Wednesday, April 8, 2015

30K in 30 Days with the Canadian Chamber Choir

Photo by David E. Cronkite
Greetings readers!

I wanted to draw your attention to a fundraising campaign by the Canadian Chamber Choir for their upcoming recording in May. In fact, I will be singing on it! This is the CCC's second recording project and it has been almost five years since their last one. I'm grateful to be included on the recording roster, especially since I just had my first tour with them this last February.

The recording is entitled, Sacred Reflections of Canada, a Canadian ‘composite mass’.  The recording is inspired by various settings of the mass by Canadian composers including the CCC’s own Composer in Residence, Jeff Enns. This recording will include the standard mass movements interspersed with pieces that reflect on the themes found within the mass. The works are an array of published and unpublished works that highlight established and emerging composers from across the country. This recording will highlight the diversity and strength of the Canadian choral community.

The CCC has set a goal to raise $30,000 in the next 30 days to complete this recording project by their deadline in May. The CCC has launched a crowd funding campaign and there are some pretty sweet donation rewards such as being included in the liner notes, dining with the choir before a concert, and conducting a piece with the CCC. You can check out the site for more information on each reward tier of contributions. However, even a donation of $20 gets you a digital download copy of the CD, which would be almost equivalent to what the CD would cost anyway.

I really believe in the CCC's mandate of building creative communities through choral singing. Their ongoing goals to perform works by contemporary Canadian composers creates an exciting and ongoing discourse of Canadian choral music. I will be counting down the days until I head off to Ontario to record this project with them. In the meantime, I just need to make sure I don't trip and fall down a flight of stairs in my hoop skirt while preparing for Edmonton Opera Lucia di Lammermoor.

Watch this video to learn more about the project and to get excerpts from the CCC tour this past February.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Chorister's Faith in Music

Pro Coro has been busy rehearing with the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers in preparation for our Good Friday concert together featuring works by Composer, Paul Mealor. Mealor has traveled to Edmonton and is in Canada for the first time to hear his works sung by PCC and MAD's. It is always a treat to have a composer actually part of the rehearsal process to provide context and clarification for the work they have written.

In addition to sitting in on rehearsals, Mealor presented a lecture on Faith and Music earlier in the week. He outlined the meticulous construction, symbols, shape, imagery, and thought process behind his works, such as Salvator Mundi, O vos omnes, and Stabat Mater. Mealor began with a disclaimer to the audience to not fear because there would be no undertones of religious recruitment during his lecture. Mealor stated this with a smile and the audience chuckled.

Mealor highlighted some of the techniques he uses in his pieces such as using contrasting dissonances in chords to create a sense of suffering or how many sharps and flats there are in the key signature to symbolize the cross, trinity, or five wounds of Christ. In Mealor's Stabat Mater, the poetic text details the sorrow of the Mother Mary at the base of the cross weeping for her crucified son.

I have a great amount of respect for the history and role of sacred choral music in our society. I cannot ignore the electric tingle buzzing beneath my skin when I hear some moving sacred music. Regardless of religion, faith or spirituality, music has the power to deliver and amplify a message. Music connects to individuals who are listening. I have faith in music. 

Over the past few days since hearing Mealor's lecture and working on his pieces in rehearsal, I have been given time to just sit and meditate on a musical work. All my fellow choristers are on the same musical frequency and its signal is strengthened because the Mealor is physically present to connect us to the thoughts in his mind and music.

It is a moment to be grateful as a performer to have a reflective moment of connection.

If you are free this Friday at 7:30 PM, you know where I'll be singing.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Canadian Chamber Choir Tour Recap

Photo by: Michael van der Gagg courtesy of the Canadian Chamber Choir

The results following any period of intense and fleeting performance leaves one in a bit of a haze. I enjoy thinking of my fellow Canadian Chamber Choir choristers and what they are up to back in their local choral communities. It is staggering to reflect upon the amount of synchronicity that can be achieved in such a compressed time frame. In just a few days, I began to hear ensemble cohesion and get a glimpse of what the group sounded like from within the choir. The CCC sound is elegant, polished, and seamless; yet, there are such unique voices in the group creating that overall texture. Take a look at the social media and photo recap from the CCC tour adventures below.

