Thoughts on Theses: Patrick Spoor ’23

Patrick Spoor ’23 is a music major who recently completed their vocal performance thesis, “Einheitswanderschaft.” They play the part of a wandering soul who, through a collection of songs, seeks the greater purpose of “Einheit” — unity or oneness.

Thoughts on Theses: Patrick Spoor ’23
Spoor was the first in years to complete a vocal performance thesis. Photo courtesy of Andy de la Torre ’24E.

Q: What is the process of doing a thesis for the Music Department like?

A: Well, for people who focus on voice — people who sing — most of the time they do either composition or conducting theses, which involve performances but don’t necessarily require you to perform yourself. [There is also] a musicology thesis, which is a written thesis but that is very rare. There are [also] performance theses, which for voice is very rare. The last voice performance thesis [at Amherst] hasn’t been for years. But for instruments like piano, it’s a lot more common.

Q: Why did you choose to do a voice performance thesis?

A: I remember watching my friend … [do a performance thesis] and it was super fun. So I just gathered a bunch of songs that I wanted to sing. The last song in my thesis is called “Nachtzauber,” which translates to “Night Magic.” I started learning that in 2020, the spring semester before we all got sent home for Covid-19. And I held onto that song for a very long time. This was at a time when I was deciding that I did want to do the music major. I was originally a math major, but it wasn’t working out for me. The passion just wasn’t there. And that’s when I felt like I needed to shift over to music. I [also] had all these ideas about doing a thesis, and “Nachtzauber” always felt like it was supposed to be included. During that whole year, 2020, I took time off from school, and so I had a lot of time to think about my thesis — putting together the songs, emailing [Classical Voice Instructor] Tom Oesterling, [Director of the Choral Music Program and Lecturer in Music] Dr. Arianna Abela and also [Visiting Artist in Residence and Director of Choral Activities at Williams College] Dr. Noah Horn.

Q: How did your thesis evolve?

A: At first it was about trying to find the songs, what I want to sing and what sounds good. Dr. Horn was very kind and helpful. He directed me to this book of voice repertoire — I own the book now — and that helped me find a few songs. I picked [two pieces by] Franz Schubert, a Romantic composer, and they became the first two parts of my thesis. One was “Der Wanderer” which means “the wanderer,” and I thought that was a good start. It set the theme, it set the character. [And so the theme became] having this dream of escaping. “Der Wanderer” ends with “there, where you are not, is happiness!” which became the thesis statement of my thesis. The second piece [in my thesis] is called “Abschied” which means “farewell.” [So at this point] I have a wanderer and the farewell, and I thought, I’ll run with this. “Abschied” is a nice jovial piece of five long stanzas in German. But it’s basically me saying goodbye to all the things that I care about in my hometown — like the people, nature, friends, and women, [but also] the sun and the stars and my window, and my house. And so, things get sad. The next few pieces [after those songs] are the part where I begin exploring — meeting new people and experiencing new things. I [do this through] “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée,” it’s in French, which was an ordeal to learn how to pronounce. I’d call this section the debauchery. Playing the part of Don Quichotte was very funny because my thesis title, “Einheitswanderschaft,” is all about unity and Don Quichotte is this very diluted character, not based in reality, who is lovesick to the point that he thinks his prayers will be answered [to break the curse on Dulcinée]. “Don Quichotte” has three movements, there’s a love song, a prayer, and then a drinking song … the drinking song captures how Don Quichotte’s love is a delusion and [Dulcinée] doesn’t care for him. I loved putting this piece here because of the drinking song, “Chanson à boire” is followed by an eleven-minute atonal piece about war.

So I go from [laughing] and drinking and then [immediately after to] “oh life is not so great.” So the next piece, “Canti da Estravagario di Pablo Neruda,” is all about destruction, and there is a theme about leaving someone behind. This would be the sobering part. It comes from a [Pablo Neruda] poem, a historical autobiography document, about this woman [that Neruda] left behind in his hometown. At some point, he comes back with his future wife, maybe in his fifties, and the city is destroyed. It is war-torn and the people aren’t there, [the woman he left behind is not there] and it just feels awful. And that’s the sort of thing you’ll see out in the world. It’s not all about drinking, having fun, and fantasizing: [this piece brings in] the real. And lastly, “Nachtzauber,” based on a poem by the German Romantic poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, was my destination. The final lines of the song allude to a distant land of memory — “silent,” a place of introspection and reflection. Although the wanderer’s journey is never over, they carry their memories, thoughts, and experiences within. And the song ends with me saying “come, come, I found a place where there is happiness.” And so it all ties together in the end. So, Einheitswanderschaft is a journey through consciousness: broadening one’s imaginative and empathetic sphere through lived experiences to appreciate the beauty of every person’s voice resonating in the valley.

