A Classical Country and Western Recital

On March 3rd I attended a voice recital by Dr. David Grogan at Southeastern Oklahoma University. Dr. Grogan sang his songs with a music stand, with an explanation in the program that he was “trying it out”, because apparently it was not standard to perform with music up until some time in the 1800’s. Dr. Grogan’s recital was country and western themed, including some spanish songs and German show tunes.

Dr. Grogan demonstrated that he is not only a excellent singer, but also a skilled performer and communicator. Even though he was simply putting on a recital, and he had a music stand in front of him, he communicated- through movement, facial expressions, and his voice- more than most performances I have seen. Dr. Grogan is expansively expressive, effortlessly transitioning from serious to silly in his songs, all with impeccable vocal production.

Dr. Grogan is a baritone. Nevertheless, he might be easily be mistaken for a bass, with a rich, strong and resonant low range which filled the entire recital hall. Dr. Grogan also holds in his vocal arsenal an impressive high range. He sang a selection of German songs from the musical “Arizona Ladies”, which he afterwards confessed were written for tenor. He sang these song with such ease, skill and beauty that one might mistake him for a tenor.

Although he is a classically trained singer who teaches classically, Grogan confessed that he finds classical recital to be “a little stuffy sometimes”, and this was reflected in the theme and the songs he chose to sing at his recital. He sang a selection of songs by composer Charles Ives, one of which he was practically shouting to music; interesting, well-executed, and definitely not classical. Interesting, well-executed, and definitely not classically neatly sums up what Dr. Grogan’s recital was like.

Death of the Actor’s High

Last Friday I took part in a modern dance production entitled “An Awakening”, which outlined the biblical story of creation and redemption through recitation, song, and interpretive dance. As I have mentioned before, I don’t dance; the only reason I was part of this production was that I can sing, and the director needed an extra strong singer. So although I was really just there for the finale song, I was also in a couple of scenes as a dancer.

The most striking part of the experience for me was standing with a (good) microphone in my hand, alone on a lit stage, singing to a 1300-seat auditorium (the auditorium was empty at the time, but you get the picture). The moment I’m thinking of was not even part of the actual performance, it was in a rehearsal earlier the same day, but there’s something unique about hearing your voice fill up a huge auditorium. I’ve performed a lot; I’ve sang in front of several hundred people at a time, I’ve been the sole focal point of a scene, I’ve even performed on this particular stage before. But there is something different about standing on a huge, empty, brightly lit stage and singing out into a cavernous auditorium.

After seven years of performing, I have largely gotten over the novelty, excitement, and fear of being on stage. I’m not afraid to mess up and am not embarrassed when I do. Of the five auditions I have done in the last three months, I was not nervous for a single one of them. The fear-and-excitement-induced addiction to performance which many people feel when they first start performing- whether it be dance, music, or theater- no longer effects me much. The allure of the stage for so many is the buzz, the high, the bursting nervous energy felt before going on stage and the exultant euphoria felt after a successful performance. I don’t know if this happens to most people, but the more I performed, the less excited about being on stage and the less interested in it I became.

But six minutes alone with a microphone in an immense theater changed that. I felt something different, new, and exciting that I hadn’t ever felt in performance. There was a feeling of immensity (yes, while singing to an empty auditorium) that I had never felt before. Although I am little effected by the “actor’s high” anymore, I have found a new reason why performance is so darn exciting. It’s not nervous excitement that makes me enjoy being on stage; I enjoy it like I enjoy anything else: just because it’s cool.

What is Musical Dictation?

Most people, even most musicians who have not had formal musical education at the college or university level, do not know what musical dictation is. But for those who do know what it is and have to do it, it is often the bane of their musical existence. Musical dictation is the skill of hearing something and being able to write it down just as played. Dictation can be separated into three categories: harmonic dictation, melodic dictation, and rhythmic dictation.

Harmonic dictation is the ability to hear a chord and know which degree of the scale it is built on and which inversion, if any, it is voiced in. Harmonic dictation is often easier for musicians who play instruments that play chords, such as pianos.

Melodic dictation is the ability to hear a single melodic line and write it down just as heard. Melodic dictation is usually easier than harmonic dictation.

Rhythmic dictation is the ability to hear and write down rhythms instead of notes. Depending on the musician, this might be much harder or much easier than harmonic or melodic dictation.

There are several reasons why dictation is such a hard part of musicianship. One is that most musicians do nothing to develop their critical listening ear before entering a class where they are required to do dictation. Another reason is that even people with good ears can get confused with dictation, and having no way to concretely know if they are right in their dictation-taking, not be very confident in their dictation skills. But like most things in music, dictation skills are difficult and sometimes monotonous to develop, but in the end are essential and worthwhile assets to one’s musical skills.

Harp Ensemble

Last weekend while I was visiting the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin, I attended a performance of the harp ensemble. The ensemble was made up of four harpists, three students and one professor. As there was no printed program, the professor gave a verbal introduction to the three pieces that they were going to play. All three pieces were written by Rolando Alfredo Ortiz, who immigrated from Paraguay to California about thirty years ago. The professor described the performance as a “trip to South America”.

The first piece was dedicated to the composer’s daughter. The opening measures of this first song destroyed my presupposition of what “harp music” sounds like. I have usually associated harps only with the twinkly, magic sound effect they are often used for, and expected something angelic or shiny-sounding. This song, as well as the rest of the performance, was much less twinkly than I initially expected.

The second song was a Uruguay dance form-it was whimsical, conjuring up images of rainforests and South American natives. At times the harps almost sounded like guitars, and at other times they emitted sounds that reminded me of an electric keyboard. I was surprised by the versatility and range of different sounds of the harp.

