Essays on Music

TABLE OF CONTENTS

SHAPENOTE SINGING AT BREAD & PUPPET by Nick Page 6/12/14
BENEFITS OF MUSIC   by Nick Page 4/12
ON AMERICAN SPIRITUAL & GOSPEL TRADITIONS by Nick Page 4/17/14
COMPOSING FROM A CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE by Nick Page 1995
STANDARD OF EXCELLENCE by Nick Page 1997

SHAPENOTE SINGING AT BREAD & PUPPET by Nick Page 6/12/14
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.

* * * * * * * * *   *   *   *   *   *
I taught the song the following week.
The reaction? “You shouldn’t have bothered.”

BENEFITS OF MUSIC   by Nick Page 4/12
MUSIC FOR MUSIC’S SAKE
       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 AS BENEFIT TO EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
      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 AS BENEFIT TO READING, WRITING AND OTHER SKILLS
       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 www.giml.org/audiation.php)
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.
MUSIC TO BENEFIT GROUP SKILLS
     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.

ON AMERICAN SPIRITUAL & GOSPEL TRADITIONS

THE AFRICAN AMERICAN SPIRITUAL
     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.
THE APPALACHIAN SPIRITUAL
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 cappell
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN HYMN
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
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 the Spiritual.   So you have different verses with the same Chorus or refrain repeating each time.    In his day, Martin Luther (1509) brought in 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.”
BLACK GOSPEL MUSIC
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.
THE GOSPEL QUARTET
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.
CONTEMPORARY GOSPEL
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.
COUNTRY WESTERN GOSPEL
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.
THE PRAISE SONG
Often called “Inspirational Music,” Praise Songs are Christian pop songs.  There is now a rich cross-fertilization between black and white churches with the praise song as the common link.
Bringing in pop elements into worship is not the private domain of Christian churches.   Many Synagogues feature a rich mix of traditional tunes and pop songs (even Gospel style songs).   Like many Christian churches, there are some synagogues that have abandoned traditional music altogether.

COMPOSING FROM A CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE by Nick Page 1995
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.