I Helped Cure Polio

I like to joke that I helped cure polio. And in a very small way, I did.

Last March, I stumbled across this headline:

Indonesia Polio headline

and I thought, “wow, already?”

We all work for causes, and donate to organizations whose work we believe in. Sometimes it seems like progress is frustratingly slow and difficult to come by. It can feel like the issues are so large and intractable that we’re only making a dent in the need and suffering that exists in this world.

But sometimes, less than five years after you sing to raise money for polio vaccination in Indonesia, Indonesia is declared polio-free by the WHO.

Swara Sonora in Bali

Swara Sonora in Ubud, Bali

Six years ago, the Swara Sonora Trio spent almost a month in Indonesia performing and teaching. All our fundraising from donors in the US and Indonesia, and the proceeds from our Jakarta debut concert, went to UNICEF’s Indonesia Country Office to support their programs for the children of Indonesia. One of their largest activities at that time was vaccinating children for diseases including polio.

But our musical efforts were specifically directed to polio when we traveled to Bali, where we were hosted by the high-powered and gracious women of the Rotary Club Bali Taman. Our performance in Bali was their charity concert for the Rotary Club’s international campaign against polio.

Concert Banner

Our concert banner on display before the gala

The gala evening was a huge success. Our hosts were delighted with the capacity crowd and the several thousand dollars they raised that night. There was good publicity for the gala; you can even watch our profile on Bali-Vision TV:

Our entire Peace Tour was meaningful in so many ways, but eradicating polio in Indonesia was the most exciting and tangible result I’ve ever seen from anything I’ve done. It’s the kind of victory that keeps you going, working and singing.

Of course, polio isn’t eradicated worldwide yet. At about the same time that Indonesia and several other Asian countries were certified as free of the disease, it popped up in war-torn Syria as a tragic consequence of the breakdown of medical and other services there. We have work to do. We’ve got to keep singing.

Post Concert

post-concert with Rotary members

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Thank heavens for Delta airlines

Thumbs up DeltaThis weekend I am full of gratitude for Delta Airlines and for a particular symphony administrator. You’ll see why if you read on.

Since I didn’t fly enough on American last year and therefore lost my Gold status — a blow after five years of being special — Delta is my new favorite airline. Their credit card lets me check a bag for free, they often fly to the places I’m going at convenient times, and so far I’ve always had good experiences with staff and limited travel snafus (one mechanical delay several years ago led to a free night in a nice hotel at the Mall of America, which was fun).

I’m also a big fan of multi-leg flight itineraries. When I have gigs back to back, a three-way ticket is usually much less expensive than two separate round trips, and a more efficient use of my time away from home. So when I began shopping for this week’s Raleigh to New York to Grand Rapids to Raleigh ticket, I was excited to find a complete trip on Delta at a very good price. There was even a direct flight from New York to Grand Rapids that landed just before noon — the perfect time to allow some rest before my evening rehearsal with the symphony there.

Now, I buy a lot of plane tickets. For most of my travels I buy my own flights and am reimbursed by the ensembles who hire me. I travel for fun too. I spend an inordinate amount of time on travel and airline websites, trying to find the perfect flight at the perfect price. I search repeatedly over several days. I stew. And I am fastidious about double-checking times and dates. Except this time, somehow I wasn’t…

…and I bought my flight for the wrong time! I didn’t even realize it for months, not until the week before the gig when I got my itinerary from the Grand Rapids Symphony. At first I thought it was an error. Why didn’t they have me scheduled to attend the evening rehearsal the day I arrived? And then I realized with utter terror that I’d bought my ticket for the perfect time PM, not AM.

I panicked. I shed some tears. I emailed the Symphony’s Operations Manager, Julie Nystedt, to apologize and ask what I should do. The same flight the previous day was now prohibitively expensive. Before I could spend too much time researching flights to Chicago or Detroit plus one-way car rentals, she emailed that she had a solution.

The Symphony has some vouchers from Delta, and Julie was willing to use one to book me a new one-way the previous day. She was completely gracious and progressional about the whole thing; she even tried to get me an extra night in the symphony’s hotel and although it was booked she gave me the name of another hotel that has a special rate for orchestra guests. Saved! Now I just had to deal with Delta.

