Interview with Emily Crocker, Renowned Composer and Choral Consultant

Emily Holt Crocker has recently been appointed Founder and Music Director Emeritus of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, an organization she established in 1994, by the Board of Directors of Milwaukee Children’s Choir. The choir has received acclaim for performances with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee Ballet, Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, American Choral Directors Association and international choir festivals in Japan and England.

As a composer, Ms. Crocker’s works have been performed around the world. She has received ASCAP awards for concert music since 1986. She is well known for her work in developing choral instructional materials and is author of Experiencing Choral Music, choral textbook series for grades 6-12, published by McGraw-Hill/Glencoe. As a conductor, she has led the Midwinter Children’s Choral Festival in Carnegie Hall and conducted the Milwaukee Pops Orchestra and Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra. In 2002, she was a recipient of the Excellence in Youth Music Award from the Civic Music Association of Milwaukee. 

Here is a brief interview with our notorious contributor to developing young voices around the world ~

DV: First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where were you born? Where did you attend school and study music?

EC: I was born in Fort Worth, Texas and received my primary and secondary education in Fort Worth Public Schools attending Meadowbrook Elementary, Meadowbrook Junior High, and Eastern Hills High School. I did spend 18 months during grades 6-8 in Altus and Weatherford, Oklahoma.

I went on to get a Bachelor of Music Education from University of North Texas and a Master of Arts in Music Theory from Texas Woman’s University. From there, I continued my post graduate studies in Choral Conducting, Choral Literature, Rehearsal Techniques and German from University of North Texas. From 1980-85 I studied Linguistics, and English and American Literature as a secondary teaching field.

DV: What is your first musical memory? 

EC: Hearing Hank Williams singing Hey! Good Lookin’ – What ya got cookin’ on the radio, and then the great singing at my home church, Church of Christ. There was a lot of a cappella singing. I heard 4 part harmony from my earliest years and began to follow the hymn notation from about age 5 or 6

DV: Did anyone in your family sing or play an instrument? Would you say your family was musically inclined?

EC: We were avid players of the radio and record player! My mother sang old songs around the house. My father had played the guitar as a teen.

DV: Did you study an instrument privately when you were young? If so, what and with whom?  

EC: Like every young girl in the 50s, I started piano at age 7 and I was lucky to have a treasure of a teacher, Laura Helen Coupland, who took me through to my high school graduation. Not only did she teach me piano repertoire and technique, she made sure I had a good understanding of music theory, ear training and music history.

DV: Were there any opportunities that came your way that inspired you to take the path of devoting your life to music?

EC: By high school, I was fairly certain that I was going to go into music. I had a number of experiences that were formative. I was selected as the high school drum major, and although I was a small person to be a drum major, I learned a great deal about leadership. In college, I also had the opportunity to tour Asia with an all-girl USO band, which opened my eyes to the wider world and helped me form bonds with other women musicians like myself. I received my music degree from University of North Texas which was a very large music school. This helped me establish myself among my peers and begin charting a career pathway in music.

DV: What were the greatest lessons you learned from your teachers (life lessons or musical) and who were they?

EC: I have had great mentors and teachers throughout my life, even now! I have learned the value of optimism, of humor and of persistence. Any challenge in life can be looked at as a series of steps or actions. Also, you have to advocate for yourself – see yourself where you want to go. That is the first step to getting there!

DV: You have balanced life as a composer, music educator, choral conductor and publicist. Tell us why and how you continued to simultaneously balance all these pursuits.

EC: My position with Hal Leonard Publishing made all the rest possible! I started writing music while still an educator and did that for about 10 years before officially joining the company and moving to Wisconsin. Composing and conducting were more personal goals of mine, and with lots of energy, I was able to combine all these with varying degrees of success. Also, I had lots of help from associates, friends and family and support from my bosses.

DV: In 1994 you formed the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. The Milwaukee Children’s Choir is celebrating its 25th season this year. What inspired you to create this organization? Are there others you would like to recognize that were on “the team”?

EC: Milwaukee had children’s choirs in the past, but for some reason, had not become a part of the children’s choir movement of the 1980s and 90s. One of my bosses at Hal Leonard, Steve Rauch, helped me to organize a group in 1994 based on Henry Leck’s Indianapolis Children’s Choir model. Henry was enormously helpful as well, sharing governance documents and organizational strategies, and although there were differences in our situations, I consider Henry’s initial guidance as crucial. I also was inspired by the writings of Doreen Rao and Jean Ashworth Bartle on children’s choir repertoire and techniques.

I had wonderful collaborating colleagues: Charyl Granatella, Assistant Conductor from the very beginning, Donna Mitchell, our first Accompanist, Ellen Shuler, Assistant Conductor, Sharon Stosur, Accompanist, Amanda Draheim, Accompanist, Maria Koester, Accompanist, Sandy Cristan, Choir Manager, Casey Murphy, Choir Manager, Rob Sholl, member of the Board of Directors, along with Sharon Hansen. 

Other conductors remembered with great fondness: Christopher Peterson, Tina Glander Peterson, Raymond Roberts, Roxanne Miles, Linda Rann – there were tons of choir assistants, other board members & volunteers as well.

DV: What are your greatest memories of Milwaukee Children’s Choir?

EC: We sang wonderful music in beautiful spaces, but my favorite memories are the day to day moments and rehearsal successes, where the music came together and friendships were made and laughter shared.

DV: Did you ever have thoughts about how it would evolve and how it might look today?

EC: Milwaukee Children’s Choir has achieved many of the goals we established in the first 15 years of our existence: high artistic quality, comprehensive graded choirs, recognition as a full-fledged arts organization, school and other outreach programs, and collaboration with other Milwaukee and regional groups. I think that everyone would like to see a enrollment increase and a provision for further opportunities of children with limited means.

DV: You have been an advocate for children’s voices. You have experienced great success as a composer that understands the voice of the child and how to develop it. Can you tell us how the creative process begins for you and what that process is from conception to finished product?

EC: For me, it all starts with song and play. My first years teaching classroom music based on Kodaly principles gave me the opportunity to enjoy making music with children and seeing how song brings learning to life. My first successful arrangements were based on folk songs and the simple techniques employed in Kodaly teaching: ostinato, canon, countermelody. So, as a composer/arranger, I start with the song and develop it outward from that point. I also try to write a piano accompaniment that supports and contributes as an independent voice. My original music comes much the same way, but from a carefully chosen text and a melody that flows naturally from that text.

DV: You served as Choral Editor for Hal Leonard Publishing for more than two decades. Can you tell us a little bit about the work of a choral editor and just what an editor might be looking for – something that can help rising composers understand the criteria for getting published or writing appropriate works for choir?

EC: When I went to Hal Leonard, it was primarily a publisher of pop arrangements, and of course still is. We expanded the types of pop arrangements, leveled from easy to difficult, Broadway, jazz and show. My contributions were of expanding concert music for school groups and upward to the collegiate and professional level. We accomplished this by establishing relationships with important conductors and composers who introduced us to new compositional voices. Some of these include: Moses Hogan, Henry Leck, Rollo Dilworth, Andrea Ramsey, Audrey Snyder, Craig Hella Johnson and more. We also maintained our longterm writers such as Roger Emerson.

My advice for a new writer, would be to carefully examine works published by composers or companies that you admire, analyzing the overall qualities of those works. Then work to develop your own unique, authentic voice, performing your works with your own choirs and asking for input from your friends and colleagues.

As to getting published, try to make a contact with a publisher’s representative. There are also options for self-publishing now that didn’t exist when I started.

DV: What advice would you give to new composers pursuing a career writing for voices and especially children’s voices?

EC: The best way to learn to write for children is to work with children – so find (or start) a children’s choir and see what causes them to light up when they sing.

DV: Can you tell us a little bit about what inspires Emily Crocker?

EC: I enjoy and am inspired by the process. So when I’ve finished a piece or project I’m a little bit at loose ends until I find the next one. I have dozens of ideas on scraps of paper tucked away in a folder, so I have plenty of potential projects!

I am also inspired by the new generation of conductors, composers & educators. Our art is in good hands!

DV: What projects, personal and musical, are next for you?

I’m just finishing up my composing portfolio for the year, just one or two pieces still in progress. I’ll be shifting to a couple of instructional/curriculum projects for the spring. I have a couple of sessions this spring at Illinois MEA (also the elementary girls honor choir) and national ACDA.

DV: In May of 2019, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir will be premiering a commissioned work written by Emily Crocker to celebrate its 25th season and honor its Founding Music Director. 

We wish Ms. Crocker continued success with all of her many endeavors. We hope we are able to enjoy her talents and contributions to the world of choral music for a long time to come.

Lynn Swanson

An Interview with Arietha Lockhart, Award-Winning Soprano ~

“an artist of taste and intelligence with a very beautiful high soprano voice.”                    Robert Shaw

As an active recitalist and concert singer, Arietha is known for her performances of oratorio masterworks and new works by contemporary American composers. She has won numerous awards at various competitions and festivals around the world.

Please enjoy getting to know more about Arietha’s inspiring life ~

DV: First, Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where were you born? Is there a story behind your name? Where did you receive your education?

A: Brewton, Alabama. I was named after my Great Grandmother Reathy.  I am a proud graduate of W.S. Neal High School in East Brewton. I hold a Bachelor and a Master degree in Music Education from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I also have an Education Specialist degree from the University of Georgia.

DV: Tell us something memorable about your family from your childhood.

A: My mother and grandmother sang constantly.  There was a spiritual to get up in the morning Rise, Shine, Give God the Glory, songs while we worked, songs on the way to school, etc…  Mama sang in the church choir so I was there for rehearsals and of course learned all the songs. Even as a little person I sat in the choir each Sunday.

DV: What is your first musical memory?

A: I was four years old and sang It Is No Secret What God Can Do for a church-wide Sunday School program.

DV: Did anyone in your family sing or play an instrument?

A: My father was a tenor with a soloistic voice.  My mother and grandmother were sopranos. I heard singing even before I was born.

DV: How old were you when you began to study privately? What did you study and with whom?

A: I was eight years old when I began studying piano with Mary Hoard.

DV: You have balanced a career as a music educator and as a solo performer? How were you able to navigate through teaching all day and rehearsing/performing at nights and on weekends?

A: I limit my talking during performance weeks. Once I began singing the tiredness faded.  My mantra has always been: Stand erect, hydrate, and rest.

DV: How often do you practice? Do you have a specific basic routine/plan/goals?

A: Depending on what’s coming up, I do lip trills and humming every day for maintenance.  If there are no performances coming up, I rest, listen to the pieces I will be working on and lip trill or hum.

DV: How do you prepare for a performance? I remember when you visited my children’s choirs as Mystery Musician of the Month you told them you began hydrating three months before a performance.

A: When performances are three to six months away, I start by reviewing the music and getting difficult passages in my voice.  I will lip trill the passages, sing legato on vowels, sing staccato and if needed, sing with various rhythms for difficult coloratura passages.

DV: You’ve been able to maintain a healthy and very vibrant voice throughout your career, balancing teaching all day coupled with a busy solo performance schedule. What’s your secret?

A: Almost losing my voice to a vocal node in my first year in Atlanta set me on the path to maintaining vocal gold as Robert Shaw would put it. I began seeing an Ear Nose and Throat Doctor named Dr. Brown.  He said I had the beginnings of a node and that I should maintain silence for six weeks to prevent it from developing.  He told me that the vocal cords vibrate sympathetically. When they are exposed to sounds in my singing range, they will also vibrate. He taught me to value and practice silence.  I worked out a system on my job for non-verbal cues with my classes.  I think this was my secret weapon.  I developed looks (teacher stank eye), lights off for silences, and clapped responses that helped to get the attention of the students. I had a student reader for directions, etc. At home, I turned off all sounds and noises and maintained silence.  When I went back to Dr. Brown for the check up the blister was gone. I haven’t had those issues again.  I kept the idea of limiting my talking during the day and doing lessons that involved listening for the students during performance weeks.   I also have seasonal allergies and like many school teachers have had strep throat a number of times.   I tackled the allergies with medicine for many years noting that even more hydration was needed when I took antihistamines. Now I wash away allergens with saline solution and schedule regular check-ups to ensure my vocal cords are healthy.

DV: How do you manage your nerves just before stepping on stage?

A: I had crippling stage fright in my college years when I was a piano major.  It was very painful to watch and experience.  One day I was assigned to perform a vocal solo on a student recital. That changed everything.  Having only the melody and words to remember was a refreshing change. From then on, my confidence to perform grew.   I believe that it’s important to role play and practice on the stage where the performance will be held.  My experiences over the years with singing Atlanta Symphony Chorus concerts gave me more poise. When I stepped to the front of the stage it didn’t feel strange anymore. Each performance has bolstered my confidence.  For nerves, I do deep breathing. In the preparation process, I mark places in the music where I can find myself if I get lost.

DV: What advice would you give to performers about managing their nerves just before a performance?

A: First, they need to know their characteristics or how nerves affect them.  I have had cotton mouth … too dry, wet mouth… needing to swallow too often…  back spasms from tension, knees knocking, etc….  I found that breathing was the best way to try to keep me calm and I learned to work with the characteristics.   Chewing the tongue gently produces saliva for the dry mouth, taking a hard swallow during a rest wets the mouth, and relaxing the knees and the back to ease spasms are helpful tips.  Wear long skirts or dresses to cover the shaky knees!

Breathing to calm the nerves is great but there is such a thing as over compensating and being too calm. If that’s you, jog in place for a few minutes or take the stairs to the audition or performance hall.

DV: What were the greatest lessons you learned from your teachers?

A: Mary Hoard, elementary teacher: Music is fun.

John Baxter, middle school band director: Playing in the band is a great way to make music.

Bradford Dale, high school piano teacher: Use all of your talents.  He encouraged me to present my senior recital with all my instruments.  I sang and played the flute and piano for the ninety-minute program.

Bradford Gowen:  He taught me to appreciate American Music and composers.  He won an award for his playing of contemporary piano compositions.

Sheryl Cohen: Singing transfers splendidly to the flute. As a result, beauty of tone and musicality happens.

Karen White: “You have facility and colorature!” She encouraged me to continue my studies at the Summer School for the Arts, Chautauqua.

Larry Gerber: “Don’t stop studying voice!  Promise me you will continue.”

Florence Kopleff: She was a task master that held high expectations for performance. I gained confidence knowing that if I could sing for her, I could sing for anyone.

Robert Shaw: “Singing in a chorus can bring the most joy of all and it can offer lasting friendships.” “Amateurs can also be professionals.”

Elizabeth Nohe Colson: “The past should be left in the past or it can steal your future.  Live life for what tomorrow can bring and not for what yesterday has taken away. Every day is a gift.” She taught me to develop an ironclad vocal technique and helped me free my high tones, for which I am known.

DV: Even though I think I know the answer to this, who were your greatest influences in the world of music and what impressions did they make on you?

A: Looking back on my life…  the words “life changing” completely describe my experience when I sang for Robert Shaw. He didn’t care about degrees or titles. He allowed me to be a soloist because he took the time to prepare and coach me on exactly what he wanted out of the music. I was bound and determined to bring all I could to the table.  I believe that my work ethic is what was developed working with him.  If I did not succeed, he would work with me so I might do better the next time.

DV: I know you have been a member of the award-winning Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus for more than three decades. Congratulations! We at the Choral Foundation have always called you the Atlanta’s Sweetheart. It has been a pleasure to have you as principal soloist with the Festival Singers and our Summer Choruses. Is there a particular memory(s) about your performance history with the Choral Foundation that you would like to share?

A: First, I am grateful to Dr. William Baker and the Choral Foundation for inviting me to participate in these marvelous masterpieces that I first explored as a chorister with Robert Shaw.  I think our shared experiences of the Shaw Glory color each performance that we share.  I have enjoyed each and every time I have participated in a Choral Foundation performance.   I think performing the Requiem of Brahms is the most memorable piece for me.  When the Festival Singers performed it both here in Atlanta and in Kansas City, it was the four-hand version. That arrangement has a sound of its own that contrasts nicely from the orchestrated setting.

DV: What is your favorite genre of music or role/solo to perform and why?

A: American Music is my favorite. I love all genres of music. I love performing music that has a meaning to me and to my life today.

DV: What’s left on Arietha’s bucket list (life and singing)?

  • Traveling to places in the world where my ancestors went in the African Diaspora
  • Singing a role at the MET
  • Recording an album
  • Teaching teachers about how to be a teacher
  • More voice recitals

Performing: Barber’s Prayers of Kirkegarde; Brentano Songs,  Strauss.                            Roles:  Another opportunity to sing Zerbinetta and Queen of the Night.

Arietha Lockhart: Mozart’s  Exsultate Jubilate, Lynn Swanson, Conductor.

Ms. Lockhart’s recent performances: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with Summer Singers of Atlanta, William O. Baker, Conductor.

SOLO EXCERPTS: 49:47, 56:30, 1:01:16.

Arietha and pianist Mary Au perform Dr. Sharon Willis’ Love Ritual for the Women’s Work Recital Series in New York.

Arietha and pianist Sunny Knable perform Curtis Bryant’s Laughing Monkeys of Gravity, a realization of the poems of Stephen Bluestone about the Vaudeville characters’ experiences.

Hear Ms. Lockhart’s performances on SoundCloud

Continue reading An Interview with Arietha Lockhart, Award-Winning Soprano ~

PAJAMA MOVES – easy, fun ways to maintain a healthy voice and body

EXERCISE! Thoughts of pain, time, and hassle? It doesn’t have to be that way.

Change the word to MOVEMENT to help you feel good just about all the time.

You don’t need to move your body fast and work hard in order to experience life changing benefits. You do not have to go to the gym, go to a class only offered a certain time of the day. You do not have to buy cute little work-out clothes. The only exercise I do in public is walking, riding my bike and dancing on the impromptu rare occasions I find the opportunity. I have never been able to maintain fighting traffic to get to an exercise class on time in the right clothes and with the water bottle in tow. I want to do it when it is convenient for me and without conversing with others while doing it.

But, why must we move? Because that’s just the way it is. If you don’t find an enjoyable way to keep moving you won’t be able to.

Full realization of singing can be hindered by bodies that are heavier than an optimum weight range. There can be a reduction in strength, endurance and range of mobility in respiratory, laryngeal, and vocal tract coordinations.

Every function of every organ and system in your body is enhanced by body movement. When they are activated, your:
1. Respiratory and circulatory systems deliver more oxygen and glucose to the muscles that enable more cognitive sharpness.
2. Metabolism increases.
3. Glands of the immune systems are better supported and protected(1).

The most important thing is to be consistent and use appropriate movements. This does not have to involve heavy weight lifting, aerobic classes, or even a personal trainer.


Down Dog Yoga App

Down Dog: My absolute favorite app in the world. Love it even more than iBooks!
Best feature: Operator friendly
Important features: FREE!  You can upgrade to choose what kind of music you want and what areas you want to concentrate on. Deals throughout the year as low as $29.99
Beginner to advance. 10 – 60 minute work outs that you can save to repeat.
Nice voice to listen to for an hour.

Sworkit App

Sworkit: Free trial, but then you have to pay to play.
Best feature: Designs 6 week plan for you based on age, gender, weight and skill.
Important features: Offers challenges and quick workouts.


Tai Chi: Chinese martial art practiced for both its defense training and health benefits. The term taiji refers to a philosophy of the forces of yin and yang.
Best feature: Lovely traditional Chinese music in background.
Great features: Written and oral explanation of every move. FREE! But, when you are ready to move to the next level you must upgrade.

Worth checking out online:

Babette Lightner


  • Ease common chronic physical pain such as knee, back and shoulder pain.
  • Shift frustration, anxiety or worry to clarity and calm.
  • Transform effort, strain in moving to light, lively mobility.
  • Experience
  •  Experiencing your current capabilities rather than always try to improve/change.



You don’t need to carve out an hour a day or even a few days a week. You can do small twelve minute sessions of any movement to receive a great benefit. I often do just a twelve minute beginner yoga session before I go to work because I just don’t have the time to do more. Those twelve minutes make a vast difference in my stamina, outlook and focus.

I hope you’ll give it a try!


1). Thurman, L. & Welch, G. (2000). bodymind & voice: foundations of voice education. The VoiceCare Network, USA, Book 3, 639-640.




Ach! The Noise, Noise, Noise!

ZCCC.Shanghai.Decibel.1Digital decibel sign in Shanghai, China

photos and video attached ~

One question I often get from Americans: Is China noisy? Is it noisier than living in the states?

I am amazed that even though I live in midtown Zhuhai, a city of 1 million plus residents, it is very quiet. The only sound I am hearing when the sun comes up is the rooster that lives a couple of blocks away!

As I am out and about, I see no TV monitors in waiting rooms. There are no TVs playing annoying talk shows in hospitals. There are no monitors playing loud music and commercials at gas stations or on buses. There is no Muzak playing in restaurants. One can actually have a conversation with friends, the main reason I dine out. There are large numbers of people just about everywhere I go, but comparatively speaking I experience a more quiet environment than in the states.

We often talk about keeping our voices healthy. But, we forget that this includes protecting our hearing too. Surely, all this constant over-stimulation elevates our blood pressure and causes many other unhealthy responses. For now, let’s stick to how this noise can bring about hearing loss . . .

Any sound above 85 dB (decibels) can cause hearing loss, and the loss is related both to the power of the sound as well as the length of exposure. If you have to raise your voice to be heard by somebody else you are listening to at least an 85-dB sound.

Eight hours of 90-dB sound can cause damage to your ears; any exposure to 140-dB sound causes immediate damage (and causes actual pain).

Environmental Noise

Whisper Quiet Library        30dB

Normal conversation at 3′  60-65dB

City traffic (inside car)         85dB

Jackhammer, 50′                   95dB

Subway train, 200′                 95dB

Power mower, 3′                   107dB

Rock concert                          115dB

Sound Levels of Music
Normal piano practice 60 -70dB
Fortissimo Singer, 3′ 70dB
Chamber music, small auditorium 75 – 85dB
Piano Fortissimo 84 – 103dB
Violin 82 – 92dB
Cello 85 -111dB
Oboe 95-112dB
Flute 92 -103dB
Piccolo 90 -106dB
Clarinet 85 – 114dB
French horn 90 – 106dB
Trombone 85 – 114dB
Tympani & bass drum 106dB
Walkman on 5/10 94dB
Symphonic music peak 120 – 137dB
Amplifier, rock, 4-6′ 120dB
Rock music peak 150dB

The incidence of hearing loss in classical musicians has been estimated at 4  – 43%, in rock musicians 13 – 30%.

Statistics for the Decibel (Loudness) Comparison Chart were taken from a study by Marshall Chasin, M.Sc., Aud(C), FAAA, Centre for Human Performance & Health, Ontario, Canada.

What Can You Do?

Since voices tend to produce a more pressed phonation –

  • Avoid talking over noise whenever possible. Turn off the fan, buzzing lights, computers, etc. when talking.
  • Wear an earplug in at least one ear. It can help your voice avoid speaking too loudly.
  • When you can, use sound makers (whistles, hand claps, etc.) rather than a loud voice.
  • Use personal amplification or room amplification when coaching or teaching to minimize voice overuse:  /
  • Avoid loud public spaces, especially places where amplification is over-used.
  • Search out restaurants where acoustics are kind to the ear. I find Asian restaurants to be more considerate in this regard.
  • Get intentional about it! Encourage a quiet household by lowering your voice, take turns talking, keeping the TV and music speakers at a comfortable level, schedule a silent time every day, move away from loud sounds and closer to the person to whom you are speaking.


What else can you do as a teacher?

  • Talk to your administrators about the importance of classroom acoustics adding acoustic panels to the ceiling and walls and carpeting to the floors. These materials help decrease the reverberation or echo of sound in the room.
  • Minimize the noise from fans, lights, overhead projectors, and sound coming from other classes especially while teaching.

Continue reading Ach! The Noise, Noise, Noise!

The Mountains We Climb Are Worth It!

Photos and video attached.

I am only now coming to understand what I wish I had known before our first women’s choir rehearsal at the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies in Zhuhai, China.

I began rehearsals with them with little to no understanding of the Chinese culture and spoken language. Before our first rehearsal in September, I only knew some women were coming to the Centre for Choral Studies to learn how to sing classical music. I assumed they could speak English since they were in a British choral setting. I assumed they had sung before and would easily model the singing I demonstrated. I assumed that my pedagogical approach in the states would transfer easily to China. What a lesson this has been! I can’t remember the last time I taught a first ever introduction to music theory to an audience that had never seen or even experienced classical music. Nor can I remember the last time I taught someone that had never sung in a choir before or studied privately. I know I have never given a singing lesson to someone that did not speak my language.

