Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wednesday Cyberspace Recitals -- O cessate di piagarmi -- or, Learning Vocal "Make-Do"

Well, folks, I didn't think I was going to make this recital today.  If you have been following along in Frescamari's Practice Room at all, you will know that weird things started happening to my voice on Monday and I came down with a cold and sore throat yesterday.  I decided to use the time to figure out how my voice works under less than optimal conditions.

It reminded me of having a bad hair day.  When faced with a bad hair day, a girl has a couple of choices to make.  She can just decide not to go out altogether, and wait until the hair springs back.  Or she can figure out a few "tricks" on how to make herself look good even when her hair is not at its most cooperative.  Based on this, I figured a singer ought to learn how to do the best with her voice even when it is not in its most fabulous shape.

Or maybe it's also like making dinner when you're just "making do" with the things you happen to have in the house, rather than a refrigerator full of the freshest ingredients.  You sing with what you've got that day.

I just remembered something that happened to me a couple of weeks ago that illustrates this.  I had a guest coming to the house and I had absolutely nothing to offer him to eat while he was here.  I scrambled around and found a couple of bruised apples, some cheese, a pack of graham crackers, and some hard-boiled eggs. Not much to work with.

Now, when I was a young bride, I would have planned some elegant and sophisticated snack to have for the visitor. I would have fretted that everything be perfect. (Isn't this like the young singer who must have her recital come out perfectly in every way?)

But, here I was now, stranded in the position I was in, and I had to make do with what I had.  I quickly sliced the apples, sprinkled them with cinnamon, and fanned them attractively on a china platter, discarding the bruised parts.  I used my cheese knife to thinly sliver the cheese, carefully broke the graham crackers into their quarters and arranged them around the peeled and halved hardboiled eggs. (It's in moments like these that one steps back and begins to feel like one has been quite "clever.")

What a strange assortment of food items!  But it actually worked and the plate was empty by the time the guest left.  It worked because over the years I had developed some quick-thinking habits and knowledge about presentation that came in handy in a pinch.

Well, this is what all those O cessate audio files were about in Frescamari's Practice Room over the past couple of days.  I was playing around with the voice I had, trying to see if there was some way to make it presentable by Wednesday under these vocal conditions.  In the practice room you will find all the "bruised" apple sections I had to discard.

The result is that today, dear readers and listeners, I am serving you up a platter of this week's "O cessate di piagarmi," accompanied by myself on piano in Frescamari's Performance Space.  I hope you enjoy this addition to the growing list of 24 Songs and Arias.

Other posts in this series:
"24 Italian Arias in 24 Weeks"
"Wednesday Cyberspace Recitals -- Per la gloria d'adorarvi"
"Wednesday Cyberspace Recitals -- Sebben, crudele"

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Challenging Vocal Comfort Levels

As I am going about studying the 24 Italian Songs and Arias, I am using the book for medium high voice.  For many years I avoided singing in this range. I found it way too difficult and I didn't like the way I sounded.  I didn't understand the value of singing something challenging, and it was hard for me to imagine improvement.  But I was very wrong about this.

I was like a kid who thinks it would be fun to try something and then just drops it when he experiences that it is not easy.  I was not willing to sacrifice the experience of being gratified by the sounds of my own singing. But now, as I discover greater and greater ease singing in this range, I realize how stupid I was, and that all those years I was frustrated and sitting around wondering why I wasn't developing as a singer, the means of that development was sitting in my music cabinet all along, but I didn't know how to use it.

The medium-high-voice book is the one that my first voice teacher began with when I started voice lessons over 20 years ago.  She most likely knew that this was the area of my voice that was inexperienced and needed to be developed and strengthened.  However, I did not feel comfortable singing the songs in those keys. And so, after struggling painfully for several months, I asked my teacher if I could learn them in the lower key.  She simply said, "yes," and granted me "permission" to go out and purchased the songbook in the lower key.

I don't know if this is accurate or not, but my memory of this is that, originally, she had provided me with the medium-high-voice Italian song book, but when I wanted to sing in the lower key,  I was on my own as far as obtaining the book. My teacher pointed me toward where the book could be purchased -- Patelson's Music House, behind Carnegie Hall (it looks like they have closed their business now) --  and I undertook an expedition to this new location in New York City, beyond my usual trails, something that was scary for me.

Even scarier for me, once I was in the store, I had to ask the clerk where to find the book, since I was faced with row upon row of music books and had no idea how everything was organized.  This is a place where real singers shop, I thought.  He will be able to tell that I am not a real singer.  I remember the clerk being kind and helpful and showing me an edition that came with an accompaniment cassette. I happily thought, "that might be useful to practice with," and chose that edition.

I remember, at the time, wondering why -- if the answer was as simple as just switching books -- and why -- if it seemed not to matter that much -- just why had she not just started me out in the lower key to begin with, and why -- if she was a voice teacher who worked with all kinds of voices -- didn't she recognize that this is the key I sing well in?  But I never asked about these wonderings and whys.  Partly because I didn't realize I could, and partly because these wonderings were not at the top of my consciousness.  They were kind of little naggings below the surface that I didn't recognize in their fullness.

This would happen again and again.  My voice teacher started me learning songs in one key, and I would feel very uncomfortable and ask for lower and lower keys.

What was happening? Why was I uncomfortable? Why did I ask for a lower key? Why did she say "yes."

Something I wrote today in Frescamari's Practice Room gave me a clue.  I observed that these lower keys where I was comfortable and familiar were in the area of my speaking voice.  This place in the range of my speaking voice is my vocal "home."  When she asked me to sing a little higher, my voice teacher was bringing me to a new and unfamiliar vocal place, and I resisted.

But the reason the "home" place was so navigable for me was because it was the place where I had practiced the most, and memorized and drilled, and dug grooves.  It was where I felt safe and where I had invested my vocal time.  If I would try to build a second home in this new higher place, say a new summer home, after some time I would have become familiar with the pathways in this second home too.  But I did not know that.  I had never experienced this.

The need to cling to what is familiar -- to stay safe by sticking to known paths -- is very strong in me.  I am not comfortable being an adult and being out in the world.  The world seemed like such a scary place, so as soon as I could, I develop little patterns and routines that made me feel secure and like I could handle everything.  When I drive somewhere on a highway, I use a certain lane, travel a certain speed, and pass cars a certain way.  I have my rules.  When it is time to change lanes and exit the highway, I change lanes in the same spot every time, or at least one of several spots.  My car practically knows the way itself, and barely needs me to drive it because of how I cling to this safety of predictability and familiarity.

This desire for safety has become more encrusted as I have aged.  The more years that pass, the less adventurous I have become, and the harder it is for me to stray away from comfort and routine.

I believe that this overall personality trait has kept me in home territory with my singing for many years, without my quite realizing it.

It doesn't have to be either/or about going into new territory.  There are other options for stretching one's horizons.  For example, instead of facing new territory alone, a friendly and experienced mentor or guide can be of great assistance.  I don't know why that first voice teacher gave in so easily when I expressed resistance to the new territory.  It may be the reluctance of a kind-hearted person to push another into a place of discomfort.  Sometimes we respect the comfort of another so much, and so much believe that we should wait until they are ready to challenge themselves, that we don't communicate well all the reasons why that person should forge ahead.  We don't insist.  We say, "okay, I'm not going to force you."

In the voice teacher/voice student relationship, there can be many assumptions made about the why the other is behaving as she does.  Good communication, like in marriage, is needed so badly.  Maybe that first teacher could have prodded more to find out why I wanted to switch to the lower key.  Maybe I could have asked her why she ever thought the medium high key would be right for me.  We should have talked.

Had I stuck with the medium high key, I would have learned about a territory of my voice that scared me and seemed unnavigable.  With her as a guide, reassuring me, and "showing me the ropes," maybe I could have set up a good camp there, from whence to spring to even further adventures.

Since it is never too late to grow, I shall have to do this now.
In Frescamari's Practice Room:  Exploring unfamiliar territory -- Onsetting on D5

Friday, December 25, 2009

All I Need to Celebrate My Holiday -- Christmas!

There are a couple of things that help me experience my favorite holiday the way I think it should be experienced, with renewed feelings of hope and joy.

