Cantus takes your questions

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
February 4, 2011

St. Paul, Minn. — MPR's 2011 Artists-in-Residence Cantus have been sharing the microphone with Alison Young each month, taking your questions and requests and sharing some of their favorite music. There's never enough time to answer all the questions on-air, so they've kindly agreed to do so online. Check it out, and send another if yours was missed!

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Chris in Collegeville, MN asks: How do you keep vocally healthy?

Aaron Humble replies:

I wish I had an easy answer for this question! For starters, we try to get plenty of sleep and drink a lot of water. A speech language pathologist told me once that if you take your weight and divide it in half--that's the number of ounces of water you should drink per day. So if you way 150lbs, you should drink 75 ounces of water a day. Beyond that, running a humidifier in the winter is helpful as is avoiding situations where you have to talk loudly or shout. As singers, it's vital that we warm up our voices before every rehearsal and cool down after. More info on the cool down soon!

Heather in Rochester, MN asks a similar question: Do you do anything special to take care of your voices or have any advice to aspiring singers concerning voice care?

Aaron continues:

Aside from the advice given above, I would encourage young singers to know their limits. There is nothing more exhausting than singing repertoire that is not within the reach of one's voice. Also remember to take breaks often when practicing to let the voice rest. Taking a few slow breaths through the nose and swallowing can do wonders to relax and rest the vocal mechanism.

Barbara in La Crosse, WI asks for Cantus to please describe what they mean by a choral cool down.

Aaron continues the train of thought:

The vocal cool down is the equivalent to a stretch after a work out. I start with some slow breathing through my nose and some water to use my swallowing muscles. When you swallow, the larynx drops and it stretches the muscles around the voice. Then, I do some easy, sighs and sirens to "bring my voice down." I'll usually transition to a little bit of humming and then I'm good to go. Think of it as a reverse warm up--just not as extensive.

Pierre in New Berlin, WI wonders: Have you every considered covering 'Gentle Giant?' They do a couple songs that would adapt to a choral format very well.

Aaron is up for anything is seems:

I'm not sure we have considered covering them--but we're always looking for new repertoire. Thanks for the suggestion!

Greg from Shakopee, MN asks several probing questions: What is your individual and collective practice routine? How do you incorporate fun and play into your routine? How do you cultivate excellence and passion?

Tim Takach responds:

So many questions all wrapped up into one!

As far as individual practicing goes, everybody does it a little differently. Some of the guys will keep in shape by practicing other rep, either music for gigs that they have coming up, reviewing old roles and arias that they want to keep in their voice, or just learning new music with their voice instructor. Other guys will maintain a schedule of specific vocalizes that they're using to work through trouble spots in their technique. All of us work on our own on a new program for a few weeks before the first rehearsal so that we have it in our voice by the time we start as a group.

Practicing as an ensemble is different. We don't warm up or vocalize as a group - we expect each other to show up ready to go. We will however use specific practice devices as we work on a piece. Some of these help us tune a section better, line up our vowels, match amount of vibrato, balance, etc. As we practice each piece, our method to get from the page to the stage is usually the same.

As far as keeping things fun, we have to keep a certain amount of levity in the room. Voice cracks are funny. Somebody singing a loud note after everyone else has stopped singing is funny. An ill-timed burp is funny. Adding an "s" where one doesn't belong is funny. (Okay, I think that's funny, and that's why I do it every so often. Adam would disagree.) We're in a fully collaborative situation where anybody can listen to what's coming out of your mouth, stop you mid-note, and criticize. That can come from anybody at any time. We develop a fairly thick skin about criticisms and we know that these are not attacks, and they are not personal. Still, people are talking about a part of your body that you can't change. You can't restring your bow, get a new reed or empty your spit valves. Your voice is you, period. The more we can take a comment and work on it without getting defensive or depressed the better. We're all pretty good about knowing where our own problems and bad habits lie, and if I'm going sharp on an ascending fourth or fifth (one of my bad habits, especially in a certain range), I want to fix it. We have to take things lightly, and with an amount of humor. If you take yourself too seriously, how will you have any fun?

