Posted by Marilyn OkonowOn a beautiful spring Monday morning (finally!), members of the Tremble Clefs arrived for their weekly chorus rehearsal at the United Parish Church in Auburndale. This was no ordinary Monday. Steven Karidoyanes, conductor of Boston's highly regarded Masterworks Chorale, was going to join the group for a master class in singing. We had initially contacted Steven to tell him about our chorus and ask him for a testimonial about the power of singing and, more specifically, singing with others. What we didn't know was that his mother had suffered from Parkinson's, so he was especially interested to learn more about our Parkinson's Family Support program. He offered to help us, and we invited him to join our singers and add value to what we were already doing.
I had already given Steven some background on our chorus before he arrived. Our chorus is comprised of singers of all ages who have Parkinson's and their care partners. Some have no musical training at all; one singer, a gentleman in his 80's, had actually sung for years with the Masterworks Choral long before Steven took the helm. Our participants have a wide variety of musical tastes and have various challenges associated with Parkinson's. Some can sing in harmony, others cannot. Some can read music and others cannot. So Steven and I agreed that we would perform several songs for him that we had been working on that we knew really well. He would then see if he could make suggestions.
What happened in the course of the hour and a half that Steven was with us was extraordinary. First, we showed him our warm ups. In singing, visualization is so important. I had been using certain descriptions to help our singers improve their breathing techniques. Steven provided the image of breathing through a straw and feeling the belly expand. This resonated with the singers, and they found that with his imagery, they could actually take in more air.
The next suggestion Steven made related to how we warm up our voices throughout our vocal range. Many people start warming up in the low part of their voice and then gradually go up to the higher part of their range. Steven showed us how to make a big sigh by starting at the highest part of our voices and very gradually going all the way down to the low part, making the transition between the head voice and chest voice.
Once we were all warmed up, we sang one of our favorite ballads, "We Kiss in a Shadow" by Rodgers and Hammerstein, from The King and I. This melodic song has beautiful, long lines and it gives the singers plenty of time to sing on nice, open vowels. This time Steven's suggestion was for me. He demonstrated how a conductor can elicit a beautiful phrase by creating an arc in the air for the singers to follow. Suddenly the singers could envision the entire phrase and sing the lines musically instead of focusing on each word individually. I could hear the difference immediately, and everyone felt as if they were really making music together.
Our second song was "From Monday On", which is a peppy Dixieland melody that we use as our closing song each Monday. We wrote some new words to the song. Our last line is "We're gonna start shouting Hey,Hey/Even with Parkinson's we're okay/We'll be happy/from Monday on!" Steven helped us with our diction on this one as the words go by fairly quickly at this tempo. He had us visualize an entire theater audience in front of us, and the singers tried to project to words to the people sitting in the back of the house. This imagery made a huge difference.
Our last song was "Holy Ground" written by Craig Taubman. This has become one of our anthems, and our singers always request that we do this one. "All of life is holy ground/Can you feel the holy ground?/Take your shoes off/You're on holy ground." The simplicity of the melody and the poignant lyrics are very touching and spiritual, and Steven was visibly moved by our performance. He showed us how to vary our dynamics (loud and soft) to highlight the different sections of the song and give it greater variety in the phrases.
I think we all floated out of our rehearsal that day, happy to have experienced the incredible talent of one of the preeminent choral conductors in Boston and proud of ourselves for rising to the occasion and to have improved our singing as we made music together. Thank you to Steven for sharing your gifts with us!
We hope that this will be just the beginning of our relationship with Steven and the Masterworks Chorale. Stay tuned for news of an exciting collaboration!
Marilyn Okonow is the volunteer conductor of Tremble Clefs choral group, a program of JF&CS Parkinson's Family Support. Marilyn engages the singers with great sincerity and heartfelt warmth and acceptance. She creates a sense of community and makes each participant feel welcome and appreciated. Marilyn has a masters degree in Music Education from the New England Conservatory.