Ubi Caritas: Ola Gjeilo, Di Marco, and community in a choral ensemble.

Ola Gjeilo´s magic in creating music straight out of a film score is incredible. I remember when I first started to dabble in composition, my friends told me that the scores I write reminds them of film score. It wasn’t until grad school that I learned who Ola was, had the pleasure of emailing him (and Morten Lauridsen) for some of my classes.

Continue reading “Ubi Caritas: Ola Gjeilo, Di Marco, and community in a choral ensemble.”

With a grounding text, music emerges.

I was having a conversation with my friend, who is a high school choral conductor while I was driving about his day in the classroom. I was not surprised at what he said about him telling his kids to try and understand what the text in a choral piece is about. Now, this piece is hauntingly beautiful and it was (still is) one of my favorite choral pieces since I first heard it when I was an undergraduate at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico. This piece is Water night, by Eric Whitacre

Now, while I NEVER thought I would sing this song. I have had the awesome experience of singing it in very VERY different interpretations first when I was in graduate school at Western Illinois University and the second when I sang it with the Des Moines Vocal Ensemble

I love how Eric was telling me his favorite part of the piece ( and his interpretation of the text, which weirdly, I have not even thought about it. What I always loved this piece mainly because of the text since it is origin is Octavio Paz. This made me think about the music that I have picked for my choir, especially the cantata that I am doing for this year.

And if you close your eyes,
a river, a silent and beautiful current,
fills you from within,
flows forward, darkens you,
night brings its wetness to beaches
in your soul.

Octavio Paz’s Water night

Music picked for Chancel Choir

The music that I picked for Chancel Choir this “semester” all quickly relate to the text. Haye’s We are called, which in this divisive and toxic world that we are living in has a really good message of what are we called to do (act with justice, walk humbly, love tenderly, care for one another).

Music picked for Chancel Choir

In the previous post I talked about Dan Forrest’s new “Come to Me”. The best part of this piece, is the importance of rest. While everybody knows the importance of rest and peace, most of us ignore this necessity and steam roll through life. In my 3 years of teaching, that exactly how I lived. No stopping, always going. There’s a reason why I still have huge bags under my eyes and felt exhausted (I still feel I have to catch on sleep that I have missed).

Come to me all who labor, 
Come to mean I will give you rest.
Come, my child 
For I am gentle and lowly…

Come, and you will find rest for your soul.

Dan. Forrest

A great choral piece is a one that has an intimate relationship with text. I remember my undergraduate professor Mons. Di Marco talking about this all the time. The music is there to help the text, and vice versa. He always asked us “Where is the soul?” with my other professor, Ruben Colon Tarrats, always pushing me in my year of studying choral conducting with him to ask myself “Why is X note in the music? Why are we singing X?”

Mons. Di Marco

But, isn’t that the point of choral and vocal music? To evoke a specific emotion and give life to a text (sacred or secular)? Isn’t that why music is poetry in motion? As teachers, this is not an easy thing to teach students. These are things that even in a prescribed curriculum it does not guide teachers in how to do (and even if it does, by the time you have it or are teaching the topic will be outdated or not relevant to your students).

My question for you would be: what is your relationship with music, whatever music you listen to? If you are a trained musician or a music educator, do you select music because it’s easy or challenging? How much time do you spend on focusing on the text in a song/piece?

Mindful Monday & “Come to Me”

My Chancel Choir will perform “Come to Me” by Dan. Forrest for Ash Wednesday.  Here’s what I sent to my choir this past Thursday after rehearsing it for the first time.

Come to me by Dan Forrest (Official Video)

As leaders in our community, I love this new piece from Forrest because we can paint the sense of peace and comfort that we acknowledge the blessings and opportunities we have in life, especially in troubled times. With the Lent series we will begin titled: “Return to me”, I believe that we can help the congregation and community do exactly this. Return to Christ (and our spirituailty) and mend or as I said last night “strongify” (make stronger), and by doing so, make our own interpersonal relationships stronger and deeper.

It is deep in my heart that in these divisive times, that Music, worship, spirituality, and a deep sense of self will help us navigate this harsh and cruel world. It also reminds me of that prayer from a Carmelite nun from the 16th century and these words: 

“Nada te turbe, 
Nada te espante, 
Todo se pasa
Dios no se muda.
La paciencia todo lo alcanza
Quien a Dios tiene 
Nada le falta: 
Solo Dios basta.”

