Sunday, December 19, 2004


Here is the New York Times review of the Westminster Symphonic Choir's Messiah with the New York Philharmonic.

My own notes may be forthcoming. :) For now, suffice to say that I will always remember the second oboe telling us a joke every night. And that it is very convenient to sit two feet away from the second oboe when half the time he's doubling your part!

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Readings and Carols

Tonight (and last night) was Readings and Carols at the Princeton University Chapel, featuring just about every choir on campus (except, of course, Jubilee and Westminster Choir, b/c that would have given me something to actually do. :) Symphonic, Chapel Choir, Kantorei, Williamson Voices, and the Concert Bell Choir all performed, and while I had expected it to be something of an ordeal, and to get a little overly-Godded (more on that later) I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. Symphonic just sang the carols, so I didn't have a lot to do, but there was some great stuff performed. The Handbell Choir was really neat. There was a great piece by William Caldwell, whom I shall have to go and look up, a great piece by Gretchaninoff which was done really well by the freshman choir, and an excellent reading of O. Henry's Gift of the Magi by one of the drama teachers. A nice piece by my composition teacher SY too - I was happy to hear something he's written!

Afterwards I ended up at Burger King with AD and A (whose last name I don't know.) We ended up getting onto the topic of religion, which I'm always happy to do. It was really excellent, and I hope to have some more like conversations with them both. A is a devout Catholic, of the best possible sort. I really feel that her faith has a huge positive effect in her life, and as a result, in the lives of people around her. For example, the church she work at is currently experiencing a racial split - Hispanic vs. white. She's working to bring the two sides together, and recently experienced a victory when she got the two different youth groups to meet together for the first time. I think she gets involved in lots of open-minded religious conversations, too - she certainly has with me. Because of our current political situation, I can feel myself often becoming alienated and angry with many Christians, and unfortunately (and not justifiably) by extension with Christianity, and it's comforting to know Christians who agree with what I think Christianity ought to be (even though I'm not one.) For example, uniting instead of dividing, accepting, non-judgmental, more concerned with doing good than telling others that they're doing bad, emphasizing love instead of hate, etc.

I mentioned to her at the end that we should keep having this conversation, because I need to come to terms with Christianity. Before moving here I would have said I had, but that's just because I never interacted with it. Because of the profession I've chosen, because so much choral music is religious, I'm going to have some sort of relationship with the concepts of Christ and God for the rest of my life, and much of this semester I've been trying to hash that out. Music is such an eloquent and powerful medium for praise. And it's not the belief in God that I have trouble dealing with. I've mentioned to a couple of people that the only time I actually believe in God is when I'm singing. When I say "Kyrie eleison" it's not just acting, it's something else that stops when the music does. It's all the other parts of the religion I have problems with, like the whole sin thing. And, quite removed from the question of doctrine, when I'm not a Christian myself, it is hard to keep in mind the idealized version of what I believe one should be when so many hateful, close-minded people are constantly trumpeting their "Christianity" in the media.

I feel this entry could be more clearly written, but it's late, and I don't wish to edit it. Besides, I've been promising myself all day that if I did my homework then when I got home from the concert I could watch A&E Jane Austin adaptations on TV and munch on cheese, so that's what I'm going to go do.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

mid-November update

I've been neglecting this blog, for which I apologize! A lot has happened since I last wrote.

The election happened, of course. I was fairly devastated by the results. However, I have been newly inspired to be a responsible citizen - I'm trying to read the newspaper more often (at least scanning the headlines each day) and I've decided to become a regular letter-writer to the President and to my congresspeople. Last week I sent off a letter stating my position on an amendment banning gay marriage. This week's topic will likely be the appointment of Dr. W. David Hager to the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. I realize this happened 1.5 years ago, but I feel it's important to keep objecting to the objectionable. (Dr. Hager has religious problems with the idea of birth control, and in his books has recommended such methods as "prayer" for the curing of menstrual cramps, and "getting plenty of rest" for birth control.)

This week is Ensemble Week here at Westminster. This means that we have all our normal rehearsals (and a few extra ones) but no classes. For most of us, this lightens the load, and lets us work on our term papers, which is what I've been trying, with moderate success, to do. Starting tomorrow and going through Sunday, however, we have rehearsals and 3 performances of the Brahms Requiem with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. So Ensemble Week is also a way of letting us rest up before we have a whole lot of performing to do. I'm trying to make headway on my two analysis papers, one for composition and one for Choral Literature.

I also found my "thing" to work on two weeks ago in conducting class - being more poetic as a conductor, aka emotional availability. My project (possibly for the rest of my life) will be opening myself up emotionally to whatever music I may be conducting, allowing the other musicians to open up, too. I tend to keep my cards close to my chest - my challenge will be fighting that instinct.

Last Sunday I went to a performance of the Williamson Voices, who do mostly 20th century music, and concentrate on commissions. It was quite gorgeous. They also do some world music. Unfortunately, being in the Westminter Choir precluded me from joining, as they rehearse at the same time, but at least I get to attend concerts. It was an unexpectedly powerful concert - I spent most of the time crying for Bestemor, who died last Friday, peacefully, in her sleep. RIP, Bestemor - we love you.

