Success – is it a TRICK?

My choir director at the Cathedral of Mary our Queen is a new daddy, and he’s been reading a lot about parenting. He just read about an author who has written a book called How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Resultsand the author boils her methods down to the acronym TRICK, which stands for:

  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Independence
  • Collaboration
  • Kindness

He believes that this applies not only to the raising of children to be independent adults, but for teachers with their students (and choir directors for their choristers, which is why we got this lecture). The author believes that this method will allow students to become independent and creative, and that is a higher gauge of what success is than just money. (Which is a good thing in our line of work.)

I’m a big believer that our studio is a community, and one in which we need to support and nurture each other and ourselves. That’s why I ask that we all support each other and collaborate rather than compete with each other. Trust each other, trust yourself, trust me. Respect each other, respect yourself, and respect me. We can work together and we can work on our own. And be kind to yourself, be kind to each other and, above all, be kind to me. 🙂

Not all tricks are magic. Some are just common sense and decency.

Who takes voice lessons?

My mother never understood how I had so many students. She would say, “So many people want to be professional singers?” and I’d say, “No, mom, some want to be professional performers, but some just want to get into the musical at school, or into a special ensemble in choir, or some just want to be better.” That blew her mind. She couldn’t understand why anyone would spend money on something if they weren’t planning to make money at it. (And why they’d give it to ME, of all people.)

But my mother issues are a whole ‘nother story. And ones only hinted at in this blog.

This summer, I read Seth Godin’s This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See.  In the chapter, “In search of ‘better,'” he creates an X-Y graph showing elements that people care about. From a business perspective, one element might be convenience, and another one price. What kind of clients fall within these parameters? Who is willing to pay for both? Who wants one but doesn’t care so much about the other?

I decided that, from a voice teacher’s perspective, my parameters would be technique and performance. What kind of client/student wants to be a better singer, but doesn’t really want to perform? What kind doesn’t really care about developing strong technique, but just wants to be able to perform with a band or at open mic? Who wants to understand technique better so they can help their classroom students, but doesn’t really want to perform themselves? Who wants to perform at the highest possible level of ability? This is what I came up with, based on the students I’ve worked with over 20 years:

Types of Voice Students (click here for bigger version)Image 9-19-19 at 9.44 AM

By “professional performer,” I mean opera/musical theater, because that’s what I do. CCM performer means contemporary commercial music such as rock, pop, jazz. And please don’t feel that I’m judging any kind of singing here – except maybe “shower.”

This doesn’t mean that students are forever relegated to these arbitrary quadrants. The “always wanted to sing” dabbler might start out not wanting to perform (and, in fact, be terrified of doing so), but then dip their toe into karaoke, and maybe later, community theater. Or start out in the church choir, and then decide to try auditioning for a symphonic chorus. A community theater ensemble singer might go for a lead role – and get it!

As a teacher, who do you want to work with? I have to be honest – I prefer working with people who want to perform and who want to develop their technique to the highest extent possible. That’s my “ideal client.” I have friends who enjoy working with adults who have no intention of performing and who do not want to work with high-strung high school students with tons of rehearsal conflicts (in other words, my people). Knowing who you click with might mean that you don’t market yourself as “all ages, all styles,” because that might not be the best way you can serve yourself and your client. It’s not for me. But some people are happy to serve all markets, and good for them!

As a student, where do you fall? Does your teacher recognize what’s important to you? Are they helping you get to where you want to be? Are they pushing you hard enough or too hard? Are you their ideal client? Are they your ideal teacher?

Make a healthy choice to use your voice

“Every single thing you do with your voice is a choice, not a default.”

Someone said this the other day, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out where I heard it. When I figure it out, I’ll update this and give her credit.

As singers, we have to make to choices that are healthy. Because if we don’t, we can cause damage which could be easy to recover from or could cause major problems.

Nearly 2 weeks ago, I was heading downtown and, as I approached the on-ramp to the freeway, there was an accident ahead and all traffic was moving from the right to the center lane. I put on my signal, like a person does, and started to move over. The person in the SUV in the center lane would not let me over.  And a car was coming in from my right from the cross street, and I very nearly got hit by both of them. In my new car.

I screamed. I screamed loud and I screamed hard.

Fortunately, my car and I were both all right, and once I got onto the freeway, I realized that … my throat hurt. It felt squeezed and pressured, and just … not good. I had a wedding to sing the next day, I had Mass to cantor the next evening, and Choir Mass at the Cathedral was starting up on Sunday. Was I going to be all right?

