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Bilingual Choral Music: A Conversation with Marcell Silva Steuernagel

Marcell Silva Steuernagel, assistant professor of church music and director of the Master of Sacred Music program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, talks about what instruments can be added 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 Marcell Silva Steuernagel, who's assistant professor of church music and director of the Master of Sacred Music program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. His doctorate is from Baylor University and his undergrad and graduate degrees from various universities in Curitiba, Brazil, including a degree in Brazilian guitar and jazz improvisation. I first met Marcell while on a concert tour to Brazil with the Calvin Women's Chorale, where we participated in a women's choral festival under the direction of renowned conductor María Guinand, who's also featured in this webinar series. Marcell was a wonderful host to my choir, and on an afternoon where we had scheduled an educational session on Brazilian music, Marcell did a phenomenal show and tell on various instruments and rhythms. I'm just so relieved that he did not ask me to dance because I have two left feet! At the dress rehearsal of the festival concert was the first time I heard Marcell add instruments and improvise. That truly made the music, which was already very good at that point, come alive in a magical way. So welcome, Marcell. 

Marcell Silva Steuernagel [00:02:17] Thank you, Pearl, and thank you, it's an honor to be here with you and sharing this webinar series. It was a great time in Brazil when we met; we had a lot of fun, and I hope that we can do the same today. We live in a weird moment in time, and one of the things that I've enjoyed as we kind of slowly negotiate whatever it is we're in is the taste of making music again. So it seems that little by little, we're stepping into spaces where we get to sing and play together again. So I'm grateful for the opportunity to be here and discuss certain aspects of music making with you. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:03:02] Great! Marcell, can you share with us what instruments can be added to better capture the style and spirit of Latin and South American choral music? And if perhaps some of those instruments are not easily available here in North America, what are some instruments that can be good substitutes and alternatives? 

Marcell Silva Steuernagel [00:03:26] I think when we talk about Latin American music, we're talking about not one world, but worlds of music, to use Titan's expression. There are these ecologies of music that relate to each other but have their unique instruments or these particular rhythms, and we could talk about that all day. I think a great part of successfully rehearsing and performing Latin American music, especially for the conductor, is to immerse themselves in the performance practices. And that's the first thing I would say, Pearl, is that as a choral conductor myself, I feel like I know what the temptations are: we're on a tight schedule, or we're on a budget, and we say, “If I add this one thing, it'll really make the performance come alive.” I really do believe that the first thing that will make the performance come alive is immersion into the performance practices that are entailed by that particular rhythm or part of the world. When we start talking about the instruments, I think there's a distinction, because when we talk about choral music in the United States—and it's very different; you saw what choral music was like in Latin America. It's one thing to talk about choral music as group singing or, if you will, arranged group singing in some way. Sometimes we have notated music. Other times we have improvisational rules that kind of regulate who does what, who occupies which harmonic space. So choral traditions can be improvisational as much as they can be through-composed, if you will. And at that intersection, I think Latin American instruments really are a space where the improvisational aspect of Latin American music making can shine without necessarily jeopardizing all the hard work that you've already done with your choir in terms of reading the music and then balancing out the parts, getting those vowels and consonants to sync up and shape together—all the things that that we know we're supposed to be doing. And apart from the piano, which is the accompanying instrument par excellence of North American choral music, maybe a piece of good news is that the instrument is found pretty much throughout urban Latin America. So if you're playing an urban Latin American style like bossa nova or tango, for example, the piano lends itself to that kind of music, and it's more a matter again of getting the performance practices right. In the studio, we talk about “finding the pocket,” it's if you're at the piano, you really have to be able to, in a sense—let's go with the bossa nova; I have my trusty nylon string [guitar] here. Take a bossa nova vibe. [Example on guitar.] How do you replicate that kind of sound on the piano? You've got to pay attention to the voicing. So close voicing. Guitars, the strings are stacked in fourths and thirds. So you get these different kinds of intervals that are not necessarily idiomatic to the piano player, the piano fingerings. So a lot of times I'll notice that, for example, if I'm accompanying a North American SATB hymn, I revert to certain types of voicing. Whereas if I'm playing Brazilian music, my fingers go to other places. So I think the piano has a place, is what I'm trying to say. And then there's a little bit of homework that goes along with that. Sometimes the publisher will have done the homework, and you can see it in the voicing in the actual part that they've really kind of engineered that idiomatic nature of the rhythm and style into the piano writing. But that's not always the case. So if you're doing Latin American music, sometimes you might encourage your accompanists to do their own thing instead of playing exactly what's in the score.