Your last question was about cultivating excellence and passion. Everybody in the group, whether they've been here for 15 days or 15 years, is passionate about this. That passion leads us to always set the bar high. If we're not pleasing everybody in the room, we're not doing something right.

Mary Ellen from Little Canada, MN loves to travel too: I know you guys have traveled all over the world. What is your favorite country-the one where you were appreciated the most?

Tim goes on:

Last fall we took a trip up to Alaska, which was a first for all of us, I believe. We sang in some of the bigger towns (Anchorage, Fairbanks), but we also had a chance, through an outreach grant the presenter secured, to tour some of the smaller towns. I remember a two-hour drive out to perform in Healy, AK, a town of just under 1000 people. The concert was held in the school gymnasium, and 300 of those 1000 people came to see us sing. They never got to see live acts unless they made a vacation out of it and drove the 120 miles to Fairbanks or flew into Anchorage. We warmed up in the kindergarten room and socialized with the audience in the hallway afterwards. They even served a cake that said "Thank you Cantus" on it! So I guess that our favorite country would be right here in America.

Mary from Fargo (who I believe is related to one of the singers...) says: First, Congrats on being MPR's Artists-in-Residence! How do you balance creative ideals with audience appeal and also keep your music fresh, yet satisfying to your regular fans?

Tim again:

We try to make ourselves creatively happy first. If we're not 100% behind a program or a song, how can expect our audience to get behind it? However, within one program, any one of us can find one song they're not too thrilled to sing, and we think that's okay. We've got nine guys with nine different tastes in music, and since we program as a group, we're always going to have a pretty mixed bag of music. And whatever the theme of our concert is, whatever collection of music we want to perform, we're acutely aware that we have to come with a great way to present this music to the audience if we want them to be happy (and come back!). If we do a concert of American music (like last fall's "Before Us" concert), we want to present these songs in a way that takes the listener on a journey and lets them appreciate the music not just for it's own sake, but for where it falls in history, what the lyrics mean, and what a piece by Dave Matthews means when it follows an anthem by William Billings.

There's nobody on the planet who's been to as many Cantus shows as I (15 years and counting, and that's upwards of 80 shows each year), and so I'm still thrilled that we can find new and unique ways to present a show to our audience.

Josh from Moorhead, MN queries: Do you guys get any down time from concerts and appearances?

Tim continues:

We do, actually, get a little down time. Usually the guys are pursuing other interests (we're full of soloists, recording engineers, composers, voice teachers, sports fans, movie freaks, cooks, avid readers and video game players), so I'd say that's where most of that decompression time goes. And it's necessary.

Imagine being at a job where you can't go to your own desk and do your own thing for the day. Instead, you are always actively working with the same small group of people. Sitting in a room with them every day, discussing things, weighing opinions, trying things out, and in a constant state of self-critique. Or, maybe imagine that you're a student who has to go to class, do homework and write papers, but you have to do all of this with the cooperation of eight other people. Even the writing papers part. Especially the writing papers part (that's the "performance"). It's exhausting. When we're home, our days are usually 5-8 hours long, depending on the day. When we're on the road, our work days can be 7-10 hours long. Then we all pile into two vehicles and drive together to the next town. We see each other a lot. Yet, what's amazing, I think, is that we'll get done with three days in a row of school concerts, driving, rehearsals, meetings, driving, concerts, driving, masterclasses...then all of us will go to the same restaurant for dinner, get a table for nine, and then four of us will go see a movie after that.

We really enjoy our time together, and I think that's one of the things that makes this job a lot easier than it should be.

Brett New Ulm, MN would like to know: Are there any choral traditions from other countries or ethnic groups to which you are drawn?

Paul Rudoi replies:

One of my favorite choral traditions is the Estonian and Latvian Song Festivals. Since 1869 Estonia has created their own sort of Woodstock where tens of thousands of people show up at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds (an open field with a giant amphitheater at the head) and all join together in song. The Latvian Song Festival, which also attracts thousands of people every year that it's held, takes place at different locations around Latvia's capital, Riga. Both of these festivals are testaments to cultures that have been influenced heavily by folksong traditions and choral music. In fact, Estonia's story of how they escaped Soviet occupation in the years before the fall of the Soviet Union can be heard through a wonderful documentary called The Singing Revolution. Check it out if you have a chance!

