Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Choral Reflection

There is something to be said for reconnecting with people that put you at complete ease. Yesterday, for the first time in five years, my closest choral companions from my teenage a cappella ensemble, Con Fuoco, reunited for an evening. As we each took turns to provide verbal updates in a round table manner, I just kept thinking how inspiring it was to listen to the paths that some of my friends have chosen. They are diverse and unique but the commonality was that they were completely true to that person's character. Their overall life trajectory appears organic to me as a third-party observer.

It also made me think of what our teenage selves would have thought if they were able to evaluate ten year older versions of themselves. One fellow choir girl remarked how she remembers drafting Plan's A-C and how some of them included aspirations for choral conducting training. She gave a laugh of amusement at how utterly inappropriate that would be for her now. It is amazing to see what predictions form when you're forecasting the future in the formative stages of adulthood. I, too, would be shocked at how I have turned out so far. I had one main career aspiration as an overachieving teen: Medical School.

The desire wasn't motivated by any cultural pressure. My parents watched on in silence as I self-motivated myself through a full courseload of an academically-oriented program. They chose to stay out of my path of academic frenzy when I made conscious choices to forgo Halloween festivities in order to finish a Styrofoam model of a eukaryotic cell or when I started video taping for an English class project when there was a school hiatus from a teacher's strike. In University, I realized that it wasn't so much the actual dream of "Medical School" that had enticed me, but the prospect of helping people. It was difficult to realize that there are multiple options to reach this goal with my limited teenage worldview. In the early years of my undergrad, I had these thoughts when I was still convincing myself of my Medical School aspirations.

"I'm in a perpetual state of stress. I'm not enjoying my courses. I'm not doing that well in them. This sucks."

During this time, I wasn't singing regularly. I was still in Belle Canto, but after a few weeks of missed rehearsal, I was starting to feel the emotional imbalance as I had no outlet for all of these negative feelings.

As I reflected on this last night, I realized that even if I was in Medical School at this very moment in time, I know, for a fact, that I would not be singing as much as I do now. While I understand that sacrifices must be made in order to pursue career aspirations.... I do not wish to compromise doing the things I love. I am also allowed to love doing more than one thing. That includes singing in choir. It is a component of my life that more than just a frivolous leisure activity. At this point in time, my Speech Pathology and choral interests have equal priority.

I've done a mental review of my blogging year; it's staggering to see the creative explosion of content I've generated through the blog this year. I had more opportunities to sing in new ensembles in the city which included my concert with the Scona Singers and the Ordo Collective. The latter providing me the opportunity to tour to Victoria and Vancouver to perform the work. I survived the Pro Coro audition process under the direction of Pro Coro's newly appointed artistic director, Michael Zaugg. I also began writing for Sound + Noise after editor-in-chief, Michael MacDonald, contacted me via Twitter to attend a meeting. There is something to be said for meeting a mentor at the right point in time. MacDonald was the one who encouraged me to do interviews and social media coverage of the Podium 2012 choral conference in Ottawa since I was going there anyway with Belle Canto. This shaped my social media experience at the conference and gave me the confidence to dream big with my blog. As a result, I have a series of Podium posts and interviews with conductors, Heather Johnson, Ivars Taurins, Hilary Apfelstadt, Lydia Adams, and Michael Zaugg to add to my archives. My Podium 2012 coverage also led to my first paper print article in the Fall version of Choral Canada's "Anacrusis" Journal. As well, my blog garnered some local media attention for the first time in an Edmonton Sun article. My studies at the Summer Vocology Institute in Salt Lake City inspired some voice science posts as well.

To say that 2012 has been a great speechie, singing, and blogging year is an understatement. In some ways, I wonder if I have peaked given the burst of opportunity that I have been presented with this past year. No matter what, I am certain if my teenage self had to reevaluate my current path, she would initially be surprised but proud that I have not compromised either my career aspirations or musical passion. I have developed a multi-faceted area of interests such as voice science, rehabilitation, choral singing, and blogging and, by doing the things I enjoy, I have somehow formed a life template that incorporates all of my interests.

Thank-you to all of my readers this past year. I hope to bring you more inspired content in 2013.

Con Fuoco Reunited

My favorite blog posts of 2012:

What do Choristers Do?

My inaugural post for Sound + Noise and my chance to introduce myself to new audiences in a refreshing format.

The Culture of Fear

A post that challenged me to evaluate what I find fulfilling in past choral relationships and my personal feelings on how this has shaped me into the performer I am today.

A Vocal Diagnosis

A post incorporating my approach to voice rehabilitation and how this extends to vocal pedagogy.

Painting the Nightingale

This post resulted after I came home from Pro Coro rehearsal and could not sleep because I was too buzzed. The rehearsal process for Praulin's "The Nightingale" was utterly consuming and rewarding. I have been waiting a long time to sing music like this. As well, receiving a personal message from Praulins himself in response to my post was a choir girl highlight.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Christmas Update

Greetings readers,

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

It's hard to keep this in mind when I find myself becoming a bit of a hypochondriac. Every cough or sniffle reminds me of my proximity to sickness. With a calendar filled with singing commitments, I know this is definitely NOT the time to be sick.

So far so good.

Pro Coro had a Christmas concert in Sherwood Park at the start of this month where we resurrected some familiar songs from our 'Once Upon a Time' concert (by the way, that concert is available for your streaming pleasure on CBC Music at this link). Our Sherwood Park concert was a good chance to sing through our Christmas repertoire for our larger Christmas concert at the Winspear Centre this Sunday. Some of the works on the programme is Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols," which is a choral favorite of mine from my treble choir years, Chilcott's "Rose in the Middle of Winter," Whitacre's "Lux Aurumque," and Nickel's "Creator Alme Siderum." Nickel's piece was premiered by Pro Coro two seasons ago. The Pro Coro concert out in Sherwood park was intimate and the audience was extremely appreciative. While it was a draining process to prepare with consecutive rehearsals from Sunday to Wednesday and braving the snowy commute to Sherwood Park, it was nice to share our music with a different audience.

