Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Inspiration Found

Steinway exhibit at Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix, AZ
Several weeks ago, my husband and I took our Fall vacation.  With work scheduling conflicts and deadlines that kept changing, even getting ready for vacation was fairly stressful.  Everything finally straightened itself out and off we went.  This year, we chose Arizona.  We love the west, and, as Greg had spent some time in Phoenix for work, he wanted to go back for leisure.  It was a nice trip, and we were able to do everything we had hoped and planned for. 

While I was planning for the trip, I researched things to do in Phoenix.  We only had 2 days there before our other plans took us north, so I wanted to fit in the best and most unique things that the city had to offer.  I found information about a new museum that had only been open for 18 months or so.  The Musical Instrument Museum offered an experience of sight and sound and I told my husband this was a MUST visit for our list. 

Our visit to MIM was an experience I'll not soon forget.  First, it's a big, gorgeous building that draws you in.  The staff was friendly and welcoming. And then we began to wander through the exhibits, drinking in the music with our eyes and ears.  You see, upon arrival at the museum, visitors are given a headset.  The exhibits are fitted with wireless transmitters, so you hear the sounds of the instrument you are looking at.  There are so many instruments on display from so many countries!  I was almost overwhelmed with so much to see.  The photo above is of my favorite exhibit; a Steinway piano, deconstructed, hung from the ceiling.  It was so amazing to stand in front of it and feel a new perspective of the instrument wash over me. 

I was struck by a thought as I went from room to room, seeing exhibits from Africa to Asia to Europe to North America, and so many countries along the way.  How did all of these places with all of these different peoples, who never met or knew of each other, bring music to being?  I could hear differences in how sounds were used and interpreted from place to place.  But I could also see that every place had instruments similar in design.  There was always a flute or whistle or reed type mouth blown instrument, from the wooden nose flute of one African country to the intricate metal flutes of Europe, to the pipes and horns of Israel. (Yes, I saw and heard a real ram horn, and was immediately transported to Jericho!)  There was always a stringed instrument, from the lovely mother-of-pearl inlaid lutes of the Middle East, to the seed-pod single stringed instruments of Africa, to the modern Gibson guitar of the US.  There was always a drum, from the djembe to the steel drums of the Islands, to the huge square drum used in the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China signed by the gentleman that played it that day.  How did we all find these tools; instruments that expressed our thoughts, our feelings, shared our celebrations, our sorrows, and gave voice to our devotion of the Divine?   How did we know that making these sounds, combining them with each other and with our own voices would lift us to another plane of humanity? 
This experience put my ideas of music and instruments to a whole other place.  I will not look at or hear another instrument in the same way again.  I am amazed and awed at the glorious gift that is music. It is in our blood, in our beings, in our souls, and will not be silenced.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Singing with the Girls

All through school, I participated in anything where I could sing.   I did parent teacher nights at school, church services, conferences, weddings, or just about any other opportunity I could to sing.  Some of my fondest memories stem from high school when I sang in a girl’s quartet.

The four of us were selected specifically to sing one song for an annual competition.  We already knew each other and were friends, (it was a very small private school) but this went beyond the usual day- to- day high school interaction.  We had lots of special rehearsals, and we sang that one piece together for every occasion that school year.  To this day, I can still sing my part in my sleep!  We learned about each other’s voices, what made us sound good, how to support each other musically, and when we needed a rest.  This ‘togetherness’ spilled over into other parts of our lives.  I remember being on a bus, probably going on a field trip, learning the words to a popular tune of the day.  Once we had the melody down, we started adding harmonies, riffing off each other’s improvisations, and we sang that song all the way home.  I can still feel the excitement when one of us added a cool note, or when a harmony hit just right.   By the end of the ride, everyone else on the bus was probably really tired of that song, but we were having such a great time, we wanted to keep singing.

The four of us did a lot of things together that year.  We shopped for our competition dresses together, took a Saturday trip to Vermont together, worried about boys together, and yes, we took first place in the annual competition together.  Our reward from the school was we took a 2 day trip to Boston with our teacher.  The highlight of the trip was touring the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides”.  As mentioned, we did attend a private school, and even on this trip, we all wore our school uniforms, so we attracted a bit of attention.  I remember the sailors asking us why we were dressed alike, and we replied with school and we were a girl’s quartet.  That intrigued them so they asked us to sing right there on the ship. We sang our competition song for our tour guide sailors.  We were on the bottom deck, so our voices rose up and echoed throughout the ship.  By the time we finished singing, sailors from every part of the ship had heard us and came rushing down to see what was going on.  It was such a thrill to see their faces as we sang on the historic old ship.  Our song that we had sung together all year seemed selected just for them.

