Up Flies the Lark

rolling fields of green grain

A version of this post appeared on The Last Word on Nothing.

I walked along the edge of a cliff. To my right, a hundred-foot drop to the waters of the English Channel. A strong wind blew off the water and over the cliff. To my left were spring-green fields. High above the waves of grain hung a skylark, twittering relentlessly.

On the ground, a skylark isn’t a very memorable bird. It’s brown, with a little crest of feathers on top of its head. A skylark in the sky, though, is quite impressive. It flaps madly, a fluttering speck against the cloudy white sky. As they hover and swoop, they emit a constant stream of notes. The song goes on and on and on.

The skylark made me think of a lyric from a song we often sing in the May Revels: “Up flies the kite; down falls the lark-o.” It’s part of the Padstow May Song, a tradition from the village of Padstow, 70 miles due west of the cliff where I heard the larks.

One of my walking companions was another Reveler, Liza Lester, and together we started the song: “Unite and unite, now let us unite, for summer is a-coming today!” Arms outstretched, we sang through the verses as well as we could remember them, dancing along the grassy clifftop path.

As we continued our walk toward Sidmouth, we passed from one skylark’s flapping-ground to the next, on and on above the cliffs. They sang and sang and sang.

Now isn’t the season for skylarks, though; it’s the season for staying inside and thinking about walks and birds, and looking forward to the dawning of the new year.

Photo: Helen Fields

Hear the skylark’s charming song.

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It’s Just So Many Words….

In December, I’ll be standing on stage singing songs in Greek, Turkish, and Bulgarian like I’ve known them all my life.

Today, November 14, I’m staring down a really large pile of words in languages I don’t speak.

My memorization system has many parts. Some shorter pieces just stick in my head. But for most songs, it takes more work.

First: index cards. I write out the words, then carry the card around so I can study–and sing from it in rehearsal.

Today's project: My third card of the season. There will be more.
Today’s project: My third card of the season.

I think the card works mostly because the act of writing forces me to to pay attention. It wasn’t until I wrote out the Greek Christmas carol Saranda Meres this morning that I realized the second and third line are the same in most of the verses we’re singing. I’d sung it dozens of times without noticing.

Yeah, my observational skills are amazing.

Another part of the system is vivid mental images. This works better with songs in English; I got a couple of confusing lines of Carol of the Bells into my head by imagining them as little stories that were happening on stoops like the one in Sesame Street.

For lyrics in a foreign language, I try to think of words in English that the words sound like, then string them into some kind of story. In my head, one of the particularly difficult songs in the 2011 Christmas Revels was about projectile vomiting in the desert.

I recommend Moonwalking With Einstein, a fun book on memorization. It gave me good ideas for memorizing and confirmed what I’d noticed: it’s easier to remember things that you wouldn’t talk about in polite company.

The good news is, once the lyrics get into my head, I usually don’t have to go back to the mnemonics. The songs settle in. By singing them over and over, in rehearsal and with the recordings, they really do start to feel like they’re mine. And I can even smile and dance while singing them. (Usually.)

Learn more about the 2013 Christmas Revels: Echoes of Thrace
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Eleven-Sixteen? What?

One measure of this year’s music, in 7/8.

Overheard in rehearsal: “Eleven-sixteen? Whaaaat?”

One of the challenges for this year’s Christmas Revels chorus is singing in unusual time signatures.

If you don’t know what a time signature is, let me take a moment to enlighten. A piece of music written in the standard way has a couple of pieces of information at the top left. One looks like a fraction, with a number on top and a number on the bottom. The number on the top tells you how many beats there are in a measure. (A measure is sort of the basic unit of a piece of music—each one starts with a strong beat, normally. That’s one measure in the example above.) The number on the bottom tells you how long a beat is. So music in 7/8 has seven beats to the measure. Music in 11/16 has 11 beats to the measure.

Almost everything I’ve ever sung was written with two or four beats to the measure.

