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AMN mentors Vocal and Choral Music Workshops

Meet Vocal Mentor Candace Johnson

“Multifaceted” is an understated—and inadequate—word to describe our June 19 online workshop mentor, Candace Johnson. An acclaimed lyric coloratura who has sung the lead roles in “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Suor Angelica,” and other works, she also teaches applied voice and musicology at UC Berkeley; wrote and performed a one-woman show, “VOX in a BOX,” that fuses her classical training with her Black musical heritage; and created “CJ’s FitnesSing!”, which combines vocal exercises with physical training. In our workshop, Candace will share her deep knowledge of Negro spirituals and invite us to sing them together. The timing is auspicious: June is African American Music Appreciation Month, and June 19 is Juneteenth—the holiday that celebrates the June 19, 1865, announcement in Galveston, Texas, of the end of slavery, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. We reached Candace at her Bay Area home to learn more about her many musical interests and projects.

When did you become interested in music? Did your family encourage you?

I grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, the youngest of six children. Everyone in my family sang well—my mother had a sweet, bright voice, and my father had a nice baritone. I began taking piano lessons in third grade, which was late compared to my peers. My friends had this regimen, and I wanted to be part of it! I started playing classically, but my mother felt it was important to also have the experience of learning to play by ear, which is part of the Black musical tradition. My first teacher taught me some common church improvisations—how to look at a piece of music and play block chords with a ragtime bass. That skill has greatly served me as a singer and a teacher. If you understand a piece’s harmonic underpinnings, it enhances your understanding of how the vocal line is married to that harmonic flow.

My second piano teacher had both classical and Black church experience. He taught me to take a Rachmaninoff arpeggio and stick it in a piece of church music. It was phenomenal training, and I stress it to my students now. They need to know that all forms of music are valid—that the things they’ve been hearing all their lives, whether it’s country or gospel or classical Indian music, are just as valid as what the academy calls “legitimate.”

When did singing enter the picture?

I began singing in our church choir when I was about 7, and very quickly started doing solos. I traveled around the state, singing in churches and participating in telethons and singing competitions, including ACT-SO [Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics], a national competition sponsored by the NAACP. Through that experience, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. William Garcia, a former voice teacher at Lane College, a historically Black college in my hometown. He exposed me to bel canto and the Western European tradition, and he’s the reason I was able to be admitted to an excellent collegiate music program. My parents came from blue-collar backgrounds and hadn’t gone to college, nor had many others in my extended family. I had my sights set on Vanderbilt University, but a guidance counselor—an African American woman!—told me I wouldn’t get in. Dr. Garcia prepared me for the audition, and I got in.

What led you to start FitnesSing! in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic?

I’d had the idea for several years: Why not combine my two passions, fitness and singing? I’d taken dance lessons in junior high and high school, and after I graduated from college I became Miss Black Tennessee and did a lot of weight training and conditioning. It fueled something in me, but then I got married, had two children, and gained weight. It was when we moved to New York for a sabbatical and I started taking a class at 24 Hour Fitness in Midtown that I reconnected with movement. When we returned to California I immediately found a gym. It all started to come back!

FitnesSing! became a reality through Stephanie Weisman, the artistic director at The Marsh, which has performance spaces in San Francisco and Berkeley. We’d met in 2019, when I did “VOX in a BOX,” my one-woman show at The Marsh. When the pandemic began, I told her I was frustrated—I had all these ideas but nowhere to put them. Stephanie had just started Marsh Stream, an online platform, and she invited me to bring FitnesSing! there. It’s been wonderful—I have people who’ve been with me since we started. They come for the singing, for tidbits about building a healthy voice, for movement, and for community.

[Start moving with FitnesSing!]

Could you give us a little background about spirituals, to prepare us for the workshop?

From the standpoint of musical structure, the spiritual is a folk music. The melodies are very singable, and the form is strophic: an A part and a B part, very hymnlike in structure. But just because it’s accessible doesn’t mean the spiritual isn’t complex.

The spiritual was born out of enslaved Africans’ experience: acquiring some English language, living under treacherous conditions, using vocal calling as a way of expressing emotions. This is therapy. But spirituals also have a functional value: Look at the coded language in “Wade in the Water” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” The only way we’re going to get to the Underground Railroad is to go in the river so the bloodhounds won’t catch us. To follow the Big Dipper in the sky.

There are healing properties in the melody and in the communal singing—especially for me, as an African American singer and a person who specializes in spirituals, but also for all of us.

Any post-pandemic plans you’d like to share?

This Amateur Music Network workshop is the genesis of something I’d like to roll out this summer and fall. I call it the American Restoration Mass Choir, and it would include singers of all races and backgrounds. My vision is to have local chapters throughout the country. The repertoire would center Negro spirituals, and rehearsals would encourage safe cross-cultural dialogue. Once a year we get together for a concert, and we center the spirituals. We’d be doing racial reparations through music.

