This time of the year always inspires me to do a lot of self-reflection. What have I done with the past 354 days, soon to be 365 days, of the year? Where did I travel? What did I learn? 2017 has often been troubling and I have found myself, on multiple occasions, feeling stuck and confused. But, I have also found myself in moments of total bliss, experiencing profound clarity, and surrounded by loved ones. I am definitely one of the lucky ones.
I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone who has had a hand in helping me make my dreams come true this year. Continuously stepping out of your comfort zone to make more art, try new programs, and create new musical experiences for others can be terrifying as often as it is wonderful. Years ago, I remarked to a friend, “making a career in new music is like trying to untangle a delicate necklace with thousands of tiny knots. People will give up for all sorts of valid reasons and forget the whole ordeal. I’m the kind of person, however, who finds joy in sitting down and figuring out how to untie each one.”
Here are some of the knots that I devoted myself to this year:
I started a podcast! I thought that Studio Class would only be a limited-run promotional podcast for 29 Days to Diva but I realized how much I enjoyed making it and continued. We’re only 17 episodes in so far. I had to take a break when my fall semester exploded in craziness, but I’ve sketched out the next two seasons of episodes. So, I hope you’ll take a moment to listen and subscribe. Also, if you’ve been a fan so far, I hope you’ll consider leaving a review!
Are you just beginning your singing career? In the midst of building your successful empire? Or, anywhere in between? Join me, in this second season of Studio Class, as we talk about the ins and outs of both a traditional and non-traditional singing path. It’s not always easy and if your experience is anything like mine, we barely scratched the surface of this in studio class. However, I’m here to give you the micro-actions that over time will transform your relationship to your career.
I continued reviewing for The Des Moines Register with Mamma Mia. “Sometimes you go to a show like ‘Mamma Mia,'” I wrote, “to simply escape your current day-to-day drama, sometimes to fill up your ears with nostalgia, or revel in the sharp movements of the chorus dancers. Sometimes, you go to hear the woman, seated next to you in the audience, desperately singing along to ‘The Winner Takes It All’ under her breath. That is when you get it.” This was a very memorable moment for me during this last year. I love reviewing and picking up on those little audience details. It gives me a fuller perspective on performance.
February is the month that is all about 29 Days to Diva!! I chose to structure the 2017 edition of #29DTD around the tale of the heroine’s journey.
But, our diva devised a plan. She created a series of micro-actions that she could complete everyday. This scheme would help her know, deep within, that she was moving one step closer to the goals she wished for most in life. They had to be something that she could do in one day. They had to be something she could fit into her deceptively busy life. Could she complete it over lunch? Could she take care of one while riding the bus? Could she find a few moments before bed or during commercials to create one more link or one more stitch in the sail that would help her get from here to there? Then, it was in. These tasks became a list and that list became the plan. She would see her dreams come true and she wasn’t afraid of the long route.
The 2018 version is my sixth season of writing the series. It will focus on the transition from grad school/post-grad singer to entering fully professional or even “mid-career.” I had a friend explain to me that school felt “like navigating a river – sometimes the mouth of the Mississippi and sometimes the delta; but, after school it felt like you were spit out into the ocean and just told to paddle with your little oar until you couldn’t keep going.” I can’t say that I haven’t also felt that way at times. So, this season is about leveling-up when you’re in the ocean part. Mark your calendars: February 2018!
Marched kicked-off what felt like a performance/traveling sprint. I began the month with Seen/Heard Trio, with flutist Erika Boysen and harpist Jennifer R. Ellis, at UNCG, did a mini-tour with Alan Theisen for “This World of Yes”, and even sang some Schubert with the Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus.
Seen/Heard Trio gave a workshop premiere of Anthony Donofrio‘s Canto IV in addition to playing Schwantner’s Wild Angels of Open Hills. While at UNCG, I presented my “Make It Rain” music business workshop. In this session we break down the process for building and growing your work through logical easy-to-follow steps even while living a busy musician’s life. We also discuss how to stand out from the crowd and dramatically increase your odds of getting booked regularly. If you’re interested in having me present this workshop at your institution, please drop me a line.
One of the biggest projects I’ve committed to this year is the “This World of Yes” program that I perform with my duo partner, Alan Theisen. Dr. Theisen is a composer, saxophonist, and theorist who teaches at Mars Hill University in North Carolina. At New Music Gathering 2016 in Baltimore, MD, we discussed how much fun it would be to put together a program of new music for voice and saxophone. Lo and behold, we kicked-off this project in March 2017 with a mini-tour in Des Moines and Lamoni, IA and two performances in Kansas City, MO. The project has grown considerably since then – more on that in a moment.
I travelled to Ann Arbor in April 2017 to perform a duo recital for ÆPEX Contemporary Performance with one of my favorite musicians and friends, violist, Michael Hall. We premiered the second song cycle (Folio 2) that composer-extraordinaire Garrett Schumann has written for us as well as a number of compositions from Jessica Meyer, Tony Manfredonia, Jessica Rudman, Mara Gibson, and more. In fact, this was also the premiere performance of Tony’s piece Prairie Dawn, on the poetry of Willa Cather, written for me. Here’s a recording that I particularly love from an outdoor performance in June of 2017. I’m also excited that Michael and I are going to have a chance to perform an updated version of this program in May 2018 in Des Moines, IA.
