Friday, April 30, 2010

A New Project

Greetings everybody!

It has been a frenzied few weeks with the end of term but I am happy to report that finals are finished and I am taking a well needed break before I start my Spring term classes! For starters, I'm headed to San Francisco on Sunday!

I'm not sure what it is about writing final exams but I always seem to find myself drawn to something else other than studying... yes, some may call this procrastination.... but I think of procrastination as something when you're substituting the work that you should be doing with some menial task like cleaning or watching t.v. I chose a different procrastination route this exam period and I took on a personal recording project. I don't want to divulge too many details at this point, but upon realizing I needed voice recordings of myself, I was able to produce them within two weeks. It seems like a relatively painless procedure but it definitely is a challenge to produce a solo voice recording of yourself when:

1. You don't take voice lessons and your voice isn't coached into a state where solo rep can just be whipped out and performed

2. You're not a music student and do not have free access to music rooms to record in

3. You don't have all the special software and equipment it takes to produce a good recording

4. You don't have an accompanist

5. You don't have tons of money to shell out on said facilities, equipment, lessons, and services

I was deciding whether or not it was worth it to even do in the first place, but then I realized, what do I have to lose?


I suppose, but I thought that I could live with that since I've done less productive things with my time in the past. I could also part with time if I was learning something new and enjoying it in the process.


Well, there were ways I could keep the cost low, I could manage to do the recordings myself but there were other variables that I would need to call in favors for and things I was willing to pay for since it was only fair.

These were the things I needed to achieve:

Learn the music
-I called in the services of my lovely mezzo soprano friend, Becky, whom I met in the U of A Madrigal singers (MAD's), to help coach me and work on my text and the musical goals I needed to achieve with the music. It was a few hours one afternoon where she worked magical things since I suddenly was able to connect to a soloistic resonance undiscovered in my voice and which I was unable to achieve during my teenage years of voice lessons. Stupid breathy teenage voice! In that few short hours, I knew what I needed to do and the sound that I wanted to achieve but obtaining it consistently was entirely another thing in itself. In order to crash learn the music, I went onto Naxos' e-online library and began listening to tracks of the songs I was looking to sing so I could learn notes by musical diffusion. It seemed to work quite well since the melodies were slightly familiar to me even as I went into my coaching session with Becky. I spent each successive day rehearsing the music at home and my parents were definitely wondering why I had suddenly unearthed my digital piano and was practicing in my brother's old bedroom. Also, probably wondering why I was so gosh-darn loud!

Find an accompanist-Probably my easiest task. I tried to comb my memory for my friends who accompanied voice soloists and a few came to my mind. At the same time, I was regretting the fact that I severed many musical connections via Facebook since it didn't occur to me that I would require their services in the future. Oops! However, a name did pop to my mind: Jessica! I sang with Jessica in MAD's and she is a lovely human being. I kind of felt like we came from the same background since we are both choristers at heart and she was also an excellent accompanist. I e-mailed her, detailing my grassroots recording ambition, and she had no problem in consenting to help me out. Lovely! The only juggle would be to find a time that would work for both of us.

Secure a Recording Location-By far my biggest challenge! If only I still had access to the music building since I knew how to work all the equipment in one of the recording studios (I had taken a music composition course last year) but I no longer had the privilege of accessing those facilities. I tried to make contact and get information from anybody who could help me out! My lovely MAD's conductor, Len, provided me with some good suggestions, Mary-Ellen, my friend, told me to check out some church venues, from here I inquired about some local church locations like Holy Trinity, Roberston Wesley, St. Joseph's. Most of these options led to me to dead-ends or they wouldn't fit my recording needs due to timing. However, I managed to secure a connection to record in the Fine Arts Building but I wouldn't know if the room was free until the very last minute. Needless to say, it worked out.

