Friday, October 30, 2009

Exposing One's Self

A singer friend of mine has written this to me:
how amazing it is that you're generous enough to undergo such a journey in public!! I think I would rather appear naked in public than post unadorned practice clips
And I wrote this back to her:
I know I'm doing something a little crazy here, posting my unadorned practice clips. I am not being as "generous" as you say, though, because I am doing it totally for myself. Over the years I developed an immense amount of fear and stage fright about singing. I used to sing with abandon in the little plays the we did when I was young. (I included a picture below from 30 years ago when I was up on a stage and really having a blast in Once Upon a Mattress) But once I began to take voice lessons I developed a crippling fear, and would get up and shake uncontrollably. This fear ruined everything, and took away all the fun I always had getting up and singing.

My posting these clips is part of an overall desperate attempt to free myself so that I can have one last shot at getting out there and singing something .... something ... almost anywhere at this very late stage in the game.

You know, I have a cousin who is a dancer, and she had been one of the Rockettes (don't know if she's still doing that or not). I had heard from her sister (my other cousin) that she had  ... inhibitions, and in order to free herself of those inhibitions, she posed nude at an art school.

Well, I'm a bit conservative about things like that. Dear Lord! I would think, Do I have to go to that extreme to "free" myself, or can I achieve the same result another way? I often would try to think if there was another way I could expose myself that would be more in keeping my own personal sense of physical modesty.

Well what you have written here has caused me to just now realize that I have actually accomplished that very task by posting these practice clips, and "exposing" the process of my struggle to learn to sing. Without realizing it, consciously, I have, in a way, solved that puzzle of how to achieve what my cousin did, without having to take off my clothes
 I am writing this blog for a number of reasons.  The first and foremost is for myself.  I have a great need to write out my thoughts regarding singing.  I used to try posting them on my singer message board, but I realized that I was "blogging" there and didn't want to use the forum in that way.

Although I did not realize it when I opened up my "Frescamari Practice Room," as I stated above in the letter to my singer-friend, I inadvertently found a way to work out my inhibitions and fear.  What I am putting up there is very flawed, but I think the reason sometimes we don't expose ourselves is for fear of people seeing/hearing the flaws.  If I can put up my flawed self, then I will be less afraid, and that may (oh, that is what I hope for) lead to better singing.

It's one thing to put it up on the Internet, and another thing to do it in real life but the Internet practice room is a start.

In choir the other day, our choir director had a small group of us (coupla' sops, coupla' sop2s, and a coupla' alti) get up and sight read through a piece.  I made myself get up there.  I felt especially vulnerable because she wanted the song sung in the most angelic and quiet of tones, and piano singing is not my forte!  I am flawed enough when singing in the voice that sounds better to me, but to use my "soft" voice in front of everyone, where I have so little control ... that is scary.  I was in a group, however the feeling of being exposed in that small group was there nevertheless.  The rest of our choir would know exactly which one of us was blundering, or mismanaging our voices.

But the thought of  "Frescamari's Practice Room" came to mind, and I realized that it had to be the same thing in the flesh.  So, I will continue to challenge myself in this way.  I am an old lady -- 48.  I see that one does not have forever to do this.  This is my one last shot at conquering my fear.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Know Yourself Through Your Songs

I recently made a giant list of all the songs I have been attracted to in my life thus far.  I went all the way back to grammar school, through high school, college, young adulthood, leading right up to the present.  There was a big gap in there where I didn't pick songs that I was drawn to for a while because I thought there was something wrong with what appealed to me.  I thought I had to have better taste or something.  But I have found that even in some of the songs that were handed to me, songs I was told I was supposed to like, surprisingly some of them have been revealing about me too.  Maybe the people doing it were picking up on a vibe or something.  Like the way they say we send out signals that attract certain kinds of people to us, I think we attract songs to us, whether we actively select them or not.

Seeing them all in one place was very revealing.  I was able to ascertain themes about me that were apparent from these songs.  I wonder if an exercise like this could help you learn about yourself too.  I think this is an important part of learning who I am as a person, and as a singer.

Here are some of the themes I've detected in "my" songs:

Unlucky in Love
Never Give Up
Carrying on Through Difficulties
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Keep on Believing
Stay Strong
Staying True
Staying the Course

I've decided think this kind of inventory can be very useful in finding out just what kind of singer a person is.  I did a similar thing one time when I listed all the self-help books I owned.

What kinds of things can you find out about yourself by studying your songs?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Anatomy of a Dream

I really do believe that we should not limit ourselves with our dreaming.  I believe that we should dream as big as we can!

Some people protest!  But no!  We must make our dreams small and realistic.  That way we have a chance of achieving them,.  For if we dream the big dream, we will only end up crushed and disappointed as realities set in.

I plan to illustrate here how the great big dream can help us find our real dreams, and how the great big dream, the fantasy, is an important to getting to what is real for us.  Because contained within that fantastic dream is all the things that attract your fancy and imagination, inspire you, motivate you and captivate you.

My first example is a bride, who is looking at the bridal magazines and dreaming about her fantasy wedding.  But, alas, when she looks at her budget, she realizes that she cannot afford everything in the fantasy.  She has to work within her budget.  Her reality. ("Budget" = reality) But she can look at the fantasy wedding and get ideas about her wedding.  What about that wedding is it that she really likes?  What in those pages is she responding to?  Why does it appeal to her?  Can she have it in some other way?  Can she copy it inexpensively?

The same thing happens when the models come down the runway with this year's designer looks.  The same reality happens with the budget.  Or maybe it's not only the budget, but one's personal body size and shape, and the clothes just won't drape quite the same way.  These are the realities.  But what about that look can the person achieve?  Can she take clothes to the tailor and get some alterations?  Can she find some copy-cat jackets less expensive?  They show it in the magazines all the time, how the "look" can be achieved for less.  What is important, in both cases, is finding out just exactly what it was one liked about the look.   Was it the colors?  Was it the hem length?  These things can be had!  One need not throw up one's hands and go around in sweat pants.

Well, just like this, a singer has to form her singing fantasy.  The singer's dream.  It's the singing scenario that appeals to you.  It's the one you pretend you're in when you're singing in your living room, to your hairbrush, and in the mirror.  It's an experience you think you'd like to have.  An experience that you think would be absolutely wonderful.

When I have my living room singer fantasy, it's usually not opera.  Sometimes it is, but I've yet to feel fully comfortable in the opera fantasy.  Not sure I really like it.  But I saw a youtube video that really sparked me, and inspired me.  When I saw it, I went, "Wow!  Yes!  That's what I would like to do!  That's my idea of what would be a wonderful experience!"

Here it is:

Hmmmph!  Now that's a fantasy!  Mmmmmm Hmmmm!

But, then I take a look over at my "budget."  Alas!  What is my budget?

Mature Age for a Singer
Lack of Experience
Lack of Contacts
Much less of a voice than that technically (and naturally)
Contraints and responsibilities of life choices and situation
(and lots more)

So, like the bride, however, and the would-be fashionista, let's see if I can work with this fantasy.  What about it do I like, and what about it might I be able to have?

For one thing, I like the beautiful setting of Notre Dame Cathedral.  I'm fairly sure that the Notre Dame Cathedral thing ain't gonna' happen (although beware of the tendency to say "never).  But just WHAT do I like about the cathedral?  The Spaciousness, The Resonant Sound, It is Architecturally Interesting and Beautiful.  I love the Colors of the Stained Glass.  Maybe I could someday sing in a space that has those qualities?  It might be smaller and less famous, but I can have the elements of what I like about Notre Dame Cathedral.

For a second thing, I love that she comes out with a full orchestra who are all dressed in black, but she is in a jewel-tone dress, specifically purple (has anyone figured out my favorite color is purple yet?).  She is the splash of color in front of them all.