Without a doubt, I will remember 2017 as the year that I began the “Sleep Songs: Wordless Lullabies for the Sleepless” commissioning and recording project. At the start of the year, I had no idea that this was going to even be a project in my life. At the end of the year, it is one of my main motivating career goals for 2018. My unending thanks to Shaya Bendix Lyon who inspired the project and included me in a feature she wrote for Chamber Music Magazine that month (Out of the Ether: Generating collaborations in the digital space.)
I ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund the commissioning of 27 composers that was over 100% funded in less than a week. This still blows my mind.
I would not have been able to achieve that goal without Rachael Forsyth, Julia Seeholzer, Clive Whitburn, Tony Manfredonia, Ryan Keebaugh, Daniel Felsenfeld, David Howell, Andrew Rodriguez, Cassandra Venaglia, Michelle McQuade Dewhirst, Chris Hutchings, Jen Wang, Thomas Dempster, Christian Gentry, Arthur Breur, Reilly Spitzfaden, Lee Hartman, David Solomons, Michael Oberhauser, D. Edward Davis, Jay Derderian, Kathryn Rose, Scott Blasco, Scott Unrein, Griffin Candey, Ian Power and 154 backers. Composers, thank you for devoting your time and energy to this project. I am so over the moon to sing your works. Thank you to everyone who pledged and gave to the project. I am slowly but surely making my way through all the rewards! I promise I have not forgotten about you!
Lullaby News: I will be officially premiering a selection of the lullabies at Oh My Ears Festival in January 2018. I also recently signed a letter of agreement with PARMA Recordings to release the entire album of lullabies. Would you like to help me set up a performance of the lullabies near you? Let’s get it on the calendar!
The lullaby project has been on my mind every month since April. In May, I got to talk about it with Meg Wilhoite on her podcast Sound Meets Sound. We chat about music and economics, the life of a singer, and the lullabies of course.
One of my favorite experiences throughout the year is New Music Gathering. This year found us traveling to Bowling Green, OH to listen to incredible performances, share knowledge and compassion with each other, and dream up what could be for the future. Chiefly responsible for motivating the ever-living whatnot out of me was Steven Schick. If you haven’t yet, or you just need a reminder, please watch his keynote speech:
Duo Rossignol, Hillary LaBonte, Soprano and Mary Matthews, Flute, performing Kate Soper’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say was also one of my top witnessed performances of 2017. This is such an incredible piece and Hillary and Mary perform it brilliantly.
Creative Placemaking has become one of the topics I am most passionate about. I was lucky enough to present an hour-long workshop on the subject at NMG 2017. Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus described placemaking in a 2010 white paper for the NEA’s Mayors’ Institute on City Design, “In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.” Have you ever wondered how to make your city a “new music city?” For this workshop I focus on three aspects of strategic placemaking: cross-sector partners, a place-based orientation, and a core of arts and cultural activities. I also continue to teach this workshop at schools, community centers, and arts conferences. I’m happy to share some of the materials with you or come teach the workshop at your institution.
New (and some “vintage new music”) music all over the Midwest! It began with the Seen/Heard Trio in residency in Des Moines. We had a performance at Drake University’s Sheslow Auditorium in which we gave a workshop premiere of Colin Holter‘s Seamless.
Then, I travelled to the Devonian Fossil Gorge near Iowa City. Joining absolute new music rockstars like Gregory Oakes, Adam Groh, and Erik Spangler, made me a very happy mezzo. We performed Erik’s site-specific work Devonian Geometry and his Neruda setting for voice and clarinet No te amo como si fueras…
Finally, I joined Martha Morrison Muhleisen in Kansas City, MO for a performance of Gÿorgy Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments as part of the UMKC Summer Composition Workshop.
It was also a pleasure to be a guest on Anthony Lanman’s 1 Track Podcast talking about Mara Gibson’s One Voice as well as Dennis Tobenski’s Music Publishing Podcast talking about commissioning with Alex Shapiro.
Let’s condense these months because they certainly felt that way in my experience! July, August, and September flew by! I had the extreme fortune to return to Avaloch Farm Music Institute in July with the Seen/Heard Trio to work on our new commission from Griffin Candey, Absence Makes, and with Holly Roadfeldt-O’Riordan to work on Kirk O’Riordan‘s Upton Songs.
In August, Dennis Tobenski asked me to be one of the curators for the upcoming NewMusicShelf Anthologies. “In 2018, NewMusicShelf will release four anthologies of new art song by living composers. Each voice-type-specific volume of 20 songs will be curated by professional singers, and will be released in print and digital formats. Songs included in the anthologies will also be performed in a concert of the anthologized works in New York City, and recorded and released in a companion CD.” I am working through my score submissions and we hope to announce the line-up in January 2018.
Right as I was beginning my semester teaching at Graceland University, The School for Music Vocations at Southwestern Community College, and Drake University Community School of Music (DUCSOM), I had the opportunity to interview award-winning Palestinian-American composer Donia Jarrar for I Care If You Listen.