Obtain Recording Equipment
-I knew that if I wasn't going to be able to get into the old studio to use their equipment, I would need to find it elsewhere. My department actually has a materials rooms with video recording and audio recording equipment so I decided to check that out first. The path of least resistance is always desirable. I signed out a small reporter-style digital audio recorder and decided to test it out. It worked alright, nothing amazing, but it made me feel better that I would be able to obtain a recording just maybe not a high quality one. However, my friend Christina from class graciously loaned me her professional recording microphone which is easy-to-use and just hooks into a laptop via a USB outlet. Excellent! We had a mini session where we tested out the equipment and this is when I began to hate Garageband on my Mac. I've played with it multiple times before and I had no problems, but when hooked up to the mic, it just wasn't recording the way I wanted and my insufficient troubleshooting skills forced me to seek an alternative. Upon hearing my recording lament over coffee, my friend Twila suggested Audacity instead. It was free and it would suit my purposes since it was closer to what I used in my composition course! I had used Audacity before but it just didn't occur to me that it was what I should have been using! It's so helpful to get a fresh perspective sometimes.

In the end, it seemed to work out smoothly. I was able to get into a room and I was laden down with so many bags that I pretty much felt like a one-woman recording show. I brought my laptop, numerous extensions cables, Christina's microphone, my backup digital recorder, my noise cancelling recording headset (which I borrowed from my Speech lab) for easy playback, a notebook for Christina to make notes in, and copies of all my music so she could follow along. In the middle room I set up a desk laden with all my personal and borrowed equipment. I was actually pretty proud of myself that I was able to whip it together. It looked equal to more professional recording sessions I've had in the past. The only difference being my equipment probably wasn't as nice.

Suddenly, I felt all this pressure to perform well. It took so many resources, effort, and time to bring all these variables
together but it all came down to the fact that I needed to be... recordable. I didn't want to waste everybody's time! However, I just felt a huge amount of support which eased my stress. In the beginning stages when I asked Becky, "Is this even worth it? Am I even good enough or am I just making a complete fool of myself by doing this?" she assured me that I wasn't. I felt like an impersonator. A chorister trying to mimic the voice of a famous mezzo. What I discovered is that I just sounded like me but it was perceptually different from what I was used to hearing because I don't actually hear myself in choir. That probably sounds strange but I'm focused on bringing my sound forward to merge with the other voices that I don't muffle the sound so that I can hear it in my head. Occluding your own sound, just so that you can enjoy it, doesn't really do anything for your audience.

On the day of the recording, all I felt was support from Christina handling my makeshift recording station and Jessica at the piano. When I wasn't able to sing below a middle C, after being too warmed up (any other singers that run into this problem!?!?), they assured me that my chest voice didn't sound crappy and helped me stay positive while I struggled to access the lower range I knew I possessed. So frustrating! But I decided not to dwell on it, called it a day, and used a recording that I made earlier that week when I was playing with the digital recorder during my practice session. I was able to obtain the other recordings I needed from the session. Nothing perfect, I assure you, but probably the best I was able to produce with some slight blips and kinks here and there. I was alright with that. The world isn't perfect, therefore, there are no perfect recordings.

Overall, I have had a busy past 2 weeks! Upon handing in my last final, I went and set-up my own recording session and it seemed like everything just came together at once. I'm just so thankful for all the musical connections I have made and the people willing to help me out throughout the process. I am not used to asking for things so I was just amazed at the amount of generosity I received from all of my friends who were gladly willing to dedicate their time and talent to my cause. I tried to offer monetary compensation to Jessica for playing and even she didn't want it! She said it was just nice to help me out and even come out and see me. It just warms my heart :) I thank all of them here! For the ones that were able to help me out, the ones who weren't able but wanted to, the ones who helped indirectly by listening to me gripe about the frustration of putting a project like this together... thank-you! It was fantastic to feel the musical love and it worked well to counterbalance my headache from all those logistical details!

