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The liberal arts factor

Some stereotypes are true. Most journalists, for example, possess thick skins, feel less empathy than the average person, don’t beat around the bush and enjoy the challenge of digging for well-hidden information.

Journalists are also notorious workaholics: their jobs follow them home, on vacation, to the gym, wherever they go. Reporters will pick up their phones in the middle of the night, on their wedding days and at funerals if the newsroom calls. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my peers and coworkers drop everything for a scoop. They’ve bailed on dates, classes, exams and parties to meet deadline or go the extra mile on a story. And although I believe hard work pays off–anyone who knows me can attest to that– I haven’t always supported their decision to skip out on everything else.

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I’m proud of my PBK key!

It’s true that getting good at one’s chosen profession requires focus, especially in journalism. But must focus translate to tunnel vision?

I remember some fellow students who pulled 50, 60, 70 hour weeks at the student newspaper. The work they did was incredible and invaluable. But their choice to work overtime for no extra pay was also a choice to skip classes, skim important reading and earn a degree with barely passing grades and nothing but minimum graduation requirements. Many of them told me they believed years of hands-on work experience was the most important (or the only) thing future employers wanted to see on resumes.

Like them, I made time for real-world experience. I had five summer internships, three of which were unpaid. I spent most of my college years working full time at the student newspaper, though my stipend covered less than half my rent. I always answered calls from my sources, even when they came at inappropriate times while I was in inopportune locations. I arrived at work too early and stayed too late. I put my life in danger to drive to work during a snowstorm. I left my own birthday party to investigate a mysterious death. (I don’t regret these decisions, but I don’t think I would make the same ones if I were to repeat my four years of school.)

I made all these sacrifices, but most of the time, I maintained much-needed separations between work, play and academics. While I took tens of electives outside my journalism classes, learned another language, contemplated a second minor and had the time of my life writing a thesis, my student newspaper colleagues were crashing on the newsroom couch and plotting how they might avoid their foreign language requirements. When we were all off the clock, my coworkers went home, reviewed notes on their steno pads and listened to the police scanner over a beer; I went to choir rehearsal, attended a play or read a novel. When I shared my hobbies and weekend plans with them, they stared with blank faces and went right back to their work.

I was, and still am, shocked at journalists’ blasé attitude toward non-news pursuits I consider important: a liberal arts education, cultural enrichment, a variety of personal relationships. I was relieved to leave the world of newspaper journalism and find a new company full of people with quirky hobbies, unique passions and different perspectives. These days, I have coworkers who appreciate my ongoing efforts to learn more and stay well rounded.

But these days, a well-rounded resume seems to be undervalued–and I think that’s a mistake on the part of employers. When I consider the leg up I had in stories that required a fundamental knowledge of history, literature or science, I wonder whether my laser-focused journalism colleagues were able to cover the story as thoroughly without a liberal arts education. I think about the friendships and relationships I maintain and wonder, when I’m having fun at a festival or a picnic, whether my old coworkers are still slaving away in the newsroom. When I absorb myself in choir rehearsal and forget about bills, task lists and arguments, I can’t believe underpaid cub reporters my age can cope without a hobby that provides an emotional escape from the stresses of adult life.

Perhaps the decision to broaden my knowledge base communicated a lack of pure journalistic commitment to some of the newspaper editors who saw my resume. But if a love for many things at once is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

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Musings on music and criticism

“After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that had been hidden from one’s tears. I can fancy a man who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations.”

I love this quote from Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic As Artist,” which I confess I’ve never read in full. It captures so perfectly why I have always loved making music. I don’t live life on the edge, but for a few brief hours every week, I feel as if I’ve lived out the melodramas that unfold on my sheet music.

Alex Ross, the music critic at The New Yorker and the author of “The Rest is Noise,” posted this quote on his blog and expressed his surprise that Wilde never actually played Chopin–or any piece of music, for that matter. I, too, think it’s truly amazing that Wilde was able to articulate music-making’s emotional effects so well despite never actually making music himself.

Little does Ross know, his loyal readers respect him so much because he regularly does the same thing Wilde has done in this passage. While most can’t find the words to describe an impressive or emotionally moving piece of music after they’ve heard it, Ross seems to conjure up the perfect phrases effortlessly.

Not only that, but Ross seems to find emotions others don’t immediately understand in lots of contemporary music. Despite the fact that audiences find modern classical music increasingly unrelatable, Ross and other critics of his caliber can still appreciate ground-breaking musical compositions years before the rest of us “get it.”

Like a lot of  my fellow vocal musicians, I don’t often find myself emotionally moved by pieces I haven’t sung or played myself, especially if the pieces are contemporary and lack traditional Western aesthetic appeal. Part of the fondness I develop toward particular pieces of music is borne from the sometimes emotionally draining process of learning and finessing the notes. Without the hard work and resulting appreciation for a piece of music’s complexity, I might easily disregard it. Among the several pieces I probably wouldn’t have warmed to if I’d just listened to them are the “Christe Eleison” soprano duet from Bach’s B Minor Mass, Veljo Tormis’ “Autumn Landscapes” set and a slew of Imant Raminsh pieces.

