Remembering How to Entertain

by Raquel Gonzalez, M.M. – Voice

My third year at Juilliard I joined the Gluck Community Service Fellowship.  I had sung at nursing homes while in high school but didn’t really have much true outreach experience.  I got involved with GCSF after hearing about it from my upperclassmen colleagues. I thought it would be a great opportunity for extra performing opportunities and to be able to perform for people within the city who might not otherwise have access to any type of performing art.

My first group consisted of myself (a soprano), a cellist, and two dancers. A motley crew to be sure.  Because of the size of our group and the space we required, most of our performances our first year took place in the outer boroughs–Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx.  Furthermore complicated by our conflicting and ever-changing rehearsal schedules within Juilliard, most of our performances took place on our one mutual day off: Sunday afternoons.

Our strange group offered certain limitations as far as repertoire was concerned, but for each performance we strove to find a new way to make cello and the human voice serve as an inspiring and exciting scene partner for the magic our dancers created. We performed a lot of Bach, Handel, and Mozart, but found ways to work in some golden age standards and even holiday tunes for our December performances. Our two dancers would improvise to Bach preludes, Mozart arias, and anything else we would decide to throw at them.  Assembling the program for each performance really tested our creativity and ingenuity, but the end of a successful performance was always incredibly rewarding. We worked this way for two years together, and then my former group mates graduated and moved on. I graduated and stayed at Juilliard for my M.M., continuing in the fellowship program with a different ensemble – for which repertoire was much easier to assemble.  Myself, a collaborative pianist, and two more singers make up my current group.  We perform at nursing homes, homeless shelters, psychiatric treatment facilities, and hospitals in the five boroughs.  Our mission? To entertain.

Now, this concept may seem strange to anybody who is training at a conservatory, learning to be always critical of your own work. Though audiences at Juilliard are always seeking entertainment, it is our keen ability as performing artists to imagine the highly critical (nonexistent) dialogue taking place in the minds of our audiences. This is a finely-tuned method we artists use to cause ourselves maximum grief. As soon as we convince ourselves that our audience does, in fact, want to be entertained, we are freed.

Now, Juilliard is not an inherently critical or scary place. On the contrary. But this is the place where we are trying to become our best selves, and–as I said–we like to freak ourselves out. But that is not a requirement (or recommendation) for being a successful performer! And the minute we get away from school, we remember that people WANT to enjoy what we do! Especially people for whom our performances are novelty, are exciting, are NEW.

Selfishly, GCSF serves as a place to remind ourselves why we do what we do when we have worked ourselves to exhaustion and talked ourselves in circles. And the people in the audiences at these various facilities? They feel that, too. These performances serve as an outlet, an escape, a remedy, or as sheer entertainment for the audiences we meet. I have had long discussions with residents at nursing homes about the history of the Metropolitan Opera, or the lineage of bassists in the New York Philharmonic. I have been serenaded by a man at an HIV/AIDS treatment center singing his own composition. I have seen an unresponsive child in a pediatric facility open her eyes and lock them on me as I sang.  And I have had a man in a psychiatric treatment center come up to me after a performance and say, simply, “That made me feel so much better.” And the same was true for me.