Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Reflections for the 2015 OAKE Conference

Reflections from the 2015 OAKE Conference


Happy spring break!  We’re off from school this week and it has been a very much needed break from working and a time to reflect (and also to recover from a cold….).

About two weeks ago, I had the pleasure to attend the Organization of American Kodály Educators’ 2015 National Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  This was my second National conference (I attended last year’s conference in Atlanta) and it definitely did not disappoint!  It is such a thrill to spend time with such amazing and dedicated music educators and to be able to talk through shared issues and situations.

I attended many fabulous sessions and performances, but what I enjoyed most about this year’s conference was the numerous wonderful sessions about Kodály inspired teaching in the choral classroom.  Today, I am going to talk a bit about the various choral related sessions I attended.

Mini-Conference with Fernando Malvar-Ruiz

When I read that Fernando Malvar-Ruiz (conductor of the American Boys Choir) would be doing a mini-conference on Thursday of conference weekend, I knew it would be a great session.  A few days before the conference, they sent out an email to the registered participants looking for choir members for a demonstration choir during the workshop and I jumped at the chance!  Honestly, I figured it would be just singing a bit to demonstrate a few things, and that would be the end, but I am so glad that it turned out to be very different (in a good way!).

Since there wasn’t really a lot of time to prepare the music, I actually was learning the music on the plane to Minneapolis (thank goodness for my Solfa classes!) and was a little nervous to be singing in the demonstration group.  Members of the demonstration choir met about a half hour before the session to rehearse a bit.  From the moment Fernando greeted us and started us on the first piece, I felt immediately at ease.  Something about his manner and his conducting gesture just erased all of my nerves.  I noticed during the quick rehearsal how Fernando conducted us really brought out the musicality of a group of musicians who had never sung together before.  His gesture was so simple, yet so musical, I could feel the way my breathing was even affected just from his gesture.  It was amazing!

The workshop was a conducting masterclass with several different conductors coming up and conducting the choir and Fernando working with each.  I definitely didn’t realize we would be singing the whole time, but I’m glad that I volunteered to sing because we had the best seats in the room!  To get up in front of a group of highly trained music educators and conduct takes so much bravery, and I commend each of the conductors that got to work with Fernando during the class.  What was so amazing, and what I don’t think I would have felt as much if I wasn’t in the choir, was the huge impact the conducting gesture makes on how a group will perform.  Granted, we were a group of trained musicians and teachers, but with each new conductor our sound was different, our phrasing was different, and my soul felt different (that’s cheesy, but exactly how it felt!).

Fernando spoke a lot about connecting with the members of the group you are conducting (Eye contact, breathing with the singers), and keeping your conducting gesture simple.  At one point with one of the conductors, he talked about how if your gesture is always big because you’re trying so hard to get dynamics, phrasing, etc from your group, then they will always be used to that and they won’t react musicially.  Instead, keep it simple and make changes in the size of the gesture to reflect what you want to hear, not as a reaction to what you’re not getting from them.  He also added that if they are not reacting to the gesture the way we want, we must train them to do so.  That made so much sense to me.  Besides the fact that I don’t really conduct in my chorus rehearsals (I’ll get to that in a moment), I’m so busy making sure they know the music, that I’m not always teaching them musically.  Why not always teach with musicality?

Fernando was amazing to watch work with the other conductors!  He was there to work with them and give them critiques, but he did so in such a disarming way that I think everyone was at ease in an admittedly stressful situation.  Watching him work with the conductors reminded me of how much can be accomplished when people feel at ease and as such I’ve thought a lot about how my teaching can accomplish the same thing.

After each of the conductors worked with Fernando, he took questions from the room.  One of the questions was how do you get from teaching the music to your students to teaching them how to be musical.  His answer was basically to be teaching musically all the time even when it’s a brand new piece of music, even when they’re sight reading, everything must be done musically and then eventually it will become inherent.  This is where I realized that I don’t really conduct in my chorus rehearsals, because I’m pointing to the board to show my singers where in the music we are.  Really, if I want them to be musical, I need to exude that all of the time.  Since the conference, I’ve had one rehearsal with my chorus group and I challenged myself to do everything musically.  It definitely felt strange to be conducting (which it shouldn’t….), but I noticed a marked change in how my singers sang when I called their attention to my conducting gesture.  Why not do it this way??

