Sunday, January 31, 2010

Singing With an Orchestra Running Barefoot

In my strange Avocational Singer mind, there is a connection between singing with an orchestra and running barefoot.

You've seen me make connections between singing and other subjects, and this one may seem like a stretch, but if your mind operated by the same sort of unusual logic that mine does, you would be able to make a connection between singing with an orchestra and running barefoot too.

Here's how my logic has connected the two:

I would love to sing with an orchestra some day.  It has always been a fantasy of mine.  I came close to that experience a few years ago when I sang the Pergolesi Stabat Mater with Cantigas Women's Choir.  We had a little "orchestra" for that:  A couple of violins, a double bass cello, an organ, and maybe a couple of other instruments.  It was modest, but it was enough for me to get the feel of what a wonderful experience it was to sing with an instrumental ensemble.  I have never forgotten how wonderful it was to have that experience, and, of course, I would hope to have it again.

I also wrote about my fantasy of this in a post a while back "Anatomy of a Dream."

If I was a young singer in my early 20s, to have a dream to sing something with an orchestra would seem like a reasonably attainable goal, something that might be accomplished without too much struggle.   However, to have this as a goal for myself, at age 48, seems a more formidable task. Especially to have this as a goal at age 48 without having quite yet learned  how to sing -- one little detail that seems a bit important to the quest -- well, that does seem to make it seem all the more out of reach.

Nevertheless, not believing that one should rule out possibilities, no matter what the obstacle may appear, I still carry a hope within my heart that I may accomplish this fantasy in some way or another.

Now, here's where I had to stop and take stock and figure out what need to happen in order for me to be able to sing with an orchestra.  Here's where I had to look at strengths, limitations, realities, and come up with a plan.

First things first, of course, I would definitely need to be able to sing.  I have not given up hope of finally figuring my voice out, even at this late stage of the game.  So, lessons are a must, and an absolute dedication to daily training is a must. I cannot predict what success will come of that, but it seems to be heading in the right direction and I can only hope for the best as far as developing a voice with a good technique that can even be heard while singing with an orchestra.

But another thing I decided would be of great advantage was some sort of  "fountain of youth."  Yes, a "fountain of youth" would come in very handy indeed.  You see, in order to avail myself of any opportunity to sing something with an orchestra, I might find myself in the position of having to compete for a spot with someone youthful, and youth could edge me out of any such opportunity. Unless I should come by a fortune from which I could hire myself an orchestra, it seems desirable to find some way to stem the tide of my own aging as I wait for my vocal technique to establish itself.

I looked around, and the closest I could come to finding a "fountain of youth" was exercise.  An athletic opera singer friend of mine, Robin Flynn ("The Athletic Perfomer") just referred me today to an article in the New York Times on "How Exercising Keeps Our Cells Young", so incorporating an exercise plan seems like a reasonable move for a singer concerned with her age to include in her training regimen.

I was already working at Kung Fu, but I felt that I needed something aerobic.  They say that if you are going to stick with an exercise program, you'll have more success if you find something you love to do.

Well, I've mentioned here that I love to run, so, after many many years of intending to get back to running,  I had decided during this past year to begin again.  To help myself along, I signed up for a 1/2 marathon. As I embarked on my 1/2 marathon training plan,  I seemed to be well on my way to stemming the detrimental effects of aging, and keeping some of these effects somewhat at bay.

But a villain arrived on the scene -- the villain of an injury that has blocked me from my fountain -- plantar fasciitis.  I was unable to complete my training for the 1/2 marathon, and am now in the process of healing this injury so that I can begin anew.

In my quest to find a way to heal my injury, I have stumbled upon information about running barefoot. (A favorite new blog: Running Barefoot)   The people that run barefoot claim that our running injuries increased when we put on fancy running shoes that immobilize our feet.  The theory makes sense to me that by putting on these running shoes, we deprived ourselves of the sensory nerve feedback from our bare feet, which is necessary in order to learn how to run with a form that protects us from injury.

I have read anecdotes of people using barefoot running to recover from plantar fasciitis, or at least find a way of running that prevents the injury from coming bak.  I am dying to try this out.  And I have made a resolution that I will give barefoot running a try soon.

So, to put it all together: I've decided that I really want to try barefoot running, so that I can begin training again for next year's race, so that I may preserve some aspects of youth, so that I may one day compete for a spot to sing with some orchestra somewhere in the future of my life.

That is really nutty logic, and some of the assumptions I've got in the train of thought have just got to be faulty, especially since there is no limit to what possibilities exist, and it can't predicted how or why or where I might have an opportunity to sing with an orchestra.

I mean, after all, isn't it hard enough just to learn to sing, without adding all these extra burdens?

But today, I think I may have found a way, finally, to have the experience of singing with an orchestra.  I have discovered opera and oratorio karaoke!  I have been having a blast downloading a few files from the itunes store today, and singing with real orchestral accompaniments.

I have been deeply moved by the experience of singing with these accompaniments.  I am thinking that this may just satisfy my need to sing with an orchestra after all.  Or at least, should I never arrive at an opportunity to sing with live instruments, I have something to cut the edge off any kind of disappointment about not being able to do this.  It may just be the next best thing.

I still plan, as soon as my foot is a little better, to try out all the barefoot running stuff.  But maybe not in order to have a "fountain of youth" after all, but just because I love running and the stuff I read about barefoot running is appealing to me.  No pressure.  Let singing be singing, and running be running.

Visit Frescamari's Practice Room to hear me singing some Opera Karaoke:  "On a New Karaoke Kick: "Stride la vampa" -- "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" -- and "Voi che sapete"

Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Cyberspace Recital -- More Than I Could Have Hoped For

Little did I know -- when I impulsively thought up the idea of this singing project for myself of learning 24 Italian Songs and Arias in 24 Weeks -- how deeply involved I would become in this project and what a source of learning, development, and joy it was about to bring to my life.

