Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Value of Choir

Several months ago one of my singers sent a TED talk video to me that is right up the alley of all who value the value of choral music!  It’s an introduction and choral performance led by Tim Rhys-Evans, a Welshman as you might guess from his last name, who started a boys-only choir in Wales called Only Boys Aloud.

Wales has a long and proud male choir tradition, but as Rhys-Evans points out, that tradition appears to be fading, perhaps due in part to rampant unemployment and lack of aspirational opportunities, as he calls it.  So to buck that trend he took matters into his own hands and started a group of boys choirs, but not your typical boys choirs.  These have a pop music twist to them.  He speaks quite passionately of the need, in our increasingly virtual world, to bring people together, in the same physical space, to interact with one another, for then they enrich their communities and as well as the lives of the “lads” (as he often calls them) who participate.  And he brought along about 200 lads with him on stage to demonstrate.

He gets the audience singing as well.  We often lead audience singing as part of our Master Chorus Eastside concerts, and I believe just as intensely as he does that it is vital that we all sing together, whether we are trained singers or not.  Rhys-Evans delightfully and adroitly teaches the audience a short three-part riff to accompany the boys; he's very relaxed, playful, encouraging, even has them do a couple of minutes of warm up after their initial...(ahem!) attempt at singing.

If you don’t have time to watch the entire video, watch the first four or five minutes for Rhys-Evans’s talk, and the last seven minutes or so for the audience interaction.  Notice the way he brings the audience along, and the way excitement and community build as the minutes pass.  These people are having the time of their lives, and it is singing together that does it.

Rhys-Evans charmingly breaks down what is called the Fourth Wall, that invisible barrier between performer and audience that exists at the edge of the stage.  And by so doing he brings the audience into the performance, makes them participants, and feeds their souls through artistry and sheer joy.  And the music builds a bit of community for all, “lads” included!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor

Master Chorus Eastside

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Alive Inside: Music and Dementia

A few days ago I saw a documentary that profoundly affected me.  It’s called Alive Inside and it’s about the liberating effect music has on people who suffer from dementia or who are confined to nursing homes for other debilitating health reasons.  It was electrifying.

My husband had heard about it somehow and showed me the trailer on YouTube.  I watched it and said, “Oh dear, I will cry.”  And that’s exactly what happened.  We went to the movie on its last night in Seattle, and as we watched both of us laughed and cried and sat open-mouthed as people who looked like crumpled dead things, who hadn’t communicated in years, who couldn’t remember their past, were given ipods with their favorite music in them.  As they listened their eyes lit up, their heads lifted, they wiggled to the beat, some even began to sing. And a few actually put aside their walkers and began to dance!  And all, almost invariably, began to talk, to remember the past, to come alive.  It’s hard to find the words to express its impact on us.

This has all come about through the work of Dan Cohen, who as a social worker in nursing homes began to observe music’s stimulation on those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.  And all by himself he began a crusade to bring ipods to nursing home residents.  It has been a long, lonely, uphill battle for him.  Elder care has been heavily institutionalized in this country and doesn’t get much attention.  But he kept bringing ipods to the elderly, seeking donations, making connections with other like-minded people, and eventually formed a non-profit, Music and Memory, that is beginning to make a dent in the need.


NPR did a story on Dan Cohen and the movie in 2012.  Read some of the listener comments below the story.  One woman writes about working with psychotic patients and seeing similar results.


If you possibly can, find a way to see this movie.  Those of us who are in our right minds and enjoy the great privilege of singing and making music have an obligation to those around us.  It’s good to feed the souls of those who are whole through fine concerts and exceptional music.  It’s also good to feed the souls of those who can’t feed themselves.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor

Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Rhythm and Community Redux

I can’t resist one more blog on the community that can be created by rhythm, again drawn from the NPR series Rhythm Section: Spending a Week Trying to Catch the Beat.  This particular segment concerns probably the most famous marching song in the Army.  It first appeared in 1944 near the end of World War II and it is attributed to an African American soldier, Willie Duckworth, who wanted to buttress the spirits of his weary comrades.

