Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Carolling Pub Crawl

This past Tuesday evening I had the pleasure of attending a Carolling Party hosted by the lovely Hooper family. It is an annual event full of carols, raising money for the
Foodbank, hanging with friendly people, and drinking delicious mulled wine after a chilly evening singing outside. I know it is not intentional, but the party always seems to be hosted on one of the coldest day of the year. This year was no exception. I am aware of this fact every year and each year I bring more and more layers, however, I still end up being quite chilled at the end of our run! Since it was more of a casual get-together, instead of an intricately scheduled carolling extravaganza, we had a mental list of houses we wanted to hit in the area because they were either were friends of the Hoopers or they enjoyed our singing in the previous years.

The first few houses were very nice, people in their cozy housecoats watched us from behind their screen door (in order to not let the warm air from their home escape). A few houses later we were invited indoors to sing for the Christmas dinner that was going on. They were all so enthusiastic that they beckoned us to enter and a group of 15 or so carollers stepped into their home while trying to shake the excess snow off our boots to avoid leaving mass puddles in their doorway. It warmed my heart to see the eager face of their Grandma listen to us as she held onto the back of the nearby chair for support and listened to us sing. We sang some carols and a man from the stairs proudly announced at the end of our tune: "I have sherry!" He weaved through the mob of carollers in his front hallway to break out the booze, and before I knew it, a plastic wine glass was being offered to me and the sherry bottle was being passed around. It was awesome. The sherry didn't warm my numb toes but it definitely warmed me up inside.

After this home, it was back out into the cold. We did a few more homes, collecting donations for the
Foodbank along the way, but our last stop was a Christmas party we were pre-scheduled to hit. The house was brimming with people and they urged us to come in. Thus, we shook off our boots again and walked down the main corridor all the way into the kitchen at the back of the house. Everybody was excited to see us and we sang a few carols, taking requests, of course. In between songs, styrofoam cups were handed out and a bottle of Baileys was passed down the carolling line so we could top up our cup. As well, once news circulated that we were collecting for the Edmonton Foodbank, actual cash was being placed in our mitten-covered hands. Their generosity was overwhelming! Platters of crackers, cheese, and meat were also being offered to us as well! If I have learned anything in all my years of singing it is that there's nothing better than singing and free food! After the Baileys, I was sufficiently warm, and since we were singing indoors, my feet were warming up as well! We headed back outside and proceeded to go back to the Hooper house for mulled wine and gingerbread cookies. Delicious!

I didn't expect there to be such generous amounts of alcohol available every step of the way for our carolling party but this carolling-party-turned-carolling-pub-crawl was very enjoyable indeed! Plus, we were able to raise money and collect donations for a good cause!

At any rate, I hope you all are having a very happy holiday and take care!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Carolling at the Hockey Game

'Tis the season for Christmas music and concerts and in addition to that.... 'tis the season for carolling gigs!

As a child, I often sang in choirs without any monetary benefit, however, things have changed now since I actually get paid to sing sometimes. It's shocking, I know! I used to feel a lot of pressure to perform well, since somebody was actually paying me not to screw up... and in many instances I still feel that pressure... but not with carolling gigs anymore. I am not yet a seasoned carolling veteran, as some of my fellow choristers are, but I'm coming pretty close since I've started to go on automatic singing pilot during my recent carolling gigs. The interesting about gigs is that most times you don't really know what you're signing up for.

My first gig of the year was at Rexall Place (which is the large hockey arena in my city). You can probably just imagine the setting... there we were... a strong and mighty group of 6 women tucked away into the corner between a table with silent auction hockey art and a large concrete pillar. Beside us was a young man using his belt-friendly hockey voice to advertise free Oilers blankets if they signed up for a credit card as we sang "Away in a Manger", while in front of us was a huge influx of traffic as we stood in front of the doors from the LRT and busstop. It was a gong-show! Nobody could hear us and I could sense that, as a group, our voices were becoming strained as we attempted to sing over the bustling hockey environment. However, at the same time I couldn't help but smile to myself in regards to how ridiculous our situation was. Out of all the environments where carolling should occur, before a hockey game isn't one of them! People are pre-occupied with buying beer, popcorn, and foamy fingers and aren't really in the mood to hear about how "Mary had a Baby". In addition, I had quite an adventure seeking out the gig entrance since I had to look for the ice-level entry point coming off of the LRT. I had to walk around the arena and go down a sketchy-looking ramp. If it wasn't for all the Mercedes and BMW SUVs parked outside (the car of choice for professional hockey players it seems) I would have thought I was in the wrong spot.

However, it was neat to stand next to the ice as we waited for our guide. Beside us where lots of VIP looking people with special passes strung around their necks and multiple media crews with their cameras and anchormen ready for the broadcast. We waited patiently for the girl who would lead us around. She soon emerged and professionally, but unenthusiastically, greeted and informed us that she would be taking care of us that evening. Once we were all together she walked us over to the scoreboard room to store our things. The scoreboard room was a very neat dark room filled with glittering television sets with multiple hockey channel broadcasts from different locations. Also, since I hadn't changed into my uniform beforehand... and it didn't seem like the men in the scoreboard room were leaving anytime soon, I was able to discretely change as a fellow chorister held up her arms with her carolling cape and it was a very nice makeshift dressing room. If there is one thing choir has taught me... it's how to change discretely and efficiently in public. A big part of it is not being self-conscious and to just go for it! The longer you take and the more tentative you look-the more people will pay attention. As well, it's all about changing with layers ex. putting a skirt on before taking off your pants etc.

Anyway, we gigged for a good hour and a half where it felt like we were shouting the words of carols into hockey patron faces while our guide tapped away at her iphone to kill time. Once the start of the hockey game was approaching, she told us we could wrap it up and she took us back down to gather our things in the scoreboard room before ushering us to the back doors that opened out again on the sketchy ramp parking lot. We had to exit before the hockey players came out. They had already laid out a rubber walking path for the players and a custodian was mopping the walkway so that the players would have a clean walkway on their way to the rink. I do have to admit, it was interesting to see all the behind-the-scenes activities behind a hockey game!

