Being a smart musician

May 18, 2012

There is something to be said for a well-trained musician who shows up on time, shuts up, and performs their part perfectly. But when life gets challenging, working with a smart musician can make all the difference. One such “smart” musician saved my ass several times over the past week, and everyone involved in the recording session appreciated it.

I have just returned from 10 days in Rockport, Massachusetts overseeing a new recording of my songs to be released by Parma Recordings this fall. I had the pleasure and honor to work with friend, colleague and soprano, Juliana Gondek, and pianist, conductor and opera coach, William Lumpkin. The producer, Andy Happel, was invaluable and brilliant, and I know Juliana loved working with him. During those 10 days, I came to realize the value of being a smart musician — no, I’m not about to brag about myself, rather, Juliana Gondek — a truly smart and gifted musician.

I wish that I could define “smart” as someone who gets A’s in all their college studies, and sometimes that can be true (I have no idea what JG’s grades were: I assume all A’s). But “smart” for me implies a life-long passion for learning, a certain amount of street-smarts, as well as a well-rounded education. Let me give some examples.

Juliana’s knowledge of various languages continued to be invaluable during our two weeks of recording. One song had some awkward Spanish setting on my part; she was able to adjust words, and provide alternatives that stayed true to the poem and stayed true to my melodies. She would stop rehearsal to Google ambiguous accents in certain words if she didn’t know them, which was rare. Her knowledge of a wide range of singing styles, in English, was astonishing. I realized that my songs gave her a wonderfully broad canvas to show off her range of interpretive skills and we were all continually amazed during the session. I continued to think of Cathy Berbarian — not that she is a knock-off of Cathy, rather a woman of wide ranging and significant vocal abilities.

Juliana is my Angela Peralta in our upcoming opera — I am writing the part for her. Professor Gondek is never afraid to send long emails to our librettist, Mitchell Morris, with lots of fabulous ideas regarding plots, motives and characters.

As we walked in and out of galleries in Rockport, Mass, she continually amazed me with her knowledge of gemstones, art, art history, European history, and the wide range of musics in the world. Like Angela, she has done so many things in her life, and was never “just” a soprano.

One night over dinner, we brainstormed ideas for reinvigorating our curriculum in an area in our department that is presently under evaluation [we are both Professors of Music at UCLA]. She is informed and passionate about the educational process and is articulate in making contributions.

We had to negotiate fees and payment of her work on the CD, and she was business-like and firm. She had learned in early episodes in her life to stand up for her worth as an artist, and that clarity and confidence in negotiations are essential in a smart musician.

She has had to balance challenging life crises while living a life as an opera singer or as a university professor — part of life of course, but singers use their bodies to make their art and their bodies are sensitive variable and not always reliable instruments, in the way that, say, a piano is. Slight changes in health, mood, and other cyclical realities all have to be able to be combined into the sound of a singer’s voice. Developing this kind of solid technique allows a performer to transcend life’s distractions and “be professional.”

So to my young musicians, considering a life in music, I encourage you to embrace your sister arts; love to learn for your whole life; never avoid an opportunity to learn something new, or consider an alternate point of view; be yourself and be passionate: it’s contagious!

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