Harnessing the Healing Power of Song

Colla Voce of the Sierra has started a new chorus!! Crescendo is a chorus for adults with Parkinson’s, their families and their caregivers. Colla Voce partnered with McConnell Music Therapy to bring this program to the Auburn area.  Check it out in the Auburn Journal:  Harnessing the Healing Power of Song.  Kudos to music therapist Tara McConnell and her team!

No Time…

Ok guys… forgive me in advance… can’t help it… too funny.

A choral conductor was crossing a road one day when a frog called out to her and said, “If you kiss me, I’ll turn into a handsome prince.”
She bent over, picked up the frog and put it in her pocket.
The frog spoke up again and said, “If you kiss me and turn me back into a handsome prince, I will stay with you for one week.”

The choral conductor took the frog out of her pocket, smiled at it and returned it to the pocket. The frog then cried out, “If you kiss me and turn me back into a prince, I’ll stay with you and do ANYTHING you want.”

Again the choral conductor took the frog out, smiled at it and put it back into her pocket.

Finally, the frog asked, “What is the matter? I’ve told you I’m a handsome prince, that I’ll stay with you for a week and do anything you want. Why won’t you kiss me?”

The choral conductor said, “Look—I’m a working musician. I don’t have time for a boyfriend, but a talking frog—now that’s cool.”

Are Choral Conductors Crazy? Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride…

I was relating a story to a colleague that occurred during my first week in the CSULA Master’s of Music summer program a few years ago, and she said, “well, choral conductors ARE all kinda crazy, right?”  Yes.  Well I guess so, but not that kind of crazy…

I’ve been burning the candle at both ends and delinquent on my blog posts, so I’m cheating here and will share a post from that first week…

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

Whatever possessed me to pursue another degree at this point in my life escaped my consciousness this week somewhere between an intense lecture on the value of understanding the hexachords hidden in medieval chant in relationship to analyzing contemporary choral work and a late-night wild-goose-chase through the bowels of LA with an OCD borderline at the wheel.  I’m in an intensive 3 summers masters program in choral conducting, living in LA for the summer… have you lost your MIND you say….  Well, as a matter of fact, yes.

Life is short, I always say.  It is a good answer to most any annoying question.  I was on track in my early 20’s to get serious about choral conducting, but took a radical left turn after my conservatory work and landed in the world of music theatre among other things.  No regrets certainly, but unfinished business has a way of bearing it’s ugly little head and well, it was high time to check that one off the list before I keel over.  Besides, I’m possessed with the music lately and what else can you do when you are possessed, than to do one’s best to drown in it?  My only lamenting happens when my mind wanders to Québec City….. I’ve loved my summers there, studying French and immersing myself in the francophone culture… 3 summers of choral conducting means 3 summers NOT in QC and what a mournful thought THAT is.  Oh my.

I thought that I would be just fine down here without a car… I never have a car in QC and I get around on the metro system just dandy, so I figured LA would be the same ….. certainly navigating the LA freeway system is not my cup of tea to say the least.  Ken, my knight in shinning armor, would have none of this idea.  He insisted that I have a car and not set one foot on a bus down here.  He promptly presented me with a GPS to help with navigation.  Ms. Garmin.  I call her Sal for short.  She is my new best friend.  I just LOVE her.  She tells me where to go, gives me reminders when I’m going to turn, and re-calculates on a dime when I turn too early, without telling me that I am an idiot or directionally challenged.  (It would be the truth, but who likes a mouthy, opinionated, know-it-all around?)  I love Sal.  Have Sal, will travel.  Going to the Huntington Gardens tomorrow for high tea and a stroll.  Me and Sal.

