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What I'm doing now

As of June 10, 2016 I am . . .

Writing down songs I might use in the sixth production of Quonnie The Musical

Typing out lyrics to memorize for my June 25 concert (info right here)

Scraping a badly painted deck so it can be repainted

Preparing to cry at my son's high school graduation

Inspired by Cait Flanders.

 

Write on

I'm back in writing/directing mode after two months of teaching the world to sing. My children's history show, Quonnie: The Musical 2012, opens in less than two weeks! Once again I've written the script and lyrics myself, borrowing melodies from many different musical eras. I like writing lyrics and sometimes I'm really pleased, which makes up for the other times. "The Last Time I Saw Paris" was written by Oscar Hammerstein II and affectionately recalled the City of Light before the Nazi occupation. I used it in Quonnie: The Musical to provide a sentimental look at life in my neck of the woods back in September 1938, when Quonochontaug, RI (and the rest of New England) was devastated by a hurricane.

This year I have a couple of sweet elementary-age girls crooning the lyrics, which describe Quonnie before and after the storm: "The last time I saw Quonnie/the berries tasted sweet/the blush was on the roses red, we complained about the heat." The line I am proudest of incorporates a well known phrase: "The houses floated out to sea, the shoreline narrowed thin/our gardens drowned in ocean salt, a world gone with the wind." I meant it to refer to the song, which came out in 1937, but it could easily bring to mind the movie, which debuted in 1939. (And really, is there any better opening title sequence than this? ;)) To me it's a perfect visual image of how the hurricane affected this area.

I'm also proud of a lyric I dreamed up on the fly, Saturday night around 6pm. I was preparing to sing  "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" from Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. The original lyrics describe Annie's rivalry with Frank Butler, but my duet partner was Ben Hutto, the esteemed director of choirs at the National Cathedral School and St. Alban's School in Washington, DC. So, I started rewriting some lyrics to reflect our roles as music director and vocal coach at the Royal School of Church Music's Newport course. I scribbled out lines and showed them to Ben for approval. Some were clunkers, but some were good: "I sing music that'r make a window shatter," "I can stick my tongue out and sometimes stick my lung out." My very favorite will only be understandable to church musicians, but they'll howl: "I can Phos Hilaron with my underwear on." He delivered it perfectly and brought down the house.

Okay, then. YOU try to rhyme Phos Hilaron, wise guy.

Teachypants

Deep Thoughts on the Summer Music Theater Camp Teaching Experience, written in Bossypants-ese. 10. Enrollment Axiom 1: If your summer theater camp has only two enrollees, both will be low-energy, gluten-sensitive tweens whose parents confused emo with interest in acting. The class will meet for six hours a day, five times a week, for a solid month. You will have to abandon your groundbreaking production of Oh, Calcutta! Jr. and endure their silent scorn as you desperately try to find something they can present at the camp showcase. With proper medication and diet, these kids can become excellent lighting designers.

9.  Enrollment Axiom 2: If you are blessed with enthusiastic, energetic actors who are eager to learn and experiment, the head count will be 56. One of the five days of camp will be a national holiday so you will be expected to cram five days of rehearsal into four. Five years from now, one of these campers will win the Tony Award for Lead Actress in Musical Theater, having never forgiven you for relegating her to the chorus this summer.

8. Whatever you encourage hesitant students to do in rehearsal will be executed at Mach Level 3 in performance.  "Move around the stage a little" will look like a human pinball. "Act sadder" will look suicidal. "Go ahead, be flirtatious" will look like Courtney Stodden.

7. Success stories are always inspiring. Invite professional actors to perform for your future Nellie Forbushes, and watch their little jaws drop when they see the pros go at it. It's even more fun because you can actually sightread the material the pros bring to show off their chops, which makes you feel like a bit of a pro yourself. (No snark here, that is really fun. And wow, Marvin Hamlisch still sounds good in 2012.)

6. Each day you shall hear at least two of the following: "I'm more of an actor-dancer" . . . "I'm a really low alto in school" . . . . "Can't you just transpose it down? That's what my choir teacher always does" . . . . "These pages of the song don't fit my voice, so I just leave them out" . . . "I just can't remember all the words to the song you gave me last week and the concert is in an hour, so my parents just said I should do Meadowlark again, you have the music around here, right?" Try to figure out a way to extract money from students for each utterance.

5. You will teach this lesson continually: Unless you are rendered unconscious by your own greatness, the performance isn't over when you stop singing. No, Oliver Twist, you will not lower your arms and shrug two seconds before the final chord of "Who Will Buy?" and ruin all the good work you did in the previous two minutes. We will practice it nine times until you hold those arms up for the duration of the final chords of music. The performance ends when I say it ends, mister. And it starts when you are walking onto the stage, so we're going to rehearse that too, until you stop shuffling and start walking. (Half of the campers will be so excited that they will forget to bow at all, but a few will do it perfectly and make me glad I took the time.)

