Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Work Itself Was The Pleasure

There I was sitting on the piano bench, arms limp at my sides. The depressive ruminations swirling in my head were immense.  With each negative thought, my body slumped a slight bit further on that same bench where I had so often sat with such very good posture.

"Why should I touch this instrument when no one is ever going to ask me to play."  "I'll never play for anyone."  "No one needs my skill on this thing."  "I have nothing to learn."  "What should I start to work on?"  "There's no place to perform."  And on and on.

So, having mentally and emotionally wiped the slate clean of all the motivations used from the past to play, I had to ask myself the question, "Well, if all that is true, is it still worth playing?  Why play? And if I do play, what should I play?"

I glanced over at a book of Chopin: Complete Ballades, Impromptus, and Sonatas.

There's only one piece in that book that I've played.  Why don't I just take a look at the other stuff.

Over the next couple of hours I fumbled and hesitated as I sight read through most every piece in the book, getting a picture, an overview, of the contents.

Will there be something I fall in love with and desire to play?

The sonatas.  Sonata number 2.  Oh!  The funeral march.  Sure, why not?

And then I came to the Finale of Sonata number 2.  The Presto movement.  Wow, this is hard!  Could I ever play this? I could never learn this.  I shouldn't try.  I should try to perfect something within my level.  Yet, it would be a challenge.  And I'm in no hurry, after all.  I could just take as much time as I wanted.  I could learn it inch-by-inch.

So I made a plan to challenge myself.  I will learn 2 measures a day and memorize them.  I calculated it out.  At that rate, I'll have this thing committed to memory in 4 or 5 months.  And then it will only be the beginning of working endlessly to improve it.  And I will have forever to the end of my life to improve it.

Every day thereafter, I sat down and worked on my two measures a day.  Within a couple of weeks I had 3/4 of the first page memorized.  Amazingly, I could actually see the possibility now of playing this thing.  Would I really be able to speed it up?  Lots and lots of SLOW practice.  Then, I "saw" a way of being able to play it faster.  Rolled chords.  I will just treat everything like rolled chords, using the patterns I see on the keyboard!  This piece is now coming within my grasp.

Also within that time-frame, just because it caught my fancy, I decided to really perfect the accompaniment to Liber Scriptus from the Verdi Requiem, which is a song that I have been practicing with my voice for a while.  On the second page, there were all these sextuplets in the left hand that I was mostly just faking and sloppily approximating when I played through the piece.  After all, it was not really written as a piano piece.  It was for an orchestra.  We're just trying to get the idea here.  Does it really even need to be so precise?  It will all just blur with the pedal anyway.  And yet.  And yet the way it was written was very specific.  Perhaps, just as an exercise, I'll commit myself to learning it properly.

Carefully, I broke down those measures and commited to analyzing them and practicing them very slowly.  It must have been so boring for my family to listen to it.  Sometimes for a full two hours I would work on the same 4 bars of music.  Slowly, meticulously. Did those amazing pianists who accompanied me practice it this way?  Seems like they just sit down and sight read it.  Are they faking/approximating it?  I didn't notice.  I will have to notice what they are doing next time they play for me.

A week later, those 4 bars came together.  Now -- at last! -- was the thunder, the fire and brimstone, the ominous warning in the rumbling flowing out of the left hand!  What satisfaction!

My husband passed by and remarked, "That sounds so incredible!"

I retorted, "Yeah, it only took me a week of incredible labor to play just these 4 bars!"

My husband said, "Don't diminish the compliment I just gave you."

I thought about it for a bit.  No, I'm not diminishing the compliment.  It's just that I would prefer to be acknowledged and complimented for the work I did over the past week than for the result I've achieved.

And that was it!  Eureka!  I found the reason to play when there was no audience, no performance opportunity, no opportunity to accompany anyone.  It was the work itself.  The work itself was the pleasure!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dramatic Intention

Are you having trouble, like some singers do, getting in touch with and expressing the dramatic intentions of your songs and arias?

Me too.  It's been frustrating me for a long time now.

But recently, the art of making salad enlightened me on this topic.

What?  Did she say making salad?  Really?

Yes, making salad.  You see, when I was first trying to teach myself all about food and how to cook, I once read that the proper way to make salad was to tear the lettuce leaves, not cut them.  It was something about the way the dressing was going to adhere to the torn edges or something. (Or maybe it wasn't that -- so long ago, hard to remember).

So, in the early years, I dutifully refrained from cutting and carefully tore all the lettuce for my family's salads.

