An emotionally fulfilling, connected Brahms

Ahhhhh.  That hit the spot.  Thursday evening’s Brahms Requiem was possibly one of our more emotionally fulfilling performances of the piece.

Personally, I felt very connected, in many ways.

I felt connected to my body.  My diaphragm and the “front porch” of my mouth and lips and arches were linked up, so I could generate and support the volume of sound I needed.  I was struggling in rehearsals to find that connection and it meant a breathy, unsupported sound.  I agree whole-heartedly with other choristers who suggested that we had a lot of people trying to save their voices in rehearsals, which may have accounted for the uneven sound then.  It felt good to not hold back.

I felt connected to Maestro Tovey as he urged us through each movement.  Some conductors are facilitators.  Some are all about technical precision.  Some are about showmanship.  But I think Tovey’s conducting is about leadership.  He is constantly encouraging us, with a knowing smile and a wink, even as he waves us onward.  (I also felt connected to him when 10 of us grabbed a drink together afterwards!)

I felt connected to the rest of the chorus, who came through brilliantly in all the tough parts that bedeviled us in rehearsals.   Sopranos and tenors soared through those tough high passages.  Altos were the solid foundation.  We basses found levels of expressiveness I didn’t know we had.  Even exiled in the upper back corner of the stage, I had no trouble feeling like I was part of every line.

I felt connected to the emotional message of the piece.  I found it easy to slip into the roles of comforter, doom-foreteller, patience-counselor, awestruck heaven-gazer, and nose-thumber — you don’t get to taunt Death too often, after all.  With the emotional backdrop of the recent tragic death of a chorister’s sister, I think we all had something to sing for, and someone to comfort.

Lastly, I felt connected to the audience.  One woman in the front balcony, who clearly knew and loved the piece, was practically slapping her hand on the railing in time to the fast section in the 6th movement.  And the moment after the piece was over was amazing.  Tovey kept his hands up long after the last notes had died down, and the audience held their applause, not wanting to break the spell.

Was this a technically sound performance?  I think any performance will have its share of mistakes.  I know I messed up a few words, and I heard a few folks talking about blown or unintentional entrances here and there.  And our diction will never be as crisp as it was with Dohnányi.  But that was never the point.  We needed to connect with the music, with the audience, and with each other, and we succeeded.

Down to the wire, and still not where we should be

We’ve had our final rehearsal.  The orchestra is in prime form, the conductor is beaming, the soloists are amazing.  Is our normally solid chorus the weak link?

I say that because this does not feel like it will be our best concert performance of the Brahms Requiem.  To be fair, we’ve had some pretty awesome Brahms Requiem performances in the past several years, so the bar is set ridiculously high.  But it’d be a damn shame if we wasted this opportunity, given we’re joined by the talented Bryn Terfel, the chorus-favorite conductor Bramwell Tovey, and the less well-known-but-equally-capable Rosemary Joshua.

Tovey has been everything we’ve hoped: gracious, funny, clear in his adjustments and requests, and inspiring.  He’s reminded us that lugubrious faces do not communicate how lovely thy dwelling place is, and that concentrated frowns don’t give credence to a message of everlasting joy.  He’s one of those conductors that spends more time looking up at us than at the orchestra — breathing with us, smiling at us, encouraging us to keep locked in on his direction so he can take us where we want to go.

And we so want to go with him! Yet, despite Bill Cutter’s efforts to prepare us — drilling us on diction and sound quality all week — there’s a collective concern that as a chorus we’re falling short of our normal levels of awesome.  More than a few choristers I’ve chatted with are disappointed with the consistency of our sound.  It’s not as full, not as supported, not as articulate and crisp, and not as emotionally invested as we’ve sung in the past.  Sheesh, we still have Maestro Tovey correcting us for flat notes and intonation problems in the final orchestra rehearsal.  If we can’t get past the compulsories, we’ll never transcend the notes to reach the deeper meaning of the piece.

