Thursday, November 26, 2009

Whatever the Limitation; Never Give Up

In an article from today's New York Times, "Learning His Body, Learning To Dance" by Neil Genzlinger I saw in the description of an actor with cerebral palsy collaborating with a choreographer a parallel that seemed similar to my own struggle to learn to sing. Although there might not seem to be much in common with a neurologically healthy woman trying to develop her voice, and a person with such a serious condition as cerebral palsy, nevertheless there is something to be learned from extreme examples that can help us find ways to solve our "normal" struggles, and overcome more ordinary problems that stuck neurological patterns can present. I think the discoveries and work described in this article could be applied to the work of singers, especially ones with imbalances and difficulties

In the article, a dance choreographer, inspired by the performance of an actor disabled by cerebral palsy, took on the ambitious task of creating a dance work for him to perform.

In the course of working with him, they both discover that he is able to forge new neural pathways and become aware of his body in a way that opens up his movement. He finds he is able to do things that he had previously told would be impossible for him.

The choreographer, Tamar Rogoff, says that when she began her work with the actor, Greg Mozgala, she knew little about cerebral palsy and that she made a point of not learning too much.

“That way I didn’t have any ideas about what he could and couldn’t do."

This is such a great starting place for a teacher! I think that if there ever was a day I took on the responsibility to try to teach another human how to sing, I would want to approach teaching a person with this wonderful openness of mind and creativity.

It has been so important in my journey as a singer not to settle for what appears to be a limitation that cannot be overcome.  A singer with imbalances in the voice might seem to be singing in a "cerebral palsic" way (coining a term here).  That singer may not have the natural coordination for balanced singing.  Early on, after giving lessons a significant try, a singer such as myself might conclude that she is never going to get this, or it just doesn't happen in her voice.

In the article, Dr. Stephen Paget, chief of rheumatology at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, is quoted as saying:

"In the past, people thought that a neurological deficit was fixed and immutable .... “Now there’s this whole concept of neuroplasticity: the neurological system has this ability to change itself and constantly grow."

There are so many vocal tasks that I found completely inaccessible to me over the years. For such a long time,  I felt very much like my own vocal deficit was "fixed and immutable."  It seemed at times that I might just chalk it up to not having the ability to do it, based on some way my apparatus was constructed by nature or something.

When I would study the way the sounds were produced and the way the vocal cords worked, however, it seemed to me that this vocal task I wanted to accomplished ought to be possible. Yet how would I overcome the sensation of being "fixed?" Every "different" technique I tried seemed to always bring me back to the same old predicament

The biggest example of this was high notes. I would try everything to figure out how someone was singing a high note. For years. There would be a teacher who would tell me that I could sing a high note, and there would be teachers who would get me to make some sounds up there. But I definitely could not repeat some high note noise I made in a lesson on my own.

Once they began working together, though, Ms. Rogoff realized that a broader approach was needed. In the course of figuring out how to assist Mr. Mozgala discover his abilities to open up to movement, Ms. Rogoff describes how:

“Every time he tried to move in a way that wasn’t specific to his habitual pattern, he would fall down or just not know how to address it,” she said, “because he had a certain amount of patterning linked to his C.P., and I was asking him to step out of these patterns. I realized I couldn’t ask him to do that unless I supported it with a lot of body knowledge.”

This description, although one would think was far from my experience learning to sing, was not unlike the way I experienced approaching high notes. I feel that I had a habitual pattern that I simply could not figure out how to address either. Also, though I did not have a condition as pronounced as cerebral palsy, nevertheless my patterns were conditioned and very difficult to overcome as well. I had no idea how to overcome the problem.

At some point, however, after studying the vocal science involved, and first coming to the conclusion that it had to be possible, and then entrenching myself in the belief  that because it was possible then I was going to be able to find a way, I started anew, and had to find approaches similar to what Ms. Rogoff did here:

"She introduced Mr. Mozgala to a tension-releasing shaking technique, and it was immediately revelatory."

I don't know exactly what an equivalent of this "shaking technique" would be in singing, but I do know that it points the way to being open to new and less standard ways of exploring every possibility about what might shake up the entrenched pattern in a singer who is stuck in the way I was.

How wonderful would a  teacher of voice be who could come up with solutions to students who had trouble , imbalances, or lack of coordination in developing their singing voices, like this choreographer found solutions for an actor with limitations and imbalances and lack of coordination.

Ms. Rogoff said,

“I didn’t know what I was going to do for him,” she said, “but I just knew he was inspiring to me."

If a singer has the passion to learn  how to sing, then there can be so much that can be achieved, and the singer should never be written off as someone who is just not going to be able to get it. A good teacher must be inspired when challenges are presented, not dismayed or off put.

In the end, Dr. Paget, the  lets us know that for anyone with a neurological impairment, and for the purposes of my comparison here, I transpose to the idea of a "vocal impairment":

“It’s not over,” he said. “There’s always a chance to change. You should not — you dare not — give up.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Avocational Blogger

Just like I'm learning how to sing, I'm also learning how to blog.  I only started this blog last summer, and I've been learning as I go.  Although I have chosen to write my blog about my passion for singing, this blog really is secondarily about my singing for me, and primarily about my passion for writing.

The topics that I choose to write about are like the songs and arias that I choose to sing.  I am a being that has a pressure inside to express, express the self, in some way or another.  There are so many modes of expression an  artist or craftsman has to choose from.  The two that call to me are music and writing, and with this blog, I have found a way to bring the two together in an amazing way.

A writer needs something to write about, just as a singer needs something to sing about.  If we are not really plunging into life and experiencing it, and getting to know ourselves, then we will be limited in what we have to sing/write about.  Or will we be?

Over the years, I have known that I love to write, but never considered that I would be able to do it because I felt so common and ordinary of a person that I couldn't imagine that anyone would want to read it.  There didn't seem to be anything "special" or extraordinary about my life.  As much as I love to dabble in being knoweldgeable about things, there is so little I know, that I can't write as an expert about anything.  I have experienced a lot of failure and frustration, but I wouldn't want to write about that all the time because it would be such a downer.

Yet, whenever an article or blurb of wisdom about writing would cross my desk, a message would continually present itself to me:

"Write about what you know."

But what if you are a writer who does not know anything?  The answer these writing sages and gurus always seem to give is "everyone knows about something."  But for years I have been searching my brain to figure out what I know about.  Everything I know about, however, is known by so many people who know it better and more thoroughly than I do.  This same dilemma can confront the singer as well, especially an avocational singer.  More often than not, and I am speaking generally, an avocational singer is not singing on the high level that a top professional singer is singing.   The singer would like to sing, but is confronted with the reality that there are other people out there singing who sing better.  Just like I would ask myself the questions, why should I write when others can do it so much better and with so much more knowledge than I, I could also ask, why should I go out there and sing, when there are others far better than I am?

Yet, what remains is this need and desire to express one's self as an artist, no matter what that level may be.  Every person should have this flow in their lives, of expressing their inner being.  Some people do it through fashion.  Some people do it through the way they keep their houses.  Some people do it through the way they entertain and throw parties.  They choose these venues for this expression because they have a knack for it and it is what they love.

So, after many years of wanting to write, I have finally decided that I want to write about my experience of being an avocational singer.  I may not know much about all the current opera singers of the day.  I may not know the buzz going on in the industry.  I may not know the intracacies of vocal science.  I may not be able to give you the scoop and inside view of getting an opera up and running from soup to nuts.  I am finding that what my teacher, Susan Eichhorn Young, who always gives me so much inspiration, said in a recent blog post "Honesty ... HONESTLY!" is really true:

"You are Enough!"

So here is what I do know about:   I know what I struggle with and think about and ponder and pursue on a daily basis. I know what it's like to be an avocational singer who has been trying to learn to sing for 25 years or more.   I believe there's got to be other people out there like me, and they don't have to be singers.  They may be painters with makeshift studios set up in their basements and garages, soccer players who join the community leagues, and work out every day like they are in the big leagues, or just ordinary housewives throwing dinner parties based on inspiration they get from cooking shows and home magazines.  Everyone is entitled to be an artist. Everyone is entitled to pursue their modes of self-expression and experience the joy and pleasure of the process that goes into that. Everyone is entitled to be the level they are and to proceed without being made fun of.  One does not have to be the best, the most, or the most refined to get going and just do it!

