Monday, January 3, 2011

Choral Interviews: Numero uno- Dr. Karyl Carlson

Hi all:

I have been meaning to launch a semi-regular feature for quite some time now- interviews of choral folks from around the country!I hope that the questions and answers you read here are entertaining and thought-provoking. As I twist the arms of various folks to reveal all, I hope we can all gain some new insights-- and especially important to me is how these folks were inspired to create music and how they go about inspiring others to do the same. Thanks to Dr. Karyl Carlson, director of choral activities at Illinois State University and the new Illinois ACDA President-Elect for being the first to fill in the blanks. You'll see my questions in italics and Karyl's answers in regular type.

PC: So, what’s new these days at the Illinois State University choral program? I believe it’s been about 5-6 years since you took over the program- tell us where you have been going and what’s new.

KK: What’s new is our continual class of students who are really excited about choral music! Thank you Illinois music educators! They have quickly adopted the ideas that quality and passion makes for a great musical opportunities. The Singing Redbirds Children’s Choir is new, so between that and the Civic Chorale, we provide life-long music-making opportunities. We’ve also been developing our public profile in an effort of arts advocacy. We’re doing this by participating in events across campus and our community, not just in our stone castle.

PC: I believe the music program is growing and growing, not just the choral dept, but the whole music program. To what do you attribute this success? How have you gone about recruiting new students to ISU?

KK: The quality of instruction is a key factor. We pride ourselves on individual attention from when we start to communicate with students and supporting them after they graduate. We invest ourselves in our students’ success. So while the university may seem big to some (although not to me, coming from Big Ten schools!) the feel is much more of a smaller school. Students respond to knowing they’re not just one in a sea of people. Also, the diversity and quality of ensembles is an attractive factor. Musicians want to be part of a talented ensemble and have opportunities to perform great repertoire. In the process, students develop into independent, confident, and skilled musicians. If they choose to teach or perform, the expectations are the same. We also have administrative support and a put forth a team effort that is incredibly invaluable.

PC:I know you have been hoping to develop the choral grad program more- how is that going?

KK: I wish I had more time to recruit grad students, maybe to connect with those in other trusted undergraduate institutions but frankly I have little time to do that. Hopefully as ISU’s visibility increases that will help attract talented graduate students. I would like to have graduate students that have already been out in the world, maybe having taught a few years. It’s important that graduates are employable after they’re finished at ISU or in preparation for further graduate study. I want them to be successful, to get out there and be brilliant.

PC: Do you have any tours coming up for any of the groups, and what do you think the true benefits of touring are?

KK: Madrigals toured in November. Their primary purpose is recruiting. Also, I really enjoy getting out into the schools. I miss that about not teaching choral methods and supervising student teachers, but now I have so many ensembles for my primary teaching load. Concert Choir has toured in the past but it’s gotten to be very expensive. We try to take an overseas trip every few years. The next one will likely be next year.

PC: Who has been the most influential teacher in your career?

KK: There are several. My first piano teacher, Mrs. Eckert is dear to my heart. She allowed me to love playing and not resent practicing in lieu of other activities. And she never told me anything was too difficult. Then there was Mrs. Turner at Keeler Elementary School. She had a little code for me to signal her when she played one of the little melodies (like Happy Wanderer!) different than what was in the book. She was transposing, but of course I had no idea what all that meant, and she didn’t tell me but she just kept encouraging me to let her know.(I think that was so some precocious 3rdgrader wouldn’t raise her hand and say “Mrs. Turner Mrs. Turner you’re playing that incorrectly!”)Then Charles Smith.Sigh.I can’t say enough about my opportunity to study with him and other MSU profs. I was so fortunate! Discovering what’s musically important in order to elucidate the intentions of gestures—the economy of means—was key in developing how I now approach music. Something like: inspire the idea then get the hell out of the way can usually works. Plus he demonstrated that a wry sense of humor and large vocabulary can be very helpful.

PC: Were there any a-ha moments for you in regard to a teacher you studied under?

KK: I have to say I received first rate music education all the way through the Redford Union Schools in Michigan. All those folks taught with great passion, high expectations and compassion. Eugene Dyer (choirs) at RUHS was a great musician. Don Burman (bands) provided so many opportunities for me to explore – I even played alto sax in a big band. My Jr. High band teacher was awesome too – handing me a bassoon knowing I’d go home and figure out how to play it, but then helping with lessons, camps, etc. At Michigan, I started as a piano major so even up until that point I hadn’t studied voice privately. Frankly I wasn’t so happy with the choral experience there because I couldn’t get into the Chamber Choir (not a grad student…) and I was in a giant choir where I felt that the director wouldn’t really know if I was there or not(and I dare say, I think he didn’t…) I had a much better time playing in the Michigan Marching Band where I learned incredible discipline and commitment. Playing in the Rose Bowl wasn’t bad either! Catherine Nadon-Gabrion was the music ed instructor at the time. She was highly influential in terms of leadership and organization. SO, all that to say, the whole of my education has been one big Ah-HA! I’m eternally grateful. I hope I never lose the idealistic hopes I had as a first year teacher at Franklin Elementary School in Sterling, IL.