I had no idea -- I simply had no idea how musically enriched I would become by exploring these songs.  I had no idea how much it would develop my singing, what would happen to my pronunciation of the Italian language, or even something like how my flipped and rolled [r]s would improve. I had no idea how musical phrases would begin to tell me things that I had not known about music before.  It's almost as if my voice has been waiting for me to do this, so it could reveal it's secrets to me.  Each day, as I take up the song and find progress on it, I am amazed.  My voice is almost like a child who says, "Watch me, mother!  I couldn't do this yesterday, but look at me today!!  See, I grew a little stronger and taller over night, and I figured it out and now I can do it!  Look at me!"

Nowadays, when my eyes fall upon my Italian songbook, I feel the way a golfer might feel when he lays eyes on his set of clubs propped against the wall in the garage, or a runner feels when she spies her running shoes lying on the mat by the back door, or a chef feels when he approaches his block of sharp and shiny stainless steel knives on the counter.  When I pick the book up, or put it into my lesson bag, I have a sense of love and respect for what is contained within.

This week's lesson is about how much less time I need to pick up a song and learn it.  In fact, things were moving along so well on "Non posso disperar" by the time I brought it to my lesson on Tuesday that my voice teacher suggested I start on the next song as well, "Nina."  So, I am well into learning that song, slated for next Friday, and will probably start another one over the weekend.  I am getting ahead of myself.  That is really exciting!

I am finally healed from the ravages of that head cold I had a couple of weeks back.  It is great to have the voice back and return to its continued development.  I am very happy that I seem to have been able to resume progress right where I left off before catching the head cold.  In fact, it seems like progress was made even during the cold, so I think it was worth the bit of practicing I did while conditions were less than ideal.

My Cs, Ds, and E5s are feeling much more effortless, and I am beginning to find release and space for my F and G5s.  In "Non posso disperar" I had to reach up and just lightly touch G5, but in "Nina" I have to sustain G5.  Two different tasks, and I am grateful to have a smart voice teacher who knows that one task best came before the other.
Click here to be transported to Frescamari's Performance Space and listen to this week's offering from the 24 Italian Songs and Arias:  "Non posso disperar."
Clck here to listen to work on "Nina"

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Cyberspace Recital -- Do You Have Something to Say?

I have been considering a question over and over again for the past couple of weeks, and it seems as if it is cropping up everywhere:  Do I have something to say?  Do I have something to say to the world?

Not only that, do I have something to say with my singing? Am I holding back my emotional truth for when my technique is good enough to finally say something?  Do I need to wait to say something, or can I begin to start saying something now, even when the singing is flawed, even when the dream of what I would like to say does not match the reality of what comes out?

As I write this blog, and read books and articles about how to develop my writing abilities, the topic of whether I have anything to say, what I will choose to say, and how I will say it is very frequently on my mind.  So it seems obvious that a writer has to think about what he or she might want to say.

But does a singer have to think about what he or she might want to say?

The judges of the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions seems to think this is important.  In a television documentary about this event, The Audition, which I watched on PBS recently, one of the judges tells us that this is something they look for in a singer -- someone who has something to say.

This message also popped out of the pages of a book I'm currently reading, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, by Ralph Keyes.  He confirms that, yes, everyone has something to say, and what we have to say is important, but the most important thing we have to say, and what we would really like to say, is often very scary to expose to an audience.  The real things we would like to say are often mortifying.

At first glance, the 24 Italian Songs and Arias appear to be "saying" the same things over and over again in different ways.  The poetry is mostly about love and basic emotional fundamentals surrounding the human experience of falling in love: Unrequited love.  Hope for love returned. The pursuance of love.  The hopes for romance.  The torture and teasing of love. The vulnerability of love. The deep pain of love. On the surface, we think immediately of classic situations: "I liked this boy in high school and I thought he was noticing me but I found out he didn't even know who I was" -- or, "We were going to be married, but then he met her" -- or, "He left me after many years of marriage.  He said he never loved me."   Yeah, yeah, yeah -- unrequited love.  Been there; done that.  I can sing that.

As I've looked at the song "Tu lo sai" I have gone through the usual tasks of examining the language and figuring out what the poet of the song has to say.  As I've examined the music, I have tried to understand what the composer has to say.  This is what I usually do with a song, and I have to admit that I have often hid behind expressing what the song is trying to say, but not thinking too much about what I want to say with the song.

But, bearing in mind the words I heard from the Metropolitan Opera judge, I have begun to realize that as a singer I must -- just as I do when I write -- figure out what I want to say as well. Just as writing can be murky when the writer is not sure of what he wants to say, a singer's performance of a song can be "murky" if the singer is not clear about what she would like to say.  So I must look at the poetry and music of "Tu lo sai" with new eyes.  Can I use this song to express something about me, something I would like to say?

In this case, the answer is yes.  There is a way I could use this song.  I have been struggling with something that is painful to me and I realized today that this song can help me say what I would like to say about it.  For the purposes of learning about this aspect of preparing a song, I'll tell you a little bit (but not too much) about that "something."

I had taken the risk of having made overtures for a friendship with someone I admired greatly. At first I experienced joy as I saw the promise of a response from this person, but my joy turned to pain and disappointment when later my overtures were completely rejected, and to make matters worse, this person will, in a short time, be absent from my life almost completely, so a deep sense of loss is being added to the mix as well.  I have been trying to resolve these feelings, but have not yet been able to work it out emotionally within myself and find resolution and peace. Perhaps "saying something" with a song would be useful in this process.

The language and sentiments -- musical and verbal -- of  "Tu lo sai"  match up somewhat with this personal event of mine.  It is not exact, but it works with my personal experience, and I think I may be able to use this song to "tell" this person how I feel.

You know how much I loved you
you know it, cruel one!
I wish no other mercy
than that  you remember me
and then despise me an unfaithful one!