The wedding went well (there wasn’t a lot to sing). Cantoring was a bit rough – I had a lot of phlegm, and my stamina wasn’t great. Choir Mass was okay. I just sang when there were parts on the hymns, and I sang the anthem, and then I shut up for the rest of the weekend. I couldn’t put myself on full vocal rest, because I had teaching to do that week and a couple of rehearsals, but I wasn’t able to get on top of the practicing I needed to do for the concert I’m doing in December.

I was fine by the time church choir rehearsal rolled around on Thursday. The ache lasted that long. I’m still taking it easy – I’ve started practicing again, but judiciously.

I could’ve given myself a vocal fold hemorrhage (example below).fullsizeoutput_1e02

I could have done some serious and long-lasting damage. Fortunately, it just seems to have been a strain. I think I strained the muscles around my larynx rather than the vocal folds themselves, because the discomfort felt external.

Screaming is not my default. It was a choice, and it was a really bad choice.

What choices are you making when you use your voice? Are all of them wise choices?

“Breath is welcome here”

“Breath is welcome here”

A few months ago, I was talking to one of my students, Erin McManus, about allowing the abdominal muscles to release on inhalation to receive the breath, and I believe that I used the term “welcome the breath.” Erin then smiled beatifically, as she is wont to do, and indicated her abdominal area with a gentle motion and said, “Breath is welcome here.”

Of course, you don’t breathe into the belly. The diaphragm is the dividing line between the respiratory and the digestive system, or, as the late Jean Westerman Gregg said, “between the vitals and the vittles.” (I have used that line ever since I first heard it in 1997, at my very first NATS workshop.) You breathe into your lungs, and as a result of the descent of the diaphragm, your viscera (i.e., guts) are pushed down and your stomach expands outward somewhat. More importantly, your ribs expand. If you are freakishly long-waisted, as am I, you may not find that there’s a great deal of outward expansion. If you are short-waisted, you may find that there’s a LOT of outward expansion.

But you can’t just push out your belly and expect the air to come in. You have to allow the air to enter your body by inhaling quietly, through your nose or mouth, depending on the circumstances, by aligning yourself efficiently so that you aren’t compressing your innards, and by allowing your abdominal muscles, particularly the abdominal floor, to release. Whether it is a sip of air or a deep intake of air, the key element is that of release. A noisy inhalation is inherently high and tense and is distracting. It’s not efficient.

An exercise I do frequently with beginning students is to have them blow out all the air and wait until their bodies need air. And when that moment comes, inhale – but just allow it to happen voluntarily, rather than consciously suck in air. What happens? Is there sound? Where do you feel expansion? Where do you feel release? Is it weird? (Someone said it was weird once, so now I ask.)

Enjoy this video of Nathan Gunn and William Burden singing the famous duet from Pearlfishers and notice how they receive the breath. (It helps that they’re shirtless. In so many ways.)

“Welcome the breath.” Indeed.

“Tools, not Rules”

I follow a fashion blogger whose site is called une femme d’un certain âge and recently, she had her colors and style done and it turned out she was wearing all the wrong colors and styles for her “type.” (I have to admit that the company who did her analysis was right – her clothes are much more flattering than they were before, and I thought she looked good before.) Someone asked her if that means she’s thrown everything out, even some of her favorite things, and she said, in today’s blog: “No. I still believe in ‘tools, not rules.'”

That phrase resonated with me. There are so many rules that we think we have to follow as singers. We have to avoid certain foods, we have to stand a certain way, align ourselves just so, sing only one kind of repertoire or one kind of style, and never do anything that might be considered “wrong.”

Yeah. Right.

What we work in lessons is collecting a series of tools that you can use for learning and performing your music. For example, we work on having a silent inhalation and a balanced onset, and releasing into the breath, rather than gasping for air or sighing at the end of a phrase. And for the most part, those tools are the rules.

Except when they’re not.

What if your character is upset? Would they have a clean onset? Would they have a balanced release? Would they be standing with their head balanced upon their spine and thinking of their feet as tripods with their weight evenly distributed between the big and little toes and the heel?

What if breathy was better, just for a particular phrase? What if a hard release was better, just to convey an emotion? What if the head was thrown back to the sky, just for that one line?

You can’t do it all the time, but sometimes, you have to break the rules.