I'm not sure if I would do that gig again... but it definitely was a first and I'm all for experiencing new things :)

Until next time, take care and stay warm! (On Sunday, Edmonton was the coldest city in North America!)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Tis' the season

Hello readers!

Do you know how I know that Christmas is approaching?

It's simple.

My agenda has exploded into a frenzy of activity!

I'm sure many of you can relate.

Sandwiched in between my impending final exams, carolling gigs, work, dress rehearsals and concerts to sing at and attend... there is little time for anything else. However, I know that it would not be Christmas if I wasn't insanely busy. Also, it wouldn't be Christmas without proper Christmas music, or in my case, it wouldn't be Christmas without a candlelight procession.

I remember my first year of choir we held our Christmas concert in the newly opened Francis Winspear Centre. It is a gorgeous venue. Up until that point, I had never sang for an audience of any sort so it was just staggering enter such a majestic auditorium. As well, that is where I was first introduced to the the concept of a candlelight procession. I was quite proud of the fact that my choir was old enough to use actual candles and not the candle flashlights the primary choirs were given. Take that 6-year-olds!

It is important to note some rules that go along with candle holding:

1. Allow a generous amount of space between you and your neighboring choristers in the procession
2. Keep hair product use to a minimum.
Long hair+lots of hair product+open flame does not a very fire-friendly combination make
*Note: A violation of Steps 1 & 2 is a choir fatality I have heard of
3. Do not gaze into the flame and become entranced
4. Blow out the candle of a neighboring chorister if they fall victim to step three
5. Memorise the music/carols since it is difficult to hold both a candle and an open binder. Plus, I find holding a binder ruins the silhouette of a chorister on stage during a candlelight procession. You should be creating an atmosphere of ethereal beauty, not reminding the audience that you don't know the words to basic carols.

Of course, there are many other rules but these are some that came to my mind. If the above steps are obeyed, you will have a very satisfying candlelight procession experience indeed. My inner chorister craves a good candlelight procession every year. There's just something about entering a dim venue, angelic-sounding voices singing carols, with only the glowing-warm candlelight illuminating the space. For me, it's one of the perfect Christmas scenes. I urge you all to make sure you head out to watch something Christmassy this year because it really isn't Christmas without music. It's so easy to get caught up in the stress of the holidays that it's important to take time to enjoy the things we like.

I will leave you readers with that lovely thought and if any of you happen to be in Edmonton and want to see me in my candlelight glory, come check out the Cantilon Christmas concert.

Welcome Yule
SUNDAY December 6, 2009 • 2:30 pm

Welcome the winter in song with all of the Cantilon Choir, organist Jeremy Spurgeon, and the Strathcona String Quartet. Featuring a newly commissioned work by Mark Sirett, selections from Vaughan Williams' "Folk Songs for the Four Seasons" and Mathais' "Salvator Mundi". Kindersingers, Primary Choir, Children's Choir, Chamber Choir, Belle Canto.

Winspear Centre for Music • 9720-102 Avenue
Tickets • $20/$17 (students)
Tix on the Square 780/420-1757

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Singing for a Cause

Greetings readers!

This past Sunday I had the chance to sing of a very good cause and it is actually the second time I have been given the opportunity since last year was the first annual "Brick by Brick" concert. It is a challenge for me to try and summarize the efforts of Memory and Christie and their organization, Malawai Girls on the Move, but I will try to do my best to convey the type of work that they do and how important it is. I was first linked to this project because Christie is actually the sister of my choir conductor. Christie is a secondary school teacher here in Canada and she volunteered to teach at an all girls school in Malawi for a year in August 2000. However, the school she was teaching at closed in December 2000 and the 24 girls were left without a facility to continue their education. Christie and Memory decided to continue their efforts to seek the finances that these girls would require and in that time that small goal was the stimulus for the formation of a school for underprivileged girls in rural Malawi. Christie currently fundraises and provides information for donors and sponsors in Canada and Memory is now the director of the APU Secondary School for Girls in rural Malawi which opened in 2008.

When I first heard about this project, as sad as it is to say, I just felt a huge amount of disconnect from it. Living where I am---being raised in a 1st world country, where I have always been allowed to go to school, places me in a bubble where I forget that I am one of the rare subsets of the female population that is given this much opportunity. How can I be raised in a society full of privilege, yet, I am ignorant to the realities of other women in the world? Of course, I do realize that there is gender disparity that still exists in my current society, but when we complain about how women are not treated equal in the workplace, we must remember that there are women who are not even provided the education to escape from the domestic sphere. As well, even if women do attend school, they may face emotional and physical abuse from members of their society. It's such a destructive cycle! I can't even imagine my current life without my education. I was raised in environment with education was required. I never questioned it. I always assumed I would be going to University even though neither one of my parents holds a University degree. Simply put, education provides the knowledge and skills for people to better themselves. My parents worked the jobs they needed to work in order to provide money and opportunity for my siblings and I to pursue our own academic goals. For this, I am ever grateful. Education is the tool that these Malawian girls require in order to elevate themselves from being yet another woman trapped by societal expectation. Education also provides the intellectual empowerment that these girls require in order to shape a better future for themselves: one where women have the right and access to knowledge and are not oppressed by societal forces.

The concert on Sunday was entitled Brick by Brick because that is exactly how this school is being built---brick by brick. The fundraising funds brought in by concerts and other fundraising efforts. Memory and Christie's continue to fundraise for the school in order to ensure that there are continuous funds to support these girls through their educational years. This project has not been endorsed by any major celebrities or funded by huge government grants, all the money has come from individual donors and communities who believe in the cause. There is so much more to learn that I cannot do justice in this short blog entry so I urge you to visit their site to learn more about this fantastic cause. There you can learn more about the girls, the founders, and ways you can volunteer or donate. As well, I have posted a short video that allows you to have a real context for this important cause.