The very first thing I need, is my spirituality.  I don't think that I could celebrate a holiday from the outside in.  I need to have a reason that starts deep within me.  I reflect on who and what I think God is, and what my relationship to God is, and what, if anything, I should do about that in my life. Reflection, silence, meditation, prayer, and keying in on why I'm here, what I believe, and what is important to me must be the starting place. From these reflections comes a set of principles I want to live by, my personal code, and I remind myself of them, revise them if need be, and I renew my commitment to sticking to these principles

The next thing I need is connection to my family and friends and all of humanity.  A holiday will not make much sense to me if it is celebrated in isolation.  I need to spend time thinking about the people I love, why I love them, and why I want to keep on loving them.  I need to spend some time making sure these others that surround me know I love them in various ways.

After these first two big holiday needs, then I can get to the "trappings."  For me, the trappings are very simple.  I need a great big Christmas tree, and I need music.  Especially, I must sing the holidays, which I think I have done in Frescamari's Practice Room as my own holiday of Christmas has approached.  The most happy I can be as an avocational singer is when I have an opportunity to sing solo on Christmas Eve.

Last night, at midnight mass, I had my music.  The church does a little extra, and hires some musicians, and the organist lines up a few soloists.  It felt joyful to be part of the festivities at our church last night singing a solo part in an arrangement of "O Holy Night" our organist had made for two of us singers from the parish.

I had meant to bring my digital tape recorder and get a recording of the arrangement of "O Holy Night" that I sang with another female singer from the church.  However, coming right from a great big Italian Christmas Eve feast at my husband's cousin's house, the idea of recording kind of got lost in the merriment.

I drank a lot of coffee to keep myself awake until about 12:30 a.m., when our "O Holy Night" was sung during the communion time.

They say never to try a new recipe when you are having company -- to stick with the tried and true -- however, I have been reading a book about head voice (Head First: The Language of the Head Voice: A Concise Study of Larning to Sing in the Head Voice by Denes Striny), and I felt very strongly that from this moment forward, I must not put pressure on my cords anymore. (See post "Warming up with O Holy Night -- going for less constriction" in Frescamari's Practice Room.)

So, I used all the congregational hymn singing and other mass parts to "warm up" by singing without a feeling of constriction.  The hired musical instruments were loud, with a blaring trumpet, and there were other "loud" singers in the choir singing in my ear, and the temptation to press and feel my own voice and to feel powerful in some way was great.  But I focused very intensely on a non-constricted and free production, even though I could not hear myself except on a couple of high notes.

When the time came to sing the solo, I wanted the crutch of feeling like I was doing something -- something like muscling the sound, but I allowed it to remain free and unrestricted.  The voice kind of did what it wanted to, and I had to trust, rather than control.

I probably shouldn't have taken a chance like that, but people were very pleased with the solo, so it worked, although there were many little things I'm dying to take into the practice room to learn how to manage them while singing this way.  I'll be able to use my 24 Italian Songs in 24 Weeks project to accomplish this task.  In fact, I've already started using this week's song, "O cessate di piagarmi", for this purpose.

Performing is different than practicing.  There are different body dynamics to work out.  I do not get a lot of chances to perform, and I think I should seek them out because the only way to work out all the issues is to face them over and over again.  The more the better.  My Kung Fu sifu tells us all the time, "Repetition is the Mother of All Skills."

I think this holiday worked the way it's supposed to in my life.  I have ended a cycle of work and striving, and will begin anew now, with more concepts to conquer and explore.  I hope you will keep with me in the practice room and this blog as I find out what's next!  Merry Christmas to you all and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wednesday Cyberspace Recital -- Per la gloria d'adorarvi

This is part of a project I am working on to learn 24 Italian Songs and Arias in 24 Weeks. This is week 2, and I have completed "Per la gloria d'adorarvi."

In just two weeks of tackling this project, I am discovering a new way to work with a voice teacher.

In the past, I usually arrived at my lesson an empty vessel, waiting for the voice teacher to pour into me all the wisdom and vocal knowledge that he/she could.  Now that I have chosen this project of learning these 24 songs, taking one each week, I am developing a completely different idea of how to use my teacher as a resource.

My teacher remarked to me that by sharing my singing journey publicly in a blog like this I was "teaching."  At first, the comment caused me to wonder, because I have not set out to teach.  How could I, since there is so much I don't know?

As I pondered this, I asked myself just what it was I was doing in Frescamari's Practice Room then?  I realized that what I was doing is teaching myself.  And I am letting all of you observe me learn how to teach myself.

A few years ago, I was without funds for my voice lessons.  I was pretty desperate, because it was a bad time for me to be without a teacher, as I had not got even near a clue about how to sing yet.  In the midst of despair,  I came up with the consoling notion that perhaps I knew enough now to teach myself.  Maybe there were books out there about singing I could buy and figure out what to do.  I had been participating in an online forum to discuss another interest of mine, scrapbooking.  Perhaps there was a similar type forum where there were singers discussing their voice lessons.

I began to hunt and dig for information.  Somehow, I stumbled upon a web site of a voice teacher who lived far away.  I can't remember who this was now.  I e-mailed him a question.  I asked him if it was possible for a singer to teach herself?

I received a basic short e-mail reply:  No it was not possible for a singer to teach his/her self.  A voice teacher was necessary.

I was a bit crushed by this answer, but I proceeded with my hunt for information.  Perhaps he was wrong.  After all, somebody had to figure out how to sing the very first time, didn't they?  Someone, once, had to do it without a teacher.

Well, after a long search, and much gathering of information, I found out what most classical singers already know, that a teacher is absolutely essential.

However, in these past weeks, I believe that I am using the teacher in a much more productive way than I ever have in the past.  With my 24 in 24 project, I have chosen my own path.  I take the entire week to teach myself the song, the language, and try to work out what problems I can.  At the end of the week, I take the unsolved problems to my teacher.  It is amazing how this different way of working is growing me.  I see my teacher as my main resource as I proceed to teach myself.  I am able to come to the lesson not as an empty vessel, waiting to be filled, but with a jugful of many questions and issues, so many that I hardly know where to start.  Instead of coming just to take, I bring something to my lesson.

It is a wonderful experience.
Click here to listen to this week's "performance" of Per la gloria d'adorarvi in Frescamari's Performance Space.

Also, if anyone out there can instruct me in how to make the Italian diacriticals in html, please send me an e-mail.  I have tried the ò-type commands, but I'm obviously leaving something out.
Other Wednesday  Cyberspace Recitals:
Week 01 - Sebben, crudele
Week 03 - O cessate di piagarmi

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sing With Your Head, Not Your Heart?

"Fight with your head, not your heart," admonished the renowned fencing intructor to the revenge-seeking lead character in the movie Scaramouche, which I watched on the old movie channel last night.

My ears pricked up from my half-sleepy state on the family room couch when I heard this.  Is there some lesson in this that I should apply to singing?  It seems the opposite of what is encouraged.  We do not want singing to boil down to mere mechanical technical excellence.  We want to animate it, bring it to life, imbue it with the warmth of feeling.  That is what we are striving for as the nirvana of classical singing.

Yet, here I am considering the notion of turning it around and using the head to get there and not the heart.

In that book I keep mentioning, On Writing Well, William Zinsser talks about writing  the literary form of memoir.  "Memoir," he says, "isnt' the summary of a life: it's a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.  It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events.  It's not; it's a deliberate construction ... Memoir is the art of inventing the truth."

He mentions that Thoreau's memoir was painstakingly pieced together over eight years.

This is the kind of careful construction that is needed to create just the right kind of experience for the hearer of a song.

The more I work towards mastering little technical details of singing, the more I realize how consciously the choices are made.  As I acquires more and more vocal control, my choices for shaping and coloring phrases increase.  I begin to possess the tools to carefully construct a performing truth.  I am increasingly able to take more and more control of what will be seen and heard.

When Mr. Zinsser speaks of planning a piece of writing, he tells you to ask yourself some basic questions before you start.  A singer might approach this by picturing exactly what they want their audience to see and to hear and to feel, and craft their presentation according to the answers to the questions.  A singer must form a plan.

