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.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Blog of Note

Greetings to those of you visiting my blog for the first time! I was informed that I am a "Blog of Note" today and I thank you for coming to my blog and seeing what I have to say.

I love everything related to choral music because there is a genesis of intense musical energy when a group of singers are all focused on the same goal. It is truly amazing when you are able to feel the physical energy of the singer next to you, as you feel the silent expansion of their lungs, and the blending of multiple voices to form a unified acoustic waveform radiating towards the audience. I try to blog about choir related topics ranging from choir uniforms to unique touring experiences; however, I love all things related to music, whether it is discovering new artists or composing my own pieces, all these areas inspire my posts as well.

Thank you again for visiting and happy reading! I hope to hear your thoughts in the comment sections!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Moonlit Nights

I had the pleasure this past Friday of attending the lovely voice recital of Erika, a fellow chorister and rehearsal carpooler of mine. Although it has been many years since we have been in choir together, I managed to stay connected to her due to the fact that I regularly see her family members at concerts or other choral functions.

I still remember back to the early years of Chamber Choir when Erika sang the highly coveted Dancing Day solo, from Rutter's traditional carol cycle, Dancing Day. She had so much strength and intensity in her instrument that she could just blow you away.

A few years back, a friend and I ventured off to Montreal to experience the city during our University reading week and I managed to get in contact with Erika who was completing her Masters in Voice at the Université de Montréal. At that time, Erika was cast in the Universities' production of Die Fledermaus and she graciously invited us to attend her dress rehearsal that evening. She promptly made sure that we were placed on the guest list to attend the performance and sent me detailed instructions on how to get to the University. My friend and I braved the freezing cold weather in our fashionable, and consequently, not very warm winter coats, climbing the intensely steep and icy hill up to the Music Building. We entered an empty concert lobby and were met by an organizer who located our names on the guestlist and directed us up to the balcony where we could sit. To this day, this probably was one of the most intimate and exclusive performances I have been to. Of course, it was just a dress rehearsal, but as I sat there I was just enveloped in this calm artistic energy. I was able to locate a few professors and a red-haired woman which, I believe, was the mezzo soprano soloist, Sasha Cooke, from the Messiah performance I sang in with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Madrigal Singers just that past Christmas. It definitely felt like I was sitting with the musical elite of Montreal in that balcony.

I eagerly waited for Erika, who was playing Adele, the bubbly and lovely maid of Rosalinde to appear. She graced the stage in an adorable maid costume dusting the set while singing. Most of all I just amazed at how great she was sounding! Of course, she always sounded stunning, even while in choir, but I could really hear how much more control she had developed through the numerous years of vocal study. Not only had she mastered the power of her voice but she could deploy it in an artistic manner to achieve maximum affect throughout her performance. It was an absolute delight to watch her sparkle on stage as Adele and I felt so honoured that I was part of the select few who were present during the dress rehearsal. Afterwards, Erika slipped off during the final encore run-through to come and say hi to my friend and I. She graciously took a picture with me before she headed back on stage to tweak a few more details. When I got back to Edmonton, I was told that Erika woke up the day after the dress rehearsal with no voice! Her parents made a special trip out to watch her on the opening night of the performance, but alas, Erika was unable to sing. Thus, in a way I feel like I was even more special since I was one of the few who actually was able to hear her amazing voice. It was terrible that she was not well enough to share her music with the waiting audiences but inexplicable sickness can overwhelm any soloist.

I am happy to report that Erika had a voice to carry off her past Friday recital, Moonlit Nights, and it was just lovely to hear her again. It is so easy to listen to her rich soprano sound as it is as smooth as liquid gold. I'm sorry I cannot report more specific details about individual pieces but the whole evening was just a haze of sparkling vocal music.

Erika is headed off to study at the Manhattan School of Music in NYC and I wish her all the best as she continues her studies and shares her incredible voice with NY audiences!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Folk Fest Memories

As I reminisce about this past weekend, where I attended the 30th annual Edmonton Folk Festival, it is hard to pick my favorite concert or moment. So many amazing musical moments culminated over the entire weekend but I will attempt to document at least a few. One of them is just the entire ambiance of Gallagher Park. The photo above shows everybody basking in the warm sun as the Mainstage performances begin but I especially love the evening when candlelight dots the hillside. I also love the people who just get up in the middle of a concert, walk to the side, and just start dancing. It's as if they couldn't sit still any longer and they just feel the need to do a jig alongside the stage to show their musical appreciation :) Most of all I just love how much there is to do. This does pose me some problems, since I tend to be indecisive, because I want to see all these amazing acts but at the same time you want to get in on an autograph session or just browse the craft tent. However, at the end of it all, I just feel extremely satisfied and productive since I rarely get exposed to this much music in just one weekend.

