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This week we have had the privilege of a brief residency with internationally renowned vocalist Denyce Graves. Let me begin by saying that her performance yesterday was among the finest live vocal performances I have ever experienced. Ms. Graves is the real deal. To repeat a phrase she used today, she is a “singing actress” of the finest quality. During the masterclass she offered for Claflin students this morning, she demonstrated that she is an equally good pedagogue.
As a matter of priority, Graves shows how deeply she cares for young artists. Her approach to positive reinforcement is textbook: she puts praise first and emphasizes the positive so that musicians can build from strength to strength. All the same, she does not spare the rod. Graves hears through singers like most people see through glass, and then she polishes them. She refuses to stop until the particular aspect she is working on with the student reaches sufficient levels of both sound and understanding. That also means that every session ends as strongly as it begins. Any good musician will tell you that this pattern resembles a successful practice session. In the form of what she does–as much as in its content–she shows students this consistent approach to excellence.
She speaks to students in beautifully illustrative metaphors. To get the sound she wants, she speaks of the “core sound” of a singer’s voice. She compares it to perfume, noting that audiences don’t want eau de parfum or eau de toilette when they can have the real parfum. The comparison works perfectly for getting students to think about space and overtones or vocal formants. She instructs students to “stitch vowels together” by allowing [i] to “inform” [ε], [a], [o] and [u]. If that makes little sense to readers with different musical or linguistic backgrounds, think of it this way: she’s telling a singer to keep the long horizontal space in her vocal cavity equally long even as she opens up the vertical space for other vowel sounds. She compares this “spatial crescendo” to the feeling of taking a quick breath right after a peppermint.
Part of what works so well about all of this is that the students come prepared. Dr. Lori Hicks has worked overtime with many of these students for the love of singing and teaching. The students, for their part, know the technical language and the repertoire well. That eases Ms. Graves’ task, allowing her to use these pithy metaphors as illustrations that students can use to remember the sensation of good singing when they get back to the practice room. As she puts it, that sensation is so much important than sound; for as singers know, sound changes with the room, the time of day, what foods we eat, the season of the year, and even our seasons of life.
This is a promising time in the life of the music department at Claflin University. It was a tremendous pleasure to hear our students sing today, and it was an even greater pleasure to watch this master at work. I hope all of our students, whatever their instrument, can find something useful to take from the experience.
[A note to long-time readers (all dozen of you): the time has come for this forum to adopt a fresh angle. In the past, I have done many artist features. Now those features will serve–along with other aspects of this blog–as means of tying what has been primarily a research and reviews blog to my teaching at Claflin University. I hope this new breadth will continue to engage current readers and begin to connect them with a new readership among this university community.]
[This post has been re-blogged from a private course blog for one of my music history and literature courses at Claflin University.]
On the heels of public commentary investigating and completely refuting the notion that classical music is dead, the Renée Fleming‘s rendition of the National Anthem at SuperBowl forty-eight tonight certainly made a strong statement. Her comments earlier in the week made the statement that much stronger. Moreover, Denyce Graves reminding her audience at Claflin’s own W.V. Middleton Auditorium this afternoon about the use of opera in advertising for pasta sauce–along with Lawrence Fishburne’s new sync on a Kia ad–remind us that cultural relevance is always relative.
It’s refreshing then that one of these very same commentators had some very sensible things to say last year about music and sports in what he called the “Glee generation.” Some people find the middle ground to be milquetoast. At times it can be, but in these cases, I find the balance to be pretty strong.
Still not convinced? Check out Bruno Mars opening the SuperBowl halftime show with a drum solo before getting up to sing with a full horn line and dance like the Godfather of Soul!
I don’t normally offer concert announcements or teasers here, but this one is just too good to resist.
This Sunday afternoon at 3 PM in W.V. Middleton Auditorium on the campus of Claflin University, Orangeburg audiences will be treated to one of the music world’s finest voices. Drawing on over twenty years of experience as a professional musician, vocalist Denyce Graves promises a performance that the Washington Post has called “almost too good to be true,” from a “vital artist, a beautiful woman, a regal presence.” Don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear a voice that continues to receive international acclaim!
The performance is free and open to the public. For more information, contact the Claflin University Office of Communications and Marketing at 803.535.5077.
Want a preview? Check out the media section of her site!