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AMN mentors Talking about Music Vocal and Choral Music

A Conversation with Ragnar Bohlin: Part 3

This is the final installment of AMN founder Lolly Lewis’s interview with Singing Saturdays mentor Ragnar Bohlin. Read Part 1; read Part 2.

Our April series focuses on Verdi’s Requiem and some of his choral works. What’s important for singers to know about Verdi?

He didn’t write a lot of choral music, did he? Apart from the opera choruses, we have the Quattro Pezzi Sacri, an Ave Maria for women’s choir, and the Pater Noster for a cappella chorus. That’s another reason to cherish the Requiem, which of course is one of the pinnacles of the high Romantic era, one of the absolute masterpieces, and so focused on the chorus.

In the Requiem Verdi was very democratic, in that sometimes he gives the head role to the chorus—he lets the soloists accompany the chorus. The Requiem has a lot for the chorus to do, with quite a few challenges! It’s almost medieval at the beginning, very chantlike. And then it has the mellifluous lush romantic sound, juxtaposed with fast and virtuosic passages, as in Sanctus. You know, the Requiem has been called Verdi’s greatest opera, and it received some early critiques for that style. But we have to be aware that in Italy in the 19th century there was no distinct barrier between church music and opera. There was a movement started from the mid-19th century, called Cecilianism, that aimed to separate the two and make church music more “churchy.” But obviously Verdi did not pay heed to that.

And we will also be singing some of his opera choruses.

Yes, it will be interesting for us to go full opera chorus with them!

Verdi is such a master of atmosphere and mood, as if he’s developing a character. But the Requiem isn’t character driven.

No, it’s text driven, although it sometimes gets very personal, as with the Lacrimosa.

When we started the Amateur Music Network online choral workshops,  the format was quite different. The first two, in July and September 2020, were single sessions, just under an hour each. Now we have three- or four-session series, and the focus has expanded. 

In the beginning, the focus was more on vocal technique. That was good, but we discovered that people were equally interested in harmonies and theory, and in the poetry of the music. So Singing Saturdays evolved. Now it’s a hybrid of a choral literature class, a harmony class, a vocal coaching class, and a rehearsal. Also, in the beginning we weren’t sure what we were building toward: some sort of outdoor performance together? But that idea drifted away, and the Zoom workshops have become their own goal.

[Read “Virtual Amateur Chorus,” a poem by Alice Elizabeth Rogoff.]

I think it’s healthy for people to get in the habit of making music and listening to music in an active way without it being goal oriented.

It’s that hour together, being in the now. We’re not fighting the clock, not working toward a performance. We can even sing each other’s parts and learn from that experience. Even though we can’t hear each other on Zoom, the connection is very palpable. You feel the presence of everyone there.

Pictured: Ragnar leading a workshop at the San Francisco Symphony’s Community of Music Makers in November 2014.

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AMN mentors Talking about Music Vocal and Choral Music

A Conversation with Ragnar Bohlin: Part 2

In Part 1 of our conversation, Singing Saturdays choral mentor Ragnar Bohlin talked about his development as a singer, pianist, organist, and chorus director. In Part 2, we look at how the pandemic has changed music-making.

It’s now been more than a year since the Covid pandemic upended our lives. For musicians it’s been a pretty devastating year. How have you been managing?

The lockdowns and lack of music-making have of course been devastating. In early March 2020, when the pandemic was announced, I was on tour in Florida with Seraphic Fire. I was supposed to return to San Francisco to conduct the Symphony Chorus in the Bach Magnificat. Instead I went to Sweden, where I’ve been ever since. 

With the lockdowns, have you been stuck in front of a screen?

I’ve been fortunate in that I have a country house, where I’ve been able to do some gardening. I also took up organ-playing again. In the city [Stockholm], I have the keys to a nearby church. I practice almost every day. I picked up all the major organ works I used to play in my 20s–the Bach D-Major Prelude and Fugue, the Widor Toccata, the Franck Chorale no. 3, and so on. I’m very happy that all I had to do was dust it off; it was still there.

What else have you been doing musically?

I’m actually quite busy! Quite early on, I started doing online things. I offered my services to the San Francisco Symphony Chorus to do one-on-one vocal coaching. After a couple months of that, we switched to online open rehearsals, which Amateur Music Network has been hosting. Those open rehearsals turned out to work, and they became the embryonic form of AMN’s Singing Saturdays.

I also work one on one with members of the San Francisco Conservatory Chorus, and I even have some “live” students who come to my home. But I have to say that Amateur Music Network is one of my favorite musical activities! 

So connection is in the air, even if it’s online only.

