On Charting Your Own Path: A Conversation with Lucy Fitz Gibbon

I first met Lucy almost 10 years ago at SongFest. I still remember how clear and beautiful her voice was, even then, and the simple and honest way with which she approached the Art Song repertoire. All these year later she’s now enjoying a busy and successful career as a concert artist and it was wonderful to sit with her and hear how she developed her truly unique career.

An Untraditional Education
“I started playing the violin when I was 5, and played in local youth orchestras starting at age eight until I went to college. I started singing in high school, but at that point I didn’t really have plans to go into music professionally—I just enjoyed it. So, for college I purposefully chose a liberal arts program where I’d be able to pursue music on the side of what I thought was my career aspiration: medicine. It turned out that at Yale, because I wasn’t in a conservatory, I had a lot of opportunities to do different kinds of music, especially contemporary repertoire. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of difficult music, but (I’m sure because it was a very small pool) I was also the obvious person to ask if there were some planned collaboration between the composition students and a performer… I did a bunch of projects like that, and I was lucky enough to have a voice teacher who would tell me, ‘sure, you can learn A Mirror on Which to Dwell,’ or do things that probably more sane people wouldn’t have attempted. Nobody discouraged me—so I just kind of did it. That was really beneficial both in terms of helping me meet and work with other composers, as well as teaching me, ‘well you can probably muddle your way through if you put your mind to it.’ That’s been a good lesson. I got to do more vocal chamber music in my undergrad than most, and I was able to do a lot of work with graduate students in the School of Music. I think because I have such a strong instrumental background (my sister plays the cello, my mom plays the piano, and we would play chamber music as a family), chamber music never felt foreign to me.”

“I was thinking about music and the relationship with text and color and the expressive potential of music in a completely different way. I thought, ‘Wow! I could do this for the rest of my life and never get bored!’”

Not only did Lucy’s time at Yale allow her to meet lots of composers and cultivate a knowledge and interest in contemporary music, due to a $3,000,000 grant from The Mellon Foundation used to start the Yale Baroque Opera Project, it also provided the opportunity to get to know the complexities of historic music. “At the same time that I was doing new music, I was also getting to do some Baroque opera in really well-funded, carefully taught productions. There was a course associated with the opera that we would produce each semester, and everything had really high production values. It was totally random luck. I was really fortunate to be there at the right time… I think the real reason that I went into music professionally—I would obviously credit to my early exposure to music and my parents’ love of music and all of that—but really it was my first Yale Baroque Opera Project production: they did Monteverdi’s Orfeo and I was singing La Musica… Her music is strophic so it doesn’t take very long to learn those pitches, and I remember learning the aria and thinking, ‘oh, well, it’s not that much music. Why is my coaching so long? We’ll get through it really quickly,’ and by the end of this coaching my mind was just completely blown. I was thinking about music and the relationship with text and color and the expressive potential of music in a completely different way. I thought, ‘Wow! I could do this for the rest of my life and never get bored!’”

Her experiences at Yale also led to her be able to fund her singing. “I was just really lucky that some people at Yale really believed in me and made opportunities possible for me. Yale has a prize in the arts, which I won when I graduated, and it was a lot of money. I cried when I saw the check. I had no idea it would be so much, and that gave me some independence. My parents didn’t want me to go to music school, and wanted me to do something more sensible. If I hadn’t won that award, I don’t know if I would have gone into music because it would have seemed impossible.”

