Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Broadway & Choir?

Backstage at the MacLab Theatre Broadway Gala'08

One may believe that Broadway and Choir are closely related entities; however, they were very much separated musical entities in my formative years of choral training. Moving ballads from Andrew Lloyd Webber had no place among the classical choral pieces I was trained to love but one cannot deny the popular draw of musical theatre numbers. Thus, every year, Cantilon Choir hosts a Broadway Gala to fundraise and showcase the musical talents of the choristers performing Broadway music. I was surprised to hear that this years was the 9th Annual Broadway Gala. That means I have been doing the gala for 9 years!

Mind you, the first Broadway Gala is almost nothing like the Broadway Gala now. We have maintained the singing, the costumes, the piano only accompaniment and minimalistic to no props on stage (risers not included). It used to be a sit down dinner at the Italian Cultural Centre with silent auction. We would enter the stage in full choir formation and sing Broadway pieces in a static manner while wearing costumes we put together ourselves. It took a few years before we (shockingly) added last minute choreography to one of the numbers, more specially, "It's a Hard Knock Life" by Annie. I still remember leaning against my friend Leanne on a riser, pretending to be asleep and hearing the creaky curtains of the Italian cultural centre open to show all the choristers fast asleep as if we were abandoned orphans. We promptly woke up when we heard the piano entry to the song and we sang the whole song while flinging blankets and pretending to fold laundry. Everybody was so buzzed by our incorporation of movement since it is something our choir had not embraced before. Needless to say, movement became an integral part of the Broadway experience. We employed a choreographer, Dawn, the following years to teach us movement techniques for particular songs and she was very helpful and taught us all how to smozzle (forming group clusters of people (with various heights, kneeling, sitting, and standing) on stage at varying locations) and tried to keep things simple for those physically challenged with the demands of dance. However, I felt there was a real change in the last few years where we utilized the talents of a Cantilon Chorister to choreograph some of our dance numbers. It was easy to learn from her clear, instructive manner and it felt like each year the Broadway Gala increased in quality.

We sang in a range of venues from the Cultural Centre, the Provincial Museum theatre, the Timms Centre for the Arts, the Citadel's MacLab Theatre, before settling down at the Arden theatre in St. Albert. It can be seen we have gone from community stages to professional theatres throughout Edmonton.

As well, the genesis of a male choir has formed with the last few Broadway shows. A few years back when we needed men to sing some solos for Oliver, a chorister volunteered her father to sing the part of Mr. Bumble. He had a stunning bass voice and it was exciting to have a change in sound. Each year we also had male choristers who graduated from our treble voice choirs and found that this was the opportunity to bring their talents back on stage. Thus, when we put on Guy's and Dolls three years back, we finally formed a men's chorus. This chorus was comprised of graduated male choristers with changed voices, father's, brother's, uncle's and anybody else who managed to hear we were looking for men. There are still those men who I don't know or where they came from. Suddenly, there was so much possibility! Of course, the men were still horribly outnumbered but it was wonderful to have the diversity of sound and have a group of men on stage for "Luck be a Lady."

Furthermore, our early years of stoic choral singing on a cultural centre's stage evolved into an evening out at a professional theater with a men's chorus and choreographed routines! It's amazing how much change can come each year. Of course, this year was no exception as improvements are continually being made to perfect the Broadway Gala...

To be continued...

Photo Credit: Mary-Ellen. Guys & Dolls-Broadway Gala '07

Broadway Gala'08

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Choir Uniforms: An Evolution of Choral Fashion

I have had my fair share of choral uniform fashions over the past few years and I would like to document some of them here.

In my formative years of Junior Choir, we wore white collared shirts and black pants with a red bow-tie like appendage wrapped around our neck. The way the red tie sat kind of reminded me of a red tongue.

In my years of Intermediate Choir, we wore navy kilts and I remember having to buy my own kilt pin for the skirt. I was not aware, until this point, that kilt pins just looked like large safety pins. Again, the navy kilt was topped off with a long-sleeved white collar shirt.

Then I entered a second choir, Chamber Choir, in addition to Intermediate Choir, and since this was a brand new choir, we received brand new uniforms! However, during one of our first performances, when we did not have uniforms yet, we wore the Children's Choir uniforms which were yellow and brown plaid jumpers which kind of looked like birthing gown jumpers with white opaque tights and underneath was a short-sleeved navy mock neck shirt.

