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My Happy Apps

I am selective about my smartphone apps: No to Angry Birds or Tetris, yes to Couch to 5K. No to Minecraft, yes to Vine. I only keep apps that I really like and use frequently. These apps make me happy! My music apps. . . some of them

Pandora reminds me of the summer I sold actual physical CDs and cassettes at Camelot Music. We sat around the break room digging through the large cardboard box filled with free promotional cassettes and CDs (okay, only I did that). I scored Madonna's Immaculate Collection, which was a big deal at the time.

I'm always justifying looking for apps for music education. My hardworking ClearTune app helps singers (including moi) figure out how to make the small changes that lead to more accurate pitch, and it's a godsend for nervous new sight singers and pianists ("Was that an E flat? It wasn't? I could have sworn it was. Are you sure?").

Being from the Dark Ages, I learned music theory the traditional way, with workbooks and flashcards. Writing out the scales is always a good idea, but apps are great for drills on note names, intervals, and chords. I like Musicopoulos for straight theory and straightforward practice. If you don't have a smartphone, Theta Music Trainer is a good place to practice.

My perfect pitch made ear training very easy for me, but I have begun to recommend these two solid apps for musical mortals: PlayByEar asks you to sing or play back chords and melodies accurately. EarTrainer shows intervals being played on a piano keyboard.

Blob Chorus by Lumply

For sheer fun, the best ear training app is The Blob Chorus. Groups of blobs sing individual pitches, then a purple King Blob repeats one of the previous pitches. Match the blobs, and King Blob gets a crown. Get it wrong, your blob explodes! This is great for singers who are learning to hear their part inside a choir.

I have loved the public radio show Music From The Hearts Of Space since I was a teenage waitress at Elby's. The program aired on WCBE every Sunday night at 10pm as I drove home from the night shift, and I would keep listening as I changed out of my 100% polyester uniform and speed-read some Faulkner for the school week ahead. I use the show's app frequently and also listen to their online archive at www.hos.com

My senior high prom date turned me on to the SomaFM website years ago, as we exchanged one or two perfunctory emails to catch up and therefore avoid meeting up at reunions. He remembered my teenage love of Hearts of Space and recommended this. It was the last I heard of him but thanks, Dean, and I bet you have the app now too! SomaFM is a collection of 15 quirky, well-curated online stations (and that's the last time I will use "curate" in a post) ranging from NASA beeps and blips to bachelor pad jazz. I always wrap presents from Santa while listening to "Xmas in Frisko," their not-safe-for-children radio station.

I just downloaded the Inception app and . . woah. Wierd and wonderful to have music played according to your own movements! When I miss Michigan or DC, I listen to the local traffic report through my iHeart Radio app and then I'm glad I don't live there anymore. I also use a couple of lolofit apps, including the 7-minute workout and Jeff Galloway's Easy 10K. They always make me feel like an Olympian, no matter how infrequently l use them. I wish the 10K app had more variations in run-walk ratios. I don't see why I can't run for one minute and walk for ten, and still have Jeff tell me "great job!" in his Southern twang.

Running is slightly easier with this app

Even on the worst day, my Random Gratitude app asks me to think of something good and type it in. The best feature of this app is that it randomly scrolls through my previous posts, reminding me of so many wonderful little things that I might have otherwise forgotten.

So, what apps should I add to my collection?

 

Good singers act

Exhibit A: Ellen Greene performing "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop of Horrors. I cringe as I listen to her, but I can't stop watching. She is heartbreaking to behold. Every note, gesture and expression delineate the character she's playing. She is Acting The Song. Exhibit B: This lovely young lady is singing "Somewhere That's Green," at her school talent show. She's blessed with a healthy voice that's pleasant to hear. She's dressed in a charming outfit just right for her age, and she's performing with poise and grace. She is singing, but she is not Acting The Song-- Thank God she's not!

Isn't singing a song more important than acting it? Good singing is the fruit of good acting. Good acting demands that a performer understand the history of a song and a show, its characters, plot, and lyrics. Good acting communicates physical and vocal cues that reveal and underline a character's thoughts and emotions - her voice. Good acting heightens high notes, deepens sighs, lengthens fermatas and expands rests. Good acting also makes vocal performances more believable, as singers discover aspects of themselves in the character. (Can a pubescent middle school Gleek successfully mine the emotional core of a downtrodden, centerfold-shaped floral shop worker who's being abused by her sadistic dentist boyfriend? Lord, I hope not.)

And yet, good acting is something that we barely have time to cover in voice lesson and rehearsal. We have to focus on good technique, learning the notes, blocking the scenes, and following the spots. So, when you have a chance to delve into Acting the Song outside of recital or callbacks, you should take it. . .

Which leads me to my shameless plug: On October 27, I'm teaching a one-day course on Acting The Song at Courthouse Center For The Arts in West Kingston!