Take care and thanks for reading this entry which, perhaps, isn't as musically related as my other posts :)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Accepting the Castrati

Hello readers,

Last week I was going through a pile of old music articles which I had photocopied for my Music and Gender class last year and there was one essay in particular that caught my attention once again. It is a topic I am close to since I was randomly assigned to present on this topic by the Professor and I actually have no idea what the topic was. The article was simple entitled "Pieces and Breeches" from the The Diva's Mouth text. I flipped through the article and quickly began to realize that is was a paper on Castrati. For those of you who have not come across the term, Castrati, this was a term used to describe, as you can probably guess from its root word, castrated men. They were described as being "ethereal, other worldly, disembodied, and superhuman." This was the case because these castrated males lacked the necessary hormones for regular male development during puberty; thus, they maintained their pre-pubescent voices. In addition to retaining their angelic voices, the Castrati were also less muscular and on average taller than other males with a torso that was commonly described as barrel-chested. But most importantly, their flexibly high voices and vocal training was uninterrupted by puberty.

Historically, the Castrati were not originally operatic divas. They were actually formed because the Church required choir boys to sing soprano and alto parts in the upper registers of music once polyphony was introduced. Women were not allowed to sing in church choirs at this time. Although castration practices were sketchy to say the least, this sterile subset of men filled a very specific niche in the musical world. However, they soon branched out and a few famous Castrati, such a Farinelli, found fame in the Operatic world. They were both celebrated and feared characters. These "half-men" had a reputation for possessing extravagant tastes and extremely bad tempers. It was reported that there were sing-off's between Farinelli and Bernacchi in order to top the vocal genius of the other and even Marchesi demanded that his choice aria should be worked into every Opera he performed in; thus, forming the term "suitcase arias." The Castrati also challenged gender roles because they either played lovers and nobles or else they played women. Even the Castrati seemed to entice Casanova as seen in this performance review:

In a well-made corset, he had the waist of a nymph... his breast was in no way inferior, either in form or beauty, to any woman's; and it was above all by this means that the monster made such ravages. Though one knew the negative nature of this unfortunate, curiosity made one glance at his chest, and an inexpressible charm acted upon one, so that you were madly in love before you realized it... When he walked about the stage during the ritornello of the aria he was to sing, his step was majestic and at the same time voluptuous; and when he favored the boxes with his glances, the tender and modest rolling of his black eyes brought a ravishment to the heart. It was obvious that he hoped to inspire the love of those who liked him as a man, and probably would not have done so as a woman. (Heriot 54-55)

The Castrati's ability to seduce both sexes turned him into a musical fetish. They were able to disrupt traditional gender categories because they were some of the first instances when men were able to substitute for women. Off-stage a number of Castrati were also cross-dressers. Castrati were also seen as superior to women in some ways because they were were not a slave to hormonal fluctuations. There were reports of women who had to wear a red flower pin when they were performing, while undergoing her monthly female cycle, in order for the audience to excuse the fact that she may not be in top singing form. There was also a fair amount of speculation surrounding Castrati since these exotic male temptresses were often rumored to be having affairs with many women, but due to the fact that they were sterile, the women never needed to worry about becoming impregnated and being discovered by their husbands. As well, a woman reported that she had 2 children with a Castrato and, in that sense, his incomplete castration made him the complete, ideal man.

Even though Castrati are extinct now, I believe that the role they played in the musical world is a pivotal one because they were able to pave the way for female singers. Due to the fact that they had both male and female characteristics, in many ways they were a transitional gender figure. After the reign of Castrati, it was not as hard for society to accept female sopranos and a new age of Operatic divas. It is just interesting to consider the role of men in music. The Castrati were initially for choir-use only but were soon worshiped on the Operatic stage. However, in the present day, if there is a man singing in a choir, often, his sexuality is questioned at least once in his lifetime. That is just because music and sexuality are so closely related. The need and desire to perform music is inherently tied to behaviors and tendencies which can be classified as "homosexual." A performing male does not subscribe to the socially accepted norms of masculine behavior which condone emotional repression. Therefore, it is seen that we must continually challenge what society sees as acceptable masculine behavior. Maybe a boy singing in choir isn't the coolest thing he can be doing... but if it worked in 18th C Italy for the Castrati, why can't it still be like that? Although I do not condone seedy castration practices, I do want to challenge peoples ways of thinking when it comes to stereotyping the roles of men within music. What is acceptable masculine behavior and who gets to decide what that is? I believe we must do it for ourselves instead of swayed by what society has deemed to be acceptable masculine acts. The Castrati signaled a time when men were able to play both men and women and embrace both sides of their character; thus, instead of questioning a musical man's sexual orientation we should just simply be accepting it.

Just something to think about next time we meet. As well, if you scroll down halfway on the Wikipedia page, they have a sound clip of what the last Castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, sounded like.

As well, here is a clip from the movie "Farinelli." This movie did not have actual Castrati voice tracks but they digitally merged a soprano and countertenor voice to create what they believe is representative of a Castrato sound.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Cantilon's 10th Annual Dessert Auction

Hello dear readers,

Just here to report that Cantilon's 9th Annual Dessert Auction went very smoothly and that it was a great start to our 10th Anniversary year. In a way I can't believe I have been doing this fundraiser for 9 years! I still remember the first one that was done at a small community club hall out in St. Albert. We have come so far since then. Now our Dessert Auction is held in the lovely Winspear Centre lobby and the whole evening is so smooth and organized.

I am happy to report that Belle Canto's performance of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy went quite well. I have to admit, I was royally screwing up some of the choreography during the practice cram session we were having before we got on stage, but I managed to pull off a smooth performance. Sure, overall we probably weren't that clean but we had fun with it and I think the audience thoroughly enjoyed it. Our Verdi piece also went extremely well I thought and it was so much easier to sing in a supportive acoustic. All the sustained musical lines felt so easy with the glassy and diffusive lobby atmosphere distributing our sound.

