Thursday, December 16, 2010

Local Music Groups Like Local Farm Movement

I had a little inspiring thought right now as I was going about my housework and listening to "Holiday Pops" on Sirius Internet Radio (which has a free 7-day trial which I'm checking out).

What does that expression I've head so much -- "to serve art" -- really mean? As an avocational singer, I feel that I'm beginning to come closer to an understanding of what it means.  As I now am participating in two local musical choirs, and come into contact with all the excellent voices and musicianship surrounding me, and experience the leadership of very musical and accomplished directors, it has been given me a great joy to finally begin to realize that music as an art can be served in so many ways at so many places and so many times.  It doesn't depend on the venue, necessarily.  The presence of a person dedicated to serving art in a small local group can make the difference for everyone.

I am still glowing from the holiday concert this past weekend given by our all-women's community choir.  We sang to a packed house.  We have been here seven years and now have a local following and our concerts are full of warmth and love.  Our families, children, neighbors, local shopkeepers, all gather together and we all just have a great evening together.  We've all helped to produce it -- from the families that made do without the family member who was rehearsing, to the friends that set aside the date and bought a ticket to come in, to the local businesses that bought an ad in the program -- each and every one of us has cause to celebrate the fact that this production is happening because of a contribution we made that makes a difference.  As a community, we have produced some art and it is special because it is our own.

I had a little solo in Britten's Ceremony of Carols.  Afterward, I was presented with the customary little bouquet of flowers, and as I walked to the back of the church at the end of the concert, my daughter and several of her friends gathered around me, a bouquet of flowers of a different kind.  Their faces were shining and smiling and they wanted to talk to me because I was someone they knew in the choir. I loved them there with me so much that I wanted to give them something, so I began to pluck flowers out of my bouquet and hand one to each of the girls.  "You don't have to do that!" they protested, as if I was giving away something so precious and valuable.  But the sight of them walking away with a flower was so beautiful I could think of no better way to enjoy that bouquet of flowers (Besides, I kept the ones I really loved -- the roses).

I think it could be so beautiful to grow a movement to support local music groups something like the movement to support local farmers and growers within the community.  The little choirs and chamber groups and small opera companies (like the one I saw in Princeton this past summer) remind me so much of the small farmers.  While the farmers are planting seeds, using their organic farming methods, and producing crops to bring to the local farmer's market, the small community music groups are selecting their repertoire, rehearsing and growing their musical performances to bring to the center of the town for consumption by the community.

The way our community choir is bringing us together to partake of the same musical experience unifies us, just like sharing the same food does, even if for one evening.  It is a very inspiring and beautiful thing and I think it cuts to the heart, perhaps, of what being an avocational singer is truly all about.

And the children who are there absorb this music, and seeds are being sewn in their hearts that serves to keep the music alive from generation to generation.  Who knows what will come of it?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A New Era for Singing

Well, it's time for me to come over and start paying attention to my poor little Avocational Singer blog.  Things have been so hopping over on the Barefoot Fresca blog that I've gotten a little sidetracked over there, but I can never forget my little labor of love over here where my first passion lies.

Where to start -- where to start -- where to start?!?  There is just so much going on.  Some of the events over the summer and some of the thoughtful decisions I've made have catapulted me into a new era of my singing life.

Let's try to break it down:

------------------------------------Choir Number I-------------------------------------------
I am still singing with my beloved all-women's community choir.  I was an inaugural member of this choir and the women there are like family to me.  Just like in a family, when one member wants to branch out and grow and explore, the family member still wants to keep grounded with her sisters.  So, I am kind of killing myself trying to sing in two choirs.

The interesting thing is that our choir director is on an exciting sabbatical overseas and we have an interim director who is raising the bar as far as our reading and the amount of material and the pace at which we need to learn it.  This is kind of exciting, and since I'm being challenged in Choir Number II on this level it is fun to try to keep pace and apply new and developing skills.

--------------------------------------Choir Number II-----------------------------------------------
This has been so great for me.  The choir director had told me, when I auditioned, that I would fall in about the middle of this choir as far as my level of mastery and technical ability and she was exactly right.  I feel invigorated by the people around me -- the ones with more highly developed voices, technical mastery, and musicianship -- but also feel like I'm making a positive contribution to my section, and that my own skills and sound weigh in more on the plus side than the minus side.  In other words, I don't think I'm a problem in the choir. (phew!)  That fares me well in the "choir self-esteem" department.

One thing I love about the new choir is that the director is herself a masterful singer and knows about voice.  She guides with really healthy principles. In addition, her knowledge and approach is close to what I am getting in my new voice lessons so one reinforces the other and I am making good progress.  Sometimes what a singer has to do in choir can undermine what she is working for in lessons, so it feels really good for everything to be lined up just right.  How'd I get so lucky?

Another thing I love about the new choir is that there is a focus on precision with breathing and consonants in the music.  I had never heard of assigning an exact time value to a consonant before I read it this past summer in the Robert Shaw Reader and now I am in a choir where I have to apply that concept.  You know how when you learn a new word, all of a sudden you start hearing it all over the place?  Well, that's what this was like.

Some people don't need things broken down to that extent (or maybe they do -- who knows?), but I am benefiting greatly from breaking it all down.

--------------------------------------Voice Lessons----------------------------------------------------
I've only had a couple, but I would definitely say my new lessons with my new teacher are going very well.  I definitely feel that I am in the right place for me vocally at this point in time.  The teacher is extremely knowledgeable and I am enjoying the time spent in lessons immensely and I am also enjoying some of the good things that are happening vocally towards mastery.

All in all, exciting things are happening -- if -- if I can keep up the pace.  The new schedule requires me to be on top of more things:  reading e-mails from two different choir directors and two different board directors, supporting the fund raising for two different choirs, helping concerts to be successful by promoting them for two different choirs, managing a new protocol for setting up and getting to voice lessons, learning two sets of music and trying to remember which folder to bring to which rehearsal.

It seems like, with two choirs, the week comes around again so fast and I hadn't got a chance to work on my music.  Or I've only had a chance to look at one or two key pieces.

I believe that during this time of transition I'll be all mixed up for a little while, but will eventually get it all organized and in place.  There is a learning curve when new things are introduced into a schedule and I believe I can learn to manage what I've got.  I will try it out for this year and see what happens.  It's a lot of fun and it really keeps me on my toes.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gentleness in Singing

There is nothing so strong as gentleness and gentleness is real strength.
(Francis de Sales)
I once asked my very first voice teacher, “Do you have to be really strong to sing  high notes?”

She answered, “Yes, but it’s not the kind of strength you think.”

I have always remembered that answer as something of a mystery.  And finally in my life I’m beginning to understand the mystery.

Don’t manhandle your voice.  A soft sigh is the way to great resonance and sound.  This is what I’m discovering. A very gentle beginning will carry you very far.

Did you ever watch the classic scenario of a child with a toy that wouldn’t go?  At first she tries to get the object to go every which way, and then at some point – when she can’t figure it out – she starts slamming the toy harder and harder and trying to force it to perform the desired action.  The frustration becomes enormous and the effort grows greater and greater.  The child doesn’t seem to understand that her method is wrong.  She makes the mistake of thinking she is not powerful enough to make the toy work, and she concludes that she needs more strength and more and more force to achieve her ends, and doesn’t understand that what she really needs is a new approach.

I have been down that path and made that mistake as I’ve literally engaged in a wrestling match with my voice over the years in my attempts to master it. Buy nowadays I have been discovering that what I perceive as small is actually the key to getting big and beautiful sound.  I think this “smallness” is what Jean-Ronald Lafond refers to when he writes on his blog about “the little voice.”