I'll keep you posted on the outcomes of my recordings :)

Take care!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Chorus of Hits Indeed

I had the pleasure of attending the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO) and Leonard Ratzlaff's Richard Eaton Singers (RES) performance tonight at the Winspear Centre and all of the songs revolved around the "chorus" in one way or another. I wrote a preview of this performance outlining some pieces I was interested to hear and it definitely was a very unique performance.

In the first pieces "With a Song in My Heart" and "The Trolley Song," you could hear that the choir was a little bit out of its element, since these are extremely character-driven songs, and the choir struggled at times to find a unified soloistic voice to represent itself. I can imagine that in the short of amount of rehearsal time that they did have, the bulk of the time was most likely spent on the 1812 Overture and less so on these musical theatre numbers. However, I loved the ESO's cheeky playing during "The Trolley Song" and the low strings appropriately responded with pizzicato when the chorus talked about tugging heart strings. The brass section also had the trolley signal down. Before the Sleeping Beauty waltz, Jack Everly made fun of the fact that Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty music was only recognized once the music received an Oscar nomination following Walt Disney's film. You could hear that RES began to settle their voices in the latin texts of Poulenc's staccato and light "Laudamus te" and Lloyd Webber's hauntingly beautiful "Pie Jesu."

I remember the Pie Jesu well from my childhood since I was raised in an environment that regarded Andrew Lloyd Webber and his Phantom of the Opera very highly. I remember we owned a VHS tape of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the many famous songs that he composed/arranged and Pie Jesu was on it. I still remember the cheesy 80s karaoke video vibe the video had where Sarah Brightman was singing with a young boy soprano. They wore oversized sweaters and were illuminated with soft lighting as images of clouds rolled by behind them. I just remember rewinding the tape to hear this piece over and over again. Oh yeah, I knew how to class it up as a child :)

The RES began with just a few select singers from the soprano and alto sections and it definitely was difficult for them to achieve an unified balance, due to exposed entries and the physical gaps between the singers during Pie Jesu, but it was still extremely beautiful and worked well within a choral arrangement. Another highlight of the first half was Fiddler on the Roof's "Sunrise, Sunset" and I just have to say that the RES women have an extremely wonderful maternal tone that was so resonant in this piece as well as their encore "Climb Every Mountain."

The two Hallelujah pieces extremely contrasted one another. There was a new arrangement of Cohen's "Hallelujah," and although I really enjoyed the ending and the shaping of the orchestral arrangement, the choral parts just had a very karaoke vibe to it at times. Maybe it is because I am desensitized to the song, since it is so often performed, but the piece is meant to be a solo one and the choral voice just didn't have the flexibility that the piece requires. Not due to any fault of the choir's or arranger's but I just don't think this piece is meant to be done choir-style. Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus, on the other hand, was extremely fitting and you could tell that the RES could sing this song in their sleep! Though, I was slightly disappointed the audience didn't stand. Maybe that is something that only happens during Christmas?

The second half was a nice contrast with more tradition classical and operatic choruses. Jack Everly's conducting would often take me by surprise, since as soon as he turns around, within a second, the orchestra would be playing. I almost didn't feel prepared as an audience member to start listening when the music had such an abrupt start! Thus, the start of the booming "O Fortuna" chorus right after the intermission startled me! As well, he had a tendency to conduct using upbeats which was throwing me for a visual loop. I almost felt like breathing instead of singing while watching him. However, he had a nice, light banter style between the pieces which was appreciated.

The Madama Butterfly humming chorus was resonant and ethereal and the ESO was showcased so well in the soaringly beautiful dawn section in the prelude to Act III of the opera. The choral arrangement of the Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture allowed me to hear what the RES does best and that is booming adult works with mass power. The ESO had so much majestic flourish in the 1812 Overture and I never get tired of hearing the victory bells of Moscow ring out at the end of the piece. Take THAT Napoleon!

All in all, I had a lovely evening out at the Symphony since it has been a long time since I took in one of their concerts. They are wrapping up their current season in the next few months and they already have many exciting concerts planned for their new 2010-2011 season and you can check those out here and look at subscription packages as well.

