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Bilingual Choral Music: A Conversation with Jorge Lockward

Jorge Lockward, director of the New York-based ecumenical chorale Cántico Nuevo and minister of worship arts at the Church of the Village, shares practical tips on how to dress up a piano part to better capture the style and spirit of Latin and South American choral music.

Pearl Shangkuan [00:00:19] Hi, everyone. I'm Pearl Shangkuan, director of choral activities at Calvin University and music editor of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Choral Series, published by GIA. I'm so delighted to host this series with our special guests and hope that the knowledge shared in this series will help you gain useful, practical knowledge and confidence in teaching and performing bilingual choral music. Our guest for this session is Jorge Lockward. Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Jorge currently lives in New York City, where he is the minister of worship arts at the Church of the Village and leads the New York-based ecumenical chorale Cántico Nuevo. Jorge has also been a committee member for various hymnals and has served on the boards of the Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada, Reformed Worship, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and Choristers Guild. What a delight to have Jorge with us today. Welcome, Jorge! 

Jorge Lockward [00:01:23] Thank you so much, Pearl. It is a joy for me to be part of this series, and I am looking forward to this journey of discovery and learning in our conversation today. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:01:36] I had the great pleasure of co-presenting with John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, at the national conference of the American Choral Directors Association, assisted by you, Jorge, in New York City in 2003, where under your fingers the music came out such a way that made me want to get up and dance right there. You’re a pianist by training. This is especially fascinating to me, and I can't wait for you to share with us practical tips on how to dress up a piano part to better capture the style and spirit of Latin and South American choral music. So take it away, and I'm so eager to learn along with the rest of our viewers. 

Jorge Lockward [00:02:22] Thank you. Thank you so much, Pearl. Well, I think I'm going to start in a bit of a countercultural way to the request, because I think I'd like to start with a song. It's one of the first choral pieces that I learned, so this is a very old piece from a Puerto Rican composer, Pablo Fernández-Badillo, and it is a jewel. It is a jewel. And if you have a copy of the very, very wonderful Santo, Santo, Santo hymnal, it is #20 in there. Now why I’m starting with this is because often we tend to think of styles that come from cultures other than our own as wholly other and completely foreign. And I believe that there is always a point of contact. There is always a certain thing that relates a place where you are and where the other is, and a middle point where things can be there. So I'm starting with something that may sound a little Western for folk, but please don't forget that Latin America was colonized by Spain, a country that is in Europe. Anyway, enough talking. Let us play; let us sing. I'm going to sing the melody first. 

[singing in Spanish accompanied by piano]

Jorge Lockward [00:05:03] As the rain falls, the greenery of the earth rises again. The translation done by Madeleine Forell Marshall, it's amazing. Listen to this: “When at last the rain falls, our world turns living green.” I believe that even before we go to the technicalities of accompaniment or any other technicalities, we need to first understand what is the deep spirituality that the piece is trying to offer to us. It's like getting . . . what's the expression in English that says “Let's not confuse the forest for the trees?” You know what I'm talking about? The forest is, of course, “What is this about?” Because before we have that, it's going to be very difficult to engineer that if we focus too much on the technical right at the beginning. So if you are very concerned about, like, “Well, should I do more eighth-note patterns here, or should I do a crescendo here, or . . .” Let's just feel what this is about. I think it helps to place yourself in the locale where the piece is coming from. So this is Puerto Rico. And today's a very warm summer day in New York. I am sweating, you may be noticing. So it's a perfect day to talk about rain falling and the earth becoming green. Now you can also start to imagine the theological consequences of singing about a green earth in a time such as this when there’s fires and all of that, so that's part of the story—the story of the song itself, where it comes from, but also how the song intersects with where we are right now. Now this song can be beautifully done just a cappella. And by the way, hymnals like this one are amazing sources of choral music, amazing sources, and we do not give them the credit that they [are due], particularly if you are looking for bilingual choral music that is appropriate for Christian worship. And there is some there. I mean, Calvin Institute has a wonderful association with GIA, and there are things that are published. And of course you have OCP publications and World Library publications, and they have quite a bit of material there. But the hymnal that is in your pew can also be an amazing source.

