The real potato
I was a singer first, a voice teacher second, a choral conductor third. With years of overlap. This progression seems good and natural to me; I have never regretted it. All the choirs I have conducted reflect the amount of time I have spent on the upstage side of the podium, and the years I have spent trying to figure out how voices work. I studied with a number of teachers in Chicago, some of them excellent-- Elsa Charlston, Ron Combs, and Hermanus Baer come to mind. But the one I was with longest, and connected with most personally, was Norman Gulbrandsen. Perhaps it was our shared Norwegian heritage, our mutual love of choral singing, the fact that we were both tall, large men-- whatever it was, he said things to me that I understood, that I remember, that have grown in meaning since I first heard them.
Norman was really hard on "over expressing"-- he wanted constantly good vocalism, line, beautiful production; believed that a good portion of art and communication happened purely as a result of good sound. He disliked distortion, affectation, preciousness of any kind. He would say, "Just put one note in front of the other," or "It's just another note." And one day, "Just give me the real potato, a good potato. The older I get, the less gravy or butter I want on it. Just the real potato." And that said more to me than all the rest. The lowly potato, growing underground-- lumpy, strangely-shaped, the color of dirt. Peel it, make it neat and clean, and you lose most of the nutritional value. Just the real potato. I never forget this-- when I evaluate and select repertoire, listen to singers, work with my own choirs, hear other choirs-- I try to see and hear past the gravy, and be open to the real potato.
Interesting, as I think about it... potatoes, of many varieties, are one of the crops I most enjoy growing in my own garden. They are a challenge, in this terrible urban ground-- I work hard building the soil with compost, leaves, grass clippings, horse manure from the police stables, anything at all that over time might settle into something resembling real dirt. The reward comes when I dig into the hill, and there they are: real potatoes.