Monday, September 5, 2011

Jessica Pryde: Her Life of Music

Jessica Pryde lives in Washington D.C. and sings with The Washington Chorus. I met Jessica when she worked in SJSU Library as she was completing her Masters’ degree in Library and Information Science. She was also one of my wonderful first interns. I was lucky enough to see her sing with Symphony Silicon Valley Singers, a madrigal chamber group based out of Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale. Jessica is currently a high school librarian in the District of Columbia. 

tp: Please tell us about your early singing experiences.

JP: I honestly have no idea when I started singing. Growing up (even before beginning school), both my grandmother and mother exposed me to numerous movie musicals, so much so that I probably knew the words to "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music before I knew the alphabet. I joined Glee Club the first moment I could (in third grade) and never turned back. I started taking piano around that time as well, and the girls that I went to lessons with taught me all the gospel songs of the time. So here I was, learning classical and gospel piano, and learning gospel songs. I knew a bit about classical singing, due to my grandmother--while my mother was a big Rodgers and Hammerstein girl, my grandmother had me watching Mario Lanza and Jeannette MacDonald from the age of four on--but I didn't get the same kind of exposure to it that I did gospel music. I also grew up going to church with my grandmother, which had a very musical atmosphere.

Fast forward three years. In fifth grade, my music teacher saw musical potential in me, and put me in sight singing lessons after school. Two years later, she suggested me for the District of Columbia All-City Honors Chorus and this began my extreme exposure to classical music. From there on it was chorus, opera (I got to sing a smallish part in Britten's Noye's Fludde in eighth grade), masterclasses, more chorus, etc., straight through college and on through adulthood.

tp: When you are singing and can see the audience, do you pay attention to your listeners? Do you ever make up stories about individuals in the audience?

The Washington Chorus' Candlelight Christmas, December 2010
Actually, seeing the faces of my listeners makes me really nervous, which makes my heart rate speed up and my singing choppy. So I try not to look at them. Since I am pretty much exclusively chorus, I try to keep my focus on the hands of my conductor. If I have to look at the audience for some reason (we're encouraged to be engaging when we do sing-alongs for Christmas and the like), I pick a few directions to look and occasionally meet someone's gaze. I just smile and keep moving. I never really make up stories about individuals, but sometimes, before or after concerts, or when the lights come up for a sing-along, I try to pick out who's actually happy to be there vs. who got dragged to the Symphony by their parents/date/other loved ones trying to get more culture in their lives. 

tp: What makes a good choral director and/or voice teacher?

JP: Hmm...what makes a good choral director or voice teacher? The most important part is engagement with their charges. If they act like they won't want to be there, none of us will want to be there either. My current choral director goes back and forth between New York and DC (and used to also work at McGill) every week, but he never makes us feel like the ugly stepchild. He's always engaged with us and with the music as well. He also pushes us towards more challenging music, and encourages us to make the effort to successfully present that music. It doesn't hurt that he's a musical genius and will make connections between two works or composers that none of us ever would have considered, let alone seen in in the music.

tp: What have you learned about singing that surprised you?

JP: I think the biggest thing that surprised me about my own singing, is that I'm still getting better at it. When my last choral conductor in San Jose told me at my audition (at age 22) that my voice was still maturing, I had no idea what that meant. But with every director, teacher, or even work of music, I can feel all of the things I've learned in the past come together and improve my sound (and I can hear my voice maturing--go figure!). And the funny thing is that no matter what their age, everyone can improve their sound. I also discovered that English is the easiest language to oversing in--you're not thinking about shaping your words, like you would be with a second or third language. So if I'm singing in English and start to feel scratchy-throat, I know to back off. It's really hard when you're excited about what you're singing, though. Or singing really high. 
Altos and Tenors of TWC, Candlelight Christmas, December 2010

tp: Jessica, who are your musical inspirations?

JP: My musical inspirations are so all over the place that I can't name all of them, but I can pinpoint exactly the moment I knew I wanted to be singing for the rest of my life.

When I was eight years old, my school was invited to a “Look In” with The Washington Opera. They were doing Carmen and Denyse Graves was singing the title role. I watched her move across the stage and listened to her sing the Habanera, and knew immediately I wanted to be her when I grew up. A few years later I discovered I had horrible stage fright, of course, so the opera career was out. I still pretend when I'm all by myself in my apartment, though.

tp: What kind of music do you listen to today? What embarrassing songs might we find on your MP3 player?

JP: Today, I listen to all kinds of music. If you were to look at my most played in iTunes, they're likely all choral songs, because I use professional recordings to help memorize music as I prepare for concerts. But beyond that, you'll find classical, jazz, standards, R&B from the 90s and 2000s, some Rock & Roll from all eras, movie soundtracks, broadway cast recordings, pop, a cappella, gospel, go-go (a local favorite), and probably a few things that don't have categories. So my shuffle might go from Rachmaninoff to Beyonce to Pirates of the Caribbean to the Beatles.

I'm not sure which is more embarrassing: the Looney Tunes "Kill the Wabbit" song or Britney Spears' "Email My Heart". I know all the words to both.

tp: What are you working on now and where can we hear you sing in 2011?

JP: I will be doing Mozart's Great Mass this Fall, along with the annual Candlelight Christmas Concert, and both are held in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in DC.

tp: Thank you Jessica for letting us get to know you and your singing life much better.  Here's to the Habanera, Jeannette MacDonald, the Beatles and to you!

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