Backstage at Festival Place in Sherwood Park

This is also my first Christmas where I don't have any academic obligations. No Master's thesis defense, no thesis edits, no final exam studying, no scrambling to finish up paperwork for clinical placements... it actually has resulted in a really manageable season. I only sing when I want to sing. It's a luxury I haven't had in the past. I was able to pick up a few caroling gigs with my previous women's choir, Belle Canto, which included singing at some lovely venues, such as Fort Edmonton Park. There's something about caroling inside while the snow softly drifts outside upon historical Edmonton houses from 1905. I sang with some ladies which I haven't seen since Ottawa when we were at the Podium choir conference in May. There is just something so comforting when you are singing amongst familiar voices. I even saw some friendly audience faces: a fellow Pro Coro chorister singing at the historical church down the street and a friend from University who was working at Fort Edmonton. During my break, she tried to convince me to sit on "Father Christmas'" lap, I declined once I learned that Father Christmas was actually younger than me.

I even had the time to take in some Christmas concerts. One being the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra performance of Handel's "Messiah" with the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers, Alumni, and members of Richard Eaton Singers. The other concert was the Cantilon Choirs' "Dancing Day" concert. It was my first time ever watching a Cantilon Christmas concert and not singing in it. I was surprised at how relaxing it is was being on the other side of the stage as an audience member. The first half was structured more like a Christmas pageant highlighting carols from around the world and the second half included Rutter's "Dancing Day" performed by Belle Canto and the Cantilon Chamber Choir. It was fitting since the Chamber Choir just released their Christmas c.d. "The Time of Snow," where they recorded "Dancing Day." One of my favorite parts was the audience carols since it meant that I got to be conducted by Heather Johnson once again. When she gestures... I sing. I don't think that my programmed chorister discipline will ever escape me.

Cantilon Choirs' Dancing Day Concert

My Christmas singing obligations come to a close this Sunday for Pro Coro's Family Christmas concert. If you are in town, I recommend you come out to hear the harp playing of Keri Lynn Zwicker, Jeremy Spurgeon at the organ, Tommy Banks narrating "The Little Match Girl," and the voices of my fellow Pro Coro singers filling the hall with Christmas cheer.

Until next time readers, have a happy holidays!

Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 2:30 PM
Tickets available at the Winspear Box Office (780-428-1414)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Start of Christmas

I am certain that everybody has their own poignant memories associated with Handel’s “Messiah.” Perhaps it is the “Hallelujah” chorus from a childhood cartoon, or maybe one of the other well-known Air’s such as “How Beautiful Are the Feet of Them,” often heard on classical music stations. I am sure many of the performers and audience members either formed or reminisced about their own experiences on Friday night.

As a result, I could not suppress thoughts of my very first "Messiah" performance four years ago. I remember my first performance vividly. I had spent a whole afternoon studying in the library for final exams. It was a particularly emotional week since I was coping with the passing of a family member at the time. I showed up at the call time of the performance and when I went to the bathroom to change, I noticed that everybody was wearing concert black. I had brought my Madrigal Singers uniform, which was a black and white gown. There was clearly a breakdown in the chain of communication for me.

“Uh-oh,” I thought to myself.

I knew I couldn’t walk out on the stage with my two-toned uniform. What was I going to do? Did I have enough time to go to a store to buy black clothing? The downtown shopping center was not far. Perhaps my parents hadn’t left home yet and they could bring me black clothes. I phoned them. No answer. I left a voicemail. I was being summoned to get on stage for the warm-up. I quickly change back into my street clothes, to reinforce the illusion that everything was under control, and went to warm-up on stage with the rest of the singers… who were all dressed in their concert black. The conductor expressed verbal displeasure at a tenor for wearing white sneakers with his tux. The tenor quickly assured him that somebody from home was bringing black shoes to remedy the mistake. Meanwhile, I was quivering with fear on my riser.

As soon as the warm-up was done, I ran back to the dressing room to find my cellphone to call once again. My parents had already left home and were at supper. An emotion I don’t often feel began to rise: panic. I spoke to my mother about my uniform crisis. She relayed this information to my father. I heard him state that he just happened to be wearing two long-sleeved cashmere polo shirts that night… one of them happened to be black. My mother wears black as her daily uniform. She said I could wear her pants. I closed my eyes in silent horror. Between my sister and I, my mother’s black pants, to this day, are the creative inspiration for our loving mom criticism. These pants are somehow baggy, yet tapered, at the same time. The pants zip up on the side, the leg tapers downward with a baggy silhouette to the ankles, and there is ample rise to accommodate babies I haven’t birthed. In short, they are mom-pants.

This was no time to be picky. I heartily agreed to this makeshift concert black. My mother arrived at the Winspear and I rushed her backstage to do a clothing swap in the dressing room. The pants zipped up easily enough, but I had to hold the waist to keep them up, and my father’s long-sleeve polo draped over my shoulders. I was swimming in clothing. I handed my mother my low-rise skinny jeans. To this day, I’m still not sure what was worse: the fact that I had to walk out on stage, clutching my waist so that my pants wouldn’t fall off… or the fact that my mother was able to fit into my skinny jeans.

This moment is seared into my “Messiah” memory.

I was glad to see that there appeared to be no uniform crises on stage during the Friday "Messiah" performance. It was quite a sight to actually listen to the “Messiah” live for the first time and not be singing it. Furthermore, it was so lovely to see so many familiar faces in the chorus. It is quite amazing to see a wide array of community singers, joining together, and donating their time to collectively indulge in the sheer joy of singing. For being a recently assembled group of 80, they had a cohesive sound, especially the women sections. I felt that the chorus sound didn’t settle until the “For Unto Us a Child is Born” chorus in Part I and I could tell that diction was something they were working hard to convey throughout the performance. Some of the trilling subtlety that Leonard Ratzlaff described to me in the preview was only audible to me in “His Yoke is Easy.” Unfortunately, as soon as everybody was singing and playing, all the vocal detail work was lost.

Also noteworthy was the lyricism of tenor, Colin Balzer. There was such vibrant energy behind his words such as “laugh,” “scorn,” and “dash.” Female soloists, Noah and Giunta, approached their sections with more operatic flare. Bass-baritone, Bintner, had a lovely moment in “Why Do the Nations so Furiously Rage Together” when the chorus rose with such unison passion behind him that they looked like a mob gang as they broke out into “Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder.”

