All Grown Up, and teaching to prove it

I have a lot to catch up on. My crazy traveling months of 2014 are over, with just a couple lovely gigs left before the 2013-2014 season calls it quits. I’ve been too busy to sit down and compose thoughtful blogs, but I’ve been saving up experiences and ideas to write about once I finally got to this quieter time.

One of my favorite — and most nerve-racking — experiences was teaching a master class at my alma mater, Brown University, last month.


I’ve enjoyed my first year of college teaching immensely, and I feel like my ECU students are training me to become a better teacher each week I work with them. But a master teacher? I wasn’t so sure about that. The only time I’ve taught master classes was 5 years ago when the Swara Sonora Trio went on tour to Indonesia, and most of those were team-taught with my baritone friend and colleague Nathan Krueger. Even worse, I knew that my beloved high school and college voice teacher, Kathryne Jennings, would be there, and that I’d be working with some of her students. What could I possibly have to say to the students of — and standing before — the woman who taught me so much of what I know about singing and performing?

I figured I would probably survive, but I was nervous. Just being back in Providence on an unseasonably warm March day though, made me happy and more relaxed. There’s nothing like visiting your college town, returning to familiar haunts and sparking memories of those formative years when you were figuring out just who you were.

Before my class I walked around campus. Never one to miss an old favorite (or new and exciting, for that matter) food, I stopped along Thayer Street at my favorite crêpe & smoothie place,


and then checked out how much has changed since I graduated. For example, the old Silver Truck upon whose questionable late-nite food offerings so many students of my era gambled their lives has been replaced by much more upscale offerings:


and the recital hall, where I gave all my recitals and so many other performances of my college years, has gotten a very spiffy acoustic and aesthetic overhaul, including a sleek modern lobby:


But many things look exactly the same. The music building, occupying the old Orwig mansion, didn’t seem to have changed at all.


Looking for a place to compose myself before I taught, I ducked into the seminar room where I spent many an early morning class attempting be coherent. It seemed as if I’d last walked into the building (likely a couple minutes late) and made a beeline for that hallway just months ago.

I got to see Kathryne just before the class started. She gave me a big hug and assured me that I would do well.


She was treating me like a colleague and I felt like one, but at the same time I was transported back to the comfort of our student-teacher relationship, when she created confidence by helping me prepare for every aspect of a good performance. I flashed back to so many words of encouragement before student recitals, and somehow it made me feel like a professional.

And I had a lot of fun. I realized I had something to say after all, and I worked on different things with each student, from phrasing and articulation, to different tricks and tools for increasing breath support, to interpretation and acting. All the students were smart and engaged, and reminded me why I loved my years at Brown, being surrounded by people like that, so much. I’m pretty sure I said some of the things Kathryne says to her students all the time but heck, teachers always like to hear someone else reinforce their ideas. My moment of triumph and complete assurance came when I noticed that Kathryn was taking notes on a few of the things I said. Some ideas I’ve picked up from other people along the way, and integrated into my teaching, were worth writing down!

It was my wonderful Brown Chorus director, Fred Jodry, who asked me to come back to Brown to teach a master class, and by miracle it worked out perfectly for my one free day while I was in Boston to sing with Musicians of the Old Post Road. Fred and I have kept in touch all this time (he’s good at that), and in fact in recent years he has just happened to be in several places I’ve performed, from New York to San Francisco. Fred was a young, cool professor when I was at Brown, and he still seems pretty young and cool to me. In fact, no one I saw seemed any different than I remembered them, but I suppose we have all aged and learned more than a decade’s worth since I was an undergrad.


When the class had ended and I had answered the last student’s question, Fred and Kathryne and I went for a lovely dinner at the Waterman Grille on the river. It was warm, civilized and relaxed, and we hadn’t run out of things to talk about before I needed to hit the road back to Boston.

Only recently have I had experiences that made me feel like a “real grownup.” My transition from grad school to a performing career was so gradual that there was a never a moment when I felt “ah, now I am an adult.” Even getting married to N didn’t do it, because that just felt natural, and I moved into the house he’d already bought before he met me.

Shopping for flooring and installing hardwood in our house last fall finally did it. Buying our first-ever new car in December was further confirmation that maybe I was a real grownup. And this master class was finally a professional experience that made me feel like a real grownup, like maybe, just maybe, I know what I’m doing. So I’m really glad Fred asked me. And having not only survived but actually having had a pretty darn good time teaching a master class, I look forward to doing it again.




Keep the Music Alive (but not the snobbiness)

Last week in Santa Fe I didn’t just eat gelato (though I did plenty of that – oh stracciatella, how I miss thee); I soaked up much of what Santa Fe has to offer, including a night at the Santa Fe Opera. My father, N and I attended Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, starring Joyce DiDonato.


I was excited to see Joyce live, both because she’s a beloved former student of my teacher George and because she’s a great advocate for opera who reaches out to the public in various ways including her blog. It was a thrill to hear her virtuosity and musicianship; all the singers were excellent. Operas at Santa Fe are a magical experience, especially when the sun sets over the red, juniper-dotted hills behind the stage during the opening scenes, or when real lightning snaps across the distant sky during a moment of intense drama.

