HomeSingers Are Like Plants: Morten Kjær On His Book "Modern Vocal Music"

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Like most of the people I spend time with these days, Morten Kjær is A Cappella People. As a friend, I know him as the outstanding baritone of m-pact and a Dane formerly of BaSix, as well as a vocal group director and local singer/songwriter. So imagine my surprise when he messaged to tell me he’d written a book called Modern Vocal Music. Turns out Morten has a lot of experience with directing and educating vocal groups and, with his long-time partner and friend, Malene Rigtrup, they decided to publish it. Armed with a copy of the book, filled with exercises, warm-ups, suggestions on group dynamics and organization, I set up a phone interview to introduce the book to the CASA audience who might not have heard of it or them.

Tom: You and I have been friends for about a year or so, but many others out here might not know you. Tell us about your background, your partner and how you came to write this book.

Morten: Well I used to sing in a children's choir when I was 10. It was a small church and we had an incredible choir leader who taught us a lot about harmonizing and I thought that was really fun thing to do. So that started my passion for harmony. There were two twin girls in that group and we started to get together and write our own songs and came up with harmonies inspired by our church group. That kicked off my song-writing career. I was from a small town in Denmark and I got a vocal teacher at 15. She thought I might be good enough to apply to the music conservatory. So when I was 17 I auditioned and started my master’s program...uh my 5-year program...at that school (the Royal Academy of Music). And during that time, aside from several choirs over the years, I heard about a choir called Vocal Line. My boyfriend at the time was in that group and I thought well maybe I should try it. During conservatory, I had also been singing with these 5 other guys in a group called BaSix. I became more and more serious about vocal music and starting arranging for the groups I was in; first for BaSix and later on for Vocal Line, where I became assistant director after a few years. So I’m not really formally trained in vocal music...I mean, the singing part, yes, but not arranging and harmonizing so much...a lot of it is learning by doing, and back in the day I did a lot of sucky arrangements, like half of them were so terrible. [laughs]

In Vocal Line there were 30 singers, and one of them was Malene who is my colleague today….she was an alto in the group….and our director Jans Johansen, he was stressed out all the time. He didn’t have time to arrange for the group and he was a little overworked, so at one point he opened it up for other people to interfere. And Malene and I were bored out of our minds and we started arranging...she did some Kate Bush and Sarah McLachlan and I started doing some R&B songs. And then Jans said why don’t you study the music with the singers because they know it better than I do. In BaSix as well I was often asked to workshop with amateur singers and groups. Malene and I really liked working together and when we started coordinating Vocal Line’s rehearsals, we figured we could make a little side business out of this. We wanted to go out to high schools and colleges and do this, so we started this thing called Orehanger. It’s been 9 years now and in all the years we’ve done a bunch of (song) books, started off with simple 3 and 4 part arrangements, and then we got more elaborate and started doing rehearsal tracks and CDs with singers from Vocal Line. We did a (song) book called Memories of a Color with pretty complex vocal arrangements on a CD and we also wanted to do some handbooks because we felt there was a lack of material, at least in Denmark, on some of the things we were interested in. For example, I was interested in vocal percussion, and even though I am not an expert at all, I felt like I was able to write some things down, so I wrote a little handbook and CD. Malene felt like her job at the music school didn’t have good enough materials so we decided to make the materials that we were looking for but never found.

We continued to release sheet music over the years and we started thinking about releasing something in English so that our clients outside of Denmark could learn some of the things we were teaching. We only had books that were written in Danish and we were starting to do more and more workshops in Germany and Holland and Sweden--and I moved to the US at some point--and we thought maybe it was time to take Malene’s warmups and write some more chapters about some of the things we were excited about for the past years. And that became the book Modern Vocal Music. We wanted to write down our ideas so other people can benefit from them. A lot of us in the community learn by doing...which is great!...but sometimes there’s a need for something more organized and we wanted to provide that.

Tom: So you’re trying to modernize the vocal music sound? What told you there was a need for this?

Morten: When we’d go online and look up warm-ups for instance, there were a lot of older warmups with a more classical approach.  I think the Nordic countries have their own style and sound, and Vocal Line has been a trendsetter group. We get a lot of questions about how we get that sound. What are our teaching methods? What are your work methods? How do you get to that result? And Malene and I realized that a lot of it is probably a result of rehearsals with Vocal Line where we’ve experimented with different ways of doing things, memorizing things, group arranging, and improvising. We didn’t see it in the materials we found and we found there was a lot of interest, especially in Germany where there is a lot of interested in a more contemporary way of teaching.

Tom: You let me sit in on a rehearsal for your vocal group out here in LA, Top Shelf, and it was fun reading through the book to be reminded of some of your methods that night...things that I found different and intriguing. Does Top Shelf help you further refine the techniques talked about in the book? Was the goal of the group to implement these ideas?

