I think the first time I really remember being interested in singing was early in elementary school, maybe at age 7 or 8. I enjoyed singing along to the radio or joining in at the school assemblies, but I was absolutely blown away the first time I saw the neighbouring high school’s madrigal choir come and perform for us. They sounded great, they had the most beautiful costumes, they moved while they sang! I thought that was the best thing since sliced bread – possibly even better than sliced bread. Since then, singing is my greatest passion.
My name is Marguerite Smith, and much of what I do boils down to being creative wherever possible. On the one hand, that means coming up with ways to help people solve their everyday problems, and on the other, it means coming up with the best way to express emotion or tell a story through song. As with many of the big changes in my life, I came to my job almost by chance. I started university with the intention of getting a degree in math and came out with one in music. I started training as an accountant before going back into a conversion course for computer science. I found out about my current company’s graduate employment scheme through a friend in one of my music groups. I started with the company as a hands-on engineer. Over the years, I took lead on projects, so that I could ensure things ran as smoothly as I could get them to. I moved into solution design rather than implementation, which meant talking to customers and defining their needs and then working within our product portfolio to create a solution that met those needs in the most appropriate way possible.
I grew up in California and lived there through university. At around the end of my first year, I heard about the Irish choral group called Anúna and I started up an online fan group for them. While I was finishing my degree in music history, I was still enjoying listening to Anúna every chance I got, and I was lucky enough to be part of a group of like-minded people, some of whom I’m still friends with now. One of the fan club members suggested that I read more about the MA in Ethnomusicology offered by University College Limerick. It really did seem like a good match for my interest in music, so I decided to apply. I was accepted into the program, I was able to take up the offer, and I was ready to embark on an adventure – and it’s still going nearly twenty years later.
My interest in music was natural, but the technique has required work. I still take lessons every week to keep improving and refining what I do. The way that I’ve sung has changed over the years, and every style has its own particular technique and nuance to make it sound “right”. So many musicians have been an influence in my singing that it’s hard to make a list; I’m afraid I’ll leave people out! The most direct influence is probably Michael McGlynn, founder and director of Anúna, for obvious reasons. Some of the others would be Ella Fitzgerald, Elly Ameling, Billie Holiday, Joan Sutherland, Louis Armstrong, Dolly Parton, and Alison Krauss. Each one is very distinctive, but they’re also each amazing.
Regarding my favourite genres of music to sing, I tend to go for the showy opera arias when asked to come up with something on the spot, but ultimately I love singing anything that will connect with the person listening. After all, it’s much like the advice I got recently when doing some radio training – you may have an audience of tens, or hundreds, or thousands, but the real connection is between you and each individual, and each connection will be slightly different. I also love performing in places with wonderful acoustics. Any place that was made to amplify and glorify sound, particularly the clarity of the human voice, can give you chills when everything goes right.
I learned a lot as a singer and as an individual while I sang with Anúna between 2002 and 2007. The group sings with no conductor and often moves around the venue in organic ways while performing – so you have to not just know the music inside out, but you have to really pay attention to everything that’s going on around you. It takes a lot of dedication and coordination from everyone to keep that going, especially as you wouldn’t necessarily be performing with the same group of singers each time. I was lucky enough to travel a good bit with Anúna, mostly around Ireland and other parts of Europe, but also as far afield as Japan and the east coast of the US. In every case, there was a real sense of wonder from the audience that I always find magnetic. It’s the shared love of the music that brought us to that same point at the same time, which is a very powerful motivator.
For the performances I’m most proud of with Anúna, I can narrow them down to three events. First, while on the tour in the US, we didn’t just do standard concert performances, we also did educational outreach-style events. This got us together with kids who might never have heard this kind of music before to share some fun with them. Second, the last album recording I was involved in was for the 2006 album Sensation. This was full of music that was so different from what we’d performed or recorded previously (since 2002) that I still think the album is quite special. I will always have a fondness for the earliest recordings, especially the energy that’s present, but Sensation is a high point in the discography, in my opinion. Third, a concert in a church in Kildare (I think!). I have always suffered badly with stage fright, which has made solo performance risky at times. Audiences are there to be transported by the singer, not to feel nervous with them! This night, though, I had been asked to take the first solo line in a piece called Sanctus, and everything went right. Not only did it go smoothly, but I felt that I could let my voice fly for the first time in a way that I hadn’t been able to previously – that freedom was exhilarating. I can’t remember exactly where or when that performance was, but I remember exactly how it made me feel during the song, and that’s what I still strive for.
More recently in my singing experiences, I found out about the Accademia d’Amore under Stephen Stubbs through my voice teacher in Seattle, Marianne Weltmann, who recommended that I audition for the workshop. That experience was absolutely amazing, learning from international experts and my fellow students in an immersive experience. I was relatively unfamiliar with the particularities of staging Baroque opera, so learning Baroque dances, singing with period instruments, and working on historically-informed performance was a new challenge for me. I joined two North Dublin Opera productions (so far) after taking part in a Dublin opera studio in 2016. One of the singers in that studio was talking about her experience with the director of NDO, so I sent an email to him asking how to get involved. He invited me to a rehearsal and a performance of The Magic Flute later that year, where I was surprised to see not just two of the singers from the Dublin opera studio, but also one from my Anúna days! Paths can cross in many ways. The director then asked me to take part in their productions of Cendrillon (2017) and Orfeo ed Eurydice (2018), which I gratefully accepted.
My future plan is to keep singing for as long as I can and keep performing where possible. In an alternate universe, I might be independently wealthy and able to sponsor my own recordings and concerts wherever I like; but in this one, I have to plan them carefully and take the opportunities that are afforded to me!
I think singing has absolutely been a benefit to my technological career. Traits of being adaptable, reliable, and perceptive are absolutely key when designing solutions and delivering them to clients. In addition to those, I’ve been able to use some of the anti-stage-fright techniques to help with presentations, breath control, and different shades of vocal colour to help add depth when talking to clients, and memorisation techniques to help learn new information quickly.
Through my experiences with singing, I can absolutely recommend a few things to the dedicated amateur:
- Be open to opportunities — not everyone has the same goal or the same path, and that’s fine. It just means that you need to be aware of what’s going on around you and that you can’t necessarily wait for things to drop into your lap, much like work!
- Be open to how your hobbies and your work can overlap — if I hadn’t joined Anúna, I wouldn’t have gotten my last job. If I hadn’t had my last job, I wouldn’t have been in Seattle and discovered my fondness for opera performance. If I hadn’t discovered opera and pursued it more seriously, I wouldn’t have been in a position to take my new job.
- And finally, be open to learning — there is always something to improve. If nothing else, be aware that your muscles and reflexes change with time and health, but that doesn’t mean that “age wobble” is a given. If you keep up your learning, you can work with your own changing circumstances and you can always work toward an appropriate, healthy sound for yourself.