA).  We knew we wanted to do something impactful, helpful, and important, and we wanted to involve an audience that might not normally attend a concert event in the Performing Arts Center on campus (a decidedly white crowd).

From here, things snowballed. Fast. That’s because the one-year anniversary of that horrible day was approaching, and Connie had the idea that we perform the piece.

Two problems. One, we didn’t have that more broadly welcoming venue. Re-enter Knowa Johnson. He suggests the studio of Stan Mullins, a local sculptor and artist of international renown, who occasionally opens his (huge) space for events. Knowa and Stan are friends. We meet at the studio and know immediately this is the place. Stan hears about the project and is totally on board. Read more about Stan; this guy is cool.

Stan Mullins's studio

Stan Mullins’s studio

We had talked about the idea of workshopping the piece with community members early on in the process, but now, it was a given. Why? That was the second problem, the piece wasn’t finished.

Each of us (Mokah, Knowa, Tim, Connie, Mark, me) invited five specially chosen community members to attend the event. Here is the invitation, which also explains the process of “workshopping”:

The weekend of August 11, 2018, is the one-year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, where white nationalists gathered to protest the movement to remove Confederate monuments.  The rally turned violent when counter-protesters gathered to express their opposition.  Dozens were injured and Heather Heyer was killed when a pro-Nazi, James A. Fields Jr., rammed his car into the crowd of counter-protesters.

In response to the events of that day, composer, percussionist, and UGA’s Mildred Goodrum Heyward Professor in Music Timothy K. Adams, Jr., is composing a new piece for saxophone, percussion, and narrator that represents his own processing of the Charlottesville rally.   The performers are UGA professors of music Connie Frigo, saxophone; Kim Toscano Adams, percussion; and Cynthia Johnston Turner, narrator.

On Saturday, August 11, 2018, portions of the new work will be shared in an intimate workshop setting designed to engage critical dialog between the audience and performers, facilitated by Athens activists Mokah and Knowa Johnson, and Mark Callahan, Artistic Director of Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE) at UGA.  The goal of the workshop is to use audience feedback to further develop the piece, including where in Athens to perform its premiere in the coming months, and to invoke racial harmony as we unite members of the Athens community through contemporary music and important civic conversation.

You are being specially invited to this unique and intimate event. It will begin with a casual BBQ dinner, followed by the performance and workshop. Please bring an open heart and mind, and a willingness to engage.

Several colleagues, graduate students, and friends volunteered to help with the logistics (food, drinks, tables, chairs, paper, pens, nametags, etc.). Dale Monson, director of the Hugh, agreed to finance the BBQ dinner. As the audience members arrived, there was an air of wonder and excitement. During the casual dinner, many expressed that they weren’t sure what they were expecting but were intrigued by the message and the concept. It was a diverse and relatively intimate group. They were divided into three tables, and we began.

Tim introduced himself and the motives for composing the music. His words were inviting, sobering, effective, and poignant. We then explained that the piece wasn’t complete and asked the audience members to respond to the piece with honesty. Their insights would be important for the direction of the work. We performed the first movement. Immediately after, each group was given approximately ten minutes to respond and record their reactions to the music. We did the same for the 2nd and 3rd movements. We received a standing ovation. There were tears. Finally, Mokah facilitated a brief summary of thoughts which sparked important and heartfelt dialogue. The evening concluded. Another standing ovation.

For the August 11, 2018 workshop of Charlottesville, a work in progress by Timothy K. Adams, the composer/percussionist ultimately joined Connie Frigo (saxophone) and Cynthia Johnston Turner (narrator) for the performance.

As a result of that evening, we now have an ambitious plan for moving forward. Possible venues for the premiere, as suggested by audience members at the initial workshop, emphasized the importance of conversation and diverse audience participants. Ideas included The Chapel at the University of Georgia, an antebellum structure adjacent to a Confederate monument in downtown Athens, shared public spaces, the historic Morton Theatre, churches, and alternative art spaces in Atlanta.

Tim will be composing three more related works over the course of two years. We have applied for major funding with a proposal entitled, “Citizen Artistry: A Performance Model to Raise Social Awareness, Promote Dialogue, and Inspire Change.” We have guaranteed funding from other sources. Educators have volunteered to write curriculum. It’s exciting.

