Every year (or 4 out of the past 5 years) I have participated in the Song & Aria Competition that is part of the Song Festival organized by the Boston Chapter of NATS, the National Association of Teachers of Singing. I have always sung reasonably well, but not quite well enough to crack the final.
Well, that's not quite accurate either. Last year I kicked ass. I had, due to poor planning on my part, only two weeks to prepare. In those two weeks I had to polish the first of Ravel's Don Quichotte songs, which I sing about as well as I sing any song, and one of Vaugh Williams Songs of Travels (I don't remember which one) and learn from scratch a very difficult Schumann lied. I was extremely worried about the Schumann, but I nailed it about as well as I am capable and was so relieved I relaxed a little too much on the Don Quichotte. I made one stupid little mistake, and I missed being a finalist by one measly little point.
Here's how the competition works. Singers are grouped into one of six divisions according to age and experience. (This year and last I sang in Division V Avocational, a new division for singers over 28 who do not have conservatory experience.) On Saturday, singers have preliminary auditions in front of a small panel of one or two judges, all of whom are voice teachers who are members of NATS. (Some divisions, because of size, are split into various rooms for the preliminaries.) After the preliminaries, any division whose auditions took place in more than one room has a run-off audition Saturday evening. Three finalists except in the event of a tie are chosen from each division and announced. The finals stage takes place on Sunday in the Boston University College of Fine Arts auditorium. It is open to the public and is judged by two sets of three invited judges (one set for Divisions I, II, and III, and another set for Divisions Iv, V, and V Avocational) who are deemed experts in song, opera, performance, etc. In addition to finishing first, second, etc., there are also prizes for High School Scholarship (for the most promising high school singer), Best French Art Song or Aria, and Best Oratorio Aria.
This year I spent a little more than two weeks praparing. I probably spent four or five weeks! I only learned one new song for this competition, though. I have recently been working on Schumann's Liederkreis and Dichterliebe, so I chose to sing numbers IV, V, and VI of the Dichterliebe. I sing French extremely well, because of the way the language seems to put my voice in the right place, so I dusted off my volume of Fauré melodies and re-learned Au bord de l'eau. The only thing remaining was the required song in English. Well, I love Charles Ives, a vastly underappreciated American genius, so I learned his Charlie Rutlage.
I really turned my practicing up a notch the final two weeks before the competition. Fortunately, Tubby was out of the house almost every night, and this allowed me to really cut loose without feeling self-conscious about someone hearing me practice. I even managed to fit a two-hour endurance session, which felt absolutely terrific! On nights when I didn't feel like singing, I forced myself to sing if even only for a half hour, whereas in the past I might have shuffled off to the couch or to bed. The practicing was paying off, something which my voice coach noticed. (I walked in the week before the competition, two weeks since he had last coached me, and he commented that my voice seemed twice as big as when he had last heard it.)
Those few weeks weren't without roadblocks, though. As commented on in a previous post, my voice teacher and I butted heads a couple of times. I was frustrated with her inability to play my accompaniment (which is, in all fairness, extremely difficult accompaniment), which affected my ability to sing and interpret my songs; and she in turn seemed frustrated by the lack of progress she heard, since I wasn't singing well for her. I even raised my voice to her once, when she insisted I was singing dotted quarters instead of ritarded triplets -- it was because she was tripping over the accompaniment and missed the ritard and assumed the longer notes coming out of my mouth were dotted. I think we were both surprised to hear mild-mannered me snap back at her.
And there was the issue with my car, which broke down after a voice lesson two weeks ago. I didn't know how long the repairs would take, so I decided to let the shop do all the repairs the car needed and rent a car in the interim, figuring the work might take a week. (They told me it would be back last Thursday, then Monday or Tuesday, then today, and today they told me Monday. I chewed them out today and they caved in and gave me a loaner, so I could finally return the rental.) Being without a car was out of the question that week-and-a-half before the competition. After all, I had to get to one more voice lesson in South Weymouth (30+ minutes from home by car, driving fast), a practice with my accompanist in Brockton (45 minutes+), and a coaching session in the Steinert Building downtown of the Boston Common (15-20 minutes), not to mention getting to the audition on Saturday morning and possibly the finals on Sunday night. And get to work every day and leave enough time to practice and get a good night's rest. Taking the T was out of the question for me.
But I managed to make it to my audtion just fine. My time slot on Saturday was for 11:30 a.m. Ugh! I do not sing particularly well in the morning. It's not simply a matter of being warmed up -- my body simply takes several hours to wake up fully. Accordingly, I set my alarm for 5:30 that morning and spent the wee hours relaxing (awake) in bed, gently vocalizing to myself, leisurely shaving and stretching and showering and dressing, and driving first to work to type up my audition form and make the right number of photocopies and then to the audition. I was in a great physical, mental, and vocal state when I walked into the room to sing.