Once Chamber Choir did get uniforms, however, they kind of looked like Nun outfits but they always looked quite good on stage. Strength in numbers! The Chamber Choir uniform was a long navy dress-jumper but underneath was a long sleeved white shirt and we attached a crisp white collar around our neck.

In a smaller group that I sang in with my friends, Con Fuoco, budget was of a concern so we mainly just wore the black clothes we owned but to tie things together we all wore a different coloured music scarf which we all owned. However, we went through quite an evolution of uniforms since we had casual and formal looks :)

Another uniform I have worn is with the University choir I was in last year. This dress was a much more standard uniform, something that can be ordered out of a uniform catalogue. It was just a long short-sleeved dress in an hourglass shape but in the centre there was a triangle of white fabric showing to give contrast to the dress.

Currently, the women's choir, Belle Canto, I am in has quite a nice uniform where we wear long black skirts and we wear velvet cardigan on top with a velvet tank top underneath. What makes this uniform special is the rhinestone buttons on the velvet cardigan. They sparkle under stage lights. We are currently on the hunt for some new uniforms since we want something that isn't as hot as velvet when we tour in the summers. We received some sample dresses from uniform companies and a few showed promise while the others just looked like medieval witch costumes. It's alright though since we're recycling some of these witch costumes because we're putting on a Broadway Fundraiser and we need witch costumes for the girls singing the part of Elphaba from Wicked. Resourcefulness at its best!

Overall, it's interesting to see the variety of choral uniforms out there. Each of one them are unique to that particular choir and each one represents a choir's image. What a uniform is really doing is allowing choristers to physically and visually display a unified front in performance and it is amazing the kind of power and self-confidence that emerges from wearing a uniform. Not only does a choir need to sound unified but they must look and feel unified. Whether the uniform is good, bad, or ugly is not of utmost importance, rather, the way a chorister feels while wearing the uniform is one of the most important things to consider.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Choir Uniforms: Do's and Dont's

As any chorister can attest to, when joining a choir, acquiring the uniform becomes an integral part of the choral experience. I know this may sound sad...but I don't know if I have ever seen a choir uniform that I've loved. But I suppose that's just it, choir uniforms should not be visually evaluated on an individual basis, but they must be critiqued as a whole since the overall effect of a uniformed choir is what's most important. Of course, that does not stop my Mom from making fun of the choral uniforms I have donned in the past, but it is good to know that at least you are not alone and that your fellow choristers share the same fashion fate as you do. Furthermore, from seeing many uniforms worn by other choirs, I think I have formulated a set of do's and dont's for choral fashion.

  • Find a cut and style flattering to everybody. One of the biggest challenges!
  • Keep colours simple. Even if bright orange may be your color...a whole choir wearing bright orange may just hurt the audiences' eyes. As always, black is the classic musician color choice
  • Uniforms require a decent fit to look polished. I understand (and have worn) church robes are oversized draped at best, but if you want to take your look to an international level, it is all about a trim silhouette
  • Find uniforms that travel well. Wrinkling is one of the main woes of a choir uniform on tour...or learn how to fold your uniform to reduce wrinkles.
  • Pinch your cheeks before going on stage to give yourself a natural blush
  • Match uniform pieces-it's all in the details. This means hosiery (I have seen such a range of black tights in my choral years) and shoes if possible. Having one chorister wear black platforms and another wearing ballet flats is enough of a difference to draw attention.
  • Show too much skin. You're not putting on THAT kind of show
  • Just throw together random accessories and hope they match. Certain rules must be followed. If you tell everybody to just accessorize with red...you are going to get a lots of different red hues
  • Often, less is more. In my more serious choral experiences any excessive makeup, nailpolish, and accessories needed to be removed since the audience is there to listen to choral music and not be distracted by your decadent accessories. So while it may seem like a choir concert is a great arena to showcase your diamond choker under the sparkle of stage lights, it has no place in a choir since it is a group performance not a solo one.
What's most important is that the uniform is the last thing an audience notices. If too much attention is on the uniform...then something is wrong. The uniform is there to set the first impression and tone of the choir even before they sing. Thus, when a choir looks polished and put-together, naturally, this translates into the way a listener or adjudicator perceives and hears a choir. In a future post I will document some of my own choral fashion experiences.