OK, enough with that. Let's go now to some of the technical portions of this. What do we do with this? My way of thinking is that I like to think of at least five different ways of doing something and then select the one that is for this moment because one approach doesn't always work. Let me give you an example. In this piece, I have done it in the following ways: I have done it with a soloist who has pretty good pitch, and if they don't, then I have like a bell or something like that just to play something like: [plays chord on piano]. Or maybe even high [chord]. Or maybe in the organ you have [chord]. Sometimes there's a rain stick that I pull out. Then the soloist says, “When at last the rain falls, our world turns living green. Little flowers blossom, the air is warm and clean.” Then the choir comes in: “See the gorgeous lily . . .” And then the piano comes in there. So I think one of the issues that we have when we have instruments like the piano is that we think that because we have it, we have to use it all the time. And the truth is that sometimes the less that you use it, the better. Sometimes even in published anthems, I look at it and I [think], why can't we just start it a cappella? Why does it have to have an instrumental introduction? So that's one choice that you have to start this song. Here's another way that I have done this song. It's pairing it with a scripture or with a poem. Mary Oliver in particular is one that I love to use for nature themes. So imagine that you have some kind of ostinato, and it can be something like this: [piano]. You can just make it up. You can be even weirder if you want. It can be something like: [piano]. As long as what you have in the base is something that is eventually going to lead you to E minor in some way. In this case, I'm using the subdominant A: [piano]. And then you hear the poem. Now I picked A minor because the song lands in A minor in that second chord. So I am already providing the ear with something that is going to feel like a landing place, but kind of keeping it weird. So a little poetry, a little scripture can be a wonderful introduction to things. So the other approach that I would suggest on a song like this, as far as we're doing our introduction, is to [include] the classical final little snippet in there. I think folk go very quickly to the beginning of the song, and that's OK. . . . But I am wondering if there is something else in here that can offer them another place. Usually we also go to the end: [piano]. OK, that kind of works too. But what about something from the middle? Let's see: [piano]. . . . So grabbing something from the middle and then not taking it to the end creates a completely different . . . Introductions are about setting the table. An introduction is the appetizer for the meal. An introduction can make or break the choral song because the people hear what's coming next in the spirit of what the introduction provided. So watch out for your introductions! Dedicate time to thinking about them, to helping them go into the spirit of what you want to happen later on during the song itself.

I'm about to let go of this song because I wanted to talk about other things, but just a little farther on this song. Let's talk about choral possibilities that are within this piece. Again, it depends on where you are and where your community is. If your choir and you yourself are at a place where “Bilingual! No problem! We can do it. We've done it before.” Or if you are in a place of like, “Oh my God, I don't know how to do this; please God, help me!” There's many approaches, and my rule of thumb for myself is that I believe in pushing myself just a tiny bit beyond what my comfort zone is. Let me see if I can find a creative term for that: “managed discomfort.” I'm going to call it that. Managed discomfort. I'm uncomfortable a little bit, but not so much that I cannot lead or that I cannot enjoy. And the same goes for those that I am creating a hospitality for, meaning the instrumentalists, the singers, the assembly, the congregation, those who will be listening. So I try to ask myself, “What is my level of comfort here?” And when it comes to other languages, I find that doing a little can get you a lot, you know, just investing just a little bit. I’ll give you an example. In this song, for example, we have a beautiful poem. I'm going to read the second stanza in English: “All the pretty songbirds rejoice and sing your praise. Warble hymns exquisite, through sunny springtime days. Nightingales and tree frogs sing praise when it grows dark, only cease at daybreak, and then we hear the lark.” Wow! You may choose, for example, to do one stanza in Spanish, do another stanza in English. Pearl, I'm going to turn to you now and ask you, what do you think about all of these approaches? 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:16:03] I love it. I absolutely love it. In fact, as you were talking about that, I was jotting down notes here. Often as a choir director, I think, “OK, I have this much time to work on diction. So if my choir basically does not speak Spanish . . . is it kosher enough to sing one stanza Spanish? Or sometimes we sing the main text in English and then sing the refrain in Spanish? Do I get an OK if I were a choir director that finds myself—because you have to juggle time for note learning and then for diction, which could take more time. So it's so reassuring for me to [hear that I] can do this combo with your blessing! 

