Talking Bach with Steve Staruch

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For the video series Conversations with the Bach Society of Minnesota I sat down with Minnesota Public Radio host, violist, and all-round cool dude Steve Staruch to talk about the drama in Bach's oratorios, churches without bathrooms, and roadtrips to Bethlehem.

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Making Music in the Holidays

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The holidays are a feast for the senses—you might not think so, given the sensorial overload that it usually is—but if you stop and think about it, the smells of cookies and meals cooked especially for a large gathering (or a small one), the sight of a Christmas tree, the mood that can be created with just a few candles and dimmed lights.

Getting to that special Christmas mood is also a feat, given the additional school programs, parties, big crowds at every single store, and the Christmas card list that seems to grow exponentially every year.

Being a musician at the holidays is a bit of a different feat, as we’re the ones who are part of the main attraction, but also somehow behind-the-scenes. Can you imagine a Christmas school program without music? Just spoken word. Or a Christmas service at your church without the usual organ and then several slots for special music? Or if all 3 (or 11!) Christmas Eve services were held without music?
All of this music requires special and additional preparation, including purchasing music (months ahead of time), rehearsals, practice, and extra time to allow for all that extra traffic on the way to rehearsal. Christmas Concerts, too, and if you’re a conductor, you’ll be thinking of Christmas in June. Probably earlier.
Christmas in the post-War United States

Christmas in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A couple of years ago I realized that if I was going to have any time to put Christmas decorations up before December 26th, I was going to need to put up just a few things and they needed to go up on Black Friday. So that was indeed what I did. My wreath went up at 10 am on Black Friday, my 2-foot Christmas tree with the special decorations from the Erzgebirge, the tea light holders from Germany, which is it for decorations. Any Christmas cards I might receive in the mail go into whatever basket is handy. I stopped trying to find time to send out Christmas cards years ago.

The rest of the time is filled with rehearsals, practicing, worrying about how bad the next snowstorm will be and if I shouldn’t just leave an extra hour early, trips to the dry cleaner’s to pick up a concert dress, yet another email to my cousin saying that I won’t be at extended family Christmas this year as much as I’d love to be, I’m working; luckily my family knows that the holidays are when musicians work the most. There might be time to curl my hair before the early rehearsal on Christmas Eve, there might not be. Outfits are planned weeks in advance.

The time between Christmas and New Year’s (appropriately known as zwischen den Jahren in German—“between the years”) is a blissfully quiet time.

It’s when we sleep.

3 Tips for Not Crying While You're Singing

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Or How Not to Cry at a Wedding. Or a Funeral.

Or at the End of Mahler's 2nd Symphony

Singing is an emotional venture. Listening to singing can be wrenching when you're emotional and it hits you right there--and it can be even harder when you're doing the singing. So imagine you're singing at an emotionally charged event like a wedding or maybe a funeral, or someone close to you has just passed away and you're on to sing Mahler's 2nd Symphony (known as the "Resurrection Symphony").

An excerpt from the German text

Sterben werd' ich, um zu leben!
Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n
wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!
 

translates roughly to:

I will die that I might live!
Rise again, yes, you will rise again,
my heart--in a heartbeat!
 

Moments like this can take your legs out from underneath you if you're already feeling emotional, that's for sure. It can also blindside you in a performance. Here are 3 few tips for creating an emotion-invoking performance without losing it yourself.

1. Lose it ahead of time.

If you have any amount of time prior to the performance, whether it's 5 weeks or 2 hours and you think it's going to be rough emotionally, allow yourself to lose it--just cry. Do it as early as you feel it. Even if it's a few tears 5 minutes before you need to stand up, shed a few tears. If you don't let it out, it will come out whenever it wants, and that will most likely be at the high point of your piece.

2. Breathe actively.

A lot of people are helped by the simple instruction "Just breathe." Frequently this is enough, however if you're having a hard time in your life and you have singing to do, it may not be enough. So breathe actively, be engaged with your own breath, and follow it in and out of your own body. Write in large notes or symbols for taking active breaths in your music.