Amy from Minneapolis, MN asks a good one: A la Billy Elliot, are there any members of Cantus who's fathers were less than enthusiastic about their singing as a career choice who eventually came around? Details please...and thanks!

Paul tackled this question: Although both my father and stepfather were much more into sports than music, fortunately for me they've been supportive of my passion ever since I started singing. They both kept telling me me that I would make it in the business, and I didn't believe them until I was able to join Cantus. I guess they were right!

Bill from Tempe, AZ asks: What goes into planning the concert repertoire?

Paul again: A lot of things go into building a concert, and we use group programming meetings to get through the process. We start with a concept for the program, such as a title or a broad spectrum of repertoire. This usually includes some sort of narrative, so for example our tour program "Before Us" started with the idea of a journey through America's musical history. Our next step includes individuals bringing conceptually relevant ideas for music, and we consider each piece as a group on the basis of merit, relevance, and vocal considerations. We start to whittle down the choices, finding narrative connections between pieces or considering "anchor pieces" around which the rest of the set or half can be built. Over time this "proofreading" of the list reveals the program more and more to us, which is always exciting to see!

Allen from Mendota Heights, MN writes: Do you make your own arrangements? Where do you find the music you want to sing?

Paul: We do sing our own arrangements! Luckily we have several composers and arrangers in the group, so if we need a particular slot filled on a program and can't find a piece that fits the bill, we can potentially find someone in the group who could work on a piece for us. In fact, on this year's tour program we have many arrangements from members of the group, including "Gravedigger" arranged by Timothy Takach, "America" arranged by Gary Ruschman, "Fiddle Tune" arranged by Chris Foss, and "Sweet By and By" arranged by Aaron Humble. As far as finding music, we search everywhere for new music. There's not a lot of repertoire for men's voices alone, especially considering the wealth of music available for mixed chorus, so we work hard to find new and old pieces that could be considerable for future programming.

Name withheld from Worthington, MN says: It's not cool to sing at my school, but I like singing. How can I find a choir to sing with? I'm 12 and a boy.

Gary Ruschman takes this onw: I personally believe it is cool to sing everywhere, and I also believe that it doesn't matter what other people think if you enjoy doing something fun and rewarding like music. What isn't clear from your message is whether or not there is music in your school in the first place, or if it's not the right fit for you there. If you don't have an outlet at school at all, you may find an outlet at a church you attend (or even one you don't), or perhaps think about doing a project over the summertime.

I know there has been a community sing project down in Worthington before with Vocalessence, and I know the Sioux Falls area has a good boys' choir (that might be pretty close to you). I also discovered the Prairie Arts Chorale during my research down in Southwestern MN. Perhaps you could contact them for advice from a more regional perspective. They may know of some source that we don't. And don't forget that your prospects should look better once you are in high school for finding compatriots who sing.

Jen in St. Paul writes: Other than Cantus, of course, what are your favorite groups in the Twin Cities to hear live in concert?

Gary again:

I have to say it's tough to get out to see concerts when you're a musician, because often times you are in a show on the same night as other ensembles'. If you're talking pop, jazz, or dance, I suppose I more often go to solo artists' concerts, like Martin Sexton, Stanley Clarke and Hiromi, James Sewell Ballet is a lot of fun, and I also ran into a ton of Cantus fans at the Distant Worlds: Final Fantasy concert down at the Orpheum.

If you're talking choral or classical music, my tastes run toward early stuff. I've enjoyed The Rose Ensemble very much (their Hawaiian show was fantastic), Consortium Carissimi, and I've also enjoyed going to Minnesota Opera, especially their productions of Croesus and Nixon in China.

Cathy from Stillwater asks: Choirs usually rely on a director to choose music, direct, critique, etc. How are these functions performed within Cantus?

Gary:

Well, you have to start with very committed, talented artists that are able to be self-aware and flexible. We give each other permission to be constructively critical, and that involves a lot of responsibility--both to be open to critique and be able to give evaluation and judgment with respect and without ever getting personal. That's how we daily work in Cantus.

