New England Conservatory’s Song Lab

Soprano Jimin Park and pianist Ga-Young Park in a New England Conservatory Liederabend, 2021

New England Conservatory’s Song Lab prepares the next generation of recitalists. The sophistication and nuance necessary for recital performance are complex and difficult, and Song Lab helps prepare singers for a high-performance level.

 

Cameron Stowe, the chair of collaborative piano at New England Conservatory (NEC), remembers a time when music industry insiders questioned the future of the song recital in America. As attitudes and outlooks have grown more positive, especially in recent years, Stowe and his colleagues are both supporting this shift and promoting excellence in art song through NEC’s Song Lab, established in 2020. Classical Singer spoke to Stowe to learn more about the program and plans for its future. 

 

On the NEC website, Song Lab is described as “a novel approach to vocal studies” that “focuses on the repertoire, interpretation, and performance of art songs.” Can you tell us more about this novel approach?

Sure. What we try to do is combine several aspects of conservatory education into a single course, spread over four semesters. The course includes music history, musical and poetic analysis, language, diction, and many other elements that inform and feed a singer’s performance. 

One of my main worries about some traditional conservatory models is that performance and scholarship are often separated. I feel that all the threads should be connected, and that is Song Lab’s approach. In the Lab, we don’t have only singers and pianists coaching the students—we invite musicologists, theorists, linguists, art scholars, literary scholars, professional translators, composers, and performers of some nonclassical genres to join the conversation and share their perspectives. 

 

Why did you decide to establish Song Lab?

My colleagues and I believe that the study of art song inspires independent and creative thinking, that song stimulates our imaginations and requires so much from us as performers that nothing else does in quite the same way. It also provides opportunities unlike those of opera or oratorio. 

First, when we’re designing a recital program, choosing and thoughtfully grouping songs in various ways, we have a lot of creative freedom, room to explore, and the opportunity to say something important and personal through our programming. Then, when we’re on the stage performing a song, no one is directing or conducting us. No one is helping us tell our story with costumes or lights or scenery, and no one is dictating to us the interpretation. So we have a great deal of creative freedom, a huge amount of responsibility, and a kind of power that can be quite thrilling for those who wish to use their talents in this way. 

I had a conversation a few years ago with a wonderful, well known singer, who said that she had known some voice teachers who viewed art songs simply as learning tools for inexperienced singers. Her opinion was just the opposite: she believed that art song is the most demanding pursuit for singers. For it is only the most consummate artists with the most sophisticated vocal techniques and finely tuned minds who can perform a song recital well. 

Song Lab is designed to help young artists develop and refine these skills. The tools they gain here will prepare them well for whatever paths their music careers take. Song Lab doesn’t replace the study of opera, chamber music, or oratorio at NEC; it exists to enhance a student’s work in those areas.

Soprano Emily Siar and pianist Elias Dagher in a New England Conservatory Liederabend, 2020

So far, you’ve restricted participation in the course to 5 singers and 10 pianists, all of whom are in NEC’s graduate programs. How do you choose the participants?

For now, Song Lab exists for the most advanced graduate students. Both the pianists and singers in this course need to have a lot already under their belts—good technique, comfort with different languages, and the smarts and ambition to do it all. 

We see applicants in auditions and interviews, then narrow down the participants to the people we feel are ready for this challenge. Participation in this course is a huge undertaking, so it is appropriate only for people who want to do close readings of text and music, who are intellectually curious, and who have the gifts to be great performers. That said, eventually we’d like to expand the program over the next few years and offer this type of experience to a wider group of students.

 

How do you determine the curriculum for each semester?

We plan each semester to immerse students in a certain language area. One semester in German, then English, French, and Spanish and/or Russian. 

The German semester, for example, blends German diction and language, and we invite scholars who are experts in German music, literature, and art to serve as guest lecturers. We divide the semester into “chapters.” In our first German semester in 2020, we focused one half of the semester on Schubert and the Biedermeier period, and the other half on the poetry of Heine. 

