Friday, July 27, 2012

Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Greetings readers,

Yes, I finally did it. I saw the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in concert. I've been here in Salt Lake City almost two full months and almost went without hearing the choir. It is the quintessential thing that everybody recommended to me before coming here: "You have to hear the choir." This includes non-choral people. It was not due to a lack of trying. My very first Sunday here I actually woke up early to attend their Sunday morning service, but upon arriving at the train on campus... I found out that they didn't start running until after the service was over. Alas, I was stranded on campus for Sunday morning service. Thus, I knew there was no way I could get to a Sunday service unless I did a one hour walk downtown from the campus or found somebody with a vehicle who might be interested in seeing the choir. The choir also has Thursday evening rehearsals open to the public but I don't often stay out late on a weekday, at the risk of being stranded, yet again, by public transit. The woes of a student without a car.

However, after a group homework session on Saturday, a bright classmate of mine decided to look up Sunday service information for the choir. Instead, she found that they were actually singing in a free Pioneer Day concert (the day the Mormon pioneers arrived with Brigham Young in Salt Lake City) that very evening. Doors opened at 8 PM and there would be standby tickets available. We looked at our watches. It was 6:45 PM. We had time to get downtown. I frankly would prefer to see the choir tackle some sacred and secular repertoire on a significant religious holiday. I like to see how Mormons celebrate.

My friends and I piled into the Conference Centre which can seat over 21,000 people.  In the summer, the choir performs and rehearses in the Conference Centre instead of the Tabernacle due to the summer tourist crowds. It definitely was the largest church building I have ever been in. While the concert was not sold out, there were only a few seats available in the outermost sections. When we arrived at the Conference Centre the lines were so huge that we had to snake throughout the courtyard and garden planters before we could even enter one of the numerous doors to pass through metal detectors.

My first thoughts upon seeing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir: They look so uniform. It's almost as if they were sorted according to height in each of the rows since the level of conformity was unparalled.  Their program had lots of listener-friendly pieces with Welsh soprano, Katherine Jenkins, leading the way.

I found the acoustics in the Conference Centre kind of strange because even though I was looking at the choir, all I could hear was this muffled speaker sound radiating towards me. While I'm sure they were amplified, it was unfortunate I couldn't hear more of what they sounded like. They didn't have the power and oomph I imaged from a choir that large. There was some breathy blend going on and I'm not sure if that's what they were doing or what was being broadcast to me. They posted a Youtube video of the entire performance and they sound much clearer on the video. What was impressive is that they did the entire concert memorized. As well, the concert was filmed for national and national TV broadcast so camera crews pan throughout the choir and settle on particular faces. I can only imagine the stress of possibly being video recorded at any given time throughout the performance. All I can say is, singing isn't the prettiest when you try to capture it in still form. There's a lot of vowel modification, lip postures etc. it's easy to snap a picture when somebody not looking their best.

The soloist Katherine Jenkins sang a large range of popular music from "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "The Prayer." And throughout it all she maintained a very dark resonant space with extreme lip postures. Take a look at the Youtube video and you can probably see and hear what I mean. I have to say, it's nice having a video to share with you all since you can see the exact performance I watched in Salt Lake City.

Overall, it was quite an experience to hear the choir with their high-tech set-up and in their massive Conference Centre. I was told that all the choir members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are unpaid and one can tell there is a high level of musical proficiency throughout the group. It was staggering to see the thousands of audience members attending a cultural event. It's not every city you can get that many people attending a live concert produced by locals. Thus, I can finally leave Salt Lake City with the knowledge that I was able to hear the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Until next time readers, take care!

Salt Lake Temple

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A New Choral Voice

Shattering any sense of social formality that would be expected of an interview at a choral music conference, I quickly direct the conversation to Michael Zaugg’s bid for Artistic Director of Pro Coro instead of asking him about the conference.

“Oh, you’re talking about Pro Coro, not Podium!” Zaugg remarks, surprised at my conversation starter.

“I’m here to talk about you,” I state.

“O.k.!” he says with a smile as he readies himself.

In addition to his roles as the conductor of the St. Lawrence Choir in Montreal, the Cantata Singers in Ottawa, and voces boreales at the Montreal Choral Institute, over this past year Zaugg participated in a comprehensive selection process for the position of Artistic Director and Principal Conductor for Pro Coro Canada. As a Pro Coro chorister, I was able to participate in a small portion of this process and blogged about the experience. The news of Zaugg’s successful appointment as Artistic Director was welcome news not only to me but to the entire Edmonton choral community.

Zaugg admits that the prospect of conducting Pro Coro had been percolating in his mind for the past 15 years. His Stockholm conducting mentor (and previous Pro Coro Artistic Director), Anders Eby, told him to keep an eye on Pro Coro if he ever moved to Canada. However, upon Zaugg's arrival in Canada in 2004, it was clear that Pro Coro’s established Artistic Director, Richard Sparks, had no intention of retiring from the position. Meanwhile, Zaugg began establishing himself in the Montreal and Ottawa choral scene, assuming the role of Music Director of the Cantata Singers in 2005 and the St. Lawrence Choir in 2008, and founding the Montreal Choral Institute in 2009. However, one day while on ChoralNet, Zaugg saw the Pro Coro posting for a new Artistic Director. It was a “that’s it” kind of moment, he says to me with a pensive intensity, “the window opened in the sense that I [had] to get that position.”

A consuming selection process began that involved drafting a five-year plan for the vision of the choir, supplying his thoughts on fundraisers and financing, and a series of east-and-west Canadian commutes for interviews. During that time, the list of potential candidates was distilled to the concentrated choice of three candidates. Zaugg revealed his thoughts when he finally arrived for his concert audition: “I don’t get nervous in these situations. I just get very excited.” I was curious to know if there was an epiphanial moment in which he felt he had secured the position: “Well, it would be cocky to say so. But I think at the concert…when we were together on stage.”  I am sure that anybody in the choir or audience that day would agree that he was clearly the one.

Looking towards the future as the new Artistic Director of Pro Coro, Zaugg discusses how professional ensembles need to set an example. They must constantly challenge themselves and others to be better. He stresses the importance of looking at all music from a different angle in order to inspire other conductors and ensembles to try something new as well. Zaugg believes that professional ensembles have to not only be “leaders in simply performing but leaders in research, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and structural ideas in administration.” He hopes that an amateur choir can look at Pro Coro and say: “this is how you set up a choir to be successful, this is how you get funding, this is how you organize fundraisers, this how you run the board etc.” Furthermore, Zaugg reflects on the state of choral music in Canada: “We are in a fortunate situation. There are three big [professional choirs] in Canada. There are smaller professional choirs like voces boreales. There are niche choirs doing early and contemporary music but all in all there aren’t many.” He describes the organization of the European professional choirs that include groups from France, Germany, and Austria; Zaugg remarks that they meet to do professional workshops and recording sessions. He envisions a future for this type of professional exchange in North America: “I don’t see why not,” he simply states.

What I noticed in my experience while working with Zaugg is that he understands what it is like to be a singer. Unfortunately, not every choir has a conductor that can sing or understands how to sing. I ask Zaugg’s thoughts on this matter: “I’ve listened to many choirs. There is good material in the choir but their conductor doesn’t know what to do with it. There are conductors who have enough experience who are able to put it in words what they want or in gestures. But I always pride myself that I can sing everything I request from the singers.” He not only challenges his singers but himself as a conductor and pedagogue. In beginning his work with the Montreal Choral Institute’s masterclass, he realized that “a lot of young conductors listen but they don’t hear… we are very often as conductors caught up in trying to teach music, intervals, dynamics, words, that once the performance comes around we haven’t had the time to look at the ensemble, dynamics, articulation…but at the same time, if we know what to listen for it is easier to implement.” Zaugg’s statement comprehensively describes the goal of his Podium 2012 workshop with voces boreales. In the session, he provided an aural toolkit for conductors to utilize while listening to chords.

Additionally, there is a side of veiled magical whimsy beneath Zaugg's meticulous conductor exterior. When asked what he would sound like as a piece of music, Zaugg feels that Praulins’s oratorio “The Nightingale” would be most fitting: “I love fairytales… the imagination and the fantasy. So much is in that piece. The multitude of styles…sometimes there are broad and romantic lyrical sounds and then in the middle there is a mechanical bird with a technical aspect to it.” Witnessing firsthand his crisp gestural execution and full-bodied sound aesthetic, it is apparent that this piece represents him well. Too bad not many people have heard it before. Thankfully for Edmonton audiences, the Canadian premiere of “The Nightingale” will take place at Pro Coro Canada’s opening concert this season. I recommend that you come out and take a listen as Zaugg makes his official debut with Pro Coro. It is not everyday that there is a new choral voice in town.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Role of Vocal Cool-Downs in Wound Healing

Greetings readers,

I'm right in the middle of my voice habilitation course (note: it is not called "re"habilitation because that term suggests it is a process of regaining lost function and, instead, we want to focus on the function we can obtain).

In class we have been speaking about the wound healing process in vocal folds and what kind of mediators (inflammatory or anti-inflammatory) that are present after periods of heavy vocal use. Mediators are the chemical molecules that are present when there is inflammation. Thus, the presence of mediators signals that there is some damage. Inflammation is a natural part of the wound healing process. Potential problems arise when inflammation persists for prolonged periods after strenuous activities, such as vocal use. There have been recent studies looking at what is most beneficial to do following periods of intensive vocal use.

A soon-to-be published by Verdolini-Abbott (2012), known informally as the "Scream Study," looked at the levels of mediators in a group of 9 individuals following a session of vocal loading (aka. screaming), these individuals were then split into 3 different group conditions afterwards and then their vocal folds were suctioned for secretions to measure the presence and amounts of inflammatory mediators. Each group of individuals had a particular condition applied: one group had to undergo complete vocal rest, another had to use their voice to speak to a clinician, and another group had to do resonant voice exercises (humming etc) after the vocal loading session. Researchers suctioned the vocal folds before the vocal loading sessions (baseline), 4 hours following the session and 24 hours after the session. They found in the condition where subjects had to use speech, they had the highest level of inflammatory mediators 4h and 24h following the session. The vocal rest conditions showed that there were elevated levels of inflammatory mediators 4h following the session and this decreased by 24 hours. However, in the resonant voice condition there were decreased inflammatory mediators 24h after session and there was an anti-inflammatory mediator present. This suggests that following strenuous vocal use, instead of complete vocal rest, there are findings to suggest that low impact resonant voice exercises may can expedite the wound healing process. Thus, providing some of the first empirical evidence for vocal cool-down's following strenuous voice use.

Does this mean that everybody should rush out and start resonant voice exercise cool-downs following voicing? Probably not since there are other cautions to consider. You should be doing resonant exercises properly so that voicing feels easy and resonant. Any exercises where there is strain is counter-productive. Dosage effects have also not been closely studied (how long or often to practice resonant voice exercises for). All it provides is evidence that complete voice rest may not be the way to go. There are other caution factors as well ex. if a subject is at risk for vocal hemorrhage then voice rest is warranted since you don't want to vibrate your vocal folds in case capillaries are ruptured. The most important thing is to be intuitive and listen to your body and how it is responding to variables when you are introducing new exercises. This may not be new information to you since the concept of vocal cool-downs are used by individuals. However, isn't it nice to know the possible "why" behind such an exercise? 

Ultimately, the real questions are: "why do they work?" "what is the evidence behind them?" and "what kind of exercises do I need to do?" and "how long do I need to do them for?" In order to be critical consumers of knowledge, we should always question and not simply accept things because they are the norm. The Verdolini-Abbott (2012) study I'm referencing here is not yet available; however, there are some other related articles from this area of research at this link.

Until next time readers, take care!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Take Every Opportunity

Conductor, Music Educator, Scholar, Author, Director of Choral Studies at the University of Toronto (U of T) --- these are all roles which Hilary Apfelstadt has seamlessly integrated into her life. At the Podium 2012 conference, Apfelstaft’s University ensemble, the MacMillian Singers, performed a joint concert with the Elmer Iseler Singers and she discussed with me her experiences within each of these different roles.

While Apfelstadt enjoys conducting a wide range of ages, she confesses that she loves working with University students because “they are still teachable and in the teaching process they have enough knowledge that they can contribute… it is very collaborative.” A recurring theme in our discussion is the concept of education because Apfelstadt first and foremost sees herself as a music educator. She exudes no air of conductor superiority.

Upon entering her position at the U of T, Dr. Apfelstadt saw her role as someone who would create opportunities for music educators. This is seen in Apfelstadt’s reconfiguration of the choral ensembles at the U of T. The number of choirs has been increased from three to four and the focus is on building the importance of the mens choral experience. The ensembles are also unique in that two of the four choirs are run by doctoral students and each doctoral student has a pair of masters students working with them. A powerful and challenging collaborative learning model. Apfelstadt states that this framework serves two purposes: to provide a good choral experience for those who wish to sing and to provide a pedagogical framework for budding conductors.  Recognizing the importance of creating community connections for her students, Apfelstadt has also increased the number of collaborative projects with community ensembles, high schools and professional ensembles like the Elmer Iseler Singers for Podium 2012. She stresses the importance of these connections because it allows her students to realize that they can integrate themselves into the music community once they finish their studies.

In addition to her roles as a music educator and conductor, Apfelstadt has written numerous articles on choral music and contributed two chapters to “Wisdom, Wit and Will: Women Conductors on their Art.” While discussing how she came to be a contributor, Apfelstaft half-jokingly stated that 'when Joan Conlon asks you do to something, you say “Yes, Ma’am!”' Brushing this jovial sentiment aside with a smile, Apfelstadt elaborates that the topics she discusses in the book include leadership styles and balancing the personal and professional aspect of life for women conductors. Apfelstadt states that interesting comments from readers have told her that they found the book was applicable to all conductors and not just women conductors.

I realized that every good teacher always has memorable tokens of wisdom. Apfelstadt was no different. She offered some excellent advice for budding choral conductors: “Get out there and find every opportunity to do everything. Even if somebody offers you a church choir job with 6 people in it, get out there and learn how to work with those people.” Her wisdom can be extended to any personal pursuit. I can see how she has mentored so many with her reassuring tone and supportive nature. It is clear that her students are well looked after.