Yet, the author at the same time tells you not to be a prisoner of that preconceived plan.  He says  "... it often happens that you'll make ... prior decisions and then discover they weren't ... right.  The material begins to lead you in an unexpected direction, where you are more comfortable writing [singing] in a different tone."  He says not to fight such a current if it feels right.  "Trust your material if it's taking you into terrain you didn't intend to enter but where the vibrations are good."

So in the end it seems as if  the head and the heart must work together.  They are a team.  They must form a partnership.  The emotions are the horses, and the head is the driver.

I heard a little show recently where some of the singers appeared definitely to be feeling their singing very deeply, but they were manhandling their voices in a way that hurt as I listened.  They would lean into the emotions so strongly that it would lead them to a sticky vocal spot from which they were unable to disentangle themselves once they got there.  They didn't look to see where they were going and ended up in trouble and had to remain strangled there in certain moments.  While we are infusing the emotions into our singing, we must, like the master swordsman, keep our heads!

I have made a little video demonstration of what I'm talking about in this post in Frescamari's Practice Room.
Click here to watch "Sing With Your Head, Not Your Heart"

Friday, December 18, 2009

Connecting Singing to Primal Self

I was having one of those primal moments this morning.  It was one of those moments when I felt that life was way too hard.  I was in tremendous emotional pain, and I just didn't feel I could go on another minute.  If a state like this comes on me when I've just pulled the car into the driveway, I get paralyzed and cannot get out of the car.  And it did happen like that this morning.

I sat in the car and wept over the steering wheel -- that deep kind of wail of despair.  But the really funny thing about my being an artist, is that while I am in the midst of this very primal experience, there is a little student of life sitting there observing the experience and taking notes -- almost like an out-of -body kind of experience, like those stories you hear about people who die and float out of their bodies and watch all the doctors and nurses rushing around trying to revive them.

"This is interesting," the student of life, thought.  "There is a very deep connection to the muscles of support while she is doing this wailing"

"Is that sound going to hurt her vocal cords?"

"I wonder if any of this can be useful to her singing?"

"Can we put this into Voi lo sapete?  I mean, it's pretty deep emotion."

Well, right then and there, in the midst of my despairing moment, I had to jump out of the car and rush myself into Frescamari's Practice Room and dig out "Voi lo sapete."  As quickly and carefully as I could, like someone who is trying to carry a ripped bag of groceries into the house without spilling anything, I transported those precious primal physical feelings into the house and into the chamber of song.

You know, we don't have to be experiencing actual deep grief and pain in order to be connected to that emotional experience while we are singing.  We just have to be experiencing the physicality of it.  Our bodies were designed to connect to our voices when we are in emotional states.  Wails, moans, outcries, screams, laments.  Feeling that connection helps us understand how the whole apparatus works and why we have it to begin with.

Pay attention to what your body is doing the next time you are feeling anything very intense in your life.  Allow yourself to have the freedom of an outcry, and wail like a baby, even though you are a grown-up.  And while you do, pay attention to what it feels like, because it's going to help you get your high notes.
Frescamari's Practice Room Today:  "Recent Vocal Insights Applied to Voi lo sapete and Mon Coeur"

Thursday, December 17, 2009

On Being Ready -- for Opportunity

You never know when an opportunity is going to show up.  You may think that there is no way you are going to have any opportunities, based upon your circumstances.  But opportunities are mysterious and they have a funny way of showing up at odd times and places.  What happens when an opportunity comes, but you are not ready, and you have to watch that opportunity pass you by?  The answer is not to sit around kicking yourself and wallow in the pain of regret.  The answer is to make - sure - that - you - do - not - let - that - happen - again, by always striving towards increased readiness, just in case another opportunity presents itself -- which it will, eventually.

In recent years, I had an unforeseen opportunity to grow as a pianist.

Ever since I joined a community women's choir six years ago,  part of my approach to learning my choral music has been to privately practice the piano accompaniments to the choral pieces as well.  From doing this, the memories of how much I had enjoyed accompanying our high school chorus came back to me.  I wondered if there might be a chance for me to accompany a piece for our choir.  I even fantasized little scenarios where there was no pianist available and I was able to jump up and fill in at a moment's notice.

I wrote a letter to the choir director and informed her that I had once done choral accompanying.  Her response sounded like she was interested and open to letting me try.

One day, after a period of time had passed, the choir director asked me to lead  some sectional rehearsals. This was very exciting for me, but I was scared out of my wits.  Although I had learned the accompaniment to the piece we were studying, a beautiful song by Faure, I was too scared to play it during the sectional, and the only thing the choir director heard me do was plunk the single notes out for the part to be learned.  It was not long after that the choir director stopped asking me to lead any sectionals.  I believe that my timidity and lack of confidence cost me the opportunity to slide into a spot where I could grow as a musician.

Later on, when I witnessed the skills of the pianists who were chosen to do this task, I was humbled by how confidently they played and their mastery of the piano.

To learn from this, I have decided that I shall improve my skills.  The opportunity is still an opportunity, but not the one I initially thought it was.  Instead of being an opportunity to accompany a choir, it becomes an invitation to take initiative and grow myself as a musician.

As part of my project to learn 24 Italian Arias in 24 Weeks, I have decided to use the same project to improve some of my piano skills.  I plan to learn the accompaniments to the 24 songs as I learn to sing them.  I also plan to use these accompaniments to practice my sight reading.  Today, in Frescamari's Practice Room, I have placed files of sightreading through two of these Italian songs in "Deciding between 'Per la gloria' and 'Vergen, tutt'amor'"  I hope that over these next 24 weeks that my abilities as a pianist will parallel my growing abilities as a singer, therefore "killing two birds with one stone."
To hear me take out Cantique de Jean Racine by Faure (mentioned in above post) and begin to practice it again, check out the Frescamari Practice Room post "Using a Sick Day to Practice Piano"

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wednesday Cyberspace Recitals -- Sebben, crudele

Seven days ago I announced on this blog that I would be learning "24 Italian Italian Arias in 24 Weeks".

I am proud to let you know that the first completed song -- "Sebben, crudele" -- is now up in the brand new posterous site called  Frescamari's Performance Space.

I have decided that I will add one of each of the 24 Italian Songs to Frescamari's Performance Space every Wednesday, so be sure to look there every week.

If you remember, I started this project because the author of a book I was reading claimed that a writer could improve his skills in six months if he got a job at a newspaper and had to write two articles a day.  Apparently, the writer would encounter and be forced to solve many common problems of writing while doing that work.  I tried to think of a way that I could discover and solve many of the common problems singers might encounter.  As a means of doing this, I decided on the project of learning all the 24 Italian Songs that are used in voice lesson classes.  (cf "24 Italian Arias in 24 Weeks")

Little did I know when I came up with this idea. how exciting this project would turn out to be for me.  It has been very interesting so far -- from the very first read-through of the song, to the final performance.  I learned so much just from attempting to learn "Sebben, crudele" in one week.  I have left a trail of links to my work at the bottom of this post, should you be interested to observe and listen to the process.

One of the things I learned was to focus my practice more specifically.  I had to schedule certain tasks for certain days, and as I have done so I think I've come up with a little model to use for learning the rest of the songs.

Day 1:  Select song, first read-through without words, practice words, second read-through with words
Day 2:  Work on song in phrases and sections
Day 3:  Put the whole thing together and identify problem areas
Day 4:  Cut and paste:  work on problem areas, then "paste" back into song
Day 5:  Rest, or sing-through
Day 6:  Bring song to lesson and work with teacher on remaining problem areas.
Day 7:  Record and put in Frescamari's Performance Space

It has occurred to me that I can also use this project to hone some of my piano skills.  So I have decided to add sightreading and practicing piano accompaniments in both high and low keys for each song.  If I ever become a voice teacher, it would be beneficial to know how to accompany a student in these basic songs.

Eventually, maybe after this project is complete, I may undertake another project of recording each of the 24 while accompanying myself on the piano.  For now, I am using the CD piano accompaniment that comes with the 24 Italian Songs book.

If you would like to follow the whole path of his week's learning, here is the progression of links in Frescamari's Practice Room, ending with the final performance in "Frescamari's Performance Space."  I hope you enjoy it.