But what has been most exciting is the process. From those initial conversations to a series of serendipitous events to the authentic and important involvement of community members in the artistic process, this experience has renewed our commitment to citizen artistry. Those feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy and outrage have morphed into energy, relevance, and meaning. Trite as it may sound, I believe music can make a difference. In this case, it took a village, a little risk-taking, walking way out of our comfort zones, and a lot of trust in the process.

Songs of Hope

A well-known Kiowa musician and historian, Joe Fish Dupont, works as the curator of the Kiowa Museum in Carnegie, Oklahoma. The mission of the museum is to “protect, preserve, and perpetuate the Kiowa way.” They provide programs focused on preserving Kiowa language, art, song, history, and traditions. One way that the Kiowa people have preserved their language is by using tribal songs to portray history and culture. Joe told me that Kiowa people are known as the “singing people” among other Native American tribes. Joe invited me, a music educator, to work with him on a project to preserve Kiowa children’s songs.

As a music professor at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, I had previously worked with Kiowa singer Cheevers Toppah on an arrangement of a Kiowa hymn. Toppah recommended me to Dupont as a music education resource. I was aware of the importance of being accepted by the tribal elders. The Kiowa are very protective of their language and songs. They want to preserve these cultural treasures and not allow them to be exploited or misinterpreted. A level of trust is needed, as they are allowing you as a collaborator or researcher to share in their sacred ritual of song. My role in this project would be to video-record, transcribe language, and transcribe the music in Western notation.

The Kiowa want to preserve their language and songs but they do not want them to be exploited or misinterpreted.

The purpose of the Rabbit Society (Poli’ee-gah) of the Kiowa was to teach the younger members of the tribe their ancestral roles and duties through the content of songs. The Rabbit Society began as a story handed down by the elders. Mr. Dupont explained that an old man within the tribe broke the laws of the Kiowa and was banned from the tribe. After suffering several days, unconscious from hunger and thirst, he woke up surrounded by a multitude of rabbits. The rabbits cared for the old man and fed him. They suggested that he return to the Kiowa and teach the children how to make bows, arrows, and to be great hunters. The tribal leaders were impressed and invited the old man to become the leader of the “Rabbit Society.” It was an honorable place in the warrior order and tribe. The members of the Rabbit Society were designated official helpers in preparing the ceremonial arbor for the sacred Sun Dance. The Rabbit Society made their own dance, called the Rabbit Dance. This dance is carried out with the dancers keeping their feet close together, portraying rabbit ears with their motions and hopping to the beat of the drum.

The Rabbit Society composed their own songs that described life lessons or chores or offered other instructions from the Rabbit Society members. The old man’s name was changed to Grandpa Rabbit. The Indian Agents of the U.S. Army had banned all society dances, including the Rabbit Dance, but with the revival of the Gourd Dance in 1957, the elders also revived the Rabbit Dance and songs. So while efforts had been made throughout the years to banish the Rabbit Society’s children’s songs, they had survived. Joe was on a mission to ensure that they were not lost again.

Joe Fish Dupont

Joe Fish Dupont

Joe met me at the Kiowa Museum and gave me a tour of its many artifacts, stopping to share pivotal stories that chronicled the history of the Kiowa people. He shared with me his role within the tribe, as the keeper of the songs. This is a distinguished title among the Kiowa, and Joe takes his responsibilities very seriously. There are several efforts within the tribe to preserve the native language, including language classes and public school Native American language initiatives. They have also just received a grant to support the preservation of the language.

However, Joe was troubled that although several attempts had been made to establish singing schools or workshops within his tribe for the younger members, he felt that more could be done to reach the students through technology or in a visual way. When the tribe was larger, the oral tradition was sufficient, as many members would share the songs with each other. As the population of the tribe has decreased and gatherings have sparser attendance, there is an increased need for the preservation of language and song.

Joe was especially concerned that in the event of his passing the songs may be lost. Another troubling thought was that with diminishing Kiowa members and fewer children showing an interest in learning the Kiowa music from the old oral tradition that there would possibly be some music that would be forgotten. I think the thing that really motivated this project was the hope that these songs, when learned by younger tribal members, would continue the traditions and knowledge of the Kiowa community.