As the years passed, I stopped making salad because it was so much trouble, and we didn't have it as often.

Then one day, I was reading this great book, How to Cook Without a Book, where the author, Pam Anderson, tells you to just chop up the lettuce for the salad.

What?  She is chopping the lettuce?  That's so quick and easy!  She says that when she wants it to look nice, and she has the time she tears it, but otherwise she chops.

My eyes were opened to what I had done.  I had been depriving my family of salad because I thought it was wrong to chop the lettuce.  They were getting no salad at all!  I realized that chopping the lettuce is better than giving them no salad at all!

Well, this is something like what I did with the dramatic intentions of my songs and arias.  I learned in acting school that I should not play attitudes.  (In this analogy, playing attitudes is like chopping the lettuce.)  "Playing attitudes," if I am remembering this correctly is just taking on an emotion, such as anger, and adopting a general angry attitude because the character is angry, but not really living in the character and being angry for the reasons that character is angry, and responding to stimuli that the character is experiencing.

Little did I know that by not allowing myself to play an attitude I was making the salad mistake.  I wouldn't let myself play attitudes, yet I wasn't getting to the dramatic intention the better way either, so what was left was just a nervous person trying to get through a song and not expressing anything much in particular -- no salad at all!

I have decided that if it is simpler for me to play an attitude, that is better than not coming up with anything at all.  I am releasing myself from this "rule" I have imposed on myself all these years, that I can't play an attitude.  I say now, go ahead and get there any way you can.  Playing an attitude is much more interesting than no salad at all!

If you can't find all the deep stuff in your song, fall back on playing an attitude for now.  Maybe you'll get better at the other stuff later, the more advanced character work.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

When Vocal Difficulties Cease to Exist

"From the easy, unconstrained motion of the fingers, from the beautiful touch, from the clearness and precision in connecting the successive tones, from the advantages of the new mode of fingering, from the equal development and practice of all the fingers of both hands, and, lastly, from the great variety of his figures of melody, which were employed in every piece in a new and uncommon manner, Sebastian Bach at length acquired such a high degree of facility and, we may almost say, unlimited power over his instrument in all the keys that difficulties almost ceased to exist for him."

These words popped as they appeared before my eyes in a biography of Bach I had been reading (Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff).

The little bubble of excitement, desire, and enlightenment they stirred up in the pit of my stomach  made me want to just jump out of my bed at 11:00 at night and go down and practice voice. (Of course, I waited for the morning.)

This is what a student of voice works for his/her whole life.  To get to the point where vocal difficulties almost cease to exist.  To reach the point of vocal freedom.  To have unlimited power over our instrument.  To have an  unconstrained motion of the musical sung phrase.  A beautiful touch, onset.  Clearness and precision in connecting successive tones, legato.  To employ ourselves in every piece in a new and uncommon manner!

Ah ... the stuff dreams are made of.

It has been roughly 27-28  years since I embarked on this journey, although the quest to surmount the difficulties was present in my singing before I ever took a lesson, so in a sense, I've been trying to solve the mysteries of the vocal difficulties my entire life!!

Finally, I can say that I am getting somewhere.  Many difficulties have ceased to exist for me, and I see the possibility of present difficulties being solved as well.

What took so long?  There was a major big imbalance blocking my way for so many years, and there had not come along anyone who was able to identify or explain it to me, and there had not come along anyone who could specifically address the issue.  Removal of this major imbalance required me to let go.  Let go of a grip I had on my voice that somewhere along the line had convinced me it needed to be there in order to have control.

At long last I have got myself in a situation where this imbalance has been identified and addressed and it is opening up my voice to it's true nature!  It's a very happy time, even though it has come late in my life.

Monday, July 11, 2011

First Element of "Barefoot Singing" -- Back to Nature

Ever since I posted the other day about the notion of categorizing myself as a "Barefoot Singer," the thoughts have been coming to me about what type of singer this might be.  Have been scribbling down notes in a rather haphazard way as the most appealing elements of barefoot running start to shape an approach to singing in my brain.

Originally, this post planned to list all the elements scribbled over my notepaper.  But now it seems like there is too much to say about each element, so I may have to make one post for each element I discover and wish to discuss.

Here is one of the elements, in very rough form right now, but pressing to lead the way as all the elements collect themselves into some kind of unified theory.  This won't always be worded exactly right.  It is a floundering around to put something into words in order to clarify it.

