Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Choir Retreat...Finally!

Greetings readers!

I hope you have enjoyed some of my recent Sound and Noise blog posts. It's something I've been trialling because I was presented with an opportunity to contribute some guests posts (Thanks @halfsharpmusic!). I feel like it will allow me to expand my writing range and be exposed to a group of passionate writers. Though I'm still finding a balance between Sound and Noise and my regular choir girl blogging, you can rest assured that my attention will, and always will be, dedicated to this blog.

In my guest blogger frenzy over the past weeks, I forgot to post an entry detailing the choir retreat I had with my women's choir, Belle Canto. It probably is of no surprise to you all, but I was super excited to have a solid day of singing. We began rehearsals on Friday night and continued all-day Saturday (with generous breaks for socializing and food.) Our Saturday evening ended off with a 5 course dinner at the Manor Cafe. The wine was plentiful and the white and dark chocolate cheesecake ball dipped in chocolate ganache and rolled in almonds was a decadent and proper way to end a day of singing. Thank-you for indulging me with reading my tangential food note.

One thing that was so refreshing during the retreat was that we were finally singing music that we love to sing. I know it does sound a bit ridiculous that we're more than halfway in our season and we're just starting to sing our true repertoire now. In an attempt to provide context and not an excuse, I do think it is due in part to the structure of our season. In the Fall, we have a dessert auction, but we only present 2-3 pieces since the other choirs in the Cantilon program are singing as well. At Christmas, again, the focus is on the younger choirs in the program and more traditional mass Christmas works instead of Belle Canto's own individual repertoire. Then following Christmas, we're busy preparing for our Broadway Gala and singing Oliver! is not like preparing a Brahms piece. Therefore, my internal response to the music we were beginning to rehearse at the retreat was: "Finally!"

During the retreat, it was just satisfying to learn some new music as well as have opportunities to hear other singers in the group. We tried some different seating arrangements (sitting in a circle with our conductor in the middle), we had some small group time where we had to work as a mini ensemble to present a piece to the rest of the choir, and we did some sectional work. I really enjoyed the small group time. It gave me a better chance to hear what the singers around me were doing and made me more self-aware and accountable for what I was contributing to the group as well. It's difficult to self-monitor as a singer in the choir because you can't hear what the overall group or section sounds like. Thus, if you're not getting specific feedback in regards to how you're doing, you just continue on the assumption that everything is fine unless you hear otherwise. It's easy to become disengaged and start coasting when this the case.

Currently, we are busy preparing our program for Podium 2012, which is a Choral Music Conference where conductors, singers, educators, composers, choral administrators and, music lovers in general, gather to attend sessions and listen to an array of choirs that present concerts during the conference. Some highlight pieces from the retreat weekend was, "Vidi Speciosam," a work Belle Canto commissioned by Canadian composer, Jeff Enns, which has gorgeous writing for female voice. Oh, how I love full-bodied sacred music singing.  I also enjoyed working on a set of Spanish pieces, which includes Estévez's "Mata del Anima Sola." I challenge you not to have this work stuck in your head after you watch this video (the first part morso than the second part):


Overall, I'm excited by the repertoire and preparatory process that awaits Belle Canto for the rest of our season. I cannot wait for Podium to arrive; I am going to be going on a massive blogging blitz. I plan to cover sessions, concerts, and potentially conduct some interviews to cross-post on this blog, Sound and Noise, as well as the ACCC Choral Bytes blog. It's going to be a busy time, but I would not have it any other way.

Until next time readers, take care! 

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Choral Fabric of the Stuttgart Chamber Choir

Greetings readers!

Posted below is a concert review I covered for Sound and Noise:
The Stuttgart Chamber Choir was so good that, frankly, it makes me sick. How can a choir be that good? Recognition must be given to the Richard Eaton Singers for bringing in the Stuttgart Chamber Choir; a stellar addition in celebration of their 60th anniversary season. Conducted by Frieder Bernius, the Stuttgart Chamber Choir was joined by TorQ Percussion Quartet from Toronto this past Wednesday evening.