As far as harmonic instruments go, I was recently, a couple of years ago, doing an ethnography in the very south of Brazil, and I was visiting a congregation who had a choir. And the choir was up in the loft at the back, in the gallery, and the clergy person said, “Now we're going to hear from the choir.” And I was fully expecting an organ or a piano to give an introduction. And the conductor literally picked up one of these, a nylon string guitar, and cued the notes and accompanied herself with the choir. And I'm from Brazil, and that was still like, hey, you know, there are choirs out there who find it more idiomatic to do music accompanied by a guitar than a piano. And sometimes that's for logistical reasons because they don't have a piano, or they can't find someone to tune the piano, or whatever it is. But the fact of the matter is that the acoustic guitar is just part of the fabric of Latin American music, pretty much from Patagonia to Mexico. Different builds, different sounds, different styles, different rhythms. But the guitar is there. So I think the second consideration would be if you want to add some flavor harmonically speaking, then an acoustic guitar, nylon string guitar. Now there are some issues with level, because the piano usually matches well with the choir in an acoustic setting. That's not always the case with a guitar. You might see behind me here that little amp right there, a Fishman solid state amp that is unobtrusive; it’s not too loud, but just gives me that extra bump. When I accompany a vocal ensemble with the guitar, I have that with me so that the guitar can support what we're doing vocally.

I can't mention all of the Latin American string instruments that you could use. I'm going to mention two. One is the viola caipira, which is a Brazilian ten-string—ten strings and five courses, five pairs of two. So it's got this natural, lush chorus sound, almost like a twelve-string guitar, that is used for a number of styles in Brazil's central and central west regions. It's a big part of the country. And then the other is the charango, which is really small, traditionally made with a tortoise-shell in the back as a resonator, a really small instrument. It's the one that Ariel Ramírez wrote for in the “Misa Criolla.” So the introduction that we hear when you listen to that Mass is done on the charango, and it's got this kind of tremolo feature to it. That's an instrument that is really good if you're trying to add another harmonic layer on top of what you already have. So let's say you have a piano for the basic layer, the harmonic rhythm structure. And then you want to add, say, icing on the cake. A charango is a great instrument for that, or a viola caipira if you want some of that lush chorus, kind of strummy—I'm reverting to all sorts of stereotypes here that I shouldn't. But you know what I'm saying, right? So that class of instruments is something I would look to: harmonic-driven stringed instruments that you can use. The mandolin occupies a place in many traditions of Latin American music. You find it in Brazil in the chorinho tradition; you find it in Argentina; you find it in other countries as well.

So that's my second point. The first, again: the piano has a place. The second: stringed instruments that occupy a harmonic place in your instrumental ecology, if you will. And then another category is melodic instruments. That can be anything from panpipes to a flute to a quena, which is an Andean flute that is played almost like a recorder, but it's got a bigger, airier sound and a lower register. Or a pífano from Brazil, which is almost like an ottavino, like a an octave up flute that is used throughout the eastern portion of Brazil—melodic instruments that, just like any good arranging student knows, when you're thinking functionally about the instrumentation, then these melodic instruments, they comment, they gloss, they connect sections, they serve a descant function with the choir. And to revisit a previous comment I made, sometimes the publisher will write some of these things in; sometimes you're going to have to do that. And I've been in many situations in Latin America, in Brazil particularly, where I was like, “This doesn't sound the way we need it to sound. Let me just write a flute descant real quick.” Or if I have a good instrument player, I'm just, “Do whatever.” I do that a lot. And I find that here in the U.S., sometimes that produces a little bit of panic. But the standard mode of music making in Latin America is improvisational.