It’s an infectious, hypnotic rhythm that keeps people moving together in time, which makes sense since research tells us that rhythm activates the motor areas of the brain as well as auditory areas.  But it does more than that.  As Bobby Gerhardt, a modern soldier and cadence caller interviewed in the NPR piece observed, it’s great physical exercise because you have to move and chant and manage your breath all at once.  But it also kept him moving forward and listening, eager to hear each verse so he would know how to answer back.  It motivated him to be a cooperative member of the group!

That’s part of the purpose of work songs, and Sound Off belongs to that tradition.  Although the piece refers only to the work songs brought here by slaves, they can be found in folk cultures around the world, for they ease the burden of work by coordinating group activities, and they entertain the heart at the same time.  But what appealed to me even more was the notion that impishly playing with the rhythm, creating syncopations, could put a spring in your step, make the work go faster, and set your own group apart from others.  As Gerhardt said, he liked to rhythmically push the envelope of what he was allowed to call, and that put a smile on his face.

It was group resistance to the Group through rhythm!

Here are more G.I. marching rhythms, with syncopation that pushes the envelope.

You can find the other stories from this series at

 Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Rhythm and Community

I am always intensely aware of the rhythm of text, not just in music, but in the very words I write.  Whether in this blog, or concert program notes, or a message to a friend, there is a constant rhythmic word dance unfolding in my brain. 

It even waltzed along as I composed my doctoral dissertation.  You’d think a dissertation would only encompass straightforward academic writing, but I still wrote with the beat of words, syllables, clusters of phrases and sentences, in mind.  I suppose it’s the musician in me.  I can’t escape rhythm, and I don’t want to!

It was interesting, then, to hear, in the NPR series called Rhythm Section: Spending a Week Trying to Catch the Beat, a story on the cadences built into political speech writing.  It seems that speech writers consciously build textual rhythm into political speeches.  And there is a reason for that.  According to Rob Kapilow, a composer and conductor who is quoted in the story, rhythm can create community: for instance, a crowd chanting at a football game, or people dancing as one to a pulsing beat.  (It can even set up negative community, for as I read Kapilow’s words I had a sudden chilling image of old newsreel footage of Germans in World War II chanting “Sieg heil” as Hitler rolled past in parade!  There was community there too, but of the worst kind!)

For example, President Obama’s speech writers actually figured out ahead of time how many beats they wanted in the first paragraph of his 2008 Iowa caucuses victory speech.  In the first sentence they created an eight-syllable phrase, or four iambs, as journalist Ari Shapiro points out.  Same cadence in the second sentence.  Then they varied the pattern, but always with a sense of repetition, of mounting tempo, until the climax arrived with its rolling rhythms, “We are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come,”

As an exercise in rhythmic rhetoric (no politics here!), listen to the first 1 minute and 40 seconds of Obama’s speech that night.  Listen to its measured beat, to the ebb and flow of phrases.  You can hear what the speech writers, and Obama himself, did with the cadences, and the community of joy they created in that moment.

Don’t we as choral musicians frequently experience that kind of community?  In my concerts with Master Chorus Eastside I try to bring our audience into this as well.  During last May’s Out of Africa concert I invented a rhythmic word play exercise to do just that.  I divided the audience into four groups, taught each group their own short, spoken rhythmic phrase, then layered it up one phrase at a time, played with dynamics and structure, built it to a climax, and before I knew it, we became a single, vigorous, happy community.  It was amazing!

I had always thought that the act of singing together created choral community, but now I think it is collective rhythm as well.   As Kapilow says, we are all looking for an opportunity to step outside of a “me” and become a “we.”  Now isn’t that a beautifully rhythmic, and true, idea!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor

Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rhythm and the Brain

The connection between music and our bodies fascinates me, and I’ve blogged about it several times in the last couple of years. This interest was awakened again in June by a series that ran for a week on NPR called Rhythm Section: Spending a Week Trying to Catch the Beat.  The stories examined the hidden rhythms that affect our lives, and one of them, about rhythms in brain cells, caught my attention.  Now I love rhythm, so this is irresistible stuff.

