Monday, May 31, 2010

Recovering From My Foolish Marathon

Well, I told you yesterday that I overdid it a bit with my 24 Italian Aria Marathon.  I did do it on impulse.  It felt so good to be going through the songs that I just sang and sang through them.

It was a lot of singing -- way too much -- and  I did have a blast.

But ... today I can feel a slight vocal strain.  And I must rest now.  My speaking voice feels the strain, so I'm even talking as little as possible.  This is sad because I would really like to sing some more today -- as well as talk -- and did try to sing a little -- and talk a little --  but deep down inside the warning voice was saying, "Stop singing (and talking!) and rest!"

I am heeding that voice.  Especially since tomorrow I have a voice lesson.  Based on the way it feels, I am sure it will be recovered by tomorrow.

I do not regret trying out a little marathon like that on impulse.  Once in a while you have to let loose and have a little fun.

What I did is not unlike what a casual and careful runner might do.  Take a runner who has been training intelligently and with respect for his/her body.  The runner has built a foundation and then has been in the process of gradually increasing his mileage and challenges, such as speed-work and hills.

All of a sudden, one day, the runner is outside, feels great; it's a beautiful day and  the runner decides to throw all care to the wind and just run and run and have a great time and ends up running miles and miles over her limit.

Well, the next day she might pay for it, but as long as she is not injured, she should be all right.

Oddly enough, on this day of silence, I have come across an article on about running and recovery (Breaking It Down: Physiology, Running, and Recovery)

I'm reading about the degeneration-regeneration cycle of muscles, and how after they are stressed, there is a breakdown. The article explains:
"Muscles are among the most metabolically active tissues in our body. They are always trying to tailor their structural and functional properties to the level and type of use they experience. However, when the amount of use or level of stress on a muscle is too great, the fibers that make up the muscle are damaged. When this happens, the cells that make up muscle fibers degenerate and are replaced by new muscle cells."
I think that yesterday, when I sang so much in my middle voice all those arias, I may have stressed the vocal muscles to the point of a little damage.  I am imagining right now as I sit typing this blog post, that the degenerated vocal muscles are being replaced with new cells.

The article speaks of a "proliferative" phase of the degeneration-regeneration cycle.  These little muscle satellite cells line up and get ready to become new muscle-fiber proteins.  Ooh, I can picture that happening right now, or at least I hope that is what is happening. (I pray that is what is happening!)

The thing is that the kind of trauma needed to stimulate this growth is not a great deal of trauma when it comes to small, delicate vocal muscles.  To load them the right kind of way would merely take small amounts of practicing of music that is difficult each day.  The amount of this "trauma" might increase a bit over time, but I have a feeling that most opera singers, even, would not have recommended beating up my vocal cords to the extent that I did yesterday, and for so long as I did yesterday. One does not need to traumatize the muscles that much in order to get some kind of healthy growth.

However, I know from past experience and other foolish moments of my life that once these muscles have proliferated again, I'm going to feel some benefits -- just as long as I don't stress them additionally while they are healing, and give them the time and rest they need.  I almost didn't do that because I wanted to do some more singing this morning.  But I did stop myself.

The article goes on to say:
"The benefits of this complex process are numerous. When looking at muscle-cell regrowth in sedentary muscles, the muscle fibers seem to regenerate in a random orientation and remain relatively immature.

However, if the muscle fibers are cyclically exposed to various loads of stress and tension, they become well aligned, take up greater amounts of amino acids and synthesize more proteins. Other physiological benefits to training include an increase in intracellular mitochondria (the powerhouses of the cell), the number of capillaries, total blood flow and total oxygen-consumption capacity, leading to a profound rise in muscle metabolic activity. These increases yield a more well-developed and fatigue-resistant muscle."
A "fatigue-resistant muscle!"  That would mean that I could sing more often and for longer in the future.  More of my favorite activity!

But the article warns:
"Although muscle breakdown is needed in order to improve overall muscle fitness, it is important to remember that too much muscle trauma can have a negative effect, especially early in your training program."
So, in the long run, consistent, cyclical, variable practice sessions done in the right amount are what really builds the muscles and overloading them to the degree I did yesterday is not really the way to go!

