A New Brain – A New Voice

This Friday, May 29 (5pm), I will host the final listening party (for the time being). We will be listening to William Finn’s A New Brain, which is a semi-autobiographical story about the composer’s personal experience with a genetic vascular disorder in his brain.

WHAT? Another weird musical?

Yes. Y’all can listen to Oklahoma or South Pacific on your own (although I really enjoyed the bluegrass version of Oklahoma this past January – oh, Broadway, when will you be back?). I like to listen to stuff that just pushes the envelope a little bit without being too self-consciously, “hey, look, I’m pushing the envelope” about it (I’m looking at you, Spring Awakening).

The 1998 original Lincoln Center production of A New Brain features Malcolm Gets as the stricken composer, Gordon Schwinn (William Finn/Gordon Schwinn – see the connection). Penny Fuller is his Jewish mother, Mimi. Norm Lewis is his partner, Roger (who sings the most beautiful song of the show, “I’d rather be sailing”). Other celebrated actors in the show are Chip Zien, Mary Testa, and Kristin Chenoweth. The show was revived in 2015 with Jonathan Groff, Aaron Lazar, Ana Gasteyer, and Christian Borle. Apparently, there were some rewrites – I have not heard that version yet, and I think I need to listen to it.

Instead of selecting a local arts group to link donations to, this time I am going to put a link to a group called VocaliD, which is a group that is dedicated to digitizing sound to create new voices for people who have lost theirs (the link takes you to a TedTalk explaining the mission). My friend Ami Bouterse, a voice teacher at UW-Parkside in Kenosha, Wisconsin, turned me on to this. Her daughter, Evelyn, is doing it as a service project for school:

It’s actually free to donate – just your voice is needed. People record their voices, which are then used to create voices for those with assistive devices. You can share your voice in your own time – from the comfort of your own home to help change a life. All you need is a computer, headset with a microphone, and Google Chrome! Visit this link to create your own account and join my Voice Drive:

Join the ‘Evelyn’s Voice Drive’ Voicedrive on VocaliD

So listen to A New Brain and help someone get a new voice.

I would like to continue doing these listening parties once a month. I’m thinking we might have a better turnout on Saturday mornings. Let me know if you’re interested in continuing – and maybe suggest something I don’t know? Message me and let me know what you think.

“You are here not to laugh; but to learn”

This Friday, I’ll be holding Listening Party #4, which will focus on the musical Bat Boy The Musical by Laurence O’Keefe. You may know Laurence O’Keefe from Legally Blonde The Musical and Heathers The Musical. The latter two of which are based on movies of the same name, and, consequently, are pretty commercial.

(What is up with shows post-1995 having “The Musical” after them? Would we not know they’re musicals as soon as people start singing? And yes, I’m watching the Jerry Seinfeld special on Netflix while I write this.)

Bat Boy, on the other hand, is a 2001 off-Broadway rock musical based on the now-defunct tabloid Weekly World News 1992 cover story about a fictional creature found in a cave who is half-bat, half-boy.

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Yep. It’s a musical about a mutant. I don’t know Heathers  (yet). From what I’ve heard of it, I think Bat Boy is more like it than Legally Blonde.

I’ve only seen one production of Bat Boy, as part of the 2005 summer theater program at Divine Savior Holy Angels HS in Milwaukee.

DSHA was a curious choice for a show like this. It’s an all-girls, relatively-conservative Catholic school. But they did a pretty good job with it. I enjoyed it immensely (in part because I had two students in the leads). And I love the cast recording

What does it say about me that I like musicals like this? Let’s look at our listening parties so far.

  1. Sweeney – barber kills people, landlady makes them into pies
  2. Ragtime – well, that’s relatively traditional, but still pretty intense
  3. Assassins – presidential assassins
  4. Bat Boy – see above.

This will be at 5pm instead of 3pm. I’m using the same PMI as for my lessons. If you don’t know what that is, message me.