Well, maybe I won't be able to have a full famous orchestra like that, but perhaps a smaller ensemble someday.  Who knows?  And besides, for this particular piece, it is accompanied by harp.  That's definitely do-able.

And I definitely can have a beautiful purple dress.  I'll give myself that one.

Guess I can't have her cheekbones, but I can like my own features.

Another thing I especially love is the song she is singing.  I have been trying, like many of the other ones I've mentioned here, to sing that version of Ave Maria for many many years, and I have a few stories to go along with it, some disastrous.

However, although I might not succeed to reach a technical level like Jessye Norman's in my life, I can continue to strive to improve, and get it as close as I possibly can.  I can have the work. The work that a singer has to do!  I can always have that! Yes!  I can always strive and hope that someday I will be able to sing that song, in my own voice, as beautifully as she is singing that in her voice.  That is the hope.

So, I will construct my own goal based on the fantasy dream, something I want to do before I die:

Sing Bach-Gounod Ave Maria in a very pretty cathedral-style church with good acoustics somewhere and a modest orchestra with harp and gorgeous purple dress with the best technique I can achieve by then.

There!  That''ll do it!  You see how I used the fantasy dream that inspired me to create my own dream.  A real one.  One I can work toward!  Onward ho!
Click here to go to Frescamari's Practice Studio for Bach-Gounod Ave Maria recording.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Using "Formula" to Get to Self-KnowledgeThrough Experience

Many who read this blog know that I have had a setback in my plans to train for the Disney 1/2 marathon in January.  I wrote about this a couple of blogs ago, ( Plans ... The Best Made Plans )  where I explained how getting plantar fasciitis changed my plans.

I continue to learn new things about myself and the way things work from all the little "problems" that come up when one sets out to achieve a goal, or develop a skill.

When I originally set up my plan for training for my first half marathon, I chose a pre-set plan in Jeff Galloway's book that was designed for the ultimate beginner.  I also used the recommendation to run a minute/walk a minute.  I bought a training watch that would beep every minute, and even my dog, who came with me on my runs, learned that we started running when the beep sounded, and walked when it sounded again.  It was regulated and precise.

But I had a dilemma today.  Now my very carefully designed plan was no longer going to achieve the goal I wanted, and I lost my motivation to do the Friday run yesterday.  I put it off, since the plan was now not going to work.  "I'll run tomorrow morning instead."

Well, when the time came to run this morning, I realized that I couldn't, because I have a Kung Fu class at noon, and if I ran first, my plantar fasciitis would act up and it would be too much stress on my foot to then take my Kung Fu class.

My first reaction to this realization was "knee-jerk" and emotional.  "See! It's no use.!  It's all over now!  This is the end of my running for sure!"

As soon as I recovered from the irrational moment, I was able to start working on alternatives and solutions.

I decided that I could go for a walk instead.  After all, back in January and February I had been happily walking every day, leading up to walking a 5K, and I had been very happy.

The first steps out the door were a little disappointing, because it felt like I was going backwards in fitness.  But I had just read a new friend's post on this morning about how he has had to run slow after his marathon for a few weeks, and is just happy to be picking up his pace again now.  I thought, "Well, if this guy can hold himself back and run slower, then I can go back to walking for a while."

As we set out, I decided to use the time to work with my dog to try to correct the habit she has of pulling on the leash when we turn around to go home.  In the past, when I have tried to work with her, I have used the idea of the training.  When she pulls on the leash, stop and don't walk until she stops pulling.  Today, I discovered that I was using the intellectual idea of the exercise instead of feeling the exercise.  When she pulled on the leash and I stopped, I closed my eyes and paid really close attention to how the leash felt in my hand, and then I deepened it, to start sensing the energy in the dog herself.  When her energy was right, then I walked again.  This doing it by feel instead of idea was revelatory for me, and I experienced a great pleasure in what I was doing.  It became physically and kinetically very interesting.

Well, the walk felt great, but on the way back, it started to rain.  I decided to run the rest of the way home.  The run home was way longer than a minute, maybe about 3 minutes.  I was able to do it quite comfortably and it felt really good.

And it was during this mini run that I realized something.  I didn't need the watch that beeped!  I could go by feel.  Just like the dog leash experience.  I could listen to my body, and go by the energy levels.  I could pay attention to my breathing and when I started to collapse and lose my form, I could stop to rest.  When I felt like I couldn't run any more, I could stop and walk until I recovered and then begin again and so on.  I didn't need the formula, all measured out and spoon-fed to me.

Immediately, my brain, working like a fast computer, began to apply this across the board to all areas of life.

A lifetime member of Weight Watchers, I had used the plan many times to lose weight, and to maintain those weight losses for varying amounts of time.  Weight Watchers, which has studied overeating and nutrition and all the science around food and weight management, continues to develop and revise systems to organize and structure and teach about all aspects of eating, is not the end answer.  It has used study of the matter to give a person a starting place.  But it is up to the person to take it further and learn about their own body.  Each person is different.  Eventually, having started with a structure, a person will learn to listen to the signals of their own body, pay attention and have respect for when the body is hungry and when the body has stopped being hungry, and will begin to understand the daily rhythms of energy management.  All a diet plan or program can do is give a person a starting place, but it is not the answer in and of itself.

Many many people already know how to learn about themselves physically in this way.  Maybe they are the kinetic learners, or just naturally learned to be in their experiences.  For a number of reasons, I decided my head was a safer place to be than my body, and I enjoyed what was going on in my very organized mind much better than all the disorganized stuff that seemed to be going on in my body's experience.

Now we get to singing.  Another opera singer friend, Katherine Marriott, (An English Woman Abroad) has been reading my blog and has recommended the book Singing & Imagination: A Human Approach to a Great Musical Tradition by Thomas Hemsley to me.  I got my hands on a copy of this book and have been reading it.  Mr. Hemsley, believes that, "while not belittling the value of scientific investigation, when accurate and appropriate ... the modern methods of training have gone too far in the direction of the materialistic approach; that singing in all its aspects and at all times should be guided by the singer's feelings, intuition, and intention" (from the back cover of the book)

I think that the lesson with the dog leash, and the timer on the running watch, in conjunction with my being exposed to the ideas in this book,  is now about to infiltrate my singing.  I have truly had to spend a few years with an approach that is methodical and based on good science, because of the problems and difficulties I had in not being able to get it for so long.  But I think there is a strong message in my life to more and more turn it over to this experience of feeling, intuition and imagination. It's already been happening, but the seed of that is growing, and it's where I want to take things next.  I'm on my way to my own custom-designed technique!

Friday, October 23, 2009

20-Mile Arias

"I can't believe that I can write 'easy' and '20 miles' in the same sentence..."  An opera singer friend of mine, Robin Flynn, starts her latest blog post, "Yesterday's Weirdly Easy 20 Miles," with this exclamation.  Besides possessing a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice, she is an amazing athlete, who is dedicated to helping singers develop athleticism in all other areas of their life because she is convinced this athleticism is beneficial to singing ... and as you all have read here, I agree with her.

Robin is taking her athleticism to heights.  She is a triathlete, and she has recently decided to run one marathon a month for charity.  She just keeps going and growing and developing as an uber-athlete and I'm having a vicarious thrill as she describes her workouts each day.  She is filled with a joyful enthusiasm and passion that is so  catchy.

But I have realized that her experience of being being able to run 20 miles is similar to the kind of excitement a singer such as myself will feel as I experience being able to sing longer, more difficult arias for longer amounts of time.

"I've never been able to maintain that level of consistency for that long," Robin exclaims.

And more and more I have been able to exclaim this about pieces of music that just seemed unapproachable to me for many years.