Last night was a welcome party for the conductors.  I ended up riding with a colleague that we will just call Ms. Hyde (as in Dr. Jekell and company).   It started out innocently enough.  The directions had a misspelling of the street name, so I couldn’t program Sal to be in charge.  Hyde was in charge.  She lived down here for a time, so she felt that she knew everything.  Her extensive knowledge lead us through a terrifying area of LA and when it was determined that we should give up getting to the party and head back to home before we were found, robbed, beaten and beheaded, she consented to letting Sal get us out of the mess.  Sal was great as usual, but Hyde, out of the blue, started screaming obscenities to Sal to shut up, all the while driving like a mad, crazy woman.  Poor Sal, although she doesn’t react to that kind of abuse at all, it takes a moment to shut her off so she just continued to tell Hyde to turn left while Hyde was ranting.  Well, here I am, stunned at the behavior of Ms. Hyde—a prominent, respectable, age 50-something choral conductor—and trying to get Sal shut down before she gets tossed out of the window. I was silent (a rare moment, I know) until Hyde came to her senses.  Sal was invited to take over again and we did make it home in one piece, unharmed amazingly enough, but party-less. Nope, not inviting Hyde to tea tomorrow.  How did you guess?

I am on a quest to find the beauty in LA.  Abe Lincoln is purported to have said, “If you look for the bad in man, you shall surely find it.”  So if you look for the good in something, you will find that too, yes?

Choir Members: Family By Choice!

Not All Families are Related by Blood : Mozart Redux
“It isn’t just the music that moves me. If a family is a group of people among whom more is unspoken than expressed, defined by all that doesn’t have to be explained, then this is my musical family.”

We’ve all probably heard the comment “too bad we can’t choose our own family members” or some similar sentiment.  Except, we DO choose our family members… what school we attend, what church community we adopt (or adopts us…) etc.  Where we invest our time, there resides our family.  And singing in a choir?  Well…. read on…

Thank you Beth for the article!

The Beauty of Artistic Community

Curator Magazine articles pop into my email box almost daily with interesting perspectives on a variety of subjects.  This morning “The Beauty of Americana” caught my eye.  The writer talks about folk music and the power of creating our art in community.  Have a look… it is worth the read.  ~jd

“If my theory is correct that it was the communal aspect of the creation of this album that makes it stand out, “Let There Be Beauty” is the quiet anthem of that sort of artistic community:

So, let there be beauty,
For beauty is good,
The made and the making
And the bliss understood.
So, let there be beauty,
For beauty is free,
Come swim in the waters,
Come drink from the stream.”

with a wave of his hand…

When I was a kid, our family spent a majority of the summer weekends camping in the foothills outside of a little hole-in-the-wall called Grizzly Flat.  My dad would rig up our fly rods at the crack of dawn every morning.  We’d be out on the forest stream with the mosquitoes, pointing our rods ahead to lead the way through the prickly brush, poised to catch our limit of trout.  Daddy was proud of his girls and bragged that Margaret and I could out-fish any guy on that stream.

“What you catch, you clean” he’d say, and we’d both be bending down with our little-girl hands in that freezing, mountain water, gutting our rainbow trout, and feeding the slimy eggs that came out of our catch to the other ravenous fish.


In the hot afternoons, Mar and I would hike down the back side of Mr. McGee’s Christmas Tree Farm to get to “the falls,” the favorite swimming hole.  The boulders were tilted at just the right angle that we could slide down the rushing waterfalls and into the pool below without killing ourselves.  Mom would let us swim until our lips were blue, then we’d have to get out and warm up in the sun.


“Town” consisted of one long building—a relic from the gold mining days—that had been turned into a cafe-by-day-bar-at-night and a little market.  The bar, “Peart’s Place” was the land mark for giving directions or meeting up.  The interior of  Peart’s was lined in fuzzy, old, dark wood with rusted gold-mining gear on the walls.  The square tables had a sketched portrait of a local painted on each corner. At one end of the musky room was a wall-to-wall carved wooden bar, and at the other was a honky-tonk-ish piano with Jack Peart’s drum set in the corner.


Most nights Peart’s was packed with locals coming out of the hills for a bite, a beer, and some down-home music.  Musicians came in from all over to play with Jack and he’d always give them a grand welcome, waving his hand like he was ushering in royalty from another country.  “Weeeeell, we’ve got Brownie and his fiddle here tonight…. Come oooon down, Brownie!” he’d shout over the bar clamor.

