Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Choral Chameleon Institute: Day 5

Another roller coaster of emotions today! This institute really is like some crazy soul-driven discovery of self - which I guess is actually kind of the idea!

Met these guys last year at Lehigh! It's a #LePie reunion!
After the usual ear training session in the morning, it was on to another session of choral analysis with Steve. Now, to the average non-muso, this probably sounds terribly dull, but to music nerds this is terribly fascinating, and can be fun, believe it or not, and surprisingly useful! One of the big areas of focus in the session, in dissecting Bach Chorale's and other four-part choral works, was that sometimes the key notes in a melody are not necessarily the ones you might think. When reading a melody it can be easy to focus on the area where there's a big intervallic leap, or a passage that contains a lot of intricate accidentals; in actual fact, if you take the time to look for the key melodic interest, or make a note of how your part relates to another part's movement, the 'tricky stuff' suddenly becomes much more straight forward. This also got me thinking about the way songs are written, especially after a well-timed text message from a student back home wanting to know how to 'control' her high notes for a concert that night. I asked her the rhetorical questions - What is the purpose of the high note? Why is it there? When you're singing, you're story-telling, whether you're singing Opera/Musical Theatre, Pop, Rock, whatever - the high notes were not put in by the composer for no reason (or, at least, they shouldn't have been!) - They have a purpose, and it's up to you as the singer to figure out what their purpose is! For example, in the song 'Bring Him Home', there are two high G#s, and two high A's - all four of them are completely different, and are there for different reasons and to create different emotions within the piece, and how the singer chooses to sing them will greatly change the way the piece is received by the audience. If you want to do a little experiment yourself, look up Colm Wilkinson (10th Anniversary Les Miserables), Alfie Boe (25th Anniversary Les Miserables) and Hugh Jackman (Theatrical Film) all singing this same song, and listen to just how different the interpretations are! 

In a shift in the schedule, an extra masterclass was added in, given by Mario Dellolio, who just so happens to be course director Vince Peterson's old High School music teacher! Mario's focus for the masterclass was that of choral repertoire, specifically (as a composer or a conductor/choir director), "do my choices matter?" - which, the short answer is obviously, yes, but we were able to explore the why's and wherefores in much more depth. Many things need to be considered when you're writing for, or programming music for a choir: What is their skill level? What division/parts do you have? Who is the intended audience? What is the occasion this piece will be performed at? etc etc etc.... We also considered what the market place is like for choral music, and what areas are in dire need of new music or arrangements, as well as the joys and pitfalls of writing for specific ensembles - for example, writing for 'middle school' voice (between the ages of 10-13) can be really challenging. As a vocal coach I can attest that it's even challenging finding appropriate solo repertoire for that age group, so image trying to find something that appeals to a group of singers in that age bracket, who all have very different levels of taste and maturity! What seemed to be the big take away from this masterclass was the importance of making connections. Writing for yourself is one thing, but if you want music performed, you've got to get it out there, and it might be that you need to write something that's not as soulfully satisfying to you as the artist, but gets you a great connection with an ensemble who repeatedly want to perform/record/commission your work, and could be the stepping stone for getting your more challenging pieces performed. As Vince said (and keeps saying) - Art is Work.  

Following the masterclass was a real mishmash of individual moments, as everyone flitted between their one-to-one composing lessons, one-to-one 'heart-to-heart' sessions with Vince, and Tegan and I had an informal 'conductor's debriefing' with Matt at the coffee shop around the corner. There is something wonderful about doing these important sessions in an informal way, as it keeps everything grounded, I feel, and connected with the humanity involved in art. It's way to easy to get bogged down with the technical things and miss the beauty in it, and that's what I find a simple 'chat over coffee' is able to do. There's also nothing quite like practicing your 7/4 conducting technique in a trendy upmarket coffee shop in a room full of people on laptops! Matt was able to help me digest all the suggestions and the experience given to me the day before, and give me helpful insights into the things that went really well that I might have missed - for example, there's a moment in one of my pieces which requires the tenors, altos & sopranos to come off the word 'est' at different times. Matt said to me, "Did you notice that no one mentioned anything about that entire section of the piece?.... That's because it was spot on - there was nothing to mention!" - And this is another thing that we, as musicians are to eager to do: focus on the critique, the negative. We are so involved in what's wrong that we completely miss the things we did right, that actually bear no comment whatsoever!

I do love it when a plan comes together....
Following the coffee shop conducting, I had my one-to-one with Vince, but I'm going to skip ahead to my composing lesson for a bit. My lesson was really great, as Jeff was very pleased with my work, and even congratulated me on a superb first read through. The main debate of my piece going forward was whether I needed to write a 'middle section' using the remaining words of the Psalm I had chosen to set. When I presented the first draft to the choir, I had the beginning and the end sections, and just left a few empty bars in the middle to signify that there was a bit missing. The choir, when reading through it just read straight through, and in a happy accident I heard that these two sections actually connected up beautifully. My worry, however, was that this would make the piece quite short - Jeff assured me, this piece needed nothing more than what was on the page, and just the odd corner of tidying up. It's important when you're writing music to know when to stop, and sometimes you think you need to add things to a piece because it's 'lacking complexity' or 'not long enough' - to quote another one of Vince's mantra's "There's beauty in simplicity" - sometimes, less is indeed more.

Regarding my heart-to-heart with Vince now, I'm going to be completely honest: this was incredibly emotional for me. After a brief discussion about my anxiety issue with conducting, and explaining what I thought was the issue (and thinking we were moving on from the conversation), Vince asked me if perhaps there was something deeper that was upsetting me, that perhaps I wasn't divulging because I was being 'too british' about it - of course, he was right, which promptly caused me to burst into tears - this isn't the first time I've had an emotional breakdown at one of these courses/institutes; last year at Lehigh as fellow composer's (Mike Fairbairn) work brought me to tears because it was just so moving, and brought up emotions that had be buried and not dealt with. This time though, it was something much more deep-seeded in my own being, and Vince was able to deduce that the feeling of being overwhelmed that I have is not down to my inadequacies (or perception of), but simply that my love of choral music (and voice in general) is so big that this opportunity itself is just overwhelming me with emotion. And he's right! This is a huge deal to be able to stand in front of these professional singers and lead them, and the sound they can make is incredible - why wouldn't you be overwhelmed by that?! There have been moments when I've been conducting my own choir, The Guernsey Glee Singers, when they've just got everything right and the sound they make at that moment makes me want to cry. The basic gist of this session was that, it's ok to feel that way, and that I'm not alone in that feeling (Vince himself said his first few years of conducting had him feeling much the same as I do now), and that this really is a safe space to explore these emotions. I've also got to hand it to Vince - the man knows just what to say to you when you need it most. He's said to me at least six times this week, "I'm so happy that you're here..." - and you know what?.... I'm happy that I'm here too!

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