Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Chamber Choir/Vocal Ensemble

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you know I love fresh figs.  Love, love, love them!

All year I wait until August, when they are in  season here in the Midwest.  This year, I bought a fig tree so I will be able to have figs any time I want–so I thought. What I didn’t know was how finicky the trees are.

Fig tress cannot withstand temperatures below 10 degrees F, so I had to buy a smallish tree and re-pot it in a plastic pot–not ceramic–so I will be able to drag it across my patio.  It needs to ‘winter’ in my garage.  A bit of work, but for fresh figs, I am willing.  And with our temps often in the 100s this summer, I have had to water, water, water so it wouldn’t die.  And I did and it didn’t die, exactly.  What did happen was leaves fell off regularly.  The small figs I so looked forward to maturing have fallen off, except for one.  That fig looks healthy and should be just about ready to pick…..but I am not sure I can do it!  After trying to keep it alive since May, I don’t have the heart to pluck the last, lone fig. Today, I broke down and bought some figs from the grocery store and will continue to until my fig tree is ready to harvest next year.

Planning my concert cycles for my chamber choir can be likened to the plans I had for my fig tree–sometimes, we must first prepare and be willing to wait a bit.  And, it will “pay off” eventually.  But first, we must wait until everything is in place.

 
 

It’s been a busy summer around here.  Not much different from any other summer.

I spent a good portion of late June and much of July filing music. Any choral director will tell you that’s the worst part of the job.  In most of my church jobs, I had a music librarian who did this but even so, some  of it fell to me anyway.  This summer has been especially messy with filing for some reason but I’m almost finished.  I am on the last bag of  handouts and old programs and my only problem will be deciding what to keep and what to recycle. It should take one more afternoon and then I should be done but not for long–I have to put together fall folders.

Many of my peers–directors and conductors–can’t be bothered with this “busy work” but I almost like it. I see what we have and don’t have.  I see what condition the copies are in.  Sometimes, I find music I forgot we have and am inspired to program it!

I am really one of those “hands on” people and have no problem pitching in when needed.  I find if I want something to happen, some times have to make it happen.  And while I have wonderful volunteers, the buck stops with me but at times, it starts with me as well.

I suppose it would be wonderful to be a Diva and be waited on…..or maybe it wouldn’t, I wouldn’t know.  I’ve always pitched in and gotten my hands dirty.  I don’t know any other way.

 
 

With Mother’s Day this past Sunday, I am reminded how being a Mom has influenced how I run my choirs.

When my boys were babies and young children, I had to make every second count I had free to do my job properly.  When they were tiny, I taught privately and had a studio of beginning piano students and several voice students.  I usually had about 15 students and scheduled three a day, five days a week, while it was afternoon nap time.  Often, toward the end of the last lesson of the day, I would hear tiny voices singing along to my students.  I knew they knew when I was finished, it was time to get up and were singing to just pass the time until it was. When I had church jobs, I would do my planning and practicing when they were in school or in bed.  With my children’s choirs, I also planned and practiced when they weren’t around as well because the one thing I craved was SILENCE.

Rehearsals and teaching didn’t count as much as prep time when the boys were young–getting away, with good child care, was the easy part.  I can run rehearsals in my sleep as long as I have adequate preparation time.   And enough time to really plan and practice was tricky with young children around.

And having young children, I didn’t know the one thing that would be the most important to me was quiet.  I planned and manipulated and schemed to have a certain amount of non-noise so I could think and “hear” in my mind’s ear what I needed to do.  And I made every second count. Before children, I,–like many–wasted so much time fiddling around before I got down to business.  Often, I would plan in my mind what I needed to do while doing house work or laundry–lots of laundry with little kids around–so I could hit the ground running when it was my scheduled work and study time. And I learned to tune things out–unless there was blood–so even if they were playing or listening to their own music or practicing themselves, I could do what I needed.

I went to grad school when the youngest was in second grade and here, again, my time was planned to get the most bang from my buck.  I had one day a week with no classes so I did house work, grocery shopping and practiced when they were in school.  When I had classes, I did score study on the train with head phones and practiced after they went to bed.  It was a question of planning, planning, planning.

With my chamber choir , I plan like crazy eventho my “children” are in their 20s with several graduate degrees themselves.  This skill or discipline is one I attribute to being a Mom because in order to do what I wanted and at the level I want, I had to.  I am not sure I would be that organized and lazer focused when I have to be if I wasn’t a mother. Thank you, my dear Boys!

 
 

I tootle along in the local music world, trying to be professional, trying to be kind.  My singers will tell you they have rarely seen me upset in rehearsal, even working with some difficult people.  I may have a hissy fit later or in the privacy of my own home but not in front of my singers during rehearsals, not in front of other musicians, not in public.  And my working relationships with other arts organizations or other working musicians is cordial if not warm and fuzzy!

