Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Equal Skills, Unequal Compensation

When I’m not singing, I support my chorister habit by offering research, writing, and related consulting services to a variety of clients. Services to business clients are offered through Peregrine Information Consultants; services to performing arts clients are offered through GraceNotes. Though the clientele are vastly different, their needs for research, information, and written products are similar, and I provide services to each group in much the same way.

Most of my research projects require deep secondary research, analysis, and synthesis, as well as the assimilation of a great deal of technical and arcane knowledge. The research findings are communicated in detailed, clearly-written, original technical papers, program essays, or other products that help people learn about the topic at hand. These are specialized skills that I’ve developed over a quarter century of professional practice.

On any given topic, I might spend 20 or more hours conducting research, using specialized resources not available to the lay searcher or “googler.” Though I now work as an independent consultant, my training as a professional librarian and years of experience as a reference librarian and cataloger/indexer are still central to my work.

For a typical technical paper or program essay, project, I identify, select, obtain, and read dozens of articles, book chapters, web sites, and specialized resources. As I work, I conceptualize the framework for the written product, whether it is a technical paper, a risk management guide, or program notes for an orchestra or choral concert. As I read and absorb, I continue to learn, to question what I’ve uncovered, to verify obscure or ambiguous data, and to form my conclusions and recommendations.

Drafting, writing, editing, polishing, and proofreading! If you’re a writer, you know that creating the written product can sometime take longer than the actual research. In the writing process, I consider the words, the structure of each sentence and paragraph, and the flow of information between paragraphs as well as from top to bottom of the document. My research and insights are of no value until I can articulate them cogently and persuasively for my readers.

Whether I am preparing a technical guide on a difficult risk management topic, or a musical and textual analysis of a major choral work, I follow the same general process. I invest the same skills and attention in finding the correct information, verifying facts, and writing clearly and appealingly. Whether I am writing for a major insurance company or a major symphony orchestra, my assignment is to help my readers understand challenging, unfamiliar, or abstract topics.

There’s one major difference, though, between preparing a technical paper for a business client and preparing program annotations for a performing ensemble: Compensation.

As an example: To research and prepare a three-page original technical paper for a business client, I can (and do) command a substantial four-figure fee. To research and prepare a three-page original program annotation for a full-length classical concert — an effort which requires roughly the same amount of time and the same degree of skill — I might be offered $100, $250 or at most, $500. This absurdly low fee is not the fault of the orchestra or chorus; I can’t tell you how many times a program annotation client has apologized that they can’t offer more. Rather, the low fees are simply reflections of their own absurdly low operating budgets, which in turn reflect the absurdly low funding that is available to our arts organizations.

This inequity can be extrapolated across the arts community. Compensation for professional musicians, artists, actors, writers, and those who support them, is insultingly and pathetically low. Why can a pop tart celebrity “singer” or rap “star” command millions, while truly talented local and regional musicians must take second or third jobs to support themselves and their families? The answer is, of course, that as a society, we prefer the 3-minute song by the “pop tart” to a performance by a professional classical ensemble, or an evening in a club with great local jazz combo.

This societal bias is both a product of, and a response to, the paucity of quality arts coverage in the press, from local newspapers to global media outlets. In our own community, The Hartford Courant devotes pages and pages to video games, the daily dalliances of the people we call “celebrities,” and pet photos, of all things, yet it fails to provide decent pre-concert coverage and reviews of the vibrant arts scene taking place right here in Greater Hartford. It’s a shame that our leading newspaper does not take advantage of its leadership position to help people in our community to discover and delight in the world-class talents all around us.

Why do we place so little value on true, enduring talent and creativity? When we look back fifty or a hundred years from now, will we be sorry for the choices we’ve made?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Book in Hand – Freddy and Fredericka

A few days ago, a colleague asked me what I’m reading these days. Rather than discuss all the books that are engaging me right now — two novels, an exploration of global trade in the 17th century, essays on literary and art personalities in post-Civil War America, book-length analyses of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Verdi’s Requiem, and a second reading of Maynard Solomon’s outstanding biography of Beethoven — I’ll focus on the book that our monthly book group will discuss in October, at my urging.

