Music Monday #3: The Ahhh Factor

I’ve been feeling pretty anxious the last few days, due to factors in life that can’t be controlled or changed. Usually, if anxiety shows up, I clam up, which means I don’t do anything with music other than listen to it. That might sound perfectly lovely, but I generally sing along. If I find myself riding silently while U2 is playing in the car, I know I have a problem. So I have to force myself to sing along, instead.

I can’t be sure why this helps, but I have my theories, one of which is that singing (properly) requires controlled breathing and controlled posture. Sorta like yoga. And controlled breathing can really help with those times when your nerves are shot. It doesn’t really matter what you sing; all that matters is that you sing. At least, that’s all that matters to me, because I always wind up feeling better. Even if all I’m singing is U2.

So with that in mind, I was trying to think of something I’ve sung that I’ve found the most relaxing. And what I realized is that, although some things go much farther toward relaxing me if I’m just listening… it doesn’t matter what I sing; the effect is the same. More fodder for my controlled breathing theory. The other theory, for me at least, is simply that singing puts me in a better place, and a place in which I have to concentrate if I want to do the job. I can’t – and don’t – think about anything else once the music starts. My focus has to be completely on the notes, the language, the conductor (if applicable) and the demands of the piece. The fact that the complexities of music simply shove everything else out of the way makes singing work better for me than any other form of stress relief.

All this is very helpful… for me. But if you need something to which you can just listen and be relaxed, I think I have the piece for you. And it’s not even obscure. It’s the Flower Duet from Lakme’. You may think you’ve never heard of it, but I bet you’ve heard at least four measures.

Lakme’ is an opera composed by Leo Delibes. It’s set in India, under British rule in the mid 19th century… but it’s sung in French. (That happens a lot in opera. Stories set in China but sung in Italian, etc.) Lakme’ is the daughter of a Brahmin priest. She, of course, falls in love with a British imperialist soldier. But Lakme’s father is enraged that the soldier has been on his property and vows to avenge his daughter’s honor, yadda yadda yadda. The Flower Duet’s actual title is “Sous le dome epais,” (there should be some accents in there that I can’t make happen… an ^ over the O in “dome” and a ‘ over the E in “epais.”) It’s sung very early in the opera… first thing, in fact. It’s called the Flower Duet because Lakme’ and her servant, Mallika, are singing it together while they gather flowers from a riverbed.

It’s been used in a lot of commercials, which drives me crazy, because a few of them have taken some liberties that I find offensive. Anyway, British Airways and Godiva Chocolates have both used it in major ad campaigns in recent years, and it can be heard playing in the background of a scene in Aaron Sorkin’s “The American President” when President Shepard goes to Sydney’s house for dinner. (I can’t find a clip online. Grrr.)

What entrances me about this piece, and particularly this recording from Dame Joan Sutherland and Jane Berbie’, is how absolutely flawless it is, and how effortless it sounds. If you don’t sing this kind of music (arguably a coloratura, which Sutherland was famous for), you have no idea how hard it is to make a duet this closely composed sound like it’s a walk in the park. The lilts, the ebbs and flows, the turns of musical phrase in perfect symmetry in volume, accent and tenuto (which means a sort of drawing out of a note) are astonishing. Opera singers are often divas and don’t really worry about whether another singer can keep up, but Sutherland and Berbie’ clearly listen to each other so well and so closely, and the music is written so impeccably, that the recording can do nothing but make you feel good. So, sit back, relax, close your eyes and click here. (And then possibly click the play button, I dunno).

Happy Music Monday.

The Royal Whoa… Music Monday #2

Alright, fine, I give. It’s Music Monday, so I can’t post about Osama bin Laden. And I’ve been trying not to, but I have to mention the royal wedding. I was so trying not to, but then I realized that it fit in perfectly with the second entry for Music Monday. I don’t know about you all, but if you’re anything like me, you didn’t particularly want to watch the wedding, but it sort of found you and made you do it. I wound up seeing 90 minutes of it – the ceremony itself, actually, sans commentary, replayed on MSNBC on Friday night. (Huzzah… no banality! I don’t need you to point out the various members of the Ministry of Silly Hats; I can see them just fine myself.) Once we got past the fact that the new Duchess of Cambridge was truly lovely in her gown and veil, the ceremony became all about the music, for me. Weddings are weddings. It’s the music that gets you.