Imagine my surprise and shock to be snubbed in public by someone whom I thought was my friend, if not a real “bosom buddy,” and someone I have a fairly nice working relationship with.  She’s a fine accompanist and quite a good musician but she is a soprano, and every once in a while, she lets her “inner diva” fly. I didn’t do anything to her I am aware of….but she’s the type to play the “soprano card” quite often….I might not even be aware of whatever slight she thinks I made.   I recommend her, I talk her up and have even used her as a coach but something or somebody had her panties in a twist and I was the one in the firing line. We were at a local arts event and not only did other people see her behavior to me, they remarked about it.  I was as embarrassed as could be and left early because I was afraid she would do something else to embarrass me. She has complained to me, back when we seemed to be friends, she doesn’t always get the jobs she wants–maybe her behavior in this instance is why and it’s a pattern.

It really wasn’t fair but I will guarantee you, the next time I see her, it will be as if nothing has happened. And that has me in a quandary. My instinct is to ignore it and behave normally the next time I see her………but……..should she be allowed to behave that way to me? To anybody?  My mother used to say two wrongs don’t make a right but if I behave as if nothing happened, will she feel she can do whatever she wants to me again in public? This is not grade school or ever music school–sometimes, I don’t think there is a difference–this is real life.  And a petulant soprano who has been allowed to get away with this behavior in grade school or music school will certainly think they can get away with this when they are out of school.

The only way I can think to handle this to behave normally in public, but not recommend her when someone asks me for the name of an accompanist or a coach any more. She is a wonderful musician but…..I can only wonder what she thought she was doing.

 
 

When I began my chamber choir, I received a phone call from Etel, the director of the local professional theater company. She liked the idea of a chamber choir in the area and asked me if I would like to work together some time.  I agreed and that summer, my chamber choir sang at  her Summer Shakespeare Fest.  We sang a few madrigals before the plays began and it was fun and good for us to get the exposure.

Etel and I would bump into each other occasionally, in the local department store, or the grocery or at our local professional symphony's concerts.  We would inquire at to the others current projects and performances.  We realized I had studied acting with the same person as one of her sons. We talked about mutual friends and other local arts organizations.  We talked about being women directors.  But we always, always, always talked about working together again. She told me she would call me about getting together for lunch to talk about it.  The next time we bumped into each other, I would suggest coffee to talk.  I saw her last summer, in the grocery store produce section, between the bananas and cantaloupe, and we again talked about working together. How I wish I would have pursued it!

The project we talked about was perhaps something by Shakespeare or Ben Jonson or something requiring the kinds of voices I have in my choir.  Etel was one of the most unselfish people I have EVER come across in the arts, more about collaboration than ego, and working with her would have been fantastic. But alas, I will not get that chance.  Etel passed away on Wednesday.

My feelings are still too raw to express but I will say Etel changed the outlook for the arts–for all of us–in the south suburbs of Chicago.  She was determined and kind and she knew her audience.  Her son, Jonathan, will carry on for her and I know he will do what she would want.  But oh, how I will miss her!

“……….And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”

 
 

We changed clocks over the weekend–and sprang forward.  I had a busy Saturday and actually went to bed an hour later than usual.  Somehow, when I woke on Sunday, eventho I had LESS sleep, felt more rested than I have for months.  The sun was shining and everything seemed brighter and more alive–we here in the Midwest are really sensitive to light and dark.  I have an urge to–gasp–clean and that almost NEVER happens!  Still, it makes me itch to get things going–and that’s lucky.

We start our new concert cycle rehearsals on Tuesday with new music and one new singer.  I am excited about this repertoire–Italian Madrigals and German partsongs–and can think of other ways  to use the music in the future.  It’s that time in the concert cycle when anything seems possible, much like spring.  Can’t wait to begin!

 

Here in the Midwest, we are very conscious of  ethic backgrounds, especially in the larger Metro areas–in Milwaukee and St. Louis and especially in my hometown, Chicago–of our own and others.  Those Feast Days  we celebrate, especially in winter .  If you were in Chicago last year in March for ACDA, you know we all become Irish! It is much the same for other Feasts–the Paczkis are out this weekend.

What are Paczkis you may ask?  It is a Polish custom for Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday or Paczki Tuesday.  Paczkis are filled donuts much like any jelly donut you would get any where in the country–I think they are a bit heavier, myself.  I like the custard filled, with chocolate but you can get them in almost any flavor you would like.  They are available in most regular grocery stores, supplied by one or two bakeries in the area.  The white boxes, with red lettering proclaiming “Paczkis” in English and in Polish, are stacked in the middle of the stores where all can see.  I was in the grocery store yesterday and they were out of them–no rain checks. My husband brought some home this morning to satisfy my craving.   It was a way, much like the Pancakes of my own ethic upbringing, of using up the animal fat or oil in the house before Lent began in those days when we were all a bit more religious--no meat in Lent.  Hot Cross Buns will be available by the end of the week–I do have a hankering!

