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Bringing improvisation to the classical music world

by Cristina Sanza February 28, 2017
Bringing improvisation to the classical music world

Part-time music vocal instructor Irene Feher brings out the musicality in all her students

As I prepare my recorder for the interview I’m about to have with part-time music professor Irene Feher, she takes a seat at the grand piano in the room. We’re in a music class in the MB building. “I’ll be comfortable sitting here,” she says, as her fingertips glide across the piano keys. The lights above her illuminate her body, which sits tall and straight at the piano bench. She begins to improvise a few piano chords while humming.

A few bars later, she is singing a series of oohs and ahs. There’s no method to how she’s doing it—it is free, it is random. But there is a power—a meaning, a feeling—in the jibberish. I knew by the goosebumps running down my arm, and the wide-eyed gaze I had listening to the combination of sounds. And that, Feher would say, is the art of improvisation in music.

Improvisation wasn’t a big part of Feher’s life until a few years ago. But coincidentally, her late aunt, Annie Brooks, used to improvise all the time when she was young.

“Annie used to spontaneously break out into song,” Feher said. “And it’s funny because I feel the importance of it more now than I did when I was experiencing it in the moment. She could sing and improvise… It was just astonishing to listen to the breadth of her expression, and the colours she would put into her voice.” She was one of Feher’s early musical influences.

“Music has just been in my life for as long as I can remember. It’s kind of a clichéd statement that people make, that you don’t choose a music career—the music chooses you,” said Feher.

Originally untrained vocally, she learned to sing through being in bands. In the 80s, Feher performed regularly and went on tour, singing a lot of dance and rock music. She had a popular music background, but the now mezzo-soprano had a limited range at the time. “[I was] singing a lot of guy stuff, you know the very deep black velvet type singing,” she said, mimicking a deep voice. “But I had so much guts. I just went for it.”

Ultimately, she found the bar scene too tiring and unstable. In 1990, Feher began taking vocal lessons with classical music teacher Huguette Tourangeau, to help expand her range and improve her voice. Through Tourangeau, she discovered the world of classical music.

Classical music simply spoke to Feher. “I remember Huguette telling me, ‘you have a classical soul,’” said Feher.

Five years later, Feher made the courageous choice of going back to school at 30—to study music at Concordia. Her decision was met with disapproval from her father, who thought she should do something more practical, like an office job. However, Feher strongly felt she needed to pursue music.

“I knew I wasn’t going to have a big classical music career, I started way too late. But I knew whatever the outcome would be, I’d be much happier,” she said.

“I was probably one of the few 30-somethings who would be getting up in the morning saying ‘I’m going to school, oh my God!’ I felt like a kid,” she said with a big, bright smile. “I couldn’t wait to get to class. Concordia was just this place that allowed me to foster my passion, and not feel judged.”

She noted one of her professors, Beverly McGuire, as someone who had great influence on her, because they came from similar backgrounds—in popular music. “A lot of the people who go straight into classical training either have parents who are classical performers, or they’ve been exposed to [classical] music all their lives, or they’ve been studying from a very young age… I didn’t have that,” she explained. “My hero at the time was Barbra Streisand.”

She now works alongside many of the professors who taught her, including McGuire. Feher began teaching at Concordia in 2009. 

Currently, Feher teaches one music course at Concordia called Private Study – Classical and Contemporary Voice, which is offered at various levels. She sees students individually for vocal lessons.

Irene Feher is a part-time vocal teacher at Concordia. Photo by Frederic Muckle.

“It’s been a wonderful experience, because I see students from all kinds of different backgrounds, many of them having backgrounds resembling my own,” she said. She explained some students may be singer-songwriters, some may be actors wanting to learn music, some may have been playing gigs all their lives—they’re all unique.

She has learned a lot about her students over the years. “I’ve learned to listen to every student as an individual. By listening better, I’m trying to allow them to be the best individuals they can be. It’s not about making a bunch of cookie-cutter singers,” she said. “It’s about having these individuals bring what they already have to the table, and making that grow. It’s the diversity of the Concordia students that makes it a very exciting atmosphere.”

Within the part-time faculty union, Private Study teachers at Feher’s level of seniority can teach a maximum of 12 students. This semester, Feher has 10 students. Feher explained part-time Private Study teachers are paid on an hourly basis, but only for the time spent in the classroom. Feher said, however, there is a lot of work that goes on outside lessons, such as emailing students, preparing schedules, learning the pieces the students will be singing, among other tasks.

“I think there is less understanding university-wide of what goes on to make those lessons successful—what has to go on outside of those lessons,” she said. “If I were to offer a suggestion, I think all Private Study teachers should meet, and a consensus can be agreed upon as to an average number of hours that are actually put into class preparation, and that could be mandated into the contract.”