The first thing that struck me was that everyone was singing. As a cantor at my church, I know it’s not easy to get everyone to do that… although there’s long been a tacet understanding that Protestants are better about this than Catholics. (Perhaps I could get them to sing if I were a royal. “I am wearing a sword. You shall sing.”) Anyway, I love the sound of voices raised together, because it transcends individual talent or ability, and magically, it sounds beautiful, whether they’re singing a hymn or a Garth Brooks tune.

When the congregation – all 1,900 voices – joined in “Jerusalem,” I couldn’t help but grin. I sang “Jerusalem” when I was 13 years old, and I found it a fascinating and purposeful piece. The lyrics are a poem written by William Blake, about the theory that perhaps Jesus was in England for part of those missing years of His life between the ages of 12 (presentation in the temple) and 30 (the beginning of his public/biblically accounted ministry). Did He go to England? I would imagine it would have been tough to get there from Mesopotamia back then, but the hymn is a gorgeous, anthemic what-if.

Beyond that, though, I was glued to the stunning strains of the chorus. What a beautiful sound those men and boys made.  No matter what they were bringing to life, it was flawless. But there was one piece in particular that stood out, to me. It was the psalm, “This is the day that the Lord has made.” I thought the composition sounded very familiar, not because I’d heard the piece before, but because I suspected I knew the composer. This was when I started wishing there were a banner on the screen telling viewers what piece was being sung and by whom it had been composed. So I went to the Google machine the next day and looked it up.

Hot dog, I win! I correctly guessed that the composer was John Rutter. Do I get a commemorative Will & Kate Plate?

Rutter is a contemporary British composer, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and renowned for his choral writing. I have known his work since I was 13. In fact, one of the first pieces I sang with the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, back in 1990, was something he wrote. In my early teens, I sang several of his pieces, and as I have gotten older, I’ve been lucky to sing even more of them. Sometimes they’re a little schmaltzy, but they’re always soaring. My choir friends and I joke that one is not allowed to breathe while performing his stuff… ever. His phrases are lovely, long and legato. If you could see his scores, you would see extended, sweeping lines drawn over the staffs and under the notes to indicate that you-are-absolutely-not-allowed-to-breathe-here-or-here-or-here-or-here-no-I’m-not-kidding-it-sounds-better-this-way-trust-me.

He’s right.

 So, in honor of the marriage of HRH Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, I present to you one of my favorite John Rutter pieces: “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” The blessing is old. The idea is simple. The piece is breathtaking and timeless. And it’s one of the first choral pieces I ever sang. This performance is by the Westminster Abbey Choir – the same folks who sang at the wedding. I don’t know for what occasion they sang it. My personal belief is that they cheat because they breathe too much… but still, it’s lovely.

I always encourage you to find higher-quality recordings on the music downloading service of your choice, be it iTunes or whatever. And always… close your eyes, give up distraction and simply listen.

Enjoy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZN1mryHEnQ&feature=related

And Now For Something Completely Different…

There’s more to me than snark, you know.

No, really, there is.

And so I’ve been thinking. I’ve been thinking about mercilessly exposing you to what is probably my greatest passion in life, without even asking you if you want me to.

I’m talking to, like, five people, so it’s not like I’m jeopardizing a massive following, here. But I kind of like you guys, so hopefully you won’t desert me. I’ll get back to funny snark on Tuesdays, I promise.

What I’m thinking about doing is a Music Monday series. I’ve worked this out scientifically, based on the following transitive property of singlecell’s version of math: Mondays suck.  Music makes us happy. So, if I do a Music Monday series, then theoretically, I could make readers/listeners happier on a day that is famed for suckitude.

I like it.

Here’s the catch: my passion is classical, choral and opera music.

Ohhhhh, you say. If you could look worriedly at one another, you would.

So why am I doing this to you?

