Sunday, August 23, 2009

Professional Brand: Why People in the Performing Arts Need It

Even though I am not a professional, I have a curiosity and interest in what the professionals who are in my area of interest need to do to be successful and get work I'm not exactly sure why I follow the specifications of that business. Maybe I have the secret fantasy of being a professional. Mostly I think it is because at one time I had wanted to be a professional actress and I often analyze what about it made me quit way back then, what caused me to drop and not proceed.

But also because there are parallels between the avocational and professional world. They are not as far apart as it would seem, even though the amateur singer is operating in a different sphere of players than the professional, some of the strategies are the same. For example, both the professional and the amateur may need to AUDITION. Both need to know the people in the field who are providing opportunities to sing. Both have to make their own opportunities to sing if they can't plug into an existing structure. Yes, even in the amateur world, things like image and networking, presentation, polish, sense of style, personality, etc.. can all make a difference in whether one gets the chance to participate in their craft in front of an audience.

Well, anyway, because of this interest, I have been reading and exploring a very interesting web site on Personal Branding that has some information that, although intended for writers, seems universal enough to apply to a performing artist as well Because I didn't feel I had the competence to address how a professional might apply this information, I sent the link to someone who is highly competent to do it, my singing teacher, Susan Eichhorn Young, who writes a blog that is loaded with information for professionals, and she has written a little about the ideas of branding and how to think about this from a professional standpoint.

Reading what Susan has written, and also digging into the archives of that branding web site myself, has caused me to reflect on my own experience more.

One of the issues that led to my deciding I couldn't hack getting into the theatre business was that although I loved the craft of theatre, I did not understand nor like how or why I should promote myself to others. On the "Know Your Brand" web site, Jenn Stark, the author of the site, explains about how we construct a "shadow brand." This Shadow Brand, Ms. Stark explains, "based on the Jungian concept of “shadow” to describe the hidden side of the human psyche, is essentially a brand we construct, sometimes without even realizing it, to keep us from achieving our dreams." I guess my "shadow brand," was much more highly developed and had a much stronger influence than the other aspects of my "brand, which I had no clue about nor how to cultivate. In my case, my shadow brand was the one determining the outcome of my attempt to become a professional actress, and led to my eventual abandonment of that path.

Another part of what I didn't understand was how to discover and define more clearly exactly who or what I was as a performer. I would stand at an audition and stare at the rows and rows of talented attractive people sitting along the wall in folding chairs waiting to be heard and seen, and I couldn't see what was special or different about me. Everyone seemed like a good pick. Why should I be picked above any of them? I don't think the performing world really needs me. They have plenty here to choose from who will do just fine!

Well, later on I began to think about cookies. Yes, cookies! There are so many delicious cookies on the supermarket shelf, lined up in rows kind of like the professional actors I saw lined up in rows on the folding chairs. Why is someone going to pick one cookie over another? If you're going to try a new cookie, what would make your hand go to one package of cookies over another?

Branding is all about knowing what kind of cookie you are (chewy or crunchy), who will like you, what kind of party you'll be served at, etc...

I began to think about it in this manner way too late, I'm afraid, to have put it to any use for me, but thinking about it this way makes it WAY less personal and scary, and I wish I had known that it was about this in many ways before I had quit while I was younger.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Training Method for Singers

As so often happens to me, I find instruction for singing in what seems like an unlikely place. For my birthday a couple of weeks ago, my sister gave me the book No Need for Speed: A Beginner's Guide to the Joy of Running by John "The Penguin" Bingham.

As I read through one chapter in particular from this book,"Method or Madness," which describes the principles involved in running training, I immediately begin to draw parallels and see if I can apply some of these principles to vocal training.

Before laying down 4 principles of training for running, which I will outline further on in this blog post, Mr. Bingham begins by explaining how most beginners make the mistake of adopting the training method of thinking that if they just try harder, put in greater effort, they will improve. This is their basic approach to getting better at running, and I can see how this is the approach I used for so many years towards trying to improve vocally.

Take high notes, for example. Each time I "tried" to sing a high C, I thought that maybe I just hadn't mustered up enough effort. That I had to try a little harder each time to get it.