It shouldn’t be surprising that our rehearsals would be challenging.  We no doubt worked too hard on Saturday and Sunday and burned us out for the rehearsals earlier this week.  The rain and schedule has made it tough for many to attend rehearsals, leaving a preponderance of empty spots.  Furthermore, this is an exhausting piece to sing!  A tired chorus makes for an unsupported sound.  Even trying to “mark” (sing softer), I’ve still left some rehearsals with a sore jaw from all the work required to sing this piece — I’m probably too tense with my singing, but I’ve heard similar complaints from a few other choristers about the physical stamina required to sing this piece.

One thing making this even harder to correct is the insidious nature of any group collaboration.  It’s easy to pick out what sounds wrong, and easy to assign blame, but harder to identify who or what is actually responsible.  Worse, I doubt any of us truly recognize how we ourselves might be contributing to the problem.  For instance, I might think the tenors and sopranos are having trouble singing through some of the higher notes (Tovey: “Just bring that high A up a little higher; don’t worry, it’ll never be sharp”).  But I thought the basses were doing fine, only to hear from a few others that they thought we collectively sounded thin and unsupported in many passages. Oops.  You never think you’re the problem.  It’s humbling to realize that I might be one of the problems.

Fortunately, there’s still time.

So instead of brushing off that feedback, I personally need to ask myself: what can I do to better support my sound?  To sing ‘operatically’ and get the full resonance I need to propel my notes to the back of the hall?  To make my diction fortissimo?  To maintain my breath control?  To fully engage with this piece, and dedicate myself completely to it at the downbeat?  Individually we’re singing with confidence, but I wonder if we might each be overconfident in our own abilities, and not considering the possibility that there’s more that we should be doing? Few people appreciate it when individual choristers speak up to say “I think that ‘we’ [meaning everyone but me, since I’m so smart that I’m pointing it out] are having trouble with this passage / diction / cut-off / note.”  Yet hopefully, by performance time, we’ll all come to that realization that we each still have more to give.

Tonight will be the first time that we are all physically present, and all mentally present, and have the opportunity to be emotionally present.  It’s our chance to give it our all.  To invest fully in the almost mystical qualities that embody this piece.  I’m betting that we pull it off – we almost always do!

Preparing for Maestro Tovey’s Brahms Requiem

“How many of you have sung this more than 10 times before?” asked our assistant conductor Bill Cutter in the middle of our second weekend rehearsal.  A good 30+ hands shot up of the hundred or so choristers assembled.  “And that’s the problem,” Bill said with a grimace.  He admonished us (correctly) that too many of us were mailing it in, and not seeking that deep connection we need to have with the music.  Bill did an admirable job not letting us sit back on our haunches and forced us to reconnect with the text and the meaning behind it.  We needed a little flexibility, because Bill’s direction didn’t always match what the grizzled veterans were used to for this piece.

That’s going to be incredibly important, because every performance of the Brahms is very different.  And we don’t really know what to expect heading into Monday night’s piano rehearsal with Maestro Tovey.

My wife sang with Tovey for the chorus’s performance of Porgy and Bess.  Neither of us sang with him for his return to the chorus with Candide this summer, though everyone raved about what a fantastic performance it was.  Tovey certainly has a flair for turning musicals into crowd-pleasing concerts.  I was fortunate enough to sing with Tovey for the Lobgesang, and see a bit more of his joie de vivre at the chorus holiday party afterwards.  He was the life of the party even before the afterparty, because on the podium, Tovey is full of positive energy, humor, and gusto.  Here’s what I wrote back then:

Choristers who sang for Maestro Tovey in the Berkshires for last summer’s Porgy & Bess often gushed about how great he was to work with: personable, musically knowledgeable, and able to clearly communicate what sound he wanted from us. Those of us experiencing Tovey for the first time were not disappointed. He immediately set to work identifying the moments of drama that were hidden in plain sight, and gave us concrete tempo and dynamics adjustments to highlight them. He added personality to the pedestrian, directing us with words like “warmth” and “beautiful” and “prayerful.” He challenged us to embody the reverence and joy and relief from pain that lay beneath the surface of the text. And he did it all with a wink and a laugh that quickly earned the fierce loyalty of the whole chorus. One couldn’t help but want to sing for him and to deliver what he asked from us. We became committed to his vision of the piece, long before he endeared himself to the group at Saturday’s winter chorus party by joining the jazz band and hitting the dance floor.