I have recently been doing some exercises to find my falsetto voice.  Apparently women have falsetto too but it isn’t as obvious because of women’s head voice.  I always thought that falsetto, if I would bother to play around with it, would be something that would occur in my higher range. But I have been experimenting with finding it throughout my entire range, including the lower.  In the process of doing these exercises, which I shall post in Frescamari’s Practice Room at some point, after only a day or two I was surprise to find this soft little cooing voice.

This is a voice that many women singers may already be aware of, but I -- with my big loud voice, coming from a family that spoke very vigorously because we had to compete to be heard -- was not accustomed to nor familiar with this soft approach.

I have begun  to use this little voice to sing songs.  To my surprise, when I played the recordings back, the sound was big, resonant and beautiful.  The wobble or distortion that often crept into my singing has receded, because the forcing that was causing it has ceased and my apparatus is responding to the more gentle approach.

I do find that I have to be very strong to use this voice.  Even stronger, in fact, then when I mistakenly let loose all the other kind of strength that I had.  The strength is hard to describe, and it is not what I thought it would be.  I’ve heard some singers say it is isometric strength.  At any rate, it is not for those that cower at the thought of using great effort.  But it is finally an effort that is being used constructively, as opposed to destructively, like the child banging the toy to try to get it to work.

I am very excited about this discovery.  It is leading me to a greater versatility.
Click here to hear some samples.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Open My Mouth -- And Sing!

The kind of singing I want to do is larger than life.

Like a lot of things that are larger than life, it doesn't feel natural when first put on.  So, for a person who wants to feel natural, there can be a resistance to doing things the larger way.

When I was first learning Tai Chi forms, I learned a compact kind of form where the movements were small.

But then I moved on to learning a different form where the movements were longer and extended and took up more space.  At first no one explained to me that the new form was bigger, so I was still doing it with the smaller gestures.

It takes a kind of boldness to use the larger gestures.  It takes an openness and more strength.  It takes more energy and commitment.  It is a fuller use of self.

The reason the larger version is not comfortable or natural-feeling is because it is not within our repertoire of self-expression yet.  We never needed our expression to be that large for our daily life.  But something from a distance needs to be larger to be seen and heard.

I remember when I was in high school, our English teacher picked three of us from the class -- me and two of my girlfriends -- to paint a mural on the back wall of his classroom.  Up until that point, I had drawn on small canvases.  When I wanted to draw or paint a picture I used something close to 9" x 12."  Now as I confronted  the task of blowing up my vision and seeing something bigger, my brush strokes had to be bigger.  I had to reach above my head and go all the way down to my feet with my paintbrush.  I had to use my whole body to paint, not just my hand and arm and shoulder muscles. I had to work on a section while keeping a much larger picture in mind.  I had to understand when I was painting detail that it was going to be a small part of the whole, even though it seemed so large in front of me.

It's one thing to draw a 1" circle on a piece of paper, or a 4" circle or an 8" circle.  The bigger the circle gets, the larger the motion you have to use while holding the pencil.  But when we were painting that mural, we might have to draw a 6-foot circle.  Now a circle always comes out better when it is drawn with one or two big motions as opposed to chipped away at in choppy little sections.  The sense of roundness is different.

I am finally starting to understand just how big the kind of singing I want to be able to do is.

Part of the detail work, a part of singing which seemed so small, is to get my mouth open.  I must learn a larger way to form vowels, and work with a much larger space.

It is time to open my mouth now.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Building From the Ground Up

Building My Running Form From Scratch
Over the summer, I had the very interesting experience of transforming myself into a Barefoot Runner.  It is a development in my fitness life that I had never previously imagined, and there was a gradual sequence of events that led to my taking this path.

I have had conversations with a number of advanced shod runners who are attracted to barefoot running and kind of want to try it, but who have invested so much time in developing their running mileage that they are understandably reluctant to go back and start all over again.  And that is what they would need to do -- start all over again -- should they want to learn how to run barefoot.

Because in order to learn the running form that bare feet can teach us, we have to forget almost everything we know about running and start from scratch.

Something I'm learning about barefoot runners in general -- as I acquaint myself with this movement -- is that often they are people, like me, who encountered injuries, limitations, or struggles with running that brought them to give the ideas in the barefoot running movement a try.

I was in an optimal situation to pick up this new running form.  I had been trying to get back into running after many years of non-running.  I was starting fresh after having taken 6 months off for an injury to my foot.

So, I didn't have to sacrifice mileage and conditioning in order to go back and re-form my running.  I completely understand why someone who competes and has the legacy of all that mileage would not want to go back and be like a beginner again.

Building My Singing Voice From Scratch
Well, just like in my barefoot running, I am in the position where I'm going to be, yet again, building my voice from scratch.

I am very happy to say that I have been accepted into the studio of a new voice teacher whose vocal approach and philosophy are very appealing to me. The daunting aspect of it, however, is that it will mean building up from scratch again.

Yes, I am 49 years old and will be starting from scratch -- yet again!  But, hey -- like with the barefoot running -- I'm not going anywhere.  And I really have nothing to lose.

I will add that the process of getting into the studio of this teacher was a personal growth experience for me.  Having been let go from the other vocal studio left me feeling a bit deflated, and for a while I felt a little unsure whether I would be fortunate enough to find a new situation where I could learn at the level I desired to be taught.

But some advice I read by guest blogger, Blue Yonder, in her post "An Avocational Singer Attends a NATS conference" inspired in me some courage to step up to the plate.  In that post she had said,
I do think it's important for us avocational singers to approach performance and training situations with the right attitude. I often have doubts and ask myself, "Do I belong here with these other singers who might be career-track? Can I cut it?" I realize now that I need to take the attitude: "I BELONG HERE!!!" Aim high and prepare to work hard--but once you get in, never question whether you belong in the program, regardless of whether you got in by audition, application, or just by putting your name on a signup sheet.
Bearing this advice in mind, I decided to "go for it" and approach a high-level, well-known, very busy teacher whose studio included high-level singers on a career-track.  I boldly signed up for a lesson with the teacher.  The teacher asked me for a letter introducing myself.  I was as honest as I could be at representing who I was as a singer, and I was delighted and surprised when the response I received was that the teacher would be most happy to confirm the trial lesson.

My first lesson was wonderful.  The teacher asked me to tell my singer's story.  I told the teacher that I write a blog about my experiences of being an avocational singer.  I explained that my defining mantra was: "I've been trying to learn to sing for 25+ years and I'm not giving up -- even if it takes a lifetime."  The teacher smiled and said, "Good for you!"

I sang "Auf dem Wasser zu singen," by Schubert in the low key. -- (To hear me experimenting with three different keys on this song, check out the Frescamari Practice Room post: "Auf dem Wasser zu singen in three keys")  -- I chose the low key because I usually start with the low key and proceed to the higher one once warmed up well.  I told the teacher that I had taught this to myself using recordings and that I did not know German.  The teacher complimented me on the work I had done on the German and said that my enjoyment of that kind of meticulous drilling and work on the pronunciation, syllable by syllable, was going to help me as I built my technique from scratch with the teacher.

After singing the song, the teacher told me that there was no reason in the world why I could not achieve my singing dream.

I walked away feeling very optimistic about commencing on this next phase of my singing journey.  I realize that it's going to take a lot of patience.  I learned a lot about this kind of patience while going round and round on what I termed The Barefoot Mile this past summer (mentioned in this post from Barefoot Fresca blog).  I reflected on this experience in my barefoot running blog post "Patience."

As it turns out, something that may have seemed like a total diversionary side trip -- the excursion into barefoot running -- has developed a quality and frame of mind in me that will be needed as I start anew this next leg of my lifetime vocal journey.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I Am A Choir Singer

In the post where I was giving a little account about my time at the Westminster Choir Festival this summer, I mentioned the need to master my voice in such a way that I could sing well with a choir. A commenter, babydramatic, said this: "Since for good or for ill, most of my singing will be in a choir (or as one of their featured soloists) I have needed to do this and have been largely successful."