However, Feher said there are blessings to being a part-time professor. “When you’re part-time faculty, you can still lead that whole other part of your life, which is that of an artist. I’m giving improvisation workshops, concerts, involved in some interesting research and I’m singing. So that’s the blessing.”

Prior to teaching at Concordia, Feher spent a lot of time at McGill, as she completed both her graduate and doctorate degrees in Voice Performance and Pedagogy, at The Schulich School of Music.

“McGill just opened up my eyes. It was a whole other experience because I really got the view of what formal classic training was,” she said, explaining it was also a bit of an intimidating experience. “I felt like an imposter. I felt like I didn’t belong there. Because I didn’t have that [classical] background. Because I didn’t start music at a young age.” Regardless, she said she loved her experience at McGill.

During her doctoral studies, she discovered the world of vocal science—vocology—a relatively new field about science and habilitation of the voice, through her voice teacher, professor Winston Purdy. At McGill, she was awarded the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) fellowship for her research on the use of visual feedback to instruct lyric diction. She travelled to the UK to present her work.

While she was fascinated by the scientific aspects of the voice, Feher was itching to tap into her creative side again once she completed her doctoral degree. But, a big shift occurred in her musical life—she felt stumped by her own voice. When she would get up on stage to sing, or try to sing at all, she had difficulty—anxiety, tension and restrain. She said it got to a point where even hearing other singers perform stressed her out.

“I loved my music, and I loved teaching, but there was a joy and a soulfulness that was missing for me. A part of me was not there,” she explained. “I think a part of that was my wanting so much to fit into that [classical music] expectation—and I placed the expectation on myself—of wanting to fit in and be a classical musician, because I had such respect for classical musicians.”

Feher took a short break from performing to overcome her vocal difficulties and tension. She turned to body work—yoga, meditation and the Feldenkrais Method—a type of exercise therapy aimed at improving flexibility, posture and reducing pain and tension.

In 2013, she came back to the musical world, in a new and exciting way. She went to her first session at Music For People, a non-profit organization with the goal to revitalize music-making through the art of improvisation. Feher said Music For People was an opportunity for her to go back to the basics of what music was.

“My world was rocked,” she said. “All of a sudden something had broken open. It was what I was looking for.” The biggest lesson she learned from Music For People: there are no wrong notes.

“When I improvised, I was hitting notes that I hadn’t hit in years, in fact not at all in my classical singing,” she said. “Then when I’d go back and do the classical exercises, I couldn’t do the notes… I realized the inspiration was coming from inside of me… How I feel in my body when I make music is so different now.”

She is currently part of the organization’s four-year musician leadership program, where she leads and coordinates group sessions. Upon her graduation this fall, she will be a certified Music For People facilitator.

What Feher learned at Music For People helped her as a music teacher, and she includes improvisation-based exercises in her lessons now. “The training is not only improvisation, but in facilitation. Learning how to facilitate changed my teaching. Because it wasn’t about me imparting information. It was about me enabling and bringing out the genius in the students,” she said. Feher is hoping university music programs will start integrating improvisation into formal music study.

Along with vocal challenges, Feher also openly discussed a visual challenge she has faced from birth—congenital cataracts—the clouding of the eye lens, which results in impaired vision. When she was young, she was operated on to have the lenses removed from her eyes. She is legally blind, but has low vision—which is usually described as partial sight.

“That limited me to many jobs. I can’t drive, for example. I have to enlarge text by 300 per cent. I have certain challenges,” she said. “But, in many ways, not being able to take the safe route allowed me to take the brave route. I went for what I wanted to do.”

She felt it was important for her to touch upon her visual impairment, as many students she meets face challenges, too. Her advice: look for that one thing in your life that you love to do, that you can do for hours and hours, and do it. For Feher, that is music.

“Yeah, it takes me three times longer to read something than the average person. But when I discovered that I had my little place in the sun, that I could sing a song in front of a group of people, that I could stand up in front of a group of people and have them all making music out of nothing, then I realized—it doesn’t matter that people can read three times faster than me,” she said. “We all have our own individual talents. We often focus too much on what we can’t do, than what we can do.”

If there is one change she would like to see within the industry of music education, it’s for learning music to become more accessible, more mainstream. “I love virtuosity, don’t get me wrong. I have such appreciation for great artists,” she explained. “But I believe if we have more people learning through making music together, communal music-making, I believe we would connect more with each other. I believe very strongly in the power of music to connect people.”

Other than teaching at Concordia, Feher also teaches a class at McGill and conducts singing lessons in her home studio, Living Your Music. She has been teaching privately at home since 1993. She accepts students of all levels, ages and musical styles.

This semester, she has also been facilitating a series of free improvisation workshops at Concordia called “Collabra-dabra-tory,” which take place every second Monday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in MB. 8.135. They are open to all students. 

Watch our interview with Irene Feher here

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