Whatever my pursuit may be, however, I want it to be as good as I can make it at whatever level I'm at in the moment. This applies to my singing, and it also applies to my blogging.  Detail has always been important to me.  And this is getting me closer to the real purpose of this post, which is to talk about the little glitch that has happened in my presentation of this blog.

One of the details of presenting my writing in this form called blogging, is that how the blog looks and feels, and the rhythm of it is important to me.  I am thinking, not just of the writing, but how it comes across and how the person reading the blog might experience it.  Just like in singing, one may be using it for a mean's of self-expression, a communication of one's self, but that self-expression has a receiver, and the receiver has to be taken into consideration.  Part of this requires attention to visual aspects of the experience, and the rhythm.

There is something I have learned about blogging.  It is that each blog has a feed. This feed is what other blogs use to keep the latest posts current.  When I visit someone's blog, I see the feed in the list of blogs on the side of the blog.

Just like a singer finds inspiration by hearing other singers, attending recitals, catching the latest opera at the Met, browsing and listening to CDs and browsing and watching singers on youtube, a blogger will want to read the work of other writers and bloggers.  This has led me to try to find good blogs to read.

I did a google search: "How do I find good blogs?" and the answer that came up was "Technorati."

Technorati is a place where blogs are tagged and listed and you can search for blogs on topics that you like.  Not only did I find a few more blogs about singing (and other topics of interest) to read, but now I've decided that I want to get my blog listed there too.

The process for getting a blog listed is a little tedious.  First, you have to put a claim in, and then after a few days they send you a claim token to put in one of your blog posts.  They send their search engines to "crawl" you blog and find the token.  Then, they start a second phase of the process where they will decide if they are going to list your blog or not.

My inexperience with these things led me to handle this process in such a way as to end up with a messy little blotch on my blog.  I created a new post for the token, expecting to be able to delete the post from my blog later, which I have been able to do.  I didn't like the fact that this little post was going to show up in the feed and show as a new post on other blogs where I am listed, but I decided to live with it temporarily, because I would be able to make it disappear later.

Well, I did not know a deleted post will remain in the feed.

Now here is where we get to the "details matter" part of this post as the title suggests.

I am in the position of not being able to blog or add to Frescamari's Practice Room over Thanksgiving weekend.  I didn't want to leave off with the testing post for technorati sitting there in the feed on people's blog pages.  But because of my lack of time, I didn't know how to fix it.  I  tried a cosmetic makeover, where I wrote a paragraph about wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving.  But the rhythm and flow and feel that I want for my blog at this point would be thrown off to just have some little message like this.  It is not the effect I am trying to achieve (for better or for worse, more or less successfully). This little "Happy Thanksgiving" post was just like setting up a screen in front of an ugly pile of laundry, and I wasn't satisfied with leaving it like that for everyone.  So I made the decision that before I left the blog for a few days, I will take this time out (hope I will be ready for Thanksgiving, having done this) to leave a post of more thought and substance that may be interesting and food for thought and reflection to follow you into your holiday weekend.

I hope you will bear with me as I learn the ins and outs of blogging.  I am not a professional blogger, I am,  like my singing, an Avocational Blogger.  I expect to improve and develop as I go along.  I wish everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving, and I look forward to coming back on Monday sharing with  you more reflections and studio work as we head toward the end-of-year holiday seasons.

Always more to learn.  My experience with this RSS glitch (deleted post still showing up in the RSS feed) led me to find a cool blog, and maybe there will be future answers here:  "RSS Specifications: everything you need to know about RSS"

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bend At The Knees

"Bend at the knees!"  my husband, a dually licensed chiropractor and osteopathic physician exhorts me all the time.

But I don't want to bend at the knees because it's more difficult.  I preferred for many years, despite these recommendations, to bend at the waist and put pressure on my lower back and end up with lower back pain.

In Kung  Fu and Tai Chi we have to bend at the knees a lot.  From the "stance" work that we do, strength is developed gradually in the thighs, lower body and core.

I grasped this concept quickly in Kung Fu, and could see that the people who were getting lower and deeper and in their stances, and who worked those stances were more graceful and strong.

So eager to get there, and so willing to push myself  physically and endure the discomfort and work that I would have shrunk from, physically, in the past, I worked really hard at having low stances.

The progress I experienced was gratifying.  I didn't think I was moving too quickly.  It took me over a year to get kind of low.  That's not fast, right?

Here's me down as low in horse stance as I can go last February:

I thought that was pretty darned cool for a girl who had been out of athletic condition for almost 20 years, and who had also once weighed 270 pounds.

I was doing the same thing when I added my Tai Chi. Tai Chi was even rougher on the knees, however, because you have to remain in a bent knee position throughout the whole form.

But this past summer, I started feeling a little stiff and sore. in the knees, and was once again having trouble "bending at the knees" to pick things up off the floor in my home, although during my workouts I was fine.

When I went on vacation this past summer, my knees started to feel better. I decided to come back to my martial arts gradually. I added the Kung Fu, and the knees are fine. But I am waiting to reincorporate the Tai Chi again.

I think my concepts were fine, and that I am going to develop these low stances the way I want to. The thing I was doing "wrong" was that I was rushing things. I was doing too much too soon.  Even with my knowledge and acceptance of the concept that one can't rush this kind of physical development. Even with my conscious willingness to take things slowly and be patient, I still was rushing.  Because deep down inside, I was still in a hurry.

I've been waiting all my life to achieve some of these things, and now I'm starting to understand and get really serious in my 40s.  It seems as if there is a little clock ticking, like the countdown to my recital on the right hand side of this blog page.

Yesterday, Arachne commented on this blog about how things get harder,  physically, in your 40s.  I have done a lot of reading about physical conditioning and flexibilty and other aspects of body development, and, from what I can glean, although it may be harder, it is still possible to acquire much physically in these latter days.  But an awareness and knowledge of where one is at is important.

If the concept of being patient and allowing the time necessary is important to everyone, it is even more important to be patient to one who is in her 40s.  Yet that is just the time when a person often feels that mid-life crisis pressing and making one feel like time is running out!

In a favorite vocal book of mine, Discover Your Voice, by Oren Brown, he repeats continually that doing too little is  better than doing too much.  A patient, consistent, daily effort pays off much more in the long run.  It's like building a savings account.  If you just throw a regular amount in there every day, it will grow!  You don't need to suffer by depriving yourself extremely and putting so much in the savings account that you have nothing to live on or no budget for any of the little "extras" that give a little pleasure and joy in life.  You have to trust that the few dollars you are throwing in there every week will do the trick.  Of course, there is an amount that is too little, where the rate of interest is not sufficient to overcome the rate of inflation, and one is actually 'losing" money by saving it, in that case.  So, the minimal amount has to be discovered.  Also to be discovered is the maximum amount that can maximize the process without subtracting too much from other aspects of life.

Yesterday I caught sight of a blog post by a singing teacher who claims to be able to speed up the process of developing the voice.  In a post titled "Vocal Instruction Gimmicks: Voice Lessons Online, Via Phone, CD and DVD -- What Are They Worth?" the blog author explains how she is famed for her scientific method of accelerated voice development.  She sounds rational when she writes, but I can't understand how she can claim to be able to speed up a a process that has it's own rhythm for each individual.  She claims that her method is based on good vocal science.  I am skeptical of that, but maybe "accelerated" means that  because of an expertise that can remove impediments that can slow down or interfere with progress, the process is optimized or something.

What I am discovering is that the actual psychological, mental, or emotional state of desiring acceleration is a state that interferes with true mastery.  If this desire to get there faster is present, it will impose an element of control on the process.  So the mere mental state that causes a singer to respond to a claim like this already contains an element that can interfere with the true work that needs to be done.

It may sound like I am advocating something like merely standing still.  One, of course, does want to progress forward, but the progression must be a by-product of the work one has entered into.  One must at every moment be present where one is at, and work within those parameters, and have the trust that something is developing.  Like a friend from the NFCS forum has said, "focus on the intention, not the results."

So, even though I have accepted and entered the process, there is even more deeply that one can enter "the process."  Taking it slow means a state of being with one's work.