Freddy and Fredericka is a 2005 satirical novel by the brilliant and erudite Mark Helprin (b. 1947), one of my most favorite authors. Freddy and Fredericka are the Prince and Princess of Wales (a very thinly disguised caricature of Charles and Diana). Freddy and Fredericka, who understandably lead isolated, self-centered lives, are always getting in trouble with the press. Freddy is held in general contempt by the British public, while Fredericka’s stunning beauty and magnificent bosom (or bosoms — but I’m getting ahead of myself) distract her fans from her general apathy about her role as the Prince's consort and as the presumptive mother of kings. The general feeling is that Freddy is simply not suited to assume the crown on the death of his mother, the Queen of England (presented by Helprin as a sympathetic portrait of Elizabeth II).
When the Queen finally takes matters in hand, she (with the help of a mysterious personage who might or might not have been alive since the days of King Arthur) sends Freddy and Fredericka on an impossible quest: to re-take the American colonies for the British crown. They are dropped by parachute, penniless and nearly naked, into the industrial wastelands of Northern New Jersey. From there, they must find the means to re-capture America, and figure out exactly what it would mean to do so. In their travels across America, we see through their eyes all that is beautiful and strong and enduring about this country. We also see, through their experiences, the prejudice, despair, economic inequity, and day-to-day struggles that color the lives of so many Americans. The story takes place during the quadrennial presidential election cycle, and naturally Freddy and Fredericka get caught up in the nominating convention of one of the two major political parties, and... well, you must read it, especially now when we are preparing our hearts and minds to elect a new president.

This book is serious and silly, hilarious, outrageous, and deeply touching, and eventually develops into a most miraculous and unexpected love story. You will laugh out loud and perhaps cry, and you will think a great deal about America and the conditions in which we seem to find ourselves.

Mark Helprin’s deep understanding of history, politics, and human nature have once again combined in a memorable story which, ultimately, becomes his love song to America.
Other books by Mark Helprin that I cannot live without:

A Soldier of the Great War [my first experience with Helprin…amazing]
Memoir from Antproof Case
A Dove of the East and Other Stories
The Pacific and Other Stories
Winter’s Tale
Ellis Island and Other Stories

[POST SCRIPTUM: The book group hated it. Didn't get it. Didn't find it remotely funny. Didn't understand the satire. That night was the beginning of the end. I felt entirely disconnected from, and separated from, everyone in that room except D, who did understand the book and my pleasure in it. That night, I lost something...several years later, I can't quite define it. Lost some sort of faith in other people. Hmmm.]

[POST POST SCRIPTUM: I still love the book and count it among my all-time favorites.]

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Finding the Right Voice – One Size Does Not Fit All

One of the fun challenges of singing in several choral ensembles is finding the right voice — or voices — for the varied repertoire I sing. I’ve been thinking about this issue quite a bit as I prepare for the upcoming season. I’ve long been frustrated with choral singers who produce the same sort of sound all the time, regardless of repertoire, ensemble size, and other considerations; they sing the same way for a motet by William Byrd as they do in a chorus from a Verdi opera.

Here’s a sampling of the marvelous variety of music I’ll be singing in the 2008-2009 season.

— Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Symphony No. 9 (1824)

— William Byrd (1540-1623) O quam gloriosum (published 1589)

— Henryk Mikolaj Górecki (b.1933) Totus tuus (1987)

— Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) – Early and rarely performed choral works

— Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Requiem (1873)

— At least one program of Renaissance motets (published ca. 1450 to about 1620).

I hope there will be some Bach! in there, as well.

Over the course of the season, then, I’ll be singing music from six centuries, composed for ensembles with varying sizes, genders, purposes, and audiences. What does this require of me as a singer? What must I know about each piece of music? Questions to consider:

HISTORY AND CONTEXT. What is the history and context of each composition? When was it written? What was the vocal style or technique in use at the time? What sort of sound did the composer hope for? What do I need to do vocally to produce the right sort of sound for this music? Is this music in the original language or a translation?
Preparation: Research, reading, listening, study, conversation.

SCORING. How is the music scored? Is it unaccompanied or will instruments be playing, too? Is there divisi within each voice part, which will render fewer voices on the divided parts? To which parts am I assigned? Are there solos in which I’m interested?
Preparation: Score study, editing scores per director’s instructions.
Practice: Initial practice sessions to learn the music and consider how to approach it vocally.

VOCAL CONSIDERATIONS. What is the range and tessitura for my part? Where does my assigned part “lie” in my voice? What instructions does the composer offer that might affect my vocal production (e.g., senza vibrato, mezza di voce)? Will particular endurance or athleticism be required, such as for the Beethoven Symphony No. 9? Perhaps I am one of a group of sopranos is assigned to a part normally sung by children. What do I need to do to produce the proper sound?
Practice: Continued practice sessions to work the music “into the voice” and to work through any vocal challenges.
Rehearsal: Find the “right voice” for each selection. The “right voice” is comfortable, pleasant to sing, and pleasant to listen to. If the singing is uncomfortable, or if you are straining to sing high or low notes, check with your voice teacher or vocal section leader for advice. If the part is too high or too low, consult the director to see if it’s possible for you to sing a different part. If the 75 or so high A s in the soprano part of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 are simply impossible for you to sing comfortably, then you need to change your vocal technique or perhaps sing alto for that performance. (The alto part is plenty high!) Singing should never hurt.