Jorge Lockward [00:16:53] Absolutely, absolutely! The rule that I try to follow is that the main objective in everything that we do in life, actually, is to express the fullness of being human, the fullness of the moment. And that perfectionism actually can kill that. It's kind of like changing our way of thinking about what is good. What is it that we're driving towards? And if what we're driving towards is a powerful experience—in this case, a powerful experience with the wonder of nature—then . . . OK, I think we've all seen choirs sing very beautiful things, but in such a tight way that it doesn't come through. Or we have seen even with soloists when you are more afraid about whether they're going to reach that high note. And that makes you tense. So figuring out how to, as you put it very well, how to manage what you have in terms of time, in terms of levels of comfort and discomfort, and in terms of knowledge and ability. If you have a Spanish soloist, hmmm. And by the way, when I say soloist, it doesn't have to be a trained singer. You could have a group of powerful trained singers and bring one young voice, you know? Or you want to make it even easier? You can bring somebody who's not a singer. Imagine this: [piano]. And then somebody starts reading lyrics] in Spanish [before the choir joins, singing]. All of a sudden you have a flavor of something that honors the place where it’s coming from, but at the same time, you haven't had to rehearse for a very long time.

I'm going to say one last thing about accompaniment styles now on this particular song. It's a simple song that can be very well done a cappella. But if you want to provide some accompaniment, here are some of the things that I like to do with this song. In the refrain in particular—I'm going to play the last line of the stanza: [sings with piano].

A little glissando. It doesn’t have to be a big glissando. No, because that's not how nature works, right? But feel it. I'm preparing the refrain [sings with piano]. 

And the other part is this alternation between movement and statisity, or movement and no movement. So if you were doing this [sings with piano] . . . a lot of movement . . . leading to no movement . . . or minimal. It is that which really provides contrast. Now often if you will have a published anthem, somebody has done that thinking for you, and they have arranged it quite nicely. But even in those cases, I say feel free to put in a little bit of your own heart.

All right, let's go to one song that has a really difficult piano part. Can we do that? OK, so here’s a little anecdote from my life, a moment in my life years and years ago. I think this was like 1996. I was in Nashville and I was starstruck because I was going to meet Pablo Sosa. Many of you know of Pablo's music. Some of you may have had the privilege of hearing him speak and teach, and some of you may have had the privilege of engaging in friendship with him. Pablo passed away and left us with a heritage that continues to bless. So back to the story: I’m there; I'm starstruck. And he is teaching this song. And he had heard me practice it and brought me forth and said, “Jorge, come and play this.” And my hands were trembling. Now Pablo was a very good pianist, actually, and an amazing composer, choral conductor. But he is one of the few who can really write idiomatic parts that are originally meant for guitars and other instruments and then translate them to piano. So you learn from the way that he does this. I'm going to play it quite imperfectly because I haven't practiced this, and it's a tough part. But here it comes. [piano]

So you could tell I’m making a lot of mistakes, and that's going to happen when you're reading something that is fast and has a lot of stuff. Now, there's two solutions to that. One solution is practicing! Learn it! So I'm going to . . . go slowly. [piano, first slowly, then speeding up]