So, now, I am doing less in martial arts training, but achieving more.  It is amazing to me actually.  Ironically, ny Kung Fu is actually improving more quickly.  I stand and listen to the young people breathlessly exclaiming in the changing room after class that they have been there for several hours, and now they are going to take the kickboxing class too.

The mantra seems to be more, more, more just as I am discovering the value of less.

After writing this blog today, this piece of writing about Gradual Progress by a Chi Running instructor appeared in my blog list. This is just what I was talking about.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Flute, or "Falsetto" Production

"Lighten that sound up.  Don't bring up that dangerous weight!  People bring up that weight when they want to show off.  You want to keep it very very light for this exercise, and for choral singing"

These are words from a talented singer and music teacher who was asked to warm up our choir's high notes.  I cut out of an exercise like that because my big voice not want to change to that "flute-like" or "falsetto" register.  Not only does the voice not want to sing in just that way, but it also cannot do that flute voice thing very well. This puts me in a dilemma at choir, however.   If I do use my full voice, or "modal voice" for the exercise, it will sound like I am showing off and ignoring the instructions.  If I don't sing at all, it looks like I can't do what she's asking.  Well, actually, that's right.  I can't do what she's asking.   I do not participate in this exercise and everyone has to think I don't have high notes at all. But it so totally does not matter what everyone thinks.  So, I warm up my high voice at home.  An alto doesn't do high singing, but warming up the high voice is important all the same because I believe that the entire voice is contained in each pitch in some way, and that the work done in the high voice benefits the low.

But it bothers me that I couldn't sing along with the others, and I begin to wonder once again why my voice cannot do the flutey staccato exercise the choir teacher is requesting.  This wondering prompts me to dig out a book I read a few years ago, a classic one,  The Diagnosis & Correction of Vocal Faults: a manual for teachers of singing & for choir directors by James C. McKinney.  I wonder what he says about this.

I find his chapter on "Registration," and within that chapter, just after the section where he talks about "modal voice register," there is a section on "falsetto."  I read this book 4-5 years ago, and refer to it from time to time.  I see that the chapter has my underlinings in it.  At the time I was reading those pages, I probably barely understood what my eyes were seeing.  Now, five years of voice lesson later, and thousands of articles and discussions on vocal science and technique later, I understand these passages only a little better.  That's why it is so good to go back and read what you thought you already learned again.  And again.  And again.

I read what is written here in the text:

Most trained singers have at least an octave of range which they can sing in either modal voice or falsetto.  In this overlapping area a given pitch in modal voice will always be louder than the same pitch sung in falsetto.

So, the singer warming up the choir is asking us to sing in the falsetto voice, and not the modal voice when we do her light staccato exercises.  It seems like I should be able to sing in this "falsetto" voice, if "most trained singers" have an octave where they can sing in this voice, but I can't.  I"ve always had trouble with it.  Why?  Is it because my voice is "heavier?" "bigger?" "dramatic?"

Mr. McKinney writes:
Many teachers advocate the use of falsetto exercises to aid n the development of the upper portion of the modal voice.  Here falsetto is not a substitute for the modal voice, rather, it is a means to an end.  The ultimate goal is to free up the modal voice and strengthen it ...

Should I be using falsetto exercises in my training then?

While composing this blog post, and all my blog posts, I always have another tab open where I can google.  A quick google of "dramatic singers and falsetto" brought up one of my favorite blogs about vocal science, one written by one of the most knowledgeable people out there on these subjects, Jean-Ronald Lafond.

I am sure I read this post when it was written a year ago last July, but like the words in McKinney's book, I did not fully understand the significance.

JRL writes, in his piece, "Why falsetto (flute voice) is important in vocal pedagogy: an issue of muscular balance.":

As previously said, not every singer can produce a falsetto and this is a sign of malfunction, at very least weakness in Crico-Thyroid and lateral Thyro-arytenoid muscles. These muscles mainly are responsible for the lengthening of the vocal folds. It could also mean that the vocalis is relatively muscle-bound, so rigid as to resist Crico-thyroid activity at a given pitch range. The ideal at any pitch level should be a possibility of variable interaction between the two muscle groups in question; that one is not limited to a single state on any given pitch. If the vocalis is so inflexible as not to allow falsetto, this must be seen as a relative dysfunction. This lack of falsetto ability is observable in many tenors referred to as possessing "robust" voices, and often in baritones who train as basses, and natural sopranos who train as mezzos. There is indeed a relationship between "pushed" down voices and inflexibility of the vocalis. [emphasis mine]
So then, is my inability to do the flutey choir exercises a sign of malfunction and imbalance?  Do I need to explore this voice in order to free up my instrument?  Is there yet still more imbalance after all this concentrating on trying to get the vocal instrument balanced?

JRL suggests:
Developing and maintaining a healthy falsetto range is one of the necessary characteristics of healthy vocal production.
Although my crico-thyroid muscles are much more activated than they had been, they still are underdeveloped, I'm sure, compared to the thyro-arytenoids.  I often called my voice the tyrannosaurus rex with the TA muscles being like the legs and thighs of the tyrannosaurus rex, and the CT muscles being like the puny helpless arms.  My tyrannosaurus rex voice has been doing pushups, and the arms have developed some functionality, and this has been exciting, but they need to do a lot more.  Isn't it funny, this analogy, because in my real life I have always been very strong from my waist down, but a little weak in upper body strength.  I remember it was hard for me to do chinups on the bar my dad hung across the doorway for that purpose when I was a kid.

You know, when I started this post, I had originally planned to argue for doing the choral exercises in modal voice.  In order to make my argument, however, I had to start doing some research.  In the course of doing the research, I learned that doing the exercises the way suggested by the choral teacher might be just something I need in my vocal development right now.  It is really important for me not to cling so hard to something that I think I may know.  I must always remain open to learning more and more deeply.  My singing teacher often says to me that my writing this blog is good because the ability to put what you know into words helps you really grasp the concepts.  I am experiencing an example of this now.  In order to put into words what I had planned to say, I had to begin a search to understand it more deeply, and in the process, my understanding changed. This is a wonderful thing!

No doubt you will be hearing Frescamari try out some flutelike exercises in her practice room in the near future.  Maybe I'll start with the ones from choir.  It defnitely won't be pretty.  But I'm not here to show off  I'm here to do the work I need to do to have a little something later.  I must believe I can do this!
Check out Frescamari's Practice Room:  "The Flutey Hoo Hoo Hoo Exercises from Choir (that I can't doo doo doo)"

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Choir Practice!

One of the outlets for singing that avocational singers across this country has is singing with a choir.  I sing with a wonderful all-women's choir called Cantigas Women's Choir.

Now, choir night should be nice and relaxed, right?  Just go, sing, blend in, don't worry about anything and have a nice night out with the gals, right?

Well, not exactly.

And especially not exactly for a great big solo voice-type, dramatic-soprano like I may be.

It is a real struggle.  Everybody has their stress about it, if I judge from the little voice recorders hanging around the women's necks around the room.  Each choir member has their own customized set of issues to wrestle with, and which will produce growth in the individual's musical life.

Like many others, I have my own particular set of struggles.  Each year, I take a new set of challenges and work on them to try and grow myself as a musician,  and this year I've decided to work on balanced and soft singing.

Challenge Number One:  Balance in the middle and coming in on those Gs and F#s and Fs.  The balance in the middle problem comes from the fact that there are a bunch of sets of muscles working together to make the sound in the larynx.  One set of muscles works with a bunching scrunching kind of action and controls how thick the cords are, while another set of muscles pulls on the cords and stretches them.  Getting just the right amount of stretch to bunch is tricky throughout the voice, but especially in that middle area where they are both working about equally.  It is in that area that there is a little "break" in the voice that most people who sing feel.  People studying classical singing all work hard to "smooth" out this break (and a few other tricky spots) in the voice.

In choir, if I have too much "bunch" I will sound "off" to the choir director.  If I have too much "stretch," I will also sound off.  It's only when I get it in balanced that I see a smile on her face up front.

