Sunday, June 28, 2009

Being Too Hard On One's Self

An enlightening thing happened to me in the process of preparing this blog. All week, as I was thinking about what I wanted to write here, I had in mind to use a cookie-baking incident from my life to illustrate some feelings I have about singing. I was going to compare the experience of how I once saw professionally prepared cookies in a magazine, and my desire and attempt to reproduce them, to my experience of being inspired by listening to beautiful singing on Met Radio, and my longing to reproduce the beautiful sounds I hear. I was going to talk about my disappointment in both instances to achieve professional results.

I had been planning to tell the story of how 12 years ago I had seen these cookies in Family Circle magazine, and of how cool I thought it would be to make them and bring them in to my son's kindergarten class. In preparation to tell this story on my blog I went down to my basement, looked into my "baking" box, found the cookie picture that had originally inspired me, and scanned it into the computer.

I next dug into my box of 1997 photos, and found the one of the cookies I had made and scanned that in. My memory of the cookie experience had been that I had been very disappointed that my cookies came out so wobbly and I was very disappointed that they did not come out like the picture in the magazine.

I had been planning to compare that experience to my experience of singing: of how I will hear the gorgeous voices coming through my car speakers from the professional singers at the Met, and long to produce sounds like that, but continually have the disappointment of my sound being all wobbly, like my cookies.

But when I found the picture of my cookies, a surprising thing happened. "Gee, these aren't as horrible as I remember them being." At the time I was so disappointed to not have achieved my vision of presenting these gorgeous cookies to the class, and instead I had felt almost ashamed and embarrassed by them. But now, 12 years later, looking at the photo, I'm amazed that I did such a good job on my first try.

Could it be that I have been singing better all this time than I thought I was? Sure, there are some wobbly lines. Yes, the lines are thicker than I planned. Sure, the colors mixed in the frosting are not exactly what I would like, but it's much better than I gave myself credit for, and shows a lot of promise.

I will keep at this until I achieve the results I want. Perfectionism is a tricky thing. It can be good; it can be bad, depending on how it is applied. If we don't give ourselves credit for what we have achieved so far, we are doing ourselves a great disservice. I think we have to be hard on ourselves in our training and work, but not hard on ourselves for our results.

I mean, really, that was my very first time making cookies like that. Who was I to judge the results? And didn't I know that I would have to bake thousands and thousands of those cookies before I would have the refinement and control of the pastry bag to be able to do whatever I wanted?

Now I know. Now there is no shame, embarrassment or apology. Just lots of practice and lots of love put into the work. Making improvement inch by inch, day by day as I work towards mastery. That is fulfilling.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Making Space for Your Passion

When I have set out to accomplish something, it often follows a pattern. I hear about some cool thing I want to do or add to my life. So, without a plan, I just jump in and try to insert the new thing into my life. I go at it enthusiastically for a few days, or even maybe a couple of weeks, and before long, the new item falls by the wayside.

It might sound so simple to add a hobby or activity to one's experience, but to truly incorporate a new activity into one's life, there has to be some planning and sacrifice. There is a reason that these attempts to add special enrichment to one's life fall by the wayside. So much more is involved than just the mere participation in the activity itself.

In order to develop myself as a singer, I cannot leave whether I'm going to practice up to chance. I cannot leave whether I'm going to learn the words to the song up to chance. I cannot leave my health or energy levels up to chance. I cannot leave all the little tasks that surround it up to chance. I have to arrange my life so that there is a place for my singing, or any other endeavor.

My sister, who is an avid runner, and is training to improve her marathon speed wrote me an e-mail that explains how her discipline shapes other parts of her life:

She states: "when you're training for something this big you'll notice that it kind of takes over every aspect of your life. It's not just finding the time to do the actual running, there's so much more involved"

As an example, she goes on to explain the different areas of life that must be tended to besides the actual practice of her discipline, her sport, her hobby:

"Sleep - I usually get about 6-8 hours of sleep a night. I'm trying to be good and get at least 7.5-8 so there's another hour or two of my day gone (and "wasted" on sleeping).

Food - This takes effort to have the food you need always in the house. It also takes time to prepare snacks and pack them up for work (I usually buy my lunch). Also making proper dinners instead of sliding by on popcorn or cheese and crackers once in a while.

Strength training - I'm trying to add this to my training schedule so I fit this in whenever I can so even though I've already gotten up and run in the morning. I do this at night when I get home, eating into my free time.

Stretching - I'm trying to be better about this too to the point where I'll take the time to do it in the morning after I run, and sometimes this means missing my bus and catching the next one which means I get into work later which means I have to stay a little later which again, eats into the little time I have at night to begin with.

Hydrating - I have to make a conscious effort to drink enough water during the day. I try to have a water bottle at my desk and keep it filled and keep drinking throughout the day.

Misc - I went to a concert the other night ... This is a band that makes you work hard jumping around, dancing all through the concert. All the women there are dressed all cute and with their pretty summer footwear showing off their fancy pedicures. Well, I'm feeling frumpy because I'm wearing my running shoes because I don't want to risk getting injured because what a waste to put in all this training and sacrifice only to throw it all down the drain because I wanted to look cutesy for a night. It's just another example of how the race is always on my mind and just one more aspect of my life that it affects."