4. Stop looking at me like you're drowning. I told you this performance would be memorized and you didn't believe me.

3. Just look at me if you forget the words. I will help you. You'll be okay.

2. If you are not the parent or relative of a camper, do not view any videos of summer theater camp performances. No matter how successful the showcase, if you watch it on video, you will deflate. Cherish the hazy memory. It actually went well.

1. Honor tradition. After the show is over and the kids are gone, treat yourself to mint chocolate chip ice cream. This dates back to your childhood, when your dad took you and your little sister to McDonald's for a Shamrock Shake after each piano recital, which was usually held on a cold gray Sunday afternoon in March. You didn't perform today, but you did work your butt off and it's time to celebrate. The iciness also helps to reduce the inflammation in your throat from weeks of shouting over preteens. If there is no ice cream, alcohol is an acceptable substitute. Long live theater!

 

 

 

 

Their works do follow them

  I'm singing Brahms Requiem for the first time, with a director who is leading it for the last time.

George Kent has been the heart and soul of The Chorus of Westerly for 53 years. It is deeply moving to watch a legend as he prepares to leave behind what he's built. Mrs. Lynn Kent is part of the soprano section and she started Camp Ogontz, the Chorus' bucolic summer home. We've hugged her and cried with her all year, because we're going to be saying goodbye to her, too. At the final rehearsal, Mr. Kent was not thinking legacy; he was focused on getting the sopranos to match pitch with the strings. "We don't come here for two hours on Thursday nights so the sopranos can sing flat!" (He said that with great exasperation on May 3; I know because I wrote it down. I often write down directors' bons mots in my scores; they're fun to recall and sometimes they make more sense to me than writing fortissimo or diminuendo.)

The Brahms is Mr. Kent's favorite work, and it's quickly becoming my favorite as well. It's such a personal, intimate choral work, yet it's unbelievably majestic and grand. It is about souls experiencing great suffering and receiving blessed consolation. "Remember, this is not really a Requiem. It's an . . . ALIVE!" he said. "Just keep on concentrating, that's really what we have to do here."

After three hours of rehearsal, the chorus was exhausted. But Mr. Kent seemed to grow stronger with each hour, becoming more and more animated in his conducting and expression. He could see we were weary, so he talked to us for a bit. "The crux of it all is right here," he said, pointing to the words of the seventh and final movement, taken from Revelation: And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.

"Their works do follow them," said Mr. Kent, quietly but insistently. Suddenly understanding what was in front of us, the Chorus suddenly recharged, and then we were off, singing with expression and emotion. Mr. Kent scrunched up his bearded face in determination and delight.

Thank you, George and Lynn Kent, and Godspeed. Your works do follow you.

Bad breath(ing)

One of my students brought the Colbie Caillat song Realize to a recent lesson. She kept running out of breath before the ends of phrases, and that wasn't really like her.  

We listened to the mp3 together. Amazing! There is only ONE place to breathe in the chorus: If you just realize what I just realized/ then we'd be perfect for each other/ and will never find another/if you just realize what I just realized // (BREATHE!)// We'd never have to wonder if/we missed out on each other now

 

I wondered how Miss C would ever be able to manage this feat in live performance. So, my student and I checked out  Realize live, and we realized (ha!) that even Colbie herself couldn't sing the long phrases in one breath! One of her bandmates harmonizes the melody on the choruses and sings a little longer than she does, so Colbie can get a breath. If he didn't harmonize, there would be a little gap in the song and in the "rushed" mood.

Girlfriend wrote the song by herself, presumably for herself (along with Jason Reeves and Mikal Blue)! I think she was trying to make the chorus sound like a rush of words, the kind that come with the

realizationthatyoulovesomeoneandyouwantotellthemnow.

Okay, you're the artist, it's your call. The miracle of music track editing can cover up the fact you have no place to breathe in your own song. No one else can sing the song quite like Colbie . . .even she can't really sing it.

Taylor Swift likes to breathe in unexpected places, and seems to avoid breathing in the logical ones. (And Caillat has written songs for Swift; what a perfect pair of blue-lipped maidens!) Listen to her sing the chorus of Love Story: "You'll be the prince (BREATHE!) and (BREATHE!) I'll (BREATHE!) be the princess." She sounds like a four year old running up three flights of stairs to tell her friend how to play Make Believe Castle. But the ending will leave you . . . . . .uh . . . . . .breathless: RomeosavemeI'vebennfeelingsoaloneIkeep (BREATHE)

waitingforyoubutyounevercomeisthis (BREATHE!)

inmyheadIdon't know (BREATHE!)

whattothinkhekneelstothegroundandpullsoutaringandsaidmarrymeJulietyou'llneverhavetobealoneIloveyouandthat'sallIreallyknowItalkedto yourdadgopickoutawhitedressit'salovestorybabyjustsayyes.