It seems that each individual brain cell has its own firing pattern, its own rhythm, some faster, some slower.  As neuroscientist Nathan Urban put it, each one is like a little clock, with its own built-in frequency.  To avoid brain chaos, cells synchronize their rhythms to accomplish tasks.  For example, when a mouse explores a new space, neurons in the navigation area of its brain begin to pulse together in rhythm.  This works because whenever two cells synchronize their rhythms, the connections between them are strengthened!  Doesn’t that sound entirely human?  And innately musical.

The actions of all living things are built on systems of rhythms, circuits of nerve cells that fire in sequence, activating muscles in repeated patterns, such as when we walk—pick up a foot, rock forward, put it down, pick up a foot...—or when a fish propels itself forward with its swishing tail. But many of the details of movement happen in the nervous system, not the brain itself.  It acts as a kind of grand poobah, sending out a command to the nerves something along the lines of “activate the walking rhythm.”  This is even true of motions that don’t appear to be rhythmic at all, such as reaching for something.  Isn’t that wonderful?  And so we walk, or reach, or drive.  In rhythm!

Until something goes awry with the cellular rhythms.  Beats fall out of sequence, cells can’t synchronize, with heartbreaking results: Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, epilepsy.  But many Parkinson’s sufferers find temporary relief in music or dance classes.  A Parkinson’s patient noted that sometimes, when someone has trouble walking to a class, she’ll get them to hum a tune with her, a waltz maybe, or a march.  And they begin to move to the beat, and lo and behold, they can walk!

Revel in the idea that all of life is buttressed by rhythm!  It’s irresistible, maybe a little like these synchronizing metronomes!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Monday, July 21, 2014

In the Arts, Self-Protection Kills, Collaboration Gives Life

A year ago I attended an invigorating Chorus America conference here in Seattle.  For those who don’t know about Chorus America, it is a non-profit that provides services to choral groups of all kinds—professional, volunteer, children’s, you name it—on how to stay viable and healthy.  This can include advice from experts on board development, marketing, recruiting singers, and more.

At one conference session I learned that for arts organizations, self-protection or fear of competition from like arts groups, such as other choruses in our case, is deadly.  It kills growth.  Surprisingly, when similar arts groups collaborate in all kinds of ways, not just in performances, growth can happen for all.  And there is research to back that up.

For example, people who attend multiple arts events tend to come back time after time to performances.  One study of seven opera companies in Philadelphia showed that although only a small percentage of their audiences attended performances by more than one opera company, 85% of those were repeat attenders; in other words, they came back again and again.  The patrons who only attended a performance by one opera company were much less likely to return.

So these Philadelphia opera companies decided to try something daring.  They advertised each other’s seasons on their web sites, complete with a map pointing the way all the opera companies.  They looked competition in the eye!  And a funny thing happened.  Competition blinked!  Audiences for all the companies went up!  It was a rising tide that floated all boats.

With this in mind, three of my fellow choral conducting colleagues and I who operate in the suburbs east of Seattle: Bellevue Chamber Chorus, Cascadian Chorale, Kirkland Choral Society, and my own Master Chorus Eastside, have begun working together in a more dedicated way.  For the first time we have listed one another’s seasons on our web sites.  We are exploring commissioning a new composition to be premiered in a collaborative performance by our four choirs.  And we have ramped up just a bit a shared experience that we’ve carried on for years called Eastside Sings, which is a sing along of a major work on four Tuesday evenings in July, each Sing led by one of the four conductors.  We all also belong to the Greater Seattle Choral Consortium, which works to promote the choral art in the larger Puget Sound metropolitan area.  We held an amazingly successful choral festival last fall.  And we also advertise all member performances in member’s programs.  We end up blanketing the area!  It’s a wonderful way to build relationships, help one another and boost the choral arts at the same time.

