Walter Bitner

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As I Went Over Tawny Marsh

Loch Vennachar, Perthshire, by Harold Sutton Palmer (1854-1933) (click images to enlarge)


This gem, beloved by my choirs, was one of my favorite canons to teach to and sing with children, and a staple of my children’s choir repertoire for many years. I first came across it the early 1990s in a book I can’t find right now, a little red book of traditional songs in English used for students of English as a foreign language at schools in twentieth century continental Europe. I taught As I Went Over Tawny Marsh to my students at Blue Rock School and at most of the other elementary schools I taught at afterwards.

My students always called this song Tawny.


Herring’s Head

The Atlantic Herring (click images to enlarge)


Herring’s Head is a cumulative folksong that I taught to and sung with students of all ages at many schools over the course of my teaching career. It features humorous lyrics that deliver a conservation message about whole animal or “nose to tail” eating (mindful consumption). Herring’s Head‘s call-and-response structure, extroverted attitude, and whimsy made it a popular and successful song to sing with large groups of children and adults.


How Great is the Pleasure

or, Love and Music


directing the Nashville School of the Arts Chamber Choir, May 13, 2013, Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, Nashville (click images to enlarge)


This lovely eighteenth century canon was a staple of my school choirs’ repertoires throughout my entire teaching career. I came across it in a songbook when I first started teaching at Blue Rock School in the early 1990s, and I believe I taught this to every choir I directed until I left teaching in 2014. I taught it to every age group: elementary, middle school, high school. Over the years, How Great is the Pleasure became a kind of unofficial choir theme song for my vocal ensembles, and although it was not something we often sang in performances (especially with older groups of children), we sang it on a regular basis, often as part of our warm up or to close a rehearsal. I never met a child who did not love to sing this song.


Fie, Nay, Prithee John

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) ~ anonymous portrait

Singing canons is a wonderful way to help young singers develop independence, sing harmony and polyphony, and all with material that takes much less time to learn than music cast in more than one part. In strict canon, everyone sings the same part: we all learn the same melody and text together, and once it’s solid split up the group, start singing it at different times, and presto! musical magic.

Canons can be simple enough for very young children to learn in a few minutes or so challenging that professional choirs must exert considerable effort to sing them well. With a broad repertoire of canons on the tip of her tongue, the skilled music teacher is ready to make or teach satisfying music with students of any level, for any occasion, at any time or place.

Over the course of my teaching career I taught dozens of canons to students of all ages: rounds with students beginning in Kindergarten, catches with more experienced singers (usually by third grade). We sang canons about everything: happy and sad canons, silly canons, canons about love, animals, God, food, about music itself. Canons in English, Latin, French, German, Russian. Canons. One of the most important canons I tried to teach to all of my students over the years is the ancient Sumer Is Icumen In, which I have written in detail about here.

Another fabulous canon which I taught to hundreds of students from elementary through high school, and which is the subject of today’s article, is the indignant and difficult “chiding” catch Fie, Nay, Prithee John by the great Henry Purcell. And yes, by teaching this song, I taught my students to swear.



Off The Podium Published in Choral Director Magazine

choraldirectorwb1016I’m thrilled to share here that my column Off The Podium made its first appearance this week in the October 2016 issue of Choral Director magazine. Off The Podium will be a regular component of Choral Director going forward, featuring the kinds of articles about music education I have been posting here on my blog since March 2015.

And as if this weren’t sweet enough: to launch my column with a splash, I am also featured on the cover!


The Count

Music City Youth Orchestra students warm up before a concert, May 22, 2011, Schermerhorn Symphony center, Nashville

Music City Youth Orchestra students warm up before a concert, May 22, 2011, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville

The Count is a concentration exercise –  a group activity – that I used with my student ensembles in the last few minutes before going on stage for a performance. It is a very useful thing to do! and became something of a special ritual with my ensembles.

I didn’t invent The Count, although I had never heard it called by any name before my students began calling it this. I first encountered it in the early 1990s when I witnessed Ellen Provost, a teacher at Blue Rock School, use it with a group of 6th graders before the performance of a play – I believe it was either The Conference of the Birds or Monkey. I began using it myself at Carrollwood Day School years later, and it was at CDS that it became a regular practice – something I always did with my students before a performance, if possible, for the rest of my teaching career.


Four Practices

FOURPRACTICESWhen I read education articles or discussions of education practices on the internet, a theme that I constantly encounter is classroom management and discipline. Current trends in behavior modification theories and practices have promoted a widespread use of reward systems for social (as opposed to anti-social) behavior that is at odds with my own beliefs about education.

In 1998, our four-year old son was enrolled in a preschool program, and we learned from him one afternoon that at his (church sponsored) preschool they were paying the children for good behavior in play money and on Fridays, allowing the children who had accumulated some “cash” to spend it on toys or candy from the “store”.

My wife and I were shocked at what I still regard as a deeply cynical approach to the education of young children, and withdrew our son from that program immediately.


Understanding Accelerando: FAQ

AccelerandoOur very first auditions for Accelerando are around the corner: applications and all supporting materials are due by Friday, March 4, and auditions will be held at W.O. Smith Music School on Saturday, March 12.

For the last two months, our Education & Community Engagement Department here at the Nashville Symphony has held information sessions out in the community and fielded many questions by email and phone as we seek to find the right students to begin this groundbreaking program this year.

Accelerando is a unique music education initiative distinct in many ways from other music education programs in Middle Tennessee. In order to foster greater understanding of the goals of Accelerando, what the program entails, and who is eligible to participate, I have compiled here a list of some of the most frequently asked questions we have received about Accelerando – together with some responses.


How to Teach Recorder Fingerings

This post is especially for those teaching the recorder to children in school settings – but it might be worth a look if you are learning how to play the instrument as well.

playing recorder with Blue Rock School students, 1991

playing recorder with Blue Rock School students, 1991

I hope that this brief post will be helpful to those teaching recorder in elementary school who have little or no background with the instrument as players themselves.  My impression is that most elementary school music teachers haven’t actually studied recorder for its own sake (e.g taken lessons, played in a consort or performed solo recitals on recorder, etc.). I thought about the topic of this post recently when I remembered that I have never encountered middle or high school students that had been taught recorder in elementary school (by someone other than me) who were familiar with this system.


Solfège With Amadeus

SolfegePart4Part 4 of a 4-Part Series

Go to Part 1: The Joy of Solfège

Go to Part 2: The Legacy of Guido d’Arezzo

Go to Part 3: Teaching Music With Solfège

This Epilogue to my series of posts on Solfège recounts examples of solfège exercises I used in high school choir rehearsals, some anecdotes about singing Mozart’s Requiem on solfège syllables, and some unexpected things we learned from doing this.