It was a refreshing evening out to hear familiar music. While the baroque detail work was lost within the Winspear space, the performance still was successful in achieving its goal: it signaled the start of Christmas for many audience members. 

If you have a Messiah memory to share, feel free to post it in the comments section below!

Conductor: Stephen Stubbs
Musicians: Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
U of A Madrigal Singers (Leonard Ratzlaff, conductor), MAD’s alumni, volunteer Richard Eaton Singers
Yannick-Muriel Noah, soprano
Wallis Guinta, mezzo-soprano
Colin Balzer, tenor
Gordon Bintner, baritone

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Refreshing Take on Handel's "Messiah"

A Christmas Carol.

The Nutcracker.

Handel's "Messiah." 

These titles automatically cue a seasonal association. One of the aforementioned titles, Handel's "Messiah, is seasonal favorite at the Winspear Centre. This year the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra performs "Messiah" along with the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers, who will also be joined by past alumni and members of the Richard Eaton Singers to form a solid chorus of 80 singers. In a time where there are a limited amount of available singers and a plentiful amount of musical offerings, this collective approach to performance is mutually beneficial. Even though the Madrigal Singers performed "Messiah" last year, there are new singers learning it for the first time. As well, 35-40 RES singers, some of whom have sung Messiah 20-30 times, provide voices of experience that are united with youthful energy of the Madrigal Singers. 

Director of the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers, Dr. Leonard Ratzlaff, reveals the refreshing interpretation of conductor, Stephen Stubbs. Stubbs is a specialist in early music. He has been introducing different concepts of trilling and bowing during rehearsals and, as a result, he provides a new perspective to consider the much-beloved Messiah work. Stubbs has been working on a light and expressive baroque style in Handel's "Messiah," with a layer of subtlety that audience members will be sure to appreciate. Ratzlaff notes that this is possible because of the piece itself:

"[The Messiah] stands up so well to varying interpretations. It's such a strongly constructed work and every aspect of it is very compelling. It leaves a lot of opportunity for both musical imagination and Stubbs's historically informed approach."

The Messiah is composed of three sections. Part I of the Messiah focuses on the Christmas portion of the story, such as the birth of Christ. The second part documents the Passion story including the Crucifixion and ends with the "Hallelujah" chorus. The triumph of Part III can be heard in such choruses such as "Worthy is the Lamb." Ratzlaff feels it is interesting to note that even though the "Messiah" is associated with Christmas, the debut performance was in April 1742. Thus, the second and third parts actually have a closer association to Easter.

Ratzlaff also describes how four choruses in the "Messiah" are inspired from Handel's earlier Italian duets.

"It points to the fact that there is a musical integrity about Handel's writing and an inspiration behind it that not many people could have done, certainly not in the 24 days that, apparently, it took him to write," he states.

It is a season full of tradition and attending the "Messiah" is a wonderful way to participate. Who knows, the "Messiah" may very well become one of your own seasonal traditions it if isn't already. I hope to see some of you at the performance. I will be the one singing along... in my head.


Tickets available online or by calling the Winspear Centre box office (780-428-1414)


Friday December 7, 2012 at 7:30 PM

Saturday December 8, 2012 at 7:30 PM


Stephen Stubbs, conductor

U of A Madrigal Singers (Leonard Ratzlaff, conductor)
Yannick-Muriel Noah, soprano
Wallis Guinta, mezzo-soprano
Colin Balzer, tenor
Gordon Bintner, baritone

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Vocal Diagnosis

We live in a world that loves labels. We love organizing, compartmentalizing, sorting, or really, anything that gives us some semblance of structure in an unpredictable world. The musical world is not exempt from this. The issue of voice labeling is something we discussed in my studies in Salt Lake City this summer. I have even heard the term "vocal diagnosis" used, as if voice typing is some kind of diagnosis by exclusion.

"Since your breaks lie here, here, and here, and you're more comfortable in this part of the range, that makes you a ___________."

My next question is: Does it matter?

Why does it really matter if someone needs to be labelled as a soprano? mezzo? tenor? baritone? bass? a dramatic soprano? or a lyric tenor with a warm lower range? Perhaps it gives us a sense of identity. Maybe a label automatically filters out the types of roles and repertoire that are inappropriate for our vocal abilities. More likely, it is a singers response to the musical construct society has created since certain roles and voice parts need to be filled. Singers need to label themselves in order to occupy these positions. I understand that. In some cases, it's how the business works, a kind of demand-and-supply type of approach. A composer writes music for a mixed SATB choir, well, there needs to be SATB voice parts to sing that piece.

However, I feel like the issue of voice labeling can create a sense of identity displacement in a vulnerable population of voice users. Of course, many careers are built from the fact that a singer's vocal abilities casts them into different character roles, such as a "Carmen" or "Turandot". But what about singers who are in the grey? Whose voices seem to straddle many different genres? Where they're in the opera chorus one day, singing medieval chant the next, and then experimenting with ingressive phonation in a contemporary piece. What should we call these vocal chameleons?

I remember struggling, in the days of my preteen voice training, to combat an excessive breathiness that only maturation would help remedy. I dreamt of the prospect of finally finding out if I would be a soprano or mezzo once my voice finally matured, as if the label would signal my coming-of-age moment as a singer. Well, I'm at the stage at which my voice is no longer in its preteen state and I'm still not so sure. But I also realized that, frankly, I don't care.  For me, this is a healthier mental approach to working with an instrument that is always changing. In general, I think voice training benefits from an adaptive and not a prescriptive approach. I prefer not to view it not as a vocal diagnosis but a constant process of vocal experimentation and discovery. My main concern is that I have command of an instrument that can perform a variety of repertoire. Also, that I'm monitoring my vocal health and making sure nothing pathological is developing while singing. The thing about choral singing is that, regardless of your voice part, compositions demand a wide vocal range as well as diversity of vocal colors. Choristers are not type cast into iconic roles. We must be able to play a wide range of parts as per the wishes of the composer and the conductor's interpretation of that vision. No two instruments are built the same, thus, it is incorrect for them to be treated as such.

