Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Afterglow: Westminster Choir Festival

This is a quick post just to let you know that I'm exploding with stuff I want to talk about in the coming weeks after experiencing many wonderful new ideas and concepts at the Westminster Choral Festival at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ.

I attended this continuing education festival and took it for credit.  As part of that I had to journal about my  experience there, so I will be taking from my journal and picking out stuff I think other avocational singers out there might be interested to read about.

I was exposed to some new concepts, such as "count singing," and a few other ideas about choral voicing and sound, but I would like to have time to do a little google research so I can better talk about these things with you.

All in all, I came off this choral festival week more excited about choral singing than I ever have been before.  I think one of the main reasons is because of the exciting, vibrant, creative choral director, Dr. Joe Miler.

What I loved the most about working with Dr. Miller was how free and healthy he wanted the voices to be, and how, even though he was directing a group, he somehow imparted great care and respect for the individual voice and was able to somehow guide the individual so aptly while leading a giant group. There was space for everyone in his choir -- "big" voices, "little voices," "pingy" voices, "breathy" voices, etc...   He knew what to do with all those sounds and colors and make them work together.

It was possible for me, as a "big-voiced" singer to feel great freedom while singing in a choir, something that I usually don't experience.  I often feel like I am sitting in a little confined box, holding myself back in order to blend.  There are definitely many things I've learned with this "holding back" kind of singing.  It has been a challenge over the years to find ways to master my voice so that I could sing in that little box in a healthy way, and it has not been without value to try to do so.

However, the experience of being able to feel less confined while singing with a group, and the feeling of my own free resonances melding with the other resonances in the room was really wonderful and left me renewed and invigorated about choral singing.

In the next few posts I'm probably going to be recapping some ways I've grown after this choral festival.  I hope you will join me in the days to come as I share some of my experience with you.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reporting from the Westminster Choir Festival

I don't have much time to blog right now, because I'm being kept very busy participating in the Westminster Choir Festival, which I wrote about in my previous post.

I am enjoying myself immensely. There is so much singing and so much talk about music. For a person with a music degree, who studied in music school, this might be all "ho-hum" and "yawn." But for an avocational singer who has not experienced this level of choral study, it is dreamy.

Now, the description of this festival did not indicate that one had to have any particular credentials. It is, of course, considered "adult continuing education," so there may have been a presumption that applicants to the festival work in the field of music and desire further knowledge and study within their fields. However, although I didn't really have an idea who to expect would be at this festival, I had not quite realized that I would be the least credentialed person in the choir.

I am surrounded by music teachers of all level from primary school to university level, and by many people who conduct their own choirs and who have come to learn from our conductor, Joe Miller.

Whether I "belong" here or not, I am having the time of my life and learning gobs and gobs, just soaking it all in. I am getting to observe and hear the intricacies of choir directing and conducting on a deep level. There are conducting master classes and discussions about choices made in assembling and working with a choir. Today we had a fantastic explanation of how Mr. Miller voices a choir, complete with examples -- provided by the members of the Westminster Chamber Choir -- of how he "hears" voices and seats the choir into a formation where the overtones and undertones, partials and various other whats-its -- the many frequencies produced by the human singing voice -- are enhanced and complemented and reinforced in a way that optimizes the sound.

This is very exciting for me, and, although I had doubts in the beginning about my ability to keep up with the intense pace, it seems I've reached just a good enough level to stay in the race, if barely. But enough so that I can enjoy the experience and feel relatively competent while participating.

At the end of this exciting week, we are having a concert. The Westminster Chamber Choir will perform an intense work by David Lang, "The Little Match Girl Passion" and the festival choir will perform Mozart's Requiem.

If you are in the Princeton, NJ area you can hear this wonderful concert. It will be performed Friday, July 23 from 7:30 - 10:30 pm at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall on the Princeton University campus. (Wow, a 3-hour concert. That's a big one!)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Athleticism and Music

Way back when I first began to learn about how the world works, I never connected music with athleticism.  Not only did I not connect them, they each seemed to belong in totally separate compartments, and in fact, one even at times seemed to preclude the other.

In  high school, I belonged to the social status group that had been dubbed the "band squirrels."  Band squirrels hung out down the "band hall."  The band hall door was locked when we first arrived at school in the morning, but we sat down on the floor together outside the band hall door and fooled around until the music teacher arrived and opened up the door.  By the time he arrived, there was only a few minutes left before the bell rang and we had to all get to our homerooms, but nevertheless, we spent those few remaining minutes -- every single morning -- "down the bandhall."

Most of my elective high school classes and extracurricular activities centered on music.  I was in concert band, marching band, jazz band, chorus, and any other musical activity that came about.  Most of my friends were into music as well, and -- as I recall -- most of them did not seem very athletic to me.

