I Am Collingswood: Robert Cart
From cows to Carnegie Hall and all the way to Collingswood, the unusual trajectory of Robert Cart's musical journey has taken him everywhere in the world.
At 16, music took tenor/flautist Robert Cart from his Indiana cattle farm to the Indianapolis Orchestra. Currently serving as the director of the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, Cart lives in Collingswood with his partner, Russell, and their son, Vincent. He tells us about the things he's seen along the way.
Collingswood Patch: You've performed at some of the most famous music venues in the world, including Carnegie Hall and the White House. How do you get ready for a gig like that?
Robert Cart: I just try to get quiet at much as possible. I pull myself away from distractions. And, yes, I get nervous, but I feel like there's a wall that either I get past that wall or I'm going to run screaming from the building (laughs). But when I get past it, everything is great.
Oh, but there's something else—whenever I go to an audition or a performance, I have this old cassette tape of the Violent Femmes. I play it and it gets me worked up.
Patch: When you sing very well-known parts, say from Carmen or Madame Butterfly, how much of stamp are you able to put on those melodies and how closely do you have to stick to the music?
Cart: I think that's one of the fun challenges. I think visual artists have more freedom to just create anything. As vocalists, we're more constrained, but we have the ability to be creative within certain guidelines. It's a real challenge, but it's a lot of fun.
I can put my own stamp on a lot of the opera roles I sing; I just sort of create my own back story for many of them and bring that to the opera.
Particularly in opera, moreso than in theater, we're restricted by time, because it's music. In theater, you can create your own timing for the lines as you deliver them. In opera we have to sing a melody that has restrictions, but we can create a lot by dynamic changes, color changes, and by changing the way we pronounce the words to give them a certain emotion.
Patch: When did you discover you can sing?
Cart: I grew up on a farm in southern Indiana and we would go visit my grandmother. She had this huge house, and in the back hallway was this old, out-of-tune piano. I used to just go and play around on it, and I eventually discovered chords and scales, just tinkering around.
Around 5 years old, my parents heard that and thought that I should get piano lessons. So they sent me to Thelma Henry down the road every Tuesday after school. And she was a ragtime pianist, self-taught. She used a book called John Thompson's Teaching Little Fingers How to Play, but she taught me everything in that book with a ragtime beat in the left hand.
I joked with my family all the time that they didn't want me singing and playing in the house because it was so noisy and everything. So, I would have to go out to feed the cattle a lot and I would just stand in the big bin where I fed them and sing to the cows.
Patch: What sort of songs did you sing to the cows?
Cart: Air Supply! Things like that. Bad '70s, and eventually '80s, stuff. They stand there and they stare at you, just chewing their cud. They're the best audience you could ever have.
Patch: Does your vocal training inform your flute playing?
Cart: I played a concert recently in Haddonfield and one of the people who was there, who had retired from the Haddonfield Orchestra, said my playing sounded like I was singing. I had never thought of it that way. But, I guess the way I phrase things is very much the way a singer would phrase things, but I don't do it consciously, it just seems natural.
The interesting thing about flute is it doesn't take as much power for flute playing, but it does take more air. You lose half of the air you put out, because half of it goes out and the other half goes into the flute. So, it takes more air than singing, but it takes less physical effort.
Patch: Is there a musical period, style, or particular composer to which you are especially drawn?
Cart: Prokofiev is high on that list. In terms of opera, I love to sing the music of Verde or Puccini or sometimes Wagner. Romantic-era classical music too, but I could really go for just about anything.
When I'm playing flute, anything goes. I'll play Baroque music or contemporary music—I actually just commissioned a piece of music that I performed at Carnegie Hall in January 2012, it was a piece by a contemporary composer for flute and voice with piano accompaniment. He composed it in such a way that I could sing and still play flute all in the same piece.
Patch: That seems like it would be really hard!
Cart: Well, I wasn't doing both at the same time. That's more of a jazz technique. But, he would give a measure or two rest to go from one to the other. But, it was, the singing and the flute playing were both really challenging.
Patch: What sort of music are you listening to now?
Cart: I feel like I'm singing and making music so much of the day that when I'm in the car, I turn on NPR and I listen to Fresh Air! I don't listen to a lot music unless it's somehow associated with a performance or a rehearsal or something like that.
Patch: How do you bring your experience as a performer to your role as an academic?
Cart: I'm a director of a school of music, so I have to bring all the faculty and the students together.
So maybe it's my experience on stage, where you're on stage with all these other characters and you have to work so closely with them, and no one person can shine because you all have to be part of an ensemble—I think I bring that general philosophy to the way I lead the school of music.
We all have our little quirks and personalities, just like characters on a stage, and we have to find a way of working together.