We discussed some options and came up with the idea to preserve the Kiowa children’s songs, known as the “Rabbit Society Songs,” through video recordings. In addition, Joe requested that the Kiowa language be added to the video, so that students would be able to see the words as they were being sung and develop their Kiowa language skills. For one semester, we met regularly to preserve the Kiowa children’s songs on video with Joe singing in the Kiowa native tongue. His time and effort was an act of great love for the Kiowa people. Joe would speak the Kiowa song, sing the song, and then assist me as we subtitled the video. After a while, the timbre of his beautiful voice would be mesmerizing in the quiet museum. One could imagine the Kiowa mother or father, sitting with their children, singing these simple songs and wisely instructing them through music.

Through semi-structured interviews, written notes, video, and audio recordings overseen by an independent reviewer, the data from this research project was analyzed. There were nine songs that spoke of the special qualities of the animals, lessons children may learn from the animals, and particular jobs that they can take on as younger members of the tribe. The lyrics were thematically analyzed into three categories: 1.) responsibility, 2.) beauty and whimsy as a respect of nature, and 3.) life lessons. These beautiful songs are now preserved and available for the Kiowa Tribe to use in their singing schools for younger members, but they are currently not yet available for publication due to an ongoing pending children’s literature project.

I have had the privilege of further collaboration with the Kiowa tribe as Joe Fish Dupont graciously agreed to speak and share information about Kiowa music at one of our collegiate music education forums at Oklahoma Baptist University, where I am now teaching. As a music educator, I learned a great deal about the power of music as a tool to transform culture over an extended period of time.

“Music is not separated from culture: it is culture.”

Studying Native American music gives us a snapshot into the hearts and lives of the Kiowa people. The past informs our present and future. Ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl stated “Music is not separated from culture: it is culture” (2002). Within a community of people, folk or sacred music can be as much a defining part of who they are as their colorful headdresses or beaded regalia. It is internalized and solidifies the Native American journey, as well as informing the future of the tribe.

The official flag of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma

The official flag of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma

Little Band of Dreamers

The iron bars are not inviting. In fact, you will not be welcomed unless you are recognized by the voice at the other end of the call box and only then do the gates part for a measured time. You will immediately be on video surveillance.

On my first visit, I was asked to drive to a designated area of the city and then call for further directions. The exact address is not published for safety and privacy reasons. I also had to pass the background check required for all volunteers. Sitting on several acres in a quiet part of the city, this former religious retreat is something of an island, though mere blocks away from an area infested with drug and sex trafficking. This safe and secluded place now plays host to a shelter—a transitional home for women and their children who are victims of sex trafficking or domestic abuse. I became acquainted with the shelter while reading a story in my university alumni magazine, but my motivation for volunteering was personal. My twenty-five-year-old niece was a bright and courageous warrior who worked on behalf of sex trafficking victims with her New York law firm and other agencies. We had recently lost her to melanoma. This was my way of continuing her legacy in some small way—and honestly, a way to work through my own grief.

I contacted the shelter in the article to find out if they were interested in music activities for the residents. My goal was to promote self-esteem and positive artistic experience in a general music class setting. They were very interested. I was told by the director that a children’s camp was held in the summer which provided enrichment activities for the younger residents. As an invited part of the shelter’s camp experience, I scheduled the first visit and music camp.

I had this crazy idea that music could somehow help them deal with their pain.

I had this crazy idea that even though there were tragic stories within this house, that somehow music could help them deal with their pain, escape their memories, or give them an outlet for their expression. I hoped that through the learning and doing of music, or “musicking” (a term coined by Christopher Small in 1998), to create beauty and a sense of hope for these children, in spite of their difficult circumstances.

My background is in public school K-12 and university music teaching, but there was no precedent for teaching music to this special population. I was anxious about my first visit, as I didn’t know how the students would respond.

Driving up, the building exterior is strangely peaceful and comforting. A two-story structure that has weathered the test of time is framed by large, shady trees covering the grounds. I parked in a very secure place with easy access to the door to bring in my instruments. I carried in a large keyboard, several rhythmic instruments, hand drums, eight different xylophones and sheet music for various age groups.

That first visit included a tour of the shelter, which had ample room, tall ceilings, stocked pantries, and spacious communal kitchens and gathering areas. The building had been lovingly cared for and restored. Residents of the retreat are provided culturally-sensitive, structured services to rebuild their lives as independent and self-sufficient members of the work force. Over forty residents live in separate apartments within this building while receiving employment skills and financial training. As residents are from many parts of the world, English classes and other educational opportunities are especially important for supporting a new start. A 24-hour hotline assists victims with varied needs from medical care and counseling to legal services. The volunteers and employees are friendly, competent, and sensitive.