The program began and ended with what I would expect a German choir to sing best, repertoire by German composers. In this case, it was Bach and Mendelssohn. As far as I’m concerned, the choir provided the model choral sound for these composers. Listening to Bach’s “Singet dem Herrn” was like hearing the aural construction of a luxury fabric. Only the finest vocal threads were chosen and interwoven into a sound textile that was uniform, seamless, and impenetrable. I would expect no less of German workmanship. The musical lines within the Bach were sung with such motile precision. If I wanted to acoustically parse each of the notes in the running lines, they would all have been equally balanced and resonant. As well, their German diction was so clean; I could have easily transcribed every phoneme that they were singing, further demonstrating how they have the prototype choral sound for Bach. The collective choral voice was clean, crisp and pliable. Mendelssohn’s “Te Deum” was sung with the same precision and the text stanza’s were interspersed with lyrical lines sung by a quartet of singers. They had an amazing bass singer in the quartet, who just so happened to be featured in every soloistic combination during the concert. I developed a choir girl crush on him. The “Te Deum” also featured the solo work of a full-bodied mezzo-soprano; a refreshing change from the crisp choral texture. My highlight moment within the “Te Deum” was the pleading echos of “Miserere nostri/have mercy on us” from individual voices within the choir. The overlapping and weaving laments produced collective sentiments that were hauntingly helpless.
The Stuttart Chamber Choir rearranged themselves in order to perform Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna,” decreasing their choir size of 27 to 16 in order to have an individual voice on each part. I have sung Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” before. It is not easy. It made me want to clutch helplessly onto my tuning fork, but I knew, deep down, that it wasn't going to help me. The strings of sound dissonance were sung with an unwavering confidence. The chromatic tones emerged from the individual parts to compose an impermeable core sound. The chords would miraculously lock after all of the individual chromatic movements and eventual decrescendo to a low F drone in the alto voices. Their performance made Ligeti’s piece sound easy. At points, I was quietly laughing to myself, in disbelief, in response to how they were able to carry off that piece.

The words within Pärt’s “Nunc dimittis” are taken from the book of Luke and details Simeon words to the baby Jesus in Jerusalem. Simeon does not wish to die until he has seen, with his own eyes, his Saviour. As an audience member, I expected an epiphanal moment within the piece. However, during “Nunc dimittis,” I felt Stuttgart’s performance had a restrained energy. Though the performance of any piece is up to artistic interpretation, I just felt like the choir could have stretched their emotional limits in this one. Personally, I prefer choirs that take a risk. I like choirs that sound almost overwhelmed, brimming with passionate intensity in response to the text and music. At the climax of “Nunc dimittis,” when the choir sings of the revelatory light and calls out to the people of Israel, I just felt like they could have given more. I wanted more. Sure, that might mean that they could potentially sound sloppy from all that unbridled emotion (I don’t think that’s possible) but I just wanted to hear an eruption of sound. Instead, their sound just felt contained.

The showcase work, by Montreal composer, Paul Frehner, “Corpus,” incorporated the talents of the TorQ Percussion Quartet. According to Frehner’s program notes, he wished to create a piece that explored the “mystical, religious and metaphysical writings on the universal topics of the human body…. in its various states of life, death, oblivion, and afterlife.” That’s all very nice and well, but how does that translate to a performance? Overall, this work sounded like an epic play to me. The vocal components played individual characters, working together to tell the story in solo and chorus combinations, and the percussion created the sound environment. Frehner’s piece has such a dense network of concepts and lends itself well to continuous musical analysis. The piece began with a monotone solo with an eerie suspension in the soprano section paired with the ominous bass voices. There were also two superimposed chant lines within the piece. The power of the TorQ Percussion Quartet did have the tendency to overwhelm Stuttgart’s sound and it was apparent that TorQ had to restrain themselves in order to achieve balance. Which is a shame because they were brilliant. This was especially apparent when the canon of drums percolated throughout the church and cascaded into a vibrant cacophony. They also had such a diverse array of percussion instruments and techniques to create sounds from the resonant metallic echos to the tensile tones created when bowing a cymbal. TorQ created sound textures that evoked strong images and emotional reactions from the audience. I especially enjoyed the end of the piece where the atonal modern chant line in the choir was paired with the tribal groove of the percussion. The resulting effect was quite remarkable.

