Wisconsin NATS 2008 has come and gone, and it turned out to be a good competition for little old Carthage College, which goes head-to-head with all of the universities and colleges throughout the state – many with gigantic music programs that dwarf ours in number of students, size of budget, splendor of facilities, etc. After awhile, it starts to feel a little like David and his Slingshot going up against Goliath and his fleet of warships. In fact, there have been years when we might enter 20 singers and have only one of them advance to the finals. But last year saw three Carthage students advance, and one of them- Vanessa Schroeder- actually won first place in her division (upper college musical theater women) . . . the first time in history that Carthage had a first-place finish in NATS. And this year, Carthage did even better – although once again almost all of our success came in the musical theater divisions, which are relatively small compared to the “classical divisions,” in terms of number of competitors. But still, it means we’re being fully competitive with musical theater students from places like the University of Wisconsin-Madison or Stevens Point – big schools who can field all kinds of talent. It is delicious to taste this kind of success, and we are strutting around a bit more proudly now in the hallways of NATS. . . and if we can become similarly competitive in the classical divisions, they’ll be no living with us!
This year we had one first-place winner, Aileen Farrell in Upper College Women’s Musical Theater. (That would be junior and seniors) – and several second and third place finishers as well. And after a four-year drought, I was thrilled to have two of my students make the finals: Dan Ermel, who splits his voice lessons between me and Corinne Ness (I teach him classical stuff, she teaches him musical theater) took second place in Lower College Men’s Musical Theater. And Sarah Gorke, a Carthage grad who now teaches voice for us and studies voice with me on the side, scored third place in the exceptionally competitive Avocational Adult division. . . and had a number of judges coming up to her afterwards to say that they had voted her to finish first. For all the speeches I give my students about how NATS is not about winning or losing, the undeniable fact is that the honor of finishing first is amazing, and to have both Dan and Sarah come so close was thrilling – and also a bit maddening, especially for them. But if you’re going to be a singer, you have to be able to live with the subjective nature of it. If you can’t, you need to stick to something cut and dried like the Pole Vault.
Assorted thoughts. . .
I AM A BASKET CASE when I sit in the audience and listen to my students sing! It is one thing when I am on the piano bench, playing for them – and am literally able to lend a helping hand. But to just sit there, helpless, is almost more than I can bear . . . especially when things go wrong such as when one of them makes a wrong entrance and the pianist can’t instantly catch up. It is all I can do to remain seated rather than leaping to my feet, running over to the piano, grabbing the pianist and flinging him or her off of the bench, sitting myself down and playing the rest of the song myself. Can you say Control Freak?
I WAS SO PROUD of the Carthage students I heard – including a couple of them who ran into rather serious trouble (or who, in the immortal words of my teacher at Luther, David Greedy, “fouled their nest”) but who managed to muscle their way through. And a couple of them sang superbly, and there is something so exciting about seeing a young person sing well under the glaring scrutiny of scary-looking judges.
THE BEST COMPLIMENT an audience can give is rapt attention. That was evident at several points this weekend, but especially when Dan sang “I’m not afraid” in the finals. It’s an amazing song in which a guy is saying “I love you” for the first time to the guy he loves. . . and as the song shimmered down to a whisper in its final measures, I realized that the audience in the recital hall was completely silent. The proverbial pin dropping would have sounded like the clanking of a steel girder. That’s how quiet it was – that’s how beautifully and expressively Dan sang this incredible song. It gave me chills- and I mean the good kind !
JOY is perhaps the single most important factor in what sets aside great singing from the merely good. As I look back on the singers I heard this weekend, I realize that some of them looked scared – some looked grimly determined – some looked pleased with themselves . . . and then there were a precious few singers who looked like there was nothing on earth they would rather be doing than singing for us. And I’m happy to say that Sarah was one of those singers. And as delighted as I was to hear her sing those high B-flats in her opera aria as though she were shooting off rockets, what delighted me even more was to see the sheer joy on her face as she did it.
I AM A JUDGMENTAL PERSON. Anyone who knows me well probably knows this about me. And it’s really nice when I can have a healthy outlet for my judgmental tendencies. This year at NATS, because I chose to not play piano for any of our competitors, it meant that I was free to judge all day long. . . and I had a ball! I judged two different preliminary rounds plus a semi-final round – and then spent all day Saturday judging the finals. (All teachers can join in judging the finals, if they so choose.) One of the real tricks is when you are charged with listening to thirteen singers and then ranking them 1-13 in order to determine who will advance to the finals. Years ago, someone showed me the matrix which is pictured above: You start out with one box for the first singer – and obviously they are ranked ‘1’. Next to it are two boxes, and after the second singer finishes you figure out who’s 1 and who’s 2. And so it goes from there, and with each singer you figure out where to plug them into the list and adjusting the other numbers accordingly as you go . . . until by the end you have everyone ranked. As my fellow judges watch me draw my matrix and fill in the squares and start oohing and ahhing, I feel like an engineer from NASA.
NOTHING IS CERTAIN IN SINGING, and that was dramatically demonstrated this year when two different guys who have twice won first place in their respective divisions in the past came up short this year . . . The guy who won freshman men and then sophomore men suffered a couple of rough memory lapses in the finals and finished second in junior men. And a senior guy who twice had won first place in the past could manage no better than third place this year, despite singing extremely well. That’s why when someone manages to win NATS three years in a row, like this year’s senior women’s champ – or, a long long time ago, me – it feels roughly akin to Martina Navratilova winning all of those Wimbledon titles, even if the payday doesn’t quite compare.
THE SWEETEST SUCCESS in this business is not singing well yourself- it’s seeing your students sing well and knowing that you had something to do with that. I tasted that delight very powerfully this weekend with several different students of mine, and even with a former student of mine, Scott Frost, who is now a student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. After a freshman year pretty much devoid of music, Scott realized that he couldn’t be happy without it and decided to add a music minor to his theater major. I made a point of hearing him in the sophomore men’s semi-finals and I was absolutely blown away by how powerful and confident his singing has become. It’s not that I deserve much in the way of credit for what he achieved at NATS this year, but as the guy who taught him private voice during his high school years, I’d like to think that at least a tiny sliver of what he is doing today has something to do with what I taught him once upon a time…. in the same way that Dan’s success at NATS is due not only to what Corinne and I have taught him, but also the excellent foundation which had already been laid by the teachers who came before us. And of course, in the end it comes down to the singer and how hard they work and how well they manage to put it all together.
THE NICEST THING ABOUT NATS is how nice people tend to be. Corinne and Amy and I have remarked often of how kind our Carthage students tend to be with each other at these competitions – listening to each other and offering all manner of support, even when they are themselves competitors. And although the competition is serious and perhaps even fierce at times, you see exemplary sportsmanship at almost every turn. . . and if anything it’s even more true now than it used to be. And for the most part, you very seldom encounter someone who enters the room as though they’re Cleopatra on the Nile. We mostly see young people who carry themselves as fairly ordinary people, except when they open their mouths and extraordinary sounds come out. I’d like to think that Carthage’s finest singers are this variety . . . kind, good people first – and skilled, confident singers second.