Tuesday, June 29, 2010

First Steps Schubert Lieder -- Follow Up on "Date With A Pianist"

I wrote here a couple of weeks ago about how excited I was to be getting together with our church organist to work on Bach's "Erbarme Dich." (See post "Date With A Pianist")  This was an unexpected and welcome development in my avocational singer life, because, as I mentioned in the article, a pianist to collaborate with has been hard for me to come by thus far.

Well, I'm pleased to let  you know that the "Erbarme Dich" practice session went very well, so well in fact, that we have commenced to meet once a week on a regular basis.  There is an additional bonus to our little music sessions in that there are people gathering for a novena towards the end of the rehearsals, so I have the benefit now of a little audience to help me work on performance nerves.  It really is quite a good opportunity for me to work in this way.

Not only that, after a couple of sessions together, the organist/pianist has suggested we do a 1/2 hour recital together.  He told me that he loves Schubert. Did I know any Schubert?  Thinking of the two dusty old pieces of Schubert lieder sitting on my music shelf at home which I had received from my first teacher 20 years ago but never learned, I responded quickly and eagerly "Oh, yes, I have some Schubert at home!"

(This reminds me of the way my mom responded when my father asked her -- on their first date, a blind date --  "Do you play golf?" and she --  thinking of the first couple of golf lessons she had recently taken --  responded rapidly, "Golf?  Oh yes, I play golf!")

He said, "Good, then maybe we could do a few Schubert pieces, and there is a Russian composer, Glinka, whom I love.  Do you know Glinka?  We could do some of that.  I can teach you to speak Russian."

Well, like all ideas and projects, I am keeping myself on an even keel.  Sometimes things don't work out.  A number of years ago another one of these church organists at another church was going to use me as a cantor and told me "I can't pay you, but I can provide you with opportunities for growth as a musical soloist."  Sure!  Right! He had given me music to look over, music composed by his friend.  I got very excited about it.  But there was a heartbreak when it didn't ever amount to anything.  He got a little money in his budget, and found another singer.  She was a professional and he could pay her!  Hmmmph!

Okay, so now I'm older and wiser, so I'm going to just take everything in stride.  I would love to do a recital, and this church is really great acoustically now.  It used to be very poorly set up for music, but they renovated it last Fall and took out all the carpets and put in this great tile.  They brought in a grand piano as an addition to the organ and made a raised platform for the choir.  It's a modern setting in the round with lots of light. There is parking. Yes, it would be a lovely place for a little recital.

So ...  yes ... where were we?  Schubert lieder!  I brought the subject up to my teacher the next day and asked her if there was a place I might start, she knowing my voice and all.  I'm sure amongst the vast number of Schubert lieder pieces there are varying levels of difficulty, and I would need something manageable for a beginner.  She suggested "An die musik" as a place to start.

I wasted no time in listening on youtube and finding and ordering a Schubert lieder anthology.  Glinka, I've realized, is going to be slightly more difficult to find, but I'm planning to call up Glendower Jones (Classical Vocal Repertoire) to help me.  This will be a challenge, because I hate to make phone calls, but one cannot order from this company online and so I shall need to place a call.  I have heard they are very helpful there, so that's a next step for me.

Even if this all turns out to be a dead end, as some other "opportunities" have, I appreciate this new development because it gives me a direction.  As an avocational singer, having a direction and focus and knowing where to head next can sometimes be difficult.  So, if I follow the path over to Schubert lieder and some Russian compositions, I will be enriching my life and filling in some more gaps in my very  incomplete musical knowledge.  Oh, yes, I think my pianist friend mentioned Brahms too!  That sounds nice.

In my practice room, I have put together a "soup-to-nuts" presentation of teaching myself my first Schubert lieder.  I hope you will enjoy observing the process.

Does this mean I'm giving up my 24 Italian Aria project?  No. I have been working on "Quella Fiamma" in the practice room too, and feel almost ready to add that to my Italian Aria collection in Frescamari's Performance Space.  It's just that now I will move a little more slowly.  I don't consider myself having "failed" at the 24 Arias in 24 Weeks Project.  I consider it a big success because I picked a project and I set my foot on the path and now it has brought me to some new places.  A project should be a vehicle to growth, and it has been.  I will just change the shape and form of the project as new factors come to play.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

More Barefoot Running

I can't believe this, but I actually ran a whole mile barefoot yesterday.