Peart's Little Place...

During that time in my life, my dad would pay me a quarter for every one of his requests that I learned. “Somewhere My Love” and “Sentimental Journey” were like dessert after my usual fare of Bach, Beethoven, and Schmitt exercises.

I’d go into Peart’s during the day and practice my pocket-full of standards on that out-of-tune piano while Jack was visiting with the rough and tumble locals.

Bar Piano

One hot night—I was about 11—the smoky bar was fulled to capacity as usual, with locals, musicians and lots of happy music.  Mar and I were sitting in the dark, back corner listening with Daddy—kids weren’t really supposed to be in there at night, but Jack turned a blind eye.  Brownie was on the fiddle, Jack on drums, some old local with a beard that hung down clear to his over-sized belt buckle was on the wash-tub bass making it sound like he’d just arrived from a club in New Orleans.  Jack had empty moonshine jugs on the tables and the listeners were “playing along”, blowing into the jugs in rhythm, contributing their part of the evening’s experience.  Daddy, as always—with that big grin on his face—was playing the heck out of the spoons.  That man could make those spoons sing!

Jack Peart

That evening, like he did with each of those musicians that walked into his place, Jack hollered over to me in the corner and, with a wave of his hand said, “Weeeell, we have young Miss Janine here with us tonight… come oooon up honey, and tinkle those keys!!”

My eyes were like saucers at that moment, and I looked at Daddy, not knowing really what to say (a rare moment I suppose).  He said, “well, get on up there!!”… and so I did.

I started to play the pocket-full of standards that I’d memorized.  Brownie stood next to me and coached me a bit… “now play it again an octave higher…” “now again, and lay off the melody so I can take it”.  And so it went.  My first paid gig.  25 cents.

That evening, old man Jack Peart gave me an invitation to join him in the magic-making. He lead me from the world of the peripheral spectator to the world of an engaged co-creator.  The difference between the two was like night and day.

I imagine that, in those evenings at Peart’s Place, some seed was planted in me.  I’m not sure what, really.  Was it that making music is relational?  Or that the experience of the people participating together created a more powerful moment for everyone?  Was it that co-creating leads to transformation: of individuals and communities, even if that community is a small group of musicians playing late into the night somewhere in a dark bar in the mountains?

Somehow I think old man Jack Peart instinctively knew these things.  Thank you, Mr. Peart, for sharing with me….


burst tomato galette with corn and zucchini

Smittenkitchen. Check it out.  A symphony of flavor and visual art in the same moment.


shakin’ it up (part 2): participartory arts

Getting In On The Act:  How Arts Groups are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation” is a study commissioned in 2011 by the James Irvine Foundation.  It addresses 21st century questions:

“How can arts institutions adapt to this new environment?”
“Is participatory practice contradictory to, or complementary to, a business model that relies on professional production and consumption?”
“How can arts organizations enter this new territory without compromising their values or artistic ideals?”

Included in this immensely interesting article is an enlightening graphic: “The Audience Involvement Spectrum”, a diagram on the “receptive arts” vs the “participatory arts” and commentary on the vast difference in effectiveness between the two (did I mention that this is immensely interesting…..well worth the read…my 46 page bible on strategic programming and presentation design??)  Take a look:

How does this apply to the performance of choral music while maintaining authentic performance practices of the rich choral canon we know and love?  Good question.

The step from “spectating” to “enhanced engagement” is fairly common in choral circles:  choirs often change position, add instruments for color and use choralography in the concert design.  These additions are visually stimulating and help convey the story of the text and music, but remain on the “receptive” side of the spectrum.

The next step—“crowd sourcing”— takes us over the line into the “participatory” arts. The examples listed are “an opera libretto comprised of Tweets” and  “virtual choruses”.  Another idea easily implemented would be a concert programmed by the audience with life stories from those audience members—live and on video—behind the choice of each piece.  The color-coding shows us that the participant’s level of creative control is moved from merely spectator to curatorial.