"Since for good or for ill, most of my singing will be in a choir."

This could be the refrain of the avocational singer.

Most of my thrust in trying to master my singing voice has been with the idea of solo singing in mind. But more of my singing and performing time is spent singing with others in my women's choir, and now a second choir which I have just joined.

So, paralleling my work on my solo voice, has always been a gradually growing appreciation of the skills that are necessary to sing with an ensemble. Since "for good or for ill" most of my time will be spent singing with an ensemble, I have become interested in learning how to do that well and, most recently, learning how to do that well with higher level singers in a higher level choir.

To that end, after having experienced the Mozart's Requiem with orchestra in a beautiful performing space this past summer, singing alongside many experienced and professional level choral singers, I am expanding my singing realm by exploring the choral world. I have invested in a couple of books about choir: The Robert Shaw Reader -- which I am currently reading and finding quite fascinating -- and, waiting on the shelf, is Shirlee Emmons' Prescriptions for Choral Excellence. A new book I've spotted that is coming out will go on my wish list: The Solo Singer in the Choral Setting: A Handbook for Achieving Vocal Health.

I have noticed that a lot of singers who have music degrees have experienced a choir education in an academic setting along the way.  "Oh, I sang that when I was in college." This higher level choral experience has been kind of a gap in my musical education,.  As  a kind of self-schooled -- home-schooled, if you will -- musician, I have to get everything piecemeal and makeshift and I don't always know what piece of the puzzle to add next.

As much as I love solo singing, and that is my passion and first drive, reflecting over my experiences has caused me to realize that I've been conditioned to be a choral singer for most of my life.

I still remember the first moments I became enchanted by the idea that two voices could blend in harmony --   that one person could sing different tones that blended with the melody of another and add depth and complexity to the music. It happened when I was in church as a little girl, sitting beside my mother. As the congregation sang, my mother always made up a harmony, and I always thought it was so cool and sounded so nice and I wondered how she did it.

Next, I experienced harmonic singing at girl scout camp around a campfire. The counselors would teach us different parts and the music we were all able to make together was very beautiful and satisfying.

When I came home form girl scout camp, I didn't want that singing magic to end, so I would teach my three sisters all the parts and we formed our own little choir in the home. We had hours of fun on car trips harmonizing like this together.

Singing in church choirs, singing in school, being selected to go to inter-school choral events, high school choir, all county and all state choir, and finally the choir award at graduation time.

Why didn't I see it all before?  That I am a choir singer! It is part of my true singer-identity (and destiny?) I love harmonizing with others. I love music that was written for different vocal parts. It sprouted up naturally and organically and it was there all along and I hardly recognized it. It is good for an avocational singer to love singing with a choir!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Auditioned for a New Choir and Got In

I broke out of my comfort zone this week and finally took the step to audition for a second choir in our area. The audition went very well and I have been accepted in to the new choir. I have been wanting to do more singing for a while, and have been looking for a new challenge and this provides just what I need for the time being.

I have to thank The Choir Girl blogger for giving me the nudge I needed to make the move. I've been reading about how she challenged herself to up-the-ante of her own choir experience, and I was inspired to make the contact and get myself to the audition partly because of seeing how happy she was at being successful. She also gave me a few words of encouragement in response to some comments I made on her blog post.

I arrived at the conductor's home a bit nervous, but had brought along Schubert's An die Musick, which I felt was now in good enough shape to use. I brought it in two keys, but ended up singing it in the higher key.

The song went really well, but during the little vocalizing we did beforehand to test my range, my middle voice was acting a bit funky, and it fell apart a little bit at the seams. The conductor was very knowledgeable about voice and knew what was happening and we were able to discuss the issue intelligently.  Sometimes when I'm not warmed up enough, or when I'm nervous, or when I've skipped a few too many days practice, my voice will revert to the old imbalances. It doesn't take long to get it back together again, but I had trouble with it while I was in there.  It's natural to feel a little disappointed when that happens, but I realize more and more that I just have to deal with whatever situation is present, and whatever difficulties are there and manage the situation with whatever skill and know-how I've managed to accumulate thus far. So, I wasn't really upset. I just dealt with it.

The sight-reading didn't go as well as I would have liked. The piece was deceptively simple-looking, but there were some tricky intervals.  She said that I did "okay" on the sight reading. I'll settle for "okay" for now, but I want to improve that. I would love to sight read something someday and have it be a "wow!" That would mean adding a little more sight-reading practice regularly to my regimen.

I'm excited to start in this new choir. After having the experience with The Westminster Choir Festival this summer, I have been eager to be in a place that can stimulate my growth as a choir singer. I have seen that there is so much more. Singing with an ensemble is a skill, and I have learned that there is so much more to it than I had previously been aware.

Some exciting things about my new choir:

  • There will be composers coming to work their own compositions with the choir
  • There are in-reach programs that help the singers to improve their musical skills (such as site-singing workshops that I may just avail myself of)
  • There are many solo opportunities and there is a specific goal to help singers this way.  The director of the choir specifically mentioned this while we were together.
  • The programs and music are wide and varied.  Many cultures are explored and there is even an exciting Video Game concert.
  • There will be professional and higher level singers in the choir and it's always good, like I found out this summer at the festival, to be rubbing elbows (and resonances) with more advanced singers. That's always good for learning and growing.
  • The choir attracts "big" voices, and free, healthy singing is encouraged (no need to regularly squeeze my voice into the little choir boy box, except for a special effect or ornamental purposes).
  • The conductor is an excellent singer herself and really seems to know about voice.  In fact, I spotted my favorite vocal book on her bookshelf behind her as she sat at the piano Discover Your Voice, by Oren Brown.

All in all I feel this is a very good step I'm taking, but of course it is adding to my roster of commitments and in the coming weeks it will be a challenge to balance the new time commitments with the other aspects of my life.  I checked the performance schedule and the concerts for the all-women's choir I belong to do not conflict with the new choir. But it will be tough! I am bound and determined to keep feeding my family well. I will have to manage my energy levels carefully and watch for little wasted pockets of time.  I will find out in due time if it's all too much, but for now I'm excited to take on the challenge and am expecting it to enhance my life.

Monday, September 6, 2010

New-to-Me Information on Breathing -- Active and Passive Inhalers and Exhalers

Everybody here knows that I am far from being an expert and that I like to share my explorations and discoveries with readers of this blog.  I don't really understand breathing for singers in general, but from having striven to find my own answers for my own body, I've observed many things about my own breathing and made certain choices, while singing, that work for me.  I'm not sure that I've "arrived" at a breathing solution yet.  I think the development of breathing itself is part of the progression of using better and better breathing technique as one goes along.  I believe that singer-breathing is an ongoing living component of singing that will change with time and growth, just like the other aspects of voice.  I don't think the breathing is some kind of set technique that you put in place and just leave there.  It is flowing, flexible, open to growth and freedom and increasing strength and efficiency.  I have also slowly come to believe that due to the variables in individual physiology, there may be more than one answer for singers about breathing.

Well, in the course of my ever and on-going quest to understand and grow, I was doing a little research  (for a possible future blog post) on how high heels and their effect on posture might impact a singer's breathing technique. As so often happens when one is out there googling away, I found many interesting sites to get sidetracked on.

One site I discovered led me to some new information about breathing that may be of interest to singers.  It was on the web site of recorder-maker, Adriana Breukink.  She had an article that described different kinds of recorder players and how they breathed, "Inhalers and Exhalers."   The "inhaler" recorder players were active and energetic in drawing the breath in, and passive in exhaling the breath.  The air flowed freely through the recorder.  The "exhaler" recorder players allowed the breath to fall in passively -- or kind of renew itself automatically, I guess -- and energetically blew through recorders with active and engaged exhalation.  She says that these two breathing types may necessitate different recorder designs.