So be a choral arts supporter!  Here are web site addresses for all four of us:

Bellevue Chamber Chorus

Cascadian Chorale

Kirkland Choral Society

Master Chorus Eastside

Attend performances by these fine choirs, or by choirs in your own neighborhood if you live somewhere else.

It’s a small beginning.  But we hope the impact will be big!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

So Just How Old Is The Star-Spangled Banner Anyway? Part 2

Last week I wrote about the surprising history of The Star-Spangled Banner’s melody. The history of the lyrics is just as fascinating.  It’s worth putting the whole picture together because the marriage of words and melody during the War of 1812 created our National Anthem as we know it today.  Or did it?

War broke out between Britain and America in 1812, and in 1813 Britain, the superpower if its day, blockaded the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and began carrying out raids along its shores.  In one of those raids, August of 1814, in one of the most embarrassing defeats of the war for the United States, the British burned Washington D.C., including the White House.  As a member of the Georgetown militia Francis Scott Key witnessed the burning, and his wife and children actually had to flee the city.

The citizens of Baltimore could see the glow of the flames on the horizon, and as the third largest city in the country the inhabitants knew they were next!  So they set about fortifying their city and harbor as fast as they could.  If England could take Fort McHenry at the mouth of Baltimore’s harbor, Baltimore would fall.  And if Baltimore fell, the country would likely fall!

A few weeks later, in September, Key was dispatched to sail down the Bay to find the British fleet and negotiate the release of a prisoner that the Royal Navy had captured; he found the fleet just as the British were preparing their attack.  He successfully negotiated terms of release, but the British refused to let them go quite yet because Key knew battle was about to begin.  So, in the famous story, beginning on September 13, Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry, quite possibly in the front line of the battle from the deck of his own small boat.

With England’s superior fire power and ships it was basically the nineteenth-century equivalent of our Iraq War Shock and Awe.  Fortunately the American fortifications kept the fleet far enough away to limit the damage somewhat.  Nonetheless it was a frightening sight, with rockets and mortar bombs raining down on the Fort, and the light of the explosions flickering on the dark, rain-laden clouds.  But towards dawn on September 14 the bombardment stopped!  Was it because the Fort had fallen? If so, the Stars and Stripes would be replaced by the Union Jack.  Key peered anxiously through the glimmer—whose flag was flying?  Just then the rain stopped, the rising sun cleared the clouds, and a sunbeam shone like a beacon on the American flag, still flying high over the fort.

 It took awhile for Key and all the Americans involved to realize that the mighty British Empire had given up!  The fleet was withdrawing!  Against all odds the Americans had won!  Baltimore, and soon the nation, was delirious with joy.  And Key was so moved by it all that he wrote his famous words to fit the tune called, in America, Anacreon.  It became immensely popular, and after decades of debate over which song we should adopt as our National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner was so designated on March 3, 1931, by act of Congress.

So, end of story, right?  The Star-Spangled Banner will be 200 years old this coming September, 2014.  Except that the song as we sing it today is not exactly as 19th-century Americans sang it: some of the rhythms in the early version are different, the dotted eighth/sixteenth-note beat so typical of martial music is smoothed out, and the signature descending triad on the first words, “Oh, say, “ so familiar to us, is simply not there!  It begins quite simply on the tonic, or “do.”  Amazingly, the triad doesn’t begin to appear in publications until after 1910, almost within the living memory of some Americans!

So just how old is our National Anthem?  Well, as the National Anthem it is only 83 years old.  The tune itself is quite old, 239 years. Who can say exactly how old the Anthem as we sing it today really is, since it has changed a bit over the centuries?  But as The Star-Spangled Banner, an expression of national pride and unity, Key memorably brought music and words together 200 years ago this coming September, and that is a date to be celebrated!

You can find out more about the anniversary by visiting www.starspangledmusic.org. And the next time you sing the Anthem, savor the rich history behind it.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside