Mark A. Boyle

The Web Presence of Dr. Mark A. Boyle, Conductor, Tenor, Composer, and Poet. Here you will find recordings, scores, video clips, and information about Mark A. Boyle, Director of Choral Activities at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA.

ABOUT ME
  • CONDUCTOR/TENOR

    CONDUCTOR/TENOR

  • COMPOSER/POET

    COMPOSER/POET

CONDUCTOR

CONDUCTOR

In addition to his duties at Seton Hill, Dr. Boyle is an active guest conductor at many county, district, and regional choral festivals. Most recently, he was a guest conductor for the 59th Annual Ocean Grove Choral Festival, the largest festival of its kind, featuring a choir of well over 600 people.
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TENOR

TENOR

Boyle, a powerful lyric tenor, is sought after as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the country. He has performed as a soloist with the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, The Riverside Choral Society of New York City, and Fuma Sacra.
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COMPOSER

COMPOSER

Boyle's choral works have been performed across the country by community, church, high school, and college choirs. He finds inspiration in the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Peter Hallock, and 17th century Baroque masters. Here you will find examples of his work.
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POET

POET

Boyle has been writing poetry for many years and has enjoyed a long collaboration with composer Peter de Mets. To date, they have produced 9 pieces. Classic forms and open structure are both found in Boyle's poetry. He is currently working on his first libretto, dealing with the life of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII.
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A Family Mystery – Almost solved

About two years ago, I became seriously interested in genealogy and started down the rabbit hole of research. I would stay up until 2 and 3 in the morning. I began to feel that my ancestors were calling to me so that I might know them. After making some exciting discoveries through some creative detective work my research stalled. Still craving the chase, I offered to help my friend and writing partner, Peter de Mets, research his family. That’s a post for another day. Next, came my wife’s family and the challenge of a mystery everyone has wondered about for years.

My wife’s mother, Carol, never knew her birth father. It was 1949 and Carol’s mother, Erma, was 18. As we all can attest, 18 year old judgment isn’t always the best.

The unknown father

The unknown father

Through a youthful encounter, a pregnancy resulted, and the father was not informed for one reason or another. Contact was lost. He was most likely from a neighboring state. As time passed, memories faded. Carol was raised by a wonderful man who loved her dearly. He passed in 1991. As one might imagine, she has always wondered who her birth father was.

As part of my journey, I had my DNA tested through Ancestry.com. These tests give you a basic ethnicity estimate and connect you to others who have taken the test to whom you may be genetically linked. Ancestry also provides an estimate as to how you might be related. This is done with some fancy math and is based on degrees of affinity.

My ethnicity estimate

My ethnicity estimate

I connected with a couple distant cousins and learned that most likely my Irish family has been in Ireland for centuries. It was fascinating. I decided to have Jane, my wife tested. I thought it might provide some insight into the full quarter of Jane’s ancestry which was blank. You see, I had researched Jane’s family back quite far, in one case, back to 1500 and just before. A great deal of her family history was contained in a book researched with primary source material. The big hole in the tree was driving me crazy!

A well-researched family history

A well-researched family history – containing close to 4000 names!

I didn’t assume we’d find Jane’s maternal grandfather; the chances of that were pretty slim. Someone from his family would have had to take the test, be close enough genetically to show up in the results, and be close enough to easily find the connection. When Jane’s test results came, we we were completely surprised – there was a predicted 2nd cousin match and upon contacting the person, we discovered that the surname did not match any of the three very well-researched family lines. This person HAD to be related to the unknown father. We found the family of Carol’s father!

The hole - and the other researched lines

The hole indicated by the red X – and the other researched lines

The family has been absolutely amazing in joining the hunt for Carol’s father. The next steps included having Carol tested, as well as the parents of the initial match – we’ll call him ED. As you might imagine, the results of those tests further confirmed the connection. Ancestry predicted ED’s father to be Carol’s 1st cousin. Actually, the results may indicate something closer, like half siblings. We are still exploring that.

So…where are we? With the generous and compassionate help of the matching family, we have narrowed possible fathers down to either ED’s father or one of his 5 brothers. Sadly, all but one of these men have passed. We’ll need to do some more detective work and possibly a couple more tests to completely solve the mystery.

It’s amazing how many things worked out in our favor – a close match, a kind and willing family who are just as excited as we are to figure this out, and geographical proximity – we’ll actually be able to connect Carol with her birth father’s family when all is said and done.

Isn’t science wonderful? If you are curious about genealogy research, check out these sites:

www.ancestry.com – A commercial site that provides several levels of membership – no long term commitments – free trial available.

www.familysearch.org – A free site operated by the LDS Church.

www.libertyellisfoundation.org – The Ellis Island Foundation – did your ancestors come through Ellis Island? There is a searchable database here – free membership is required.

www.usgenweb.org – The US GenWeb Project – a free genealogy resource.

www.geni.com – Geni, part of My Heritage – another free site with some premium content.

