maandag 25 november 2013

In the groove?!

In rhythmical (vocal) music, musicians often talk about this thing called 'groove'. And I've been asked for some explanation about this topic many times. Because most of the times, we talk about groove as if it's something that's just 'there', but a lot of people don't really know how to discribe it. I'm gonna give it a try! 

First, if we say that a certain song has a 'groove', we imply that the song has some sort of rhytmical feel. Let's say that in the music genre we (or at least I) work, almost every song has a groove. By which I mean; you can hear an ongoing rhythmical feel. I think that's what makes our genre ours. Even though I hate putting music into boxes, most classical music has no groove, while pop, jazz, folk and other styles we sing often have. So that's why I think 'rhytmical music' kind of explains the pile of genres we all like to sing together. You might also say 'non-classical music', but that doesn't sound really nice, does it? But to be honest, we are still waiting for someone to come up with the perfect name for our type of music...

The groove. When I was a student in Holland, I was explained that the groove of a song is the combination of the rhythm and bassline. It's what makes a song recognisable for us. I you put on a song like 'I want you back-Jackson 5', 'I wish-Stevie Wonder' or 'Thriller-Michael Jackson', of course everyone instantly links the groove to the song. But to be honest, maybe groove should be just about rhythm, and not so much about tones...

Therefore I have another discription of what makes the 'groove'. It consists of three components. The first one is the pulse/tempo. It should be steady and (alsmost) the same every time you play a certain song. the second on is subdivisions. If you have a song with a rhythmical feel, let's say 4 beats per bar, there will be different types of notes in one bar. If you find the shortest one (for example an 8th note or a 16th note) you're able to fill up the whole bar with these notes. So now every beat has 2/4 subdivisions, possibly going very fast. The third one is accents. Once you feel that the pulse/tempo is steady and every beat has subdivisions, it's time to make the groove! Within all of the subdivisions, there are accents. Once you are able to sing the accents while you internally still feel all of the other subdivisions, you are able to 'get into the groove'! 

And then, to make it even more complex, there's also a thing called 'timing'. If you want a song to be laid back or 'stuwend', as we say in Dutch, (like pushing or in front), you must implement this timing into the subdivisions feel. There's for example also a difference between heavy swing and light swing and this is also shown in the 'groove'...

I'm looking forward to hearing what you think! 
Hug, Merel 

maandag 2 september 2013

When music is work...

Hi there! 

I'm back in business. After an incredibly busy year of conducting, arranging and teaching, I was in need of a big, big break during the last few months. And since I got some new insights out of it, I'd like to share this topic with you. 

When music is work, things can get a little difficult. First, there is a moment or period in your life in which music turns from a hobby into a profession. But that doesn't mean the hobby part is gone! You really have to learn how to keep your balance, and how to decide what's worth spending your time on. For example jam sessions; a lot of fun, but yet another night/moment away from home, and I can imagine in most cases the critical musician in you wants you to be on top of your game, too. Or doing some arranging for friends, students or people you like, while at the same time having a lot of assignments, that pay the bills...

When I look back and evaluate last year, I almost always said yes. There was always some reason to go do this gig, arrangement, workshop, jam, etc. Mostly because I love my work, wanted to help out people and liked having no financial worries. But in the end this didn't work out for me, as I'm sure it wouldn't for anyone. I was exhausted.

Next to that, we now have the possibility to reach out to our college's and friends all the time, thanks to internet, what'sapp, email, facebook, twitter and so on. And thanks to our smartphones and tablets, the information comes in 24 hours a day...

On top of that, I think it's quite a difficult society we live in. Everything is possible, everyone wants to be happy, satisfied with work, healthy. Before you know it, you're working full time, having quality time with family, spending time on social life, sport multiple times a week, take care of pets and maybe children, and on top of that you want to travel, see the world, cook nice food and be 'zen' at the same time. 

So, during the last few months, I've been working on how to improve my lifestyle, evaluating what went wrong. Some simple things that I want to put down for you to read, and as a reminder to myself: 

- Set a goal and make sure every bit of work you do contributes to achieving it;
- Scedule your 'time off' as well, weekly and monthly;
- Change the settings on your phone and tablet, so YOU can decide when you want to work;
- Take time to evaluate.

And of course there's a lot more to say about this subject, but for me this is a start. 
Hope you all enjoyed reading this. Feel free to leave a comment. 

