The ECLA of Bard Vocal Ensemble delights us with great presentations at Christmas and graduation. It is not only the members of the ECLA of Bard community enjoying their performances, since the ECLA of Bard Vocal Ensemble also performs occasionally off campus. Behind their success there are many hours spent rehearsing, and a lot of effort from the singers and their instructor. Yvonne Frazier, ECLA’s Vocal Ensemble Director and Vocal Instructor, talks about the beginnings of her activity at ECLA of Bard, the development of the vocal ensemble, and the many challenges they have to face.
1. When and how did the ECLA of Bard choir start?
In the fall of 2009, Peter Hajnal and Thomas Nørgaard, ECLA Co-Deans and directors at that time, were interested in bringing music back to ECLA. In the summer of 2009, Sofiya Skachko, an ECLA employee, joined a dynamic, very successful young Berlin choir called Cantus Domus, to which I gave and still give voice lessons. Through her enthusiastic recommendation, I was invited for an interview and was subsequently hired to be choir/ensemble director and vocal instructor.
Institutions which offer music as a course of study have instrumentalists, singers, and students with musical backgrounds or interest from other disciplines to choose from when forming a choir. At ECLA of Bard, because there is no music department, I could see building a choir was going to be a challenge. Shortly after I had been hired, Sarah Nassif contacted me. She was the very first choir director at the time when ECLA was founded. She had the good fortune of being able to rehearse with students after lunch twice a week. By all accounts, she was a very beloved choir director and they had a great choir, but at some point she and her husband, who was a faculty member, left for another position. There were several other choir directors after Sarah had left, but there was a lack of structure –choir was not treated like a class, people could come and leave as they wished. Eventually, the choir collapsed, and for several years there was little to no music at ECLA. When I took on the challenge of building a choir at ECLA, I made the decision to structure choir as a class, in the tradition of my own education.
2. Taking into account that every year new students come and some students graduate and leave, what impact does this have on the choir?
It has an enormous impact, because it means that the group has very little real opportunity to grow and develop. However, since the B.A. Programme began, this year was the first one in which a student from last year was still present in choir. On the other hand, after the 2012 fall semester we lost a valuable student who was a one-semester Bard student. It was a great loss for the choir, since he was a wonderful bass singer. Because of this one-semester exchange programme (the “Bard in Berlin” Study Abroad Programme), choir development is even more challenging. Before, we could possibly have the same group for a whole academic year, but now we may only have the same group for a semester.
3. How do you conceive the repertoire?
Conceiving the repertoire is quite challenging at ECLA. In a liberal arts university or college where music is offered, a choir is normally a process of selection. At ECLA of Bard it is a process of elimination. This year we had twenty one people who registered for choir – two of them were pianists and the rest of them singers. By the end of the second semester seven students had completed the year in choir – one pianist and six singers.
The first thing I need to take into account when choosing the songs is that there will be singers who have different levels of ability and talent: how do I challenge and inspire both advanced singers and beginners? It is a bit like taking a French class: your level of speech and comprehension would be tested, after which a beginner student and an advanced student would not be placed in the same class. Here, in our choir, we have to mix advanced singers with beginners. It is very challenging to satisfy the needs of both these groups. And there is always the matter of how many singers will we have for which parts.
4. How would you describe a typical rehearsal?
In order to prepare a person for singing, one needs to recognize that the singer’s body is involved in a different way than, for instance, the way in which the body of a pianist prepares to play. Clearly there is physical activity involved in both cases, but the pianist has an instrument outside the body. With a singer, the instrument is inside the body. This is why I begin the rehearsal with a body warm-up, in which we work on individual body issues, on our posture, etc. It is also an opportunity for the group to bond by doing exercises.
The body warm-up is followed by the vocal warm-up. I always begin with humming and then speech exercises, where I ask singers to really pay attention to what they are saying and how they are saying it; then, we do sung vocal exercises. After these warm-up exercises we start singing songs. This also poses a challenge, because when we have four different ranges: soprano, alto, tenor and bass, I must warm-up every voice part at once, and each range has different needs. It takes between 20 and 30 minutes just to warm-up the body and the voice, so that when we start singing the actual songs we are well-prepared.