I wasn't able to watch the other choirs that evening but I did manage to catch Chamber Choir's performance. I sang with Chamber Choir when it first formed and it was a group that really shaped my skills as a chorister. The musical demands are high and a lot of commitment is required to be in the group since there are two rehearsals a week on top of a busy performance schedule with recording and touring worked into the mix as well. It is always interesting for me to see the blossoming singers. I recognize people from a few years back who were just starting out in the front row with a shy timidness about them and this year they are all standing in the backrow and singing with confidence and purpose. They sang Bach's Wir Eilen Mit Schwachen with wonderful vitality and lovely balance. Frobisher Bay was next and no matter how many times I hear this song or sing this song... I never get tired of it. During their performance I just closed my eyes and enjoyed their fused acoustic waveforms. Their final piece R. Murray Schafer's Raking Song was also an interesting pick since the last time I heard this song was when the St. Mary's Children's Choir performed it when we were on a choir exchange. I remember watching them in awe since it was the first time I saw extensive actions used for a choral piece! This was quite revolutionary for me to watch 7 years ago! However, we soon discovered their secret since they actually have choreography rehearsals for their songs and once they learn the actions, that song is within their permanent performance inventory. Thus, it was lovely to hear it again tonight and to see a bit of movement; however, it was nowhere near as extensive as the first time I saw it. I remember the St. Mary Children's Choir using a heavy raking action as they swung their hands over their shoulders, trying to carry the weight of their imaginary rake as they "beat the ground," and I also remember their fluttering jazz-like hands to simulating the rain coming down from the sky. I couldn't help but videotape a bit of the performance from the song tonight and I have posted it below so enjoy!

Overall, watching tonight's performances was like taking a trip down memory lane for me. There are so many songs that just stick with you as a chorister and it was fun to hear some of them again tonight and revisit all the memories associated with them.

Until next time, take care!

Cantilon's 10th Anniversary Birthday Cake

The Cantilon Chamber Choir

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy!

For the past many years the Cantilon Dessert Auction has been an annual event where our choirs have been able to showcase their talents early into the year as well as providing an opportunity for fundraising. This year is also extra special because it is the 10th Anniversary of Cantilon Choirs. The Dessert Auction is a time to sing lovely and pleasing choral repertoire; however, in my past experiences with my choir, Belle Canto, we have a very different perception of what is lovely and pleasing to sing and what is lovely and pleasing for the audience to hear.

This year we tried to satisfy both our musical taste as well as the musical palette of the audience. We will be singing Verdi's Laudi alla vergine Maria, an epic opera-like chorus piece, as well as Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, made famous by the Andrew Sisters. The Verdi kills me vocally but I do have to admit that it felt a lot better at our last rehearsal. The long sustained lines require vocal stamina I lack. My diaphragm, actually all the muscles of my respiratory mechanism, feels like it has undergone a massive workout everytime we tackle that piece. I am not sure if I stated it explicitly in my previous posts but I am not a soloist. Don't get me wrong, I love singing in choir and I feel like I have worked hard to become a skilled chorister, but I have never felt that my voice works particularly well for solo settings. This is most likely due to low vocal confidence and the lack of any proper training or experience. However, I have come to the terms with the fact that I am not an opera star and that suits me just fine... as long as I still get to sing in choir of course.

The thing I really wanted to blog about though was Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy since we have decided to be ambitious early in the year and add movement to our piece! This is very exciting (and somewhat out of the ordinary) for Belle Canto since we usually don't move very much during our performance, unless it is our Broadway Gala fundraiser, but that does not arrive until February. Adding movement to our pieces usually means that our rehearsal slightly resembles a physically challenged gong-show but I am glad to say that rehearsal wasn't nearly as bad as I thought. It's actually a lot of fun to rehearse since we don't mind making fun of ourselves. In the end I think everybody knows that the audience will appreciate our effort and we are guaranteed to entertain them in the process. Also, I think the new t.v. show, Glee, has bitten me with the musical theatre bug so I don't mind shamelessly showcasing myself. Furthermore, we have a whole set of snappy side-steps and oh-look-we're-so-cute poses as we make our way through Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. It should be quite a bit of fun next Friday!

If you are free in Edmonton that night you should come check out the performance! The details are as follows:

FRIDAY October 16, 2009 • 6:00 pm

Dive into decadence at our fall fundraiser. Cantilon pairs fine desserts with fine choral music for an evening sure to satisfy the connoisseur in you. Kindersingers, Primary Choir, Children’s Choir, Chamber Choir, Belle Canto

Winspear Centre for Music, Lobby • 9720-102 Avenue

Tickets • $15
Cantilon Office 780/732-1262

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Trendy Choral Pieces

At my first choir rehearsal of the year, my conductor presented us with two c.d.'s that she had received from the National Music Festival here in Canada. My choir, Belle Canto, made it to Provincials where we won both our classes and a recording of that performance was sent off to represent us in the National Music Festival against other choirs who competed in the same categories. Something new this year is that they provided all competing choirs with c.d.'s of all the other choir performances. I am happy to inform you all the Belle Canto won the National Music as well :)

I have been profusely listening to all the tracks and I am sure they will inspire many blog entries to come but one thing that came across was the thought of trendy choral pieces. I just want to make this clear from the beginning, I have nothing against trendy choral pieces, but I do believe choirs have to tread carefully when they wish to tackle popular pieces in the modern choral world. Of course, the definition of what is chorally popular is subjective as well, but this piece in particular caught my attention: Mata Del Anima Sola by Antionio Estevez.

The Surrey Youth Chamber Choir as well as the Take Note Jazz Choir chose this particular piece as their class entries, even though they were not competing directly against one another, it is interesting to hear just how different two choirs can sound with the same piece. The reason I believe why Mata Del Anima Sola has a... choral hook I shall say is because it is extremely catchy and has a sensual Venezuelan beat that runs through the first and end sections of the song. However, this raises some more issues since it is extremely difficult to find a comfortable tempo setting for a song. South American music requires a sensual innate metronome within every chorister in order to feel the pulse and move of the piece. I have sung percussive Spanish choral songs in the past, Hatfield's Las Amarillas comes to mind, and more often than not, these pieces can feel like they're going to derail when everybody has a different sense of time. I took my theory to Youtube and searched for choral performances of Mata Del Anima Sola. Most of the videos I saw had decent soloists, but as soon as the choir comes in with their swinging percussive lines, it feels like the solid foundation that the soloist has built up begins to ripple and dissemble as the piece progresses.