Come performance time, Maestro Tovey continued his outstanding leadership at the podium. He was animated, demonstrative, and inviting in his conducting. At no time did the chorus really feel we were competing with the orchestra’s sound, with Tovey holding the reins. Through it all, we successfully captured and conveyed the piece’s character and intensity.

It’s hard to imagine the happy-go-lucky, musical showmanship of Tovey applied to a Requiem.  But this isn’t a sad Requiem… it’s a celebration of the living.  It’s a service for the living, not the deceased.  It’s victory and power and mocking death’s inability to triumph in the end.  It’s reflective peacefulness and the blessings of your friends and family that let you keep carrying on.

So I fully expect Maestro Tovey to take us on quite a journey. Where Maestro Dohnányi was about philosophy and precision, Tovey will almost certainly be about color and emotion.  Though they’ll both share the same directive: to rejoice in our lives even as we comfort the mourners.

Brahms Bingo

John Oliver is not going to be available to prepare us for our upcoming Brahms performance.  (Assistant conductor Bill Cutter will be doing the honors.)  This may not be that big a deal, given that at Bill’s preliminary rehearsal, I saw fewer than 10 hands raised when Bill asked who hadn’t sung it before.

This is only too bad because I had been planning to make a 4×4 “JO Brahms Bingo” card for rehearsals this weekend, using the 16 coachable comments that I expected from him during the run-throughs.  That’s because, having sung the Brahms with him 3 times now (twice with TFC, once with MIT), I’ve gotten used to many of the particulars he emphasizes.

None of it truly matters once the conductor arrives and adds his own personal stamp to our performance.  But anything he doesn’t change becomes The Way We’re Doing It, and I like that.

So here are the minor moments I love in John Oliver’s interpretation of the piece.  Many are already indicated in the score; much of this won’t mean anything to those not intimately familiar with the piece.  And Bill will likely not observe them, as he has his own technicalities to pursue.  But it’s how MY favorite Brahms Requiem goes.

Movement I

1. Making that first entrance (and later recap) as light a touch on Selig as possible

2. Two /t/ — Articulating lied tragen and und tragen carefully

3. Getting in and out quickly on the selig swells, to match the brass

Movement II

4. The darker tone, legato, and double consonants of denn alles Fleisch

5. The flinging sensation of spitting out wird weg

Movement III

6. Aspirating the /h/ and rolling the /r/ for movement III’s opening  Herr

7. Each Nun Herr sounding like two bell peals ringing out

8. The stentando keine Qual finish to the fugue

Movement IV

9. The piano espressivo melodies for the tenors and basses

10. Sempre piano for the recapitulation

11. Stepping back to become the accompaniment for the orchestra at Wohl denen

12. The all-important agogic accent, separation, and subito piano before the final immerdar.

Movement V

13. The prayer-like intonation and cadence of einen seine Mutter each time

Movement VI

14. The drudgery and step-by-step plodding of the opening Denn wir haben, like dragging yourself home after a long day of work

15. A big separation and subito piano right before the next to last Ehre und Kraft

Movement VII

16. Attacca this movement, sopranos be damned.

Distilling the Soul of the Composer

At a Tent Club Q&A session on Wednesday, someone asked our conductor John Oliver, “What is the purpose of the conductor?” Rather than focus on the mechanics, like “beating time” or “keeping everyone together,” John’s answer was more profound. “The purpose of the conductor,” he said without even pausing to think, “is to distill the soul of the composer, and give it the orchestra, chorus, and soloists so they can communicate it to the audience through the piece.”

Throughout my stay at Tanglewood this week, I’m finding many applications for that statement during our rehearsals as we prepare two Verdi opera excerpts and Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.  It applies at three levels: the mechanics, the emotions, and the message.