Moms and their children safely stay here for sixty days before they are transitioned to an apartment and a job, most often in another city. In the meantime, the children that come with them are in a sort of limbo. They are not in their old life, but they have not yet begun their new life. These children, too, are in need of regaining their confidence and preparing to live a life of freedom. This is difficult to do, as they are sequestered on the premises with their mothers.

While the mothers are busy attending classes or job interviews, the children (ages 4-17) have a full-time child advocate that schedules field trips, art classes, and outdoor play. Older children often have access to their phones for video games and music. The shelter provides a safe haven to live as they transition to a normal life, with the end goal of mothers supporting their family without fear of the abusive pimp or family member.


After concluding the tour of the facilities, the music class started right away in the sunroom. We introduced ourselves by playing a name game in which students chanted their names and simultaneously learned rhythmic music notation. There were some students who even struggled at first with speaking their names aloud. Their peers would jump in and save them by sharing their names with me. The comfort level increased as we began to build a sense of familiarity and community. I made quick work of learning their names because it is important for every student to feel validated and recognized for their own unique identity.

What sort of magical music would take little eyes and ears off of their stormy pasts and lift their spirits to create expressively on recorders, rhythm instruments, and through singing? For the most part, the repertoire consisted of folk songs, funny songs, or popular songs. Familiarity was our friend. At first some students were too shy to take a rhythm instrument and keep a beat with the melody, but that soon was overcome by a smiling, happy face that watched their peers with joy. I learned that, like most public school classrooms, the students had a diverse background of musical skills. Some were advanced and could read music. Others had very little to no experience with singing or playing instruments, but they patiently encouraged each other.

What struck me as odd was that there was very little vetting by the children. Walls are usually pretty high from students “trying out” a new teacher. It takes a while for students to “let you in” – to trust you with their friendship, their input, and their story. Somehow, they accepted me immediately as someone who was there to make their world better. I think the music spoke loudly of a time and place when their lives were happier and more in control. Several students would say, “I know that song!” “We used to play that in my old music class.” Or, most heart breaking, “I used to play violin on that song, but we had to leave it behind.” Music became the bridge that allowed the students to see that they still had power to make something beautiful.

The students enjoyed playing melodic ostinati on the xylophone or keyboard as we sang.  I quickly found that they were happy to lose themselves in the moments of music. They were very receptive and loved the instruments and wanted to touch them. They wanted to participate. The only issues I had were those similar to children of poverty, of not knowing how to share well with others. We worked through those issues. They learned that if they shared their instruments they would all have a turn. We did repeated songs so that all students were able to participate. Equity and access were strong parameters for each class.

The music lesson objectives were based on the Five Music Rights of the International Music Council. My first priority was the care of the child’s mental health above all. Music stopped for any behavioral issue and a peaceful resolution was sought. Students were allowed to choose instruments and to have input on the choice of song repertoire. This gave them a voice in the process and a feeling of empowerment. I called upon bilingual music instructional strategies from my dissertation research, knowing that a variety of learning styles and academic levels would be present. Above all there was a mutual respect that I incorporated in all activities: the value of all people to participate in musicking.


The summer was spent visiting the shelter weekly to teach music in a wide variety of methods to the students. It was never directly explained to me if any of the children had personally been sexually trafficked or abused, but it didn’t matter. They had all been damaged by the exploitation of their family. They had all lost their homes, their security, and their belief in the world as a beautiful place. In my experience of teaching public school domestic abuse and/or sexual abuse victims, I could tell that a few of the students at the shelter showed similar signs. These included social withdrawal, checking out mentally, and various other coping mechanisms, as well as a general attitude of knowing far too much of the dark side of humanity for their ages. While you would probably expect this heaviness to pervade every waking moment, it miraculously did not. They were mostly just like other students: energetic, boisterous, socially outgoing, and—thankfully—resilient.

Each student seemed hungry to learn about music.

One factor that was distinctly different from a regular public school music class was that each student seemed hungry to learn about music. They were not required to attend the music camp and could come and go as they pleased. But all of the students present at the shelter eagerly gathered early in the sunroom and looked forward to participating in music making and learning.