These areas of life are all interconnected, and a balance must be set up within these areas in order to make a discipline work.

When I first signed up to take Kung Fu class, my Sifu recommended setting goals for one's self. The first goal I made, the one I concentrated on for the first 6 months, was merely making it to class 3 times a week. That was it. Just to fit the class into my schedule and not leave up to chance whether I would get there or not was enough to begin with. Before I could get down to the job of working on Kung Fu, this task had to be accomplished. Before I got to the "fun" stuff, I had to do this work and prep.

So too, I had to carve and shape my life to incorporate my singing, and all aspects that affected my singing. One would usually not expect an "amateur" to go to these lengths, but the reality is that if a person wants to achieve goals with a "hobby" there has to be commitment to it. Goals cannot be accomplished without some sacrificing. But a lack of "success" with achieving a beautiful free voice led to the realization that there was going to have be more of a commitment if I wanted to experience results.

I have learned that setting thing up properly, and making the time commitment and the sacrifice are the biggest components to achieving the goal. Even more so than actually learning the craft itself. Once the activity is implanted, scheduled, consistently applied, the greater part of the work of success has been accomplished. Now sit back and watch the routine and discipline that has been set in place make it happen.

My sister talks about this "sacrifice" for her running goals too.

" ... I'm already sacrificing things to get my training in. When I say sacrificing, I'm not talking about giving up a kidney or anything, it's more like turning off the TV early and going to bed so I'm not exhausted for my training run (I get up at 4:45 to run before work - that's tough). It feels like a sacrifice because I really don't have that much time to myself when I get home from work so to go to bed an hour+ earlier than I normally would is a sacrifice of sorts. I also have big runs on the weekends ... and there's lots going on in the summer like barbecues, etc. so I'm also being good passing on that extra beer and drinking water instead to stay hydrated (and to not drink too much beer so I don't feel crappy the next day!) and maybe leaving earlier than some people so I get my rest. I also can't get lazy and skip the weekly trip to the grocery store. ... when you're single you can skip it every now and then and just get by on whatever you have in the house until the next time you go shopping. I don't want to do that now because I'm trying to keep up the healthy eating and bring healthy snacks (fruits, veggies, yogurt) to work so I don't grab something from the vending machine because eating right really makes the running feel that much better."

As I read my sister's e-mail, the process she describes sound familiar to me, because these are exactly some of the steps I've had to take in order to develop and care for my singing voice. It makes me feel a little less "weird" as an amateur to know that there are other people out there who have learned to make the same kind of commitment and sacrifices in order to experience the joys of their other own hobbies, sports, and passions.

(special thanks to my sister for giving me permission to use her e-mail in my blog post)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fit to Sing

One of my "trademarks," and something that you will often hear me repeat, is that I have been trying to learn to sing for 25 years. Don't be put off if you hear it over and over again, because it is part of my experience, and it never will NOT be part of my experience. It, along with a couple of other mantras will be repeated as a theme here in this blog. A person has one life to live. Events happen, choices are made, and then become part of a person's history. The fact that I am 47 years old and still trying to learn to sing is part of my story, and won't change about me.

For some, people who were naturally coordinated, or found the right kind of teachers for them, or who "got it" early in life, or who had a different kind of voice, or were much more clever, I imagine it might seem almost ridiculous that I shouldn't have achieved anything in this discipline earlier than this. (And by "achievement" I mean expertise or proficiency.) It does seem a little ridiculous to me. There are a couple of other areas of my life that I have been trying to figure out for nearly as long or longer, food and weight management being one of them. That also, apparently, seems like a no-brainer to many people, but I have struggled with achieving any measure of expertise or proficiency in this area as well, and the struggle to develop my voice has often paralleled my struggle to manage my food and weight, and in recent years the two struggles have converged and become entwined with each other.

I had a big "Aha!" moment several years ago when the understanding struck me, despite previously kind of only having understood this intellectually, that singing was athletic! When this idea really sunk in for real, my discouragement from contending with so many vocal issues lifted, and a new hope was born that I would be able to get "there" vocally after all. Once I realized the kind of work and patience that would be involved, I knew that I still had a shot at achieving my dream ... a free and refined and beautiful-to-hear vocal product that would be able to perform some of the most beautiful, but most difficult, music written for the human voice! Believing that you can do something is a very important part of actualizing a dream. Living in hope is a far more exciting and enriching experience than believing it can't be done.

So, I have come to understand singing as a sport. Different sports develop different sets of muscles. It can be an interesting experience for an athlete who is a professional level at one sport, to "cross over" and try another sport and find that he is weak in the other area. That's because different muscle groups are in play for each sport, and used at different angles and in different ways. So, cross training becomes a component of an athletes program so that there is not an imbalance in the body, with a certain musculature becoming way stronger and more developed than other muscles.