Until now. The people of Thrace use a ton of different time signatures. In the first three weeks of rehearsal, we’ve already worked on several songs with seven beats to the measure, one with five beats, and one that alternates between eight and eleven. We’ve danced to at least seven and nine beats, and maybe some other time signatures that I’ve forgotten about.

When working on this music, it’s pointless trying to count to five or seven in your head. Instead, the counts are grouped into beats of different lengths. A seven is actually sung as an uneven three: ONE two THREE four FIVE six seven becomes short short long, short short long. A five is called the limping rhythm: ONE two THREE four five becomes short long, short long, short long, like someone limping down the street.

The only way I can get the time right is to get the swing of the music into my head. In rehearsal, Tzvety Weiner, our fearless leader of Bulgarian music, keeps us in line with her laser-precision clapping. Most of the chorus is so used to singing with beats of even lengths that it’s easy to nudge the music that way, even we don’t mean to. At home, I’ve been wearing out the “Christmas 2013” playlist in my iTunes, listening to the new beats over and over.

When I’m in the weeds with 5/8, trying to keep that second beat on time, singing in a new time signature can be frustrating. But one of the great privileges of being in the Christmas Revels chorus is having a window into the music and dance of other cultures. In 2005 we sang the music of Scandinavia and I got my first introduction to the uneven beat and unfamiliar drone of Norwegian fiddle music; the dances that go with that music turned into a years-long interest for me. It’s daunting to think that I need to get 11/16 into my bones by our opening show on December 7, but it’s thrilling, too.

Learn more about the 2013 Christmas Revels: Echoes of Thrace
View the Schedule of Performances and Purchase Tickets

Reaching for Peace

Washington Revels Jubilee Voices sing at Temple Shalom
Washington Revels Jubilee Voices sing at Temple Shalom as part of their annual MLK Commemoration Service. Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Friday the 13th is a date that’s usually reserved for pessimism and superstition.  Nothing could be further from the truth on Friday evening, January 13, when the Washington Revels Jubilee Voices shared in a warm, inspiring commemoration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This community tradition, was held at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a diverse congregation that prides itself on its rich musical traditions and “music that makes community.”  The temple’s reknowned cantor, Lisa Levine, a dynamic composer, musician and vocalist, led the Jubilee Voices, the Wilson High School Choir, members of the TAP Camp of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Washington, DC, and the temple’s youth choir, adult choir and band in the world-beat style “Soulful Shabbat Ruach.”

Soulful Shabbat Ruach (CD recording featuring the music of Cantor Lisa Levine of Temple Shalom)
Soulful Shabbat Ruach (CD recording featuring the music of Cantor Lisa Levine of Temple Shalom)

The guest artists were also invited to share songs from their own repertoire.  The lyrics of one of the songs we performed, “Welcome Table,”  promises, “I’m gonna eat at the welcome table, some of these days.” This spiritual, like many others, moved from its traditional, church-based roots to become one of the famous “Freedom Songs” of the Civil Rights Movement. Sung at sit-ins, during marches, and often, as protestors were led to jail, these songs spread the message of the movement and its people. The enthusiastic audience at Temple Shalom sang along, continuing the tradition!

Our friendship with Cantor Lisa began early last year, just after recording the Washington Revels CD, Hard Times Come Again No More: American Music of the Civil War Era, produced by recording engineer Charlie Pilzer at Airshow Mastering.  Cantor Lisa, who was recording Soulful Shabbat Ruach at Airshow, was seeking gospel singers to sing on two songs on the album.  Charlie played the Jubilee Voices cuts from Hard Times for Cantor Lisa, and the rest was history, culminating last May when members of Jubilee Voices joined forces with Cantor Levine and the Temple Shalom choirs and bands to celebrate the release of Cantor Lisa’s CD last May.