Hugs, Merel 

P.S. Here's me and my cat Henry, this is how I spent a lot of time last months. :-)

zaterdag 8 juni 2013

The power of a cappella

Dear vocal friends, 

a few weeks ago I went to Denmark with the 15 singers of Pitch Control. A trip we had been looking forward to a LOT! :-) From 16-20 may we had an amazing experience in Aarhus for the Aarhus Vocal Festival 2013. Interesting workshops, great concerts and we got selected to compete in the choir competition, with 5 other choirs. 

Since I went to the AAVF 2011 with VOÏSZ vocal projects, I already knew what a great trip our group was going to make. I told the singers the level would be really high, but I guess there's no way you can prepare your singers for concerts with the Real Group, Rajaton, Vocal Line, Voxnorth, and many other amazing groups and singers... Turns out we forgot to take our tissues, and that's definitally a good thing!

I'm not sure what it is that a cappella does, but it unites people. Not only within your own group, but also in general. The hugging starts when you enter the festival venue and everyone's talking about the great a cappella family we're in. To have a drink at the bar with your a cappella heroes, to sing beautiful pieces together with people you've never met before, it's all part of the a cappella culture we all love so much.

Pitch Control had a great first couple of days, and then on saturday night I sent them to bed in time, to prepare for our concerts on sunday. We had a foyer concert in the early afternoon, and I'm pretty sure it opened our eyes a little, because it was oké, but we all knew we had more to give in the late afternoon competition concert. We had an intensive warming up and last rehearsal. We ended with some hugging (why not do it the Danish way;-) and we got on stage to compete. 
I've been a conductor for about 8 years, but I've never felt such an intensive and common focus in a group! Every singer gave it all, and we had an amazing vibe together! This is what you hope will happen, as a conductor!

Sunday night the judges Jonathan Minkoff, Roger Treece, Malene Rigtrup and Ralf Schmitt announced Pitch Control as the winner! We couldn't believe it. We had a really good party that night and we got so much stronger as a group. And of course we are honoured we won the first price, but one thing stands out: we already won when we came off stage. We had such an amazing experience together, and felt so united!! It's the power of a cappella. 

I love my job. 

Hugs, hugs, hugs! 

zondag 12 mei 2013

Hand signals in vocal music!

Something all conductors and vocal teachers should use! 

When I was a student in 'teaching music', I was told many times about the value of teaching without explanation or using too many words. Stuff like, when you teach a simple song, use your hand to show if the melody goes up or down. So usefull! As much for kids as for grown ups! So I'd like to write to you about using these hand signals. They will make a great difference for both you as a choir conductor and your choir itself. 

For example, when you make a circle song or improvisation together, it's key that you shouldn't talk. At least, that's what I tell my singers. While you're making music, that's the language you speak. But of course you have to have some way of communicating and maybe someone has to be in charge. (of course, if you have a small group of well trained musicions, this might be different, bla bla..;-) 
If you make choices together, you could make a performance way more interesting. Like soft/loud, long/short notes, harmonize/unison, solo/tutti, airy/twangy and so on. Whatever the signals are you choose to use, the group will be more focussed and together.

If you have ever had lessons in EVTS (Estille voice training system), you know that there's hand signals for using twang, singing airy, lowering the larynx, etc. To suppport the singing technique, the signals show quite letterly what is happening inside when you make the sound. Like singing breathy or with twang.

(left photo shows the signal for 'breathy/airy')

Of course in some way choir conducting itself is about using signals. Moving signals, that support the melody or phrasing, of course. But also if you introduce a voice or end a phrase, you use some kind of language we all understand. 

Also, if you are performing with a choir/vocal group and you want to remind them of the musical choices that were made in the rehearsals, the signals work perfectly! The singers will be more focussed and will automatically link the sound they have to make to the sign the conductor shows. 

      (right photo shows the signal for singing with 'twang')

I hope this short blog can be of inspiration to you. There's so many signals you can come up with, that can be usefull for you, your choirs and your vocal students. I use them all the time! Can't conduct without them anymore. 

That's it for now, leave a comment if you feel like it! :-)

Best wishes, 

dinsdag 2 april 2013

The substitute conductor

The substitute conductor.

Last week I had another interesting skype session with my personal a capella guru, Peder Karlsson. We talked about a lot of interesting things, off course, and one of them I want to share with you.