I'll illustrate that with an example from church music. When I moved to Texas, I'm a guitar player, so I started doing church gigs. Hey, can you play Sunday morning here or there? And then I would get there, and I quickly realized that they did not expect me to improvise. They expected me to play my part, stay in my lane, and do whatever was on the YouTube link. . . . In Latin America, if you stay in your lane, you're disrespecting the song. Because you're supposed to dance, you're supposed to step on the lines, and you're supposed to improvise. And the other players will respond to that improvisatory gesture with their own. And that is considered a measure of active and respectful engagement with the repertoire. So the paradigms are so different. And then the question becomes, Well, how do I reproduce that. So as far as melodic instruments go, sometimes you might have to write something on top of the arrangement, or if you have someone who knows the idiom, let them loose and trust them and see what happens. Pearl, that concert you mentioned that we did together in Curitiba, . . . I remember María. I'm like, “María, what should we play?” And she's like, “Well, just play. Just do your thing.” And it was so liberating and beautiful at the same time. So, melodic instruments. I mentioned a few. I could mention others. Let's stick with those examples.

And then finally, rhythm and that. I mean, that'll just mess us up, right? Because there are so many options. What do you incorporate? What don't you incorporate? You could use, for example, this is a very fashionable instrument nowadays, the cajón. So it's got kind of this low kick drum frequency, but also the snap. So this is an instrument found throughout Latin America, particularly strong in Chile. But across Latin America, you'll find people playing the cajón. It’s pretty established in the U.S. nowadays. You can get one on It's not too expensive. So that might be a good investment. And it's much less obtrusive when you accompany vocal music than a drum kit, for example. And it can serve that kind of basic rhythmic function. If you're trying to do Latin American music, especially multilingual, bilingual, or in other words, a song that is hospitable, that almost asks you to bring in some of the flavor from wherever it is, sometimes the part will be written. Even when the part is written, my assumption is that it should not be played as written. And I think that's a really important comment. So my assumption is that if the rhythm section is written out—and unless you're doing orchestral music and you're supposed to stay in your lane—if you're doing a choral piece and the accompaniment is suggested, what I would tell the percussion section is, This is your matrix; improvise on the matrix. So anything from a cajón to a shaker, while the cajón might give you the basic subdivision, a lot of Latin American music is based on a one-two, it’s a binary. [Demonstrates one-two rhythms.] I mean, it can vary. It can go faster, slower. But then you have the instruments that are higher up on the frequency spectrum, like a shaker; they'll be giving you subdivisions. And you put those things together. . . . Rhythmic patterns in Latin American music are always complementary. They're like gears in an engine, and they'll integrate to produce the rhythmic drive of the song. In fact, this year in the Hymn Society Journal, a journal of congregational song, I wrote a series of columns about performance practices from the global South. And if you're particularly interested in this webinar series, you might find some interesting things there harmonically, rhythmically, in terms of language, that might help you out as well. 

I'm going to recap these categories, Pearl, and then I'll pass it back to you. The piano is the the instrument that is always with us, and the place it can occupy a lot of times [is] more percussive playing than we would be used to; then these other harmonic instruments that can complement or sometimes replace that that harmonic component; then the melodic component and the rhythmic component. So I hope these categories are helpful as you think about the possibilities of performance practices in Latin American choral music. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:18:48] So I appreciate your reference to the series of articles in Hymn Society Journal. I think that that's very useful for those who may want to dig deeper. What I find very reassuring is that when you talk about piano or guitar or using flute, recorder, cajón, and shaker, those are instruments that we have so readily available in North America. Sometimes I think that there's a fear of we don't have their authentic instruments, and so would it sound . . . would it have the same flavor? But I think what I'm taking away is that we have those basic instruments here. So let's say for a conductor who's starting out new and saying, OK, I've got a couple of people in my congregation who could play, Aside from what you've shared, are there basic suggestions that you would give to this conductor who wants to tap into a couple of the congregants? 