Q: What obstacles did you face in the process of your thesis?

A: None of my pieces are in English. I tried to find a piece in English and I just didn’t like them, so I gave up looking for any songs in English. “Canti da Estravagario di Pablo Neruda,” the title is in Italian but the poem is in Spanish, I know Spanish. Three of the five pieces are in German, and I’m learning German but I don’t know French. “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée” is in French, and it is very obtusely written. It’s not very obvious what the sound [of the words] is based on the orthography but I figured it out … But it did take me a long time to be able to pronounce. I also think the grammar of German is ridiculous at all times. And basically, I have to know what these pieces mean, so I would write notes of translation above the words. And with the French I could get a gist of the meanings based on my Spanish background. However, memorizing songs in other languages kind of works.

I had some issues with low notes, closer to the performance date of my thesis. My thesis was on Feb. 4, and for some reason my low notes would just give out on me. And that was really scary and I got very anxious about that. But the day of my performance everything turned out okay. My anxiety medication saved the day. Then with “Canti,” it took me so long to learn because it is atonal. I would spend a lot of time on the piano trying to figure out what it sounded like. It was also very inaccessible, meaning, it was not easy to find. But I became particularly fond of this piece. The composer, Armando Gentilucci, had his atonality focused on melody and ignoring keys. So he crafts a sonic landscape that he feels works best for the meaning of the poem — which is great, but really hard to perform. Another brick wall was trying to find accompanists and then organizing the rehearsals. It was countless emails. It took me so long to find a violist and an oboist. Eventually I found my accompanists for piano, oboe, violin, viola, and cello. All wonderful people and it was so fun to work with them. But it was just so many emails.

Q: What was the journey of dealing with anxiety and your love for performing?

A: I started my thesis before I was on anxiety meds. I started taking them maybe a year before my thesis. And just, thank goodness for psychiatry, because I couldn’t do anything about the physical symptoms of my anxiety. My heart rate would just soar, and I couldn’t do anything about that. My stomach would hurt so much, which is really bad for singing. I would be burping a lot and feel air bubbles get stuck in my throat. And so I would get super tense [when I would sing] and be burping and have acid reflux. But the anxiety meds helped my heart rate, and I was so clear of mind and it was so weird. I had never felt so clear on a stage. And I didn’t realize that this was normal for other people.

I’ve never not had stage fright. I am terrified of public speaking, [and have been] ever since I was a kid. And I do not know why I get so nervous, it is super internal, and super physical. With performing I just want to give music to people and make people happy, and I think to myself “Why should I be worried about it?” And then my body says, “Who cares? I’m going to be worried anyway.” And so, in choir performances — small ensembles, solos — I could barely breathe, making it really, really hard to maintain breath support. Which is dangerous, especially for my thesis, to sing long phrases where I shouldn’t breathe [and not knowing if I can] make it to the places where I’m allowed to breathe. And anxiety meds just helped with that. And I only had access to that here through the school health insurance scholarship. So it’s not like I had access to this before. I’m from Georgia and the health insurance there is useless. So I did not have general health check-ups for most of my life. But anxiety medication changed my life. I would not be able to perform on stage if I did not have my anxiety meds. And I am so thankful for having them. My stage fright disappeared — which is crazy — and I was able to actually feel immersed as a performer, which I never felt before.

Q: What advice would you give to students considering a thesis in the Music department?

A: First of all, it’s just finding what aspect of music that you’re passionate about because there is so much you can do with music. It’s a very open-ended major that is about sound and there’s so much you can do with sound. You can talk about it, you can make it, you can direct it, you can perform it. But basically, if you are passionate about music then you should just do it. And make sure you have enough material. I would also recommend going to your voice instructor or professors. I’ve worked most closely with Professor [of Music] Jeffers Engelhardt. I took his class, Anthropology of Music: Voice. I loved getting a lot of feedback from him, he works very well with students. So I would always heartily recommend that. I worked with Oesterling, my voice instructor, since my second semester at Amherst, and [we built] a pretty tight-knit relationship because we’ve been working together so long and it’s made performance just more fun. I’ve also been in choir since my first semester, so I’ve just been doing a lot of [music]. So I would say just immerse yourself into your instrument or your voice, immerse yourself into what you want to play, and if you end up liking it then maybe you can do a performance thesis out of it.

You can watch Spoor's thesis performance here.