After listening to the Surrey Youth Chamber Choir, I appreciate their vowel purity and phrase shaping, but they sounded more like a proper English church choir than a fiery Venezuelan ensemble. It was just lacking that South American heat that this song is supposed to have. Also, after hearing performances on Youtube, their tempo is too slow for it. However, I feel that they decided to slow it down because that was what they could manage. I suppose it is better to sing it slow and accurately rather than being a jumbled acoustic mess. But it is tough to find that balance since you can hear in the Take Note Jazz recordings that they clearly could not agree on a tempo either.

I wish I could provide some fail safe techniques to overcome this tempo issue in choral pieces, unfortunately, I cannot, but what I did find helpful while rehearsing the Hatfield piece was silently tapping out the pulse with two fingers in the palm of my hand as I sung. It is also crucial that your conductor keeps a steady beat and refuses to go ahead even if the rest of the choir is rushing. I always knew it was a bad sign when I looked up and saw that we were a few bars ahead of the conductor; however, it is hard to fix when no one else is looking. Thus, leading me to my final point: these types of pieces must be memorized. These types of piece are never the same if they aren't memorized. However, singing from memory doesn't automatically resolve tempo issues but at least you can guarantee that everybody is watching the conductor.

I had some trouble posting the clips of the choirs I was speaking about specifically in this post (Does anybody know of a free audio hosting site that has an embed link where it will comes up as a little player on my blog entries? The other one I was using is not working for me anymore). But in the meantime to give you an idea of the song sung in two different ways here are Youtube videos:

Excellent soloist but a tad slow.

University Singers of UNC: A faster tempo... if they could only have more control over it.

Coro de Maracay from Venezuela. I feel like this have the spirit of the piece spot on but there are some things that could be vocally cleared up.

All in all, when tackling choral pieces that are popular, you can bet adjudicators and singers have all heard a recent version of it. Thus, it important to approach the piece after some research to find your own unique interpretation of it to set yourself apart. Of course, this goes for any piece but when you enter a festival, and there are multiple other choirs singing the same piece as you, it is even more important to stand out.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Do you love musical theatre?

Do you wish your life was a musical sometimes?

You must watch Glee.

Alright, so this post is somewhat related to choral music but I just wanted to gush about, Glee, a new t.v. show I was introduced to.

A fellow student of mine enthusiastically told me about the plot line where the show follows a vocal show choir within a highschool that is ripe with stereotypical cliques. My interest was instantly sparked; however, I was kind of afraid it was like Highschool Musical. Although Highschool Musical songs are catchy, the fromage of the show often makes me cringe while watching it. Glee is more like the popular teen movie, "Bring it On," but instead of focusing on cheerleading, it is centered around a group of lovable artsy outcasts. Ever since "Bring it On" came out, I wished there was a film that depicted the wonderful world of choral singing and the funny and strange things choristers do when they are competing against one another. Also, the show does a great job at not taking itself too seriously and pokes fun at the quirky characters found within any musical group.

I am also amazed at the kind of quality each Glee episode contains. There is at least one huge choreographed musical number that look absolutely stunning on screen. They look like routines from a major motion picture or Broadway show so it is amazing to see that it on t.v. I also find it funny when the show picks at weird quirks and tendencies of musicians. I think one of the main things is that musicians are willing to make fools of themselves if they are doing something they love. This came to my mind when a group of male teachers have the bright idea of forming a hip-hop A Capella group and they were stoked when they decided that they should name themselves the "Acafellas." I have to admit, I have had similar experiences, but I think I will keep my nerdy stories to myself... for now...

Anyway, I have posted a video of the "Rehab" dance number in one of the first episodes. It is stunning! And you can find links to streaming episodes of Glee here.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Audiological Insight into a Choral Pet Peeve

The other day in my Audiology class my professor introduced us to a chart that outlined different types of hearing loss. Sound can be conducted either by air or bone and a blockade at any point in these pathways can lead to conductive, sensorineural or mixed hearing loss. He moved on to speak about tuning fork tests that are used to roughly determine what kind of hearing loss there might be. By no means do tuning forks rival the most advanced audiological software, but it provides a simple and non-invasive way to investigate where the hearing difficulty might lie.

The tuning fork test that caught my attention is entitled: "Bing." The reason this particular tuning fork test caught my attention is that the test incorporates the "Occlusion effect." What might this be you ask? Well, you conduct the Bing test by striking a tuning fork and placing it on your mastoid (the hard bony region behind your ear) while opening and closing your ear using your finger (by pressing on the flap of skin over your ear canal hole). If you hear a pulsating sound... congratulations! This means that the test is positive and you have normal hearing! If there is no change in loudness, this might indicate conductive hearing loss... No worries, though, I conducted all of the tuning fork tests in lab the other day and most of them suggest that I have some kind of sensorineural hearing loss... yeah, I really don't think that is the case. There is a lot of room for experimental error with tuning fork tests.

What might any of this have to do with choral singing you ask? Well, I am sure that, for those of you who have sung in groups before, you probably have come across people who love to plug one or both of their ears while singing. This is one of my choral pet peeves. Not only does it make you look elitist, like everybody is around you is singing so poorly you have to block them out in order to hear yourself, it also occludes your own hearing and actually alters the way you hear your own voice!

The occlusion effect is a low-pitch phenomenon and the reason there is a pulsating sound, as well as the perception that you can hear yourself better, is because the the long wavelengths of low pitches can't escape from the ear canal. These low frequencies are what you hear when your ear is plugged. Thus, when people are singing and plugging one ear, not only are they blocking out the people around them but they are mainly listening to their own low frequency feedback.

O.k, I understand if somebody plugs their ear for a moment to check a note (I have done it myself a few times). It's seems like a reflex to do it, since you feel like there is no other way to hear yourself, but the physics of sound tells us that it doesn't actually help. It actually might make you think you are singing lower than you actually are due to the low pitch feedback you are hearing by plugging your ear canal. I suppose the only exception is if you are a rock singer and ear plugs are necessary so that you won't lose your hearing while singing next to loud instruments. However, I do not believe that the decibels produced from choral singing are enough to cause long term hearing damage.