Being able to witness choral performances, such as this concert with the Stuttgart Chamber Choir, reminded me of the expansive range of choral talent in the world. It's easy to forget when you're tucked away in a wintery Canadian city. Though I am an avid chorister, it is rare for me to hear a professional ensemble. It is difficult to have opportunities to hear what the best sounds like, but when it is in your neighborhood, you would be doing yourself a disservice not to take a listen.

Until next time readers, take care!

Friday, March 9, 2012

What Do Choristers Do?

Greetings readers!

You may be interested to know that I am now a guest blogger on the Sound and Noise Music Blog. Pretty cool, am I right? I will be cross-posting any entries I write for their site on this blog as well. I will also continue composing my own exclusive entries for this blog. I encourage you to visit their site and see what articles they have to offer from their passionate and diverse team of writers. Now, may I present, my premiere post for Sound and Noise:

Lately, the internet has been filled with variants of these enlightening photo memes which attempt to educate the naïve public on the perspectives surrounding different roles in our society. Drawing from my own personal experiences, I’ve decided to construct my own. I will discuss the following six views and the multifaceted role of the chorister.

1. What my friends think I do

I am sorry to disappoint… but I do not spend my rehearsals flirting with cute choir boys. As a choir girl who takes herself way too seriously and is terrible at emotional multi-tasking, my attention is focused on the musical task at hand. I am often oblivious to the fact that people join choir expand their pool of suitable mates. Don’t we all just want to make music together?

2. What my mom thinks I do

She’s not entirely wrong on this one.

3. What society thinks I do

First question I get when I tell people I sing in a choir is “Do you sing in a church choir?” To which I provide my default response of “No, not a church choir.” It makes sense; chorister roles began in the church to deliver the religious message of God. Thus, it is not surprising that the prototype chorister image still engrained into society is that of the church chorister. However, there is such a wide array of choristers in the world: professional, community, chamber, show… it’s important to recognize the diverse role of the chorister and how it suits the musical construct of each group.

4. What my dates think I do

Once on a date, I attempted to describe what I meant when I said I sang in a choir. When I started with outlining the basic choral components such as, “There’s a group of people and we sing music together”--- those semantic cues led him to respond with “Oh, like Glee!” Since I did not want to crush his enthusiastic self-generated response, I responded with “Kind of like Glee, but without the dancing… or the show tunes.”

5. What I think I do

Confession time: I love black gospel choirs. They are my choral rock stars. I wish I was black. I wish I could belt solos. And I wish I could uninhibitedly emerge from the choir with my arms above my head, gesticulate to an invisible overhead entity, and praise the lord in a Q&A format with the rest of the choir.

6. What I actually do

Black gospel choir dreams aside, what I actually do as a chorister in my choir is sing early, classical, romantic, folk, and contemporary repertoire, tour to national and international music festivals, record diverse repertoire, and rehearse weekly with a dedicated group of singers. No matter what construct choristers find themselves in, we are all united with a common passion and a collective voice. As a result, I think that what we do, as choristers, is pretty awesome.   

Until next time readers, take care!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

My SLP-Conducting Debut

Greetings readers!

On Friday, I fortunate enough to have the opportunity to lead my very own choir. Not just any choir, but choir made up of persons with Parkinson's Disease (PPD). This is a population close to my heart since my Master's thesis was analyzing data collected from PPD undergoing a Voice Choral Singing Treatment program (if you want to learn more, I'll refer you back to this post for more information). Even though I was petrified at the prospect of leading a rehearsal, I didn't delay in providing my consent to substitute for Merrill, their resident conductor and speech pathologist.

The first thing that I needed to do, in order to mentally prepare for the session, was acknowledge the fact that I am not a conductor. Therefore, I decided to structure my style more like a vocal coaching session. I tried to experiment with some of the techniques which I appreciate when I am under the leadership of a conductor. I attempted to learn the names of my 12 choristers and use them throughout the rehearsal when I was providing positive feedback. I provided a ton of vocal models to illustrate what I wanted. I demanded more from my choristers each time when I could hear they were responsive to my instructions. Even when I felt like they gave me what I wanted, I would ask for more to see if they could do it. I often interrupted them when they did something wrong and made them do it again. Maybe these weren't characteristics that everybody appreciated, but since I had no style, it was important for me to experiment and figure out what my style might be.