I called Delta. The employee I spoke to, Scott, confirmed my suspicion that I’d have to officially cancel my original New York-Grand Rapids leg and pay $223 (the change fee plus difference in fare), because if I just didn’t show up for that flight my final homeward-bound leg would be cancelled. I asked if I really had to pay the change fee since I was not taking the flight and already had another version of the same flight (which he could see in my record). He asked if it was for a medical or other emergency. I replied no, it was my own foolish error and that I’d bought a ticket for PM instead of AM.

There was no reason for Scott to entertain my request, but he put me on hold and came back very quickly to say that he could waive the change fee but I still had to pay the fare difference. I think he expected me to argue with him over the fare difference, but I have never in my life been so happy to pay 23 dollars. I quickly offered up my Delta AmEx number, thanked Scott profusely for his help, and heaved a sigh of relief.

Embarrassment remains, but total disaster averted. This misadventure has only cost me a small fare difference, a discount hotel stay, and some sweat and tears. And I will never make this particular mistake again.

So, thank you to Julie (who will get a bar of chocolate when I meet her), thank you to Scott (who would get chocolate if I knew where to send it), and thank you to Delta for supporting the Grand Rapids Symphony with vouchers and for being flexible with errant customers. Now I can concentrate on the music.

The happy resolution got even better when I checked in for my Raleigh to New York flight today and found that I somehow had a new seat in first class, and better still when the flight attendant brought me my G&T with this note:
Delta note
Ahhhhh.

I Heart Chamber Music

Right now I’m headed to Santa Fe to sing Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with Santa Fe Pro Musica’s baroque ensemble. A week ago I got home from singing concerts in Ann Arbor with the award-winning chamber group Wayward Sisters. It’s a dreamy couple of weeks for me.

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I love all the different kinds of singing that I do. As previously discussed, symphony gigs are the most luxurious. I also love to get caught up in the drama of oratorio performances with full choir and orchestra. And in solo recitals I can interact with the audience in very special ways. But my heart’s true home, musically speaking, is chamber music.

There’s no other experience like making chamber music. Singing with just a handful of other singers or players is a unique and soul-feeding kind of collaboration. I love conductors (so much, apparently, that I married one) but working without one forces — or allows — the performers to feel the music together and to communicate only with breaths and looks and sometimes a little bit of telepathy. Usually the audience is close and well-lit, and they become part of the music-making as well. When chamber music is done well, there is an electricity in the room that sends everyone out at the end of the night feeling they were part of something great.

During my weekend off between these two lovely gigs Anne Timberlake, the recorder player of Wayward Sisters, happened to be in Raleigh and we met for brunch and post concert debriefing. I told her how I adore singing with her group and how chamber music is my favorite. With a glint in her eye she said “of course, because it’s the best” as if I had made the most obvious statement in the world. I guess I’m not the only one who feels that way. How lucky am I that I have a deliciously varied career that includes a healthy portion of chamber music.

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Diva-tastic

Last weekend I was in Alabama to sing Mozart and Vivaldi with the Mobile Symphony Orchestra. The guest conductor was Patrick Dupré Quigley, the director of Seraphic Fire and a good friend who has given me many musical opportunities over the past 8 years.

I love all the different kinds of gigs I do — soloing with symphonies, choruses and period orchestras, collaborating with early music chamber groups, faculty recitals at ECU, and ensemble singing with some of the best choirs in the country — but for sheer pamper factor you can’t beat a solo appearance with a symphony. Symphonies are set up to host soloists from around the world with nice hotels, arranged rides and organized itineraries. Here are some of the things I encounter on a symphony gig that make me feel like a true diva:

Singing in a nice hall (here the Saenger Theatre in Mobile),

Saenger Theatre

Being put up in style in a fancy hotel,

Riverview Hotel

Ordering pre-performance room service in said fancy hotel,

room service

Having my own dressing room with my name on the door,

dressing room

Wearing a new gown and super-sparkly bling (this fabulous Swarovski set was my Christmas gift from my parents with teamwork selection from N),

bling!

Being asked to sign posters,

posters

And getting beautiful flowers onstage during the curtain call (yup, this was a selfie and I’m not ashamed to say it).

after concert

The Symphony was wonderful to work with and I enjoyed my time in downtown Mobile. And N and baby A and Charlie the dog all survived back at home! It was a great weekend. At the end of it, as always, I was happy to land at RDU and drive home to my family, now expanded by one 18-pound little cutie.

