Monday, October 29, 2012

Faculty Blogpost - Jay Nugent - We Build Musicians Here

This week's blog post is by Simpson College Adjunct Professor of Music, Mr. Jay Nugent

“We Build Musicians Here”

Many years ago, as a senior in high school, I came to Simpson College to audition for a music scholarship as an instrumental major. My aspiration was to be a high school band director. After playing the third movement of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, members of the faculty asked a series of questions about my background and what I wanted to do with my music. At the conclusion of this discussion, one faculty member stated, “we build musicians here”. This one statement described Simpson Music then and is still true today.

Music at Simpson is all about training students to become better musicians through challenging course work, private instruction and performing in a variety of large and small ensembles. In a nutshell, Simpson encourages music students to explore all aspects of music as an academic pursuit, as a soloist and as a member of outstanding ensembles. Each part of the curriculum is designed to challenge students to mature as individuals and as musicians. But this is just one aspect in the development as a musician - the greater responsibility lies within each student to train themselves as critical observers and listeners.

Simpson music students are expected to attend vocal and instrumental recitals. Use this opportunity to become active listeners. Train your ear to hear faulty intonation, listen to how the soloist phrases, especially in slower movements or selections, and pay close attention to how the accompanist enhances or distracts from the overall performance. Listen for the nuances in the accompaniment and how these musical lines play off the solo lines. When attending large ensemble performances, watch the conductor closely as you engage in active listening. Watch how the conductor, through his or her conducting technique, shapes the musical lines, balances the ensemble and enhances the musical experience. Note how the inner voices are interwoven throughout and if these voices are brought to the forefront when appropriate.

When listening to an instrumental ensemble, do not overlook the percussion section. Listen for rhythmic accuracy and how the performers approach the overall musical presentation through proper playing technique. When attending a jazz concert, pay close attention the rhythm section. Listen for and watch the interaction between the drummer, bass player and piano player as they work together to lay down the time (groove), set up the horns and propel and inspire the soloists. Go to opera performances and sit where you can see the orchestra and also the performers on stage. Watch how the conductor communicates visually with both the instrumentalist and vocalists to create an inspiring performance. Also, pay close attention to staging. The lesson is: what the audience sees greatly influences their overall perception of what they hear.

Finally, as a student, take full advantage of all the musical opportunities that are available at Simpson. It is here that one sets a pattern for a successful musical career. Observe closely how faculty members approach their music, practice their art and motivate their students. These four years will go by quickly, but the musical foundation gained here will last a lifetime.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Guest Blog Post - Nothing Gold Can Stay - Kate Harris

This week's blog post is by Simpson College Music alumna Kate Harris. Ms. Harris sang in many of the vocal ensembles during her time here and is currently teaching English at Centro de Lenguas y Estudios in Granada, Spain, an academy that serves both children and adults.

Nothing Gold Can Stay
by Kate Harris

“I can’t eat lunch with you today; I have a lesson.”  
“Where have you been?”  
“But it’s 8:30 on Saturday night.”  
“I’ll meet you at Pfeiffer later—it’s a band day.” 
“Mu Phi don’t bother me, Mu Phi don’t bother me!”  
“Good Lord, how many recitals do we have to go to this semester?” 
“Look at the list!  We’re going to be in Convo forever!!”

These are the familiar choruses heard up and down the hallways, lobby, and Cold Lounge of the Amy Robertson Music building.  We’ve all heard them, we’ve all uttered them.  However, what you may not realize is that you are currently in the Golden Age of your music career.  This is the time when you have the opportunity to study with the most talented and brightest minds of the music world (professional opera singers, featured musicians in the magazine Saxophone Journal, a Phantom of the Opera star (who was also in the Miss America pageant), composers, Poe enthusiasts, and even a professor who wrote his own opera).  Not only do you have the opportunity to study under the best professors, but you have the opportunity to study with some of the most talented students.  You are one of those students.  You should count yourself lucky to study with them, and they should count themselves lucky to study with you.  While at Simpson, students have composed operas, requiems, attended out-of-state instrumental conventions, performed at the Lyric, and given hour-long recitals while being full-time teachers in k-12 districts (all of you music education majors know how stressful that is!). 

In this musical Golden Age, you have the advantage of studying difficult music every day in lessons, band, instrumental ensembles, and choirs.  The level of music you rehearse is rigorous, demanding, and, come performance time, absolutely worth the emotional roller coaster of learning music well.  It is astounding to listen to and to perform a finished product after months of dedication and rehearsal.  Music is your passion.  You have many professors encouraging you daily to practice your passion and hone the talent you already possess and many peers that give you the same encouragement (sometimes reminiscent of Cold War tactics, but it still propels you to practice, does it not?).  As you stare graduation in the face, spectators around you shout words they perceive as helpful:  

“You can always join a community choir!”   
“My community band is excellent—you would really like it!”  
“Music is something you can take with you wherever you go!” 