There is a link from that page to a German page on "Terlusollogie ®"  The page was in German, so I had to use google translator to get me an English version to read. This page is about the observations that there are different breathing "types" constitutionally, and it seems to claim that these types are imprinted at birth.

There is a little test on the page to determine whether one is an "Inhaler" or "Exhaler."

I did not take the test -- later for fun, maybe -- because just from my observations over the years, while running and while trying to sing, and while just observing my breath and doing yoga breathing exercises, I think I am an active inhaler.  This is why I have noisy breathing sometimes, I think.

The Terlusollogie web site mentions this being something imprinted at birth, but up to this point I had explained my breathing pattern to being overweight.  I had conjectured that it took more energy to take a breath in because it was being weighed down by a layer of fat, but that the same layer of fat had caused me to exhale passively because all I had to do was relax and the weight would apply the pressure for the air to leave the body.  Right or wrong, I have focused a lot of my breath management work on learning to use muscles in exhaling in order to better control the outflow.

I have observed this pattern as a runner too.  In my early days of being a runner -- and those were days when I was a "normal" weight -- I had trouble breathing. I would gasp for air and have a lot of fear that I wasn't going to get more air in soon enough.  I would immediately collapse after having taken a breath, and the air would whoosh out quickly as I just allowed the forces to expel it, and then I would inhale vigorously to get more oxygen in there quickly.  I have spent many years trying to work on rhythmic controlled breathing while running.  This may be related in some way to my breathing style, or it may have some contribution to the formation of my breathing style.  Hard to tell which comes first, the chicken or the egg.

There is probably something valid about going "against" type to learn more about one's body and breathing, but in the end, my hunch is that the more natural one to one's self is going to be the winner for free and beautiful singing.

I find this information very interesting.  I think the application it has for singing is that it opens the mind for the singer to consider that there is a constitutional variable in the strategies one will adopt for breath management while singing.  This can have consequences in many ways.  If one is working with a teacher who believes strongly in breathing a certain way, that teacher's method may work with people who are wired to use breath that way, but confusing for people with a different breathing type.  I think there is the potential for a singer, unaware of these possibilities, to spend many years trying to force her breathing into one prototype, and cause a lot of frustration and tension because she may be working against her natural structure.

Amongst many other things I started wondering about -- taking this inhaler/exhaler-types theory in mind -- I began to wonder if different voice types might be like the different recorder designs she mentioned and if the breathing type matched the instrument in some cases.  For example, do dramatic voices require a more active exhale?  Or, should knowing that you are naturally a passive exhaler necessitate your doing specific exercises to strengthen and coordinate the muscles for more active exhalation?  Or vice versa?

In the end, this information fits with a holistic view I am forming of my life, including my singing voice.  As I've mentioned here, I have become very interested in barefoot running.  The philosophy of letting my bare feet tell my what my running form should be has been crossing over into my singing.  Just as I "listen" to what the nerve endings in my feet, and any pain or discomfort I have while running barefoot, is telling me about how to set my feet down and lift them as I run, so too there are things my body is telling me about how to sing that I want to listen to more carefully.

For many years my singing training has been from the "outside-in."  Trying to apply what teachers describe to my body.  But from barefoot running -- not discounting the valuable input from knowledgeable people with experience and insight -- I am learning to listen to what my body is saying.  The natural way I am inclined to breathe is one thing I might want to listen to as I further hone and master the abilities of my instrument.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Something New -- Singing Music on my Blog -- "An die musick" by Schubert

Many of you Avocational Singer blog readers have gone for visits to Frescamari's Practice Room to sit and listen in on all my experimentations and voice discovery missions.  I first invited everyone to come over to that virtual practice room in this post, where I compared visiting my practice room to visiting a painter's studio.

I chose the Posterous site for my virtual practice room because it was a convenient way to store mp3 files for free and it was simple to get the files posted, by merely e-mailing the files.  Posterous would automatically embed the files in a player, so the work was done for me.  I will continue to devote time and attention to the ramblings and scribblings and trial and error of that Internet practice room.  It serves as a kind of online practice journal for me and I have benefited greatly from posting my practice mp3 files there and commenting on them.  From the looks of the numbers (thousands) of visits, it seems that people enjoy browsing through some of the stuff I've got up there.

However, I have wanted to be able to post a file once in a while on this blog.  I just needed some time to do some research and tinker around and figure out how to embed a player.  I have created a little test blog to play around with this technical stuff and have been busy experimenting over there.

I think I have figured out how to neatly and easily embed a little player so that I can, once in a while, put up an mp3 file right on the blog, so you will not have to take the little cyber-journey over to the practice studio.  This would have been great to do when I was pursuing the 24 Arias in 24 Weeks project (which I have not abandoned entirely yet -- I'm just splitting the sessions up -- having completed 10 of them in 10 weeks last winter.  I think I may start another 10-week session this Fall.  If you are a new reader and don't know what I'm talking about, 10 of 24 Italian Arias I learned in 10 weeks are posted in Frescamari's Performance Space, another posterous blog.)

So, to test out my new mp3-player-embedding abilities, below I have embedded this morning's rendition of "An die musick," by Franz Schubert.  To help me learn this song, I purchased a book Music Minus One High Voice Soprano, Vol. 1 Schubert German Lieder (Book & CD), and have used the CD that came with it for accompaniment.  I have done most of the work on this song by myself, since I am between teachers right now.

Some other work I did on this song leading up to what I've got today can be found in Frescamari's Practice Room.

So, here it is, my progress thus far on "An die musick" in an embedded player right on the blog:

Monday, August 23, 2010

Classical Vocal Repertoire and a Book of Glinka Songs

I interrupt my regular blog posting to bring you a spontaneous post.  I know I just wrote a post about parental musical influences and I do hope you all get to read and enjoy that post, but I am just feeling so good about a music book that arrived in the mail today and I wanted to share the experience with you.

Remember a few posts ago, when I told you that the organist from my church, who is Russian, wanted to do a recital with me?  Well, in that post, I mentioned that he loved the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka, and he encouraged me to explore this composer.  He said he would help me with the Russian language.

Well, why not?

Well, here's why not.  Isn't singing in Russian kind of advanced?  Isn't singing in Russian something you do after you've established your international opera career and have a recital schedule around the world and a recording contract?  Isn't singing in Russian something you do for your thesis project in graduate music school?  Does a little struggling avocational singer such as myself ever sing in Russian?

To make a long story short,  I figured Russian was way off my radar, considering the fact that I don't know any other languages except Spanish yet, and I just figured that it would be years and years and years before I got to Russian, and being that I'm older and all, I just figured maybe Russian might be for another lifetime or something.  That's the way I perceived it, at any rate.  We all know how faulty our perceptions can be, however.  But, in a similar way as to how we have to give our voices freedom, and not constrict them or try to mold and shape them to what we want them to be, we also have to give our repertoire development and education freedom to develop and grow the way it wants to.  If a pianist comes into my life who would like to collaborate on some music and can school me on Russian stuff, I'm not going to say I'm not ready for that.  It's an opportunity and it's the way the larger musical forces of the universe are kind of guiding me to a new area of exploration, enrichment and study.

So, I set about to get my hands on some Glinka music.  I didn't have great luck finding a collection of Glinka songs from my usual Internet sources, so getting some was either going to involve getting myself to a good music store or library -- like the Juilliard store or the New York Public Library for Performing Arts -- or, as I wrote about in that same blog post -- challenge myself by doing something I'd wanted to do for a long time -- calling Glendower Jones, owner of Classical Vocal Repertoire.

