Warming up with James Jordan

As a choral director, I have to admit that I’m not much of a James Jordan fan (the James Jordan of “Evoking Sound” fame). But I’m starting to come around, really! On a lark, I recently dug out The Choral Warm-Up: Core Vocal Exercises by Marilyn Shenenberger and James Jordan and started using it in a voice lesson to good effect. The book had actually been mouldering on my shelf for over two years since I bought it at an ACDA convention, mostly because I thought my own personal collection of vocal warmups was just fine, thank you. But in the interest of self-development and learning, I pulled the book down from the shelf and gave it a fair look. Now I have singers who say they love the warmups, and one who said he met James Jordan and thought he was awesome. So now I’m trying to get back in the groove of digging on Jordan, although it still remains a challenge. Most choral directors would call me a heretic or a hater for having the slightest dislike for James Jordan, but I have to borrow a page from his book and say that it’s in the interest of authenticity that I be honest about my feelings, because it goes deeper than just having read a couple of books.

I first met the man years ago in graduate school, when he dropped in on our Collegiate Chorale rehearsal to help us with J.S. Bach’s immortal motet, Singet dem Herrn. He bounced around like a sprightly little frog, infecting us with his lightness and ease, and that lightness really came out in the singing–anyone who has sung Bach knows that his vocal music is essentially keyboard dance music with syllables, and the joy of mastering Bach as a singer is when you reach the moment of being at once totally mechanized and totally inspired by God. And James Jordan had the knack for getting us there within the space of 45 minutes. Pretty nifty.

Afterward, as a gift, we graduate assistants got copies of his books, and I ended up with The Musician’s Soul: A Journey Examining Spirituality for Performers, Teachers, Composers, Conductors, and Music Educators. When I read it, I thought it was a provocative book, explaining how most conductors’ hang-ups stem from envy–of the perfect sound, the perfect performance or experience. And he talked at length about being authentic and vulnerable with your singers, so as to get to the soft, immaculate heart of the music for an emotional, rapturous performance. A lovely book, though for some reason it didn’t inform much of my practice at the time, and I found myself leaving it on the shelf.

Then I learned why. A friend encouraged me to take the Landmark Forum, a weekend-long self-transformation seminar where you learn exactly how inauthentic you are, and how your envy, resentments, regrets, and other negative self-talk sabotages your life. It completely turned my life upside-down, and not in a bad way. I needed a sort of kick in the head to be a more responsible, grown-up person, and when I saw how others around me were discovering themselves, I jumped on the bandwagon. Yes, I was a self-pitying brat and constantly comparing myself to others. The Musician’s Soul was on the shelf because I didn’t want to confront what it had to say about me. I made the connection between the Landmark Forum and that book. In fact, I was to learn that Jordan’s philosophy and that of Werner Erhardt, the original mastermind behind the “technology” of the Landmark Forum, are not too far apart: a book that used to be required reading in one of the high-end communication courses of Landmark as well as Jordan’s own graduate studies in choral conducting was Martin Buber’s I And Thou. Eventually, I gave my copy of The Musician’s Soul to a friend, because I figured at Landmark I was getting all the self-transformation I needed.

But here’s the danger they don’t tell you about Landmark and other programs like it: They want you to stay involved at all costs. If you’re experiencing challenges in your life, it’s because you don’t spend enough time taking courses or assisting with Landmark. After being involved for months, I shared my concern that my money was slipping and I wanted to create more structure around it. Landmark’s answer? Assist with our finance department. It’s not because you spend too much time here in our expensive courses and volunteer assisting program, it’s because you don’t spend enough time here! And I believed it. If I didn’t say yes to them, it meant that I wasn’t saying yes to myself and my life, because that’s what they hold at stake in their programs. The ultimate redux of this is, Landmark is Life.

Some people who have had contact with Eckhart Tolle and other self-transformation gurus report similar stuff; that is, “if you don’t buy into this philosophy or method (literally $$$), you’re beyond help and doomed to be the slave of your ego forever.” Or they want you to go away because “YOU ARE NOT READY (you unworthy swine).”

Very few of these teachers realize that their programs are just Buddhism in cellophane.

(And Buddhism was never a five-hundred-dollar program where teachers get to emotionally abuse you until you crack and admit how horrible you are, and make you desire this punishment over and over until you become one of their drones and share about how wonderful it is, meanwhile frittering all your time and money away.)

So that became my image of James Jordan: just another Buddhist in cellophane, only this one was holding a conductor’s baton. But is it fair to say that? Is that just my ego getting in the way again? I’m not going to sit around and claim that I know everything there is to know about choral conducting, or say that I’m beyond needing inspiration or direction. Far from it. I still hunger for those things; I’m just not about to sell myself to any one philosophy, especially after nearly paying with my life once before.

For now, I can take it bit by bit, starting with Jordan’s little vocal warmup book, singing “nee-voo-nee-voo” all the way up and down the scale, and perhaps I will find myself at the heart of things after all–but my OWN heart, and not one manufactured by another bookshelf guru.

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