And I used a similar strategy in an attempt to acquire some resonance and ring. I thought that I had to try harder to make the sound I wanted. I would stand there for an hour trying to make the sound I thought I wanted.

The result of all this greater effort was sometimes a hoarse voice for the rest of the day.

I didn't understand that the real way I was going to get that high C and the real way I was going to acquire that "ring" in my voice was to set up an intelligent and methodical training plan based on certain principles, and grow it through patience and consistency of training, just like the athlete does. That I was going to "grow" my high notes and my resonance and ring, like a beautiful fruits that appear on trees that I started from planting seeds. That it was going to result from a routine, almost mundane, kind of regularly scheduled practice. That it was going to "appear" on the scene after a period of time and just surprise me as it crept into my physique. That it wasn't going to appear spectacularly with a big "tada," but was going to come in a quiet gradual way, first as small buds, then tiny green fruit, then enlarging and ripening. That it was going to become a part of who I was and what I could do, molded into me by the daily reality that I was a singer and that this is the way I spent my time every day.

When a singer sets up this routine, almost mundane, regularly scheduled practice, the intelligence by which it is approached is important. I would like to use the principles used to train a runner, as outlined in the book mentioned above, to explore how a program to train the voice might be devised.

John Bingham describes 4 components of training:


Experimenting and balancing these four modes will produce the right training plan for the individual runner, and, I believe, the individual singer as well.

Mode: For the singer, this will be what kind of materials will be used during the training session. Will the singer be using exercises and scales? Whose exercises and scales? The ones the teacher provides, or from friends or books? Will the singer use songs? Which songs? What level of training is the singer? Will they use popular songs, songs from the 24 Italian standards, Broadway tunes? If they have a dramatic voice will they use dramatic arias, or arias that prepare them for the work they will do later? A runner who goes out and runs the same 3-mile route every day might maintain a certain jogger's level of running, but but does not have the advantage that hills, varied scenery, different running surfaces will provide in determining just what kind of runner is being made. What is the potential of the individual? Will he/she be a trail runner? A 5Ker, a marathoner, an ultra marathoner, a triathlete? The singer has these varied options as well. A nightclub singer, a choral singer, Broadway belter, early music, oratorio, opera?

Intensity: Intensity means stressing the system a little bit to stimulate it to grow. For a singer, intensity might mean volume, or how much pressure is applied. Intensity might mean speed, how fast they will be singing. Intensity might mean how high they will be singing. Intensity might mean where the tessitura lies. I often feel like I did not improve for so many years because I did not up the intensity level of my singing for fear of injury or harming my voice. While a singer, like the runner, has to be careful to find just how much intensity work to include in training, in order to grow stronger and faster this kind of work needs to be accomplished, not feared. But it needs to be done at the right time in the right way, and in a balanced way for the individual.

Duration: Duration is how long the practice session will be. While discussing these components of training, John Bingham writes that there is a relationship between this "duration" and "intensity." Workouts of greater intensity should be shorter, and lesser intensity can be longer. This balance has to be found for each individual and will be different based on the experience level of the athlete. And for the singer as well. A short workout for the high-developed opera singer is going to take more time than a short workout for the beginner.

Duration can be more than just how many minutes the practice session is. Duration can apply to how long a song is. A 1-minute song, a 2-minute song, a 3-minute song, etc...

Duration can also apply to how long the phrases are.

I know that as I train for my first 1/2 marathon this coming January, I include one "long run" per week, and the other two 30-minute runs supposedly maintain the gains of my long run day. I started my "long run" at just 1 mile, which did not take me very long to run, and have been increasing that run by 1/2 a mile per week. The recommendation is not to increase your long run by more than 10% per week. I am now up to six miles, which really is long.

Should this apply to singing training as well? One day where you sing for a long time? One day where you work on getting through your longest piece? One day where you sing beyond the amount of time that you usually sing. Is there a "rule of thumb" for how much to increase the duration of one's singing, like the 10% rule in running? Do any teachers know how much to increase, or how to tell if a singer is increasing too much too soon?

And what, like the two 30-minute runs per week, maintains the level of singing one has achieved? Do any voice teachers out there know what balance a singer should maintain in this kind of vocal training, and can they help their students understand, or help their students build a training program that will be optimal?