For one thing, being involved with sports conflicted with musical activities.  We had marching band practice outdoors in the Fall and would not have been able to play soccer or field hockey.  Then in the spring was school musical rehearsals, and there was no way I was going to jeopardize having a part in the school musical -- no siree -- by belonging to some extracurricular sports team.

There were a few students who juggled sports and music, but they were not really considered "band squirrels."  They were kind of well-rounded kids who were doing a little bit of everything, but one could see they had a conflict of loyalties and they would miss practices and not really feel like one of the regulars.  They also usually didn't play their instruments on as high a level as the "band squirrels" did.

Overall, the "jocks" were a completely separate world of people from the band squirrels, and it appeared as if one precluded the other.

I remember, however, when I first branched off to explore some athleticism. It was toward the end of my junior year of high school that I started thinking that perhaps it  might be a good idea I should explore a sport.  I decided to join the track team.

It's not that I had not been athletic at all.  No, that was not the case because athleticism was highly valued by my parents and we had been encouraged in every way to develop various sides to our athletic natures.  I was an avid and accomplished golfer, the junior champ down at our country club.  Our family took regular family bike rides together.  We had all been given extensive swimming lessons and I was a strong swimmer, and had even enjoyed perfecting some beginning diving.  We had all studied gymnastics in grade school and I had basic gymnastic skills -- cartwheels, limbers, splits, walkovers, back walkovers.

But I think because music was a stronger interest, I just did not go out for teams. I was also really afraid of ball sports, and didn't think very fast on my feet, so I did not fare well in group sports.

I'm not sure why I chose the track team, but I think it was because my dad had been a big track star in high school, and my younger sisters were following in his footsteps and making a name for themselves on the track team.

Well, there are a lot of directions I could go with this.  I could get sidetracked and start talking about all my adventures in learning about track, but I will save that for my new blog Barefoot Fresca, and stick to the point I am getting at here regarding athleticism and being a musician.

Track introduced me to running and running introduced me to the cross country team where I developed more into a runner.  This seemed to be a separate part of me from my musician side.  In fact, being on the cross country team did make it more stressful to be in marching band that year.  I had to run from one practice to the other and my plate was definitely full my senior year.

But they still seemed like separate lives.  My athletic/running life -- and -- my musical life.

In recent years, however, I made a big connection between athleticism and singing.  It was on the day that the realization hit me, "Oh my gosh!  singing is athletic.  It's athletic!  That means I can develop it!" that I really began to find my way as a singer.

But still, for a while after that realization, singing seemed like it's own separate form of athleticism, still a bit disconnected from other athleticism in my mind.  It was athletic because it involved muscles, exercising, strengthening, flexing, coordinating muscles that took practice and developed along the same kinds of principles as other athletic activities.  But I still didn't understand that my entire instrument was athletic and that other kinds of athleticism would feed into and be essential for developing my full potential as a singer.

The first connection to other athleticism was the thought that doing ab exercises might help me master breath management needed for singing.

I did a little research, asked some singers, and most seemed to think that separate ab development, overall, helped a singer.  There were some people who protested that the ab activity of singing was particular and specific to singing, and that the only way to develop that ab capability was to sing -- which is true.  Then there were a few voices who seemed to think separate ab development would be detrimental to singing if it created too tight muscles.  But overall, it seemed logical to me that the stronger, healthier, more developed the ab muscles were, the better off I'd be, and I began to do some extra ab work as part of my training as a singer

Well, that was the beginning and this has led to my philosophy, which I have written about here a lot, that some kind of athletic training must be part of my development as a singer.

Now it seems that my interests from way back have come full circle and I participate on Facebook group called The Athletic Performer founded by my friend  and fellow blogger, Robin, who also writes a blog by the same name.  The group is full of singers and musicians who include athletic cross training as part of their singing life.  The leader, Robin, seems to epitomize the ideal of the theory, because she is a highly evolved athlete -- marathoner and triathlete -- and a master of a gorgeous singing voice as well, who is progressing very well in her professional singing career right now.

Another member of the Athletic Performer Facebook group has written recently on her blog, The Liberated Voice, about how important it is for singers to pursue athletic disciplines in her article: The Vocal Athlete

I have started a new blog, Barefoot Fresca, to write about my parallel athletic pursuit of running, but there are times, because of how my singing is now linked with my running, where the topics will weave in and out from one another, and principles and philosophies gleaned from one discipline will apply to the other.

Don't be surprised if you see some weird barefoot running videos show up amongst the practice files in Frescamari's Practice Room as my two endeavors, athletics and music, start to come together and no longer be contained in separate compartments.