One challenging aspect for me was the vast span of ages in our music camp. The ages ranged from 4 to 17 years. As an instructor that usually adheres to a strict lesson plan with distinct objectives and strategies, I learned that it was okay to review more, to skip ahead, or respond to their interest level. I learned that I was just a facilitator. The music was theirs. They owned it. They possessed little else, but they did possess their own ability and right of human expression through music. They championed it through song, chant, rhymes, rhythm instruments, recorders, xylophones, and music learning. They sang out. They played loud. They were heard. They made music bravely.

The older students, all girls, also participated in the music class. We did a lot of beginner songs, but age was not a factor. The older students were very patient and helpful with the younger students. They were just very happy to experience music, no matter what form it took.  I was humbled by their kindness to each other. I played a few songs from musical theater and Disney songs that they knew, and they joined me by singing and accompanying on instruments. At the end of our two-hour sessions together, the students were still wanting to play and sing! I mentioned to the older girls that I might be able to teach them private piano lessons when I returned, and they were very excited.

I have taught students that come from difficult backgrounds. You can tell in class that they are a little less patient at times and may need more attention both during instruction as well as performance. One of the harder things to watch was knowing that the students had very little and that is why they want to touch everything, hold it, keep it to themselves, and not share. These are students who may have a musical background, but for whatever reason, they are now deprived. I asked them what they would like for me to do musically during my next visit, and they adamantly stated that they would like to have a karaoke machine with songs they can sing, a microphone, big drums, a bass guitar, and—if I could swing it—a saxophone! They loved music and they wanted to be involved.

The oldest male student that I’ll refer to here as Marcus (I have given pseudonyms to all the students to protect their identities), was by far the most musically advanced student. He had a charismatic personality and was very people wise. Over the summer he morphed from a boy into a young man. His mindset seemed to be less focused on his immediate need for attention and musical showmanship and developed into that of a caring individual who, despite obvious life difficulties, was mindful of others’ needs in the music class. I asked him to assist in the class routinely. This helped develop his leadership skills and he handled it all very maturely. What was so lovely was that you could tell that by the class demeanor and acceptance of Marcus’s modeling of recorder melodies, or his leading of the rhythm band, that they were proud of him as well. They saw his success as their own.

The students developed their rhythmic and melodic knowledge through body percussion, singing, and playing instruments. We experimented with repeated rhythmic and overlapping patterns. They loved the music lesson when we learned about the instruments in the orchestra and I taught them how to conduct in 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time. Their little arms keeping time with the music, they participated fully with a very high rate of success.

One favorite song was “Lean on Me.” They sang strongly.

Sometimes longevity in singing was an issue. They didn’t seem to have the stamina or persistence to be able to sing for a long period of time. One or two would not participate for a while, staring blankly at the ceiling. They checked out physically for whatever reason, so I always had several lesson plans prepared which allowed me to quickly switch gears and find something that would engage their minds and creativity. Once they relaxed and used correct breathing, they were able to project more with their singing. I was very careful that song lyrics were positive and uplifting. One favorite song was “Lean on Me.” They sang strongly: “Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on. For, it won’t be long, ‘til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”

A pair of maracas being held in one hand

Not all days were rosy. When we started one of our classes, Marcus was extremely depressed and said that he was having a bad day. He was not interested in participating. He would barely touch the drum. As the intellectual challenge of the music lesson increased, the more participatory he became. When we got to the recorder portion of the lesson, he was captivated by playing the music and had totally forgotten the reason for his bad mood.

On this same day, Sophia struggled just to function. When she had a hard time processing or understanding, she gave up very easily. This was in great contrast to Anna, a girl who always had excellent questions and shared her past musical experiences, which seemed to be very important to her. There were many varying degrees of musical progress. One beautiful thing is that as I was walking out the door Anna said, “Goodbye! We love you! We can’t wait to see you next time! Bye!” It was very sweet. As a music teacher I felt that I had something to share with the students. I could encourage them to be their own music makers. That was a lasting gift.

Performing music was a welcome way to make them feel a part of the group.

For several students, their English was limited and performing music was a welcome way to make them feel a part of the group.  To assist with literacy, we incorporated reading and music learning. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, a West African tale by Verna Aardema, is a wonderful book. The story unfolds a cast of animals whose lives are all disrupted by the actions of one mosquito. Because the mosquito lied, a catastrophic chain of events occurred that ended with the death of a baby owl. The students created rhythmic patterns on percussion instruments to represent the animals in the story. Engrossed as they were, a calm acceptance of the heart of the story was learned. Bad things happen to good people. Cause and effect. Sometimes things happen to us that are out of our control. We go on. We survive. We come together as a community. We lift each other up and find power in facing our fears.

