To all my students, all my colleagues, all my friends – past, present, and future:
One thing that annoys me is mandated recitals where people are assigned music to which they have no affinity. And, consequently, they sing it with no connection to the text, to the music, to the history of the song or the poet, or to the style of the period. They’re singing the right words, and often, according to the diction rules of the language. They’re singing the right notes. They’re singing with technique appropriate to where they are in their vocal development. But it’s not interpreting the song, or expressing anything. It’s just duplicating what they were told to do. And as soon as it’s done, it’s forgotten. It’s like a school uniform that they’re required to wear, and soon as they can take it off, it’s off.
Whose fault is that? Is it the fault of the student? Of the person who assigned the song?
Sometimes, you are assigned songs that fit a requirement and may or may not be songs you really want to sing. If you are an artist, it is your job to find something in the song that speaks to you. If your song is in a foreign language, translate it. Whether it’s in English or not, create a vernacular translation/inner monologue for yourself. Know the history of the poem, of the composer, know what its performance practice (style) is, know how the accompaniment enhances the text, and what you can do to bring that out.
This post was inspired by Seth Godin in a post called memorization and learning. In it, he says, “memorizing anything that you’ll need to build upon, improvise on or improve is foolish. You’ll need to do the work of understanding it instead.”
You need to do the work to understand that which you sing. And you need to make it your own.
Stay tuned for more information about the Curiously Strong Performing series of performance workshops I’ll be presenting in 2020. We’ll be doing the work.
As I recently wrote in an earlier blogpost, I’ve set up a fall practice challenge. Beginning this Sunday through December 15, my students (hopefully) will submit an online practice record regarding their practice habits for the week. (Please note that I’ve amended the form to correspond to the practice challenge.) The person who submits the most amount of practice time will receive a lovely binder that can be used for lessons or as an audition book. I will set it up and present it to the lucky recipient at the studio recital at Springwell Retirement Community on December 18 (6:30pm).
But what is the point of doing this, other than a valuable prize? Why should you practice regularly? And what do you want to accomplish this semester, in your lessons and in your practicing?
In yoga, in mindfulness, and even in entrepreneurship, it is very trendy to speak of setting an intention rather than a goal. Goals tend to be in the future, general or specific, short-term or long-term. Your goals might be:
- A role in the musical
- A solo in choir
- To be a star!
- To connect to my breath more consistently
- To open up my upper register at F5, where I tend to pinch
- To be more expressive, no matter what language in which I sing
- To win that binder at the December recital
But your intention has to do with today. What is your intention? What is it that you’re going to accomplish today, in your practice session?
- Perhaps your intention for this particular practice session will be openness. Perhaps you’ll choose to manifest this by singing all your exercises and repertoire with a released and quiet inhalation.
- Perhaps your intention will be freedom. And perhaps you’ll choose to manifest that intention by drawing awareness to your jaw and tongue.
- Perhaps your intention will be communication. Maybe your manifestation of that will be to analyze the words and poetry, to create an inner monologue, and to take some risks with interpretation.
Intention can help you set goals. Maybe you’re going to set a goal for that day, but first you might want to try an intention.
On or about November 7, I will write another blog to address what to do if you’re practicing regularly and you don’t feel like anything is changing.
Leo Nestor was my choral director in Washington DC at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for one year a long time ago. He was brilliant. I made my national cable TV debut (EWTN, but hey, it’s still national) singing Barber’s “Crucifixion” from the Hermit Songs on Good Friday. The only reason I left after a year (or was it two? I don’t remember) was because I was offered a gig at St. Patrick’s in DC that didn’t involve a weeknight rehearsal, and at the time, I thought that might be a good thing for my first marriage (Spoiler: it didn’t help).
I coined the term “mezzoid” in response to Leo’s request for the “altoids” to sing something. Apparently he continued to use it after I was gone. I am so proud.
Leo was profane and devout, nurturing and harsh, humorous and deadly serious. He was also one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever worked with in my life. I’ve worked with temperamental “geniuses” before and since. None of them were people with whom I’d work again if I could avoid it. Leo was someone I wish I’d had the opportunity to work with after my return to the East Coast.
Even though I only worked with him briefly, Leo Cornelius Nestor was one of the most influential musicians I’ve ever known.
If you want to know more about Leo (and you should, especially if you are a church musician – and if you’re not now, you very well may be), please read my friend and colleague John Boulanger’s blogpost here. He knew Leo better than I did and goes into much greater depth about him as a composer, conductor, and Catholic than I ever could.
I have decided to pose a practice challenge to my students. And to myself, as well.