As the years go by, I start to get a sense of these “performing sprints” and October kicked off the Fall 2017 version.
I performed one of my favorite pieces with Kathryn Severing Fox and Cindy Wyland Taylor for the SWCC faculty recital in October. Brahms’ Op. 91 Zwei Gesänge für eine Altstimme mit Bratsche und Klavier – Gestillte Sehnsucht and Geistliches Wiegenlied (Two songs for an alto voice with viola and piano) is close to my heart because I performed it with my viola teacher for my own high school senior recital. These two songs really do make you believe that the viola was Brahms’ favorite string instrument.
Next, Alan Theisen and I premiered the updated version of “This World of Yes” in Ft. Wayne, IN for a series called Italian Friend ArtRuckus. We had such a great time performing and visiting with friends/family that drove from states away to listen to this program.
No Matter How I Go (Epitaph for Carrie Fisher) — Michelle McQuade Dewhirst
“Spring” and “Summer” from Season’s Song — Michael Young *
Silver Songs — Anna Brake *
“Fall” and “Winter” from Season’s Song — Michael Young *
~ Audience Q & A ~
Aria — John Cage
Epilogue — Jessica Rudman
when you touch — Alan Theisen *
From All Of Our Love This Was Lost — Nick Zoulek
* composed for Megan Ihnen and Alan Theisen
After singing in Ft Wayne, I jumped on a plane out to Los Angeles to perform a recital called The Truth in Simple Things. Grammy-nominated pianist Nadia Shpachenko helped me bring new music by George N. Gianopoulos to life. The theme of “Truth in Simple Things” takes its concept from the Dorothy Parker quote, “Wit has truth in it.” Each of the three Gianopoulos cycles share themes such as expressions of contained grief and rich internal worlds juxtaposed with the bustle of life around the individual. Each piece on the program could be seen through different lenses all focused on “creating sanctuary” within oneself. You can read a review of the recital from New Classic LA here.
Sneaking in under the wire before the month was over, I joined Michael Hall at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago to perform Garrett Schumann‘s I pulled a string out of my throat and I want to go home from his cycle Folio I.
Before I took off on tour, I had the chance to interview the inspiring Paul Pinto for I Care If You Listen:
Thomas Paine in Violence is one of those experiences that I tell other people about when they ask, “what was one of the most affecting performances you’ve seen in the last few years?” When I saw Paul Pinto and Alejandro Acierto perform tag-team versions of scenes for Omaha Under the Radar in 2015, my mouth fell agape. Even seeing it in this two-person version, I was overwhelmed with how compelling it would be in its eighty-minute opera version starring legendary vocalist Joan La Barbara as Thomas Paine, and scored for nine singers also playing percussion, violin, cello, harp and piano, various foley objects, and live electronics.
This Tour of Yes…
In November we brought “This World of Yes” to four different states in the Southeast for five performances in six days. It was quite the adventure! In new music, I often only get one or two opportunities to sing a piece before it’s on to the next premiere. So, it’s practically a luxury to get to perform this program as often as we have. My thanks to Marc Ballard, Emmy Neal, Ian Jeffress, Jennifer Bryant Pedersen, Sydney Bryant, and Caleb Herron for making this tour such a great experience. Thanks to Adam Schumaker for writing about our tour on his guest post for The Portfolio Composer.
My thanks also goes out to Mara Gibson who brought me down to chat with her Composition Seminar about “Writing for the 21st Century Voice” at LSU. I’m also very excited that Mara’s album SKY-BORN was released in November on Navona Records. On the last track, you can hear the 2016 recording that Michael Hall and I made of her piece One Voice.
It was a pleasure to sing “O Holy Night” with the orchestra for Graceland University’s annual Christmas at the Shaw concert at the beginning of the month. My colleague, Sara Blessing, and I were true to our Lutheran college choir roots and sang our hearts out on the harmony and descant parts.
Many thanks to Molly Sheridan for asking me to take part in NewMusicBox‘s Creative Productivity Theme Week. I was surprised that what came up when I sat down to write about productivity was actually… burnout. As I read through the activities and goals I took on during 2017, I am energized by many of them. However, there were many things that didn’t warrant a big mention during this year-in-review that sapped my energy and weakened my resolve. I realized through goal-setting how to come back to my big important “why” and to let that guide me throughout the year.
That bring us up to this point. Tomorrow may be the Winter Solstice — what we consider the longest night of the year. But, that doesn’t worry me. “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” I’m looking forward to what comes next. I’m noticing the themes in the work that I’m doing and I’m more able to pursue the opportunities that align with those themes. I’m constantly meeting new people but I am also lucky to keep working with excellent collaborators year after year. New repertoire keeps showing up in my inbox and I find ways to perform both new and beloved favorites.
One of my students rolled her eyes at me this year when I told her that I’m on a mission to change the world through the commissioning, performance, and proliferation of new music. Despite her scoffing, it’s the truth and I’m gonna keep doing it as long as there is air in my lungs.
Here’s to a life-changing 2018…