And, if I may, I would like to give a shout-out to Colleen Vogel in RES. I love watching your joyous face sing! It is always a pleasure!

Here is a video I found of Pie Jesu, it's not the chessy karaoke-like video that I personally grew up with, but it has the same kind of vibe :)

The St. Albert Sauna


Last night Belle Canto sang in the St. Albert Rotary Festival or the St. Albert Sauna as we affectionately deemed it. There was a steamy hot heat that permeated the church where we sang. It always amazes me how long I find these festival classes even after years of competing in them. It is always nice to have the opportunity to perform for some new ears but my patience is wearing thin to have an adjudicator jot down notes in between each song while we stand up on the stage and have nothing to do. In that sense, I really enjoyed the Cork Music Festival since you have a set time frame and you just sang each piece one after the other so you can just stay in the performance zone without having to wait.

We ended up entering in a bunch of classes some with the full choir and some with a smaller ensemble. Many of our songs were quite new and our main frightening moment occurred during Montaverdi's "Surgens Jesu." Early music can be so challenging within a choir since it is so dependent on the fact that we all are keeping the same internal pulse and it really is up to the individual parts to move the line. Each section needs to have an unspoken consensus of where they want their individual line to go. It requires such a great amount of mental effort since you have to continuously feel the movement of the line and provide proper stress while knowing when to retract to let another section express its musical thoughts. It requires such finely tuned sensitivity and we were definitely lacking that respect. There was a tentative fear heard throughout the whole piece and there was so much tension I couldn't even take a full breath. A moment of doubt regarding the pulse caused the soprano section to miss an entry and we ended up singing the end of the piece without them. I remember thinking "maybe I should just jump up onto their line so they know where they should be" but I figured sight reading and coming in on a high F probably wasn't the best thing in case I butchered it. My lack of confidence is also due to the fact that we've just started learning the piece and it has yet to settle into our voices and be comfortable for us to perform. I am still dependent on my music to decipher my own line let alone start singing another part. I'm sure once Belle Canto is in Italy, singing inside beautiful domed cathedrals, this current fear will past.

Our other songs seemed to go smoothly enough. Our "Log Drivers Waltz" was cheeky and light due to Shannon's solo, our madrigal "Aye Me, Alas, Hey Ho" was surprisingly solid for a piece that was new for us as well and I was happy to realize that I had it memorized since I didn't need my music much throughout the performance. I love it when I'm unconsciously memorizing a piece! It really take the cognitive load off! Our French Canadian folksong, "V'la L'Bon Vent," was one of our most solid performances of that piece yet and we got some good tips from the French Canadian adjudicator, Dr. Andrée Dagenais, to ensure that we didn't nasalize the consonant but to nasalize the open vowel. For example, in the word "vent," we needed to remain on the open /e/ vowel and add nasalization rather than holding to the /n/ to provide that nasalization for us. A small detail, but as Dr. Andrée Dagenais said herself, it is all about the details when we are preparing for an international competition.

Overall, the performance definitely had its shaky moments but nothing that I am going to lose sleep over. We have another chance to perform at the Edmonton Kiwanis Festival this upcoming week so hopefully we can work through some more bugs at rehearsal on Monday. If you are in Edmonton and would like to see Belle Canto perform, we will be singing on Friday, April 23 at McDougall United Church probably starting around 7:30pm. The nice thing about festivals is that they're free :)

Hope to see some of you there!

Also, here's a video of the McDades singing V'la L'Bon Vent with Pro Coro. It's not the same arrangement but it has the right French-Canadian folk song feel.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

An ESO Chorus Line


I thought I would just post a quick preview about an upcoming ESO concert that I will be blogging at this weekend. It will be a concert revolving around "chorus hits." Conductors Jack Everly and Leonard Ratzlaff will be leading the ESO and Richard Eaton Singers through beloved chorus tunes. When I first saw the title, "A Chorus of Hits," the first thing that came to my mind was spunky musical theatre tunes complete with jazz hands, vibrant costumes and show faces so optimistic that they could cure cancer. A glance through the program did not wholly agree to the stereotypical image in my mind. Clearly, my addiction for the musical t.v. show, Glee, is having a huge influence on me. Side note: Who's excited about the start of the new season!?!?