I do wish I had realized that the day would indeed come when I would be able to sing challenging songs.  When I was young, my teacher would hand me a song, you'll often  hear me tell you, and say something like "this will be just perfect for you!"  I would take the song home and try to learn it and I would struggle and huff and puff, and get a throat all tied up in weird knots on the high parts, and think, "what is she, nuts?  How does she think I could ever sing something like this?"

My experience was not unlike the person who sees all those people running along the sidewalks outside every day.  They wonder why anyone would be so crazy as to do anything as uncomforable as get all winded and sweaty and experience pain like that.  Yet, not being able to resist the lure of the way runners are so enthusiastic and happy about their running, the person decided to give it a try.

Well, the would-be new runner experiences their first little jog as sheer agony and decides running is a ridiculous pursuit.  She quits, thinking the runners out there are just gluttons for punishment and pain, or simply plain-old crazy.

Well, I truly did not understand, even though it was being explained to me, that singing through a new aria was like the experience of that person going out for their first run..  Running can become effortless, if one patiently and consistently devotes one's self to it.  Every runner who has gotten to that point knows it.

But, as incredibly dumb as this seems, it took me a a really long time to figure out that this was true about singing as well.

Now I understand this.  Yesterday, I saw in my binder a piece of music that my first singing teacher handed to me one day at my lesson over 20 years ago:  "Voi lo sapete," by Pietro Mascagni, from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana.  I remember her saying with great feeling that it would be so perfect for me.  She said it like a fairy godmother who was picking out the dress her godchild would wear to the ball.

But when I took a look at the song, I did not understand it, and I did not like it and I could not sing it.  I abandoned it before having given it a fair try.  Why?  Because it seemed impossible to me.  It seemed like I would never be able to sing it.  It seemed as ridiculous as the thought of going out and running 20 miles.

So yesterday, as I stared at he faded yellowing paper of the song I had been handed so many years go, I remembered that moment when it was handed to me, and, like so much of that first teacher's wisdom that is coming back to me now, I thought to myself, "I should take a look at this.  Phyllis turned out to be so right about so much.  Maybe she was right about this too."

I like to figure out a song from scratch before I hear it.  So, I sat down and plunked out the song on the piano.  The vocal line was not making any sense to me outside the context of the whole song, so I began to work on the accompaniment, so I could feel how it fit into the harmonies.  There were a couple of very beautiful lines that appealed to me right away, and may even be known to me (perhaps I have heard this song; most likely have; it's quite famous).  But parts of it were not making sense yet.

Well, that magic of what happens overnight, when your brain processes music while you're sleeping, seems to have occurred.  When I approached the piano this morning, the binder was still open there to the spot where I'd left it.  I had moments before been inspired by reading a post on my singer's message board (NFCS) about the singer's formant, and I was getting that ring in my voice this morning very naturally and easily.  I didn't even have to warm up.

I started singing the Voi lo sapete and my voice was slipping into it like a hand slips into a custom made glove.

I love this song!  This song is perfect for me!  Phyllis was right! (Twirls around in beautiful ball gown.)

Now this song is pretty well known to opera singers and opera aficionados.  It's not some elusive, rare find.  It's a pretty standard piece.  But to me, it is new!!  I am like a young girl, who, well, to whom everything in this musical world is fresh and new. Discovering with amazement and wonder some of these things for the first time.  Savoring it!  Taking nothing for granted!  Maybe this is why technique eluded me for so many years, in order for me to have this fresh exciting experience at an age when it's hard not to be jaded?  Beginning to finally have some technique has opened up some doors to songs like this.

Okay, this is not really  a 20-mile aria.  It may be more like a 5-mile aria, but to me, the beginning runner, 5 miles appeared as daunting as 20 miles when first starting out.

Alas, I cannot give you a recording today of my work on this piece, my first day.  I really wanted to record it, to show what it's like on the first day.  But I dropped my beloved and indispensable Edirol R09 recorder two days ago and it got smashed beyond repair.  I have just received it's replacement, the upgraded Edirol R-09 HR, in the mail a few minutes ago.  (By the way, Chris, at Sound Professionals, gave me amazing customer service when I went to order the new recorder).

But I most certainly shall be learning this song.  In fact, I want to go look at all those songs Phyllis tried to give me back then.  I want to complete them.  It feels like a bit of unfinished business in my life, and, as I've mentioned before, I don't like unfinished business.

When I produce a recording, I'll post it on this page, so check back.
10/26/09  Okay click here for First Try at Voi lo sapete
10/28/09  Click here for Putting the Words on Voi lo sapete (working on the ballgown)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are ... Or Rediscovering How to Play Again

This is the name of a book by Frank Forencich, who also writes a blog, The Exuberant Animal,  where he promotes a "comprehensive multi-disciplinary,  invigorating, liberating and life-changing" approach to fitness using  play-based movement training.

In his most recent post, Moral in Tooth and Claw, he discusses how "Play ...  can take us to a higher level of physical health, vitality and social functioning."  According to what is being learned in the academic circles that study these things, play-deprivation is threatening our health.

He concludes that

"Yes, sweat and effort are still essential, but these elements are far from sufficient. If we bring more play into fitness, we expand the potential enormously. We go beyond the body and make our practice more holistic."

Well, if you've gotten to know me a little through reading this blog, you know that I am listening to all of this from a singer's point of view as well.  These ideas strike a chord with me because it is only recently, after many years, that I have begun to rediscover the playful side of me as I explore my  voice.  In fact, I've intended my whole Frescamari's Practice Studio, which you see at the widget to the right, to be an expression of this new playfulness extended on the Internet.

I don't know exactly when it happened, but I suffered for many years at having lost my sense of play ... my playfulness.  I'm not sure exactly why it happened, but I have some theories.  As you grow up, and learn about the responsibilities you will have as an adult, as you encounter disappointments, as you experience hurt in relationships, as you encounter deep moments of pain that life can bring, somehow the play gets snuffed out.  I also think that my tendency to be a perfectionist cut me off from the side of me who liked to play.  Everything became so serious.  Everything became so scary.  Every move had to be so careful. Everything became so rigid.  Depression sets in.  Energy levels diminish.  Fitness levels decrease.  And absolutely nothing seemed funny anymore.

This is not good for a person, and especially not good for an artist.

It seemed like such an extreme thing to happen, because I was very playful as a child.  I had three sisters, close in age, to play with almost all the time.  I did not watch a lot of TV in my childhood and spent the time thinking up all kinds of things to do, and playing all kinds of make-believe games.  I used to like to write plays and puppet shows, and get a cast of kids together, like you used to see in the old Little Rascals programs, and put signs up all over the neighborhood and put on a big show for everyone.

I spent hours, and I mean hours with my feet crossed swimming around in our little backyard swimming pool pretending I was a mermaid.

When I was in high school, I was the babysitter that everyone always requested, because I was the one who would play.  I enjoyed playing with the children because it extended my own childhood, and it made the hours of babysitting pass, and I wanted to be the kind of babysitter that I had liked.

And I remember how much fun it was to be in the school musical.  I remember standing backstage looking at the painted stones on the "castle" scenery and squinting at them and seeing if I could convince myself they were real stones.  I wanted them to be real stones, and I wanted it all to be real, this world that was happening on the stage.

So, when did my play go away?

I'm not sure exactly when.  Maybe it started during my interview for the  Jr. Miss pageant, when the judges, looking up from what I had written on my application, asked me, "So, you want to be an actress!  Tell us! What do you think of the Stanislavski method?" (I did not know who that was.)

Or maybe it happened my senior year, when my physics professor,  after I had just finished performing the first movment of  Grieg's A Minor Concerto by memory with my high school band, and which I had worked harder on than anything I ever had in my life, said to me, "You really should not ever perform a piece in public until you are entirely ready" because I had faltered in a couple of sections.

