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All the World’s a Stage

Last night, in the intermission during a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff, in which I was singing the role of the mischievous Alice, I was scrolling aimlessly through facebook, squirming in my uncomfortable and too hot renaissance dress and silently mouthing some of my lines for the upcoming act, when I saw a post on a friend’s wall alerting me to the death of Cliff Thomson.

I held my breath, did a brief query to verify that it was true, and then thought about how the first time I had heard Verdi was in his classroom, and said to myself, tonight’s show is for him.

I’ve written about Cliff Thomson in this space before, or “Mr. Thomson,” as I knew him, or just “Thomson,” or occasionally “Cliffo.”  He taught choir and drama at my high school.  He put on an annual Broadway Review, in which I had some of my first solo performances.  One year he did away with the Broadway part, and just did a pastiche of music from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  In my senior year, he taught a music theory class, without which I might have been hopelessly lost as a freshman in conservatory.

The way he taught high school choir was, I would discover later when comparing my experiences with friends’, unorthodox.  We never went near choral arrangements of pop songs or show tunes, and I don’t think I ever saw anything by Eric Whitacre.  Instead we learned Bach cantatas, Palestrina, the Fauré requiem, the Mozart requiem, the Schubert Mass in G.  We sang through, but never performed, the VERDI requiem, the Brahms Deutches Requiem.  We sang big, ambitious classical choral works, and we often sang them badly.  But that was ok.  The emphasis wasn’t on creating a pristine choral blend, it was more about developing an intimate relationship with this glorious music, and having fun.  (Well, I had fun. I’m sure many teenage choir singers would have preferred show tunes.)

I also credit Thomson with introducing me to the love of my life:  opera.  He sang in the Washington National Opera chorus, a gig that I thought was so glamorous at the time.  He would often talk about the star singers with whom he shared the stage.  He played us video recordings of operas, Otello with Placido Domingo in the title role, the Verdi Requiem conducted by Leonard Bernstein, with Leontyne Price as the soprano soloist.  This was the first time I heard real operatic singing and I wanted more.

His drama class began the same way every year.  Each student was to memorize and perform the same Shakespearean monologue: the seven ages of man from As You Like It.  I think I probably still have it memorized. Once again, the emphasis was on the classical, rather than the popular.

Thomson had a tempestuous personality that rubbed some people the wrong way.  His mood could change on a dime from joking and laughing, to shouting, spitting, and storming out of the room.  The joke was always that it was just time for his cigarette break and he’d be back to normal once he got his fix.  Yes, he was the only teacher I knew who made no effort to conceal his habit, on our “tobacco free campus.”

In the last few years I would occasionally search google, or ask friends if anyone had any contact info for him.  I felt this need to tell him what an enormous influence he had on me.  It’s funny, I often feel like I was this special student of his, like he took me under his wing as this special voice protegé.  But it occurs to me that there are probably hundreds of former students of his that feel that way.  Isn’t that the mark of a good teacher?  That each student feels like they are getting special treatment?

When I was making plans to go to college to study music, I came to him for advice.  I couldn’t decide whether to major in music theater or opera, and I’ll never forget what he said to me then:  “If you can do music theater, then you can do music theater.  If you can do opera, you can do anything.”

At the time I took it to mean that if you have training in opera, you can do any kind of theater.  But now I realize that what he meant is that opera is such a complex and difficult artform that if you can master it, then anything else  you attempt is a piece of cake.

Goodbye Mr. Thomson.  I hope you knew what a difference you made.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with a good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.





Kurt Knecht said Singing is Easy – He’s Wrong.

Every singer has had to deal with assertions that we’re lesser musicians.  It seems like the classical music community is beginning to move past this backwards way of thinking, but today, Blogger Kurt Knecht revealed that we still have some work to do.

I was annoyed when I read the title of his blog post “Are you a Singer or a Musician?” but I really started fuming when I got to this passage:

Over the last 20 years, I have worked for 6 or 7 different University music departments. Though there have been some very notable exceptions, I would say that generally speaking, the vocal majors didn’t work as hard to learn their craft as the instrumentalists. The vocalists didn’t understand theory as well, and they often didn’t sight sing as well as the instrumental students. It is a problem that needs to be addressed in our educational institutions.

When Kurt says that vocal majors don’t work as hard to learn “their craft” as instrumentalists do, he is showing that he doesn’t actually know what a singer’s “craft” is, or how it differs from the craft of, say, a violinist.

You see he’s right.  Instrumentalists are often better musicians than singers, and there’s a very real, very understandable reason for that.  To illustrate, I’d like to compare the hypothetical educational timelines of an elite singer and an elite violinist:

Age 5

A kid’s parents enroll their child in violin lessons, where she begins to make those first screeching sounds as she puts bow to strings, and she begins to learn the ABC’s of reading music.

