Thursday, July 16, 2009

What is "Natural?"

I recently was given the following to take into consideration:

that it might not be advisable to mess with "your natural way of running" and that seems to be the majority opinion about how to run, and the way the majority does it.

This suggestion was offered to me in response to the fact that I have been exploring a method of running called "Chi Running," (About Chi Running)which is promoted by Danny Dreyer in a book by that name. Yet one of the primary premises of Chi Running is that it is better because it is more natural to us, and that the way we have been running is not natural. He asks us to observe the examples of children and the form they use, and contends that the way they run is more natural (and more like Chi Running) than the way adults run.

And although the majority of runners do it in a way that is natural to them, the statistics read that the majority of runners are contending with a great deal of running injuries.

I hear that suggestion a lot when it comes to physical fitness and other physical endeavors: Do what comes "naturally."

It is appealing to follow this advice because it speaks of a wisdom of the body and nature that is above our attempts to improve on it. You don't need any kind of technique, because you already have a built-in technique that will work just fine for you. You can relax, follow your instincts, be yourself and you'll be just fine.

When a person is good at a sport the very first time he tries it, they say "He's a natural."

When a singer is struggling to figure out breath support and breath control to handle the difficult singing tasks of a gargantuan piece of music, some say not to mess with your breathing and "just breathe naturally."

When a new mother tries to breastfeed, she thinks that it is going to be easy because it is "natural."

But I begin to think about what being natural means, I start to think that it can be much more complex than at first glance. After all it is also "natural" to want to hit someone when you are angry. It is natural to slump in a chair and have bad posture. It is "natural" for a small child to resist going to bed at night. It is natural, but not always better, to take short-cuts and do things the easy way. And the way we sing "naturally," cannot always be heard over an orchestra.

Getting back to the running form as an example, I begin to wonder about a person's "natural" way of running. I must confess I have been influenced by a book recommended to me by VeganDiva on her blog (Running Scales)*  I just finished reading this book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. In the beginning of the book, Mr. McDougall, plagued by injuries that interfere with his running, is exposed by his doctors to the conventional wisdom that running is not natural to us, is hard on the body, and if you really want to be injury free, you just shouldn't run. But after a lengthy journey that includes exploring and researching various evidence, he concludes that we are "born to run." That we are designed for it. He readjusts and retrains his running stride, and frees himself of his injury problem and goes on to run an ultramarathon.

So, let's say it was true that we are "born to run" and that it is "natural" to us. What might happen that would cause our natural gait to go awry?

Well, for one thing, I recall having read that infant walkers, those little seats on wheels that many parents put their children in for the enjoyment of some mobility before they can actually walk, interfere with the natural muscular and biomechanical development of the child's future gait. (New York Times article on baby walkers slowing infant development: and also Abstract from a case study on infant-walkers and motor development) If this is just one example, I wonder how many other influences can cause a gait to develop in an imbalanced way?

If a person's gait has developed improperly, they may be walking or running in a way that is "natural" to them, but may not be biomechanically optimal and could cause them problems or even serious injuries when they want to try something of a higher athletic nature. (The same can be applied to speaking and singing, or any other physical task that is developmental.) Because of insufficient development of one muscle group, there may be an imbalance that causes another set of muscles to compensate, and eventually develop problems from repetitively having to perform improperly.

Another question that I have read about is that of wearing enhanced and bolstered running shoes. Is it "natural" to wear these shoes. Or are we designed to run barefoot? The way we land on our foot when we have shoes on, and the way we land on our foot when are barefoot are different. Which one is the "natural" way?

This youtube video shoes the different way the same runner lands with and without running shoes:

(I thank Barefoot Ted for making me aware of this youtube example on his blog.)

My reasons for exploring good form, besides just being a little curious and obsessed about it out of general interest and curiosity about how things work, is because I have trouble. I think that's why most people start looking into form of any kind. When you love something and you really really really want to do it, it is a major bummer when you have obstacles like injuries that get in your way. In my case, I am aware that people over 40 are more prone to injury, and good form becomes way more important. An older person can have a great advantage over the speed and strength of youth by cultivating good form.

I had trouble breathing in singing. Breathing "naturally" did not work for me, because somehow some way I developed habits of breathing that interfered with the way I needed to breath for singing.

I had trouble singing high notes because of imbalances in the way I phonated.

I have had some plantar fasciitis pain that is interfering with my training for my very first ever 1/2 marathon next January.

All these are reasons to look more deeply into the matter. If doing what comes naturally to me does not get me where I want to go, I have to learn more. I envy those naturally coordinated people who developed perfectly and don't need to do this. Natural singers. Natural runners. Natural socialites. But my path is a different one. I'm not sorry that it's my path because I am meeting and hearing about some interesting people and learning a lot about being human along the way.

(For anyone interested further reading on human evolution and being designed for running, here's an article I found while hunting for links for this blog post and which I'm going to read right after I publish this post: Born to Run Article from Discover Magazine web site)
(edited 12/26/10 -- "Running Scales" no longer exists and has now been changed to  The Athletic Performer blog)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Being True to One's Self

No matter how hard we try to plan and control the events of our lives, and no matter how good we get at managing things, there are always surprises in store for us.