ENSEMBLE SIZE AND DISTRIBUTION. How many singers are in the ensemble? How are they distributed (that is, is there even coverage on all parts)? How does the number of singers on my part affect how I sing? What sort of choral sound does the ensemble typically produce? Is it light and clear, or rich and full? What are most of the voices like? What do I need to do to blend in with the ensemble’s sound?
Preparation: Take note of assignments across the entire group, especially for divisi or soli groups. Know where you fit in. Anticipate how you might need to sing differently if you are part of a smaller division.
Rehearsal: Listen carefully, making every effort to blend and balance. For example, if you are a soprano and there are four times as many sopranos as tenors, keep that in mind and sing with some restraint. If you are the only one singing with (or without) vibrato, modify your sound to be more like the others, if you can do so in a comfortable way.

DIRECTOR’S STYLE. How does the director tend to conduct this sort of music? How might his or her interpretation might affect my vocal production? For example, does the director specify when vibrato may or may not be used? Will the director expect “full throttle” in every rehearsal, or will he or she allow quiet “marking” of sustained high passages, such as in the Beethoven?
Rehearsal: Receive instruction and feedback with an open ear and an open mind, making adjustments as needed. Take careful notes to aid your at-home practice. Set your ego aside (more on that here). One soprano I know, having been asked by the director to sing senza vibrato, replied, “I worked years to learn how to sing with vibrato and I’m not going to take it out now!”
Practice: Continued practice sessions to work the music “into the voice” and to make any adjustments indicated by the director.

PROGRAM CONSIDERATIONS. What else is on the program for the performance? Is there a great deal of music that is very high, very low, or very loud? Where does this particular piece fall in the program order? If it’s first to be sung, and if it requires some special techniques or strength, do I need to do anything special to be sure I’m warmed up properly? What do I need to consider in order to sing comfortably and to produce my best sound for the entire concert?
Preparation: Score study and listening.
Rehearsal: Take it easy in the first few rehearsals as you become familiar with the vocal and stylistic demands of each piece.

PERFORMANCE VENUE. How large is the performance space? How will the chorus be placed vis-a-vis the orchestra and the audience? What is the acoustic like? How will these factors affect my singing?
Rehearsal: Listen, listen, listen, adjust, listen.

A few nights ago, I began rehearsals for anupcoming performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.The chorale finale (“Ode to Joy”) is perhaps the most taxing choral music I’ve ever sung. The soprano part has about 75 high A s (yes, someone has counted them), and many of these are sustained forte or fortissimo over many measures. Read here my insights on how I applied the questions listed above to my preparation for the rehearsals and performances of this most marvelous music.

To read all my essays on my experiences as a chorister, including more on technique, click here: http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/Chorister

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Still Small Hope for Our Ultimate Survival

I believe in the power of human creativity.

A few weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the entire world seemed numb with shock and horror, the man who cares for my piano came to my house for a previously-scheduled tuning. I recall my feelings of selfishness as I spent money on the luxury of a piano tuning, when so many families were suffering with unspeakable horror and loss.

I asked Herb, the piano tuner, if his work had declined since the terrorist attack. I wondered if the weight of grief — and for some, the need to consider essential survival strategies — had taken priority over music-making in his clients’ lives. His answer, which brought tears to my eyes, was this: In the two weeks after September 11th, he had received more calls for piano tuning and restoration services than he had received in the previous six months. His customers told him that they wanted to restore old family instruments, or tune newer instruments, so that they could make music together at home with family members.

For these families, making music together was a balm for the wound of September 11th. Music was a means for finding stability and closeness in a time of uncertainty and separation. Music of years past transcended the terror of today.

I believe in the power of human creativity to balance the horrors brought about by human weaknesses.
I remember, too, that in the days following the attacks, I listened almost exclusively to news coverage on National Public Radio. I appreciated the quality of the reporting, of course, but what spoke to me most eloquently was the music NPR played between news segments. In place of the short, snappy interludes, we were comforted by long stretches of the most beautiful, most tender, most human music, along with meaningful, thoughtfully-presented poetry and literary excerpts. Here was affirmation that human-ness transcends inhumanity. Here was evidence that goodness exists, even in the presence of evil. Here was proof that though a single day might bring more hurt than we can possibly bear, yet human goodness, in the form of music, can endure for centuries.