In preparation for the rehearsal,  I began by brainstorming all my favorite vocal warm-ups. Then I went through each exercise, thought about the rationale for each of them, and eliminated any redundant exercises. As well, I looked through Merrill's old lesson plans and decided to include some familiar elements but incorporate my own as well. I grouped my exercises by target area: resonant voice, respiratory support, vocal flexibility, speech articulation etc. A major symptom of Parkinson's is muscular rigidity. That includes rigidity of the diaphragmatic muscles all the way to muscles needed for facial expression. I wanted to choose exercises which would be most beneficial for PPD.

Something that I did find challenging was working with a pianist. I am not used to giving instructions to a pianist. I also wasn't used to cueing the pianist to stop playing when I wanted to re-run something immediately or finish off the last run of a vocal exercise. I'm guessing it probably didn't help that the pianist's back was towards me (mental note: fix positioning). Another thing that was challenge was that I couldn't hear my choristers very well. It was because I did something that's not the preferred norm for a conductor, and that was that I was singing while my choristers were singing. It's a tough balance because PPD need a high amount of vocal models. There are studies confirming that there's a change in their perception abilities in themselves as well as others, therefore, all modeling needs to be plentiful and exaggerated. However, next time (if there is one) I would need to find a better balance in providing voice models but allowing opportunities for independent production. Only then can I actually hear what they are doing. One of the most important roles that a conductor plays during a rehearsal is listening. I definitely didn't do a great job of that. This is probably where actual conducting skills would help me because I would be able to visually cue this instead of relying tandem vocal models to achieve my aural vision. Furthermore, it's vocally tiring to be working that hard in a session, which definitely isn't a viable option if I were to pursue more work like this in the future.

My conducting experience aside, the feedback I got from the session seemed positive. At least, the comments to my face were :) Comments spanned from compliments about my outfit to my energy and enthusiasm as I tried to engage them while moving throughout the rehearsal space. One of the choristers asked me if I would record all my voice warm-ups and upload them to Youtube so that he would be able to practice. Perhaps I can be as cool as Ken Tamplin?

I'm just thankful for this opportunity since the Parkinson's choir session allowed me to geek-out pretty hard in terms of merging my choral and speech interests. Also, since I just received my SLP license on Tuesday, my session with the Parkinson's choir was my inaugural debut as an official Speech Pathologist. I think that's a very good sign for things to come.

Until next time readers, take care!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Another Broadway Gala Down


Greetings readers!

Another Broadway Gala has come and past. This year Cantilon put on a concert version of "Oliver!" I don't have too much about it other than the fact that it felt like controlled chaos. The music was straightforward enough. The Belles were only singing 3 songs. Choreography learning went smoothly. The most tricky part was that we had to sing "Consider Yourself" three times and each time required slightly modified choreography so it was difficult trying to keep them as distinct routines in my mind. By far, the children had the most work in it since there are a ton of children choruses. The Belles and the men's chorus (recruited from family and friends) joined the rest of the children for three songs. Of course, the most fun for the adults was "Oom Papa". I think it was because that even if we screwed up, it didn't matter because we were supposed to be inebriated anyway. For the most part, I think a lack of inhibition provides adults with the confidence to perform their best. The Edmonton Journal even came and took a video clip of us during rehearsal.

I think the Broadway Gala highlight for me were the fantastic soloists drawn from the pool of Cantilon singers as well as the male soloists which we recruited from our assembled men's chorus. We had a Fagin with a twisted swagger, a hysterically hilarious Mrs. Corney, a booming Mr. Bumble, and a wide-eyed Oliver. As well, during the intermission there was a lovely Victorian style market which was set up by Belle Canto members. There was gruel (a.k.a. dry soup) mix, baked goods, flowers, ring toss, photobooth and other goods for sale. 'Twas a fundraising event after all.

I think the experience can be better shared via the pictures posted below:
Food, Glorius Food, Photo credit: Erin F-W.

Mr. Bumble, Mrs. Corney and the kids, Photo credit: Erin F-W. 
Pick a pocket with Fagin, Photo credit: Erin F-W.
Consider Yourself, Photo credit: Erin F-W.

Adorable orphans, Photo credit: Erin F-W.

 Broadway Gala cast minus principals, Photo credit: Erin F-W.
Until next time readers, take care!