Let me tell you this, my fellow musicians, Robert Frost says it best in his title poem: “Nothing gold can stay.”  Your Golden Age ends when you reach out and take that diploma.  It seems unfair to be finally be given the seal of approval that commemorates your passion, while at the same moment be ripped from the opportunity to work with the best and the brightest musicians.  It will not be the same.  Community band, choir, glee clubs… They are enjoyable, but they do not replace the level of musical study you receive at Simpson College. 

I had not anticipated this upon graduation.  The realization slapped me in the face the fall after I graduated when I sat idly by on my computer reading Facebook statuses proclaiming the outcome of the opera list,  the frustrations of rehearsals, etc.  I yearned for another lesson, another choir rehearsal.  I even missed Convo.  I missed hearing my peers perform and witnessing the accomplishments made in the practice rooms and in Lekberg, Harris and Duncan Halls.  Even after a year and a half, I still miss the opportunities that were taken for granted during my own Golden Age. 

My advice for you is to live the admittedly cliché phrase carpe diem.  Seize the day, seize the music.  Know that the end is near, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the music around you.  My final comment is to, during your four years as a part of the Simpson Music Department, “stay golden, Pony Boy.”

Nature's first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf's a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.
--Robert Frost

Monday, October 15, 2012

Guest Blog Post - Mr. Seth Hedquist - Inspiration

This week's blog post is by our instructor of guitar and jazz improvisation, Seth Hedquist

Inspiration In Unexpected Places 
by Seth Hedquist

Inspiration knows no vocation. It is just inspiration. Having sources for inspiration outside your chosen area of study may help you return to your comfort zone refreshed and with a simpler outlook at what you do.

I hope I never forget the Winter Olympics of 2010 for many reasons. The most poignant moment in my mind was watching skier Lindsey Vonn before she hit the slope in one of her many exciting runs. The camera showed her going through a mental run through of the course just moments before she went down the hill. She stood off to the side of the jump-off point in full gear, eyes shut, arms in ready position, head tilting to and fro as she went over the course in her mind. As if the course itself, with its twists, turns, ups and downs, were a piece of music, Vonn seemed in that moment to be the conductor.

More recently, in preparation for a master’s course in history, I finally took my mother’s advice and read a book called Remember Everything You Read: The Evelyn Wood 7-Day Speed Reading and Learning Program by Stanley D. Frank. I have for as long as I can remember struggled with finding motivation to read. It was always more of a “have to” than a “want to” because I never found a way around reading every single word. Reading a book therefore made for a long commitment. That is until the Evelyn Wood Method taught me to let go of my old mentality by catching a couple of old habits in action. First of all, I would continuously regress as I read, often reading a single sentence over again to make sure I understood it. While that may sometimes be necessary, it made for a poor pace as I tried to get through the book. Likewise I was always unconsciously accompanied by my “hidden voice” which sounded out every word. This too had its uses but the Evelyn Wood Method seemed to argue that such a technique is essentially just one gear to drive in. 

As I was reading Frank’s book I realized that I fell into these same habits when sightreading music. Even though I knew the vocabulary, the notes and rhythms, I let the “hidden voice” slow me down when I could have been cruising, and constantly second-guessed myself as I went along. Now I am a better sightreader as a result of the Evelyn Wood Method. Even more importantly, I want to sightread more.

Those history books I began taking home and reading in this new way seemed all the more simple too. In the best ones the authors did not ramble. They just stated their purposes, told their narratives and brought their works to a conclusion. In coming back to music I feel the aim is not that different. Listen to jazz standards like Stella By Starlight by Victor Young or Emily by Johnny Mandel. Take a turn into the classical realm and listen to Un sospiro by Franz Liszt. These incredible pieces of music have their melodic “thesis statements” too, and take the listener on lovely journeys to the end.

Inspiration does not stop, even when you stop doing “your thing.” I recommend you be open to sources of inspiration in other fields. They may tell you more about your area of study, and perhaps yourself, than you may have known had you only looked within your comfort zone. Wherever it is received, acknowledge inspiration for what it is and channel it into what you do. Then come back to the music refreshed and ready to inspire.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Faculty Post - Dr. Kim Helton

This week's blog post is by Simpson College's Instructor of Flute, Dr. Kim Helton.

Collaboration: The Art of Arts

by Kim Helton

In September, I had the privilege of performing in both the season debut concerts of the Des Moines Symphony and Orchestra Iowa (Cedar Rapids Symphony). Even with all the gloom and doom in many other symphony organizations, both are solvent and thriving. Both are expanding educational opportunities for youth in the community. Both are doing out reach performances in smaller venues. AND, for the first time ever, both included a collaboration of artistic diversity never before seen.