Sunday, October 24, 2004


Going back in time a bit, I really feel that the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Mountains and Music retreat experience deserves an entry of its own.

A week and a half ago, Fall Break started. I hopped on a bus up to Boston, and stayed with my parents for a couple of nights, and then we all drove up together to Pinkham Notch, at the foot of Mount Washington in northern New Hampshire, on Friday afternoon, October 15. I didn't know what to expect for accommodations, and had been worried about freezing in a small drafty unheated cabin, so it was quite delightful to find that we were all staying in the lodge, which was heated, and provided sheets, pillows, blankets, and towels. My parents and I shared a room - I got the top bunk. Friday afternoon we hung out in the living room a bit, and I met some of the organizers, and MV, who had agreed to be my accompanist, arrived. Then we went in to dinner, which was delicious. The food in the dining hall was truly scrumptious throughout the entire weekend, so much so that if I ever get married, it might be a fun place to have the reception. Heck, we could hike up to the top of Mt. Washington and get married up there. :) Not that I'm planning on getting married soon, if ever - don't worry, Mom, there's nothing I haven't told you! But they're rather fun to plan for anyhow. Of course, this means that my previous idea about incorporating elephants into the ceremony and swinging in to the ceremony on a vine with the groom under my arm is out. (Hey, when a dozen friends get married in one summer, you tend to sit in wedding ceremonies and come up with crazier and crazier ideas.)

After dinner was the first rehearsal, from 8:30-10:30...or rather, 10. Although we'd been told we could rehearse in the dining hall until 10:30, apparently we got some misinformation. The chorus was about 4 sopranos, 8 altos, 7 tenors, and 4 basses, or something like that. It was a great tenor section...but I couldn't figure out where all the sopranos were! Maybe I'm just too used to having a glut of sopranos since I'm here at Westminster. But they were just as good sight-readers as I had been told, which was a huge relief. I didn't have to go too slow, and there was plenty of time to rehearse everything before the concert on Saturday night with the orchestra.

Anyhow, after the rehearsal on Friday night, I went to bed, and my parents and I all read for a while before turning out the lights (one respect in which I really did get to have a bit of fall break was that I got to do some reading.) I re-read The Mozart Season, which is a very fine book, and seemed appropriate given I was conducting The Coronation Mass. Then it was up very early Saturday morning, in order to have breakfast before rehearsal started at 8:30 am. (This was the respect in which Fall Break didn't really live up to its name, the getting up at 7 every day part.) Rehearsal was from 8:30 to 10:30, and we got through almost all the rest of the movements that we didn't run through the previous night, with the exception of the Agnus Dei, and the full assembling of the Benedictus.

The rehearsal happened early so that people could then leave for their day hikes. My mother went on a hike, but my father opted to stay in and play chamber music, and I opted to stay in and vegetate. I read some more, and in the afternoon I worked on my Brahms Paganini Variations analysis for composition some. Since the weather turned nicer in the afternoon, I also went for a short walk up a trail that started behind the lodge to a waterfall, only about 15 minutes up the mountain, but very stunning all the same. Then it was back down for a short rehearsal at 4 pm, finishing up the Mozart and polishing up Bruckner's Locus Iste. We headed off to a truly scrumptious dinner, complete with the box o' wine my parents had brought up (or Booze-in-a-Box as I liked to call it) and then cleared the dining hall so that we could set up for the concert.

I had figured out by this time that this was a very laid-back atmosphere, so I felt comfortable getting up in front of the orchestra and running the transition points that I was so worried about. I believe this made all the difference in the world. The concert started w/ EH (the orchestral conductor) leading the orchestra through the overture to The Magic Flute. Then it was my turn. The Mass went well - we only had to stop once, in the middle of the Credo, when they didn't believe how slow I really wanted to go. I made a few mistakes - forgot that a transition was coming in the middle of the Benedictus b/c I got carried away listening to the strings and winds, and so that was a little rocky. Also, I didn't cue the chorus nearly as much as I had in rehearsal, or had wanted to in performance, but they did just fine. It's a large and lumbering beast, an orchestra...there were times when it was hard to keep a steady tempo, when I had no idea whether or not I was being steady and had to just plow forward. And it is unfortunately just as hard, if not harder, than I had anticipated to be preparing a new tempo in your mind for after a transition while still beating the old one.

But it went quite well, and it was nice to have my parents playing, especially my mother on tympani. (Shhh...sometimes I just followed her beat. ;) After the mass I sat behind the cellos and followed along with Beethoven's 8th. And then they brought out the tables and laid out dessert. I schmoozed a little bit, but mostly I was exhausted by this point, so after all the proper people had been duly thanked, congratulated, and conversed with, I made my way back to the room and went to bed.

I learned that how well a conducting performance goes is in direct proportion to how much I have practiced. There is no "practicing enough." If I practice some, it will be good. If I practice more, it will be better. I think I would not have made the mistake in the Benedictus if I had not left the score alone for the several days before the weekend in Boston. Also, conducting makes me thirsty! I think after I sat down I must have drunk a quart of water. Of course, it could also have been the wine at dinner.

