Essays on Music


SO MUCH MORE   Nick Page’s Keynote Address for the 2018 FAME conference 7/21/18
BENEFITS OF MUSIC   by Nick Page 4/12

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Singing both Spirituals and Gospel music requires humility. This is not music for showing off nor is it performance. Communities come together with a shared purpose, to shout their praise of God, to be lifted.   In addition to keeping it humble, one must always honor the stories behind the music. When we change the words to fit our personal beliefs, we are not honoring the stories nor are we being humble. The messages of the songs may be universal, but the history is not.

According to musicians like Ysaye Barnwell, formerly of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock, Spirituals are freedom songs, freedom songs that rose from bondage. Lyrics like “Comin’ for to carry me home,” spoke of a better life to come in the Heavenly Kingdom, but they were also messages of freedom.

The Spirituals were a rural tradition, sung a cappella.   Although there are many songs about Jesus and Mary, the majority of the Spirituals are drawn from the Old Testament particularly songs of liberation like “Go Down Moses” (Let my people go). The form often consisted of the first line repeating as in “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”

It is sometimes said that the Spirituals are the sacred cousin to the blues.   They share a similar form and made their origins in rural settings before the mass movement to the cities after the Civil War.

After emancipation a conscious decision was made to preserve these songs. Groups like The Fiske Jubilee Singers brought the Spirituals to the concerts halls of the North and Europe.   Spiritual collections began to be published.   The world found that these songs equaled and often surpassed the classical songs in their beauty, message, and emotional power.

Most of the Spirituals we sing today are arranged, written down so that there are no significant changes from one performance to the next. The arrangements of Jester Hairston, John Work, and Moses Hogan are particularly powerful. Until the 1980’s groups like the Georgia Sea Island Singers sang the Spirituals in the old style, highly heterophonic with great improvisation – never the same way twice.   Contemporary groups like Sweet Honey In The Rock draw from that texture.

The Spirituals have evolved to become universal messages of hope, but we must never forget their origins and we must always honor their stories.

Songs like “Bright Morning Stars” are Appalachian Spirituals that have similar forms to African American Spirituals, the repetition of the first phrase. Like the African American Spiritual, these were rural songs usually sung a cappella.

Songs like “There is More Love Somewhere” are considered to be African American hymns.   They are often the same words, but with one word that is replaced for each verse as in “There is more peace somewhere.”

The Gospel song is different from Gospel music.   The form evolved after the Civil War.   Up until then, the music in the white and many black churches were hymns.   A hymn like “Amazing Grace” is the same melody for each verse.   The new Gospel songs like “Shall We Gather At The River” borrowed the forms from both popular songs of the day (Stephen Foster) and from Spirituals.   So you have different verses with the same Chorus or refrain repeating each time.   In his day, Martin Luther (1509) brought the popular songs from the German beer halls into the church, so the tradition of bringing popular song forms into the church is quite old. Throughout the 20th century both black and white churches continued to use the Gospel Song form with Charles Albert Tindley, a black preacher in Philadelphia, writing songs like “We’ll Understand it Better By and By,” and the Carter Family singing songs like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Beginning with Thomas Dorsey in Chicago (Precious Lord), Black Gospel evolved in urban churches.   They brought rhythms, forms and instruments from popular music into the urban church.   When asked why he would dirty sacred waters with secular sounds, Thomas Dorsey replied, “Why should the devil have all the fun?” Black Gospel can be seen as a sacred cousin to rhythm & blues. Many different styles emerged like the West Coast’s James Cleveland style. In the old time Gospel, the II chord is used to augment the I chord, the vi chord is used to augment the V chord, etc.   There are a variety of movements employed.   One cannot generalize, but the old time Baptist style generally uses a solid second & fourth beat while the Pentecostal style is often in double time.

The most important element of all Gospel music is that it celebrates the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As such, they most often focus on the New Testament.

A Gospel Quartet traditionally consists of four male singers (the quartet) and a lead singer, but they often used more singers.   The Golden Gate Quartet helped to popularize the sound and groups like The Five Blind Boys of Alabama continue to create exciting music today.   There is percussiveness to the singing with space between the notes.  White quartets like the Jordanaires used the sound adding a country feel, giving no credit to the origins.   Elvis Presley’s sound came from the Black Gospel Quartet tradition.

In the 60’s and 70’s Gospel artists like Edwin Hawkins (“O Happy Day”) & Walter Hawkins added new harmonies and forms. This continues today with artists like Richard Smallwood (“I Love the Lord” & “Total Praise”) and Kirk Franklin. Changes continue to evolve with styles from pop culture coming into the church like Stomp, Hip Hop, and highly choreographed movements.

Evolving from both the Quartet and Gospel song traditions, Country Western Gospel enjoys a huge following.   There is a lot of cross-fertilization with different Black Gospel styles as well as the praise song.

Often called “Inspirational Music,” Praise Songs are Christian pop and rock songs. There is now a rich cross-fertilization between black and white churches with the praise song as the common link.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *


1) There are two main Hebrew pronunciations, Ashkenazic and Sephardic.   The Sephardic is widely used in North America. The differences are often subtle.   But with both, the accent of most (not all) Hebrew words is on the last syllable.   What we see in written music are transliterations of the Hebrew letters.   In Sephardic Hebrew, the vowels tend to be pronounced as in Latin, but with many exceptions particularly with the “O” vowel (sometimes “Oh” and sometimes “Awe”). Josh Jacobson co-created an excellent guide (with CD) to Hebrew pronunciation. See Hebrew Texts, Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoirefrom earthsongs publishers.