Or maybe it happened during the summer, when a director, who had given me the role in his play at the community players theater said to me, "I don't know why everyone says you are such a great actress!  You can't even figure out what to do while you're standing there during this scene!!"

Or maybe it just happened because that's what life is like and I was not prepared or resilient enough to be able to process these things when they occurred.

For whatever reason, I found myself at a play-diminshed point in my life where I was entirely unprepared for what was asked for in my acting class over a several week period one year during college

My professor came in one morning holding a copy of the children's book, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendack, a story which at present is playing as a new movie in theatres.

He showed us all the book, which was familiar to many of us, and explained that over the next couple of weeks, the auditorium was going to be the jungle, and we, the acting students, were going to be the Wild Things.  We would come to class, and find  a spot in the auditorium to "sleep" and he would raise the lights for sunrise, and we would live out a day in the life of these wild things.  He would gradually lower the lights at the end to signify sundown, the end of the day for the Wild Things, and also the end of the class period.  We weren't going to talk to each other during this time of exercise.

Well, I simply HATED this.  I had to do it every day, and it went on unenduringly long.  I have been sure over the years that it was just a way of the prof's getting out of having to teach class, and I have never forgotten how tortured I felt by trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing?  I mean, how many bananas can you eat, and how many bugs can you pick off your fellow student and for how long.?  This episode of my acting training turned in to a very funny story over the years to tell people about the silly things we did in acting school.

But I newly appreciate what this professor may have been trying to do.  Perhaps he was on to a good idea fater all.  He was trying to get us to play!  Because a sense of play is so important for an artist.

Play!  How to rediscover it.  I googled the meaning of play and was astonished to find a page that had 74 defnitions: Meaning of Play.  Just reading through these definitions can inspire a person.

The one that stands out right now for me are:

number 23:
"Motion, movement, regular or irregular, as, the play of a wheel or piston; hence, also, room for motion; fee and easy action."
number 34:
"movement or space for movement, "there was too much play in the steering wheel."

This is the kind of "play" I'm engaged in right now.  Finding out how much "play" there is in my voice.  That's what my Figure 8 exercise to balance the voice is all about.  Playing with it.  Seeing where the parameters are.   Like an artist does when picking up a blob of paint and starts smearing it around playfully to see what it does, how it behaves.  This has to come first, before he can take up the brush and start to do stuff with the paint.  How much "give" does the voice have.  What is the margin of error?  What are the colors?  How far is too far?  How thin is too thin?  This is a kind of tinkering around with it to feel out how it works.

The next definition that jumps out at me is:

number 2:
"To act with levity or thoughtlessness; to be careless."

I have been casting off my perfectionism by singing, just singing, just blasting out carelessly.  Belting out tunes from musicals like I used to in my parents' living room.  To overcome my fear of hurting myself while singing, which wrote about I had developed and which may have hampered my progress. (How Much is Too Much?)

And finally:

defnition number 39:
"the removal of constraints; 'he gave free rein to his imuplses'; "they gave full play to the artist's talent' "

This last one is going to be hard.  The rediscovery, at this late age, of my play is going to go through some awkward phases as it finds its way back out.  And there are times that I am going to seem like quite a fool.  In fact, I think it was the fear of appearing foolish that buried the play to begin with.

So, in the interest of breaking free from the fear of appering foolish, I invite you into Frescamari's Practice Studio to see a little bit of playing.  It is an awkward kind of playing, but it's a start.  I expect to show you more of it as I move through this journey.

Edited 10/26/09 to add:  Duh!  The playfulness doesn't have to just be while singing or practicing singing, and shouldn't be.  Permitting one's playful side to emerge in all areas of life will infuse the art!  I'd be better off going out to play with my dog more often if I want to "loosen" up my singing.!  Don't  make yourself play; let yourself play.
Click here to see some Foolish Playing:

Foolish Playing: Per Pieta in Horse Stance
Foolish Playing: Per Pieta Drunken Style 
Playing with Our Dog 

Monday, October 19, 2009

Plans ... the Best Made Plans

It seemed like a perfect plan. I was going to run a 1/2 marathon in January of 2010. I had been a runner years ago, and had always wanted to get back into it. I did some reading, and found a plan for an "absolute beginner" to train for a 1/2 marathon in 35 weeks. It was a plan that used a run/walk method. It seemed ideal.

I walked for about 12 weeks before starting the plan, to build up a base. At the end of the 12 weeks of walking I walked a 5K, and had a pretty good time of 48 minutes.

I went to the running store, bought new running shoes, wrote all the workouts into my calendar up to next January in red pen.

Everything was going so well. I joined a running club, and practiced with them and ran/walked a 5K right at the time I was supposed to in the 35 week plan. My three sisters, all three of whom have run 1/2 marathons and marathons multiple times, were cheering for me and they all signed up for the event and were planning to accompany me, even at my very slow walk/run pace.

For my birthday they gave me running T shirts, and subscriptions to running magazines. I was very happy and excited and very motivated.

Then something unforeseen happened. Things did not go as planned.

I got the dreaded plantar fasciitis monster. It reared it's ugly head and has spoiled all my plans.

At first, I didn't think it was going to be a problem. I was having pain in the morning, and even though I read up on the injury, and understood that it usually tended to get worse and all that, I still proceeded on very optimistically, thinking that if just concentrated on having better form, perhaps it would take the pressure off the foot some and I could still carry out my plans.

When that didn't seem to be working, I next thought that perhaps if went back to run one minute/walk one minute, instead of run 2 minutes/walk 1 minute, it would ease the pressure enough to enable me to proceed with my plans.

But by the time I had increased my miles to 6 1/2 on my "long run" day, the problem was getting bad enough that I had to admit I was going to have to ease up on my training.

I next thought that if I took a week off, perhaps it would be enough so I could proceed with my plans.

At first, that seemed to help, but as soon as I got my miles up to about 4 miles, it became apparent that this plantar fasciitis was not going to let me increase my miles.

Now I am at the point where I can run/walk the distance of a 5K without making my foot worse (and it even feels like it may be improving). And on the long run day I can do about 4 miles, but that is it.

So, now my plans have been curtailed.

It is not the end of the world. But it is disappointing. For once I had been quite motivated and willing to do the work. It didn't seem fair. All these years sitting on the couch and thinking about getting out there, and you finally do it, and you think you're being realistic, and you think you're being conservative, and you think you're being smart, and guess what? Your body has other plans. Life has other plans. God has other plans.

I'm coming to terms with this. I am still going to show up at the 1/2 marathon, and I'm still going to take off from the starting line, but I have no idea what is going to happen. It is possible that I will have to drop out in order not to hurt my foot. That's okay. It's not how I envisioned this going, but it's okay. I can do a 1/2 marathon next year, perhaps.

But, having this experience under my belt, parallel to it I have been forming another plan. In fact, running the 1/2 marathon was part of this larger plan I have been formulating for a while. The larger plan concerns singing.

The last teacher I had suggested to me that it was not "too late" for me to go out and "do a little something" with my singing. This gave me the idea that maybe I would. I had thought it was too late to do anything because of my age, which is 48 right now. Hearing from this teacher that I could possibly still do something invigorated me.

So, I am getting in shape to go out and sing somewhere. Where, exactly, I'm not sure.

But I've been thinking about it all this time, and I've been talking about it with my current teacher, and it's coming more and more clear what I might want to do.

So, I drew up a plan, and I'm going to let you in on part of the plan tonight.

Up above is a picture of my plan. Some parts ore blurred out because I'm not ready for you to see that yet, but I'll let you see part of it.  In fact, if you've looked at the picture above, then you have seen it.

I am preparing kick off my plans to "do a little something:" with my singing on  my 50th birthday, which is in July of 2011.  It will be my "Coming Out Birthday Bash Recital."  You all are invited.  That's what I'm working toward right now.  I want to spend my 50s doing a little singing.  I had always thought it was too late.  But I've changed my mind and I'm going to try to do a little something.

