For Kay Kelm, singing in Soli Deo Gloria is an equation that always adds up
Kay Byler Kelm usually manages to surprise someone at the annual talent show held by Fresno State’s math department. That’s because the math professor is also a terrific singer.
Someone usually approaches her after hearing her perform and says, “Wow, I had no idea!”
It’s a great reminder that professional musicians aren’t the only ones who can deliver outstanding musicality. Kelm, a fervent member of Soli Deo Gloria, is one of those people. This outstanding women’s chorale makes music at the highest level. The ensemble’s latest concert, titled “Mozart & More” (Friday, March 25, 7 p.m. lecture, 7:30 p.m. performance) is a chance to experience it.
I caught up with Kelm, who leads the ensemble’s second soprano section, in a wide-ranging interview that touches upon her perfect pitch, her love for Soli Deo Gloria, and her even greater love for the human voice.
Q: Mozart had perfect pitch, which is something his father discovered when little Wolfgang was 4 years old. However, little Kay beat that by TWO years. How and when did your mother figure out you had perfect pitch?
A: My mother plays the violin. She always starts with the same note: A-440, because that’s the first string that gets tuned. Family lore has it that, when I was two years old, I climbed up on the piano bench one day and started trying out the keys. When I got to A-440, I said, “Violin A!” My mother jumped up to pluck her string, and sure enough, I had it right.
Absolute pitch is both a blessing and a curse. I once tried the trumpet, in fourth grade, but it lasted only a week before I discovered that what everyone else calls an F, trumpetists call a G. (What the heck??) I just couldn’t see one note and play another. It’s like that game where they have lists of colors but in the wrong color type, like the word RED will be in blue writing, and you have to say the word that’s printed. Your brain will get messed up trying to tune out the actual color. On the other hand, when singing in the right key it’s convenient to have me in a choir since I can give the starting note without having to consult a pitch pipe.
Q: Were you in choirs as a kid? When did you decide that singing would be the primary way in your life for you to express music?
A: I was actually not in choirs as a kid. I had eight years of violin lessons and played in a youth orchestra for five of those years. I also continued to play violin (and sometimes cello — one year I even took up the bassoon!) in the school orchestras through high school. But I caught the musical theater bug in fifth grade and always loved singing after that. At the age of 15 I traded violin lessons for voice lessons, and that really helped me develop some vocal technique that allowed me to land some good roles.
The first time I sang in a choir that was not for a show was in college. Choir is a lot less of a time commitment than a fully staged production!
Q: You’ve been a member of Soli Deo Gloria since the beginning, but you were in mixed choirs before that. What is different about singing in a women’s chorale?
A: The main difference is that with a mixed choir you get more octaves to work with, from the high sopranos down to the low basses. With women’s voices we can’t get the lowest notes that a bass can sing (although our II Altos can sing amazingly low!). So the arrangements have to be done carefully in order for the music not to sound too narrow.
Q: Julie Carter, the music director of Soli Deo Gloria, keeps her singers on their toes. You all sing some amazingly complex (and beautiful) pieces that require a high level of musicianship. What is it like to be part of such a small, tight ensemble?
A: I love it. There is some really amazing music out there, with tight harmonies, that just aren’t possible with a big choir, or with a choir of singers who aren’t able to hold their line well. I have always appreciated Julie’s discipline, her talent for choosing repertoire that showcases her singers best, and her skill at developing a group over many years. SDG is singing at a much higher level than we did at the beginning, and the credit goes to Julie for making that happen.
Q: Quick: Pronounce this Finnish word for us: Käsipyyherullajärjestelmä. Seriously, SDG once sang a song in that fiendish tongue. Was that the hardest foreign-language singing experience for you? How do you memorize songs in other languages?
A: For me Finnish was very challenging because it was so unfamiliar to me, with sounds my tongue is not used to making, let alone while singing. (I’m afraid I would be hopeless with the word above, although I can tell you that the ä is pronounced as in “cat”, which is a sound that is never found at the end of a word in English but is very common in Finnish words.)
