Author: Sara Cowan

An Interview with Andrea Ramsey: Sara Cowan (Women’s R&R)

I’ve been captivated by the music of Andrea Ramsey for some time.  I find the texts she chooses to be particularly compelling, and the music she writes is beautiful and complex while accessible for young singers. I have attended sessions she gave at national ACDA conferences and I’ve always been impressed.

I decided to reach out to her by email and ask her some questions about her process and her work as both a conductor and a composer. To my delight, she promptly indulged my request. I am struck by how genuine and sincere her responses are.

You can learn more about Andrea Ramsey and find her catalog of works at her website: Andrea Ramsey

How do you choose poetry for your compositions?

Since almost everything I’m writing is commissioned right now, I’m working with those commissioners to learn what they hope to gain from the commissioning experience, any style or mood preferences they have, and details about the choir for which I’m writing.  Once I know those things, I usually have a better framework for what kind of poems might work.  And then I go digging.  I have several books of poetry, a file of “texts I’d like to set” and I often visit used book stores, and receive daily poetry emails to help with the never-ending hunt.  For me, the poem needs to be lyrical in quality or at least adept for being sung.  Not every poem is.  Some poems are stunning, but just don’t cry out to be sung.  Usually the commissioner and I will send one another ideas until we find something that resonates with both of us.  I am very clear at the outset to commissioners that I have to connect with the text.  That’s the one thing for which I’m a true stickler.

I heard a rumor that you have “poetry Tuesdays” with your choir. What is this? What is the effect it has had on your singers?

 This is an idea I stole  from Dr. David Brunner. I can’t take credit. I’m not sure that his day was Tuesday, but when I was at the University of Colorado Boulder, Tuesday seemed to work best as my pianist had to arrive a bit late on Tuesdays due to another class commitment.  I loved the idea of it, and personally, for me, it was born of a post-election desire to inject more beauty into the world.  Initially I think the students were surprised that I was reading the a poem once a week as part of our warm up, but I soon began to see them look forward to it.  Sometimes the students would close their eyes and just absorb it and smile or breathe.  It was a great time.  Now that I’m composing and guest conducting full time, I’ve tried periodically to keep poetry Tuesday alive on my Facebook composer page.

You’ve written some outstanding pieces for girls and women around the theme of women’s empowerment. I’m thinking specifically of “Letter from a Girl to the World,” “Truth”, and “Lineage”. What draws you to this theme, and why do you think this is important for our singers?

Each of these compositions were born a bit differently from one another.  “Letter” was written out of necessity.  I could not find a text for a very special group of students I was teaching, back in my junior high days when I wanted to write a tune for them to perform at our state conference.  At the same time I was textless, our school was doing a push for writing across the curriculum, so after getting help from my English teacher friends, we designed some prompts for them and I carved the text out of their written responses. The empowerment piece was a natural upwelling as a result of their honesty.  Over and over, I saw the same approval themes resurface “Am I good enough? Am I attractive enough? Am I worthy of someone’s love?”
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With Lineage, I just fell in love with Margaret Walker’s words and loved how the imagery conjured memories for me of my own grandmothers, one of whom only achieved an 8th grade education because she had to quit school to pick cotton because her family had become so poor, and the other who raised my dad beautifully as a single mother while also returning to college in the summers to become a teacher. I loved this idea of their strength and mine— knowing I’m standing on their shoulders and benefiting from the strength they have shown.  And then, isn’t it something to just marvel about the beauty of a strong woman, and the different forms those strengths can take!?  We see it in motherhood, in the board room, on the podium, in female leaders in world governments bridging gaps and finding new ways to work with others—everywhere.
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Truth was quite a painful write, just two months after my mother had passed.  I confused a deadline and ended up only having four days to write that piece, so the whole time I was working, I was crying and frustrated because I felt too close to it and knew I didn’t have ample time to let the ideas and the work “settle.”  I returned to themes I knew would resonate with women, and themes that for me personally were near to my relationship with my mother— who always told me I was beautiful and that she loved me.  It was cathartic but I also didn’t look at that work for probably 6-8 months after finishing it because I felt so insecure about what I’d created in that limited time.
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I do believe strongly in empowering young women to believe in themselves and get outside their comfort zones where the growth is.  A huge impact on my way of thinking with regard to this came in my time at Michigan State and my studies with Dr. Sandra Snow. I owe her a great deal for showing me how to take risks and teaching me I was capable of so much more than I believed.