Usually, a singer would not need to explain the personal experience behind her song.  In fact, it would be safer not to, because when they know, people might listen more critically. This motivation may now be scrutinized. Is the singer succeeding to express her intention?

I think it is preferable to privately use the personal experience to feed the poetry and the music and the voice.  However, I have used it as an example in this blog for the purpose of discussing and illustrating this aspect of a singer's calling and work.

In the above-mentioned  book The Courage to Write the author says he would rather read something honest from someone who had something to say even if the writing was not technically up to snuff.
The more I read, and write, the more convinced I am that good writing has less to do with acquired technique than with inner conviction.  The assurance that you have something to say that the world needs to hear counts for more than literary skill.  Those writers who hold their readers' attention are the ones who grab them by the lapel and say, "You've got to listen to what I'm about to tell you."  It's hard to be that passionate.  It means you must put your whole poke on the table.  Yet this very go-for-broke quality grabs and holds a reader far more surely than any mastery of technique.
I might tend to agree with that up to a certain extent, but it doesn't address that there is a limitation that comes with lack of technique.  The technique is what gives you the freedom to really portray what you're trying to say. Technique gives the ability to say something more accurately and eloquently.

Imagine the frustration of a child who knows what she has in mind, and would like to show you her idea of a tree, but cannot draw it.  The mother looks at the drawing and says, "Oh, is that a monster?"  The child is disappointed because the mother does not see a tree there.

An explanation like this of not having enough technique to say what I want to say could be a way of backing away from my emotional truth.  Do I lack courage? And do I disguise that lack of courage by claiming I don't have the technique yet?  Do I only give you a little generalized version of the story of my painful incident because I am embarrassed by it?

Mr. Keys says of writers, but true of singers as well:
We all have secrets locked tightly in an inner safe.  Writers must unlock that safe and risk letting its contents creep onto the page ...  Exposing that life takes courage
Aspiring writers are often driven to write because there are things deep inside them they wnat to get out.  But after they peer deeply within, few remain sure that they want anyone else to konw the most interesting things they see.

Well, a singer might have to do a similar thing if they want to "say" something with a song.  But maybe singing and a song (and acting and theater) are amazing tools for being able to express the very real and honest experience of a person while keeping a safe and protected distance from the specifics of that private experience.  Can we express our pain as artists without anyone having to know the details?

In the movie The Lord of the Ring: The Two Towers, there is a scene where the character of Eowyn sings at the funeral of her brother, Theoden, and she lets out a crying lament, where her inner pain is definitely present in the sound.  (   High levels of vocal technique are not there, but there is enough ability with singing to be able to connect voice with that wail that is born of pain.

I feel that this scene from the The Two Towers is very "honest" even though it is scripted and we are not using the actress's actual experience.  Yet, we guess that she knows what this kind of pain feels like.  We can tell because she is able to "say" it to us through her character.

I can tell by that the way the vocal line works in "Tu lo sai," when my voice is finally free and can use the line the way it wants to, that this is a great piece to tell "my story" about rejection in friendship.  It is also a vehicle that will allow me to express my feelings to the individual, since I'm not in a situation where it would be appropriate to address the person directly and discuss these things.  Singing the song can work the same way writing a letter to a person does, a technique a psychotherapist might use to help people resolve emotional issues.

Therefore, I conclude that this song, "Tu lo sai" can help me say something I want to say, something I need to say.  Just like multiple revisions of a letter that I am trying to get just right, each time I sing a song, each time I develop a next detail of the song, I come closer to the message I want to send -- to that person, to myself, to the heavens, to the people around me, and to the world.

"Tu lo sai" this week in Frescamari's Performance Space, is a working copy of a letter I'm writing.  It's been through a few revisions but is not in it's final state yet.  Nothing is ever perfect, but the writer/singer will know when it is doing a good job of expressing the feeling.  The writer/singer will know when it's "ready, and time to send it off, time to click "publish post" or "send."

Much progress made, but still stamina issues that cause the end of the song to deteriorate.  Yet I will post this one, since it was the chosen song of the week and I did not prepare another.  Took my very best stab at "saying something with the song," although by the end of the song had to scrap "saying someting," and merely survive.  But that's so okay! Click to to go Frescamari's Performance Space:  Tu lo sai

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Not Knowing

I was very inspired by a Tai Chi blog I read this morning, Dan Wujifa's "Why it's better not to know."  I thought this post could apply very much to my understanding of singing and some of the things I was talking about singing in the passaggio yesterday.

In the "why it's beter not to know" blog post, which I encourage you to read, the blog author talks about the difference between "bracing" and "internal strength:"
... Now, the brace idea is basically locking your body into the strongest possible linear structure in opposition to a force, whereas true internal strength has much more freedom and flexibility inherent in it. Brace is strong, but tends toward rigidity.
This applies to some singing concepts in several ways.  One way is the kind of strength needed to withstand greater wind pressure when one is singing higher tessituras.  I mentioned this in yesterday's post at the point where I talked about how the muscles that stabilize the larynx need to be strong so that the larynx doesn't rise when the breath pressure increases.  However, I did not mean the muscles should be rigid or tense, such as what might happen, for example, to a singer who is trying to keep the larynx in a low position at all costs, and tries to lock it into a certain position while singing.  It needs to be much more free and flexible than that.

The same thing goes for the deep internal breath support muscles which must be very strong to tend to the changing breath pressure needs of the singing voice above.  To maintain a little "tuck" in the lower abs, and "brace" one's self so that the muscles of inspiration and expiration can do their work does not mean to be rigid, but rather to be strong and free and flexible.

Yet another example of this, from a singer's point of view, can be at the point of the actual valve controlling the opening at the glottis within the larynx itself.  The muscles closing the gap can be so tense because the singer is afraid of losing the seal.  There can be too much closure because the singer wants a clear efficient tone so badly.  Yet what the laryngeal muscles really need is this other kind of "internal strength" that is very flexible and can keep the valve closed enough while letting just the right amount of air through.  What is optimal is to keep the valve closed without squeezing it shut, but in a relaxed but very strong way.  It actually takes more strength to do this than to squeeze and press tightly..

