Things I learn

blue bran with lots of arrows coming into and out of itSometimes my brain gets full. This “information age” can be quite exhausting at times. So when I attended 4 days of wonderful concerts, master classes and workshops here in Boston at the National NATS conference last week, I felt I needed a nap every day.

Actually, I felt like that in school after lunch.

But I digress. Or not. How do we absorb all this wonderful new stuff?

I find it seeps down. Sneaky deep, as my friend Cerridwen puts it.

Coming back to teaching summer lessons and classes, I found myself trying new things, on the fly, with students.  Just simple things, like closing your eyes and feeling the sound, or placing your hands gently on your cheeks to feel the gentle opening of the jaw.  Just stuff.  And I felt excited again about my students’ progress.  And they discovered new things themselves.  It wasn’t all new information, but hearing it from a different teacher (or student), gave me a new look.

A new look.  So I was looking for some French mélodies (that’s art song, the French equivalent of German Lied) and thought of an old book I was given by one of my teachers, Woody Thornton, before he moved to Europe to sing opera in the 1980’s.   Sergius Kagan’s Music for the Voice.  Still in print, and at your local library.  Chock-full of great information on songs, their range and tessitura, suitability for high or low voices, how hard the piano part is, etc.  And Mr. Kagan edited most of the International Editions I bought over the years.  So, despite databases and new books on repertoire, here was this marvelous book right next to the piano, on the shelf with dictionaries and encyclopedias.

There are 2 anthologies of French songs in my very library, edited by Mr. Kagan, with so many composers– BUT NOT Fauré and Debussy, because everybody sings a lot of those two wonderful guys.

And that’s how it goes. Hearing D’Anna Fortunato sing a short recital of Boston composers (with the Marvelous John McDonald) reminded me of how long this great legacy is.  (I’m also a booster on West Coast composers, being bi-coastal).  And hearing 2 marvelous baritone recitals of mostly American music, more great repertoire and new composers.  Hearing the scientific basis of what we intuitively know after years of using our voices and teaching others to do so, is very cool.  It seems that body-based learning is all the rage.  Who knew our style would finally become fashionable?

So, my takeaway from all this is that a nap is a good thing.  I once heard that Pavarotti said “90% of my practicing is done in bed.”  Before you get snarky and lewd, think about this: we used look at the vocabulary list before bed and be better able to give those definitions on the next day’s test.  We absorb, and the knowledge filters down, sneaky deep.

 

 

 

I was good in school, but bad at two things: penmanship and conduct. Got “Satisfactory” in both subjects–like a gentlewoman’s C.
I spent a lot of time in first grade in the hallway, mostly from talking. “Yes, I know the other children were talking, Liz, but we HEARD you.”

Well, I’m not sure I behave any better as an adult, but I am learning to conduct better. Conduct others, that is. Turns out, it’s a neat trick to be able to telegraph musical ideas in new ways. I’m used to singing, breathing, moving to give signals to colleagues when I’m performing. I’m accustomed to guiding the student(s) with my piano playing. Now, I am actually working with a pianist (a very good one–Megan Henderson is a singer, player and conductor herself) who will follow my gestures and take my tempi, all with a wave of a hand.

I had some great choral conductors in my life. Tom Fettke was my high school chorus teacher at Oakland High School. William F. Russell at Pomona College, Louis Magor in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Roger Nelson in the Port Costa Players, and Craig Smith at Emmanuel Music in Boston. All these folks LET US SING, they let us BE MUSICAL. You have no idea how many conductors try to control a group of singers and get no music made at all. Others try but are ineffective at keeping a beat or showing what they want.

The leaders who inspire me clearly LOVE their players and the music. I once sat onstage to watch Bernard Haitink conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Brahms 2nd Symphony (We called it the Tweedy symphony after that because of the Dutch spelling of 2nd: Tweede). He looked at his players with such warmth and respect, and wow, did he get a sound from them.

This past weekend I heard and saw Maria Schneider and her Orchestra perform in Boston. This woman attracts the very best jazz players, folks who ordinarily wouldn’t be playing with such a big group–they are all marvelous soloists on their own. And she not only writes such beautiful arrangements, but she clearly lets them do their musical thing. Not just on their solos,  but being musical partners to her tunes all through.

group of singers standing around a guitarist, having fun

So as I begin my new phase of conducting these voice classes of elder adults–away from the piano, just standing and waving and breathing–I am inspired by the marvelous models above. And others. So far, so good. We sang a dress rehearsal at a senior residence this morning, and I really enjoyed just being with the music and with my group. Listening, loving, not worrying about how I was doing, being in the moment.

What a gift.

JP Jubilee in concert tomorrow night, Jamaica Plain branch library, 7:00, free. Very short program.

Platinum singers begin their summer session May 7 at the Harriet Tubman House.