It was inspiration from a Yale Master’s student that launched Lucy on to the next unusual step of her journey. “I did an Artist Diploma after Yale at the Royal Conservatory’s Glen Gould School…I applied because there was such a beautiful singer and artist doing a masters at Yale when I was there as an undergraduate. She in turn had gone to this program in Canada for her own undergrad, and studied with this particular teacher, Monica Whicher, and since I respected this student’s artistry and singing so much, I figured it might be worth a shot. Somehow, I got in, on a full scholarship… They have a small program that I would highly recommend. It’s a really brilliant model of instruction where you get an hour-and-a-half long lesson every week with your teacher, and an hour-long coaching, and then classes… On top of that they have a robust master-class program and they bring in artists from all over the place, usually at least once a month. For each master class, you have an hour-long private lesson with the visiting artist before singing in the class. Many of the artists were repeat guests: for example, Tim Noble came from Indiana at least 4 times when I was there. Having that kind of repeat exposure to great teachers alongside the already wonderful faculty at GGS was amazingly transformative. I would highly recommend the program.” After her Artist Diploma in Canada, Lucy made it back to the States for the Masters Program at Bard. “I ended up going to Bard for a number of reasons…partially because it made sense to reestablish roots here. (I’m American, not Canadian.) The technical teacher that I worked with at Bard was Edith Bers, and I felt like Monica Whicher and Ms. Bers had a similar teaching style. That was really useful because it allowed me to hit the ground more or less running when I came back.”

What Life Looks Like Now
After finishing her Master’s at Bard and rebuilding her career in the U.S. Lucy is now living in Ithaca, New York, with her husband and favorite collaborator, Ryan McCullough, where she is an adjunct professor in voice. “My husband had started his doctorate at Cornell at the same time that I started my Master’s at Bard…When I graduated, he was two years into his doctorate and was still there and so the most obvious thing for me to do [was] to move… I had kind of hoped I might be able to do some teaching, but really had no clue how to make that happen… However, when Ryan started at Cornell he had contrived to bring me in for a recital. After that, I was hired to sing with the school’s orchestra and for a performance with Christopher Hogwood, and a few other things. So, we did make an attempt to get some tendrils into Cornell before I moved there, mostly because then it was a way for me to get paid to go see him. In my second year at Bard, the woman who had been teaching voice at Cornell, Judith Kellock, passed away suddenly. Though that was a great tragedy for the musical community, I was lucky that they needed, or they were open to having, somebody else teaching there. I started out with just a couple of students and then have built up a studio since then… I think compared to other adjunct jobs it’s a relatively decent one…I’m paid hourly by the number of students that I teach. This semester I’m teaching a total of twelve students, ten of whom are through Cornell’s lessons program and two of whom I teach at home… The great thing about this position is that I can take as many or as few students as I want.”

“In a lot of ways it’s just sort of developed organically, and not necessarily because I was planning on my career going in one direction or another.”

Lucy’s teaching position also allows her the flexibility to pursue her flourishing concert artist career. “In a lot of ways it’s just sort of developed organically, and not necessarily because I was planning on my career going in one direction or another. My husband and I… we’ve made working together a priority… My husband is actually not really a collaborative pianist, he’s just a pianist who happens to be a good collaborator, so he does a fair amount of solo stuff and new music and chamber music… but if I get hired for something and can choose my pianist, I always choose him—or sometimes he might get hired for a recital, and he might propose that we do a recital together rather than a solo piano recital, or he’ll do a few solo pieces and we’ll sort of mix it up. So, we help each other get work, and then I guess it’s just been a lot of word of mouth.”

