Singer Blog

Reflections on the 2013 YIY Composer Workshop

April 29, 2013

I know that every blog post has me gushing about how wonderful, fantastic, thrilling, exciting, and challenging it is to be a part of WomenSing. These rushes and gushes are a big part of why I wanted to contribute a new singer blog. Last weekend, we were further empowered and inspired by our YIY workshop that included a time with our 2013 winning composer, Julia Seeholzer, prolific and noted composer Libby Larsen and Venezuelan conductor/composer, Cristian Grases. We were joined by members of the Contra Costa Children’s Chorus Honors Ensemble. Once again, we were given tips and insights that extend so far beyond just the songs and the art of singing, but the world of creativity and the ways in which music enhance our lives and the world around us. It just doesn’t get much better than this.

2013 YIY Panel
Libby Larsen, Martín Benvenuto, Julia Seeholzer, Cristian Grases

It is obvious that all four of them approach the music and the composition from such different perspectives. I believe there were at least three and maybe four decades of birth years represented. The orientation to text, rhythm and context were many and varied. Julia even expressed that she sees various phrases in color palettes. Many of us are still trying to wrap our minds around that one! In addition to Julia’s visualizing approach to composition, she admitted that because she is a second alto, she wrote with the low voices in mind. She says she sympathizes with the sometimes less interesting parts given to first and second altos. Her youth and even her appearance gave all of us an eye into the future of the choral world.

2013 YIY Workshop

Cristian Grases, Libby Larsen, and Julia Seeholzer

Cristian worked with us on two of our Spanish language numbers. The first is a series of Four Spanish lullabies, and his winsome and tender approach as a teacher, composer and native Spanish speaker made an immediate difference as we learned to caress the baby in our singing. The other song is much sillier and he encouraged us to dance with it and even to put away the music (!) and the written rhythms so that we could “feel” the music more fully.

Libby had such a wonderful and quick wit. Her ability to zero in on what was working and not working in a composition was truly fascinating to me. Her experience and her talent are just so immediately evident. When she composes music she is driven by the text and how it sounds and what rhythms might be supportive of those texts. She also thinks about what gets expanded and emphasized in any given lyric.

Martín is so gracious and so confident to include these gifted artists as a part of our learning and preparing, and he chose a palate of extraordinary spectra in Libby, Julia and Cristian. We hope that the rainbow of color will shine through in our performances this June.

Retreating to Bodega Bay

March 25, 2013

It’s the newbie WomenSing-er checking in again. I need to write more often as it will not be long before I am no longer able to say that I am a new singer. There are many ways in which I still feel very green, but other ways in which I now feel like a veteran. Most of the latter is due to the experiences of our recent retreat at Bodega Bay.

Sunset over Bodega Bay

Sunset over Bodega Bay

On a gloriously gorgeous weekend at the end of January, the chorus piled into various cars and made the 90 minute drive from the Bay Area to Bodega for a long weekend of work, relaxation, business and getting to know one another. In this beautiful spot and with the meticulous planning by the retreat committee, the work did not really feel that much like work, though. Then, the cherry on the top was having one of our rehearsals on Saturday led by choral clinician, Jennah Delp.

Why a clinician, you ask? Isn’t Martín Benvenuto the artistic director? What is the benefit of bringing in an “outsider?” Well, one of our chorus members said it well when she said that the advantage to having a clinician is that the chorus gets to cheat on their main squeeze. Each director and musician has a different way of communicating and Jennah was captivating. I also heard several singers say that it was nice to have a woman in a woman’s voice telling us what to do and demonstrating various techniques and phrasings. Jenna is exuberant, engaging, smart, funny and has a beautiful singing voice. It was true pleasure to sing with and for her.


WomenSing at Bodega Bay

Wind blown WomenSingers at Bodega Bay

The weekend was packed full of rehearsal time (4 blocks of rehearsals, which is like adding a month of weekly rehearsals to our rehearsal schedule for the winter/spring semester). However, it was not all work. Some folks made a leisurely drive early on Friday and had lunch at a singer’s home in Sebastopol. Others came later and had dinner at one of the local fish houses. We had assigned tables for lunch and dinner so that we got to talk to people who are not in our sections and there were mixers and games that really allowed us to get to know one another in a creative and relaxed atmosphere.