Another Tai Chi blog, Wujiman Taiji blog -- which is the one that referred me to the blog with the above quote -- gave an example of how "relaxed" this state of  internal strength can be:

I had a glimpse of internal strength when I paid a visit to Rick of Wujifa a few months back.  We were on his deck and he stood up, got on one leg, lifted up one arm in a “ward off” posture and told me to push him. I used both hands and *really* pushed him. He did not budge and was able to ground my push pretty easily...
What surprised me even more was during the push, Rick told me to touch his forearm and bicep. To my surprise, both muscles were relaxed!  I noticed that when I tried to do the same demonstration, with both feet on the ground, my bicep would often feel tense.  Connected. Relax. Not Limp
This is a great illustration of the kind of strength that will be exhibited when the best singing is done.  These are ideals to work toward and to look forward to.  There is strength, but not tension.  There is connection, but relaxation.

But back to Dan's Wujifa blog, however and why "knowing" can interfere with achieving this state.  He explains that
my partner is showing what happens when "I know" starts to creep in. As soon as you commit rigidly to one way of doing something, as soon as you say "I know" and stop paying attention, you get stuck. This is when brace shows up. Saying "I know" locks you in.
So, the mental component of the task is part of the whole picture.  Just like resonance can have an effect on phonation and phonation can in turn affect resonance, the relationship between mental approach and physical are interdependent as well.

My singing journey only began when I first decided that I didn't know anything about singing.  I hear this "knowing" mentality when I hear singers insist that one way to support is "the way."  "You must push out."  "You must pull in."  As soon as the singer decides that they "know," further exploration and discovery get cut off, and then that is the way they do it.  The rigid way.  The same type of thing can happen when a singer decides they know where to "place" the voice, or even if they believe they are phonating correctly, or have fallen in love with a certain way to sound.

The idea of "I do not  know" can open the singer up to flexibility and internal strength and the ability to find and discover. Sometimes, when I am claiming in this way that "I do not know," a friend will say to me, after I have said something that sounds knowledgeable to them, "See, you do know something."  But I fear beginning to think I know something, and I run away from this affirmation, no matter how well intended.  I always get into trouble when I think I've got it all figured out.  I love living in this state of "not knowing" so much better, because it has opened me up to many exciting vocal adventures.

A quote from Barefoot Ken Bob:
"And keep in mind that we often read what we already believe we know, into what isn’t written."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wednesday Cyberspace Recitals will now be Friday Cyberspace Recitals

Today would usually be the day for me to put up one of the 24 Italian Songs and Arias after having spent the week familiarizing myself with it.  However, there is going to be a change this week.  I have decided to shift the Wednesday Cyberspace Recitals over to Fridays and I would like to explain why.

I have my voice lessons on Tuesdays, and very often, like this week, my teacher gives me some great technical assistance after I have tried to figure things out on my own.  If I continue the analogy of the young reporter learning to write by having to submit two newspaper articles a day, then this would be like that reporter, after having wrestled with the article he is writing, bringing it to his editor for suggestions and help.  Once the editor had made suggestions, the writer would bring his piece back to the drawing board and re-write, incorporating the advice of the more experienced person.

Vocal changes take time.  My teacher does not give me quick fixes.  She gives me an approach that I can play around with to discover where these positions are in my own physical instrument.  Once the positions are "found" it takes time to develop the muscles specificity and strength of these positions, develop facility with them, and then repeat them enough to make them an automatic part of my singing. (As my Kung Fu Sifu repeats to us all the time: "Repetition is the mother of all skills.")   I would like to have a little more time to work with the ideas my teacher gives me for the songs I'm learning each week before I post the songs up in Frescamari's Performance Space.  Shifting the cyberspace recitals over to Friday will allow me to have a couple of days to work with the stuff my voice teacher gives me.

Specifically, this week I have been working on "Tu lo sai."  I soon discovered that this piece is hard to sing when vocal cords are just recovering from a head cold and cough.  I also discovered that this piece is hard to sing period, and if you have been following along in Frescamari's Practice Room, you know that I've been struggling with strength and stamina.

Well, when I got to my voice lesson yesterday, my teacher confirmed that "Tu lo sai" is indeed a hard one to sing, despite how simple it looks and sounds. It is one of the more difficult of the 24 Italian Songs and Arias.  The key it is in, the key of E, is very difficult because it sits in the passaggio.  Even many experienced singers might choose, when they perform the piece, to sing it a half step lower, in the key of Eflat.

Before writing this post today, I tried to study up on this "second" passaggio area, the part of the voice between D5 and G5, but most of the writing on passaggio issues that I've found in a short amount of time has been of the one lower in the voice, and the various passaggio issues of tenors.

I have been trying to figure out exactly why is is so hard to sing when a song sits so long between D5 and G5.  The best I can figure with my limited knowledge is that there is a whole lot going on in this part of the range that must be strengthened and coordinated.  For one thing, the laryngeal muscles have to find a good position while there is an increased airflow.  All the little laryngeal muscles that are controlling pitch, approximating the vocal folds and cords have to be in just the right position, stretch, thickness and closure, using just the right amount of strength without becoming tense.  The surrounding muscles that are stabilizing the larynx, and that help keep it from rising, must also be firm and strong, but not tense.  The whole mechanism must "brace" itself in a flexible, not rigid way, for the increased wind energy that is coming, not unlike the way we might have to use more strength to keep good posture while standing outside when it is very windy out.