Morten: A little of both! I’m obviously learning new things all the time, and one of my goals when forming Top Shelf was to continue...it’s been a while since I taught my own group at a relatively high level and one of the things I’m passionate about is finding ways to engage singers in ways they can be creative and still be some kind of togetherness. You know, I’ve seen groups that improvise all the time and after a while I get bored, and I’ve seen groups that do scores all the time, and that gets boring. And I wanted to see if I could find a group that was open to combining traditional teaching methods and, like, jam-sessions and I try out new things all the time. I was really proud of them the other day: we were on Tosh.0 and they asked us to prepare an arrangement, so I did an arrangement of the song they wanted us to do and then when we presented it to them and did the choreo, Daniel Tosh said he wanted it to be like The Sing-Off with all these genres and tempo changes and more choreo and all that stuff. So the morning after we all just got together and we had a couple of hours to put together some different style changes. A lot of groups might freak out with only a couple of hours to get ready for national TV, but they very easily adjusted and I feel like that’s something they’re teaching me how to do and something that I’m teaching them how to do. It’s my goal as a leader to have an intelligent group that can still take orders.

Tom: Have you noticed a difference in the types of singers you have out here in the US versus what you’re used to seeing? Have you had to change any of your teaching methods or ideas in forming a US group?

Morten: For sure. One of the things that I enjoy the most about US singers is that they are more…free. People are not afraid of taking chances...or they are but they do it anyway. I mean, it’s easy to get them to sing forte and it doesn’t take much work to get them to improvise. That can be a lot of work in Germany. I like to compare singers to plants and in Europe, I feel like singers need a lot of water. They need a lot of compliments, details, and instructions before they will flower. And in the US I feel like I spend most of my time on trimming, otherwise the plants just go crazy. I will actually spend a lot of time with Top Shelf getting them to sing things softer, or different...they have a lot of energy. I am exhausted after a typical rehearsal just trying to manage their energy. And with the Danes or Germans, I am tired at the end trying to get them to do things that Americans will just do. Also, taking exercises from the book, I use more formal exercises with Top Shelf because I feel like they need more training, but with Germans I use a lot more icebreakers because they are just afraid of singing and I’m trying to get them to relax and and get them comfortable. It’s like the difference between the sound of the Real Group and the sound of the House Jacks.

Tom: Great answers. OK, the book is Modern Vocal Music and I’m a high school choir director that’s looking at your book. What should I expect to get from this, maybe in contrast to what I’ve been taught?

Morten: The book is offering new trends and new ways to think about choral music. Some of the chapters on study methods and vocal development and communications offer food for thought on ways that directors can connect with their singers. “Modern” doesn’t just mean “contemporary”, but it’s also a vibe of a style of music. Many of the exercises are classic, but some are obviously pop songs with their chord progressions and lyrics. They’re definitely coming out as a “pop” and some of the exercises might not fit all buyers.

Tom: All right. Just one more question and I want to broaden the question a little. Is there anything you’d like to say to someone who has never heard of this book, or maybe someone who’s making a yes/no decision on whether to buy it? Anything you’d like to share that we haven’t covered?

Morten: Hmm. I find that no matter what community you are a part of, without even noticing it we create a “normal” about how things are done. I’m hoping that with this book American choir leaders will get a bit of fresh air, coming from someplace else. Where the sound is a little different, the thoughts are a little different...just a different angle or outlook. It invites you to think about things that not everyone else is thinking about in your area. I don’t know if that’s true for everybody, but when I’m with m-pact and we’re working with schools, even though the groups are very different, there is still an “American” way, American values, behavior. There are these different styles and streams and stereotypes here and Europe’s style might be a little lighter, a little jazzier, a little more intellectual and I think it would be very interesting for American groups to adopt this style and see what that looks like here. The loudness and freeness and jazz traditions that come with the West combined with some of the more experimental “Nordic” stuff.

For more details about Morten, you should read his biographical entry for our friends at the VocalBlog: http://vocalblog.acappellazone.com/tag/morten-kier/

To order the book: http://www.orehanger.dk/

About the writer:
Tom Keyes is a passionate and dedicated a cappella facilitator, event producer, and music director. He is the Executive Producer of the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival, has formerly served as director of the Contemporary A Cappella League, and will serve as the Director of Operations at the new A Cappella Academy this summer. With a considerable background in vocal and instrumental music, Tom was bitten by the a cappella bug in 2009 when he decided to create and direct his own group, the award-winning Frequency, and has been a passionate advocate of all-vocal music ever since. Carefully balancing music, work, and family, he lives with his wife and three children in Aliso Viejo, CA.