Back on the Road

You might have noticed a lull in the postings on this blog…

For the past five months I’ve been up in a different kind of air: the whirlwind of new parenthood.

Kathryn & Baby ABaby A was born on September 17 in perfect health and he’s a joy, even if he doesn’t like to go to sleep. Right now he’s into playing with his toes and EATING — he loves food and now that he has tasted rice cereal and sweet potatoes he thinks he should get to try everything N and I eat.

Before he was born, I had no idea how long to take off before hitting the road again for performances. Would I be ready for Messiahs in December? Could I keep that awesome opera gig that would happen just 6 weeks postpartum? I’m sure it’s different for every singer, but as it turns out I’m glad I was conservative. When the weekend of that opera rolled around, sad as I was to have cancelled on it, I couldn’t imagine being out singing when I was sleeping only a few hours a night and having trouble carving out time to practice.

Eventually I got a practice routine going — well, depending on the day and nap schedules — and my voice snapped back into shape. I started slow with local performances in December and January, and then last week took off for my first away gig, a thrilling Haydn Lord Nelson Mass with Seraphic Fire. Thanks to dear friends there who hosted us, I was able to bring A and my parents came to watch him while I was at work.

Patrick and orchestraIt was a lovely week. It felt great to be back doing what I do, with great colleagues who are friends too. It was more exhausting than usual since I had to tend to baby at night, and I couldn’t go out after concerts and socialize with my friends, but it was really fun to have A there and nice that I didn’t have to leave him behind for my first trip. The richness that came into my voice last year — whether it was because of pregnancy or a result of the work I’d been doing with my teacher, or both — has remained, and I felt vocally strong. The concerts were a collaboration with the New York-based period orchestra The Sebastians, and all three nights were big successes. We got an excellent review (I got a shout-out for my solos in paragraph 7). And being in Miami in February was not bad either.

MiamiThe main difference in singing for me now is sleep. I used to be so uptight about sleep! If I got only 6 hours before an important performance I would be super grumpy, and try desperately to nap before the concert so that the reduced sleep hours didn’t ruin my performance. After singing that first gig in December on only three hours and discovering that my voice worked just fine, I have a fresh new perspective. The anxiety and hours-of-sleep counting have diminished. I hope that outlook remains once A is sleeping through the night, which I pray is soon, though I’m not counting on it…

This weekend it’s off to Alabama to sing with the Mobile Symphony. It’s a short trip and I am leaving Baby A at home, so wish N luck on his own!

Music on a Mission

SST at UNICEF

As the Swara Sonora Trio began to plan our Indonesian tour, we decided that we wanted there more of a purpose to our travels than the personal excitement of performing on the other side of the world. It was late 2008 as we ironed out details. Barack Obama had just been elected, optimism was running high, and attention was turned to the United States’ possible deeper engagement with Asia and especially with a moderate Muslim country like Indonesia (where President Obama spent part of his childhood). We titled our project the Peace Tour. It was a little cheesy, but the name stuck.

We wanted the trio to engage in significant ways that might actually promote understanding between cultures, so we came up with a three-pronged goal for our tour: we would reach out to audiences by sharing our music and our talents in performances across Java and Bali, we would connect with young musicians by teaching master classes at music schools along our travels, and we would make the tour a fundraiser for an Indonesian organization. It was important to choose a reputable organization with international recognition, so that our backers in the US would be comfortable getting on board with our fundraising. After a brief discussion we decided that UNICEF was the obvious choice because of their international reputation and their efforts towards children’s health and education in Indonesia.

UNICEF visit

At UNICEF headquarters in Jakarta. Our t-shirts translate to “I love Indonesian children.” Josephine is to the left of the UNICEF flag.

One of our most exciting days of the Peace Tour (it’s hard to name any one day “most exciting” because each day held new experiences, people, sights, sounds, and amazing foods) was when we visited UNICEF’s Indonesia Country Office headquarters in Jakarta. We’d been connected with Josephine Lapod in the office there, and had a formal agreement to turn over all our funds beyond expenses to support UNICEF’s children’s programs in Indonesia.