 

Love, Loss, and Choral Music

The choral world has lost a special person this week. Masha Owens, choral director at Trinity High School, passed away in her sleep earlier this week. Marsha helped set the tone for my inclusion into the Western PA Choral Family, inviting me to conduct the Mucho Macho Choral Festival and giving me my first chance to be part of a local choral event.

What a smile...

What a smile…

She was warm, kind, and beloved by her friends, colleagues, and particularly her students. One of her former students is currently a student at Seton Hill and is in my voice studio. When I saw this student for her lesson, I could tell she was not herself. I asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’m just really upset about Ms. Owens.”

This made me think about a loss in my musical life. Here’s a reprint of an editorial I wrote several years ago when Lynn Reece passed away.

 


Lynn was very young and incredibly healthy, yet in the blink of an eye, she was gone.

Lynn Reece

Lynn Reece

We had to rehearse the Monday after she left us and it was just terrible. Our family, our collective soul, had a hole in it. I sat next to Lynn for 4 years, and that night, sitting next to an empty chair with a rose in her place, was immensely difficult. The passion that I have for our art carries over to the people with whom I make music – I couldn’t look at any of them without weeping [I literally keep my head hunched forward, staring at the floor]. At the memorial service, Masterworks Chorale performed at the family’s request. Lynn’s husband was my physician. He was left with 4 kids – one in each level of school from elementary to college. After we finished singing Handel’s “Hallelujah,” I had to feel the edge of the altar steps with my foot because I couldn’t see them through the tears.

I was overwhelmed with emotion. For the next week I was unable to sing without crying. My colleagues at BSU showed a great deal of compassion, constantly asking if I was alright.

I was alright. I was exactly how I needed to be. I was experiencing the loss of a friend, a fine musician – one I had the privilege to conduct regularly. This friendship was so entwined with my passion for our art, it just made perfect sense that my ability to sing, to bring black dots to life, to recreate a piece of choral music, that part of me was mourning as well. It needed to happen. I had to remind myself that Lynn had affected me with her smile, her kindness, her laughter, and her music. We are involved in a corporate art. We make music together. Together, as a family, we bring those little black dots to life. It made perfect sense that the corporate nature of our art would suffer the loss and mourn Lynn’s death.

Lynn and I before rehearsal

Lynn and I before rehearsal

There is no time frame for mourning. I will always miss Lynn. The Chorale continues to corporately mourn for her. Yet…the music…the art that brought all of these different people together could not remain stifled for long. Now we sing because Lynn always reminded us that we could affect people with our song. We could make our audience laugh or feel anguish; shift in their seats or lean forward in excitement. We could fill them with infectious joy – we could even make them weep. This is why we do what we do…and why the loss of one of our singers is always connected to our music making…and that, friends, is a gift. I will be in Lynn’s debt for the rest of my life for reminding me how precious our art is.

I miss you, Lynn.

 

 


 

Mourning the loss of Marsha will take many forms for many people; her students might find it hard to make music for a bit – but eventually, music will be the way they honor her memory, how they celebrate her life.

We are so fortunate to be connected to each other by this magical thing we call music. Hold each other close. Sing. Sing with unending passion so that your audiences and your fellow musicians know you love them. Run toward love singing all the while.

Self Awareness: Part II

The Definition of Self Awareness: The Choral Singer

When last we left The Definition, I wrote about its usefulness for the conductor. To review, here is The Definition as our two sons have memorized it:

  1. Always know what’s going on around you.
  2. Always know how your choices affect other people.
  3. Don’t be a jerk.

We created The Definition and had our sons memorize it as a sort of in loco parentis mantra that would play over and over in our kids’s minds when we weren’t around. When faced with a choice in their daily lives, we truly hope they start with The Definition. I quickly realized that it could be applied in my own life and in rehearsals. I then added it to my ensemble syllabi. So how can the definition be used by choristers, before rehearsal, during rehearsal, and after rehearsal? Let’s break it down.

1. Always know what’s going on around you.

Good advice - in many situations.

Good advice – in many situations.

 

 

 

 

 

Before

As we prepare for a rehearsal, it’s beneficial to practice our music. Obvious advice. But what about picking the right time to practice? The right place? Do you have roommates? Kids? Partners? Spouses? Pets? Facebook? Finding a time when you can be free of distractions is so important to the practice process. Awareness and time management go far to minimize wasted moments.

Get to know your music as a listener as well. This is incredibly beneficial to the preparation process. And translate your texts. Know what they mean. That will have a tremendous effect on you ability to connect to the pieces you perform.

During

As we rehearse, knowing what’s going on around you is possibly the most important thing you can do. Is the conductor talking to another section yet the instructions will apply to you because you have the same music on the next page? Are you listening to act? If focus in rehearsal can be at the level at which the conductor only has to repeat information for clarification, not basic points, so much time can be saved. as a conductor, I truly despise having to repeat information, especially simple things like where we are starting. Know what’s going on around you. Listen to act.

Are you balancing? Can you hear other voices? Can you hear other sections? Do you understand how your part fits into the greater musical picture? Sing with your ears and you always have a better chance on knowing what’s going on around you.