Luckily, today is a holiday and my husband grilled some grass-fed beef burgers, which we had on 100% whole wheat buns.  This is a very good thing to eat while the muscles are repairing themselves, because, as the article recommends for the recovery period:
"Mix Carbs and Protein: Studies show that the addition of protein to a carbohydrate-rich recovery supplement enhances insulin release in the blood, leading to an increased carbohydrate uptake by your muscle cells and a subsequent increase in glycogen manufacturing." 
So, with good nutrition, lots of water, and some rest today, I should be good to go tomorrow for my lesson!  And in the meantime, hope I learned a lesson and will be more prudent next time I feel like getting carried away.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Night 24 Italian Song Marathon

Some followers of this blog may have been wondering what became of my 24 Italian Arias in 24 Weeks project in the event of my having had the little blog crisis (written about in the post Avocational Singer -- MIA)

Well, I'm sorry to say that at the time the blog flew out the window, the 24 Arias project kind of went with it.

It was a very sad thing for me, because, as you know, I was very attached to that project and very excited about it.  In fact, my pursuit of vocal arts was on the verge, for the first time in over 25 years, of being completely abandoned.

I let myself get out of vocal shape over several weeks, and could not even look at a song.  I could barely sing in choir.  It was a real crisis.

However, I did pick myself up and begin the discipline again of my daily practice.  It took a while to get my vocal cords responding well again -- a few weeks.  Once they were back in balance, I could resume my progress.

However, I couldn't bring myself to look at one of the 24 until this week.

Tonight, I decided to revisit the 9 songs I learned over those nine weeks when I was intensely working on the project.  I just sang through the songs to see if new vocal insights about breath pressure made a difference.  I have also had a breakthrough in understanding about vowel formation when the guest conductor for our choir -- Leonardo San Juan -- modeled the positions in a way that finally got through to me.  (see post about working with a living composer) With the combination the the new awareness of regulating the breath along with this new insight about forming vowels, I am headed in new directions and I'm excited about it.

Once I got going singing through the songs tonight,  I decided to just keep going and I had a little mini-marathon.  I took out some of the other of the 24 that I had worked on over the years before I started this 24 Arias in 24 Weeks project.

By the time I got finished, my voice was pretty shot -- heh heh! 

I'm laughing because even though I probably oversang tonight, I had a LOT of fun and I can feel that everything will be all right in the morning.

My cords are pretty strong.  I think I was ready for a marathon like this. In fact, some of the last few songs I did -- Caro mio ben, Se florindo, Nel cor, O del mio dolce ardor -- were actually sounding better than when I started.

There are so many wonderful musical advantages to knowing these 16 songs, but one of the best, I have been realizing, is that I have a set of pieces that I can take out and work and re-work as I discover new vocal ideas.  It is fantastic -- simply fantastic.  If I'm working on my "Eh" vowel, for example (written about in last post, "From "Ay" to "Eh"), I can whip out one of the learned songs and play around with the new ideas.  They are almost like song templates or something, where all the issue and problems of singing can be figured, configured, and reconfigured.

I can explain this to you in words, but it is an experiential thing, and one has to experience getting to know so many of these songs intimately to really understand what it is like to have them as tools in the background of one's singing life.

I could do well with these 16 songs.  Really, there's enough there to take me through so much.  However, I cam going to proceed with my project and learn the rest of the songs.  I may not do one a week.  I may go faster, or I may proceed more slowly, but I shall continue to familiarize myself with this wonderful set of teething rings for singers!  Stay with me for more.

In the meantime, you can hear all 16 songs I sang through tonight (if you can stand it) in Frescamari's Practice Room if you care to:  Click here for the Sunday Night 24 Italian Song Marathon

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Moving from "Ay" to "Eh"

Today, while practicing singing, I became much more strongly aware that my failure to habitualize singing the "e" sound in Italian as a more open "eh" as opposed to my natural "ay" sound was of greater importance than I had realized.

Up until now, when teachers and mentors have corrected this faulty tendency to sing "e" like "ay" I have dutifully complied in the moment, and made a mental note to be more careful and make sure I do it.

However, I have not taken the drastic step of spending concentrated practice time with the specific goal to correct this problem of mine.  My approach thus far has been less focused, just trying to correct it if I think of it, or leaving it up to chance almost that it was going to fix itself eventually.

