Getting Into Treble: A Conversation with Alison Wahl

Today’s post is a follow-up to my last post about Spes by Mia Makaroff, a piece that incorporates both bel canto style and a vernacular style, borrowed from joik, a form of song in Sámi music. As someone who is more well-versed in the bel canto style than folk styles, I turned to my colleague, Dr. Alison Wahl, to come and workshop Spes with the Ithaca College Treble Chorale during our class time.

In her workshop, Alison worked on navigating these two voice styles and had valuable insights into the ways in which we view music from the “classical” and “folk” traditions, particularly about the emphasis on performance for others (classical) vs. performing for ourselves (folk) and singing towards a consumable product (classical) vs. singing as a form of community (folk).

At the end of the class time, Alison had the ensemble stand in a circle around the room and encouraged them to sing for each other and for the joy of singing rather than for the end goal of the performance. Although the singing was not perfect, the students felt more connected to the music and to each other than ever before. This mindset is applicable to folk music which we often think of as having a different societal function than Western classical music and can certainly be applied to classical music as well!

The following conversation with Alison was a follow-up to her workshop.

Dr. Alison Wahl

HC: What are some of the vocal difficulties in navigating a piece with both Western classical and folk music elements?

AW: For me as an American singer trained in the European methods, nasality and front/‘belty’ placement can be uncomfortable to incorporate into my singing if I’m approaching it from my default conservatory perspective. It can also be hard to tell if someone is producing the tone in a healthy way or not. I personally always bring things back to the language and its vernacular idiosyncrasies. If the language lives in a space that is more brash or forward or darker than the Italianate position I’m used to, I need to practice speaking and singing in that placement until it feels just as natural to me.

HC: For those of us who have less experience with teaching folk music, what are some vocal tools we can use to work with our choirs who might have varying levels of experience with folk styles?

AW: Fortunately, I believe every contemporary person has an abundance of experience with folk styles. The music on the radio, the songs our caregivers sing to us, and the music we encounter in our spiritual traditions all leave us with some (usually lots of!) exposure to vernacular music. My pedagogical approach to these musics is not really vocal or technical, but personal and human. A particular folk tradition needs to be very familiar and comfortable to us if we are going to engage with it (just like Italian art song or anything else), and we need to respectfully and holistically understand the tradition in order to sing it. I personally believe that the human vocal instrument is better accessed through its identity as Human rather than as Instrument. If I were working with young people in a folk tradition with which they were unfamiliar, I might start by having them listen to native speakers speak the text (or if I felt confident in my own pronunciation, demonstrate) and try a call-and-response to develop comfort in the language. In my opinion, the singing of any folk tradition is mainly dependent on the cultural and diction idiosyncrasies of the language, so I like to start there. I find that young musicians often just need a little bit of permission to let themselves be themselves in this context.

HC: Could you elaborate on “performance” vs. “singing for ourselves,” which seemed to change a lot of the mentality in TreCho? Why do we put so much stock in singing for performance rather than for the love of singing, and are there other performing traditions in which we can see this trend?

AW: My gosh I have no idea, this is a great question. I do feel that as I get older the things I Sing For Myself are actually the things that are more successful as Performance Practice, but it should always have been that way. It’s everywhere, this lesson is embedded in so many common anxieties and worries. Unfortunately, I believe in this instance it’s a product of the fact that the conservatory model is based on the 19th-c. Aristocratic European concept of the “canon” as a pedagogical foundation, and so each pupil is systemically subjugated to The Music. In life’s practice it’s completely the other way around. Leonard Cohen said, “Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.” I take from his words that art is as meaningful as we want or need it to be, and each person’s experience is more true and important than whatever critics and scholars over time have said about it (because that was just their own perspectives, too). I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t consider history and progress and thing we’ve learned along the way, but when it comes to Art, it’s the capitalist, racist, sexist, patriarchist system that sustains much contemporary music education and makes us feel like our participation in the music is not as important or worthy as the music itself. It is profoundly just the opposite, and I think that is really scary for young musicians who earnestly want to prove themselves and truly love the music they’re learning about. We need to value our own perspectives just as much as the art that we aspire to, and when the system hasn’t encouraged students to deeply and thoughtfully see themselves as worthy participants, that’s very difficult. I firmly believe that we can achieve more soaringly high levels of musicianship and artistic expression if we fully value each of our human selves.

Soprano Alison Wahl has been praised for her “appealing,” “bright, vibrant soprano” (Chicago Tribune). She has appeared as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony, the Boston Pops, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Rochester Philharmonic, the Eastman Summer Chorale, the Kennedy Center Conservatory Project, and the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago. She created the roles of Clori in Haymarket Opera’s Clori, Tirsi, e Fileno and Pernille in VOX3’s Maskarade, and recently appeared as Pamina in Opera for the Young’s The Magic Flute and Elsie Maynard in Yeomen of the Guard with the Summer Savoyards.

Alison was a vocal fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, a young artist at the Steans Music Institute at the Ravinia Festival, and a studio artist with Opera North. She was awarded an Encouragement Award from the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012 National Competition. She holds a doctorate of musical arts and a master’s degree with honors from Northwestern University.

Dr. Hana J. Cai is a conductor, pianist, and singer based in Ithaca, NY. She is currently on
faculty at Ithaca College where she conducts the Ithaca College Chorus and Treble Chorale.

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