I was reminded of that again tonight as I ran in a 5K race that I had trained for with a little running club I had joined.

I am in my late 40s, and I am also overweight. So, when I embarked upon this training plan for running I was especially concerned that I work carefully to build up a base and not go too fast and get myself injured and have to stop, just when I was so motivated to get going.

My sister, the marathoner, suggested that Jeff Galloway's run/walk program might be a good approach for me.

I have been delighted to use this method. The walk breaks help protect from overdoing it, and Jeff Galloway is really great, in his book on using this method to train for your first half marathon, at explaining all the ins and outs of his system.

I have been experimenting in my running club, and, well, to make a long story short, I have been adjusting my training as needed, and I had come up with a plan to use in the 5K based on what I have been learning about my body in the past 10 weeks, and my fitness needs at this present time.

The strategy I was going to use for the race, was that I was going to use run a minute/walk a minute for the first 10 minutes, and then proceed to run 2 minutes/ walk a minute for the rest of the race. I had learned that people over 40, especially who are getting back into fitness after many years of neglect, take a longer time to warm up. Learning of this, and adding the ten minute warm-up period has been fantastic and has enabled me to train in a smart way for my body.

I knew ahead of time, because I have run 5K races in the past, that when I started my race this slowly, there would be a stream of people running ahead of me. I knew that this could psyche me out and make me want to run faster or abandon my plan. So, I practiced visualizing the start of the race a couple of times this week. I pictured myself at the starting line. I pictured everyone taking off. I pictured myself running very slowly and the streams of people flowing around me and ahead of me.

So, when it happened exactly the way I had pictured it, I said to myself, "You knew this would happen; just stick to the plan. You know this plan is right for you."

As I ran along, that little sentence became a kind of mantra. When I was more or less alone toward the back of the pack, I had to give myself little pep talks: "It doesn't matter where everyone else is. All that matters is that you stay the course that is right for you."

In the moment that I heard myself say those words, the race, as a race often does, became a metaphor of my life. I realized that absolutely nothing anyone else was doing really mattered. What mattered was following my path and sticking to what I knew was right.

There had been a moment, however, at the beginning of the race that I had not envisioned. As I set my little watch to beep at 1 minute intervals, and the first "beep" sounded, telling me that it was time to walk a minute, I had forgotten that there would be no one else walking at this point. It was the beginning of the race! No one walks at the beginning of the race! They run until they are tired, and then they take a little break. No one takes a break when they are fresh!

So, when the time came to start walking, I suddenly realized that I would be the only one walking. This is going to look really stupid, I thought. I briefly considered just keeping on running for appearance's sake, but I can't tell you how thoughtfully I have been working on my training and how right it is for me to do the run a minute/walk a minute thing at this point in my training and racing.

I overcame the temptation to keep running, and stuck with the plan. I stopped and began to walk. I heard someone, someone I didn't know at all, behind me say "Already?"

Perhaps they weren't talking to me at all. It sounded like it, but it could have been any kind of conversational coincidence.

But I just knew that I had to do the plan. That the plan was right for me, and that if I followed it, I would be okay, and that it absolutely could not matter what it looked like to anyone else.

What does this have to do with my singing? Well, just everything. Here I am, 47 years old and still taking singing lessons and trying to get it. I still don't have a set of songs to call my own. And now ... now after years of thinking I was mezzo, I have come to believe I am actually an undeveloped dramatic soprano, and now, now I am embarking on a journey to develop all my high notes and learn about the songs in this category.

Do I need explain more? I just stay my course and do the work I have to do, that I must do. I don't worry about what anyone thinks, or even what I think. I follow my plan and I don't give up. We will see where it leads.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ornamenting Handel and Bach, Rameau, Mozart and Monteverdi? Me?

What have I gone and done now? I stare in horror at the 16th and 32nd notes sprawled across the pages that are emerging from my printer as I print over 400 pages of PDF files e-mailed to me by a professor of music.

I did one of those crazy and impulsive kind of things that happens sometimes when one is trying to self-educate. I signed up for a music class that sounded interesting to me, but now am wondering if I've made a big mistake.

I'm taking my daughter to camp in Princeton, NJ in a couple of weeks. We've gone to camp there other summers, and in exploring the area I've taken interest in Westminster Choir College, a school that sits on a pretty little campus there. I had thought maybe some summer, while the kids were at camp, I might check out a course there in music. I think I mentioned that when my husband went back to medical school later in life I had been inspired to think about going back to school. So, now that he's finally graduated from his residency, maybe it can be my turn to study.

I checked out the summer offerings for the week I would be there, and the only one that seemed interesting was Ornamenting Handel and Bach, Rameau, Mozart and Monteverdi by Dr. Julianne Baird.

Now I must confess, that there was only a short paragraph in the summer course brochure, and I didn't really even know who the instructor was. You see, I am not in the music world, as I have explained before. I have a big toe dipped into it, but I do not know who is who and what is what. I know a sketch about music history, and barely understand what my voice type is. I have a scanty knowledge of rep and have only seen an opera or two. I barely know how to proceed.