If you read my previous post, which I had a lot of fun writing might I add, you are probably no stranger to my love for Danny Michel's music. He enchanted me way back in 2005 on a Sunday morning workshop session where his warm, raspy vocals and cheeky guitar chords caught my attention. I also loved the fact he didn't take himself too seriously and was willing to push the musical envelope (which included playing a solo using the tones on his cellphone keypad). He definitely did not disappoint this Folk Fest, of course, he did repeat a few of his songs and stories favoring tracks off his new record, Feather Fur and Fin, but he could play anything and I would listen. I never get bored of watching him in action since there are nuances in his performance style that his recorded songs cannot capture. In one song, Into the Flame, he sang the word flame with a stuttering fricative to give the illusion of a flickering flame. He is a master with looped pedals and I just love it when he layers the melodies and harmonies to a point where he can stop playing and just play back all the recorded tracks with a step of a pedal. If you ever have the chance to see him live, take it! He is definitely an artist best enjoyed live. One of the cutest moments this Folk Fest definitely was when he played a solo sounding like the Spiderman theme and when he gushed about meeting "the one and only" Family Man from the Wailers.

Another performer which I loved listening to was Jill Barber. Her warm smoky sound was paired perfectly with her songs which had a bit of classic glamour to them. You can take a listen on her Myspace. She also had an awesome wardrobe! The first time I saw her he wore a strapless black and white polka dot gown with a green sash at her waist and at her concert the next she wore a pink chiffon and tulle dress with whimsical leaves sewn into the skirt. Back to her music though... I bought one of her earlier albums, For All Time, and there is definitely a more Folk ballad song feel to it in comparison to her newer album, Chances, which has a big band and old Hollywood vibe. I like both because her voice sounds great in both genres and it just shows her flexibility and experimentation as an artist.

Oh yes, and last but not least is Cara Dillon. Her voice brought me back to the fond memories I had while visiting Ireland in previous years. Listening to her sing in her adorable northern Irish accent brought back images of the glistening green Irish countryside and the breathtaking Atlantic coast. Something I have always been in awe of is how flexible folk voices are. It is something I never mastered in choir since everybody's ornamentation has to match or else it just sounds messy in a group as a whole. Thus, my voice has never embraced the freedom of folk ornamentation. I always love how folk singers can break out into song without any accompaniment. Not to say that other singers can't do this but Irish folk singing has a heritage of storytelling and entertaining locals at the neighborhood pub.

Some other artists I enjoyed this past weekend:
Meaghan Smith-On the Wed night mainstage, she had a lovely Big Band sound
Alex Cuba-smooth Spanish vocals and electric guitar playing... not to mention an awesome afro
Hanggai-Mongolian power-rock with dense throaty sounds, also, their drinking song is full of fist pumping excitement :)
Souljah Fyah-groovy reggae tunes from an Edmonton favorite
Eivør-soaring, trance-like vocalist from the Faroe islands

Can't wait until next year for the 31st Edmonton Folk Festival!

Take a listen to Danny Michel's "Into the Flame"

Monday, August 10, 2009

Folk Fest Stalking 101

I had the pleasure of attending the 30th annual Edmonton Folk Festival this weekend and if there is one thing that I have perfected in these past few years at the festival... it is definitely musician stalking. Now, don't get me wrong, I do not follow these artists off stage for fun or interfere with their lives to the point where they fear me, but I do devote myself fully to following one particular performer. Please note the 7 following steps to achieve stalktastic success:

1. Seek and Stalk

Choose a performer that is worthy of your undivided attention for the entire weekend. This will vary according to musical taste. You may choose to stalk more than one performer but I do not recommend more than 3 since it is difficult to give your undivided attention to multiple performers. I will leave it up to you to determine how many you can handle.