As always, admission is free but donations will be accepted for the American Visionary Arts Museum (my favorite place in Baltimore).

I’m excited to introduce this show to people. It’s really weird. The music and lyrics are just terrific. But you might feel the need to take a shower afterwards.

Why SHOULD we sing – when there’s nowhere to sing? (Part 2 of 2)

Yesterday, I wrote about the findings of medical professionals regarding singing and the safety about doing it publicly. You can read that here. Apparently, singers and loud talkers are considered “super-spreaders.” Guilty and guilty. And feeling kind of judged about it.

Like I said, I found this terribly depressing. Everything had been going so well. I was singing as much as I wanted to and where I wanted to. My studio was growing and my students were all making tremendous progress, and many of them were finding more and more performing opportunities that were satisfied and motivating.

Why should we sing at all, when there’s nowhere to sing?

The English composer William Byrd published a songbook in 1588 that was considered the first great collection of English songs, Psalms, Sonnets and Songs. Not only have the song settings survived the test of time, his forward to the book has also inspired many singers. I have it hanging on my divider as my students enter my studio – or at least when they did (and will again).
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Feel free to print this out and hang it where you can see it: Reasons to sing – Byrd

This is our time to polish our technique, to learn new things, to take some risks, to sing for fun, to sing some old songs, to sing new songs. And we can do it without having to rush from work/school, rush to rehearsal, come home and stay up late getting homework done, or laundry, or prepping for the next day’s events. We have the luxury of time.

We can practice the right way, mindfully and with intention, instead of just ripping off a few lip trills to get the voice moving and then launching into a song. (Note: Once we’re back in the studio, we probably will never do any more high-spit factor vocalises again.)

Performing will look different for awhile. It may be online. It may be outside (and I just had an idea about that). It may be in the living room with your families, like in the old days. It may be live, it may be pre-recorded. But it will go on because we need to sing. I need to sing, you need to sing, we all need to sing. It’s like ice cream (I scream, you scream….)

And when we can perform for an audience (and we will), that audience will be craving music and theater. They’ll want it so bad and –

WE WILL BE READY!

Who’s with me!

 

We breathe to live – we breathe to sing – but can we do it together? (Part 1 of 2)

This the hardest and probably the most important (at least to me) blogpost I’ve ever written.

About a year ago, when I cleaned up my website, I changed my mission statement a bit and put the original in a blogpost so that I wouldn’t lose it because it was some important information. The part that comes to mind right now is in the penultimate paragraph:

We breathe to live. We breathe to sing. We balance our breath energy in order to create a beautiful tone.

Our bodies need breath to function and we inhale to provide that energy source. We speak and we sing on the exhalation of breath. For singing, we control and balance the exhalation.

We balance that breath energy in order to maximize:

  1. how long we can sing before having to refresh the breath;
  2. how clearly and evenly we can sing on that breath;
  3. how softly or loudly we can sing, and make that choice depending on what the composer asks for and our personal interpretation.

The latter is what a lot of people refer to as projection, although I prefer to use the term resonance.

But right now, studies are showing that breath projection is a factor in the spreading of COVID-19. A few weeks ago, I attended a webinar on the topic sponsored by National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), Chorus America, Barbershop Harmony Society, and Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA), which featured presentations by Dr. Donald Milton, a bio-aerosol specialist at the University of Maryland, and Dr. Lucinda Halstead, an otolaryngologist at the University of South Carolina and the incoming president of PAMA. The webinar is available on YouTube and you can watch it here.

A terrific summary of the findings can be found in a blogpost written by tenor Zach Finkelstein in his blog The Middleclass Artist. Please read this for more detail, but to summarize the summary, I’m just going to come out and say that:

There is no safe place for us to sing together right now. Not in a choir, not in a show, not in the studio. Dr. Halstead has estimated 18-24 months before the combination of an effective vaccine and treatment regimen will make it safe again. Others have said that’s out there and that it should be sooner. I hope the latter view is the correct one.