Have you, as a conducter, ever worked with a substitute conductor during performances? I recently was asked by the board of one of my choirs if I'd mind if they asked another conductor to lead a performance I wasn't available for. The choir considered it a great opportunity to perform, and was a bit disappointed that I wasn't availabe. My first thought was that I don't think the choir will perform in the same way if I wouldn't be there. But maybe I'm a bit of a control freak or I give myself to many credits, of course...;-) I don't want to deny them any good chance to perform, but I was a bit in doubt.
Anyway, at the same time it might be a good opportunity for the choir to see how well they can perform on their own, and how responsable they feel for the musical choices and energy we always work with. So now the choir can get a chance to be even more active and self controlling, during this performance. 

Of course, it depends on what kind of performance we're talking about. If it's about a short a capella set on some Christmas market, for example, or if it's a well known theater with paying audience. In the first case, of course this wouldn't be a problem. But you know what? It might don't have to be one in the second case as well. In a perfect world the choir would be so well trained and together on this, it's only gonna be an experience where they can all feel more involved. It keeps them awake, and let's them think for themselves. 

My conclusion: let's do it! :-)

Musical wishes, Merel

dinsdag 19 februari 2013

Pitch Control goes and goes!

Hi there,

just a little blog, I really have to learn how to keep writing these posts! Give me some time, I'll get there..

First of all, one of my vocal groups, Pitch Control, posted a recording on youtube. The comments have been quite overwhelming, it's been shared on social media all over Europe, and we're close to 2000 views, already! So thank you for that! In case you missed it, here's the link: 

Then, last sunday, we heard we got selected for the Choir competition on Arhus Vocal Festival 2013, 17-20 may! We're sooooo much looking forward to performing at AAVF, and we're quite proud to be one of the six choirs from Europe that got in! So I guess there will be more posts and info on twitter and facebook the coming months. You can find both Pitch Control and me there as well!

Then last saturday we had a choir festival in the Netherlands, from Balk (the national choir organisation,, and Pitch Control got an invitation to be Top Act at the closing of the festival. So we went to Ulft, in the east of the netherlands, and did a small one hour show! We had the best time, the theater was really cool and I got to hang with my friend June Caravel who I met on the Real Festival in august as one of the single singers. So, I must say I'm proud that my group Pitch Control is doing so well! Hope to see you on one of our concerts soon.

With a lot of positive vibes:

All the best, Merel

zondag 6 januari 2013

The perfect conductor?!

Last month Peder Karlsson and I (Merel Martens) had an interesting skype session about leadership, group dynamics, and more specifically; the role of the conductor.  We all know that ‘being a conductor’ is about so many more aspects then just the conducting itself. A couple of roles that come to mind can be: rehearsal leader, arranger, innovator, planner, motivator, mediator, pianist and so on. In fact, the choir expects you to work magic when it comes to musical decisions, but at the same time you ought to be a good inspirer, be able to work with the social dynamics, have the perfect musical plan, etc.

There are a few aspects that are really interesting to ponder. For example: I learned that the atmosphere during the rehearsal is in fact a reflection of the way the leader is working with the group. Of course this is true. It’s all about giving the group a good vibe! But how about the fact that in between rehearsal items the choir members are so enthusiastic that they start helping each other and talk about the way the piece has to be sung. At first the atmosphere will be positive, because this is something that’s a spontaneous, enthusiastic reaction from the singers. But once the comments and talks begin to bother the rehearsal process, it can also be a bad thing. And is the conductor the only one responsible then? Or think about the rehearsals you’ve had when there was a storm outside. Or the ones where everyone is excited about a gig or about some good news... I think the conductor should mainly be focusing on the musical items, and there should be some clear rules about when you can talk and when you can’t; even if the talking is about the music and the piece. Peder and I came to this conclusion: in the end it should be the responsibility of the singers as well as the conductor to have an inspiring rehearsal.

So maybe you can’t say that the conductor is 100% responsible for the atmosphere during the rehearsal. And how about the musical planning? Should the group decide what way to go with the repertoire and should the conductor just be making musical decisions in an arrangement? Or should the conductor have a clear view of what the choir is able to sing and what path they have to take? Once the choir gives a lot of responsibility to the conductor, it can and will become a lazy group regarding every facet of the collaboration. This is something a conductor should be aware of! All of the singers should be self reflecting from time to time, as well as the conductor. This is important for the musical choices as well as their attitude during the preparation process at home, during the rehearsals, picking out material, etc. In our words: every singer should be ‘in the drivers’ seat’ from time to time. They have to take responsibility for their own car!

Of course this is interesting stuff to think about. It’s not like there’s a perfect way of working, every group is different. That’s what being a conductor is about, and that’s also what makes it interesting! Hopefully this gets you thinking. There will be more questions and insights next time!

Warm, musical wishes from the Netherlands,
Merel Martens (