Sunday we got up for breakfast. I should note that the one thing that could have made the dining hall better would have been the presence of real maple syrup. I can't eat any pancakes if all you have is the fake crap, people! And this was NH! Come on! [Edit: My father claims that it was, in fact, real maple syrup, and since I only tasted a small amount, I suppose it is possible that he is correct.]

Anyways, then we had a read-through with the chorus of just some music. I'd made a packet and brought it down, mostly of old Elizabethans music, the easier stuff. At one point, someone said, "Why are we reading all this slow depressing stuff?" and I was tempted to respond, "Because you can't sight-read the fast stuff! It's too hard!" My point was proven when we sight-read PDQ Bach's My Bonnie Lass, She Smelleth, however. Fast is hard, people! (Hard to compose well in addition to being hard to sight-read well...but that's a topic for another post.) I unfortunately forgot my packet of music there, so I have to make sure I have other copies of things like Madame Jeannette and I Will Not Leave You Comfortless but I'm sure I can reassemble that stuff without too much difficulty. I was going to bring down the latest piece I had written in composition class, but I forgot.

It was at this point, during the sight-reading, that I realized how truly lucky I was to have MV along as an accompanist. Man, oh, man, does a good accompanist make one's life easier. I'm SO glad I was able to get him to come along. "Dude, there'll be free food!"

Afterwards I packed up and loaded the car, and then MV and my mother and I walked up to the waterfall again. We came back down, I stopped in the store to buy some maple sugar for my roommates and a book for myself, called Solo: On Her Own Adventure. Hey, I figured I deserved a good book. I am now more sure than ever that biking across New Zealand would be an excellent idea. Or perhaps the perimeter of Australia!

All in all, very successful...and I am just reminded that I haven't written my thank-you e-mails to the organizers yet for a great experience and opportunity. If I'm lucky, maybe they'll let me come back in February. While I go do that, here's some pictures from the trip.

Here's the waterfall I hiked to twice.

Here's my mother in front of the waterfall.

Here's MV and I, looking like the dorky musicians we are.

Here's me looking, MV assures me, exactly like me.

And here's 75% of the whole musical family!

Brahms Festival

This past weekend was Brahms Festival weekend at Westminster. Lectures and concerts on Brahms took over the campus. I was personally involved with the conducting masterclass on Saturday and the Westminster Choir performance last night.

I didn't go to the student performance on Thursday, but I did make it to the Kantorei debut on Friday night. Kantorei is one of the two new performing groups on campus, and specializes in Renaissance and Baroque literature. This was very impressive, particularly b/c there was a lot of solo work in the pieces sung: Schuetz's Musikalische Exequien, Bach's Cantata 106, and Telemann's Du aber, Daniel, gehe hin. And I think every last person in the group (it's 19 students) had a solo at some point, and they were all fabulous. The arias that several students stepped out to sing in particular were really stunning. I felt very proud to be here! I also discovered that I like Telemann more than I had thought I did.

Saturday morning was a lecture by Dr. Megill on Brahms' Choral Music. One of the recordings he played was a piece for soprano, mezzo, and alto with two French horns and harp. SJ decided that she, A, and I should sing it, and before the lecture was over, she had an entire one-hour program planned out for the spring. All I can say is, we'll see!

After the lecture, SJ, A, and I went on a quick lunch run (sushi for me, of course) and then it was back for the masterclass. Six student conductors each had one of the Brahms' Zigeunerlieder which we taught to the class, and Dr. Flummerfelt made comments. I got through it fine, for which I was very thankful, and A said I made her laugh a few times, which made me happy, and Dr. Flummerfelt praised my German pronunciation, which made me proud. But the thing I need to work on is my ears, I think. I felt like I kept saying, "Well, that sounds fine, why don't we move on?" and Dr. Flummerfelt would say, "Noooooooo," and so then we would fix what he was hearing that was wrong, and then I would say, "Well, that sounds fine, why don't we move on?" and Dr. Flummerfelt would say, "Nooooooo," etc. I think it's just a matter of a.) really, really working on familiarity with the piece, which I did, but could have done more of, and b.) learning to be critical. I think I have the ears...every time Dr. F pointed something out, I felt a recognition of something that I'd been aware of, just not very consciously. I can't really put my finger on any experiences I've had that have encouraged me to be easy-going and uncritical, per se, but I also feel very unused to being critical. Probably because I don't like to let things bother me - the relationship of ducks to water has been something of a guiding principle so far - but now my job calls for letting everything bother me.

Then it was home to crash for a bit, eat dinner, get dressed, and go back over for the Westminster Choir performance. This went quite splendidly, although since it was my first time singing in a group of that caliber I was not as bold as I might otherwise have been during entrances, and feel a little bad about this since it means I'm not taking responsibility for the music-making...but I'll work on that. It was Dr. Flummerfelt's last time conducting us for a while - he's off to Michigan, then Korea, then home for the holidays, then off to Mexico...we'll see him again in the spring when he prepares us for the Spoleto Festival. In the meantime, Dr. Megill will prepare us for the Messiah, a process I'm looking forward to, and various other people will conduct us in the spring, which will be reported on as it happens.