You could blame it on my middle school music teacher, Amy Sullivan. She recognized that I had a fair voice, and recommended me for the Indianapolis Children’s Choir’s Choral Festival, held every summer since the ICC’s founding in 1986. The festival is like camp, but without the sleepovers and mean pranks. I went, and spent a week immersed in music. At the end of the week, the camp kids got to sing a concert with the choir kids. And after that, the choir held auditions for the camp kids interested in becoming members.

You know I totally signed up. And I made it.

For the next three years, I sang under the incomparable direction of Henry Leck, the founder of ICC. He taught us sight-reading, technique, mechanics, theory and solfege (that Do Re Me stuff that Julie Andrews whipped out in The Sound of Music… only actually educational). He also taught us discipline, focus, self-confidence and listening. And languages. In three years, I sang in 15 languages. Kids are sponges. They absorb this kind of stuff so easily it’s ridiculous. And I was a total sponge for this. I fell in love.

At 13, I was part of a 65-singer ensemble who traveled to New York City for an international children’s choral festival. We sang in Carnegie Hall, performing several pieces ourselves, and then performing several others with about 750 other kids.

Let me say that again: when I was 13, I got to sing in Carnegie Hall.

Hi. That’s insane.

Two years later, I had the incredible fortune of going on tour to Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. We sang in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Auckland. (Hawaii was just a two-day respite before we got home.) We stayed in homestays with the families of the kids we performed with in Canberra, Melbourne and Auckland. I’m still friends with my Melbourne family.  In Sydney, we sang in the Opera House, just to see what it sounded like. (There are several concert halls and performances spaces in the Opera House, each one represented by one of the “sails” of the architecture. Each hall is acoustically built for a specific type of music performance. You can learn more about it here.)

That choir was the single most formative experience of my life. When I was too old to sing with them anymore (women’s voices change, too, and at the time, the choir limited singers to age 8 – 15; it’s been expanded greatly since, as other subdivisions have been added over the years) I kept singing with my school choir. In college, my classes, internships and jobs interfered with choir, so I took voice lessons instead. After I graduated, I was working all kinds of screwy hours and couldn’t sing anywhere; I stopped  four years. Then one day I was sitting in church, thinking about how much I missed my music. Duh. I joined my parish’s choir and started cantoring at mass (leading the congregation, without the choir).

Life carried me to other states after ICC. In 2005, I heard my local choral arts society perform. I’m referring to them as the “local” choral arts society because I’m mysterious and don’t tell the blogosphere where I live, exactly, but don’t take it to mean this is a podunk group. We’re talking the best talent in the (culturally significant) city, under the direction of a stellar musical mind, and in a strong and mutually beneficial partnership with the “local” (astounding, amazing) symphony orchestra, which is captained by a world-renowned conductor.

I had to audition. Somehow, I got into the group, and found myself surrounded by brilliant singers with far more knowledge and training than I– several of whom had taken classes from Henry Leck. I was challenged, I was learning… I was loving it. In 2007, I went with the choir to France to perform Mozart’s Requiem in Paris, Oiron and Montelimar. I can’t go into the absolute awe of this trip here, but I’m sure I’ll tell you about it another time. When I took my current job, I had to give up the choir; it was the single most difficult part of taking the job, and my heart still aches for having left.

Music is a universal truth. Not everyone is touched or moved by paintings or sketches, architecture or sculpture, dance or literature. But somewhere along the line, some kind of music will move everyone to tears, or to chest-swelling, breathtaking awe. It has done this to me so many times, because I have been so blessed as to be part of the groups with which I’ve sung, and I’ve been exposed to such wonderful, miraculous music in the process. That’s what I want to share with you, to give you the chance to cry with an indistinguishable, but immutable, emotion at the turn of a phrase… or to feel your breath catch in your throat as a note soars… or to wonder at the brilliance of a composer who knew just exactly how to make a feeling sound.

Don’t worry. It won’t hurt a bit.