In general I have a pretty good ear for languages. Julie often will have me record a pronunciation guide to help singers learn how to say the words for a piece in a foreign language — I even ended up doing that for the Finnish even though one of the other singers was from Finland! Like anything, memorization comes through repetition. It helps to know what one is singing about, so Julie has us write translations into the music.
Q: Your upcoming concert is titled “Mozart & More.” The Mozart part includes his Mass in C major, which is known as the “Sparrow” Mass. Why is it called that?
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A: There is a small motif in one of the movements that sounds like the twittering of a sparrow. Don’t nod off, though, or you might miss it!
Q: You’re also performing the Trio from “The Magic Flute.” You actually have choreography with this piece. That really appeals to the theater part of you, right?
A: For sure! I love acting out a story, and combining that with singing is the ultimate joy for me. The Magic Flute is such a fun, light opera — and of course Mozart’s melodies are delightful. This song in particular is a treat to sing and act. It’s funny and beautiful at the same time.
Q: What does the “More” part of Friday’s concert refer to?
A: We have so much good stuff on the program! The Mozart pieces we were only a couple weeks away from performing in 2020, when the pandemic forced us to cancel our concert. So we are totally ready to finally be able to perform those! In addition we are singing a couple spirituals, an Irish folk song, two completely different (and completely beautiful) settings of Ubi Caritas, and a special surprise that’s not on the program. We are also singing a Moira Smiley piece that features body percussion, which is the next best thing to choreography!
Q: A bit more about you: A little sparrow told me that you are a Gilbert & Sullivan mega-fan. We’re talking about knowing all the music, going to G&S conventions, naming your firstborn W.S. in tribute, etc. (OK, I’m joking about that last one.) My question is: Are they saying paradox or pair of ducks?
A: Oh, yes, I am a big Gilbert and Sullivan nut. Hahaha, yes, “a most ingenious paradox” is the line (from Pirates of Penzance). I have been to the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in England five times now. I even ended up on British national TV once, since they were covering the Festival and I happened to walk by. They must have loved my twangy American accent as I told them the Festival was “a huge geek-fest.” After being cancelled two years in a row because of — yep, you guessed it — the ‘rona, we are set to go back this summer. I’m excited because I will be performing a Gilbert and Sullivan work that I have never done before; it will be the last one on my “bingo card” and then I will be able to say that I have done all the shows with intact music (the music for their first collaboration, Thespis, has been lost). Ack, don’t get me started; I could go on for hours!
Q: Let’s get philosophical for a moment: There are times in a piece when you are in such perfect sync with your fellow singers in terms of notes, diction, harmonies and emotional potencies that it’s like listening to one voice. What is it like to be part of that voice?
A: There is something wonderful and personal about the built-in music that is singing, more so than an instrument that is outside our bodies. If I was stranded on a desert island with no possessions, I could still open my mouth and have music come out. That is a tremendous gift. Even more of a gift is to be able to put our human voices together to create harmonies that we would not be able to do alone. Being in SDG allows me to experience that gift every week. I especially love the final weeks of our rehearsal period, and the performances, where we have mastered the notes and rhythms and are putting the final polish on the pieces. We get some really divine moments.
The pandemic dealt an extra blow to singers, aka “super-spreaders.” Having to do without something that gives so much meaning to my life made these last two years especially draining. I am so glad to be able to get back to singing with my “Soli Sisters”!
Q: I could ask you choral questions all day, but I know you have to go rehearse some more. Anything else you’d like to say?
A: It saddens me when people say they can’t sing, or no one wants to hear them sing, and so they don’t. Everyone can sing in the shower! You can’t get good at anything without starting off bad and then practicing to get better. There seems to be an especially pernicious stigma in this country against boys singing, which turns into there never being enough good adult male voices in a community. Part of the reason SDG is a women’s choir is because it’s hard to recruit enough men to sing at this level.
There are so many things one could wish were different about the world, but on my list is that every child would have a musical education and be encouraged to use the instrument they were born with. Maybe there would be less violence in the world if we would learn to sing together instead of shooting at each other.