But as I discover more and more and am moving into more advanced territory with my singing, I am beginning to see how this more open "eh" shape is needed to facilitate the better singing.

In that book I mentioned yesterday, The Inner Athlete: Realizing Your Fullest Potential, by Dan Millman, he talks about the need for preparation and laying a good foundation.  If we don't prepare, he says, we risk developing bad or compensatory habits. Mr. Millman says, in fact, that "nearly every difficulty we face in our chosen form of training can be traced to skippnig steps in the past -- to weakness in our foundation. [emphasis mine]"

Today I came to recognize one of these weaknesses in my foundation, and before I proceed further, I want to tend to it.  I have come to realize today that a failure on my part to improve my faulty "e" vowel could lead to such a development of compensatory habits as I move into more advanced singing.  I decided to take some considerable time and effort today to work on the "e" problem.

Mr. Millman has quoted an anonymous person as having said,
"Champions in any field have made a habit of doing what others find boring or uncomfortable."
Although I'm not exactly ready to describe myself as a "champion",  the work I did today on the "e" vowel today was tedious, boring, and uncomfortable.  It took a lot of patience.  I put the recordings of my work up in the practice room, but most people will probably find them as boring and tedious to listen to as they were to execute and will not bother to continue to listen after a few seconds.

However, this is the work that is building the right foundation, and after I was done, the good stuff that it did to my singing is undeniable.  So the time and patience it took to belabor the "e" was worth while.  There is a payoff, and once the student recognizes that payoff, the motivation to get through the tedious steps becomes much greater and patience increases!

After having worked this way today, I have come to the conclusion that correcting this "e" is not a mere cosmetic or aesthetic correction.  The more open "eh" sound is actually foundational, physically, to getting the instrument working properly.  A better "eh" shape helps the vocal line and the flow of air, and is important in lining up the whole technique.

Here is the manner in which I proceeded:  First, I went through the text of the song and wrote "eh" above every place there was an "e" vowel.  I decided to do this because my physical reaction to seeing the "e" vowel on a page was to connect with my habitual regional more closed "ay" sound, so I had to break the visual-physical hold that was so strong.  By writing "eh" I had a new visual to connect with.  I had hoped to reprogram myself to respond to the written "e" in a new physical way, but it obviously wasn't happening.  In  humility, I realized I needed to help myself by writing "eh" over and over again.

What better song for this then the very first of the 24 Italian songs I've worked on recently,  Sebben crudele?

The next thing I did was read through the words, exaggerating the places where there was an "eh."

And finally, I sang through the songs with this new "eh" awareness.  Besides Sebben crudele, I used O cessate di piagarmi, and also Pieta Signore.  It was very fortunate that I have learned these songs, because I now find I have vehicles for these kinds of exercises all ready for work.

In the past, I have skipped over many foundational basics, but from now on I shall keep the following of  Mr. Millman's words in mind as I approach the work of mastering singing:

"... Few of us act on the basis of our understanding in our haste to achieve flashy skills, because preparation isn't as exciting, or because we don't understand how to build a foundation ..."
Click here to observe and listen to "e" vowel work in Frescamari's Practice Room:  (working on "Eh" vowel shape)
Click here for an interesting research paper on vowel formation in singers:  "An Investigation of the Acoustic Vowel Space of Singing" by Evan Bradley
Click here to read a subsequent post with evolved understanding of the [e] vowel:  "The Tongue and the [e] Vowel"

Me and High Notes

No matter what you imagine your limitations to be -- no matter what your body looks or feels like now, even if you've been in a slump for a year -- if you're willing to undergo the initiation necessary to develop your talent, you will become a natural athlete.  All the qualities are within you native to you. You may have to direct more energy and time than someone else in order to bring out the proper qualities, but you certainly have the capacity to do it.
Dan Millman

When I read that quote this morning from the book mentioned above, I definitely thought of my quest to develop the higher range of my voice.

It has taken me a long long time to be able to sing anything like a high note.

And it is taking me even longer, now that I can make some noise "up there" to create any kind of sound that is at all musical.

My relationship with high notes has been complex.  Originally, they were a great mystery to me.  As a child, I would open my  mouth and try to sing a high note and a kind of ugly squawk would come out.  I just didn't get it at all.  I didn't even know how to begin.  I decided that it was simply something that was not in my repertoire of things I could do.