I just went ahead and signed up because I thought it might expand my horizons and be better than just shopping for 5 days, or sitting in the hotel room watching movies or something. I figured it would be a little adventure. I also remembered how dumb I had felt when in rehearsal for the Pergolesi Stabat Mater I had done with my choir a couple of years ago. When listening to recordings, I had heard the singers embellishing the solos, and was very worried about whether I was going to be asked to improvise like that. I wouldn't have known how or what to do, nor what was stylistically appropriate. Fortunately, at that time, all that was expected of me was to sing the part as written, but exposure to the ornamentation of those singers had aroused my curiosity.

"Do you have to sing in the class?" asked my voice teacher when I told her about what I had done.

"Oh, well, gee, I don't think so. There was nothing on the application form about that and well ..."

"You'd better call and see if you have to sing," she advises.

When I called, I found out that I didn't have to sing if I did not feel comfortable with that. So, I was a bit relieved to know that I could just audit the class.

Then, it turns out that I did not receive an important e-mail that had gone out more than a month before the class was due to start. As a result, I began to receive information about the class and PDF files just a couple of weeks in advance.

To make a long story short, the type of musical ornamentation and early music that will be explored in this course is not the type of repertoire that my great big, slow-moving dramatic soprano voice will sing. In fact, 32nd notes and I do not get along very well at all. It's not that I will never be able to move my voice. I do plan on working hard to develop the ability to move my voice because I believe it is an important part of my overall vocal health and versatility as a singer. However, this is just not ever going to be the rep where I'm going to be comfortable or at my best, even after getting it going a bit. And I am definitely not at the skill level where I could pull this off right now.

So, here I will be, a great big lumberjack sitting in on a class designed for sweet canaries. Will the other students laugh at me? I can just hear it now: Why is she singing so LOUD in this little classroom? Doesn't she realize this is NOT the way these pieces are to be sung?

I would hate to not sing at all. I would like to participate if at all possible. But the pieces are just too difficult, and even if I were to master one of them, it would be after months, not weeks.

Nevertheless, I decide to give the pieces Dr. Baird has recommended to me a try. After all, it can't hurt to try now, can it? I sit down at the piano and count through all the rhythms as if I were going to really learn the pieces. I analyze the structure of the songs and play them. I find that it is way too difficult to sing the little runs in the keys they are written, but I CAN sing them an octave lower. (Gosh, would she let me do that in class? Or is that REALLY inappropriate?) Gee, I wonder if I would ever be able to sing this in the proper register? It feels like it would be good for my voice. It would be fun to try. But I'm sure it would take months. Like training for a marathon. I find myself getting lost in the process. And very very interested.

My voice teacher suggested that perhaps I could creatively use the runs and trills we will be exploring as little exercises for my voice. As I explore the music, I can see how this will be a possibility. Perhaps I will get some very useful things out of this course after all.

In the end, I did find a couple of things I could sing for the course. Dr. Baird has listed that a singer is needed to sing Voi Che Sapete without ornaments (another singer is assigned to the ornamented version already). Oh, I can do that!!!

And there is a short English recitative she has sent me that we are to have memorized to use for a session of baroque acting at the end of the week that is quite manageable.

So, maybe I will be able to sing a thing or two. I will keep you posted.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

New Songs

Today my voice teacher handed me two spanking brand new songs to learn.

Actually, they are not new songs. They are old songs, and they are songs that many singers and musicians might be familiar with.

But to me they are new songs. She handed them to me and I took them from her like they were precious jewels, all gleaming and bright. I am excited to receive them from her hands because she's a great teacher and knows exactly what I need, and knows they will fit my voice.

A new song for me is like a painter starting with a new canvas and a new set of paints. Or a chef starting with a clean kitchen and baskets full of newly purchased fresh ingredients.

I love the work that I know will go into learning those songs. I love the process. I'll always start the same way, and there will be tough moments along the way, but the focus and concentration and work and love that I'll experience while I learn them is what I have fallen in love with about being a singer.

First I'll make a copy for my accompanist book, and punch holes in my copy and put it in my book.

Then, I'll look over the entire piece and probably try to play it through on the piano a few times.

Next I'll go through and mark all the pulses. I like to try to get the whole piece into my body silently, so that I'm walking around hearing the lines in my head as I go about my day. Once the song is silently in my body like that, once it lives a life within me, then do I start to let it out. I think a song comes from within a person, and has to be let out. I've got to get it in me before I can sing it.

Only when I think I've got an idea of what it's all about, then I'll start to try to voice it. First, without words. Only using vowels. I work on the words separately.

After working this way for a while, I'll eventually go over to youtube and start listening to great singers sing the songs. I don't like to do that first because I want the song to tell me what it is before I hear what other people think the song is. I like to try to work with the composer, and what he set down on paper, for a while. Then I like to find out if I got it right.

I am actually so excited to get going on these songs that I kind of want to do it right now, but it's pretty late, so I'll just drop a blog post about it here.

It's so wonderful to have something like this to look forward to. A reason to get up in the morning!