Barefoot Singing seeks to uncover,
to rediscover,
the natural function of the body

One of the aspects of barefoot running that I love the most is that there is a great respect for the design of the human foot.  Barefoot runners learn that -- contrary to what they may have always heard -- the arch does not need to be supported from some outside source, like a man made shoe.  The arch of the foot is a thing of beauty capable of providing the spring action necessary to propel the human above. It is not fragile; it is strong and wonderful! That arch may be in an underdeveloped and weakened state from years of wearing shoes, but it will be restored and strengthened once it is being used the way it was designed to be used by nature.

Besides the arch of the foot being weakened, the years of wearing poorly designed shoes may have malformed the foot, crowding the toes together and eliminating the natural splay of the toes while barefoot, losing the advantage of the natural alignment of each toe with each corresponding metatarsal head.  This misalignment has consequences that affect balance, and cause other muscles to be recruited to make up for the loss of function.  It may take some time, once the shoes come off, to redevelop the natural alignment again, and getting the other muscles to give up the compensatory job they've been doing.

From wearing shoes with a raised heel, the way the person approaches her relationship with the ground she walks on will have changed.  She may strike with her heel and her leg extended with a straight knee, instead of landing on her mid-foot with her knee bent in order to absorb the shock.

So ... "Barefoot Singing" will seek to discover the natural function of the voice.  The voice evolved from the expression of primal emotion, and the best sounds are produced when connected to that well of feeling.  Society has taught us to "protect" ourselves -- like when we put on shoes to protect our feet and support our arches -- by introducing tensions to suppress the natural expressive quality of the voice.  Like children who run barefoot in their youth but find out they have to put on shoes in order to fit into society, our voices which squealed freely with delight and cried at loud decibels found they had to be toned down and put in little boxes that hid our feelings instead of revealing them in order to get along in society.

As I explore this idea of the primal voice, I am reminded of an early influence -- work we did from a text we used in college by Kristin Linklater called Freeing the Natural Voice.  Some of these ideas were presented to me back then, and I hardly realized the influence they had on me until I awakened to this new desire to become a "barefoot singer."  I recently googled Kristin Linklater and found that she has a great web site with lots of information about her ideas about the voice and her work with actors to relax the tensions that interfere with the voice's expressive connection to that primal emotion.  In a sense that fits the thinking in this post, one could say that by helping the actors to remove the tensions, she is helping them to remove the shoes that are on the voice.  Barefoot runners are fond of calling shoes "foot coffins."  Are the tensions we develop to hide our true thoughts and emotions the same as "voice coffins?"

There are other vocal pedagogues who speak about this connection to the primal sound. Oren Brown, in his book Discover Your Voice, comes to mind as one. In fact, in the first chapter -- which is titled "Primal Sound" -- is written, "Primal sound is ... the reflexive sound which produces emotional expression."  He also says "You must rediscover yourself," because of how our coordination has been impaired from the tendency to inhibit it. And Stephen Smith, in his book The Naked Voice discusses the desirability for singers to reconnect with original source of utterance and the inhibitions introduced to the voice by "environmental contaminants"

This all reminds me of how it felt to take off my "inhibitive" shoes and rediscover and reconnect with how it felt to go barefoot after all these years of wearing shoes everywhere.  I thought that when I tried barefoot running it would be a new experience, but instead I rediscovered an old one.  It felt very familiar, but I had not felt that feeling for many years.  It was so freeing.

So, this idea of rediscovering the primal sound is not new to vocal pedagogy as a foundation for good singing.  It's out there.  It's the starting place.  It's common sense.  It's understanding that the body does know how to sing.

I'm not saying that there is not some learning to do.  It's just that the starting place has to be a trust in the wisdom and design of the custom apparatus that is built-in to humans that serves this use.  We have to take off the shoes we have put on our voices and find out what our voices have to teach us about what the capabilities are.  We need teachers and guides, (the barefoot runners have teachers and guides too), but we must not abandon the trust in the body itself to know how to sing.  We must not forget that -- like the feet that teach the barefoot runner how to run again -- our voices themselves hold a primary place amongst our teachers and we must learn to listen to what our voices are trying to tell us.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"Barefoot Singing"

Dear Readers,

You have been with me since the beginning of this blog two years ago.  Each post I have offered you has been a little snapshot.  In the beginning, frequent snapshots, and as we've moved along, more occasional snapshots, of my quest and life as a developing avocational singer.

Just because you haven't heard from me does not mean that a lot of singing and growing has not gone on in between these snapshot moments I have offered you.  My quest to master my singing voice and find out exactly who I am as a singer has continued, even though as part of that quest you have seen me apparently side-tracked by Kung Fu, or the new-found interest in Barefoot Running.