This was not the way I had planned it.

Before I stepped out for my run, my plan had been to walk 1/4 mile as a warm-up, then run 1/2 mile barefoot, then put my minimalist Vibram Fivefingers shoes on and run the rest of the mile.  But before I began -- forgetting how good it had felt on the other days -- the thought of going out there barefoot made me shudder a little, and I longed for the "comfort" of my expensive running shoes and socks. I turned to my husband just before I set out and said,  "You know, I really don't want to become one of those fully barefoot runners.  I am just doing this as an exercise to strengthen my feet and try to acquire better running form.  I never plan to go more than 1/2 mile of my workouts barefoot each time!"

But -- lo and behold -- it felt so great and so right when I was out there!  And when I got to the corner where I was supposed to -- where I had planned to -- put on my shoes, I just kept going and completed the entire run barefoot.  It's almost as if with this barefoot thing there's another force -- some kind of destiny? -- pulling me along despite my intentions.

I've always been a little unconventional about some things.  I try to tone it down because I do so want to fit in to regular society.  But because I am open to non-conventional thought,  and because I often stumble on out-of-the-mainstream information that makes sense to me, I often find myself following strange paths, much as I try not to.

I really do want to fit in.  I don't want to be strange, and I don't want to do things differently merely to prove some kind of point.

Yet here I have -- once again -- commenced to explore an activity way off the beaten path.  Running barefoot.  And the great fear I've had for many years -- that I am a "character" -- and a destiny that I've tried to fight -- that I am a "character" -- seems to be fulfilling itself before my very eyes.  For I surely must have appeared as such a character, a plus-sized woman dressed in men's running clothes because they don't make cute women's running clothes in her size, carrying a pair of weird looking Vibram Five fingers shoes, accompanied by a little dog with a doggie poop bag swinging from her hand as she waited to encounter a trash can.

As I ran along this way, feeling slightly self-conscious but trying to accept it all and drawing a small amount of attention from time to time, -- (One woman clipping her front hedges saw me coming and called out, "Watch out!  There's clippings on the sidewalk!  There's some thorns in there!") -- I wondered, "How on earth did I ever end up running like a strange character through the town barefoot?"

There are a couple of strands in the tapestry of my life that link barefoot running to my singing.  One strand I've talked to you about, but I'll recap it here:

  1. I came to believe that improving my fitness level  would aid in developing the stamina and endurance I might need to tackle more ambitious works of vocal music.  I also came to believe that fitness would be the best way for me to counter-effect the aging process, so that I could expand the number of years of healthful singing.
  2. I chose running -- an athletic activity I loved as a youth -- and Kung Fu to be the vehicles I hoped would improve my fitness level  eventually.
  3. Despite a conservative approach, my attempt to get back to running resulted in a foot injury.
  4. Trying to cure the foot injury lead to reading information about how our running form may have been altered to accommodate the design of modern running shoes and may be causing injuries.
  5. Decided to incorporate some barefoot running in order to re-form myself as a runner and -- it is to be hoped -- minimize the occasion of injuries which can set-back my goals in this area.

Another strand to the barefoot running still originates from singing and goes something like this:

  1. I was frustrated at one point at my failure to have mastered the skills required to sing more ambitious vocal works.  I also longed for the camaraderie of others with my same passion for singing
  2. My thought that other singers might be able to help me understand what I needed to do to achieve my dream led me to go hunting on the Internet for a place where people might be discussing the issues of singing.  I found a message board community of singers and joined the online discussions
  3. One of the corners of that message board had a place where singers discussed fitness and on that corner of the message board I heard about a blog called The Athletic Performer.
  4. It was on that blog that I saw the recommendation for the book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, where I was first exposed to the idea that running without my super-reinforced, scientifically formulated running shoes might benefit the healing of my injury.
Trying to learn to sing brings a person to all kinds of strange places.  I think I am beginning to understand how following a certain passion in life can be the "path" that brings one through the entirety that is called one's life.  And that all the lessons learned from the pursuit of this passion, and the principles that govern the development of skill in this passion will encompass, eventually one's whole life.