I believe in the power of human creativity to connect us, to uplift us, and to elevate us, both as individuals and as a people.
In the years since 2001, my own life has been enriched and uplifted in music. A career change in 2003 enabled me to devote more time and thought to music-making, particularly choral singing. I’ve had opportunities to sing some of the world’s most glorious music, explore some of humankind’s most profound texts and ideas, sing under the leadership and by the sides of a few incredibly gifted musicians, and find my own place in the long history of musical creativity. For this I am profoundly grateful.

I believe in the power of human creativity to transcend time and place.
The great American musicologist H. C. Robbins Landon (b. 1926) once said that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was “as good an excuse for mankind’s survival as we shall ever encounter, and perhaps, after all, a still small hope for our ultimate survival.” * Certainly we can extrapolate Landon’s assessment, applying it to the entire realm of human creative endeavor. Thus, human creativity may be considered "as good an excuse for mankind's survival as we shall ever encounter, and ... a still small hope for our ultimate survival."

Our creativity makes us human, in the best sort of way.

I believe in the power of human creativity.

* Landon, H. C. Robbins. 1791: Mozart’s Last Year (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999).

Monday, September 8, 2008

Preparing and Working With Your Choral Scores

Fall choral rehearsals have begun!! Oh, I love this time of year. (Whose idea was it to suspend most music-making during the summer months??)

Over the next several days, I’ll accumulate a lovely collection of choral scores which will be my constant companions over the next several months. I’ll have some of the scores for only a few weeks (anthems to be sung in church early in the season), but others will be with me throughout the fall as I prepare for concerts taking place later in the season. In all cases, the scores require some attention prior to rehearsals. I’ve found that I can get more out of rehearsal time if I’ve taken the time at home to prepare my scores and folders.

Be organized. If you sing in more than one ensemble, keep the music for each group in its own folder. Find a means of distinguishing each folder from the others, so you don’t end up at the Chorale rehearsal with your church choir folder. Organize the contents each folder so that you can find music quickly during rehearsal. This will depend on the rehearsal style of the conductor. For one of my ensembles, I keep the music in concert order, since the director tends to rehearse in order. For my church choir, the director refers to scores by their library numbers, so the music in that folder is arranged in numerical order. Sometimes the Director will specify how the folders are to be organized. If the folder contains more than a half-dozen scores, consider adding "sticky note" tabs to help you find individual items quickly.

Be prepared. Bring all your music to every rehearsal. Get to rehearsal early enough to pick up new scores (or other handouts) and get them into your folder in the proper places. Take a few minutes to glance through new music to find out where your part lies and to be alert to any divisi. Mark your name or initials (in pencil) on the front cover; it’s always nice to get your own scores back again if the music is performed again in the future. (This is especially useful in choirs where the scores are not numbered or otherwise assigned to individual singers.)

Be thorough. Some directors prepare “master scores” from which the singers are to copy into their own scores the director's instructions for breathing, interpretive dynamics, divisi assignments, etc. Be sure to get all these advance markings and annotations into your score before the first rehearsal. While marking your own part is of primary importance, consider taking time to edit all the other voice parts, too. There are at least three good reasons for doing so: First, your voice section may be asked to sing along with another voice part. If your score is fully marked, you’ll be ready! Second, you will benefit by learning more about the score and how the voices work together. Finally, singers who may use your score in the future will thank you. (I like to use “sticky notes” to record instructions that pertain only to a specific performance, such as sit-stand cues or notes about performance-specific cuts.)

Be responsive. Use your pencil. (Use only a pencil.) Mark all instructions, interpretations, dynamics, corrections, pronunciations, etc., from the Director that apply to your part. It is impossible to remember all the instructions; you must mark your score. Your attentiveness and care in taking down instructions will save the Director from having to repeat instructions at subsequent rehearsals. Consider marking in your score the instructions for other voice parts, too, so that you can understand the Director’s interpretation of the entire score and better understand how your part fits in.

Be responsible. Keep your music clean, protected, and in good condition. If your music has been lent to you, be sure to turn it in after the concert(s). The librarian, who most often volunteers his or her time, will be grateful! Most choral groups are on tight budgets, and music is more expensive than you might think. In some cases, older music may be out of print and cannot be replaced. Remember, too, that the music lent to you may have been borrowed or rented from another organization, and your ensemble is responsible for returning it on time and in good condition.

You might also be interested in my thoughts on “Getting the Most Out of a Choral Rehearsal,” posted here. That essay was also reprinted in April (with permission) in the newsletter of the Rawstorne Singers (based in Longton, near Preston in Lancashire, U.K.).

Happy singing!

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here: http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/Chorister