Thursday, December 16, 2010

Performance Notes

Today was jury day, which, in the academic world of musical performance, means the students come in and sing for their supper, as it were. That is, if their supper is a grade.  It's a day the music faculty loves (because we get to hear a lot of great music) and a day the students hate (because they have to sing and evidently we are scary).  I usually have a strong hunch how well juries are going to go, and today did not disappoint.  It was a great day of music.

When it comes to performing, I stress the importance of presentation.  It's a big deal to me, and I care as much about how they look as how they sound.  Impressions are made the instant a student walks on stage, and I pay attention to how they look, how they introduce their opening selection, how they carry themselves on stage, and how they express each and every song.  This is, of course, in addition to correct notes, rhythms, breathing, diction, etc.  There's a lot to it, and it ALL matters.

One of my unwritten rules is I don't like to be surprised.  It's a very foolish student that decides to go all rogue and mavricky at the last minute and makes changes without my stamp of approval.  It's not that I definitely WON'T like it, but I might not like it one little bit, and it's an awfully big risk to make unauthorized changes in a performance without prior consent.

One of my personal rules for jury requires each student to properly introduce their first piece in the format of  "I would like to begin with (name of song) by (name of Composer).  They only need to announce their first song, and I strongly believe this little exercise provides some benefits for the student.  It allows them to get a feel for the resonance of their voice in the hall, it allows them to phonate just a bit, and frankly, it allows them to sound like an intelligent human being.  I don't want any student to say, "I want to start with that one Italian thing."  Call me picky, but that just doesn't sound very intelligent.  Or prepared.

Today one of my students announced his first song very nicely and then ... continued.  I instantly got a little nervous and a little annoyed since I had no idea what on earth he was going to say.  He wasn't required to go into any more detail than name of song/name of composer, but here he was chattering away.  WITHOUT PRIOR CONSENT.  He spoke about the the origins of the song as being a piece sung by a slave during the Civil War.  I relaxed a little bit and thought, well, okay, he's right.  It was a nice small chunk of information, now sing....

But he didn't.  He kept going.  UNAUTHORIZED.  Didn't he know I DON'T LIKE SURPRISES?
My annoyance factor grew exponentially.

But he started talking about the manner in which he chose to approach this song.  Since he wasn't a slave, he didn't have that kind of reference.  Instead, he explained how the deep emotion of the song fit his situation at home, where he has a relative who has a debilitating illness, and is now failing.

And with that, he sang this song.

I have never been more moved or humbled in my life.  And I will never be able to hear this song again without thinking of this wonderful student who broke my rules, went off-script, and turned three pages of melody, rhythm and text into what I will always remember as one of the most honest, profound, and moving performances I have ever had the privilege to hear.

"Father, How Long?" from "The Civil War" by Frank Wildhorn
Original cast recording sung by Michel Bell.

Tell me my Father, tell me how long
Will boys keep dyin' for freedom's song?
Before we find a place to belong.
Tell me my Father, how long?

Won't bow to no man, I got my pride.
This dream I'm dreamin' can't be denied.
How long till I can sing freedom's song?
Tell me my Father, how long?

I cried my tears the same as any man you see,
so God, please tell me why this man ain't free?
How long till I can sing freedom's song?
Tell me my Father, how long?

No more this darkness, bring me the light.
Show me your morning, cast off this night.
How long till I can sing freedom's song?
Tell me my Father,
Tell me my Father,
Tell me my Father,
how long?


Carol, Song of Joy said...

WOW!!! And Amen.

Sherck said...

It's a wonderful thing, sometimes, to be surprised. You would think that music would do that more often, but I suppose as a professional it's harder--and as I say that myself as a former music teacher.