This also relates to the question about choosing the repertoire: it takes time for me to determine what the capabilities of each singer are, what they can do, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. This year, for instance, we had people moving all around from one voice part to another. In the fall, when we were down to one tenor, Valerie Pochko jumped in and sang tenor for us. In the beginning of the spring semester, Valerie began singing soprano (and she has a lovely high voice). However, she did not feel comfortable singing high all the time, so she asked to be switched to a lower part. Lotte Braam, who had been singing alto which is a lower part the entire time and who also has a lovely high voice, took Valerie’s place as a soprano and Valerie took Lotte’s part singing the alto part. Valerie continued to double the tenor in certain places to help support those lines.
We were fortunate to have singers who were gifted to sing many different parts who were also willing to move around for the good of the whole group. ECLA choir is in a continuous process of development and change. These were just some of the challenges we faced.
5. You also work individually with each choir member. How important is this individual training for the choir as a whole?
At a music university, school or conservatory, different choirs cater to different levels, needs and interests. At ECLA, I have to try to work with everyone in order to form a cohesive group. Often I can entice the advanced singers to bear with the weaker singers by giving them solos, which challenges them and helps them develop and grow on their own.
Not being able to choose singers, but rather working with whoever shows an interest, who is mindful of attendance and being on time, my goal has to be that of holding the interest of the strong, as well as weaker singers.
By the end of the year, the weakest singers (or those who have changed their focus away from choir) have dropped out. Those remaining tend to blend into a group of singers with more even abilities. Stronger singers help the weaker ones, and weaker singers begin to improve. Individual sessions are offered to speed that development.
6. The choir has a very important role in two major celebrations at ECLA of Bard – Christmas and Graduation. Our last event, the Commencement celebration held at the Rathaus Pankow, featured wonderful musical interludes. How did you prepare the repertoire?
This year’s selection was quite varied, and we had a little something for everyone. Because it was not a musical programme, but interludes meant to accompany the ceremony, I chose many different songs. We opened the Commencement celebration ceremony with a popular song by Enya, “Only time”. The text asks, “Who can say where the road goes, where the day flows?”, and the text answers that question with “Only time.” This song was familiar to many, and it may even seem “kitsch”-like, but for this occasion the text was very fitting: who knows what is going to happen after graduation, with everyone going in different directions?
The next group of songs was comprised of a magical called “Amatemi ben mio”, translated as, “Love me, my beloved”, and whose text was written by a 16th-century Italian poet named Torquato Tasso. This song was followed by a solo from Handel’s opera Rinaldo, which was performed by Lotte Braam – soprano, and Marija Uzunova – pianist. The third group, the one which I particularly like, consisted of “Orpheus, with his lute” – a sort of ode to music with lyrics from one of Shakespeare’s poems, with by the British composer George Mcfarren. This song was followed by a Hugo Wolf ‘Lied’ entitled “Auf ein Altes Bild” (“On Gazing at an Old Painting”). The text is a six line poem thought to have been inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s “Haller Madonna” from 1498. Veronica Marcinschi was the soloist, and Marija Uzunova accompanied her at the piano.
Our forth section was a special request by our bass Pirachula Chulanon. It was a beautiful ‘chanson’ called “Dirait-on” (“One would say”), whose text is the fifth poem from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Les chansons des Roses”, set to music by Morten Lauridsen. Of the five poems that were set to music, “Dirait-on” is the only ‘chanson’ with piano accompaniment. We really wanted to do this piece, and were not sure we could do it until we secured a pianist. The last song was “Goodnight, Sweetheart; Well It’s Time To Go” – an R&B song about two people parting in the night. Although the text may not have been completely suitable to the occasion of graduation, with a little bit of poetic license and imagination, the text became a fitting musical conclusion to the ceremony.
I began the fall semester with really easy songs that were fun to sing. We gave some off-campus performances at Theater Haus Mitte in November, and at a theological residence during Christmas in addition to our ECLA Bard Christmas presentation. The focus of the spring semester was putting the graduation ceremony programme together.