You’ve had great success directing men’s choruses and have written some outstanding pieces for men. What might women conductors need to consider or adjust when working with men’s choruses?

When I was invited to do my first multi-day high school all-state event, it was the Louisiana All-State Men’s Chorus.  I was so nervous. I had no models to look to for that kind of event.  I’d never seen a woman conduct a men’s chorus at that level.  Every model I could draw from was a male conductor whipping a large male chorus into some sort of fraternal frenzy, and I knew I didn’t have that skills set.  One of my male colleagues who was kind enough to listen to me while I was venting my fears simply said to me, “Andrea, just do the music.”  In that moment, I realized I was guilty of projecting some sort of gendered expectation onto that male chorus.  The truth is, whether male or female, we all just want to do the music well, learn some things, and have a positive experience.  I went to Louisiana and did the music.  And this spring when I go to Northwest ACDA to conduct their high school TB honor chorus, I will do the same.  There can be differing energies or paces depending on the group, but in the end, we all honestly just want to do the music.

So You Want to Start a Choral Festival: Sara Cowan (Women’s R&R)

Last month, after only a few weeks of preparation, Georg Getty, David Groth, and I hosted the first ever Omaha Public Schools Men’s Chorus Festival. It was a learning experience for all of us, but it ended up being a mostly successful, if exhausting, event, so as we reflect and evaluate and plan for next year, I thought it might be helpful to jot down our process:

  1. Identify the need. Then focus it.

We started with David’s idea for a men’s chorus festival to boost our male numbers in high school. We tend to lose a lot of men between 8th and 9th grade, so it was important to us that middle school men sing alongside high school men. We considered a 7-12th grade choir, but with so many of our 11th and 12th graders busy with All State and other festivals, honor choirs, show choir, etc., we decided to narrow the event to 7th-10th graders. Since we hatched the idea together at the summer NCDA conference, we decided we would plan and conduct the festival this year, but we wanted it to rotate each year to different schools and teachers in the district.

 

  1. Determine goals and the process for achieving them.

We wanted the singers to perform three pieces, but we did not want teachers to be burdened by preparing these pieces with a select number of students so early in the year, so we decided to teach all three pieces on the day of the festival. This meant the performance was not polished, but we decided early on that it would be a process-oriented event rather than a product-driven one. We also wanted to provide something for our teachers who were supervising, so we planned a professional development session with Patti Fox of Bellevue Public Schools during the festival. We had hoped to invite a community or collegiate men’s ensemble to perform on the concert, but after making contact with several interested ensembles, none were available for our date. The most important stipulation for our event was that it needed to be free to students. This is extremely important in OPS, where we serve a high number of students in poverty. This informed our next step.

 

  1. Write a budget. Acquire funding.

When we wrote down exactly what we wanted to do and what we needed to pay for, we were pleasantly surprised with the way our supervisor, our district, and parents supported us and took up the cause. Our supervisor advocated for subs for all the teachers, busing from every school in the district, octavos, and honorariums for presenters. She was able to reach out to the Omaha Schools Foundation for funding where her budget fell short. We provided dinner and snacks for all of the kids with money we raised from our parent groups at the high school level. We had to scratch some things from the budget, including a t-shirt we were hoping the men would wear for the concert.

 

  1. Get people to come.

I’ll admit, it helped that our supervisor made it pretty clear to all middle and high school teachers in our district that it was essentially an expectation that each school at least try to bring a few students. We asked that schools bring a maximum of 15 students. Out of 19 middle and high schools in the district, 16 brought students—some only 1 or 2 and others 10 or 15. We had 120 men in all. For our first year, this felt like a great number.