Well, it just so happens that a lot of songs have these kind of exposed entrances right on the notes in this tricky part of the voice.  So, tonight I spent a lot of time working on that, and you can hear it, if you have the inclination, heart or patience, in a bunch of files in my practice room.  (See "Choir Practice: Warming Up," "Choir Practice: Bach Magnificat 'Suscepit Israel'" )

Challenge number 2 is soft singing.  Singing softly is not going to magically appear in my voice.  I am going to have to work really hard to achieve it. It's getting better, but there is a lot more work to do.  I have practiced singing softly in the version of Ave Maria our choir is doing. (See "Choir Practice: Choral Ave Maria")

The other challenges concern wrestling with a language I've never sung in before, Finnish.  I also struggle with German.  (See "Choir Practice: Finnish language 'Vesi vasyy lumen alle' and German Language 'Zion hort die Wachter singen'" )

Once you've had a little preview of these choir songs, I invite you to come to the concert on December 12.  The information is on the Cantigas web site.  Check it out!

What Does A Stay-At-Home Mom Know About Networking?

Susan Eichhorn Young has written a great blog post about networking called "Are You Pushy or Are You Networking?"  This post was cause for great reflection on my part because I have always been afraid of networking, and this fear is one of the reasons I withdrew from pursuing a career in theater, as had been my intention, when I was young.  There were many reasons for this fear, not the least of which was the fear of being pushy.

One time, while working as a waitress in a restaurant in Manhattan, some person of importance in the theater world, some casting director or agent or some such person, stopped in with a companion for dinner. I, being green and new, had no idea who this person was, but the other actor/waiters on staff were all abuzz, and they immediately began vying to wait on his table as if this was their big chance.  I distinctly remember one fellow waiter running to the back to dig out his resume and head shot to present to the important theater person (ITP) who had stepped in for a bite to eat.

Now I had taken a class in college on "Aspects of Business" in theater, and I recalled having been advised about how to get your resume and head shots into the hands of helpful people, and instructed how to follow up with post cards and/or phone calls in a persistent way (not pushy, but persistent).  However, I was afraid to even do it the right way.  But when I saw this waiter/actor colleague rush over to the table where ITP was by now trying to eat a salad, I became more horrified than ever of this thing called networking.  Is that what I was expected to do?  Is that how you get your name and resume out?  I couldn't imagine that it would benefit me in any way to interrupt a person's dinner out.  I imagined myself in ITP's shoes, and thought that I would be absolutely annoyed if someone did this to me.  And I didn't think that I would want to give any kind of job to a person who had annoyed me.

This incident was a significant factor in me deciding that I didn't like the things that an actor had to do in order to break into the "business."  I loved the art and craft of theater.  I did not like the business of theater, or what I was perceiving it to be at that point.

How much I could have used the help of someone like Cindy Sadler, who offers consultations to singers on aspects of the singing business through a web site called The Business of Singing.  How wonderful would it have been to have a knowledgeable person to consult and steer me in the right direction.  I've never met Cindy, but from reading her blog, and seeing her posts in various places on the Internet, I'm sure if I had brought these concerns to her as a young aspiring performer she would have said, "No, no no! That is not the way to go about it!  You most certainly should not approach it that way, and I simply will not let you!"  But, alas, I did not have the wherewithal to find such a resource at that time, and drew my own conclusions with basically not talking to anyone about it.

But over the past 18 years, I have had a unique front row seat to observe a master networker do his thing, and that master is my husband.  He happens to be an absolute natural at networking.  From observing him, I have drawn some new conclusions about what networking is.

I think networking is all about friendship, generosity, and love.  It's about wanting everyone to do well and to thrive.  It's about being interested in more than just one's own pursuit, and caring about others.  I'm not talking about caring in the sense that we care about our deep personal relationships, but a kind of caring that is broader and more connected to the deep truth in the universe that we are all important and we need each other's help.  Also, I'm talking about the broad principle that is better to give than to receive.

Many times when someone is "networking," they are thinking of what they can get out of someone.  My husband never starts from there.  As soon as he meets a new person, he has an instant curiosity to find out what they do and what they are all about.  He starts asking them questions.  Then, almost as instantaneously, his natural networking brain begins to do almost a google-like search for anything in his sphere of life that might be of help to this person he is learning about.  It is a reflex for him to think, "who do I know that might be of help to this person?"  His eagerness and desire to connect that person is organic to his person.

Once he thinks of a whole list of ways he might be able to help this person, he gets on it immediately!  I mean, that he would even ask me to drive home from the party so he could call the person he wants to connect with the person he just met.  It's almost like matchmaking!  He's like one of those busybodies matchmakers who starts thinking of potential marriages as soon as he meets an  new eligible person.

He tries to help the person in every way possible.  If it's a dead end, so be it, but he leaves no possibility unexplored.  Yes, sometimes he is even pushy, and, yes, there are even moments when it is annoying.  But oten times the person is annoyed because he's pressing against their comfort zone.  And I've noticed that the pushiness is soon overlooked as it becomes apparent that his heart is in the right place.

As a result, this man has an enormous amount of friends and business associates from all walks of life.  His "network" grows hourly, and there are many many people out there willing and happy to do him any favor. The funny thing is that he barely has to ask anyone for any of those favors.  Not only does he barely have to ask, but once in a while when he does ask, he is not afraid to ask.  He is not afraid to ask, NOT because people "owe" him anything, or because he is "cashing in" in any way, but because he assumes that all these other people think the way he does and are happy for a chance to help.  He has found so much happiness in helping and giving out to others that he assumes the people he networks with feels the same way.  And what I have learned about people who like to help in the world of networking, is that most people really are happy to help if they can in some way.

If you think about it, there has to be people who want to give in order for networking to "work."  If everyone is just trying to work an angle in a calculated and contrived or manufactured way, then who is there to do the favors?  If it is just a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" way of "operating," what will really come of that?  There has to be some genuine caring about another human being.  There has to be some kind of gratification in knowing one has helped another with their pursuit.  That we are helping the sphere of business or culture that we care about grow and thrive in some way.

Susan wrote about this in another blog post of hers: "How Large is Your Spirit?"  She talks about how wonderful it can be to acknowledge other artists.  She sums up what I have observed of my husband, the natural Master Networker, so perfectly with these words:
Having a spirit of generosity shows the evolution of your artistic soul. If you have the room to be generous, then DO IT. It does not cost us anything to be generous. Generosity is a gift, not a crime! Being generous with time, encouragement, a smile, only adds to the well being of the one being gifted and the giver!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tools of the Trade: A Lesson and Practice Journal

The way I handle my lessons and the way I practice has evolved and changed over the years.  Right now, an important part of my training is my Practice Journal

I didn't always approach things in this manner.  For the first eight years, I did not record my lessons, write anything down, or have any kind of approach at all actually.  What I would do in those beginning days was kind of wonder what I should be doing.  I would think, okay, I guess I should try to practice.  And then stand there kind of clueless.  Should I do the exercises she does with me in the lesson?  But what were they?  Oh, I remember one of them.  I'll do that.

Well, eight years later, and on to a second teacher, I was wiser, right.?  This time I asked her how to practice.  She replied, "You should tape record your lessons and use them."  At first I used just some cassette tape recorder I had around the house. But the results were far from satisfying.  The recordings were terrible and I could barely hear what she was saying.  So, after a while,  I went out and bought myself the best cassette recorder I could.  That was better, but listening was hard, because I had to keep winding and rewinding.

By the time I was on to my third singing teacher, the young opera singer, the cassette recorder I had purchased had broken down, and since I had not known how to make use of it productively anyway, I scrapped the idea of tape recording lessons.  So, once again, I was not tape recording my lessons, nor writing anything down.  But this was a time in my life when I finally had had the realization that singing was athletic and that I would improve if I worked at it daily.   I was thinking much harder about how to practice, and I at least wrote down little notes in my music.  I took the things from my lesson, and remembering as much as I could, tried to practice every day.  Of course, I began to start making up my own way to practice.

Then, I read on the New Forum For Classical Singers that I mention so often, that most of the singers there seriously record their lessons.  I also met some singers on that board, and wanted to share singing clips like many of them did, so I read up in the technology section of the forum on which recorder to buy, and asked that year, for my birthday, for the Edirol R09, which is the one I use today.

At first, I did not know what to do with these lesson recordings, but once again a forum member came to my aid, when someone posted that same questions, "Most effective way to use your lesson recordings?"  There were many answers, but the one that jumped out at me was some thing like, "I listen once and take notes. It's time consuming, but it works for me."