I have to admit that I have a fear of calling people on the telephone.  They even have a psychological term for people afraid to make phone calls -- "Call Reluctance." It's usually connected with a career in sales, but it revolves around being afraid of self-promotion.  I've written on this blog before about how I didn't continue to pursue a career in theater because of this distaste for self-promotion.  One time I even bought a book to try to help me get over my fear, back when I had a little scrapbooking hobby business.  I can't find the book I had back then but it was something along the lines of  I'd Rather Have a Root Canal Than do Cold Calling!

Anyway, you'd think that if you were not a professional singer, you would not have to do any cold calling or self-promotion, and that one of the perks of being an Avocational Singer is that you'd have an easy life, right?


Avocational Singers have to do scary icky things too if they want to grow and be all that they can be.

So, after exhausting many possibilities, it seemed that the musical forces that be were setting me up to make that scary phone call to Glendower Jones.  Now, people who have phone fear are afraid of rejection.  It doesn't matter what kind of rejection.  Just rejection in general.  Rationality does not come into play.  If it did, it would not be scary, because our intellect would tell us that the worse thing that could happen when we call the music book store would be "No, I'm sorry, we don't have any Glinka."

Actually, no, for the person with these kind of fears, the worst thing that could happen would be for them to say, "NO!  We don't have any Glinka, and never never never bother me again!!!" in a really mean scary voice.

Okay, well, back to the task.  So, my task, if I really wanted to proceed on, was to make this phone call.

And I bet you all know what happened.  Glendower Jones was one of the kindest and most wonderful of professional people to call on the phone.  He was extremely knowledgeable and helpful, just as I'd heard from all kinds of singers that he was.

He had a complete volume of Glinka songs, of course, and he took the order and sent it.

Now the real treat is that the book came today and it was a beautiful volume, one that any singer would want to have in his/her collection.  Here's a picture:

The hardcover book felt soft and smooth to the touch.  It came protected by a sturdy cardboard enclosure, and the invoice was printed on a cream-colored paper that was heavy and smooth.

Since our phone conversation had gone so well, I was brave enough to mention an Argentinian composer, whose songs I had searched for and been unable to find.  Mr. Jones, as a response to that conversation, had enclosed with my order a sheet, on the same creamy paper, a list of available titles from that composer.

I ended up really liking doing business "the old fashioned way," without the impersonal filling in of Internet forms.

I was delighted by the entire experience, and feel that by pushing past my fear, I reaped a great benefit of now having a great source from which to purchase my music.

In the end, I've realized that having a passion for something forces me to grow.  When you really have an interest and you really love something, scary obstacles might delay you temporarily, but the desire to explore, find out and see eventually wins out overcomes the fear.  One gets to the point where in order to continue on, you have to face the scary monster and it is that desire to see it through that helps you take the growth step.

Parental Musical Influences

I'm sitting here in my kitchen with my book Pronunciation Guide for the Lieder Anthology open in front of me as I wait for the CD practice mp3 files to load import into my iTunes for my personal practice use.  (I find it easier to find and control the practice from itunes than from a CD player.)

Anyway, with the book open on my lap, I've been sitting here sounding out the German for "Auf dem Wasser zu singen" syllable by syllable.  It is slow, laborious work. It is being done without the benefit and advice of a knowledgeable coach or teacher at this point, but there is great value in what I am doing, even though it is quite a struggle.  But we all know that this is the kind of struggle has big payoffs sometimes, so I am patient with it.

In walks my daughter to heat herself up a little snack. I hear her repeating the "ich laut" sound -- [ç] -- as she's pressing the buttons on the microwave. She's picking up the new sound very spontaneously and easily (like a child without decades of muscle memory programmed in). In fact, she barely realizes she's doing it, like when you find yourself humming a little tune that's got into your head and you're scarcely aware that you are  humming. I stop and we talk for a minute, and I tell her that is a sound that's in the German language which we don't use in English. She is interested for a second, but I am gaging how much I can tell her before she tunes out.

"German's a weird language," she says, as she takes her snack out of the microwave.

I resist the urge, as a parent, to capitalize on this "teaching moment," by embarking on a lecture about languages. I've ruined too many moments of true and natural interest in my children by trying to get too much in on these little opportunities. So, I restrain myself and content myself with that little exchange and release her to go have her snack in the other room.

But in my heart I am happy. Because I know that these little moments add up. I know what it feels like to look back on childhood and remember the little moments that stand out and stayed with me when I became a grown-up (Am I a grown up yet? I'm still waiting for that to happen.)

How many times have we read a book about some accomplished masterful singer, and the first chapter almost always tells us all about the musical household they grew up in?

I have engaged in some reflecting in recent years on how my musical interests came about from the influence of my musical mother. I have vivid memories of her practicing the piano or organ in the living room, rehearsing with our local community theater group or having wedding singers over the house to practice songs for weddings. It was her involvement in these things that brought me into the world of music. At the time I had not realized what was happening exactly, but it was as natural as learning to walk or to talk, and I find it fascinating that it can happen like this.  It is a beautiful example of how the life of an avocational musician makes waves in time and space, and makes the world a more musical place.

So, I don't know what little memories will impress myself on my daughter when she is all grown up. Maybe this moment in the kitchen when she picked up the [ç] sound and learned what it was will be one of those memories.

I don't want to ruin what is natural by coming in and trying to force or manipulate the situation. In fact, I'd prefer to not even be conscious of any effect my pursuit might be having.  I will just continue to pursue my passion and leave those other effects up to the greater scheme of things.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Guest Post: An Avocational Singer Attends a NATS Workshop

Well, dear readers of this blog, I have a little something different for you today, and something that I hope you find informative and enjoyable. One of the avocational singers I have come to know through this blog, Blue Yonder, has graciously agreed to share her recent experiences attending a NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) Workshop.

Blue Yonder is a lyric soprano who has been a commenter on this blog for many a post, and some of you may have already learned a lot from her astute comments. I recently learned that she had attended her local NATS workshop and I thought you readers might be as interested as I was to hear about it, and whether it was a comfortable environment for an avocational singer.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to help us avocational singers find each other on the Internet and share our experience of being high level singers with a passion to master the vocal instrument, yet not on a career track. I have been so happy to have heard from quite a few of you, through comments on this blog and in my e-mail.

I hope you will all benefit to hear about Blue Yonder's experience.

Blue Yonder Attends a NATS Workshop
As a high-level amateur, it's always a challenge to find the right kind of training opportunities for my level and goals. Consequently, I was delighted to learn about a performance workshop held this summer by the local NATS chapter and advertised on their website. It is a week-long program consisting of morning coachings followed by afternoon masterclasses in acting, bodywork, and diction,and culminating in a recital. Each participant brought in two pieces to coach for this program.

My first minor concern about attending was whether I could hold my own in a summer program like this. The program is non-auditioned, but I did not know what level of participants it would draw and whether I could keep up. My fears were unfounded. Ages varied from 16 to 40-something, and levels ranged from performing newbies to very good conservatory students working on master's degrees. I landed pretty squarely in the middle. Also, other avocational singers were in attendance.

The program itself was intense (for me) and enriching and positive. Every day, we sang one or both of our selections for our peers and the program faculty. We had access to well-reputed coaches with whom I never imagined I would get to work, being an avocational singer. The singers were nice people and I enjoyed getting to know them and hear about where they are in their journey. The masterclass teachers were generous with their time and expertise. They were fully engaged in working with each singer, regardless of level.

Actually, I love the masterclass/workshop format for three reasons. First, you get practice performing a selection and working on it in front of an audience. Also, you get exposure to lots of different repertoire inside and outside of your fach. And lastly, when there is diversity in the level of singers, you get to learn about the different issues faced by singers at different levels, and how to address those issues given an individual singer's particular strengths and weaknesses.