 

  1. Plan everything, and get people to help.

I don’t think one or even two of us could have done this on our own. The three of us worked very hard, especially in the week before the event, to plan and make sure things ran smoothly. We wrote a 2-page long detailed schedule of every activity that would take place. One of our best idea (I think Georg gets credit for this) was to schedule 40 minutes of open gym time for the boys after a grueling afternoon of rehearsals. They were definitely ready to blow off some steam! We made a seating chart, printed name tags with voice part, school, and meal preference for each singer, made packets of music and schedules for teachers, and planned like heck. Georg recruited students and parents to help with snack time and dinner time.

 

  1. Be flexible and be prepared to change plans.

Lots of things went wrong. The pieces were challenging to teach in one day. The boys lost focus. They were falling asleep after gym time and were desperate to eat dinner earlier than we had planned. Sectionals were tough. The risers didn’t work the way we’d hoped and they took so long to set up that we completely missed our dress rehearsal (!!!). But that didn’t stop us from having a great time. The men learned, the played, they met new people, and they sang beautifully. Since we didn’t have a guest ensemble and were only singing 3 pieces, we had the guys write testimonials about why they loved singing in choir. This ended up being extremely powerful, and one of my favorite parts of the event. Parents and administrators reported that they were pleased with the event.

 

       7. Reflect

We are in the midst of this now, but we surveyed students and teachers and have gotten a lot of positive feedback as well as some constructive. We’re ready to hand over the reins to some different teachers in the district (the plan was to rotate schools and conductors each year) and equip them with all we’ve learned and everything we would change. I’m proud of what we accomplished with only 2 months of planning, but I know it will be even better next year with some more time and wisdom.

 

Engagement in the Choral Classroom: Sara Cowan (Women’s R&R)

It’s mid-July, which means it’s time to start thinking about the next school year!

If your school is like mine, “engagement” is a word that is tossed around a lot to try and raise student achievement. The choral classroom is a natural place for student engagement, and choral rehearsals already engage students more than the average class. That said, some of the greatest teachers I know have found ways to deepen student engagement in some profound ways. Here are some engagement strategies I’ve stolen from the greats:

  • Give them solos. Not every song has a solo, but any rehearsal can be an opportunity for a student to sing a solo. Have a student or a small group demonstrate singing a phrase, or invite students to rise to the challenge of performing a sight-reading example alone or in a pair. In my freshmen classes, we spend a unit on solo singing, and I’m always surprised by how many students are willing to stand up and sing an art song or folk song in front of the class. It’s character-building and certainly engaging.
  • Have them write. I learn so much about my “quiet” students from the writing prompts I assign. My writing prompts used to be predictable and boring—reflect on the concert, etc. I’ve since branched out and now my students write about a variety of topics, musical and non-musical. Writing can be formal, like a short essay, or informal, like a bulleted list or an “exit ticket”. Reading what my students write teaches me a lot about them and makes me a more effective teacher.
  • Make everyone a section leader. Rotate section leaders, or have one or two students come up front and listen to the group to give feedback. Make one person responsible for listening for and taking notes on one performance element–diction or blend or togetherness. Make one section listen and give feedback to another section.
  • Make them talk. At Central, we had “Kagan Training,” and I try to incorporate a pair-share type of structure at least once a week. Sometimes the questions are about music, sometimes they are just about life. The level of trust, investment, and of course, engagement, increases when they have discussed something with a peer.
  • Start with a problem. This is something I learned from Dr. Sharon Paul’s session at the national ACDA convention. Our brains like solving problems, so giving kids a small “problem” to solve at the beginning of rehearsal or at transitions gets the synapses going in the brain (or something like that. I’m not a scientist…). Instead of saying “Take out ‘Shenandoah'”, say, “Take out the piece in strophic form,” for example. Or instead of “Turn to page 4,” try “Turn to the climax of the piece”, and then introduce a discussion about where students believe the climax might be.
  • Change formations. This is definitely not my strong suit, but I’m trying to remember to change things up once in a while. A simple change in the physical environment can make students a little bit less comfortable and feel different from the routine. It will help them listen and focus differently. Get rid of chairs for a day, or for a week. Switch sections around. Put the back row in the front. Stand in sectional circles or one big circle. Sing in the hallway. I know many teachers with lots of great ideas for changing up the physical environment and getting kids engaged!

 

These are just a few ideas to start, but I know many of you have lots of other brilliant ideas for engagement. Share your ideas in the comments! How do you keep students engaged?