Besides collaborations with her husband, Lucy gets her concert opportunities largely through people she has known and worked with in the past. Then, the challenge becomes programming. “In terms of recitals it has mostly been people approaching me, sometimes with a specific program idea in mind and sometimes with a blank slate. Ryan and I did a recital at John Harbison’s music festival out in Wisconsin, and they told us we needed to include one specific piece while programming around a certain theme. In other cases it has been pretty open ended. I would say most of the time with recitals people offer us dates, and then if it turns out that we have a few different performances happening around the same time, we try to make them have the same program. Sometimes we also just make opportunities happen. This past spring [2018] Ryan and I were asked to record an album of music by John Harbison and James Primosch, and we wanted to have some chances to perform the program before we recorded it. After we had been hired by a few venues, I wound up approaching a few others just to have more experiences performing the repertoire before we recorded it. We did one performance at Bard and another performance at Cornell, where in both cases the universities were able to handle advertising, ushers, programs, tuning the piano, et cetera, so even if we weren’t paid, we weren’t liable for expenses and we were able to perform the program several times in a row. In the beginning of 2019 I have three recitals: one of them is a relatively free choice program at Colgate College, which needs to include some contemporary music. At the same time, Ryan and I have been working with a doctoral candidate at Cornell on mid-twentieth century Polish music. There’s all this fabulous repertoire that hasn’t been done… We’re working on a recording project with him, so we’re doing a recital of that repertoire in February at Cornell, and then, in June SongFest asked us to do an alumni recital, and that is again mostly free choice. So then the challenge is to maximize overlapping music between these three performances and another of Debussy’s massive song cycle Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire in January. Ideally I won’t have to learn four completely new programs, but sometimes that just happens.” [Update to say that since this interview, Ryan and I have decided that we’ll be premiering an amazing work by Andrew Hsu along with giving US premieres of a number of works by Polish composers (Palester, Kassern, Tansman, and Bacewicz), and presenting the same program at Cornell and Colgate. Hsu, as a student of the late Steve Stucky, is in a way part of the same lineage of Polish composers that goes back to Stucky’s own championing of Lutosłowksi. It’s a pretty cool program, if I may say so myself! Our program at SongFest will be quite different, and the Debussy seems to be a one-off for now.]

Having a career focusing on new music is challenging not only because of the potentially tricky notes, rhythms and extended techniques, but also the sheer fact that there is constantly new music to learn. “The great thing about doing new music is that it’s really fun and interesting and you’re never doing the same thing and that’s great, the bad thing is that you’re always doing new stuff and it’s exhausting. Now, finally, I’m getting to the point where I’m starting to get asked to do things multiple times… One piece I premiered in Albany with the Albany Symphony in June [2018] I’m going to be repeating with the Richmond Symphony in February, and that’s a gorgeous piece by an Indian-American Composer, Reena Esmail, called Meri Sakhi Ki Avaaz, for soprano, Hindustani classical singer, and orchestra. Reena, who I first met at Yale, is trained in both the Western Art Music and Hindustani Classical Music traditions. This piece is an exploration of what it is like to live in both worlds: the piece takes a bit of the Flower Duet from Lakmé as its germinating seed. Then the incredible Saili Oak, the Hindustani singer for whom it was written, starts improvising on and embroidering those pitches. It’s a beautiful three-movement piece, with texts in both Hindi and English. The first movement is based on this Flower Duet quote, the second movement is in this extremely slow tempo that gives Saili a lot of room to improvise, and the third movement is very up-tempo and joyous and involves us singing back and forth solfège and tarana syllables. It’s so much fun! I’m really grateful that this is one of the new pieces that I get to do again. The work deals with everything that we need right now as a culture: I don’t think that we need to be so locked into a little corner, musically or otherwise. Plus, I love singing with Saili and I’m so glad I get to do that again! One of Reena’s interests is bringing Hindustani music and Western music together in a way that provides opportunity and value for people of color, women of color. Reena’s been doing really amazing work in that vein, really supporting other composers and creating opportunities for diverse voices to be heard.”

“With the technology that’s available to us now, there’s no excuse not to have a woman composer represented on your program. There’s so much great music, a surplus of great music, and there are so many ways to find it!”