Santa Fe Opera

But, while its music was completely delightful (lots of great wind parts and wonderful, showy Rossini vocal lines), the opera’s story was boring. Like a majority of operas, it had a pretty dumb plot, and in La Donna nothing much even happened. Comic operas may have preposterous dramatic devices but at least they’re generally entertaining. Tragedies and romances, on the other hand, can be pretty darn static. Several years ago I saw Santa Fe’s production of Strauss’s Daphne. It was the most beautiful music I’d ever heard (and Erin Wall was incredible as the title character), but I found myself wishing they’d done a concert version because there was so little to work with dramatically.

I’m not sure why it finally dawned on me this time, but as I sat there it occurred to me that in the 18th and 19th centuries a boring plot wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Before our modern concert-going etiquette was established, audiences talked among themselves, walked around, and played cards, perking up their attention for the big arias. The reason we find some operas tedious now isn’t just because our TV and Internet culture has reduced our attention spans, it’s because we’re expected to be quiet and attentive through all 3 or 4 hours of an opera that wasn’t written with our kind of audience in mind! It’s understandable that many members of the public don’t want to shell out $50-$100 to sit perfectly still and quiet, with other audience members shooting daggers at them should they dare to clap between movements, cough, or (heaven forbid) unwrap a candy to stifle that cough.

I think about this a lot, about how to inject some of the causal atmosphere of past eras into today’s performances, to make this old music not a museum piece but a living, evolving performance art. Of course, as a performer I don’t want people chatting or playing cards while I’m putting my soul to voice and delivering the culmination of hours of preparation.

But actually, would audience members quietly playing cards–or Angry Birds–be so bad? I don’t want to haughtily snort that question away. I pay attention when musical organizations do something different and it seems to work. I love Seraphic Fire’s 80-minute concerts with no intermissions. Letting audiences have wine or (non-crinkly) snacks during performances seems like a great idea. In most concert formats (though tricky in opera) it creates a connection when performers talk to the audience. I haven’t decided yet what I think of organizations like American Bach Soloists having “tweet decks”–seating sections where attendees are allowed to be on their smartphones but are expected to tweet enthusiastically about the concert–but it’s a novel idea. Crossover performances like this one which got a lot of heat in my circle this week:

are controversial in the classical world, but maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them. If someone watches this video, then looks up Monteverdi on Wikipedia and decides to listen to more of his music, isn’t that great for classical music? If Monteverdi, musical revolutionary that he was, were alive today, would he possibly even dig that electric guitar? A cellist colleague of mine recently started a Facebook discussion about concert wear and whether it was time for male musicians to stop wearing anachronistic 19th-century formal garb (tuxedos) to work and come up with something more modern and approachable for audiences.

For decades people have been saying that classical music is dead, and somehow it lives on. There will always be a small percentage of the public who love classical music and are willing to pay for it, but I think we’re not doing our job as performers if we’re content to play only for them. It seems like a self-indulgent profession if we don’t at least try to reach out to new audiences and to make our music more accessible and affordable to them. To me this challenge isn’t a frustration; it’s an exciting opportunity to play and experiment.

I’d love to know what you think of this issue, and your ideas for keeping classical music continually relevant. Please leave me a comment and vote in the poll below.

Fly on the Wall: Recording

This is my view for most of this week:

TCA recording view

I’m making a recording with Tucson Chamber Artists — all world-premiere recordings of music by American composer Stephen Paulus. It’s going very well so far. I enjoy the intensive, focused work that recording demands. It’s completely different from my usual performing experience. I’m in sneakers and jeans, making the very best sound I can at each moment, trading the spontaneity of connecting with a live audience for inner focus on musicality and perfection.

You’ve seen recording sessions in movies and videos; when you think of making a recording you probably imagine the musicians in a studio, wearing headphones and performing behind a glass wall, like in the great ’80s video We Are the World. That’s not how it works in the classical music world.

Classical music is usually recorded on-site in a concert hall or church. This week we’re at Catalina Foothills High School’s beautiful auditorium, the best small hall in Tucson. No one but the producer and recording engineer are wearing headphones. There are A LOT of microphones scattered about the stage:

TCA recording

The engineers will later be able to do some mixing of how much sound from each mic is used, but it’s not like pop music, where you can record one instrument at a time. Everyone plays or sings everything on every take. It’s exhausting but exhilarating too.

Our GRAMMY-winning producer Peter Rutenberg sits behind stage with the engineers and calls out his feedback and requests over a speaker, his disembodied voice commanding us to take it again, this time with more/less/better/higher/lower/softer/louder whatever. Peter requested several modifications to our usual mode of singing, including silent clothing and jewelry (no taffeta or jingly earrings!) and covering our stands with towels to reduce page-turning noise.

recording stands

Breaks are crucial to give the voice, legs, and brain a rest. There’s plenty of socializing and laughing during breaks, but sometimes we’re quiet too. Even during a one-minute pause when Peter and Tucson Chamber Artists’ conductor Eric Holtan discuss something, we plop down to go somewhere else mentally for a moment.

recording break

I must confess, I have spent a fair number of free minutes vegging out with this (darn you, Candy Crush, why are you so addictive?):

Candy Crush screen

One more day to go. I’m looking forward to the words “it’s a wrap!”, to celebrating with my colleagues tonight, and especially to hearing the album when it’s released this fall.