"Sebben, crudele" learning progression:

Day 1:  Song Selection and Read-throughs
Day 3:  Put the Whole Thing Together; Identify Problem Areas
Day 4:  Cut and Paste; Work on Problem Areas
Day 7:  Final Performance of "Sebben, crudele"

Follow Up With Other Cyberspace Wednesday Recitals
Week 02 - Per la glora d'adorarvi
Week 03 - O cessate di piagarmi

Monday, December 14, 2009

Be Yourself --- But -- What if You Don't Like Yourself?

Over and over again I hear that if I want to be an authentic artist I have to "be myself."

When "they" tell you about how to be a good writer, they say "write about what you know."  When "they" tell you the secret of a good audition they say, "you are enough -- be yourself."  When you want to be a good singer, they say, "sing with your own voice."

In fact, I am telling my 17yo son these things as he struggles to write his personal essay for college application and is experiencing writer's block.  I tell him to write what he cares about.  I tell him not to try to write for "them" but to write for himself.  I give him examples from my singing.  I tell him how if I waited for the song to be spectacular, fabulous, before I opened my mouth, then I would never open it to sing.

What if I am very ordinary?  What if I have no accomplishments?  What if I am boring?  What if I am corny?  What if I am sentimental and trite?  What if I lack breeding and a sense of style and good taste?  If I "be myself" then what would be the worth of what I produce?

I look out and I see so many fabulous people out there.  They are hip.  They are funny.  They are cool.  They know how to put it together.  They are fun to watch and listen to.  Don't I have to be like them in order to be an artist? In order to impress or stand out?

I am learning more and more that we can only be what we are in any given moment.  That is why I am trying so hard to present this blog and Frescamari's Practice Room exactly as I am.  If I am corny, then my blog and my singing are going to be corny.  If I am unsophisticated, then my blog and my singing are going to be unsophisticated.

But, I will tell you something!  If I spend my time with my passion each day, and explore my true interest with it, then it really does not matter.  Perhaps I will develop sophistication.  Perhaps I will develop insight and humor?  Perhaps, as I explore, I will find these things hidden like gems deep within myself.

But if  I lock myself up and don't write and don't sing, then I will never know.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

24 Italian Arias in 24 Weeks

I'm embarking on a new project.  Starting today, I have decided that I am going to explore and learn all the 24 Italian Songs and Arias in the book, the standard ones that we cut our teeth on as we begin to study singing.  Of course, over the years I've learned quite a few of them, but there are all those mysterious ones lurking on the pages I have yet to visit.

There are two recent influences that combined to make me to think of this project for myself.  The first was found in the pages of a book I am reading, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser.  Even though I purchased this book to learn about and improve my writing, specifically for this blog, I have been finding inspiration for my vocal development as well.

In the chapter on "Unity" in his book, Mr. Zinsser said, "You learn to write by writing ... The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis"

Well, if you know me by now, you know I have the habit of transposing sentences like this from other disciplines for a singer.  So I heard, "You learn to sing by singing ... The only way to learn to sing is to force yourself to produce a certain number of songs on a regular basis."

The second influence came as a statement from my voice teacher.  She said, "Do you notice that you are learning songs faster?"

This reminded me of more of what Mr. Zinsser had said.  He claimed that if a writer went to work for a newspaper that required the writer to write two or three articles every day, that person would be a better writer after six months:  "You wouldn't necessarily be writing well; your style might still be full of clutter and cliches,  but you would be exercising your powers of putting the English language on paper, gaining confidence and identifying the most common problems."

Well, what could I do in singing that would be the equivalent of workng for a newspaper and churning out two articles a day?  I realized that the 24 Italian songs and arias would serve this purpose well, and that my newly developed ability to learn songs faster would make a project of learning them all in six months a suitable one to undertake.

"All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.  It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts, or how to organize the material.  It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style.  Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved.  Sometimes you will despair of finding the right solution -- or any solution.  You'll think, "If I live to be ninety, I'll never get out of this mess."

According to the synopsis on the Barnes and Noble site  "For well over a century ... 24 Italian Songs and Arias of the 17th and 18th Centuries has introduced millions of beginning singers to serious Italian vocal literature ...  it is likely to be the first publication a voice teacher will ask a first-time student to purchase."

I believe that those 24 Italian Songs & Arias contain most of the most common problems singers will encounter.  I also believe that working on solving the problem of each of those songs will exercise the powers of expressing one's self through a singing voice.  Since I'm now able to learn songs faster, I am betting that if I learn these songs, I will improve even further in this regard.

I wish I had this realization when I was in my 20s and my first voice teacher kept making me sing "Caro mio ben" week after week, month after month, and -- if my memory serves correctly -- year after year, over and over again?  I didn't really practice it because I couldn't relate to the song, so it seemed like those vegetables your mother makes you sit at the table and eat.  But if I had really understood what the vegetables were doing, maybe I would have been more enthusiastic about them.

Well, I'm enthusiastic now!  Better late than never.

Unlike the newspaper reporter writing two articles a day, I don't think learning two songs a day would be beneficial, due to the nature in which the voice develops and grows and the time it takes a song to sink into a voice.  However, one song a week should do the trick, while I'm working on all my other vocal stuff.  I have an accompaniment CD for all these songs, so at the end of each week I will try to put a "performance" of the song in a new space  I am unveiling this week called "Frescamari's Performance Space."

I have decided to start with the song "Sebben crudele."  You can find it in "Frescamari's Practice Room."  You'll hear my first read-through of the song -- and I was quite surprised at how more quickly I was reading the melody of a new song -- and then the second read-through adding words.  You'll also read about why I have selected this song to be the first one.  See you there! (Click "24 in 24 -- Number 1 -- Sebben crudele")

Follow Up and Hear the Results:
Week 01 -- Sebben Crudele
Week 02 -- Per la gloria d'adorarvi
Week 03 -- O Cessate di piagarmi

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Even a Rock Star Needs "bel canto"

My singing teacher, Susan Eichhorn Young, often repeats that good principles of vocal technique underlie every style.  I believe this is correct.  I think that before singers can put on a vocal style, that it is good to strip down the voice to it's bare essentials and get that right first, before specializing into different styles of singing.  Much of the plain, unadorned vocal line that you hear me practicing in Frescamari's Practice Room is my attempt to achieve that pure vocal state.

Well, today, thanks to the blog of Judy Rodman -- a vocal instructor and subject matter expert at The Modern -- I was pointed to an instructional video called, "Robert Lunte's "Lift Up Pull Back" siren exercise.".  This fun youtube video she links to in her post comes from a different angle than the one I am used to from studying classical technique.  I thought it was refreshing to get a "free lesson" from someone who is not necessarily coming at it from the traditional or classical mode of teaching.

I recommend you head over to Ms. Rodman's post and click the link to the video.  It is very interesting to hear Mr. Lunte talk about handling the primo passaggio from a rock singing point of view.  As I listened, even though he is using a completely different style, and not using the traditional words used to describe classic bel canto technique, I couldn't help but get the feeling that I was listening to someone describe age-old principles of voice -- the universal voice puzzles that confront every singer, and that every singer must figure out in order to sing their genre.

They were having a discussion over on in the New Forum for Classical Singers, about throwing around all the old Italian terms from the tradition of teaching European classical style singing ("Impostazione, appoggio and other fun Italian jargon", by author of the blog Kashu-do: The Way of the Singer).  I have encountered these terms and expressions over the years -- terms like "appoggio," and "mezza di voce" and "cantare come si parla," and the newest one I have encountered, "Impostazione della voce" -- and have been slowly come to understand what some of them mean, but sometimes I have found them intimidating.  Prompted by the discussion on the singer message board, I figured it was about time I started to fill in some of my sketchy knowledge about bel canto.  In an introductory-type article I have found called "The Tradition of Florentine "bel canto" by Liliana Celani, Kathy Wolfe, and Stephan Marienfeld (found on the web site, The Ancient Vocal Method), I was surprised to read that  the physical principles of the human voice, the voice registers and other vocal qualities that are developed in bel canto, were first discovered by Leonardo da Vinci.  Who knew?   Well, I guess a lot of people knew, but it's my turn to learn it now.   A lot of the aims of instruction for bel canto were for the purpose of smoothing out and discovering how to manage and handle these registers.

