Interview: Paul Hindemith, Minneapolis

Interview: Paul Hindemith, Minneapolis

We’re always out and about on the web keeping an eye out for sites of interest to classical singers, singing students and those wishing to gain a deeper understanding of songs, and we came across the very inspiring An Art Song a Day blog whose creator, Baritone Paul Hindemith, is a Minneapolis-based singer and teacher who has performed in opera, operetta, musical theatre, oratorio, and recital settings.

Through his blog, Paul set out to help students absorb and perform the songs more effectively by developing a deeper understanding of both the lyrics and context. He holds a doctorate in Voice Performance from the University of Minnesota, where his doctoral thesis was entitled The Singer as Communicator. We really liked what he was doing, so we asked him if we could get to know him a little bit better.

So, Paul, thanks so much for taking time out at this busy time of year to tell us a bit about yourself! We’re in a very festive mood at the moment! What sort of singing do you get up to at Christmas?

My first holiday singing is always the singing I do around the house. I love crooning along with Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Andy Williams while I go about my business.

Paul Hindemith

Ever since I started studying voice, singing O Holy Night on Christmas Eve has been one of my favorite traditions. Until several years ago, I sang the solo both at my father’s small Lutheran church, and then at the Midnight Mass at my High School; this was the one time of year when my parents and I would worship together, and it was always a special moment for us.

When I moved to Minneapolis, I began singing it with the choir at the Basilica of St. Mary, which a stunningly beautiful church that I am blessed to call my spiritual home. To me, O Holy Night is the only sermon I need on Christmas Eve — the words are poignant, heartfelt, and immediate and it makes the Christmas message real and personal to me every time I sing it.

How did you get into singing? What’s your earliest recollection of singing?

When I was ten, my mother suggested I audition for the children’s choir for the Omaha Symphony’s “Magic of Christmas.” I told her I didn’t know what to sing, and she said, “Just sing ‘Joy to the World,’” which I did. I ended up singing with that group for three years, and got my first taste of opera with the children’s chorus of La Bohème and Carmen with Opera Omaha. I also had a chance to work on George Crumb’s Ancient Voice of Children at that time; looking back on it, it makes me appreciate the naiveté of childhood, because I had no idea at the time how difficult that piece was!

Despite those early experiences, my musical experiences were primarily instrumental. I was a trumpet player, and in my senior year of high school, I decided to go to college to study music education as a trumpet player; when I wasn’t accepted into the music education program, I decided to major in something more useful – chemistry and math. After my first year of college, I realized that though I enjoyed the sciences, I missed the intense study of music that I had grown accustomed to in high school.

I took some voice lessons in the summer before my sophomore year and upon returning to school, auditioned for and made the top choir. I began studying with a new teacher, and I remember vividly getting the phone call the evening after my first jury where he said, “The voice faculty would like you to consider majoring in vocal performance.” Without hesitating, I said yes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What do you like to sing? Tell us about your favourite song. Do you have a favourite composer?

My favourite music tells a story, and delights all the senses. I am especially drawn to music of the late Romantic period and tonal portions of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries because of the complexity, richness, dimension, and immediacy of both the musical writing and the texts. Hugo Wolf’s Auf ein altes Bild remains a favourite for its simple yet evocative depiction of the Virgin and Child.

My favourite composer changes by the day, but I think the composer for whom I have the most respect is Mozart. The more I study his music, the more I learn about musical construction, about singing, and about humanity. Even the simplest songs are a treasure trove – just today, I was working on Oiseaux, se tous les ans with a student and discovered a whole subtext written into the music I had never noticed before. He was a genius, and I think I will never tire of his music.

Who or what is your biggest musical influence?