I taught a one-week version of this course at CCA last summer, including some wonderful resources from Tracey Moore. There were exercises, improvisations, character questionnaires, research assignments, free writing and coaching. Some students learned new music, some worked on their standard repertoire. Everyone improved concentration and focus, and their understanding of character, and yes - they just sounded better. The final performances were impressive. As soon as it was over we all knew we wanted to do it again! Contact the Courthouse now to reserve your spot: 401-782-1018 or kelly@courthousearts.org

In mid November I'll be back at CCA, teaching a two-day "Broadway History For Non-Dummies" course. . . but that's another post!

 

 

Positively Perfect Pitch

It's true. I have perfect pitch. I can look at a piece of music and hear it playing in my head, in the correct key. In rehearsal you don't have to play pitches for me, because I already know where to begin. If you play a B flat on the piano, I can tell you it's B flat without peeking. If a siren is wailing I can tell you what pitch it's on.  If we're listening to music, you can ask me what key they're playing in and  I will tell you and I will be right. You can test your pitch ability, too. (I just tried it. 12/12. I've still got it.)

 

Perfect Pitch. Still a dork.

We don't know for certain what causes perfect pitch, but it may have something to do with the area of the brain that processes language -- somehow my language and my listening may have been tied very close together, so I was able to label sounds with ease. There is also probably a genetic factor -- I come from a musical family. We're not the Bachs, but we are musical. I was sitting at the piano, playing melodies by ear, at age 4. (My teenage son has always had excellent pitch accuracy. He always sings a melody in the correct key, even when he has not been given a starting pitch. But, he can't accurately name pitches out of the blue. I wonder if that skill will improve as he gets older.)

When I was little, I thought that perfect (or absolute) pitch developed from taking piano lessons, which I started at age 5. My voice teacher, Prof. Paul Hickfang, was the first to "diagnose" me, when I was 13. We met for lessons on Saturday mornings, in the choir room of his church in Linworth, Ohio. He sat at the upright piano and I stood on the opposite side. I was learning "O Mio Babbino Caro" and we had stopped to go over a phrase. He played a piano key to indicate where I should continue singing, and I asked, "You mean on the A-flat?" He stopped and looked at me. "How did you know that was an A-flat?" I said, "It just is. Doesn't everyone know that?" He smiled slowly. "No, Eden, everyone doesn't know that. But my wife does." His wife Laura Lee also has perfect pitch. He played a few random notes all over the keyboard, and I named each one instantly.

It's been very helpful in choral situations. I can provide pitches for all parts faster than you can extract your pitch pipe from your pants pocket. I can labor mightily to keep my section from going flat, by my sheer pitch-itude. I can quietly help singers find their way out of the tough spots. But sometimes they're so flat, I just have to go with 'em. (I was a pitch bitch in my earlier years, bemoaning the effort of staying in tune as the rest of the section sagged. I hope I'm nicer now.)

Absolute pitch can sometimes be a bit aggravating. Transposing on sight is difficult for me, because I "hear" the music in one key while I'm trying to sing it in another. If I have the chance, I'll write in the letter names to make sure I don't start singing the "wrong" pitches. (My freshman roomie completed music theory homework while listening to jazz on the CD player, which astonished me; I had to have silence so I could accurately "hear" the music I was reading.) Once I know a piece, it's easier to transpose.

In high school music theory class, we had a test on melodic dictation -- it's like a spelling test for musicians. We were expected to listen to a melodic line and correctly write the music on staff paper. To be helpful, Dr. Keller told us the first note was a C. He played a cassette tape with several melodic examples, that were all supposed to start on C. But . . the cassette player's batteries were almost dead, so the tape was playing slow, and the first pitch was not a C, it was a B-flat. I knew it was a B-flat. I looked up, bewildered. How was I supposed to write what I was hearing when I knew I was hearing something different than what everyone else was hearing? I looked around the room. All the heads were bowed over the papers, but John Justice was looking up, too, and shaking his head. We nodded knowingly, then just shrugged and tried to figure out how to write what was expected, instead of what we were hearing. Perfect pitch pals.

Perfect pitch affects the way I teach music theory. I understand why scales are taught as a series of half and whole steps, and I understand why Guido d'Arezzo developed solfege, but I don't need either system to secure a pitch. I know they help everyone else more than they help me, so I use them and teach them. I can quickly identify intervals. I just know when a minor 7th is a minor 7th, but I have had to search for ways to explain this to a group of kids with regular ears.

Sometimes I think it would be fun to have "absolute car repair" or "absolute ultramarathon stamina" as a God-given gift. But I have perfect pitch, as did Mozart, Hendrix, Beethoven, Nat King Cole, and Chopin. Stevie Wonder has it too -- so that's how he finds his way around the keyboard!

Apparently some "absolutists" are so perfect, they can hear pitch in cycles per second. I can't do that, and I'm glad. I think that would be torture, to hear 20 violinists at 20 slightly different pitches.

By the way, Unforgettable is in F major. Watch the first 20 seconds of the clip, and you can tell that Cole just knows it.