Like the exercise Robert Lunte shows in his video, classical singers use siren exercises to find this smooth transition between registers too.  I found it interesting and useful to take this exercise "out of the box" that I am familiar with and see a rock singer demonstrate it, and hear the modern language he uses to try to describe feelings that I have heard describe as "inhaling the voice," or "drinking in the sound."

Armed with a fresh point of view, and someone talking in a language of my times, I think I'll do some sirens today and try to incorporate some of the suggestions in the video.  Of course I will do them, I hope, in the more classical style.

 It is always important to define a language under which we can discuss a discipline.  The terms should be accurate and precise.  But, those words can be translated into different languages besides Italian, and expressed in new ways, as long as the vocal principles are preserved, and the voice stays healthy and functions in the way it was designed to function.
Please come on over to Frescamari's Practice Room to hear Avocational Singer try out these "Lift Up Pull Back siren exercises" classical style.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

To Celebrate 100 Clicks -- The Top 10 Frescamari's Practice Room Posts

To celebrate my 100th click this week in a post in Frescamari's Practice Room, I have listed below the top 10 most popular practice room posts.

Many of you know that this blog is connected to another blog I have over at Posterous called Frescamari's Practice Room.  These are "sister" blogs.  Avocational Singer contains little articles and essays on my experiences, and Frescamari's Practice Room is kind of a working studio where I share my process and thinking about singing. They hook together.  In a way, Frescamari's Practice room is my way of "putting my money where my mouth is."  If I want to bloviate about singing topics, I feel that it's fair to show the work I do, and everyone can evaluate who exactly is talking to them, and whether I am able to pull off any of the ideals and concepts upon which I expound.

The Posterous blog site has a feature where a blogger can see how many clicks each post is getting, and I've been watching the number of clicks in the practice room grow.  It has been kind of interesting and exciting to see these numbers get bigger and bigger each day.

This week, I saw the first post to hit 100 clicks.  It was a post where I was struggling to practice the Finnish language for a song Cantigas Women's Choir is doing in its upcoming holiday concert, Songs of Women and Angels.  I found it interesting that it was this post that was in first place.  I wonder if any of you have any theories about why that might be.

It was also interesting that the posts about choir practice were the most popular in general.  I hope this means that there are other avocational singers like myself reading and enjoying the blog.  One place avocational singers have to express their singing is in community choirs like the one I sing in, so maybe that is why the choir posts got a lot of hits.

So, to "celebrate" the growing number of clicks, I thought that I would post the top ten Frescamari's Practice Room topics for you here today.  And I would also like to thank you all for your coming and spending time in the practice room with me.  I enjoy your company!
  1. Choir Practice: Finish Language "Vesi vasyy lumen alle" and German language "Zion hort die Wachter singen" -- 140 clicks
  2. Choir Practice: "Ave Maria" (Bach/Gounod) -- 111 clicks
  3. Vocal Exercise: Just some exercises my teacher gave me to do -- really work that core -- 105 clicks
  4. Choir Practice: "Suscepit Israel" From Bach Magnificat -- 101 clicks
  5. Tools of the Trade: Video Practice: "O Holy Night" -- 101 clicks
  6. "In dulci jubilo" on "doo doo" -- 95 clicks
  7. The Flutey "hoo hoo hoo" Exercise from Choir (That I Can't Doo Doo) -- 93 clicks
  8. Hmmm, I Wonder if that "Doo Doo" Stuff Would Help My "O Holy Night?" -- 93 clicks
  9. Balancing the Middle -- 90 clicks

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wasted Work? Turn Negatives into Positives.

What happens when a singer puts a lot of work into preparing a piece of music, only to have the "gig" changed or cancelled?  It is disappointing not to be able to proceed as planned, but when I change my thinking, something that feels so negative, can turn into a great big positive.

Just today on twitter, the Joan Hamburg Show tweeted  some links to pages that had great suggestions on how to change our thinking and turn negatives into positives.  In the first link, Change Your Thoughts, Change Your World, there are techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy that help to examine thoughts that are producing distress or disappointment.  By paying attention to thoughts, challenging and questioning them, finding the false beliefs within them, and then substituting better beliefs, we can transform the way we feel about a situation.

In another tweet link, Turning Negativity Into Positive Action she recommends taking a deep breath whenever in distress, and then putting a positive spin on whatever action is about to be undertaken.

I have written to you about two different events I have been practicing for in the past few weeks.  One of them is the Christmas Eve "gig" singing "O Holy Night" and the other is for our upcoming choir concert on December 12.  I put a lot of work into preparing for each of these two events and I shared the work with you in Frescamari's Practice Room

Let's see how to put the positive spin on some disappointments that have developed in each case.

Case 1: The Christmas Eve Gig 
(cf: "How Shall I Dress; What Key Shall I Sing In?  For My Christmas Eve Gig?")
If you remember, I had been approached by the choir director for my church and he asked me if I would perform a solo, "O Holy Night" on Christmas Eve.  I accepted and wrote in the post about how excited I was.

As the events unfolded, the next weekend the organist said he was writing an arrangement of the piece, and wanted it to modulate so that another singer could do the second verse, and then the choir would join in.    He asked me what key he should write my part in. Okay, this was not the solo I had originally expected, but it still was good. I enthusiastically told the organist about Frescamari's Practice Room, and that he could hear samples of me trying out three different keys there.  I e-mailed him a link to the site. (cf "Trying Out O Holy Night in Three Keys")

He wrote back that there were technical difficulties with his computer and he could not listen to my files, but that he thought the Key of C would be good for me.

But later, when I received the pdf file of his "O Holy Night" arrangement, he had written my part in the Key of Bflat.  I also discovered that  I would be singing the alto part in a duet at the end of the piece.

This was completely different from what I had anticipated and I was a bit upset about it.

Change Thoughts -- Deep Breath -- Change to Positive Action:  Church is a place where I gather with people in my community who share my faith.  The purpose of music in the liturgical setting is completely different than what is created for entertainment.  I will sing what is written for me, harmonize with the other singer, and help to create a special moment for the people as they meditate and pray about this very important moment in the history of their faith.

Case 2: Suscepit Israel and the Case of the Shrinking Alto Part
(cf:  Choir Practice)
Do you remember the post Choir Practice; Suscepit Israel from Bach Magnificat -- where I work hard on tricky entrances for a big voiced singer in a choir?

Well, last night I arrived at choir excited to sing "Suscepit" with new vocal confidence attained from having practiced the tricky parts.  But that enthusiasm was soon dampened by the news that our choir director had decided to eliminate a chunk of alti from those entrances because the alto section outnumbered the other parts and was throwing the entire choir out of balance.  It is understandable that the bigger-voiced alti were taken off the part, but I felt a keen disappointment in not being able to sing what I had worked so hard on.  In fact, I was so disappointed that it was hard for me to sing, something which almost never happens to me, for the rest of the rehearsal.

Change Thoughts -- Deep Breath -- Change to Positive Action:
Being in a choir is a completely different musical experience than being a soloist.  The sound of the group is the artistic product.  If some individuals are causing the group sound to be less in some way, that needs to be fixed.  The conductor is the ears and has the artistic vision of how the piece should come across.  She can arrange her singers any way that produces the effect she wants.  That's what it is to be in a choir.

Decision and Mental Note:  After I give my first "coming out" recital (find and see countdown timer in right hand column of this blog), I intend to plan a Christmas Recital full of songs I want to sing, where I can be in control of the program!

In both these cases, did the hard work go to waste?  No, because I participated in the creative process, which to me is more valuable than the actual resulting performance. Sometimes for a hobbyist singer, there are no upcoming "gigs."  Believing that I was going to have to sing these pieces gave me a place to focus my training, which can tend to go all over the place when there is no upcoming performance.  The work I did on those songs was very valuable to me as a singer and has brought me further along the path to the greatly desired goal of becoming a high level classical singer.