But in the meanwhile, I intend to continue with online lessons through the summer and consider reopening the studio for in-person lessons on September 1. I will continue to monitor the situation – my husband is an ER doc, so I have a scientific source right at my elbow. If things improve, it might be sooner. If we have another surge, it will be later.

I have to tell you that this information upset me greatly because I love working with my students in person and preparing them for performances. I also love performing, and the thought of not doing it in front of a live audience is anathema to me.

As I mentioned in my last blogpost, I intended this post to be a look at the situation as we know it today and talk about why we should sing, even when there’s nowhere we can sing. I did the first part in this post. I have a lot on my mind about the second part and I will be writing that tomorrow.

In the meantime… 55281FC2-24DB-44C8-9198-317BA071344A

Why I DIDN’T Sing – For Far Too Long

When I lived in Wisconsin, I spent about 8 years in a sort of vocal quarantine. I suddenly found my private studio taking up more of my time and energy, and I chose to stop seeking work in Chicago, where I’d been doing the bulk of my singing, and reduced my performing with professional choral ensembles in Milwaukee and auditioning for local companies.

And my performing work dried up. Some of that was my choice, since I wasn’t actively pursuing gigs the way I had been, and some of it was … not. I was active with the now-defunct MacDowell Club, with which I did some performing of pieces that appealed to me, as well as programming concerts for them (which I discovered I really enjoyed!). I organized recitals for my students and did some singing on them as well. I started writing cabarets, which was fulfilling, albeit poorly attended. As I got busier and busier with the studio, I convinced myself that it was okay that I wasn’t performing that much.

But because I didn’t have regular shows to work towards, I have to admit… I didn’t practice that much. I learned the music I had to do, but I didn’t do the technical work. I didn’t keep up the chops that I had so carefully cultivated during the years before, during, and after my years at Peabody and in my first few years back in Milwaukee. And I became very aware of that when I listened to a recording of a recital I gave, as I described in a blog last year. It was a kick in the pants. I realized that I wasn’t doing any vocal self-care. For the next year that I remained in Milwaukee, I made a concerted effort to get back to where I’d been.

And when I moved back to Baltimore, it paid off! I got work as a singer.  I got work as a teacher. I left the college gigs to focus on my private studio. My studio grew and my performing grew, and I was in a place where I had the perfect balance between singing and teaching. I was practicing regularly. I was even turning down work because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to keep the balance that I’d come to appreciate. I realized my ideal clients were those who wanted to perform, whether it was at a pre-professional level, professionally, or in community theater, and I was starting to attract those people to the student. I was satisfied. I was content.

And then COVID-19 came. And all the performing was gone. Lessons moved online. Life as I’d come to know it had changed, possibly forever. It’s not comfortable.

What do I do now? What do we all do now?

This blog is called Why I Sing, and the subtitle includes the words “and why you should, too.” In my next post, I’m going to address the immediate future of singing and the path forward, based on the current information from a variety of well-informed sources. I want to talk honestly about why we should sing — even when there’s nowhere to sing.

What the Actual…

What the Actual…

The word fach sounds like a bad word. It is a German word meaning “compartment” and is used in opera to describe particular voice types, often in incredibly specific detail. There’s:

  • soubrette
  • lyric soprano
    • light lyric soprano
    • full lyric soprano
    • lyric coloratura soprano
    • lyrico-spinto soprano
  • dramatic soprano
    • drammatico-spinto soprano
    • helden soprano
  • heldensoubrette (okay, that one was made up by my friend Yvonne DeChance)

And that’s just for the sopranos. It goes on for the other voice types (mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, bass). It’s not nearly as rigid as it used to be – if you were a soubrette, singing a full lyric aria would be considered “punching above your weight class.” Now, it’s a bit more relaxed (a soubrette still shouldn’t sing Wagner though – which would be the definition of the heldensoubrette).