A fun facts tally from the week:
More photos and a compilation of #TheChoirGirl blog readers I met while on tour:

Choristers from the Women and Men of the Tay were our billet hosts in Perth, Ontario. I got this awesome bagged lunch from Suzanne.

Photo by Mike van der Gaag courtesy of Canadian Chamber Choir. I'm checking in online during a break in rehearsal.

Frozen Rideau canal - ready for skating!
A fancy lunch at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

The Ewashko Singers warm-up in St. Joes Church before our Friday night concert.

A rare chance to meet fellow #TheChoirGirl blog readers and bloggers themselves: Mark Wilkinson who I met writing at Sound + Noise, and Amy Desrosiers from Blonde in the Choir.

Another #TheChoirGirl blog reader, Margo Keenan, who spotted me at the Montreal Choral Institute CCC Workshop

#TheChoirGirl Blog reader, Cathy, recognized me at the Ottawa Chamber Music concert while in Ottawa. I sang with her last year when Pro Coro Canada sang with the Ottawa Cantata Singers.

Johanna Crooymans, a loyal #TheChoirGirl blog reader from Montreal. Also, my new adopted Montreal mom.

CCC tour finale concert in Montreal and CCC founder, Iwan Edwards, was even in the audience. Photo by David E. Cronkite courtesy of the Montreal Choral Institute

Some gorgeous sunrise scenery flying into Toronto from Montreal. CCC was singing Kathleen Allan's In Paradisum and that tune came into my mind when I saw this outside my window.

A Toronto layover means a ramen adventure with opera singer and fellow ramen lover, Teiya Kasahara

A layover excursion into downtown Toronto before finishing off this unexpected last leg of the CCC tour

Thursday, February 12, 2015

On tour with the Canadian Chamber Choir

Highschool and U of Ottawa Choirs assemble for a workshop at St. Joseph's in Ottawa

More than half of the tour with the Canadian Chamber Choir is complete and it is by far one of the most taxing and rewarding touring experiences I have been on thus far. I attribute it to the fact that in previous choirs that I've been in, by the time you go on tour, the music that you are planning to sing on tour is usually well-rehearsed and ready for the audiences you are about to meet. In this case, I am learning almost 30 new pieces. While I had prepared as much as I could on my own, there's always more work to be done when you are putting parts together with other voices. Creating ensemble takes so much listening work to the voices surrounding you and watching a conductor to interpret a new gestural style. 

The first day was a commute day. I set off from an Edmonton flight at 7 AM and arrived in Toronto at 12:30 PM.  Most of the singers either flew into Toronto or Ottawa and from there we all drove to Kingston. Select choristers were in charge of obtaining rental vans to pick up other groups of choristers from the airport.  There's nothing a like a road trip to start of the tour to introduce to me to the choristers I had just met at the arrivals gate. I was greeted with warm hugs from the Altos when they saw me arrive, dissolving apprehensions I had about approaching the group as an outsider.  The amazing thing is that I have met many of the choristers before at choral conferences, performances, tours, or just through visibility on social media networks. 

Sandy gave Kim and I lipsmackers as a welcome to the choir gift!

A meet and greet with our billets at the church led into our first rehearsal. My rehearsal performance felt pretty rough.  As much as you try to do to take care of yourself, the fatigue and dehydration of travel took a toll on my body and voice. It is difficult to expedite the recovery process without time for rest. Instead, I used a combination of caffeine stimulants and high sugar foods, with varying levels of success, to survive the evening with sufficient mental acuity. 

Sunday Service at St. George Cathedral in Kingston
My first time singing with Justin after our time in the U of A Madrigal Singers

The next day was by far the most challenging.  We were up and ready to sing Sunday church service at St. George Cathedral. It was a stunning service but there was something going with the heat in the church and I was shivering throughout the entire performance. The rest of the day was filled with rehearsal, as well as eating and layering enough clothing to conserve body heat. My anxiety decreased as rehearsals went on. I don't think I have ever been quite as fatigued on tour as I have been on this one. When I would get back to my billet's home, I would debrief over tea then crash on my bed. I was too tired to even text my family updates. Tuesday followed a similar rehearsal pace except we had our sound check that afternoon for our concert that evening.  As I approached the stage, it was quite moving for me to see so many similar faces in the audience. Jean, who had welcomed us as soon as we arrived at the church was looking after the choir during their stay. She had been constantly cooking and making beverages for us over the past two days. Jean was beaming in the back pew of the church with rosy cheeks and damp eyes during our entire concert. My own billet, Mary, was sitting in the front row, supporting me like a family member. She gave me gentle smiles and I would look over for an encouraging glance as I worked my way through the repertoire. 