****UPDATE****  I mentioned above that I e-mailed the Suscepit Israel link from Frescamari's Practice Room to my choir director. She has e-mailed me back and said to go ahead an sing on those tricky entrances!!
P.S.  If you decide to sign up for twitter after checking out the links contained in this post, don't forget to follow Avocational Singer. Check out the twitter button in the right-hand column of my blog.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Learning to Sing Amidst the "Pots and Pans"

Understanding of good principles and techniques of singing often comes to me at odd moments, and when I least expect it.  When I walk into Frescamari's Practice Room each day, I go in there on a treasure hunt, looking for important vocal discoveries, but I often emerge empty-handed.  To my surprise, it will be later in the day while I am ironing, or emptying the dishwasher, or driving my daughter to school, that I will get my best ideas and revelations about technique, often when I am not singing at all.

When I was younger, I read about a saint , Teresa of Avila, a famous mystic who reputedly "achieved" all these transcendent experiences of contemplative prayer.  I always found it confusing that this same saint is the one who claims that "God walks among the pots and pans."  What I have come to interpret this to mean is that much of what we desire when we strive for a deeper experience of something will manifest itself while we are immersed in the ordinary moments of daily life.  As a young person seeking more exciting experiences, I didn't want to hear that performing an ordinary task of normal life might be part of how I would get to where I wanted to go.

And yet this is exactly what has happened as I learn to sing while I go about the tasks of being a wife, mother, and housekeeper. In the ongoing quest to develop a deeper experience of the human voice, I find that the greatest revelations and discoveries do not occur while I am actually trying to have them -- i.e. during the time I've set aside to practice -- but more often catch me off guard, while I'm in the midst of performing some ordinary task of life.

This happened only yesterday.  I was itching to get into Frescamari's Practice Room, but if I did not get a laundry in, the family was going to have to spend the next day without clean underwear.  The laundry had to be done first.  I reluctantly, but dutifully descended the basement steps and took my place before -- not the "pots and pans" in this case -- but a pile of dirty socks.  As I sprayed and pretreated the wash, I started playing around with my voice and getting it warmed up for the singing I planned to do as soon as I was free to head back upstairs.

It was while I was warming up with the dirty socks that I discovered some applications of using the "Y" and "W" positions in singing.  Yes, that's how my great mystical singing moment happens.  My moment of "ecstasy."  Not in the practice room -- where I often experience "dryness" and feelings of the quest being worthless -- but in the basement -- where I apply the stain stick --  that the "truths" of singing present themselves to me.  The fruit of the labor in the practice room emerges out of an ordinary pile of dirty laundry -- like a phoenix arising from the ashes -- similar to the way I now imagine a contemplative mystic reaped the benefits of her time spent at prayer -- later -- during some monotonous task in her monastery kitchen.
I have finally posted examples of this work with "Y" and "W" in Frescamari's Practice Room.  Click here for "Discoveries about "Y" and "W": 'You'll Never Walk Alone'"  Also, a related post called "Kung Fu Drills That Can Be Used While Playing With Dog")

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Want to Improve Your Singing? -- Get a Dog!

When we impulsively bid on a cute little Havanese puppy at an auction to benefit my son's school earlier this year, the last thing I suspected was that this little dog was going have any impact on my singing.  I'd like to share with you some of the specific ways raising and training this little dog has been helping me become a better singer.

Warming up
A singer needs to start the blood pumping more vigorously through the veins, enliven and activate the breath, and wake up and knead all  the muscles of the body before starting to sing each day. Everything goes better with my singing when I do these things first.

If I do not take my puppy outside for some energetic playtime before I start doing anything, her energy level will be too high to leave me alone when I am trying to practice. So, although I would love to sit and relax on my computer with a cup of coffee in hand after dropping my daughter off at school in the morning, I know things will go better if I get that pup outside first.  This is against my sluggish nature, but I have been forcing myself.  As we play fetch or soccer together, my body is getting warmed up and ready for singing.  Now the warmup has been integrated into my life and instead of being focused just on the activity of singing, the warmup is "multitasking," serving the multiple purposes of bonding me with my dog, getting me warmed up for my day, giving me some fresh outside air, clearing my head, setting the scene for uninterrupted practice.

I'm learning a lot about relaxation while taking the puppy out for a walk or run on the leash.  Walking a dog on a leash properly is a skill that takes a lot of practice.  The ultimate goal is to not feel the leash at all.  The dog will walk beside you as if not on a leash at all, getting into a kind of harmony with you as the leader and adjusting pace according to your lead.  The leading is not really with the leash, but again, with the dog owner's energy and intention.  Yanking and pulling on the leash to get the dog to do this will not achieve the desired results.  It will merely result in controlling the dog through force.  Also, the dog is able to feel your emotions through the leash.  If your arm is not relaxed, the dog will respond to the tension in your arm, just like your voice will be effected by inappropriate tension.

You want the dog, and your voice,  to cooperate.  The dog should be free, yet using that freedom to willingly do what you ask of it.  Just like a voice that wants to be free, not forced, but a voice that responds to your intention without hassle and struggle.

The pup comes into Frescamari's Practice Room with me every day. Perhaps you have heard her in the background while listening to some of the files there.  While I'm singing she may need some supervision.  Continuing to sing while wrestling a small object she has found out of her mouth, or singing while following her around the room, or singing while playing a little bit of fetch with her and her favorite toy, has served to free me up, and get me out of frozen body practice mode.

Developing Authority
There is no faking it with a dog.  You have to be a "pack leader" as the famous dog whisperer, Cesar Millan tells us.  This authority is so essential for singing.   Especially opera singing.  All the more for dramatic opera singing..

There are many different styles of being a leader, as well as many different mistakes about how to be a leader.  When dealing with a dog, if you see being a leader as a ego trip, that dog will not see you as a leader, but as someone trying to win a competition of power.  If you see being a leader as being merely a tough guy, the dog will only see you as being aggressive and respond accordingly.  What Cesar the Dog Whisperer tells people is that a pack leader leads with calm assertiveness.  Dogs respect this kind of authority.

Well, I've been struggling to find that kind of real authority, which has not come easy to me in my life.  At first, I imagined some big tough military-style leader.  I puffed myself up, and spoke with this giant scary sounding voice.  Well, my pup wasn't fooled by that one bit!

Yet, as I've so often done with things that don't work that well in my life, I just concluded I wasn't doing it enough.  So, over the weeks I continued to get more puffed up, using an even stronger and louder a voice. When this didn't work, I got frustrated and felt powerless.  This deteriorarated until I just began yelling at the poor little pup

Now, don't we do that when we try to learn to sing opera?  Well, I won't speak for you.  But I have done that over the years as I've tried to develop my operatic voice.  Big and puffed up and loud and in a voice that's not really mine.  Getting frustrated to the point where eventually I was just yelling.

Finally, I got in touch with a more real authority.   I realized that I am a person who prefers to be kind. Could I find a kind way to have authority? I had read in the Havanese book that this breed doesn't respond well to yelling anyway.  I stood in my full stature of my capacity as Mother, and looked very kindly down at a pup who needed to know what the boundaries were, and said in a warm and gentle, yet firm, voice that expected to be heeded:

"Daffodil, come!"

It worked!  It was a matter of communicating with just the right energy, which is part of singing as well.  This is the place I must come from when I sing too!

I've given you a few examples of how my relationship with my pet is helping me discover things about myself and as a singer.  Has anyone else ever had a pet help them in this way?
Click here to see a video of me playing with my dog:  "Playing is Good For Singing"
See related post: in Frescamari's Practice Room:  "Kung Fu Drills That Can Be Used While Playing With Dog"

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Whatever the Limitation; Never Give Up

In an article from today's New York Times, "Learning His Body, Learning To Dance" by Neil Genzlinger I saw in the description of an actor with cerebral palsy collaborating with a choreographer a parallel that seemed similar to my own struggle to learn to sing. Although there might not seem to be much in common with a neurologically healthy woman trying to develop her voice, and a person with such a serious condition as cerebral palsy, nevertheless there is something to be learned from extreme examples that can help us find ways to solve our "normal" struggles, and overcome more ordinary problems that stuck neurological patterns can present. I think the discoveries and work described in this article could be applied to the work of singers, especially ones with imbalances and difficulties

In the article, a dance choreographer, inspired by the performance of an actor disabled by cerebral palsy, took on the ambitious task of creating a dance work for him to perform.