During the 2021 English language semester, we included a segment on Walt Whitman and the transcendentalists, then a segment on African-American songs and spirituals, and a segment where the singers and pianists were paired with student composers to collaborate and create new songs. 

This past spring semester included a sampling of Spanish and Latin American repertoire, complete with a little exploration of flamenco and popular song.

According to the website, the program also features study of “nonclassical musical styles.” What is the rationale behind this component?

Many recitalists today tend to draw from a broad range of repertoire, including sources beyond the traditional classical canon. Song recitals offer singers the opportunity to express something unique about themselves, to show who they are as artists and say something about the world around them. In doing this, a recitalist might choose to include other genres like jazz, cabaret, folk, or popular song. 

In Song Lab, we encourage such exploration through creative programming and by introducing experts from “neighboring fields.” For example, the wonderful jazz singer Dominique Eade and the fascinating flamenco artist Juanito Pascual presented workshops this spring. Exposure to experts like these broadens students’ horizons. 

 

Would you also talk about the program’s emphasis on marketing? That seems out of the ordinary.

Our aim is to encourage the students to be entrepreneurial, independent, and knowledgeable about the business world around their art. Song Lab participants complete exercises in building recital programs for very specific audience groups. They also organize concerts. Drawing on a small amount of funding from us, they secure a space, hire a piano tuner, print programs, and advertise. (During the pandemic, they created video recitals.) 

The students write their own text, translations, and program notes. Faculty from NEC’s departments of community engagement and marketing teach the students how to engage with various audiences, how to put together a promotional video, and how to market themselves in other ways. We want our students to be as self-sufficient as possible.  

 

What aspects of the program are most challenging for the singer participants?  

Some of them find the public speaking component quite intimidating. We ask them to engage with their audiences by introducing programs and speaking in class about each song they perform. Even for performers who are comfortable in front of large groups, this can prove quite challenging. 

 

What are your goals for the program?

Just to keep it evolving. It has already exceeded my expectations. I have been so inspired on numerous occasions in the past four semesters, sitting in that experimental lab space and listening to young artists engage in incredibly sophisticated and challenging conversations about poetry, music, history, politics, and performance styles. 

With continued support and growth of this project, it is easy for me to imagine NEC becoming an important center for art song performance, composition, and research—not confined to this course—a place where students and professionals in the field come for short visits or long residencies, where songs are studied, composed and performed year round, where scholars work alongside performers and professionals alongside students to create performances, recordings, writings, and new works. In short, I’m envisioning NEC as a hub for the art song community.

Some of my “pie in the sky” ideas are admittedly quite grand, but many of them are already being played out in the Song Lab, and NEC has been so supportive. Andrea Kalyn, NEC’s president, has always encouraged me to explore and experiment, and I’m happy to take that advice and that fuel! Regardless of what form Song Lab takes, it is allowing those of us who love art song passionately to train others who love it like we do and to watch them as they carry the torch forward.

 

A Participant’s Experience

Tenor Anthony León, one of the first participants in Song Lab, describes the course as “enriching and super cool.” He recalls: “It’s packed with information, things to do and learn, and performance opportunities. We were able to dive in deep with some of the best guest lecturers in the world—people like Margo Garrett and Thomas Hampson. Plus, Cameron and his NEC colleagues like Tanya Blaich and J.J. Penna offer so much knowledge and insight.”

León especially appreciated the study of German diction and language, which he says was always hard for him; he’s most comfortable singing in romance languages. Another highlight was the semester that focused on Spanish and Latin American music. “My background is Hispanic, and I’ve long wanted to explore this repertoire,” he explains. “I’m fluent in Spanish, but I still had a lot to learn about diction, Hispanic composers, and the historical context.” He hopes to record some of the repertoire he studied and to perform it in recitals.

The program, León confirms, is intense: “It spanned the breadth of the academic experience in a conservatory. It was a lot to take on, but the rewards have been huge.”

Rachel Antman

Rachel Antman is a communications consultant, writer, and mezzo-soprano based in New York City. For more information, visit http://www.saygency.com.