And I was confident. There was a time, when I did butt-loads of theater and chorus in junior high and high school, when I never got stage fright. But at some point during college I started getting nervous on stage. It's not that I was scared to be on stage: it's just that a performance might be accompanied by a trembling leg or clammy hands, feelings of uncertainty, or even, on a few occasions, physical illness. (I lost my voice the day before my senior thesis recital in college, and I bet you anything that was induced by nerves.) But my preparation has been light years better the last year-and-a-half than in previous years. And that's the key to avoiding stage fright. I'm not afraid I'm going to walk on the stage and make a mistake. I know I have worked my butt off, have the notes and words learned, the dynamics and nuances practiced, the language translated and interpreted, etc. I own these pieces when I take them in front of an audience, and the result is confidence -- visible, palpable confidence. I would stare straight at my teacher or one of her colleagues and say something like "when I win it all" or "when I perform tomorrow night" with dead earnestness -- no cockiness, just confidence.
The moment I walked into that room, that room was mine. Whether or not the judges perceived it or not, I couldn't care less. In my mind, the only place in the world that mattered to me at that moment, I owned that room. I strode in, greeted the judges, stood in my singing position until I heard the accompanists music stop rustling, and lifted my head.
The first song was Au bord de l'eau ("By the edge of the water"). The pianist chose a dreadfully slow tempo. A few years ago, I would have followed her lead, and I would have run out of breath all over the map, taken breaths in the wrong places; my intonation would have sagged, and my interpretation would have been flat and drone-like. But I owned this room, and I sang at my tempo, and the accompanist quickly got the idea. And I sang beautifully and freely. My high notes were well supported, and my French sparkled. My teacher later commented that she heard some tenorish qualities in my voice during the Fauré that dazzled. My interpretation was appropriately relaxed and reverie-like with just the right amount of urgency.
Next was the three lied from Dichterliebe. Wenn ich in deine Augen seh ("When I look in her eyes...") is a love song with a typically Romantic ironic ending. I tried to paint my voice with warmth for this song, then got soft and distant at "doch wenn du sprichst, ich liebe dich..." ("but when you say 'I love you'...") and then became wistful for "so muss ich weinen..." ("...then I must cry...") and more steely and wry for "bitterlich!" ("bitterly!")
I consider the three Schumann pieces a unit, not three separate songs. Thus, when I heard the pages of the next song stop rustling, I waited another couple of beats and then lifted my head and began to sing Ich will meine Seele tauchen ("I will plunge my soul"). The accompanist must have thought I'd nod my head at her or something, for I was a good two or three measures into the song before she started playing. (In both numbers V and VI of Dichterliebe, the singer starts before the accompaniment, and I have to get my starting note from the previous song.) I didn't let it faze me. I didn't have time to let it faze me: this song is only 45 seconds long, if the second hand is a little slow! I think it's a very erotic song disguised in poetic language. ("I will plunge my soul into the lily's cup, and the lily will let out a song from my beloved, a song which will shimmer and tremble like a kiss from her mouth that she once gave me.") I tried to be both passionate and demur as I sang and tried to effect a slight blush.
I plowed on into Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome ("In the Rhine, in that holy stream...") The opening fortissimo notes, where the voice and the piano reflect the majestic tones of the pipe organ in the great cathedral of Cologne, were open and resonant. Then I came down to the piano section, where I talk about the painting in the cathedral, without losing any of my resonance. I hope I conveyed the right amount of mystery and awe as I described how the painting with "angels and flowers hovering around the Blessed Lady -- the eyes, the lips, the cheeks -- so resembles my beloved."
And now it was turn to let loose! If you've never heard "Charlie Rutlage," go buy a recording now. This is a rousingly fun song! I got myself in the proper frame of mind, affected a slight Western accent, and began singing about "another good cowpuncher [who] has gone to meet his fate." I imagined myself in front of a congregation in one of those whitewashed pinewood churches out West, trying to be civilized and reverent because I'm at my friends funeral, but getting caught up in the emotion as I describe the accident and how "his horse the creature spied and turned and fell with him." I made my only mistake of the morning in this song. I started to sing "beyond the golden gate" and was halfway through "beyond" when I realized it was supposed to be "within." But I didn't let that affect me either, and nobody noticed. "Charlie Rutlage" has a spoken interior section, where ostensibly the narrator forgets his place and gets caught up in the recollection of the tragic accident. This is challenging for many reasons. I have to play with the dynamics and tempos in a speaking rather than sung voice. My various tempo changes have to be coordinated with the accompaniment, which is about as difficult an accompaniment as there is to play. And, worst of all, when I start singing again, I have to come in on the correct note, a high C, after a crashing passage in the piano where the score literally directs the pianist to use "fists" and notes that "in these measures, the notes are indicated only approximately; the time of course, is the main point." The, after this dramatic spoken section, I come down to a drawn out mezzo piano, back to a crescendoing a tempo, up to a mezzo forte, and then abruptly back to a pianissimo as Charlie appears "at the shining throne...of grace." And, I made sure to hold the often ignored fermata that appears over the double bar line at the very end of the song!