St. George's Cathedral in Kingston, ON

It was my first concert with the Canadian Chamber Choir. I had these flashback moments during entire concert where I reversed my perspective and could remember my first moment seeing the CCC in concert while they toured Alberta in 2011. It blows my mind that four years later I would be on the other side. First and foremost, I am a fan of the CCC and the work that they do going into choral communities and sharing their song and choral presence with audiences. There is no concept of 'us' and 'them.' Instead, there is the concept of 'we' and how all music lovers can make music together.  There is a real sense of accessibility in regards to the music they have published in their CCC series with Cypress music. The sense of community building is further emphasized by the fact that singers are billeted with lovers of choral music. I have had such an amazing experience looking through the repertoire my billets are working on, showing them my music and how I use an iPad to read music, tales of bad auditions, and I have even had billets ask me about my love life. It makes me realize that even though we are all separated by distance, our connected love of singing brings an instant sense of familiarity.

The adorable Crossroads Tea Room in Perth, ON

One of the most challenging things I have had to deal with so far is how to manage and recharge my energy stores. I know I need dedicated focus during the entire rehearsal time; however, I also want to give my fellow choristers, workshop choristers, billet hosts, audience members my undivided attention. There is minimal to no time built into the schedule for free time, thus, it's about finding small pockets of time to recharge and capitalize on quiet time. One day it was taking a pain killer and taking a 45 min nap on a bed in the old nunnery behind the church; on another day it was riding down an ice slide set up for a winter festival. It has been an uphill battle getting music performance ready in three days let alone ensuring that I have sufficient energy for socialization. I only feel like I am now back in control at this halfway point in the tour. I was dragging myself along for the first few days. Much of the process is helped with my supportive network of CCC choristers checking in with me. They make sure I'm up to date on all music notes and confirm schedule times.  Arriving in Kingston feels like a lifetime ago, but it has only been five days since I first met everyone.  As I prepare to wrap up this last leg of the tour, I am making sure to do lots of mental check-in's to be thankful that I am singing with the CCC. The CCC workshop today with high school choirs at the University of Ottawa solidified that for me as they asked questions about how they get into the choir, how we prepare music etc. I had the exact same questions four years ago. It's a moment to be grateful, but to pick up and keep going since tour isn't finished quite yet! 

Ministry of Coffee break in Ottawa, ON to write this blog post
The men of CCC joins a mens youth choir during the workshop

Skating in the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, ON

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Power Duo: An Interview with the Queen of the Night, Teiya Kasahara, and Sarastro, Neil Craighead in Edmonton Opera's Magic Flute

It has been almost ten years since soprano, Teiya Kasahara, and bass-baritone, Neil Craighead, performed in their first production of the Magic Flute at the University of British Columbia. Edmonton Opera's current production unites the two UBC and COC Ensemble Studio grads. 

They play the contrasting principal roles with Kasahara as the vengeful Queen of the Night and Craighead as the prophetic Sarastro. Given their familiarity with the production having performed it in multiple forms, they both bring a thorough understanding of the text and story. "He is this enlightened personality but he is human and he is flawed," Craighead describes before continuing, "He tries to set the example for the rest of his enclave. He is representative of the light sun and good in the world, as opposed to Teiya." Kasahara picks up Craighead's thought process, "Basically, I have see myself as completely wronged, by my husband, by men in general, by this enlightened group. I’m trying to get what I rightfully believe is mine. I go to the extent of disowning my daughter and using her as my pawn and going too far. And reaching that point of no return of how corrupt and desire for power has made me completely evil." However, the Queen of the Night is not a completely unsympathetic character when viewed with a modern perspective. Kasahara describes her the Queen's inner motivations, "My late husband, on his death bed, gave all his power and this sevenfold circle of the sun to [Sarastro]. Because he believed [Sarastro] and [his] group, and that men in general, are the better sex. There is a huge dialogue in the original German that is generally cut down in English version, which I get, because it’s really long and breaks the flow of the whole opera. It’s really outdated and misogynistic. My husband is saying to me, I’m quoting him to my daughter,' You need to seek men’s leadership and be away with your wildly irrational womanly thinking and your duty is to men.' I don’t think she really likes it. That’s why she sings Der Hölle Rach." This seems like an understatement when this fiery coloratura aria is one of the most iconic pieces in operatic repertoire.