The set of muscles used in singing is an interior and deep set of muscles that are often taken for granted and often not consciously developed and even neglected. They are muscles that regulate breathing, and activate speaking. They are the muscles of posture and keeping us erect. They are the muscles of interior activity, of digestion, waste elimination, reproduction and giving birth. Muscles in charge of keeping us healthy by working in conjunction with our immune system to expel foreign invaders. Muscles responsible for communication. They are deep within our core. I sometimes think this muscular system doesn't recommend itself for fitness because it doesn't show. A lot of times fitness is desired for the sake of its effect on our appearance. An interior fitness, at first glance, doesn't seem like it would be important because it's not public. It seems to work fine, quietly in the background, even when we're sleeping, right? The thought of developing it often does not occur at first.

But elite athletes who delve deeply into their sports often discover that this interior fitness is at the root of everything they do. Breath control and interior core fitness within becomes part of what is needed to reach higher levels of their outer sports.

Isn't it funny sometimes, when you behold a fit and svelte athlete with ideal muscle definition, a finely developed example of the human figure, open his/her mouth and a nasally or squeaky funny little voice comes out? It doesn't seem to match. That's because attention has not been paid to the athletics of vocal production in that person's life. It is taken for granted and not been developed. There is an imbalance.

The idea of cross training has entered into my vocal life. I see that there are elite singers who have developed this vocal fitness, but don't pay attention to the outside fitness as part of their vocal training. To me, this is kind of like the cut athlete who has the funny voice but in reverse. Well, why does a figure skater need a voice? And why would the opera singer need to be able to figure skate? Isn't it a full time job to become proficient in just one set of muscle activity, and shouldn't that be enough?

Maybe, but to me the experience is a totality, and to develop one part of the unit that is me and to not bring the other parts of the unit along with it seems imbalanced, and this imbalance is going to take its toll at some point. Also, developing one discipline can bring to light lessons that are useful in applying to the other.

I have a fitness book on my shelf called Perfect Parts: A World Champions Guide to Spot Slimming Shaping and Strengthening Your Body by Joyce Vedral and Rachel McLish, two women body builders. I am going from memory of having read the book years ago, but in this book they recommend trying to develop just one set of muscles (as opposed to plunging into full-fledged entire body building), but they do say it is for the purpose of experiencing how wonderful that is, and they believe that experiencing the results will inspire you to proceed and develop the other muscles too. So, you might start out, for example, choosing the routine to soleley develop your abs, experience the process of how to achieve this kind of muscle sculpting and development, gain understanding of the principles involved, be delighted by the results, and move on to develop the totality.

This is kind of the way it is working for me and voice. My interest in developing just my voice, merely one athleticism, has led to my interest in cross training and the benefits it will have on me as a total singing artist. So I will be writing of other pursuits, fitness, weight management, spiritual development, emotional issues as well as singing, because I have come to believe that all of these things are connected to my singing. The desire to sculpt and develop my voice has bled into all other areas, so you will hear this theme of mine over and over again as I write on these pages, because it is the approach, a kind of holistic and total approach to singing that has become my ideal.

My singing has become a vehicle for finding the true and hidden secrets of my existence as a human being. It has been the key to unlocking my life.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Musical Philosopher: Frescamari's Disclaimer/Explanation

Before I proceed any further with this new blogging hobby of mine I'd better straighten something out for my dear readers. I am VERY opinionated. I am bursting at the seams to express my opinions, but what holds me back is that I'm largely uninformed. I only know a little bit.

Here's a picture of what I think is my relationship to the musical world:

I love to read and participate in a message board where singers are hanging out on the web, The New Forum For Classical Singers Many of the topics there are stimulating, and I often want to burst into the discussion. I have always been somewhat shy about it, despite how encouraging many of them have been. There is such a range of singers reading the message board, however, many of the singers there have studied in music school, some are professors at universities, others are voice teachers. I find this a little intimidating, based on my non-professional status and my minimal training in music.

But here on my blog, I figure this is my own personal cyber space and it has no authority but that it's mine, so I can expound however I desire. I just want the reader (should there ever be any readers) to realize that my objective knowledge is tiny and this is all just my own opinion.

In a certain aspect, my opinions do have value in that they come from a knowledge of self. I believe that a whole range of truths about the world at large is contained within a single person, so having studied and gotten to know myself a bit, there is knowledge within that that can be worthwhile and applied to the greater body of knowledge. In addition, any one who gives himself passionately to and develops a discipline and skill in one area has come into contact with principles that are applicable to all of life, because most of it works the same, and what applies to one discipline crosses over to another.

Recently I have encountered some thoughts that clarify why this is so. I found some justification for presenting my philosophical musings.

In a book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren called How to Read A Book a chapter on how to pigeonhole a book discussed how to identify a philosophical book, and the distinctions between a philosophical work and a scientific one.

It said "In contrast, a philosophical book appeals to no facts or observations that lie outside the experience of the ordinary man. A philosopher refers the reader to his own normal and common experience for the verification or support of anything the writer has to say."