If any of you have clicked over on the Barefoot Fresca blog, you have seen me be very active over there exploring a completely new experience.  Barefoot running actually ended up shaking up my world and changing a lot of the way I feel and think about things.  Barefoot running became the portal into being able to experience the utmost fulfillment and enjoyment of being a runner.  It was a niche that was waiting for me to find it.  It was a category of runner to which, heretofore unknown to me, I already belonged which had been waiting to reveal itself to me. All I had needed to do to find it was to take off my shoes.

For some time now, I have been mulling over just what way some of the experiences and knowledge from barefoot running might apply to the singing life.  If I found a niche in the running world that suits me so well, are there aspects of this niche that apply to me as a singer as well?

If I am a Barefoot Runner, is there some way that I can be a Barefoot Singer?

In the next post I will undertake the bold task of defining a new singing category, one that, like with the barefoot running, I belong to without having hitherto known I belonged.  One that suits me and is authentic to my experience as a person and as a singer. This shall become my new path, or perhaps not so new a path but rather a path that I have been on, but which shall now be more clearly defined for me and for all of you, and given a name.  The name assigned shall be a light upon the path.  The name of the new category will be "Barefoot Singing."

I am foggy on just exactly what "Barefoot Singing" will and should be, but in the next post I plan to shoot out some preliminary ideas and maybe as we go along, it will become clearer.

I know a couple of things already that this path will do.  It will, as barefoot running does, question conventional wisdom. It will demonstrate that there are other ways to think about things.  It will defy usual and standard recommendations. Stay posted!


"Avocational Singer,"  
henceforth AKA "The Barefoot Singer"

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What a Kung Fu Black Sash Test Has to Teach About Approaching a Song

On my other blog, Barefoot Fresca, I just finished up a post demonstrating, with illustrations and videos, a practice session I had in preparation for a re-test I am taking in Kung Fu this week.  It occurred to me that much of what I was doing was similar to the kind of analysis and breakdown that is often necessary for a singer when she wants to intimately understand a piece of music.

First, check out the post here:

"If at First You Don't Succeed -- Practice!"

Now that you've done that, I'll show you what I mean about the approach being the same.

What I was practicing in the blog post was getting into my sparring gear in 3 minutes or less.

The Run-through
The first thing I did was a run-through to see where I was at.  I video-taped the run-through to help with my analysis of the state of things.  This is like recording or videotaping a run-through of singing a song.

Next, I impartially observed the outcome of the taping.  While I succeeded to get my Kung Fu sparring gear on in 3 minutes, there were little areas of concern which, when nervous, might cause problems and cost seconds during the re-test. I made a note of where these areas of concern were and planned to visit each area separately in the next part of the practice session.

This is what a singer can do, circling the places in the music, specific measures that are causing problems, not secure, or display some kind of potential trouble or that might make the whole thing fall apart when under pressure during a performance.

Trouble Spot Number 1-- The Sparring Shoes
I noticed during the video, and also remembered from the actual experience as well, that there is sometimes confusion with putting on the Kung Fu shoes.  Before taking a close look at the matter, the two shoes looked identical to me.  That's because I had been observing the shoes while "on the fly" and I had never actually stopped to examine them.

This can happen when we just keep trying to learn a piece of music by singing straight through it over and over again.  We may think that two particular musical phrases are identical, but when we stop to study the two phrases, which might be in different places in the music, we discover that there is a slight difference to them.

When I examined the Kung Fu sparring shoes, I found out that there was, indeed a left one and a right one.  Not only that, I discovered that the shoes were shaped differently, one having a wider rounder toe box, and the other having a narrower, pointier one.

Two phrases in the same piece of music may have subtle differences like that also.  Perhaps the same phrase starts on a different beat of the measure in one place than the other.  Perhaps there is one note added to a little run, or an extra rest stuck in there.  Taking the time to examine exactly what is happening brings greater understanding.

Once I knew there was a left and a right shoe, I found another surprise.  I had assumed that the two shoes would mirror each other and that the manner of fastening the shoes would be the same.  I discovered that my assumption was wrong and that the strap of the shoe went in the same direction for both shoes.

Sometimes, before we look closely, we might make an assumption about a section of music based on some other song we have sung and not realize that our assumption has caused us to learn the section wrong.

Trouble Spot Number 2 -- The Glove
When I took my black sash test, I was unable to slip the glove on quickly enough because it gave me some trouble by being tightly closed, and also because I forgot there was a hand strap inside the glove.

