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The Herb Effect

by Marcia Patton, R&S Chair for Children's and Community Choirs/Artistic Director, Casper Children's Chorale

pattonHere, in Wyoming during the winter months, I love reading through seed catalogues and dreaming of gardening days ahead.  I study descriptions, look at pictures of productive mature plants, and finally order the packets that seem to best guarantee success.  In many ways this is parallel to my summer months, when today’s hot chocolate becomes instead a tall ”cool one”, the seed catalogues morph into octavo mailings, and in place of healthy flowers and vegetables I am madly planning and searching for music that will pollinate successful and invested musicians while growing appreciative and happy audiences.

As a children’s choir conductor, I try to choose music that promotes beautiful Bel Canto singing.  I equally believe in interesting melodies, harmonies that dare to step out of the I-IV-V7 zone, keys other than C major, part-singing that is more than simple descants, texts that literally take us to new individually defined places, and choral presentation and programming that characterizes and imagines each piece with its own visual and aural identity.   I want to take my audience on a journey, but, more importantly, I want my singers to artfully craft each stop along the way with their own minds, hearts, and voices.

Alright, so I attended a few concerts during the holidays that seemed to lack some of the above ingredients and, yes, those performances encouraged my signature “resting face” to turn to stone and my forty-five year tenure in the choral world to become an excuse for just knowing and holding, not pondering and sharing.  Thus, it is now time to write an article. 

So, I read this fantastic gardening article called “The Herb Effect”.  It explained how companion-planting herbs basic-tomatowith vegetables gives added benefits to the entire crop.   Take, for instance, basil and tomato, which we often cook together but seldom think about planting together.  Basil, when sown near tomatoes, enhances the flavor of the tomato by flavoring the soil, and that in turn gives garden tomatoes an even more delicious taste.   As an added benefit, basil also repels mosquitoes and flies and is deer-resistant!  (Now, on the North Platte River, if it only also repelled the rattlesnakes…but I digress.)

That article is what started me thinking about sharing, in the most positive way, things that work together for me to pollinate productive voice-building and choir programming. 

Choose music that is GOOD for your singers.
Choose music that is GOOD for your singers, not just songs you think they will LIKE, although I believe you can find BOTH, and, like basil and tomatoes, they will make for a bumper crop! Look for songs in keys that propagate head voice.  I have been known to take that initial first measure interval of an ascending 4th and turn it instead into a descending 5th, just so that we begin in our singing voice rather than our playground voice.   If alto parts are written too low, CHANGE THEM (remember Sally Herman taught us that 30 years ago?!).  Move those parts ABOVE the melody instead, or just do some simple rewrites.  Remember, the octavo is to serve your singers, not the other way around.  A well-sung unison song is worth a dozen alto single-note harmonies.

Teach and care for the voice. 
An A above middle C is the “land of sopranos”.  Every voice should magically go into lighter mechanism at that second space.  So much more to say here, but in the spirit of an article I will keep moving.

casper children choraleChoose music for your SINGERS. 
Do not program only what you think they will like, what you anticipate your audience will recognize, or songs chosen solely for topic, seasonal color, fast/slow (opener/closer!), or cuteness factor.   Choose repertoire that will enhance musicianship, encourage beautiful singing, and engage your singers from first rehearsal to culminating performance.  Your audience honestly reacts to the singers and the relationship singers have with their music, so the audience is the least of your worries.

Programming is first and foremost for successful and meaningful REHEARSALS.  Choose music that makes for flourishing rehearsals, then, as mentioned above, think about how to translate that to an audience.  Don’t put the cart in front of the horseJ   

Choose music with meaningful texts. 
Rich discussions of relativity and dreaming have a desirable place in rehearsals for singers of all ages.  Of equal (at least) importance, choose texts encouraging good vocal production.  In other words, think about where the words are placed in the voice.  Does text demand crisp diction, bringing vocal placement to the “front”?  What is the vowel sung on the sustained high F at the coda?  (Remember, YOU are the voice coach and YOU can change nw-choral-publsihers adthings to fit what your singers NEED.)

Does it TEACH STUFF? 
We are educators.  Are we leading those young minds forward in learning theory, history, and general content knowledge?  This doesn’t have to translate to boring!   Teachers are held back only by their own generational filters.  Kids really love to learn new things and then use that knowledge.  My favorite quote (from a 9 year old):  “So this Purcell articulation is the same that we used last year in the Handel?”

Look at Key Relationships. 
After all of these years, so many ACDA articles, conferences, degree programs, I am amazed at the number of conductors who still do not consider key relationships and then wonder why their choir does not sing in tune from piece to piece!  The ONLY time I program non-related keyed pieces next to each other is when I deliberately plan to talk-talk-talk to the audience (and that happens ONLY because I can’t figure out where else to put that fantastic song in the key of Gb!)

Don’t forget play, physical movement, laughter, and so many of those essential good things. 
I would love to expound but am limiting myself today, since this is an article.  However, where would our Constitution be without articles?

YES, program repertoire from other cultures. 
When you do, please study those cultures, LISTEN to their sounds, and educate your singers on how, when and why to produce those sounds.  You are right, it may not be Bel Canto singing, but it is educating our children to the world around them and teaching Social Justice through music.

I will stop here, although much remains to be said.  In even so short an article as this, I hope to first and foremost encourage artistry, which knows no age. As children’s choir conductors, we assume an immense task.  We must teach children to love it, to sing it, to love it, to understand it, to cultivate it, to love it, to produce it, to communicate it, to GROW

Every child is an artist, but the cultivation of that artistry depends upon adults who instruct and allow.  If we responsibly study, plan, and find the right seed packets, fertilize the right soil, faithfully add moisture, sun, and care, then that “Herb Effect” may become a bumper group companion-planting of children, voices, and song. 

If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.  CONFUCIUS