Cantor Lisa’s lyrics for “Reaching for Peace,” one of the songs on Soulful Shabbat Ruach, sums up the life of Dr. King and gives us the charge for continuing his important work:

“Reaching for peace in our lives,  reaching for peace in our community,
Reaching for peace all around the world,  And let us say, ‘Amen! ‘”


Winter Concert at the Birchmere

Singers from the Revels (left) and the Ocean Orchestra (right) practice in the rehearsal room, which has a lot of Andalusian props in it right now. Photo: Helen Fields

Back in the early 90’s, Washington Revels did a few post-Christmas shows at the Birchmere with the local folk-rock band The New St. George. Now the New St. George’s leader, Jennifer Cutting, has a fabulous new band, and we’re reuniting with her to do a show tonight at the Birchmere!

Monday night was our last rehearsal–the show is tonight at 7:30. We ran through a few songs from this year’s Christmas Revels and also practiced with Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra.

The biggest thing we do at Washington Revels is The Christmas Revels, but we have lots of events through the year, too. I love this kind of gig, where we don’t have much rehearsal and the directors are figuring things out on the fly. Some of the arrangements changed over the weekend. The mummers rehearsed their play tonight for the first time. It feels very seat-of-the-pants, but it’s great to know that we can put together a great show quickly, after the massive, months-long project of The Christmas Revels.

The mummers rehearse. With Betsy Miller as the doctor, Glyn Collinson as St. George, and Guen Spilsbury as the dragon. Photo: Helen Fields

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Meet David Buchbut

David Buchbut playing the riq.  Photo courtesy of Layali El Andalus.
David Buchbut playing the riq. Photo courtesy of Layali El Andalus.

David is the third member of this year’s guest musical ensemble, Layali El Andalus (along with Rachid Halihal and Daphna Mor).  He is the group’s “beat keeper,” playing the riq, dumbek and frame drum. I would describe David as a “gentle giant” — bean-pole tall and thin with a warm smile and a quiet countenance.  But, when he picks up one of his percussion instruments, all of that changes.  In this year’s show you will hear David’s percussion beat strongly supporting the full company (of about 80 singers and instrumentalists) in pieces like “Seven Ways to Cook an Eggplant” and delicately bouncing along with the children’s chorus as they sing and play on stage.

In looking around for some basic facts about David, I found a wonderful article entitled “Mr. Tambourine Man,” by Dan Friedman.  Below is a terrific description of the instruments that David plays…

The tambourine, or “riq” as it’s called in Arabic, is actually, despite its Western connotations of preschool classrooms, a staple of classical Arabic music. Unlike kids or folk dancers who shake or clap it, classical musicians hold it vertically and still, at knee level.  Like the larger bongolike dumbek, there are three major categories of sound: the “dum” the “tak” and the “kat.” But on the riq,each note can be varied not only by the tension and pace of the hand or the number of fingers applied, but also by the amount of accompanying jingle, the tautness of the drum skin and the amount of resonance the player allows any given beat or sequence.

It has been an amazing lesson for me to watch and hear the many sounds that a skilled player can draw from this instrument.  David has also been warm and welcoming to chorus percussionists like Guen Spilsbury (who is playing his frame drum on a couple of pieces) and our “staff percussionist” and sound effect’s man, Don Spinelli.  And with five more performances remaining to this year’s Christmas Revels, you have many opportunities to come and hear him too!

Read more from this article at: http://www.forward.com/articles/110998/#ixzz1foldNbiU
Learn more about Layali El Andalus at: http://www.layalielandalus.com/

Meet Rachid Halihal

Rachid Halihal with his Oud
Rachid Halihal holding his Oud.
Photo by Elizabeth Fulford Miller

This year we are lucky to have two specialist music groups for our Christmas Revels show. The Arab Andalus group of musicians is named Layali El Andalus and is led by Rachid Halihal.