There can be a part of the music that has a specific difficulty to it that throws the singer each time she gets to that spot.

To solve the glove problem, I developed a technique that I would use for putting on the glove.  By rehearsing this approach, I trained myself to do the same thing and set myself up right so I could put the glove on faster and with less effort.  First, I opened the glove.  Adding that step ensured that the other parts of the task were easier.

With the difficult music section, often there is a constriction, just like the closed glove.  Learning how to remain open can often lead the way to better handling the section.

This is a dumb little post, but I hope you have been able to see how the process is the same.  I now know that sparring gear inside and out.  I know the pitfalls and problems and I've developed and practiced strategies.  When the nerves of the moment hit, I will know exactly where I am at all times.  This is the kind of preparation and readiness that is also needed to perform a song well too!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How to Love Your Voice

When singer's are recommended to "love their voice" what does that mean exactly?  The first inclination might be to think it means to love the sound of one's voice.  But doesn't that bring to mind the mythological Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in the water?  It seems like there must be a healthier version of loving one's voice than that.

What examples of loving something could serve as a model to love the voice?

One of the most wonderful examples of love, when it's done right, is the love of a mother for her children.  So, one way for a singer to love her voice is to love it the way a mother loves a child.

A mother feeds her child nutritious food to help keep her child's body growing and repairing itself healthy and strong.  She doesn't give her child junk to eat.

A singer can love her voice by caring about nutrition and eating in a way that helps the cells, tendons, muscles, etc... involved in singing to repair and maintain themselves healthily.

A mother observes when her child is getting tired, often evident because the child begins to behave differently, and takes that child for a "time out" so the child can become integrated and peaceful again.  She notices what situations and conditions are prerequisites for this dis-integration and plans and foresees potential problems.

A singer can do that with her voice too, paying close attention to different behaviors that signal it is time for a rest, and observing and learning what kinds of situations lead to the disintegration of the voice.

A mother ensures that her child get the needed amounts of sleep, even to the point of forcing the child to go to bed at a much earlier time than the child wants to.

A singer needs that kind of rest to function optimally, and sometimes singers, like athletes, might have to forego late night social events in order to get adequate rest for optimal functioning.

A mother researches and  finds the best schools, television programs, books she can afford in order to inform her child of the higher path of learning.  A mother sacrifices having luxury items and provides the lessons, teachers and materials she feels are better.

A singer strives to give her voice the best education possible to give her voice every advantage of learning. A singer makes financial sacrifices to in order to provide her voice with better instruction and materials.

A mother who loves her child listens to that child and tries to truly hear and understand what her child is telling her -- especially when the child is telling her, "something is wrong; I am not comfortable with this; I am being harmed by this situation" -- and believe and take the information into account when she decides things for that child.

So, also, a singer who loves her voice learns to listen to her voice when it says, "this just doesn't feel right to me."

A good mother disciplines a child.  She says "no" when it is right to do that.  She makes that child observe a schedule of some sort, and helps the child develop and practice routines and regular positive habits.  She catches little things and bad habits that could cause bigger problems later if not addressed early.

Yet a mother permits her child to make mistakes, knowing that it is okay to make mistakes and even necessary in order to learn.  She is patient with her child, knowing that perfection is too much to expect of one so young and inexperienced.  She recognizes what is "too much too soon" and celebrates the strengths her child already possesses.  She has reasonable expectations.  Yet she also recognizes potential and has vision for what the child can become.

A mother accepts her child.  She does not compare her child to others.  She would not trade her child for any other child in the world.  She does not try to mold that child into some preconceived image, but steps back and observes and discovers just who this little person is.  She tries to find out where the child's natural passions and interests lie, and then nurtures and explores that interest with the child, assisting the child in reaching his/her potential.  She lets that child be who that child was meant to be.  She allows the child to be free.

A singer accepts her voice.  She does not compare her voice to others.  She would not trade her own voice for any other voice in the world. She does not try to mold that voice into some preconceived image, but steps back and observes and discovers just what this voice she has been given is.  She tries to find out where the voice's natural passions and interests lie, and then nurtures and explores that interest with her voice, assisting the voice in reaching its potential.  She lets the voice be what the voice was meant to be.  She allows the voice to be free.

Finally, when all is said and done, a mother shares her child with the world.  As she watches her child go forth to achieve his own personal mission in the world,  she feels very proud of her child.  If she sees her child doing good out there in the world, she has the reward of seeing efforts of her love blessing not just her own child, but all who come in contact with that child.