From the time I read that, I decided to assemble a notebook full of looseleaf lined paper and do just as the forumite suggested and take notes from my lesson recordings.  She was right.  It was time consuming!  It takes me about an hour and a half at least.  At first they were just notes describing what I heard, but soon, I began to try to put the shapes of the exercises in.  Below is a picture of the attempt to start making a record of the exercises I was learning:

If you can't see that too well, just click on the picture to see it bigger.

This method worked for a while, but then I realized, "duh, just put the exercises on the staff."  The next thing I did was develop a little template, with a staff on one side of the page, and a place for commentary on the left.  In the next picture, you can see my template.  I know I could use this and make copies to use every week, but for some reason I like the ritual of drawing it out by hand before I sit down to listen to each lesson.

I don't always like to use technology for some things.  Sometimes I like the way it feels to draw and write, and I feel like it gets into me better when it is flowing through my hands and a pencil like that. I feel that when I try to draw the lines of the staff freehand, I am replicating my attempt to sing a vocal line without wobbling.

I take this template, and turn on my Edirol R09, like you see in the photo above, and begin to fill in the exercises and commentary from the lesson.  I sing along with the tape, trying to kill two birds with one song, and be all warmed up to sing by the end of the process.  I used to listen to myself, but I've realized that how I sound, even in the lesson, is of less importance than understanding how the work is to be done.  So, singing along and not hearing myself is just fine.

And finally, below you can see a sample of a filled-out version of my template:

I would like to thank my teacher, Susan Eichhorn Young, one and the same as the Susan in "Lesson with Susan" in the photographs, for permitting me to show these pictures with some of her great wisdom imparted on the pages.

This Practice Journal of mine has other sections as well.  I have a place for planning.  I have a section for song ideas and rep.  I have a section with ideas I get for my blog. Another section is for writing down my discoveries. It is a great all-around tool for keeping one's singing life in order.  Athletes and runners use journals like this too to track their progress and record their workouts.

I am putting this here in the hopes that someone might find it helpful and useful.  Should there ever be someone as clueless as I was, I wish for them to stumble on this page and get some ideas, so they won't have to wait so long to get going!
Today's practicing was a heavy duty workout with Elijah again.  There was a lot of progress from even just a few days ago.  Check it out in Frescamari's Practice Room: "How Does My Garden Grow: Another Heavy Duty Workout with Elijah -- and high note growth is apparent"

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How Shall I Dress? What Key Shall I Sing In? For my Christmas Eve "Gig"

I have a gig!  I've been asked to sing "O Holy Night" for midnight mass at my church on Christmas Eve this year.

A couple of years ago, I was doing a lot of solo work at church, but then the organist who had so favored me left for another parish, and I was a little out of commission when they hired the new organist.  Before I knew it, I was kind of out in the cold as far as soloing.  So last year, disappointingly, I had a solo-less Christmas.

This may not seem like a big deal to most people, but for an avocational singer to have a solo at Christmas just kind of makes the whole thing so complete.  From my earliest memories, music and Christmas go together in my mind.  My mother was a church organist, and she would practice on the organ we had at home all during Advent.  She would often use me as a soloist in our small town church.  Christmas is a very spiritual time for me, and spiritual things and music go together because it is the way my spirit expresses it's joy.  It seems like all the composers put a little something extra into their music when they were doing it for Christmas Maybe they were being paid more for it or something, or maybe they were expressing their own moments of hope and joy.

But last year, it was like a little cloud over my Christmas that I didn't get to sing anything.  I have overheard professionals talking about how the amateurs in these little church groups get so petty and competitive about these little chances to sing solos.  But the need to get up and sing solo can be the same need that drove the professional singer to choose it as a profession.  It is still a need./desire.

Well, so, this year I am happy because I have been asked to sing "O Holy Night."

But I have to get about the task of preparing this song for the evening.  That means I have to think about it ahead of time.  I don't want to wing it.  I want to prepare it the best I can.  I cannot sit back and say, "Oh, I know that song" and expect to just pop up and sing it (something I have done in the past, and then wondered what went wrong, exactly.)

One aspect of preparation is deciding which key to sing it in.  It seems to me to be a similar task, almost, to finding the correct size dress to purchase.  When I stand in front of the dress I like in the department store, it comes in several sizes.  So often I am tempted to guess at the size, and skip the labor of trying it on in the dressing room, but the few times I've done that, I've mostly regretted it.  You just never know which size is going to work.  You have to try on several sizes to really know which is best.  Even then, sometimes you are left choosing between two.  A little snugger?  Or a little more body-skimming?  Snug and alter it to let out just the little part that isn't working?  Or larger and take it in a little where it needs it?

I have to think of many aspects of wearing this dress.  Will I be sitting for long periods in it?  Will I be milling about?  Will I be dancing; does it need to have a little swing to it?  Will I be in a restricted or free setting?  How will I accessorize the dress?  Will I wear a shawl with it?  Will my hair be down or up? How will the other people be dressed for the occasion?

Like the details that must be considered when choosing a style of dress and its size, there are many details that I must consider about "O Holy Night" when I choose the key.  I have to think of the size of the church, which is a small modern one, with cushioned seats, carpeted floors, in the round, and not very good acoustically  I have to consider the accompaniment available, which most likely will be the organ or the piano.  I have to consider the mindset of the "audience," and the purpose the song serves for the occasion.  I have to consider my level of vocal ability and development and what I can pull off and/or not pull off.  For example, if I sing the song in a high key, with my dramatic voice, which still lacks the finesse of being able to spin any kind of pianissimo singing up on top, will the climactic high note at the end be inappropriate and too much?  Will the people feel assaulted by the piece, or charmed and warmed?

To add to the decision-making process, I took the bold step of asking my daughter's piano teacher if I could sing it at the Christmas song recital we are having in the drawing room of  a parent's home.  If I can, a chance to get up and sing it in front of people before the actual event would be very helpful.  She told me I could, and she will accompany me so, I will sing this song in a completely different space than the church in a couple of weeks.  Should I sing it exactly the way I will in church on Christmas Eve, since I"ll be using it as a practice run, or should I tailor it to the smaller occasion?  Should I sing it in the same key both times?   Or choose different ones?

So, that's what I was doing in my practice room today.  I was trying on different "sizes" of  "O Holy Night" by trying it out in different keys. Today was a good day to do this work, because I have choir tonight, and if I worked out too hard vocally, such as I did on the piece from Elijah yesterday (see "Voice Building: Time for Pushups! Workig Out with Elijah"), then I wouldn't be in good voice for choir practice.  I feel a sense of responsibility to be in good condition when I come to choir practice.

The fact that by now I know that I may use my practice recordings for this blog, as well as exploring for my own needs, really helped me to find some interesting aspects of what it means to sing the same song in different keys.  In fact, I found myself wanting to stop and comment to you all as I discovered things.  This phenomenon of sharing my practice with you here on the Internet is evolving to kind of feeling like someone is with me there in the practice room.

At any rate, I invite you to come over to Frescamari's Practice Room and read and hear commentary on some of the things I explored and wondered about as I tried out different keys. ("Trying Out O Holy Night in Three Keys")

I also discovered and wondered about managing breath energy levels in the middle while trying out two keys for "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming," ("Learning How To Manage Breath Energy in 'Middle Keys': Lessons Learned from 'Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming' in Two Keys") which I did as a Christmas Eve solo about three years ago.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Avocational Singer Lied

The Avocational Singer was making dinner tonight, and she realized that, despite her vow to be real and truthful on her blog, she ended up telling a lie yesterday.

Technically, it was not really a lie.  It was an honest conclusion she came to, completely forgetting as she wrote, about some of her deeply held beliefs about learning and how these beliefs and principles might apply to the situation.

Yesterday, in the blog post entitled "An Incomplete Education ... or ...What Should I Know About and Why Should I Know it?" she came to the conclusion that she should forget about pursing impulsive whims and be responsible and practical about her accumulation of knowledge.