 “Let nothing trouble you; 
Let nothing frighten you; 
Everything changes (passes away), 
But God stays, 
Through patience
You will obtain everything; 
Whomever has God
lacks nothing:
Having God is enough (and gives us strength)

If you would like to listen to my favorite musical setting, by Jake Runestad, you can click on this link: 

If you would like to purchase said piece of music you can find it in his website: http://jakerunestad.com

See you soon,


Food post

When you work both Saturday & Sunday, you take the mornings lazy and easy! I was able to make these quickly! They taste delicious!!

In our diversity, we are unified at the table.

Here at this table
arr. Don Besig
Ankeny First United Methodist Church’s Chancel Choir- José Clavell, conductor

Worship Arts @ Ankeny First

At Ankeny First UMC we have many different music ensembles from Children to Adult you can be a life long musician here in this community! For Children we have Rattle & Rhyme, Little Cherubs (3 y/o to Kindergarten), Kids Music Collective (1st -5th grade), Celebration Chimes, Heavenly Metal (6-12th grade), Kids of the Kingdom, Illuminate & Visual Scriptures. For High Schoolers and Adults we have Chancel Choir, Men’s Vocal Group, Various Worship teams across all 3 locations, Bells of Faith, Praise Ringers,Walnut Street Players (string quartet) and Instruments of Peace!

Music Ensembles in Ankeny First United Methodist Church

Ever since I have started here this past July 2018, I’ve been wanting to showcase these ensembles and all the hard work they’ve done. For this last Christmas we collaborated all of our Adult ensembles and had our Christmas Concert “Amid the Darkness Christ is Born”. We had over 100 musicians that came together and made music. It was pretty special and I am looking forward in doing it again! In my search to showcase their talents we have isolated their anthems from our Sunday services and will begin to post excerpts of them online, mostly on this site and on YouTube. If. you a re interested search for us with the name of our church “Ankeny First”. If you are interested in viewing our services live, you can go to our website for more information at ankenyfirst.org.

Christmas Concert 2018

Here I will leave you with two of our ensembles: Chancel Choir & Praise Ringers with a song that they have performed this January.

“We are Called”- Chancel Choir,
José Clavell, conductor
Come to Worship, Praise Ringers
Elaine Ousler, conductor

Going paperless in a paper-full music world

Woah! I haven’t made a post in forever!

As I shared in the last post, I left education and am now in a full time music position. Ever since I began last July, I have been “On-the go” a lot more. What do I mean with that? That I’m not necessarily in one spot every day as I was as a classroom teacher. This has made me think on how I could be more mobile. I’ve always been a fan of my iPads so I decided I needed to go the extra step.

In my last year of teaching, while I was teaching a great sheer number of students (more than 350 +), I began to use my iPads to minimize my paper trail. I began using my iPad to take attendance (Safari version of infinite campus), began using my wireless speakers and my Apple Music/Spotify from my iPad to use music for transitions, but most importantly, I could edit my documents using my iPad and Apple Pencil and it could sync with all of my apple products (iPhone X, 12.9, 10.5 iPads, and my MacBook Pro). I started using my Apple TV in my classroom to show my students what I saw from my iPad, etc.

Flash Forward from the end of the school year to now being a full time musician, I am constantly using Good Notes (I just updated to Good notes 5), ForScore for iPad, and my Church uses Planning Center’s Services, Groups, and People.


GoodNotes is an app for iOS. It is essentially an electronic notebook just like EverNote, Notes Plus, etc. While you do have to pay for said app, (I believe it was 7.99) I completely recommend it. All of my documents can sync instantly through my devices, You can bookmark documents or pages in a document for easy access, export your notebook (or pages) to share with a colleague, and be able to make notes on the go. My favorite tools are the lasso tool, so that I can move items around and with the Apple Pencil 2’s handy double tap, I can change colors at will so that I can color code as I go (while not a huge deal to people… I love to color code).


While I was apprehensive of this app at first, my best friend told me that I had to get it and after using it for almost a year, I completely understand why. Any music score that you have in PDF form can go directly to your ForScore app, if you have documents in a Dropbox, it can sync instantly, if you are an Apple user, you can scan in document through your notes app and then upload them to ForScore easily. In the app, you can highlight, color code (and we know now how much I like that), use a metronome while you are rehearsing, and record your music! It is so much better than having 5 different binders. As a Church musician which music changes from week to week, its good to have all of your music in one place. I do love that all of my music in one place. You can also make folders for each ensemble, and set lists for concerts, services, etc. I do love how quickly I can move music from Planning Center to my ForScore seamlessly.