In the course of working with him, they both discover that he is able to forge new neural pathways and become aware of his body in a way that opens up his movement. He finds he is able to do things that he had previously told would be impossible for him.

The choreographer, Tamar Rogoff, says that when she began her work with the actor, Greg Mozgala, she knew little about cerebral palsy and that she made a point of not learning too much.

“That way I didn’t have any ideas about what he could and couldn’t do."

This is such a great starting place for a teacher! I think that if there ever was a day I took on the responsibility to try to teach another human how to sing, I would want to approach teaching a person with this wonderful openness of mind and creativity.

It has been so important in my journey as a singer not to settle for what appears to be a limitation that cannot be overcome.  A singer with imbalances in the voice might seem to be singing in a "cerebral palsic" way (coining a term here).  That singer may not have the natural coordination for balanced singing.  Early on, after giving lessons a significant try, a singer such as myself might conclude that she is never going to get this, or it just doesn't happen in her voice.

In the article, Dr. Stephen Paget, chief of rheumatology at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, is quoted as saying:

"In the past, people thought that a neurological deficit was fixed and immutable .... “Now there’s this whole concept of neuroplasticity: the neurological system has this ability to change itself and constantly grow."

There are so many vocal tasks that I found completely inaccessible to me over the years. For such a long time,  I felt very much like my own vocal deficit was "fixed and immutable."  It seemed at times that I might just chalk it up to not having the ability to do it, based on some way my apparatus was constructed by nature or something.

When I would study the way the sounds were produced and the way the vocal cords worked, however, it seemed to me that this vocal task I wanted to accomplished ought to be possible. Yet how would I overcome the sensation of being "fixed?" Every "different" technique I tried seemed to always bring me back to the same old predicament

The biggest example of this was high notes. I would try everything to figure out how someone was singing a high note. For years. There would be a teacher who would tell me that I could sing a high note, and there would be teachers who would get me to make some sounds up there. But I definitely could not repeat some high note noise I made in a lesson on my own.

Once they began working together, though, Ms. Rogoff realized that a broader approach was needed. In the course of figuring out how to assist Mr. Mozgala discover his abilities to open up to movement, Ms. Rogoff describes how:

“Every time he tried to move in a way that wasn’t specific to his habitual pattern, he would fall down or just not know how to address it,” she said, “because he had a certain amount of patterning linked to his C.P., and I was asking him to step out of these patterns. I realized I couldn’t ask him to do that unless I supported it with a lot of body knowledge.”

This description, although one would think was far from my experience learning to sing, was not unlike the way I experienced approaching high notes. I feel that I had a habitual pattern that I simply could not figure out how to address either. Also, though I did not have a condition as pronounced as cerebral palsy, nevertheless my patterns were conditioned and very difficult to overcome as well. I had no idea how to overcome the problem.

At some point, however, after studying the vocal science involved, and first coming to the conclusion that it had to be possible, and then entrenching myself in the belief  that because it was possible then I was going to be able to find a way, I started anew, and had to find approaches similar to what Ms. Rogoff did here:

"She introduced Mr. Mozgala to a tension-releasing shaking technique, and it was immediately revelatory."

I don't know exactly what an equivalent of this "shaking technique" would be in singing, but I do know that it points the way to being open to new and less standard ways of exploring every possibility about what might shake up the entrenched pattern in a singer who is stuck in the way I was.

How wonderful would a  teacher of voice be who could come up with solutions to students who had trouble , imbalances, or lack of coordination in developing their singing voices, like this choreographer found solutions for an actor with limitations and imbalances and lack of coordination.

Ms. Rogoff said,

“I didn’t know what I was going to do for him,” she said, “but I just knew he was inspiring to me."

If a singer has the passion to learn  how to sing, then there can be so much that can be achieved, and the singer should never be written off as someone who is just not going to be able to get it. A good teacher must be inspired when challenges are presented, not dismayed or off put.

In the end, Dr. Paget, the  lets us know that for anyone with a neurological impairment, and for the purposes of my comparison here, I transpose to the idea of a "vocal impairment":

“It’s not over,” he said. “There’s always a chance to change. You should not — you dare not — give up.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Avocational Blogger

Just like I'm learning how to sing, I'm also learning how to blog.  I only started this blog last summer, and I've been learning as I go.  Although I have chosen to write my blog about my passion for singing, this blog really is secondarily about my singing for me, and primarily about my passion for writing.

The topics that I choose to write about are like the songs and arias that I choose to sing.  I am a being that has a pressure inside to express, express the self, in some way or another.  There are so many modes of expression an  artist or craftsman has to choose from.  The two that call to me are music and writing, and with this blog, I have found a way to bring the two together in an amazing way.

A writer needs something to write about, just as a singer needs something to sing about.  If we are not really plunging into life and experiencing it, and getting to know ourselves, then we will be limited in what we have to sing/write about.  Or will we be?

Over the years, I have known that I love to write, but never considered that I would be able to do it because I felt so common and ordinary of a person that I couldn't imagine that anyone would want to read it.  There didn't seem to be anything "special" or extraordinary about my life.  As much as I love to dabble in being knoweldgeable about things, there is so little I know, that I can't write as an expert about anything.  I have experienced a lot of failure and frustration, but I wouldn't want to write about that all the time because it would be such a downer.

Yet, whenever an article or blurb of wisdom about writing would cross my desk, a message would continually present itself to me:

"Write about what you know."

But what if you are a writer who does not know anything?  The answer these writing sages and gurus always seem to give is "everyone knows about something."  But for years I have been searching my brain to figure out what I know about.  Everything I know about, however, is known by so many people who know it better and more thoroughly than I do.  This same dilemma can confront the singer as well, especially an avocational singer.  More often than not, and I am speaking generally, an avocational singer is not singing on the high level that a top professional singer is singing.   The singer would like to sing, but is confronted with the reality that there are other people out there singing who sing better.  Just like I would ask myself the questions, why should I write when others can do it so much better and with so much more knowledge than I, I could also ask, why should I go out there and sing, when there are others far better than I am?

Yet, what remains is this need and desire to express one's self as an artist, no matter what that level may be.  Every person should have this flow in their lives, of expressing their inner being.  Some people do it through fashion.  Some people do it through the way they keep their houses.  Some people do it through the way they entertain and throw parties.  They choose these venues for this expression because they have a knack for it and it is what they love.

So, after many years of wanting to write, I have finally decided that I want to write about my experience of being an avocational singer.  I may not know much about all the current opera singers of the day.  I may not know the buzz going on in the industry.  I may not know the intracacies of vocal science.  I may not be able to give you the scoop and inside view of getting an opera up and running from soup to nuts.  I am finding that what my teacher, Susan Eichhorn Young, who always gives me so much inspiration, said in a recent blog post "Honesty ... HONESTLY!" is really true:

"You are Enough!"

So here is what I do know about:   I know what I struggle with and think about and ponder and pursue on a daily basis. I know what it's like to be an avocational singer who has been trying to learn to sing for 25 years or more.   I believe there's got to be other people out there like me, and they don't have to be singers.  They may be painters with makeshift studios set up in their basements and garages, soccer players who join the community leagues, and work out every day like they are in the big leagues, or just ordinary housewives throwing dinner parties based on inspiration they get from cooking shows and home magazines.  Everyone is entitled to be an artist. Everyone is entitled to pursue their modes of self-expression and experience the joy and pleasure of the process that goes into that. Everyone is entitled to be the level they are and to proceed without being made fun of.  One does not have to be the best, the most, or the most refined to get going and just do it!

Whatever my pursuit may be, however, I want it to be as good as I can make it at whatever level I'm at in the moment. This applies to my singing, and it also applies to my blogging.  Detail has always been important to me.  And this is getting me closer to the real purpose of this post, which is to talk about the little glitch that has happened in my presentation of this blog.