Yet the "wind energy" must be a regulated and mastered wind.  The support muscles that are regulating the breath energy and airflow have to work harder when singing in the passaggio, especially because the greater demand for air does not mean to let loose without control.  These muscles must regulate the air pressure enough to get a generous stream of air flowing evenly, but not overwhelm the laryngeal muscles.  It's not a matter of using all of one's strength, but using just the right amount of one's strength, which can actually require more strength in a weird kind of way than using all of one's strength.  I picture a child who is going to blow out the birthday candles on his cake, and he inhales very deeply and blows with all his might.  Yet, he does not know that there is a way to blow out the candles with using his strength in a controlled way, with a steady stream of strong air.

And on top of all this, the muscles of articulation must sustain postions without strain that are favorable to the activity occurring during phonation.  In fact, the work to keep space for the larynx to do its thing, and also maintain a space that keep conditions of the air currents and sound waves free and moving is a very taxing job.

That is the best explanation I can come up with for why it is so demanding to sing "Tu lo sai," which is mostly sitting between D5 and G5.

In the blog Bonne Chanson, the writer explains this difficulty well in her post "Writing for Voice".  In that post, she explains that a song that appears to be a simple ballad can sometimes be very taxing for the singer.  It has to do where the song "sits" in the voice, and how much sustained singing without a rest is required.  She gives a good example as an illustration of why it is harder to stay singing in the passaggio than to move up and down through one's vocal range:
Waving one's arms up and down in a 180-degree arc for two minutes is less tiring than holding them outstretched at 90 degrees the same length of time. 
I told my teacher about how I had worked phrase by phrase (See "Tu lo sai: Practicing Chip Shots") and we both were pleased how this work improved my singing of the song in just one day (perhaps I will be able to post the file of me singing "Tu lo sai" during my voice lesson later on today).  But my teacher had some excellent suggestions for another way to work which would show my voice just how much play it really has in a region that feels so cramped and tense for me.  She suggested taking "Tu lo sai" phrase by phrase, as I had done, but changing the keys as I repeated the phrase.  This would show me where the space was surrounding those phrases and help me to free them in the key of E.

She also suggested adding some ornamentation the second time through.  The ornamentation can also act as a freeing mechanism to keep the muscles from getting too fixed when they are in that state of tension.  It can loosen things up and keep the static nature of holding the tone from making the voice too frigid. (These words are my own interpretation of what my teacher told me to do.)

This called to mind another passage I read on the  Bonne Chanson blog on the same subject called "Cadenza Workout"  In this post, the author speculates that ornamentation in baroque music served the purpose of freeing up the voice and eliminating the tension that can build up when singing in the passaggio area:
Perhaps this is why ornamentation, fioriture, trills and other devices that keep the voice on the move (with a high ratio of vowels to consonants) are so characteristic of baroque arias and nineteenth-century bel cantooperas. This type of vocal writing ensures that no single set of muscles gets to carry the burden for too long and that the voice is allowed to flow freely without constant interruption by consonants.
I ought to be able to figure out some of my own, based on the face that I got an A in that ornamentation class I took this past summer.  (post on baroque ornamentation class)  Perhaps now would be the time to dig through my notes from that class and see if I can apply some of what I learned there (Why is this scary for me?)

So, rather than posting "Tu lo sai" today,  I will work for the next two days in the ways my teacher has suggested, and post this work in Frescamari's Practice Room for any who are interested.  Then I will add "Tu lo sai" to the growing list of 24 Italian Songs and Arias in Frescamari's Performance Space on Friday, the new Cyberspace Recital Day.
Recordngs of the work my teacher gave me to do:
Tu lo sai phrases in 3 keys I
Tu lo sai phrases in 3 keys II

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The "Dark" Side

Over in the right hand column of this blog, I tell you that I've been trying to learn to sing well for over 25 years and I'm not giving up.

That is true.

But over the years there have been many painful moments.  There have been times of giving up.  There have been times when I didn't sing for months.

But I always come back to it.

Because I just can't stop wanting to know how to do "it."  Make that beautiful sound.  When I hear "it," coming from, you know, the legendary voices, it inspires me and I simply must figure out how to do that.

I may never achieve this.  I've had so much trouble.  But I cannot lay aside the quest.

Does it really matter?  Who cares if a stay-at-home mom living in her obscure little life ever makes a beautiful sound like that?

The only thing I can say is that it matters to me.  It is very very important to me and I have to keep trying.

Is it the most important thing?  No, my family is way more important.  My faith, and my values, loving others, and caring about what happens to us all living on this planet earth  is way more important than whether I figure out this singing stuff, and if there was ever a moment that this "quest" of mine threatened that, it would be over in a heartbeat.

However, next to what is REALLY most important, this is the most important thing to me in my life.  I will not stop trying.

But that does not mean that I don't almost throw in the towel many times over.

Tonight I had a moment like that.  Usually a place I rush to each day, I avoided my practice room today.  I didn't get there until 9:00 pm.  I had a plan, to warm up, and to work on certain things, specifically to use that run/walk method with "Tu lo sai" as I posted in Frescamari's Practice Room yesterday. ("Using Run/Walk for Stamina")

However, when I got to my practice spot,  I "avoided" singing by sitting down to play the piano instead.  I worked on the piano accompaniment to that Faure piece, "Cantique de Jean Racine," which I've written about here ("On Being Ready"), and practiced here (Faure piano post in Frescamari's Practice Room).

After playing along for awhile, I decided to use this "Cantique de Jean Racine" to warmup vocally.  Furthermore, since I've recently been enjoying toying around with the soprano lines from our choir music -- as I wrote about here (Frescamari singing both parts of Nigra Sum with herself) and here ("How Could Anyone?") -- it popped into my mind that I might like to learn the soprano part of this beautiful piece and perhaps eventually record myself singing both parts.  Maybe, I thought, I could record the accompaniment as well. That would be a fun project.

But soon after singing through a couple phrases of the soprano line,  I came to a difficult part, and I felt discouragement set in immediately.  The familiar discomfort and tightness of that tessitura set in, that lifelong difficulty I've always had of sustaining lines in the upper middle voice.  I have been all along so certain that I will be able to develop ease singing in that part of the voice. But now that certainty was faltering.  Maybe I will just never get it.

