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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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!

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.

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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.

 

 

Soprano Grounded

Sadly, I won’t be going to Eugene next week to visit N at the Oregon Bach Festival. I’ve been looking forward to this trip all year — to reliving my two years singing there, to the music and the fresh berries and the gorgeous sunny weather and the plenteous meals in the cafeteria and to seeing all the friends who are also singing there this summer.

In January I hurt my back lugging a case of wine around the Phoenix airport, and I spent the first six months of this year pushing through my gigs and travels, ignoring how bad it was. I’m finally in physical therapy and doing better all the time, but flying cross-country wasn’t in the cards this soon.

It feels a little like cancelling on a gig. I’ve been very lucky in my career, and have only had to cancel once, which was last summer when I had pneumonia (really couldn’t sing through that one!). Cancelling is the thing singers fear most. It’s terrible to miss out on the music-making, seeing old and meeting new colleagues, and of course also taking home the paycheck. The fear is always there, but still we soldier, er, sing on.

I will not be boarding any airplanes for a few more weeks, but I did make a trip to RDU last week for a photo shoot to update my profile photo on the blog. Did you notice it? Thanks to N for his artistic fashion photography, and to my branding expert sister-in-law for coming up with the great idea. Here are a few of the shots:

Profile photo shoot collage

The 15 minutes in those gorgeous heels probably set me back two days in repairing my back, but it just might have been worth it. Do you agree?

Dining alone?

While I’m on a gig, sometimes my dinner company looks like this:

dinner at El Charro

Lovely singer friends, at the ever-tasty El Charro

And other times, more like this:

dinner alone

Catalina Foothills HS auditorium lobby – oh yeah!

Being a singer is the best and worst thing about being a singer. Making music entirely with your own body is an amazing thing. Minus the worries about cold bugs and Airplane Voice from dehydration, a voice is certainly an easy instrument to travel with (much less stressful than a cello or guitar; check out this blog posting on Alban Gerhardt’s recent experience, or Sons of Maxwell’s humorous music video for the instrumentalist’s take on traveling).

But, being a singer is also, quite frankly, a pain in the butt. There’s the aforementioned constant worry about sickness that turns you into a ridiculous germaphobe. And there’s the fact that the voice is produced by a delicate collection of tiny muscles, cartilages and tissues which must be treated nicely.

Part of the difficulty of being good to our voices is that we don’t only use our voices for singing; we also use them throughout the day for communicating by talking. Marathon runners don’t finish a training session and then jog around for the rest of the day. But that’s exactly what singers have to do when they rehearse or record for 6 hours a day, and then spend their breaks socializing over meals or calling friends or family back home.

So, sometimes we do “singery” things like being unsocial and eating alone quietly. We try not to make phone calls on a heavy singing day. Email and online typed chats are a godsend for staying in touch without losing your voice, but it’s weird to tell your best friend you’re free to talk but you’re going to have to gchat instead. After concerts, we do our best to keep our audience conversations short and low-volume, and we have to avoid loud bars and restaurants.

It’s hard for me. I’m social and one of my favorite things about gigs away from home is getting catch up with friends from around the country. But sometimes, ya just gotta’ eat your bag dinner, alone, in the auditorium lobby…