After

How well did you listen during rehearsal? If you were truly self-aware and in the moment. you’ll know exactly what you need to look at when you practice before the next rehearsal. As a chorister, I always dissect my contribution to a rehearsal. Did I aid in the communal cause? Did my pitch suffer because I wasn’t listening to act? Did my sense of ensemble suffer because I failed to sing with my ears? What did I do well? What can I improve? The goal is to be better tomorrow than I was today.

Next time…2. Always know how your choices affect other people.

Acid Reflux Redux Part 1: A Singer’s Journey

In 2007, my voice had lost its shimmer. Stamina was gone. I lost the top of my range. Previous to this, while working regularly in a studio with Dr. Mei Zhong (before her, Jeff Ballard), I was singing full voice Ds and occasional E-flats. It had all disappeared. I could sing full for about 30 minutes before things just gave out. It really was awful. In addition, I had the following chronic issues:

  • A dry, unproductive cough – constant, even during the night.
  • Increased mucus on the folds when I woke up in the morning.
  • A need to clear my throat
  • Globus pharyngis – feeling like there’s a lump in the throat
  • Chronic hoarseness

It was annoying. And let me tell you, I am one of those people who resists going to the doctor until things are at their worst – not the best call. The one symptom I didn’t have was heartburn, so I never considered that I had an acid reflux issue.

First Steps

I decided I had to do something to I went to the Speech Language Pathology Clinic at Ball State University. They offered free screenings to employees and students; I was both. This included an assessment and a laryngoscopy – a procedure that involved (in my case) putting a rigid videoscope in my mouth to visually assess the status of my larynx and associated structures. Here’s what a rigid laryngoscope looks like:

A rigid laryngoscope

A rigid laryngoscope

At the end of the rod is a camera and a strobe light. The technician places a microphone on your neck near your larynx and the strobe light flashes at a rate based on the frequency you produce. The effect on camera is that the folds appear to be vibrating much slower than they actually are. If there is a muscular or function problem, it’s much easier to diagnose this way. The other laryngoscope is the flexible model, which is snaked through the nose and then the nasopharynx. A typical video might look like this:

Upon viewing my folds, the technician said, “Wow – that looks angry!” Now, that’s not something you want to hear. They referred me to Rebecca Risser, who then was at Performance Voice Solutions in Carmel, Indiana. This visit changed my life. What would happen next was quite revelatory for me and for private students I would teach years after the fact. The things I would learn from Rebecca would have a profound effect on my career as a conductor, teacher, and a singer.

Next…a view of my folds and a lifestyle change. Stay tuned!

A Poet’s Dream

The Concordia Singers

The Concordia Singers during rehearsal in State College, PA

On Saturday, February 14th, 2015, I spent some time with the Concordia Singers of the Nittany Valley Children’s Choir. The group is conducted by Artistic Director Lou Ann Shafer with her husband, Tim Shafer serving as collaborative pianist. I joined dear friend and composer, Joe Gregorio for this visit. We were there to hear them rehearse The Hall, a choral work composed by Joe, setting my poem of the same name. It was a tremendous experience. The young musicians performed with such exquisite technique and beauty. We answered questions. We asked questions. They shared a bit of their collective soul with us. We shared endless smiles and full hearts. We communicated with each other through words and music.

Lou Ann Shafer - choral music educator extraordinaire

Lou Ann Shafer – choral music educator extraordinaire

The Hall finds its genesis in a message from Joe. He had received a commission from Lou Ann and the Concordia Singers for a new piece to be premiered at the 2015 ACDA National Convention later this month. After trying out a few other texts, Joe contacted me, asking of I had any loose poems floating around. Upon learning that the work was to be written for a group that was primarily middle school and high school age singers, I decided to write something fresh – something that attempted to capture the high school experience. The best advice a writer can heed is to write what you know. Now, my high school experience wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t all lollipops and rainbows either. I spent most of my free time in the safety of the choral room with my fellow choir geeks, talking about show tunes and planning big things. I remembered that there was this kid that sat outside the choir room and would make fun of me whenever our paths would cross. That wasn’t fun. But then I remembered a Facebook message I received six years ago from a fellow student who was in my social periphery. She was quiet and pretty much existed in the shadows. I do remember saying “hi” to her when I saw her in the hall – simple, little interactions. In her second message, she wrote:

“Somehow I always remembered you from time to time after those years had passed. You were kind’ve a bright spot in those days.”

I remember reading that message and thinking that you just don’t know how your actions – offhand cruelty, simple acknowledgement, indifference – might affect a fellow traveler. And that’s where the poem started. Students spilling out of one class into the social obstacle course that is the hallway. I used the image of the hall as an allegory for the larger high school (and really life’s) journey. The crux of the poem was captured in a recent message sent to me by one of the Concordia Singers:

It has definitely matched my high school experience of worrying what people think of you when you travel through the hall or checking your phone every hour to see who has liked your photo. I have realized, however, that none of that matters in the end through your poem. Through compassion and being kind to others, you can make a difference in their life and that is what someone will remember you for not for your looks or Instagram posts…You really exhibited perfectly what high school is in your poem and I am so lucky to be able to sing your words.