To feel that old familiar tightness on these pitches -- to encounter the same "struggle" once again -- disheartened me.  Maybe I should forget about developing that part of my voice!  Maybe I should go back to singing mezzo, and just stay in a certain range and just pop up and say "hi" to those pitches once in a while, here and there, in this song and that.

But more than that, I began to think as my spirits drooped lower, maybe I should just give up singing altogether.  I'm old to be doing this.  I don't want a career.  It takes a lot of time and commitment.  What's it all for?

But then what happens every time happened again.  A gritty determination rose within me.  Where this determination comes from I have no idea, but I think it has something to do with love and passion.  I simply cannot abandon the task.

So, I lifted myself up and began to work on that soprano line in the Faure piece again.  I put my focus on the lower ab muscles and the strength that I needed to recruit from that core place.  As I renewed my attempt to sing the difficult line -- the one that had moments before oppressed me -- with no pressure on my voice, I felt those core muscles kick in -- the same deep interior muscles that felt that pain while I was in labor giving birth to my children.

I occurred to me in this moment what I would need to do.

Earlier in the day I had returned to Kung Fu class after about a 5 week absense.  A bit unhappy about it, I knew that I would have lost some ground I had gained physically, but was ready to work from where I was at.  When we got to the crunches, there were indeed two physical "losses."  One "loss" was in strength for the individual crunch -- that I wasn't able to contract the ab muscles as strongly and do as full a crunch as I had been doing when I left off.  The other "loss" was in stamina --  the number of crunches I could complete before my form fell apart, that is, the point at which I start feeling the muscles in my neck and chin pulling me up in place of the failing abs.  I was very patient with this process, and stopped to rest when I felt the neck muscles kick in and then began a new "set" of crunches as soon as I got the form back (this is like the run/walk method for crunches.) I accepted my own pace and didn't try to "prove" anything.

I realized that I needed to do this same kind of work with the line from the Faure piece, that I had to use this difficult line as a workout like the sets of crunches, and sing a "set" of that line, activating the deep interior support muscles.  I had to approach it like the crunches from Kung Fu.  I must commit myself to work on lines that work these muscles.  I'll take it in little bursts, and go back to it several times a day.  For starters, I did a set of 5 times through a difficult line.  I've posted it in Frescamari's Practice Room (or at least I will tomorrow -- check back if I don't get to it tonight)

People might say that I'm not supposed to be able to sing in this tessitura.  They might say that I have the "equipment" to be a mezzo, and that I should be what I am and that I may get nowhere doing this work.  That may be true and I have no problem with that.  But I have this kind of stubborn belief that I can't shake that I'm going to be able to get this.  I think those deep interior support muscles that I feel working are the key and that they can get stronger and that I must not give up the quest.

None of this matters to anyone but me, but that's enough.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wednesday Cyberspace Recitals -- Amarilli

Well, I'll tell you, I thought I was going to have to postpone another Wednesday Cyberspace Recital.  But -- and you can see that I am getting this in very late tonight -- just in the nick of time I finished "learning" Amarilli and am so happy to put it up in Frescamari's Performance Space in time to have completed my 5th week of learning 24 Italian Songs in 24 Weeks.

The big obstacle I had to face over the last couple of weeks was getting a really bad head cold.  Maybe it was even more than that, because at times I felt flu-like, but I just let it run its course.  In the midst of this cold, I took a trip to Florida, where it was absolutely freezing.  I brought my music with me, but did not really get around to working on music while I was there.

Now, here's where my trip converges a little with what is going on vocally.  Last  year, around this time, I signed up to run the Disney 1/2 marathon, which was this past weekend.  I enthusiastically began my training, but ended up with an injury.  I was very disappointed as the weeks of the injury getting worse revealed to me that I would not be able to achieve this goal I had set out to achieve, and would not be participating in the Disney 1/2 marathon after all.

I was very disappointed because I had originally planned to run this 1/2 marathon with all three of my sisters.  Facing this trip down just to watch the marathon was a little bit hard for me, because of how I was feeling.

Yet, when I got down there, I heard and saw and learned many things that caused me to understand that everything was really okay.  For one thing, chatting with people revealed that this is something that happens to athletes all the time.  They are training for a race and they develop an injury or a setback, or a sickness, and they have to "drop out" of the race.

It has even happened to my own sisters, who are veterans in the race circuit for many years.  All I have been aware of over the years, watching and admiring from afar, was their having run multiple marathons and 1/2 marathons and relay races over the years, but I found out that it took them several tries sometimes to finally get through certain races.  Each time an injury changed their plans, they took the time off to get over the injury, and then began the process of getting in shape again, and then choosing a new goal.

This is what happened to me during my 1/2 marathon training, and it is also what happened to me as I set out on my project to learn 24 Italian Arias in 24 Weeks.  I have had a setback over the past couple of weeks with illness, and now it is time to "journey back" from this cold, and rehabilitate my voice from the damage the coughing has done to the vocal cords.  Just like the runners go through their training cycles, the singers go through their cycles too.  It's all part of it.

So, on this, my first day of rehabilitation and a new singer training cycle, I have posted the next in our series, Amarilli.

I have also posted the files of the process that I used today to get Amarilli in fair enough shape to make a recording tonight.  You will hear that my singing in the morning did not appear to be what would get the job done, but a little work throughout the day, and I was able to produce something by nightfall.   That's really something for me.  It has only taken 5 weeks to learn what I need to do to get a song into my voice.  I was able to do some of that throughout the day.  I feel pretty darned good about that.
To listen to this week's Aria:  "24 Italian Arias -- Amarilli"
To hear this morning's work on Amarilli:  "The Journey Back After a Cold -- Adventures in Amarilli"
To hear it shape up in the evening:  "Amarilli in the Evening -- Diction Lesson and First Hoarse Run-Through"

Monday, January 11, 2010

Never Get Away From Basic Fundamentals

I've been on a vacation for the past several days and I have been reconnecting with my sisters.  It's not often that we get a chance to all four of us be together, so this has been a special time.  One sister, who is a PGA golf professional started talking about teaching golf and I rapidly began taking notes, because everything she was saying to me was teaching me more about singing.