The girl's in love! Oxygen! STAT!

Alanis Morrissette paved the way for the Bad Girl Breathers with lyrics that have been called "a mangled web of garbled syntax, overheated metaphors, and mystifying verbal contortions." She doesn't engage in the kind of melodic rushing that Caillat and Swift (and Sara Bareilles) do. Instead, she messes with beats and so-so rhymes and emPHASis. Like a Pied Piper of Lyrical Grammar, Alanis has led many astray; I still like her. My favorite song of hers is "Uninvited", from the City of Angels soundtrack. She knows when and how to breathe, even if she's not so careful about pronounCIation: Like anyone WOULD be/ I am flatTERED by your FAScination WITH me. . . .you're uninVIted, an unforTUNate slight."

So if you want to sing one of these one-breath-per-stanza songs, what do you do? 1. Slow it down, so the time between rhymes and words is slow enough for you to take some quick breaths. 2. Sing it with a group of singers, so you can all stagger your breaths. 3. Feign a dramatic emotional breakdown if you have to breathe and miss a few words. If all that fails . . . .  4. Sing something else.

 

 

 

Fix a flat

Many years ago I acquired an old  St. Gregory Hymnal. On the back inside cover, there's a note in a woman's handwriting. It says, "Herb, you don't open your mouth enuf! Consequently, you are flat." She wrote "flat" using the musical symbol shaped like a lower case b. I thought it was a perfect little comment. I imagined this soprano (how could she be anything else?), frustrated by his fumbling the "Gloria" again, finally snapped and fired off a note to poor Herb while Father intoned the Gospel. She couldn't take it anymore, but she was respectful of Herb's feelings. The "enuf" was her way of softening the blow.

What can you do when member of your singing group is so off key -- or sings with such tension -- that he or she destroys the blend you've worked so hard to create? I have never seen an ensemble director or group member accuse an individual singer of "sticking out," but I've heard sad stories from grown ups whose music teachers ordered them to lip sync, rather than sing. The hurt lingers. When these folks are brave enough to take voice lessons later in life, it's therapy as much as it is training.

Can anything be done to help the "stick out" singer, without hurting feelings? I've observed the following remedies and results.

1. Ignore it. It will go away. This works about once a year, and never while performing. If an obvious problem is continually ignored by a director or fellow members, listeners will question your hearing and/or your sanity. "Good grief, can't she hear how BAD that sounds?"

2. Call out the entire section. "Tenors, we are screeching on that note like cats in heat!" Sometimes the off-pitch singers get the hint and make the fix, while the rest of the section wonders what they did wrong. There are two pitfalls here: A. Well-meaning singers, singing correctly, may overcompensate and become new problems to ignore (see no. 1). B. Well-meaning singers, singing correctly, will deduce that you're not accusing them of pitch problems. They will tune out your criticism altogether, even when they really deserve it. This reduces a director to the musical equivalent of Chicken Little.

3. Change the key of the song. This can alleviate a problem in the short term, but it drives perfect-pitchers like me insane. I have been forced to transpose on sight because a couple of singers needed a lower pitch. Their problem was gone, but mine was just beginning, and I resented it.

The best way to respectfully address vocal faults is by assessing and improving vocal function. Improving the function often alleviates the problems.

Be dispassionate when someone keeps hitting a clunker. Simply note what is happening, and ask for information. "We're under the pitch at measure 17. Mackenzie and Malcolm, what do you feel happening when you sing that note? What happens in your throat before you sing that note? Singers, what can we do when our throats feel tighter on these kinds of pitches? Okay, good answers. Let's have Mackenzie and Malcolm demonstrate those last two suggestions, and then we'll all try it together."

Mackenzie was never directly accused of not hitting the note, she was simply asked to report what was happening before and during her singing. A few singers demonstrated the correct practice, and then everyone tried together. It's also fun to have everyone actually sing a melody "the wrong way" and then switch to "the right way." It's like a mini-master class, and it's quick. I know it's not always possible to do this, but when there's time and the courage to try, the results are amazing.

Yes, addressing vocal faults uses precious rehearsal time, but fixing them benefits the whole group. In the end, it saves time and results in healthier singers and better performances. Do it before you've had "enuf."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.

Somewhere out there

My son, the world's No. 1 Rush fan, recently became a blogger. Reactions to his blog were mixed. (You can do a quick search for it at the Good Man Project's Good Feed Blog.) The feedback from his peers -- whose tastes run more to hip-hop -- was mostly negative, but that was no surprise. Readers old enough to know all the lyrics to Tom Sawyer were supportive and enthusiastic. I wish he had more support from friends in his area, but I know he will find camaraderie eventually.