Frequency: The final principle to explore is that of frequency, how often to practice. Deciding the frequency will have to factor in duration and intensity, mostly because of the fact that it is necessary to have recovery time after working out. The muscles grow and adapt, build and repair during recovery time. Recovery and rest is an important part of athletic training, and I believe it is part of the process of vocal training as well. It is almost as if the muscles use the rest time to "think" about what happened during the training session, absorb what has been asked of them, and adapt themselves to the task they had been given. So the frequency of training has to take into account how much rest time is needed. An athlete will need more recovery time after an intense training session, as opposed to a maintenance session. An athlete will need more recovery time after a session designed to increase endurance, one of longer duration. Recovery time will vary between beginner and advanced athlete. It will vary according to age, and will also vary from individual to individual. Finding one's personal recovery time will be part of this art.

One lament that I have is understanding these principles really late in the game for a singer. I am sure there are teachers out there who understand what needs to be done and can coach these principles in their students, but I think more teachers need to study these things and help young singers understand the job they need to do to train their voices. If I had this kind of training when I was younger, I think I would have had many more options.

I am very excited and happy now, however, to know of them. Better late than never at all, and I will use the time I have left to train in a better way and enjoy my voice better than ever.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

"A Diva Makes Them Wait"

These were words spoken by Dr. Julianne Baird during the course I took at Westminster Choir College in ornamenting baroque music

She was using it to elucidate a musical concept/technique, where one might pause just the slightest bit before a fancy cadenza or an impressive high note. She was referring to a musical moment, but I found the statement to be one of those kinds that wakes a person up and penetrates into all areas of life.

And that's what a good musical moment will do. It will reflect so much about our lives in general, and it will find its parallel in other things we do.

I always viewed this idea of a Diva making someone wait as a kind of negative thing. A controlling thing. An assertion of superiority and power. It was something "not nice" and I tried to avoid being like this.

From my earliest days I've been conditioned, as many of us have been, to please others. Not to inconvenience them. To be considerate. I've meditated on how each and every one of us is valuable, and that I am not more, nor less valuable, than anyone else. I strive to avoid playing games and to be sincere and straightforward.

I operated from the standpoint that it was rude to make someone wait:

The delivery man rings the doorbell. His time is valuable. I shouldn't make him wait.

Using the stall in the ladies room. Someone else has to go. I shouldn't make them wait.

The kids are hungry, lonely, anxious, too hot, too tired. I should relieve their discomfort as soon as possible. I shouldn't make them wait to feel better again.

So, the idea of a diva, standing tall above the crowd, set apart, looking down from a throne, and "making them wait" has been unappealing to me (yet strangely fascinating as well, in the way something like that attracts us all). Overall a "diva" has always appeared to me to be downright rude.

However, when the notion was presented that this mode can be applied to musical interpretation and performance of a song, I glimpsed a whole new "reason" for divahood.

"Making them wait" can only increase the way the diva pleases the listener. It is a gift for them.

How many times does the desire for immediate gratification cause us to pass over some really special moments too quickly and too unceremoniously:

I can't wait to give someone a birthday gift that I am excited about, so I insist on giving it to them early and making them open it. Because I can't wait.

I tell my husband some special news when he walks through the front door and before he's put down his things and taken off his coat, instead of preparing a setting and moment to deliver the news. Because I can't wait.

I run downstairs to greet my friend who's come to visit before I've put my makeup on and fixed my hair. Because I can't wait.

As the weeks unfold and more about this concept presents itself to me, I realize there can be a positive spin on it that reflects my own values.

For example, instead of seeing the divaness as something that controls others, a diva could be seen as someone who has eminently mastered self-control. The diva has the strength to hold back. The diva has the ability to save the good parts for last. The diva is full of surprises and doesn't let on until just the right moment. She uses this self-control as a way to give delight and pleasure to her listeners.

Of course there is an art to this. There is timing and skill. It takes a maturity and good judgment and taste. It takes bravery, because Fear is anxious and wants to get it over with, while Self-assured Serenity knows there is time. But, first and foremost, before all this can happen, one has to believe in what one is doing. Taking this positive spin on it might be just the thing to get a girl to believe that she can, and indeed should, make someone wait. That she has something to offer, that she, herself, is a gift worth giving, and that it is not rude, but actually something that can be quite exciting and delicious, that can enhance the experience for all.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Scrapbooking and Singing

There is a lesson learned from the time I have spent trying to make scrapbooks that is going to be helpful in deciding what to do with my singing.