3. Ground & Center

If you don't know yet what grounding is, click here. (It gets a little woo-woo, so just see what speaks to you and leave the rest.) Practice grounding and centering regularly before rehearsal, before and after practicing, and before concerts. The more you ground & center, the easier it gets. And during a performance, you may have an opportunity to flex and rotate your feet and ankles without anyone seeing. Or just wiggle your toes slowly and deliberately if you feel the tears come creeping up. Try to keep both feet on the floor; it will help you stay balanced emotionally and will help prevent you from getting light-headed if you have to stand up quickly.

What about you? What do you do to keep from getting too emotional in a performance? Comment below.

How Many Languages Do Singers Need to Speak? Part 2

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In Part 1 you discovered just how skilled at foreign languages singers need to become. It takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of time to pronounce a foreign language accurately or to learn to speak it. One element is vitally important:

the meaning.

The meaning of the words and their expression is of utmost importantce in any performance, whether it's a concert with thousands in the audience or a nighttime lullaby for one little child.

This is a vastly different performance philosophy than the park-and-bark methodology of previous generations of singers (which still has a lot of influence today). The focus was on the costumes and the sound, but not necessarily on the meaning of the words and the emotional communication between the performers and the audience.

Here's a bad example:

The European Football League is an American football league (not soccer but real, American football). At one of their games in Frankfurt several years ago a vocal quartet sang the National Anthem just like we do here in the States. It's a meaningful anthem for Americans and it takes on a whole new dimension when you live in a foreign country. So while I was living abroad, every time I heard our national anthem I'd cry.

Except this time.

This quartet took it upon themselves to create a new arrangement in which the actual melody could no longer be distinguished and the harmonies were so crazy, no one could sing along. And trust me, Americans know their anthem well and they sing along no matter where they are in the world. The Germans in the stadium could forget seeing how much they could understand because there was nothing to understand. The beautiful meaning of our national anthem was gone. It wasn't there for the Americans in the stadium and it most certainly wasn't there for the Germans.

In fact, it was so bad that the native German woman standing next to me turned to me and said, "This doesn't sound right."

Here's a good example:

Listen to this, the "Song to the Moon" from the opera Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák, as sung by Leontyne Price. When you're done, scroll down.

 

Did you catch the passion? the longing? Incredible, isn't it?

Read a bit of the background of this piece and read the translation to the text here.

Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about.

How Many Languages Do Singers Need to Speak? Part 1

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Singers really only need to speak one language, however the reality is that they need to be able to pronounce at least a half-dozen and should learn to speak as many as possible. Even if it's just your basic greetings and vocabulary.

  

This is not to say, however, that singers should stress themselves out about learning multiple foreign languages. Too many singers stress themselves out about their language skills being not "good enough," as it's easy to forget how much time and practice it takes to learn a foreign language.

  

What we must learn is the pronunciation of multiple languages and call it diction. We call it diction as singing is basically exaggerated speech, therefore we need to exagerate the pronunciation so it makes sense to you when you hear it with the music. We take diction courses to learn to do this. Art song, opera, and choral pieces are frequently sung in English, French, German and Italian, which are the four foundational singing languages, (in additon to Latin, which we just kind of pick up as we go along). Then there is a whole host of repertoire in Russian, Czech, Spanish, and Hungarian, as well as Vietnamese, Chinese, Polish, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch...and the list goes on.

  

Languages are living things, they change with and over time (we know this as we don't speak like Shakespeare any more). Older music frequently has different pronunciation as well as archaic words. In newer music there might be surrealist poetry with altered words or an expression that doesn't translate well. Or maybe an opera librettist may write one character's dialogue in a dialect.

  

So it's really like any other career, in that you get started with your base knowledge (in this case the singing diction for English, French, German, and Italian) and then you expand it to deeper levels (dialects, understanding foreign language idioms, languages with even more complex pronuncation, rare languages, etc.).

  

No matter what language we sing in, too, it is the singer's duty to pronounce it as accurately, as authentically as possible and to strive to portray the meaning of every single word. The pronunciation is only half the work. The other half is Part 2 of this article. Stay tuned for part 2, next Thursday!