My high school band director, Doug Johnson of Creighton Prep in Omaha had a profound impact on my musical development, and remains a dear friend and mentor to this day. His teaching was methodical, rooted in fundamental musicianship (we played all the major scales every day, sometimes twice if we couldn’t get them in tune), and devoted to consistency, excellence, and teamwork. When I switched from trumpet to voice at SMU, I was able to transfer many of these skills directly into my music-making as a singer and voice teacher. After college, I returned to Omaha and was a vocal specialist at a large public high school, and Doug proved just as generous to me as a new teacher; especially in my first year, Doug and I would meet from time to time so I would vent frustrations and ask for advice, which he always provided generously.

Doug has such a variety of interests, too, that he makes it clear that the life of a musician is not just about music, but about being a well-rounded person who is  curious about the world, and about challenging oneself to grow on a daily basis, whether by running a marathon, raising a family, or serving one’s community. Doug is a role model to his students, and I really can’t imagine how different my life would be without his mentoring and friendship.

Tell us about a recent concert you performed in

I just completed a run of performances of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors with Fargo-Moorhead Opera. We performed in the Fargo Theatre in downtown Fargo, an old vaudeville theatre turned movie house. The intimacy of the house made the performance quite striking, and the use of the Mighty Wurlitzer to enhance the piano score was more effective than one might expect!

This past summer, I was a festival artist with the Utah Festival Opera, where I sang two selections (“The Boatmen’s Dance” and “The Golden Willow Tree”) from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs on a concert of American music. I thought it was a bit of a luxury – as well as a bit out of the ordinary – to hear the entire cycle sung with different singers, as each singer was hand-picked for each song, and consequently each persona and voice was a nearly perfect match for each individual song.

Where abouts are you in your career as a professional singer? Can you tell us a bit about the route you took to get there?

Most of my professional work is on the stage in opera, operetta, and musical theatre. I have performed with the Fargo-Moorhead Opera, the Utah Festival Opera, and the Ohio Light Opera, among others; I look forward to debuting with San Diego Opera this March.

Though I’m now fairly satisfied with my career trajectory, I’m not going to lie — it has not been an easy journey, and there have been many times where I nearly gave up. Toward the end of my Master’s degree, I agonized about whether I would destroy my chances of having a career as a performer by leaving the east coast and returning to my roots in the Midwest and complete a doctorate. I’ll never forget what Leon Major, the director of the Maryland Opera Studio, told me when I came to him for advice. He simply said, “There’s more than one way to have a career.” That has been my guiding light, and really empowered me to follow my dreams of being not only a performer with a career in regional American opera, but also a teacher and an academic.

Do you have a top tip for getting the most from your voice?

The advice I give singers time and again is simply to trust yourself. When you start to doubt yourself, remember why it is you’re singing in the first place – because you love music, you love to sing, and you have something unique to communicate. Rather than trying to sing perfectly, take some risks and really try to take your audience on a journey with you. Though you’ll not be focusing on your technique, your voice will be freer and you’ll be more pleased with your performance than you ever could imagine.

Where did you study?

I have three degrees in voice performance: a Bachelor’s from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, a Master’s from the University of Maryland, and a Doctorate from the University of Minnesota. I am especially grateful to John DeHaan for being both my first voice teacher at SMU and the teacher I finished my studies with at Minnesota; he set me on the path toward realizing my dreams of being a musician, and then helped me put the polishing touches on my technique as well as give me the encouragement needed to be a professional singer and teacher. Leon Major, the director of the Maryland Opera Studio, also deserves special recognition for giving me the tools to feel comfortable on stage.

Do you have any tips for pre-performance preparation that help steady the nerves?

Knowing that you are well prepared is one of the most reassuring things. The more you know the details of your piece – how you fit together with the accompaniment, what every word means, what you see in your mind’s eye while you sing, what emotions each phrase is conveying, what physical gestures you intend to use, how you want every phrase to be shaped, etc. – the less you have to worry about the nerves. Rather than spending the precious time before your performance rifling through your music and panicking about whether or not you’ll remember to come in or about what the third word in the second phrase is, you can work on preparing yourself physically and mentally.

