3, November 2009 § Leave a comment
My name is Stephanie Dissette, and I’m here at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts this semester to study with the vocal ensemble. I’m also studying painting, drawing, art history, photo history, writing and literature.
I met Orfeas the day I arrived in Italy to join the program. I was incredibly excited but a bit intimidated by this man who knew more about music than anyone I had ever met. I went to a really competitive high school, even within the music program, and so even though I have a great base knowledge in vocal music, I know that there is still so much to learn, especially from Orfeas, who is so well educated in many different kinds of vocal music.
I am one of three students involved in the singing program, not counting the Parian residents in the ensemble, most of whom are originally from elsewhere in Greece or from other countries including Germany, England and Holland.The environment in the studio the first day we all sang together on Paros really impressed me. I’m used to a bit of tension, maybe even a competitive edge, but this group made me feel immediately comfortable and just happy to be singing. Within a couple of rehearsals, I was already able to joke and talk with the other members and trust them, as they trusted me, with questions about the music.
The other students and I are the youngest of the group so it’s been really nice to learn from the more mature sound of the older, more experienced members. I’m really impressed that they are able to dedicate themselves to singing even with all the pressures of their everyday lives, at work and at home. I hope to one day follow in that tradition. I also really appreciate having two of my teachers in the ensemble, Jane Pack and Jun-Pierre Shiozawa. It’s been a unique way to get to know them in another environment, something that not all the students here get to do.
23, April 2009 § Leave a comment
“Melody is the golden thread running through the maze of tones by which the ear is guided and the heart reached.” – Anonymous
The journey began in Italy during the fall of 2008. Then followed a blur of training, technique exercises, rehearsals, foreign languages, music notes and performances! It is now springtime in Paros, Greece, 2009 and it’s all coming back to me.
This past fall I had the opportunity to sing with The Aegean Center’s Vocal Ensemble and had an incredible experience performing on the island with fellow students and a number of locals (including John Pack’s lovely assistant, Stella Skordalellis). This spring I am back to singing with the ensemble and am also taking individual vocal training with Orpheas John Munsey, the ensemble’s director. This means that not only do I have a handful of choir concerts to perform at the end of the semester, but there will also be a solo concert in which I will be performing two baroque arias (Marco Antonio Cesti’s “Tu Mancavi a Tormentarmi”, and a gorgeous Handel aria), and three Francis Poulenc pieces (“La Reine de Coeur”, “Montparnasse” and “Hyde Park”). All are very different in feel.
The Handel piece is exquisite and wonderful to sing, but takes much technique and support “from the gorilla!” as Orpheas tells me. By this he means to sing higher notes from the lower half of the body – to get grounded in that primitive, muscular half of our form and allow its strength to support the air and diaphragm as notes jump up and down. So began the process of being trained to effortlessly and automatically draw from that incredible support when I sing.
It started with a heavy metal folding chair: as I approached a high note I was having difficulty supporting, I was instructed to slowly raise the chair with my arms out in front of me until it was at its highest point as I hit the highest note. This process engages abdominal muscles and forces these muscles and the diaphragm to work together to support the air that produces sound, my sound, a sound that, with the help of a chair, miraculously, became much easier and free flowing.
Another similar technique I was introduced to, one which I prefer, is even more entertaining. I place a pillow between my knees (this sounds interesting, no?) and as that familiar high note approaches I squeeze the pillow as hard as I can, really engaging the powerful, supportive lower half, and out comes a beautiful sound – a note that flows from the toes and effortlessly fills the room.
Physical technique issues aside, I have also discovered other, more artistic difficulties – the expression of the music itself. Once the technique is there, what’s left is the interpretation of the music and lyrics and the task of conveying to an audience the emotion and feel of a piece. Each song is like a piece of theatre and a new character has to be embodied and expressed accurately with feeling.
As I mentioned before, the Handel aria is an exquisitely beautiful piece, but it is also quite difficult. Singing gorgeously the praises of love, this piece requires a great deal of support – I think this song is the reason for that pillow – and resonance. Down right screechy at first, I’ve now managed to get the sound to seem more natural and supported, but a lot more work is needed before I will be able to do the composer any justice at all come May.