My worse experience one time was when I was rehearsing for a singing exam and one of our members was slightly less experienced chorister. For the singing exam, we were placed in groups of 4, one for each part, and I noticed that this particular chorister was struggling with our rehearsal piece for the exam. They found it hard to come in on the right note and sing alongside somebody who was not on the same part. Thus, this unnamed chorister resorted to plugging their ear for all the rehearsals, which, by the way, didn't help their singing or the group blend. It was frightening listening to that chorister warble off-key while keeping a solid finger lodged firmly in their ear. Needless to say, they bombed the singing exam.

Take it from me, the bad grade of the ear-plugging chorister, and my Audiology prof. Try not to plug your ears while singing! It is not helping you or anybody around you! Plus, won't you look much classier while singing when a finger isn't jammed in your ear?

Yeah, I thought so too :)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Trumpets to Tchaikovsky

Today signals the last day of ESO's Symphony Under the Sky! I was wary of the weather for the whole weekend but there wasn't any point where it just started pouring. Last night, the rain clouds were starting to come out just when Steve Lippia was telling Lady Luck to be kind while singing "Luck be a Lady", but most people were able to make it out without much trouble. Today started out chilly but it warmed up when the sun made an appearance after the intermission.

The concert began with the traditional O Canada and God Save the Queen followed by Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture. The ESO sounded extremely jovial as they played their merry way through the Berlioz. Humperdinck's Evening Prayer from Hansel and Gretel was lovely and extremely well-suited to the outdoor surroundings. Even though it was the middle of the afternoon, the music transformed the surroundings to the point where, if you closed your eyes, you would be certain that the shimmering evening was setting in.

Another piece I enjoyed was the piece by Jia Jia Yong, a young composer chosen by the ESO to compose a piece under the guidance of the resident composer, Allan Gilliland. Her piece entitled "A Celebration of the the Solstice" was mean to explore to the balance between the the longest and shortest days of the year as well as the warmth of summer. The piece had a very delicate and gentle quality as twinkling harp melodies weaved their way throughout the piece. Her talent is enough to put other 18-year-olds to shame. I wish Yong the best as she begins her first year at the University of Alberta.

The entrance of the colorful Mr. Jens Lindemann signaled the start of Proto's Carmen Fantasy for Trumpet and Orchestra. His 24K gold trumpet ripped through the exotic melodies of Bizet's Carmen while giving the piece a jazzy sound. Lindemann's fanfares was able to transform the Hawrelak Park Amphitheatre into a Spanish bullfighting ring. His banter between songs was also comedic as he went on about how they were not able to run through the pieces earlier in the day due to inappropriate stage temperatures for their instruments, a missing E flat trumpet, and because their music was held up by customs. At any rate, a sight-reading ESO and Lindemann made their way through Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major without any major glitches. Lindemann also gave shout-outs to his old trumpet professors and other musical figures that shaped his love for trumpet in its formative years. He also played Cowell's Rollercoaster with two of his previous trumpet teachers clad in blue Hawaiian shirts. I wasn't sure if their flamboyant attire was meant to be embarrassing, however, I suppose they matched his sparkling blue concert blazer :) At any rate, Lindemann was quite the character getting the audience to shout "Olé!" with a gesture of his hand and his Carmen fanfare was often heard even after he walked off the stage. Just in case the audience forgot how awesome he was :)

The afternoon wrapped up with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. The performance of this piece is an annual tradition and it is always fun to hear the cannons go off at the end. However, I think my favorite is when audience members take out their bells and keys to simulate victorious church bells. I never seem to get tired of it even after almost 10 years of attending the festival.

I hope to blog soon (even though I have a feeling I will be engulfed by coursework as I begin my first year as a Masters student in Speech Pathology at the UofA) and take care in the meantime!

A full grass section

Intermission time

Claire checking out the crowds

Grass seating rows

Birds scatter with the cannon sounds

Smoke from the cannons used by the Royal Canadian Artillery.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Simply Sinatra

I am back from another evening out in Hawrelak Park for the Symphony under the Sky festival. Tonight's program was full of classic Sinatra tunes such as Witchcraft, I've Got You Under My Skin, The Way You Look Tonight, Fly Me to the Moon, Lucky Be a Lady, and My Way. Steve Lippia was the soloist to carry off these classics crooner ballads and you could easily tell he was in his musical niche. It was also fun to hear the ESO playing Big Band style. They were able to carry it off but sometimes it is funny to see a bunch of serious looking musicians dressed up in formal concert wear playing swinging tunes. You know that the bearded stoic-looking trumpet player is having a good time but it's not visually apparent. It also made me smile when I saw the trap set player wearing a tux. I'm used to seeing skinny boy rockers behind the drums but this player's formal look and attire seemed delightfully foreign to me.

It is hard for me to comment too much on the performance itself because it was just so... pleasing. There was nothing that really jolted and fueled me musically but it was just an enjoyable evening. It left me without much of an opinion. Please don't take this as a bad thing... sometimes it's nice not having to think too hard about music.

The banter between his songs was also cute. He remarked that on his second anniversary the couple at the table next to them were celebrating their anniversary as well, however, it was their 52nd anniversary. In addition, the man had a bit of advice for Lippia. The reason that they were still together after 52 years years is because they go out for dinner twice every week. He goes on Tuesday and she goes on Thursday. You could tell he had these stories well rehearsed. He also commented on how US Airways lost his luggage for a week of shows and how he had to rent a tuxedo that looked like it had been used for 250 proms in the past month. This was the introduction story to "Come Fly with Me." His overall particular brand of comedy... how should I say it... was definitely geared towards a more... mature demographic :)

Lippia was cheeky and charming but what really got him going was when he was commenting on how there was no more romance in music nowadays and that the era of the songwriter has been lost. I agree to some extent, but music is always continually changing and we, as listeners, have to change and recognize new forms since if we were always singing the same thing, what is the point of exploring other musical realms? Sure, there is definitely more to sift through these days and music varies greatly in quality, but is that necessarily a bad thing? I don't think so. Music should be continuously changing and we should question and challenge what our feelings towards music are at any given point. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section!

