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Music and Language are Interwoven for Pianist Kathleen Kelly

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Pianist Kathleen Kelly's musical practice is interwoven with the study of language, and that’s how she likes it. “It’s hard to separate my love of poetry and my love of song and opera! They kind of grew up together,” says Kathleen. “Great performers understand all the parts of what they do so that they can be really intentional about their effects.” Luckily for the M Institute for the Arts community, Kathleen will be sharing her insights in an upcoming exclusive webinar series, The Music of Language with Kathleen Kelly.

Session 1: May 7th, 7PM EDT: The Music of Words

Session 2: May 14th, 7PM EDT: Blind Spots in Language

Kathleen Kelly

The first woman and first American named as Director of Musical Studies at the Vienna State Opera, Kathleen’s operatic experience is the backbone of her career. Trained at the San Francisco Opera, she joined the company’s music staff and moved from there to a long association with the Metropolitan Opera. Kathleen has conducted at the Glimmerglass Festival, Wolf Trap Opera, Arizona Opera, Opera Columbus, the Merola Program, and has been a visiting master coach for the prestigious young artist programs of Chicago Lyric Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera.

Many Irons In The Fire

For the duration of Kathleen’s undergraduate and graduate studies in piano performance at Arizona State University, she was accompanying singers. Her interest of language extended into an interest in German, which she minored in. “I loved the university experience of trying everything - new music, renaissance choir, opera, art song, chamber music,” says Kathleen. “I learned at school that I enjoyed having many irons in the fire, and I wanted to have that kind of life as a musician.”

Passion for Language

Kathleen’s passion for language may surprise some as it’s unusual for a pianist to take such an interest in language and vocal music. In formal music education in America, vocalists are required to study foreign languages, but often language studies for instrumentalists are lax. Kathleen feels that this is a reflection of our culture, and that a formal education in language is infinitely beneficial to all musicians. “In North America, we’re as a whole just crippled by our lack of foreign language expertise. Many of us begin learning a second language very late, when the good window of learning another language (before the age of 7 or 8) has already shut,” says Kathleen. “We’re playing catch-up from the start. Also, there’s still a lot culturally that actively discourages bilingualism.”

In her second session of The Music of Language with Kathleen Kelly, Kathleen discusses how the study of the English language is hard-wired. She helps participants discover their linguistic blindspots, from pronunciation to emotional expression, allowing people to rewire their relationship to language.

Musical Aspects of Language

Understanding how language works is the gateway to understanding the musical aspects of language, which is why Kathleen feels so passionately about studying it. Currently, there is a large focus on the study of diction for singers. While this is necessary, it often takes up the allotment of time devoted to language study and leaves the musicality of language to the wayside. “Focusing on the sound and rhythm of the words alone isn’t in opposition to the study of diction, it’s just another angle. The benefits are twofold, in my mind. One is that a singing musician can begin to see how the music arises from the language itself - it’s not a soundtrack to a play, and neither are the words incidental to the tune,” says Kathleen. “The other is that a singing artist can begin to see that expression isn’t solely a result of their dramatic commitment and feelings.”

The musical aspects of language offer another creative tool for all musicians. “One of the challenges in our hyper-realistic age is that a lot of compelling prose isn’t inherently musical - that’s not a value of how we write these days, and is even a little mistrusted,” says Kathleen. “It’s the difference between “Your dad drowned in thirty feet of water” and “full fathom five thy father lies.” There are so many musical writers, many of them poets. And there are great librettists working today, with so much great composing going on.”

Musicians have found inspiration in Shakespeare’s “Full Fathom Five thy Father Lies” from The Tempest for years. It’s been set from artists ranging from Ralph Vaughan Williams, Charles Ives, Saariaho and Stravinsky to Pearls Before Swine. “Whether it’s Joni Mitchell or Jamie Barton, I’m interested in the magic that happens when words are heightened by song. There are many styles of doing that, but it’s all the same principle,” says Kathleen. “People take the noises we learn to make and elevate them into language, syntax, meaning - that is a mystical process! And then to take language and lift it off of a conversational physicality, adding breath, resonance, music - that’s also mystical.”

Why do so many musicians choose “Full Fathom Five”? This mystical process will be the focus of Kathleen’s first webinar. The first session will explore the creative process beginning with the inherent rhythm, pitch, and sound quality of the words that inspired composers to attach music to them.

In the webinar format, it can be less intimidating for participants to ask questions. “There’s more than one way to ask a question, which is also good and opens the door to people with different comfort levels in speaking up,” says Kathleen.

This newfound relationship to language can swing open creative doors. “Great singers of every style benefit from understanding every aspect of their instrument, and they benefit from really understanding how their text works as well,” says Kathleen. “Also - there’s so much music out there, in so many languages, and so many potential collaborators.”

The Music of Language with Kathleen Kelly launches May 7, presented by M Institute for the Arts.

Miss a class? No problem! You can access past masterclasses and series here or click on the links below. Learn more about the M Institute for the Arts here.

Session 1: May 7th, 7PM EDT: The Music of Words

Session 2: May 14th, 7PM EDT: Blind Spots in Language