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Singing Belongs to You - and Some News 

This summer a little dream came true. 

A handful of acquaintances got together in someone's house and learned an a cappella song together. We were college girls, working mothers, empty nesters, and due this fall (well, one of us). Some of us could read music; others not so much. Some of us were known to be gifted vocalists; others were not known to be so (and in my case, was certainly not). We got together once a month three times - the first time to figure out our parts and suggest songs to learn; the other times to come together and sing what we practiced. We couldn't all show up every time, but when we did, we were smiling.

To learn our parts, we had a notated arrangement as well as the parts recorded singly for those who didn't read music. I recorded the tracks and shared them on Soundcloud, but for a lot of arrangements you should be able to buy pre-recorded tracks. 

This was a way to be together and bring music home. This was a way to use the voices we all had regardless of gifting. We didn't produce any record-worthy performances, of course. But that's not why we sing. 

We just might do this again.


And Some News!

A few weeks ago I sat down during an evening storm and played a piece from the forthcoming Battlescapes set. It's called "Schoolhouse Ridge" and is named for a series of fields nearby that saw action during the Civil War. Schoolhouse Ridge is preserved today as part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

And "Schoolhouse Ridge" has been preserved in studio. It's coming out as a single on Sep. 20! 

If you like it, you can now pre-save the piece on Spotify. 

Four Ways to Bring Music Home 

I aspire to bring more live music back into the home. Strategically this means bringing music to our kids. Here are four ways that has happened in the Hall house.

1. Singing

Singing belongs to you. Some people are knock-out singers, but everybody is meant to sing. I hear about homeschooling penny pinchers who can easily get music literature, history, and theory in their house but, unless the parents are musicians, can't afford actual music lessons. Well, singing makes you an instant practitioner of music. Certainly there's proper technique to it that's not intuitive - but go ahead. Start with the songs you know and like. Start when your kids are young so they don't learn to become embarrassed. Maybe learn some rounds to sing in the car, such as "Scotland's Burning."

Speaking of Scotland, these guys are cool.

But they're not singing a round. Here's another one.

This summer a few of my friends got together to form a casual summer a cappella group. We were lucky a trained vocalist could help us find our parts. We learned a two-part arrangement of "Down to the River to Pray," practicing on our own and coming together in a mom's house with kids milling about to bring it all together. It was fun, and we're hungry to tackle something for Christmas now. GENE PUERLING CHRISTMAS ARRANGEMENTS, WHERE ARE YOU?

2. Classics for Kids Podcast

Each episode in this podcast is six minutes long, winsomely narrated by Naomi Lewin at WGUC in Cincinnati. Naomi introduces names, places, musical forms, biographical anecdotes, and humorous facts, all interspersed with samples from the composers' well known works. Though meant for kids, it's a serious introduction to music literature that will inform everyone. Subscribe!

3. The Piano Safari method

Many piano methods for young children emphasize how to read piano music. Piano Safari focuses on how to play the piano. Not at all neglecting, however, to lay a foundation for reading. By the end of the series kids are reading the grand staff, improvising, playing chords and scales, understanding some chord relationships, and playing folk and classical pieces with deliberate technique. A good teacher can convey these things no matter the method, but Piano Safari brings it all together. The website is a pedagogical hub of resources for teaching concepts as well as supplements for students sticking with a different method.

4. Routine

Routine is magic. If each day has a routine with music practice tucked in the same place, practice happens. For the resident student in this house, piano practice is the last school subject before free play. No reminder needed. And, a little bit of practice every day goes much farther than a lot every now and then. I never cease to wonder at the miracle of incrementalism. No matter how tangled the notes look or how awkward the fingering feels at first, the minuscule gains each day seem suddenly to resolve in a creditable performance.

This carries over to creative work, too. A little bit of regular time devoted to writing music yields results. As I saw songwriter Jon Guerra put it, "Regularity is the mother of spontaneity."


Another Kind of Anniversary 

We tried another piano rig this week that involved lining one mic to the interface with a 1/4" patch cable. I warned the others the cable might give us issues cause I've had it since I was thirteen.