Marcell Silva Steuernagel [00:19:53] You mean in terms of instrumentation? Apart from the guitars, I'm going to focus on the rhythm section because I think that's a great place to have people come in. If a guitar player doesn't know how to play Brazilian jazz or bossa nova or whatever, it's going to be hard to pull him in and say, Do this. But in the percussion world, you tell someone, Hey, can you do a one-two? Yes, I can do a one-two. Well, here's a pair of claves, and let's do it. In that world, the good news is that a lot of what we would consider specialized or world percussion nowadays is pretty incorporated into the industry. So if you look at brands like LP, Latin Percussion, other kinds of standard percussion instrument brands, you can find pretty much whatever you need online. And the question of authenticity, I think, sometimes holds us back from engaging with these performance practices. And I would say that it's better to use what you have at hand than to not do it. There are certain staples. Some of these staples are a pair of congas, two or three congas; we would call that a set. Or bongos, which are the smaller ones. So that's pretty standard fare. They're a bit more expensive, but they'll cover your Caribbean, Central American, the northern portion of South America. . . . Or a pair of claves just hitting each other. Very simple pattern. You can do it with two blocks of wood. You can get a pair of claves on Amazon or or go to Guitar Center; they have them there. Other staple instruments include whatever form of shaker you're using. So this is what I have at home for when I'm like demoing things, so I can split it up and do a more subtle rhythm, or I can double it, and when I double it, I get a bigger sound. So that's what I use here. Usually percussionists will have a set of these. Another typical instrument is what in Brazil we call upon a pandeiro. Pearl, I haven't found a good word in English for pandeiro; even in ethnomusicology literature it's referred to as a pandeiro. What it is is a tambourine, so it's got the platelets, the little cymbals around it, but it's covered in a skin, and you play the skin like a bass and snare, and the cymbals serve the hi-hat function. So you get almost like a full percussion section in one little instrument, the pandeiro. I've already mentioned the cajón, which is a not terribly expensive instrument that choirs seem to gravitate to. It's unobtrusive because it's in a different frequency spectrum than most of the choir is operating in. I think those instruments . . . I mean, you can always add more: caxixis, maracas, sapucaia. . . .They serve these functions. And in Latin American music, we tend to think of that complementing that I mentioned between this bass section or the kick drum section, this subdivided shaker section, and something in the middle that gives the local flavor to the rhythm. So the claves I just mentioned, for example: [demonstrates rhythm by clapping, then with shakers]. And then I would have my bass under that. So a very straightforward way to think about it is in three layers. And use whatever you can find. Go to the children's Sunday school room. Find whatever maracas someone left there in 1985. Use them. It'll work. And then as you become informed by these practices, then I would honor the tradition by looking a little deeper. If you can purchase an instrument from one of those places. My cajón is a great example. I could have gotten a mass-produced cajón from China or even from the United States. This is from A Tempo from Chile, and it wasn't more expensive than an American made instrument. But this honors the tradition of the cajón and the place from whence it comes. So I try to do that as much as possible. I think there's an ethics to this process as well. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:24:41] So in terms of layering, then, you would start with one instrument and then you add on, and then add on, and maybe have one of them back off. Is that pretty standard practice? 

Marcell Silva Steuernagel [00:24:55] Yes. And it's important to say that sometimes if there can only be one, a lot of times I'll choose either the bottom end or the top end. So I might start just with the base on the cajón, just driving the basic pattern, and I would have nothing else. Or sometimes all I need is the shaker, and I'll just have it as a texture over the choir. I won't necessarily work with both. I think that has to do with the performance setting, if you want it to be a more intimate or flashier, bigger thing. There are other considerations here in terms of the set list and where you're doing the song. Many of these songs, even when they're clearly arranged from Latin America, they’re elastic songs. They work in family home settings, they work in festival settings, they work in church settings, they work in the city square. So in that sense, I would encourage you to match the instrumentation to the context in which you're making the music as well. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:26:02] How about for the choir? Do you kind of just ask them to stay in their own lane since you've got all this extra improvisation happening? Or should a choir director feel like, OK, do I have to get them to improvise because that's a wholly different group. It's scary! 