When I walked out of the room my teacher practically assaulted me. She was beaming and ecstatic over how well I had sung. I had an inkling I would sing well and that everything would come together, because I know how things worked with my coach and with the accompanist. But my teacher had never heard everything come together. And to be honest, I think I exceeded my own expectations. I felt a freeness of tone I don't often feel in my high register. I was surprised by how well I was spinning out my breath, by how well supported I was, and how I wasn't gasping for air at the end of long phrases. I really don't think I could have sung much better. If I was competing only against myself, I would have awarded myself first prize on the spot.
But, of course, I am competing against other singers, several of whom have more experience, better technique, or more mature voices than I. So I had to wait 4-5 hours to learn my fate. In the meantime, I hung around the audition area, bought several discounted CDs from the vendors who had set up a table there, went home and changed into some casual clothes, and watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Then I returned to get the results of the preliminaries.
I arrived just as the run-offs were being announced for the other divisions. (There were no run-offs in my division this year.) I congratulated one of the teachers I knew on her student being chosen for the run-offs, and she in turn congratulated me. So, I will slightly prepared for hearing my name announced a moment later as one of the four finalists in my division.
I said "Cool" and tried to act nonchalant about it. I tried not to say much at all, and I think my first LJ phone post on the subject betrays why, as my voice cracks towards the end of the message. I don't know why -- I guess I was raised with the idea that it's not cool for boys to cry -- but even though I know it's okay I didn't want to wear my heart on my sleeve at this particular instant. I didn't want people to see me get all emotional about simply making the finals of a competition. I hadn't won anything yet, just made the finals. But I was overcome by the whole thing, despite my earlier confidence. I had to go outside and walk around, to get some cool moist air in my face. It was several minutes before I was able to make my first phone call, to let Dan and Keya know. And several more minutes before I could make my next phone post.
But despite my attempt at nonchalance, this was a big deal to me. Despite my confidence, which I completely bought into, it was still a foreign sensation to hear my name being read. I mean, I've won many things before: academic awards, acting awards, regional trivia competitions, etc. But this was different. This was validation.
I hear people tell me all the time that I have a good voice. My friends tell me, strangers who sit near me at church tell me, and so on. But -- and I mean no offense by this -- that doesn't really mean anything to me. When an ear isn't discerning enough to know the difference between an Andrea Bocelli and a Jussi Bjoerling, what validity does its compliments have?
But this wasn't just anybody complimenting me. These were voice professionals: teachers and singers, people who know voice and vocal production. And not only were they telling me that they thought I was good, but that they liked me enough that they wanted to hear me again. At a time when I have seriously contemplated just giving it all up and choosing a different career path, I needed that kind of validation. It didn't even matter that much to me how I placed in the finals, as long as I sang well; it only mattered to receive that strong vote of confidence in being chosen for the finals.
Now, I'd like to say that I went straight home and got a good night's sleep. But this isn't a fairy tale. No, I went to a lovely little dinner party at treacle_well's place which lasted until 10. Then I went home, right? No, I went over to Keya and Dan's place where I joined them, JC, and Bri for games. Although I insisted I couldn't stay past one, our game of Settlers got needlessly prolonged. When it became clear I would win yet again, the other players conspired against me by making lopsided trades with each other to allow Bri to keep taking back longest road from me. I did eventually win (when will they learn they are only delaying the inevitable?!), but not until about 3 a.m. Well, at least I slept in, right? Wrong again. The Mass I like to attend is at 8 p.m. on Boylston Street, but I expected to be on stage right around 8 p.m., so I had to get up to attend an 8:30 a.m. service and then go play football from 10 a.m. to noon. But I did nap in the afternoon for about 2 and a half hours. I got up at 4 and repeated my routine from the previous morning. Again, I felt refreshed, energized, and in good voice. I also felt a stiff neck and dryness in my eyes and throat, signalling some oncoming malady, but I wasn't going to acknowldge that until after I sang.
I was only allowed to sing two of my songs for the finals. "Charlie Rutlage" was a given. I wanted to also sing Wenn ich in deinem Augen seh, which I felt I sang better than the other Schumann. However, one of the judges I sang for the previous morning recommended I sing Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome. "Are you sure?" I asked. "Trust me," she replied, and my voice teacher confirmed that (although she told me last night that, in retrospect, perhaps I should have sung Au bord de l'eau).