2) Being Jewish does not necessarily mean being an expert on how to sing Hebrew.         In Hebrew it is correct to aspirate the “CH” sound on words like “Chaverim,” but many American Jewish choirs leave it out. When teaching Hebrew pronunciation, it is best not to say, “Here is how to pronounce it.”   Say, “Here is how we will pronounce it.”

3) The name of G-d is only spoken by the High Rabbi once during the High Holidays in Israel.   For the rest of the year a euphemism is used.   But even that word, “Adonai”, is used only in worship.   Outside of worship, a euphemism for the euphemism is used, either “Adomai,” “Hashem (the Name)”, or “Adoshem.” Less observant Jews are more relaxed about these rules, but will honor the practice when in the company of more observant Jews.

4) The Chassidic Niggun (Nign). This wordless form of chanting is considered by Chassidic Jews to be the highest form of prayer.   It was popularized in the 60′s by the “Hippy” Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach and is receiving another revival because of Joey Weisenberg and others.

5) The folk and pop music of Israel is beloved by American Jews. Tara publishes many great Israeli song collections with songs by Naomi Shemer, Nurit Hirsch and many others.  Many of these songs like “Bashana” have a universal appeal (see the octavo “Bashana”).   We know “Bashana” as the lovely slow hymn, “Soon the Day,” but the original is a lively dance.

6) At first, American synagogues were unwelcoming to American inspirational singer/songwriters. But gradually the music of Debbie Friedman, Schlomo Carlebach, Danny Freelander and many others have become popular. Joshua Nelson has popularized a Gospel flavored Jewish music and Hip Hop and rock is used in alternative services intended on bringing in younger members.   Except for the language, many contemporary Jewish songs are indistinguishable from other pop songs and the idea that the song has to be in a minor mode in order to sound more Jewish is long gone. Music from outside the Jewish world is increasingly welcome, songs like Richard Smallwood’s TOTAL PRAISE.   All this depends, of course, on the congregation.

7) Like many mainline Christian churches, keeping young people involved is a challenge.   Many synagogues, like their church friends, have dwindling populations.   More traditional cantors are sometimes replaced with younger “song leaders” who know little of the intricacies of Jewish modality, but who know how to use the simpler songs to involve everyone in singing.

8) Like churches, contemporary Judaism is made up of many divisions in various forms of orthodoxy. The main divisions are the Ultra-Orthodox, the Orthodox, The Conservative, the Reform, and the Reconstructionist. Many of our Jewish friends consider themselves ethnically Jewish as opposed to practicing Jewish.

9) Songs like the round “Shalom Chaverim” are considered to be childrens songs, akin to “Twinkle Twinkle.” The same is true of the more popular Hanuka songs.

10) It is dangerous to assume that we can sing all Jewish music anywhere at anytime.   There is Jewish music that belongs only in sacred spaces at sacred times.   When in doubt ask a cantor for advice. Most will gladly give it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

SO MUCH MORE   Nick Page’s Keynote Address for the 2018 FAME conference 7/21/18 in Chicago, IL, elementary and pre-school music teachers.

The address began with Nick leading his song DO YOU SHINE? Do You let the light in? Do you let the light out? Do you shine?   Really shine?

So that is my question today. Do we let the light in? Do we let the love in? Do we let the light and the love out? And more important, do we bring out the love and the light in others, in the joyous children we are blessed to work with?

I do not want to suggest, with my topic SO MUCH MORE, that we need to be doing more work. We are overworked as it is. I simply want to look at the bigger picture, that which connects our hearts to the Universe we live in.

One of the great thinkers of the 21st century, Buckminster Fuller, once said that every child was born a genius. I don’t think he ever actually worked with children. But he was right in saying that children are born with an innate brilliance, a sense of wonder. They are fully alive in both tears and in laughter. They let the light in and they let the light out. They cannot NOT let the light in. But as we get older, a wall starts to come down. The wall keeps the heart in and the wall keeps us safe so we don’t have to let that love out. And many of the people around us in this world live second hand lives, protected from the ecstasy that is CREATION. We are blessed and there is SO MUCH MORE going on than we realize. SO MUCH MORE.

Fuller wrote an epic poem called NO MORE SECOND HAND GOD challenging us to live our lives more fully – to be more alive, more creative, more compassionate, to stop living second hand lives in front of our TV sets. He wrote the book in the early 60’s at the same time Irish ethnomusicologist John Blacking was travelling the world to see how children learned music in the many cultures of the Earth. Blacking realized that for all of the children, music was a first hand experience. They learned music by making music. I was in elementary school in the 1950s and early 60’s. Our music class consisted of listening to records and watching filmstrips. Thank goodness brilliant music educators like Grace Nash picked up on John Blacking’s message and Buckminster Fuller’s message that the the learning of music required the creation of music, something creative and alive. Music had to be firsthand.

The resource list I provided lists some of the books on the evolution of music and singing. One prominent theory is that men needed stronger voices to attract stronger women, thus preserving the gene pool. Needless to say, most of these theorists are men. One woman, Ellen Disanayake, proposes another theory. She suggests that singing evolved as a mother/child dialogue.


At this point, Nick taught THE OLDEST SONG IN THE WORLD which is the sounds the first mother made while holding her child a hundred thousand years ago. It was Ah, the emotion of love. That was the first song. One can go anywhere on the planet and this most powerful of emotions is expressed with the same vowel. The sounds that come from our mouths all evolved from our expression of emotions.