The Mechanics

At an almost superficial level, it’s about what the composer wanted tactically within the music. Our conductors have been excellent at giving us technical details to further their interpretations.  Maestro Honeck is very clear about the placidity he wants at the chorus’s entrance in the Mahler, asking us to dramatically de-emphasize all the German consonants and maintain even dynamics and flow — it goes against all our instincts for singing German!  Maestro Lacombe for the Verdi has worked intensely with us to capture the character of each chorus, which is particularly tricky given Aida has bad-guy priests demanding blood, broken prisoners pleading for clemency, and victorious citizens celebrating.  He’s made the priests’ sound darker and more biting.  He’s asked us in the prisoners chorus to watch him closely for rubato to better shape our cry for pity.  He’s turned the people’s chorus into a baseline for the other choruses, asking for precision in consonant placements and dynamics, while bringing out subtle rhythms to maintain the driving pulse of the piece.

All of these adjustments are de rigueur for the week of Tanglewood.  I’ve always accepted them as part of the process, as the means by which the conductor shares his vision of the piece with us.  But never before have I done so with the broader purpose in mind; that if the conductor is giving us his interpretation, who is he interpreting?  It’s not just the notes and dynamics on the page, it’s what the composer wanted when he captured that music onto paper.

The Emotions

At a deeper level, it’s about the emotional interpretation of the music and what we want to deliver.

The lovely melody of Va, Pensiero from Nabucco is deceivingly simple, and it’s easy to get carried away lustily singing it.  Remembering that it’s a chorus of Hebrew slaves lamenting their exile from their homeland tempers that notion.  Mechanically, you sing more sotto voce, you shape phrases to avoid outbursts, you hold back until the third stanza’s fortissimo to give more impact to your lament to the fate-seers about times gone by.  But that’s all in service of the emotion.  Emotionally, you need a hushed reverence, an unquenched longing for what cannot be, that must carry through the entire piece.

The Mahler is all about emotion at the end, and I’ve written before about the musical orgasm of the finale, as you pour forth every ounce of your being into a joyous crescendo, a tidalwave of sound that overwhelms the audience.  We will rise again!  It’s almost impossible not to be affected listening to this piece.  My wife and I get goose bumps in the car just listening to a recording.  Here, too, though, there are subtleties before that moment, which Maestro is giving us.  Rubato again, but to signify the wings we win, to the point where we can visualize a feather darting back and forth in an uplifting wind.  The utmost silence of the opening is now a vehicle for the soloist to rise out of, her part splitting from the chorus and ascending just like the resurrection we sing about 5 minutes later.  Lots of neat colors are being painted with the music that I’ve not experienced as part of this piece before.

The Message

At its deepest level, I’m realizing how important it is to study the composer himself; what his life was like, the circumstances of his composition at the time, his comments about the work to peers. I’d always enjoyed reading about that anyways, purely out of my own interest. But I never really consciously consumed that with the intent of better delivering the message to the audience.

Verdi’s wife and small children had just died when he wrote Va, Pensiero.  What mindset must he have been in to pen this song of loss of one’s love, be it country or family?  How was he representing his loss through the chorus of the Hebrew Slaves?  

Mahler was obsessed with death; it’s no wonder the first movement of the 2nd Symphony is this threatening, funereal march to the grave. Moreover, he was a Jew who converted to Christianity. Before that conversion from Judaism, there was no afterlife for him. So the 2nd Symphony’s emotional center is the 4th movement’s “Urlicht” about the promise of heaven, before he celebrates that resurrection in the final movement, first quietly and then with raucous joy.  The music’s emotion is unmistakeable, but in the umpteen times I’ve performed this piece, I’ve never thought about the childlike wonder of a composer who is exploring, perhaps for the first time musically, the concept of salvation from the death he had brooded about for the first half of his life?

Artist’s interpretation

Somewhere while wandering through art museums, I picked up a notion that I hadn’t heard before: once a work of art is submitted to the public, it is no longer about what the artist intended when he created the work.  It is about the art community’s interpretation of the work.  Never mind what Picasso had in mind whenever he painted bizarre portraits of his lover–he relinquishes ownership of its meaning.