 

 

 

Music for Funerals

When I lived in Michigan, I had an informal agreement with the organist at my parish, regarding music for our own funerals: One of us would make sure that the other got really good music. We worried that our relatives, prostrate with grief, might program some lousy music. We even made a little list for each other. We did a lot of funerals together, and sometimes we would whisper, "I want THAT hymn!" or, more often, "Please make sure that song is BANNED at my funeral, ok?" On Eagles' Wings did not make the cut. And now I have stated it here on my blog, too. Take note, family! I love the Faure Pie Jesu for funerals. It's short and beautiful. But, I think for my own funeral I would rather not have a soprano soloist. I'd like to be the Star Female one last time. So . . how about The Call, by Ralph Vaughan Williams? I love choral music, too.  . . the In Paradisum from the Faure or Durufle Requiem would be lovely, but I'm practical. I know there won't be a lot of time to rehearse anything. Do the chant version of the In Paradisum and I'll be happily on my way. Do Be Not Afraid and I'll haunt you. I'm tickled at the thought of having a New Orleans Second Line, but that's hard to come by up here!

The last time I sang the Pie Jesu for a funeral, it was for a baby girl who died in her mother's womb a couple of days before she was supposed to be delivered. I had just formed a small children's choir at my parish, which included some of the girl's older siblings. The parents asked if the children would sing, and they sang God Who Touchest Earth With Beauty. It was heartbreaking, and yet also hopeful. I could feel the sadness in my own voice as I sang, but I held it together. At the request of the parents we also sang Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones, a great hymn looking forward to happiness with the Communion of Saints.

My dad played the organ at both of his parents' funerals, and he accompanied me as I sang Albert Hay Malotte's The Lord's Prayer. I know it brought him comfort to be able to play. He also delivered the eulogies. My mother sang at her own mother's funeral. I don't think I will be able to do anything but hold my sister's hand at that time, but we'll see. When your heart is broken, sometimes music is the only way you can bear it. If I have to sing, I'll sing.

This week my True Love and I attended a funeral at the same parish where we were married. It was a service of thanksgiving for the life of Laurie, a woman I had never met. The church was packed. The choir sang Herbert Howells' Pray For the Peace Of Jerusalem. At Communion the choir sang several short motets, including one of my favorites by Theodore DuBois, Adoramus Te Christe. (It's on my list. It's quick to learn, too.) We used to sing it at the Altar of Repose on Holy Thursday.

The final hymn was For All The Saints, and we sang all eight verses. I noticed that as I sang each verse, my voice was stronger and stronger, and I was happy to help sing this beloved woman to Heaven. The organist played a dazzling fanfare, and we began the final verse. The choir soared past all of us, with the descant reaching higher and higher. The music in the hymnal got blurry as tears came to my eyes, and I choked up so much I could no longer sing, just listen and be thankful.

The entire congregation stood as the grieving mother and children processed to the back of the church with the casket, while the organist played a triumphant postlude. A few people left the pews, but most just stood and watched. The choir was invited to recess but they remained standing in the loft, motionless. The organist kept his eyes on the music and completed the postlude, and everyone remained standing, weeping silently for the gift of the beautiful woman and the gift of the beautiful music.

Laurie was the organist's daughter. He played her to Heaven.

Laura Kent Hynes 1962-2012

 

 

EC loves Ecclesia Consort

Continuing my not-at-all-penitential Lenten practice of listening to really great sacred music . . .I attended an Evensong at an Epsicopal parish in Newport. The Providence-based Ecclesia Consort was the guest choir -- one of their sopranos was the rector of this lovely church.

The all-volunteer group, led by Pierre Masse, is concluding its 19th season now . . .they'll kick off their 20th anniversary with the Bach B Minor Mass in late September. Heck yes I'll be there!

Here's the Consort singing Richard Farrant's Hide Not Thou Thy Face. What a wonderful blend. (What a terrible iPhone stealth audio engineer I am.) And here is their Ave Regina Caelorum.

I also met Brendan, a member of my Meetup group, "Chants Occurrence." We met at the front of the church following the concert. He went to seminary in my hometown and went to college in southern Michigan, near where I used to live. Small world! I'm more eager than ever to find more Chant and sacred music lovers in South County RI (South County is the nickname for this region, even though the technical name is Washington County).

Earlier that day, I cantored at St. Michael Catholic Church in Pawcatuck, CT, just over the western border. I had a great time with the organist -- we've been trying to get together for months and it finally worked out. I was in my element, sightreading music 30 minutes before Mass. I'll be joining her choir for a Lenten Evensong on April 3. So. . . I've met Catholic sacred music/chant lovers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and now Newport . . . all of these areas are adjacent to South County. I keep telling myself, "You're getting warmer, you're getting warmer . . . "

Voice Lessons, Vocal Coaching, Piano Coaching, Performance Coaching, and Musical Production.

Eden Casteel Music Studio, 81 Post Road, Wakefield RI 02879. Phone: 401-932-5589.