I started to live in the seasons, consciously, when I taught school and had a children’s choir.  We all celebrate Christmas and Easter (and Advent and Lent) when it’s happening but it goes further than that, I think.  Musically, it makes sense to perform a “Requiem” during late winter, Lent or just after Easter and a “Magnificat” in fall or Advent.  It feels wrong to sing a “Requiem” in December for some reason, though a good reason would be because it was premiered at that time of year.  “Messiah,” though often performed in Advent–whether completely or the Christmas portion–was  premiered during Lent but with “Messiah,” anything seems to go.

I love “Israel in Egypt” and think it’s a great idea to perform right before Passover.   The “Five Flower Songs” are wonderful in spring.  I can think of any of a number of pieces to program at certain times of the year.  Much like eating locally and seasonally, I’ve been programming more seasonally lately as well.  I wonder if any of you have any favorites you program at certain times of the year or if it makes no difference to you.

Well, have to go.  There’s a Paczki with my name on it waiting!

 
 

My mother used to tell us, having good manners was not showing off how ‘fancy’ you are but showing respect for other people.  You said, “excuse me” if you bumped into someone or made a rude noise or wanted to leave the room.  You said, “please” and “thank you” if you wanted something or were asked if you did and received whatever it was.  You stood for your elders, or the President of the United States or a guest and gave your seat to someone who needed it more than you.  Manners are not knowing which fork to use, when, but a way of showing people you care by your behavior.

Lately, I’ve been talking about professionalism with my musician friends.  In the music business, just what is professionalism?  I’ve always thought it to be very similar to having good manners, respect for your fellow musicians and their time.  Others feel it also means getting music in a timely fashion or knowing a rehearsal schedule in advance.

The term is thrown around amongst my friends in conversation but I want to know what it means to those I work with, too.  I know conductors who expect their players to be ready to drop other obligations for their newly scheduled rehearsals.  I know singers who think nothing of not giving music to their accompanists, still expecting perfection.  I know musicians, in fits of pique, “venting” to musicians who got the job they didn’t, screeching, “it’s not fair” when it probably is.  We all have worked with people who feel *they* are the professional but who behave any way but professionally.

I am boring, I admit, because I hate drama.  If you sing for me, you receive a rehearsal schedule before rehearsals ever start and an absence sign-up sheet and most, if not all, of your music. You will know five days before every rehearsal what we will be working on so you can work on only that and nothing else.  I won’t call extra rehearsals if I can help it and if I do, it will be known to all as soon as possible.  If you audition for me, I will calmly tell you if you did, or didn’t, make it when I told you I will tell you. Oh, and no matter what happens, *save the drama for your mama*, because I won’t tolerate it–this isn’t the set of “Glee.”  And that’s it exactly–many people, even those who are the supposed “professionals”, think it is the drama and the last minute changes and the lack of schedules because their ensemble should be the only important thing in your life makes you a “professional musician”. I believe it to be the opposite.

The true professionals in my life have been those who  respect my time and theirs as well.  It is not only letting me know what the rehearsal schedule is that makes them the professional but it shows they are organized and thinking ahead.  We all have occasion to have to do things at the last minute but when it is always that way or appears to be that way, it is rather unsettling. And makes me wonder if they are as *professional* as they claim to be.

 

My main instrument is voice.  Oh, I play the piano fairly well but jokingly say I gave birth to a good pianist so what more do you want now?

As a undergrad and grad student, I duly studied both. I was petrified by my piano juries but know they were good for me, in the long run, to be able to do what what I need to do now in rehearsals.

In my voice lessons, I studied what was required eventho it didn’t quite fit me.  Since I was a choral conducting major, it didn’t matter. I sang a lot as a kid, and in high school got most of the leading roles in the musicals.  I just didn’t feel comfortable in college–there didn’t seem to be a place for me. I have excellent technique–probably because it was always drilled into me and because I have good “soprano genes.”  Mama was a coloratura and had beautiful high ‘C’s into her sixties.  And I live the “singer’s life” anyway–watch what I eat, when I eat it and sleep when I need to for the most part.  I told my husband when we were dating to think of me as a “nun with jewelry”–he wasn’t frightened off.  He’s now an ENT doctor anyway and I  prepared him for all the singers in his practice–he’s gives me jewelry–so it’s all good.

I gave recitals in college–the required number with the prescribed repertoire–and loved singing but I just didn’t feel at home.  I am not the leading lady type and that’s the problem.  I am not tall or blonde (ironic!) or especially beautiful.  I move well–I’m a former ballet dancer–and my face is mobile. And I can act. Boy, can I act. One of my ballet masters told me I reminded him of Zazu Pitts but I had no idea of who that was.  My undergrad voice teacher, God rest her soul, loved me and my voice but wanted me to sing serious arias.  It felt wrong but I did what she wanted. And I auditioned for things I didn’t feel would fit me because she wanted me to–and didn’t get them. My Mom really was the Queen of the Night but I didn’t feel like Pamina. More like Papagena.