That's what I do! It sure does sound like an elaborate justification for not having any outside knowledge, but just reading this gave me more confidence about the type of thinking and reflection that I love.

It goes on to say: "The distinction proposed here is properly recognized when we say that science is experimental or depends upon elaborate observational researches, whereas philosophy is merely armchair thinking."

So, dear reader, that is what you will encounter in this blog. My very own special brand of "armchair thinking" about music. It is armchair thinking that will be further enlightened as I push that circle of my life more and more over into the bigger circle of the musical world.

And lastly, the authors of How to Read a Book explain: "This does not mean that the philosopher is a pure thinker and the scientist merely an observer. Both have to observe and think, but they think about different sorts of observations. And however they may have arrived at the conclusions that they want to prove, they prove them in different ways, the scientist by pointing to the results of his special experiences, the philosopher, by pointing to experiences that are common to all."

This is what I hope this blog will be about. I want to use my experience of learning to sing and explore music as a springboard to point to experiences that are common to all, no matter what passion may inflame the heart.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Years ago when my husband (my then fiancee) and I discussed our future life together, and our plans to start a family together, he knew that I invested a lot of time in taking voice lessons and that I loved to sing. I had already explained to him that studying voice had to be part of my life.

He asked me if I had any professional aspirations. There were a lot of reasons why I did not, but the main reason was because I did not feel that I was very accomplished, nor had established any kind of solid technique, so didn't think there was a way. I expect professionals to be the elite class of singers who have consistency, know-how, an even voice throughout their ranges, good breath control, polish, ease, presence, guts .... oh so much!!! Those heights seemed so inaccessible to me. So how could I imagine, back then, that an option of professional singing was reasonable?

A serious amateur singer may have any number of reasons why they do not choose to put themselves out into the professional arena. Some of the reasons may be profound, some trivial, some fear-based, some based on reality. Each individiual has to assess their own situation and decide what he/she is going to do.

But whatever is decided, the principles remain the same as far as getting opportunities to sing. One must do the legwork, the research, the networking, the creating, the daring all the same to make opportunities to sing. It is so important to face that one is the product of one's choices. Not a victim. A life is composed of choices.

When we were children, things were given to us. Here's your clothes. Here's your food. Here's a solo in the school chorus. But when we grow up, we have to provide these things for ourselves.

Amateur or professional, there is going to be no "gig" unless the work is done to make the opportunity for one's self. We cannot walk around like little children waiting for things to be handed to us on a platter. It takes courage to step out of what is comfortable and roll up one's sleeves and get to work on making something in the musical world.

My personal philosophy is that if I do not have any "gigs" that it's not anyone's responsiblity but my own to make or find opportunities to sing. This is true no matter what kind of singer you are.

I am not usually a person of action first. I usually sit and ponder and mull ideas around before I make the leap. It takes me time to gather up my courage. I am somewhat of a fearful person but I am challenging this every day. My current voice teacher has enlightened me to the fact that I am "slow to speak." She was referring to the kind of voice I have, a big dramatic voice with great heft, but as in so many things about the voice, it works to enlighten me about my whole person. Yes! I have been slow to act. Like a sleeping giant. I was the one, after everyone just ran and jumped into the icy cold water for a swim, who stood on the side getting used to the cold water little by little.

My husband is different. As soon as he has an idea, the phone is in his hand and the plan is already activated. But wait, I protest, don't you have to mull it over and think through all the ins and outs? What if it's not a great idea? What if there is a lot of responsibility and work involved? But by the time I get these thoughts out of my mouth, he is already off and running and immersed in the thick of his latest project, typing, copying, phone-calling, delegating, running here, running there. This is the way one gets things done! This is the kind of activation a life can need to make goals and dreams a reality.

Before a person creates something, it is first an idea in their head. It can swirl around and swirl around and remain something of a vision for a time. But one day, when the time is right, even a slumbering giant will make his move.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Intelligent Practicing

A big part of a vocalist's life is the daily practice that becomes such an integral part of the schedule. It has taken me many many years to begin to figure out how I should approach practicing voice. I have stumbled along, trial and error, inefficiently, blindly. I am beginning to understand how it works and am beginning to have the know-how about how to set up a good strategy and plan for my vocal needs.

Practicing is a complicated activity that requires setting up an intelligent plan very similar to what any athlete needs to set up for him/herself. Singing IS an athletic activity, and when I finally understood that, the way I approached practicing became a much different matter.

In the beginning, my first teacher exhorted me to practice, and I ought to have known from having studied piano that practicing creates the muscle memory and facility needed to perform the music. However, I was very confused about practicing voice. I would come home with a piece that I could not sing, and had no idea how to approach it. There were high notes in the piece that were beyond my abilities, and phrases and lines that were so exhausting, created such tension when I attempted them, and left me so dispirited and demoralized that I would put the music aside and just think "How can I be expected to work on this? Practice what?" Should I practice the exercises she gave me in class? I can't remember what we did. How? What?

