Pencils

January 13, 2017

By Brody McDonald

Happy New Year! Thank you so much for your continued readership of Choral Director Magazine, and of this column, “The Practical Conductor.” I’m not sure if I ever directly stated this, but my desire with these articles is to look at our profession from alternate angles. If I’m being honest, there are TONS of resources dedicated to the mechanics of our craft, be that tuning, vowel match, posture, score marking, breath support, etc. My hope is to bring forth awareness-raising thoughts that get the creative juices flowing both from you and from your singers.

When someone says “tools of the trade,” what would they mean for us choir folk? A short list would include: piano, folder, music, pencil. A longer list might include: sight-reading material, textbook/workbook, whiteboard, smart board, recorder, etc. Today let’s focus in on the most innocuous of our tools, the pencil, and see what it can teach us. Yes, there is a lot we can learn from a humble pencil.

Have you ever thought about what makes a good pencil? A bad pencil? A great pencil? Many people see pencils (and pens, and paper) as being simple commodities. Pencils are cheap, disposable objects. You sharpen them, they write. End of story. Except that’s NOT the end of the story. I’m about to illustrate some great choral principles through pencils.

The most ubiquitous pencil on the market is the Dixon Ticonderoga. It’s a basic, yellow pencil that is used in offices and schools across America. On each box is the proud statement “The World’s Best Pencil.” Ticonderogas are so often believed to be the “good pencil” that many school supply lists will ask for “24 Ticonderoga pencils.” This is because they are easy to find, and are certain to work in a classroom setting. Left to their own devices, kids will buy foil-wrapped pencils covered in glittery flowers or stars that will gum up pencil sharpeners, or parents might buy the cheapest possible pencils that break easily.  

Lesson #1: If everyone agrees on the product, things will go better. Examples: “Your tone should sound like THIS.” “We are singing a pure OH vowel.” “Everyone put the ‘t’ on beat 4.” This is a great place to start. When singers are young/inexperienced, they really don’t know how to get from where they are to amazing singing, so the first step is to get them to agree on basic, solid, good, proven techniques.

Now let’s compare and contrast the Dixon Ticonderoga (“The World’s Best Pencil”) with a much higher quality pencil that has recently garnered a degree of notoriety: The Blackwing 602. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it, but this iconic pencil was used religiously by the likes of John Steinbeck, Stephen Sondheim, and Chuck Jones. While there is no way to really determine “The World’s Best Pencil,” the Blackwing 602 can easily lay claim to being the gateway to really, really good pencils. The reason comes from a principal called “the aggregate of marginal gains,” and this principal can really help your choirs. This simply means that if every aspect of the choir is a little bit better, the whole choir becomes a lot better. It is the process of breaking down the product into smaller pieces so that progress is more easily measurable and achieved.

A pencil is made up of the following pieces: the core (what we call “lead”), the wood casing, the finish (paint/lacquer), the ferrule (the metal part that holds the eraser), and the eraser. At each point, the Blackwing noticeably outshines the Ticonderoga, which adds up to an end product that is astoundingly better.

THE CORE: What we consider “lead” in a pencil is really a blend of clay and graphite, which is sometimes also soaked in wax. These three ingredients help define three variables of the pencil’s writing experience: darkness of line, smoothness of writing, and point retention. If there is more clay in the mixture, the point will stay sharper longer, but at the expense of darkness. More graphite means a blacker line but a point that dulls more quickly. The quality of each, combined with wax treatment determines the smoothness of the pencil. Extended writing calls for greater point retention, but artists often crave soft, black “lead.” And so it goes with our tone, which is determined by altering ratios of frontal resonance with open space (soft palate arch/pharynx). Sometimes we desire a brighter, brassier sound, and sometimes we desire warmer, lusher tones.

Lesson #2: We must choose our core based on the work at hand.

THE CASING: Pencils can be made from various woods. The Blackwing is made from California Incense Cedar. Ticonderogas vary by factory, although some are made from cedar. However, the biggest difference is in how the casings are made. The cores are laid between two slats of wood in a “sandwich” and then cut into pencils. Have you ever sharpened a pencil only to find that wood keeps creeping up one side of the lead, rendering the point unusable? That isn’t the sharpener’s fault. The core is off-center. When that happens, the pencil is useless. Blackwings are always immaculately centered. Their quality control is amazing. So it is with our posture: if our mechanism is out of alignment, our singing suffers. If it too far out of alignment, no other fixes matter.