There was one song "Send in the Clowns," which definitely peaked my interest since this was the melody of one of my childhood toys. I never knew the name of the song until today! I'm sure some of you had this generic wind-up clown toy as well. You twist the dial and "Send in the Clowns" plays as the clown rotates its head. Yes, I know it sounds creepy, especially if you have a clown phobia, but it just made me happy to hear a jingle from my childhood. My dad bought the clown for me after a trip he made without me and I still have the clown today. I used to wind up the toy when he had to work late so I could fall asleep to the gentle melody. I think I will be doing the same this evening.

Take care everybody and I will report back tomorrow as the Symphony Under the Sky wraps up in the afternoon!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sparkling Classics

I am so thankful the weather held up this evening. The whole afternoon was rainy but I am glad that Symphony Under the Sky could go ahead as planned this evening. The grass was slick but refreshing and all my lawn chair neighbors were lovely and excellent company as we tucked into our blankets for warmth throughout the performance.

Delightful and pleasing Classical pieces were on the program as well as some vivacious Gershwin. The first piece was O Canada and I always enjoy how a musical audience is never afraid to step up and sing the national anthem when prompted.

A Night on the Bare Mountain by Mussorgsky was next and it was extremely entertaining to listen to. There was so much flare to the performance and it just sounded like the string players had such a colorful swagger as they were playing. There was just a vibrant quality to the whole performance which made me excited for the whole weekend and the other musical offerings I would be treated to in the next few days. The brass section was also excellent with their commanding and sparkling sound. It was also very fitting at the end of the piece, when there were echoing chimes and quiet soaring melodies to mimic the entrance of dawn, the sun also was finally emerging after the afternoon storm.

Following Mussorgsky was Mendelssohn's Italian Opera. It was delightful and my Mom was excited to hear something she recognized. By far my favorite movement was the second one, the Andante con moto, since I really enjoyed the interplay of sound between the strings and the brass. It just felt like they were engaged in a very relaxing but enjoyable dance with one another.

Of course, watching William Eddins play Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F was the highlight of the evening. Eddins naturally radiates infectious energy and this is extends to his playing. He plays with power, but with great flexibility, and it just looks like his torso is just another bodily attachment as his fingers have a life of their own. The music would send shockwaves through his body as he was just another expressive vessel for the great entity that is music. He just has so much potential energy that the kinetic explosion of stored energy fuels his power and electric stamina throughout the piece. It was mesmerizing to watch his fingers and arms move faster than my eyes could follow. His arms and hands just turned into a blur of motion. Pretty good for a man who had just finished traveling from Capetown South Africa!

Overall, I had a fantastic evening outside. Sure, the weather was a bit chill but I was bundled up and listening to some fantastic music. Sometimes when music is that good you just forget where you are and the weather doesn't feel so cold after all.

Symphony Under the Sky Preview

Symphony under the Sky begins this evening! Every year the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra puts on a set of concerts in the beautiful Hawrelak Park in Edmonton and it is an informal friendly concert setting for those who love music. They play a wide range of musical from traditional opera overtures to classical concertos and Hollywood soundtracks. Even though the weather has been looking ominous all day with scattered showers, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra twitter informs me all is going ahead according to plan. I just hope I don't get rained out... Tis' the fate of grass seating I guess.

On a slightly happier note, I am looking forward to attending and blogging about 3 of the concerts happening this long weekend. Thanks again to Phil from the ESO for setting me up with tickets! Tonight's performance is entitled "Sparkling Classics" with pieces such as Gershwin's Concerto in F and Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony. In my experience in the past years, the first evening is always something delightfully classical and pleasing to the ear. I am also a fan of piano soloists, I think piano holds a place close to my heart since I used to fall asleep while listening to my sister practise Chopin Nocturnes in the evenings as a child.

On Sunday evening I will also be attending "Simply Sinatra," and simply put, Steve Lippin will be singing some Sinatra classics. This should be fun and you can bet I will be singing along to New York, New York if Steve sings it. I remember a few years back when I visited New York I really wanted to go to Shakespeare in Central Park. The tickets were free but the catch was that you had to line up early for tickets. I remember getting up at 7am, left my mom sleeping in her bed (she was going to meet me later), bought some breakfast at the nearby deli, and took the subway to Central Park. I didn't know exactly where the line began but I just followed everybody else and found a spot. There I had little to entertain myself with so I just listened to my ipod until 12pm. I remember lying on the grass on a Macy's bag I deconstructed so I wouldn't get dirty while all the locals around me brought a chair to sit on (the little luxuries I lacked while traveling). Looking slightly homeless but overall quite content, I remember looking up at the canopy of Central Park trees and as my ipod playlist started playing Sinatra's "New York, New York." The timing was perfect. To this day that song still takes me back to that time in Central Park.

On Monday afternoon the Symphony Under the Sky wraps up with "Trumpets to Tchaikovsky." I am looking forward to hear the sparkling sound of trumpets as well at the canons which are released during Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

Anyway, I am excited for these upcoming concerts and I hope you will all check back here often as I am sure I will have exciting things to blog about!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A New Year

As the start of my first rehearsal approaches, I am filled with thoughts about the upcoming choral season and what I have in store for myself. Although it is not the start of the new year, it feels like a fresh year as I brace myself for a new school and choir season.

I start to think about anything and everything related to music and one thing I have been contemplating is conductor styles within a choir. Throughout the years, I have had the experience to work with a variety of conductors, everyone with their own particular style and expectations, but it made me wonder... what am I looking for in a conductor? My first conductor in Junior Choir had a nurturing and motherly nature, which was excellent for easing myself into this new musical artform; however, my demands in a conductor began to change as my skill level progressed.

