Here is the fourth part of the transcript of my interview with Mary Beekman. The rest will be posted later today! Don't forget, she is conducting Musica Sacra and the Boston Cecilia in the Brahms Requiem on Sunday, 3 pm at Jordan Hall!
Interview with Mary Beekman on 10/31/09 at a Starbucks in Watertown, MA, Part 4
M: …at Harvard. [She] joined my group, joined Musica Sacra. And we became very good friends. And then she got the opportunity to disperse funds from a foundation, and decided that we were a group that her foundation was going to support. So our growth has totally been dependant on her. I wouldn’t be paid what I am, we would not have an E.D. The big challenge, of course, is to find a large enough donor base that that’s just part of what you have. But it’s better than no donor base – I mean, it’s fabulous. It’s fabulous! And that’s why at my 20th, I was able to do the B Minor Mass of Bach, and that was totally because of that grant. And every orchestral concert we’ve done with one exception has been because we had access to that grant. The first orchestral concert we ever did, we actually – I had a woman who wrote, we got money from the Massachusetts Council to do it. But then, of course, that all started drying up.
A: Now, I want to make sure that we have time to touch on other topics. So, in two minutes, from that point to this…
M: Well, I did a little bit. I’ve been telling you how we went from two [concerts] to four. The group has stayed pretty much the same, but now we have an E.D. The group has stayed the same. The great thing about the group is that for years, I had maybe 30% turnover, because being in Harvard Square, we get a lot of young people, and they come, and then they get a degree, and they move. Over the last ten years, there’s been less and less attrition among the singers. And the great thing about that is that when people come on board, there isn’t a huge learning curve. It used to be – I work a lot with phrasing. And it used to be I’d have to reinvent the wheel every year, because people would be lulled back into their bad habits by the new singers. Now the new singers hear how the old singers are already doing it, and they know if they don’t get on board right away, the old singers are going to be, like, “You’ve got to do that.” So we can really advance exponentially in a way that we couldn’t before. So I feel like we’re really able to get momentum. Plus, having a web presence, now that the Choral Consortium site exists…everybody used to look at the Globe Calendar. Now everybody looks at the web. We always ask people where they heard about us. It’s always the web. Or it’s a friend. So does that bring you up to today?
A: Yes. So you started Belmont Open Sings? No?
M: No, no, no. That had been started –
A: What other parts of your – what else do you do right now?
M: Well, I do Belmont Open Sings, which actually was started by a woman who saw a group like that in Princeton, and wanted to have it in Belmont. And I got involved with it about fifteen years ago when she started getting dementia. Oh my God, so scary. She’s since died of dementia. And you know, F. John Adams has dementia too, and she was in Holden Chapel. It makes me wonder if there was some horrible chemical in Holden Chapel, or something. But anyway, I was appointed to that, and I’ve been doing that, and then I have a voice studio. And I have my first conducting student, and I’m just so excited about it! I love it! So basically, a vocal studio. And here’s the thing, I mean, I would like to get more involved in – I’d like to have another job now that my kids are out of the house and everything. But I tried out for – there was a big position in Lexington last year, I don’t know if you looked at it, Congregational Church, and they were just looking for…Hancock.
A: Rings vague bells.
M: Well, I was on the short list, and I went, and had an interview. And they said, “Well, now, what would you do with Musica Sacra?” Because this was a full-time – they listed it as a 30-hour-a-week job. And I said, “Well, you know, I used to have four jobs, I’d keep doing it.” [no sound]
A: They’ll learn!
M: Well, but the point is, they’ll have someone who will say, “Oh, well, I’ll give it up,” and then they won’t. I mean, I feel like I’m being honest. But the thing is, too, I don’t know about you, I feel like when you have more than one job, they actually inform each other –
M: -- and you actually don’t have to work as many hours prep, because – but of course, they don’t want to hear that, right?
A: Sometimes I feel a little bad about it. I’m like, “Hm, well, this song, we could also do that with this other group, and this other group!” So I’m like, OK, we’re going to—
M: But it’s not just the repertory. It’s like, vocal issues, teaching things, I mean, the more you’re in it, the more resilient you are. “Oh, this is going to work.” The juices are always going.
A: Right now mine are – I teach elementary students, and I teach my church choir, and then I have this college – they’re so scattered in different areas of development that it’s hard for me to…yeah.
M: So, are you in a school?
A: Yes, I teach – I have five jobs right now. I teach at Mission Hill School in Roxbury through Urban Voices, have you heard of that program?
