Thursday, September 30, 2010

Building From the Ground Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I Am A Choir Singer

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

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

This could be the refrain of the avocational singer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 10, 2010

Auditioned for a New Choir and Got In

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some exciting things about my new choir:

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

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

Monday, September 6, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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