The chorus at the Simon Fireman Home in Randolph is making a couple of field trips in June (one to visit the Platinum Singers, their “cousins” through me, and the other to the “Mother Ship” of Hebrew Senior Life in Roslindale.)  We’re working on “Goin’ to Boston” and other tunes about Time and Place.

The Marathon anniversary has come and past and we’ve performed A View from Heartbreak Hill enough times that I cannot get one of the tunes out of my head.  “This, this gleaming April”, begins the song “Still”, speaks of the beauty all around us –“tulips beautiful”, “stroll to the park”, and then seeing the flags at half mast.  That’s how it is: this year as well as last.  So much beauty and so many reminders, all together.   Sad and wistful and poignant and so much beauty, so much new growth.

This month I’ve sung, taught, had a wonderful Passover Seder with friends and family, walked, rode my bike, gardened, and had terrible allergies.  The week of the last performance I had to cancel teaching in order to save my voice, and hide from the beckoning garden on the day of the concert.  I went swimming instead, letting the chlorine banish the tree pollen from my instrument, or respiratory passages anyway.  After so many years of taking care to avoid colds, not drink or eat certain foods before big concerts (for days or even weeks, in some circumstances), it is a relief to have fewer concerts for which to prepare, and more that simply fit the current me:  less travel on planes near concert dates, pieces that are written for me and that fit me perfectly.  That is a wonderful gift of being a mature singer who has paid my dues–I sang plenty of awkward music in my 20’s,  too high or too soft or uncountable.   I did enough premieres of “just okay” music, and many more of sublime music.

pink flowers in early spring

Today, this gleaming April day, the first flowers on my apricot tree opened.  Apricots bloom early, and often get hit by frost afterwards, but they seem to know what they are doing.  I’ve seen about 2 apricots ripen on that tree over the past 10+ years.  First the aphids and then the birds get them.  But it is a lovely sight, along with the daffodils, hyacinths and all the little green spouts of perennials coming back to life again (“I’m so glad to see you again,” I say to them in the mornings when I make my rounds, “Please remind me of your name.”)

April is also National Poetry Month, and I got a chance to hear Martha Collins read from her new books right down the street in Roslindale, where my JP Jubilee group sang for the seniors last semester.  Martha wrote “The Green House”, which Dana Maiben set so beautifully for me to sing last year.  So I was particularly pleased to hear poems about April–she writes a poem a day for a month and has a book with 6 months covered, all from different years.

April’s more

red than green,

              when I wrote at seven

the busy maple I didn’t know what

the maple was doing,

               but now I’m fixed

on magnolia: rose bullets on one side

of this tree and opening open-

ing open on the other

 

Martha Collins, Day Unto Day, ©2014

 

 

picture of Darryl Settles and description of groups to perform--Platinum SIngers and Boston CHildren's Chorus“Come on up, I’ve got a lifeline…”

We’ve been singing the Harriet Tubman song for a few years now–you may have heard it sung by Holly Near with Ronnie Gilbert or by a grade school choir.  It’s a particular favorite of The Platinum Singers–a compelling story of  this strong woman who risked her life over and over to free more slaves.  We meet at the Harriet Tubman House, and there is a large portrait of Miss Tubman in the room where we rehearse every Wednesday.

This Saturday the United South End Settlements–the facility which sponsors our Singers– is honoring a wonderful community leader, and we get to sing with some teens from the Choral Union of the Boston Children’s Chorus.  We all got a lift when we met to rehearse last weekend, watching the kids do their body percussion as they sang, and working on an African folk song all together.

But best of all, I am now in contact with Walter Robinson, who wrote the iconic song which has become a kind of anthem for The Platinum Singers.  He now lives in the Philippines, where he does anti-slavery work.  He wrote about Harriet Tubman:  She literally removes the word “by-stander” and replaces it with “everyone can be an activist for the good and freedom of those oppressed.”

Sometimes I write a thank you letter and hope it reaches the teacher/composer/performer.  Because of one of those letters,  I have a new colleague.  Walter used to live around here, wrote Harriet Tubman in 1977, and has been writing more ever since.

We never know who and what will be that Lifeline, but it helps to pay attention and be ready to go with it.  The Platinum Singers have been Lifelines for each other and for me.

 

I hesitate to call my elder singers “cute.”  But that keeps coming to mind.  My mom used that word plenty and I’ve used it from everything to describe shoes, food, people and especially animals.   Can’t help it.  But what is NOT cute about:

  • folks who have already proven themselves as capable, competent,  distinguished and all the other adjectives that describe adult behavior AND
  • are willing to be silly and playful in order to find creative expression.

It’s not that we try to act silly in class or onstage.  It’s just that we are willing to let go of those carefully crafted personas we developed as we grew into adulthood.  We let go of having to be in charge and set an example to the kids, the bosses, the clients.