But when I first started taking voice lessons over 25 years ago, my teacher said that I was a soprano.  Well, as they say, you could have blowed me over with a feather!  Me?  A soprano?

But how could she possibly say that when I couldn't sing any high notes?  She just didn't seem to notice that I couldn't sing any high notes.  Aren't sopranoes supposed to sing high notes?

So, for a while, I tried to believe that  I was going to be able to sing high notes.

After a time of having little success with this, however, I did reach a point where I finally decided I just did not have the physiology for it, and resigned myself to the limited voice I had been endowed with by nature.

Now here, however, is an example where vocal science and a little knowledge of physiology can contribute to the development of a singer.  When I studied the way the whole thing worked, it seemed to me that based on what I was understanding -- based on the way the thing was designed, and based on the way muscles worked -- that I ought to be able to develop high notes.  So, I became determined to find out, once and for all, whether I indeed could or not sing high notes.  I made a decision to dedicate myself to the project of developing the higher range of my voice.  Something inside me believed that my inability with high notes was not a natural physical limitation, but something else, and I wanted to find out.

In the same book mentioned above -- The Inner Athlete: Realizing Your Fullest Potential, by Dan Millman -- the author tells the story of his friend's 4-year-old daughter who looked at the birds flying and decided she might be able to do that.  His friend allowed his daughter to repeatedly jump off the couch flapping her arms, trying and trying to fly.  The author asked his friend why he just didn't save her all that time and trouble and tell her that humans couldn't fly and the friend said that he didn't want to tell her that humans couldn't fly because he might be wrong.  The father of the little girl had the wisdom to allow her to explore her abilities and discover the natural limitations of her physical powers on her own.

Sometimes in my quest to develop high notes, I have wondered if I am, like the little girl, trying to learn to do something that is not possible for me.  I have wondered if I will waste a lot of time working to develop a skill that I don't necessarily need, and that in the end I will find out that it was something that I never was going to be able to do after all.

Yet, this journey of believing that it is possible and that I will be able to do it is so interesting and wonderful.  I have made more progress than I would have believed before I started.  And as long as I am still making progress, I must continue.  I will continue until it is very clear to me that I am limited in this way and just will not be able to do it.  Until that day comes, I must keep trying.

Some motivation came my way in recent months.  It was a beautiful piece of music.  Maybe -- just maybe --this is the best motivation of all to inspire one to acquire better skill.  The desire to put voice to a beautiful vocal line.  A vocal line that beckons to be sung.

In our recent choir concert, we performed the premier of the Magnificat of Argentinian composer, Leonardo San Juan.  The Et Misericordia that he wrote as a solo for a soprano is one of the most beautiful songs that I have ever heard.  There is one line in particular that soars up to a high A and tumbles back down again in such a graceful manner and it tugs at my heartstrings and makes me want to experience it in my voice.

Yet, alas, the tessitura is beyond my reach.  When I took a look at the song in my practice studio, and attempted to sing the lines, the tension and discomfort was unbelievable.  And it sounded as bad as it felt.

Still, I made a little challenge for myself to try to use the song as an exercise -- to see if I couldn't get it to the point where I could sing it.

Well, I've been singing this Et Misericordia for weeks. There has been progress and little incremental improvements, but overall, it was not anything fit for consumption.  In fact, a few times I wanted to post the work I did on it in my practice room, but withdrew it from embarrassment.

Until today.  I had a little breakthrough with my understanding today of the way I was using breath pressure.  I realized something that freed it up a little bit and I think I'm on to something that is going to payoff before too long.  I managed to catch the moment on one of my recordings and I'll post it in Frescamari's Practice Room a little later.

If things go the way I would like, and you stick with me on this journey, you may yet get to hear me do "a little something" with high notes before the end of my blogging days.  I shall definitely keep you posted.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Working With a Living Composer

This week my choir has been engaged in the very exciting experience of premiering in North America a gorgeous piece of music by a contemporary Argentinian composer. We are presenting Magnificat, by Leonardo San Juan.

When it was announced that this composer was going to come here from his native land to conduct our choir, it sounded like a good thing, but I did not realize how special the experience would be.