This doesn't mean I won't circle a voice part when I see "S A T B" listed on a choral application. I understand I need to fit within the musical construct. If we must have a label to belong in this musical world then we must label ourselves. However, I don't feel like this proclamation needs to dictate the mental performance range of a singer. We should not be so consumed with what we call ourselves as singers, but rather, what we can do as vocal artists to effectively communicate music. After all, labels aside, isn't that what we are all here to do?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Interview and CD Release: She Moved Through the Fair

Ilia Biziaev Photography

For most young singers, if their voice teacher handed them three books of folk music and told them to record a C.D., they may dismiss their suggestion with an air of disbelief… and question their teacher’s sanity. However, this was not the case with singer, Adrienne Findlay, when her voice teacher, Heather Johnson, made such a statement. Instead, Findlay felt another dominant emotion at the prospect of recording a C.D.: excitement.

In addition to being a Cantilon Choirs chorister for many years, Findlay was also a private voice student of Johnson’s. Findlay cycled through the typical song genres of many budding singers, but when Johnson began introducing folk songs, Findlay realized that folk music was her niche. Findlay reveals Johnson’s role in inspiring the production of this album.

“She was at the very beginning of it. From me learning how to sing in the first place and introducing me to this type of music and then to get this project started. Nothing of this would have come close to happening without her help and guidance,” she states.

Thus, after receiving those songbooks from Johnson last September, Findlay began learning folk songs leading up to December. At the start of this year, Findlay met Jia Jia Yong, a long-time student of local harpist Keri Lynn Zwicker, to begin rehearsing the songs with harp accompaniment. Findlay describes a musically generative relationship with Yong.

“We can just be sitting there and she can just play something and it works. She comes up with amazing accompaniment. She’s a great person to play with as a singer. She can tell if I’m going to be slowing down, or holding notes longer, and she can tell that with my body language and breathing. She’s as much as wrapped up in the song as I am.”

Findlay’s love of folk singing is due to the malleable nature of folk music.

“Every time I sing one of the songs it’s different than the time before. You can add little ornamentations and have different musical arrangements. And it can be changing and evolving but it’s so personal. A lot of the songs are about real-life and it’s easy to put yourself in that place. I really feel it. I can then play with the songs in the way that they speak to me. And I would do that differently from anybody else. Anybody can take these songs and put their special mark on them. It makes our version different than anybody else’s version. You get this beautiful, basic, melody and you get to make it completely your song,” she reveals.
Ilia Biziaev Photography

Some of the tracks on the album particularly close to Findlay’s heart are “Rich and Rare,” one of the first traditional folk songs she has performed, and “Leaving of Liverpool,” which is one of two a cappella songs on the album, “Lagan Love” being the other. It was important for Findlay to include a cappella recordings because this is how she first began performing her folk repertoire. While she notes that it is more exposed, and naturally, more scary, she loves the vocal freedom to experiment with the song.

Rich & Rare by Adrienne.H.Findlay

As for the future, Findlay realizes that the most important thing right now is to just keep performing and moving forwards. She does reveal a future aspiration of performing at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. However, she humbly balances her expectations: “If it’s something that moves forward, great, if not, it’s an awesome project that we’ve done together and a great learning experience.”

Their C.D release party will be an opportunity for audiences to hear Findlay and Yong make their official live music debut in Edmonton. Their CD release will be a casual drop-in music event complete with food, wine, and short musical sets throughout the evening. Upon taking a preliminary listen to Findlay and Yong’s refreshing interpretations of this folk music repertoire, I am certain this C.D. is bound to be more than just another learning experience.

---This entry is cross-posted on The Sound + Noise---

CD Release Party
November 16, 2012
Daffodil Gallery (10412-125 Street)
6-9 PM
Free drop-in event
Musical sets throughout the evening at 6:30, 7:30, and 8:30 PM

C.D’s will be available at the release party, future Cantilon Choirs concerts, and on iTunes in mid-December.

Singer: Adrienne Findlay
Harpist: Jia Jia Yong
Recording Engineer: Corey Haberstock

Track List
She moved through the fair
Sally gardens
Leaving of Liverpool
Raglan road
Rocky road to Dublin
The wind that shakes the barley
Lagan love
Dear Irish boy
Rich & rare
The parting glass

Friday, November 9, 2012

Aural Deconstruction

Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Brahms, Schütz and Schein were just some of German-choral heavyweights on the program at our most recent Pro Coro concert. It is a must that professional choirs are able to perform iconic German choral standards such as Mendelssohn's "Richte mich, Gott" and Bruckner's "Os Justi." Or else, how could we compare one another?

The rehearsal experience for this concert felt very different than our first concert. Rehearsals for our first concert were centered around conquering the ambitious program laid out for us and, at times, we were caught up in the frenetic energy of presenting novel works. However, these most recent set of rehearsals were more like workshop sessions. The music served as a template for developing an important skill: a sense of ensemble. We actually had the luxury of listening in rehearsal. The focus was not on learning notes, but discussing vowel alignment, chord progressions, and textual meaning.

The best term I can use to describe the rehearsal process is aural deconstruction. We would arrive as this sonorous mass; however, throughout the rehearsal, we were separated, first by section, then by individual voices, until Zaugg found what he was looking for... whether that was a particular vocal colour or a preferred vowel formation. Rehearsals were composed of constant experimentation with degrees of lip rounding, length of initial consonant aspiration, dynamic levels, and how these details applied to the music.

In many rehearsals, we stood in different structural orientations (e.g. semi-circle vs. full circle) or in mixed voice formations. The Schein motets were performed in a cappella quintets, with one voice on each part, thus, requiring each singer to perform with soloistic sensibility. During the Mendelssohn Psalms 2 and 22, we were in a split double choir formation with soloists interspersed throughout the choir. At another rehearsal, we sat alternating between male and female voices parts (e.g. STSTSTABABAB). One of my favorite arrangements was where we stood in mini circle ensembles and each ensemble would sing only one measure. This forced us to pass along the musical momentum in the individual bars. Thus, we had to make sure to align consonants as well as dynamics. This was especially tricky at German word final consonant clusters that elided into the initial consonant of the following word. Another fun text activity was where we sang the English translation instead of the German. I could immediately hear the passionate fervor in our voices as we sang in English. The challenge was to superimpose this same energy onto the German text. All these individual rehearsal exercises were aimed, not just at developing individual voices, but the voice of the group.

