Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Guest Clinicians at N Carolina Governor's School East choir

Things have been crazy busy here at the North Carolina Governor’s School East choir program. It’s been hard to keep up with everything and still find time to blog. In addition, I have received two wonderful new commissions in recent weeks, so I have been trying to find time to work on the one I have already started, and at least start mulling over the other.

Anyway, I would like to relate stories about all the guests I have had in to talk to or work with the students. This has been extremely valuable in two ways; one, they gain valuable insight from skilled, experienced adults on a variety of topics that pertain to their singing, vocal health, and music-making, and 2) it allows me to not be stressing their voices with too many hours of rehearsal per week (we technically have anywhere from 150-195 minutes of rehearsal time per day on the school calendar, but obviously that would cause really ragged voices in HS students).

Our first guest, way back in week one, was my good friend Lisa Fredenburgh who will start a new job as director of choral studies at Aurora College in Illinois. Lisa volunteered to work with these students for a day and a half in group vocal tech lessons. About 60% of them had never had a private voice lesson, so this day and a half from Lisa was great for them. She really stressed posture and breathing “from the back”, which really was a great image for them. She also worked a lot with them to envision a shape to the sound within the mouth and how that sound would project out. this was great instruction from a wonderful, positive person.

Our next guest was Leda Scearce, from the Duke Vocal Health Clinic. Leda presented all the facts any young singer should know about their voice and how to take care of them. She showed photos of damaged larynxes, videos of vocal folds in action, and imparted great wisdom about how to treat your “instrument”- one of her biggest concerns was that young singers should plan vocal rest into their day. To me, this was important, as Lisa Fredenburgh had already told me she felt that in our environment here, Susan Fetch (my assistant ) and I are already treating their voices with respect in rehearsals (full, well-planned warm-ups, no extra stress in the AM, de-emphasis on pressing down with the voice) and that any tired or strained voice issues are happening out on the quad, through too many hours on cellphones, and so on. Leda emphasized over and over that singers need rest, water, good nutrition, a better approach to their vocal use throughout the day, and many other things.

Our next guest was a young tenor who caught my eye at the Longleaf Opera aria competition, Jonathan Blalock. Jonathan placed second in that competition which we all attended, and I was able to get him in for two days to do even more vocal tech with our singers, and I was especially interested in him working with the guys (the ladies did get his attention as well). Jonathan stressed the importance of breath and breath management. He really helped many of the singers find more breath support connected to the sound and the ability to move air in appositive way. Of course I didn’t want these teenagers trying to sound like Jonathan and that was said out loud to them. What we did want them to emulate was the connection of all the elements in his vocal production, and developing an ear for when things feel right and sound right. Jonathan has a great live voice and a wonderfully engaging personality- so he was an excellent role model for them, since he is only about ten years older than they are. He is now off to Israel for some great opera roles.

Our next guest was Shawn Copeland, a professional clarinetist and also an Alexander Technique instructor. We were able to work with Shawn for an entire day and it was amazing. He taught physiology to the students and dispelled all sorts of misconceptions they had about their body and its physique (ably assisted by “George”, Shawn’s full skeletal model). Shawn decided to work mostly on the body mapping element of Alexander Technique but he did get into hands-on work with almost every singer in the room. He was able to reinvent posture and carriage for almost every singer, in some cases drastically improving their posture and their awareness of how they habitually hold their bodies. Wow, this day was amazing.

Dan Huff, head of music ed at UNC, Chapel Hill, visited us and talked to the students about careers in music and how to choose a music college. Dan’s presentation was extremely valuable to these students.

We also worked with the multi-talented Tigger Benford, a percussionist who teaches musicians and dancers in a very creative way. For our one session with Tigger, I chose for him to work with them on body percussion. After a few simple things, Tiger stepped up the challenge, and the students were expected to be able to use their hands, arms, feet, and whole bodies to learn (by rote) a whole series of rhythms, many of which were outside their usual area of competence (cross rhythms you would not usually run across in western music). This was a great Governor’s School moment-- a few kids wanted to give up, but I told them just keep going. No one said everything was easy in life (right?!). And the fact that this was a bit of a struggle for some of them was a good thing. I was proud that the 2-3 kids who sort of wanted to give up stepped right back into the fray of what Tigger was challenging them with. Another pearl of wisdom from Tigger that they won’t hear in their HS classroom: beat one is not always the start of everything, in fact in much music , things lead into beat one (and back out of it) , so it is just an arrival point, not just a disconnected, blatantly strong beat.

Our final guest, via Skype, was the wonderful choral composer Joan Szymko. We are working on her 2010 ACDA Brock commissioned piece “All Works of Love”, with a very simple text by Mother Teresa. Over an hour-long Skype session, Joan answered some great questions from the kids, and gave them many moments of heartfelt wisdom about the meaning of music, how texts and music compel us to think deeply about who we are, and so on. The students questions were well thought out, and Joan’s answers were brilliant. This was an amazing opportunity for young people to talk directly t to a living composer about a recent work which has been premiered to great praise. We will be singing Joan’s piece July 23rd on our final concert, and I think this personal connection with the composer will make our performance so much more meaningful.

So there you have it, a bunch of all-star guests who shared their love of music and lots of the technical things they have worked so hard to discover in their careers. To be 16 or 17 years old and gain all these insights over six weeks time was truly invaluable for these students.

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