- Anna H., Concordia Singer

She nailed it – and I was so appreciative that she took the time to share her thoughts with me; how rewarding to know that my words rang true with her! One young student who sings with this auditioned group said, “I’m in elementary school – so I don’t get this poem.” My response? “Good.” Her life hasn’t been touched by cliques and castes to the point of stress and social strain. I hope she never experiences The Hall’s gavel, judgement, and jury or peers. And if she does, it’s my hope that she is able remember the poem and understand that everyone is on different but parallel journeys; compassion trumps judgement.

Joe works with Lou Ann, Tim, and the Singers

Joe works with Lou Ann, Tim, and the Singers

During the rehearsal, in which Lou Ann, Tim, and the musicians incorporated suggestions from both Joe and me with aplomb, one young woman, Shannon, shared a bit about the piece and how the poem had tweaked her perspective:

“I think about the text often, especially at school. It’s really changed the way I look at things.”

- Shannon R., Concordia Singer

There was a beat of silence; I got a bit teary. Joe looked at me and said, “Well…your work is done.” Indeed. To learn, in the moment, while sharing music and text through this incredible thing we call choral singing, that my poem reached a fellow human and affected how she sees the world – well, friends, that is the dream of every artist – to learn that her or his work has lifted a veil and shifted how one sees the world. That’s this poet’s dream. And thanks to this amazing collaboration with composer, choir, pianist, and conductor, my dream has been realized.

Congratulations, Concordia Singers! See you in Salt Lake City!

The musicians rehearse with great attentiveness

The musicians rehearse with great attentiveness

Monteverdi and Quasi-meta References

I have the good fortune of continuing a career as a professional chorister. I love conducting and solo work, but singing in choirs helps remind me what it’s like to be on the other side of the podium and frankly, makes me a better conductor. Like leading choirs, its incredibly rewarding in a different, yet complimentary way.

You know you want to come

You know you want to come

Next month, I will join JD Burnett, a friend and colleague, and Kinnara Ensemble for the upcoming concert series Lament. It promises to be something very special. The musicians that make up this fine choir come from all over the country and sing with some of the top professional choirs working today. We’ll spend a week together in Princeton rehearsing for three concerts. Click the poster to enlarge and check the dates, times, and locations!

I recently received the music for this project and I could not be more excited. Included in a list of amazing music is Claudio Monteverdi’s Sestino or Lagrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’amata (The Tears of the lover at the tomb of the beloved). This extended madrigal comes to us from the Sixth Book, finished sometime after 1610 and published in 1614. Sestino is so named for the poetic form of the text, written by Scipione Agnelli. I want to comment on this incredibly complex form, but first…

Claudio Monteverdi - I'd have this beard if my wife let me

Claudio Monteverdi – I’d have this beard if my wife let me

One of the other pieces in this collection is a five voice arrangement of Lamento d’Arianna. This comes from the lost opera, L’Arianna, which tells the story of Ariadne and her abandonment by Theseus. The Lament is all that remains of the music; the complete libretto survives (remember this from Music History?). Monteverdi wrote the role of Arianna for his student, Caterina Martinelli. Sadly, she would die of smallpox before the premiere. Grieved by the loss of Caterina, Monteverdi composed Sestino in her memory. Now for the fun part…

In the fifth part of the madrigal, Monteverdi quotes the opening line from the Lamento, referencing the work that laments the coming death of Arianna (the role Martinelli was to play) in a work written as a lament for Martinelli. That’s a mind full. Here’s the opening of Lamento (also known as Lasciatemi morire):

Note the intervals

Lamento d’Arianna – Note the intervals

The opening melodic statement is an ascending minor 2nd followed by a downward leap of a perfect 4th, resolving down by half step. The line eventually ends on the 1st scale degree in the next phrase. Now, take a look at this moment from Sestino:

Seem's like a quote to me!

The top line of the fifth part of Sestino, mm. 27-30. Seems like a quote to me!

Look familiar? While it’s in a different tonal center, for this melodic fragment to occur at the moment when the text screams “Ah me? [Who can thee] hide?” – well, it’s just too perfect. Monteverdi “hides” the fragment from Arianna’s lament in this lament for Caterina. What’s more, Monteverdi adjusts the word order to heighten the tension. It’s masterfully done. Here’s a video (not the best) of this section:


The Sestino: 6 Stanzas, 6 Lines, Six Words – in the Sixth Book

The sestino is very strict form of six stanzas, each with six lines, followed by a final three line stanza. This last stanza is called an envoi and in this case, comments on the preceding poetic content. The form dictates rules as to how the words that end each of the first six lines are used to end lines in subsequent stanzas in a preset cycle. Crazy, huh? Here are the first two stanzas so you can see what I mean…

Incenerite spoglie, avara tomba
Fatta del mio bel sol terreno Cielo.
Ahi lasso! I’vegno ad inchinarvi in terra!
Con voi chius’ è il mio cor’ amarmi in seno
E notte e giorno vive in pianto,
In foco, in duol’ in ira il tormentato Glauco.