My life was changed ten years ago by two events. My father, an MIT/Harvard trained scientist, slowly crept into dementia. And at the same time, I started working with a chorus in New Jersey called JOYFUL NOISE. They were adults with physical and intellectual disabilities, everything from severe autism, Downs Syndrome, developmentally delayed to Cerebral Palsy. But in working with them, I discovered that I was the one with the disability. My heart felt a fraction of what they felt. My heart expressed a fraction of what they let out with every joyful song. They sing at about a third grade level, but there is more heart than all the choirs of the world combined. Todd Emmons, a member of the chorus, is my soul brother. He is developmentally delayed. How many of us cry when we sing? Todd’s eyes swell with tears as he sings. I wrote a song for Todd, YOU HAVE A HEART, that has been published. The song is about what they taught me.

song: YOU HAVE A HEART by Nick Page (published by Boosey & Hawkes)
    You have a heart. Use it.
    You have a heart. Let it out.
    Let your heart dance,
    Let your heart sing,
    Let your heart love. 

    You have to shine with all your might,
    You have to shine with all your light,
    You have to shine with your love.

Most songs are tied to stories. These stories are tied to enormous emotions if we know how to make the stories come alive. My book SING AND SHINE ON is a guide to song leading. It has a chapter about stories.

My middle schoolers were studying the Holocaust in history class. I came in and taught them some songs from that horrible moment in history. They learned the songs in their heads, but not in their hearts. They were just songs, their full meaning had not reached them. At the end of their studies, parents and grandparents came in for a sharing presentation by the students. They sang one of the songs I had taught them. An older woman with a Polish accent stood up and said, “When I was a child, my family took a train trip. We sang that song on the train – my mother, my father, my brothers, my sister. And that was the last time I ever saw them.” End Quote.


In that moment, middle school boys began to cry. The melody had not changed them. The words had not changed them. It was the story that changed them. Heart knowing. Empathy.   SO MUCH MORE. Every song has a story, even a song like “Twinkle Twinkle.” Mozart sang it as a child two hundred and fifty years ago. It has been sung by generation after generation, parent to child, parent to child. It is a song of wonder, of enchantment.

My father once told me that emotions were nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain. I told him that was a stupid thing to say. He said, “That hurt my feelings.” I said, “Don’t worry, it’s only a chemical reaction.” As my father’s dementia grew, his emotions grew. He forgot the past – and the future did not exist, but his now was eternal. And we would sing. He did not know what to do with a fork, but if I started a song, he knew every word.

    The brain doesn’t matter, just endless patter,
    We forget almost all that we know
    But the heart is the singer, its’ melodies linger,
    The songs are the last to go.

     We sing what we know, we know what we sing,,
     We remember the songs in our hearts,
     And when we are old and memories fade,
     The songs are the last to go.

The heart is the singer. But there’s so much more. SO MUCH MORE. I carry with me my father’s belief that there are scientific explanations for everything. The whole history of science is about proving that invisible forces are real, invisible forces like gravity, electricity, light, the resonance of atoms. The next frontier for science will be the greatest invisible force of all, consciousness. I include the emotions as part of that consciousness.   St. Paul defined faith as a belief in THINGS UNSEEN. He was referring to God, but anyone who has ever held a child in their arms knows that there is an unseen force called love. I have witnessed song leaders and speakers who could calm a crying child simply inviting an audience to love the child. The child has no wall keeping the emotions out and is calmed by the love. When we sing with children, every song becomes a love song. There is so much more than music going on. SO MUCH MORE.

These emotions are in the realm of consciousness, unseen forces. E=MC2. Energy equals music times consciousness squared. SO MUCH MORE.

Our hearts know so much more than our brains. It’s called empathy, heart knowing. The heart is the singer. It’s time to fall in love.

LAUGHING BUDDHA RITUAL: This is a body prayer created by NP where participants pretend to fall in love with something, then in awe, then surprised by it, then they embrace it, then they share it. Each of these acts is accompanied by a vowel and a hand motion. The vowels are Ah (love), Awe (awe), Oh! (surprise), Oo (embrace) and Mm (share). Each vowel is added to last eventually creating Ah Awe Oh Oo Mm which is how the Buddhist Om is pronounced.

I have been fascinated lately by how we express our emotions through these basic vowels. I direct a community chorus in Boston. They are non-auditioned and most have no previous experience in singing. I no longer teach them to sing beautiful vowels and am now asking them to sing beautiful emotions. If they make a generic sound, it’s because they are singing a generic emotion. This is one of the reasons that singing with children is so satisfying. They sing beautiful emotions.

A scientist hears a child singing a song of wonder, each vowel ringing out with a sense of awe. Twinkle Twinkle little star . . . The scientist interrupts.

song: TWINKLE TWINKLE’S FOR THE BIRDS by Nick Page (sung to “Twinkle Twinkle”)
Great big burning mass of hydrogen
and other terrific energies,
How nice it is to know just what you are.
Way out in space is where you lie,
Not at all like a diamond in the sky,
Twinkle Twinkle’s for the birds,
Just a bunch of silly words.

and the child responds:
But without the twinkle the wonder is gone,
A world without wonder would be wrong.
Up above the sky so high,
Like a crystal in the sky,
It may be silly – - to sing of a little star,
But we need the wonder to know who—we—are.

When vowels are emotions, then melodies become emotions taking flight. SO MUCH MORE.

Sing a song like “Simple Gifts.” Become aware of every emotion coming from each vowel. It is SO MUCH MORE that a Shaker Hymn. It is every prayer.

I am a song leader. My BIGGEST challenge is ALWAYS to break down the wall. I have learned that I am powerless to make a group of middle schoolers feel and express themselves. I can yell SING! ‘til I’m blue in the face.