I slept in until 11 am today, which was utterly blissful and much needed, and then had some French toast and puttered around before going over for the last concert, by 3 faculty and an up-and-coming tenor by the name of Matthew Polenzani. Each soloist sang a few short songs, and then they performed the two sets of Brahms' Liebeslieder. Everyone was fabulous. I liked the soprano, faculty member Sally Wolf, especially. And I must say, that although I usually go for baritones and basses (how can you beat those low notes?) every so often a tenor comes along who makes me understand why people swoon over tenors. Which is just another way of saying I greatly enjoyed Polenzani's performance as well. :)

I just talked to my grandfather on the phone, and he asked me what's next. Now that the three big humps are over, namely the AMC performance, the conducting masterclass, and the first Westminster Choir performance, I found out that I'm not quite sure. Aside from the WC performance tomorrow at the Rotary Club...and the Symphonic Choir performance next Saturday...and the Halloween party this weekend...and elections in a week and 2 days...yes, I suppose life does keep barreling along.

Saturday, September 25, 2004


There is so much going on here, so many different balls that I'm trying to keep in the air, that I am trying to confine each journal entry to one particular area. This one is on composition.

I just went to a collaborative pianist's recital. There is a collaborative piano major here, although I found out tonight that there are only 5 of them! No wonder they are always so busy! It was quite splendid - works by Pizzetti, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Malipiero, who were all Italians working in the first half of the 20th century. What really made the performance was the performers - the pianist (whose concert it was) was excellent and the singers were as well. The two sopranos especially were just captivating.

Going to concerts generally puts me in a composing mode. I sit there and my mind drifts around to all sorts of good ideas that I could use as seeds of a composition. This reminds me of something Dr. Young said in class...he was talking about how many of the great composers would improvise, and how they always needed something to start with, some material to get their brains flowing...he said that Mozart or Chopin would play a little Bach first, and then from that get a few ideas and dive into an improvisation. The general idea is absolutely correct - whenever I go to a concert, I usually come out inspired. However, tonight it made me want to take out a couple of songs I wrote in college and dust them off and improve the accompaniments. I dug them out when I got home, and they're in more complete shape than I realized...which makes me wonder if someone actually performed them on a concert and I'd forgotten? Anyways, I'm still pleased with them, and if I get some time, I shall do some more work on them.

This composition class is interesting because it's demonstrating to me just how mathematical a project composition is. We're going on a sort of musical-history-composition tour...we started out writing a Gregorian chant, then some Notre-Dame organum, then a few lines of an isorhythmic motet in Machaut's style. (I was called "a virtuous example of isorhythm and melodic coherence" this week. ;) We also have to do all these counter-point exercises with various rules imposed (no parallel fifths, rules about melodic shape, etc.) that are quite fun...but highly mathematical. And since the goal of each piece is to produce something in the style of what we are imitating, I'm not trying to produce a great tune, I'm just trying to do things correctly, and get all the pieces to fall into place. This means that I am having a much easier time than I expected composing away from the piano. In fact, my method has become compose the piece lounging on the couch, go to the piano, polish it up, type it up, hand it in. And when I play it through at the piano for the first time, it sounds pretty good, even though I had composed it not thinking of sound so much as following the rules laid out for construction (what intervals I can use, what shape the line should have, etc.) Whereas at Williams, probably b/c our compositions were ensemble-based and not style-based, I always had to be at the piano, b/c I was always trying to come up with melodies and harmonies that I liked. It's rather fascinating that adopting a mathematical and logical approach to composition (which I had previously disliked on the grounds that music is meant to be heard and should have its roots in sound) has actually produced very pleasing exercises. (This doesn't mean I like Carter any better than I did before, though.)

I like this method of working out exercises in different styles following a historical timeline. The idea is that we are building a compositional toolbox - every style adds something (e.g. rhythmic modes, isorhythm, double leading-tones.) And then if we ever get into a place where we have to compose something without restrictions, we'll have something to work with. Dr. Young (whom I very, very much like, by the way) mentioned a Stravinsky quote in class that really hit the target for me. I don't remember it exactly, and neither did he, but it was something like, "If someone asks me to write them a piece, I'm at a total loss, I don't know where to start. If someone asks me to write a piece 4 minutes long for 3 saxophones and harmonica in 3/4 time in the key of Eb, I'm immediately overflowing with ideas, and can't wait to get started."

I wasn't able to find this quote online, unfortunately, but I found a similar Stravinsky quote (only more high-falutin'):

"My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit. "

Next up: a Binchois melodic line.