I began my work with choirs soon after college and was a serious conductor–or at least, I tried to be.  I would ‘crack wise’ and I suppose that would throw people off. I can’t help it–I am a comedienne and it bubbles out, sometimes even when I conduct Byrd! My husband calls me pert and perky and spunky and that about sums it up.

In graduate school, my voice teacher was wiser, I think.  Since he knew I was “only” a choral conductor, we could do pretty much what we wanted and none of the other voice faculty could complain.  It was then I found a name for my voice type–soubrette.  I learned Suzanna and Zerlina and Despina and Blonde as well as Adele.  My Mom told  me she had thought I might be a soubrette early on but dismissed it since she couldn’t imagine anyone really wanting to play a maid!  In my performing for Rep Classes for the Voice Department and the like, the other voice teachers looked forward to whatever I sang because they knew they would be entertained and I could sing, too.  My Despina was famous.  I had a blast in between conducting Britten and Handel and William Billings.  I felt I was home in my own voice.

Of course, when I left grad school, it was to the serious business of conducting.  My choirs’ sounds were described as “elegant” and “exquisite” and occasionally crossed my eyes so the choir could see me and get the message to blend or whatever.  I often told them I would even tap dance to get them to do what I wanted–and then break into a “Buck and Wing” to prove my point.  Poulenc and a Buck and Wing…I know!

Now I conduct the Midwest Motet Society and we are very serious. We sing serious repertoire.  We sing for serious events.  Seriously. And I study voice to keep my technique up and I’m serious!

I study with a retired professor of voice from a respected local music school at a university.  I’m not sure what she thought when I first sang for her.  I was worried I would lose my high notes if I didn’t kept working on them but my high’ B flat’ is still reliable and my high ‘C’ peeps her head out occasionally, too. We started out with the art songs and lieder I learned as a kid.  Nice, but not inspired.  I was trying not to rock the boat too much with the professional by doing what she asked. Then she asked me if I had learned any arias and I mentioned Despina’s……and as I sang for her, she began to smile. And she and her accompanist laughed as I sang–a good thing if you’re a comedienne.

I’ve been working with Anne for about six years now and since she realized I’m a soubrette, has had so much fun looking for repertoire for me.  I’m different and she likes that. I keep her fresh by giving her a challenge with my “type”–I sing serious things and funny things and quirky things for her.  I’ve had a ‘desire for hermitage’ with Barber as well as ‘hating music’ with Bernstein.  I will sing a little something from a 1930s musical for her recital this Sunday……Betty Boop and Zazu Pitts influenced…because she wants some comedic relief and she knows I’ll deliver. I told her “old soubrettes never die–we just turn in to novelty acts” and she laughed and laughed.  It’s freeing for me  to just be myself for a change–or the part of me who isn’t afraid to take a prat fall.

My real work is serious and I love it.  But my own singing is NOT serious and I love that too.

 

It’s that time again–auditions.  We have two audition periods (three, if you count the time right after our spring concert and before our fall concert cycle auditions) and this is the audition period right before our spring concert.  We began last Wednesday and will continue through our first rehearsal.

I announce auditions in a few ways–on our website, in various internet ways (email blasts, posting on a ChoralNet, emails to our local papers) and a snail mailing.  I still do a snail mailing because I’ve gotten several good singers from flyers posted in libraries and sent  to local choir directors.  That mailing went out yesterday and the email blast went out last week.

I’ve auditioned one person this week.  Unfortunately, I had to reject him and not for the reasons you think.  He has a lovely voice which would be a great addition to our group, but his attitude is awful. I have a very simple audition procedure and he wouldn’t go along with it.

I really believe a chamber choir is a different animal from the usual large choral group.  It’s more like a string quartet or other chamber ensemble, especially in the ‘getting along’ aspect.  And because I believe that, my auditions are designed with that in mind. I vocalize the person after talking a bit to relax them.  I have them sing a patriotic song–I give them a choice of two–with and without vibrato  and ask them to tell me which is which.  I have them sight read a small portion of something we will be singing for that concert cycle and give them every chance to do well.  Sometimes, I will sing a part with them–soprano, alto or tenor–if I have any doubts about them being able to hold their own.  I interview them and they interview me.  This part of the audition process is the most telling. And it’s more about what you CAN do in the future for me and not what you DID DO in the past for someone else.

With my auditioneer this week, it was a question of his not being willing to do what I asked.  He insisted on singing a prepared solo and not the patriotic song.  He didn’t feel he should have to sight read and didn’t want to be interviewed.  Surprisingly, he had no problem with interviewing me!  It was with real regret I decided he wouldn’t be a good addition because his voice certainly would be.  I didn’t want to have to fight with him or have him fight with my other singers–I could tell he would make us all miserable.

I added the interview portion to my audition after our first concert cycle just because of a similar experience with a singer.  Her husband taught music history at a local liberal arts college and she felt she shouldn’t have to sight read for little ol’ me.  Because she was a good musician in other ways, I accepted her.  She was a nightmare to work with and wasn’t reliable to boot.  I decided there and then to interview everyone.