But the Avocational Singer had forgotten in that moment that years ago she read something in a child-rearing book that inspired her:
"Child initiated activity is more beneficial to learning than adult initiated activity." 
At the time, she understood that to mean something like this: that when the adult thinks the child should be learning how to write their alphabet, and tries to impose this when the child is resisting because he is extremely interested in playing with his toy cars, it just might be because there's something about motion and wheels turning that the child needs to learn right now.  If the child is forced to learn what the adult wants, the lesson may not sink in, and the child will be restless until he gets to learn the lessons that are calling him.  Something like that, anyway.

So, Avocational Singer raised her children this way, and they actually came out to be really smart, thinking people.

This morning, based on yesterday's decision to focus on learning what was important, Avocational Singer said, "No, I shall not go read about 12-tone singing!" and dutifully took out her Italian for Dummies book to commence studying some basic practical knowledge that will help her singing.

Yet, like the little boy with the toy cars, Avocational Singer found it hard to concentrate.on the basic Italian phrases, and the little flash cards she was making.  She found herself thinking about Alban Berg (that composer they had been discussing on the singer message board) and also about the paintings by Kandinsky she had looked at in the online Guggenheim exhibit.  She also thought about the comments back and forth that had been so stimulating  between her and the Artist Friend who had posted the exhibit link.  Her Artist Friend had told her that, although there was not quite an "equivalent" movement in painting such as the 12-tone movement effected in music, Avocational Singer was on the right track when she was sensing some kind of connection between the Kandinsky paintings and the music of Berg.  The Artist Friend even went so far as to do a little research and suggest another painter, Gustav Klimt.

The Avocational Singer got so excited about all this that, the Italian For Dummies book still laying open in her lap,  she ventured out on the Internet and started reading biographies of Alban Berg to see if she could find out what painters one would look at while learning music by Berg.  Lo and behold, she was excited to read that Alan Berg and Gustav Klimt were indeed in the same circle of friends.  And indeed, she was excited to learn that, just like the composer's music "combined frank atonality with passages that use more traditional harmonies", the paintings of the painter "constitute a sublime frontier between traditional and modern, figurative and non-figurative.".  So, it was as she suspected:  Studying the painting of the same time period may indeed be a valid way of gaining insight into the music.  The Avocational Singer decided on the spot that she is going to include studying painting as part of her "cross-training for singers" approach!.

Well, what happened next caused the Italian for Dummies book to slide off her lap on to the floor.  The Avocational Singer began to have a desire to spend some time listening tp the music of this composer, Alban Berg, which they had been discussing on the singer message board.  She also began to wonder, "Is there some little piece of music that I might try out, just to experience a little of this period and know a little more about all this?"

The Avocational Singer ended up purchasing some mp3s of the composer's "Seven Early Songs," which at some point she might want to try out. (Maybe they'll show up in Frescamari's Practice Room someday and the Avocational Singer can link this post to them!)

Yes, the post from yesterday about being responsible has some valid points, and yes, the Avocational Singer really does need to start learning Italian.  But she never wants to lose sight of the fact that there are forces working in our journeys that are greater than practicality and shoulds and musts!  There may be something to following the direction of the heart at times.  In this case, the Avocational Singer is thinking that maybe instead of starting with Italian for Dummies, she may want be starting with German for Dummies instead!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Getting off the Ground

What I’ve been doing for the past few months has literally been ground work... This has been laying the foundation for what comes next. How can it be that a person who has taken so many voice lessons over so many years is only laying proper groundwork now? Well, I have found out that it is quite possible that a person, an athlete, anyone, can just go around in circles and circles when they are trying to accomplish an athletic task such as singing. It is possible to work very very hard, and still not get anywhere. It is possible to run in place. That means that although one is exerting all the effort of running, one does not get to any destination. This has been something like what I have been doing for so many years.

One should not look back, because regrets are negative things and negative things have a way of impeding what one is trying to accomplish in the present. But for a moment, I will look back just to take stock of what has occurred. It is absolutely horrifying to me, and dismaying, to realize that the hours and hours of time and money invested were not accomplishing the task I wanted. Alas, I did not know! And now, I have one last shot at getting the job done once and for all. Not too much singing time left. When you’re a young person, you have all those years of singing to look forward to -- if you get lucky, and if you approach it right. There are many many wonderful pieces of music to learn and study, and all those many many hours one can spend. One could have come to the point of mid life, like I have, with a vast knowledge of rep and experience with many many vocal situations, scenarios, occurrences.

But I am on a budget. I have, if I’m lucky here, maybe a good 15 years left to do some really strong singing. There is no way to acquire a lifetime of singing experience in those years, especially if the first two of them are going to be engaged in voice building.

Okay, now that I’ve tended to that reality, I’m ready to move forward again. Moving forward, I have the same task as any singer, and I dedicate myself to that task. And that task is: to do what I can!

So, you’ve heard me spending in the last few months a lot of time with “the basics.” Not too impressive stuff. Going back to sing musical theater pieces again. Working on “simple” Handel pieces. I didn’t put any of the 24 Italian arias on there (hey, I’d better do that), but they’re part of this too. (So much more that I don't post in my practice room!)

With these pieces, I’ve spent a lot of time on the ground, but what I’ve been doing is solidifying the basics. It is really important to solidify the basics.

I‘ve noticed that when I start learning something new, there is this period of time that must be spent with the basics, the ABCs of the discipline one is approaching.  I’ve noticed that the basics are not all that ‘fun” and we are anxious to get through this part and get to the good stuff.

When I joined Kung Fu, I could see people in the advanced classes performing these wonderful Kung Fu forms, but in my class I was standing in horse stance, punching, kicking, changing stances, willow leaf palm, working on posture, doing push ups and crunches and jumping jacks. I had a good frame of mind for Kung Fu basics training, because since I was older, overweight, de-conditioned to a great degree, I was lucky to be able to move at all, and concentrating on these basics was a great challenge for me. Since the basics are what I needed to be able to accomplish, I focused on them., if only for something to do, since I didn’t expect myself to be able to get to any fancy stuff. I tried to make the very most of each workout in the basics. The instructors did give little lectures on how important the basics were, and how if you didn’t have them right, the stuff you did later was not going to work right. Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course we know that, right?

Well, because of the position I was in, and the basics were really all I could work on, I developed a unique focus of making the most of each workout that I could, and treating the basics as if they were very important, and concentrated on really getting them right. What is this punching doing for my arms? What should be developing as I punch? Why can’t I flex my hands to a complete perpendicular position to my wrists? Is it lack of flexibility, or a lack of strength?.

I started to observe that some of the impatient kids to the right and the left of me were very “sloppy” about their basics. They kind of rolled their eyes, and endured the 10 or 20 punches we were executing. The stuff was easy for them, and they took it for granted. I could not take it for granted because it wasn’t there for me.

Well, what has happened now, is that my basics have developed me to the point where I am able to learn the forms. And my form is looking pretty good. The instructor sometimes even points me out to the kids. These kids are stars. They’re up there doing these jumps and fancy tricks, and the last person they think they will learn something from is Mrs. Avocational Singer who is back there working on basics that they’ve left long ago in the dust. I can see the puzzled look on their face when the instructor says, “do you hear that?” to something I’ve said, “Listen to her!”

What happens while working out the basics?  If one does not take them for granted, and one concentrates and focuses, what happens is that the muscles involved are developed more fully and deeply. What I think I observe happening is that a lot of people use the basics to stimulate the first layer of the muscles, and that superficial layer makes it seem like the task has been done, and the student proceeds to the more advanced stuff with only have developed that outer superficial layer of the muscle, and not gotten to the point of stimulating the deep fibers within. It gives the illusion of having mastered the basics, but there is really only superficial strength there. But it is possible to proceed on with this superficial layer and continue to learn more difficult stuff, without having gotten deeply into what the foundation is all about.

I observe children learning piano, and I know what is supposed to be developed with each little piece. But, to keep the kids from getting bored, the teacher advances to a new piece before the previous more simple one has been properly and fully accomplished. They are skimming along the top from level to level, and the advancement is superficial and they have not entered into deep playing.

And so, their playing remains on the surface of the keys. A serviceable skill, but never feeling the piano and bringing the weight of their whole being into the keys.