The more I read books and blogs by tennis players, golfers, runners, weavers, martial artists, professional organizers, etc.... the more I am learning that the same principals come to the fore and how the discipline one chooses reaches out into all aspects of life.

As it turns out, for me -- for the time being at least -- barefoot running is a way to better singing.  But I would never tell a singer that in order to sing well he/she needed to run barefoot.  I would never even tell a runner that in order to run well he/she needed to run barefoot.  But what I would tell that runner or that singer is that he/she is unique and has a unique path and that each body and person is different and different things are going to work for different people and that part of the fun and adventure of it all is the journey and finding out about one's self in the process.

Perhaps finding this blog and reading about my struggles/trials/reflections/adventures as an avocational singer has now become part of your singing journey? 

Monday, June 14, 2010

"Anyone Can Whistle"

Is this really true?  Can anyone whistle if they want to?

Today I cannot whistle.  I have tried many times to whistle, and I have not been able to figure out the coordination.  I have put some mp3 files of me trying to whistle in my practice room, and if you listen you will hear my deficiency quite plainly.

However, what has my trying been?

I think the longest I've ever tried to figure out how to whistle has been about 20 minutes and then I gave up.  Maybe 1/2 an hour.  I try to whistle every once in a great while.  Maybe three times a year, for about 20 minutes, I try again.

I think I figure because many many people can whistle so easily -- many small children being among them -- that if I can't get it in 20 minutes, then I probably am just ill-fated and have some kind of genetic predisposition that prohibits me from whistling.

But does that mean I can't whistle?  Does that mean I can't ever whistle?

I don't have a really strong motivation to learn how to whistle.  But if I did want to overcome it and learn how -- if I was determined -- it seems like I ought to be able to learn to whistle.  After all, I have the equipment don't I?  I have lips, like the people who can whistle have.  I have some breath control, because I use it for singing.  It seems that if I really set my mind to it I would be able to learn how to do it.

But it would take some time, effort, consistent practice, a few pointers from someone who knows how to do it, and dedication to the task.

(By the way, there are many many people on YouTube, I just found out, who would like to help poor people like me learn how to whistle.  Most of them are trying to teach how to whistle with fingers, which I'm not that interested in.  However, one girl,  in this video -- How To Whistle Without Your Fingers -- offers her tips on how spare one's fingers all that saliva.  She mentions that it would only take about five hours, perhaps, in one evening to learn to do it.  That's more than I've tried, I confess.)

Sometimes when we say we "can't" do something, it's because we can't on this day.  Limitations exist in the here and now, but the limitations of today are not necessarily the same limitations of tomorrow.

Last year around this time, I was able to comfortably run/walk about 4 miles.  But today I cannot go that far.

Today I have the energy to get my housework done, but tomorrow I may come down with the flu and be limited.

We have limitations, and we don't' have limitations, and limitations are fluid. That's why I don't believe in setting a limitation ahead of time.  It has to be tested each day. It is different each day. It's counterproductive to decide what they are ahead of time.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Barefoot Running

Today I'm going to talk about something different than singing.  I'm going to talk about my first foray into running barefoot.

I think I wrote about my desire to try barefoot running in this blog at another time ("Singing With an Orchestra Running Barefoot").  I explained my belief that fitness and singing go hand-in-hand -- especially for the aging singer -- and how my first plan to get back into running -- something I loved many years ago -- ended in a big disappointing crash when I developed a debilitating case of plantar fasciitis.

When I was younger, I never had any running injuries.  I ran miles and miles and was even blessed enough never to have encountered shin splints or any of the other bad running injuries.  I wasn't very fast -- so maybe that was part of the reason, because I didn't push myself enough to get injuries -- but it also could be because I was young and involved in other activities and quite naturally flexible.

Many years have passed, and many an inactive person learns that these qualities of youth are short-lived and everything -- especially if one hasn't been paying attention during a long period of time -- gets stiff, creaky and more difficult.

Anyway, after several months of trying to bargain with the injury -- i.e. running more slowly, running less frequently, running shorter distance -- I finally admitted that in order to recover from my case of plantar fasciitis, I was going to have to just stop running for a while.  This was very disappointing because I was so happy that I finally had taken the bull by the horns and committed myself to getting back out there, and was never more motivated than I had been in years, and the injury just threw me for a loop.