The first thing she told me about was how she tells new students that they should be pleased with just making contact with the ball.  This is the fundamental muscular task of golf -- to just hit the ball -- and it is where everyone must first place their focus.

She says that the "just hit it" muscles get confused by the "hit it far and high" muscles so she likes to take everyone back to the beginning and get them reviewing the basic fundamentals.

I recognized that this is what happened with my singing over the years.  I did not understand how important it was to achieve good phonation ("just make contact with the ball") and the muscles of basic good old phonation got confused with the "I want to sing resonantly and powerfully" muscles (the "I want to hit it far and high muscles").  So, even though it seemed like I was developing the ability to sing more challenging music, I actually had lost my ability to just sing "Happy Birthday" along with everyone in just a basic everyday way.

My golfing sister then began to talk about how she'll give her students drills to make solid contact.  They keep their feet together and they don't take a full powerful swing.  She would like them to make 10 solid shots in a row, but she knows they will not have the patience for that, so she settles for them making solid contact with the ball this way 5 out of 10 times.

"You're not ready to separate your feet and make the full motion," she will say to them.  "But I want to take a full swing," the student will protest.  But my sister explains that the muscle memory is not there for the fundamentals and they will not be able to maintain the full swing for a full round of golf.

The student will complain, "This is boring.  I know how to do this. I did this when I first picked up a golf club."  But in reality, sometimes the golfer has lost the ability to do this fundamental drill because he/she tried for too much and tried to maintain too much and that golfer lost the basic fundamentals and must go back and drill them.

I wonder how many singers have got into this predicament.  They do not return to the fundamentals because they think they are beyond this and they go on to sing impressively and powerfully and make resonant sounds, but in actuality they have lost their ability to merely phonate well, or they never really got it down right to begin with before they "advanced."  The ability to sing a simple line in a small voice well has become lost in the desires to be more advanced?  I know this happened to me, and it is a humbling experience to take one's self back to the beginning and review and drill the fundamentals.

I had a teacher who recognized an imbalance in my phonation and took me back to this fundamental task.  I had to spend a couple of months at least just opening my mouth and making a small sound that was horribly unimpressive. It was boring to a person who thought her new teacher was going to show her how to sing arias and opera, and it was painful for me to face that kind of work on my voice after years of studying voice and believing I had been making progress.  I wanted to cry each time I walked in to the practice room.  It was difficult and frustrating and I barely  could make myself do the exercises.  Yet, I trusted  in this teacher's expertise and believed that this is what I indeed needed to be doing, so I  proceeded with it.

So, where am I now, at 48 years of age, and having taken singing lessons more than 25 years?  Why, I'm singing in the middle voice, learning the 24 Italian Songs and Arias.  How can this be?  Shouldn't I finally, at long last, be singing arias?  Not without the  fundamentals in place!  If I move on before they are in place, then I will only have to come back to them again later.  This takes time and patience.  Each person will learn at his/her own rate.

My sister will guarantee her students that those really good golfers are spending lots of time working on these "boring" drills. They are making sure their basic skills are in tip top shape and they have the humility to work on these tasks and never take them for granted.  They know their sport and their bodies well enough to realize that these fundamentals can get lost and confused and must be revisited and drilled and trained.

My sister says that when she gets a new student, sometimes there are so many flaws in their golf swing and technique that, rather than fix each flaw one-by-one, it is often easier to start at the beginning.  People don't like this. They want to get to the fancy stuff.

But in the end it's the big question that my sister asks her students when they have their first golf lesson with her that must be answered:

"Why are you here?  Do you really want to be a good golfer?"

This is the question that must be faced by the singer too.  If the answer is that I really want to be a good singer, then if the way to do that is to give up impressive sounds and power and fancy arias, and accept that I  don't have something basic quite right yet, then that is what I must do, and that is what I will do.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wednesday Cyberspace Recitals -- "Le violette" Postponed

Dear friends of my blog,

I had been preparing the song "Le violette" this week as part of my project to Learn 24 Italian Songs in 24 Weeks, as you may know if you are one of the readers who regularly pops in to Frescamari's Practice Room just to see what's going on there.  However, I came down with a doozy of a head cold this week and it looks like I am going to have to postpone putting up this fourth of the 24 songs I am learning.

I could just go ahead and sing it today.  After all, the purpose of this project is not to perfect the pieces in one week.  This is an exercise that is to benefit my singing. To remind you, or to let newcomers know, I had read in a book about how to become a good writer that a writer who got a job at a newspaper and had to write two or three articles a day would, over a six month period, develop many skills that a writer needs, and learn to solve many problems that writers need to work out.  I had been inspired by this idea, and decided that there might be a way to rework the idea for a singer that might bring about similar benefits, and came up with the project for myself of learning the standard 24 Songs and Arias in 24 Weeks.

If you remember, the specific idea from the advice to writers that I wanted to apply to singing was that you "learn to write[sing] by writing[singing]" and "the only way to learn to write[sing] is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words[songs] on a regular basis."

The idea of the writer[singer] having to force himself to write[sing] those two or three articles[songs] a day[week] was not that he was going to be a better writer[singer] after six months, or that the writer[singer] would necessarily be writing[singing] well; the writer's[singer's] style might still be full of clutter and cliches.  But that the writer would be exercising his/her powers of putting the English language on paper [singer would be exercising powers of putting song language into the voice], gaining confidence, and identifying the most common problems.  (See my post referencing William Zinsser's book On Writing Well)

So, keeping in mind the intent of this project, and knowing that the product, at this point, does not have to be polished,  I could just go ahead and record it while singing with the remnants of my cold, provided that it does not hurt my voice.

