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FISH OUT OF WATER: Professional and Personal Musings from VOX 3 Members

November 15, 2013

fishoutofwaterOur upcoming cabaret centers around experiences when you really feel out of your element, sometimes humorously described as ‘fish out of water’ moments.  In the life of a performer, there are many times when one feels like a fish out of water. By the very nature of their work, performers must enjoy challenging themselves, but it is not uncommon to have an Achilles’ heel – some situation or condition that puts you out of your comfort zone. It could be dancing or singing in a language you’ve never sung in before…or perhaps your costume exposes a little more flesh than you like to expose.   I decided that it might be fun to interview our members and hear about their moments!

Tell me about a moment in life where you really felt like a fish out of water?

Meghan Guse: My family’s first day in Tokyo was about the most surreal moment I’ve ever had. My dad had been there a few weeks ahead of us, so even though we had just gotten off of a 12 hour flight, he insisted on ferrying us around Harajuku. For a ten-year-old kid from a small town in central Illinois, I have never felt more out of it! I couldn’t read anything, the food was “weird,” and everything was fast-paced and crowded.  You’ve never lived until you’ve been shoved onto a subway car by station employees wearing white gloves.  We all got the hang of it pretty quickly, but wow, that is still my most fish out of water experience!

Ashlee Hardgrave: I’ve always felt a little out of water. Growing up in the rural south, I was in the minority because  a. I didn’t own livestock or participate in 4H and b. our home had a paved driveway.  However, I vividly remember being invited to join a very elite sorority my freshman year of college. Fall grades had come in, and once the sorority heard about my 4.0 GPA, they came knocking. I was told it was an exclusive offer afforded to few, and IMPOSSIBLE to turn them down, so I joined and went to my first meeting. Holy crap. I walked into a sea of monogrammed letters, glittery necklaces, and so much pink that you’d think a Pepto Bismol factory exploded.  So much blonde hair. So much mascara. So much “wait, you watch the news? Why?” I did it to prove a point, and some of the girls were very nice, but I bailed the minute their meetings conflicted with my rehearsal schedule. I still have one of their beer koozies 🙂

James Morehead: I guess I’ve always felt like a fish out of water, and honestly, you kind of get used to it. Growing up always presents its challenges for everybody, but I was always the puzzle piece that didn’t have a spot; the American growing up in Germany, the white, poor kid in the high school ghetto, the gay man at church or the Christian at the gay bar… it never seems to end. Let alone artistically. Since I play everything, and I mean everything, classical musicians question me as well musical theater people. Is it really so bad that I improvise as well as sight read!?

 Do you feel that singers are often challenged to push the boundaries of their comfort zone?

Brian von Rueden: I think there’s a balance, as a singer, between pushing the boundaries and excelling within given constraints.  Often, it takes a boundary-pusher to get noticed – there is a visceral thrill of someone giving 110% in a performance.  Or the media may devote more ink to describing a controversial production (opera singers naked on stage! Violetta doesn’t really die! Parsifal wears black studded leather!) than a well-executed traditional presentation.  The headlines just aren’t as engaging.  But that is simply the world we live in.  YouTube has oriented us to a culture where 15 seconds of “WOW” are more palatable than 2 hours of wonderful.  As a consequence, I think singers feel some pressure to find ways to make their performance the best, the freshest, the edgiest – some kind of superlative.  The problem is that so much of classical voice is about training and technique.  It is incredibly hard, I think, to find ways of giving the illusion of utter abandon while remaining squarely in the proper technical place.  Those known for exciting stage characterizations, like French soprano Natalie Dessay, may develop technical problems from pushing the envelope too much.  But most good teachers will say: You know your voice.  You know what you can do.  Give what you can, but don’t push it.

James Morehead: Yes.  I’m not a singer but I challenge singers all the time. Everyone will find those moments and push through. I’ll gladly hold their hand and coach them through and push them when the time feels just right.

Ashlee Hardgrave:  In most classical music, no. In VOX, yes. Singers are often asked to know their “type” for casting, so you’re asked to determine (and sometimes alter yourself to define) which of these oddly specific boxes in which to fit. Once it’s determined, many can find it a challenge to consider leaving it for growth or maturity. You cling to the identity you’re given, and automatically rule out opportunity beyond that box. I think that’s one of the things I value about VOX. With art song, it’s less about if the soprano looks like she can play Mimi. It’s about telling shorter stories, stories that could be told by both Mimis and not-a-chance-Mimis alike. You can be anyone you want, or multiple ‘anyones’ in a single program. We are given permission to “go there” and take risks in ways that many singers aren’t.

Do you enjoy pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone?  For example, do you really get excited about the challenge or do have to ‘talk yourself into it?

Brian von Rueden: I am an introvert and a nester.  I feel at my best when I can work hard within well-known and established systems.  To be able to attack a new project or change a routine, I really have to do a lot of mental preparation and research.  Eventually I can talk myself into enjoying that new thing, whatever it may be, but it takes a while.  I’m much more comfortable behind the scenes; when I’m on stage or even networking at an event, I really have to assume a different persona.  It’s in many ways like play-acting the role of someone who thrives on an audience’s energy or a stranger’s conversation.

Kelsey Harris: I do enjoy pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone. I like the challenge, and the reward for succeeding in trying something new is always great. For example, in grad school I had to do a scene from Poppea with a scene partner that was not the most desirable. We had to be very physical in this scene, which wasn’t easy for me. My director had to have a talk with me and said to “peel back the layers of the onion” in really going into detail why my character was doing the things she was doing, and more importantly, to just “play” like children do. I do have to talk myself into doing things I’m not comfortable doing, but will always try it and do my best!

Tell me about a moment in your music performance life where you felt like a fish out of water?  Did you learn anything from that experience? i.e. were you surprised by a previously unknown boundary, had you feared it, and then found it to be not so bad…?

Brian von Rueden: When I was auditioning for the Sinfoniechor at the Semperoper Dresden, I was asked to bring two contrasting pieces.  I had recently worked up a set of Tchaikovsky songs for a recital, so I wanted to do one of those.  Not a lot of singers I knew were singing in Russian at that point, so I was proud of the work I had done, learning the IPA, coaching with a Russian speaker, and so forth.  It didn’t dawn on me until after I finished singing that these folks had grown up behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, and had been forced at some level to learn Russian.  So, essentially, here I was: a youthful, blissfully ignorant American, singing in a language the adjudicators almost certainly knew better than I did – and it was a language associated with a lot of (at the very least) complex associations and emotions.  It was perhaps the first time I considered the cultural context of the music I performed: how people’s background may color the experience of the music (positively or negatively).  It had less to do with personal boundaries, per se, and more with the ongoing experience of being a foreigner and learning the ropes…but it turned out to be a valuable lesson that shaped me as a person.

Meghan Guse: I was asked to sing some seventies pop tunes at a vow renewal in college. Nothing like trying to bring out your inner Dan Fogelberg after months and months of only classical singing! It wasn’t as bad as I expected, but I should have worked harder on not sounded so “classical.” Vibrato is not always appropriate! Live and learn!

Ashlee Hardgrave:  I once performed in an opera where I had to belly dance. I learned, rather quickly, how to eat only apples and work out a LOT. I did end up pushing my own comfort zone musically as well, and it was a fantastic production. I was more than happy, however, to return to Mozart and carbohydrates afterwards 🙂

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