Don't give up. I think musicians, we have this voice of shame that tells us, “Well, you should be able to play that.” And then when we struggle with something, we either go, “Well, I just cannot do that” when—you know, there's a saying that I love which says “Don't quit five minutes before the miracle.” Don't quit five minutes before the miracle. So you want to do Pablo Sosa’s “Gloria”? Work on those little passages. Take them slowly. Figure them out. Now the second thing that I do is I'm going to go, OK, let me see if I can understand the structure of this accompaniment. And I cannot overemphasize this point. We do not play notes. What we actually play is structures, because a note is nothing. That's just a note. There's another note. It is the combination of those two notes that create a pattern. So what we're doing is we're singing and playing patterns. We're going to focus on playing now. So the focus that we have on “what are the notes” maybe is not as helpful. Maybe the focus should be what is the pattern that happens here. In this song in particular you have this quite interesting pattern (by the way, patterns are usually found on the left hand, but we can talk about that more later). You have this system. [piano and rhythm] Did you feel it? ONE-two-three ONE-two-three ONE, TWO, THREE—“I want to live in America,” right? So you have that 6/8–3/4 alternation that is going to be key to the rhythm, to the cuica rhythm of this. Now it’s not going to sound exactly as the cuica sounds with all of the . . . instruments, but the flavor of it is going to happen there. And here's the thing: You could actually divide this. Imagine that you are still struggling with the piano part, but you have a flute player who could do a little bit of the melodic work for you. So I'm going to imitate the flute player [whistles with piano]. So the flute goes pretty. And then the piano is just doing this: [rhythm and piano]. It's hard to sing and play that at the same time, but I hope you get the feeling that just by doubling the octaves, I'm just putting another . . . it can create magic just by having another instrument, do the melody part and then you're doing the structure of the accompaniment part. That can also help you.

Now the third thing that I do when pieces are like, Oh my God, I couldn't know how to play this, is that I ask myself, OK, is there any place in this piece that is kind of either doubling the voices that maybe doesn't need to be there? So when the voices come in in particular, Pablo has this beautiful structure [piano]. But if you find it hard to coordinate that with [different piano and rhythm], then you could maybe not do that part because the voices are doing “Gloria, Gloria, Gloria . . . “ And then the same thing goes with very fast running notes. If your fingers are not up to it, it could also help you to—now I'm not saying minimize everything. What I'm saying is find out what is your next level of challenge for you, and don't give up five minutes before the miracle or give up on the piece completely because there is just something in it that you are struggling with.

Now the other one, and I know this is a bit controversial, is that after you do all of that work, I have found that some folk are so focused on doing each note perfectly that the flavor of the whole gets lost. I am of the school—and as my brother-in-law says, what I'm about to say can take strong disagreements, so feel free to disagree—that the forest is more important than each one of those little trees. So that as you're doing this, capturing the spirit of buoyancy and joy and extreme praise and happiness that the piece has, it's more important than capturing each one of the notes, each one of the trees that is in there. 

  1. I think I'm going to leave it at that with this song. Let's go to another song. All right. So we were talking about the importance of patterns. Patterns can really save us, both because they provide the underlying structure for something where something can happen above that pattern, but also because they simplify and clarify the role of the accompaniment. Something that I do every time that I see a score [is] I look at the piano part and then I look at where . . . I [can] find the rhythmic cell for it, as we did in the “Gloria.” So here is another Puerto Rican song, a villancico from Puerto Rico, that is for the day of Epiphany, for Three Kings Day, as we call it in Latin America, “De tierra lejana.” It's found in most major denominational hymnals, and it's a simple choralized kind of piece because you have this beautiful third. [Piano.] You have this already kind of a built-in choral sound right in there. And the question is, so how do you create an accompaniment to this, engage a piano component to this, that provides some sense of interest? So one rhythmic pattern that is quite common that is derived from this in choir, it's this pattern that goes: [demonstrates rhythm]. You can feel it in so many different . . . [rhythm], or [rhythm]. It can be that, too. [Rhythm]. Or that. Or: [rhythm]. 

All right, beautiful. So . . . once I find that and I look at the chord structure of the song, I start playing around with it, just with the left hand. [Demonstrates with piano.] And by the way, I never leave the left hand; I never introduce the right hand until the left hand feels comfortable, until I can sing the melody with the left hand at the same time. And sometimes it happens right away. Sometimes it takes a long time, but it's totally worth it. to be able to let your body, not just your mind, understand the interaction between melody and the rhythmic pattern. So that's a good exercise to do: play the rhythmic pattern; sing to it.