Dunkin' Donuts Jakarta

Aryo, dressed up in batik for our business meeting at Dunkin’ Donuts in the UNICEF building

Josephine took us to the Dunkin’ Donuts (a very popular chain in Indonesia; the menu is similar to in the US except you can get durian-filled donuts and coffee with sweetened condensed milk) on UNICEF’s campus to get to know each other and to sign our contract. Then we toured their offices, met the rest of the kind and professional staff, and posed for photos wearing our UNICEF t-shirts. Unaccustomed to men as tall as Nathan, they’d had to special order his t-shirt size and it had arrived just in time for our visit. The staff told us that the last visitor they placed a custom order for was Bill Clinton!

Thanks to many generous donors in the United States and the help of our fiscal sponsor Fractured Atlas which allowed us to raise tax-deductible funds, we gave $1,500 to UNICEF’s Indonesia Country Office. In the scope of the organization’s total budget that wasn’t a ton of money, but in a country like Indonesia it can buy a lot of vaccinations and school supplies. At our Indonesian premiere concert at Jakarta’s Erasmus Huis, we presented the funds with our version of the oversized check you sometimes see given to organizations at charity events.

donation

Ibu Erni and me displaying Swara Sonora’s “big check”

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Aryo’s mother Erni, who asked for support from friends, family and corporate sponsors there, and donations collected at our Jakarta concert, we raised another $1,500 in Indonesia which Ibu Erni brought to Joesphine after our Peace Tour ended.

I’m proud that our trio worked hard at fundraising so we could leave a lasting effect, however small, on the children of Indonesia, and grateful to all the people who helped us and gave to our project. We wanted to forge connections with our tour. One new relationship I didn’t expect was my own connection to UNICEF. Now N and I give a monthly  automatic contribution to UNICEF, and I see that as being a lifetime commitment of mine. And it all began with a brainstorm about how to add purpose to our group’s travels. I think we found some purpose.

SST & Ibu Angela

Swara Sonora post-concert with Ibu Angela Kearney, the head of UNICEF’s Indonesia Country Office

Reflecting on a life-changing experience: Indonesia 2009

Five years ago, my performing travels led me on one of the greatest adventures of my life: three and a half weeks singing, teaching, and touristing in Indonesia.

Kathryn in Bali

11 years before that, I took a college course on Indonesian music. This in-depth course, one of my very favorites out of many wonderful classes I took at Brown, covered not just the traditional and popular music of Java and Bali, but also bits of the history, culture, and politics of Indonesia. I fell in love with Indonesia long-distance, and decided that somehow, someday, I would get there. During high school I’d developed a similar serious crush on Spain when I soaked up the thin, black & white volume that was our history and geography text in upper-level Spanish classes. I’m still waiting for my trip to Spain, but I’ve been across the world to Indonesia. That fact confirms that Indonesia was in my destiny.

Fate made that clear when I arrived at the University of Arizona for graduate school in 2004 and was introduced to my teaching partners, baritone Nathan Krueger and pianist Aryo Wicaksono. That first day, I excitedly and correctly guessed from his nametag that Aryo was Indonesian. We three taught together for 4 years in the Opening Minds Through the Arts program in the Tucson schools, began performing on recital series around Tucson, named ourselves the Swara Sonora Trio, and then commissioned a cycle of songs from Ananada Sukarlan, a prominent Indonesian composer and pianist who now lives in Spain but receives rock star treatment whenever he returns to his homeland.

Swara Sonora Trio premiere

Swara Sonora in 2008, after our Love and Variations premiere

After our successful premiere of Ananda’s Love and Variations, we decided to take it on tour to Indonesia and premiere the work there. We were crazy, but we pulled it off, thanks to many donors in the US and Indonesia and to Aryo’s mother Erni who coordinated most of the logistics on the Indonesian end. The planning and handling the donations that so generously came pouring in became an extra part-time job for me and almost killed me (and probably Ibu Erni too), but it was worth it. So very worth it.

In the coming weeks I’ll write more posts about my reflections looking back on our Peace Tour. In the meantime, you can visit the trio’s blog; we posted almost every day along our journey to keep our supporters back home engaged with our amazing experiences and work there. Click here to access our blog, and find the August 2009 postings in the sidebar on the right.

More soon…

Swara Sonora in Jakarta

Swara Sonora at the Indonesian premiere of Love and Variations