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"

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