Teaching Music Literacy at the American Boychoir School

Friday morning, Fernando did a session about music literacy with his choir.  He concentrated on how you can use sight reading to further musicianship goals not just in literacy, but in musicality.  Fernando demonstrated to us as well as showed us actual videos of the Boys during some sight reading exercises during various rehearsals.  I was so struck by how musical they were!  One thing Fernando uses with the boys during the sight reading segment of rehearsal are hymns.  Fernando had mentioned that someone gave the school a set of hymns, but also what he likes about using them is that hymns were written for everyday people to sing in church so the ranges are not large and the voice leading makes sense to our ear.  To empower the Boys, they play games, various challenges with the sight reading examples that the boys themselves come up with and choose!  Here’s a list of some of the things they do:

-sing every other measure (inner hear the measure that is not being sung)

-only sing beat one and beat four (inner hear the beats that are not being sung)

-make a 4/4 time signature into a ¾ time signature by combining two beats (that one sounds tricky!)

-add an ostinato

-read one part in one system, on the next system change to another part

-change the mode

-make it melodic minor

-read in absolutes

-if you make a mistake, sit down

-transpose with absolutes

-sing the beat according to your birthday (1st quarter of the year, sing only on beat 1, 2nd quarter of the year, sing only on beat 2, etc)

-walk your rhythm while singing (half note would mean you would have to stop for two beats, etc)

-walk only if you’re singing the tonic

-only sing do, mi, or so

-Soprano and Alto lines switch on beat 4

-sing in retrograde

-stand up (and sit back down) if you have ________ (could be when you sing do, or re, etc)


What great ideas!  During the video clips he showed us, you could definitely tell that the Boys enjoy this game.  I also noticed that with each new challenge a boy suggested, it “upped the ante” from the previous challenge.  Thus, inspiring the boys to see how far they can take themselves, how great!  Now, the boys were doing all of this with hymns written in four part harmony (and so were we during the session), but this idea can easily be adapted for anything (an 8 beat rhythm exercise, or a simple 4-measure melody).  Besides being a great way for them to practice sight reading, Fernando also uses the hymns as a way to practice singing with musicality.  He said “we want them to analyze, not just read” meaning that we as teachers need to insist that sight reading is done musically (looking for phrases and other opportunities for expressive qualities), because that knowledge will transfer to the other music we perform.  Because the Boys love these challenges and it’s playing to them, making mistakes is not scary!  Another very interesting tip Fernando gave for not only sight reading, but music reading in general is to have the singers sing everything staccato.  This forces the singers to read with better rhythm and intonation, and as the Boys say “no leeching!” because there isn’t time to hear the note then join in, you have to sing it right away (I definitely have some leeches in my choir lol).

A resonating theme throughout the session, was the fact that by empowering our singers and creating a safe atmosphere, they will push themselves.  Isn’t that what we all want?  To inspire our students to themselves have the intrinsic motivation to aspire for more?  This session (and Fernando himself) reminded me of my Level III Solfa class and instructor, Dr. Alice Hammel, who is also an incredibly disarming person who welcomes anyone with open arms.  She pretty much did the same thing I watched Fernando do with the Boys with a group of adults.  Somehow, Alice inspired us to each reach for our own personal best and to constantly “up the ante” for ourselves, but never did she directly tell us what to do with the exercises we were assigned each day.  As a result, all fourteen of us differentiated for ourselves for wherever we were in our personal musicianship journey.  Great teachers clearly think alike J.


The Process of Teaching a Choral Octavo

Saturday morning, I went to a session with Dr. Georgia Newlin about the process of teaching a choral octavo, beginning with the preparation we as conductors must do before we present a new piece to our students.  Being an instrumentalist primarily, this is something that I feel I am still finding my stride for so I was really interested in what she had to say. 

The first step to preparing a choral octavo, is to analyze the form first as this will inform your decisions about how you present the music to your singers.  After looking at the form, analyze the key, tonal set, and rhythms.  Depending on the piece, you may have the students begin from the beginning with the rhythm then add the solfa, or you may begin in the middle with just the students learning the rhythm if the tone set is one outside of what they already know/are ready for.  She demonstrated a piece that you would start from the beginning with, Bim Bam, arranged by Shirley McRae.  In this piece, the rhythms are not complicated so the students would start there.  The solfa is also not super complicated, so you would also teach that after.  She then demonstrated a piece where starting from the B section would be better, I See the Moon.