Rachid is a world-class musician who brings, to us, the true character and spirit of music from Andalusian Spain, the diverse regions of Morocco, and North Africa. As a child, growing up in Morocco, Rachid played the nei and sang, imitating the famous singers of the time. At age fourteen he entered “Dar Aadyil” the Conservatory of Music in Fez. At first he studied Western classical and Andalus music on piano and violin. He soon expanded to include a variety of other instruments in order to better express his native music. In addition to his voice, which is best featured in the Andalus style, his strongest instruments are the oud (similar to a lute without frets) and the violin, which he plays in both the classical manner and upright resting on the knee for Moroccan folkloric music.

Layali El Andalus rehearsing with Tina Chancey and Elisabeth Myers
Layali El Andalus rehearsing with Tina Chancey and Elisabeth Myers. Photo by Elizabeth Fulford Miller

Rachid arrived this Friday evening  (November 25th) from Colorado, where he was presenting workshops and concerts in Boulder and Denver. Soon after his arrival he began rehearsing with local musicians Tina Chancey (you’ll hear more about her soon) and Elisabeth Myers–Tina and Elisabeth will be joining Layali El Andalus on a few of their songs, and the Washington Revels chorus will be singing with the group as well.

Learn more about Rachid by visiting his Web site (rachidhalihalmusic.com).  And, visit the Layali El Andalus band Web site to learn more about his group (ayalielandalus.com).  We are so excited to have them as part of this year’s Christmas Revels.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat… Memorizing Music

David Giusti leads the Revels men in Abinu Malkeinu
David Giusti leads the Revels men in Abinu Malkeinu... notice how many of them have this piece memorized. Photo by Elizabeth Fulford Miller

Each year, our amazing Washington Revels Chorus (adults and teen) and Children have to memorize their music. The process begins in September, as we learn each piece, but the actual memory crunch tends to occur sometime in November (like… now!).  Some years our job is easier than others… like last year, when the music was almost all in English.  But, this year, we are singing in Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, Judeo-Espagnol (also known as Ladino), Galician Portuguese, Castilian Spanish, and Catalan — this definitely makes the process of learning and memorizing more challenging!

With the exception of a few lucky folks (and yes, Greg Lewis, Washington Revels ED and song leader, is one of them), the memorizing process can be the most frustrating last step on the learning to performance continuum.

Have you ever had to memorize a poem, or some lines of text to repeat in front of an audience, or a class?  This form of memorization only involves words… and, that alone can difficult.  When you memorize music, there are many more details that become part of the process:

  • pitches (the actual notes that you sing)
  • rhythms (the amount of time each note gets)
  • expression (loud, soft, smooth, bouncy, etc.)
  • tuning and harmony (how does your part fit in with the other parts)
  • timing and rests (when do you sing? when do you breathe?)
  • text and pronunciation (what syllables go with what notes, and how do they sound)

As you see, this is a pretty complex set of variables to put together.  And you have to do all of this while walking, interacting, dancing, carrying things, going up and down stairs, spinning around, messing with your costume, ringing bells, gathering children, etc. (and not standing next to someone who is singing the same part that you are singing). We spend a lot of rehearsal time really learning the music, and then each singer has to “lather, rinse and repeat” on their own, in order to develop the muscle memory needed to be able to perform all of this music in a typical Christmas Revels production!   You are memorizing not only what the music sounds like, but what it feels like to perform it.

Here is a list of all of the songs that the chorus has to memorize for this year’s show (including the languages that each song is in):

1. Tan buen ganadico (Castilian Spanish)
2. A vint-i-cinc de desembre (Catalan)
3. Lamma bada yatathanna (Arabic)
4. Quando el rey Nimrod (Ladino)
5. Children’s Songs: Gatatumba (Spanish); Matesha, matesha (Ladino); Tafta Hindi (Arabic)
6. Pues que tanto bien tenemos (Spanish)
7. New Year’s Prayer (Ladino)
8. Rodrigo Martinez (Castilian Spanish)
9 Bain el bareh we’el youm (Arabic)
10. El desembre congelat (Catalan)
11. Riu Riu Chiu (Castilian Spanish)
12. Ay luna que reluces (Castilian Spanish)
13. Cantiga 185: Poder a Santa Maria (Galician Portuguese)
14. Abinu Malkenu (Judeo Espagnol)
15. Hanuka (Ladino)
16. Ocho Kandelikas (Ladino)
17. Shalom Chaverim/Assalam wa aleikum (Hebrew and Arabic)
18. Qum Tara (Arabaic)
19. Siete modos de guisar las berenjenas (Ladino)
20. Hoy comamos y bebamos (Castilian Spanish)
21. Convidando esta la noche (Spanish)