I’m sure the fellow I heard last week doesn’t understand why he didn’t make my chamber choir.  But the very fact he probably doesn’t understand is the reason.

 

I am getting organized for the New Year and my new concert cycle. The snail mailing and email blast will be written and prepared by the end of the week. In two weeks, I will have finished choosing all the music, though truth be told, most has been chosen for months. My big project, really, is revising our By-Laws and I'm not looking forward to it, AT ALL.

We have debriefings at the end of each of our concert cycles. I meet, in one way or another, individually with each of my singers. It is when we work on revising By-Laws and they tell me their concerns and I tell them mine. This past concert cycle, we have had one problem and one problem only. Each and every singer agrees this was a problem. And none are sure how to fix it. I am not sure what to do, either, but it has to be addressed.

We have a problem with absences. While it didn't seem to affect our concert, it was irritating. Our concerts cycles are between 8 and 12 rehearsals, then a concert and other break-out performances. This past cycle, we had 10 rehearsals and a concert, with our group serving as section leaders for a DIY Messiah in mid-December as well. The concert was good, Messiah was good but we did not have one rehearsal with all singers attending together. Not one. It was not until the CONCERT when everyone was together.

I suppose I am lucky to have such good musicians it doesn't matter. We did some challenging things-William Billings and a Bach motet-and you wouldn't have been able to tell we didn't have a full rehearsal, but I could. It's not that I felt under rehearsed but I felt we were missing something. With a chamber choir, every singer is important, very important, and when even one is missing, it slows down the process of rehearsal.

So, I sit here, trying to figure out a way to cut down on absences, while being understanding and kind. Everyone had good excuses. At the beginning of each concert cycle, I ask people to sign up for absences they know about ahead of time-judging for All-District, their own choir's concert, a big feast day for a church musician and opera tickets bought before they joined the choir-all are great and good excuses. The absences that were not expected are just as good-flare up with a chronic illness, being stuck on the east coast during a hurricane, a bad cold and being asked to work late at the last minute-I can't fault anyone. But it doesn't help the ensemble and I don't know how to fix it. I ponder this this first week of the New Year, and don't have answers.

My chamber choir is at a certain point in its life where it could continue to be *just* a nice community group, made up of local musicians who like to sing and who are finally making time for themselves to sing in a better-than-average-group. We're getting a good reputation and have sung at a few really wonderful events in addition to our regular concerts. My singers are great people and enjoy singing and being together but…….is that what we want forever? I feel we are limiting our choices by continuing this way and several of my more reliable singers feel the same way.

In our current By-Laws, each singer is allowed three excused absences, with any additional absence allowed at the discretion of the music director-that's me. It was evident all had practiced this concert cycle and were ready for rehearsal and our concert, so I allowed it. With the present structure of our group, I know something will have to change-those who were at almost all rehearsals deserve for me to take a stand. I am just not sure how I will stand.

I have been thinking about this blog post for several weeks.  After speaking with one of my singers, who also happens to be a new mother, I had thought this would be a fun post about combining being a professional church and choral musician and a family life with young children–and Christmas. It’s turned out to be a little bit like I envisioned but it’s taken a different direction, I’m afraid.

I mean–children, Christmas music and cookies–how fun!  I could write about making batches of chocolate chip cookies in October and freezing the raw dough to bake them with my boys in December.  We would sprinkle green and red sugar on the cookies as we got ready to bake them–with lots of bickering about equal numbers of red/green cookies.   For many years, my sons actually believed Christmas cookies were chocolate chip cookies with colored sugars on top–they didn’t realize there are other kinds!  I wanted to bake cookies with my kids, just like any other Mom did, during the holiday season when I was so, so busy–this was my way of  being able to do it.

Like many other choral musicians, I started to plan my Christmas and holiday programs some time in mid summer, if not before.  Often, I would pick the hottest day in July, crank up the AC and bring out the holiday CDs to help me get my mind into Christmas.  My younger  two would help get “in the spirit” by dragging out their boots or a scarf and we would sing along with Nat, or Bing or Robert Shaw and friends.  When they began music lessons, I found CDs of marimba carols for my percussionist and a ‘cello choir for my cellist–we has fun listening to their instruments play familiar music they knew from listening to me and my choirs.  Once I had music chosen, it was back to “normal.”  Christmas was in the future and the first drafts of their Santa letters were not written until September or October.

The boys were angels, shepherds and a Magi or two in the pageants I created and directed–cheaper than sitters–and we had a wonderful time in those productions of young children.  I don’t think they knew other mothers didn’t direct Christmas plays–it was such a natural thing for them to do and they were even eager to do them.  All that changed when they were in second or third grade–but that’s a different blog post.  I miss my little boys, my angels and shepherds and Magi.  They have become wonderful men but the funny and quirky and silly little boys are gone, only to be remembered fondly and lovingly.