“From every stormy wind that blows,
From every swelling tide of woes,
There is a calm, a sure retreat—
'Tis found beneath the mercy seat.

There is a place where Jesus sheds
The oil of gladness on our heads,
A place than all besides more sweet—
It is the blood-bought mercy seat.

  There is a scene where spirits blend,

 Where friend holds fellowship with friend;
  Though sundered far, by faith they meet
  Around one common mercy seat.”

Although we don’t see each other much anymore, these girls and I stay in touch through the social media outlets available these days.  Music continues to be a big part of our lives and we are blessed to be able to share it.  The songs that we sang together still come to me at times, making me smile with joy at the memories,  and inspire me to keep singing.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Genre Effect

If you have been a part of a choral group for any length of time, you have probably seen a parade of choral pieces pass through your performance folder, as I have.  Some might be familiar, others new and interesting, but not all of them are going to be to our musical taste, in our vocal wheelhouse, or even what we like listening to. For example, I find it difficult to sing pieces that require an English boy choir sound; straight tone, clear, and light.  I find them beautiful, but it is an effort to keep the vibrato in check and to lighten up enough to blend with the lighter voices that carry these kind of pieces. I don't care for country music, either. I find the harmonies predictable, vowels horribly executed, and each song sounds pretty much like the previous one. 

Recently, the community chorus with which I have been singing prepared an American music themed concert.  Not entirely patriotic, but music that is readily associated with America and American culture.  One in particular was definitely not to my liking.  It was an old mountain song, arranged in the style of a country hoe-down.  It even had clapping, stomping, and "hee-haw's" written into the score. Theatrical, to say the least. With my theatre background, I should have played it up happily, but I probably didn't give it my best.  Funny thing is, after each performance, that was one of the pieces most mentioned by the audience members as something they really enjoyed hearing.

On the same concert, the chorus did another piece that none of the choristers liked upon the first read through.  It was unpredictable, didn't seem to have a melody, and the harmonies were strange.  Even the accompaniment didn't seem to have much in common with the choral parts.  It was a real struggle to learn, and the piece took a while to come to terms with.  But with the work came an understanding of it, a feel for it, and we began to enjoy it. The piece became one of our favorites of the season, and was probably the best piece of the concert series.

So, what to do when the director presents us with a selection that isn't to our liking or taste?  Gasp in horror?  Whisper to your choral neighbor how much you despise this particular genre/composer/style?  Sigh, and decide to 'soldier through it', plodding as you go?  Sadly, one of these is probably our first reaction.  However, I've been discovering that perhaps we should be looking for the gem we can appreciate in every piece we perform.  It may be something quite small; a turn of phrase, the one pleasing chord, the simplicity of unison, or notes sung clearly and true.  Whatever it is, embrace it gladly, and let that one thing carry your joy of singing throughout the piece.  It will amaze and surprise you. You may never find the piece to your liking overall, but rejoice in knowing you have given your very best, and the music is all the better for it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Instrument Within

I hate to admit it, but my mother was right.  When I was in middle school, she tried to give me piano lessons.  You would think that, being an elementary school teacher, the task would have been simple for her.  But I was stubborn and lazy, didn't want to practice, and was right in the middle of the 'everything your parents say is stupid' phase.  So, I never learned to play the piano, or any other instrument for that matter.  Once she realized that I wasn't taking to her lessons as expected, she told me I would regret it one day, and she was so right.  Sigh. Now I love instrumentalists and their talent and dedication, but I'm a bit envious, too.  That shiny brass of a trumpet or the gleaming wood of a viola attracts my senses, and the wonderful sounds they can produce melts my heart like nothing else.

As singers and choralists, we have an instrument.  Not a thing we pick up and blow, pluck, or strike.  It's carried within our bodies, undefined as a visual shape, the voice we produce through the physical beings we are. We study it, rehearse it, test it, stretch it, and provide for it's every need to the best of our ability.  We use the whole of our senses to control it, improve it, free it, and search for that balance that will share it's best features to the listening world.

Sadly, one of the hardest things we suffer is we personalize it.  Not that we shouldn't, mind you; the voice is the most intimate of instruments, literally a part of us.  But how do we separate ourselves as a person from the instrument we carry within?  How do we take direction, correction, critical instruction without assuming these things as affronts against ourselves as a person?