I see it as something similar to the 29,000-year-old cave paintings that were found in Chauvet’s Cave in southern France. Jean Clottes, former archaeology official in the French Ministry of Culture theorizes that these caves and their drawings were places that held transformative power and religious significance. Clottes believes that prehistoric shamans invoked the spirits in their paintings not only to aid them on their hunts, but also for births, illnesses, and other crises and rites of passage. “These animals were full of power, and the paintings are images of power,” he says. “If you get in touch with the spirit, it is not out of idle curiosity. You do it because you need their help” (Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015). So all these many years ago, even then, human expression was a way of reaching out, of making sense of the world.


On the last day of summer music camp, I learned that many of the students had moved to another state or another city. But, as the director told me, they had many new students. It reminded me of the ongoing mission of the shelter and the cycle of its ever changing population. I hoped that the music camp would give our little band of dreamers something good to hang onto in an otherwise dark time of their lives and bring them a lifelong love of music.

At the last class as we wrapped up the recorder lesson, Sophia uncharacteristically needed to talk. A striking contrast to our first class together when words were too hard for her to summon. “Marcus has gone. They moved to Kansas City.” I told her, “I know it is hard and that you miss him. But I am really happy that he will have a new home and a new school.  I will pray for him.” She looked at me with somber, knowing eyes and nodded. As I was leaving I received big hugs and goodbyes from everyone. In my effort to bring healing to these students, they had taught me so much. They taught me that music is an innate human expression that helps us make sense of the world. They played. They sang. They created beauty.

It seems that when we as humans are stripped of all we possess, our friendships, our sense of place and community, we tap into the core of our existence. Just as important as our need for shelter, clothes, and food, is our need of artistic expression. Music has a way of engaging our ability to create and strengthen us as humans. It is a part of the fabric of who we are.

Music is a part of the fabric of who we are as humans.

After over 30 years of teaching music, I learned something new at the summer music camp: that music is a basic form of human expression and often brings hope to the most marginalized of communities. In these seemingly routine music classes a transformation took place. Students tapped into their own ability to increase their self-esteem. They were in a rite of passage. They created power and enablement from their rhythms, their voices, and their bodies. They needed this music. It was not a trite exercise in mindless busy work. Music making became a survival skill for them. It was their way of participating again in a social and individual way that was positive, creative, and valued. It was their own. They owned little else. They left their homes with nothing and were being transitioned into new lives, perhaps in new cities, with new schools and maybe even new names. It was sung in their little voices that grew stronger each week. It was played in beautiful tones and kind and graceful behavior. They owned it. I was merely a bystander.

The director asked me if I would be able to continue this music camp next summer and of course I said “Yes!”. He then added, “I have your contact information. I won’t let you forget. I will be calling you!”

I won’t forget.


Kathy Scherler

Kathy L. Scherler is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Oklahoma Baptist University and received her Ph.D. at the University of North Texas. Dr. Scherler has presented research at numerous international and national conferences, and remains active as a soprano soloist.

12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music Parts 1-3—Where You Are plus What and Who You Know

List of four numbered hymns on placard
In choir practice I was shaking my head not because of all the parallel fifths and octaves, not because of the doubled leading tones (and one tripled), and not because of the wacky key (three sharps, but not A or F# minor…hmmmm, E mixolydian, except for those D#s half-cadencing on, what, E over A, I guess). Nor were my lips pursed because I had been singing this almost every year for 15 years yet had forgotten these theoretical hiccups. No, I was shaking my head, pursing my lips, and smiling, because I had composed it, and wouldn’t change a thing.

Believe me, there is music I’ve written over the years that I’d edit heavily if I had the chance, and music that I’ve ritually burned in the fireplace, but this is not one of those. No, this Easter Alleluia verse is a keeper because it works right out of the box. It sits well, it sings well, amateur choirs pretty much nail it from the get-go, and it sparkles “Alleluia” from beginning to end. The choirs in two churches, the smaller one I wrote it for and the larger one I’m in now, just sound good when they sing it.
This little piece, to be sung right before the Gospel reading, sums up almost every reason I can think of to write music. And better than anything else I can think of, writing music for the church taught me how to compose.