At first, I read all the conventional information about this type of injury and was self-treating with all that conventional wisdom.  It has taken about six months to get my foot 90% better from this injury.  For such a long time,  I had terrible stabbing pain when taking that first twenty steps in the morning -- or when I had to stand for long periods of time -- or even walk the 15 minutes from the bus stop to my voice lesson, stand for an hour singing, and then walk back.  I felt very demoralized by this pain, and also very frustrated that it kept me from proceeding with my plans to be a runner again -- or even a walker for that matter.

But due to having previously read a book (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen Race by Christopher McDougall) that had been recommended on a friend's blog, I had been made aware that there are theories out there about our running shoes actually contributing to these type of injuries -- injuries like plantar fasciitis.  In Born to Run, I read that we change our running form when we run in the supportive running shoes in such a way as to make us more susceptible to the gamut of potential running injuries.

This kind of made sense to me, and I wondered if some of that information would help my plantar fasciitis.

And so I began to read about barefoot running.  I began to want to try it, but I was worried about a lot of things.  One thing I was worried about was my weight.  I thought my feet might not be able to support all my weight, and that I would have to lose at least 40 pounds before I would even think of trying barefoot running. That meant I would have to wait quite a while.  I also thought that I didn't dare try this while my plantar fasciits was still unresolved.

But then I read on one of the barefoot running blogs that overweight people could build the strength in their feet to support their bodies, but that they had to start slowly and build the strength up carefully.

And I also read that running barefoot had actually proved a cure for plantar fasciitis in some barefoot runners.  This was all anecdotal, but very interesting.

But still -- the sidewalks are dirty -- and, well -- I am just so genteel (lol) -- so I couldn't picture running out there where I walk my dog and see all the other doggies walking around, and see all the cigarette smokers flicking their ashes, and see all the people (ugh) spitting on the sidewalk.

So, as a compromise, I bought a pair of minimalist running shoes (Vibram Five Fingers KSOs) and began to acclimate my feet to walking about without all the cushioning, support, framework and motion control they were accustomed to having from my state-of-the-art, scientifically-formulated running shoes.

For the past couple of months, I have been loving the Vibrams and my feet have been growing gradually stronger in them and I have worked up to being able to run a mile in them.

But then a book came out.  A new book about barefoot running:  Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth, by Michael Sanlder. My pre-ordered copy arrived -- and -- I found out that the author of the book was holding a free barefoot running clinic in Central Park.

I attended the running clinic last week.  We did arch-strengthening exercise. We ran on the grass and it felt so good. Amazingly good.  I asked him some questions about barefoot running for people who were overweight and got some tips.  But I still wasn't quite ready to get out there on the sidewalk with my bare feet.

Until today.  I was reading once again about how one can do too much too soon running in minimalist shoes ("The Running Barefoot Blog: Beginning"), and that the real technique is learned in completely bare feet.

So ... I did it.  I just went outside, walked up to the Boulevard, and ran about a quarter of a mile in my bare feet.  It felt just wonderful.  All the sensations from childhood came rushing back to me. I had a great feeling of everything being right.

One of the most amazing aspects of this switch to minimally supportive shoes and bare foot work,  is that my plantar fasciitis has gone away almost completely.  It definitely has not got a spec worse. I find this odd because much of the conventional medical advice about plantar fasciitis cautions a person suffering with PF to avoid going barefoot as much as possible.  Could it be that the very act of going bare foot will be the right thing to strengthen the foot and help ease the stress that causes the injury?

I don't have answers at all.  I find all the information about running bare foot very intriguing and I'm willing to cautiously experiment with it.  My very beginning into experimenting with it are going very well so I am going to continue.  My feet feel strong and happy, and even my knee and hip joints feel way less stress.  But, as in all things, I will keep my finger on the pulse of the information out there, and if I should learn of anything that would cause me to think this would be harmful in any way I would cease.  But my gut is telling me that all this is very good.

I really do plan to continue to use my minimalist shoes, but there is definitely going to be time spent getting my form down right in bare feet.
If you liked this post, check out the new blog I made later on:  Barefoot Fresca
Also the follow up post:  "More Barefoot Running"

Monday, June 7, 2010

Date With a Pianist

I have a date tonight!  With a collaborative pianist!