Planning Center

Now, while I do not know the ins and outs of giant world of Planning Center and I am still learning how to use most of its uses, its great for any musician that wants to go paperless. While I mostly use the services portion of planning center (it lets you plan your service and add attachments, songs, and more) The “Songs” portion is simply put AWESOME. While our Contemporary Music Director knows how to work it way better than I do, you can do the following:

1. Add YouTube videos or any video to any song

2. Send email to musicians, request them for a service, send notifications and emails through the app, and send reminders about rehearsal, services, and performances.

3. Sync music and documents from CCLI./Song Select/or of your choosing. This automatically adds to any song a lead sheet and vocal part to whatever song you choose. Musicians can see the same document (CCLI/Song Select/Praise Charts, etc). If it’s a document that is not from CCLI or Song Select, you would need to upload it, but that is easy.

4. Easy Movement from Planning Center to ForScore. If you use an app like ForScore, you can send any score to ForScore and edit them (cross of repeats, notes for performance, etc) then you can upload this document to Planning Center and everybody can have the same notes.

While I know that there are many ways to go paperless and many more apps to use, these are the big three apps that I have used in the last 6 months as I began my full time music career. If you have any apps or ways you have gone paperless, let me know in the comments below!

Restart, Refresh, and Reconnect.

Since my last post in June, things have happened.

I was told that our 3rd Spanish position in our school was excessed. We would go back and teach 36-40 students each period, which meant I would have to teach a minimum of 350 students per school year. During that same time, I applied for a position for a full-time Director of Music position in Ankeny, Iowa. I honestly believed my interview, while it went well, I thought it was a long shot. I was proved wrong. They were thrilled about my interview and wanted me on board. I had a difficult choice to do. Continue and work with an insane amount of students, teach my first language and culture to 350 + kids with my friend, Sam or go back to basics and go be in a full time music position. I went with the latter.

As of middle of July, I am the Director of Traditional Music and Worship at Ankeny First United Methodist Church in Ankeny, Iowa. I am in charge of all traditional music and adult worship in 3 sites, which includes an amazing music program that includes handbells, band/orchestra, choir, and praise teams. While still in a learning curve, it’s been a awesome start! As of right now we are in the finishing touches in reorganizing and beginning a concert series, getting musicians and ensembles to perform in our spaces, and community outreach with our music.

Here’s to new beginnings, to refreshing, restarting, and reconnecting!

Reconciling #musicalpoetry, #spanish learning, #CI, and #culture

I’m a music teacher. I’m a Spanish teacher. I am a both. I am a Native speaker. How do I reconcile both in my classroom? These were my thoughts throughout #CIIA2018 this month, especially when Laurie Clarcq was speaking in her breakout sessions.

As a Spanish teacher, I constantly use music in my room. Mainly in a indirect way for my non-native & non-heritage students (if you are ACTFL fan they are Novice to Novice-low, rarely a Novice-Mid as a Second Language learner because of contact hours). I mostly use my Spotify playlist “Songs in Spanish” to keep playing in the background. All. The. Time.

When I have commented to my coworkers about this during the school year (mainly a music teacher) I told them that it grounds me. It keeps me connected to music, but there IS a method in my madness.

The madness

My first 2 years as a Middle School, MYP teacher in an International Baccalaureate school, I have 35+ students. Every class period. Yes, that means that in 2 days (we’re in an A/B schedule) I teach a max of 400 students. In my classroom, I have free seating & “you have a phone, ok. Use it to your advantage.” Policy. Meaning, that if a student has a phone, I do not go “phone-Nazi” and take them away. I purposely teach focus. I did not realize that I did this, until our technology teacher told me that she did the same thing. I want to teach focus. Intentional focus. This is hard at the middle school brain.

I start the school year telling all my students that I am a music teacher, I conduct choirs, I sing in choirs, and that I conducted choirs in Puerto Rico, my home country. They are always “shook” and as one student told me this year “show me the receipts Brenda, or it didn’t happen”. I show them the “receipts” and they’re impressed (to say the least). Honestly, that was the point of “the art of musical poetry” when this blog began: how does music, language and culture works. As a Spanish teacher, while the core is still there, it’s been tweaked as I teach Spanish.

How do I use the madness to my advantage

Using my Spotify playlist, I put on music that I will teach during their 3 years in the program, music that is fun/different, music that my students (mainly my native speakers) choose to share to the “gringo students”.

It opens up conversation that yes, in Spanish-land you have as many musical genres as they listen to in English. From Taylor Swift-like pop, to hard metal, to Spanish covers of their “omg this song gives me life” favorite songs.

