Rich started writing for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin as music critic for the symphony and opera seasons. Originally from Granite City, IL, he graduated from Simpson College with a degree in music education. In 1984 he received his MA in Music ...
Rich started writing for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin as music critic for the symphony and opera seasons. Originally from Granite City, IL, he graduated from Simpson College with a degree in music education. In 1984 he received his MA in Music Education from Truman State. Now retired, Rich enjoyed reading, writing music and short essays. He is the director of Kirksville Community Chorus.
MCKNOTES ON PREPARATION
I wrote early in the summer about Christmas in July and my need to prepare my Christmas concert well in advance so that music can be ordered, organized and put into packets for the singers. That’s all done now, and has been for some time. I’m now into the personal preparation stage. I have to practice the piano for one thing. We always have an accompanist, but I start the semester from behind the keyboard. The reason I do this is so that I can move at my own pace without instructions for the accompanist and another set of instructions for the singers. In fact, sometimes I can pretty much skip the instructions and lead them where I want by what I’m playing on the piano.
I’m not a great piano player. I could never be a concert pianist, but I do have a facility. I don’t have to watch the music very closely, and when in doubt, I can just make up what to play. This leads me to an anecdote from my younger days.
When I was a sophomore in college, I was playing my final piano recital for the semester. As I ripped through a Haydn sonata and was sailing along just fine, I realized I was lost. I was playing from memory. I knew the piece very well, but I just couldn’t remember how to get to the next section. I made up music in the style of Haydn until I could figure out a way to mentally plan a passage that would allow me to pick up where I had left off. I sensed the eyebrows of my professors raising two or three inches into their hairline with their eyes wide open. The questioning look on their faces must have appeared to say, “What the heck are you doing? “
Most of the people in the audience were unaware of my glitch. At the end of the sonata, I took my bow as gracefully as I could manage and acted like all had gone well. My moment of reckoning came during my post-recital conference where my piano instructor said, “I ought to flunk you, Richard, but not everybody could have done what you did, so you get points for that. However, this is not an acceptable way to do things.”
I think I caught a break because I was not a piano major. In fact, I was the only piano minor required to give a recital. Maybe my professor chalked it up to a bad call in his coaching. That was neither the first nor the last time I managed to raise the eyebrows of my distinguished faculty. I’d like to believe that I was, if nothing else, somewhat lovable, but I could never say that out loud and keep a straight face.
My point to this anecdote is that, while I read music perfectly well, I also play by ear, and even as a child had an almost uncanny understanding of the language of music. When I started teaching school, it was at small rural schools, and no accompanist was provided. I figured out that I could bully my students from the keyboard. If I wanted them to sing quietly, I would play quietly. If I wanted them to go faster, I would speed up. It just seemed to work for me.
Now, as director of the Community Chorus, I use the same technique. I can no longer sing to demonstrate what it is that I want them to do. I have to put everything into words, but I don’t have a great deal of volume with my speech device. Even though I use a personal amplification system, it’s just more efficient to lead them from the keyboard. This is undoubtedly a horrible technique, so I’m not bragging. It’s actually a bit embarrassing that I use such a method, but I count my results as an indication that it’s not the worst thing in the world.
In order to do this, I have to really know the music pretty well so that I don’t have to watch the music that closely once rehearsals start. That’s why I have to practice before the semester starts. Not only am I occupied with the keyboard, but I need to learn ahead of time what it is I need to listen for.
I hand out the music in the order that it will be performed roughly three months after our first rehearsal. I’ve never had anyone faint in a performance. I believe this is because the singers are confident with their knowledge of the music. I suppose they get a little bit nervous prior to a performance, but by the time we get to that point, they know the music well and like it.
Often, when we start a semester, I will be told by individuals that they really like this piece, but not so much the next one. Later though, I learn that what they didn’t like at first becomes their favorite in many cases.
I treat my responsibility as the Community Chorus director pretty seriously, as if it is a full time job. I don’t know any other way to do it. I’m a pretty good example of obsessive compulsive disorder, which is just another trait to write about at some point.