It was nice to see that lots of familiar tunes were on the program even though it's not the most cohesive set list I've seen put together. However, I appreciate the fact that the ESO wants to host a fun evening where familiar and accessible music is performed. Tis' the goal of their Robbins Pops series :) As much as I enjoy listening to the complete Carmina Burana set, sometimes you just want to skip to the "O Fortuna" chorus since that chorus is the piece's claim to fame. In the case of this concert, you are able to hear famous choruses one after the other. It's just like scanning through the tracks on a chorus c.d. and playing your favorites! Some chorus pieces will include the "Humming Chorus" from Madama Butterfly, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Pie Jesu", and "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof. A programming choice that did make me smile with amusement was seeing two "Hallelujah" tunes one after the other. Cohen's Hallelujah followed by Handel's Hallelujah. Yep, if you're thinking what I'm thinking... that should be pretty interesting. I wonder if the audience will still stand (as per tradition) during Handel's Hallelujah...

Anyway, if you are interested in seeing how this musically eclectic choral program is going to fit together, you're in luck since there will be 2 performances at the Winspear Centre on Friday April 16 and Saturday April 17 both @ 8pm. You can get tickets online here and if you happen to be there for the Saturday performance, let me know, because I will be there :)

Until next time, take care!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

An Embarrassing Easter Moment

Happy Easter Blog Readers!

I was reminiscing about my past Easter choral experiences and a memory back from my junior high days surfaced where I remembered I performed a portion of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion with my Intermediate choir. It was with the Richard Eaton Singers (RES) and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. It was my first experience performing a mass choral work with full adult choir and orchestra. It was also my first test of choral stamina. I remember how still I had to sit on stage, making sure not to drop my binder as I waited for patiently for the soloists to finish singing their sections, and for my standing cue to arrive. The details of the performance are hazy now in my mind but I remember recognizing my band conductor in RES during a rehearsal. He waved enthusiastically at me, as I took my seat in the small rehearsal room at the Fine Arts Building on campus, and I gave him a shy smile as I sat down. I felt slightly embarrassed to see my teacher in a non-school related atmosphere but I was also excited to be apart of a larger choral community. Secretly, I felt privileged and even cool to a certain degree to be participating in the production. Not only was I among the chosen choristers to participate, I got to sing in German! That in itself was pretty cool for my 13-year-old self :)

However, the next day, I didn't feel so cool. My band conductor, excited at the fact that two band members were singing with him, decided to broadcast the information to the entire junior high. Every morning at school we would begin with announcements which were video broadcast live from the vice-principal's office to television sets situated in all of the homerooms. Normally, the announcements would just include information about upcoming fundraisers and events that would be occurring, but on that particular day I was invited, along with my fellow chorister, to be interviewed on-air by our band conductor. I realize that his intentions were to simply promote our extra-curricular passions, but my friend and I saw it as a form of social suicide. She refused to say a word on the live broadcast while I attempted to describe what the St. Matthew's Passion was to my pre-teen peers and how I was finding the experience. I don't even remember what I said anymore, but I do remember that I mentioned that it was sung in German, as if that small fact would be redemption enough for my nerdy extracurricular interests. You will be happy to know that I suffered no major consequences from said interview. I was already the only flute player in the Grade 8 band (at a time when the frenzy of the American Pie movie was at its peak) and deep down, I really could care less about what they all thought. I was happy to wear my geeky music badge loud and proud!

Anyway, I hope you are all well and enjoyed your Easter! And to celebrate here's the opening to Bach's St. Matthew's Passion! You can hear the children's choir part emerge around 2:25 on the video.