During the whole of their childhoods, adolescences and college years, it was my job to make Christmas.  Not just for my own family as many Moms do, but for whole  congregations and audiences of people.  I worried about choosing  just the right thing, the right piece or arrangement.  I worried about variety and not boring my choirs or congregants.   I did research, had themes (angels one year, shepherds the next, and Mary and Joseph the following) and became adapt at finding just the right thing. I enjoyed learning about traditions other than my own and used new ideas almost every year. I raised the bar higher each year and some of my former bosses–pastors–expected me to outdo myself year after year.  I was often exhausted the day after Christmas and would cry from sheer relief.

A few years ago, after an especially difficult Advent and Christmas season, my husband approached me.  I had been crabby and snippy to him, poor man, much more than usual.  He told me he loved me but was worried about what I was doing to myself. He said I could take a breather from my church job if I wanted and in fact, he and our boys thought it would be a good idea. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea and in fact, stayed one more year at that position.  Then I decided my family was right and I left. I’ve never looked back.

I miss my church jobs but am happy in the chamber choir world.  I do Messiahs and the occasional Christmas/Holiday program with my chamber choir and would certainly be open to a “perfect” church job.  But I don’t think I’m ready yet.

The one thing I’ve learned since leaving church music is, most of us–choral musicians, whether in church music or not–forget we have to take care of ourselves during this time of year. We are so busy worrying about our choir’s health or rehearsal time or having all our hired musicians show up or not letting our best soprano get her nose out of joint  or something else essentially out of our hands, we forget it’s Christmas for us, too.  And all of us NEED Christmas in our lives, even those of us who are the makers of Christmas.

I need the peace and the love and sweetness of Christmas this year more than most years and I understand why I need it.  One of my sons was  in the ICU right before Thanksgiving and I have a new appreciation for my other sons and their love for their brother.  I have a better understanding of unconditional love and believing in something without question. All of those pieces I have taught and conducted and loved because of musical reasons, I now know why they were written. And I hope to bring that knowledge to my work from this day forward.

 
 

I joke with my singers–as I prepare our concerts– I need to get to my “Zen Place.”  The Zen Place is the one space in my conductor’s mind where everything becomes clear and every detail is finished and I can just go  and conduct my concert and make music.   My singers tease me about it–are we there yet?–but as much as they tease, they know I need to be there.

This concert cycle, I never made it.  Our concert was yesterday afternoon and it was a wonderful concert–musically, vocally and audience-wise–but I never got to Zen. There were plenty of reasons for me NOT to get there this concert cycle.  Not being able to have real time to Blog here should tell you a little bit.

My Dad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in August, right before we began rehearsals. Getting him on the right treatment course and agreeing to it was a major undertaking.  ‘Nuff said.

As we began rehearsals, there were various issues with singers–two were stuck out east with Hurricane Irene’s aftermath , health things, job things–which threw rehearsals off course. We soldiered through and if you were at our concert, you didn’t notice anything,  but we did!

Two weeks ago, my youngest son’s car was stolen–he was at the university where he is a Performers Certificate student and parked on the street.  He’s also my main accompanist. In his car were his organ shoes and all the music–with markings–for our concert.  Had to replace the shoes (fast) and the music and am still dealing with insurance. And until we get the car sorted out, he is using mine.  He comes home and  picks up the car for his gigs. We are lucky I am not booked as much as usual so he is able to use my car without TOO much of a hassle.

All those things would make anyone uneasy but the day of our concert, we had other things happen.  I had a phone call from one of our trumpet trio–too sick to play–and we tried to replace him to no avail.  We made it work with two.  One of my singers had a relative think he was having a heart attack in the venue parking lot. Her husband went with him to the hospital before we ever had a chance to sing a note. But the final thing–the topper, if you will–was right after the concert, my oldest son who has autism  passed out in the lobby and totally lost consciousness.  Para-medics and the whole nine yards. He’s okay–we think he was dehydrated and overheated–but it was a lousy way to end the concert!

Never made it to my Zen Place–the train was hijacked!

 
 

It’s that time of year most choral conductors dread–the beginning of our concert cycles. If you have already programmed your concerts for the year, you can breath easy.  If you haven’t, you are sweating, and not from a late summer heat wave!

I am programmed until the spring of 2013 right now.  Everything isn’t totally settled but I have  ideas and  themes.  Everything will fall into place eventually.

I used to just hate “themes” but I have grown to love them.  It helps focus the ensemble for that particular concert.  And since we have two concerts a calender year, I also  decided to focus each concert on a particular repertoire.  That decision has helped me with programming more than any other. You see, the possible repertoire for a chamber choir is so vast, being required to focus gives me a much better idea of where to start.

Fall concerts are sacred concerts, with possible selections including motets of all eras, and psalm settings.  It’s a little more complicated than that but when I’m scrambling for ideas, I start there. The possibilities are endless but you have to know where to begin in the first place.