Interestingly enough, I already do all of that so I felt re-assured that I’m on the right path as I continue to become a better choral conductor.  Here is what I don’t already do and what I learned from her session:

-Use octavos!  For the past two years now, I have used stick notation on the board to teach my students the music as they are not far enough along on the sequence to be successful at staff reading so much music at once.  I found that before I began my Kodály levels (and also for the year after) when I used the octavos, the kids were just reading the words and having to keep track of all the music was a hassle for me and also a distraction because they were never all in the correct place in the music.  But even if they can’t read everything, it is our responsibility as music teachers to ensure that they have the experience of working through an octavo score.  If I have something in stick notation on the board, they can find it in the score and if that’s their only experience with “reading”, that’s okay.  They should know where in the score we are working, even if it’s just finding measure numbers and identifying rhythms or a few key melodic phrases.  I agree with her on this, and have been seriously considering how I am going to make this happen for my choir.

-Only work on small sections at a time, then move on!  While I diligent create rehearsal plans breaking down what will be learned in each rehearsal leading up to a concert, I find that I often am not sticking to the plan.  Sometimes that happens because instead of just going to the new part that needs to be learned, I go back and review parts they already know well.  While I think this is necessary to ensure that they aren’t just learning all new stuff all the time, I definitely need to plan better for which pieces to do the review of and which pieces the review can wait for another rehearsal.

-Let the new part of the music be the last thing they hear:  Especially when we work on parts with close harmony, I am often finding it takes us a couple of tries in the next rehearsal to sort out which part is which.  I think this is because when we learn a new harmony part, I rush to have them do it with the melody (which they already know well) which leads to confusion when we return to it.  Instead, I need to trust that my singers can retain the melody from when they learned it so that we can concentrate on what’s new.  The original melody of a song is always the most remembered, so it’s important to play around with the harmonies a lot more.

One last thing she said that really resonated with me was:  they’re not going to love every piece, but it’s their responsibility as a student to do it anyway; they don’t love math all the time either.  In regards to concert programming, this is something I wrestle with when planning with my co-director, but I agree.  How will they ever learn to love music, even the music that seems far removed from them, if we don’t include it on our programs and teach them to appreciate it for music’s sake?  While I think there can definitely be a time and place for including music from the radio and Disney movies on our concerts (and this is a whole other discussion) what are we really teaching them?


Nurturing Boys’ Voices from 6-16 and The Blake School Choristers

This session with Dan LeJeune was like a whole new world for me which is why I wanted to attend.  I really have a hard time working with my boys (be it in choir or general music classes) whose voices are beginning to change.  I have several boys in my sixth grade classes who are experiencing the beginnings of the change.  What I liked most about Dan’s session was that he didn’t just talk to us about how to navigate the changing male voice, he let us listen and gave us practical ways to make it work.  We listened to many recordings of his actual students and choirs and that had so much more of an impact than just talking would have.  

One interesting thing he talked about a lot was to honor the boys’ singing where they “ring”.  This means, that as teachers and conductors, we need to make changes in our music so that our boys can be successful right at the place in their current range where they sound best.  He presented several ways of doing this:

-have the boys double the upper part an octave lower

-have the boys double the upper part an octave lower where they can, and to drop out where they can’t

-pick a key that is better for the changing voices, even if it’s not what the music says

-write a new part that will honor where their voices currently are

-let the boys decide what they feel comfortable doing (this may mean they sing in falsetto, create a new part, sing a mash up of two different parts, drop out when it gets beyond their range, etc)

Dan made a point to say that we need to make singing as inclusive as sports so that we can keep our boys singing through the change and not lose them to singing forever.  This means that as teachers and conductors, we need to be sensitive to how they feel while their voices are changing and creative about the choices we make to keep them singing.  You can read more about his session and also access the session notes and powerpoint on his website

In addition to presenting a session, Dan LeJeune also did a secondary reading session which was great because it wasn’t only secondary choral music, it was also things that I could do with my elementary choir so I’m glad I went to that and picked up some new music!  Part of his reading session included music from earlier that day when one of his chorus groups, The Blake School Choristers, performed (they were amazing and sang with so much joy and musicality!).  What I really enjoyed from his reading session was that he was able to talk about the various pieces he programmed for that concert, why he programmed them and such, but also what changes he made to them to accommodate some of the changing voices he has in that group.  It isn’t very often that I’ve gotten to hear why people program music the way they do so it was really insightful to hear him talk about his choices.


As you can probably tell by the short novel I have just written, I got so much from this conference!  There were so many other sessions not just choral related that I attended that I hope to write about in future posts.  Other than the fantastic sessions I attended, it was such a joy to re-connect with teacher friends from other states and discuss what we’re all doing and celebrate our successes and get new ideas.  I wish I could have taken all of you home with me to keep those conversations going! 


I would love to hear what others thought of the conference and what sessions really got you thinking, so leave a comment below!