But, like above, I am making the plans, and committing to the path, but, just like my plans to run the 1/2 marathon, I don't know what curves will be thrown at me along the way.  But that will be part of the fun of it.  It will be a learning experience and an adventure.

I invite you will follow along with me.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

What to Be Besides Perfect

The quest for technical perfection can be either or both a worthy goal, or an obsession for a singer. When a singer performs something technically perfect, when her execution of an advanced and complex piece of music is flawless, we stand back Amazed and Awe-struck.

However, should this perfection elude you as a singer, or should you give up the idea of being absolutely perfect, or even if you are not perfect yet and are waiting for that day when you can be technically perfect, what else can you be?

I made up a list of other things you can be as a singer while I was driving home from Kung Fu class today.

So here are some things a singer might choose to be besides perfect:

Soothing   Comforting   Intriguing

 Exciting      Thrilling   Fun

  Inspirational       Pleasing

Agreeable   Tolerable  Interesting

  Bizarre        Off-Beat    Funky

Real     Disturbing    Unnatural 

 Provocative      Seductive

Stimulating   Enticing    Daring

   Refreshing     Confrontational    

Stunning   Beautiful    Explosive

  Explorative       Declarative

Meditative Peaceful  Reflective

  Rhythmical   Improvisational  

Conversational  Enchanting

 Spell-binding   Proclamative


Rousing  Invigorating  Reckless   

Wild   Abandoned  Ground-Breaking  

Innovative  Inventive Delightful

Introspective Charming Eccentric


Captivating Entrancing  Inviting  

Mesmorizing Hypnotizing Simple    

     Unadorned    Laid Back

Grounded   Unforgettable  Serene

Experimental Elegant Sophisticated

  Casual  Chic  Rugged   Ragged  

Athletic  Mellow    Hip  Playful

  Colorful         Charismatic


You see, there are lots of other things you can be as a singer before you actually become perfect. And maybe some of these other things are even better!?!

Friday, October 16, 2009

"What It Takes To Become a Master [Singer]"

I was reading on Michael Hyatt's blog tonight a guest post by Mary DeMuth, entitled "What It Takes to Become a Master Writer."

I ask you read this post she has written, but read it with singing in mind (or whatever may be your pursuit). She reflects on the 10,000 hours that a craftsman needs to put in in order to hone his craft as described in Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers. Ms. DeMuth has written a checklist for writers. I thought I would transpose this checklist for singers. These checkpoints pretty much describe the way an avocational singer, singing at home in her living room, goes at her passion.

Here is the checklist re-written for singers:

1. I am willing to sing un-listened to songs.

2. I am thankful when a singer farther along the journey offers critique.

3. I understand that honing my voice is not merely a weekend exercise, but a decade-long fight.

4. I am developing thick skin with each rejection, while maintaining a tender heart. (I realize that rejection can make me bitter and entitled.)

5. I see obstacles to my singing journey as hurdles to jump over, not walls to stop me.

6. Folks who describe me use the words tenacious, dedicated, and disciplined. I am a lifelong learner of the craft.

7. I set practice goals or production goals each week. Then I meet them early no matter what.

8. In the beginning of my journey, I sing for free, understanding the importance of apprenticeship.

9. I am passionate about helping others in their singing journeys even if it means they surpass me. Because when I teach, I learn. And when others succeed, I rejoice because I’m expanding my singing ministry beyond myself.

10. I understand the beauty of God’s sovereignty in the midst of the journey. He gives and takes away. Blessed be His name, no matter what happens—gigged or not.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Amateur Vocal Scientist

Alongside my passion (obsession?) for learning how to sing well, I have developed along the way a connected interest and pursuit, and that is a passion for understanding vocal science.

I have always been so fascinated and enthralled with everything about the human voice. When I took my first voice lessons, over 25 years ago, I was expecting voice lessons to include information about how the apparatus worked. I had these expectations, but never voiced them. So, my lessons went on and on and we never talked about the physiology of the muscles and parts used in singing. You see, there was an interest, curiosity, and set of expectations present of which I was then not fully aware. It is only in looking back that I remember this curiosity, but like a good little girl who does not speak until spoken to, I was expecting people to read my mind, or provide the information when the time was right. In those days I didn't speak up to find things out, because I wasn't even sure of what my questions were.

The years passed, and it eventually came about that I started with a second teacher, and I got excited because I saw anatomical posters on her walls: pictures of the "voice box" or larynx, anatomical drawings of the diaphragm, and pictures of a human head from the side showing the spaces and places where the air flowed and showing the tongue in different positions for vowels.

I thought this new teacher was going to talk about all the mechanisms and muscles, and explain what we are doing when we breathe and when we support. But she never got around to it, and, again, I did not ask. One day she mentioned something about what some muscle was doing but interrupted herself in the middle of the explanation saying, "oh, but you don't have to know about these things."

Why didn't I just blurt out, "I want to know! I find it interesting! Please keep explaining!"?

Well, as the years wore on, I was studying and studying singing, but still couldn't do simple things, like sing high notes, and get through even simple short phrases without "running out of breath." I was willing to accept that it was a gradual process, and have patience. But at a certain point I began to wonder, well, just when is this going to happen? Seems like it's taking a little too long.

This led me to the decision that once and for all I was going to find out how it all worked. I thought I might find some answers there.

So, I bought books, studied some anatomy, talked to my then med-student husband, watched simulated graphic animations of breathing (breathing animation), sought out youtube videos of vocal cords in action (video stroboscopy of the vocal cords), and went searching all over the Internet for vocal science information, thinking that it would help me find the answers to why I was not learning to sing.

And thus it happened that I stumbled upon and developed a new hobby: Amateur (very amateur) Vocal Scientist.

What I long for, are realistic simulated animations of a professionally trained singer, so I can "see" what everything is doing. So I can "see" this miracle of voice production. I have been able to watch parts of the process in action, but to strip away all that is blocking my view and to SEE singing as well as hear it, to witness and study a simulated animation with the different muscles and parts in different colors and transparent so you can see the ones behind them, and watch them all working together. This is a dream of mine.

At first, I thought I might find it. I thought someone might have done it. After all, there are all kinds of curious scientists out there measuring and studying all kinds of things.

Alas, however, there seem to be no living inside pictures of singers, such as the ones I long to see, making visible the employment of action from the mechanisms and muscles used in really fine singing. The methods of obtaining information from the muscles are so intrusive and uncomfortable that it would be difficult to sing naturally, or for lots of singers to want to do it for enough time to really make good models.

So, until science comes up with a less invasive and painless way of gathering the information from the muscles, I will have to wait to see inside a singer's body this way.

In the meantime, I have to use my imagination. One of my favorite things to do, as I'm going about my household chores, is take the bits and pieces of information I have about the bodily system that produces a singing voice and work on constructing a living model such as the one I wish for in my mind's eye. I cannot convey to you all here what a miracle I think the human voice is, and how spending time imagining it this way gives me such pleasure.

Some singers get annoyed, "oh, just sing, for goodness sake! You don't need to know all that." Well, in a way, they, like that teacher who said it, are right. A singer does not need to know all that. Singing is a kinetic experience, athletic, visceral, and finding out what it feels like is an incredible journey of exploration and self-discovery. But I experience pleasure in learning about it from the scientific point of view as well. Almost as much pleasure as in singing itself. I take nothing for granted. I want to know everything about it, like when you meet the love of your life and you find them endlessly curious and want to know everything about them. I want to know what singing is from the inside out, backwards and forwards, upside down, and every dimension.