A: I teach there one day a week, I have my church job, which is 10 hours a week, I teach a group called the Notables in Weston, which is an a cappella group that meets on Wednesday mornings –
M: Is it co-ed, or just women?
A: Just women. And I direct Cantilena. And I – oh, and I just became the choral director at Lasell College.
M: Oh, cool.
A: So, very busy. So one thing I wanted to – before we get to Brahms, and it’s 12:53, just so you know, I don’t want to --
M: Oh. I’m sorry, I talk to much.
A: Well, that’s the whole point! I do want to ask you about your opinions about conducting. What parts of it you think are important, do you think that people neglect their hands, do you think people neglect score study – what kind of – philosophy of conducting, pet peeves you see in other people, that kind of thing. Take it and run with it, any direction.
M: OK, this is the direction that I’m going to run with it. The problem with conducting is that you have a finite amount of time to prepare something that should be perfect. You have to make choices. Something is always going to suffer. Because there isn’t enough time to do it all perfectly. So, when I started out, cutoffs were very important to me. This is going to be an eighth-note cutoff! This is going to be a quarter-note cutoff! And I have people in my group now that are rather anal, and their hand goes up right away, and I think, “It’s going to be a comment about this cutoff was supposed to be an eighth note, and we’re making it a quarter note.”
A: I call those Public Service Questions.
M: But after a while, it’s more to do with someone’s OCD than really being useful, do you know what I mean? So for me, it’s not so much about the conducting, it’s about the product. So what product am I – I can only really – I mean, it is true that when I hear other choruses, I always come with schadenfreude in mind. You know, it’s like I want to hear things I don’t like, so that I’m like, “Good, I’m on the right track!” [laughs] So I think blend is very important. I think that proper pronunciation of a foreign language or English is very important. I think tuning is very important. And the thing that I find interesting is that my ear has gotten better and better for tuning over the years, but it is not helpful to your singers to tell them that they’re out of tune or they’re flat, or whatever.
A: [strikes a tight, tense pose]
M: Exactly. So now what I try to do is talk about you need to use more air. Everything is from the context of air. Because if you tell someone that they’re flat and they need to raise the pitch there, it’s not going to happen in a way you like. And it might be there then, but here in the performances…so it’s all about always having enough air. So I would say right now my big thing is about breathing often enough. And interestingly, we have re-auditions every year, and we always ask people, “What do you do well, and what do you want to work on?” And almost to a person, the really good singers will say, “I want to work on breathing. I don’t get breathing. I don’t know when to breathe, I don’t know how to breathe.” And it’s just one of those things that, you know, we all take for granted, and yet when you see people…I don’t know, I mean, certainly Emily must work on breathing.
A: Oh, yes. I work on it with my choirs a lot. It’s hard to make myself work on it, because I feel so – it’s so hard to work on, because you can’t work on it in a sort of rhythmic, together way. To a certain extent, when we’re going to work on breathing, I can’t say, “1, 2, 3, go, and we all breathe!” I have to be like, “Ok, think about this, and you’re breathing in, and you’re thinking about this…” So it’s something I’m trying to work on, but it’s also very…you know, teaching choirs to breathe is very – it can be challenging.
M: Well, when you think about it, I have a –
A: They all do it at different paces, everybody has a completely different way of doing it…
M: Well, exactly, exactly.
A: You say one thing, all the people who are already doing it correctly will take it to heart, the people you’re actually trying to talk to won’t even be hearing you, and…yeah.
M: Well, the other thing is, too, that singing is unique in that you have this place, you have this line that you have to deliver, and the presumption is that you’ll have enough air to deliver it. When 90% of the time, you don’t. And so how do you teach your singers to recognize that moment right before they don’t have enough air, and that that’s when they need to get out and take a breath. So I think I’d rather answer your question that way, if that’s OK. It’s sort of like, what am I working on that’s important to me? Certainly – what do I think people don’t work on enough? Well, the one thing I really don’t like to see, and I probably do it myself, but I really don’t like to see it, is people that bring their arms up beyond a certain…[brings up her elbows higher than her shoulders] Like, the guy who does our youth choir at church, he’s quite expressive in his conducting, but it’s all up here like he’s sitting at a keyboard. I’m like, what is it about being up here? Your ictus needs to be down here. I mean, again, that was something again that Pittman – “No lower than your bellybutton, no higher than your breast.” I mean, that’s where it’s going to be. So.
(to be continued!)