I am slowly learning several things, perhaps the hard way, about this very process.  I am sure that I will never fully be able to make the separation, but there are some things to remember and take to heart.  Remember, the director has goals and expectations for their choir.  Listen to what the director is asking for with a discerning ear.  A critique of your section is not a diatribe on you.  Know your role within the group, and you will understand how to respond pleasingly.  Know your limitations and keep within your strengths.  I don't mean don't stretch yourself and try new techniques as directed, but if you are a high boy soprano, and the director is asking for a deeper darker sound, there is only so much you can do without being uncomfortable or causing harm.  Back off in those spots; there are others that can do that work.  And they can't do what you can.  That is the beauty of putting all of these glorious vocal instruments together. It's building an orchestra without the hardware.  Every instrument has it's place, shines out at times, and supports at others.  Revel in it, learn from it, keep playing that instrument and sing!

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Diva Confession

You probably don't need a history lesson on where the term 'diva' comes from, but maybe a little explanation wouldn't hurt.  Diva was an Italian term used to describe a woman of outstanding talent in opera.  As it became commonly used in the English language, it was also applied to a highly talented woman in any music genre, theatre, or dance and is very closely related in definition to the term 'prima donna'.  It has become a term with rather negative connotations used to describe anyone who flaunts their self-importance in a demanding and unreasonable manner.  Talented? Yes.  But are they easy to live with?  No!

When I was just starting out in college, I got involved in the choral scene on campus.  At the time, the requirement was to sing in the University Chorus for a semester, then one was free to try out for any of the three audition choirs.  I did just that, and as soon as my semester in University Chorus was completed, I decided to audition for the mixed ensemble.  I did audition well, but they had this questionnaire to fill out, which I considered rather silly and pretentious.  So I scribbled some answers to the questions without much thought, believing I was being amusing, saying, in essence, I wanted to join the group because they needed me. The real meaning behind a tossed off comment like that was that I desperately wanted to be needed, especially by those choralists I admired. But its no surprise that my comments didn't go over well, as the audition committee took the questionnaire very seriously.  I didn't get into the group that year, (I did reaudition and got in the following year) but I learned a valuable lesson.  Music making is wonderful and fun, but it can be a serious business.  Acting 'diva' wasn't going to do me favors if I wanted to be taken seriously as a singer.

The experience I had all that time ago has enlightened my choral experiences since.  I have been thinking about the word 'diva' lately, so I looked it up.  Interestingly, I re-discovered that the Italian word 'diva' has a literal translation of 'diety.'  God-like.  Divine Being.  Hmmmm.  I believe that music is a gift from God, my ability to sing is a gift from God as well, and when I sing, I am filled with the Spirit of God, and I share the gift with everyone that hears.  I am embodied by the Divine without which I could not do what I am able to do.  Looked at in this light, I think I am ok with being a diva.  One who knows where she came from, what she wants to do today, and is open to the glorious experiences still to come. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Think Method

I am disappointed in myself.  It was my intention to write at least every week.  I see, however, that it has been over a month since I have posted any thought.  I have been thinking about what I had to say, but thinking and doing, of course, are two very different things.  It reminds me of 'The Music Man" in which the Professor teaches music using the 'Think Method".  If you haven't seen the film (really?) a scam artist convinces a town that he can teach their children how to play band instruments just by thinking about playing them.  We find this humorous and ridiculous; one cannot take a short cut to learning anything skillful and worthwhile.  Yet, truth be told, we find ourselves chasing short cuts, hoping to find the quickest way to accomplish a goal or fulfill a dream.

This is probably the reason I cannot watch the hugely popular TV show, "American Idol".  Sure, some of the contestants are skilled and have worked with determination to hone their craft, studied, and have kept their sights towards their goals.  I believe, however, that a greater majority think they have something marketable and expect they deserve to have it all handed to them.  It's an unfortunate representation of society today.  There are instances where talent truly "is discovered" and it is a wonderful happenstance when it occurs.  More often that not, though, we want the big prize for little or no effort.

As  choralists, we find ourselves surrounded by multiple levels of talent and skill, all with different goals in mind.  Some are there simply for the pleasure of music, and don't expect to have to work or study very much. Some may view their participation as a stepping stone to something else; individual successes or networking for more prestigious roles. Some are completely involved in the task at hand, and are concerned with what they can learn and contribute right where they are.  This is the group to which all others should aspire.  To accept the job of being a choralist means commitment and work.  To the director, this is the path to a better and more accomplished choir.  To the choralist, this is the path to a better and more accomplished individual.  What could one discover about oneself while taking the talent of music to new levels by rehearsing, studying, working, reaching, and committing to being the best possible?  It is within our grasp, but is it within us to reach for it?  Like in the children's story "The Little Engine that Could", I say, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...."