When I first learned that I loved to scrapbook, I went a little crazy with my new hobby. I slammed full speed ahead into this past time with visions of shelves and shelves of beautifully decorated albums loaded with stories and memories of our family life together that would be read by my grandchildren and even their grandchildren.

I plunged headfirst into this hobby.I bought excessive supplies, tried excessive techniques, and spent excessive time adhering precious photos to pages, decorating them and writing their stories.

After my total immersion into this most enjoyable pursuit, without really coming up for much air, or to even stop and think, I finally came to my senses and took a good hard look at what I was doing.

I had made a few albums, but they were not to my satisfaction. One of them, the first one, was randomly arranged, in no particular order, and had blank pages in between carefully crafted layouts. I didn't know what to do, really, with those blank pages. They looked kind of weird, and broke up the flow of the album and the story, but I just left them there.

I also had the problem that I sometimes spent three hours working on a page that had three photographs on it. The page came out gorgeous, was beautifully embellished with hand-designed and hand-cut lettering, and was so satisfying to work on and produce, but ...

At a certain point, I woke up. I glanced over at the collection of more than 8000 photographs I had at the time, and I looked at those three photos on my masterpiece page, and I started to do the math.

Without even calculating it out yourself, I'm sure many of you can see immediately what I hadn't been able to "see" while immersed in my enthusiasm: that I was not even making a dent in my photograph collection, nor would I be able to in my lifetime should I proceed as I had been. Instead of leaving the story of one's family's adventure together for future generations, my grandchildren would find "Grandma's Few Pretty Pages."

I needed a plan, and I had to get real. I had to decide, from all the possibilities, what was important to me, and start making some choices. What my overall objective going to be was important to decide, so I could figure out how to best use the time.

Well, the same thing is happening right now with singing. I am 48 years old, and I have been told by some reliable advisers that it is possible to still get out there and do a little "significant" solo singing somehow somewhere. But, like the scrap booking, I have to do the math, and figure out exactly what I want to be doing with the limited time that I have.

I just spent an intoxicating and wonderful week being a student again. I took a class in Baroque Ornamentation with Dr. Julianne Baird over at Westminster Choir School. The students enrolled in the class were extraordinary and committed. The instructor was extremely knowledgeable, and had a brilliant way of connecting the work the students were doing with that knowledge. The atmosphere in the class was intense and enlightening. I felt like I was in a corner of a kind of musical heaven.

Yet, despite a natural curiosity and interest in the subject matter, I have realized afterward that it was a total indulgence for me. As great as it would be to creep and crawl into all the corners of music history, style, form, theory, genre, etc... it something that I simply don't have time for right now if I want to get some singing done.

My voice is a dramatic voice, and even if I did want to take a baroque piece and spend all those hours ornamenting it and spend months getting a dramatic voice to perform the ornaments in the style that is recommended right now(which CAN be done), I have to sit back and acknowledge the reality that if I want to get out there and do some singing that is right for me in the "little" time I have left, then this is probably not the way I should be spending my time.

I just realized something as I was writing this. There has been a theme going about my relationship with "decorating" things. My blog from a few weeks ago was about decorating cookies. My blog today is about decorating scrapbooks. And the class I just took was all about decorating music. I have been exploring the conflict within me between the person who admires and enjoys decoration, but is dismayed by the amount of time that it takes to indulge in decoration. I think that I have been learning that I prefer simplicity. Basic, truthful, and unadorned simplicity. This knowledge of self is a starting place.

Like working on the fancy scrapbook page. As fun as it is, and maybe I could do a three-hour page now and again, the final effect of what I want to produce is not served by this approach. I will have to decide what is important and work toward that end in a focused and intelligent way.

We ALL have limited time. Even young people, though they may not fully realize it. It can actually be calculated out, assuming no tragedy, and making a reasonable plan that you might live to be 80 years old. Taking time to stop and think about where to focus one's efforts can be a very wise move.