The aural deconstruction process is an important one. It is a process that cannot be skipped, especially since Pro Coro is just beginning to shape its choral identity under Zaugg's artistic direction. Hearing the searing brilliance of the opening chord in Mendelssohn's Psalm 100 "Jauchzet dem Herren" at Sunday's concert indicated, to me, that Pro Coro is on the right track.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Tweet me! Embracing Social Media at Podium 2012

The world of choral music can sometimes feel like a microcosm. The world of social media can also feel the same way. However, when these two specialized spheres overlap, the focused interaction of these two factors produces one of the most unique choral-social experiences. While I was looking forward to Podium with great anticipation as a singer and as a choir girl blogger, the reason Podium was as engaging as it was for me was due to the presence of social media. By social media I mean Facebook, Twitter, blogging, e-mail – all modes of Internet interaction. Twitter is a social media platform, not unlike Facebook, where users can share their experiences with a larger audience with messages known as “tweets” in 140 characters or less. My goal at Podium 2012 was to actively use these various tools to show how choral music enthusiasts could be united by their love of choral music.

I sent out a tweet of my arrival upon checking in the Lord Elgin Hotel. Almost immediately, I had a reply and made plans to meet a twitter acquaintance and fellow choral music blogger, Jean-Pierre Dubois-Godin. It was my first opportunity connecting with a fellow choir music blogger. I believe the same can be said of choral conductors across this country, each in their own community pocket, potentially with limited opportunity for inter-conductor connections. Alas, being united in musical passion but segregated by physical coordinates.

During the conference, it was exciting for me to read live updates regarding who was sitting in the audience of my concert or getting tweets when Donald Patriquin happened to mention my name during a his world music reading session. The instantaneous notification and interaction with others made me feel like I could be in two places at once. By the way, the only reason Donald knew me was because he had read my blog two years earlier from a ChoralNet link. The interconnected web that unites us through the worldwide web and its power is not to be overlooked. 

Another surreal experience was just to meet some of my readers. One morning I entered the elevator, and a fellow rider glanced at my nametag and stated in a friendly tone: “I read your blog post this morning!” It was a blog post that I had only published an hour earlier. This was not the first or the last time I had moments of recognition since some conference attendees, once seeing my nametag, would say: “You’re that Choir Girl blogger!” Why yes, yes I am. Up until this point, I have never come across so many moments of immediate connection between readers and myself. What I do as a blogger is similar to a conductor in a way because what we do is lonely work. I work in silence to formulate my message but it is not until I share this with my audience that my work is given meaning.

Twitter not only became a tool for me to connect with other attendees at the conference but also a way for me to share my continuous interaction at the conference with the choral community abroad. Since I was composing a continuous cycle of daily blog posts and posting the links on Facebook and Twitter, I was getting constant feedback from readers. On one occasion the manager of The Choir Project, Dr. Marian Dolan, told me that she appreciated being able to read news from the conference. She wished she was able to be with her choral friends at the conference and that Florida wasn’t so far away from Ottawa. The whole aim of a conference is to share ideas and connect with others. Who is to say this needs to be restricted to conference attendees only? I can already envision a Podium future with live streaming of all sessions and concerts so that the Podium experience can be shared with the international choral community.

My aim through actively using blogging and social media during Podium 2012 was to showcase the power through use of these social media tools. I know that people feel uncomfortable with making public statements over social media, but if we are accountable for our words… then what is the fear? There are always ways to use tools responsibly and social media is no different. As far as I am concerned, the more we can share information and discuss our experiences in an open musical forum, the more that people can benefit. If I ever wanted to go back and remember my conference activity all I would need to do is search for my Podium 2012 blog posts and tweets. It is easy to be wary of a form of communication that seems so foreign and public. It is even easier to dismiss them. All I ask is for people to consider and potentially embrace a new form of musical discourse. We are all looking for ways to connect; it is a shame to not consider implementing an instrument that works so effectively. As with any instrument, it can only be as good as its instrumentalist and there is no better way to learn than to practice.

The rampant technological pace of the world will only continue as the countdown begins for Podium 2014 in Halifax, NS. There is a whole choral community waiting to be connected and it can only be as strong as the network of members who embrace it. I ask you then, dear readers, to take a chance and experiment, even if that means just sending this Choir Girl a simple tweet.


The Choir Girl Blog:

Choir Girl Twitter:

Podium 2014:

The Choir Project:

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Culture of Fear in Rehearsal

There has long been an established culture of fostering fear within a musical setting. It's controversial because it reflects what kind of teaching philosophy that you subscribe to. Some educators may choose to create a supportive and loving environment to better foster musical interaction, while some others may choose to embrace a more challenging teaching stance. There is no wrong or right way. It all distills down to teaching style and preference. While I believe that both of these tactics have a role within a rehearsal, personally, I respond to the latter method.

While I was in Vancouver a few weekends ago performing with the Ordo Collective, I had the opportunity to reconnect with an old choir friend of mine. We were joined by another performer and audience member. My choir friend and I readily agreed that we thrived on fear during rehearsals in our childhood choral experiences. At that time, what we labelled as fear, in fact, was our immediate feeling in response to conductor challenge. Spontaneous solos were not out of the ordinary if our conductor wanted to check our text memorization or searing glares cast our way if we missed an entry. Of course, we had fair warning if there would be a memorization check and we could sense fragile patience if we have already rehearsed a section multiple times to clean up entries. I understand how hearing this from an outsiders point of view makes it seem like we were were in some kind of abusive relationship. I don't deny the fact that there are some elements of perceived abuse in the previously mentioned conductor-chorister interactions. We were willingly subjecting ourselves to cold treatment in order to feel even a shred of positive reinforcement from a demanding leader. I was not surprised when I heard an aghast response from another person at the table: "There are other ways to achieve that same effect." Perhaps. I respect the fact that everybody has an individualistic response to challenge. One conductor's style of terror may not be the right approach for every chorister. However, if you were to ask me about my most fulfilling musical experiences, they did not result from being coddled by a conductor. I don't think I am alone in this regard.