Overall, I would say that this workshop and the other local NATS events are great opportunities for the avocational singer to gain performance experience and training. I've felt welcome at the events I've attended so far, and the local NATS festival even has an "Avocational" category for participants.

I do think it's important for us avocational singers to approach performance and training situations with the right attitude. I often have doubts and ask myself, "Do I belong here with these other singers who might be career-track? Can I cut it?" I realize now that I need to take the attitude: "I BELONG HERE!!!" Aim high and prepare to work hard--but once you get in, never question whether you belong in the program, regardless of whether you got in by audition, application, or just by putting your name on a signup sheet.

I'll close with a couple of my favorite learnings from the workshop:

1. Italian texts require a surprising amount of detailed diction work. One must go through the aria or song with a fine-tooth comb and make sure all of these points are addressed

a) Vowels - Pure (non-dipthongized) and Italianate (e.g. American "a" versus the considerably brighter Italian "a")

b) Consonants - Can the listener distinguish whether any given consonant is a single or a double?

c) Vowel clusters - Can the listener hear all of the vowels in the cluster? Is the correct one stressed and/or lengthened, if applicable?

d) Text underlay - If the text underlay is ambiguous, match syllables to the notes in the manner that is the "most Italian" (observing Italian speech inflection and important words)

e) Inflection - Would a native Italian be convinced by your speech inflection? (alternating stressed-unstressed syllables - think of the stereotypical Italian accent)

f) Open/closed vowels - Are the e's and o's pronounced correctly as open or closed, depending on the word? (this one is debated by the experts)

2. 100% dramatic commitment is not just a native talent that no one else can acquire. It is something that I can practice and improve. As part of my practice regimen, I want to start doing dramatic readings of aria/song texts in a 100% committed, uninhibited way. Then I want to practice singing them with so much dramatic commitment that there's no room for thoughts about technique, mistakes, etc.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Grieving a Loss -- Yet Another Voice Teacher is Gone

I wasn't sure if I wanted to write about this, but since it is part of my avocational journey, I must.  So, here goes:

I recently received word from my voice teacher telling me that she would no longer be able to accommodate my lesson time in her studio.

One reason I didn't want to write it, was because I feel embarrassed to admit I was rejected and not one of the more desirable students.  I had thought I was doing pretty well, and was finally beginning to put together a technique. I was working hard towards my goals, and I was excited about the progress I was making. I felt that I had momentum going and was not prepared to come to a screeching halt unexpectedly like this.

I had hoped that this new thrust would be the one to take me to a point, at long last, of a basic mastery of my vocal instrument.  I say "basic" because mastery is a lifetime pursuit that is never fully attained due to the truth that there is always more.  But I have always believed there would come a point where technique became secure enough and awareness of the ins and outs of vocal issues became such that a singer "arrived" at a moment where she didn't need a teacher any more -- at least not every week -- except for a basic tuneup once in a while.

I have been very slow and long to get to this point, as I've noted on this blog. But in this late time of my singing life, I have finally sensed it on the horizon.

But now I have a temporary setback in that I am without a teacher.

This journey cannot be undertaken without a guide.

Here is how I'm feeling right now.  I feel like a person who had wanted to climb a giant mountain and had hired an experienced guide to help navigate the way to the top. Just when I got to the point where I could see some peaks, the guide can no longer continue the journey and must leave me there out on a ledge.  I feel stranded and alone on top of a cliff, close to the mountain top, but without a guide.

So, I sit on the little ledge.  First, I just cry.  "Oh, whatever shall I do now?  What will become of me?"  But since that isn't really going to resolve the issue, once that indulgence has passed I have to sit and think of my options.  First I have to make a decision, sitting there out on the snowy ledge by myself.  Do I still want to try to get to the top of the mountain or do I want to give up?

If I give up, I can just find my way back down to the comfy lodge at the foot of the mountain, go in and order a glass of wine, and sit curled up by the fire reading a nice book.  That would be very comfortable and nurturing.  No tough things to go through. No scrapes and bruises from grabbing onto rocks. No feeling exhausted from the exertion of effort. No getting discouraged. No rejection. No disappointments.  Lots of comfort and "peace." I can watch the young people come in breathless, with their rosy cheeks and talk about how wonderful the view was from the top.

But if I decide that I still want to try, then there's work to do.  I must begin the work of trying to find a new guide to help me get to the top.  As I make the rounds of the mountain guides, many of them might discourage me.  "Why don't you just take the nice little bus tour up with all the other older folk?  You shouldn't be exerting yourself at your age."  Or "Why don't you just admit that your body isn't made for mountain climbing and just take the cable car up?"

But I have to pick myself up and get out there and make the rounds.  Make the rounds until I find someone skilled who is willing to help me the rest of the way, and won't abandon me mid-mountain.

Finding a good voice teacher is a lot of work.  There is a lot of asking around, gathering of names, and then the legwork of getting to sample lessons .  Sometimes this work has to be done when you have a low level of confidence in your mission.  There are so many questions.  Will the teacher want me as a student, or find me undesirable as the other teacher did?  The kind of mission I'm on -- older avocational singer who's not giving up -- is one I have to sell, or at least find the right kind of person who would get on board with me and help.  I can't do this if I'm not feeling like I'm believing in my mission myself.

So, the first work I have to do, before I make one phone call or set one foot on the pavement, is to find a way to believe in myself again.  This is the task that will help me get the job done.  A way I've used to achieve this in the past is to pray and renew my spirit, so that's what I'll be doing as a precursor to getting out there to embark on a new fresh stab at getting to the top of the mountain. The clock is ticking, but it's still not too late for me to get there.

Monday, August 2, 2010

My Visit to Opera New Jersey

I am going to be brave and write about my experience attending the opera a couple of weeks ago. The reason I say "brave" is that I don't really know too much about opera. As a natural extension of my interest in singing, I have been dragging my husband to see a few performances in the past couple of years, and I have been enjoying exploring this interest.

Since I do not have the qualifications to review a production from an educated standpoint, I can only give my impressions as a fledgling fan.

My husband asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday a couple of weeks ago. Since my birthday fell on the eve of my participation in the Westminster Choral Festival in Princeton, NJ, I searched online for something to do in Princeton. I found that there was an opera company there, Opera New Jersey and on the night of my birthday they would be performing Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti. I asked my husband to come down with me for the night and kick off my week at the choral festival by taking me to dinner and to see this opera.

This would be the fifth opera I would attend, and it was going to be the first one somewhere besides the Metropolitan Opera.

Up until now, I have been thoroughly preparing myself for each performance I was planning to attend. When paying the hefty prices for the Met, I have wanted to get the most out of the experience that I could. So, I would obtain a recording of the opera and listen so that I would know the music. I would study the libretto and the commentary on the opera along with its history. I would read about the singers whom I was going to hear, and also listen to some of the arias by various singers on youtube.

This time, however, I was so busy preparing for my trip, studying the Mozart Requiem score, entertaining friends, packing up my daughter for her week away at Grandma and Grandpa's, that I only had time to read a brief synopsis of Don Pasquale, and by the time we got there, I didn't know much about it at all and had never heard any of the music.

I found out that there is such a thing as an opera you don't have to "prepare" for and can just sit back and relax and enjoy. Opera NJ made this possible for me by their absolutely wonderful production. The opera, Don Pasquale is a perfect one to have this experience with because it is just a lighthearted very fun comedy that almost seems like a funny musical theater piece.  Of course the beautiful music and the highly developed singing voices take it a step way above that.

