Hitting the ground running

Well I’ve been on campus for ten days now and it has felt like a ceaseless, vibrant and dizzying flow of beginnings. No time (or conducive space) for journal writing, calling home, going for a run – or this blog, as it seems, unless I very purposefully carve it out. Here goes!

So MARCS (Master of Arts in Ritual Chant and Song) is a full year course with two taught semesters and then a final project to complete over the Summer next year. This can be a dissertation, half research and half performance, or a full performance. Though it’s very early, I’m leaning towards the half-half option. Even though I’d love to sink my teeth into a longer piece of research, the performance side is definitely going to be the more challenging for me and therefore offer more room to grow and develop. The course itself is considered to be half applied (performance) and half academic based, with the performance side covering Gregorian chant, early music polyphony, Irish vocal traditions including Sean nós, and world sacred music. The academic side will involve aspects of ritual studies, history and notation of chant, and some ethnomusicology. Then we get to choose electives for both semesters which can involve specialised study in whatever area we wish. This is VERY exciting and I already have a hundred things I wish I could do.

Who are we? Well there are five of us in our course: Robin from South Carolina is a choir teacher in a girls’ school with a piano background and she’s taken a year’s leave of absence to be here. Morgan is from Pennsylvania, a church organist and music therapy graduate – and our only guy: a lovely tenor. Femke has lived in Ireland since the age of two (from the Netherlands) and graduated last year from one of the Irish World Academy undergrad programs. She has a little daughter with her fiance who she met doing ethnomusicological fieldwork in Ghana, and is currently our fount of knowledge for how things work in the academy, where things are on campus, and how to do the trilly ornaments in the chants. Meg is from Sydney and has been singing the Latin Mass (ie. the Gregorian chant that we are learning) for three years, and hence asks all sorts of technical and informed questions that make me nervous. She wants to solidify her experience in chant performance in order to bring it back to Australia. We range in age from 24 for 43, and so far are all getting on very well! This is good because though we have some classes which cross-over into other discipline areas, like ethnomusicology for instance, for the main part it’s just us.

We are automatically members of two vocal groups in the Academy: Lucernarium is just the five of us and will focus on early music, different Western chant traditions (think: Gregorian chant) and polyphonic music (my favourite! In harmony). Sonas is a larger group and – wonderfully – is taught completely aurally, so no reading music or burying our heads in the words. It is a world music choir and I think different people can introduce songs as we go along. I’ve also been asked to join a Georgian voice ensemble which is one aspect of the doctoral work of Sydney Freedman who is doing a PhD in arts practice (youpie!!). For those of you who don’t know, I sang for a year with an a cappella group Shalva who sing Eastern European music and I just love it. Georgian music has thrillingly dissonant harmonies.

I’m writing this on Wednesday evening of our first week of classes and we basically have three full days: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday into which fall the majority of our 20-odd contact hours. With extra rehearsals, private lessons, observing other lessons, fitting in our electives and.. errrr… living, I think that will be plenty! It has been a very tiring couple of weeks with so much information to take in, uni administration to take care of, hoards of people – all of them new to me – and all the normal settling in to a new place. Kudos to all international students out there, especially those in a foreign language setting.

My little room in Thomond Village

My little room in Thomond Village

I’m up in my room / study on the third floor of Thomond village (pronounced TOEmond, not theMOND as I had thought) with the light fading outside and a trembling wall of green. When the window’s open I can hear the Blackwater river shooshing and murmuring down there, its last solo melody before joining the Shannon just fifty or so metres further down. I love my room, little sanctuary, and already feeling homey. It’s one of four in an apartment which I share with three Irish lads, Alan, Mikey and Daniel, studying Music Technology (the first two) and a Grad Cert in P.E. Alan and Mikey and I have already had a week or so together and get on like a house on fire. Daniel just moved in last night, and is a sweet fellow, huge, with a tick* Kerry accent that I have trouble making out.

Sorry folks, I’m running out steam, here, so I’m just going to give some broad brush strokes of other aspects of life here and the course. We begin our three big days with either Alexander technique or a yoga / pilates / somatics class, all geared towards body awareness and suppleness, and finding and accessing the natural voice in the most easeful and economical way – some (much) of which involves unlearning a lot of the postural and tension habits reinforced over time. I am so thrilled about this aspect.

I’ve had two solo voice lessons so far, one with Catherine Sargent who is one of our chant specialist tutors and the other with Marie Walsh who is going to be “tormenting us” (her words) with technique. I was SO nervous before the first lesson. All the other four have a stronger musical background than me, and it feels like a huge leap to be singing in this way and to this standard. I haven’t had a singing lesson since 1994 (failed voice lessons at high school with Mrs Saltmarsh) and haven’t had anyone work with me on my voice or technique or anything. So I’m sort of half a little bit freaking out which isn’t helping when I’m trying to sight sing or listen to and repeat a melody. From a slightly bigger perspective, I tell myself that I’m doing just fine, to not expect myself to be someone I’m not, and simply to learn the absolute most I can from this. The steeper the learning curve the better the view from the top, no? With Marie, we are beginning with breathing, and I’m doing daily exercises involving holding breath and shhhhing and sssssing in various positions for different lengths. And from Niall, our Alexander teacher today, I actually felt what it’s like to breathe into my back and not all out the front. Amazing!

Okay! First entry done. Off to bed to read (boring dry) textbook on Gregorian chant and (juicy, inspiring) book called Freeing the Natural Voice.




* I kid you not, it is a very tick accent