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.

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,

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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,

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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!

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

 

 

Gigging on the rails

I spend an awful lot of time on airplanes, but my true love, transportation-wise, is the train. Relaxing in a quiet train car is so much more comfortable and civilized than being buckled into a tiny seat at 35,000 feet, the views from the train are wonderful and you have time to take them in, and then there’s that old-fashioned romance of riding the rails.

I was pretty excited, then, when my flight arrival in New Mexico last month turned out to be early enough for me to take the commuter train, the Rail Runner, from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. I’ve wanted to take that ride since the Rail Runner began service in 2008, but the timing never worked out and I usually have to take the Sandia Shuttle whose vans and drivers are perfectly nice but you know, it’s not the train.

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We left downtown Albuquerque on a gorgeous sunny morning,

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and began a scenic journey past mesas and arroyos,

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through Indian pueblos,

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and finally into sight of Santa Fe and the stunning blue of its Sangre de Cristo mountains.

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It was Spring Break week for Albuquerque students, so a lot of families were riding up to Santa Fe for lunch or shopping. Despite the happy chaos, the ride was relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable. Sometimes the Rail Runner’s tracks closely parallel I-25 and you can see the cars and drivers streaming up the highway to Santa Fe, but for a lot of the ride the tracks are hidden from view of the road and it can feel like you and the people you’re riding with are the only souls for miles around, the lone beings enjoying the quiet blues and yellows of the scenery in all directions.

In Bernalillo I got some seat mates, a woman and her two adorable young granddaughters who were on their way to Tomasita’s for lunch. It was fun to visit with them, and I told the woman about my concert with Santa Fe Pro Musica and what I was doing in New Mexico that week. She said she’d try to come. People say that all the time. But, lo and behold, she appeared at my final concert with her parents as her guests, and I was surprisingly delighted to see her there. It’s like sharing that train journey forged some kind of relationship between us,something more real than what happens when you chat with a stranger on a plane or in a checkout line.

It was the perfect way to kick off a wonderful, sunny week of great music in Santa Fe.

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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.

brown1

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,

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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:

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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:

Grant

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

Orwig

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.

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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.

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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.