It's not so much that I would like to tell you about the opera itself in that I wanted to exclaim how wonderful a job Opera NJ did on the performance.  I told you above that this was my fifth time at the opera and I liked this experience way more than I did my experiences at the Met.

For one thing, the house, McCarter Theater, which is just steps away from the Princeton Train Station, is elegant, charming, and intimate.  I felt really comfortable just being in the place.  A man on line for the men's room at intermission -- who came across as being much more experienced opera-goer -- told my husband that this theater experience was more like what it feels like in the many small opera houses of Europe.  I loved the deep rich colors of the seating and curtains, and the cozy feeling of sitting together with all the audience.  It felt like we were all friends who had just had a nice dinner together and had moved to the drawing room for an evening of pleasurable entertainment provided by our host.

Another thing I loved was that the orchestra was so present in front of me, and I could watch the instrumentalists.  I could observe every draw of the violin bow, and watch the conductor preside over the experience.

The voices of the performers were of a high quality. I enjoyed the voices more in this intimate setting than I did at the Met.  At the Met, even with very good seats pretty close to the stage, everyone still seemed smaller.  Here, I couldn't believe how clear the voices were even though there was a substantial orchestra so close between me and the singers.

To be honest, I had expected, going in to the performance, that the voices I would hear in this smaller company might be less masterful or beautiful than some of the famous names at the Met, and I learned that this is a wrong prejudice to have had. I probably just picked up this notion from the marketing and the way our culture dictates what is supposed to be good.  It filled me with great pleasure to hear really fine singing at this little production, singing that I felt was every bit as good, if not better even, than what I had heard on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.

And it was not just I who thought this.  At the choir festival later that week, I ran into a woman who had seen Opera New Jersey's production of Don Giovanni that same weekend, and she had a similar story to tell.  She also thought the production was more enjoyable than ones she had attended in Manhattan. In fact, she told me that she had stopped going to the Met altogether.

The sets were really wonderful. I was aware that they were not quite as "grand" as what I had seen at the Met, but they were so well-suited to the space and were as charming as the theater itself. In fact, this performance seemed to integrate so well and match the setting and feel of the entire theater space. And I felt that was part of what was so well done about this production -- the opera knew it's space and knew who it was as a performance piece in that space.

I was incredibly impressed with the acting of the singers.  They told the story with their bodies as well as their voices.  There was a lot of visual joking and I felt that children would enjoy this performance, should they not even understand a word.

I also enjoyed the performance of the chorus.  Each and every choral member had a distinct personality and character and the acting of even these "lesser" roles contributed to the story and helped us understand exactly what was going on, and what it was like to be employed under these circumstances in the household of Don Pasquale.  In one scene where they were singing about the new activities of Don Pasquale's new wife, it was clear that some of the servants, the younger ones, viewed all the hustle and bustle with breathless glee, and that some of the older ones thought the whole thing a great nuisance.  Each singer portrayed a character who would react to the happenings in a unique way and not all the same, while maintaining a unity of ensemble. I thought it was perfect and that these lesser cast members were very talented.

All the lead roles had marvelous voices and wonderful acting interpretations of their roles.  I could write paragraphs of how much I enjoyed each one of them so I hope that I am not insulting by focusing on just one lead in particular.  I was enchanted by Ava Pine, who played Norina.  She pulled off the authority, mischievousness, lovableness, humor of her character so well.  As I sat back and enjoyed her performance and singing, I thought of the times I'd fantasized about being an opera singer, and I knew that there was no way I would be able to capture all the nuances of a character as well as this singer did, at least not without many more year of study and experience, and perhaps never at all.  She was sophisticated, clever, sparkly, and very lovable and her singing was strong and beautiful.

I also loved the way the stage actions were incorporated into the interpretation of the music.  I'm trying to remember a specific after two weeks, and there is one point I remember where Norina was singing a particular phrase and pouring herself a glass of lemonade at the same time.  While singing the phrase, she raised the pitcher so that the stream of lemonade into the glass matched the music she was producing.  The thing that was great about it was that it was not gimmicky or extraneous to what was going on, nor put in as a mere cheap trick to delight the audience.  The action helped establish the playfulness of her personality -- a gesture that brought us far along getting to know her -- and was musically appropriate.  It was also executed so naturally that it looked easy, but I was aware that to sing the difficult passage, and perform the lemonade pouring accompaniment was no easy feat just to pull off, much less look as natural as it would be in real life. Ms. Pine accomplished it masterfully.  She made it look simple and easy.

Another example of the type of place where the action was integrated with the music was where the fluttering feather duster of the maid dusting off the bookcase seemed a natural illustration of the fluttering of the violins (a tremolo? -- sorry to lack a better musical vocabulary to describe). It happened in a way where it was hard to say if the music had suggested the action, or if Donizetti himself had been inspired by such an action to convert into music.  At any rate, the interpretation of it was delightful.

These are just a couple examples of many such actions that were incorporated with the music throughout the entire production.  Each one of these actions brought out the musical phrases and the appreciation for Donizetti's music, and I applaud the insight of the stage director and conductor, Michael Scarola and Mark Laycock for incorporating these little touches.

Besides these little actions that so helped me appreciate the music, there was another great scene where Ernesto was wandering forlornly through a park, singing about his lost love, and there was present on stage with him a street musician, playing the trumpet.  The music being played by the horn player in the park was actually being played by the horn player in the orchestra, but it was accomplished in such a way that the horn player on stage looked very much like it was his music we heard.

The horn player acted as a sympathetic "listener," and musical partner to Ernesto's aria, reminiscent of that objective but sympathetic observer character such as Bert in Mary Poppins, or the fiddler on the roof who accompanies Tevye.  I did not know this opera, so I did not know if it was a convention written in to the libretto, or if this was a unique interpretation of Opera NJ, but I had a feeling it was a unique interpretation, and in my very humble opinion, it worked really well.

To sum things up, I am definitely going to try to get over to see more performances by this little opera company.  I felt there was something so right about the idea of this high quality intimate way of presenting opera in a community.  How wonderful, I thought, for artists to spread themselves out in these little companies, bringing these kind of productions to the little communities of our country. It makes more sense to come together for theater this way, providing rich entertainment for each other on the weekends as we go about our daily lives. Something much better than the isolation of sitting home watching TV or on the Internet, and providing jobs for people who love to make music.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Afterglow: Westminster Choir Festival

This is a quick post just to let you know that I'm exploding with stuff I want to talk about in the coming weeks after experiencing many wonderful new ideas and concepts at the Westminster Choral Festival at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ.

I attended this continuing education festival and took it for credit.  As part of that I had to journal about my  experience there, so I will be taking from my journal and picking out stuff I think other avocational singers out there might be interested to read about.

I was exposed to some new concepts, such as "count singing," and a few other ideas about choral voicing and sound, but I would like to have time to do a little google research so I can better talk about these things with you.

All in all, I came off this choral festival week more excited about choral singing than I ever have been before.  I think one of the main reasons is because of the exciting, vibrant, creative choral director, Dr. Joe Miler.

What I loved the most about working with Dr. Miller was how free and healthy he wanted the voices to be, and how, even though he was directing a group, he somehow imparted great care and respect for the individual voice and was able to somehow guide the individual so aptly while leading a giant group. There was space for everyone in his choir -- "big" voices, "little voices," "pingy" voices, "breathy" voices, etc...   He knew what to do with all those sounds and colors and make them work together.

It was possible for me, as a "big-voiced" singer to feel great freedom while singing in a choir, something that I usually don't experience.  I often feel like I am sitting in a little confined box, holding myself back in order to blend.  There are definitely many things I've learned with this "holding back" kind of singing.  It has been a challenge over the years to find ways to master my voice so that I could sing in that little box in a healthy way, and it has not been without value to try to do so.

