(L-R) Chandlar Head, Casey Hennigan and Cameron Colson
(L-R) Chandlar Head, Casey Hennigan and Cameron Colson

Three Eastern New Mexico University voice majors, Cameron Colson, Chandlar Head and Casey Hennigan, received awards at the Vocal Artistry Art Song Festival of New Mexico, which took place virtually from Sept. 4-5. The theme for this year's competition was a celebration of Spanish art song.

Vocal Artistry's Art Song Festival is an annual festival open to all students, singers and pianists living in New Mexico. Their goal is to encourage the further study of art song repertoire, which plays a vital role in sculpting classical singers.

The award-winning ENMU students share their experiences participating in the festival and discuss what being recognized for their vocal achievements means to them.

How did you discover the festival and prepare to compete?

Cameron: Vocal Artistry is a yearly vocal competition here in New Mexico; ENMU has sent students to compete in person since I have attended the school. There are typically a limited amount of slots available to go to the competition as it is usually an in-person performance competition with limitations on travel and the number of entries from vocal professors. This competition is usually in the spring, so I was preparing to compete back then. The requirement for this competition is two vocal art songs with one piece being in the language of Spanish. Every year the target language changes. From the beginning of Spring 2020, I chose to work on repertoire that covered all the requirements for both my Jury and this competition and practiced those pieces as usual.

Chandlar: I discovered the festival last spring through our vocal department. Every spring, we participate in this state-wide festival that celebrates art song, and each year highlights a different form of art song- this year being Spanish art song. I began preparing for this festival last spring before the pandemic hit. My voice teacher and I selected one German lieder and one Spanish art song for me to use for this competition. I have been practicing this music specifically on and off since March.

Casey: I first was introduced to the Vocal Artistry Art Song Festival back in 2012 by my former middle school choir teacher. I have sung in this competition every year since and been a finalist six times. Every year is the same in regards to the application process and preparation. They accept simple applications that contain the two songs you'll perform, one of your choice and one in the themed language they choose for each year of the festival, and the $15 fee. Preparation wise, it's really just a few months of constantly practicing and critiquing the songs you've chosen, then you sing in front of a judge, potentially be chosen for the finals, and, if so, you choose to sing one song in a concert with all other categories. Then they reward each finalist.

Tell us about your festival experience.

Cameron: In many ways, this year was extremely unique. It was the first time that it was completely virtual. Normally you arrive and wait for your audition time either by warming up, watching other performances or stressing out right before going on stage. However, the virtual nature of this competition meant that the stress of the performance could be filtered and almost eliminated. There was stress in preparing pieces with recorded accompaniments rather than live musical collaboration and then added complications in finding the perfect recording. This can be a nightmare for students who are not familiar or comfortable with receiving immediate feedback from recordings and who are searching for perfection that might not be realistic for them in the moment. I experienced this issue where I sang a high A multiple times in one piece, and because I was able to be extremely picky with which recording to send in, I took so many takes. However, there are only so many times a high A should be sung within a period of time before it starts to sound not so good, and so, realizing this, I had to settle for something less than I wanted, because my expectation for perfection just wasn't as achievable as I expected.

Chandlar: This particular festival is very unique to many vocal competitions. The emphasis of art song celebration is one that I commend greatly. At many competitions, it is common to hear many arias- pieces from operas. Art song is a very different genre that is more popular in recital settings. Art song can be a beautiful representation of cultures, religions, narratives and poetry manifested in the setting of voice and piano. Since art song is largely performed as voice and piano, competing in this year's festival without a live collaboration was extremely difficult and left many performers thirsting for more. During a live performance, the vocalist and accompanist work hand-in-hand together to translate nuances and individualistic interpretations of the music to give the audience the best experience possible. The performers share pieces of themselves with each other and the audience that is nearly impossible to share singing with a recorded accompaniment track into a video camera.

Casey: My usual experience is getting ready early in the morning, arriving at the venue. Then I would usually find a room to practice and warm up with. I would then perform and go to a family lunch while we waited for the results. If I got into the finals, I would then go home, and the next day get ready and go perform in the concert! If not, I would still attend any remaining masterclasses or workshops that were left for the day.

Which award did you receive? What did receiving that award mean to you?

Cameron: I won second place in the Music Education Division. The official title of the Award is the New Mexico Performing Arts Award, which comes with a $350 award. Winning this award has represented the positive changes and approaches to music that I have made recently in efforts to seek growth and musical happiness. It is great to feel an accomplishment like this result from extremely positive and effective personal change.

Chandlar: I received the second-place prize, which included the Polyphony- Voices of New Mexico Scholarship in the amount of $500. I won the fourth-place prize last year and was wanting to beat my record again this year. It was such a different experience this year, though. Winning this prize did not feel the same because it is not based on a live, collaborative performance. Personally, I spent days and days performing the same pieces over and over again, trying to get the perfect recording. This process is both mentally and physically exhausting and can make the experience much less enjoyable. I am very thankful to have received this award this year, and I am incredibly grateful to the many donors that provide scholarships to the finalists in this festival.

Casey: I received the Southwest Opera award this year.

What are your career goals? How do you think participating in this competition prepared you for future jobs?

Cameron: I would like to change the way high school choir class is perceived by both teachers and students alike. I would like to teach and gain experience there and eventually move into administration in education. The holistic approach to learning, studying and loving music and myself, which I have taken to prepare for this competition, has inspired the change I would like to see in high school music classes and the change that I will bring to the classroom when I am able to teach.

Chandlar: My career goals are to attend graduate school in pursuit of a master's degree in vocal performance, and later a DMA in vocal performance and pedagogy with hopes of having a professional performance career in the world of opera.

Casey: I am aspiring to become a professional opera singer. I would like to travel around the world and participate with other amazingly gifted musicians in whatever I can. Participating in the Vocal Artistry Art Song Festival allows me an opportunity to work with other passionate singers and view different techniques.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in participating in a vocal contest?

Cameron: Students should understand that entering a competition should be about seeking growth, experience and perspectives from other professional musicians. Be open to the wide array of ways that you can grow through the experience of participating in a competition. Whether you are successful at winning awards or not, the experience can be extremely valuable. Be patient with yourself throughout the process and give yourself grace instead of harsh judgement when you make mistakes. Those things happen, and all we can do it do our best. Approaching life and music this way will ultimately bring you the most success and growth anyways.

Chandlar: My advice to students who would like to participate in a vocal contest is to be kind to yourself and trust the process. When you compete in these competitions, it is so easy to get caught up in the goal of winning that you lose yourself in the process. Focus on your personal growth and capitalize on what you have in your wheelhouse.

Casey: I would advise others who may be interested to give it a go. If you don't make the finals, there is still an opportunity to potentially participate in a "master class," which is essentially professional singers giving advice on your songs. It is a wonderful experience all around, and that's why I've been doing it for so long!