It all comes down to one thing: respect. You can challenge your singers and demand the best as long as there is a level of respect. Oftentimes, when people are asked why they love a particular person, they say: "They make me a better person."

Why is that?

Is it because they are providing such boundless amounts of love that this surplus is what allows them to be improved versions of themselves? I don't believe this is the case. It all comes down to the aspect of challenge and the intent from which it has been elicited. There needs to be balance. Conductors who experiment with this equation need to constantly evaluate how many variables to manipulate. People need to be challenged by external figures. It is healthy for this to occur. I feel this applies to every relationship people consent to whether it be in a life partner or a choral one. Even with a strongly established voice of internal motivation, it is always powerful to have outside forces that demand the best. Challenge, pressure, stimulus - these are all conditions for change. If we are not challenging ourselves and taking musical risks, then what are we doing?

Love it or hate it, fear, is a powerful tool within a rehearsal. While I do not wish to be petrified at every rehearsal I attend, I know that it is sometimes necessary and that my short-term distress is a precursor to long-term learning. So for those conductors hesitant to employ a firm hand, speaking from my own chorister experience, I simply say: Go ahead and scare us. We need it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Pro Coro Debut

Do you know those moments in life when you are exactly where you are supposed to be at that specific point in time?

The opening Pro Coro concert at the Winspear was definitely one of those moments.

The entire concert had this amazing flow of thematic continuity from the repertoire choice to the movement at the start of the second half of the concert. Grieg's "Morgenstimmung" quintessential morning mood tune primed our audience for the fairy tale themed concert and this moved into Brahms' Drei Gesänge op.42. It is difficult to really internalize a piece of music when you rehearse it in such a short period of time, but I felt like there were solid stretches of automatic ease during the Brahms performance. As well, the delayed onset of the the final word consonants 'ft' in the word "schläft" aligned properly for the first time in response to Zaugg's gestures at the performance. Finally!

Gjeilo's "Unicornis captivatur" was one of the most fun because we were gesturally pliable since we weren't dependent on our music. The first half also contained Rain and Rush and Rosebush set to the Hans Christian Andersen tale by Bo Holten. I loved this piece when I heard it at Podium with voces boreales performing and it was still amazing this time around. Giacomin's world premiere of "The Man and the Echo" set to W.B. Yeats's poem was goosebump inducing. I spoke to two choristers from the University of Augustana after our Camrose concert on Saturday and one of them mentioned that she didn't feel like breathing during the piece. I found that to be a very powerful phrase because the suspended beauty of the humming lines created an acoustic tension to support a gorgeous lyrical tenor solo. It created a transient musical moment, so fragile, that a mere breath felt like it would disrupt it execution.

The second half began with a narration by Dr. Leonard Ratzlaff setting the scene for the rest of the tale we were about to tell. The Pro Coro men came on stage to lie down as if they were sleeping in the tiny village.

The Pro Coro women stood perched in the first balcony, singing Trillo to wake the men up, and embracing their brassy Scandanavian belts. One of my favorite sound colors to produce. This flowed seamlessly into Gibbon's "Cries of London" where each chorister became town characters and roamed the Winspear Hall selling wares and interacting with one another as if in a village marketplace. One of my favorite parts during the "Cries of London" was when I walked up to a gentleman trying to sell my "hot pudding pies." He looked at me and said: "what are you selling?" with a flustered and confused look. I'll take that as a good sign that my adopted cockney accent made me appropriately unintelligible.

In terms of our Canadian premiere performance of 'The Nightingale,' it was magical. Matthias Maute's stellar recorder playing elevated the performance. There were moments when I would close my eyes and be aurally consumed by the story being told by the voices around me. I will not even attempt to recreate the sentiments echoed in my former Nightingale post (if you wish to learn about my thoughts on the piece, I will direct you to that previous entry). What was fun to see at the live performances was the audience reaction to the piece. At the point in the piece where members of court try to sound like Nightingales, I could hear chuckles in the audience as they watched Pro Coro choristers take a sip of water, tilt their heads back, and proceed to gurgle on pitch. At one of the most climactic moments, where the choir is singing about the good and evil deeds encroaching upon the Emperor's deathbed, there was such a massive outpouring of ominous sound from the stage that filled every Winspear crevice.

How does Pro Coro continue their season after such a show-stopping opening concert? It doesn't worry me because there is a level of trust that Zaugg has established since working with Pro Coro. Zaugg has a vision for Pro Coro. I trust him completely and would follow him where he takes the choir musically and professionally. He has introduced me to a new realm of music, a new performance sensibility, and a new choral voice.

At this specific point in time in Pro Coro's history, the choir is ready to embrace a new aural identity. You should take a listen - it is not everyday a professional choir makes a new sound debut.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Painting the Nightingale

When I'm not singing with Pro Coro, I'm thinking about the next time I get to sing with Pro Coro. It's been hard for me to articulate why; however, this evening I had a moment of clarity. I realized why I am addicted to singing Ugis Praulins' "The Nightingale."
When I first began listening to the recording, it felt like I was admiring a spectacular piece of artwork in a museum. I was simply an observer. I stood there... gawking at the beauty of the soundscape and the interwoven colours on the canvas. I drank in the sight of the whole painting. I subconsciously recognized that there was detail in the work but it all coalesced into this one artistic entity.