Well, so! That brings us to today. Today I find myself continuing to work on the puzzle of the muscles of support. On this Avocational Singer blog site, I speak generally my ideas about singing and being the specific singer that I am in the specific life that I lead. On my Posterous site, Frescamari's Practice Studio, I show my work. My process. So, for anyone who might find it interesting, I will show my mental work on breathing support for today. I just want to always remind anyone who is taking a look, that my knowledge is so incomplete, very amateur, and definitely works in progress. My thinking about vocal science is just as much a work in progress as any of the songs I am learning. Take it for what it is. Not answers. Just questions, and my own attempt to answer the questions for the betterment of my own understanding.


For thoughts on abdominal engagement in application of breath pressure, click here: Breath Pressure

Friday, October 9, 2009

Training the Muscles of Articulation

Something has happened in my singing life that I didn't see coming, and have been so excited to discover. Something special is happening to the words of my songs. They are coming alive. And they are coming alive because of a totally new physical involvement with these words than I have ever had before. And it feels GOOD.

It's not a matter of merely practicing the words to song. It's not a matter of getting the motor memory of how the syllables connect, and "repping" (repeating) it until you can move from position to position. It's a matter of becoming much more deeply involved muscularly with those positions. It's a matter of making those positions pliable, flexible and strong, so that a person can begin to sing through these words. It's not about merely practicing, but about making it into an athletic workout. It's about not taking any single speck of what one is saying for granted.

Yes, this is what has been on my mind, and I have been over and over again reciting like poetry all the words of all the songs in my life right now. But not merely "reciting" those words, but working them and working them hard. Working them as hard as any Kung Fu workout I ever did, or any ab crunch.

I get the sense now, that the song is like clay that I am molding by using the words as the tools of sculpting. Sometimes I have to squeeze and pinch the clay to get the shape I want. Sometimes I have to cut into it and make grooves. Sometimes have to patiently roll and ease it into the form I want. Using the words.

When I practiced piano, one principle that seemed just about the most important to my training was that of slow deliberate practice. This single pursuit, to play with slow deliberation, was the way to faster playing. I used to teach children to play the piano, and in their eagerness to play quickly they would rush ahead and get it going really fast, only to lose control of their fingers and crash. I used to say to them, "Do you want to know how to play that amazingly fast?"

"Slow Down. Play it amazingly slow. Over and over again."

Of course they didn't want to do that. It's very hard when one is young to have that kind of patience. And it is also very hard at that age to believe, even if you are told, that this is going to do amazing things for your fingers.

Anyway, I have been trying to figure out what the equivalent of that practice principle would be for voice. Yes, we can sing runs and stuff slowly. That may have the same effect on developing the muscular skill in the larynx and support system that the slow practice had on developing the muscles of the fingers, hands and forearms in piano.

However, there was more. That feeling of plodding through molasses, and moving in a slow thick way, a way of "resistance" that can better condition the muscles.

And in the past couple of weeks, I have found it. It is plodding through the words of the song and conditioning, through resistance training, the muscles of the articulators. I have been using the words themselves as the "weights" that offer the resistance to the movements. The consonants, particularly, offer the resistance that stimulates and develops these muscles. Working with resistance makes a person much sharper, faster, stronger when things come back up to speed. I am VERY excited to discover and apply this basic process to the muscular system of articulation.

In the midst of this, I had planned for today to work on words again, but to proceed by "loading" the muscles of articulation with an exagerrated and deeply muscularly involved pronunciation of the words (which I will post in my virtual practice room later).

But in the meantime, as is my way in things, signing in to my computer, I decided to google to see if there was any information out there about exercises for enunciation, or some kind of scientific work for what I am discovering.

What I found was a voice teacher who writes really beautifully of just the thing I am thinking of. I am so happy to read what she has on her web site, Dr. S.A.K. Durga, who teaches in India.

She writes, in a web article Articulation in Singing about what I have been discovering, that the sound quality is affected by this physical involvement with the words. She says,

"Deterioration of the voice quality among many singers is because of incorrect pronunciation of vowels and consonants in singing and the lack of attention in utteraning the words of the text of compositions."

This statement means so much more to me now that I am discovering the physicality of the words. Since I have been using these words as vehicles for the tone more and more, singing through the words and unifying the words with the whole instrument, I have been experiencing a greater connection and involvement with the music than I ever have before.

You see, I thought I was pronouncing words well before. But that's what I was doing. I was pronouncing them. I was going through the motions. This about much more than mere pronunciation. Words seemed like a kind of an outside burden on the singing. Because of that "burden," singers will often learn the songs without the words first, and when it comes time to add the words in, it is frustrating because the words seem to take away from the ability to make the pretty tones we were making without them.

But if one learns to use the words as the vehicle of the voice and meld them with the tone, a unity between tone and the muscular work of the articulators occurs which is absolutely wonderful. It's like a marriage, where two things become one.

I think that this is what Dr. Durga is speaking about in her article when she writes this:

"A singer speaks while producing the melody for it is here that the instrument voice becomes "human" and transcends mechanism. It is the most articulate instrument, since it can be made to alter words according to the musical laws. This is done by modifying the sound produced by the vocal cords into vowels and consonants by the placement of the tongue, the soft palate and the shape of the lips. It conveys poetic thoughts and produces impressive music. Other instruments merely play the tune, while the voice plays and speaks at the same time."

Later: Click Here to observe and listen to a Word Workout

Monday, October 5, 2009

Practice Preparation

How many of us, such as someone like me, when we have some stick-up hook or something that we've purchased to improve our life in some way, read the packing instructions and see that it says to prepare the surface by making it clean and dry before we stick the little hook on the wall? How many of us, like me, for example, are in so much of a hurry that we skip this step, thinking it will be all right? And how many of us, namely me, have been disappointed when the thing that improved our life so much fell off the wall a couple of weeks later?

There are steps we need to take in order to prepare surfaces and situations so that the results will be much more wonderful than if we skip these steps. Sometimes the preparation steps are tedious and boring, but with a little experience, we realize that if we want good results, we won't skip the steps. We will lay the groundwork first.

Painters use Spackle to fill the holes in the wall, and then prime with a "skim coat" before applying the actual paint. Bakers use a plain white icing over their layers before they apply the decorative icing. Seamstresses make a mock up of the garment they are working on in muslin fabric before using the actual real materials.

Today, as I drove home from dropping my daughter off at school, I began to plan how I would spend my singing practice time. "Hmmm...Let me think, I have a lesson tomorrow, so I don't want to have a strenuous practice today because I wanted to come in with a fresh set of muscles and vocal cords, all rested and ready, when I meet with my teacher, and if I push myself too much they might not be recovered by lesson time." So, I decided that it would be a good day to work on the language for the Per Pieta. Trying to get a head start, I started working on it in the car while still driving. I do not speak Italian, but I want to be able to speak this song as if I did. This is the preparation work for being able to sing the words, being able to speak them fluently. (Note to self: use free time to learn Italian instead of spending time on Facebook.) I found I knew the first few lines, but got stuck in the middle, so made a mental note that I would have to make sure I had that memorized.

By the time I was parking the car in the driveway and coming into the house, I was thinking that I would like to work the Per Pieta up to speed, but since I didn't want to stress my cords too much, I will run it through in a lower key. I quickly checked the living room by the piano to look at my Bellini book and see which key the lower one was in.

Later, as I was ironing and listening to talk radio, I reflected on the meaning and purpose of the practice I've planned for later.

Do you think a tight-rope walker, or an aerial artist in the circus would learn their routine up there in the air? I don't think so. I think they would want to know their routine inside and out before trying it up on the high wire.

Same for a figure skater. Before trying a routine out on the ice, it seems like she would practice it without skates many times, so she would know where she was going and what was supposed to happen next. (I don't know if that's exactly how these artists work, but that's how I'd want to do it.)

Why become familiar with the routine before going up on the high wire, trapeze, or out on the ice? Because there are hazards there, and the consequences of messing up can cause injury and harm.