Meanwhile, across town, another 5 year old who might become a singer one day is singing along with Disney movies on TV.  If she’s very lucky she has a school music program where she’s learning some music fundamentals.

Age 10

The young violinist is playing fairly advanced pieces with a decent tone and well-practiced technique.  Maybe she plays in a school orchestra.

The 10 year old singer might be in a school or church choir, where she learns her music by rote.  Maybe she’s brave enough to sing a solo once in a while.  Her technique at this point is simply “do what sounds pretty.”  She certainly isn’t taking formal voice lessons yet, and won’t be able to really get to work on the technical aspects of singing until after puberty.

Age 17

By the time our two imaginary musicians are graduating from high school, the violinist has played a variety of well-known symphonic pieces in an orchestra, and knows most, if not all, advanced technical skills required by her instrument.  She probably knows at least the basics of music theory and reads music with as much fluency as she reads words.  She’s applying to conservatory and her teacher has coached her on her audition repertoire.

The singer?  She’s starting to pick up some sight-reading skills in her high school choir. She’s becoming familiar with some major choral works, and maybe, if she’s taking voice lessons, is just beginning to learn the basics of classical singing technique. If she’s blessed with a nice enough voice then she might’ve had the lead in her school musical or an occasional solo in choir.

Age 18

So now it’s freshman year at conservatory.  The two are sitting down to take their placement exams for music theory classes.  Is it any surprise that the instrumentalists fare better than the singers?  They’ve had a years-long head start!  And all along the way, they are able to focus solely on musicianship and technique.  While singers are learning what it takes to be a capital-M Musican, they’re also learning Italian, French, and German at the very least, as well as acting, and perhaps dance, not to mention tackling the mysteries of singing technique!

Singers are the music world’s ultimate multitaskers.  In a fully-staged operatic performance, a singer must be aware of her surroundings, and respond to the situation.  Singers must sing with consistent, correct technique, and musicality.  Often they must deal with extraordinary physical demands, like fight choreography.  And, usually, do all of it in a foreign language!

This is, of course, why professional singers employ coaches to help  learn and perfect operatic roles.  We need that extra help because we have so many things to think about!

Before you say that I missed the point of what Kurt was trying to say, I did read this:

“I’m not suggesting that singing well is any easier than playing an instrument well. I am saying that singing well enough is easier than playing well enough. ”

And I suppose in a way he’s right.  It’s not difficult to join a choir and make decent music with little experience as an amateur singer.  But the next time you feel impatient with a singer who’s struggling with sight-reading or can’t tell a tritone from a triad, just remember everything that has to go into a singer’s “craft.”


Take a Deep Breath

Ok. So after yesterday’s particularly angsty post which detailed the three weeks I just spent crying and moaning and self-flagellating in an attempt to come up with some aria recordings I can use for application materials for YAP auditions and competitions, here’s where I stand:

I have recorded two arias that I am mostly proud of. They are a good representation of the kind of singing that I can do consistently and confidently. Would you like to hear them? Ok here they are:

Vissi d’Arte

Einsam in Trüben Tagen

And I have one recording that is pretty horrifying and will never see the light of day. I’m inclined to think that the particular aria is the problem with its high tessitura, exposed vocal lines, long phrases, and difficult coloratura passages, except that I have a recording from a coaching last month in which I sang the piece beautifully. I guess the low-pressure setting of a working session with a coach made it easier to just relax and let my instrument do its thing.

The reassuring thing is that the response to yesterday’s despairing essay showed me that all singers seem to have had similar experiences, even the really successful ones who have had robust opera careers.

So here’s what I’m telling myself: I’m a good singer. And I’m getting better. And I love to sing. I love to sing so much that I can hardly turn myself off when a song comes on the radio, or if I’m tidying up the house, or if I’m just sitting at the piano banging out a tune.

It’s scary to think that no matter how hard I work, no matter how flawless my singing becomes, I still may never have the kind of opera career I daydream about. But, as Mama Rose says in act I of Gypsy, “I at least gotta try!”


I’m back!

Oh dear.   It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything, hasn’t it?

I’ve been busy.  I was cast in a local production of Puccini’s Il Tabarro, and learning the role of Giorgetta and rehearsing for the show took up quite a bit of my time.  Here’s an exerpt from one of my performances:

And now I’m working with some friends on a concert of opera scenes and arias.  But stay tuned!  I’ve got lots of ideas for blog posts.  In the meanwhile, here’s a post I contributed to a blog I share with a few friends on our exploration of instrumental music.

140 Characters just can’t contain me anymore!

This is going to be the new home of long form Molly (well, longer form Molly).  I’ve got a lot to say about a lot of things, so get ready, internet!

I’m planning on making Molly Makes Music mostly about my adventures in Operaland, but will also include plenty of musings on my other favorite topics:  pop culture and nerdery, atheism (file under nerdery), and politics with an emphasis on feminism.

Here we go!