Magic Flute has a special place in the history with both of these singers. Craighead states that he never went into school thinking he would be an Opera singer. Nancy Hermiston cast him as the Speaker in Magic Flute before he even arrived at UBC. “I never sang a company recit. I was hooked. It’s just a classic story.  This is my eighth Magic Flute now. I’ve sang most of the mens parts now. I’ve been Speaker, Priest, Armed Guard, Sarastro. I haven’t done Papageno, but it’s within the realm of possibility. I know every single word of this Opera,” he states with a depth of maturity. Magic Flute played a formative role in Kasahara’s life as well: “It was the first Opera I ever saw, but it was on film, Igmar Bergman’s1971 Swedish production. It was done in a baroque theatre and it was filmed that way. I was at the UBC’s summer music institute. I was 15. Just watching everything come together and unfold with the music. Seeing the Queen of the Night and seeing that crazy high aria. 'What if I could sing that one day?' and having those kind of dreams at an early age it kept me focused on Opera. I was first spirit at UBC. I started learning Pamina and covered it at UBC. For me, it’s always been a part of my repertoire. I just love this Opera musically. The overture, I hear it in the dressing room… those beautiful chords and just start rocking out!" she says with a laugh and a soft headbang, "It’s always going to have a special place with me because it’s what introduced me to Opera.”

Kasahara and Craighead both acknowledge the challenges of being an Opera singer and laud their networks for providing them with the foundation to continue in this business. At the core of it, it’s the music that draws them both back. Craighead notes that he loves those moments when he is in “the presence of greatness” having a front-row seat as he gets to hear singers at the top of their craft. For Kasahara, she describes the allure of what keeps drawing her back: “Those magic moments on stage where you can hear that music live coming out of the pit, emanating your voice, and everything is just synergistic. It just comes together. You feel the lights on your face. You can see your colleagues through the legs of the backstage and they’re about to come on. All those perfect moments when you just realize, ‘wow, this is all happening right now and hundreds of people came together to put this one moment together on stage.’ Time slows down but speeds up. When you can stop on stage and have that realization.” 


Take a listen to the whole interview to get their thoughts on their understanding of the Opera, what they would do if they were ever able to direct the production, how they see their careers progressing, and their thoughts on who would win if the Queen of the Night and Sarastro had to have a musical face-off. 

The Magic Flute opens January 31, 2015 with performances on February 3 and 5. Tickets are available online

Saturday, January 10, 2015

New Chorister on the Block

Greeting readers and a Happy New Year to you all!

I am in the works of preparing for two music projects:

1. Chorus in Edmonton Opera's the Magic Flute
2. Alto in the Canadian Chamber Choir

A reflective look at 2014 made me realize I had some amazing choral opportunities. I got the chance to tour to Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax with Pro Coro. However, the reality of finding only fleeting satisfaction with immediate achievements is that I always wonder: what's next?

In this case, what's next is that I am the newest Alto in the Canadian Chamber Choir (CCC). I have very vivid recollection of the first time I saw them sing. They were touring through the Prairies around 3-4 years ago. I was in my first season with Pro Coro as a substitute member and I was also still singing with my women's choir, Belle Canto. The CCC performed a concert at McDougall United Church and I sat there in awe at their elegance, precision, and clarity while executing choral music. I had never heard of them before. When I learned more about the group, how they incorporate professional singers from across the country and join together at a specific location in Canada to rehearse and tour, they appeared as a elite and untouchable entity. All the singers live in different cities and individually prepare their music so that they can just fly somewhere and form a cohesive ensemble. This appeared an impossible feat since I was raised in groups where we rehearse weekly. It is challenging enough as it is to form a cohesive ensemble while living in the same city. I tucked the prospect of being able to sing with such a group away in my mind and added their name to my choral bucket list.