1. Start Where You Are

When I’ve been asked how to have a career in composition (it’s actually happened twice), my first thought is to look behind me for a composer who can answer. Seeing none, I’ve said the only thing I can think of: Start where you are. Then repeat.
I started in church. My parents were those types who took their kids to church, which some oddly consider to be more abusive than sending them to school, but while at some point with great enthusiasm I stopped going to school, I still go to church.
Like many composers, I write orchestral, chamber, and vocal music, for any sort of concert opportunity that comes up, but since I started composing I wrote church music because that’s where I was. In the churches I’ve gone to, that meant writing for choir. If I played in a band or a string quartet I’d write for them, but what I know, from the inside out, is choral sight-reading, choral rehearsing, and choral singing in my fair-to-middling but quite untrained bass/baritone voice. (I’ve sung in every school choir available to me, also; I was only, oh, half-kidding about school.)

2. Write What You Know

It’s what Jo March had to learn in Little Women. Prof. Bhaer disapproved of her serialized potboilers, which had no basis in real life. His tut-tutting meant nothing (as he told her), but lunatics, vampires, and “The Sinner’s Corpse” also meant nothing—to her. Even if she made money at it, what was the gain for her soul? When Jo writes the book about her sisters, however, she discovers real writing, real love, and herself.

It isn’t a matter of writing what I know and then moving on to what I don’t know. It’s rather like turning to additional things I know, or rediscovering things I had forgotten. Composing leads me down paths I thought I knew but didn’t—until I walked them. A critic once told me that after a concert, an acquaintance asked him what he thought of the performance. He replied, “I don’t know. I haven’t written my review yet.” Composing is very much like that for me.

The Renaissance wind-band Piffaro asked me to base my Vespers, written for them and the new music choir The Crossing, on the music of the early Lutheran Reformation. They knew that I’m Lutheran and that I adore this music. So I did. But I had no idea what lay in wait for me: I found counterpoint through Vespers. I “knew” counterpoint, of course, the way we learn it, more or less, in school. I had learned it but never really liked it. But a light went on—no: fireworks, cannon, sequential bombs went off—as I composed. I wrestled with my utter ignorance of counterpoint and ended up falling in love with it. I had started with what I’d known—strong chorales and ruddy-faced texts—and ended up in undiscovered territory, right in my own back yard.

3. Write for People You Know

Often we write a piece, show up for the concert, maybe give a talk, and shake hands afterward. Writing for church, however, at first meant, and still often means, writing for my church. That’s a good experience, a very good experience, and a learning experience.

It’s good because I know the choir’s strengths and weaknesses. An average church choir comprises a dozen singers: ten women and two men, typically. One or two women will be legitimate amateur sopranos, meaning they have a high G; A if you’re lucky. Both men are baritones; one sings tenor but shouldn’t. That would be me, by the way. (I’m in a bigger and well-balanced choir now—about 20 with three real tenors!—but that explains why some tenor lines in my anthems go no higher than E-flat.)

It’s very good because I’m writing not for an imagined audience, not for any audience at all, but for a community, my community. They know me, and what we do for people we know is this: we cut them a break. Choirs have gotten to know, and have gotten to like, new pieces of mine much more readily because I was there, singing it with them. After one gnarled moment (maybe that one with the tripled leading tone), I’ll hear, “Thanks a bunch!” but with a laugh. They know I detest descants because I’ve told them. So when I write a descant and confess that this is my penance for having such harsh opinions, that makes it special, and it makes it their own. There’s no gaming, it’s just living together.

It’s a learning experience, this living together, because we discover that there are opinions other than ours, and we have to deal with them. I’ll hear what’s more difficult to sing than I’d thought and, if I’m smart, I’ll figure out why and fix it. But I’ll also hear about things I’d never considered, and that’s where the real learning begins. There are thousands of Alleluia models. But when you hear your own choir, even your own voice, rambling through your own Alleluia, rosy-fingered dawn appears, or fireworks go off, or a light bulb goes on. I may change the piece or just smile and shake my head, but I have at least learned, in community, a lesson. I have learned how to compose.

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Photo of Kile Smith

Kile Smith

Kile Smith is Composer in Residence for Philadelphia’s art song ensemble Lyric Fest, the Helena Symphony, and The Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, as well as a classical host at WRTI-FM where he hosts the contemporary American music program Now Is the Time and Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection. He is also a Contributing Editor for the Broad Street Review and teaches composition. In addition to his residencies, he is currently working on commissions for The Crossing and other groups.