Return of the Fearsome Foursome

Return of the Fearsome Foursome

. . . and other random recollections from State Solo & Ensemble Contest at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, May 2, 2009.

I’ve said it before and I don’t mind saying it again – I’m not sure there’s a better day for me than State Solo & Ensemble Contest.  It’s a day given over entirely to music,  when I get to really make a difference in the lives of some young musicians.  I think two years ago I blogged that this is the day when I get to strut around like I own the place the way Roger Federer can strut around Wimbledon.  That’s part of it,  but today I realized that what I feel at State is not exactly Pomposity.  (Or at least I hope not.)  It’s more that at State Contest I truly feel like I would not want to trade places with anyone in the whole world. . .  not Bill Gates or George Clooney or Barack Obama or Placido Domingo or Roger Federer or anyone.  Because I cannot imagine that any of those people had a better day than I did today.

Some highlights:

  1. *The Fearsome Foursome returned at the top of their game.  I blogged about this quartet of guys from Tremper High School right after Kenosha’s district contest, when they scored a I* rating in their classical quartet performance despite having had very little time to get the piece put together.  They saved their best for the performance – and that happened again today, when they managed to sing even better.  What made it an especially sweet success is that their judge today was the judge who at District gave them a II rating in the barbershop category. . . (an entirely separate event with an entirely different piece of music) which was an unexpected and bitter blow for them.  Polly, their teacher,  recognized who their judge was today and wisely took them aside right beforehand to warn them, so it wouldn’t throw them to walk in and see the judge who had said all kinds of nice things about their performance and then kicked them in their collective you-know-what’s with that II rating.    And darn it if they didn’t channel whatever they might have been feeling about that into a really excellent performance today.

  1. *My private students were a veritable Parade of Champions today,  and I applaud each and every one of them for making me as proud as a voice teacher could be.  Out of eleven performances,  they earned ten I ratings. . . and the lone singer to receive a II is an eighth grader who nonetheless sang quite well and has absolutely nothing to be sorry for, and who has many years ahead of him to earn I ratings.  (Which is not to say that it’s all about the ratings anyway.)  I was so happy to see all of them sing so incredibly well – and almost better than that was to see how supportive they were of one another.  I went out of my way this year to introduce them to one another and also actively encouraged them when I could to listen to each other today, and that happened more than it ever has happened before. I was partly inspired in that by my private high school teacher, Cherie Carl,  who would have various events at her house where her various private voice students would sing for one another.  I did that a couple of times this week for contest prep and encouraged them to support each other today – and it was so cool to have Kenosha and Racine kids in the same room, listening to each other and being inspired by one another’s excellence.

  1. *Happy tears were shed today.  Some were shed by me, most notably when a private student of mine (and a student of Polly’s at Tremper)  sang like I didn’t know he could sing today.  The piece was “Non piu andrai” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro,  and Josh sang it as though Mozart had crafted it especially for him.   I have heard him sing it quite well –  but today he took it up another three or four levels and as I played for him,  I found myself staring at Josh in wonder and awe.  And when the judge lavished him with verbal praise and then presented him with an Exemplary Award (which is the highest honor you can be given at State)  I found myself wiping away tears from my eyes.  And to think that Josh is going to Carthage in the fall, which means that I get to keep contributing to this fine young man’s story.  I could not be happier.

*Happy tears – which might better be described as tears of relief – were shed by the mom of one of my students,  who sang “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables as well as he could possibly sing it.  Nick has always been an exemplary student (I singled him out for praise when I blogged about district contest in Racine a year ago)  but this year he has been battling the dreaded Peter Brady Voice Change.   It has made things very challenging and at times frustrating for this young man who has been accustomed to just opening up his mouth and having wonderful sound emerge.  Now every day is a little different from the day before,  and he has had to surrender himself to that kind of uncertainty – and I have been so proud of the way he has managed to do that.  Anyway,  he sang beautifully in Schubert’s “Standchen” earlier in the day,  but “Bring Him Home” is a much tougher piece with a final high note that more often than not would sound like the sound you make when you rub two pieces of sandpaper together.  But today that final high F sharp emerged more clearly and beautifully than I think I have ever heard it, and when I looked at Nick’s mom in the front row of the audience,  her face and tears were a wonderful mix of motherly pride, joy, and relief.