In the same vein, I can develop a fondness for pieces I learn about, while pieces for which I have no basis of knowledge don’t resonate with me. I often warm to music that has a compelling history behind it, and I can more easily appreciate a piece I’ve analyzed in a theory class. I now love several Bach, Handel and Beethoven pieces I once considered boring or stodgy thanks to a series of college music classes.

But unlike Ross, I don’t seem to pick up on or appreciate genius contemporary work immediately. Even after years of listening to it, Arnold Schoenberg’s work doesn’t leave an impression on me as it does on Ross.

Someday, I’d like to reach out to Ross and learn how he develops appreciation for a wide spectrum of composers from all over the world without performing the music and often before analyzing it. Is it a matter of tuning out the rest of the world and focusing solely on the sounds you’re hearing? Or is it more about setting aside all preconceptions and forgetting one’s “personal taste” to treat each piece as a separate entity unrelated to everything else?

Maybe if I keep Schoenberg in heavy rotation on my iPod, the answers will come to me.

Concert Days

It’s nice to have an outside-of-school choir life again. It means more weekend concerts.

In school, when our end-of-term concerts were on Thursday nights just hours after classes ended, everyone seemed so anxious to get home after the gig to study for finals that there was minimal fun to be had. I missed the days when I could spend my pre-concert Saturdays studying my music, carefully pinning up my hair and nervously warming up while adjusting music folders and dress hems. I missed my in-car warmups on the way to the church/concert hall, bonding with other choir members as we were waiting for the gig to start, and losing track of time in post-concert conversations.

Now I get all of that again.

This afternoon, Seattle Pro Musica is singing a mass at St. James Cathedral on First Hill. My fellow members make excellent company, the cathedral itself is breathtaking, and the music we’re performing couldn’t be better. And soon, concert season will really begin and we’ll be singing holiday repertoire all over the Sound. Yet another reason to love the holidays.

I was reminded of how much I love holiday concerts when I stumbled across a blog post from four Decembers ago. I volunteered to usher at a Cantiamo! Cabrillo concert, mostly to see the group perform for free, and saw old friends who reminded me why I went all the way to Eastern Europe to sing with them:

It had been more than a year since I’d seen Cheryl Anderson or really anyone Cabrillo-Chorus-related, but when I walked into Holy Cross Church at 7:45 last night, I felt like I’d never left. There again were those sparkling blue empire-waist dresses I could never decide whether I liked or loathed; there were those faces I had known so well before, unchanged. I could name every single one of them: Nell, Art, Jenny, Liz (“Hey GLEN!!”, I thought), Colin, Kent, Kathy, Lucy, Sandy,…Trevor?! There was Vlada at the piano, and although I couldn’t see him, I knew John was somewhere above me in the balcony, clad in dark clothing and big headphones. And at the center of the madness, there on the podium, radiant as ever, was the blonde beacon herself.

Nothing changes around here and I love it.

Cabrillo Youth Chorus, circa 2003

Something’s in the water

I’ve now been through two weeks of Seattle Pro Musica rehearsals, and never have I felt so quickly assimilated into a choral group before. It reminds me of other, very different first rehearsal experiences I’ve had since I started singing in choirs at 14.

I remember walking into Cabrillo Youth Chorus auditions as a middle school student absolutely petrified. I’d been dragged there against my will, and as a result only halfheartedly sang “America the Beautiful” for the director, Cheryl Anderson, and grudingly glanced at some children’s music with other timid youngsters. Several years later, the days CYC rehearsed became my favorite days of the week.

In high school, the first time I sang with the jazz choir was intimidating: I was a sophomore in a crowd of juniors and seniors, some who would go on to study at prestigious music conservatories. But several trips to jazz festivals later, I felt right at home in the group.

In college, too, I was one of only a handful of freshmen among mostly upperclassmen and music majors when I joined University Singers. In the middle of my late-summer audition, my cell phone rang, leaving me flustered and embarrassed. I was so scared I’d embarrass myself again in the first University Singers rehearsal–Sharon Paul still let me in after that awful blunder!–that I didn’t initiate a conversation with anyone. Luckily, a gregarious bass next to me asked to borrow a pencil, sparking a long conversation about British comedy shows. He and many other fellow Singers became my closest friends in college.

Seattle Pro Musica’s members are so genuinely and unfailingly nice that I felt right at home uncommonly quickly considering my shy personality. Just like at The Seattle Times, the veterans have approached me and introduced themselves sooner than I’ve found the courage to approach them–and they seem genuinely interested in learning more about me.

There must be something good in this Puget Sound water.