How like the beginning jogger I was. The aspiring future runner becomes convinced that jogging is going to be so healthy for her. She has watched the healthy people running by on the street for years, and imagines herself out there soaring across the pavement like that, strong and free. So, she decides to go out there and give it a whirl. She digs out an old pair of clumpy sneakers from the closet, donns a baggy Tshirt and a pair of gym shorts and sets out to jog. She starts out cold, with no stretching, warming up. After about a minute, she becomes convinced that this is the hardest thing in the world to do, and why anyone would even try it is insane. It hurts, is very uncomfortable, and is very hard, and there is no sign that anything about it would ever be enjoyable. She gives up immediately, deciding the whole thing is just a big lie.

Once I finally got it into my head that there wasn't going to be any vocal progress without a commitment to regularly scheduled practice, however, I was ready to make that commitment to disciplined vocal training. From there I have gone through various stages and approaches to practice. At one point I thought that "more was more." I just practiced for hours and hours on end, thinking that more could only be better. But vocal problems and hoarseness announced their presence as a warning that I was not approaching things intelligently.

This is like the jogger who decides that there must be some future result that is worth suffering through all the pain for. She is enthusiastic and willing, and has made the commitment, but goes out with unrealistic ideas about how long and fast and often she will jog. She gets injured, and has to stop, and restart so many times which prevents her from achieving progress. She has not learned much about running form, and how to increase in a way that allows her body to adapt to the new physical activity. She's willing to push herself, but pushes herself in the wrong way. She doesn't know she needs recovery time for the muscles to build and that there is a rhythm to what she is trying to accomplish. She has not yet learned how to listen to what her body is telling her and is not in tune with when she should step back and when she should push.

Next, I wasted days and months with a kind of casual voice practice that just maintained what I had, or was more like just warming up, as opposed to actual voice building. It was the same kind of practice all the time, without other types that are needed for the goals I had. My teacher, Susan Eichhorn Young, writes about the difference between warming up the voice and voice building here in her blog, Once More With Feeling - May 25, 2009

This "just warming up" type of vocal practice might be compared to the casual jogger. The person who has made their exercise routine a part of their life, and goes out faithfully every day, running the same route, at the same speed. They don't get their heart rate into "the zone," or challenge themselves with longer distances, or harder courses. They don't cross train with any other kinds of working out. In a way, they are happy, but they don't know that there is more.

Just like an athletic training program, practice must be set up to achieve certain vocal goals that one has laid out for one's self. A knowledge of how the voice is going to respond to each type of practice is important.

A runner training for a marathon uses different types of workouts to accomplish different needs. There are workouts for distance, workouts for speed, workouts for strength, hill workouts, workouts on different types of terrain, assessment-type workouts. Just like the athlete, the vocal training program includes thinking about what you need to do before and after you train. It requires some preparation before a workout, and some cooling down. Certain practice goals will be harder on the voice and require some recovery time before the benefits of the "workout" will be realized. The activities surrounding the training should be taken into account. For example, on the day before a long run, in my half-marathon training program, I am instructed to take the day completely off from exercise. This is needed to get the benefit of the long run, so I have to know ahead of time what I'm doing the day before.

As an example of how this might work with the voice, today I face the issue of wanting to work on a voice-building song very much, but I have to sing the Star Spangled Banner tomorrow at a Kung Fu graduation ceremony, and if I practice the voice building song, I might not be in good shape to sing tomorrow. How many times have I messed up a singing event because I didn't quite realize this. I am happy to have reached a point where I can strategize better.

I am training for my first half-marathon right now. The training plan I have picked is designed for the goal of just finishing the race, since I have never attempted this distance before. I have set up one long run that increases my distance each week, and two maintenance runs a week. I also do some cross training and light walking on my days "off." As far as my form, I am using a walk/run method that will build me. I run a minute/walk a minute. Eventually the run time will become longer. That's all I, the beginner needs. My sister, however, has been a marathoner for many years. She is training for a marathon this fall, but her training plan is far different and more involved than mine. She wants to train for a good time, and must include workouts designed to increase her strength and speed. She has been content for a while to just maintain her marathon distance, but she has made some new goals for herself this time and is stepping things up to build herself to a new level.

A singer needs to tailor her practice in similar ways. A singer really could use a personal trainer who would show her how to practice, set up a customized plan for her needs and goals, and come work with her every day. But this would be an expensive proposition to add on to an already expensive hobby (see my previous blog post on this), so the poor singer is left to her own learning and devices and help and advice from her teacher on setting up a good program.

The beginner singer will have different practice goals and plans than the advanced opera singer. The opera singer, who has achieved some measure of professional success, like my sister, the seasoned marathoner, may coast along some time on her present abilities, but at some point may decide to up the ante and build again to an even higher level, as a kind of personal challenge.

There is always more.

There is so much more to say on this topic that I may continue this subject in future blog posts. If you want more, keep checking back.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Soloist

"Why do you have to find an opportunity to get up and sing before an audience? Why can't you just be content to develop your voice and just sing at home in the living room? If you really love it, that should be enough?"

These have been questions asked of me by my dear husband at one time.

My first response to questions like these goes something like "I don't know, I just DO," or "Isn't it obvious that singing has to be heard by someone else?"