One of the details of presenting my writing in this form called blogging, is that how the blog looks and feels, and the rhythm of it is important to me.  I am thinking, not just of the writing, but how it comes across and how the person reading the blog might experience it.  Just like in singing, one may be using it for a mean's of self-expression, a communication of one's self, but that self-expression has a receiver, and the receiver has to be taken into consideration.  Part of this requires attention to visual aspects of the experience, and the rhythm.

There is something I have learned about blogging.  It is that each blog has a feed. This feed is what other blogs use to keep the latest posts current.  When I visit someone's blog, I see the feed in the list of blogs on the side of the blog.

Just like a singer finds inspiration by hearing other singers, attending recitals, catching the latest opera at the Met, browsing and listening to CDs and browsing and watching singers on youtube, a blogger will want to read the work of other writers and bloggers.  This has led me to try to find good blogs to read.

I did a google search: "How do I find good blogs?" and the answer that came up was "Technorati."

Technorati is a place where blogs are tagged and listed and you can search for blogs on topics that you like.  Not only did I find a few more blogs about singing (and other topics of interest) to read, but now I've decided that I want to get my blog listed there too.

The process for getting a blog listed is a little tedious.  First, you have to put a claim in, and then after a few days they send you a claim token to put in one of your blog posts.  They send their search engines to "crawl" you blog and find the token.  Then, they start a second phase of the process where they will decide if they are going to list your blog or not.

My inexperience with these things led me to handle this process in such a way as to end up with a messy little blotch on my blog.  I created a new post for the token, expecting to be able to delete the post from my blog later, which I have been able to do.  I didn't like the fact that this little post was going to show up in the feed and show as a new post on other blogs where I am listed, but I decided to live with it temporarily, because I would be able to make it disappear later.

Well, I did not know a deleted post will remain in the feed.

Now here is where we get to the "details matter" part of this post as the title suggests.

I am in the position of not being able to blog or add to Frescamari's Practice Room over Thanksgiving weekend.  I didn't want to leave off with the testing post for technorati sitting there in the feed on people's blog pages.  But because of my lack of time, I didn't know how to fix it.  I  tried a cosmetic makeover, where I wrote a paragraph about wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving.  But the rhythm and flow and feel that I want for my blog at this point would be thrown off to just have some little message like this.  It is not the effect I am trying to achieve (for better or for worse, more or less successfully). This little "Happy Thanksgiving" post was just like setting up a screen in front of an ugly pile of laundry, and I wasn't satisfied with leaving it like that for everyone.  So I made the decision that before I left the blog for a few days, I will take this time out (hope I will be ready for Thanksgiving, having done this) to leave a post of more thought and substance that may be interesting and food for thought and reflection to follow you into your holiday weekend.

I hope you will bear with me as I learn the ins and outs of blogging.  I am not a professional blogger, I am,  like my singing, an Avocational Blogger.  I expect to improve and develop as I go along.  I wish everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving, and I look forward to coming back on Monday sharing with  you more reflections and studio work as we head toward the end-of-year holiday seasons.

Always more to learn.  My experience with this RSS glitch (deleted post still showing up in the RSS feed) led me to find a cool blog, and maybe there will be future answers here:  "RSS Specifications: everything you need to know about RSS"

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bend At The Knees

"Bend at the knees!"  my husband, a dually licensed chiropractor and osteopathic physician exhorts me all the time.

But I don't want to bend at the knees because it's more difficult.  I preferred for many years, despite these recommendations, to bend at the waist and put pressure on my lower back and end up with lower back pain.

In Kung  Fu and Tai Chi we have to bend at the knees a lot.  From the "stance" work that we do, strength is developed gradually in the thighs, lower body and core.

I grasped this concept quickly in Kung Fu, and could see that the people who were getting lower and deeper and in their stances, and who worked those stances were more graceful and strong.

So eager to get there, and so willing to push myself  physically and endure the discomfort and work that I would have shrunk from, physically, in the past, I worked really hard at having low stances.

The progress I experienced was gratifying.  I didn't think I was moving too quickly.  It took me over a year to get kind of low.  That's not fast, right?

Here's me down as low in horse stance as I can go last February:

I thought that was pretty darned cool for a girl who had been out of athletic condition for almost 20 years, and who had also once weighed 270 pounds.

I was doing the same thing when I added my Tai Chi. Tai Chi was even rougher on the knees, however, because you have to remain in a bent knee position throughout the whole form.

But this past summer, I started feeling a little stiff and sore. in the knees, and was once again having trouble "bending at the knees" to pick things up off the floor in my home, although during my workouts I was fine.

When I went on vacation this past summer, my knees started to feel better. I decided to come back to my martial arts gradually. I added the Kung Fu, and the knees are fine. But I am waiting to reincorporate the Tai Chi again.

I think my concepts were fine, and that I am going to develop these low stances the way I want to. The thing I was doing "wrong" was that I was rushing things. I was doing too much too soon.  Even with my knowledge and acceptance of the concept that one can't rush this kind of physical development. Even with my conscious willingness to take things slowly and be patient, I still was rushing.  Because deep down inside, I was still in a hurry.

I've been waiting all my life to achieve some of these things, and now I'm starting to understand and get really serious in my 40s.  It seems as if there is a little clock ticking, like the countdown to my recital on the right hand side of this blog page.

Yesterday, Arachne commented on this blog about how things get harder,  physically, in your 40s.  I have done a lot of reading about physical conditioning and flexibilty and other aspects of body development, and, from what I can glean, although it may be harder, it is still possible to acquire much physically in these latter days.  But an awareness and knowledge of where one is at is important.

If the concept of being patient and allowing the time necessary is important to everyone, it is even more important to be patient to one who is in her 40s.  Yet that is just the time when a person often feels that mid-life crisis pressing and making one feel like time is running out!

In a favorite vocal book of mine, Discover Your Voice, by Oren Brown, he repeats continually that doing too little is  better than doing too much.  A patient, consistent, daily effort pays off much more in the long run.  It's like building a savings account.  If you just throw a regular amount in there every day, it will grow!  You don't need to suffer by depriving yourself extremely and putting so much in the savings account that you have nothing to live on or no budget for any of the little "extras" that give a little pleasure and joy in life.  You have to trust that the few dollars you are throwing in there every week will do the trick.  Of course, there is an amount that is too little, where the rate of interest is not sufficient to overcome the rate of inflation, and one is actually 'losing" money by saving it, in that case.  So, the minimal amount has to be discovered.  Also to be discovered is the maximum amount that can maximize the process without subtracting too much from other aspects of life.

Yesterday I caught sight of a blog post by a singing teacher who claims to be able to speed up the process of developing the voice.  In a post titled "Vocal Instruction Gimmicks: Voice Lessons Online, Via Phone, CD and DVD -- What Are They Worth?" the blog author explains how she is famed for her scientific method of accelerated voice development.  She sounds rational when she writes, but I can't understand how she can claim to be able to speed up a a process that has it's own rhythm for each individual.  She claims that her method is based on good vocal science.  I am skeptical of that, but maybe "accelerated" means that  because of an expertise that can remove impediments that can slow down or interfere with progress, the process is optimized or something.

What I am discovering is that the actual psychological, mental, or emotional state of desiring acceleration is a state that interferes with true mastery.  If this desire to get there faster is present, it will impose an element of control on the process.  So the mere mental state that causes a singer to respond to a claim like this already contains an element that can interfere with the true work that needs to be done.

It may sound like I am advocating something like merely standing still.  One, of course, does want to progress forward, but the progression must be a by-product of the work one has entered into.  One must at every moment be present where one is at, and work within those parameters, and have the trust that something is developing.  Like a friend from the NFCS forum has said, "focus on the intention, not the results."

So, even though I have accepted and entered the process, there is even more deeply that one can enter "the process."  Taking it slow means a state of being with one's work.

So, now, I am doing less in martial arts training, but achieving more.  It is amazing to me actually.  Ironically, ny Kung Fu is actually improving more quickly.  I stand and listen to the young people breathlessly exclaiming in the changing room after class that they have been there for several hours, and now they are going to take the kickboxing class too.

The mantra seems to be more, more, more just as I am discovering the value of less.

After writing this blog today, this piece of writing about Gradual Progress by a Chi Running instructor appeared in my blog list. This is just what I was talking about.