My Blog by Stephen Venters

Friday, December 20, 2013

Learning the Songs of Travel

Songs of Travel

For over ten months I have been working on learning the nine pieces of the Songs of Travel which is a classical song cycle written in the early 1900s by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Ten months may seem like a long time for some to learn a mere nine songs, but, remember, when I started the endeavor I had had only been studying singing for eight months, so I was only in the infancy of my learning. It has been an inspiring process however and what I learned during it has far exceeded the mere mechanics of nine classical tunes. In many ways, it was the perfect challenge at the perfect time.

When I moved to New York in late 2011, I knew very little about singing, or music for that matter, and what I did know was merely a random scattering of bits and facts that I had absorbed over the years. Interested in studying opera, I took up private singing lessons with Joseph Charles the next summer, a friend I had met across a poker table earlier that year. When the fall came, I also started taking classes at Juilliard School of Music, which is conveniently only two blocks from my apartment.

Over the next number of months, I worked on a myriad of things from classical opera to Broadway show-tunes to Billy Joel. In the spring of 2013, at the recommendation of my Juilliard instructor, Jane Olain, I began working The Vagabond, the first song of the cycle. It was a fairly easy song that was up beat and exciting. Over the next two months, I learned it and performed it "off book" (by memory) at my class's Spring recital.

Soon after, I learned Whither must I Wander?, the cycle's 6th song, so I could perform it in tribute to Ed Elliott, a former Boy Scout leader from my childhood back in Jefferson City, Missouri. I was going back for my 20 year high school reunion and offered to sing at our old church for his widow. It, too, was a fairly easy song.

After two successful performances, I was driven to learn the entire cycle. Little did I know what that choice meant and the challenges that were to come. I was about to test the limits of my abilities in rhythm, pitch, and musicianship. What I came away with was an immense amount of knowledge about music and composition in addition to the songs themselves; far more than I would have if I had just learned 9 random arias.

In a way, learning the complete Songs of Travel was the perfect lesson plan for me as a beginner male vocal student and here's why:

  1. First and foremost, since the lyrics are in English (actually Welsh, but close enough), I already knew how to pronounce them and give them the proper inflections as they fell within the poem's sentences. Furthermore, it made it much easier to interpret the story of the song and imagine actions to suit. Thus, I could afford more mental attention to the pitches, rhythm, and musical interpenetration.
  2. Musically, the cycle has a few easy songs, a few medium songs, and a couple of very hard songs. Initially, I had learned two of the easier songs. They wooed me into the rest and by the time I realized how challenging the rest of the cycle was it was too late, I was already committed. There are some very difficult rhythms to deal with that took me a great amount of time and practice to get right. Also, I learned how to work together with my accompanist so that if I do get lost, we can get back in sync again. In the end, though, it allowed me to challenge myself as a singer, but not overwhelmingly so.
  3. The entire cycle fits the baritone range perfectly (it was written specifically for it). However, it required me to push my upper range a bit to reach the high notes (several Ds and an E-flat). But, it also had some easy low notes later in the cycle allowing my voice some rest (and showcase a low A-flat).
  4. Most people know that a symphony is one big piece of work with smaller pieces that all work together, however, many don't know what that actually means on a composition level. Certainly, I didn't having grown up in the age when most musicians creating bodies of work (i.e. albums) have foregone that concept. However, learning an entire cycle helped me see how a body of music works together on levels beyond that of its lyrical story. I was able to see how a work comes together from start to end musically including a complete musical summery in the last song.
  5. Something I never realized I'd have to get used to is the skill of "switching between songs." I remember the first time I sung the cycle through, song-by-song, without stopping. Before that, I had just worked on an individual song over and over, but now it was different. It was a shock to go from the happy, upbeat intro song to the next that was much slower. The change in "feeling" was drastic and I had to present that. Basically, this cycle helped me learn to go from song to song and present the various "feelings" quickly. It also helped me understand how a cycle like this is really an entire story and not just a collection of songs.
  6. Part of performing a song is that of understanding and presenting the message the song is telling. The lyrics of the songs were originally poems written by Robert Louis Stevenson. Having to read and understand them was an excellent exercise in poetry interpretation and recital. Vaughan Williams later put the sequence to music meaning I had to match the interpretations of the poetry with the interpretation of the related musical composition. I had never done that before.
  7. The cycle, straight through, takes about 22-25 minutes to perform and comprises of about 35 pages of music. This makes it a reasonable, yet challenging body of music to prepare, memorize, and sing. It's no 5-hour Wagner opera, but its far more impressive then a 8 minute aria.
  8. Finally, being who I am, I was able to relate to many of the aspects of the cycle's story and main character who was a man living a carefree life of travel and love, spending most of his life outdoors. Having traveled alone for extended periods of time myself and having felt the mixture of independence yet loneliness leading to the ultimate struggle with one's life choices, I understood the words on a deeper level. This connection not only drove my desire to master the cycle, but, I believe, allows me to more accurately perform its message.

Given this experience, I'd recommend all beginning baritone or bass-baritone singing students to learn this cycle.


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