Confidence: it is a significant mental barrier to overcome. My best approach at overcoming the inner voice of self-criticism is through thorough preparation, increasing experience, and patience with self. I didn't realize it, but in my past three full seasons with Pro Coro, I had been building skills in all the aforementioned areas. Pro Coro, to this day, has introduced me to some of the most challenging pieces of choral music that I have ever sung. There is something to be said of fear desensitization through repeated exposure. Only through practice can you find ways of preparing music that is efficient to your learning style while working with the focused intensity required in professional groups that run on constraints of time and money. My last year touring with Pro Coro also allowed to to meet other professional singers, blog readers, and reconnect with old chorus friends. Some of these singers sang with the CCC. For the first time, I began to realize maybe that it wasn't such a ridiculous idea to submit an audition tape. I had unknowingly acquired skills over these past few years to be able to be considered for ensembles such as CCC. My taste of singing with some of the CCC members at a pop-up music reading session for their Cypress music series at Podium 2014 solidified my resolve to apply when I got back to Edmonton at the end of May.

The rest is history. Well, not quite. It was easy enough to mail off an audition package. At the end of June, I received notification of my acceptance into the pool of CCC singers. I was ecstatic! I knew before applying that just because a singer is invited to be a part of the roster, you may not necessarily be chosen for tours. There is a core group of singers and additional singers are called for projects for varying reasons: repertoire requirements, vocal color, budget etc., There are a lot of changing variables. Singer expectations have to be managed, this I understood. In the middle of September, two weeks after starting a new job with the school board, I received an invitation to tour with the CCC in February 2015. I sat in shock at a staffroom table holding my iPhone in one hand and eating my lunch with the other. Elation was soon greeted with stress. I began brainstorming how exactly I would pitch this absence to my new administration. Over a two-week period of discussions with the admin and creativity regarding hours adjustments, they approved my absence. At this point, I did a fist pump into the air in the privacy of my office after reading the e-mail.

As I wrote to conductor, Dr. Julia Davids, in June when I was notified of my CCC acceptance, "I think that the CCC does amazing work, and while I feel like blogging does connect to choral readers, the way that the CCC materializes within choral communities does something words alone cannot do: create music."

And with that, I'm setting a goal to connect to singers and blog readers while I am touring Kingston, Perth, Ottawa and Montreal with the CCC. I'm excited to connect with more lovers of choral music throughout this country through social media and choir.

You know how to reach me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Making of The Great Human Odyssey Soundtrack - A Chorister's Perspective

Ready to perform for a live studio audience

It blows my mind what can happen in 28 hours.

That is the amount of time Pro Coro had to record all the vocal parts for the documentary, The Great Human Odyssey. We received a copy of the coiled music, still warm from the printers, on Monday at 6 PM and we finished recording at 10 PM on Tuesday. Furthermore, in that time, we also performed the work to a sold-out audience at the Winspear for the Sound, Light, Motion Event hosted by Make Something Edmonton.

I had an inkling that this would be a pretty cool project but it didn't fully hit me until I saw the amount of media exposure there was in anticipation of this unique event. It is not everyday that a project of this size is realized while recruiting so much participation from the local arts community. The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra recorded all the orchestral lines and the film crew decided to use an live choral voices for all the recording instead of synthesizers.

The documentary gathers film footage and interviews from individuals all over the world over the span of 18 months. The documentary content investigates the journey of humans outside of Africa. There is an insightful interview and stunning teaser trailer released online for you to learn more. The three-part series airs on CBC in 2015 on David Suzuki's The Nature of Things. The unique part of this project is its connections to Edmonton. The filmmaker, Niobe Thompson, is from Edmonton as well as the composer, Darren Fung, who had less than seven weeks to compose the score.

Monday night was stressful because we had just received the music and two hours later we were performing it in front of a live audience. However, the warmth of the audience paired with the choir's first glimpses of the footage accompanying the music melted away most of our hesitation. Our vocal parts were just one component of this mammoth machine of Art. We were just coming in for a few hours to contribute our voices for aural storytelling. I can't even begin to imagine how the crew and filmmaker, Niobe Thompson, have been dreaming and living this project for the past few years. You just sense this grateful and excited energy from all of the crew which inspired us, as singers, to help them fully realize their vision.