Perhaps that is as true in music as it is in the visual arts.  But since music is digested through performances, there is a more active element involved, one that mandates a translator.  The conductor is our view into the composer’s soul.  I can only hope to be a contributing puzzle piece to achieve that vision and bring people into the moment, to extend that composer’s vision to their lives.

John Oliver Master Class, April 2014

These are my notes from the Master Class which John Oliver held on April 6, 2014, in the chorus room at Symphony Hall for selected members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with Martin Amlin the excellent piano accompanist.  John went out of his way to pick younger singers, telling us that they were often the most interesting to hear but often had the most to learn.
In these notes I’ve focused on capturing the advice rather than the praise.  There was plenty of praise to go around.  In fact, all the singers should be commended just for standing up in front of everyone, let alone doing such a great job performing and then taking further direction.
Kendra Nutting, alto, Claude Debussy, “Beau Soir.”
  • “The best rehearsal is in performance.”  Everything should be louder, not pulled back because we are here in our rehearsal room. Maintain the line and the flow from the very first opening measures so you can find that resonance immediately. By example, John Oliver explained that Birgette Nelson would always be blasting away with her resonance whether she was on a stage or not. 
  • “Make sure the tone starts in your mind before you make a sound, so that the note from the get-go is fully resonating.”
  • “Make sure this other note is ‘part of the flow of lava.'”  Here John focused on a specific phrase where the upper note didn’t have as much power.  Upon repeat, we heard a much stronger note that had twice as much resonance! John cautioned about not forcing the voice into something it wasn’t ready for, which is dangerous for a young voice.  “But the voice is ready. You just didn’t know to do it.”
Patrick McGill, bass, Gaetono Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore, “Come Paride vezzoso”
  • Tenors and low notes.  As the male voice gets lower, it has to stay more open, “and your tendency is to take that tightened focus — the one you know from your upper middle range — and keep it all the way down.  And that cuts you off, like in that run that goes down to the low B-flat.  Experiment to get that freed up.”  Upon repeat, it sounded much better.  “Now, it doesn’t sound like you’re stretching to get down there.”
  • Coloratura.  “The tendency is to let the notes go up and down, and it’s important not to let the notes go up and down.  Let one note take place after the other, let every note lead, like you have a tube they’re all going through.”  On repeat, we could hear all the notes much more clearly and cleanly.  When he then got to the high E, John noted that “he was already in line and ready with the proper resonance.”
Bethany Worrell, soprano, Igor Stravinsky, The Rake’s Progress, “No Word From Tom”
  • Horizontal, not up and down.  Similar advice as for Kendra to carry the line forward.  “You were all taught up and down, and that’s not it for the singing instrument. It’s flow, it’s horizontal, that you should be concerned about.”
  • On maturity.  “How old are you?  29?  You’ve got another 10 years before your voice fully comes in in that lower range.” Don’t force the vowel… Second time was much more connected. 
  • Taking time with notes.  “You have this facility [meaning natural aptitude.] But it’s the enemy of singing, when something is so easy.  Take more time with some of the notes.  We can hear them here, but in a theatre or orchestra the audience wouldn’t. Be more gracious with some of those notes, and we’ll all hear the words and expression better.”
  • You can take it with you.  “What are you taking with you from that F-sharp [long note] to the A?  Take the vowel with you to the high note.  You don’t need to re-articulate it.  Then you get the full resonance.”  She tried the passage again.  “2 out of 4, you got it.  It’s something that will require work to make it natural.”
  • Get to the ecstatic.  This section of the piece started right off with a forte high note.  “Make sure you’ve got all your energy on that very first note!”  It’s all in the mind.  Be there, aligned and resonant.  
  • Anchored sternum.  “You have a tendency above the staff to have a slight anchor right here [gesturing to his sternum] which is robbing you of the resonance you need. Stand in front of a mirror and watch.”  John suggested a trick from the last Master Class, of flaring your arms back and opening your hands, to force the chest back up.  “The minute that is tense in the sternum it robs the resonance.”
Adam Van der Sluis, tenor, Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Whither Must I Wander”
  • Just a few lessons.  John revealed later that he had given Adam a few lessons, and before that Adam had never had a formal voice lesson (and may have thought himself a bass).  In just a few weeks, he was now growing into his top notes without as much reaching.  “I don’t teach much any more, but here we’ve put some basic principles in place, and now he has a line and a reach in only a few weeks… and now I need to practice teaching more!”
  • On maturing tenors.  “Tenor usually takes a long time to mature…  to say nothing of the tenor personality!”  
  • Don’t be a pianist.  John repeated his oft-heard advice about not singing like a pianist, plunking one note after the other.  “As a pianist he thinks like a pianist.”  In particular, he mentioned getting into your head that “diphthongs should not be two parts.”
  • Singing loudly.  “In general, you should sing louder.  I’ll warn you if you’re forcing it.”  Just a little more volume makes the tone coalesce more.  John cited another singer’s advice [I missed the name… anyone there know?]  “Sing forte for the first 4 years.” Don’t spend time learning how to sing correctly, explore your voice and instrument first.  
