When accomplished Soprano Nancy Armstrong moved to Charlestown, it was because of how easy it was to park.
That should give a hint to just how long the talented early music singer has called the neighborhood home.
“I lived in the Back Bay for 12 years, but as my private vocal student lessons began to grow, the students were not able to find a place to park in the Back Bay,” she said. “My colleague James Busby – a big vocal coach who is still in Charlestown – had moved from the Back Bay to Charlestown. He told me I should look to move there too. He said there was so much more parking and back then there was. I was able to find a nice little house and purchase it for a reasonable price.”
That was then, of course, some two decades ago, and while the parking situation has changed quite a bit around here, Armstrong’s voice still rings clear. She will show off that voice this coming Saturday, May 16, for a special 175th Anniversary concert for St. John’s Church – where she is a member. While she doesn’t typically sing in the church (she leads the children’s choir), she looks forward to stepping on stage and taking advantage of the great acoustics in the church sanctuary.
“It’s just a beautiful space,” she said. “It’s exciting to think about what it will feel like doing that repertoire, having never done that repertoire in that space. It just puts the singer at ease in there. You know the voice is going out. That is so helpful because if makes us trust and not overwork…It’s just a beautiful place to sing. It puts you at ease because of the beautiful wood. There is also no carpet. When you sing in a dead space, it makes you overwork and wonder if the sound is getting out there. This is going to be a lot of fun and will allow people to see a different side of me.”
The concert will start at 7:30 p.m. on May 16 and will include selections from the American Song Book. Selections will include works from Gershwin (“I Got Rhythm”), Irving Berlin (“How Deep is the Ocean?”), and Cole Porter (“Another Openin’, Another Show”).
As the seasoned performer takes the microphone Saturday for an upbeat set of songs, one might never know she was just a small town young lady who never intended to sing. In fact, for her and her family, music was all about practicality, and she was going to use her long-time talent as a school teacher.
“We were very practical,” she said, noting that she grew up in Saratoga Springs, NY. “I was going to make my living teaching. Who knew I would sing? I was simply going to teach fourth grade, third grade or whatever.”
However, after getting her degree in music education at the University of Vermont, her singing career began to become quite a reality while she studied for a graduate degree at Smith College. While studying, she found her talent for early music and also found that Boston was a great place to have that talent. She landed a job with the Cambridge Society of Early Music and got her first review, which was very positive.
That eventually led to her eight-year stint in the mid-1970s and early-1980s with the Boston Camerata, touring the world and using that success to spin off to other music opportunities.
“That’s where it all blossomed,” she said. “Boston is a great city – a great city for my interest, which is early music. It was always the right place for me. I never thought of moving to New York City…I’ve been very fortunate in my career here. The reviewers have been very kind to me.”
Armstrong, who is now married to a mathematician and is a part-time member of the Brandeis University faculty, now reflects on her career and the ins and outs of constantly performing. She said it is such a tricky balance to keep one’s voice at it’s best. She said a singer always avoids dairy products and alcohol.
“Everyone thinks they’ll just have a little drink,” she said. “Yes, it relaxes you and maybe gives you a psychological peace of mind, but we know it doesn’t help the chords. If you want to drink as a singer, you do it after the concert.”
She also said that the most important part to performing in demanding roles such as in early music concerts – where the voice is an instrument and there is zero room for error – is the mental aspect. It isn’t every night that one feels like performing, and traveling the world, warming up in a bus and sleeping in a hotel, isn’t an optimum way to come into such a performance.
“It’s the power of your mind and you learn that,” she said. “I’ve had to sing over deaths…I recorded a CD of a repertoire two days after my mother passed away. I knew she loved the repertoire and she knew I was doing that and I focused in on that fact. In all such things, you have to go deep into your core to feel you can overcome what is happening. When you sing into a microphone or in front of an audience, they want you to be perfect. You can’t fall back on saying, ‘I don’t feel well,’ or ‘My cat died,’ or ‘I just had a fight with my husband.’ They don’t want to hear that. They want to hear your voice. That’s why I say the mind is 75 percent of one’s singing…That’s the risk we take.”
And any risk that might be taken on stage this coming Saturday will be well-veiled with a fun and upbeat set of songs that will set the stage for a celebration
of the church’s ongoing 175th Anniversary. The concert is free and open to the public, but donations are welcome. A reception will follow in the Parish Hall. The church is located at 27 Devens St. and for more information, call the church office at (617) 242-1272 or e-mail [email protected].