All posts by Marie

The Midwest Motet Society’s Star Spangled Tour!

The Midwest Motet Society’s Star Spangled Tour
Let’s Celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the Writing of the Star Spangled Banner!

Come hear us sing, “Chester,” the Anthem of the American Revolution and sing “The Star Spangled Banner” with us

Friday, September 12, 2014

Park Forest, Village Green, 4:30 pm
At the stage, behind the Village Hall and immediately west of the Tall Grass Art Gallery

Chicago Heights, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 5pm
667 8th Street, on the Labyrinth

Flossmoor, Flossmoor Public Library, 5:30 pm
1000 Sterling, on the front Steps

Homewood, Homewood Veteran’s Memorial, 6 pm
Olive Road and Harwood Avenue, across from Aurelio’s

Marie Grass Amenta, Founder and Music Director

It’s that time again

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 for my concert cycles for the Midwest Motet Society 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.

Getting My Hands Dirty

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 I 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.

Director and Mother

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 the MMS , 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!

Biting the Hand that Feeds You

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.

She will be missed

When I began the MMS, 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, the MMS sang at the ITC’s 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 an IPO concert. 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 the MMS. 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!”

Daylight Savings Time–beginning anew

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!

Living Seasons

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. 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.

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.

Marie can sing….no, seriously

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!

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 a 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.