Next: Part 3 of our conversation with Ragnar Bohlin, on Verdi’s choral music and making Singing Saturdays workshops successful for singers connecting online.

Pictured: Ragnar leading a rehearsal with his professional chamber choir Cappella SF.

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AMN mentors Talking about Music Vocal and Choral Music

A Conversation with Ragnar Bohlin: Part 1

Our Singing Saturdays with San Francisco Symphony Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin have been hugely successful—thank you for joining us! We thought you’d like to know more about Ragnar, so on a recent morning (evening in Stockholm, where Ragnar has lived since the early days of the pandemic), Amateur Music Network founder and director Lolly Lewis chatted with him via Zoom. Their conversation was far-ranging and fascinating. We’re publishing it in three parts, and welcome your further questions in the comments section.

Tell us a little about your early musical life. Did you sing in choirs?

I grew up [in Lund, Sweden] with music all around me. Both of my parents were choir directors. My father was a musicologist who led the Lund Male Choir. My mother was a mathematician who changed careers and started a choral movement in Lund. Her choirs won many international competitions. She had us children sing and pay music all the time. I studied piano from age 5, and cello from age 8. When I was 13, my mother talked me into learning to play the organ. At that point I was more into pop music, but she convinced me that playing the organ would be a good way to earn pocket money.

And was she right?

She was! I started quite early working as a church organist. Meanwhile, I went to a music high school where I tried to do everything—singing, piano, organ, cello. I led my first choir when I was 16.

What kind of pop music did you like? Do you still listen to pop? 

I’m a musical omnivore. I love all styles. I grew up with classical music all around me. When I was tiny, my mother gave me a tape with Mendelssohn, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Verdi.. I listened to it, mesmerized, from age 3 to 7 or 8. Then I discovered the Beatles, then Supertramp, Queen, Rush, jazz-rock, symphonic rock, eventually Kate Bush, Bjork. All the styles inform one another, not directly, but by being different. The specifics of each genre become more clear because you have a contrasting style. 

Let’s go back to your musical education. What happened after high school? 

I got a scholarship to study piano with Peter Feuchtwanger in London. Then I had second thoughts and came back to Stockholm in 1985—I was 20 at the time—to begin an organist course at the Conservatory of Music. I never regretted my decision, because it enabled me to keep having a broad scope that included conducting, singing, counterpoint, harmony, theory. At the time, conducting was one of my least favorite subjects! I loved singing in choirs, but I hated standing up in front of them. 

What changed your mind?

I got a part-time job in a church while I was a student, and I had my own choir there. At the Conservatory I sang under the grand master Eric Ericson, the conductor of the Conservatory chamber choir. Ericson was my main inspiration, and after I completed the church music degree I spent another four years studying conducting, and received a diploma in choir conducting. I sang in the Ericson Chamber Choir, and I’ve now conducted them, and the Swedish Radio Choir, several times. I’ll conduct them again in December, when they sing the Bach Christmas Oratorio with the Nordic Chamber Orchestra. 

When did you know you would make a career of directing choirs?

My interest in choir directing grew out of my piano playing, leading from the piano. Piano was always my main thing, although for a while I became obsessed with the voice and aimed to become an oratorio singer as a side career. I have sung the Evangelist part of the St. Matthew Passion, Bach’s Magnificat, Rossini’s Stabat Mater, and much more. I studied for five years with the famous tenor Nicolai Gedda, and I accompanied a lot of master classes, both as a singer and as a pianist.

And you lead Singing Saturdays from the piano.

It’s something I’ve done for years. There are certain things you can do better when you lead from the piano. You’re in full control of the flow of the music and the rehearsal process.

Next: Part 2 of our conversation with Ragnar Bohlin, on making music during the pandemic.

Pictured: Ragnar leading a rehearsal with his professional chamber choir Cappella SF.

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Community Vocal and Choral Music

“Virtual Amateur Chorus”

The woman with her mouth

shaped in a perfect “O” 

I imagine she sings opera 

or is in a fine classical chorus. 

I see Ellen in her 

Zoom’s square living room, 

the daughter of an old friend’s friend 

from Berkeley. The conductor is in 

his home country of Sweden. 

It is eleven A.M..in San Francisco. 

It is night in Sweden, 

but I can see through his window pine trees 

and it is still light out. 

From eleven to twelve, 

I do not check virus numbers 

or watch the news. 

In our hundreds of soundless little spaces, 

The harmony, unheard, is perfect. 

Reprinted with kind permission from the upcoming anthology Pandemic Puzzle Poems, to be published by Blue Light Press, San Francisco. You can read more poetry by Alice Rogoff, and more poems about music, in Fog and Light, also from Blue Light Press.

Our April “Singing Saturdays” featuring Verdi Requiem starts April 10.