A year ago, I made a recording of some songs I had commissioned by local composer Garth Baxter on poetry in both English and Irish Gaelic. The date of the recording was August 10. So, beginning about 2 months before, I set myself a goal of learning the music thoroughly and getting vocally ready to perform them in a manner that I would be comfortable with having posted on YouTube for all the world to hear forever.
The first few weeks were spent working on text and notes. I didn’t really sing all that much during that time, but I did a lot of mental preparation, listening to the Irish Gaelic text as spoken by the poets, and plunking things out at the piano. Then I went to the NATS Conference and picked up Nancy Bos’ practice journal and a collection of vocalises (something I’d never really done before) and decided this would inform my organization.
I set myself a goal of actually singing – this is hard for teachers sometimes, because we feel like we sing all the time for our students but we’re really not putting in our own practice time. I spent 20 minutes per day preparing my voice for the repertoire with basic warm-ups and selections from the vocalise books. Then I put another 40-50 minutes in on the repertoire. And I really worked it in sections, not just singing it through. (I also had a soloist audition for a local chorus which was also part of the focus, at least through the end of July.)
The result was that I felt pretty good about the audition (even though I didn’t get any work from it) and the recording session. So now it’s time to start applying myself again.
I have three things coming up:
- Ding-a-ling, I feel so Christmas-y! on November 30 (a cabaret with Michael Tan at Germano’s Piattini in Little Italy). I did this last year at Spots but I was sick for most of October and early November so I felt underprepared.
- Respighi’s Lauda per la Nativita del Signore on December 14 (Christmas oratorio in which I sing the role of Mary with the Harford Choral Society). It’s my first time singing with them, and I love the piece.
- WNO re-audition – date still TBD, sometime in January. I’d like to do something new this time. I have two pieces in mind, although I’m reluctant to trot out two untried songs.
So there’s a lot of work ahead and I’m going to challenge myself to practice five times a week for approximately an hour per day. I’ll probably take off on Thursdays because of church choir at night, and maybe on Sunday.
What I want my students to do is:
- Use your vocal exercises that we do in your lessons (on the BRAAP™ vocalise sheets and any others that we throw out there)
- Use the checklist that I’ve given you to keep track of what you’ve done
- Write down how much time you spent each day in a journal of your choosing – either the practice journal by Nancy Bos or any kind of method that works for you
- At the end of the week (Sunday) use the Weekly Practice Record form to record what you did and submit it to me. Those dates are:
- October 6
- October 13
- October 20
- October 27
- November 3
- November 10
- November 17
- November 24
- December 1
- December 8
- December 15
I will determine who practiced the most based on these and will give out a prize at the December 18 recital, the theme of which will be music from shows about the holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, winter, whatever). The prize will be an audition/lesson binder organized for you to use in your lessons and to take out with you to auditions. (FYI, I’m exempt from the prize, so I won’t be competing, just working alongside you.)
Who’s in? (Current students only)
This week, I put out a practice checklist, which was distributed to all my students as part of a welcome/welcome back packet. I had had a new student’s mom ask me about a structure of practicing, and I went back to a previous blogpost about practicing I’d written for some guidance. And I decided that, while there were some really good gems in there about how to practice, the post was, in itself, 8 years old and based on a newsletter than I sent out 20 years ago, when I was a brand new teacher. So it needed some updating, and I felt that it would be more effective if it was a little less text-driven and more to-the-point.
I went to a site called Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT and purchased a vocal practice challenge sheet that someone created, thinking that might work. But I didn’t care for some of the language (I don’t use the term “placement” in my teaching, and if I did, it wouldn’t be in the way it was used here) and I thought it might be more confusing than helpful. And it was a sticker based system and I thought that meant I’d have to look at something and I really don’t want to do that. I decided to do a checklist instead. So I knocked one out on Apple Numbers, and broke it up into:
- The “Warm-up” (Preparing to Sing)
- Repertoire (The Songs). This was done in two parts – a list of things to do when you’re first learning the song and, once it’s learned, to polish it
Things You Can Do to be a little “Extra” (i.e., the Next Level). I did take some ideas from the original document that I bought on TpT in this section.
The first two sections involved a suggested breakdown of time based on the elements being worked on, using exercises from my BRAAP™ vocalises that I distribute to my students and that may be found on my website under studio portal (only available to my students). The final section was not time-driven – how much time the student wants to spend on that is entirely up to them.
I also laminated them so that the student can keep them on their piano and check them off with a dry erase, if they are so inclined. (Plus I figure they’ll stay intact longer that way.)
I’m not posting the checklist here, because, well, I just might tweak it a bit to make it a little less my personal studio-oriented and put it on TpT for sale. If you’ve received one this week and would like to ask me about it, please feel free. If you’d like to know more, let me know!
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 Results, and the author boils her methods down to the acronym TRICK, which stands for:
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.