Eight Hours Beneath the Basketball Hoops

Chorus members line up to carry props from the rental truck into the gym. Photo: Helen Fields

As the fall goes on, rehearsal starts taking up more time and more space. This weekend we have two all-day rehearsals at a school in Bethesda. Saturday there were props. Today there will be costumes. There are musicians wielding brass instruments. There are musicians wielding every other kind of instrument, too. And apparently we’re going to perform this show in two weeks in front of a paying audience, so Saturday seemed like a good time for the directors tell us where to stand for the second half of the show.

So we spent all day Saturday under fluorescent lights in a gym, walking through the second part of the show. Lines on the floor corresponded to the borders of the Lisner Auditorium stage. We got a bit of music practice with the brass quintet and Trio Sefardi. I used to find these all-day blocking rehearsals exhausting, but I’ve learned over the years when I need to pay attention and when I can zone out. I impressed one of the new people with my ability to knit whenever there was a break in the action.

I made a lot of progress on this baby sweater today. Photo: Helen Fields

One of the teenagers got excited this morning when she heard I was writing a blog and said I should do it Gossip Girl-style. Me: “I heard a rumor that someone hasn’t memorized all her lyrics yet.” Her: “Is it…95 percent of the chorus?”

I think most of us know most of the lyrics already, and I know I’ll have it all down by the time the show opens (hopefully earlier). But the lyrics don’t really get solidified in my head until I put my notebook down, walk around, and sing the songs as if we were on stage. With more than 40 hours of rehearsal in the next two weeks, I’ll have plenty of opportunities to do that.

Makeup designer Roger Riggle saw everyone on Saturday to match their skin tone with foundation. Photo: Helen Fields

Today we’re back for another six hours in the gym. It’ll be our first time running the whole show, our first time rehearsing in costume–and our first rehearsal “off book.” That means the notebook, with my script and music, stays in my backpack. Yikes. I’ll be spending the morning transferring all of my blocking notes onto a piece of paper and copying the lyrics I’m not totally sure about onto index cards. Then I just have to confront the reality of a day where I’m reliant on pieces of paper and wearing lovely white robes…with no pockets.

Want more information on the show or to buy tickets? Click here!

Ocho Kandelas Para Mi

Trio Sefardi and Flory Jagoda perform. Photo: Helen Fields

Last night at the Trio Sefardi concert we had the privilege of hearing Flory Jagoda sing her song “Ocho Kandelikas.” Trio Sefardi are playing in this year’s Christmas Revels; they’re the specialists in Sephardic music.

The members of Trio Sefardi all learned from Flory, a wonderfully talented musician who lives here in the D.C. area. Flory was born in Bosnia in the 1920s and came to the U.S. after the Second World War. She’s not joining us for the exhausting weeks of rehearsals and performances we have coming up, so this was a special occasion.

For about half of the concert, Flory sang, played guitar and percussion, and told stories about her childhood in Bosnia. Like the one about the aunts who knitted sweaters; one of them always made the sleeves too short and one made the sleeves too long. So if you met someone with a new sweater, you could tell which aunt made it.

“Ocho Kandelikas” is a counting song about the eight candles of Hanukkah. A “kandela” is a candle, so a “kandelika” is a little candle. The chorus goes “Una kandelika, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas….” We’ve learned a version arranged by Trio Sefardi member Tina Chancey, so it was so exciting to hear Flory singing her composition tonight.

You may wish to study, because this is one of the times when the audience gets to sing along.

Want more information on the show or to buy tickets? Click here!