For Rachel Carlson, necessity was indeed the mother of invention. “I started Six Degree Singers in 2009 because I needed to conduct a choir to get into grad school,” said the conductor, soprano soloist, chamber ensemble singer and voice teacher.
At the time, Dr. Carlson already had earned bachelor’s degrees in vocal performance and music education from the University of Maryland and a master’s in choral conducting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“I knew I wanted to eventually get my doctorate in choral conducting, but I wasn’t conducting! I was singing choral music all over the country and teaching voice, but for a number of years, Six Degree Singers was the only conducting I was doing.” Working on the degree locally–at the University of Maryland–enabled her to remain with the all-volunteer community-based choir she founded and continues to direct.
Carlson, a Silver Spring native and Montgomery Blair High School alumna, is also Assistant Professor of Music, Director of Choral Activities, at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. She conducts its Shepherd University Chamber Singers, Women’s Camerata and Masterworks Chorale and teaches choral methods, conducting and voice.
Affinities for music and teaching are family traits, and Carlson’s own bent was evident early. “My mother is an accomplished amateur pianist and accompanist, and I grew up singing show tunes with her at the piano,” she said. “However, while my mom’s side of the family all love music, no one went into music professionally — with the one hugely notable exception of Carole King, my mom’s first cousin– they are mostly teachers.” Her mother began teaching her piano at age 5 and while growing up, she “dabbled in violin, ukulele and guitar.”
Similarly, Carlson’s current multitude of positions had its roots in a busy childhood. Voice lessons started when she was 13, and she sang in the school choir and acted in its musicals. At 14, she “planned and ran 2-1/2 -hour rehearsals every weekend and arranged music in my spare time” as the music director of Blair’s student-run a cappella group, InToneNation.
Despite all the music, as a student in the Blair’s Math/Science/Computer Science magnet program, Carlson planned to study medicine. “I switched gears the summer before senior year, mid-college application process, when my friends urged me to consider music as a profession and my wonderful high school choral teacher sat me down and talked me through what that life might look like,” she recalled.
Carlson’s family was “concerned” about her choice of earning a living as a performer, “but once I started my master’s in choral conducting, everyone seemed to relax,” she said, noting that her “parents have been and continue to be hugely supportive of me and my career.”
To start the ensemble she “sometimes affectionately calls my ‘guinea pig choir,’” Carlson “gathered friends from high school and college who used to sing, and they invited their friends, who invited their friends, etcetera, and that is how we got our name: we were connected by six degrees of separation.”
The “tables have turned” in terms of how Carlson now spends her time. “I am conducting four choirs and it is much harder to find time to sing professionally. However, conducting and singing are both extremely important to me and I make the time and the commute to continue singing professionally because there is something missing in my life without it. I believe that my conducting, singing and teaching are each strengthened and enriched because of one another.” She is delighted with having “to balance my varied and fulfilling career as a musician and educator.”
Carlson said the 35- to 45-member group has grown artistically as well as organizationally. “Over the past eight years, we became a nonprofit organization, recorded a crowd-funded CD, commissioned and premiered 16 new works by emerging composers and began an annual Young Composers Competition (now in its sixth year)
“We have performed in venues throughout the D.C. Metro area, including the Folger Shakespeare Library, White House, Strathmore Mansion, Nationals Stadium and Kennedy Center National Choral Festival; collaborated with the Teatro Lirico of DC Spanish opera company and the New Orchestra of Washington, and prioritized arts education and frequent outreach in local area middle and high schools.”
“The strong sense of community that has developed in this group” is the source of Carlson’s greatest pride. “Everyone is in the same relative ‘young professional’ age range, 20s to early 40s … and that has fostered a really strong social bond between the choir members,” she said. “I feel so fortunate that they are my choir and that I get to spend every Thursday with them.”
Carlson attributes the growth of the Six Degree Singers to practicing “sight-reading and musicianship training” at weekly rehearsals. In addition, “I keep throwing these incredibly difficult pieces at them where they have to grow musically in order to succeed,” she said, admitting to being “cheerfully but incessantly demanding and believing that they can always achieve a higher level of music-making.”
“On many levels,” Carlson added, “we have already achieved so much more than I ever dreamed we would, in no small part due to the brilliant, creative and hard-working teams of volunteers that run the executive committees and artistic committee. Artistically, I can program basically any piece I want, and they always step up to the plate.
The January concerts, titled “The Madrigal Mystery Tour,” Carlson said, “will feature Renaissance madrigals juxtaposed with Beatles arrangements as well as a variety of other loosely-defined ‘madrigalistic’ pieces.” She hopes that the audience will appreciate “the wide variety of music included in the program. I really love juxtaposing different styles, eras and genres under the same broad ‘theme.’”
Consistent with the group’s original goals, the program will consist of “accessible music that hopefully any audience member can relate to–both new and veteran choral music listeners–while broadening their understanding of what choral music is and what choral music they like,” Carlson said. “After a concert is over, audience members frequently tell me their favorite and least favorite pieces, and they are usually different for each person, which I think is great!
As for the future, the plan is to record another CD in 2019 in celebration of the group’s 10th anniversary and “to discuss touring options and collaborations with other ensembles. I would love to have a greater reach in terms of audience members and potential choir members and perform at even more exciting venues and festivals in the D.C. area,” Carlson said. “I am thrilled with our upward trajectory and want to just keep riding that wave.”
Six Degree Singers will perform Madrigal Mystery Tour winter concerts from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 20, at Rockville United Church, 355 Linthicum St., Rockville, and from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28, at Hughes United Methodist Church, 10700 Georgia Ave, Wheaton. Discount tickets–$15, $12 for students (with ID) and seniors– may be purchased online—www.singsix.com—until the day of the concert. On performance days, tickets are $20, $15 for students (with ID) and seniors. Admission is free for ages 18 and younger. Audience members are encouraged to dress in Renaissance or hippie costume for a chance to win “a scrumptious treat.” Learn more about Six Degree Singers on CultureSpotMC here.