The one piece I'm dying to write right now actually had its inspiration in Choral Literature. We were talking about chanson, and how they were all about courtly love...and everyone started giggling, b/c "courtly love" sounds so very much like "Courtney Love." I am now absolutely and firmly determined to write a French chanson about Courtney Love. I am now accepting proposals for texts...French only, please, and they should follow the formula of praising the beloved and talking about how remote, unavailable, and inspiring she is. Adopting a forme fixe poetic style would be much appreciated.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Upcoming events

For those who are interested, here is a list of events that I will be performing in this fall and winter.

Thursday, October 21 - Sunday, October 24 Westminster is having a Brahms festival. The two events I will be performing at will be the conducting masterclass from 1-4 pm on Saturday (Dr. Flummerfelt will pick apart my conducting of one of the Zigeunerlieder) and a concert by the Westminster Choir on Saturday evening at 8 pm. There will be other concerts, both choral and solo, throughout the weekend, as well as lectures. If you wanted to come farther south than New York City at some point this fall, this would be the weekend to do it. *cough cough*

Saturday, October 30 at 8 pm, there will be a concert featuring the Westminster Symphonic Choir, and some of the smaller choirs as well. I will be in Symphonic Choir, performing Holst's Hymn to Jesus, as well as other works. Kantorei and the Williamson Voices, both very good choruses, will be performing in that concert.

The Jubilee Singers will be performing on November 6 at 8 pm.

The big one: The Westminster Symphonic Choir (with me in it*) will be performing the Brahms Requiem with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and the Dresden Philharmonic on Monday, November 8 at 8 pm in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. For tickets, call (212) 875-5656.

We will be performing the Brahms Requiem again with Neeme Jarvi and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra on November 19 at 8 pm in Trenton; on November 20 at 8 pm in Newark; and on November 21 at 3 pm in Newark.

Readings and Carols, featuring the Westminster Symphonic Choir (all of the Symphonic Choirs put together) will perform on December 10 at 8 pm; and on December 11 at 8 pm.

The other big one: The Westminster Choir will be performing Handel's Messiah with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic on December 15 at 7:30 pm; on December 16 at 7:30 pm; on December 17 at 8:00 pm; and on December 18 at 8:00 pm. All performances at the Riverside Church in NYC. For tickets, call (212) 875-5656.

I think it's obvious which two I think everyone should come to this fall. (Hint: they're bolded, and I included telephone numbers for tickets.) There will be EVEN MORE stuff in the second semester. For information about any of these concerts, go to Westminster's website.

*Symphonic Choir has been split into 2 choirs this year. If you see a concert by Symphonic Choir, I am not necessarily singing in it - ask me first before you go haring off to buy tickets. However, I am performing in all the concerts listed in this entry.

Monday, September 20, 2004


Long day. First class at 9:10 am, last rehearsal ended at 9:30 pm, only breaks in there were 1/2 hour for lunch and 1/2 hour dinner.

And let's look at the ratio here, eh?
Time spent in class: 1 hour + 1.5 hours + 1.5 hours = 4 hours
Time spent in rehearsal: 1 hour + 1 hour + 1.5 hours + 3 hours = 6.5 hours
And this doesn't reflect the fact that the last 1.5 hour class (Conducting I) was spent entirely singing.

Now, that's the kind of ratio I can totally get behind...but it is kind of tiring on the voice!

The last rehearsal was Jubilation. Jubilation is the first-year subset of the Jubilee Singers. Those singers who have been in the group a year or more are called Jubilee, and the newbies like me are called Jubilation.

I am of two minds about Jubilation. On the one hand, Donald Dumpson, the conductor, is great. He is taking a lot of time to get in our faces about our assumptions about music and style, and about race, and about the world in general, and he is slowly trying to challenge us to be honest with ourselves. He's doing exercises to get us to connect to the emotional core of the music, and to build up our confidence and strip away our self-conciousness.

But I am the only graduate student. Most of the students are freshman, and those that aren't are sophomores...and I'm having some problems confronting the impatient, snobby side of me that both has trouble relating to people that young, and is condescending towards where they are. I may be full of it, and of course I have more to learn, but I don't have the problem with self-conciousness or fear of looking stupid that these teenagers do. For the most part it's fascinating, and useful...but it is really hard to shake the feeling that I've already done a lot of the growing that most of the class has not.

Also, they all sing too loud, and not with each other. That is not singular to Jubilation, though, although I think it is exacerbated by the youth and nervousness of that class. I am learning here (and not just in Jubilation) that the idea behind the core definition of a chorus, "people singing together," is not that easy to achieve. Especially with a bunch of people who are here because of their voice, and that's what they want to prove themselves with.

The other challenge is personalizing the text. I can internalize text like "I love Jesus," but when I get something like this, it's tough:

Nothing between my soul and the Savior,
Naught of this world's delusive dream:
I have renounced all sinful pleasure -
Jesus is mine! There's nothing between.

Nothing between my soul and the Savior,
So that his blessed face may be seen;
Nothing preventing the least of his favor:
Keep the way clear! Let nothing between.

Nothing between, e'en many hard trials,
Though the whole world against me convene;
Watching with prayer and much self-denial -
Triumph at last! with nothing between!