I am going to test it out a little later today and decide whether to just go ahead and record it or wait.

(Update: 1/7/10, I still had the head cold, but the voice was serviceable the next day, so Le violette is now posted in Frescamari's Performance Space)

In the meantime, I'll let you know that my blog may be a little slow over the next week because I am going on a little trip.  I am going to bring my netbook with me, and perhaps I will get a chance to put up a post while I'm away.  I'm also planning to bring my little roll-up piano, along with my Edirol digital recorder and do a little practicing in the hotel room (Frescamari's Portable Practice Room), so perhaps I may even be able to update the practice room while away and talk a little bit about practicing singing while traveling. But it is likely that I may not have time to get stuff up on the blog until I return from my trip.

I have several blog posts in mind for the next few weeks.  For one thing, I have finished reading that book Head First: The Language of the Head Voice: A Concise Study of Learning to Sing in the Head Voice by Denes Striny, and I would like to write out my impressions of what Denes Striny has to say in the book.

Another topic I am researching a bit is that of larynx position, high, "neutral," and low and I would like to share with you what I am learning and finding.

I would also like to write out some thoughts I have about learning the language of vocal science and why I think it is worth the effort to become conversant in that terminology when you are a person who wants to talk about singing with others.

Another idea I have coming up is writing about how to manage fear as a singer. I am reading a book called  The Courage to Write: How Writer's Transcend Fear, by Ralph Keyes, and -- surprise, surprise -- I am gaining insights that apply across the board about how to work with fear in general.

So, there will be a lot of ideas being explored by Avocational Singer blog in this new year and I look forward to my return from this trip so that we may delve into them.
Follow Up 1/7/10:  I still had the head cold, but the voice was serviceable the next day, so Le violette was posted in Frescamari's Performance Space the next day, on the day she was supposed to be packing for her trip in the afternoon.)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Loving One's Voice Means to Be Happy With It

This is something I think about all the time when it comes to my voice, and now I'm going to share it here in my blog with all of you.  It often enlightens me when I take time to think of my voice as a living being, in a way, like one of my children, or even like my own "inner child."  I often think of how the "rules" about how to treat a living being apply to how I treat my voice.  I often also think about how the "rules" of being a good parent apply to "raising my voice" to maturity.

I have heard repeated and quoted this notion that Leontyne Price has said she is in love with her voice.  Some people "get" this and admire it, others think it is a little weird.  But I think it is profound and there are many ways of looking at it.

For one thing, there is a saying "Love your neighbor as your self."  All the psychologists remind us all the time of our tendency to overlook the "love your self" part of the equation and tell us that we have failed to understand what that part means.  You hear it over and over again, the inverse of this saying: "You can't love others until you love yourself, so you better learn how to love yourself."

At first, this sounds really great.  I have permission to love myself.  Cool!  I can't wait to just focus on me and me and me.  Now I can make myself happy and forget all about this pleasing others stuff.

Loving one's self, however, is not all wine and roses.  Loving yourself is hard work.  It is rolling up your sleeves and taking  responsibility for the needs of the loved one.  Loving yourself means taking the time out for love.  Love means going to a bit of trouble.  Loving one's self means toiling a little bit.  When I love myself, I take care of myself.  I make sure that I eat right.  That's part of loving myself.  I make sure that I get rest.  That's part of loving myself.  I make sure that I am bathed and groomed.  I make sure I don't do things that can harm me.  I make sure I listen to myself and don't make myself do things that are against my conscience.  I don't speak harshly to myself, I encourage myself, I challenge myself, I help myself to be the best me I can, I support my self's passions and dreams,  etc...

Then, once I know how to love myself, I move on to loving others, and I hope I can do the same thing for others that I am doing for myself.  I learn how to love others by learning how to love myself.  I can go on to love a partner, and extend that to loving my children, and doing all those things listed above for my children.  In fact, I think that the way I have learned and practiced loving myself is going to be the way I love my children.  If I am harsh and critical of myself, I will tend to be harsh and critical of my children (and of my voice).  If I am impatient with myself, I will tend to be impatient of my children (and of my voice).  If I have no tolerance for human flaws in my self, I will not tolerate flaws in my children (and my voice).

Well, I think that loving one's voice, like loving one's children,  is an extension of loving one's self.  Again, it's not all wine and roses.  It's not a narcissistic kind of love I'm talking about either (because narcissism is really self loathing in disguise).  I am talking about a respect for one's voice.  Eating right, resting, not abusing one's voice, but treating it gently.  Not placing too many demands on the voice, giving it space so that it doesn't get stressed.  Listening to the voice when it tells you you are not treating it right.  Listening to the voice when it tells you it doesn't want to sing the way you are trying to make it sing.  It also means having a little faith.  Just like we have to have faith in ourselves, we have to have a little faith in our voices.  We have to believe that it's all going to work out.

Another part of loving your voice is accepting your voice as it is.  You may want to improve your voice and help it to achieve it's potential, but you must also accept your voice simply in the state you find it.  That's part of love too.  There is a book by Barry Kaufman called Love is to Be Happy With. This is an example of one of those titles that kind of says it all.  Loving one's voice means to be happy with it.

Now the part for the voice being like one's child.  We parents have this way of developing expectations for our children.  In the same way we can develop expectations for our voices.  When our children fail to live up to these expectations, we can feel disappointment.  Our children can sense this disappointment and they can tend to get discouraged or give up.  That can happen to our voices as well.

The best thing to do with our children, with our voices, and with ourselves is to provide what they need to be healthy and strong, and then step back and give them the space to find their way.  Give them the space to explore.  Give them the space to discover, without any pressure, who and what they were truly meant to be.  We have to allow our selves to find our own greatness. We have to allow our children to find their own greatness.  We have to allow our voices to find their own greatnesses.