Lucy is an advocate of works by women and people of color and always tries to represent them in her programming and teaching. “I’ve always been interested in ‘weird’ corners of music that aren’t done by other people, which sort of speaks to my interest in contemporary music, but also has led me to my interest in ‘lost’ compositions, and particularly to works by women or other marginalized members of society… There’s something both delightful and important about getting to champion an underdog. It’s something that I’ve cared about for a long time. So in terms of my own work, I try whenever possible to include women, people of color, and/or people of differing backgrounds, whatever that might mean in that particular situation, in any given performance… It’s not that I don’t want to do music by men or by more popular composers, but I think that it’s very easy to program music by women and by people of color, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do it, since the music is excellent! Sometimes a concert presenter might be afraid of programming a piece (or a program) that they think is not going to be well-received by the audience because it’s too avant-garde, or too obscure, and they’re afraid the audience will be put off by it for whatever reason. Despite this kind of pushback, it has been my personal experience that audiences will totally go there with you if you ask them to. (I do think that speaking to audiences can help them be more receptive to adventurous programming, so there are steps we can take to better our odds, if you will.) Furthermore, with the technology that’s available to us now, there’s no excuse not to have a woman composer represented on your program. There’s so much great music, a surplus of great music, and there are so many ways to find it! The same thing goes for choosing repertoire for students. I’m always looking for ways to help my students be more invested in the music that they’re singing, which might mean helping a student see that there are people who look like them and sound like them that already exist within what should be the canon, even if it’s not quite canonized yet.”

“I think there’s so much potential for art song to reach people and to be meaningful in today’s society, and we just have to figure out how to tell people about it.”

Lucy brings her love of all music weird and underrepresented to her work for Sparks and Wiry Cries, an online magazine for all things Art Song. “Sparks and Wiry Cries was founded by pianist Erika Switzer and soprano Martha Guth. It was initially founded with this idea of creating an online magazine with articles about art song, but since its creation they have continued to put more and more resources into it, and now it has three branches: it has the art song magazine part of it, where we post interviews with different people, some scholarly work, interviews with big artists in the field, and interviews with people in organizations that are more up and coming. Then, Sparks became stewards of the Casement Fund, and we started doing a concert series here in the city. This year we’re doing a festival, so rather than having a series of concerts throughout the year we’re going to do a festival in January at the DiMenna Center. It’s going to be centered around women’s voices and the #metoo movement, and will feature Stephanie Blythe in recital, and a number of premieres. The third arm is a competition we started a few years ago called the songSLAM, which is sort of an audience-choice competition for new art song. We’re going to start publishing some of the winning compositions, or the compositions we think are very strong, on the website. The goal of Sparks is to reach out to performers, to students, to educators and to have a truly a global community by virtue of these three branches. Now we’re doing songSLAMS across the United States, in Canada, and even in Slovenia! One of our goals is to try and create a supportive model that brings in some income for us, but at the same time helps to generate interest in new song in the community. I think there’s so much potential for art song to reach people and to be meaningful in today’s society, and we just have to figure out how to tell people about it.”

Though Lucy is technically the editor for Sparks and Wiry Cries, another way she shares her love for lesser-known composers and singers is through the organization’s Facebook page. “One of my jobs, aside from editing programs and press releases, is to create daily content for our Facebook page and website in the form of a ‘Song of the Day.’ One particularly meaningful exercise for me has been that for the last two Februaries, I’ve featured solely African American performers or composers during Black History Month. I’ve learned a huge amount about the history of African performance of art song in the United States and Europe from the present day back to the late 19th century, and that’s been an incredibly valuable education. There are so many amazing contributions to this repertoire by African American artists that we just don’t talk about or acknowledge. It’s been both fascinating (in terms of how much I’ve learned) and difficult (in terms of acknowledging and mourning the historical and contemporary barriers that we as a society set up for those artists). Sometimes it can feel like not very many people are listening or responding to this work, but I’m extremely grateful for everything that I’ve learned over the past few years of Song of the Day posts. And sometimes you really do touch a nerve! This past February I found this incredible recording. It was so beautiful that I asked myself, ‘How could I have not heard of this person before? Her singing is so gorgeous!’ I tried to do some research on her and I couldn’t find much, but I posted the recording with whatever information I could find. Later, somebody who saw it knew the person who had made this recording, and she was able to connect that person with the post that I had made, who in turn was extremely touched to see the response to her work. Usually I’m not such a fan of Facebook, but I was really glad for it that day.”

“One thing that I believe very firmly is that humans have not fundamentally changed over time. There are certainly aesthetic differences that have arisen over the course of the last two centuries, but the way that we process sound and think about music and poetry has not: we’re fundamentally the same people.”