It occurred to me as I was getting ready, that in much the same way as woman, like Snow White, will dream "Some day my prince will come, " an avocational singer will dream "Some day my collaborative pianist will come!"

When I was growing up, one day my mother surprised me and told me she was sending me for guitar lessons.  She was a pianist, and liked to sing herself, and she explained to me that it's hard to accompany one's self on the piano while singing, but it might be easier to do it with a guitar.

I was fortunate to have a pianist for a mother because I always had someone to play songs for me while I sang.  I could grab her when I wanted to and I never knew what a luxury it was.  I took it so for granted.  As a singer, I have never had it so good since.  Here we are c1989.  Lucky me!

In recent years, I have approached a couple of friends who are fabulous pianists, with overtures of forming a little collaboration together.  This has mostly met with a lack of success, mostly due to the fact that schedules are very difficult to coordinate.

Whenever I hear that famous question -- "What would you do if you won the lottery?" -- the main thing I could think of is that I would buy a really great piano and  hire a pianist to come every day to my house for the rest of my days.  I read a book written by Enrico Caruso's vocal coach and accompanist for a time, Salvatore Fucito (Caruso and the Art of Singing, Including Caruso's Vocal Exercises and His Practical Advice to Students and Teachers of Singing).  In the book I read about how they worked together every day, and what singer could not long for such a luxurious benefit.

Mr. Salvatore, says in his preface that it was the greatest honor of his life, when "my distinguished friend Enrico Caruso called me to New York to be his coach and accompanist."

Well, as an avocational singer, there is no one waiting and excited for me to call them to come be my accompanist.  I have to chase them down, like ambulances.  I forget that, as much as I want to work with fine musicians, they do as well, and I may not be an exciting prospect for them.

Mr. Salvatore  goes on to say that he "always eagerly awaited Caruso's arrival in Berlin," (where they often worked together) "because it was an inspiration and a musical education to work with the great master of song."

Dreamy sigh!

All these years of dreaming and fantasizing about working with a pianist, it never occurred to me that when I finally had a chance to work with someone good, I might not be worthy of the experience, or that it wouldn't be less than dreamy.  I did -- last year a few times --  get together to try to sing "Erbarme Dich" with a high level pianist.  However, my decision to do this was premature, and I did not have the technical ability to sing the song properly, and she had a hard time sensing my pulse and putting it together with me.

Since then, I have been dedicating myself to achieving better results with "Erbarme Dich," and recently I have gotten a handle on it.  (You can hear it in Frescamari's Practice Room: "Finally, A Halfway Decent Erbarme Dich")

I think I am ready now to work with a pianist, and -- lo and behold -- an opportunity has snuck up on me.  Remember in a blog post when I told you that I was "Singing Tenor?"

Well, the organist for that quartet I was in happens to love Bach, and I happened to mention that I was working on "Erbarme Dich" and he happened to be interested, and he has offered to collaborate with me on it, just for fun, and at no charge.

And that is with whom I am meeting tonight in just a few minutes.

Off I go!

(Psst!.  I have made an extra copy of "Quella fiamma", the most recent of the 24 Italian Arias I am learning, to bring along just in case things go well and it seems right.)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

When "Wrong" is Right

I've been wrestling with the performance anxiety alligator for many years now, ever since it first reared it's ugly head in my youthful days and frightened me half to death!

Today some enlightenment came in an unexpected way.

I thought we were done singing at church for the year.  I thought I had heard the organist/choral leader tell us that  from this point on and over the summer we could just show up and sing hymns if we wanted to.  Since this weekend was my son's high school graduation and I had a houseful of company,  I was glad to just saunter into church today and sit with my family.

But I saw some of the other choir members sitting in the chairs over in the choir section, and I began to wonder if I had made a mistake, and was supposed to show up for something.  With a flushed face, I kind of tiptoed around the back and tapped my choir friend on the shoulder and asked her.  She said that I was right that I didn't have to show, but they were doing that song we had worked on for Corpus Christi and they could use my help. They looked happy to see me and eager for another voice.