But in English, the word “fach” is funny. And when I use it with students, their eyes widen and they say, “WHAT?” (My teacher used to describe the process of transitioning from mezzo to soprano or baritone to tenor as “faching up.” I had a student once who asked if we could call our next showcase, “Another Faching Recital.” I said no. But I’ll admit I was tempted.)

In musical theater, there are basically two fachs: belter and legit. And you’re expected to learn to do both if you want to work in the business. You might be known more for your legit singing (Kelli O’Hara, Kristin Chenoweth) or your belt (Sutton Foster, Patti Lupone) but you have to be able to do both, at least somewhat.

This still doesn’t mean that you can or even should do everything, especially as a young singer. There may be some roles that you could sing, but you might not be comfortable with them yet based on who you are as a person. Yes, as an actor, you want to stretch yourself and you have plenty of time to do that. But right now, if you’re in high school and you’re looking for the roles that you feel you can inhabit at this moment, perhaps you need to think of a few things. You need to determine your own personal fach, the one beyond the voice (which doesn’t have to be tied to your body type).

What role do you gravitate towards in the following musicals (and right now I’m focusing on female roles – sorry, boys):

  • Thoroughly Modern Millie: Millie – Miss Dorothy – Mrs. Mears
  • Little Women: Jo – Amy – Meg – Beth
  • Seussical: Gertrude – Maisie – Sour Kangaroo
  • Mary Poppins: Mary – Mrs. Banks – Miss Anderson
  • Carousel: Julie – Carrie – Nettie
  • Ragtime: Mother – Evelyn Nesbit – Emma Goldman – Sarah Brown
  • Mean Girls: Cady – Regina – Janis – Gretchen – Karen

If you see a pattern of the kind of character you feel you could play at this point in time, perhaps these are the roles you should focus on in preparing your audition book. You will – and should – evolve over time. You should work on at least one thing that is not “you,” in order to grow as an artist. But you have plenty of time for that.

So – what the actual “fach” are you?

WTAF?

 

Listening Party #3: Assassins

Stephen Sondheim certainly does like to write about varied subjects, doesn’t he? Here’s a few examples:

  1. A fake miracle, a corrupt mayor, and inmates from a local asylum called the Cookie Jar (Anyone can Whistle, 1964)
  2. A love story about two young people living in a department store with a subculture of residents who are afraid of being turned into mannequins if they leave (Evening Primrose, 1966)
  3. A demon barber who takes revenge on his hapless customers and his amoral landlady, who turns their corpses into meat pies for sale at her pie shop on Fleet Street (Sweeney Todd, 1979)
  4. Presidential assassins, successful and would-be (Assassins, 1990)

On Friday, May 15, at 3pm, I will be hosting the third listening party, which will feature Assassins. This is a 1991 recording of the off-Broadway version, which includes a fantastic cast of actors including Victor Garber, Debra Monk, and Terrence Mann. The show did not open on Broadway until 2004 (it was supposed to open in November 2001, but the post-9/11 atmosphere would not have been friendly for a musical about presidential assassinations).

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Much of the music in the show is reflective of the time period in which each assassin lived. “The Ballad of Booth” has strong overtones of Stephen Foster. “I am unworthy of your love” is a 70s folk-rock ballad. “The Ballad of Guiteau” is a late 1800s cakewalk (and features the only words that Sondheim has ever set to music that were not written by him). “How I saved Roosevelt” uses a Sousa march as its foundation.

None of the assassins are portrayed as heroes, or victims, or justified in their actions. It is an examination of the times in which they lived.

Yes, it’s weird. Come listen to the weirdness with me. I’ll walk you through it. Contact me if you want the PMI.

Donations will be accepted for Spotlighters Theatre, which has served Baltimore for nearly 60 years, and had to suspend their current season due to the coronavirus.