It was my first time using a click track played through a one-sided headphone. It was a constant metronome click synced with the tempo markings in the music. The other ear was left open to listen. What I found right away is that having one ear blocked wiped out my ability to listen to singers around me and tune chords so I wore as much of the headphone off of my ear as possible during the actual recording on Tuesday. We also popped in some recording tricks to decrease noise, such as wearing slippers or flattening our music stand and turning them 180 degrees to help remedy the scrape of our page turns on the metallic stand ledge. The ESO had also been recording Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning so by the time Pro Coro arrived on Tuesday afternoon we were able to hear the metronome clicks as well as the orchestral parts played back into our ears as we were singing. I can't even begin to imagine the amount of quick turnaround the crew had to do in the recording booth since Darren was able to just say "two bars before measure 40" and they would be able to pull up those exact bars of orchestral accompaniment in our headphone and we could begin singing. The process also demonstrated the fluidity in music recording. We would add or remove lines, try different voicing on parts, sing different melodies in the piano reduction, change vowels, add more notes into the chord - it evolved into this organic process where the music was being created and tweaked right in that very recording session. Darren was having so much fun that there was no increased stress with the last-minute edits. There was an open willingness to experiment and see what we could come up with.

It is exhausting but satisfying to emerge from a 28 hour process that included six hours of recording and a two hour live concert. The entire spirit of the Make Something Edmonton movement is to take the visions of Edmontonians, and with community self-reflection, ask how we can help so individuals can realize their dreams. As a result, we create this common goal of a vibrant city that runs on community powered momentum. I'm left wondering when's the next time I can do something as cool as this.

Recording is a wrap!
I also had the chance to sing with Elizabeth, a blog reader and chorister in Pro Coro #CONNECT
Update: A The Making of a Filmscore Documentary has been released! January 14, 2014

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

mèi mei

Photo Credit: Nanc Price Photography

In October, I started a ukulele coverband with my sis. We had talked about forming a group for a while. We even had our band name picked out: mèi mei (translation: little sister in mandarin). However, securing a gig at the VIP Reception for a Nina Haggarty Centre of the Arts Fundraiser expedited our band's formation. 

It not confidence boosting to admit that you are the weakest link; however, it was true in this case. The only instrument I really had an ever trained was my voice. As you can imagine, there was as steep learning curve for me to be able to play basic chords on ukulele while singing at the same time. I have terrible fine motor skills. At the same time, nothing ever gets better without practice so I took the challenge to develop my brain's motor cortex regions. We carried off our first gig well enough with the ambient noise of the cocktail party to disguise any of my glaring musical errors. 
The whole process gave me a glimpse into how my neural networks consolidate new information. I gave myself very basic goals. My first week's focus was just holding my ukulele so I wouldn't be crushing my contorted thumb behind the bridge. The next week was trying to play chords and sing at the same time at a reduced tempo. The next week was learning that I can strum in different patterns to create rhythm. The following week was attempting to sing right words, play correct chords, strum, and keep a steady tempo. The only strength I have is that I am able to automatically sing a harmony line because I can hear it in my head. Plus, I am strumming the chords so I am supplying myself the notes.  

There were short intense periods of practice everyday. Drilling awkward chord transitions and willing my fingers to move with more accuracy between chord postures were at the top of my list. I felt a sense of satisfaction when my fingertips would tingle due to lack of sensation. I was forming callouses! One step closer into becoming a ukulele instrumentalist. I began learning on my niece's ukulele that is green and covered in tropical fruit. As the gig approched, I decided the week before I should pick up my own ukulele. While I was tempted to purchase a colored one, the sound was terrible so I opted for something in the mid-range.

Following the reception for the Nina fundraiser, we even had the chance to sing some holiday tunes for a private shopping event with Cory Christopher at Simons this past weekend.

Thanks to Nanc for these amazing pics from Simons!

While mèi mei's future is undetermined at this point in time, all I know it's fun to spend some time with my sis and have the courage learn something new.