I was relieved to find out that I hadn't messed up after all, and that I had not committed to being there without remembering. Since I was with my family, I told her that I was going to stick with my original plan to be in the congregation.

As I sat in the pew through the mass, I reconsidered, "oh, well, maybe I can slip over there when they sing the song and just help sing along.  I'll sneak around the back and sit behind my friend and just contribute in an unobtrusive way."

When I did just that, at communion time, the choir members startled me by standing up and walking over to the microphone and the podium.  Oh no, I'm not dressed to stand at the podium!  I have my casual outfit on and flip flops.  Well, it was too late now.  I just stood behind the other three.

Next, I had my book turned to the wrong page.  The song started and I just started to laugh.  I looked on my friend's book and read along, and now I had to really wing it because they weren't doing the song she told me they were doing.

What happened that was good, however, was that I began to feel very relaxed and enjoy singing up there.  The absurdity of my position made me realize the joy that was in making music up there, and that all the constrictions and stipulations and requirements I had imposed on singing up in front of people were just big monsters that I had made up.  Instead of feeling horror at the situation, as I would have so many times in the past, I felt a sense of utter delight and amusement.

Everything was wrong.  It was wrong that I was not dressed right.  It was wrong that I was winging it in front of people and not prepared.  It was wrong that I was on the wrong page.  It was wrong that I wasn't taking it all much more seriously up there.  And most of all it was wrong that all of this was happening in front of a large group of people.

And yet I never felt more right in my life at last.  I really really hope that I can hold on to this!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Finally -- a Little Help With Gesturing

Over the years I have wondered what to do with my hands and body while singing.  It is somewhat easy when I'm singing a solo in front of a choir, oratorio style, and can hold my book.  But when I'm just out there by myself, it is very difficult to know what is "right."

I actually have scoured books and the Internet looking for some kind of recommendations/guidelines regarding gesturing.  The best help I've been able to find thus far is to merely study singers -- watching them on youtube and live -- trying to figure out who is effective and who is distracting and why.

I have noticed some things that look nice and that I like both for the hands at rest, and for the hands while gesturing, and I have tried to mimic them -- but I have not been satisfied with mere copying, because it has always seemed that gesturing should be motivated from within, and I have not been able to access that part of the singing.

The trouble I've had with figuring out gesturing is where and when and how much to gesture exactly.  Whenever there are choices -- and with gesturing it seems like the choices are numerous -- it can be hard to decide, and many times I have wished someone else would just choreograph it for me and let me try to connect the choreography to some kind of meaning.

What I've settled on for now is to start with my hands in an attractive resting position and observing where I want to move naturally while singing.  Then I take the natural movements and make some deliberate choices and give them a little more shape, in a similar way to how one improvises little cadenzas, but then takes the improvisations and writes them down and has them "planned" and worked out and standardized for performance, trying to make the planned and prepared flourishes seem as spontaneous as possible, all while striving to re-create the moment when those movements had sprung forth more organically.

Well, at last I have found some helpful information on gesturing. On the blog Helping You Harmonize, in her post "Gesturing and Song," conductor Liza Garnett gives some philosophies and understanding of where gesturing should come from while singing.  The most helpful idea I gleaned from her article is that singers often gesture to emphasize small musical units rather than the gesture growing out of larger musical idea.  When singers gesture with the small musical units, they make those units seem like separate thoughts as opposed to being part of a whole musical idea.

Gestures can be thought of just like musical phrases themselves, beginning in a seed form, then having a growth point.  They are natural to us, and will make sense if we allow them to grow from an organic place that is connected to the larger musical ideas being expressed.

I am so excited to have found a little something that makes sense to me about gesturing at long last.  I guess it makes sense that a conductor would be thinking deeply about gesturing like this,  and I'm going to work with these ideas.  In fact, it might be a useful exercise to take a class in conducting, or even read up a little on conducting.  Ms. Garnett has published a book about conducting (Choral Conducting and the Construction of Meaning).  Perhaps I shall be able to check it out at some point, although while looking up a link for the book to post I see that it is a pretty expensive book  Maybe there will be a copy of it in a music library somewhere.

What are your thoughts on gesturing?  Have you had any "aha" moments where an approach to gesturing made sense all of a sudden?  How have you solved this?