I worked with sports psychologist Don Greene some time ago, and use and teach a modified version of his centering exercises. First, you need to know your ideal “speed:” think of one of your best performances, and compare your energy level at that moment to your day-to-day energy level; then, translate that to a driving speed above or below the highway speed limit (I have to get to about 80 mph, personally). Most people actually have to get their energy UP, rather than down, so instead of trying to suppress the nerves, use their energy to enhance your performance; get the blood flowing by doing jumping jacks, running the stairs, shaking your hands and feet, etc. If you do need to get your energy down, practice some deep breathing, do some meditating, call to mind some favourite relaxing memory or image, etc. And though I don’t do this personally, a lot of my students swear by listening to a different kind of music that they love just before they perform to help them achieve that optimum energy level.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I currently split my time living in Fargo, North Dakota and Minneapolis, Minnesota. I moved to Minneapolis five years ago when I started my Doctorate and bought a house there almost three years ago. This fall, I started teaching at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota (which is just across the river from Fargo), so I’m there at least three days a week, and often more if I’m performing or have engagements on the weekends. Though my whole childhood was spent in Omaha, my parents both grew up in central North Dakota, so the upper Midwest really feels like home, even with the cold winters. I really resonate with the values of hard work and community, and really appreciate the friendliness and generosity of the people here. Additionally, the accent makes me happy.

When did you start translating songs?

The idea of digging into song texts was modelled for me by my German diction instructor and second voice teacher, Virginia Dupuy, who always seemed to be seeking out songs in all languages with ever more interesting texts. Since I was studying German, I started creating word-for-word translations of my songs as a way both to work on my own language skills and to help me learn my music and connect to it. At about that time, came online, so I began to contribute some of my translations. In my opinion, recmusic is one of the best free resources available to singers, and I commend Emily Ezust for her time and effort maintaining the site!

In addition to translations for recmusic, I have created surtitles for La Bohème for the University of Minnesota, and created singing translations of two arias by Carl Millöcker for my final DMA recital. I’ll be directing the trio from Cimarosa’s Matrimonio segreto for the Concordia College opera scenes program this spring, and am in the process of creating a singing translation for that. Without a doubt, though, my favourite translation experience was when I was teaching at the University of South Dakota, and decided I wanted to try my hand at something a little more challenging. I was the director of opera there, and I had selected Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Unfortunately, I wasn’t totally pleased with any of the English singing translations available, so I decided to create my own. It was great fun, and the production was a great success. Not only did my students gain valuable experience, we were also able to use the production to highlight issues of hunger and homelessness; we raised quite a bit of money and donated several boxes of food to the Vermillion Food Pantry with our performances.

What have been some of your favourite musical discoveries?

I have found quite a few pieces that have what one singer termed, “S.A.O.” – significant academic obscurity. For whatever reason, pieces get lost, and while not every obscure piece deserves to see the light of day, many are quite worthwhile.

I uncovered a set of French parlour songs entitled Chants Bretons by Victor Massé (who was in his day expected to eclipse Bizet, and whose name appears alongside that of Beethoven and Mozart in Ten-thousand Leagues Under the Sea.) Though I didn’t perform every verse or every song, the pieces were well-received.

I also recently performed several songs by Dutch composer Alphons Diepenbrock, whose music sounds remarkably like Mahler, which is not surprising as the two knew each other. Finally, one of my favourite discoveries since beginning my blog is Pauline Viardot-Garcia’s Madrid, which is quite a showpiece!

And finally, Paul, we’ve got to ask: are you related to your namesake?

When considering names, my father thought it would be neat to name me after someone famous. My mother, though somewhat hesitant, agreed since the name wasn’t nearly as iconic as some (like James Bond, for example). With this name, though, I think they fated me to be a musician! I’m not complaining — my name rarely fails to start a conversation among musicians, and it certainly gets me remembered. Though I am not directly related to my namesake, I think it’s fairly safe to say that if I dig far back enough I’d find a link since the name is uncommon both in Germany and in America. I’ve been searching, but no luck so far.

Catch up with Paul online:

Blog: An Art Song a Day