Following that conductor, my Intermediate choir conductor was extremely artistic and expressive. She would always walk about the room freely vocalizing and encouraging you to do so as well in order to explore the flexibility of your own vocal cords and sound. This exploratory stage allowed me to start figuring out what works and what doesn't, oh yes, and make a fool out of myself vocally :)

After intermediate choir, I entered Chamber Choir and this, by far, was my first intense choral group. Suddenly, I was placed with singers who had undergone a slightly more selective screening process and I was filled with a sense of prestige. However, this is soon cut down as I began to realize that my conductor had high demands for herself as well as her choir. I do not want to make her into some dictatorial entity but, at times, that was what she was like to me... and I absolutely thrived upon it! I wanted somebody telling me when things did not sound correct and her furrowed brow and slightly killer glare would scare even the most passive chorister. This, in turn, caused me to become extremely impatient and intolerant of choristers who did not have the same high standards I had for myself and the choir. These choristers are everywhere, perhaps singers who were forced into choir by their parents or choristers who are only singing for easy credit. I have no patience for these types of singers. They bring down the energy of the choral group! There is so much potential in every single singer that it is frustrating to hear them not utilizing their talents. One of the things that makes any ensemble succeed is the determination and commitment of every single member. This is even more of challenge within a choir since you are often working with a large group of people. Coordinating 5 members to commit is one thing but making 35 singers commit is another challenge entirely. A demanding conductor ensures that every chorister is giving their very best. If singers are not committed to the choir, it does not make sense that the other choristers in the group should suffer as well. I think my pleasure in having somebody demand so much from me is also due in part to my upbringing. My childhood was filled with critique rather than praise. I always knew that if my parents were quiet, I was doing something correctly; however, if I ever stepped out of line, I would experience, how I like to put it, the "Asian smack-down," whether that be verbal or physical :) Don't get me wrong, I'm in no way bitter about my upbringing, it is actually quite funny to me now as I understand the love behind all the actions, but this transferred to choir since I was happy with critique.

My conductor's high demands allowed us to win numerous awards and that reinforcement only increased my competitive nature. Of course, as I grew older, priorities in my life changed as well and life changes also caused my choir conductor slacken her iron fist as well. The thing I enjoy most about Belle Canto right now is that all the women in it are extremely dedicated to singing but they also have other lives as well. We try as much as we can to coordinate all our schedules and, while it is frustrating at times, there are climatic musical moments that I have felt while singing with them. When I was younger, I had so much more time to dedicate to my obsessive need for choral perfection; however, this has changed. As much as I love choir... it is not my career. It is my hobby. I find I enjoy it more this way because I do not rely on choral singing to support me financially. I also find that once money is added into an equation, my feelings towards something change. While I still secretly thrive for the need for a conductor to be demanding and somewhat dictatorial, I am glad that my conductor is able to cater her style to suit the style of each particular group. I think that's what's most important: adaptation. Every group has different needs; thus, different approaches must be used. For younger groups, a more exploratory strategy for musical learning is suitable, and as you have a more concentrated group of skilled singers, it is appropriate to have higher musical demands.

I encourage you to evaluate what musical teaching style you respond most to. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Wedding Choral Singing

This past Saturday I had the pleasure of singing in an a capella quartet for a dear friend of mine, Leanne, for her wedding. Leanne and her husband, Jeremy, are both accomplished musicians and they both have just finished up a Masters in Music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. They were both back in town to take their vows in front of family and friends and one of the most interesting things at a musicians' wedding is their choice of music. They had an endless supply of potential performers, since many of their friends are musicians themselves, so it is always interesting to see what the musical program will be like. There was lovely piano playing by Bob, an excellent pianist who was my first accompanist when I started singing in choir. Leanne also had a violinist friend compose and play a song, "Leanne's Air," for her walk down the aisle. During the signing of the registry, she chose a vocal quartet to provide background music.

Leanne asked me a few months back if I would consider singing in the quartet for her. I heartily consented and was paired up with three other musicians. The soprano, Nadia, I knew well as she is one of my close choir friends. The tenor and bass, Ryan and Kyle, I was less acquainted with even though I toured with them to Ireland 2 years ago with the Madrigal Singers. You may be wondering how I claim not to know them well even though I toured with them. As anybody in choir can attest to, it is difficult to get to know everybody equally well. Ryan and Kyle were also alumni members who came back to choir specifically for the tour (since we needed more singers); therefore, they were not with the choir for the whole choral season. However, I do remember many funny moments with them on tour such as when they were lamenting how long it takes denim and thick socks to dry after a hand washing session in the bathtub. They managed to cover every piece of furniture in their room with damp laundry and waited for the moist Irish air to be forgiving and dry their laundry before we had to move accommodations the next day.

It was lovely to see them both again during the wedding rehearsal and I knew it would be interesting to all sing together for the first time. I had no worries at all about the music. Both Ryan and Kyle are professional choristers and are often paid to perform and learn music quickly. Nadia is used to learning and performing music rapidly as well. I was curious to hear what we sounded like and I was not disappointed! Of course, there was not enough time to pour over every small detail in our piece, Jesus Christ the Apple Tree by Elizabeth Poston, but we all had our ears open and were able to successfully make our way through the piece. There was one phrase where we decided not to take a breath; however, as soon as we saw someone start to take a breath in the aforementioned spot, automatically, we all took a breath to follow suite. It is moments like these that just make me smile since it is amazing at how receptive you can be to the singers around you! It was like a group reflex to all take a breath and correct that moment since it rarely sounds like a mistake when everybody else around you is doing the same thing. An interesting choral trick to note.

The wedding performance went extremely well. I would be lying if I said it was perfect since there was a moment or too when I was too caught up in looking at the audience and I almost started singing with the wrong consonant. Thankfully, it was nothing too major since I caught myself quickly enough. It always pays off to listen to what your fellow choristers are doing. It's a tough balance sometimes because you want to be an engaging performer and communicate what you have to say to the audience, but when you have only run a song 2 times before, there are still small technical errors that have the capability to surprise you.

Overall, I wish Leanne and Jeremy all the best as they head off to Montreal to build a life together. I can only ponder now which wedding I will get to sing at next.