I teach all ages and learn from them all.  That’s the fun of teaching, continuing to learn.  What I notice is how LITTLE my older students complain about what they cannot do or what ails them.  They go on, move forward and keep growing.  It inspires me to be a better conductor and pianist.  So, come to one of the class concerts I’m conducting in the next few weeks.  JP Jubilee is the new name for Singing for Seniors at The Boston Public Library. Our concert will be short, free and full of fun.  Thursday December 5 at 7:30 pm in Jamaica Plain, see full info below.a group of energetic senior singers with their mouths open in song

…And The Platinum Singers are performing at the Harriet Tubman House on Wednesday, December 18 at 2:30 in the afternoon.  An in-house concert of an hour with these sweeties.  We just had a grand pre-Thanksgiving lunch with a terrific group called “Grandparents Raising Grandchildren”.  They sang along with us and told us their stories (if we asked).  Directions to the Tubman House:  www.uses.org  Flyer to follow shortly…

Liz standing in front of the small chorus, all wearing Platinum Singers/USES banners around their necks

So, is there a better word than cute?  Let me know and I’ll try to incorporate it…

colorful piano keyboard

During an exercise class  I was moving in the wrong direction, as the teacher was keeping us on our toes by mixing things up. It reminded me to “find my feet”, a comment that helps in all sorts of situations.

Well, in music it helps to find middle C. Working with a 12-year old student, we kept finding C in songs and exercises (her clever teacher knows the material).

And I am learning a Handel role that is in alto clef. Nice to have our own clef, but it requires finding middle C and adjusting, after years of treble and bass clef. It is certainly familiar; after all, I have sung Baroque pieces in this clef and I am in a trio with a viola, who also uses this clef. But even a seasoned contralto needs to “find her feet” by finding Middle C, just to stay balanced.

Middle C is a great way to get grounded, and also to remember what is truly important.  As I prepare to sing a benefit for a cure for folks with MS, I am aware that health is a huge middle C for us all.

alto clef with description of where middle C is locatedMy back in hurting tonight, so I’m keeping things simple and not attending the social event that was planned.  Staying home and keeping quiet is a good balance for a gregarious performer.  We need quiet time and time to get centered before performances.   I don’t usually listen to recordings of works I’m preparing, but since I’ve known “Schlummert Ein” for about 30 years, I figured it might be nice to check out my shelf of CDs.  I knew I had Lorraine Hunt and Will Parker, both lovely colleagues who died at the height of their careers.  I also found Max von Egmond, the Dutch baritone with whom I studied and later sang a Christmas Oratorio with here in Boston.  What a delight to hear such beautiful performances, and such memories of all of them.   Each brings their special interpretation and character to this piece. I used to feel intimidated by recordings, especially someone as close in age to me as Lorraine.  But something changes as we age–the sense of unworthiness, frustration at not being perfect, or sheer ambition simply shifts.  I look forward to ours tomorrow.

Appreciation has many rewards.  Being able to keep singing and doing what I love is the best.   I get to teach a master class this coming Tuesday at NEC on Baroque ornamentation.  I’m no huge expert, but I’ve been doing this long enough and I love to mentor less experienced singers.  Introducing them to the joys and thrills of making up their own improvisations.  I found out some of my colleagues who are more expert than me are quite reluctant to put themselves out there.   What have we to lose?  Let’s share what we know and encourage others.

When I write exercises on a classroom board, I usually say:

I’m writing this in C major, but life is not in C major.”

Thanks to a student named Virginia, who made me this button

Yellow button with "Life is not in C major"

I have a lot to be thankful for these days.

photo credit (c) Charlotte Fiorito Photography 2012, All Rights Reserved

In no particular order:

I recently sang and taught at an amazing  event in San Jose, CA.  The Tech Awards give innovative folks who are doing great works to benefit humanity  a chance to be seen and heard and to get monetary awards.  I got to give a workshop for these engineers and scientists, to aid them in presenting their projects in public.

From a Distance, video of The Tech Awards ceremony with my new friend Dolores

Bonus: Did you hear the embedded melody in the piano?  Our arrangement.

That weekend I also had a visit with my wonderful 89-year old voice teacher in Berkeley, Lilian Loran.  She gave me the confidence to pursue solo singing and to “sing classical music the way you sing your Carole King songs.”  Well, I now give the same advice to my students.  I met my colleague from long ago, Susie Morris, at Lilian’s, and we sang “Sound the Trumpets” of Purcell for her.  I believe we last sang that duet in 1979, and it was like we had never parted!

Eleanor Cohen and I visited that weekend.  Although she was never my piano nor voice teacher, she was a mentor to me: she told my dad I had one of the few true contralto voices and he should stop bugging me to stop doing music and try for medical school.  She’s “only” 86 and still stands on her head every day.  Thanks, Ellie!