Until then, take care readers!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Choral Secret

One of the most important things I have learned while being in choir is to always look confident...even if you have no idea what you are doing. It has taken years of choral experience to perfect but I think I have the technique down quite well now. Of course, in no way do I consider myself a choral slacker where I piggyback off of the good singing of surrounding choristers by not contributing my fair share to the group effort, but there are always those circumstances when you are not performing at the best of your ability. However, instead of being a detriment to the group effort, there are certain techniques that need to be employed to survive within certain pieces.

An instance that comes to my mind is when I was recruited (somewhat last minute) to tour Hungary and attend the Bela Bartok International Choral Competition in Debrecen. I was planning on touring with the choir as a junior chaperone, but around a month before we left, I was given the opportunity to sing with the choir as well. Slight panic gripped me, but if there's anything I have learned while being in choir is that I work extremely well under pressure. I enjoy pushing my mind to its musical extreme. However, my panic stemmed from the fact I didn't know a majority of the music. Most of it was fine, we rehearsed lots of the new songs which were required test pieces for the competition. Yet, I discovered that there was a set of songs which we never rehearsed because the choir had been performing them throughout the year and the songs no longer required practice. These were the songs I did not know. We were also competing with them memorized.

Overall, we only practiced the songs about 2-3 times (including the performance) which is deadly for me since my technique for memorizing songs is to practice them in choir rehearsal. Since I was not given this time, I had to develop my own strategy to learn the piece in a small fraction of time and coach myself on Icelandic pronunciations. I managed well enough for most of them, but there is one song, to this day, that I still do not have memorized: Hjaoningarima. This was a moment where I wished I was a soprano and not a mezzo since the sopranos mostly do a sibilant percussion throughout the piece.

However, I pulled off a very strategic and analytical fake-out strategy for performing it.

  • Survey the overall structure structure of the piece. I looked for patterns and anything that would make my job easier. For this piece in particular, from listening to the recording I noticed that the song was going by so quickly that you couldn't even hear the differences in text for each line. Instead of memorizing the words, I memorized which sounds I should focus on in each section since the song melodies occurred in predictable cycles. I remember sibilance was integral for one line so I remembered to make lots of [s] sounds to bring out my line
  • The song is so fast that it wouldn't matter if some words weren't correct, as long as I maintained the percussive integrity of the piece, it would all be fine
  • The song is composed of 10-12 lines of Icelandic. There was no way I could learn all of it in 1 week on top of all the other music I had to have learned. You just have to choose what is most important and my focus was required elsewhere
  • As long as you start strong and end strong, most of the middle sections can be coasted through
  • Watch the conductor! And be extremely receptive to the vocal energy and breath intakes of choristers around you. All your senses must be focused on the momentum of singers around you so you can respond to their musicality accordingly. Especially the middle section where the whole choir sings "Hej!" chords
  • There was one section where my section had to begin the melodic cycle so I memorized this one line so that I could come in strong at a vital, showcase-moment for my section
  • Visibly, I had to look extremely intense and focused throughout the whole song. When you commit yourself visually to the piece, the audience will never know that you have insecurities about the song. Looking afraid is one of the worst things to do when you don't know something.
  • Taking on a challenge like this is mostly a mental challenge. I knew I was able to carry off a convincing and dedicated performance of the piece and I knew it didn't have to be 100%. Everybody else knew it at the 100% level so my ability to sing it at a 95% was acceptable.
Overall, my technique worked wonders. I got so many compliments on how I looked like I knew what I was doing and many people were in awe at how fast I could learn music. Of course, I didn't feel that great about my personal performance since it was not perfect (and I am a touch of a perfectionist when it comes to choir) but I was able to convey the musical intensity of the piece and prided myself on the fact that I was able to carry it off.

Thus, one of the most important things, when you realize that there is no way you can memorize or learn a song to it's intended level, is to be scientifically analytical in your approach. You must deduce what is the best way to input the least amount of time to achieve the maximum musical output. This goes for any challenge, not just learning choral music. The most important thing is to sing with purpose and nobody will question whether or not you know the music.

To close, I have attached the an audio clip of the song, Hjaoningarima, which I struggled to learn at hyper-speed. It is sung by Choir Lyran, an excellent women's choir from Helsinki.