2. Get Organized!

Buy a program or obtain a schedule! It is difficult to stalk when you do not know where and when your performer is going to be. There is a handy page that lists all the performer names and all the times and places they will be playing. Star these sessions because they will be your top priority! This is non-negotiable! If you are committed to being a dedicated stalker, you cannot choose other sessions to attend when your chosen artist is playing. This may seem obvious but this is why it is difficult to stalk multiple performers since many sessions conflict and you cannot be in multiple places at once.

3. Time to Spend $$$

Buy their c.d.'s. If they are stalk-worthy to you, other people are definitely interested as well, and it is almost guaranteed that the Merchandise tent will sell out. This is not the time to be frugal! Make the investment since c.d. possession will ensure that you will be able to carry out later steps with ease.

3. Do Your Homework!

Great, so now you have a c.d. and you are at the scheduled stage ready to listen. Not good enough! What separates a stalker and a regular audience member is your knowledge. It is time to hit the books! As soon as you have chosen your stalk-worthy artist, you must learn as much as you can about them.

4. Homework List

It is time to hit Google, Wikipedia, Myspace, and become their fan on Facebook to learn about the biography, discography, and all other facts related to the artist no matter how insignificant. Yes, you should know what is on their ipod, you never know when it will be handy in the future. It is also time to start listening to the c.d.'s you have purchased. The beauty of the Folk Fest is that your choice performer will likely be performing on more than one day. Learning the lyrics and melodies of your favorite artist is essential since it is not in a stalkers nature to be a passive audience participant.

5. Front and Centre

At this point you should be singing, or if you are shy, at least mouthing along to the songs. Furthermore, you should know which performer your attention should be directed to in preparation for an upcoming solo so you may scrutinize tiny details in their performance such as fingering. Performers feed off the energy of the audience and it is your duty to establish and nurture the performer/audience relationship. It is even possible that the performer will notice your unwavering attention and your linguistic proficiency at their song lyrics. This is your moment to shine!

5. Keep Your Hands to Yourself

When the performer is off-stage, do admire from a distance. If they are juggling multiple curry plates or are standing next to you in the men's urinal... this is not the time to profess your love. Performers are still people. It is best that they just think you are a dedicated fan. There is no need for them to know how much you know about them. Just enjoy the giddy feeling you get inside when they walk past you on the way to watch musical sessions like a normal audience participant. You will silently enjoy the fact that you know who they are and that the other people around them have no idea the musical genius that just walked past them.

6. Up Close and Personal

It is a plus to know when your performer is signing autographs. This changes daily and it is important to check the white board at the Merchandise tent. This is the appropriate time to profess love since it is expected. This is also where your purchased c.d. will come in handy since you have an excuse for them to sign something significant instead of the free Rogers bandannas circulating throughout the park. This is also a time where you can relay some impressive homework knowledge you acquired ex. remarking on what a feat it was to win a particular award in 2007 or note how a particular song (which they did not perform in the sessions but was on their c.d.) particularly resonates within you. Again, this will set you apart from the other autograph seekers. The performer will appreciate your attention to their music and careers and it will make you more memorable in their mind as well. Just try not to come across too strong. This may be difficult since it is hard to stifle stalker-love. The talent to suppress love expression will vary according to stalker.

7. Future Stalking Forecast

O.k, so you have successfully stalked your first artist and are now left with a feeling of emptiness. Chances are that your performer will return to Edmonton for a concert now that they have built-up their initial fanbase. If not, your previous homework where you searched them on Myspace etc. will pay off since you will now subscribe to their newsletters and make sure you receive notifications on all their movement. You cannot afford to let your attention wane even though they have now left the festival. If they are ever back in town or at least nearby, you must be aware!

Overall, it is important to note that stalking is not a one-time activity. If you wish to remain dedicated stalker, stalking must continue outside of the festival. It if your job to promote this amazing artist to anybody willing to listen, continually purchase upcoming albums, and attend future concerts. This will ensure that the career of your performer will thrive and you will be able to stalk for many more years to come :)

Happy stalking everybody!


My personal choice this Folk Festival? Danny Michel of course! This amazing singer-songwriter with his quirky lyrics and pedal loops has captivated me since the Folk Fest in 2005!

Danny M. session #1

Danny M concert

Last Danny M session

Danny M playing in between sets on the mainstage.
Photo Credit for last picture: Andrea V.