The gorgeous “Tu Mancavi a Tormentarmi” is a lament sung by a haunted and heartbroken woman. It’s a challenge technique and performance-wise (the pillow often comes into play here!)
“La Reine de Couer” is smooth and sultry, and is a lot of fun, though not easy, to sing. The text is a french poem by Maurice Careme and Poulenc has beautifully interpreted its calm, seductive feel. My challenge lies in giving colour to the text and the higher notes as well as maintaining breath through the phrases.
“Montparnasse” is an imaginative, almost dreamy poem by Guillaume Apollinaire and is the longest of the Poulenc pieces. It is very artful, full of odd dynamics and phrasing such as building up to a high note, only to pull way back at the last moment to sing as softly as possible.
“Hyde Park”. Honestly, it’s crazy. At about two and a half seconds long, it is probably the most difficult piece I have, seeing as the vocal line, full of odd, jumping notes, tends to go where ever it likes while the piano does its own thing underneath, all at a breakneck pace. Another poem from Apollinaire, it’s supposed to remind one of a bustling street: cars driving and honking, people walking briskly about. Well, Mr. Poulenc, success.
With only about two months or so to performance time, I’m feeling the pressure and believe it’s time to get to some serious business. To be honest, I feel like I have a lot to do on every single piece I have and it’s a bit overwhelming at times, but I try to remember that this is why I am here, why we are all here at the Aegean Center – to be pushed to grow and learn. As anxious as I am about that night in late May, I am also very excited, excited to finally see all the hard work pay off and to be back here on Paros, doing what I love.
19, November 2008 § Leave a comment
I am from outside of Cleveland, Ohio and I am a junior from Dartmouth College majoring in Classical Studies and European History. After spending the past calendar year with a full academic load, I chose to take the fall quarter off from school and try something completely new. The Aegean Center Italy & Greece program gives me the opportunity to combine my current academic interests with the fine arts, which I have not studied since high school. I am taking courses in digital photography, basic camera usage, photo history, Greek art history, Greek literature, Greek language, and Greek dancing.
Throughout high school and college I have been involved in vocal performance in school choruses, church choirs, and an all female a cappella group. I am particularly lucky here and get to continue singing this fall with the Aegean Center Vocal Ensemble. The Vocal Ensemble is comprised of five students and nine Paros residents. While we were in Italy, Orfeas, the Ensemble’s director, worked with the new students on some of the basic technique we would need once we joined the rest of the ensemble in Greece. These lessons included work on vowel pronunciation, breathing technique, and blending our sound.
The Ensemble practices twice a week, for two and a half hours at a time, preparing our repertoire for the winter concert. During the second week of December, we will perform our concert for the public once in Naoussa and twice in Paroikia. The program includes four Medieval church songs, seven French Renaissance court songs, and three contemporary pieces. We are expected to learn the basics of our music on our own so that we do not waste rehearsal time reviewing basic intervals and parts.
Each rehearsal begins with a 30-minute warm up of physical and vocal exercises. These often focus on more than just our pitch, such as our ability to blend as a group and make one, uniform sound. We then fine tune our songs, focusing on dynamics (when to sing louder vs more softly) and on memorizing. Our Wednesday rehearsals are spent doing run-thrus of the entire concert. It has been great to hear not just the group pieces, but the many solos, duets and trios that are part of the repertoire. Another student, Emily Oglesby, and I are performing a French Renaissance court song as a duet, and singing it in front of the group each week will hopefully help me get all the nervousness out of my system before December.
The Vocal Ensemble is definitely a lot of work, but the atmosphere of rehearsals is also a lot of fun, and not simply intense. It is a great opportunity to meet and interact with more Paros residents then we might otherwise, and there is always some time during rehearsal to laugh at something ridiculous that someone says or does. The Ensemble is a great way to work toward a final product that is very different from what we are producing with our studio work, and I can not wait to see, or rather hear, how all of our hard work pays off at the concerts.