One step deeper into the pool is “Co-Creation”. Collaborative concerts centered on choral music—where other artists and art forms illuminate the text and the music—create visual interest, and often build audience. Other art forms often draw an audience that wouldn’t normally attend a choral concert.  Another form of collaborative concert is where the audience has several contributing parts.  This is not difficult in the choral world, and it produces a total experience for the audience member that is above and beyond the traditional concert event.  In the co-creation experience the participant’s level of creative control becomes interpretive.

Last on the spectrum is “Audience-As-Artist”,  shifting from “the product to the process of creation.”  In the choral world, could this be reconfigured sing-a-long Messiah concerts in a venue where seating could be mixed (rather than the traditional divide between audience and musicians),  that included carefully chosen audience members in the orchestra?  Or could this be a BIG SING, where the audience choses the music ahead of time, choral singers and audience are mixed, and perhaps the audience even comes in period costume representing their piece?  What are your ideas to fully integrate the audience in the process, and take the participant’s level of creative control to inventive?

As the arts sector continues to shift in the 21st century, let’s put our heads together and share ideas to contribute to keeping choral music vibrant, relevant and accessible to all.  And while we are at it, let’s build a community to support each other in the process.

(Part 1:  Choirs Lead the Way to World Peace—July)

Singers Synchronize Heartbeats

“Choir Singers Synchronize Heartbeats:  Singers in a choir unconsciously coordinate their breathing patterns, which leads to synchronized heart rates…

… isn’t it outstanding when science confirms what we have known all along?? …



shakin’ it up (part 1): choirs lead the way to world peace

Imagine:  A biannual summit meeting of the leaders of every country on the planet for the expressed purpose of singing together. World Choir. 196 blending singers.  Surely this would lead to harmony in every sense of the word!  As crazy as it sounds, if anyone could pull that off it would be community choirs.

As the new ACDA R&S Chair for Community Choirs, one of the comments that I heard most consistently at ECCO was the hope for relationship and community among the conductors of community choirs (which, when you think about it, is rather ironic).  We rarely are part of a staff of colleagues providing moral support and discourse, we commonly do not have an institution supporting us, and we are usually the sole vision and direction for our organization.  It can sometimes be rather lonely.  Building a community among us will help fill that relational gap and will yield vibrant, relevant, and accessible concert ideas.

What other issues do we have in common?  We wear too many hats, we don’t have a captive audience but rather must earn our audience, and we seldom have a guaranteed salary year after year. Even so, on the up side we have freedom.  The wheels of change in a large institution move veeeeerrrrrry slowly, but we have the freedom to make changes rather rapidly in our community organizations.  We are in the midst of significant demographic and technological change in our culture, and we are sitting in the middle of a shifting arts sector.  We possess a freedom that allows us the creative elbow room to navigate the demands of the changing environment.

I have been reading the NEA research findings on declining attendance and participation in “spectator oriented creative arts” as well as the James Irvine Foundation/WolfBrown research on the post-modern audience, and I’m contemplating that it may well be the freedom of community choirs that leads the way to change in the choral arts. With few exceptions, the days of vibrant “stand-up-there-in-black-and-sing” choirs are over, and the path ahead hasn’t been paved.  It means that we have the opportunity to be part of shaping this new path!  There certainly are successful choral groups that maintain that traditional presentation style, but the ones that are thriving—as opposed to merely surviving—seem to be the excellent few that have an established audience for a particular niche or specialty (i.e. new music premiers, renaissance singers, madrigal groups), or the professional level groups in large cities (i.e. Chanticleer, Kansas City Chorale, LA Master Chorale).  However, generally, even their core audience is aging and is not being replaced (not my opinion, simply research… don’t shoot the messenger here, ok?). As choral conductors, if we want to pass on the extraordinary legacy of the choral canon, perhaps we should consider additional modi operandi.

What are the possibilities??

(Part 2…. coming in August!)