There was only one thing that I did not like about this retreat…I had to leave the weekend early to go back to work!

The First Concert Series

December 28, 2012

Sunday afternoon, December 9 at 4 p.m. finally arrived. There was a cacophony of sound in the “green room” (in this case the church’s Session room where we gathered before going on stage). There was palpable excitement about the culmination of three and a half months’ worth of practice and preparation. Martin came in and told us that the friendliest thing we could do was to be quiet. That was such a gift to me as I felt I needed some space to breathe in and exhale slowly and quietly. The direction to do so was exactly what I needed.

All the wheels had been set in motion on the previous Wednesday evening as we had a dress rehearsal at the first venue, First Presbyterian Church of Oakland. It is a royal, gothic cathedral – like downtown church.2012 Holiday ConcertThe acoustics are live and resonant. It was a wonderful space to sing because it was so easy to hear all the other singers, as well as the instruments. I marvel at all the behind-the-scenes work done by the artistic director, the Board members, the Auxiliary and the singers. Numerous volunteers are on hand to greet concert-goers at the door, sell tickets and CDs, manage the logistics of setting up risers and boxes, and so much more. Our staging director, Jules (also a singer), reviews the choreography for moving into different formations and getting on and off stage.

At every concert, Martin stays true to the WomenSing mission by throwing in some unexpected element. A member of the audience shared with me that it is one of the reasons she always comes to our concerts and enjoys them so much. She said, “There is always something delightfully unexpected (this time for her, it was the steel drums) and I am always enthralled by how HARD the music is.” The unexpected also came to me at the intermission. As we gathered again in the green room, all the new singers were invited to come forward to receive a rose and to be welcomed one more time! I was really surprised because I feel we have been showered with gifts and welcome and warmth aplenty.

Another unexpected moment occurred when the daughter of one of our soloists had an emergency appendectomy just hours before the concert. Her mother had to bow out of the Sunday evening program. The chorus was incredibly supportive AND the understudy stepped in at the last moment. The performance felt very polished and not in the least unnerving to any of us — though possibly it was a bit nerve-wracking for Katie (the understudy).

Then, on Wednesday evening, we did it all again, but at another venue, Lafayette Orinda Presbyterian Church. The two venues could really not be more different. LOPC is a relatively modern building, with all wood and entirely different acoustics. Honestly, I felt as if I were singing all by myself. The sound is very warm and round and lovely, but, for the singer, it is not an easy place to sing. For a second concert, there’s also the challenge to maintain a performance edge, but the challenge of a different environment helped with that. Also, the audience was larger and we probably had more people in this audience who had heard us multiple times. I know it was a huge lift for me to look out and see some unexpected friends in the crowd.

Challenging music, unexpected twists and turns, striving toward excellence and a gathering of voices to lift spirits and spread joy…this was a wonderful way to begin my first season as a WomenSinger. And the whole thing went by in a flash. I didn’t want it to end. Oh, but the good news is, there are three more concerts in the spring AND a tour to Montana in July. I believe I will keep singing and I hope that more and more of you will join us in singing or at least in catching our next performances.

Inspiration in the Home Stretch

December 1, 2012

We are in the home stretch, reaching, striving and refining the music for our program in December, Sing an Endless ‘Ave.’ As a new singer, I am still finding my sea legs with all there is to know, remember, do, track, etc. Hem my dress, memorize five songs (!), pay the deposit for the upcoming January retreat, sort and mark the music, and sell lots and lots of tickets to these two concerts in December. Whew, it is such a lot to do and remember. Did I mention we have to memorize five songs!? Thank goodness that the people who do the plan for where we stand and the various stage directions decided that I should stay in the same spot throughout the concert!

Sometimes I have to step back and remember to breathe, breathe deeply and enjoy the whole process of learning, singing, rehearsing, memorizing and ultimately, performing beautiful music. When I do step back, I become more reflective about the whole process. The other day I was thinking about all of this and I asked myself a question, “Self, what is it that keeps you inspired and moving toward the goal of the upcoming performances in December?” The very first thought and person that came to mind, was Martín!

