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Kids, Cookies, Christmas Music and Ministering to Ourselves

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 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 the MMS 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–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. Because one of my sons was in the hospital right before Thanksgiving, 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.

The Zen Place

I joke–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.

We had 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 years. 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!

Chamber Choir Programming for Smarties

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.

Getting it done

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 my profession.

The Pause that refreshes…..sometimes

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 the MMS 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 the MMS. The follow week, rehearsals begin. I think I may just scrub my kitchen floor to give my mind a holiday—nay–or maybe not!

Auditions Again

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 the MMS 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’s HOT!

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 the MMS 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!

“After the Ball is Over”

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

There are several reasons for my busyness–our MMS 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! The MMS 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 have happy I did it. But in order for me to do something like this again, there will have to be jewelry involved!

“Keep On Singing”

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.

“Springtime” in the Midwest

Well, it’s that time of year in the Midwest–not quite spring and not quite winter–but just the icky parts of each. After several really nice, really warmish days, we are back in the freezer and temps will be scrolling downward again not to rise until some time next week. We are suppose to get snow showers in the next day or so. Lovely.

This means allergies and all sorts of sore throats and assorted aliments will be plaguing my singers soon. I’m not a pessimist but a realist when it comes to that sort of thing–as sure as the sun rises in the east, singers get a “little something” at this time of year. My rehearsal plans will have to adjust and I’ll just have to roll with the punches. We think it’s going to be nice and are fooled time and time again. And it’s the same way with rehearsals at this time of year–I think I will have everyone at rehearsal and someone gets “something” and it starts.

Soon, it will be warm all the time and colds and allergies are not so prevalent with singers. I’m waiting for the warmth AND the healthy singers!