Well, the same thing for singing, especially for me, in a higher tessitura. It would be good for me to work out the little glitches and problems singing in the lower key before subjecting the piece to the stress that the vocal apparatus will be under when the cricothyroids are pulling more tautly.

Why, in these 25 years, I have not thought of this sooner, I don't know. I have so often just worked these things out while singing "up there." I suppose this is what those opera singers are doing when they are "marking" during rehearsals. I have read about marking, and heard it described, but only until just now do I understand why marking is useful.

So, that's my plan for my practice session later this afternoon: Working toward language fluidity, memorizing the language, understanding what I'm saying in Italian. Then running through in the lower key. And trying to bring the piece up to speed. I'll post the work in my virtual vocal studio on posterous later on.


Later: Okay, here it is. The practice plan enacted: Per Pieta 3 Ways

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Welcome to My Vocal Studio

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I have added a posterous widget in the right hand column of this blog. As you can see, I am inviting everyone to come in and hear me practice singing.

A new friend recently e-mailed me and said, "you're very brave to post clips of your practice sessions!"

I want to explain what I'm doing there. Yes, it could b considered "brave." But because of my particular journey, I seem to always be in the "process" and not ever really have any finished products to show. Because of my focus on being a wife and mother, and the limited opportunities I have to perform, especially due to my technical level, I sometimes don't get to satisfy that need that all singers have to express themselves for others through their voices.

If we seek a kind of truth and honesty with our art, we can only show what we really are. If what I am right now is a struggling singer, who has many things to master technically and who is taking a long time to do it, and may or may not ever achieve the high level she is striving for, then that is the performance you will get from me. I cannot pretend to be more or less than what I am at the moment.

So, I have come up with this idea to invite you into my vocal studio. To examine a work in progress. Perhaps they can be thought of as my "before" pictures. An opera singer who writes a great blog about her tremendous weight loss journey, Cindy Sadler, is brave enough to post pictures of herself on her blog (The Next Hundred Pounds) that she takes every month as she shows the gradual and steady weight loss she is experiencing. Each month that she posts a photo, it is as finished a "product" of her journey as she is in any given moment. She always looks wonderful, and she expresses happiness at her progress, and usually a new outfit, yet she continues to plod on toward her ultimate weight loss goal. And we the readers are invited to observe her transformation as it happens.

Well, these clips of my practicing are kind of like Cindy's photos. I am opening up my journey. It is my way of being creative and expressive about my experience. I hope that the clips you will find there will be the "before" pictures. But each clip is also an "after" picture from the weeks before. It is that kind of development and evolution.

Perhaps a young singer might find these pages and have a peek into someone else's process, and understand a little more about what the journey is like.

Here is another way of viewing what I'm trying to do with the posterous clips:

Say you have a friend who is an artist, a painter. And she works all day in a studio downtown. You and she have planned a lunch date, and she says, "come meet me at my studio."

You arrive at the designated time, climb the stairs, and come into a spacious area that is lit from big ceiling to floor windows. There are easels spaced out in the room with various paintings in progress. There are all kinds of artists supplies, and an open closet with tools of the craft on the shelves.

She is working on her current painting. She greets you, walks over to the sink to wash out her brushes, leaves the room and tells you she'll be ready in a few minutes. "Do you mind if I have a look around," you ask? And she answers "Be my guest, but remember that none of these are finished."

You walk around the studio and stop in front of each easel. Some are more complete, some are less, and some are just a sketch on the page. Some are just a smear of paint, and some are more defined and developed.

These paintings on the easels are like the songs I'll post on posterous. They are my "paintings," my works in progress. You are invited to spend time browsing and listening to my "works" in various stages. I invite you to look without judgment, but with interest and curiosity about the process.

You might also walk over to the table and pick up your artist friend's little sketch book. Inside you will see little drawings, and practice paintings and sketches. You will see drawing exercises as she works out little details for an idea she will later use in a painting.

These are like the singer's exercises. This is like, as my daughter's piano teacher says, the "cut and paste" method of working on a song, where a singer will take a phrase from a song and only work on that phrase before re-inserting it into the piece again. A singer has a sketchbook too. From time to time I may post some of what is in my singer's sketchbook as an example of the detail work that must be done as one constantly works on one's craft.

I'm doing something here that is similar to a web site I found where a young model shows how they turn her into a cover girl. It is a web site for young people so they can feel better about their natural looks and see the process that goes into making an airbrushed beauty.

It is also something like what an old college friend of mine did on facebook when he took a picture of himself all sweaty after working out at the gym. He let us have a peek into the process. The time when it "ain't so pretty," but very real nevertheless.

So, sometimes you will hear my dog barking in the background, or my husband walking into the room, or my kids interrupting me and me hushing them up because I am taping. These tapes are also my sketchbook, because recording myself helps me to evaluate the work I am doing.

Yes, this is kind of a daring and personal thing to do, I guess. But actually, it's all I have. I have no masterpiece. Maybe one day the work I am doing in my studio will add up to a masterpiece. In that case, I will showcase it. You'd better bet on it that on that day I'll showcase it!!!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Still Trying to Get to Bottom of the Role of the Abs During Support

The thread on my NFCS (New Forum for Classical Singing) message board where they are talking about whether to hold the abs in while taking a breath to start to sing has been on my mind a lot and provoked me to do some further exploration and thinking. These ideas of mine here about how the ab muscles are used during inspiration for singing are a "work in progress." I posted a big long post on the NFCS message board, and worked hard on that post, but because I'm not sure if anyone is going to see it or read it (since they are kind of moving on to a new topic now), I thought that I would post my writing here as well. If you want to see the discussion on the abs, it is here at NFCS, a thread titled "TS - What is your view on support?"

So, what follows here is Frescamari's post from that discussion entitled "Muscles are so complex, and there are so many ways to keep them in a state of activation"

What I have written here is meant to be a kind of reply to your concern about muscle fatigue, but also serve the purpose of a more general reply to the entire discussion going on in this thread.

I have a keen interest in this subject and have been following this thread very intensely. It has been fantastic because it stimulates me to understand more why I choose what I choose.

I have chosen, as I wrote in a post above, to keep the muscles in an active and engaged state while taking a breath in, as part of my support for my singing. The reasons I gave above were because I felt it was part of pre-loading the muscles, getting them ready and "primed" for the support activity and application of breath pressure they would be recruited for.

I compared it to the way an athlete will have engaged muscles before springing into their routine. Sprinters do it. They don't start from a relaxed state, but pre-load the muscles and get them poised for action.

There might be some confusion about this because there are so many ways the ab muscles can "contract," and they can be partially contracted or more fully contracted.

One word that some people have been using in the thread is "tensing" the muscles and I don't think "tensing" is a word that is good to use about this kind of loading of the ab muscles because it's not exactly the kind of action that is occurring. The kind of engagement, or activation of the muscle can be very supple and flexible. Muscles can be in a state of engagement without being tense, and their ability to remain engaged for longer and longer periods without fatiguing can be developed.

Yes, in the beginning, especially if it is a person like me, who had VERY weak and underdeveloped core muscles, the process of engaging those muscles might be fatiguing. But over time, when the muscles become healthier, stronger, more flexible, responsive, and more adept at their task, ultimately they will become more efficient tools, and develop a more efficient way of working that will put out more for less effort. There might be a period of time where they will feel like they are working harder because they might not be used to behaving in the way they are being asked to behave, and the muscles have a learning curve. Once you show them what you want of them, the muscles have a way of figuring out how to perform the task in a more efficient manner, so you don't 'have to work as hard.