Orchestra Iowa worked together with the Quad-City Ballet Company and Historic Brucemore Museum—a collaboration of the local ballet company, the local historical site, and the local symphony. Thousands of people came to listen, drink local wine, and support their community through the arts. The DMSO worked together with the DSM Art Center and the Pappajohn family to commission a new piece, “Symphony in Sculpture,” celebrating the spectacular sculpture park down town. It was a collaboration including the local art collection, local composer, local Blur Media Productions, and the local symphony with enormous success.

So, what is so important about collaboration? How does it help the arts thrive? What are the lessons learned through collaborating with other artists? Here are some critical skills that will begin to evolve the more you work with others:

Always bring your “A” game.
There is nothing more inspiring that playing with other fine musicians or artists. If you need motivation to practice or hone your craft, work with an outstanding pianist, singer, instrumentalist, conductor or composer and you will find yourself running to the practice room to rise to the level of those around you. Do the hard preparations: study the score, find recordings, practice slowly, know your role within the music at any given time (soloist, accompaniment, thematic material, harmonic filler), know the tendencies of the instruments in your ensemble. Great accompanists always know which students or professionals come prepared and are thoughtful about the process of collaborating. You want those pianists to say yes when you ask. Don’t waste your pianist’s or ensemble members’ time by coming unpracticed or unaware of how the parts fit together. A little preparation goes a long way.

Relationships are as important as artistic endeavors.
Understand that how you interact with and treat others is critical in achieving high levels of artistic collaboration. YoYo Ma is famous for his incredible philanthropy and willingness to work with all types of artists from all walks of life. (See—YoYo Ma and Lil’Buck) He is a true gentleman in every respect, and a consummate artist. Consider those you work with as members of your team. Give your pianist the music far in advance, respecting his/her time. Arrive on time for rehearsals and plan ahead together as a group. When something goes wrong, admit your own errors and take responsibility for them. Respect the skills of all fellow performers, even if you don’t have any idea what challenges are found in preparing reeds, tuning a harp, improvising jazz, singing an aria, or rolling a snare drum. Always give others the benefit of the doubt and assume the best in people. It will come back to serve you when it is your turn to have a mishap or problem. If you cherish those with whom you work, then you will have the privilege of getting more work!

Get outside your comfort zone.Start small. Try working with instrumentalists or singers new to you. Try a new trio combination, or find an unusual piece and invite new musicians to play. I heard the most amazing flute/tuba duo at the NFA convention. Before their performance, I admit had my reservations. However, it was a stunning combination, resulting in many newly commissioned works because of these great players. Be willing to try things you never thought possible. If you have ever been interested in other artistic areas, start experimenting. Take a pottery class. Try modern dance. Write some lyrics to your instrumental piece. Write your own cadenza. Sing at the top of your lungs—even if it is in the shower. Take lessons on a new instrument for the semester. If you have always loved jazz, but have never tried to improvise, find a great web site and go for it. The more you expand your creative experience, the more you appreciate the skills of others and enhance awareness in your own area of expertise.

“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
When collaborative skills are combined with enthusiasm, the possibilities are limitless. Orchestra Iowa lost its performing hall to terrible flooding four years ago. But with the boundless enthusiasm and skill of Maestro Timothy Hankewich, the hall is slated to be re-opened this October, with a sold out symphony season ahead. He accomplished this feat in large part because of his ability to dig in against the odds and collaborate with all the resources in the community. Maestro Giunta worked for three years to bring about the new commission of “Symphony in Sculpture,” inspired by the Pappajohn family’s labor of love to bring great art to the city of Des Moines and create the sculpture park downtown. Their willingness to work as a team marked the beginning of an amazing 75th symphony season.

If you are dedicated to honing your musical skills, building great relationships with a wide range of colleagues, exploring new ideas, and attacking any problem with enthusiasm, you will beat the odds. You will create a better community and world with your artistic endeavors. You will be limited only by your own imagination. The art of collaboration is truly the art of arts.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Guest Blog Post - Crystal Fisher

This week's blog post is by guest blogger Crystal Fisher. Ms. Fisher is a recent graduate of the Simpson College B.M program, and currently teaches in the Exira-EHK Community School District.

Four Surprises Upon Graduation: 
Reflections and Advice from a former SC Music Student
by Crystal Fisher

           Music Education is known as one of the more difficult and time consuming majors out there. You practice, study for difficult music history tests, perform, attend recitals, write papers, and some how find time to sleep and get on Facebook. Though all of this is necessary to graduate with your degree, the most shocking thing you will find is that you can’t do just the work to get an A in all your classes and finish with the pack, oh no.  You really do get what you put into music because music is never perfect, it can always challenge you and take you to new levels, and there is always someone out there that is better because they practice more than you.  