Marcell Silva Steuernagel [00:26:21] That's a great question. First of all, as a director, you know your ensemble better than anyone else (or you should). There's a couple of things that I would highlight here as far as what the singers should be doing. If you can get them to interact with the rhythm, that would be awesome, and that can take on many expressions. If they start to move, just let them move, because that's what we do. That's what we do in Latin America. You don't do music and not move! That's just weird. So when I'm working with North American singers, a lot of times when I do Latin American music, I don't start out by saying, “Y’all should be moving now.” I start out by getting in the groove and seeing how they react, because a lot of times they will naturally start to move. And I'm like, OK, I don't have to say anything. It doesn't become intimidating. It's not a challenge. It's just a natural response to musicking. . . . Sometimes you might have to coach them a little bit. Let's say you want them to clap. . . . If you try to sync up forty people, it might not work. So you have to do some of the work of getting them to do it together or perhaps doing it in a section of the song or have a subsection of your singers adding the clave. So it doesn't have to be an instrument. It can be, “You, you and you are going to clap, and the rest of us are not.” So you can match the volumes and make sure that your overall mix sounds good. I think some of that has to do with vocality as well. I know in the series we're dividing the voice and the instruments into different sessions. But the interpretive challenge of engaging with the music also has to do with the vowel-shaping work that we do. And to be frank, sometimes leading singers in a direction that they've been trained out of . . . for example, if you're singing in Portuguese or one of the many Latin American Native languages, they require nasal sounds. And you spent four years of undergrad trying to get rid of that nasal quality and then you're suddenly like, Well, I want you to sing [nasally]. So some of those things have to be said, especially if you're singing in the language. . . . I do think that overall, as a composer and a conductor, that if I'm putting in the effort to get instrumental engagement that will that will honor the tradition and give it that flavor, then there should be a corresponding strategy with the way I'm dealing with the singers and the sounds that they're making, whether those sounds are with the body or with with the voice or however. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:29:38] Perhaps you mentioned this in your articles, but are there any particular groups that say, “I'm a conductor who’s starting out, so kind of taking baby steps. What are some groups that I should listen to that you recommend I listen to to get an idea of that flavor?” 

Marcell Silva Steuernagel [00:29:59] It's hard to recommend particular groups, but maybe it's easier to . . . we're all on YouTube these days. And I think it's incredibly helpful to type in, for example, the name of a rhythm and see what comes up. I've become more interested lately in just letting YouTube take me wherever it wants to take me, because that way I find people who are doing things that are different. I can give two examples if that's helpful. Recently, I produced a worship service for the Calvin Worship Symposium, and we wanted to do something with the Brazilian flavor. So instead of doing a virtual choir, I produced this in an asynchronous, improvisatory way. In other words, I recorded a demo track, sent it to the percussionist who recorded their track, then to the bass player who recorded; then I re-recorded because I was responding to them. So what I would do in a live setting, I had to kind of deconstruct over time. I would rerecord the guitar, then send it to the accordion player, who then re-recorded, and it was more work than any of us thought it would be, but in the end I think we came up with a product that kind of represents the things that we've been talking about here. So one rhythm that you might want to type into [a search bar] is baião. Baião is a rhythm from north Brazil. I took a very well-known Brazilian Christian rock song and made a beautiful arrangement of that song. And then I was working with the singer, and she sent me the first cut of her voice, and I said, “That's got to be more nasal, not less nasal.” And she's like, “Well, Marcell, I've worked all these years to get rid of that nasal quality.” So I'm going to show you just a little bit of what it sounds like. 

[“Todo Som,” at 3:44 in the video at] [00:31:57]

Marcell Silva Steuernagel [00:33:58] So in that video the interlocking parts that I was talking about, that's very clearly demonstrated. You saw at the beginning of the video. It's a very light, percussive texture. There isn't a lot going on. And granted, this is not a choral piece, but sometimes in a choral setting where I have a full vocal range, I'll stick with that really simple accompaniment from the beginning. And I might not really ask the percussionist to really take over the arrangement. So if you type “baião” into YouTube, you're going to see videos and videos and videos and videos. And when I'm leading in a new style, even Latin American styles that I'm not familiar with, I do a lot of that. A lot. Way more than is probably healthy for me. I just sit there and then I watch, I expose myself, and I try to start making it work for me. I'll grab the guitar and I'll try it on the piano. I try it on different instruments. Once I have the song inside my throat, inside my heart, then I'll teach my ensemble. So there's a process there.