However, the experience of being able to feel less confined while singing with a group, and the feeling of my own free resonances melding with the other resonances in the room was really wonderful and left me renewed and invigorated about choral singing.

In the next few posts I'm probably going to be recapping some ways I've grown after this choral festival.  I hope you will join me in the days to come as I share some of my experience with you.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reporting from the Westminster Choir Festival

I don't have much time to blog right now, because I'm being kept very busy participating in the Westminster Choir Festival, which I wrote about in my previous post.

I am enjoying myself immensely. There is so much singing and so much talk about music. For a person with a music degree, who studied in music school, this might be all "ho-hum" and "yawn." But for an avocational singer who has not experienced this level of choral study, it is dreamy.

Now, the description of this festival did not indicate that one had to have any particular credentials. It is, of course, considered "adult continuing education," so there may have been a presumption that applicants to the festival work in the field of music and desire further knowledge and study within their fields. However, although I didn't really have an idea who to expect would be at this festival, I had not quite realized that I would be the least credentialed person in the choir.

I am surrounded by music teachers of all level from primary school to university level, and by many people who conduct their own choirs and who have come to learn from our conductor, Joe Miller.

Whether I "belong" here or not, I am having the time of my life and learning gobs and gobs, just soaking it all in. I am getting to observe and hear the intricacies of choir directing and conducting on a deep level. There are conducting master classes and discussions about choices made in assembling and working with a choir. Today we had a fantastic explanation of how Mr. Miller voices a choir, complete with examples -- provided by the members of the Westminster Chamber Choir -- of how he "hears" voices and seats the choir into a formation where the overtones and undertones, partials and various other whats-its -- the many frequencies produced by the human singing voice -- are enhanced and complemented and reinforced in a way that optimizes the sound.

This is very exciting for me, and, although I had doubts in the beginning about my ability to keep up with the intense pace, it seems I've reached just a good enough level to stay in the race, if barely. But enough so that I can enjoy the experience and feel relatively competent while participating.

At the end of this exciting week, we are having a concert. The Westminster Chamber Choir will perform an intense work by David Lang, "The Little Match Girl Passion" and the festival choir will perform Mozart's Requiem.

If you are in the Princeton, NJ area you can hear this wonderful concert. It will be performed Friday, July 23 from 7:30 - 10:30 pm at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall on the Princeton University campus. (Wow, a 3-hour concert. That's a big one!)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Athleticism and Music

Way back when I first began to learn about how the world works, I never connected music with athleticism.  Not only did I not connect them, they each seemed to belong in totally separate compartments, and in fact, one even at times seemed to preclude the other.

In  high school, I belonged to the social status group that had been dubbed the "band squirrels."  Band squirrels hung out down the "band hall."  The band hall door was locked when we first arrived at school in the morning, but we sat down on the floor together outside the band hall door and fooled around until the music teacher arrived and opened up the door.  By the time he arrived, there was only a few minutes left before the bell rang and we had to all get to our homerooms, but nevertheless, we spent those few remaining minutes -- every single morning -- "down the bandhall."

Most of my elective high school classes and extracurricular activities centered on music.  I was in concert band, marching band, jazz band, chorus, and any other musical activity that came about.  Most of my friends were into music as well, and -- as I recall -- most of them did not seem very athletic to me.

For one thing, being involved with sports conflicted with musical activities.  We had marching band practice outdoors in the Fall and would not have been able to play soccer or field hockey.  Then in the spring was school musical rehearsals, and there was no way I was going to jeopardize having a part in the school musical -- no siree -- by belonging to some extracurricular sports team.

There were a few students who juggled sports and music, but they were not really considered "band squirrels."  They were kind of well-rounded kids who were doing a little bit of everything, but one could see they had a conflict of loyalties and they would miss practices and not really feel like one of the regulars.  They also usually didn't play their instruments on as high a level as the "band squirrels" did.

Overall, the "jocks" were a completely separate world of people from the band squirrels, and it appeared as if one precluded the other.

I remember, however, when I first branched off to explore some athleticism. It was toward the end of my junior year of high school that I started thinking that perhaps it  might be a good idea I should explore a sport.  I decided to join the track team.

It's not that I had not been athletic at all.  No, that was not the case because athleticism was highly valued by my parents and we had been encouraged in every way to develop various sides to our athletic natures.  I was an avid and accomplished golfer, the junior champ down at our country club.  Our family took regular family bike rides together.  We had all been given extensive swimming lessons and I was a strong swimmer, and had even enjoyed perfecting some beginning diving.  We had all studied gymnastics in grade school and I had basic gymnastic skills -- cartwheels, limbers, splits, walkovers, back walkovers.

But I think because music was a stronger interest, I just did not go out for teams. I was also really afraid of ball sports, and didn't think very fast on my feet, so I did not fare well in group sports.

I'm not sure why I chose the track team, but I think it was because my dad had been a big track star in high school, and my younger sisters were following in his footsteps and making a name for themselves on the track team.

Well, there are a lot of directions I could go with this.  I could get sidetracked and start talking about all my adventures in learning about track, but I will save that for my new blog Barefoot Fresca, and stick to the point I am getting at here regarding athleticism and being a musician.

Track introduced me to running and running introduced me to the cross country team where I developed more into a runner.  This seemed to be a separate part of me from my musician side.  In fact, being on the cross country team did make it more stressful to be in marching band that year.  I had to run from one practice to the other and my plate was definitely full my senior year.

But they still seemed like separate lives.  My athletic/running life -- and -- my musical life.

In recent years, however, I made a big connection between athleticism and singing.  It was on the day that the realization hit me, "Oh my gosh!  singing is athletic.  It's athletic!  That means I can develop it!" that I really began to find my way as a singer.

But still, for a while after that realization, singing seemed like it's own separate form of athleticism, still a bit disconnected from other athleticism in my mind.  It was athletic because it involved muscles, exercising, strengthening, flexing, coordinating muscles that took practice and developed along the same kinds of principles as other athletic activities.  But I still didn't understand that my entire instrument was athletic and that other kinds of athleticism would feed into and be essential for developing my full potential as a singer.

The first connection to other athleticism was the thought that doing ab exercises might help me master breath management needed for singing.

I did a little research, asked some singers, and most seemed to think that separate ab development, overall, helped a singer.  There were some people who protested that the ab activity of singing was particular and specific to singing, and that the only way to develop that ab capability was to sing -- which is true.  Then there were a few voices who seemed to think separate ab development would be detrimental to singing if it created too tight muscles.  But overall, it seemed logical to me that the stronger, healthier, more developed the ab muscles were, the better off I'd be, and I began to do some extra ab work as part of my training as a singer

Well, that was the beginning and this has led to my philosophy, which I have written about here a lot, that some kind of athletic training must be part of my development as a singer.

Now it seems that my interests from way back have come full circle and I participate on Facebook group called The Athletic Performer founded by my friend  and fellow blogger, Robin, who also writes a blog by the same name.  The group is full of singers and musicians who include athletic cross training as part of their singing life.  The leader, Robin, seems to epitomize the ideal of the theory, because she is a highly evolved athlete -- marathoner and triathlete -- and a master of a gorgeous singing voice as well, who is progressing very well in her professional singing career right now.

Another member of the Athletic Performer Facebook group has written recently on her blog, The Liberated Voice, about how important it is for singers to pursue athletic disciplines in her article: The Vocal Athlete

I have started a new blog, Barefoot Fresca, to write about my parallel athletic pursuit of running, but there are times, because of how my singing is now linked with my running, where the topics will weave in and out from one another, and principles and philosophies gleaned from one discipline will apply to the other.

Don't be surprised if you see some weird barefoot running videos show up amongst the practice files in Frescamari's Practice Room as my two endeavors, athletics and music, start to come together and no longer be contained in separate compartments.