Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Working witht the Fine Choirs of Illinois State University- part two

Hi all- I'm on the road to Cincinnati for the Central Division ACDA convention. I will be trying to blog as much as possible from the convention (seems like almost no one is making the time to do this!) so because of the time crunch this entry and the next few may not have purty pictures with them! I will start by trying to finish up blogging about my visit last week to Illinois State University.

After the rehearsal with Belle Voix at Illinois State, I next attended the concert choir rehearsal. This is ISU’s top SATB choir, led by Dr. Karyl Carlson. They had just returned from a tour of Chicago area high schools, which apparently went very well. Karyl has been doing a lot of instate touring with Belle Voix and the Concert Choir and has really increased people’s awareness of the great program she has developed at ISU since her arrival as Director of Choral Activities about six years ago.

Karyl was kind enough to allow me to work with the choir, and she wanted them to hear how a composer views texts. So I worked with them on reading and examining the text of “Fishing in the Keep of Silence” by Linda Gregg. This is a poem which I set a couple years ago, but have not yet had a chance to try with a choir.

Here is the poem:

There is a hush now while the hills rise up
and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship
of Heaven to take over and proceed beautifully
as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.
He knows the owls will guard the sweetness
of the soul in their massive keep of silence,
looking out with eyes open or closed over
the length of Tomales Bay that the herons
conform to, whitely broad in flight, white
and slim in standing. God, who thinks about
poetry all the time, breathes happily as He
repeats to Himself: There are fish in the net,
lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.

So I first started out by having a few people read the poem out loud, and we noticed that there were differences in how people read certain lines. I then had people find phrases they especially liked, and to read them and share them with each other. And then I also had them just pull out what I call bonus words- single words with a lot of beauty, impact or other meaning or value. Such a word was “beautiful”, which I told them I decided to emphasize and sought to specifically set that word beautifully. We discussed a number of things, and then I also went on to tell them what I am looking for when searching for a poem to set:

1) Is the text special in some way? Will it make an impact, will it interest someone to read it over again to look for more meaning?

2) Does it tell a story? Is it full of action, or is it more contemplative? Who are the characters in the story or vision?

3) Does the poem contain special imagery that might inspire a musical setting?Does it actually suggest music in some way?

4) Is the language direct, or is it difficult to grasp? (direct is better)

We then went ahead and read through my setting, and they did a great job. But Karyl was more demanding; she reminded them that sightreading should not be done in a passive way, just hitting the notes and sort of getting through the piece. She basically asked them to sing it through again and engage ALL their musical and communication skills in their sightreading. This was a great thing for her to say, and a great attitude to impart. After the second time through I thanked Karyl and told her how impressed I was with the group’s sightreading and she responded by saying it is something they work on as much as possible. Great!

We also talked about how to communicate to an audience, and I told them how much I think we need to sing from memory in order to allow our eyes and faces to be open to each other (singers, conductors, audience) in order to communicate as human beings- and not have our eyes buried in a score (please see my post from last Fall, which garnered a lot of response both in my blog and also when it was shared on ChoralNet). Karyl and the singers agreed on how important this was and how much performing “sans score” they are doing- I was very pleased.

As a special treat for myself I asked them to sing me their favorite piece from their tour. They actually decided on two, Sidney Guillaume’s playful “Twa Tambou” and a movement from the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil. The Guillame was great fun, and I’m sure it was a crowd-pleaser for the audiences on tour. The Rach is one of my top favorite choral pieces (but l also have great love and respect for the vastly underperformed Gretchaninov All-Night Vigil as well) and the choir sang with a nicely developed darker, yet also very fluid sound which really let some long lines spin beautifully. It was obvious how much they love this music, and I’m sure they take their cue from Karyl.

All in all, we did a lot in one hour and it was very rewarding to work with these highly talented young singers, many of whom are in the ISU ACDA chapter and who will be traveling to Cincinnati for the ACDA convention there.

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