O ashes of my beloved, the stingy tomb
illumined by my earthly sun is now my heaven.
Alas, I grieve. I come to bury you in the earth.
My heart is buried with thee as my love is buried within my breast.
And night and day lives in tears,
in fire, in pain, in bitterness and torment, oh Glauco.

Ditelo, o fiumi, e voi ch’ udiste Glauco:
L’aria ferir di grida in su la tomba
Erme campagne, e’l san le Ninfe e’l Cielo;
A me fu cibo il duol, bevanda il pianto,
Poi ch’il mio ben copri gelida terra,
Letto o sasso felice il tuo bel seno.

O rivers and you who hear Glauco,
rend the air with cries over this tomb
and barren fields, cries heard only by the Nymphs and the skies.
For food – anguish, and drink - tears.
since my beloved has been covered by frozen earth
rocks are my bed where I dream of your beautiful breast.

Do you see what Agnelli did?  He took the final word ending order of the first stanza, 123456, and rearranged it to 612534. This continues through the remaining stanzas; the envoi uses all six ending words, both internally and as endings:

Cedano al pianto i detti amato seno
A te dia pace il Ciel, pace a te Glauco
Prega honorata tomba e sacra terra

Let words yield to tears, beloved heart.
Let heaven give thee peace and peace to Glauco,
praying at thy honored tomb and sacred earth.

This is quite challenging for the poet and presents some interesting opportunities for a composer choosing to set the text which possess so many repeated words. Monteverdi does so with great sensitivity to the pain and sadness dwelling in these lines. I am looking forward to bringing this masterpiece to life!

1809: Felix Mendelssohn

Imagine you are a successful banker. You and your older brother run one of the most important banks in all of Europe. Now imagine, that even with all that success you still exist in the shadow of your father. Now – imagine that your son becomes one of the most well known composers of his day. Abraham Mendelssohn lived this life. At one time he purportedly remarked to a friend, “Once I was the son of a famous father, now I am the father of a famous son.” On this date in 1809, that son, Felix Mendelssohn, was born.

Felix Mendelssohn - looking rather serious.

Felix Mendelssohn – looking rather serious.

Mendelssohn displayed musical abilities early in life, much like Mozart. He would be influenced by the counterpoint of J. S. Bach, studying from a young age with Carl Friedrich Zelter who exposed the young composer to the Leipzig master’s work. Zelter would write to his friend, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, bragging about Mendelssohn’s skill.

During his life, Mendelssohn wrote in just about every musical genre, though he had a special fondness for chamber music, song, and piano literature. His Octet, Op. 20 was written when he was 16 years old.

For me, one of the most important aspects of Mendelssohn was his interest in the music of

J. S. Bach

J. S. Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach, specifically the St. Matthew Passion, a work that had basically fallen into memory. In 1823, Mendelssohn’s grandmother, Bella Salomon, gave him a copy of the score for Christmas. The actor and baritone, Eduard Devrient tells the story of inspiring the famous 1829 revival performance of BWV 244 which Mendelssohn conducted:

 

     I could not let the matter rest. One evening in January 1829, after we had gone through the entire first part…we had all gone home profoundly impressed, a restless night brought ,e counsel as to how a performance night be brought about. I waited impatiently for the late winter dawn to break; Therese [Eduard’s wife] encouraged me, and so I set out to see Felix.

He was still asleep. I was going away when his brother Paul suggested that it was quite time to wake him… Paul took hold of him under the arms and raised him, calling out, “Wake, Felix, it is eight o’clock.”…Now Felix opened his eyes wide and, perceiving me, said in his usual pleasant way, “Why Eduard, where do you come from?” I now told him that I had something to discuss with him.

…I now roundly told him that during the night I had determined to have the Passion publicly given, at the Singakademie, and that in the course of the next few months, before his intended journey to England.

He laughed. “And who is going to conduct?”

“You.”

– The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents

This account was written by Devrient many years after the fact and most likely has a touch of 19th Century romanticism to it. Still, this performance, in which Devrient sang the role of Christ, did revive the work which has enjoyed a permanent place in the choral-orchestral repertory ever since. Mendelssohn’s oratorios were influenced by Bach and more so, Handel. One of my favorite Mendelssohn moments occurs in Elijah and makes me want to be a baritone. After Elijah has vanquished the priests of Baal, King Ahab and his foreign Queen, Jezebel, continue to worship Baal and vow to kill Elijah. The prophet flees to the dessert and begs God to take his life in the powerful aria, “It is enough.”

Doreen Fryling Helps Gov. Cuomo: Teacher Evals and Standardized Tests

Doreen Scott Fryling - she doesn't wear her teacher super hero cape in public

Doreen Scott Fryling – she doesn’t wear her teacher super hero cape in public

This is Doreen Fryling. Doreen is a doctoral candidate, a music teacher, a professor, a performer, a mom, a wife, and a friend. She is a crusader for common sense approaches to teacher evaluation and solid pedagogy in the music classroom. Many states are seeking to tie teacher evaluation to standardized tests — among them is New York, Doreen’s home and place of employment. There are many reasons why this is not a good idea. I’m not sure anyone could frame the debate better than Doreen did in her letter to NY Governor Andrew Cuomo.