I have learned the key is in breaking down the hierarchy so the community of singers become the source of the emotional power. And just as important, I need to break down that emotional wall that prevents them from letting their emotions out, which is what singing is. When Craig, Chris and Robin helped out, they gave us permission to let it in and let it out. When I bring up a few middle schoolers and they truly let it out, they give permission for the rest of the students to join in, to tear down their walls. The power does not come from me. It comes from the community itself. There is a word for this. It is called DEMOCRACY. We must teach children that they have a voice and every voice can change the world. SO MUCH MORE.

And when I ask for emotions, I invite over the top emotions, operatic proportions. I will lead a workshop this afternoon, NARROWING THE RIVER, where we will create a spoken opera. It will explode with creativity and heart.

In Buckminster Fuller’s poem, NO MORE SECOND HAND GOD, he says that God is Verb, not a noun. This requires a paradigm shift where we begin to see all things as a verb. This podium is atoms in the act of being a podium. This podium is a verb. And this verb called life is unending. The egg and the sperm that made us were both alive, so we did not become alive at birth, nor conception. From a purely scientific perspective, life is eternal, an eternal verb.

Music is a verb. It is alive, constantly being created. We will never understand what music is if we think of it as a noun. Music educator Grace Nash understood this as she made the creation of music central to music education and with it, the expression of the heart.

In my afternoon workshop, I will talk more about creativity and how to bring out the creativity in ourselves and in others. The presentation is from a book I am writing called CREATING MUSIC, HOW NARROWING THE RIVER MAKES CREATIVITY FLOW. A wide river flows very slowly. If I ask children to write a song, I am creating a wide river. Nothing will be created. But if I give them the smallest of tasks like finding a rhyme for a word, the creativity will begin to flow. Or I cut out words and ask them to assemble them in a way that describes the sky. They can only use those words. Each child will create different lyrics because each child is unique. This is the beauty of creativity.

song: THE VOICE OF THE LIGHT by Nick Page
    We open our eyes when we are born to discover the light.
    We open our mouths when we are born to discover our voice.
    And the light and the voice will always be new
    And the voice of the light will always be true.

Creativity is not about the constant invention of new elements. Creativity is a form of recycling, the repetition of ideas with constant variation. Beethoven’s 5th.

Beethoven narrowed the river and the creativity flowed. The opening them of his 5th Symphony is the familiar four note theme. Beethoven does not invent a new theme. He lets the old theme repeat, but with changes only his mind and heart could imagine, an unfolding of a single idea. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright used Beethoven’s principles when designing a building. He would come up with one or two themes and let those themes unfold.

Scientists speak of the creation of the Universe as a CREATIVE UNFOLDING. At each stage of the history of the Universe, the next step happened when the Universe was ready, a natural progression, an unfolding. Fritjof Capra’s book of Conversations with great minds has a chapter on Creative Unfolding. On a side note, he discusses a new definition of the word “information.” In formation is anything that is “in formation.” That can be a city, a cell, a computer chip, a song.

Try singing a song like “Cockles and Mussells,” speeding up when it is happy and slowing down when it is sad. It is quite powerful and bring new meaning to the song.

Creativity needs to be part of what we do at all times. Children’s choirs fall into the bad habit of singing in auto-pilot where the song is the same every time. Shake it up. Never do it the same. I love teaching children to conduct Twinkle Twinkle. It is inspired by Paddy Malone, a traditional singer I met in Wexford, Ireland. He sang a song, speeding up and slowing down. I asked why he kept changing the tempo. He said, “A song is like a river. Sometimes it wants to move fast. Sometimes it wants to move slow. You can’t tell a song how fast to go.”

I bring up six students and have each conduct a phrase. I’ll narrow the river by saying to each of the six children, “Do you line fast like this,” or “Do your line loud like this.” Then we sing. For now, mirror my conducting gestures.

At this point, Nick conducted TWINKLE TWINKLE with everyone speeding up, slowing down, getting louder and softer on his cue.

This creative activity is one I suggest we do often. They will get good at both leading and following. It will astound you at how good it can get. SO MUCH MORE. It also reinforces democracy – letting their creativity, their voices, be heard.

Charles Darwin said that survival was NOT based on which species was the strongest or which species was the smartest. Survival was based on which species was most able to change. Which species was most creative? Creativity is nature’s greatest strength. Creativity is not about the geniuses of this world. Every time we carry on a conversation, we are being creative. And don’t tell me you aren’t creative. Anyone who can engage twenty-five 3 and 4 year olds for thirty minutes is a creative genius as far as I’m concerned.

Ursela K. LeGuin, author of “A Wrinkle In Time,” wrote, “The creative adult is the child who survived.”

    1) Music is a way of knowing,
      With it we are always growing.
    2) Reading, writing, ‘rythmatic,
      Music helps these things to stick.
    3) Music helps us all to feel
      Keep the beat and keep it real.
    4) Music is a thing of beauty
      Pass it on, it is our duty.
CHORUS: Music, Makes us whole.
    Music, Fills our souls.

There is SO MUCH MORE to the simple act of echoing a song. So instead of (blah) sol mi mi sol with no emotion, add the emotion. We echo emotions as well as sound. Make it come alive. Echoing strengthens the ear. By being better listeners, we become better learners. With most adults, if we ask them to echo a simple phrase, they give back about 40% of the what we give them.   If they echo it wrong, it is because they hear it wrong. As Lois Choksy points out in her Kodaly books, we can only sing a pitch if we can hear the pitch.

