© 2017 Agnes Coakley

A little musical biography

 

 

"Develop, don’t compete"

 

Growing up in England and then in the US, my earliest memories of music are of standing at my mother’s or father’s side at the piano, singing hymns. Through my school years in Massachusetts I played cello in a steady string of chamber groups and youth orchestras, discovering that I loved the warmth of good collaborations and hated the coldness of competition. “Develop, don’t compete,” counseled my parents – this became one of my musical mantras.

 

"Make music the first time"

 

I majored in music at Yale, and spent Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings singing in the choir at Christ Church New Haven, where I found a musical and spiritual home.  Christ Church valued sightreading: from the choirmaster, Rob Lehman, I learned to “make music the first time.”  It was there I experienced the love and the selflessness of real ensemble singing, and discovered that giving a stranger just one moment of joy and peace was well worth an hour of intense concentration.

"Trust it a little"

 

I spent five years studying in Basel with Evelyn Tubb, a dear and trusted teacher and a great influence.  Arriving in 2010, I hardly had the confidence to call myself a singer, but slowly began to realize that many experiences had prepared me for this path.  From my first degree and my years of cello I had a musical foundation, but also a sense that there had to be something more than the world of classical music.  From teaching ESL and conducting choirs, I had acquired a taste for being myself in front of an audience; singing a song on stage seemed like a logical next step.  The first time I sat by myself on a stage and felt an audience's rapt attention in the silence before I started to sing, I was hooked.

 

“L'orazione sia padrone dell'armonia”

 

I continued to conduct church choirs in Basel, and built wonderful relationships with many of my German and Swiss singers. In a goodbye message, one told me he would like to give me a box of punctuation marks – a reference to my obsession with getting the choir to sing the text accurately, punctuation and all. Indeed, I was coming to realize more and more that for me, bringing the text across to the audience was the most important goal of singing. As Monteverdi wrote, “The words should be the master, not the servant, of the music.” This became one of my guiding principles, and I began looking for ways to communicate even, for example, complex narratives in Italian to an English-speaking audience, without them having to spend the concert with their faces buried in the program. Historically-inspired gesture became one of my weapons in this fight, and I continue to draw on research about other aspects of historical performance practice—ornamentation, pronunciation, timbre, and rubato, to name only a few—to inform my own singing.

“That's quite a transformation, there!”

 

In 2015 I moved back from peaceful, clean Switzerland to my loud, crazy hometown of Boston, to sing, teach, and conduct here. I take with me the many experiences and lessons of living and studying in Basel, and continue to look for those moments of concentration, rapt attention, and inspiration that appear in performance. I thank Tony Rooley for calling my attention again and again to this phenomenon: per-form-ance as the moment when something takes shape; something elusive, subtle, yet tangible; something that can be practiced, yet can never be reproduced.

 

A moment of transformation.

"Faith, not fear"

 

Surprising everyone including myself, I moved to Berlin in 2008 to teach English as a foreign language.  There, I started taking my first real singing lessons, and then fell in with a crowd of expat musicians at St. George’s, the Anglican church of Berlin. Within a year I was conducting the choir: my first conducting job. Not long after that, I took a leap of faith and applied to study voice at the Schola Cantorum in Basel.