Lesson #3: Make sure your “casing” (your posture) is in complete alignment so that the core tone is most effective.

THE FINISH: Some of the cheapest pencils are the most appealing to young students. They have pictures of The Avengers or My Little Pony on the barrel. Those usually come from decal wraps that tear and fray. While pretty on the surface, they almost always mask a low quality product inside. Other pencils have a thin paint job that easily scratches off. Blackwing 602s, however, have seven layers of paint and lacquer, delivering an understated but high-quality finish. It’s like the look of a MacBook. Simple, minimal, but top-shelf. Young students fall in love with flash. They love singers who promote sizzle over steak with overdone runs and dramatic indie-singer word affectations, or even vocal fry. We must help them learn the value of consistent, quality sound, upon which musicality can be built.

Lesson #4: Build a consistent base of quality on which tasteful musicality can shine.

THE FERRULE/ERASER: I mean, the ferrule holds the eraser on, right? What else does it need to do? While most pencils have a standard ferrule that just holds a small, round eraser in place, the Blackwing 602 has a flattened, paintbrush-style ferrule. It has an elongated shape that holds a flat, rectangular eraser in a clip. When the eraser wears down to almost useless, users can pull out the clip and extend the eraser. How clever!

Lesson #5: Think outside the box to consider better ways to do things that are already working well. There’s always more to be found!

And so it came to pass that each year, I buy pencils for my choir department. We have four choirs. Three of them get the Palomino Golden Bear (a great pencil that costs about $.30 each – affordable, but much nicer than the “standard” yellow pencil). My top group gets Blackwing 602s. It’s a small thing that helps them feel special as the top auditioned group. I make a big affair of the presentation. I tell them that each pencil costs about $2.00. After the gasps subside, I hand them out. I tell them that this pencil is their Symphonic Chorale pencil, and that they are to keep it and use it all year. When they wear it out, I’ll give them a new one. We discuss all the aspects of the pencil I have outlined above. I explain that one reason I give them this Blackwing 602 is because it is the most affordable, tangible item I can give them that represents being the best at what it does. Inevitably there are incredulous looks as the students can’t hide their disbelief. I can see them thinking, “$2.00 for a pencil? That’s insane?” “What’s so great about this pencil?” The next day, the room is abuzz as everyone enters. They’ve used the Blackwings and found them to be exceptional. They believe. That’s when I lay it on them.

“You didn’t believe one pencil could be better than another despite what I told you. Now you have experienced the difference for yourself. This is not to say there isn’t a place in the world for cheaper pencils – there certainly is. However, you have now been made aware, and that awareness will be with you forever. Now we turn our attention to this choir, and believe me when I say that it can be greater than you imagine. The difficulty is that you have not yet experienced how well we will sing, and the bigger challenge is that you will have to work on this music with my guidance, relying only on faith. Superior music will not exist until we have created it. In order to succeed, we will need to be like the pencil you now admire. We need to excel in every small way to create a greater end product. And, like that pencil, we will sacrifice ourselves in the process. For you see, when a pencil creates, it gives of itself. It literally sacrifices itself to create. So must we sacrifice time in our lives to create art for others. It will not be easy to be exceptional. It will cost us more than being “good” or “serviceable,” but like this pencil you hold, it will be worth it. Great things are worth their cost, and great music is worth your pursuit.”

In closing, I think it is fair to let you all know… I am not on the Blackwing payroll. I am, in fact, a bit of a stationery buff, a happy customer who believes in the product and has used it to provide an extended analogy to my choirs. Having said that, Palomino (the parent company) does have the Blackwing Foundation, which specifically supports and promotes music education as its main goal. On top of all that, if you register as an educator at their online store you can receive 10% of all purchases.

  • Blackwing Foundation:   blackwing602.com/music-education
  • Educator discount:  pencils.com/teacher-discount
  • Photos courtesy pencils.com/pencil-buying-guide

Brody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group ever to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of a cappella studies. For more information, please visit brodymcdonald.com.

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