There are some who argue that we should not worry about whether children sing in tune or not. The important thing, they say, is to get them singing. I agree that we need to excite them about singing, but they need to do it well. Every hearing child can learn to sing in tune. I know this from experience having taught Kindergarten for four years at a K-8 school.   As children reach adolescence, they stop singing if they can’t do it well. If you ask middle school boys to play basketball with the net forty feet in the air, they aren’t going to do well at it. Because they won’t do well, they will find no emotional satisfaction in doing it. It all comes back to the emotions, challenging them to be amazing is emotionally satisfying. Singing poorly is not.

I said there was SO MUCH MORE to listening. Alfred Tomatis was a French ear & throat doctor who proposed many interesting theories about the relationship between the ear and the brain. He said the ear had a third purpose besides balancing the body and hearing/listening. The ear, he said, charged the brain. And our brains hungered for this charge, this resonance. He went back to the womb and pointed out that the ear of the fetus only heard high pitches, the overtones of its parents voices, the k sh ss consonants. And just as the umbilical cord hungered for nutrients, the ear hungered for stimulus. And as the child grew older this reaching out to sound, reaching out to resonance, continued. By placing earphones on a child’s head and feeding in the mother’s voice, minus the low overtones, Dr. Tomatis was able to recreate the sound the child experienced in the womb. Children with all manner of learning challenges have been taught to listen, to communicate, to hunger for sound, to hunger for learning. I encourage you to keep an open mind about the Tomatis Method. There is SO MUCH MORE going on. SO MUCH MORE.

I want to teach you an important word, “ENTRAINMENT.” Entrainment is when one pulse imitates another pulse. If you remove two cells from a frogs’ beating heart, they will continue to pulse. If you place them near each other, their pulses synchronize. An audience’s breathing pulse will synchronize during a concert. Music calms the savage beast. We can slow down brain waves by creating slower pulses in our music.


My first days teaching kindergarten were a disaster. The faster I talked, pleading with them to settle down, the wilder they got. Then I learned about entrainment, spoke slowly and softly and gained complete control. Good teachers know this instinctively. I had to do my homework.

We seek the universal truths behind music. What is common about all music making on this earth? The ethnomusicologist I mentioned before, John Blacking, found that the children of humanity’s diverse cultures learned music by imitating the music of the adults. Their imitations were simplifications. This is not dumbing down. It is a complex West African rhythm becoming a simpler pattern. It is complex Navaho chants becoming charming children’s songs. Leonard Bernstein used Blackings ideas to propose in his Norton Lectures, which you can watch on Youtube, that we are genetically wired to create music.

There are powerful elements of music common to all cultures, the hypnotic power of pulse, the charging of the brain, the expressive emotions expressed through vowels common to all. But there are differences we need to observe. In West Africa, there is no such things as performance. Music is a gift to be shared, a community event where everyone is a participant in some way. The music has a purpose, like a song for helping the garden to grow. In Buddhism there is the concept of Nadha Bramha, the world is made of sound. Making music is a deeply spiritual activity for this reason. We have to be careful in singing the music of the world’s cultures not to let our own cultural paradigms obscure the beauty of these other cultures.

I once asked Joseph Shabalala of the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo why all his songs were in the key of F. He said, “What is the key of F?” I was using my culture to define his. His is an oral tradition as is 95% of the world’s music.

There is a powerful connection between emotions and culture. Why do some dislike the music of Bach?   It isn’t so much the music they dislike. They dislike people who like Bach. They are not emotionally drawn to the culture. The same is true of country Western, hip hop, jazz, and the huge diversity of expression on this planet. We tend to live in our own cultural bubbles, emotionally safe and warm.

We are emotionally drawn to the culture first, then the music, not the other way around.

Here is a song that parodies our reaction to hearing birds and wondering if their songs are music.

song: IS IT MUSIC by Nick Page (published by Alfred Publishers)
Two birds were sitting on a branch,
watching children in a field as they danced.
The children made a noise,
all the girls and boys;
a silly bunch of sounds all up to chance.

“I understand the croaking of the toads
I understand the wolves, their lonesome odes,
I understand the words
of my fellow birds
The sounds these children make are secret codes.”

“Why do they sing of rainbows off somewhere?
Are they dreaming of the clouds up in the air?
What is it they are after?
Is it tears or is it laughter?
Is it nonsense? Is it noise? Or is it prayer?

And yes, it’s music!
It’s beauty and it’s art!
Yes, it’s music.
It’s singing from the heart!
This is why we children sing,

I return to the words of ethnomusicologist John Blacking:

“By . . . establishing that musicality is a universal, . . . we can show that human beings are even more remarkable than we presently believe them to be – and not just a few human beings, but all human beings – and that the majority of us live far below our potential, because of the oppressive nature of most societies.” How Musical Is Man p 116

When I create music with children, I don’t think of it as performance. I think of it sharing, as a humble act of compassion. The sun gives us light. The trees turn the light into air to breath. Compassion is woven into the fabric of this universe and when we sing, we are making the world a more beautiful place.

During his years of dementia, I took my father for drives. One day I stopped by a field of yellow flowers on a sunny day. I asked my father, “What are the flowers telling you?” He thought for a moment, then said, “Shine.” So, of course, I wrote a song about it.

song: SO MUCH MORE by Nick Page
The flowers’ simple message,
Shine just like the sun,
Give back the light, the love that you receive.

And so it is with music,
Songs are like the sun,
We sing because there’s so much light within.

So sing out with your soul
and sing out with your light,
There’s so much more than music going on.
So much more than music,
So much more than music,
So much more than music going on.

Brian Swimme, the scientist who wrote “The Universe Is a Green Dragon,” wrote, “The Universe evolved to create the child and the voice of the child became the unlimited expression of the Universe.” And what was that song?   Ah   Oh   Oo Like the light of the sun, a compassionate gift.