Another rhythm that I want—just to keep mentioning, what should [a conductor] listen to? There's a rhythm, an Afro-Brazilian rhythm, called the ijexá, or sometimes called the afoxé. And just like the baião, it's also binary, but it goes in a different direction because of the offbeats and the syncopation that happens. So I'm going to share a little bit of another song and then I'll comment on it as well. 

[music] [00:35:40]

Marcell Silva Steuernagel [00:35:50] It’s got this very ballad-like quality, and the arrangement’s very open. And notice what the bongos are doing: it's almost nothing. It's like they're responding to whatever gaps in the texture are there, and that's it. And you can totally tell a percussionist, “Hey, fill in the gaps,” and they will. 

[music] [00:36:22] 

Marcell Silva Steuernagel [00:36:38] So this is very characteristic of many Afro-Latin styles, which is you omit the one [beat]. So the vocal line lands on the one. . . .The ensemble avoids the one. . . . And in that sense, you're creating a place for the voice, and you're moving the song forward through the gap. 

[music] [00:37:18] Music playing

Marcell Silva Steuernagel [00:37:39] If you type in—I literally did this when I was writing about this arrangement for the Hymn Society—I typed in afoxé into YouTube, and I just let YouTube take me on a roll until I had the references I needed because I didn't have language to talk about it in English. I'm used to talking about it in Portuguese. So I literally watched a bunch of North American drummers explain afoxé to a North American audience, so I could write about it in English translation. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:38:10] Well, this has been absolutely fascinating. I hope to our viewers it's an encouragement. I love that freedom toward creativity and that those are suggestions. Being a classically trained musician, sometimes we are so locked into the notes, the notation, the page, and so giving us that freedom to have traveled widely enough to have . . . a great appreciation and to not be afraid to go out there and just give it your best shot and to try for it. And that the instruments that we can use very easily what we have on hand. You know, sometimes when I used to teach adult choirs, they would say, Well, Pearl, do you want us to sing in a foreign language or do you want us to move, or do you want us to clap? We can only do one. And it's always a negotiation of coaxing them into: We start with what may feel quite foreign, especially if it's maybe Portuguese or a different language. And then having them, as you said, get into the groove so that I'm not telling them, “Now, move this way. No, move that way,” so that it comes out of their own body and their sense of it. But I have found those experiences quite humorous sometimes when they asked me to choose one, and I want them all. 

Marcell Silva Steuernagel [00:39:39] Perhaps that is a challenge. My sense, Pearl, is that it's easier today than it was before, and that's something to celebrate. And I think we should encourage people to do so. Part of that uncomfortableness, I think it's an important part of engaging with the tradition of the other. You want to be able to taste something different—a dish that you're not accustomed to, a rhythm that you're not accustomed to. And the second thing is what you mentioned about improv as a classically trained musician. I remember at one point, I had silos. I had one silo for my conductor/ composer mind, another silo for my Brazilian rep, and another silo for my 1 a.m. rock-and-roll cover band gig. But thankfully there was a point in my career where the walls of those silos just kind of came down, and you start to realize the opportunities of music making that kind of flow between what we have notated and programmed and what we can improvise on. In that sense I think music-making becomes a more broad-ranging, hospitable, interactive process, which is in my opinion a good thing. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:41:04] And even though we live in a difficult time right now, we have so many beautiful things still to celebrate. And it's kind of the mom in me, coaxing kids, to say, just give it a try and be surprised at how much you'll actually like it. So we thank you so much for your time, Marcell, and giving us some really great pointers for us to embark on this adventure as we learn more bilingual choral music and to feel that we can be a little bit more confident. Thanks again for your time, and may we see each other in person real soon. 

Marcell Silva Steuernagel [00:41:40] Amen to that. Thank you, Pearl. It's been a pleasure. And thanks for the invitation.