The way that the composer knows the music seems very deep to me, because it originated within him. There is something about that connection, being at the source, that makes the music feel alive for me in a way that I did not foresee or expect. If I may make a weak analogy, it is something like the difference between having a bottle of spring water, and taking a canteen and dipping it right into the spring where the water comes from. Not exactly ... but a little like that.

We have already had our first very successful concert event -- this past Saturday in Hoboken, NJ -- and will have another one in Manhattan this Wednesday, May 26. For details you can click the link on the sidebar of this blog or click here: Cantigas Women's Choir.

I hope some of you will be able to come, because this Magnificat is very beautiful and you will be enriched by it as I have been.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Rose-in-the-Teeth Panache"

While reviewing the many pieces of music we are preparing for our choir's impending concert, I got distracted by reading some very lengthy instruction notes in the front of our score for the huapango-styled song Las Stephen Hatfield.

I came to this instruction:

"Keep in mind that the most important thing about the words in Las Amarillas is the rose-in-your-teeth panache of the diction"

Now I was not sure what "rose-in-your-teeth panache" was exactly.  In a vague kind of way I knew what the editor meant, but the phrase stimulated my curiosity to know precisely, so I decided to google the phrase to deepen my understanding of the meaning of the notion of  "rose- in-the-teeth panache."

I found all kinds of curious things.

The first site to lay out a definition of the expression was a line of bras called Panache Bras.

Panache Bras had this to say:

"The dictionary defines "panache" as "flamboyant, stylish elegance." There could be no more appropriate description for the line of Panache bras about to be laid at your feet, so to speak. Add to those wonderful attributes those of comfort, support, and an indefinable something. You'll soon realize you don't need a dictionary to describe magic in lingerie."

"You'll want to dance the night away in the Panache Tango Plunge Bra. Slip a rose between your teeth and discover the true meaning of "flamboyant" when you slip on this bra."

Next stop was a site selling some sheet music for "Habanera" from Carmen. The description of the sheet music read:

"Played with panache, this transcription of Carmen’s opening aria will stop any show – especially with the addition of some simple costuming or a rose in your teeth."

Next, I found a kindred soul-seeker asking profoundly on yahoo answers:

"Why is putting a rose in your teeth considered sexy?"

Evidently this question was resolved two years ago when the asker posted the best answer:

"Actually that shite [sic] is only in the movies. Man can you imagune [sic] the thorns ripping your lips up if you did it for real. LMAO"

Ah, the wisdom that is out there in cyberspace, if only we knew how to find it!!

Getting a bit more academic, on Wikipedia I learned that "panache" is a French word that "carries the connotation of a flamboyant manner and reckless courage." The literal meaning is "plume," like the kind worn in a helmet or hat. It used to have an unfavorable meaning, but the french poet and dramatist, Edmond Rostand used it in such a way in his playCyrano de Bergerac as to give it from thenceforth a virtuous connotation. Panache is now used to describe someone who has a dashing confidence of style, or shows a certain flamboyance and courage

And finally, the online dictionary states simply:

"Dash; verve"
"a dashing manner; style; swagger"
"distinctive and stylish elegance"

The rose in the teeth? Well, we all have seen that in the Tango. In a forum where I think there were dancers asking questions, it sounds like the best answer is that the rose in the teeth originated with Rudolph Valentino, and that it became a cliche that "northeners" liked, but that Argentinians thought a ridiculous caricature

All right, all right, all right! I understand the directive from the choral music now.

I figure the best chance of mustering up any "panache" with which to sing is to know the song really really well. So, you will find in Frescamari's practice room a recording of me practicing for fluency and doing my best to achieve some -- ahem -- "panache" with the diction.

Then, of course there is the trick to apply it to the music. There sure ain't going to be much "panache" without a secure knowledge of the music.

In the end, I'm not sure how much "rose-in-the-teeth panache" I was able to achieve. Maybe the real secret would be to get me one of those Panache Tango Plunge Bras mentioned above and wear it to the concert!!
To hear diction practice for the words of Las Amarillas click here and to hear me feebly struggle to achieve some alto "rose-in-the-teeth panache": "Las Amarillas Diction Practice"

To find out more about Cantigas Women's Choir performance this Saturday in Hoboken or Wednesday, May 26 in Manhattan, click here:  Cantigas Women's Choir