While it takes them some time (mainly new students and incoming 6th graders) to adjust, they LIKE the culture in the classroom. They KNOW that if they don’t have music playing something DIFFERENT is going to happen in the room. Students BEGIN to WITHOUT prompt sing the songs in Spanish, learn their favorite songs in a Spanish cover, and even better? ASK for SPECIFIC songs. This year Corazón sin Cara, Andas en mi cabeza, and La Gozadera were huge hits.


We go back to the Why? Why would I do this? I do know that most teachers would think I am crazy for doing this. Well… I might be. But it goes back to who I am, what I do, and what I want my students to achieve and feel successful. In 3 years, in an A/B schedule, my students will NOT be awesome superstars with their output. I know that. I’ve accepted that. Now, this year’s 6th graders (next year’s 7th graders) might make me reject that reality. If so, #ChallengeAccepted.

In my room, silence needs to be important. Just like music. It has to have MEANING. It reminds me of what Laurie Clarcq said at CIIA (I’m paraphrasing)

The Teacher is the conductor of the orchestra. They know (or should know) the music, the theory, and each student must bring their “instrument” or kill so that they can continue to improve.

But let’s be real, most of the students do not have some skills, what ever skill you’re looking for (reading, writing, social-emotional, etc) so we have to address it and teach it.

How do I teach it

1. Student’s who are notoriously late: Conversations.

As of this year, students have a grade that directly ties their attendance. It’s a small rehearsed conversation: Hola Maestro. Me llamo ____. Como estas? Now while it was surprisingly spanish (Sam Finneseth) who started this year, I followed suit and it gave me a lot of rewards. Students who are shy and are more receptors rather than “sayers” they have at least 1:1 interaction with me. Most importantly it teaches students that they need to be on time, is simple and parents are supportive.

2. It can be used as a warm up.

3. I use it to actually remember students and their names. (I am horrible with names)

4. Students with phones: Teach self-control

I am a phone-a-holic. I am. I let my students know this. I even check my phone (sometimes) while they are working. It’s part of life and these kids never lived in a time where people have smartphone (and I feel old about that). So I have to teach them, just like a part of the orchestra, they do not need it at the moment. IF you are grabbing the phone its to check time, listen to your OWN music when SPANISH music is not plating (which is almost never), using Quizlet in class (when we need to), etc.

5. What to do with silence

If we have silence in the room, we are using it when we play mafia (listen to be understood. Listen to comprehended), when we are reflecting on our process, when I am talking about our CFA’s, Scales, and/or “big things” like real-life connections of culture and what we are reading, etc.

Would love to hear from you, what are some things that some peers think is “unorthodox”, “crazy or mad ideas” or simply how do you mix music, culture in your classroom that might be out of the norm?

My first experience in #CIIA2018

I honestly thought that these things would be a waste of time. It’s probably because I’m a second career Spanish teacher. Music is first, so I always go to ICDA (Iowa Choral Conductors Association) instead or I just simply saved my money and go to Puerto Rico to see my family. This year has been different. Way different.

This year, as I may have mentioned in a previous entry, my friend Surprisingly Spanish suggested that since I have been dabbling in the arts of Comprehensible input, that I should go to CIIA or Comprehensible Iowa this past weekend. I was surprised. Very surprised. In a very good way.

I like that CIIA is made for teachers by teachers. They talked to us in a very real way that was not what you sometimes experience in these types of conferences. Everything was directly “from a classroom” and how “it has worked in a class” and “how it can be better”. I also enjoyed that there were moments where you truly can reflect. Ergo, Laurie Clarq, the keynote speaker. which took us back to basics. Her 3 rules in a classroom: a) one person talks, everybody listens, b) listening with the intent to understand, and c) self-control as a necessary skill where not groundbreaking at all, but it reminded (at least me) that if I want a positive culture and community these need to be part of my expectations and priorities in my class.

41wvjgctxvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_I went to 3 of Laurie’s sessions which were amazing. I also went to Sam Finneseth’s Heritage students in a CI classroom. I loved this presentation. I believe that it was very real as mostly her reflections on the past school year as a Spanish teacher for Heritage students. As a native speaker, I hear constantly that these students should not be in a Spanish classroom. While I had this mentality during my first year of teaching, I was able to create a Heritage class at my school and I could see what was Finneseth’s thought process. I do know that we NEED an active NEED in our state and nation in how to help these types of students. I already have my book by Mike Peto to help me for this next school year. I also had a lot of people asking me what I actively do with my 8th graders when it comes to curriculum, which that will be a post in the near future.

In all, I believe that CIIA is a great resource in our state and midwest area for teachers who actively teach with the CI methodology, but also for newbie teachers like myself in helping us get acclimated to this CI world.

I am excited and looking forward to next year’s CIIA and Iowa’s and Midwest professional opportunities!