Unless you expect to have a painful go at repetitive rote singing, music theory must be a part of the curriculum even for a community choir. Repertoire must be selected that reinforces the theory. After a couple of weeks of wrapping my head around all of this, we changed our approach and began to connect the theory directly to music sight-singing exercises and then transferring that knowledge to our carefully selected repertoire. The first half hour of our rehearsal is spent understanding how the twelve-tone system is constructed and notated as written in classical music.

But, in order to be truly effective, I needed a more thorough understanding of the culture and history of the arts throughout China.  I assumed since so many Chinese children play piano, that they learn from the system that consists of staves with five lines and four spaces, treble and bass clefs, and designated note values. However, most are learning the twelve-tone system through simplified music notation called jianpu. Even children studying piano, play from these scores rather than the commonly used system in the west.

Doing a little research, I found that traditional Chinese instruments used a notation called Gongche. Many of the ancient instruments were stringed instruments and had anywhere from 4 – 50 strings.

IMG_2204(1)Yangtin, 22 strings ~ found in a Shanghai music store that leases practice/teaching space.

The Gongche notation did not mark the relative length of notes. Instead, it marked the percussion intended to be played at regular intervals, written alongside the notes. Gongche is notated in the same format as traditional spoken Chinese: top to bottom and then right to left. The rhythm marks are written to the right of the note characters and are actually left open to the artist’s interpretation. Because of this free licensing, variations among different traditions increased the difficulty of maintaining this system to present day.






Jianpu 1 2 3 (4) 5 6 (7)
Movable “do do re mi (between fa and fa♯) sol la (between ti♭ and ti)

Now, with the introduction of the violin and other stringed instruments including the piano, the numbered musical notation system jianpu is used. It is not only used in various parts of Asia but even in the United States and other European countries. If one attended a piano class taught here, you most likely would see a score that looked like this:

|1·  1·  |1  23·  |   Row, Row, Row Your Boat

|1 1 5 5 |6 6 5 – | Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

From seeing this, you would understand that 1 is do. The punctuation that follows defines the rhythm:

Whole note: 1 – – –  Half note: 1 –                   Quarter note: 1               Dotted quarter: 1·

Eighth note: 1        Dotted eighth: 1·             Sixteenth note: 1

Dotted sixteenth: 1

If a chord is notated, the numbers are stacked (lowest note on the bottom). Can you imagine how a Bach trio sonata be notated? Exactly.

Thankfully, in addition to the eight choirs offered at the choral centre, separate theory classes are made available to everyone. These theory classes use curriculum of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, levels one through eight.

About forty women in the beginning choir and eighteen women in the intermediate choir come once a week not only to learn a new musical language, but to sing in English, Latin and German. About half of the women in the intermediate choir come a second night of the week and devote an additional two hours to theory. Can you imagine committing yourself at this level to learn so much NEW? But, the singing of this music moves them in ways even they cannot articulate. You can see their hearts melt and their minds grow when they hear a piece like Franck’s Panis Angelicus, in Latin. They want to sing it over and over again.

I have to say, this is not the only mountain we climb every week. There are many vocal productions issues because of the required pronunciations of Chinese. The language wreaks havoc on the voice. Most onsets are glottal. Because of the third tone, vocal frye has a strong presence in their sound. Anyone that knows me, knows I can’t tolerate suppressed larynges! Because the four tones are used, inflection of the musical text is completely overlooked which makes phrasing, dynamics and syllabic stress non-existent.

Still, I can’t believe there are women in the south of China that love singing this music as much as I do. They learn many new concepts every week and practice in the interim so they are sure to get it right. Our steps are baby steps, but the steps are moving in the right direction. It is a pleasure to share what I know with others that are thirsty to learn.

Oh! Did I tell you we begin singing rehearsal with something we used to do in high school chorus? Line up for your shoulder massage! We make a long train and massage each other’s shoulders adding a chop at the end. I don’t think we do that anymore in the US. I know, personal space is important.


Their latest gem is John Dowland’s Come Again, Sweet Love which I hope to post soon.


Swanson, L. 10.9.2017. China Photo Library.