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  • Schyler Sheltrown

Singing In Place...Whether We Like It Or Not


Last week, I had the pleasure to be a part of Singing In Place with Opera Grand Rapids. It was an interesting look into the possibilities of the future of music and a complete paradigm shift of artistic interpretation, and it put into perspective that this is going to be our reality for quite some time.


Following OGR's successful release of Scalia/Ginsburg, it seemed as if OGR's page was full of announcements of further postponements and HR updates. There was some music, but not a lot, especially compared to other companies. However, I was not always in favor of the random Facebook Lives that I saw - they seemed scattered and hurried. Then, I saw the lovely design for Singing In Place. It was clear that some thought had been put into this virtual program, and rather than rushing to be the first to the online game, they were striving to be among the best.


Then, I got the email. As you can imagine, having another email from a company pop up in my mailbox made my heart sink. I wasn't sure if this was another cancellation, another "PFO" (short for "Please F*** Off" - singer slang for a rejection letter). (Yes. I have still been receiving PFOs. I've probably gotten more responses from companies about rejections and cancellations now more than ever before. Would've been nice to have that BEFORE the pandemic, but I digress!) But this was different. It was an email directly from Emilee Syrewicze, the Executive Director of OGR, detailing that, because of the extension of the "Stay At Home" order, OGR would be extending their Singing In Place episodes as well, and wanted me to be a part of it. At the bottom, she requested that I give her a call if I decided to accept, rather than emailing.


When OGR announced Ms. Syrewicze as the new ED in the fall of 2019, I was thrilled. She had a big vision for OGR, and she has followed through on that amazingly. I doubt that she had ever even dreamed of navigating an entire company through a pandemic! Regardless, she has been an incredible leader. And, I have to say, it's so inspiring to see a woman as an ED. The 12-year-old girl in me would have dreamed even bigger than she had already done if she had known it was possible to be a leader AND a lady. I remember dropping by OGR once in December (for something - I can't remember what). And there was Emilee - standing on a ladder with streamers, working to get The Betty all set up for their New Year's Eve party. Needless to say, I was impressed. She doesn't care about getting her hands dirty - she cares about getting the job done, and getting it done well. So, when I heard her voice on the other end of the phone, I was excited to talk to her.


In 2019, I read a Q&A from the Grand Rapids Business Journal with Emilee, when she was first appointed as the new Executive Director. In it, one of the questions asked her about the best advice she's received. She said, "My mother always tells my sister and me that, 'It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.'” And I can tell you all confidently that she embodies that extremely well. She is organized, and went through all the nuts and bolts of how we'd put this together, giving me contact info and next steps. Then, she really got rolling. I could tell she was passionate about this project, that she and her team had put a LOT of thought into proceeding into "The Quar" with consideration and care. She didn't just want to put a check next to a box on a to-do list - she wanted to inspire people with this program. She encouraged me to put myself into this program, to really lean in and include pieces that showcased ME. I hung up after that conversation feeling empowered and emboldened. It was just the kick I needed to keep moving forward.


Putting together this program was emotional. I go into detail about this in an IGTV post on my Instagram, but digging into these songs was incredibly cathartic. I chose songs that felt good to me, that felt right and appropriate in the moment. There are so many folks who can escape through music, and that's normally me. Growing up, I could always be found with my nose buried in some fantasy novel, or listening to music, day dreaming. It's fun to get lost, and it makes life a little easier to float through. This may be the first time I've ever had to sit with my emotions - being stuck at home has given us all an excuse to slow down, and to do some deep inner work. It hasn't been easy, but I think this is the first time in a long time I'm the best version of myself. I didn't realize how much I'd been running on fumes, or how much I beat down my anxiety through staying busy chasing work. This time has been awful, and believe me, I cannot wait to get out of here. At the same time, I'm strangely grateful. I wouldn't have put together this beautiful recital, of which I'm extremely proud. I wouldn't have had to face the fact that my anxiety was running my life. I wouldn't have had to just STOP for a second and see the ways in which I was unintentionally hurting myself. I've discovered a deep appreciation for myself, a self-awareness that I've never had before. Thankfully, because I allowed myself to heal, my empathy has gone through the roof (as if that's even possible).


Once I had a program together, it was time to record. Although I'd always love a live experience of working with an accompanist, it was a welcome challenge to meld to their ideas. Robert Byrens is an incredible musician, and when I heard that we got to collaborate on this project, I was thrilled. We coordinated via email, starting out by me sending him my "set list," and sheet music, along with some YouTube clips and notes about how I'd like the pieces. Within a few days, he had recorded them with his own style. It made me teary to listen to the pieces at first - this was almost better than recording in person. I could actually just take in his artistry, and really pay attention to the ebbs and flows of his playing. It is truly stunning. Then, I was able to add in my style in the cracks of his, which made the pieces whole. The last step was to get these things recorded.


Now, I don't know a ton about technology, so I was pretty proud of my setup for this recording session. My living room became the "set," and I got to play with the lighting to give the right mood. I ended up using my husband's iPad, set up on a tripod, to record the video, which made it very easy to edit using iMovie. Although my laptop speakers are terrible, I was able to connect my laptop to my TV using an HDMI cord, and then used the TV speakers to play Robert's recording. It was nice to know that these little bits and pieces of equipment we've accumulated over the years all came in handy to make Episode 5 of Singing In Place. (The last step was getting the dogs to stay quiet for a few hours while recording - thanks to my hubs for keeping them entertained <3).


Ultimately, I'm thankful for this experience. Getting a chance to practice my video recording and editing skills was actually really fun, and turning my home into a recording studio was something I never dreamed of doing. Having had this experience, I'm less afraid of the idea that in-person singing events will not be able to take place for a while. I had the best driving teacher in school - Mr. Schewe. He was a retired police officer, and such a brave and patient guy. He knew his stuff. I remember taking my course during the summer. Our class was bursting at the seams - no one wanted to take driver's ed in the winter in Michigan. He said he tried to encourage parents to sign their kids up for driver's ed in the winter because that was the time where they needed the most help and instruction. Anyone can drive in the summer, but in ice and snow? That takes some training. It's no mistake that this is Teacher Appreciation Week. During the "winter" of our singing careers, we must rely on our instructors the most, and get ourselves prepared for what's to come.

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