I believe that children are capable of SO MUCH MORE. When I was a conductor with the Chicago Children’s Choir, we sang the Bach Magnificat. The Chicago Children’s Choir, all 6,000 children, still lift hearts in their 61st year.   The choir was created by the Rev. Christopher Moore based on his belief that children from diverse cultures were capable of coming together to be amazing, to let their lights out, to sing as an act of compassion, to heal the world.

That first song sung by the first mother: Ah – a song of love – not a complacent love, but an unseen force. Martin Luther King, in one of his last speeches, said, “Power without love is corrosive. Love without power is anemic.” Our love needs to be fierce. Chris Hedges, in his book, “Empire of Illusion,” ends with the words, “Love constantly rises up to remind a wayward society of what is real and what is illusion.” End quote.

Love rises up when we sing with children. Love heals when we sing with children. There is so much more than music going on. And remember the words of Elie Weisel, Holocaust survivor and human rights advocate, “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.”  There is no indifference when children sing. There is no indifference when we let children’s creativity be heard. There is no indifference when we sing as an act of compassion. There is no indifference when our fierce love of life shines in every song. There is SO MUCH MORE.

I think our greatest calling as musicians and as teachers is to help our fellow human beings to tear down (or to keep open) the walls that prevent us from fully loving, fully hearing, fully seeing, fully experiencing the Magnificence of this world. Please rise.

song: DO YOU SHINE? Do you let the light in? Do you let the light out? Do you shine?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The history of shapenote singing is very rich with diverse styles evolving from Maine down to Georgia in the 18th and 19th centuries.   I am no expert, but for many years have enjoyed singing these marvelous anthems.   It is called shapenote singing because the notes have shapes instead of just circles.   The triangle is Fa, the circle is Sol, the square is La, and the diamond is Mi.   The major scale is sung Fa Sol La Fa Sol La Mi Fa.   The music is sometimes called “Fa Sol La Music” because of the repetition of the Fa Sol La sequence.   When someone says, “Sing with shapes,” it means to sing the song using the Fa Sol La syllables. The system was created as a way to teach non-readers how to read music.   Most early hymnals did not have written music.   They were simply the texts.   An “Amazing Grace” in Boston could sound completely different in Atlanta because the melodies were not written down. The shapenote tradition began in New England then moved south. It stayed in the South but eventually came back to New England.   The first published shapenote hymnals appeared in the South with the Sacred Harp book being the most popular.   There are several other collections still in print including collections of new shapenote hymns.   The texts are old Christian hymn texts, many by Isaac Watts, a London writer who published a series of collections starting in 1709.

I only attend one shapenote singing community on a regular basis, so I have nothing else to compare them to.   On Tuesday nights in the summer, I sing at the shapenote sing at Bread & Puppet Theater in Glover, VT. The Northeast Kingdom area of Vermont breeds tough folk, ancestors of the old Calvinists.   Many of them may be liberals, but the Calvinism is still in their blood.   When you wake up to a beautiful day, the correct reaction is, “We’ll pay for this.”

The sings begin at 7:30.   Most folk take their time getting there but by 8, the place is rocking.   It is held in the New Theater, a barn with a dirt floor and ascending benches on one side for audiences of their Friday night shows.   Rickety wooden benches are placed in a square on the dirt floor.   Two benches for the basses face two for the sopranos. Five benches for the altos face the tenors who sit on the first three or four riser benches. A handful of observers sit behind them, scattered about.

There is a cardboard box full of twenty ragged old SACRED HARP hymnals.   They also have two cardboard boxes full of copies of tunes sorted alphabetically in manila binders. Most songs are from the SACRED HARP, but many are from an assortment of other books.   About every two weeks, someone introduces a new piece they have written.   We struggle to learn them and the reaction is usually a polite, “You shouldn’t have bothered.”   New pieces are welcome because everyone believes that shapenote singing is a living tradition, still evolving. But it doesn’t mean singers are obliged to like the new pieces.

Bread & Puppet is a theater troupe that travels during the winter with their progressively charged political puppet shows and free bread baked in outdoor ovens. The shows are the creation of founder Peter Schumann.   With the help of apprentices, volunteers and staff he creates puppets, some as small as your hand, some as large as a barn. He creates the dramas, writes much of the music and bakes the bread that is served for free. In the summer time, they bring in college students who pay to be apprentices for the season.   These young folk are all very hippy dippy and a bit spoiled.   But they love singing the old shapenote songs.   They particularly like the ones where we’re all going to burn in Hell.

Peter Schumann’s co-founder and wife, Elka Schumann is the driving force behind the sings, but many people take turns leading songs.   If they request it, they lead it.   Or sometimes they’ll request that a particular person leads a particular song.   Their favorite song is called #117, also known as “Babylon is Fallen.” They sing it like wild goats on speed with a resonance that loosens fillings.   Loud would be an understatement.   There’s a moment in the refrain where the tenors come in a beat early. There’s sort of a communal kick in the pants at this point.   It’s like being pinched, cute, well meaning, but playfully rude.

Tempos change from song to song, often within a song.   Plodding is not allowed, nor is rushing.   Singers struggle with the occasional unfamiliar song.   I once introduced a song that few knew, Jeremiah Ingall’s “The Young Convert,” pg. 24. They had a hard time the first week, did better the second week, and by the third week, it was one of their favorites.

For the more unfamiliar songs, we start with the tenor part (melody) sung with shapes.   Most parts sing along.   Then we sing the other parts one at a time with shapes – all are welcome to sing along.   Then we sing it all together with shapes and then with the words.   With easier songs, we sometimes simply dive into them, but usually with shapes first time.   Those who don’t know shapes struggle along and eventually pick up the rudiments.