Spring concerts are secular concerts, with madrigals, part songs and even vocal quartets with and without accompaniment forming the backbone.  I like to include music with excellent texts by poets such as Shakespeare, Shelley, Robert Frost or e.e.cummings.

I’ve done concerts of 20th century motets, Brahms vocal quartets and only American composers.  We had a great time with a concert of folk song settings and also a concert of different settings of “Ave Verum” and “Tantum Ergo” from all eras.  We look forward to a concert of music from the salon as well as a concert of music of Claudio Monteverdi and Salomne Rossi.

Sometimes, I pick a favorite composer and see if he/she wrote any motets or  a single piece, without orchestra.  I love to do motets of Mozart and Bruckner and Poulenc.  Daniel Pinkham did some interesting motets and Hohvaness did as well. William Billings is really fun to do, both sacred and secular things.

Programming is an art, it’s not a science.  My concerts usually have a piece I begin with, a concert center piece, and I love to have the program evolve from there.

I am the type of person, if you ask me to do something, I will do it.  I won’t stall–unless you want me to–I will do it.  If I tell you I will do something, expect it.

I am a busy person and don’t have time to futz around–too many people count on me.  Give me a deadline and it will be done.  If I am not able to do it, you will know in ample time to make other arrangements.

I can’t stand promising to do something and not following through.  If I say I will call you–I will.  If I say I will email you by a certain time–I will.

Other people don’t always have these same values and it frustrates me.  I imagine someone waiting for my information or the copy for my concert program or the go ahead to paint my kitchen, and I think how I would feel. I make decisions, not always quickly, but follow through in as timely a fashion as possible.

Early in my career, auditioning for community chorus positions, I learned the importance of following through.  Those who were timely and let you know where you were in the auditioning process, were groups whom I had good feelings about, no matter what happened.  And those who “forgot” to contact me are now not doing as well as you would suppose–years of treating folks with no respect will take their toll.

I try to respect people’s time and feelings by always doing what I say I will, when I say I will.  It is not always the case in our profession.

 

I was out of town for a few days.  Same place as last year–Door County.  It has been a very busy spring and summer, more so than usual, and I was so looking forward to spending time just relaxing.  I couldn’t.  I couldn’t relax.  Oh sure, I saw some movies, dined out and went to a concert but I could not relax.  My mind wouldn’t shut down and allow my body to follow.  I kept thinking about auditions and rehearsals and several family events I need to plan…….and I couldn’t stop. I brought some magazines to page through….and I couldn’t focus on them.  I brought some trashy books–I usually read history or biographies during the summer but wanted something more “mind candy”–and couldn’t get interested.

The truth is–I need to have some time to have my mind shut down to function in my day to day life.  I usually focus intensely and then back off.  Summer affords me that opportunity but not this year.  I have the usual with my chamber choir  coming up, with a 9-11 service and several conducting gigs for me but for some reason, it just seems like more.

This next week, I have auditions scheduled–and I think these folks could be great additions to my chamber choir.  The follow week, rehearsals begin.  I think I may just scrub my kitchen floor to give my mind a holiday—nay–or maybe not!

 

It’s that time of year–audition time.  And those of us beginning a new concert season or concert cycle look forward to it with both  hope and with dread.  Hope for new singers to add to our already wonderful ensemble and dread because some wonderful people won’t make it.

Anyone auditioning for my chamber choir should know I WANT you to make it.  I would not take time to hear you if I didn’t.  But certain factors come in to play beyond my control and yours.

One of those factors is your voice–I am looking for certain things you may not be able to control, vibrato not withstanding.  Another is musicianship, and often it has nothing to do with your training or experience.  And the last is attitude, and my instinct about how you would fit in to my group–Divas or Divos need not audition.

In short, the quality of your voice and your ability to control it may be beyond what is controllable.  Musicianship CAN be a result of training but many singers have instincts through experience or talent and that is beyond control.  But ATTITUDE is within your control.

A good attitude is simply the ability to get along with your fellow singers and the director, being on time for rehearsals and not trying to take over.  Being prepared for rehearsals, making good and honest suggestions and wanting the best for the GROUP, not for yourself as a rule, all are part of a good attitude. And not trying to find fault with the director or other singers–LOUDLY–in the middle of rehearsals!

In a chamber choir, it is the attitude and not the musical ability I often am in a quandary over when it comes to making a decision about singers’ auditions.  Many directors don’t care about dramas–I do, I want as drama-free a concert cycle as possible–but often it is hard to pick out a person with ‘drama’ as their middle name from an audition.

I began including an interview portion of my auditions after our first concert cycle.  I never saw it coming–all of the above–but when I thought about it,  a chamber choir magnifies any “diva tendencies” which wouldn’t be noticed in a larger group.  And sometimes, those tendencies blot out the good.

I hope you audition and want to sing with us–good people, singing good music and being good to one another!