True discourse happens in letters such as these. They are few and far between. We are bombarded with sound bites designed to incite filterless emotional responses rather than well-reasoned dialogue. Intelligent, researched, and elegant discourse, devoid of what the NY Times Glyn Maxell might call the “first-person ‘I'” used “as one’s little stick to shake”, Ms. Scott’s letter grew organically out of a career dedicated to quality teaching; her “I” is a well informed baton held by a master educator. Quality of this sort often gets lost in the din of talking heads spewing 4 word axioms. I’m signal boosting. Take some time to read this – you’ll be glad you did.


Dear Governor Cuomo,

I am compelled to write to you regarding your proposed changes to the New York State Teacher Evaluations. This letter is an attempt to offer you a teacher’s perspective of your new evaluation proposal.  I have been impressed by your willingness to explore multiple perspectives on other issues facing the people in the great State of New York.  I write with the hope that you are indeed a reasonable leader who really does have good intentions.  I offer this letter publicly because I believe it is an opportunity to inspire others to generate ideas that can help students.

Governor, there are those who say that you have fabricated a crisis in education because you have been bought or that you are settling a political score with the teacher’s union for not endorsing you in the last election.  I will leave the speculation to others and merely address your current proposal and how it affects my children, my colleagues, my students, and me.

I teach in a school district on Long Island, one that consistently excels in all it does for all of its students.  We are not a failing school district, nor are we in crisis.  Unfortunately, changes made by your administration in the past, and certainly your new proposal, threaten the very stability and excellence that we currently provide to our students.  I see this threat in the school district in which I teach and also in my children’s schools.

There are negative consequences to your teacher evaluation program.  Curriculum is being narrowed to focus more on test prep in math and English.  Students have less access to a broad exposure to the arts, social studies, sciences, and languages.  Teachers are becoming demoralized, as the profession they entered out of a love for learning is slowly eroded into become a singular effort to raise standardized test scores.  When you propose to make 50% of a teacher’s effectiveness score based on these tests, you shift the priority of teaching for the sake of growing students as learners into teaching for the sake of preserving one’s job.

I commend your desire to help ailing schools.  Poverty, however, is the variable that most highly correlates with educational crisis.  A one-size-fits-all approach to “solving” the problems of failing schools, while ignoring the real problem, hurts all schools.  The same way that I support learning in my classroom by differentiating instruction, you should consider an approach that identifies schools in need and identify ways in which to support them.  Breaking all schools in effort to fix a few is nonsensical.

It is my understanding that your proposal to once again reform the teacher evaluation system is spurred by your belief that if only 31% of the students in New York State are proficient in math and English (which, I may remind you, is an arbitrary cut score) and 94% of the teachers are effective, then it must follow that administrators are blind to the ineffectiveness of their teachers and are inflating teacher scores.  However, I look at the same data and see it as a clear indicator that teacher effectiveness is therefore not related, linked, or correlated to student performance on standardized test scores.  Using high-stakes testing to give a teacher an effectiveness score would then also be illogical.

There are three big problems with the current proposed model for teacher scores.  First, basing teacher scores on standardized tests and a couple of observations only takes snapshots of a teacher’s year (and blurry ones at that); they do not fully reflect the entirety of a teacher’s interactions with students.  Second, if teachers and administrators believe these numerical teacher scores to be unfair assessments, then the scores do not inform teachers or administrators of anything.  Third, the measurements simply are neither valid nor reliable.

Your new proposal is to evaluate teachers with standardized test scores (50%), outside evaluators (35%), and internal observation (15%).  For something to be valid, it must measure what it’s supposed to measure.  Researchers have provided evidence that standardized testing is not a valid measure of student learning.  Observations, however, can be valid measures as long as they are administered correctly, consistently, and backed with evidence.

In addition, research has shown that reliability measures in standardized testing are weak.  As far as observations are concerned, they are not entirely reliable because teaching is a dynamic profession and constantly in flux.  Sometimes my lessons are successful with one class and not with another.  Am I overall an ineffective or effective teacher?  How will you know if you’re not observing every one of my classes?

Using non-valid and unreliable standardized test scores to represent teacher effectiveness erodes the teaching profession and causes inaccurate sorting of teaching ability.  Weighting these scores as 50% of a teacher’s score makes it impossible for good teachers with poor test takers in math and English to keep their jobs.  And as a side note, what about teachers who don’t teach grades 3-8 math or English?  Should standardized tests be administered in every subject area and every grade for every student, or should only math and English be taught in schools?

Your proposal also includes the clause that 35% of a score be assigned by an outside adjudicator (e.g. a SUNY or CUNY professor).  I’d like to point out that college professors are experts in their fields, and may be very good professors, but are not necessarily qualified educational evaluators.  To ask them to observe public school teachers seems to be a stretch.  Building administrators have a clearer picture of the effectiveness of a teacher.  They have daily interactions with teachers, get informal feedback from parents and students, and use comprehensive observation rubrics to deeply analyze strengths and weaknesses in a teacher.