This may sound cheeky, trite and you could even accuse me of sucking up or brown nosing, but it is honest and sincere. Perhaps it would be easiest for me to share with you the effectiveness of our artistic director by the list made famous by the great David Letterman…..a top 10 list! The only difference is that this list is entirely serious and in no way poking fun at anyone, least of all Martín!

Martín in rehearsalThe top 10 reasons why Martín Benvenuto is an inspiring leader:

10. His love of music is infectious.

9. Martín does not just encourage us to learn our music, study on our own, and continually improve, he expects us to do so. Actually, he demands it.

8. Martín has a wonderfully wry and winsome sense of humor. I’d venture to say that Martín does not take himself, or those of us in the chorus, too seriously!

7. Martín never intimidates, berates or criticizes the choir, but instead he motivates by teaching and encouraging and drilling us until we get it right.

6. There is a refreshing level of humility that emerges from such a talented and knowledgeable individual.

5. I have yet to attend a rehearsal or event in which Martín did not seem maximally prepared and “ready to go.” This level of competence and organization makes all of us singers feel more confident.

4. Martín has an ability to express and communicate not only the technical aspects of the music we sing, but also the meaning, the poetry and the origins of the music.

3. The man is seemingly tireless. He approaches each rehearsal with energy and enthusiasm.

2. Martín surrounds himself with great people and appears to do his job but not more than his job. This is evidenced by the strong Board and Chorus involvement, as well as the contributions of our wonderful accompanist, Paul Caccamo.

1.5 Martín believes that music matters!

And Numero Uno: Well, who can resist an Argentinean accent!

With all of this fantastic leadership and guidance, I feel that surely I and we will succeed in singing an endless ‘Ave.’

The Audition – Expect the Unexpected

November 4, 2012

It was a warm June day and I drove into the parking lot of Orinda Community Church for my scheduled audition with WomenSing. For years, singers Ann Pearson and Patty Murray had urged me to audition and join the chorus. My daughters are both in college and I finally had pushed enough other demands aside to make a space for singing. This could be something to do just for me, but also something done in community. As I walked from the car to the courtyard, I was doing all sorts of negative self-talk that went something like this, “Good grief, Gail, why are your palms sweating and your heart pounding at the rate normally achieved only by a P90X Insanity workout?” “What if I’m not good enough?” “What if my voice cracks?” “This is just like 5th grade when I was afraid I’d be last to be picked for teams in PE class.” These are just a few of the fearful thoughts that were racing through my head in anticipation of the audition.

WomenSing Rehearsal

A WomenSing Rehearsal

However, as soon as I reached the courtyard, these thoughts were abruptly interrupted by the kind, gentle and reassuring presence of Barbara, the audition coordinator. It was obvious that one of her tasks was to calm the nerves of prospective singers. In a very short time, Martín Benvenuto, the Artistic Director, emerged and we were introduced. I entered the torture chamber, uh I mean, music room to begin my audition. Before my self-doubting could take over again, I was vocalizing, singing my “solo” and sight-reading the alto line of a lyrical piece. Martin also talked about the goals and mission of the chorus, provided some logistical information about the chorus and then said he’d be delighted to invite me to be a part of WomenSing. Wait, did my ears deceive me? Did he say I was “in?” I really did feel like an adolescent who was just nominated for student body president or head cheerleader, and if you had known me in high school, you would know that would have been completely unexpected!

Furthermore, better than being chosen, in that brief 15 minute audition, I learned two new things about the art of singing. First, I realized that my nerves and anxiety were completely unnecessary. Also, Martin told me that all these years I had been breathing incorrectly. He told me to breath as if smelling a rose. Who knew!? Well, obviously he did! So even on that warm June afternoon, my journey toward a greater artistic excellence had begun, as had my experience of a warm and hospitable community and the opportunity to participate in the learning and sharing of significant musical works that are both traditional and unexpected.

So, every Wednesday evening as I enter the rehearsal space I have to pinch myself in wonder and awe as I exclaim in my head, “I’m a part of WomenSing. They chose me for what I had to offer and for the experiences that they could offer me!” Shall wonders never cease.