Here’s just one of many tributes to a great fallen musician this week. Evidently nobody could have written a better eulogy for Seeger than ol’ Pete himself! Rest in Peace, dear friend of the masses.
Originally posted on The Chawed Rosin:
TO MY OLD BROWN EARTH
by Pete Seeger
To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”
And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry.
Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.
And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine.
In memory of Pete 1919-2014.
Last night my wife and I witnessed a marvel of postmodern blues-making at North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center. Since shortly before the release of their June 2011 release of Revelator, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks have led the Tedeschi Trucks Band. They’ve been busy since then, building on a solid foundation to remain the biggest, baddest blues outfit I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing live. We’ve been closely watching Tedeschi’s career since her 2002 record, Wait For Me. Trucks we’ve only discovered more recently, but last night the band made a believer out of this listener.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band understands two things thoroughly: how well the distinction between bandleader and singer can work, and how to value every single contributor. While he’s soloing or listening to Tedeschi, Trucks calmly participates in various ongoing communications within the band. Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson stay locked into a singular groove–a formidable task for any band with two drummers–while they also manage to keep out of each other’s way and support the band with tasty exchanges. Brand new bassist Tim Lefebvre holds down the rhythmic and harmonic foundations with impeccably restrained taste. Kofi Burbridge wields his multi-keyboard setup masterfully, laying down basic harmonies on keys here, amping up the texture with a Hammond B3/Leslie combo there. Kebbi Williams, Maurice Brown, and Saunders Sermans each bring distinctive, entertaining personalities to the horn line. Behind them, a duo of highly versatile singers Mike Mattison and Mark Rivers alternate between providing stylized harmonic flavor and coming out front for their own features. Just don’t call them backup singers. Mattison began paying his dues well before singing lead on another Trucks project, and Rivers goes well beyond holding his own during shining moments in this band.
Meanwhile, capable leadership from Trucks keeps everything cued up and tight for Tedeschi, who has ample space to focus on bending phrases and wailing her way through blues idioms that make originals sound like classics. It is truly rare to hear a singer with rhythm as solid and consistent as hers. Every ornament, every nuance, every single rasp seems purposeful, but she delivers it all with a nonchalant humility, signaling to the audience that mastery is just part of her personal style.
To say that husband and wife both handle their instruments well as soloists would be a dramatic understatement. Tedeschi’s straightforward blues style has always served her well, and it’s a perfect compliment to the harder edge of her husband’s slide solo sound. Together with their collaborators they can bring the band from Metheny-esque soft subtlety to face-melting fever pitch, often within the same twelve-bar solo chorus.
This is unapologetic Blues with a capital B. Yes, they can funk it up with some tight horn lines, a good deal of interplay between their two drummers, and some good clean fun from a self-choreographed horn line. Yes, Derek Trucks can get his rockstar on with a bit of distortion, harmonics, and the help of some professional lighting that pales in comparison to his guitar lightning. But this music articulates a genealogy of American rock beginning with the Blues and only then moving through Jazz, Rock, and Funk in that order. The diverse backgrounds and personalities of the band come through this sound mightily. This music understands that all truly American art needs that variety in order to participate in moving sonic representations of who we are as a nation.
Tedeschi Trucks Band offered an evening of transcendent Americana last night. Soon they’ll take the show to Japan, India, and several European nations. They will make excellent emissaries for the venerable tradition of American Blues.
The handful of people who read this blog don’t need to notice my silence here to know that I’m home, because they probably all know me personally. Still, I’ve been quiet here and busy elsewhere since returning from this most recent trip to Uganda. It’s only now, two months later, that I’ve got my head above water enough to do some online reading and writing.
I’ll have time this week to finish up a post on my recent trip to Chicago, but in the mean time, I’m reading some really fascinating stuff elsewhere. Here’s a piece that I think my students might enjoy, courtesy of my friend Mr. Shank. Then there’s this lively debate on the state of American higher ed. that’s far more interesting and important a debate than anything I’ve ever read in CHE. Meanwhile I’m jumping back into an old volume on The Professionalisation of African Medicine for my book write-up and reading several good articles and dissertations along the way. So, while I sympathize with some of JunctRebellion‘s perspectives, I’m fortunate to say that for those of us lucky enough to have full-time positions, it’s not all doom and gloom.
More soon on why…