Singing "The Nightingale" is an entirely different experience because it feels like I have been transported into the painting itself. I am plucked out of the art gallery corridor and inserted into the Emperor's court. Suddenly, I can see the timid kitchen maid crouching behind the door, I follow in the footsteps of the men searching for the Nightingale in the wood (there are cows mooing on my left and frogs croaking on my right), I hear the haunting echo of the Nightingale's song, I squint at the sparkling porcelain walls of the Emperor's palace, I gawk at the opulent artificial bird playing its one song, I am wary of the good and evil apparitions beside the Emperor's deathbed. It's overwhelming how real everything feels. When I'm singing the Nightingale, I enter into this fairytale world and seamlessly become one of the characters. I look around me to see if anybody notices I'm a modern-day imposter. Nobody does. I breathe a sigh of relief. I am free to wander within this world and admire, in detail, the intricate details around me. It's like a fantasy realm that only appears when all musicians are performing together. It is like when the Twelve Dancing Princesses wait until nightfall to cross the lake and dance until the soles of their shoes are worn through... that's what waiting until the next Pro Coro rehearsal feels like.

In many ways, I feel like I have one of the best vantage points of the painting. That is the luxury of actually painting the work. The challenge will be for Pro Coro to translate this artistic perspective for the audience. It will be exciting for listeners to visually and aurally consume the painting we are composing. Until then, I cannot wait until the next rehearsal where I get to explore the realm of the Nightingale once again.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Virtues on the West Coast

Greetings readers,

My weekend with the Ordo Collective was surreal in so many ways. First of all, I have never had a travel grant cover my trip (Thank-you to the Edmonton Arts Council!). It was a novel experience to be supported and recognized as a musician in monetary form while traveling. The quick two-day trip made me feel like a transient professional. One day I'm working in the clinic, and the next day, I'm in a different city catching up with choir friends and singing in a gorgeous church. It is amazing how friends and musical connections with audiences make an unfamiliar location feel instantly like home.

After a quick flight from Vancouver to Victoria I walked out of the plane breathing in the ocean air. There is something about being on an island that makes me go into vacation mode. You immediately feel like leading an unstructured lifestyle. There was a moment of I-can't-believe-I-was-in-Edmonton-this-morning-and-now-I'm-here. I spent a leisurely afternoon reconnecting with a choir friend currently living in Victoria, browsing tea and chocolate shops in downtown Victoria, and smelling the flowers at the Empress hotel.

Later the Ordo ladies head to St. John The Divine for a dress rehearsal. The venue was beautiful: stone walls, long aisles, and a grand spacious stage at the front. The passion of the Ordo organizers, Eva and Gwen, is unparallelled. Eva flew out a day earlier to scout out the church location and arrange details. It is a luxury to just show up and sing without having to personally set up and tear down the stage. When we arrived we just needed to walk onto stage.  We also discovered Eva had supplied a fully stocked fridge since we didn't have enough time before our performance to hunt for sustenance. The only thing the singers had to do was bring programs from Edmonton. We were all given a generous stack of programs to carry, which just further highlights the passion of the Ordo organizers, because just like with the food, they wished to supply a surplus of programs for the audience. It is staggering to witness such love in a project. It made my early wake-up times and post-travel lethargy totally worth it.

St. John the Divine, Victoria BC

Another interesting thing when you're on tour with any group is the personalities that surface. Oftentimes, you get glimpses of people's true character in your daily interactions with them; however, these individual quirks always come to the forefront when you're traveling. It was interesting to see ladies oftentimes stressed with their busy Edmonton schedules wear a perma-smile of contentment while breathing in the humid West Coast breeze. It was also interesting to see the sensitivity levels and passive-aggressive responses of ladies of those dealing with the compounding fatigue of the weekend. What travel character am I? I like to think of myself as a chill explorer. Equipped with my phone apps like Urbanspoon and Fourquare, I am ready to wander and discover local events and coffee shops but I also know not to let small unorganized details get to me. I don't feel like it is a good use of my mental energy to negatively reflect upon a situation I have no control over.

Christ Church, Vancouver BC

Overall, The Ordo Collective had a fantastc weekend in Victoria and Vancouver. It was filled with gorgeous music, magical venues, and familiar choral faces in the audience. If every weekend was like this I would probably burn-out from sheer happiness.

Until next time readers, take care!

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Internal Frenzy of Rehearsal

Greetings readers,

It was a very busy weekend. Pro Coro began rehearsals for the opening concert of the season. The concert is aptly titled, "Once Upon a Time," and all the repertoire choices revolve around that Fairy Tale theme. I can honestly say I've never sung songs about a unicorn capture or Hans Christen Anderson stories before. It is awesome. So many times throughout the weekend, I thought: "I can't believe I get to sing music like this." There is no other place I would rather be and no other music I would rather be singing. The hours of rehearsal passed quickly for me. After an intense five hours of singing on Saturday, I left energized for my four hour Ordo rehearsal in the evening.

Of course, as with any new group, there were some growing pains. Zaugg would introduce some gestural strategies, such as modeling a subtle tandem breath before phrase initiation or the delayed delivery of final German 'h-t' consonants, and we'd be slightly off as a group each time. He brushed off our failed attempts in a neutral manner, rationalizing that there would be time for us to learn those skills eventually.

The weekend wasn't without its own mental challenges since I was actually petrified to begin rehearsing the piece by Ugis Praulins' "The Nightingale." This was unfortunate because I love the piece, it reminds of epic modern-day feast music. However, since I have been looping the recording by The Danish National Vocal Ensemble since May, I developed a very different sense of the work. I was listening to the piece as one unit. Not so much the individual lines but how components worked as a whole. Thus, when I finally received the music in August, I started to realize the intricacy of the musical construction divided amongst those 20 parts. In some cases, what I thought was one melodic line was actually a summation of multiple musical fragments sequentially executed by different parts. It requires substantial rhythmic precision. It also didn't help that I couldn't flip through the pages of the music as fast as I was hearing it on the recording. If I can't even flip pages fast enough, how will I be able to read the notes on them? This created a sense of unnecessary internal chorister frenzy.

Upon rehearsing the Nightingale movements, however, I realized that my accuracy improved at a slower tempo. Shocking, I know. I had a flashback to my childhood piano lessons. My least favourite part of lessons: playing pieces at an excruciatingly slow tempo when learning a new song. I would sit at the keyboard and force my fingers to play with a heavy deliberateness. Even though I retaliated with my own display of subtle indignation, I couldn't help but note improved performance when I gave my brain time to process the music. Alas, the same learning principles still apply today. Imagine that! I lost my sense of musical perspective by listening to the full-speed recordings. It is always good just to take a step back and calm down. Nurturing a sense of anxiety didn't prove to be the most effective music-learning strategy.