I have to tell you that I’m feeling so strong in this Kung Fu, that I’m beginning to feel the possibility that I might be able to do a couple of things I never thought I would, even some things that involved getting up in the air a little bit. I have even considered trying to get back some of the gymnastic ability I had when I was young. Who knows? Maybe I will do a cartwheel again in my life? (Beware hearing the next Avocational Singer blog post having been written from the hospital!)

That brings me to the subject of gymnastics. I took gymnastics when I was a kid. I worked really hard, and I got very good at the basics. All the basics on the ground: cartwheels, limbers, back limbers, splits, walkovers, back walkovers, handstands. I could do all the grounded activities that constitute the foundation of gymnastics. But when I got to the next step, the step of getting off the ground and into aerial work, I stopped short in my progress.

I didn’t have the courage to get into the gymnastic activity that involved leaving the ground. I never learned to do a back handspring. I was working on them and working on them with a spotter, but never did it, not because I didn’t have the strength, know-how, or stamina, because I had built all that up while laying the foundation. I never got off the ground because I was too afraid.  I managed to do some aerial cartwheels (no hands), but that was the end of that.

The work I’ve been doing with my singing over the past couple of months, has been like the walkovers, back walkovers, limbers, back limbers and cartwheels of gymnastics, all stuff in contact with the ground. This groundwork is something I don’t think I understood that I was supposed to be laying all those years of taking singing lessons

Now I have done it, and it is time to start getting up in the air! And by up in the air what do I mean? What is “up in the air” in singing? Is it high notes? Well, yes, high notes are part of it. But it is more than high notes. It is singing every low note as if it was a high note. It is singing life, bounce, and movement into legato. It is approaching each movement with a bounce and expectation that makes it feel like it’s up in the air even if it’s happening on the ground, like when one walks with a spring in one's step. It is time for the muscles to take what they know, and for a buoyancy to enter the scene and lift everything up. It is time to be brave and work hard. It is time to bump it up a notch. A time to take flight. It is time to trust.

My hope is that this new momentum, this new phase,  will be apparent as the recorded files show the growth and development  in Frescamari's Practice Room over the next couple of months. If it all works the way I think it will, that is!
Click here for "Getting Per Pieta up off the ground and into the air" in Frescamari's Practice Room
Also see:  "Cross Training: Trying to get my Kung Fu up in the air: Mandarin Duck Feet"

An Incomplete Education ... or ... What Should I Know About and Why Should I Know it?

I love knowledge!  I love knowledge for knowledge's sake.  I admire people who are full of knowledge.  And there is a longing in my heart to have a lot of knowledge.

Or so I say.  Or so I think.

But if I really loved knowledge, I would have set myself to a committed task of acquiring it.  So, rather than "loving" knowledge, maybe it would be better to say that I'm someone who flirts with a love of knowledge, and dabbles in knowing a few things, but because of a lack of commitment to knowledge, I end up being someone who possesses very little knowledge.

A stay-at-home-mother now has such a convenient and tremendous source of being exposed to knowledge right at her fingertips with a computer and a browser to take her out on to the Internet.  There she can encounter lively discussions being held by people of knowledge in various subjects.  These discussions can point her to places where she can explore and deepen the beginnings of ideas she may glean from being exposed to these little fragments of knowledge.

Recently, on the NFCS message board, the subject of a modern composer was brought up.  A singer was discussing aspects of trying to learn a role that was atonal and based on the 12-tone scale.  I had never heard of the composer, nor the work in question, so I visited Wikipedia to read up on the subject, so I could follow the discussion the singers were having a little better.

When I got to Wikipedia, I at least got a handle on who the composer was and what the opera was about.  That helped.  There were really interesting links about tone rows (part of what was touched upon in the NFCS discussion) and 12-tone technique. I had a great urge to just plunge right in and study and study and study for hours, just immerse myself in the subject.  But after reading the Wikipedia article, based on duties and responsibilities I have in my life, I had really already spent more time than I had available for this kind of indulgence.  Hoping to continue later, I put the pursuit aside, having to content myself to know merely a little more than I did before I sat down.  Alas, today was not the day I was going to catch up with all the scholars in knowledge on the subject.

Then today, on Facebook, a dear friend of mine from high school posted a link to an exhibit by a modernist painter at the Guggenheim which she had recently viewed in person.  I clicked on the link and began to read about the painter, and look at his work, and have a virtual visit to this same exhibit.  I know nothing about painting, but as I looked at it, I linked it with the talk about the modern composer and I began to form some new-for-me ideas about how good it might be for a singer to look at paintings that possibly "matched" or at least were painted at the same time as a modern piece of music was composed.  I wondered if  visual aids like this would help singer's learn atonal pieces?

Well, the same thing happened with my virtual visit to the Guggenheim as my visit to the composer on Wikipedia.  I ran out of time.

Time, like money, is a budgeted item.  Time is even more budgeted than money, it seems sometimes.  Maybe ... maybe if we are clever and persistent and creative and cunning, humble, begging, industrious, or whatever, we can come up with some more money for a project.   We can do something like that with time too, by rearranging schedules and  adjusting priorities.  Time and Money seem to work together.  Time is needed to get Money.  Money can be used to purchase more Time.

At any rate, an artist must use to juggle time and money and make decisions about how they will be used as they proceed along the path of creative projects.  Because of these budgetary restrictions, choices have to be made.

How the choices about money and time are made will be determined by one's priorities, which will be determined by one's goals.  If my desire for myself is to merely pursue knowledge as a recreation and for my own enjoyment, something to spice up the dreariness of my days, and something to pursue besides watching television for recreation, and it doesn't really matter what knowledge it is as long as it is interesting to me, then spending the time on whatever interesting morsel presents itself to me might be fine.  If it's going to be my mere entertainment, then it doesn't matter where I go and what I study, so long as I enjoy it.

But, once I set other goals, the choices I make may change.  I must decide to use the time to pursue the knowledge that I'm actually going to use.

Everybody has to do this.  Everybody has the same lifetime to figure out where they will concentrate the expenditure of time.

But it doesn't last forever, and the task and choices will be different for someone who is young than for someone who is in mid life.

That's why mentors and advisers are very valuable to any singer, whether professional or avocational.  Someone knowledgeable about the broader picture.  Someone who has enough knowledge and expertise to have a bird's eye view of the whole scene.  Someone who can gently suggest that spending hours, weeks, or months immersed in 12-tone theory might not be the best way to spend one's time when one has a certain set of goals.

I plan to run things by my teacher at my next lesson and ask what she thinks about where I should focus my accumulation of knowledge.  She knows my goals.  If I ask her this specifically, she may be able to steer me in a good direction.  I really think that it's time for me to harness my love of learning and knowledge and make it do some work for me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Singing With a More "Straightened Out" Tone as an Exercise for Dramatic Voice?

If you have come here looking for answers about singing, it may be that you have come to the wrong blog.  I am an amateur singer on a journey, and most of what I am exploring here are my questions.  Some of the questions I am working on have already been discovered and answered by people who have gone before me.  Sometimes I find out that some of my questions have not been figured out by anyone yet.

Maybe some more experienced and highly developed and refined masters of singing might take me to the side and say, "Listen, dear, you don't have to do all this to learn to sing well.  You are trying to reinvent the wheel.  Just do what your teacher tells you and practice practice practice and you will get there."

I don't know about that.  That's what I thought I was doing for so many years, and I somehow didn't get there.  Maybe this won't get me "there" either, but I am having a lot of fun exploring my questions and ideas.  I really think that at this point, considering my state in life, and the late stage of the singer's game, that I do not have too much to lose to go ahead and play with my ideas.

Today I find that a curiosity of mine about singers who sing in an early music style has been growing in a couple of ways.  You all may have read that I took that class in baroque ornamentation this past summer.  I wrote about it in the following two posts: "Ornamenting Handel and Bach, Rameau, Mozart & Monteverdi?  Me?" and "Follow Up: How Ornamentation Has Changed Me as a Musician."  It was in this class that I first heard this interesting kind of early music coloring and sound from live voices.  I really enjoyed hearing the singers in my class create this sound, and I wondered how they were doing it.  I thought maybe it was easier to accomplish with lighter type voices to begin with, but there were some people with bigger kind of voices doing it too in class, so I had to keep wondering.

