Thursday, July 28, 2005

Vocal Institute

Well, it's nearly over, but July was very busy. Big Job Number One was singing in La bella dormente nel bosco in the Lincoln Center Festival a few weeks ago. Puppets, puppets, everywhere - almost all the action was performed by life-size puppets, and the singers stood off to one side. There was a week of rehearsals, and then a week of performances - 6 shows in 5 days. The opera was splendid and charming, the audiences as giving and receptive as one could possibly hope for, and the music was just as enjoyable to sing and listen to the last night as the first. Best of all, I got paid, and got to be part of a professional opera. And yet, this experience was most valuable because it helped me to figure out that I don't want to be part of a professional opera chorus. Since this is not something I'm currently training to do, perhaps nobody else is surprised, and yet it's always been one of those tempting options, especially when you hear about the salaries and benefits some opera houses offer. However, the hurry-up-and-wait aspect of all professional theater, combined with the business-like approach of all the participants (it is, after all, a job) is not as exciting as the performances I've been in where everyone was an amateur, very passionate, horribly nervous, and totally invested. This goes not only for the singing, but the conducting - I don't think it would be as rewarding to conduct that opera as it would be (was!) to conduct enthusiastic amateurs.

Speaking of enthusiastic amateurs, and the other half of this equation, the middle of July was taken up with Vocal Institute, a 2-week high school choir camp on Westminster's campus. I taught and acted as an assistant to the big chorus. I taught ear-training from 8:30 to 9:00 am, and then from 9 to 9:30, then sectionals from 10:15 to 11:30, then theory from 1 to 2, and again from 2 to 3, and during the second week I sat in on the big afternoon rehearsal from 4:15 to 5:30. I had been extremely nervous about this job, since high schoolers are not a population I'm familiar with. I've taught only once before, and that was high school physics for 2 months, which was pretty tough - convincing second-semester high-school seniors in a lower-level physics class that they care is nigh impossible. However, caring makes all the difference! My theory class, which I had to make up as I went along, turned out to be a great success - I took the kids who'd had a little theory before, and had chosen to be there. We started out with key signatures and intervals, and by the last class they could all analyze a hymn (some of them were superstars, and I was able to push them ahead to seventh chords and secondary dominants.) I was immensely proud of them. I also had more fun than I expected in ear-training, which was mostly teaching solfege, with a bit of tuning thrown in. Although sometimes they were tired and grumpy, it wasn't as hard as I had expected to get them rolling at 8:30 in the morning. My favorite ear-training game was Muppetphone, named after a Muppets episode where someone plays a xylophone made up of muppets. I would assign groups of 3 or 4 students a note, such as "do" or "sol", and put together a whole scale, and then by pointing to a group, which would sing their note, I would play songs and have them try to identify the tune.

Sectionals were fun too, and whether by luck or something I did, the alto section was by far the most bonded, and had the most sense of unity and cohesion. All of the kids, even the ones trying to be noncommittal and cool, were excited and dedicated and generally excellent. Compared to singing professional opera, teaching music theory to high school students was far more interesting, exciting, fun, and rewarding.

I've known since I started studying conducting that I would probably be teaching high school at some point before I reached my goal of a really good university position (I've got my eye on you, MIT!) But until this summer, that knowledge was a source of dread - it's no secret that teaching high school is difficult and draining. Now I've gotten to see the good side of it too, and I'm not so worried anymore. However tough it is, I know there will be some exciting and rewarding moments.

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