On bridging the gap between contemporary and historical music:
From the very beginning of her college studies Lucy has always had a foot in both contemporary and historical music and has spent a lot of time uncovering what they have in common. “I find part of the reason why I’m interested in contemporary music, from a practical standpoint, is that if you can learn that kind of music quickly, and you’re willing to do daunting things, it makes you easier to hire… It’s a useful skill to have, but at the same time, I also really enjoy performing music that isn’t contemporary. The work that I do with current composers informs the way that I think about Schubert and Brahms and Fauré, and I think that is actually really valuable because it helps you to consider the composer as a person and not as some sort of deity. You see these notes on a page and think, ‘so Elliot Carter may have decided that he was going to write a 5 against 7 polyrhythm here, but Schubert didn’t have that option. What was he trying to say in his own lexicon?’”

The line that Lucy sees through these vastly different styles and works is essentially storytelling. “I’m actually taking a graduate seminar on Schubert right now at Cornell…It’s a musicology course, but the professor teaching it also plays early keyboards, and there are a number of other people involved in historical performance also taking the class, so there is some discussion of performance alongside harmonic analysis and historical relevance. One thing that I believe very firmly is that humans have not fundamentally changed over time. There are certainly aesthetic differences that have arisen over the course of the last two centuries, but the way that we process sound and think about music and poetry has not: we’re fundamentally the same people. It’s easy to feel that those people are very different from us, and that might even lead us, within musical study, to make assumptions that make these people more different from us, more foreign to us than they actually were. I just don’t feel like that’s possible, that people have changed so fundamentally. And therefore I feel that, whether or not it’s correct, this gives us permission to make musical choices. It’s nice to have facts to back up those musical choices, if someone with their knickers even more in a bunch than you do wants to tell you you’re not performing a piece a certain way, but I think that we are storytellers in the end. Of course I don’t think we should be running around on stage making overly dramatic gestures, but I think that we need to find ways to identify with the characters, with the voices that we are bringing to life. I think that is how our art form will survive. I also think it’s something we desperately need as a society—empathy and being able to step into other people’s shoes. I think that we should all feel that we have permission to be our wildly unique selves in the music. We spend all this time going to coaches and being told what is stylistically correct—and I DO think we need to go through that process, it is really important… I care probably more than most people about things like that, which is why I’m taking a graduate seminar on Schubert—but ultimately it has to be our voice telling the story, and we have to believe that our individual voices are vital… As a society we keep trying to say that some voices are more valuable than others, and that makes me very concerned… The reason why our voices are meaningful is because they are individual. It is, in that sense, only our one, individual viewpoint, but you never know who else in the audience it might resonate with, and how it might cause somebody to think of themselves or someone else in a new way, and that is so incredibly valuable and important… Maybe we can trust ourselves that our intuition is valid.”

My conversation with Lucy was passionate, thoughtful and incredibly inspiring. I loved hearing about how she created her own path simply by doing what felt most authentic to her at the time. Thank you so much, Lucy, for taking the time to share your story.  

And now for some final thoughts…

On Management or the Lack Thereof:
“Sometimes I feel like it would be great to have someone who would help me, but then I also worry that it would just be a piece of my little pie. Thinking long term, it would be useful to have an agent for any number of reasons, but I would need to find the right person, someone who is invested enough in me as a person and an artist that they could help me in my ‘weird’ interests. I’d also love to have a little bit more opera in my life, but I relish the freedom that I get in concert work.”

A Few Favorite Contemporary Composers:
Sheila Silver: “I talked briefly in the beginning of our conversation about this opera that I’ve been involved in, Sheila Silver’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. It is based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini, who is most famous as the author of Kite Runner. I’d gotten involved with the opera because the conductor heard me singing in a concert at Tanglewood and then brought Sheila to come hear me and…that was my audition… When I was at Bard we had to do a presentation on a contemporary composer for a class, so I decided to write about Sheila and started singing some of her songs. I always is to try to find a balance between my more avant-garde tendencies and music that presents itself easily on a first listen, but which is also interesting enough to keep grappling with over a number of performances and the rehearsal process. I think Sheila’s music is very approachable, but also is very well-crafted and thoughtful and gorgeous and lyrical. She has whole evening length song cycle for three voices of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems, Beauty Intolerable. She also has a beautiful set of three songs that were written in memory of Gilbert Kalish’s wife called On Loving.”

