SCMEA was awesome! Though I only got to attend two sessions due to exhibit booth obligations, I gained a lot of new knowledge and purchased some great materials! (My debit card cried a little bit these last two days!…Whoops!)

In the past, I have posted some favorite quotes from some of James Jordan’s books on my site. The randomly bought The Musician’s Soul on Amazon because I was looking for something musically geeky to read, and after reading the summary I decided it was just what I was looking for. Then I read the book and it blew my mind…leading me to purchase The Musician’s Spirit and now currently reading The Musician’s Walk. Dr. Jordan is a brilliant writer, and so knowledgable and skilled at everything he does…conducting, writing texts, presenting…probably everything he attempts!

Though Dr. Jordan is a choral conductor, I do think his concepts, practices, and writings can be applied to all areas of music and life.

Conducting as Rehearsal Technique

“What you do with your gesture directly influences your choir more than what you teach them.”

-James Jordan

Dr. Jordan began his session telling us the importance of bringing “you” to rehearsal. He said that students don’t come to choir to sing particular repertoire or anything else…they come and sing because of you. I thought that was pretty powerful. The role of conductor is so different among musicians, but I am realizing that my depiction primarily revolves around that of an honest, human being.

He then mentioned the physical aspects of conducting that will enhance the productivity of our rehearsals. First a few scientific facts. Body Mapping is something very crucial to our conducting technique because it requires us to be aware of our movements. Our brain maps everything; sound, parts of the body, movement, etc. Of course, our maps can be incorrect, but once you fix the map it is fixed for good. He also mentioned that in our brains we have neurons referred to as “mirror neurons” that produce energy that people can read. Simply put as, certain nonverbal communication that is very clear to those you are conducting.

Next, Dr. Jordan “re-mapped” us all! We went over the movement of our arms, creating awareness of the 4 joints in the arm we use, the 3 rotations, etc. He covered posture, which in a rehearsal setting he instructed us not to use terms as “posture” or “stand up straight” or anything of that nature. He simply put it as saying, “I am organized like an apple around a core.” I loved how he passionately felt for using imagery and physical movement to gain certain results.

The Choral Ensemble Warm-Up

This was a really interesting session because he covered a lot of different aspects of conducting that you wouldn’t normally associate with warm-ups. First he addressed how he uses Music Aptitude tests and how they are extremely accurate in measuring how well students hear. He spoke of Edwin Gordan’s music aptitude tests, using them for his ensemble members. He shared an example of a soprano section he had once, whose section average on the music aptitude test for hearing was 98 (100 being you have incredible hearing, almost in a scary way!). They were rehearsing a piece and the sopranos were extremely out of tune, and instead of addressing it, he simply said, “How come that wasn’t in tune, sopranos?” in which they replied, with laughter, “Yeah, that wasn’t in tune was it?” Since he knew their capabilities, he didn’t use rehearsal time to correct their pitch issues. Dr. Jordan summarized it by saying, “Don’t you want to know how each member of your choir hears?” He said this information comes in handy with solo audition selections, or simply in which errors you spend time aiding in rehearsal.

Another interesting fact about the music aptitude tests: You reach your “peak” at 9 years old…meaning no matter when you take the test between age 9 and death you will get the same score (of course with minimal increases or decreases depending on experiences). I thought that was pretty interesting!

Next he talked about the choral warm-up. He broke certain pedagogical techniques into 3 boxes, the first being, “The ‘Must Always Do’ Box.” Those techniques covered were: relaxation, alignment and body awareness, creating space, breathing, inhalation and exhalation, support, and resonance. He was very adamant about warming up in that particular order, and now that I reread my notes it seems to make physical sense regarding sound. I took a lot of “scattered” notes in this session since we were often participating in the warm-ups, but here they are with some explanation:

  • To aid tuning issues, accompany with alternating octaves on the dominant, meaning if you are doing a warm-up in the key of C, play alternating G’s as the choir sings.
  • Instead of saying “make your vowels more rounder,” etc, say “Wrap your lips around the sound.” The vowels will be closed yet have open space.
  • A good resonance exercise: Hum on “ng” and draw something in the air, such as a horse, sliding up in pitch when your “pencil” does, and sliding down in pitch likewise.
  • Order of breath starts with your ribs, diaphragm, abdominal wall, pelvic bone. Same order for both inhalation and exhalation.
  • “Air comes into my body like a wave from top to bottom.” Quote for describing air direction.
  • Physical gesture should be a part of every warm-up!

And then my debit card got some exercise…

The GIA Publishing Company had a booth in the exhibit hall, and I did some serious damage. I bought another book of Dr. Jordan’s entitled, Toward Center – The Art of Being for Musician’s, Actors, Dancers, and Teachers. I’m thinking that is going to be the next book on my list once I finish The Musician’s Walk. I also bought his manual, Rehearse! which is a guide for choral teaching that comes with cards to help you better execute your rehearsal plans. Lastly, I bought a CD he conducted called, Angels in the Architecture that was recorded in several cathedrals in the NJ and Philadelphia area that best represent the sound of the selected repertoire. I’m listening to it right now, and it’s absolutely incredible.

And in true James Jordan style, I’ll end with a quote he shared regarding how you should sing/perform your music:

“Take the mantra of the rest of your musical life, hear it, and make it audible.”

SCMEA 2011 was a great experience! I can’t wait to attend more conferences in the future!