  • Singing with strength.  “Sing through the lower part of the passage, and don’t back off in any way, so the next high note that comes is right in line.”
 Stefan Sigurjonsson, bass, George Fredrich Handel, Messiah, “The Trumpet Shall Sound”
  • Tensions.  You must always guard against tensions that creep in, like little gremlins.
  • Popping up the sternum.  “The relationship from here to here,” John said, gesturing from the sternum to the base of the ribs, “it should be inflated, with the sternum like a balloon. Good singers, when they have a high C, that sternum pops up.  You have pressure downward there instead.”
  • Relax the face.  “Watch for tensions in your face, especially when you’re concentrating. Sure, the Last Judgment is nothing to grin about, but make it more magisterial than disapproving!”
  • Hook and a string.  “You should feel like there’s a hook and a string pulling your sternum forward on those long top notes. I hear a smoother legato and the high notes more connected the second time.  But you should try some mirror work to say, ‘Oh god, I didn’t know I was doing that.’ “
 Jon Oakes, tenor, Gian Carlo Menotti, The Old Maid and the Thief, “When The Air Sings of Summer”
[Note: Jon is a lifelong pianist but has only been singing for the last two years.  I’m sure he must have felt intimidated, as I did, after some of these heavy hitter born-to-sing performers went earlier!]
  • Singing is boring!  “You must get tired of me saying the same thing over and over again. Singing is a boring thing, you have to do the same thing over and over again!”
  • Staying connected.  “You have to be connected to the air, and the words have to connect the line of tone.  The way he’s currently singing is as if the violinist only played one note to a bow, instead of ten. Your musical instincts are so good that a lot of the problems it introduces are covered up. When you think of the line of words as all connected to each other, going out through these resonances here…  then take another breath and keep the bow on the string for the next time. 
  • Breathing in the right places.  John Oliver suggested some better places to breathe to keep certain phrases together, and urged, “You have enough breath to make it!”  (“Do I?” worried Jon.  “Yes!” answered John.)
  • “Conducting.”  “Now Let’s take out the conductor,” said John Oliver, referring to the way Jon waved his hands around a lot while singing.  (“But I liked that!” moaned Jon, to laughter.)  “You can conduct or you can sing; I advise you to choose one or the other.  Look at how it worked for me!”
  • Magic Circle.   “It’s hard to be somebody else. I’ve said it a million times, but you have to step into the magic circle, where you and your neuroses don’t exist any more, just the composer and the character.  It’s a mind trick. I read Stanislavsky, you get in the habit of becoming someone else, and you are not self conscious and not nervous.”  (Jon:  “I have lots of neuroses.”  John Oliver: “Not to be discouraging, but I’ve never gotten over mine!”)
  • Mirror work for finding your character.  “The one other thing I want you to do, in the privacy of your own home: go in front of a mirror and imagine who that person is that you want to be.  You could do it a million ways.  Be angry, be patient, be anything but singing correctly. You can get to that character in many ways.  It’s so important to learn to sing, but again, if you only focus on singing correctly you miss the rest.”
 Laura Webb, alto, Samuel Barber, Hermit Songs, “The Desire for Hermitage.”  
[Note: I in particular enjoyed hearing Laura go from her cute Texas twang into full kick-butt operatic diction-and-resonance mode.]
  • Not trusting what you think you hear.  “There’s a concept that young folk need to hear. You’re listening to your sound and you think you’re hearing it, but you’re not always getting through it to the listener. The moment you begin a word you need to have a hook on it that pulls it through your mouth.  It’s the word itself; its tension is what brings it through the resonance. Otherwise, it sits too much in the inside.”
  • On quiet singing.  “Soft sound still has to fill all the space in the hall. It’s a problem with practice rooms… and with voice teachers, frankly.”  Laura hinted that her voice teachers have told her her voice was too big.  John disagreed. “Sing louder. Find your voice. Better to have too much.”
  • Little notes.  “When you get into little notes make sure you still have that pull on each word. 
  • On poetry vs. musicality.  Referring to one particular passage, John warned her, “You’re singing it well for the poetry, but the music wants something different.  It doesn’t have to be click, click, click… [like a metronome.]  You can make space within the music to communicate the meaning.”
 Meghan Zuver, soprano, Vincenzo Bellini, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, “Eccomi… Oh quante volte”
[Note: Everyone was great, but I think Meghan inspired gasps and the most hearty applause with her gorgeously enunciated Italian and her overall fantastic singing. She introduced herself by mentioning that she managed the Starbucks in Lexington Center.  After her performance, John’s first words were, “Get the hell out of Starbucks!”]
  • Grace notes.  “Don’t skim over the grace notes too fast.  It’s part of the line, it is not just a hiccup on the line. You need to take more time with it.”  They worked until the grace notes sounded “properly Italian,” no longer an after thought.
  • Notes above the staff.  Regarding her high B: “Notes above the staff take place mentally narrower, and you took the weight out of it when you went up there.  All the great singers talk about this.  It’s like a shooting star coming from way up there.”  Upon repeat, she nailed it by adding that brightness, using her finger to point upwards to get the right mental imagery.

