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.

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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.

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.

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.

What is a College Music Audition Like?

I’m guessing anyone who hasn’t been through a college music audition process doesn’t know what it’s like. Neither did I, until about two days ago. Now that I know, I want to share what it is like for anyone who might be wondering.

I auditioned as a vocalist, which from what I have heard from my brother (who auditioned some years ago as a pianist) is a little different than auditioning as a instrumentalist. In his audition they had him sing a major scale and some other things to test his voice and his ear; I did not have to do this since my primary audition was a singing audition anyway. My audition was in two parts: the theory/aural assessment, and the vocal audition. I took the theory/aural exam first.

Four parts of the test were over theory. They covered rhythm, note names, intervals, triads and seventh chords spellings, and writing out major and minor scales. All of it was information that any first-semester theory student should be familiar with, but there were several aspects that made it difficult. On the note naming, nearly all of the notes which I was asked to name were way below or way above the staff, sometimes on the tenor or alto clef. On the interval testing, instead of asking for an interval above a ‘C’ or some other common note, it would ask for something like a ‘minor second above an A double sharp’, adding the double sharp, or in some cases double flats, just to make it difficult. It did a similar thing with the scales, asking for weird scales like E# melodic minor. On top of all of this was the time limit, probably the part of the test which made it the most difficult. The time was very limited, sometimes giving you only an average of a few seconds for each question.

There was only one section to the aural part of the test. It was fifteen minutes long, which was plenty of time to complete it. It tested ability to correctly hear the difference between major and minor scales, the difference between major and minor melodies, chord progressions, rhythms, and intervals. For anyone who has had any ear training or plays piano, it would most likely not be too difficult.

The second part of my audition was the vocal audition. It was much like any singing audition: you go in, you sing, you may be asked a few questions, and then you leave. The only difference between this and most auditions I have done is that I also had to do a short section of sight reading. In most cases, all of the faculty for whatever instrument you are auditioning on will be there, so depending on your instrument, there might be half a dozen professors there or only one. In my case all the professors were very warm and welcoming, and the atmosphere was very relaxed, yet professional. This will of course vary from school to school, with some schools having a much more intense, daunting atmosphere.

So there you have it, my college audition experience. I am sure there is a great variance from school to school and instrument to instrument, but nevertheless, I hope someone finds this helpful if they are wondering what a college music audition is like.

Pre-Area

Several weeks ago I made a post about Texas All-State Region 25 Region Choir. Well the next step in the audition process, Pre-Area, was this week.

My audition was great. Absolutely terrific.

For about the first sixteen measures, that is. Then I decided that it would be a good idea to come in on the tenor note instead of the baritone note and absolutely butcher the next four measures.

Then after that the rest of my audition was fantastic. My Bach was on point. My sixteenth note runs were nearly impeccable.

But, sadly, it didn’t matter how great my Bach was. The level of competition at the Region 25 Pre-Area audition is intense; it’s not the kind of audition you can make a mistake on and hope that you ‘ll still make it. If you screw up anything, you’re not going to make it to the next round of auditions.

So, needless to say, I didn’t make it in the top five, which was what I had to be to move on. So I guess that’s it, I’m a senior and will never have another chance to try out for the All-State choir. I didn’t make it and now I guess I’m done; cancel the college auditions, close the piano, and never try out for another musical. I didn’t make it, and now I guess I’m done singing forever.

And then I said to myself: “Wait, what? That doesn’t make any sense. You didn’t get in at one audition, that doesn’t mean you should give up totally.”

And I replied, with stunning eloquence, “Yeah, well, whatever. That’s how I feel right now.”

To which I said, “Get over it. Mistakes happen and you can keep going. You don’t sing just so you can be the best, you sing because you like singing. And you’re going to keep singing because the results of one audition doesn’t dictate whether or not you should keep doing it or not.”

To which I replied, with dazzling wit, “Oh.