But the answers to these questions seem worth pondering, because the answers to these questions determine what course of action a person will take. What goals a singer will make, and how the singer will go about achieving those goals. The answers to WHY, can lead to WHAT. (And WHERE and HOW and maybe even HOW OFTEN and WHEN.)

Like all forms of expression, there seems to be an implication of that expression reaching another. Take a visual example. The example of a rose. What is the purpose for the exquisite beauty possessed by a single rose? I speculate that it has some biological purpose of attracting some insect for pollination, which would be of benefit to the future of roses. It fulfills the reason for that rose's existence. I'd have to turn to the science textbooks to answer the question in that utilitarian way.

But the pleasure that rose can give to an observer is so intense. Does the visual beauty exist for that reception of pleasure by the other?

I think of singing this way. Singing fulfills a need to connect with deep activity that is happening on my insides. It develops, expands, and brings to full blossom the communication system that is built into my body. If this mode of self expression blooms in my living room, is it like the rose that is blooming on the other side of the mountain where there are no villagers to see it?

There seems to be a "call" that some have to step out of the crowd and "solo." It is there from the root, from the very beginning. From the first "Happy Birthday" sung with the small group of children at the birthday party, there is in impulse to step out, to rise from the group with the individual voice.

When I see the little girl at church, who's been given a solo to sing by our church organist, step up to the podium and open her mouth to sing, I smile and think, "Oh, here comes another one!"

From the chorus of voices blending together, out of the group, from the uniformity of sound, arises the expression of the individual. Maybe it is this particular individual's personal need to develop her voice more strongly. Maybe it is a phenomenon about human individuality in general. The voices that emerge and stand alone are reminders of each and every one's individuality and the capability of the human person alone.

The balance between the group and the individual is something we are always trying to work out, within society, within our school systems, our governmental systems, our churches, our families. The harmony of the group, while maintaining the glory of the individual, without sacrificing the glory of each individual.

To me, the soloist, the solo voice, is part of this greater mystery. The questions about the importance of one's membership in a group and the importance of one's individuality and finding balance between the importance of each is reflected in singing modes. When a singer is in the choir, she must blend if there is to be harmony, but her needs may be to sing with her full voice, and in that case, her voice may not blend, and there may be a need to rise up and solo, apart from the group.

The group voice is powerful and serves a powerful purpose, but the solo voice has a different power and sometimes a different thing to say on behalf of the group. It says, "I am part of this group, but hear me alone too!" The solo voice arises in definition, in strength, in character and authority. It says, "Look what is present within this group. Do not cast aside this individual power!"

In a sense, I think this need of the soloist has always been representative of and an analogy of the individual's struggle with belonging to a human family. I think it's what our nation of America is all about. Exploring this relationship of developing individual human greatness and potential within the family of human people living together. How can we achieve great things together, and how can we achieve what fulfills us each individually? How can we live in harmony, while allowing for the fruit that this harmony will bear in the rising up of individuals?

What kind of government/structure is best to serve this need of balance between individual and group?

I love the format of a choir concert. The power of the group voice. The sound, and exhilaration from a sound, that no individual can make alone. The sense of belonging to something greater than one's self and making a contribution to a harmony that one cannot achieve alone. The blending of tones. An organized crowd, structured and chanting in unison. And yet there is no choir concert without a soloist. Why? Because there seems to be some unconscious acknowledgement that the individual voice must also be heard. The individual voice also plays a role in representing us all.

So, I have come to believe that there is a call for that individual voice. And it cannot be suppressed. It is going to come out one way or the other. The soloist demonstrates an ultimate version of the notion of "freedom of speech." That everyone matters. That what one does, all could potentially do. It is a voice of freedom and hope.

So, back to the beginning, why does a person have to solo? It is an inexplicable call, and the need to do it is strong and sometimes irrepressible. It is something that feels like it MUST be done in order to fulfill a calling from within. And yet, ultimately, what is given to the individual is given for the benefit of and as a service for all.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Support for the Amateur

I often like to compare the singing journey to other journeys I am on and that I witness because there are so many connections and parallels between different disciplines, that examining principles under one can provide enlightening to the other.

I have dabbled a little in the running world. One thing I have always noticed is that runners, almost to a fault, are extremely encouraging and supportive of beginners. The elite runners have, from my experience, always been helpful to the runners in the bottom rung.

My first experience of this was in high school when I ran on the cross country team. I was on the girls team, which had only five members, and we ran and coached with the boys team. I was the slowest girl. I had joined because a friend asked me because they needed a 5 to make a team.

Our coach made everyone wait until the last runner was finished with practice before we could go home. I always felt embarrassed, especially in front of the top guy runners, to come in as they were all standing there waiting. But everyone was always so patient.

When they gave out the letters for cross country, I was surprised to hear the coach call my name and include me in those who had lettered. I hadn't expected that at all, due to my poor performance during the season. However, the coach announced to the assembly that I ran every mile that the others had run, and therefore deserved the letter.

Maybe this is why I have always had such a positive association with running.