Now, I can own most of that text. But how can I get behind a line like "I have renounced all sinful pleasure"? One of my main problems with much of Christianity today is that I believe it propagates hate of natural states of the body and portrays physical love as sinful - I think that philosophy has totally messed up the self-image of generations. Nor do I think this world is an illusion to be patiently endured. And I can't figure out way to twist those kinds of words to my mind. Singing about Jesus is not too difficult, b/c if I think of the man, and what he was trying to achieve, I feel enormous sympathy and care for him and his vision. It's not too hard to smooth that respectful opinion into a reverence and a willingness for helping those who believe in his divinity celebrate that belief. But how can I get behind a doctrine of self-denial?

Since the core of Jubilation is cutting right to the honest soulful heart of things, I can't really skim over it. Mr. Dumpson won't accept that kind of laziness. I guess I'll just have to wrestle with it. I can act it as another person if I have to, but I'd prefer to be able to incorporate a believable performance with my real self.

This entry has presented a disproportionate view of my problems in Jubilation, I fear - but then, we never need to discuss or write about that which goes well. :) These thoughts represent maybe 10-20% of my rehearsal time with them, and there are some excellent, moving, deeply thoughtful and people-binding moments going on. My favorite today came at the end of rehearsal, when Jubilee Singers (the experienced ones) had come it to work with us on a few pieces. After we had sight-read some hymns and worked on them, Mr. Dumpson said, "Ok, Jubilee, sing Jesus Loves Me - Jubilation, you just listen." Jubilee was sitting mixed in with Jubilation, mostly at the back, most of them focused and laid-back, and they had not called attention to themselves. But when he said this, and started playing the piece, they all rose up from their seats and came to the center of the room, with this easy, assured, laid-back, dancing step that was a joy to see, and then burst out singing together in perfect harmony. They, they sang together. It was a joy to hear as well, and then towards the end we (Jubilation) all joined in as well. They were a unit, and it gave me faith (Hallelujah!) that if they turned out like that, then he can take a raggle-taggle, immature, self-concious group of teenagers and a crusty, snotty graduate student and turn out the same kind of harmony.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Conducting lab

Into the third week. Yesterday was my first fully-scheduled Monday. This is because on Friday, I found out that I got into the Westminster Choir. Yippee! The Westminster Choir is currently the elite chorus on campus. I say currently b/c two new groups just started up this year, the Williamson Voices led by James Jordan, which is doing a lot of premieres, and Kantorei led by Dr. Megill, which specializes in Renaissance music. I have friends in both groups, and I hear they are both sounding fabulous, so there soon may be 3 elite choruses on campus. Or more...Jubilee Singers promises to be an experience entirely unlike the others, and I think in a very good way.

So perhaps it would be best to say that Westminster Choir currently gets some of the best gigs. ;) I will be singing Handel's Messiah with the New York Philharmonic this December, and best of all, the Westminster Choir goes to the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina every year from mid-May to mid-June, and gets paid to be the chorus for all the operas that are staged. So that should be fantastic. Don Giovanni, here I come!

Despite yesterday being a long day (Westminster Choir meets from 4:30 - 6:00 pm on MWF, so I had an extra hour and a half of rehearsal before Jubilee Singers began) today was much more exhausting, and it was all due to conducting lab. Conducting lab is a part of Conducting I, but it meets only once a week, on Tuesdays, and the point is to work on how you teach a piece, rather than how you conduct it (teaching methods versus conducting methods and gesture work.) Since there are about 10 people in the class, two people go each week, and they have half an hour each, and everyone goes up about once every month and a half. The class format is not much different from Conducting I (although in Conducting I, people usually get in the hot seat for in 10-minute chunks, and everyone goes once a week.) But for me, the lab was a very different experience.

I used Weep, O Mine Eyes by Bennet as my piece, b/c I love it so much. However, I remember having problems with this piece when I conducted it for the Elizabethans, and it seems I still have massive work to do. First of all, I started out trying to I stared at the music for the entire first read-through. I did this for a very concrete reason. I did this b/c Prof. Marvin at Harvard, w/ whom I audited a conducting class about two years ago, said, "On the first read-through, look at the music, so that you can tell if something goes wrong." It made great sense at the time (I found Prof. Marvin to generally be a man of emminent sense as well as good humor.) However, this proved to be not so good in this situation for several reasons. First of all, the conductors at Westminster are all such good sight-readers that they don't make mistakes that often. Secondly, I know the piece well enough that I don't need to be looking down to catch the mistakes. Thirdly, and most importantly, it meant I cut myself off from the singers, and the sound that came out was timid. The other problem was that I was listening for mistakes...whereas I should have been listening for the music. Listening in a negative way, for negative things, means they will happen, and listening for positive things, like the music, means that will happen. It's amazing what can happen if you just expect it to.