Most teachers and administrators view the current teacher evaluations as a nuisance.   I don’t know a single teacher or parent that thinks that standardized testing tied to teacher evaluations is a good idea.  Your new proposal, however, takes the nuisance to a new level of panic, because a lot of good teachers will unfairly lose their jobs.  A lot of potential teachers (the savvy ones) won’t even consider pursuing a teaching degree, at least not in New York State.

Which brings me to my score.  I am embarrassed that I work in a profession that assigns me a score.  I am not a number.  My students are not numbers.  We don’t work in a factory where we make a quantifiable number of things, nor do I work in a business whose primary goal is to make a measurable amount of money.  Teachers work with children: dynamic, complicated, and growing children.  The same way it would be ridiculous to measure a marriage with a single number for the year in order to decide if you are going to get divorced, or ridiculous to only base college admission on G.P.A., it is ridiculous to measure teachers with a single score in order to decide if they get to keep their jobs.

What is useful is doing assessments continually in order to identify areas of strength and weakness, so that weaknesses can be addressed.  I do not “fire” my students who have weaknesses, rather I use information collected formally and informally to make decisions about how I can help them grow.  Teacher evaluations should work in the same manner.   And yes, children have the right to their education regardless of their academic success while teachers don’t have a right to keep their jobs if they are ineffective.  However, being that we are in the education field, it seems logical and doable to use the same philosophical ideas to improve teachers as we use to improve students.  And of course, teachers who do not improve should be mentored out of the classroom.  But in those cases, you have to implement an evaluation system that identifies weaknesses, sets reasonable goals, allows time for growth, documents, and reassesses.

My school district is very selective about the teachers that are rehired each year.  We have a high teacher effectiveness rate because the administration has built a teaching force that they stand behind and support.  It is not unreasonable to find a staff with all highly effective teachers if a school has put in the effort to create a strong teaching team.  In fact, you should hope that an administration has done so and that there is not a bell curve in a teaching staff.  Penalizing schools for truly assembling and nurturing a highly effective cadre of teachers, by reinventing the evaluation system so that more teachers are removed, is foolish.

I see the appeal in using standardized test scores and graded observation rubrics to give teachers scores.  Numbers are neat.  They can be organized.  They can help you sort.  But teaching is an art, not a numerical equation.  There are no set steps or singular prescribed ways to deliver instruction.  I don’t believe that the quality of teaching is a quantifiable entity.

I do believe that strong schools can exist without teachers being numerically scored.  I believe that schools can have all effective teachers.  I believe that using standardized test scores is a dangerous and ineffective means for evaluating teachers.  I believe that teachers are capable of improving, if needed.  I believe that teachers are greatly affected by many factors outside of their control, like the issues associated with poverty.  I believe that the teachers do an amazing job despite the uphill battles they face on a daily basis.  I believe that it is important to mentor out teachers who are not fit for the rigors of teaching.  I believe that teachers should be evaluated comprehensively and offered feedback and opportunities to grow.  I believe that teachers should be treated as professionals and respected for the invaluable contribution they provide to all of society.

Your current teacher evaluation proposal and withholding of funding for education undermine real solutions for improving education.  I would encourage you to explore ways in which teacher evaluations can be done so that they perpetuate a system where teachers can grow and excel, rather than unjustly unravel careers based on scoring models that are not valid or reliable.  I would encourage you to investigate ways in which to provide more social supports for impoverished communities.  I would encourage you to find ways to encourage talented and skilled teachers to teach in struggling communities.

Using teacher effectiveness scores based largely on standardized testing is not the answer to overhauling schools in New York, nor do a majority of the schools in the state need to be overhauled.

I would be happy to discuss this further with you.  I am invested in maintaining the excellence provided by the majority of schools in New York and in supporting struggling schools in their quest to improve.

Sincerely,

Doreen Fryling

A Parenting Choice Applied in the Choral Rehearsal: Self Awareness

Nathan explaining the Boxer Rebellion to Patrick...or...you know...this is staged.

Nathan explaining the Boxer Rebellion to Patrick…or…you know…this is staged.

We love our kids. By many standards, Jane and I might be labeled as strict parents – by others, perhaps a bit new age. We do our best to raise two boys that have a developing perspective of how they fit into the big picture. It’s important to us. They have their electronic gadgets, spend time chatting with friends, and watching silly videos on Youtube, but we also regularly play board games as a family, and do our best to balance video games with trips to Mt. Vernon, the USS Constitution, and the like. When we eat dinner together, we always have a “Word of the Day.” The boys have to figure out the word by asking yes or no questions. Sometimes it drives them crazy; sometimes it’s a real hoot. The result is an eight year-old that uses the word glib in conversations. Now that’s entertainment.