 

It happens once or twice a summer in the Midwest–this unbearably hot, stifling heat.  It is humid as well, with skin turning damp as soon as you step out of doors.  I would liken it to an oven and many  do. It can also be compared to Blizzard Weather–we are stuck inside with only our AC to keep us cool; opposite weather, same result .

I enjoy gardening and lounging on the patio and taking power walks–better for my ‘former ballet dancer’ knees– and many things I am not able to do at other times of the year in our region.  We enjoy summer here in Chicago and the Midwest simply because it’s beautiful and we can get outside and be active.  I stroll by Lake Michigan when I can and eat al fresco anywhere I can–food tastes better outside–and revel in the sunshine. But I don’t revel in this because I am stuck in the house.

I have gotten things done for my chamber choir's upcoming auditions and concert cycle.  Finished putting together and preparing a snail mailing for auditions.  Collated and numbered music–I still am waiting for a few more pieces–and listened to recordings.  I’ve caught up on correspondence, written PR for our auditions and started writing  program notes for a few other groups–’way ahead of schedule. But I’m antsy because I want to be outside and it’s too hot!

I suppose being forced to do things I should be doing anyway has it’s advantages.  I’d still like to be outside!

 

I have been distracted and busy and not reliable with my blog for the last month or so.  If anyone of you out there in  ChoralNetLand have been following this blog–sorry!

There are several reasons for my busyness–my chamber choir's Spring concert for one.  Our June 5 concert was wonderful.  Wonderful and different.  I planned the concert with the thought of using some of our selections for other performances, and others to prepare us for other pieces later on.

The second half of the program was Swingle Singer settings of Bach and Mozart.  It stretched us in ways we haven’t been stretched before and prepared us, I hope, for working on a Bach Motet this fall.  The runs we had to sing  in a more instrumental way will help us grasp the runs in the actual vocal music of Bach.  Or, at least that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it for now.

The first half of the program was settings of Shakespeare.  We sang them for another performance and for a fund raiser for our local professional symphony orchestra.  That is the reason for my REAL busyness.

In my desire to please my spouse and that local symphony, I hosted a “Musical Feast”–the symphony’s series of occasional small  fund raisers–the last Saturday in June.  Last September, the date was decided, the music was decided, the menu was decided.  All I had to do was put everything in motion.  Whew, WHAT WAS I THINKING!

The “theme” was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”–the reason for that choice was the time of year and date. The first thing I did was to engage an OUTSTANDING musician–David Schrader–and my son, Ben, his harpsichord student, to play Mendelssohn’s incidental music from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” arranged by the composer for piano, four hands, knowing they would use my Steinway to great advantage. I chose a menu to reflect the play and the time of year.  I borrowed a tent, chairs and had my kitchen re-painted.  I had the patio sealed and cleaned my house within an inch of my life.  I gardened so my Midwestern English Garden looked more English than Midwestern. I gave strict orders to my family–especially my husband who begged me to do this–to  do what I said and no one would get hurt.

We decided to dress as Shakespeare characters–I was Titania–and my singers had a great time doing that!  My chamber choir rehearsed after our concert cycle was over for this event.  The ladies  rehearsed the Finale of the Mendelssohn so we could surprise the audience by popping up–much like the Fairies we were portraying.

Everyone who attended, and even those participating, said it was a magical event. It was, and I think we even earned some money for the Symphony, the whole reason we were doing this.  But I am beat!

Every part was planned out by me–much like a concert.  And now that it is over, I'm happy I did it.  But in order for me to do something like this again, there will have to be jewelry involved!

 

I have a  tchotchke hanging in my kitchen, next to my kitchen sink, so I may see it while I am doing dishes.  In fact, it has hung next to all my kitchen sinks, in all my kitchens since I married.  It’s a little banner from a greeting card store–women love these things, men do not–and, in a very stylized fashion it says “Keep on Singing”.  It was given to me as “thank you” gift from Doreen Rao for helping her organize a choral library during a summer at the university I attended, and where she taught. It was a simple thing–to be thanked–and it meant a lot to the young choral director (I was no where NEAR a “conductor” at 19) I was at the time. I learned a lot from her and was her helper during her time at the university–I essentially took  attendance,  set up chairs, copied hand outs and did all sorts of errands that need to be done for any choral organization.  But most of all, I learned how to treat people.  She thanked you when you did something for her.  She made everyone feel worthy, even if they sang wrong notes and made you feel like you could sing the right ones.  We all wanted to please her because she treated us well.  She was extremely fair in her doling out of solos and was funny, laughing at herself as well.  She mentioned “Jimmy” (James Levine) and other notables like the friends they were to her and made you feel they, too, were just people.

That thank you gift has stayed in my kitchen for all these years because it reminds me who I am.  I keep singing no matter what happens to me, to my life or career or family.  I remember what she would shout in rehearsal when we weren’t sure–”couragio”–and we would sing out and sing loud even if we weren’t sure. Most often, we WERE correct and it just took a little bit of gumption and courage to forge through.  Just like in life.