A pitchpipe would be most unwelcome.   Someone establishes a pitch and everyone struggles to find the first pitches for each part. They then start to sing the song, soon realizing it’s either too high or too low.   They tend to sing everything very low, so the basses are in an uncomfortable range but everyone else is as happy as a clam.   I’m a trained choral musician, a fact that a few there know.   I try to stay out of the process of choosing the key.   But if they ask, I give them the perfect pitch to start on, never in the key it is written in.

There are the standard mix of choral types – the prima donas who have everything memorized and who give nasty looks to people who sing their parts wrong, the knowing elders who also know everything but who have learned humility and quietly participate, and the eager beavers who jump up to lead a song as soon as the previous song is over.

I bring my 1991 edition of the Sacred Harp to the sings.   In the blank opening pages, I have all the favorites written down with the page numbers, songs like, “New Jerusalem,” “Soar Away,” “Poland,” “Africa,” “Greenwich,” “Stratfield,” and my favorite, “David’s Lamentation.” On its’ phrase “O my son,” everyone bellows with great power.   When “O my son” is repeated, they sing it as a whisper (with the exception of the obligatory new person who is ignorant).   Most of the singers don’t actually shun ignorance. Just the opposite, they seem to embrace it.

In most choral groups, singing is a communal event.   One has to constantly suppress one’s volume and comply to a uniformity of tone, tempo, and texture.   No such limitations exist at the Bread & Puppet shapenote sings.   It’s a friendly competition like a game of volleyball.   It is complete freedom.

The sings end at around 9 pm and fresh baked goods are offered along with mint water (water with mint leaves in it).   People hang out for a while, some helping to put away the benches and the music.   Then it is over, the lights go out and people carry the harmonies with them to their rest.

One night, after singing about death, welcoming Hell, and the inaccessibility of Heaven, I departed the sing and was stung by the beauty of the stars.   I wrote a shapenote hymn that night.

GLOVER by Nick Page
We sing of death, Oh lonely death,
Of being Heaven bound.
Then exit there and upward stare,
The light of Heaven found.

The stars of night, Oh brilliant night,
Their wonder knows no end.
We look with awe, absorb the awe,
Our light, with wonder, send.

Give out your light, your humble light,
And share what you receive.
For like the stars, we all must give
To Heaven before we leave.

* * * * * * * * *   *   *   *   *   *

BENEFITS OF MUSIC   by Nick Page 4/12
       Simply being musical is enough of a reason to keep music in the schools.   The ability to make and appreciate music is innate behavior coded into our genes.   To be musical is to be human.
Music teaches beauty.
Creating beauty is an act of compassion.   When we make music, we are making the world a more beautiful place.
Music strengthens our cultural bonds with the past and future.   Music helps to define who we are culturally.
Music strengthens our cultural bonds with each other.   Music helps us to cross cultural borders.
The Navahos say we “Walk in Beauty,” meaning we are part of the harmony of all life and all things.   This harmony comes alive when we make music.
The Hindu expressions, “Nadha Brahma, the world is made of sound,” applies to us as well.   We resonate music and making music is a natural response to life.

      Music, along with dance, is an extremely emotional expression.
Music making and performance builds confidence.   This confidence carries over to other experiences.
The child transcends confidence to reach awe and wonder.
Music provides emotional outlets that children desperately need.   Music making shows students that being emotional in an academic setting is acceptable.
An aura of power is created with great music making.   The student is filled with a strong sense of self-worth as well a sense of connection to a greater community.   This power is far preferable to the many negative sources of power that our youth are allured to.
Music provides communication possibilities for those who have difficulty expressing their emotions.   This is the basis for music therapy.
Music making and performance provides needed “adrenaline rushes” and peak experiences that our evolutionary ancestors required, and our “civilized” selves need to regain.
Our emotions affect the music we are drawn to.   Often it is our emotional connection to a culture that draws us to that culture’s music.   The opposite can be true as well.
       Music activities require listening.   All listening skills for all academic subjects are aided by music activities.
One can not accurately sing a note without first accurately hearing it.   This internalization of sound (audiation) helps children in their transition from reading out loud to reading silently (hearing words in their heads.)   Similarly, this “inner hearing” is an aid to all silent problem solving like math and science.   (see
Those who learn instruments develop self discipline.
Those who learn instruments learn how to learn.  Practicing is the brain and body’s way to figure out great complexities without constant tutelage.
Those who learn instruments are constantly dealing with problem solving skills.
Those who learn instruments, through the student/teacher relationship, learn to be very goal centered.
Those who learn instruments learn self-assessment as well as assessment through competition.
Alfred Tomatis believes that there is a correlation between the hunger to listen and the hunger to learn.   This hunger, he says, begins in the womb with the fetus’ brain being fed and charged with sound.   Throughout our lives, music continues to charge the brain and stimulate our hunger for learning.
Nick Page believes that there is a correlation between the ability to sustain a pulse and the ability to sustain one’s attention span.
Music making is a natural extension of our tendency to play.   The elements of play are the same as the elements of music; imitation, repetition, contrast, variation, and exaggeration.
Music is made of patterns.  Becoming aware of these patterns, both consciously and subconsciously, helps a child with patterns (often similar) in math, science, and general cognitive skills.  Former Czeck president Václav Havel said, “Education is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between phenomena.”
Like learning the alphabet through the alphabet song, songs can be a powerful learning and memorization tool.
Georgi Lazanov believes that certain background music enhances some forms of learning.   This may apply only to some.
When our brains entrain to slow pulses, we become relaxed—slow music can remove stress.  (Entrainment is when one pulse imitates another pulse)
When our brains entrain to fast pulses, our brains become more active—often more creative.
Entrainment can be used to solve discipline problems or to change the mood in a classroom.
In the overall rhythm of a child’s day, music activities make great transition vehicles, particularly simple call and response or echo songs.
Songs with lots of movement, particularly dance, help with body/mind coordination.   Playing instruments is all about body/mind coordination.
The act of improvising and writing songs helps children synchronize their left and right brains.
Group singing creates vibrations throughout the body.   Sound healers believe that these vibrations are good for us—they are healing.
We instinctively make a loud sound when we hurt ourselves.   Sound healers believe that this is our natural way of using sound to remove pain.
Studies have shown that singing strengthens the immune system.
     Group singing strengthens cooperation skills.
Children who sing and celebrate together create strong bonds with each other and with their schools.  Group singing increases their sense of belonging.
Rehearsing for concerts helps discipline by creating focus.
Simply by having singing celebrations (group sings), we demonstrate to children that celebration in life is important.
When children perform for each other, they radiate with pride and joy.   Radiance is good.
When we create a supportive environment, we develop cooperation skills where problem solving becomes a group event, not a dysfunctional denial of the problems.
The divisions between the talented and the untalented are not as great as our hierarchical mass culture would suggest.   Group music making helps students to see that everyone has talent.
When students perform in ensembles, their creativity and their compassion are helping to shape their environment.   In the process, they come to own the school.   Their identities change.   They become learners in a vibrant learning community.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *


As a composer and choral arranger, I have become increasingly aware of the presence of culture in the creative process. Just as a composer cannot escape composing from a personal perspective, so also the composer cannot escape from a cultural perspective. Composers must choose, either consciously or subconsciously, to emphasize either the personal or the cultural perspective or any of the possible shades in between. The composer who chooses to ignore all cultural influences creates a culture of one made up of him or herself. This composer either leads the way for future paths in music or is forgotten completely over time.
A Viennese composer writing a symphony in 1775 would choose instrumentation based on pre-set cultural standards–strings, woodwinds, brass, and kettle drums. Likewise the composer would choose forms and textures from the palette of a classical composer–sonata form, rondo, minuet, theme and variations. Much of the repetition within the chosen form would be suggested by the same cultural habits manifested within a simple folksong of that time and culture. An A theme would either be followed by a simple variation of the A theme or a complimentary B theme. Take the song, “Twinkle Twinkle” as we know it today. Cultural habits suggest that the ascending phrase “Twinkle twinkle little star” be followed by a complementary phrase within exactly the same rhythm, “How I wonder what you are.” That we see such a sequence as a natural one shows how much we are conditioned by our culture. These same cultural guidelines helped Mozart with the opening phrase from “Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik.” Mozart and Salieri both composed within the same cultural framework. What sets the two apart was that Mozart was able to make the music completely his own. The flights of his imagination knew no bounds, whereas Salieri was bound by an imagination that could not go beyond the obvious—he was satisfied with clichés.
Composers in this century have been given a huge palette of cultural styles and philosophies to choose from. Stravinsky embraced his native Russian culture then went on to compose within 18th century classical formats, 12 tone Viennese formats, and American jazz formats. Each piece was undoubtedly the work of a singular genius. Classical composers like Bernstein crossed the huge cultural border between classical and popular styles. That huge cultural border is becoming less and less distinct as more and more composers choose to compose within multiple cultural (multicultural) frameworks. The minimalistic palette, for example, is inspired by West African drumming, jazz rhythms, and the forms and modalities of the Raga. Ligeti, who broke ground forty years ago with his multi-tonal clusters has consciously embraced the cultures of his native Eastern Europe with his latest pieces. Tonality, once the enemy of all things modern, can now be seen as an honoring of one’s culture.
Mid-century, serialists and others led the way, but nobody followed. The serialists ignored culture. If more tonal music is composed today, it is probably because more and more composers choose to embrace culture rather than ignore it. The danger in this is that we could end up with a world of Salieri’s—composers whose only wish is to satisfy the dictates of the public, just as rock and roll is controlled by the whims of the marketplace.
Becoming aware of the cultural presence in all music has been inspirational for me as a composer, but there is an equally inspirational perspective, the biological perspective—how sound effects the body, mind, and spirit and how each culture then shapes these sounds into what we call music. The end result is that the music of every culture effects our minds, bodies, and spirits differently. Composing within both the biological and cultural perspectives broadens the palette in infinite ways.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Standards Of Excellence  by Nick Page  1997
      In March of 1997, Geoffrey Holland, Director of Choral Studies at Tennessee Technological University, sent out a questionnaire to seven ACDA members from different backgrounds. The answers appeared in a Spring 1998 ACDA Choral Journal article on choral standards in the coming century. Here are two of my answers.
How would you define standards of excellence in choral music? It is essential that we examine all standards from cultural perspectives. We can no longer catalog music into categories of good verses bad, saying, for example, that the music of J. S. Bach is better than country music. The same would apply to comparing a Renaissance choir and a Gospel choir. The differences are more cultural than they are musical, therefore defining the standards of excellence for each will be radically different. We need to acknowledge what I call the choral family, the fact that every culture has a group singing tradition that helps to define itself.
What makes American choral music unique in performance and practice? What makes the Western hemisphere so ripe for all the arts is the cultural influx of both indigenous and immigrant people. Each culture continues to influence each other, creating a constantly evolving rainbow of human expression. The democratic values within the United States add a significant, though not yet fully realized, dimension to this promise. The US Constitution guarantees that we all have an equal and important voice—this has a profound effect on the arts, promising each individual as well as each culture freedom to express itself. We should never take this for granted.