Thoughts on TFC Master Classes

This Sunday, John Oliver held another outstanding session in his series of Master Classes for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.  But in addition to the notes I captured from the class, I wanted to jot down my personal reactions as well.

The singers were all super impressive, in one of two ways:

1) Many of them introduced themselves as juniors or seniors attending Boston Conservatory, or New England Conservatory, and majoring in vocal performance, or pedagogy, or somesuch super-impressive on-the-way-up music-is-my-life dedicated studies, such that I wanted to slink out of the room and never come back.  It’s not that they were bragging about it; all of them were quite humble, almost embarrassed, to put forth the claim.  It’s just that, as I joked with some fellow alumni after the class, the “MIT Conservatory” didn’t exactly have that level of study available — and even if it had, I doubt I would have qualified for it.  And even if I had qualified for it, I doubt I would have pursued it.

These are people who are going deep where I’ve gone broad.  They are experts where I’m Just Another Bass, a dabbler happy to be merely near the same stage as them.  This is not intended as false humility or humble-bragging on my part.  What’s the saying?  “A novice practices until he gets it right.  A master practices until he can’t get it wrong.”  Or the other old piece of wisdom, that as you study a subject, eventually you learn enough to recognize how much you don’t know.  I can see these singers know a lot that I don’t know, and may never truly know.

2) The ones who did NOT introduce themselves as vocal students were impressive, too — precisely because they did not slink out of the room!  They were all clearly a little uncomfortable since they were new to singing, or majored in psychology and history, or were otherwise not in the same place in their musical journey as the others.  But what courage it takes!  For them to ALSO pull together the confidence to stand up in front of ~75 fellow singers and daringly bare their throats to our potential fangs.

And that was my big takeaway.  I’m not going to be auditioning for an opera lead role any time soon.  But it was encouraging to hear others still at the start of their journey.  I was able to take away pointers from their lessons just as much as I picked up snippets of awesomeness from John’s advice to those who call it their craft.  And that made the experience truly rewarding.

Here are the notes I captured for each of the eight singers.