The Definition

One of the long-standing items in our parenting tool box has been a three-part Definition of Self Awareness that the boys committed to memory long ago – both from about age 4 (the younger brother probably had it memorized a bit earlier because he heard his older brother reciting it). Here it is:

1. Always know what’s going on around you.

2. Always know how your choices affect other people.

3. Don’t be a jerk.*

*Don’t be a jerk was added by Allison Downing, a member of a church choir I conducted in Elizabethtown, PA. Our sons were reciting The Definition for her and she said, “And don’t be a jerk.” It was immediately incorporated into the Definition.

This covers just about everything in life. The idea was to give the boys something simple that they could pull up in their heads when making decisions – particularly when we weren’t around. I quickly realized that this little Definition could be incorporated into my syllabi (sans #3 – though sometimes I wonder…it never hurts for any of us [students and professors included] to be reminded of this little piece of advice from the school yard in our daily lives). It’s often eye opening that something so small and compact could cover so many issues.

The next step – as a conductor, The Definition guided my preparation for rehearsal. It could be applied to score study and beyond. Here are few cardinal rules for the conductor – as they relate to the Definition:

1. Know your score – clearly a rule for the first part of The Definition – Always know what’s going on around you. You must have a sense of how things fit together, where the piece is headed, what the harmony should sound like, and when the moments of tension and release/of arsis and thesis occur. What’s the translation? What does the poetry mean? Have a vision in your head so clear that your musicians can easily get on board.

2. Develop clear rehearsal planning – this really can be related to both the first and second parts of The Definition, but I feel it’s more inline with the second part – always know how your choices affect other people. Do we start with our hardest piece or ease into it? Do we spend too much time on warm ups? Not enough? Are we challenging our ensembles? Do we spend 40 minutes on the most taxing passage and wear down stamina? Are we sure we are covering everything? Do we end with something that will allow our singers to leave in a great mood? The Definition guides my planning checklist.

3. Establish rehearsal pacing that makes good sense – a BIG one for knowing how your choices affect others. This is tricky and frankly for me, is ever evolving. It must be responsive to the moment. I think we need to balance our desired end goal with the fact that we are dealing with living, breathing, feeling human beings. This isn’t to say you cave in and give up if things are getting tiresome or difficult. But there are moments when you might need to make the call to move on to something else. Perhaps you put that piece aside and circle back to it. This is particularly important with younger, developing choirs, but I’ll tell you, I have been in professional choral rehearsals with enternally-sunshining talent and have observed incredibly dialed in conductors respond to what they are hearing and make the call…”Let’s put this up and come back to it in a bit.”

4. Pick GOOD rep – this one is obvious, isn’t it? It’s all three! We must know the current ability of our ensembles and where they are headed. We must divine how the big puzzle of a programming year will fit together. We must hold our groups to a standard while remembering that we work with PEOPLE. Our choices as conductors, when it comes to rep, have such long-lasting impacts. How many of us still remember that great, moving piece we performed in county band or region choir? How often are our audience members touched by the performances of the groups we are so fortunate to lead? It all starts with good, quality rep.

Here's a guy who was not very self aware whilst parking.

Here’s a guy who was not very self aware whilst parking.

Self Awareness – and its sibling Situational Awareness – are key concepts for the conductor. It reminds us to constantly look inward and remember that we have the privilege and responsibility to guide the musical journey of others – to make them musically powerful. I know I always need to keep looking in that mirror and remind myself of that obligation – to our art, to our audiences, and most importantly, to our musicians.

Now…how does The Definition apply to the ensemble member? Stay tuned, choir fans. Stay tuned!

Reynaldo Hahn and Pleasure-Loving Venice

Stylin' at the piano - Reynaldo Hahn

Stylin’ at the piano – Reynaldo Hahn

On this date in 1947, the composer Reynaldo Hahn died due to complications arising from a brain tumor. Hahn was born in Venezuela in 1874. Much like Mozart, he was a child prodigy. He sang and played piano, composing his first pieces at age eight.

Hahn excelled as a writer, one of the most successful on the topic of music. He also worked as a conductor, specializing in Mozart. A close friend (and lover) of Marcel Proust, Hahn expanded the author’s musical knowledge and Proust’s ability to illuminate the smallest detail probably influenced the composer’s writing.

Reynaldo Hahn - Lucie Lambert, artist.

Reynaldo Hahn – Lucie Lambert, artist.

Hahn composed over 140 songs, the majority of them French mélodies. He also wrote piano works, incidental music for the stage, operas, choral works, chamber music, orchestral pieces, and ballet scores.

In 1901, he composed a set of songs in the Venetian dialect – intended to evoke folk music. Hahn wrote his cousin, Marie Nordlinger, describing the music:

I’ve written some Venetian songs…vulgar, sentimental, extremely Grand Canal – neither the Venice of the Doges nor that of Byron…This is banal, cosmopolitan, pleasure-loving Venice…

– P. F. Prestwich, The Translation of memories : recollections of the young Proust, London 1999

These pieces are truly charming and capture the feel of the streets of Venice. Here is the composer himself performing the last song in the set, Che pecà! I’ve always loved this entire set – but particularly love that Venice entranced Hahn. After all, he was born in “Little Venice.

What else happened today?

The death of Henry VIII in 1547

The anniversary of the Challenger disaster in 1986

 

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