Saturday, October 30, 2010

A New Era for Singing

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

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

Let's try to break it down:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gentleness in Singing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Open My Mouth -- And Sing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is time to open my mouth now.