First installment comes now. This is a piece we sang in New York in that festival. Imagine 800 trained children’s voices filling Carnegie Hall with this sound. “I’m Goin’ Up A-Yonder” is a spiritual, arranged, in this recording, by Walter Hawkins. I’m pretty picky about finding these recordings, so what I find will always be the best representation of my best judgment, though I can’t swear the recording quality will always be top-notch. This is a performance by the Lenoir-Rhyne Youth Chorus in Hickory, NC. I would suggest, with no offense to these beautiful kids, that you close your eyes and listen, rather than watch. I hope it moves you, as it has moved me every time I’ve heard or thought of it for the last 21 years.

Happy Music Monday.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aK5EQnEFwA8

Half-Assed Holy Days

I’m not Pat Robertson’s daughter or anything, but Easter has always been a joyous day for me. It’s not that I go overboard celebrating; I keep a pretty low candy profile (though I have been known to have brownies for breakfast on this festive day of our eternal salvation, because eternal salvation food has no calories). But I’m always in a good mood on Easter Sunday morning, despite invariably being up late the night before and up early on the holiday to sing. I’m a cantor at my church, and I often get the 9am mass on Easter. Aside from the challenge of getting the vocal chords to flap properly at that hour, I’m happy to do it. But from the second I get up there in front of the rest of the church, I can tell: Easter is not joyous for everyone.

It’s the dead faces that give it away.

Yo. Jesus died… and then rose from the dead. You think you could at least look alive?

Leading people in song (allegedly), I figure, is a lot like teaching. You look out and see some animated faces and a lot of completely dispassionate ones. And you spend the next hour trying to drag people along. Anyone who sings, dances, acts or speaks to groups knows this feeling. You draw from the energy the audience or congregation gives you. When you get nothing, you feel like you’re falling flat.

I was gettin’ nothin’. No joy. I was Bettye LaVette, lookin’ for my joy. Except white and not nearly as distinct-sounding.

It’s interesting, because the parishioners all certainly seemed chatty before the mass started, while our newest priest was futzing around in the sacristy and running really quite late.

(You know you totally love that I just used a Yiddish word in the middle of an Easter blog.)

Now, this whole phenomenon is not new to me. We have a very musically-oriented parish, but there is always that lot what refuses to sing, and the cantors can sense it as soon as the entrance hymn starts: “Oh, it’s gonna be that kind of mass, is it? Okay, dig deep.” I could get on my soapbox here about how everybody in the pews will probably sing in their cars to Bruce Springsteen or Olivia Newton-John or Justin Bieber, but they just won’t do it in church…

Yup!


       Yup!


 Yup! (Own it)


                            Nope.

…and about how if you listen to live recordings of pop star concerts and hear everyone sing, they sound pretty darned good, so I don’t want to hear the “my voice is terrible” excuse. But I won’t get on my soapbox.

(Sorry I lied on Easter about getting on my soapbox, Jesus. Just tryin’ to do You a solid, here.)

(Did you know Jesus reads my blog? See? You’re in good company.)

My point is, I’m not up here singing for the sake of performance art. This is not a concert. You’re supposed to sing with me. You won’t sing at all without me. I know because if I cough, you have no idea what to do. You know the words, and you know the tunes, because we’re Catholic and this is Easter and it’s not, like, you know, new. So what’s your excuse?

I guarantee you, if I asked that question and waded through the “my voice is terrible” and “I don’t like to sing” excuses, what I’d really find is… “I’m half-assing the holy day.”

Let’s face it: you’re at the 9am mass because you want to get this thing over with so you can go get the kids to the Easter Egg Hunt and then go have brunch at your parents’ house before you get home to change back into your sweats to watch golf/hockey/baseball. It’s called a Holy Day of Obligation for a reason, right?

Don’t lie. It’s Easter.

Look. I’m never going to tell you you’re a bad person for coming to church and not really participating. You’re here, and I don’t know how the Jesus Jackpot really works, so who am I to say? We’re all just hoping for the best, here. But I am the head singer in charge, and I would really appreciate it if you would help me out. Every Catholic knows: the things that distinguish one parish from the other are A) the caliber of the priests’ homilies, and 2) the music. You will totally complain if you don’t like either one. We’re here to enrich your worship experience. So if we’re making the music good for you, please consider returning the favor. It really does matter to us. It’s not that we take it personally; it’s that hearing voices joined together makes us happy. If you sing, you make my day more joyful.

Happy Easter!