Walking onto the stage in front of the public wasn't as strange as I thought: I've done that sort of thing before. But I was far more nervous than I had been the day before, and there was perhaps a crack in the confidence I was trying to exhude. I wanted to impress the judges by starting Im Rhein without a note from the piano, but I had set up a little signal with my accompanist just in case I needed it. I blew myself a note on my pitch pipe just before I took the stage. By the time I reached center stage and introduced myself, my accompanist, and my two songs, doubts about my starting pitch had crept in. I struggled with the decision for an instant, before I signaled my accompanist. The note she played matched the one I still had in my head: I was letting nerves get the better of me.
And nerves continued to wreak havoc for the first third of the song. The opening was a bit pressed and forced, not free and resonant. I completely rewrote the third line of the song. I suddenly realized that I had blanked on the words, so I quickly invented some random German to take the line's place. It wasn't until I started the piano section that I started to settle down. I sang well after that. I finished Im Rhein fairly solidly and then did a kick-ass job on "Charlie Rutlage." The spoken part was more controlled than the previous day, when my accompanist would have been justified in killing me for taking parts of it as fast as I did.
I didn't sing as well as I am capable, but I am pleased overall with how I performed. Part of the problem is lack of familiarity, due to lack of performance experience. Singing in a hall couldn't be farther from singing in a small room. I am accustomed to the latter, to hearing my voice as it reflects off the walls, floor, and ceiling and returns to my ears. But the acoustics don't work that way in a hall; heck, every hall's acoustics work differently. One has no idea how one is going to sound on stage. So, when you can't hear yourself, you rely on technique. My technique is world's better than it used to be, but it still likes the consistency it needs. I was able to call on my technique once I settled down, but early on I was pressing, trying to be heard, trying to sound more resonant. I wasn't trusting my technique to let my chords, lips, tongue, and facial muscles do what they had been doing all along. That's something I will learn to do better with more practice, experience, and training.
I finished third in my division, which I felt was about right. Both of the singers who finished ahead of me have about 10 years on me. That's that much more vocal maturity, polish, technique, and experience. I heard a snippet of the end of the second place winner's set, and he has a wonderful sound. He is clearly better than me. And, from what I heard, I was clearly better than the fourth place finisher, so I think the judges got it right. Some might question why I would be content with third, knowing how competitive I am. It's because my competitiveness gives way to my sense of fairness. If I thought I sang better than the people who placed ahead of me, I wouldn't be content. But it was the correct placement. I am still a work in progress, and have a lot of technique and polish to work on.
And, the $200 check for finishing in third place is nothing to be upset about either! ;)
Part of the reason many of us sing in this competition is to get written feedback from the judges. I have my feedback already and would like to share some of the comments with you.
Concerning Au bord de l'eau: "What a lovely voice and clear diction and modulation of phrases. Good approach to hi notes. Good energy. The challenge here is how to be lazy & energetic all at once!"
And some general comments: "A great natural voice! Your well-supported upper register also helps your intonation and legato. The middle & low register could benefit from that support. Great poise. Very musical."
"The Schumann requires excellent breath control in order to create the line and Derek needs to work on this. He has a nice warm tone. Nice big voice -- continue working toward evenness of tone & breath control. He has good stage presence & is an enthusiastic performer."
"Marvelous speaking voice! Nice beginning -- watch the word "Rhein" -- seemed swallowed. Good breathing & control!! Good control of dynamics particularly in the second selection. The second selection [Ives] sounded more relaed & tone quality really improved. Huge voice!! Keep singing! Good first selection and interpretation! Very natural stage presence. I liked your style in this one [Ives]. Great control of the character in this selection! Really good repertoire for you!"
I wanted again to thank those of you who were able to come hear me sing. It really meant a lot to me having you in the audience supporting me. I do have a recording, albeit very poor quality, of the preliminary audition, in case anyone wants to hear it; just let me know.
The results of this competition have inspired me to get my butt in gear. I have submitted my application for the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. My audition with them will either be March 17 or 16 in New York City. I have to prepare four art songs and two arias in contrasting languages and styles. I've got plenty of songs I can draw from, but my aria repertoire is very small and of narrow scope. I might also have an audition this Saturday for the New England Conservatory's Opera Workshop. If I do, I have to sing two arias. The only arias I currently have learned and memorized is Non piu andrai from Mozart's Le nozze de Figaro, so I potentially have to memorize one more aria by Saturday. I have to decide between Sois immobile from Rossini's Guillaume Tell or O! du mein Holder Abendstern from Wagner's Tannhäuser. It's not going to be easy -- I probably won't get into Cincinnati this time around and will probably have to apply to several schools for the Spring 2005 term -- but I am more determined than ever that this is what I want to do and that I need to get out of this rut and get on with my career. I am finally taking the steps I should have taken a couple of years ago to make this happen.