N. Carolina Governor’s School East: The Rest of Week One and Week Two
Well I have fallen behind on blogging- forgive me as I have two rehearsals per day, meetings, consults, leading some informal chess electives, you name it- the days get filled to the brim for students and faculty a like here. That’s a good thing until the sleep deprivation starts happening, and that can become a big issue for these students who have never pushed through that sort of thing like an adult has.
So here we go- hit and miss on topics as I pick up where I left off. We had two wonderful days with my friend Lisa Fredenbrugh as visiting clinician. Lisa did a full day of vocal tech with the kids- a big eye opener for us was her idea of thinking of breathing from your back, not some more frontward breathing point in the belly/diaphragm.I think the reason this works is that it makes you more aware of your intercostal muscles being part of the whole breathing process.We also needed work on jutting/moving jaws, and even today a week later another visiting clinician was pointing out that issue to the singers.
My assistant Susan Hahn and I continue to keep working these voices through passagios and on and on into new tessitura territory. Today we had some “altos” singing healthy high B flats(!) as they worked one on one in vocalise with today’s clinician, the very youthful and very talented Jonathan Blalock.
I was glad to see Jonathan place singers on their back on the floor to vocalize. The change in gravity and the feeling in breath support are radically different in this position, and when a singer stood back up and sang again, wow- the sound popped. My first experience with this tool was when I attended a masterclass by Richard Miller (the guru of the scientific approach to singing) a few year ago and he had one of my singer from Vox Caelestis (my professional women’s choir in Chicago at that time) do it. This was a young lady who sure had a wide, slightly odd vibrato for her age which you could see Richard did not like and when he had her do the sing on the floor thing she really had to change her approach to support. And actually, it was the first time she let her guard down and trusted that someone else might know more than she did (Miller would have been about 70 at the time, she was about 25).
This year’s GSE students are very enthusiastic, very smart, and really don’t want to stop singing when the bell rings. Even with eleven rehearsals per week, they would rather just keep going. Of course this becomes an issue in regard to their vocal health. Last Friday we had guest speaker Leda Scearce from the Duke Voice Care Center give them a presentation on keeping their voices healthy. Leda especially stresses the idea of personally planned vocal rest, and that is what I have been working with them on as well. We also are trying to stress to them that what they do in choir is pretty darn healthy- we give them well-designed warm-ups that prepare them for each rehearsal and the day, and we also work with them on connecting more to their bodies, trying to get rid of the Western trap of separating mind and body. What often isn’t healthy is what they do with their voice OUTSIDE of choir-too much cellphone talking, too much yelling on the quad, and too much Broadway or Glee belting when they have some free time near a piano. Many afternoons I ask for a countdown- I countdown from 10 as “my voice is in great shape” down to 1- “uh oh, I have a serious problem”. Anyone raising their hand when I am counting down into the 3-2-1 area is given vocal rest, yet they attend rehearsal and pay attention. Once again, this is a way for us to keep track of the endurance/pacing issue; we have to try to keep HS voices healthy over six weeks in an intense learning environment.
The last day of week one we attended the Longleaf Opera Company’s aria competition. This was an aria competition (hmm, I generally dislike arts competitions) for young artists. The nine semi-finalists we heard on Saturday afternoon were between the ages of 25- 34, i.e. singers just entering their prime. They were all quite good, but certainly some really grabbed your attention. It was wonderful for my 16-17 year olds to see where they might be in ten years. It was also very valuable for them to see storytelling going on, almost always a healthy vocal production (although there were two tired voices trying to compete), and for them to see that every not meant something. I was happy to see that a concept that Richard Miller always stressed, the idea that every note matters and that every note must ring and contain a natural vibrato, were apparent in almost every singer.
A valuable tool for us in week two has been count singing, especially for a spiritual arrangement of mine, Hear de Lambs A-cryin’. Since the melody is slow and has some sustained notes the count singing has helped teach the singers to keep those longer notes from becoming flabby, meaningless, and disconnected from the overall melodic line. For anyone unfamiliar with count singing, it’s a rehearsal technique championed by the late Robert Shaw in which the words are stripped from the piece and replaced by singing the subdivided pulse “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and” all the way through a piece. By count singing all the eighth notes in a quarter note pulsed pieces (say 4/4) the whole line has meaning and shape, including any long notes. In addition, it becomes very apparent when chords are not tuning. My singers’ reaction to count singing was twofold; I think some of them weren’t that thrilled about it (kind of like getting them to eat their veggies!) but I did notice many of them picking up on the bit by bit benefits of it, as each time we went through it was a little better than the time before (“Baby steps” a la Bill Murray in What about Bob?).
So it’s Sunday morning the 28th now and it’s time to start wrapping up this meandering blog. Tonight the faculty here are presenting something called Lagniappe- which I hope doesn’t mean Long Nap. We each take five minutes to wow the students with whatever we want to present - a mini-lecture, a demonstration of research we might be doing, a work in progress report- underwater ventriloquism- you know, whatever we think might help them realize that the faculty here is smart and cool.
I am going to be talking about my setting of May Swenson’s poem Summer’s Bounty, a wacky poem which is a basketful of deconstructed summertime compound words. For instance morning glories becomes glories of morning, raspberries becomes berries of rasp, and one of my favorites- mushrooms becomes rooms of mush. It also contains a cool chord I stole from the opening of George Gershwin’s overture to Porgy and Bess (see George, at least I tell people where I got it).After I talk about the poem a little we’ll listen to a nice recording of the piece by the Oregon State University Chamber Choir directed by Steven Zielke.
Ciao for now!
To the readers
5 years ago