The apple didn't fall far from the tree. Last year I started "Chants Occurrence," a Meetup group that I hoped would help me link up with people who liked Gregorian chant and early sacred music. It was a way for me to handle the sudden musical isolation I felt after my big move to the East in 2010. I was hoping to start a mini-schola, and maybe even bring that group to a church occasionally, because I think St. Augustine was right. But, we all live too far away from each other for that to happen anytime soon. I've had the pleasure of meeting a few of the 11 members of the group at concerts, and I'll see a couple of them at a Vespers I'm singing this weekend in Connecticut. I still hope we'll get to chant together sometime, but I feel better just knowing they're out there.

Finding my tribe has not happened the way I thought it would, but isn't that God's favorite way of answering prayer? A few weeks ago, recoiling from negative news stories, I found I had an urgent desire to save a life. I prayed to save just one life. Less than 24 hours later, I had an unexpected extra hour in my teaching schedule and out the window, I saw a red-letter opportunity. I walked into a building near my teaching studio, and gave a pint of blood.

I feel better just knowing it's out there. ;)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music for Funerals

When I lived in Michigan, I had an informal agreement with the organist at my parish, regarding music for our own funerals: One of us would make sure that the other got really good music. We worried that our relatives, prostrate with grief, might program some lousy music. We even made a little list for each other. We did a lot of funerals together, and sometimes we would whisper, "I want THAT hymn!" or, more often, "Please make sure that song is BANNED at my funeral, ok?" On Eagles' Wings did not make the cut. And now I have stated it here on my blog, too. Take note, family! I love the Faure Pie Jesu for funerals. It's short and beautiful. But, I think for my own funeral I would rather not have a soprano soloist. I'd like to be the Star Female one last time. So . . how about The Call, by Ralph Vaughan Williams? I love choral music, too.  . . the In Paradisum from the Faure or Durufle Requiem would be lovely, but I'm practical. I know there won't be a lot of time to rehearse anything. Do the chant version of the In Paradisum and I'll be happily on my way. Do Be Not Afraid and I'll haunt you. I'm tickled at the thought of having a New Orleans Second Line, but that's hard to come by up here!

The last time I sang the Pie Jesu for a funeral, it was for a baby girl who died in her mother's womb a couple of days before she was supposed to be delivered. I had just formed a small children's choir at my parish, which included some of the girl's older siblings. The parents asked if the children would sing, and they sang God Who Touchest Earth With Beauty. It was heartbreaking, and yet also hopeful. I could feel the sadness in my own voice as I sang, but I held it together. At the request of the parents we also sang Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones, a great hymn looking forward to happiness with the Communion of Saints.

My dad played the organ at both of his parents' funerals, and he accompanied me as I sang Albert Hay Malotte's The Lord's Prayer. I know it brought him comfort to be able to play. He also delivered the eulogies. My mother sang at her own mother's funeral. I don't think I will be able to do anything but hold my sister's hand at that time, but we'll see. When your heart is broken, sometimes music is the only way you can bear it. If I have to sing, I'll sing.

This week my True Love and I attended a funeral at the same parish where we were married. It was a service of thanksgiving for the life of Laurie, a woman I had never met. The church was packed. The choir sang Herbert Howells' Pray For the Peace Of Jerusalem. At Communion the choir sang several short motets, including one of my favorites by Theodore DuBois, Adoramus Te Christe. (It's on my list. It's quick to learn, too.) We used to sing it at the Altar of Repose on Holy Thursday.

The final hymn was For All The Saints, and we sang all eight verses. I noticed that as I sang each verse, my voice was stronger and stronger, and I was happy to help sing this beloved woman to Heaven. The organist played a dazzling fanfare, and we began the final verse. The choir soared past all of us, with the descant reaching higher and higher. The music in the hymnal got blurry as tears came to my eyes, and I choked up so much I could no longer sing, just listen and be thankful.

The entire congregation stood as the grieving mother and children processed to the back of the church with the casket, while the organist played a triumphant postlude. A few people left the pews, but most just stood and watched. The choir was invited to recess but they remained standing in the loft, motionless. The organist kept his eyes on the music and completed the postlude, and everyone remained standing, weeping silently for the gift of the beautiful woman and the gift of the beautiful music.

Laurie was the organist's daughter. He played her to Heaven.

Laura Kent Hynes 1962-2012

 

 

Voice Lessons, Vocal Coaching, Piano Lessons, Performance Coaching, and Musical Production.

Eden Casteel Music Studio, 81 Post Road, Wakefield RI 02879. Phone: 401-932-5589.