        Surprise number 1: practicing is not going to be as fun as it was in high school or middle school. You can’t just go into a practice room and run through your piece, mistakes and all, pack up for instrument, and leave for the night after only 5 minutes. You might prefer it that way, but your applied lesson teacher will not.  While there will be no blood (hopefully, unless you choose to grapple with your instrument during frustrating practices), there will certainly be lots of sweat and tears. Practicing will be just as important as completing your homework and going to classes.  You will practice new techniques, scales, arpeggios, solos, and even your ensemble music. The important thing to remember is that you are in college for at least 4 years, use those years to hone your skills as much as possible because this is the only time you can go without working and have as much available time as you do to practice. It shouldn’t be a hobby, but a lifestyle choice. You chose the route of music and you have to remember that the more you practice, the more you improve, and there is a lot of self-gratification that comes out of a good performance and will help you become a better teacher and performer overall.

        Surprise number 2: You actually have to know piano- yes, instrumental music majors, even you.  You may be a trumpet performance major, but you still have to learn your scales, arpeggios, transposing, and open score reading to pass proficiency to graduate. So, why do you have to do it?  To be honest, knowing piano is going to help you out a ton. First off, it helps get your fingers going and can make them much more agile when it comes to technical passages on your own instrument. For vocalists, they can play their notes and maybe even sing while they play the accompaniment for themselves, and instrumentalists can record their accompaniment and practice without their accompanist. Learning piano also helps with rhythm, sight-reading, and ear training skills necessary for vocalists or instrumentalists. You have two hands doing two different things, playing different rhythms; you bet your bottom you’re going to be able to feel a beat and count better playing piano unless you decide to play everything arhythmically but if you do that, your piano teacher will have your head. So… while you are “stuck” learning the piano for at least two years, make the most of it and create some beautiful music that touches the soul.

        Surprise number 3: Aside from being super busy with all your ensembles, lessons, practicing, and attending evening recitals, you’ll find that your classes are actually somewhat difficult and some even require hours upon hours of studying for difficult tests that take over an hour to complete. Ever notice that studying is the combination of student and dying?  I think it’s ironic since every music major looks and acts like the walking dead the day of a music test because they waited till the night before to study. Do your brain and body a favor and start studying at least the weekend before the test. Create flash cards, fun ways to memorize what a piece of music sounds like, and key in on what your professor expects you to know for a test. While you may still feel like a zombie the day of your test, you will see a much better test grade than what you would have if you waited to cram everything in the day before. The other upside is you will actually remember what you learned for the test and be able to utilize that information down the road for teaching classes or grad school entrance exams. Your professors are not doing it just to torture you, I promise!

        Surprise number 4: Doing the minimum required classes and activities will not fully prepare you for what is to come in your real job or grad school.  What I mean is take charge of your education, you are paying for it so do more than what is necessary and be a leader. No one wants to hire an ignorant teacher or a lazy performer.  For example, you pass piano proficiency just barely the end of your sophomore year, what SHOULD you do? Keep taking lessons and become a better piano player because it will benefit you long down the road with playing parts and possibly accompanying. Another example, you take percussion methods and want to teach band and feel that you still have no idea at the end of the semester when it comes to playing percussion, what SHOULD you do? Take percussion lessons because it will make you a better player and teacher.  You should also be involved in extra activities like Phi Mu or Mu Phi, Iowa Bandmasters Association, Iowa Choral Directors Association, Education Club, and any other leader society or activity that you can get involved with.

I wanted to make sure that I got everything I could out of Simpson before I graduated and went into the scary world of music teaching. In my four years, I took a year of french horn, bassoon, percussion, clarinet, a summer of flute, and four years of piano and euphonium lessons all spread throughout my four years in college on top of my method courses. I also took all of the performance majors’ required classes to prepare me for when I go to get my masters degree in music education. As for activities, I was involved in Mu Phi, Iowa Bandmasters Association, Pep Band-I was the director my senior year, Jazz Band, Symphonic Band, and I even went to the Iowa Bandmasters Convention in early May. You know what it all did for me? It helped make me a competent band director that can teach and play all the instruments without having to track down a fingering chart when I teach lessons or when a student asks me what a fingering is in rehearsal.  It also helped me build strong references for job applications, helped me network with other band directors, and provided me with a list of lifelong experiences that will continue to help guide me to success as I continue to teach.

        A few last things: While you will find that there are many more small surprises awaiting you in college, this is the time to both have fun and invest in your future. Go ahead and lose a few hours of sleep and play freeze tag at midnight in Buxton park, join Humans vs. Zombies, and go to Hump Day Ha’s to brighten your smile, but do remember to do your homework, practice, show up for class, and study for your tests. These are the years you will make lifelong friends and great memories, but they will also help determine whether or not you will be successful at what you have set out to do. While some things are out of our control, do your best from day one of college to turn your life into the story you dreamed of. While mine isn’t perfect yet, it is well on its way. Good luck!