We’ll be recording John McDonald’s The Budbill Seasons in December, Elizabeth Bennett and I.  Elizabeth is a Shakuhashi player, and the poet, David Budbill was a student of hers.   In Winter: Tonight: Sunset, the speaker expresses appreciation:

“…I pause in this moment  at the beginning of my old age and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening…”

www.davidbudbill.com

Once home in Boston, I saw Ann Moss, a delightful colleague who took my graduate level classes once upon a time at Longy.  She is launching her own solo CD project and we were there to encourage her. You can check out her project of new works (and Joni Mitchell songs–I’m glad she learned that lesson well to combine art songs of all genres) at http://annmosssoprano.tumblr.com/currents

Dana Maiben is writing a piece for our Mockingbird Trio, The Green House, to be premiered on February 3 at Brandeis University, and the early drafts look wonderful.  Story by Martha Collins.

We have been awarded another grant to teach Singing to senior citizens–in my home branch of the Boston Public Library.  It will begin on Fridays in March.
Hooray for MetLife and Creative Aging!  Platinum Singers continue as well…

And finally, I’ll be performing a set at the Lily Pad in Cambridge, MA  on Sunday February 24.  Special guests to be announced.  Improvisation and original songs are sure to be part of this mix.

Busman’s holiday: I attended a workshop with Bobby McFerrin and Voicestra recently.  I’m pretty good at improvising and was excited about working with my teacher Rhiannon and finally meeting Bobby and the others.

Well, I can still sing pretty good, but I have a lot to learn.  And I learned a lot about how people work together to create from scratch and how beginners must feel when they come to one of my voice classes.  I can’t do all the cool rhythms right off the bat; I have trouble keeping my part going when others are doing something  completely different–just as the beginning choir member has trouble singing a round.  Yes, just like that.  I was so blown away by some of the counter rhythms of the other groups (circle singing is an act of making improvised parts and putting them together on the spot, sometimes someone will solo over them, but it has a lot to do with how things fit to make an interesting whole) that I had to stop and listen.  That’s good, if others are carrying on.   We would lose our beat, we would get bored just “holding an alto part.”  Just like life.  Doing the laundry, holding an alto part.

I met some really talented folks there, not all singers at all–a tap dance teacher, a film composer, drummers and activists.  And we all listened and learned and had a great time, playing.  Like summer camp for adults, with vegetarian food.

Now, school starts up, I get to try out the circle singing with my students (if they don’t know they’re improvising they loosen up more quickly) and go be a cantor for the High Holidays.  Oh yes, and sing the opera about the bunny hoarder again.

Pretty good life, pretty great, actually.

I’ve been hearing from friends and former students this past while, and it is such a delight to hear that folks are continuing to sing and create.  One has had a TV pilot accepted by CBS in Hollywood, another is singing in Germany, others are continuing their pursuits in Tokyo, Cleveland, and the Bay Area.

What a delight to be part of these lives and to remember how my teachers influenced me–all the voice teachers, choir conductors, English teachers and my yoga instructor, who said “You think you know your limitations but I can see your potential.”

I learn so much from my students, sometimes I think I should pay them!

Enjoying the quiet time by exercising while memorizing the Bunnies opera.  Such beautiful music and fun–I so rarely get to be funny onstage.

This character is a hoot and I am having a blast learning about her as I try out her lines on my walks,  It also keeps strangers from approaching me, because I am reacting to the music in my head.

So, our set designer, Lisa French, has asked for help with sewing bunnies.  We don’t need 334 of them but could use some help.  Anyone out there handy with a needle?  I’ll send you a patter and you can have a close-up on some rehearsals and our eternal thanks.

334 Bunnies, the opera

Thursday January 26, 8pm Longy School, Harvard Square

Saturday February 4, 4:00 St. John’s in Jamaica Plain

Today I led  260 Senior Citizens singing  “My Girlin harmony at the Elder Expo in Boston.  Can’t get better than that, or can it?

Upcoming:  Classes start soon at Longy, NEC and the United South End Settlements (where the hip Seniors find me on Wednesday afternoons).

High Holidays on Cape Cod–I am the cantorial soloist and cannot resist this chavurah (not a congregation, but a great group) that does NOT CHARGE ANYTHING for High Holiday seats (or even to belong).  How 60’s is that? http://ahycc.org/

Just finished a wonderful conference for singing teachers–New England NATS–where I learned even more about singing cabaret style and using my “non-legit”  voice.  Even (especially) singing teachers want to be able to be non-legit…

Upcoming:  A new piece by John McDonald on Elizabeth Bennet’s shakuhachi recital at Tufts onOctober 16 (3 PM at Tufts)…come to this free concert and find out what a shakuhachi sounds like.

334 Bunnies in January, February and May (Longy School, JP Concerts and Shirley Meeting House, in that order).  More to come!