Continuing Education -- Mozart's Requiem

Last year I wrote a couple of posts about how hard it was to decide what to spend my time on when growing my incompletely educated musical self.

In "An Incomplete Education -- What Should I Know About and Why Should I Know It" I talked about the way an avocational-singer, mother-at-home-type such as myself could get sidetracked and waste time when everything musical seems interesting and acquiring knowledge in a general way was so enjoyable.  But I wondered if I couldn't be smarter about the acquisition of knowledge and specify it to better fit in with some of the goals for my musical life.

Then, after choosing a course in early music last summer -- which I enjoyed thoroughly --  I questioned whether I had spent time and money well enough based on my own goals and needs as an avocational singer.  In the post "Ornamenting Handel and Bach, Rameau, Mozart and Monteverdi, Me?" I expressed fear that the way I spent time and money on continuing music education had not been well chosen.  However, in the follow up post, "How Ornamentation Has Changed Me as a Musician" I conclude that, while perhaps this wasn't the most appropriate place for me to start furthering my musical education, something of value to my goals as a singer did come out of it anyway.

Well, this year, I have some time to explore another class over at Westminster Choir College and I think I've got it right this time -- I think I have chosen something that will grow me in just the way I need to grow next.  I have signed up for the Westminster Choral Festival.  The festival is a week-long program that, this year, will focus on the study and preparation of Mozart's Requiem.  The brochure says this:

 Festival participants enjoy a rigorous schedule that includes classes on pedagogy and performance practice, conducting master classes, round-table discussions with conducting faculty, observation of Westminster Chamber Choir rehearsals followed by question and answer sessions, and culminates in a performance of the major choral-orchestral work at Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University.  It is an exciting opportunity for singers, conductors, and educators alike. No Audition Required.

Now that sounds just right!  It has everything to stimulate my interest and enjoyment, and I believe it is enough of a challenge to help me become a better choral singer.  I hate that my Cantigas Women's Choir breaks over the summer, and really miss singing with that group during summer, so this gives me a chance to continue singing somewhere.  In addition, despite how much I love singing with treble voices, I have longed for the fuller experience of singing some SATB repertoire, something I have not done for many years.  This festival provides for that musical longing and need.  It also will be very exciting to sing with an orchestra.

I've been a little dumb about this, however.  Last year, when I signed up for the Ornamentation Class, I wondered if there were any materials I might need.  Too late I found out that people had selected and prepared solos to bring to the class.  Everyone else seemed to know what to do, but the instructions had not been on the web site.  I should have thought to call, but being inexperienced with this "going back to school" stuff, I fumbled around like someone with no clue.

So, remembering last year, I began to think about things a little earlier after having signed up for the festival.  I wonder if they will provide the score?  I wonder if I should purchase a score and learn this ahead of time?  I wonder if there is stuff I should know, like last year, that I ought to call about.

Well -- remembering that -- this year I called a little later than probably the other participants did, but at least I was better than last year.  I found out that I had to purchase the score for the Mozart's Requiem from the bookstore and that I had to come to the festival with all the music learned.

I also found out I needed a floor-length black skirt and white blouse for the performance at the end of the week.

I never foresaw the strange awkwardness that stepping back into something like going to school was going to bring, as I spent these past years raising my children and staying mainly in my home as my primary place of work.  I had always planned to do something when the kids got older, but in my mind I slipped back to school or into the workplace simply and smoothly.  It never occurred to me that it was going to be a little rough to transition to doing other things again.  Even though I've seen it on television and read articles about it, the reality of it doesn't sink in until it starts to happen.

When we are young, we are not supposed to know too much or have too much experience, and many older/wiser people step in to mentor talented  young people and help them along.  Not always, but I remember people just reaching out to me when I was younger.

It seems that now that I am an adult, I am more on my own.  I am expected to know things and think of things.  Maybe other people are actually NOT expecting this of me, but I think they are and put this burden on myself.  So, I think I appear foolish to not know.

So, stepping out to do these things after the years of being in the home is quite an experience and takes a small amount of courage.  The courage to be seen as someone who doesn't understand or get it.  The courage to allow people to see awkwardness and hesitancy.  The courage to ask questions and be a newcomer.

The funny thing is, that the years just flew by -- the years of my children's childhoods -- and it didn't seem like that much time was passing.  It seems like only yesterday I was that young student trying to find the classrooms on my first day of college.

So, I am very excited -- and a bit nervous and awkward and fearful as well -- about having the experience of this choral festival this summer.  I know I will be updating my blog with posts about this experience.  In Frescamari's Practice Room, there will probably be files of me practicing Mozart showing up.

I hope you will join along as I proceed on my summer journey.