So they worked on getting me to look up...on getting me to make gestures to bring people in, to get them to sing, on expressing the line more with my arms...all things about making me be more giving to the chorus, and more concerned with inviting them to sing well. Now, this is all the sort of stuff that we also work on in Conducting I class, on Mondays and Wednesdays, so I thought I would be prepared. But for some reason, the half-hour session left me feeling like a wrung-out washcloth, and very much wanting to cry. I've discovered over the past few years that I may feel like crying not because I'm necessarily sad or angry, but just because...well, I'm not sure! I wasn't sure today! Too much emotion? What was the emotion? Inadequacy? Insecurity? Learning? Can simply learning make you want to cry? I know I did improve immensely over the half hour, though I wished at the end of it that I had started out doing all the things we worked on right so we could have worked on other things and I could have made more progress, b/c I feel like all this is stuff I should know. I think this overwhelmed crying feeling has happened before in lessons, come to think of it...

Prof. Jordan has written a lot of books, and I began to read one (before I got side-tracked by the Brother Cadfael mystery series.) In it he talked about vulnerability, and how it's an absolutely essential quality for a conductor. I wonder if that is related to this? Perhaps what I am feeling is exposed. And exposure is not a negative feeling, which is why I may be confused, but it can still be very emotional. Learning is very exposing. Perhaps that is why it comes up when I'm on the spot in learning situations - being exposed shakes me up and makes me feel like crying. I'll go with that theory for now.

Side note: This reminds me of the fact that my body will often register emotions that I'm not conscious of feeling. The most common one is getting shivers while singing in a chorus, or directing. I am not aware of hearing anything particularly more beautiful at that moment, but if I get goosebumps, I know something good has just happened. I think it happened for the first time when I sang the Brahm's Requiem at Williams.

Anyways. It was quite an exhausting day. Too bad I still have so much homework to do.

Monday, September 06, 2004

The first week

So, the first week of classes is over! I have had all my classes. And thankfully, I have today off.

I had two auditions this week as well, one for the Williamson Voices, which is conducted by James Jordan, and will be doing a great deal of premieres and recording this year. The other is the Westminster Choir, which is still conducted by Joe Flummerfelt, and is currently considered the most elite chorus on campus. (He is officially retired, but will still be doing some work with the college this year, most notably for me in the area of conducting masterclasses.) They meet at the same time, so I can't be in both ensembles, but hopefully I will get into one or the other.

The two other ensembles I'm in are Jubilation (the introductory level of the Jubilee Singers) and Symphonic Choir. I am still unsure about what to expect from Jubilation. The first rehearsal was all work on getting us to lose our inhibitions about how we thought we should act, mostly. So he had people get up in front of the class and imitate their favorite rock stars, for instance. Interesting - was I that repressed and fearful about looking like an idiot when I was a freshman? - but I'm not sure what sort of music we'll be doing. Perhaps tomorrow I'll go to the library and get out one of their CDs.

Symphonic Choir is fine. I think Prof. Megill is a little worried about keeping everyone up to the standards that Prof. Flummerfelt set, b/c he's a teddy bear when teaching class, but moves very briskly in rehearsal, and doesn't hide his annoyance when we don't keep up. Related to that, I had also hoped that Symphonic Choir would be a little more on the ball. It would appear that (as usual in my choral experiences) I'm quicker on the update than my neighbors. I wonder if this will ever again not be the case. Perhaps if I get into the Westminster Choir (cross your fingers!) Then again, I suppose, as a conductor, it's part of my job to be quicker on the uptake than everybody else. But I had rather hoped to be overwhelmed and awed by the Symphonic Choir experience, and intimidated by the expertise of my neighbors. As it is, I am merely deafened (one thing must be said, I have never in my life sung with people who produced such an enormous sound! Even Jubilee Singers left my head buzzing.)

Choral Literature, Choral Conducting 1, and Conducting Lab are all taught by Professor M, who I like very much. They all have approximately the same people in them - the choral conducting crowd. Composition class is mostly (perhaps all) undergraduates, a great many of whom appear to be loud adolescent boys who think they are very amusing. I don't feel very bonded to the class right now, but as we all listen to each others' compositions, I'm hoping this will change. I'm auditing The Operas of Mozart, which interesting, but in the deadly post-lunch hour when sleep raises its siren call. I'm also auditing Diction, which is hugely easy, but also will be hugely useful, I think.

That's pretty much it. As Prof. M said to me, most of the work here will be in rehearsal, as this is a conservatory, and the academics will not be as hard as what I'm used to, coming out of a physics major at Williams. Which is just fine by me.

I'm also gaining confidence that there will be good people here to make friends with. AN, a fellow first-year choral conductor, is sharp and funny, and SJ, another first-year choral conductor who just finished a masters here in vocal performance, has also been really friendly and kind. SJ took me to Wegman's yesterday - I'm so glad I finally found a grocery store I'm happy with in the area! All the small close stores are hugely expensive, and the supermarket down Harrison has rather wilted produce, as well as being moderately expensive as well. It's Wegman's for me! I shall have to figure out how to bike there.

Saturday, SJ and I had a picnic, with a couple of other people, and talked the afternoon away. Saturday evening I went to see Vanity Fair with a couple people from the picnic (I don't recommend the movie, by the way - not painful to watch, but very meandering.) I've also been hanging out with my Australian roommate, LG - on Friday we watched The Philadelphia Story and yesterday we watched City of God, a pair of movies that couldn't be more different from each other, and both of which I highly recommend.