“From Shrill to Potato-y”: How I Got Back on the Chiaroscuro Trail

“From Shrill to Potato-y”: How I Got Back on the Chiaroscuro Trail

Nearly 8 years ago, I gave my first classical recital in a long time. I was in Milwaukee and teaching at Carroll University in Waukesha, and I had the opportunity to do a recital. So I prepared a full program, hired a fabulous pianist, and started taking lessons with Connie Haas again, after not having had regular lessons (or really done any year-round singing) for over 10 years.

During my lessons, Connie was telling me that my resonance was not as balanced as it could be. And I wasn’t really buying it, because that had never been an issue for me during the time I was at Peabody and singing in the DC metropolitan area. I knew that the recital was coming harder for me than it would have earlier, but I attributed that to my not having done one for a long time.

When the recital was over, I wasn’t pleased. I had hired the late, great sound engineer Daniel Gnader to record it, but didn’t listen to it until over 3 months later, on January 1, 2012. I listened to it with the idea that I would be able to pull something from it for a demo recording.

I was not pleased. (This is putting it mildly. I was weeping copious tears.) And then my friend Carolina got online and asked how I was, and I said, “I just listened to my recital from September and I sound like poop.” (I didn’t say poop.) She said, “Oh, come on, it can’t be that bad. Send me a clip.” I sent her one. She didn’t think it was bad. I sent her another. She said, “Oh. On that one, you run the gamut from shrill to potato-y.” I asked if by “potato-y,” she meant as though I was singing with a large serving of potatoes in my mouth. She confirmed that was, in fact, what she meant.

This meant that Connie had been right all along. My resonance was out of balance. At times my sound was too bright. At other times, it was too dark. Because I had not had an ear and someone to guide me back on the Chiaroscuro Trail (which sounds like the coolest trail in a national park), I had been too cocky to accept it. And I had not been practicing regularly.

I went back to Connie and told her I was ready to work and fix it. And I did.

I needed someone to tell me the truth about where my singing was at that point. Connie did. Carolina did. And, finally, my own ears did. So I had to do something about it.

fullsizeoutput_1d9b

I won’t say that “You run the gamut from shrill to potato-y” was necessarily positive, but it sure was specific. I didn’t feel like Carolina was telling me that I sucked, but that I needed to address a resonance issue that had arisen. Connie gave me the next step – work on being mindful of where my tongue was and of the shape of my vocal tract. Work on the awareness of the tone quality and what it felt like when the sound was right.

Awareness, mindfulness, and acceptance are all things you need to have as a singer.

As a teacher, I will tell you honestly what you do well and what you need to work on. I will give you the tools to expand upon your strengths. I will not tear you down, but I will tell you what your next step should be, whether we’re going to have to focus on breath, resonance, articulation, or registration, or some combination thereof.

Your job, as a student, will be to accept and implement those steps, and to be aware of what it feels like when you’re doing the work and what it feels like when you’re not.

I’m up to that challenge. I’m confident that all my students, past, present, and future, are as well.

Sumer is i-goin’-out….

And fall is coming in (well, technically not until later in September, but when school starts, summer is over).

Exciting things happening…

  1. Moving to a tuition-based program to allow more flexibility for everyone.
  2. Eliminating 24 hour notice (or even 12 hour notice) if you’re in one of those packages! (Because the flu doesn’t always have the courtesy to hit the day before.)
  3. A new studio portal on the website which will include information only for studio members! Things like: vocal exercise sheets (in case you lost yours); a list of all students having lessons and their times (in case you need to switch with someone); and coming soon, a video library of vocal exercises.
  4. Two studio recitals and a cabaret show!

You might be asking, “But, Christine, how do I find out about all of these things?”

67842323_10114064397481553_3248684048326852608_n

Everything regarding packages and policies was sent out on August 14, right before I left for Milwaukee.

What would also be great is if payment could be made by September 1 so that I can have everything on Acuity and ready to go before we start up on September 3. Payment (or arrangement of payment) guarantees your spot in the stuio. I’m limiting the number of people I’m taking this year in order to provide the best service I can to you with my performing schedule, so if you’ve indicated that you are continuing in the fall, please confirm. If you have changed your mind, please let me know so that I can offer this opportunity to another interested singer!

Please go ahead and register for your preferred package here.

The title of this blog is based on “Sumer is icumen in,” the title of the medieval English round that my husband once taught a bunch of drunk kids on a bus in Ocean City while he was in medical school – and which we sing at our Renaissance parties. I don’t know if there’s an end of summer version, but maybe someone creative can write one.

Enjoy the song – maybe we can do it on our end of the season studio showcase. 😀