Member Spotlight: Justin Montigne, Clerestory, San Francisco

Justin Montigne, a professional choral singer, voice teacher, and registered yoga teacher, teaches workshops, classes, and private lessons in the Bay Area and around the country. His interest in the free and easy alignment of body and instrument led him to yoga, which helped revolutionize his singing and teaching.

How did you get your start as a choral singer?

I was plucked off the piano bench in middle school choir. Clearly my vocal ability outweighed my piano ability! An early choir director shepherded me into high school choir and I got very excited about it and continued participating in choirs throughout college. I studied vocal performance all the way through to my doctorate, but I was still singing in choirs. I ended up auditioning for Chanticleer and after three years singing with them, I was pretty much in a choral vein.

The path of choral singer, more than solo singer, has been very fulfilling to me. I just love the ensemble nature of things. It is much more gratifying to me to be collaborating than to be working in isolation in the practice room.

How did you get interested in yoga?

I was finishing my master’s degree at the University of Minnesota, and was still having vocal issues. I didn’t feel like I could get the freedom in singing that I wanted. A colleague suggested I try yoga, both for the mental and spiritual benefits, because I was really stressed at that point, and also for the physical side of things—learning how to relax and get in touch with my body. After one class I was hooked on the practice. After a few months I began to notice that my singing was better. Ever since then I have been exploring how yoga practice can improve not only my singing but also that of the students and the ensembles I work with.

What are the main ways yoga helps singers?

It helps you connect more consciously to your breath. Being able to control your breath is great for posture, and not just giving you better posture, but also awareness of your posture. Proprioception is a word I use a lot, which means knowing where your body is in space. This is something that singers need and generally do not have. Yoga also gives you patience and discipline and a healthy perspective on your body, your life, and your relationships to others.

Sometimes I think we forget that singing requires the whole body, not just our mouth and throat.

I like to use the analogy of the cello. You play on the strings, but it doesn’t sound like the cello unless it has the whole body of the cello in the shape of the cello and maintaining the shape of a cello. As singers, we need to sing off of the posture of greatest ease and vitality. If we don’t maintain that as singers, if we don’t learn how to hold and reinforce the posture of singing throughout our singing lives, then our voices are not going to be consistent and reliable for us and as full and pleasing as we need them to be. And we are not going to be able to be a full participating member of an ensemble. Yoga is all about awareness of the body and the mind. If you can have that awareness as you are singing, it greatly improves the experience.

You are currently a singer and board chair of Clerestory, which is a “leaderless” a cappella men's ensemble. How does that work?

ClerestoryClerestory performing SeaSongs at the Craneway Conference Center in Richmond, CA. October 2012

We affectionately call ourselves the Chanticleer alumni choir. Jesse Antin, the founder of Clerestory, invited some of his old Chanticleer friends to join this group, where everything would be done democratically, to see how it would work. It has been seven years now and it is working, but it is a challenge. We don’t have a music director and we don’t have staff of any kind. We have a fantastic volunteer board and then the singers do everything else. Some things we do really well and some things it would be easier to have one person in charge.

What have been the challenges?

Well, the solution that will survive the committee process is often the one that is the least revolutionary. It also takes us a long time to come to consensus on things. We can only do three concerts per year, for example. Finding rehearsal time is very difficult because we accommodate everybody’s schedule, rather than some director or board putting concert dates down on the calendar and saying sign on or not.
We have no final arbiter of truth other than the group consensus. We have long discussions about how we are going to say a certain passage or pronounce a word. 

We are veterans of many choral groups that have had leaders, and we like the personal freedom. There are tradeoffs but there is a certain beauty to being able to do whatever you want. Sometimes you stumble spectacularly and sometimes you are able to achieve something really rare and beautiful because it’s just organic.

It takes a lot of investment from the people involved—the singers, the board members and the audience. It is a potluck choir experiment—it is what we all bring to the table. We have an amazing outpouring of support from volunteers among our audience as well. If they do not see a leader or an administration to fall back on, it is easier to ask an audience for help, because they realize that they will get out what they put into it. There is no other backstop.

Clerestory does something else that is innovative. You stream all of your performances on your website for download or listening online. How did you decide to do that?

We know we have friend and fans in other places than San Francisco, even other countries. We want to maintain our local presence as a value, so we are not going to travel to them, but we want them to hear the concert. So we hope to have a larger digital presence, so that people can listen to Clerestory wherever they are.

It takes a lot of work and money to put the concerts online. You have to make sure you have purchased all the rights to have those things streaming online. We have quite a few online listeners and we have to watch closely how many downloads we get to make sure we have purchased the right number of licenses. We are still small, so we are not talking huge numbers.

So unless something goes viral, you’re okay?

I would love that. See if you could make that happen, would you?

You have many roles—singer, voice and yoga teacher, and now president of the board of a choral ensemble. How has Chorus America been helpful to you?

The information is incredibly useful. I can go to the Chorus America website and find any article I need about various topics. The presentations I have seen—like How to Make a Case for Your School Choir—had so many instantly applicable tools for all kinds of choirs. I took a couple of ideas to use with Clerestory.

Chorus America is our hub through which we can connect to one another. There are many of us around the country and the world that are working on the same things. If there is a forum for those ideas, we can reach one another. Through the annual conferences and the newsletter and commenting on the Facebook page we can make those connections with colleagues who are of like mind or working on issues that are of interest to us all. That is really helpful. Otherwise, we are just little constellations out there twinkling on our own and not able to bring it together as a whole.

Related Links

See Justin’s web series, Yoga for Singers, on the Chorus America website.

Justin consults with choirs about incorporating yoga and movement into rehearsals—either in person or by Skype. See his website SingAsana for details.

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