PC: I know that you studied with Charles Smith at Michigan State. I’ve had the opportunity to recently observe some other Smith students such as Lynda Hasseler at Capitol University and Elizabeth Schauer at Arizona State University. You all seem to share an elegant, long line phrasing and a very gorgeous physical conducting gesture that creates this. Would you agree that that is something Smith stressed to his students and how did he teach this?

KK: Charles Smith was all about developing and maintaining the continuum of legato. He thought all gesture should be driven by expressive intentions, not habit, and all the flourish really need not be there. “Just the facts” actually includes the vital musical facts, not just the pattern. I have also tried to incorporate gestures that are supportive of vocal technique: rhythmic breath (not on the last 8th rest) and rhythmic diction. I’ve also started insisting that some of the musicality responsibility be borne by the singers, not my dictation of it. The more a conductor subdivides, whips, bounces, gyrates, not only do they look funny, the less energy the singer has to bring to the table.

PC: What has been the most amazing musical experience in your life, either as a singer or director?

KK: As a singer, the first time I sang for Robert Shaw in Carnegie Hall. Walking onto that stage was magic. Singing beautiful music in naturally reverberant places is an experience that cannot be matched.

PC: What three pieces have you still not conducted that you look forward to doing someday (and elaborate a bit please)?

KK: Britten’s WAR REQUIEM – I don’t know about ever having the space or forces to do it. I feel a great affinity for it, though. The poetry is incredibly poignant and the setting of it is perfect. I feel like it’s such an impactful work; appropriate for all time. Right now, wars are not in our faces like the world wars. We aren’t sacrificing or feeling the desperation of them now, unless we know someone fighting. These wars are crippling our country and we aren’t incredulous about it. A piece like the WAR REQUIEM, well that’ll put it in one’s face.

Monteverdi VESPERS of 1610 :Monteverdi is such a romantic. It seems intimidating, though, figuring out the sections, and then finding an audience to listen to it.
Lots of Poulenc.

PC: What are your three most favorite choral pieces, either a cappella or with orchestra?

KK: I’m having the most trouble with this one!One favorite is Durufle’s “Requiem” but recently it has fluctuated, depending on the performance. I had performed this with the Shaw singers and had that in my mind, then with organ at CWU and it was magic. The next time was of a performance with the reduced orchestration and didn’t care for it. Then the next time was a performance with full orchestration and I got incredibly distracted by string intonation issues that the magic just wasn’t there. I don’t know if I will take the chance again.

I love Henk Badings’ “Trois Chansons” and absolutely adore singing in French. The use of IPA has helped make that repertoire accessible. The piano part in this set is fantastic.

Lastly, all things Brahms! “Liebeslieder” = fun. Motets = heartbreakingly gorgeous lines. “Requiem” = iconic.

PC: I know you have tradition of everyone singing “Make our garden grow” from Candide at your final concert each school year. Did you start that tradition or was it already going on? Tell us more.

KK: I had been doing that piece in the same fashion at Central Washington University, they just wanted to keep doing it year after year, and I saw it as an alumni opportunity for building the networks of teachers. I wanted to choose a different song here (that was “theirs”, as I was chided when I left) but nothing seemed to fit the bill. I tried “My Spirit Sang All Day” by Finzi, but it wasn’t as popular. So after a few years I brought my Garden here. It tells a nice story, and has a big blastissimo ending with a high C.

PC: What do you do, like a hobby or interest, to recharge your batteries? How do you fill your summers?

KK: I’m on sabbatical in a few weeks, and am pretty excited about that. It’s giving me a chance to get caught up and do things like answer your blog questions! I write a lot of recommendations so I’m now caught up with those too. I recently got a decent piano so I can practice at home now. I’m enjoying being in an awesome relationship with Jeff Paxton. I’m a big fan of his bands; he’s an awesome bass player.Another favorite thing to do is travel and I especially like going to places where there is water and mountains. I like to be in nature, observing, appreciating, and marveling. And I like to make stuff, fix stuff, hang out with friends, cook for them and drink red wine.

PC: How is Boris, your dog? How does he contribute to the ISU music program?

KK:Boris is awesome! He just turned 11. He likes to organize parties and be the center of attention. He also has his own Facebook page and many adoring fans. He had his own jewelry company in Washington (Big Yellow Dog) but he’s too busy now. Boris is just plain good for morale, and makes for some good analogies, like “find your inner grrrr” when singing Stravinsky or Verdi or the like. Or wag like Boris, not some Yorkie. (sorry, Yorkie-owners)

PC: What advice would you give undergrads who have really been bitten by the choral music conducting bug- what things do you really wish they will keep in mind and make sure to develop?

KK: some advice for undergrads. Where do I start??? So, some points in no particular order.*Develop superior musical skills, including voice and piano. *Develop leadership skills and realize conducting has much to do with people skills. People watch! Pay attention to people’s reactions to instructions, questions, the dynamics of peer pressure. *Grip the idea that we need to be our own advocates; it’s not the case where we prepare music and people come to the concerts. *Be patient and know that careers are built, not automatic just because one has a degree. *Philanthropy pays both ways *Family first *Do a lot of listening to develop musical preferences, ideas, habits, clarity. *In rehearsal, be both participant and observer: take copious notes! *Keep programs and make notes *Go to live performances. *Support your local composer!

PC: Thanks to Karyl for that last sentiment (haha), all the other great answers, and for teaching us the word "blastissimo"!

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