Artist of the Week Gabriel Straus ʼ23 on the Cohesiveness of Singing

Photo Courtesy of Artist

 When I met Gabriel Straus ʼ23, I felt a little undressed when I compared my jeans and boots to his collared shirt and sweater. He’d had a fellowship interview that morning, he told me. As a senior, Gabriel is considering what life for him will look like after college. Because he enjoys singing as a way to both relieve stress and build community, Gabriel wants it to be a part of his future. Despite this, he didn’t start singing actively until five years ago. 

“I think that I really started taking singing seriously when I did a senior project at my high school on the Great American Songbook. So like [I researched] jazz standards — songs from the 1920s and 30s that are originally from musicals or from jazz publishers, and got sort of redone a lot of times over the years — both on their history and learning to sing that kind of music.”

Before he started singing, Gabriel made music with a different kind of instrument: a double bass. As the lowest in pitch and largest in size string instrument in modern orchestras, it was an inconvenient endeavor to transport it for rehearsals. 

“I played double bass growing up for like ten years. And then I was basically really sick and tired of taking a really big, not portable instrument places, especially on the subway growing up in New York City. So I tried out for chorus my freshman fall because that was about as portable as you can possibly get for a musical instrument.”

Gabriel began in Swarthmore’s chorus his freshman year and joined the Garnet Singers his sophomore year. Since then, he has been a part of both ensembles. 

“I will never forget in my first rehearsal of Chorus my freshman fall, feeling like I was sort of inside a chord when Joe [Gregorio, the chorus conductor,] did the one-one-one-one warm up and just being like ‘this is so cool!’ And that’s kind of never gone away.”

That warm-up is a trademark of chorus, when the four sections — generally starting with bass before adding tenors, then altos, then sopranos — stack as each section joins the pattern one at a time, resonating the concert hall with sound. 

Gabriel thrives on the energy created by so many people singing together in one room. 

“Being in [a room] with 100 people who are all focusing on the same very specific thing … [that] everybody’s really focused on trying to produce something beautiful and create this single cohesive whole is really really, really appealing to me.” 

Gabriel sees beauty in both the ensemble and in the act of doing something that he loves, which makes singing unlike anything else he participates in on campus. 

“I’m not a super talented musician, and I’m not classically trained. And there are a lot of people in chorus and especially a lot of people in Garnet Singers who are, and I really, really, really love the fact that this is a thing that I do for pure pleasure, where, unlike a lot of other parts of my life at Swarthmore, it’s not about being the best. It’s a space where it’s fine to just come as I am, and I think that having the opportunity to be good at something but not great at something is really, really, really nice.”

Between chorus and Garnet, Wednesday night rehearsals for Gabriel are three hours long. Throughout those many hours, however, the groups maintain their cohesion, learning and adapting to notes from the conductor in order to make the pieces a little better each and every time. 

“I honestly think that specifically singing with other people is something that just feels kind of magical to me … it’s something in which those three hour rehearsals just feel incredibly fast to me in a way that is just really wonderful and something that I want to capture more. I want that energy and more parts of my life. I wish I had that energy and in more parts of my life.”

During performances, Gabriel draws on the unity and focus of the entire ensemble and centers himself fully on the music. 

“It almost doesn’t matter what I walk in with, because it’s such a visceral reminder of ‘Alright, set aside what you’re doing and focus on this.’ That’s kind of one of the things that appeals to me about the practice itself, the way that it forces me to be present. There are definitely times when that’s hard because I’m exhausted. And there are definitely times where that itself can be exhausting, but on balance, it’s really rewarding …”

This year, Gabriel added more music to his life: he joined an a capella — where pieces of music are sung without accompaniment — group on campus called Sixteen Feet. 

“I also really like thinking about [that] sort of balance in choral singing specifically and this is really applicable in a capella singing too. Thinking about a balance between self expression and … being cognizant of your place with other people as part of the broader piece of music in ways that sort of are shifting, that are a fluid balance, that everybody works towards together. That seems like something really special to be a part of.”

I asked Gabriel what he loved about using his voice as his instrument, especially after so many years of carrying around a double bass. According to Gabriel, there’s a certain presence to singing that is very unique. 

“Part of the reason that singing, specifically more than other forms of music that I’ve done, forces me to be present is I can’t sing well if I’m tense, I have to relax myself physically, in a way to be able to make the space to sing properly, in a way that’s really really helpful to me … I think that the embodied experience … of doing that it’s just so joyful. Because it’s … your self is so viscerally a part of it that it’s just sort of a sensation like no other.”

Like many who participate in artistic endeavors, Gabriel finds music to be a way to express himself. It allows him to connect with others and tell stories he may not have had access to otherwise.

“I think that music is such a profoundly meaningful form of expression to me. It’s such a deeply emotive way of communicating to another person and sharing an experience with another person. I think that it … can short circuit some of the intellectual cognitive biases that we might have — the sort of hesitation about participating in something fully … the capacity of music to connect and communicate and to share experience is something that I find meaningful.”

Gabriel doesn’t only participate in making music. He also takes dance classes. Though he doesn’t consider himself a dancer, he finds joy once again in being a part of an ensemble.

Gabriel’s dance style of choice is ballet, and he’s taken ballet classes many times over. 

“I’m not someone to whom movement comes intuitively to at all … What I love about taking ballet is the way that it provides a tremendous amount of structure so that I can sort of work on things bit by bit, get technique and then get sort of working on building some kind of expressiveness from that.”

He’s of the mindset that people should participate in things they enjoy doing even if they aren’t “good at them.” Why does someone need to fit a standard to have fun?

“With dance, having the opportunity to not be good at something, and to do it really seriously is really cool. I think that doing things that I’m bad at is something that I think I need a lot more of in my life. I think a lot of us need a lot more of [it] in our lives. I’m not saying I’m bad at it in a … way where I’m being hard on myself. I love it. I really enjoy it. I participate in it fully, as much as I can, with as much as I’m able to bring in on that particular day and that’s really cool to me.”

Though he spends a lot of time involved in the arts, Gabriel is a Sociology and Anthropology honors major and a Biology Course major/honors minor. He’s also taking seven credits this semester. To me, seven seemed impossible. Four is hard enough already. So I asked him how he handled all those things at once. His answer: figure out what matters to you. 

“It’s a question of priorities … I’ve gotten much better over the course of my time at Swarthmore of looking at my time and saying, ‘Okay, what are different things in my schedule giving me, what am I getting out of this?’ and making decisions about my schedule looking forward from there. I think that, for me, music is something that’s worth prioritizing.” 

Gabriel also does a lot of student organizing work, and this semester has helped bring back the Circus club and been a part of Motherpuckers — Swarthmore’s club hockey team. 

As for where he goes after Swat? Gabriel’s not entirely sure yet. But he definitely doesn’t want to stop singing. 

“I don’t know. Is the short and honest answer. The slightly longer answer is: I make music with friends, and I want to keep doing that. And I want to find ways to expand that when I’m not Swarthmore overscheduled. I think that something that I really both love and appreciate about Swarthmore, and don’t anticipate missing, is the degree to which I schedule every hour of my day here. So [in the future], I want to have more spontaneity and opportunities for making music.”

If you want to see Gabriel and the rest of Sixteen Feet, they will be performing at Jambo at 7PM Wednesday Dec. 7, 2022 in Lang Concert Hall.

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