*Happy tears were also shed, quite unexpectedly,  by the father of an instrumentalist I played for today.  I don’t think I should say who it was – although I am tempted to because it would enhance the story –  but here’s what happened.  This man’s daughter is a truly remarkable trumpeter – and she is just a sophomore in high school,  so still greater things are ahead for her, which is exciting and almost scary to think about!   Anyway,  she played her piece (Theme and Variations by Handel)  superbly – and when it got to the final flourish and some high notes which have sometimes not quite been there,  she tossed them off with ridiculous ease.  And almost before the sounds of the final note had died away,  her judge was reaching for one of his pink slips (for the aforementioned Exemplary Award) which was not unexpected but nonetheless a terrific moment for this young lady and her button-bustingly proud parents.   And when I ran back to them to dump off her music so I could get to my next accompanying gig,  this trumpeter’s dad wrapped his big arms around me and gave me a bear hug – and a couple of moments later I realized that this guy was crying on my shoulder.   This is someone I know very well and like and admire so much – but I have never seen this guy so much as sniffle before.  But he and his wife both found themselves emotionally undone by seeing their daughter play so superbly when it counted most,  and I felt so privileged to have played a sliver of a role in that.

  1. *I got to ride to the rescue today when a Kenosha tenor suddenly realized that his father (a music teacher, by the way)  had grabbed a Low Voice book rather than a High Voice book for Samuel Barber’s “Sure on this Shining Night.”  And this young man had a very able pianist who, nonetheless,  did not have the ability to look at a piece of music – especially one as complex as this – and transpose it into another key.  So father and son found Polly,  who managed to track me down,  and they asked me if I would be willing to step in and play for him so the piece could be played in the proper key.   And frankly I jumped at the chance because there’s nothing quite so fun as Saving The Day.   And this young man ended up earning an Exemplary Award of his own.  That was one of those moments when I felt like I had earned my share of the earth’s oxygen that I breathe.

  1. * The aforementioned student ended up being the 26th performance I played for today – which for me is definitely a new record.   And I am relieved to say that the day unfolded pretty much without a hitch, despite the fact that I was scheduled for to play for two different singers at 11:00,  two different singers at 11:44, and two different singers at 3:00. All three of those scheduling traffic jams were resolved with one room either running ahead or behind of the other . . . but then another snafu emerged around 2:00, thanks to a judge who at one point was running FIFTY MINUTES behind schedule,  causing a scheduling snafu for me that would not have been there had he stayed even reasonably close to schedule.   I finally got so frustrated that I went down to the tabulation room to lodge a formal complaint, in the hopes that a contest official would go down there and direct the judge to watch the clock.  .  . which in fact did occur.   And I have to say that Tattling Never Felt So Good.

  1. * I’m happy to say that at the end of this long day,  the worst thing that happened to me was spilling ketchup on my beautiful light green tie (the tie I was given to wear for Trevor Parker’s wedding – which I wore today with my spectacular Easter shirt.)  At least I had my mishap after the contest was all done, as I was on my way out of the building.  But even an unfortunate spill (I’m trying to “Shout it out” even as i type this)  couldn’t be much of a blemish on such a grand day.   Not on a day when Mike scored an Exemplary Award as a sophomore (gorgeously singing “Go Lovely Rose” and Sydney sang so beautifully in Barber’s Crucifixion and Rodgers’ Falling in Love with Love . . . and Javon brought down the house not once but twice, with I”ll Sail Upon the Dog-Star and Dancing Through Life. . . and Nat sang so convincingly and impressively in “C’est Moi” from Camelot and “The Roadside Fire”  . . .   and on and on I could go with all the reasons why this was such an Uncommonly Excellent Day.

pictured above:  the “fearsome foursome” listens to the verbal critique of their judge after their fine performance of Ed Lojeski’s arrangement of “Amazing Grace,”  for which I played piano.