Other than that, I've been correcting undergraduate theory homework for my graduate assistantship, and working on cleaning my room. Speaking of which, it's time to continue the work!

Sunday, August 29, 2004

A gig, a very palpable gig!

I am so excited! I just got signed on to be the choral conductor for the AMC's Mountains and Music weekend this October! From Friday through Saturday, about a hundred singers and instrumentalists stay at Pinkham's Notch, go on hikes, and go to rehearsals, and on Saturday evening there's a concert, where the orchestra sight-reads a symphony (in this case Beethoven's 8th) and the chorus performs a piece they've been working on with the orchestra. Meaning that not only do I get about 8 hours of rehearsal time with the chorus, I get to conduct an orchestra for the very first time! In performance! Aaaaah!

No pay, but free room and board, and the most valuable thing of all, experience. Eep! This is so exciting! And I have only 6 weeks to prepare! You can bet I'll be running whooping to my advisor first thing after Convocation tomorrow, and begging for help choosing repertoire!

A more complete description is here, at the AMC site!


Friday, August 27, 2004


Today was registration, and I have my schedule! It is insanely full. Of course.

I am taking:

Choral Conducting I (M, W from 2:45-4:15)
Choral Literature I (M, W, F from 9:10-10:10)
Graduate Composition (T, R, F from 2:10-3:10)
Symphonic Choir (M, T, W, F, from 11:30 -12:30)
Jubilee Singers (gospel) (M, from 6:30-8:30)
hopefully the Williamson Voices (it's auditioned) (M, W, F, from 4:30-6:00)
Voice Lessons, time and teacher to be determined, for 1/2 hour a week
and I'm auditing:
English and Italian Diction (T, R from 4:30-6:00)
Opera Lit. Seminar: Mozart's Operas (M, W, 1-2:30)

There's also conducting lab, which you don't actually sign up for, on Tuesday afternoons from 3:20 - 4:20.
There will be some required master classes on Saturdays, when important conductors come to visit.
And there may be informal conducting student dinners on Friday nights.

I am now having to repeat to myself:
"No, don't get a job. You already have a graduate assistantship in Theory. That's enough. No, you cannot go down to the Sacred Music office and see if they have any open positions in the area. No, you can't. You will be insanely busy as it is. No, you can't get a job! Stop it!"

So, no job for me. I'll probably go off my head as it is. The thing is, much of it is rehearsal, which doesn't really have tons of outside work, and it sounds like the two choral conducting classes will not have insane amounts of outside work either, which just leaves composition. Which will doubtless be a time suck, and I worried it was self-indulgent to take it when I'm not here for composition, but my advisor assured me that this was the semester to be self-indulgent in. Besides, I'll meet all the composers!

I'm disappointed that the history class on modes was at the same time as the diction class I have to audit, b/c that looked really interesting. Oh, well.

Everything starts on Monday. I'll be off and running!

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Testing complete

Hello, world.

Coming to you live, from her newly-assembled IKEA computer desk! The first hurdle in the life of the novice graduate student at Westminster is done - I've finished all the assessment examinations. Results as followed:

Graduate musicianship: Passed. Has inspired me to study counterpoint, however, if not while I'm here, then sometime.
20th Century Analysis: Passed (easily.) Nailed the George Crumb which many missed. Knew it was him b/c of the font of the score, but was able to come up with more substantial arguments than that to justify my response. Even threw in some numerology. Go, me!
Music History: Passed. Aced. No idea how. I can only conclude I got bonus points for amusing the grader. Or else on every musical sample that I guessed at, I was right. I guess that really was the Emperor Concerto! And I discovered that I'm very grateful that Jeffrey Rink, my conducting teacher for the past year, led me through a major-works review for the past several months. That was a huge help for re-acquainting myself with some major composers, styles and works, and since the music history essays was very open-ended, I could concentrate on what I did know and ignore what I didn't.
Piano Proficiency: Passed. Was told to work on open choral score-reading, and to practice my string quartet score-reading as well. Intend to do so.
The Other Piano Proficiency, called something slightly different: Passed.
Sight-reading: Passed.
Diction: Failed. But I've never studied the IPA, so I need to learn it. Am also incapable of pronouncing Italian (not surprising) and English (humiliating.) Am adequately capable of pronouncing German (not surprising) and French (odd.) So I'll be auditing English and Italian Diction, which also teaches IPA. Perfect, huh?

Tomorrow is meeting with our major concentration fellow faculty and students, and then meeting in our major performance area (it has some sort of academic name, but I forget.) Mine is voice. I'm quite looking forward to taking voice lessons, I must say! And even though I'm paying out the [censored] for this education, it still somehow feels like I'm getting voice lessons for free.

Am quite liking the fellow students I've had conversations with so far. I hung out with one of my fellow conducting students for a while this evening, talking about mostly music-related things. (I'm unsure of what balance I want to aim for between work, school, and social life (should I work at all? How important is it, really, to date?) but that's a topic for another entry.)