As part of our Mexican cultural exchange project, founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller is traveling to Mexico to conduct musical research, visit archives, and meet and confer with choral directors and composers. Enjoy his travelogue!
Sunday, May 25, 2014 – Day 9
The day began with a phone call to my wife Sandy, breakfast, and about an hour of hanging out with the little videos that I ended up having handy, since I had taken them during Thursday’s concert of children’s and youth choirs. What a stroke of good fortune. I don’t know what possessed me at the time to make videos instead of taking pictures, but it was so great – because it quickly became clear that the best way to structure the masterclass was to use the videos as the basis for feedback about each choir.
Lupita picked me up at 8:30, and we drove to the school to start getting set up. I helped her with moving a few things around, and then we hung out in her office while she talked about her work in the school. Not easy. The politics are tricky, and the lives of so many of the kids whom she serves are in turmoil. In fact, after the masterclass, she told me that the soprano in her choir who was trending sharp in her pitch is incredibly anxious all the time, due to the violence in her home. The only place this girl feels safe and lets her guard down is in choir. (I was moved to tears by a recent NPR article, which I heard after returning home, about a Latina gang member in L.A., who told the conductor of a Latina-based orchestra that hearing her conduct the Brahms 4th Symphony was the first time in her life that she actually felt some emotion. It seems that the two girls live in similar worlds.) So Lupita was explaining that the tension that lives in this girl’s body all the time was coming out in her singing, which pulled her pitch chronically sharp. Hopefully she can both learn to relax and be in tune, for the other soprano is beautifully right in the center of the pitch, a real gem of a singer.
The conductors started to mozy in, and around 9:30 we got started. Gaby went first, and I talked with her and then each director about what s/he did well and where improvement could be made. Some of them needed a little rhythmic crispness, or some help with tuning, a clearer or more compelling start to a phrase, or – in my view, which I was careful to qualify as personal opinion – a little more relaxed stage deportment like a smile from time to time. It was really fun and rewarding, and several hours whizzed by. I did almost the whole thing in Spanish…. Quite a confidence-builder. One of the funniest moments came when they all asked for my impressions of one of other festival choirs, whose director was not there that morning. I said, “Well, he’s not here, so I guess we can talk about him, yes?” We all cracked up. Then I made the analogy to the saying, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” meaning that if this gentleman wasn’t there, it was open season in a sense for us to mention things his choir could do a little better. We can all get better, right? The spirit was very good and playful even as we worked hard.
Afterward, José gave me scores from the padre (now deceased) at the parish where he works – wonderful 3-part works for women’s and men’s choirs, available nowhere but in Guadalajara! Now CAC has access to them…. what a blessing. And Gaby had brought 7 of her girls who wanted some coaching, which I gave them: they sang “Seasons of Love” from Rent. This was so cute. The first line of the lyric is “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes….” We spent most of the time working on American-English diction, since some of the vowels and consonants do not exist in Spanish, and I told them if they wanted to sound like they “had game,” they needed some American-sounding syllables. So I drilled them over and over again on the new sounds (a short “I” vowel as in “min-utes,” the “th” of “thousand,” and the Z sound of the S in “thousand”). Here they are singing the “EE” vowel of “mee-nuts”, which took a lot of work to make an American “ih” vowel!
“Think ‘Mic-key Mouse,’” I told them. That seemed to help. We had a great time. All of them wanted hugs afterward. So charming.
After the masterclass, Lupita drove me back to the hotel. On the way, we talked about the fact that we have both done many things in our lives, and I mentioned that I work in software sales when I’m not working as a musician, and that I have a doctorate in musicology. She mentioned that she is a medical doctor! Amazing. She just can’t get music out of her veins, so she does all the stuff that she does. We are both so fortunate to have incredibly supportive spouses. Now I just have to get Sandy and Ramón to meet – that would be fun.
Sunday afternoon was a little precious down-time. I did some shopping for friends and colleagues back home. The highlight was the hour I spent at the booth of an amazing Chilean jewelry maker, who is also a painter. He had a whole booth of semi-precious stones at the market near the Joyeria (the indoor jeweler’s mall, which is closed on Sundays). I hung around for a while as he talked to other people. Then I noticed that he had a lot of round turquoise stones. He showed me two of the same size and said, “Can you tell which is fake and which is natural?” He explained the difference. I had been on the lookout for something special for Sandy, and this guy and I struck a deal: he would make a necklace for Sandy out of stones that we selected together. I asked him for a price. Since it was outside, the custom is that you can haggle a bit. I offered a lower price, and he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Okay, as long as you throw in a Intenso coffee from the 7-11 over there!” I had to go back and ask him what that was (a double-strength brewed coffee…. We don’t have that here). Very funny. The guy is a wizard: here he is at work.
The other task was to buy a little rolling suitcase to hold all the CDs and scores. I tried to haggle for that, but the woman wouldn’t budge; same for an Indiana Jones-style hat from Chiapas that another woman was selling near my hotel. But I bought them anyway.
The next day was a long and tiring travel day back to Chicago
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I am back in Chicago as I finish writing this up.
México, te amo: I love you. I had been to Mexico three times before, but never like this. What an amazing journey of heart and soul, music and friendship, history and the very rich present day of culture. This trip far exceeded my expectations. As I told the taxi driver on my way to the Guadalajara airport: “I am rich in music, and my heart is full.” That is a blessing that I will treasure forever. The cup of creativity is full and runneth over. Heart-full thanks to everyone who helped to make this happen.