Now, I don't know if you noticed that the same principle that we spoke some time ago about movement and less movement or no movement. The same thing applies to this concept of rhythmic patterns. . . . The interruption of a pattern reinforces the power of the pattern. Listen to this. [Piano.] Do you feel it? So that introduction creates a sense of stability, stability, stability, and then stop. A break in the rhythm. . . . Engaging breaks, particularly in music that is dance music, basically—it's crucial. . . . The most obvious one is at the beginning of the song, right? [Piano and rhythm.]

And so that sense of going and stopping, going and stopping, actually mimics what people are doing [in dance]. . . . So figuring out where the breaks are, it's just so crucial when you're engaging accompaniment patterns and all this kind of stuff. I'm going to pause for a moment and ask Pearl, because I see you have some wisdom that you may want to share with us about this. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:34:55] No, I don't have wisdom. I’m just having such a total blast listening to you; it’s so practical. And I love, from my end, that license, that freedom toward creativity in using whatever available resources and throwing so many bags of tricks, so to speak, that you can do this. It is absolutely fascinating to me and helpful for me. So please go on. I love this so much. 

Jorge Lockward [00:35:26] Thank you. Thank you, Pearl. You know that idea of freedom I just wanted to pick up on that, that you just mentioned. Knowing where things come from and the intention in which they have been offered to us is crucial to the work that we do. I would say that in some periods of Western music more than in others, that freedom was quite present. Now when you go to dodecaphonic music, twelve-tone music—actually, there is some freedom there because you have all these sprechstimme moments where you speak and it’s kind of notated, but you have to give it something. So even in musical styles that we think of as very brainy and heady and highly structured, even there, there is an element of freedom. But in earlier moments, particularly in, I don't know, high baroque music, a singer who doesn't know how to do ornaments and figure out how to do its own cadenzas—no . . . A keyboard player could not realize, because what you were given was basically just what we call chord symbols today for your base. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:36:53] Well, and even cadenzas were not written out during their time. 

Jorge Lockward [00:37:01] Absolutely, absolutely. You know, I'm going to get playful with the idea of cadenza in this song, and I'm going to see if we could work it out. Maybe one word, but let's give it a try. [Sings with piano.] Oh, I felt a cadenza coming: [sings cadenza with piano]. So we're talking about cadenzas, and we just put a little cadenza in the middle of this song. . . . I guess what I'm trying to put out there is that we create this division between what people call “classical”music—which is actually not really classical from the classical period, but it's more like “music that is played in concert halls”; I think that's what people are trying to say when they use the word “classical”—and other styles. . . . [But] maybe some of the principles kind of connect from style to style to style, particularly this principle, Pearl, that you brought up in our conversation, of: Where are the places for freedom? Where are the spots where we can find a sense of freedom? 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:39:08] Thank you so much, Jorge, for such a fabulous session. I had such a blast learning from you, and I so appreciate, first of all, a few things like delegating. There is great inclusivity in your point of delegating the parts where your fingers are having problems. Give it to the flute player. If something goes wrong, you can blame the flute player, I guess. No, but it's just being inclusive and using other people's gifts. I think that's wonderful. I love your exhortation to not give up five minutes before the miracle happens, and I encourage that to our viewers as I will take that as encouragement upon myself as well. What an incredible, fabulous session. I love your wonderful combination of artistry, of very practical pedagogy, humanity, and the deep spirituality. I find that very, very inspiring. So we are so glad that you've been part of this series. Any parting words you'd like to give to those of us out here? 

Jorge Lockward [00:40:16] Yes, I offered this as a blessing. Be blessed with stretching yourself a little bit, and then bless others by stretching without committing violence. Be blessed by enjoying what you do, and then bless others by creating the environment where they can also enjoy what's happening. And last but not least, be blessed in the knowledge that what you do actually changes the world because it does. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:41:01] Amen. Thank you so much, and may God's richest blessings continue to be with you. Thank you for being with us today.