Patch: In your opinion what are the necessary qualities a person needs to have in order to be a good musician?
Cart: You have to have a suit of armor. Because you're expressing the thing that's so important to you and the audience doesn't always like it, or the people who you're auditioning for aren't always going to like it. So, you have to really be prepared to understand that you can't please everyone with what you're doing.
I mean, you have to be disciplined, and you have to work regularly on your craft, but I just feel like you always have to protect yourself.
Patch: Do you have any advice for parents who are trying to raise musical children? Do you place a big emphasis on music education & appreciation as you're raising your son?
Cart: Yes. My son is 10 now and he's been playing violin since he was 4. But he's also a competitive gymnast. He does both and I think that's a good balance.
I think parents are afraid that if their children go into music that they won't be able to support themselves. I would say that if your child indicates any sort of talent, to find lessons for them somewhere and to help them learn. Because it's a skill that's going to be with them for the rest of their lives. And it's a skill that's going to help them express themselves and learn how to function in society in very important ways.
Even if your child is in high school and they want to be a music major in college, I don't think parents should discourage them. I think parents should say yes. There's more in your life you can do with a music major.
One thing we're doing at Montclair is sort of taking the bachelor of music degree and putting a piece in it that allows more flexibility. So we can train kids toward graduate school in medicine. There's a connection between music and medicine that I don't really understand, but a lot of doctors come from musical backgrounds.
Our goal is try to train our students with a Bachelor's in music and give them all the prerequisites that will prepare them for the MCAT, and then we send them off to medical school. So they'll finish their Bachelor's degrees, they'll just take all the chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and math courses that they need as part of this flexible curriculum. Then they'll take the MCAT, and if they get a high enough score, they'll go on to medical school. We're just starting it, so we haven't really marketed it yet, but that's what we're doing.
It's based on the data that shows that a lot of doctors are musicians already. Our mission isn't to try and bring music into medicine necessarily, it's just to train doctors so that they'll have music with them for their lives. We're doing this possibly with law too, and business.
Patch: How much time a week do you spend practicing?
Cart: I'm guessing three or four hours a day, and I usually have one or two days off. So, 15 hours a week practicing both singing and flute. Voice, I can't practice as much as the flute, and sometimes the flute, if I have the time, will go on for four or five hours.
Patch: You don't have to force yourself?
Cart: Yes, I enjoy practicing and rehearsing more than performing. I mean performing is great; for me, it's the fun of exploration and the fun of experimenting with the music. Especially with I get to work with a pianist or an orchestra, the fun of experimenting. The performance is great, but it's sort of a downer in that I know it's the end of that period of music making.
Except that first opera rehearsal. What always happens when you go into opera rehearsals is that the first thing you do is the entire cast sits down at the piano and you just sing through the entire opera. And it's where everyone sizes each other up, so that's a little unnerving.
Patch: So you actually teach yourself the parts before you go to rehearsal?
Cart: Yeah, I'm lucky that I have that piano background from when I was young. So I can play well enough to play the parts on the piano and sing along with it and learn it that way. And then—a lot of people say not to do this, but I think it's good because I know not to imitate other people—I get CDs and I'll just sort of hum along in the car and it helps me memorize.
Patch: So do you also have training in Italian and German?
Cart: Yes, that's part of the training of a voice student in a bachelor of music program is learning Italian, definitely, and then German and French.
Patch: Are you fluent enough that you can actually communicate in those languages?
Cart: I can speak German. Italian is a little bit iffy, but I can work my way through it. If it involves food or getting around on a train I can probably do it in Italian. My French, I can understand what I'm singing, because I work hard to translate it, but I don't really speak French.
Patch: If you hadn't been so motivated to learn music, do you think you would have learned these languages?
Cart: It's hard to say, I doubt it. I may still live in Indiana if it weren't for music! (laughs) It's what took me off the farm!
Patch: How did you and your family come to live in Collingswood?
Cart: I was offered a job at Rowan University. I was the associate dean for the College of Fine and Performing Arts and we were coming from central Pennsylvania where I was teaching at another university.
I came out here during the final interview process ,and I was asking people about nice towns that were kind of artistic with restaurants and things and a couple of people said, “Collingswood.” So on my way back I drove through and fell in love with it and we bought a home here.
We came here in August 2006, so we've been here a little over six years now. And even though I recently took a job in North Jersey at Montclair State, we're still staying here. And I have a small apartment up there during the week and then I come home on the weekends and the holidays to be with the family.
All because I couldn't leave Grooveground (laughs).
Robert Cart will be performing at The Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square on Wednesday, Feb. 27 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. as part of the Lunchtime Concert Series.