Editors Note: One of my great friends and colleagues Kristofer Johnson (conductor for the Concord Chorale in New Hampshire) turned me on to this video a few months back. We immediately contacted Rebecca to see if she would do an interview, since the video was so moving. The interview questions and answers definitely work better if you have seen the video, so we are also embedding it for you here. Enjoy!
MG: Since ‘Sparks’ focuses on Art Song, is there something that you would/could say about how this type of music engages other people in promoting health or healing? Is it different than, say, instrumental music or other genres altogether?
RR: There’s something magical about the way that song makes words stay with us and helps them come back to us when we’ve lost them. Song is so primal and necessary – we even learn our ABCs with a tune that Mozart composed variations to. The title patient in The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat was a singing teacher who lost important mental facilities and still remembered all the words to Dichterliebe. I heard Gerald Finley sing the Schumann Heine Liederkreis this month and had some sense of what that must feel like. I’ve known those songs now for ten years. There they were, sounding exactly like they did when I was in undergrad, but bringing up such different emotions in me. And the kicker is that the last song deals with the loss and rediscovery of songs. It’s all so meta. Schumann really knew what he was doing.
The art song repertoire is our record of how other human beings felt and experienced emotion over a five-hundred year time span. Every gradation of human experience is in that pile somewhere, laid out, raw and open where you can really get a good look at it. That vulnerability always works in a healing situation. Some of the most appreciative audience members at Sing for Hope performances are always the doctors and nurses. Our hospital culture is phenomenal in its specialized ability to heal more types of illnesses than ever before, but that change has made the culture of hospitals, hospices and schools lower on empathy. Song just cuts through all of that in such a special way.
MG: You speak about how public performance is a place of safety. Besides going to concerts to find that feeling of security, how would you like to see audience members using the information you are providing to create that feeling around them in other areas of their lives?
RR: If I had a magic wand, I’d love audiences and people in general to make music with their families and friends. I feel lucky to have had experiences like that growing up. It feels grounding and bonds everyone. I’m a huge fan of the whole process and I miss that kind of casual singing when I’m on the road. I’d love for us to start to talk about culture the way we’ve begun to talk about food: we know how to love the gourmet stuff, but it’s also become so cool to have a back-yard vegetable garden and do it for yourself. Those enthusiasms feed off of each other. We could do the same thing for our relationship to music and culture, in public and in private.
MG: Now that this video has been around on the internet for a while, can you speak about how your personal feelings and thoughts on your video and past speeches might have grown or changed?
RR: Well, I had lived a double life with respect to some of the family issues that I talk about. I consciously made the video for my non-musician friends, but the response from colleagues was overwhelming. I adore our professional culture as singers – I really do. It keeps me on my toes in the greatest way. In writing about a tragedy that happened alongside my life as a musician, I wasn’t looking for some Cinderella back-story to frame my career – I’ve been phenomenally lucky in just about every way. It just happened that, when I was given a chance to think about the most vivid experience I’d ever had surrounding live music, it involved my mom’s stroke. I learned that colleagues and friends had had similar experiences and never talked about them. I had some feelings and thoughts that were stabs in the dark and now I feel more sure of them.
We live in a fragmented world. There are five hundred cable TV channels and we can all watch whatever we want. During college, I went back and forth between the undergraduate life where everyone I talked to was 18-22 years old and the retirement centers where my mom, at 57, was by far the youngest person. Most were over 80. I loved the Marlboro Festival for many reasons, not least of which was that there were older people and children around each other all the time. I always feel so happy in an environment like that and one of the great things about public performance is that it brings you into situations with people of all ages. In another of the talks at TEDxYale, the architect Enrique Norten spoke about the importance of physical public space in a world where there are so many virtual ways to express ourselves. Live music has always helped to unite society. It’s not just a luxury good. The first performance of Handel’s Messiah was a benefit for a children’s home. The place for live culture in our lives is smack in the middle.