As I go about my day and have been thinking of all the things people are writing in this thread, I felt that to support (ha ha "support") what I believe about this, I might have to read more about how muscles behave. I have been reading a little, and my knowledge is so sketchy, so lacking in thoroughness, that I still would not be able to explain adequately. I would have to be a scientist to really get it (and singers do NOT, as Susan mentions above, have to be scientists and understand how muscles work in order to train and develop the strength and endurance of the muscles). But one might have to become a scientist in order to get past a block about what seems to be a contradiction. (That's what I have to do)

However, in my attempt to try to understand more deeply why I am able to take a breath while my lower abs are engaged, and still not be tense (and the glottis DOES NOT close when I do this), I have been looking up articles.

Here is one I found, an abstract from a respiratory professional publication (not the whole article) called "The behaviour of the abdominal muscles during inspiratory mechanical loading," (Martin JG, De Trover, A., Respir.Physiol. 1982 Oct;50 (1):63-73)

In the abstract they conclude "that abdominal muscle recruitment during inspiratory mechanical loading may facilitate inspiration by increasing diaphragmatic length."

Hmmm, that sounds so interesting and pertinent to the discussion. Here's a link to the abstract: (Behaviour of ab muscles)

I have also been reading about the role the muscles play in stabilizing the body during ordinary standing and maintaining posture. I found out there's a lot of people measuring and studying how the abdominal muscles are engaged while standing, and while standing and during inspiration and expiration.

It seems in order to stand up we have to have somewhat of an engagement of muscles. And we can stand for long periods of time. It's true that we do fatigue the muscles while we are standing, but the fact that we can do it for such a long time is kind of amazing. The muscles are able to remain in a state of "tonic activity" (whatever that means; I read it in one of the abstracts) while we are standing or sitting there. They are not completely limp and passive and they can go for long periods of time.

Another thing I found interesting while looking around was that there are a number of different kind of contractions, and here is where I think there is confusion as singers try to describe how they are using these muscles of support.

The four kinds of muscle contractions (at least in the article I read, and God knows there is probably more) are concentric, eccentric, isometric, and passive stretch. Here's a page that explains this: (Muscle Physiology: Types of Contractions)

When we are talking in this thread about "pulling in the abs," it can be confusing because we may be talking about an isometric contraction or something like that, but for lack of better vocabulary we are saying "pulling in the abs" or "tensing" instead of really getting to the bottom of what the muscles are actually doing.

Finally, there is the matter of the activation of the deep muscles. Sometimes when we are trying to "do something" with our abs when we are singing, we are using superficial muscles, and maybe we have to because the deeper trunk muscles are not developed because they have not been ask to handle tasks of deeper strength and stabilizing. I read in another article in my travels (sorry, do not have link) that something about trunk muscle forces and internal loads that stabilize us as we're engaging in activity.

This is where we get to the part that Susan talks about. DOING it. These muscles get developed. Sometimes the more intrinsic musculature is not accessed until sufficient activation and recruitment has occurred. We don't feel anything there because they are kind of "silent" until they become stronger and more developed.

When presented with seemingly contradictory approaches, which one the singer adopts CAN matter a lot because it could mean the difference between the muscles developing in the specific way they need to for the task. All the more do the TEACHERS of singing need to understand and get to the bottom of this, because singers who want to develop themselves pay for instruction on how to best get there and expect the teachers to know about what they are doing.

No need for too much fear though, unless you are in a hurry for a spscific kind of career path. I did not approach singing in a way that developed me correctly (on many fronts), and now have been able to begin to develop at a really late date.

I know this is a long post, and congratulations to anyone who has gotten this far. I hope I haven't taken up too long a portion of your morning/afternoon/evening. happy.gif

I have merely brushed on some deeper questions about this topic. What I hope to achieve with this post is to provoke people who are personally attached to one view or the other to realize that our first thoughts about it might not always be what we think they are, and to defend one WAY or another without flexibility and an open mind MAY cause a person to miss out on something that could really help them become a better singer.

Also, while we "discuss" and "argue" about the topic, the reasons why we want to know should be kept in mind all the time. Ultimately, we want to be able to have creative freedom for expression with our voices. Any techniques or methods to develop ourselves are with that end in mind, and whatever theory one is attaching one's self to must serve that end goal. If the end goal is not being achieved, then it can be good to question one's attachments.

The reason I care so passionately about this is because the underdevelopment of my support system and my lack of knowledge about how to get developed was part of why I did not develop my voice properly while I was younger.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Follow Up: How Ornamentation Has Changed Me as a Musician

In answering a comment made by "Blue Yonder," in a blog post I wrote about the week long course I took at Westminster Choir College this summer Ornamenting Handel and Bach, Rameau, Mozart and Monteverdi, I realized I was "blogging" so I've moved what I was writing as a comment over there to an official blog post over here. I am really happy that Blue Yonder expressed herself there, because it inspired me to think about what I had learned in that course and how it had affected me in the weeks that have followed. I thought I would let everyone know that I am now finding that having taken the class, even though I had said this would not be my genre of music, has very much enriched my singing and my technique, in more ways than I could have foreseen. As the weeks have unfolded, here are some of the ways what I learned there has grown and enhanced me as a singer:

In the class Dr. Julianne Baird talked about the structure of each phrase, and why and where and how certain ornaments would be appropriate because of the importance of a particular note. This made me much more aware of phrasing and has helped amazingly. To even just imagine, or play around with how I might ornament a phrase in other kinds of music has helped give life to my non-ornamented phrasing. As an exercise, I'll fancy up a phrase and sing it that way, and then go back to singing it as written and will find that new life is breathed into it with just the experience of having explored that phrase musically like that. If you think of how you would decorate something, you begin to see and hear it in so many new ways.

Also, the musicians who sang this music acted as kind of sub-composers of the music itself, when they were composing their ornaments for performance. In fact, some of them published books of their ornaments. So, to imagine the different ways I would have handled (ha ha, play on the word "Handel") that phrase had I been the composer, gives me much more mastery over what I am trying to achieve, and a greater understanding of the intention of the composer when he made that choice.

Another thing Dr. Baird brought to my attention was to pay attention to dissonant notes and give them more importance for a really beautiful effect. I have become much more aware of dissonance in songs that I''m learning.

I especially benefited from being exposed to the idea of "ornaments of dynamics." I had never really thought of dynamics as "ornaments," before and seeing them in this way has made everything new. This better understanding has helped the concept of my messa di voce. If I begin to see this "technical" feat in a more artistic way, and hearing and finding the beauty of this technique to produce accents in the phrase, it becomes more manageable and artistic and the desire for the beauty of the effect aids and leads the development of the technique.

I also fell in love with a little ornament called the schleifer. I had heard some ornamental terms from having studied piano and mostly from having played Bach, but I never had them all in one place at one time in a way that I could understand the theory of why they are used.

I found that the schleifer is a handy little ornament that can be used even in singing some of the musical theater stuff that I've been re-claiming recently. I've even decided to throw one in to a song from Hello Dolly, "Ribbons Down My Back" ("shining in my schleifer hair" because it's so pretty in this one certain spot.

Another thing that happened is that I came away with a new sense of freedom in approaching a song. I don't have to view a song as a straitjacket that I must force myself into, but I can view it as a ready-wear garment that is open to alteration in order to fit me better. The sleeves and pant legs can be hemmed to fit my length, and a few darts put in here and there and if there's a little something I don't like about the garment, I can take away or add a little to make it fit me better and make me feel happier about wearing/singing it.

Last but not least, I became aware of a really wonderful singer and person, Dr. Julianne Baird. I bought a couple of her CDs and play her in the car a I drive around. Also, I became friends with her on Facebook and she posts interesting stuff on her FB page, like this link about Air de cour which explains what this type of French music is and gives a listening sample. This is great continuing education for me, and I can now say that the class was way more than an indulgence, and something that has enriched me and helped my singing immensely.

(Listen here for "Ribbons Down My Back")