The last song was a Colombian dance form, and in addition to playing the strings, the ensemble added percussion to the piece by one of the harpists knocking on the wood of her harp. Of all the pieces, this one sounded the most distinctly like a Latin American dance.

This harp ensemble performance effectively destroyed all my assumptions of what a harp should sound like.

Your Own Beautiful

Someone, somewhere, at some point said, “Don’t try to be another person’s kind of beautiful.” In a world where everything is a competition and most people are constantly comparing themselves to others, this is an easily forgotten or ignored aphorism. We seem to instinctively think as if there was an objective scale for everything, and you’re are either above someone else on it or below them. But the simple saying, “Don’t try to be another person’s kind of beautiful”, gently points out that there isn’t one objective scale to measure beauty, so comparing yourself to someone else, or desiring to look/act/talk/think/be like someone else because they seem to be better than you doesn’t actually make any sense. What you are and what they are is different, and as such cannot ultimately be compared to one another.

All this metaphysical blather stemmed from a conversation I had with my younger cousin earlier. She has just started to take voice lessons, and she asked me to help her. I told her most people have a lot more of a voice and a range than they think, but are not brave enough to get passed the fear of making a mistake to find the expanse of their voice. I told her that the most important thing is to get comfortable with your own voice, comfortable with singing in front of people, and then be okay with it when it’s not perfect, and be okay when you mess up in front of people. Not trying to be someone else’s kind of beautiful also applies to singing. If you only compare your voice to the voices of other people and try to emulate their voices you’ll never be able to develop your own beauty. As I told her these things I found that I was also talking to myself. Accept that your voice (or your anything else) is your own, and allow it to be beautiful instead of trying to shape it into a cheap forgery of someone’s else.

Pop Rant

Despite (and because of) pop music’s prevalence, there are plenty of people who will go on a “Pop Rant” at the slightest provocation. The content of these rants generally include how deplorable pop music is due its repetitiveness, the general lack of meaning in lyrics, as well as how uncreative and over-produced the music is. While all of these expressions of distaste have their merits, they have been re-hashed so many times that they have, for the most part, stopped being meaningful. Obviously, no one cares about this enough to actually stop listening to the boring, meaningless, uncreative, over-produced and Horribly Catchy pop music. So although criticism of pop music seems to be effectively meaningless, let me add one more complaint, one that is perhaps less cliched, to the Pop Rant. I don’t expect it to change anyone’s listening habits, but perhaps it will make someone think a little more when they listen to pop music.

Contrary to the rage against pop’s empty lyrics, I would like to instead rant about how, when pop songs do have meaning, how horrible and even conflicting the ideas which the songs express are. For example, Ed Sheeran’s two most recent singles, when considered together, make no sense and make him look like a jerk or a manipulative music-industry tool instead of a musician who is truly expressing himself through his music. What the first song basically says is, “I had sex with a random girl in a hotel, so yeah, that happened. It was pretty cool I guess.” His next single pledges his life-long love to his one-and-only, declaring “I’ll be loving you still when we’re seventy.” I think the discrepancy is clear. I’m pretty sure he’s not talking about the girl he met in the hotel when he says he’ll love her until seventy. Taken together, these songs don’t just cast doubts on his personal character, but also on his integrity as a musician.

Another example of a pop song with a message which turns out to be horrible is Maroon Five’s song Animals. Once you get past the devilish catchiness of the song and realize that every single line is sexual innuendo, it doesn’t take much to realize that essentially what the leader singer is saying is, “I’m a slave to my own sexuality. Holla.” My only question is, “Why are you proud of that?”

Perhaps it’s better for pop lyrics to not say anything at all if all they can manage to convey otherwise are ideas that are either false or potentially detrimental.

Ensemble:

En·sem·ble (änˈsämbəl/). Noun. a group of musicians, actors, or dancers who perform together.” By definition, an ensemble is a group that performs together, and usually it is assumed that most or all or the members of the ensemble are no more distinguished than any other member. In a musical, to be part of the ‘ensemble’ is often synonymous with ‘background character’. To be assigned to the ensemble is like a death sentence to an aspiring performer who wants to distinguish themselves as an actor, singer, or dancer. The ensemble is not where most people want to end up.

But as many people know, ensembles are important, and can in fact accomplish things which a solo performer would never be able to do. An example of an ensemble that does something that a soloist could not is the a cappella group Pentatonix (I am sure there are better examples I could use, but this is the one that has affected me the most). Pentatonix would mostly be labelled as a pop group, but technically they are an ensemble. They do not have a specific “frontman”, or someone who is considerably more famous than the rest of the group. I chose Pentatonix as an example of why an ensemble can be so great because the five-member group creates affects and feelings from their arrangements that could never be achieved by a single singer. To go even further, I argue that if one of them was the frontman of the group, if they were organized more like a band and less like an ensemble, it would draw attention away from their music. Any time the frontman sang, the attention would be solely on him; but when there is no person as a focal point, the music is able to speak for itself, creating a choral effect where every note plays its part and no single part is blown out of proportion, diminishing the effect of the other parts and the effect of the music as a whole. If you want to know what I mean when I say this, go listen to practically any song by Pentatonix, and you’ll see what I am talking about.

Most performers have a natural tendency to desire attention and recognition on stage. This can be a good thing. A soloist can captivate an audience in a brilliant and unique way. But something every performer should learn is to move out of the spotlight. You are not the art; you are a vessel of the art. If you are not careful, you can get in the way of what you are trying to express. An ensemble is not a lesser plane of existence for a performer. Be okay with performing without being the center of attention; sometimes, that makes the performance come alive in a way it never could otherwise.