Beyond that, I am amazed at the way fast, strong, elite runners, will often accompany a newbie on a run, stopping and starting, even though this must be so slow for them. They seem willing to do it out of love for their sport and it has always struck me as a wonderful thing.

Could it be like this for singers? Could the advanced and elite love what they do so much that they extend themselves to those who are struggling to learn? The amateurs and the new singers trying to break into the business.

Sometimes it appears as if there is such competition, both in the professional world, and the amateur arena, for solo performing opportunities, that this spirit that is seen among runners seems absent sometimes in the music world. It almost feels like "Welcome to the music world, where you are on your own! Good luck to you!"

In the running world there are so many events for runners. 5Ks, 10Ks, 1/2 marathons, full marathons. There are events open to just the elites, marathons where you have to qualify with a time. That's well and good. But there are still gobs of places where everyone can go and race.

One place I have found some support and encouragement is a message board for classical singers The New Forum for Classical Singing There is a mix of all kinds of singers posting and chatting with each other about all kinds of topics. They are very welcoming to hobbyist singers, and althought singing is something that is better learned live, there is much good information being shared there that can help all singers.

I would love to see singers from all walks getting together on projects, just like one sees runners of all levels and abilities gathering for an organized race.

Who knows? Maybe I will organize something someday. A pro-am competition, or something like that! Something where everyone is welcome and all come to celebrate the work each singer has done, no matter what their level.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

An Expensive Hobby

Learning to sing costs money. There's no way around it.

I am fortunate enough in my life to at present be provided with the resources to be able to afford this expensive hobby. I have met a lot of young people who sigh and say they would love to take singing lessons, but do not have the money.

I do feel I have earned the right to say that if a person wants to study badly enough, a financial way can be found. I know this because I took lessons when I was a young person living in Manhattan, first as a waitress, then as a secretary for an advertising agency making only $20,000 a year. I mainly did this by wearing cheap clothes (my winter coat was a used Pea coat that I bought for 50 cents at an army navy store), and sharing a 1-room (no bedroom) studio apartment, furniture that had been passed on, and basically having no other worldly possessions.

Lessons are the main expense when someone wants to learn to sing, especially if one aspires to sing classically and learn opera, like I do. There were a couple of years when my husband went back to school where I was not able to have singing lessons, and I tried to see if I could teach myself during those years. But it really is not possible. Especially if one has some vocal problems and issues like I did.

For a hobbyist singer, finding a teacher at the right price can mean weighing different aspects of what you want. For one thing, as a hobbyist, I have been isolated from the musical world. I have not been plugged into the network that knows who the good teachers are and how to contact them. I have not always been able to evaluate the quality of the instruction being given to me.

A beginning singing teacher who is just setting up shop might charge around $50-$60 for an hour lesson, while I have heard that some of the top teachers in the business charge as much as up to $200 for a lesson.

Another aspect to weigh is how much, as a hobbyist, you ought to pay for your lessons. As a member of a family, can I justify paying the top price for something I do merely as a hobby? Especially if I am saying "no" to some things my kids might want to purchase sometimes? I have to decide what is reasonable and fair.

I have always dreamed of taking some lessons with a top professional teacher, one of the ones who teach the opera divas. What weekend golfer wouldn't jump at a chance for a few lessons with Tiger Woods? Or Tiger Woods's instructor?

Even during the periods of time when this might be financially feasible, it just does not seem appropriate or necessary to approach a teacher of that level. For one thing there are lots of questions. Would that level of teacher even take amateurs? Do I need that kind of instruction just to sing in my living room? What for? And besides that, I have learned that there are many highly qualified teachers who can give you as good, if not better, instruction for a much more reasonable price. It takes some time and trial and error to find them, but they are there. And there is much to be learned from any singer who has accomplished things with their own voices. Despite limitations, most good singers have at least a little something to offer and can be part of the learning process.

For years, the singing lessons were really the only expense involved with trying to learn to sing. However, I reached a period of time when I intensified my commitment to the learning process and, like any hobby, have expanded it to the point where I have invested in some other tools and goodies that singers would enjoy.

The first new expense I discovered were books on singing. During a period of time when I was not able to justify spending on weekly lessons, I decided that maybe I knew enough to teach myself to sing. It had not occurred to me up to that point that there might be something written on vocal technique. Those books cost a lot. The one I first purchased cost about $90 (When looking up a link for this book, Discover Your Voice, I see on the price has gone down) but the information in it was so valuable. That was the beginning of a little library, and a new passion for vocal pedagogy, that I have been building for myself.

Then I discovered a singing journal put out by the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), so subscribing to that cost a bit.

In recent years I have started investing building a library of music. My first teacher had just handed me mimeographed copies of songs she had stuffed in an old filing cabinet, but I did purchase back then a copy of the standard 24 Italian Songs.

Most recently, in conjunction with learning an aria from an opera, I decided I wanted to study the entire opera and really wanted to own an opera score. I purchased my first score and it cost about $50.

