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)


  1. I am imagining you nipping out for a run in your beautiful ballgown... I too am rediscovering the sheer JOY of the music after a frustrating period; it's wonderful to read your enlightening thoughts about the whole process!

  2. I am happy for you!!! I'm having a similar experience. There was an aria suggested to me a couple years ago by my teacher, where my unspoken reaction was, "What kind of crack are you smoking, that you think I can sing this?!?" I suspect that good teachers have some prescience and/or more imagination than we do about where our voices are headed. They can hear through our rough, raw, unpolished sounds and, with luck and experience, perhaps make some intelligent guesses about what we might one day sing (if we can get our technique together!) Now, I still don't think I could do justice to this particular aria that my teacher mentioned--but I now agree with him that it could ultimately be within my reach and well suited for my voice, to boot.