Then I had a moment of reflection. Yes, I've had that cable twenty years. It was twenty years ago this summer that my dad took me to Sam Ash in Cleveland, Ohio, with my piano teacher and two of my friends to buy a keyboard. I only expected something portable with several piano and pad patches for me to start playing at church. My dad as usual was considering more possibilities. We went home with a Roland XP-60, keyboard amp, and accessories. The XP-60 had over 400 programmable patches and an onboard sequencer - so I could lay down different tracks and record my own compositions right in the keyboard. It got saved to a ::drumroll:: floppy disk drive. I asked my dad why he'd get something with a sequencer. "Don't you think you'd enjoy it?" he said.

The whole package may have cost $1300. It felt incredibly extravagant. When we got home, I was a little dizzy with wanting to make the most of such a versatile tool, but not sure how I would learn it all. My dad reassured me he had no expectations for me to produce certain results, just to enjoy it.

I did. Though to this day I feel I only ever used a quarter of that keyboard's potential, numerous ideas got tracked to an orange floppy disk named "Hibiscus," which I still have. I haven't given up on a few of those ideas. The XP-60 was my stage partner at church for about ten years. Its LCD screen was crushed about ten years ago, so only the corners are readable, but by then I could almost navigate the sounds blind.

Someday I hope to have space to keep it set up alongside the 88-key weighted controller I use. For now, it's wedged out of sight. Kind of a big thing not to use in a small house. But not as big as the gratitude I have for the vision and hopefulness of my dad.

Note to parents...there's no need to go buy a $1300 gizmo for your kid, but junior high and high school is a fantastic time to have stuff at home they can explore. They have time to figure out things that could possibility accelerate certain pursuits in the future. If your kid likes tinkering with music and you have a Mac, let him loose in GarageBand - extra points for connecting a cheap keyboard via MIDI. If she likes writing and designing the look of things, you might be surprised what she'll figure out in Word and graphic design apps. Most of all that can be done without the Internet and without paying anybody to teach them.

Lyric Pieces from the Labyrinth 


Hmmmm....who is this person?

He's a birthday buddy with my sister-in-law and niece (June 15), for one thing. He became a composer. When I was a kid, I first heard his music in an extended TV commercial for a classical CD collection. It played a snippet of one of his most memorable pieces. Some time later my piano teacher dropped an arrangement of it in front of me. I squealed. "Ohhhhh, I heard this on a commercial and loved it! It's so - powerful!!"

But I never listened to his actual piano music till after one fateful day at Bierce Library. Bierce is a hulking piece of architecture in the middle of the University of Akron. It was a dated but busy place by the time I frequented its foyer in 2002. I never finished finding some new corner, study closet, or half-hidden table in that storied building. (Dad: happy Father's Day - that pun is for you.) Rumor was that somewhere in Bierce was an audio library. My piano professor wanted me to choose my own pieces to learn, so I went in search of records to inspire me.

I did find it - a smallish room filled with CDs. Beethoven sonatas....check...what is this? Lyric pieces for piano? I'll borrow that CD, too.

That CD enchanted me.

They were called lyric pieces because they were shorter song-like works that evoked a character, story, or emotion. They were steeped in the folk sound of the composer's home country. The music was as full of personality as some of its titles: "Elfin Dance," "March of the Dwarfs," "Little Bird," "Homesickness." My piano professor was delighted when I told him I wanted to learn "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen." Troldhaugen ("Troll Hill") was the name of the composer's home.

The name of the composer was Edvard Grieg.

Grieg's lyric pieces represent to me not just a set of charming music but a place where I belong. They are homey, folksy, near, and accessible and yet glittering all the same. Grieg had these words for himself: "Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on the heights. I only build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy and at home."

That is my vision for the Vandalia Room. To reap the art of the commonplace - to capture the soundtracks of home - to distill the beauty of whatever life is around me - and to encourage others to do the same in their own way. (By the way - the Vandalia Room might be changing a little bit soon. More on that later, I hope.)

P.S. Troldhaugen is maintained as a museum to this day. Wouldn't you love to hear a performance in its music hall!