We have three artist-admin posts that coordinate various duties and have responsibility for maintaining quality standards (the Artistic Council). We work for consensus on many of the endeavors of the company, and sometimes have committees make proposals or handle specific projects.

As far as picking music, everyone gets a chance to bring pieces to the table that they believe would be a good fit for whatever theme we are programming. Once the music is chosen, we have a great "Producer System" that has just about everyone overseeing the development of a few pieces each season. Rather than acting as a director, think of the producer as being the teacher or shepherd, making certain that everyone gets to have some say in the process and end musical product once it's learned.

Carol in Roseville has this most basic question: What exactly does "Artists in Residence" mean? What are they doing as residents that they aren't doing otherwise?

Gary again:

We have for a long time had a great working relationship with Minnesota Public Radio, but as Artists in Residence, Cantus gets to enjoy a number of great benefits: MPR has committed to present Cantus performances all over the state, including underserved communities. Members of Cantus get to join the radio personalities on air numerous times, both as broadcasters and as performers. It's like being an ambassador. It feels great as an artist knowing that you have an organization like MPR that "has your back"!

By performing under the banners of Minnesota Public Radio, American Public Media, and Performance Today, we get a powerful national reach, which enables us to better serve the state and nation with our music. That's the biggest benefit. In our company mission to encourage singing everywhere, we get to reach so many more people over the airwaves than we can on various stages across the nation.

Michele in Yakima, WA writes: My daugher is a HS Jr., a Sop I and is directing a small group singing Mozart's "Lacrymosa" for regional Solo & Ensemble. Any tips for her helping the young men in reaching tenor parts?

Shahzore Shah takes this one:

One successful exercise to help tenors strengthen their connection to the breath and relieve tension in the neck: encourage the tenors to place one hand just below the belly button try "calling out" like saying "Hey" and "Yah" in a clear, loud voice, but not straining. The louder and fuller they call out, the more of an abdominal pull they will feel. They can then call out in a higher range and comfortably reach pitches higher than they have to sing in the Mozart. When they return to singing they should recreate this sensation, but in slow motion (so not just a quick attack and release as in calling out) to avoid tension and more effectively support the high range.

Otto from New Ulm, MN needs to know: What is the difference between improvisation and interpretation?

Shahzore helps out:

In our music making or in working with text, interpretation is drawing a connection between the written notes /or words and our own understanding of music and the context in which that music/text was written, the composer's intention, our own intention as performers; we are taking the music/text off the page and presenting it in real time and space, so it is interpreted through our own eyes/ears/sensibility but always retains its own form. In improvisation, there is much more spontaneity involved. The musician may be provided with a framework within which to create new ideas, new patterns, new forms. You can improvise as much as a whole piece from nothing or as little as an ornament that you think fits an already written melody.

Marit from St. Paul asks: Did you know from a very early age that you had a special musical gift? How did it manifest and does any of you have perfect pitch? Is it helpful to have?

Again, Shahzore is on it:

I was aware that I enjoyed singing from a young age and that I had musical aptitude, but I didn't really appreciate it until high school when I took voice lessons and my skills developed really rapidly. I have never had perfect pitch, but all of us in the group have a strong sense of what's called "relative pitch" meaning that we can find any pitch relative to identifying one (e.g. striking an A on a tuning fork in concert to find the beginning pitch for a piece). A few members in the past have had perfect pitch, and it can be helpful for tuning. However, it can also be crippling if the person doesn't learn to adjust to the natural human inclination to sing flat and sharp from time to time.

It's also not a reliable means of finding pitch in a concert, when there are so many different variables that affect your inner ear.

Dexter from Biwabik, MN wonders: In the mid 1950's Robert Shaw had many arrangement of American folk songs for male voices. Do you use any of those arrangements?

Adam Reinwald picks this one to answer:

Yes, we do and have. A great number of Robert Shaw's arrangements for men's voices were written by, or with, composer Alice Parker. Cantus has sung, and recorded, a number of these arrangements, including: 'Let the Bullgine Run'; 'What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor'; 'Lowlands'; and 'Bound for the Rio Grande'. They are great arrangements and have a storied place in the repertoire.

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