My voice student David Duncan certainly knows how to celebrate a birthday. On the very same day that he turned 19, David also sang his way into the semi-finals at NATS – one of three Carthage singers to do so. It was nice to have that kind of success at a competition in which we are head to head with the best singers from every college and university throughout the state. And yet, the sad reality of NATS is that while we had three people advance, we had at least fifteen singers who did not. And that’s the bitter pill of this kind of competition….. and although we do our best to remind our students that this is how it almost always is, I’m sure it is still hard for them to accept the fact that it is entirely possible to go in there and sing very very well and yet come away with nothing but compliments. That’s why I really like this picture from the evening meal which almost all of us enjoyed Friday night. If you would look around those booths which the students occupied, you would have been very hard pressed to know who had been “successful” and who had come up empty. Part of the reason is that it was just nice for us to be all together – eating good food- plus enjoying the fun of a birthday party, complete with party hats and noisemakers that I bought at a neighborhood Target. In the midst of all that, I think (or at least I hope) that each student felt less like a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser’ . . . but just colleagues, all of whom had stepped in front of judges and sang their hearts out. Some sang as well as they ever had- others for one reason or another fell short of their full potential. But they all did it and that counts so much more than whether or not you have earned any sort of award.
Some other NATS thoughts:
***One of my other voice students, Andrew Johnson, who started Carthage as a piano major but who recently changed his focus to singing, was attending NATS for the very first time- and as luck would have it, he woke up Friday morning feeling significantly under the weather. But even with his voice way below 100%, Andrew managed to sing remarkably well. (I’m glad I got to hear him perform.) Andrew is blessed with a truly spectacular talent, and it is so fun to see him exploring that in such exciting ways. But I can safely say that I’ve never been prouder of Andrew than I was yesterday morning. His perseverance was so very inspiring.
***Yet another of my voice students, freshman Chase Tonar, was dangling over the precipice of disqualification because somehow neither he nor his accompanist had an original score for his English language piece, Gerald Finzi’s “Who is Sylvia?” (At NATS xerox copies are absolutely forbidden and grounds for immediate disqualification.) Unfortunately, I didn’t get word of the difficulty until I was already past Milwaukee and well on my way to Eau Claire – and as I drove the rest of the way, I could feel the hairs on my head turning even more gray. I had to hope that one of the voice teachers at Eau Claire would have the Finzi book in question…. and would be willing to lend it to me. Fortunately for me and for Chase, there was a teacher with the book who was nice enough to lend it to me— and Chase, I am very happy to say, got to sing in his first NATS competition and by all reports sang quite well . . . and his teacher managed not to have a stress-induced stroke.
*** Speaking of disqualifications for xerox copies, I ended up making what amounts to a Citizen’s Arrest at NATS this year. It happened when I listened to one of my students perform in the preliminary round and then stuck around to hear the singer right after him. (I enjoy scoping out the competition.) To my utter amazement, this young man’s piano player laid three original scores on top of the piano but then proceeded to play her three accompaniments out of a three-ring binder of xerox copies- a NATS cardinal sin. The judges did not say a word about it- and the singer was done singing and had left the room, the judges did not say a word about it, which left me to assume that they hadn’t noticed the infraction. But I had. (And I even took a surreptitious photo of it.) And I went right to the tabulation room to inform them of what I had seen. But here’s the most amazing part about the whole thing. After they thanked me for bringing this to their attention, they asked me for the singer’s name. And when I said his name, one of the three teachers working there in the tabulation room said “That’s my student.” But as began to sputter out an apology, he cut me off with sincere reassurance that I had done the right thing and that I should not feel bad about it. Hearing those words from this teacher is among the most inspiring moments I have ever experienced at NATS.
*** I rode to the rescue under very surprising circumstances during the sophomore men’s semi-final round . . . the very semi’s in which my student David Duncan sang (and sang very well, by the way.) David was supposed to go last, but the room monitor asked him to go out of order because someone’s piano accompanist was tied up playing in another semi-final. So David went ahead, but when he got done this other young man’s accompanist still wasn’t there- and the judges were about to scratch him. So I raised my hand and offered to play for the guy – just to prevent him from being disqualified. And seeing no alternative, the young man gratefully accepted my offer. The first two pieces went fine (I’d played those two songs a million times before) but the third was an aria from Benjamin Britten’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that I’d never seen before- never heard before- and had more accidentals per measure than anything I’ve ever played in my life. I did the best I could, but it felt like 90% pure guesswork (including several moments when I was tempted to just stand up, turn around, and plop my butt on the keys- thinking that would sound about as good as what I was trying to do with my ten fingers) and I’m very impressed that this young man managed to keep singing despite the odd sounds emanating from the piano.
*** But that spontaneous rescue mission was not even my most heroic moment at the keyboard. That came when I played for a marvelous Carthage student named Audrey Henning, one of our three semi-finalists. The first of her three pieces was an amazing song by Schubert titled “Gretchen am Spinnrade” – which also happens to be an especially tricky piece for the pianist to play because the accompaniment is crafted to imitate the constant whirring of a spinning wheel. Anyway, as we neared the increasingly frantic final measures I did my last page turn a little too emphatically and suddenly found the score on my lap instead of on the piano’s music rack. But somehow I never missed a beat and that spinning wheel kept spinning to the last measure. . . maybe with a bump or two along the way, but definitely spinning.
*** Our yearly state NATS competition rotates amongst various campuses around Wisconsin: Eau Claire, La Crosse, Whitewater, Madison, Milwaukee, Stevens Point, Lawrence … and Eau Claire is the farthest away it can possibly be for us. But there’s something kind of fun about traveling halfway to the Arctic Circle because it lent some extra excitement to the proceedings. And yet, for as far away from home as we were, I had the astonishing experience of being recognized at Applebee’s. As I spoke to the hostess about reserving an additional booth for six students who were joining us later, the young woman looked at me with rather strange expression- and then asked me if I were a music teacher in Racine. It turns out that she was a graduate of Case High School and had played in the orchestra there and remembered me from some concert I had conducted there or been a part of. I love those << Small World, Isn’t It? >> moments like that.
*** NATS is fun . . . but it’s also terribly frustrating, and not just because Carthage is a ‘David’ competing head to head with ‘Goliaths’ like Lawrence or UW-Milwaukee. It’s also hard because so very often a truly wonderful performance will not result in advancement, but the judge’s ballots will not mention a single thing that should have been different or could have been better. (It is drummed into NATS judges to be as positive as possible, but a ballot telling a singer how wonderful they are (but they don’t advance) is both useless and irritating.) And it was an especially frustrating year for our musical theater students, who seemed to fall prey to a definite bias towards very classical-style musical theater singing. It underscores one of the hardest things about singing for competitions and auditions- which is that you can never know for certain what a given person is looking for or wanting to hear. . . that is, you can’t know until you’re done singing for them, at which point it’s too late to do anything about it. So all you really get to do is Be Yourself and SIng As Well As You Possibly Can. . . and the rest of it is simply beyond your control. And that’s probably an invaluable lesson not only for our singers to learn . . .but just about anyone. The sooner you fully accept just how much in this life is beyond our control, the sooner you can just Go For It without undue worry about the results. And interestingly enough, those are the moments when we almost certainly do our best.