We’re all so spread out in the United States and live culture is at such a premium. I aimed the talk toward the kind of people I knew in high school in Los Alamos, the kind of people who started TED: people who look toward the future through the prism of technology, often living thousands of miles from where their parents grew up. There are a lot of people in Silicon Valley exactly like this and I have a strong feeling and some experience to support the fact that the experience of classical music and opera is a fantastic fit for these people. They’re hungry for culture and for authentic experiences, but they don’t respond to the ways that we are promoting classical music. We have a chance to talk to them in a different way that speaks less to financial status and more to the matter of what the experience of music is: a moment where a group of people are choosing, together, to focus together on a moment of live beauty. It just doesn’t get much better than that.
MG: In the speech that you gave at the Cleveland Clinic, you said: “I had not yet read any of the prominent neurologists who write about the infinite concrete benefits of music on the brain, especially the stroke- recovering brain. I only knew that music helped me remember the words to poetry and more importantly, that it helped me feel like myself.” Can you expand on what your reading has suggested about neurology and the benefits of music on the brain and our overall health, and on other ways that Music Therapy is applied in real life situations, like it was with your Mother?
RR: The two books that I would love everyone to read are The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Saks and Exuberance by Kay Redfield Jamison They’re scientific on the surface, but they’re really about the human spirit and the amazing ways that it holds a through-line through storms in the brain. I badly needed that through-line as my mom recovered. I needed to know that she was still in there. It turned out that music is one of the main things the brain uses to hold itself together and bind us to each other.
I wasn’t even the only talk at the conference on music and the brain. We’re in a fun time for this subject in the medical field and wouldn’t it be sweet if it spread to broader culture?
MG: The gradual re-branding of classical music has had a significant impact on the lives of performers. You wrote, “genre is softening even among young elite classical musicians and […] that’s kind of cool.” Can you expand on this? What could the impact be for performers and audiences, and what are the potential risk?
RR: Well, with iPods, we – both performers and audiences – are all living in such a yummy stew of music and I love that. I love that half of the female singers (and some of the male ones) that you talk to get pumped up before opera performances by rocking out to dance music on their iPods in their dressing rooms. I thought this was only me when I was in school, but the more I got into the profession, the more people admitted that they do that. It gives me access to all kinds of great juicy feelings that I love to go to when I’ve been worrying about some important point of diction or intonation.
I had a coaching with Malcolm Martineau the other day at the Steans Institute at Ravinia on Frauenliebe und Leben. We were working on “Er der herrlichste von allen”, in the part where she says that she’ll bless a thousand times the woman that her crush chooses. We decided the feeling was akin to the way a 13-year-old girl would adore Selena Gomez because she’s dating Justin Bieber. Hearing the Malcolm Martineau extrapolate on a Selena Gomez reference made my summer. And it felt right. It gave the piece the immediacy that it needs. These kinds of examples are all over my performing life. During a rehearsal of a gorgeous, intense Lili Boulanger piece last month, Geoff McDonald (Assistant Conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra who himself has a band in Brooklyn) and I were shooting heavy metal hand signals to each other across the theater at the dramatic bits... like you do... My friend Ambur Braid at Canadian Opera Company has performed with Austra, an electronic band. Kanyé West sampled the voices of two former opera students from Manhattan School on the Watch the Throne album. (I’m so jealous, I could scream!) One of my closest singer friends is a huge Poison fan. I love that we’re all now maybe a little more frank about how complex our lives and influences are. Honesty on that front makes me feel more connected to the music I perform.
The greatest potential risk for me is that in pulling from all of these influences, I dilute my sense of style. Unamplified vocal music in particular sounds best when I honor the style that the composer wrote it in: paying attention to the language so that it sounds totally idiomatic, giving the vocal line the best spin and beauty that bel canto technique has to offer, remembering that it was written for people who’d never seen a microphone. I’m convinced, though, that they felt the same emotions.