A few days ago, in a blog, I told you about how the song "Lascia ch'io pianga" was kind of calling to me to sing it and I had found it with my materials from the ornamentation class, and was taking a look at it in my practice room. (See: "Reading Through Lascia ch'io pianga")  Well, a short time after that, I found a new blog to read by Elizabeth McDonald, a Canadian singer, teacher, and blogger, and, lo and behold, she was using the same song, "Lascia ch'io pianga" to demonstrate the kind of research a singer should do on a song in order to really understand it, know it, and sing it.  (See her post: Spotlight on Lascia ch'io pianga)  I guess I got really lucky that in using that song as an example of how to research, she gave me a head start in the work I have to do on the song.

On her blog, she gave youtube examples of the song being sung in two different musical styles, one like the way I heard the early music singers in my class this summer singing it, and another sang with a fuller sound, more vibrato in the more operatic style of singing.  You definitely should go check out her blog if you've been interested in this and listen to the two styles. (Spotlight on Lascia ch'io pianga)

Then, just after that, someone posted a youtube video on the New Forum for Classical Singers (NFCS) message board in which the singer in the video was using the early music style to a certain affect in a creative video production of the song "Piangero."

After that, a discussion ensued about the use of a tone with less vibrato, a straightened out kind of tone, like the kind it seems they want when you sing in a choir sometimes, and the style that some of these early music people use to color and make their voices sound more instrumental.  There's been a little bit of a discussion about what is the scholarship about it and the choices surrounding this issue.  (see NFCS discussion: Interesting Video of "Piangero")

I, personally, enjoy very much the sounds that are created in this style of singing, and have a lot of questions about how it is being produced.  I felt that a lot of the people singing in this style in my ornamentation class had very healthy and beautifully produced sounds within this style.

As a singer, however, I don't know how to sing in that style.  I don't seem to be able to do it.  I'm not sure if it's because I'm still developing my vocal technique, and my upper middle voice is still in development, and I'm still trying to gain more stamina and strength.  But I also don't know if it's because my voice is too dramatic/heavy type to lend itself to this style.

I have been wondering if experimenting with and learning how to produce this style would be beneficial to my overall vocal development.  Can using the style of this early music be part of my "cross-training" idea? (See addendum to post "Reincorporating the Belt Voice")  Will trying to achieve a more straightened-out sound teach me anything about my own voice and vibrato?  Can the things I'll learn from attempting to sing in this style inform my vocal knowledge in a way that benefits the rep I will eventually sing?  Just like singing in the musical theater style gave my body information to use that I was able to incorporate into my classical singing, does early music-style "straight-toned" singing have something to offer my technique? If it is beneficial to explore the style, can it be done now, or should I wait until I have a better handle on my voice, or can it be part of developing my voice?

I took a shot, very minimally successful, at straightening out my vibrato a little bit and trying to achieve that early music sound that I hear.  I probably would need a knowledgeable teacher in this style to really take a stab at learning it.  It's possible that fooling around with it on my own might cause little problems, so I won't do it too much until I have a chance to work with someone knowledgeable about it.

If you want to hear, I've put me attempting to do this in Frecamari's Practice Room:  "Cross Training: Trying to Straighten Tone in Lascia ch'io pianga in Two Keys"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hair Styled, Teeth Brushed, Voice Balanced ... Good to Go!

There is something that I've learned to do every day as a singer, just like I have to do other tasks of grooming, like fixing my hair, assembling and ironing my apparel, putting on my makeup and all the stuff that gets "undone" overnight and has to be tended to in the order to commence my day and appear in public,  The "something" I have learned to do alongside these daily tasks is balance my voice.

What is balancing the voice?  It is part of the larger task of warming up the voice, but what I am specifically talking about is getting the muscles that work together for phonation organized and coordinated and all working smoothly and harmoniously, like a well-trained cooperating team.  I guess I've heard singers call it "lining up the voice," and getting the voice "in the groove."

Why was it so hard for me to sing the song "Something Beautiful" for so many years? (yesterday's post). The main problem I had was one of this balance.  I have come to the conclusion that getting the voice balanced, "lined up," or "in the groove" eluded me because of several issues I had: the nature of my own particular instrument, some misconceptions and wrong expectations, personality traits, such as coming on too strong and forcefully, agressive speaking voice, and maybe even a little dysfunction.  I can't speak for all voices because I don't have experience with many different voices.  It seems that there are others with similar struggles to my own, but in terms of this balance, sometimes there are singers who figure it out early and are mostly naturally coordinated.

I like to think of the individual hitches in my voice as being like having a trouble with one's hair such as a cowlick, or hair that wants to naturally part in a strange place, or a hairline that has an odd shape or something.  Over the years, in order to get one's hair to look good under such conditions, one would have to really get to know one's hair well and how it wants to behave and how one can coax it into an attractive position.  One would have to learn how to work with, around, and through these idiosyncracies.

In my case, my voice was imbalanced in favor of the heavier production, the thyro-arytenoids.  They were really excited about singing and wanted to just do everything.  "You just sit back," the TA's seemed to say to their partners, the lazy crico-thyroid (CT) muscles, "We'll handle this!"  In a way, it reminds me of a marriage, where one partner takes on all the responsibility and the other partner kind of acclimates to the situation and says, "okay, if he/she wants to do it all."

Another set of muscles that help, the inter-arytenoids (IAs) just got a little confused about what they should do because TA and CT weren't working together.  IA just tried to fill in the gaps that TA couldn't perform well without CT.

So, like a family has to do in order to live in harmony, if everyone in the family ladens one family member with the primary responsibility, there will be an imbalance, hard feelings, control issues, and disharmony.  Once the family learns to cooperate, and the responsibilities for living together are distributed well, then we can have that "happy family" like the ones we see on TV having breakfast together.  In the case of managing the voice, the "happy family" scene we are after are a few sets of muscles working as a team to get the air vibrating just right so beautiful music can come out.

(A family who might illustrate this is the one in Goldilocks, Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear.  If Papa Bear was the TAs, then his porridge was too hot.  Mama Bear CT, her porridge was too cold.  Baby Bear's (IA?) I guess, was just right.  Ideally, they wanted all their porridge to be just right!)

My singing teacher and I were talking at my last lesson about how getting the muscles prepared for the task of singing is like how a mom might have to go around from bedroom to bedroom in the morning waking everybody and getting them up and moving and doing their jobs.  This actually is a daily motherly task in my own family (for some reason my kids don't hear alarm clocks), and I could really relate to that analogy when applying it to getting the little vocal muscle family up and operating.  See, there are management tasks one learns while being a stay-at-home mom that can definitely be brought to managing one's voice.

There are a lot of friends reading this blog who are not singers, so I won't go on too much with this.  Let's suffice it to say that I was producing the voice in an imbalanced way.  With this imbalance, no matter what song I tried to sing, there were always going to be parts of the songs that didn't quite work.  These little parts of the songs that weren't working were what drove me to eventually start studying voice.  In the beginning, I thought voice lessons were for people who did not know how to sing and wanted to learn, or for people who wanted to sing in an operatic style.  So, I didn't think I needed to take voice lessons because I thought I could sing.  So, it's kind of good that I had this imbalance although, combined with my other issues, it meant that it would take me years to figure it out.

For many years, I labored under the misconception that when this balance finally came, it would just be there, memorized, set in place, ready to go at all times. But just like you can't expect your hair to look the way it did the day before after you slept on it,  I know now that achieving balance happens anew each day. It is an active part of a singer's life.  I also know that the task of balancing the muscles changes from day to day, just like one's hair does. And it also changes from year to year, just like one's hair does.  It is affected by nutrition, weather, health, pollution, humidity, age, hormones, just like one's hair does.  There are days you have to just throw your voice back in a vocal ponytail because you just can't do anything with it.  And there are other times when everything comes together and the hairstyle is glamorous and alive.

I will always have this tendency to start with too much heavy mechanism.  Knowing that puts me way ahead of where I was years ago, and gives me much more ability to get where I need to be.

I've made some recordings today of the specific problems I had in the song Something Beautiful, and maybe even comment on little sections and why they were troublesome for me. If you are interested step in to Frescamari's Practice Room to hear where the trouble spots were, and why specifically that song was hard for me to sing.  Click here for "Analyzing Trouble Spots in "Something Wonderful"