Therefore, after a weekend of rehearsals, I have a solid ten days to indulge and allow myself the freedom to read at a slower tempo... something I should have done in the first place. Sometimes the most obvious things aren't so apparent when you're caught up in the frenzy of a new season.

Until next time readers, take care!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A New Choir Girl Season

Greetings readers,

Is is the start of a new musical season and it is going to be a busy one. I have already started rehearsals with the Ordo Collective. Next weekend, I will be reprising my role as the Virtue of Charity and Modesty in Victoria and Vancouver on Sept 15 & 16. Clearly, I performed adequately enough in the Spring to participate in this project yet again. Furthermore, I received an Edmonton Arts Council Travel Grant to participate in this project! A Choir Girl receiving arts funding? I feel like a true artist now.

Pro Coro rehearsals also begin tomorrow evening. I'm sure I will have many colourful posts to provide throughout the process. Pro Coro will be singing the Canadian premiere of Praulins's "The Nightingale." It is a work that is terrifying and amazing at the same time. I know it must be good when it elicits such a strong reaction. One of my music friends laughed in shock when she saw this on the front of one of the movements: "SSSSSAAAATTTTTBBBBB"

As well, there is a bit of a change for me this choral year. I will not be singing with my women's choir, Belle Canto. This is a significant change for me. I have been singing with the Cantilon Choral program for 12 years. I began in the Chamber Choir and joined Belle Canto when I started University. It was a decision motivated by multiple factors. One being that it is always good to have a change. I will be singing with The Edmonton Opera Chorus for their production of Tales of Hoffman so that will definitely be a new experience for me. Staging, make-up, costumes, wigs, operatic singing... this will be a new world for me. Additionally, the Pro Coro schedule season is not for a choral lightweight. It is going to require a significant amount of physical and mental stamina, however, I'm excited to develop my musicianship skills in this particular choral setting. In no way does my absence from Belle Canto this year mean that I will never return. This year is an experiment to see what my choral year looks like when I work on other projects.

What are you up to this season? Let me know in the comments section! Until next time readers, take care!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Symphony Under the Sky Traditions

Monday afternoon at the Symphony Under the Sky Festival is always filled with traditions. There is always an opening performance of "God Save the Queen," a reprise of "O Canada," a young composer always premieres a new work with the ESO, and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is accompanied by canons from the 20th Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery. When these traditions originated, I am not sure, I just know that this is how the festival ends and audience members expect these traditions to be upheld each year. However, there was one difference... there were four canons this year instead of three.

The first part of the program focused on dance music, such as Marquez's "Conga del Fuego Nuevo," Abreu's arrangement of "Tico-Tico," and Ravel's "Boléro," which contains a 17-minute crescendo. I could see audience grooving in their seats and the rustle of the autumn leaves in the trees provided a atmospheric accompaniment throughout the dance music set. The Young Composer, Daniel Belland, premiered his piece, "Voyage" with the ESO. The performance left me with a feeling of wanting to hear more from this young composer. I take that as a very good sign.

The Tap Dance Concerto was the showstopping piece of the afternoon. Ryan VanDenBoom demonstrated the range of sounds that tap shoes can produce with each of the concerto movements. The Singing in the Rain encore he choose was also met with great approval from the audience. Equipped with an umbrella and top hat, he tapped and sang his way through the piece with Gene Kelly's choreography, clutching an onstage heat lamp to serve as a replacement for the street lamp. His performance had an old-fashioned charm and radiated vibrant athleticism. With the 1812 Overture signalling the end of the festival, the ESO acknowledged all traditions and left their audience looking forward to next Labour Day weekend.

This entry is cross-posted on The Sound and Noise

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Symphony Under the Ceiling


Day #2 of the Symphony Under the Sky Festival was moved inside due a severe weather warning. Alas, it was only a warning since the afternoon weather was quite enjoyable. However, the continuous rain that greeted the patrons after the evening concert provided a good reason for moving the festival indoors.

The afternoon program was definitely designed to be performed in an outdoor setting. How magical it would have been to hear Mascagni's "Intermezzo" with a glimpse of the lake behind the stage and the sound of squirrels in the trees. All the works in the afternoon were accessible classical pieces that featured the solo work of many Edmonton Symphony instrumentalists: Virginie Gagné, a first violinist, Robin Doyon on coronet, and clarinetist Julianne Scott in addition to Kathleen de Caen, a cellist trained at the University of Alberta. While it is wonderful to hire internationally recognized soloists, it is nice to see the talent of local musicians highlighted as well. As well, a budding new local composer, Samantha Semler, had her work "Longing for Restoration" premiered by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. She has been working since April with the ESO's composer in residence, Robert Rival, to compose a symphonic work. There are two recipients this year and the other, by Daniel Belland, will be played at Monday's concert.

The Hollywood Classics evening started with a trio of tunes by John Williams. Williams's "Raiders March," "The Flag Parade," "JAWS theme," and "Viktor's Tale" from the Spielberg movie, The Terminal. They ESO also made an excellent choice to showcase the talents of Sara David Buechner once again by having her perform Étude No. 3 in E major “Tristesse” and the Spellbound Concerto. While it is easy to play iconic works composed only for film, the ESO chose to perform classical works which have become iconic in their own right because of their use in film. The best thing about Hollywood Night is that the ESO doesn't take itself too seriously. This was apparent when two cellists assumed the role of wearing accompanying headgear for each of the pieces: A Storm Trooper helmet and Princess Leia wig for Star Wars, Fez's for Casablanca, and Sweatbands for Rocky. The audience enjoyed this comedic visual treat.

There are still tickets available for the concerts this weekend including Broadway Showstoppers on Sunday evening and Concerto for a Tap Dancer and Orchestra and Tchaikovsky's Overture on Monday afternoon.    

Reserved Seating $40 Adult / $20 Child  
Grass Seating $25 Adult / Children Free
Winspear Box Office: 780-428-1414

This entry is cross-posted on The Sound and Noise