Kate Soper: “I’m such a fan girl of Kate Soper’s, which I hope she doesn’t mind me saying. Kate is a genius and I think her music is fabulous: a crazy sound world which seemingly doesn’t take itself very seriously and yet through that, because it is simultaneously telling us such truths about the human condition, is deeply felt at the same time that you’re laughing. One great example of this is her piece for voice and flute, Only the Words Themselves Mean what They Say, which is marvelously virtuosic and also heart rending. Keep your eyes (and ears) out for her new opera.”

Florence Price: “African-American 20th century composer Florence Price is having a bit of a resurgence right now, certainly in terms of her orchestral music, which has been performed again by major orchestras in the past few years. Her Fourth Symphony was just discovered during a home renovation, and was recorded for the first time. Among her song output, there are some pieces that I, as a white person, don’t feel I have the right to perform, but there are a lot of really beautiful works that are accessible to people of any background.”

Helpful Non-Singing Related Things:
“I think it’s important for me—for anybody, I would imagine—to have a support system and a sense of value outside of the work that you do. For me, it is important that the work I do in this world make a difference, and while I think that there’s a lot of potential to do that through this work directly, I also have been volunteering for the last 3 years for an organization that pairs adults with low-income, academically-struggling children in my school district. I’ve been working with one girl in particular for three years (she’s now in 8th grade, so since her 6th grade year), and I meet with her twice a week after school. It has been eye opening: students reading far below grade level, students dealing with food insecurity and homelessness, students whose parents are working hard and doing the best they can, and it’s just not enough, which is where we come in. It’s been a privilege to get to work with these students and to understand my community better. It was one of those things where I asked myself, ‘I’m so busy—can I really make time for this if I’m not being paid?’ and then I realized that it truly was not that hard to find time for another human being who’s struggling. She has grown tremendously (she made the honor roll last semester!) and it’s been really great to work with her. I think I need both a support system, in my case in the form of Ryan specifically, to keep me anchored, but I also need a sense of doing something of value outside of that too. That’s important to me, and I think it’s important for society in general.” 

Helpful Singing Related Things:, Emily Ezust’s website
Sparks and Wiry Cries
Hampsong Foundation…has a lot of resources on American Songs specifically.”

Ideal Routine:
“Number 1: Getting Enough Sleep! I like sleeping. Ideally in a day I’ll have time to be active in my body. I do Alexander Technique, and my husband and I have started running, but Ithaca is very hilly, so my day usually involves some amount of walking, biking, or otherwise getting myself moving… When I’m teaching, I try to keep time for my own work and practicing, and in an ideal world my husband and I are so relaxed that then we can make music for fun together in the evening. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, but I try to find time for myself and my own work, time with my husband and people that I care about—eating together, doing stuff like that—and some time being active. I’m also really into mushroom foraging, of all things, and I enjoy spending time outdoors. Stuff like that is important, but my routine changes based on whatever is going on. I’m definitely not a particularly routine-oriented person, which is partly why I like that I get to do a bunch of different things.”

Favorite People and Programs:
“I’ve spent the last three summers at the Marlboro Music Festival, and I’ll be back there next year. That has been amazing. I spent two summers at Tanglewood, and that was also really wonderful. Dawn Upshaw has been an unspeakably amazing mentor and influence from Bard. I’m always trying to encourage students to go to SongFest because I think that is an amazing resource in terms of the volume of activity and the people who are there. I also was at the Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar and that was really, really great. I think Stephanie Blythe and Alan Smith are geniuses.”

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