Also useful are CDs or iTunes files of songs I am working on sung by top singers so you can study various technical approaches to songs I'm studying

A few years ago I invested in a digital recorder which cost a few hundred dollars. It has been a really great tool because I can record my practicing and play it back. The recorder had to be high quality because I need to hear aspects of my vocal production that are subtle and might be missed on a cheap recorder. Now I have additional feedback, besides just my teacher's ear, that is an enormous aid when practicing. I'm also able to e-mail vocal clips to people for their feedback.

A luxury that I just would not allow myself for many years was that of a piano accompanist. I used practice CDs, or even tried to record my own accompaniment. It is hard to accompany one's self because one is using two different techniques at the same time; piano and voice.

This year my teacher went away for a few months and I decided to use my voice lesson money for an accompanist. This has been a great experience, and, gulp, now I'm afraid I'm hooked!

I think I have reached a pinnacle in the extent of spending on my hobby this summer when I have decided to sign up for a music course at Westminster Choir college in ornamenting baroque music. The course is over $600.

But, like all other hobbies, these add-on expenses are not necessary for the basic task of learning the craft. As I mentioned above, lessons are the key expense. Like the beginning tennis player, who just needs a racket, a can of balls, a court to play on and a teacher, or the beginning runner, who goes out initially with a pair of cheap Pay Less sneakers and an old pair of gym shorts, the costs can escalate as the hobby develops and the high tech fabrics of tennis outfits and ergonomically designed running shoes are desired. As the interest grows, there may go your money.

But it all has to be weighed with the level of fulfillment and joy you are receiving from your hobby. Maybe you don't spend money on designer clothes, shoes and handbags, going out for drinks every weekend, smoking cigarettes, attending sporting events or going to the movies, or any of the many ways people shell out money for entertainment and enjoyment.

The really cool thing about singing is that your instrument is free! It is a gift that you carry around with you, just waiting to find out all that it is capable of, should you begin the journey of exploring that instrument.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Singing for the Joy of It

Hello to all who may take a moment to read. I've been wanting to blog about my personal journey being an amateur/hobbyist singer for some time. One reason is because as I've searched the Internet for information on avocational singing, I have not found too much. There is lots out there written for professionals, many forums, and information on the business, but I haven't found too much where the avocational singer is the focus. So, I'm starting my own little place where I can talk about singing from a non-professional point of view.

Being a perfectionist, I was waiting to have developed a concept and format and purpose to start a blog, but it was taking me so long to make up my mind that I finally decided to just plunge in with some loose writing and see what happens.

Learning to sing has been a lifelong task for me. I have not chosen to try to be a professional singer. I have not gone to music school. I chose a life as wife and stay-at-home-mom more than 18 years ago. But living life without singing is unthinkable for me.

Considering how much I love it, how much time I dedicate to it, and how much money I've spent on lessons and music and recordings and coaching, etc.. one would think that I'd be awesome by now.

But I'm not.

So, why do I plug along day after day, year after year? What is my aim?

Sometimes I don't have an aim, but I've learned that if you don't set some kind of goal for yourself, you are not as focused.

It's like what a casual jogger might experience who, when after going out day after day after day, enjoys the experience and the health benefits, but eventually needs a little something to keep her motivated. It can be too easy, despite a love for something, to just sit down and not get one's self out there. So, at some point, the lone jogger may decide to get involved in the running community, get together with some friends for a run, join a running club, or sign up for a little 5K race, just to have something to look forward to. To have more of a reason to develop herself.

So, I make little singing goals for myself. I try to get involved in things where I will have a chance to sing. This adds a focus and direction to my daily practice.

Of course reaching out for these little outside activities connected to her hobby will expose an amateur to the "more" that is out there. The amateur will encounter the "elites." At first this can be intimidating. Like in the example of the casual jogger, at the first road race, over the megaphone is heard the announcement that the elite runners, who will finish faster, must come to the front of the line to start the race. "Wow," thinks the little amateur.

In the same way, when I first decided to join a local all-women's choir 6 years ago, after having been isolated in my home for a number of years, I was very intimidated by the "real" musicians in the choir. The soloists, the music majors. I did know how to read music, but I hadn't been in practice, and I was very afraid that someone would hear me blundering along, while behind me I heard the near-professional section leader flawlessly executing the sight reading.

What I have learned from this is that I don't dare compare myself. This can harm my experience of joy in what I do. If I start to lament that I am not in the "elite" class, then I have harmed my ability to grow, learn, discover, develop, harmonize. Everything that I have loved and that has given me joy will go down the tubes the moment I let myself compare. This comparison, or regret, is like a poison that will take away this golden hobby that gives me hope and makes my days worthwhile.

So, I make little personal plans, set up little programs to achieve the little goals that I come up with. This give me hope and joy. Knowing that I will get to my singing makes the mundane tasks and obligations easier to get through.

The first thing I love about being a hobbyist singer is that I can do it for the sheer pleasure, joy, and passion of it. This becomes my first purpose. This is one of the "perks" of not being a professional, as far as I can see. That first and foremost, singing must enhance my life and make it more enjoyable.