The "Ecstatic Experience" and the Authentic Singer

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about authenticity, which makes me wince because I do not want to be a New Age-y cliche-spouting person, but all of a sudden I’m finding a need to define what it is I want to be, how I want to teach, and what I want to hear and see in performers.

This past week I’ve been describing to my students how I recognize authenticity in performers. It’s a very visceral reaction on my part that is almost impossible to describe verbally.  I shake my head, my hands flutter, I suck in air … it sounds like I’m having a seizure. But then I found a book on my porch that hit the nail on the head, and I’d like to quote from it.

On page 27 of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book, Something More: Excavating your authentic self, Breathnach describes (via Emily Dickinson) the “‘ecstatic experience’: what excites us or moves to tears, what makes the blood rush to our heads, our hearts skip a beat, our knees shaky, and our souls sigh.” In my case, it’s the rapid shaking of the head and hands, but that’s what’s happening inside.

Some performers that trigger this in me include:

Young Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl)
Audra McDonald
Kristin Chenoweth
Idina Menzel
Kelli O’Hara
Angela Lansbury
Lady Gaga (seriously)
Brian Stokes Mitchell
Placido Domingo
Bette Midler
Nathan Gunn
Marin Mazzie
k.d. Lang
Samuel Ramey
Jerry Hadley
Leontyne Price
Matthew Morrison
Chris Colfer

Performers who do not trigger in this me (although they might be extremely talented):

Older Barbra Streisand
Michael Bolton
Lea Michele (heresy, I know)
Celine Dion (don’t get me started)
Marilyn Horne
Jose Carreras

I may applaud the latter group when they perform. I may cheer. (Well, not in the case of Bolton or Dion because I choose not to listen to or watch either of them for any length of time.) But I’m not really touched – I don’t feel that “ecstatic experience.” And in the case of Bolton and Dion – I don’t believe they do either.

But this is an individual reaction. Clearly, based on their success, Bolton and Dion are touching people, and perhaps the same people are not moved by any of the artists who move ME.

I wouldn’t dare presume to list the students who fall into either of these categories, but think about this – have you ever made someone cry or catch their breath with your performing, whether it’s me or someone else?

R.I.P. Richard Weber 1940-2010

Yesterday morning, as I was waking up in Monterey (on the final leg of my Westward Ho! vacation), I reached for the phone to see if I had any messages.

I was sad to read (and even sadder to write) that the disappearance of my dear friend Richard Weber has been solved, and not in the way I had hoped. I had hoped that Richard had checked himself into a mental hospital or had been laying low with some non-music friend that none of us knew, but instead it was reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that a body pulled out of the Milwaukee River last Friday had been identified as Richard’s.

I’m chagrined that someone who identifies himself as a pastor at a church at which Richard played said in the comments, “I knew this would happen.” Really? You read of the death of a talented man you knew and the first thing you can write is a smug “I told you so”? Really? Perhaps Richard had demons which I only suspected in the last few years of his life that I attributed to health, aging, and the vicious beating he took in 2007, but is the comments section of a newspaper article really the place to write “I’m sorry to say I knew this would happen”? NO. The remaining balance of his comments were all that needed to be said: “I had known him since 1996. I was pastor at the Church where he played the organ from 1996-1998. Many people were worried about him. My prayers are with his family.”

Whatever church has this guy for a pastor, I don’t want to go there. (See previous post on why I’m not doing church right now – attitudes like this are a major element of my ambivalence toward organized religion.)

Anyway, I know that whenever I pull out a piece of music that Richard gave me – and those gifts comprise a large part of my music collection, particularly in my file cabinet of sheet music – and see the words “ex libris Richard Weber,” I will smile and think of him fondly. I’ll think of his quips about organized religion – the elderly Presbyterian congregants at Calvary were “God’s frozen people,” one of my church jobs in DC was at “the National Shrine of the Inaccurate Deception,” and he’d ask me how things were at “Mrs. Paul’s.” And his politics were unabashedly liberal but often peppered with completely politically incorrect commentary that sounded like it came straight from my ultra-conservative father’s mouth.

I can’t help but think of Richard leaving a message for me with my husband: “Tell her not to call back tonight, because I will be in the arms of Morpheus.”
Sleep well, dear Richard.

Singing in church for fun and profit (oh, and spiritual growth, too)

I just sat down this  morning and thought about how many denominations for which I have I sung professionally in the last 20+ years….

Presybterian – Calvary, Milwaukee (my first gig for Richard Weber)
Lutheran – First English, Baltimore; St. Mark’s, Baltimore; Bethlehem Lutheran, Milwaukee (again, for Richard Weber)
Christ Science – a variety of the churches in and around Milwaukee
Jewish – Rodef Shalom, VA; Washington Hebrew Congregation, DC; Oheb Shalom, Baltimore; Congregation Sinai, Milwaukee
Unitarian – First Unitarian Church, Milwaukee
Catholic – National Shrine, DC; St. Patrick’s, DC; Mount St. Sepulchre, DC; Fort Belvoir Chapel, VA; St. John’s Cathedral,  Milwaukee
Episcopalian – St. Andrew’s, VA; St. Gregory, IL; St. Paul’s, Milwaukee

I don’t think I’ve ever sung for the Methodists or for UCC. Maybe for a wedding, but the above listing is for soloist/section leader work. Needless to say, I have never sung at a mosque. 

As liberal as I am, I don’t want to sing in services that are too loosey-goosey and contemporary. Give me the incense and the robes and the chanting and I’ll be happy. (Surprisingly, the most high church setting I’ve ever encountered was at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Baltimore. And because James Harp, chorusmaster of the now-defunct Baltimore Opera, was at the helm, we got to sing very full-bodied operatic literature. “Christ est ressuscité!” from Faust on Easter Sunday was a particular highlight.)

My extremely Catholic father always told me that it was a sin to go to any church other than the Catholic Church. And heaven forbid (quite literally) I should ever enter a synagogue and sing in Hebrew. It’s funny that when I do sing for temple gigs, I’m asked if I’m a Russian Jew. Now that would horrify my mother – especially the Russian part.

When people say, ‘I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” it’s usually a way of saying, “I don’t go to church” without the implications of “I am a godless heathen.” 

During the years I sang as a section leader, I identified myself as “pay-theist” or “mercenarian.” After choosing to leave church singing, at least for now, I thought I’d go to church for my own spiritual development, but that hasn’t happened yet. While Tim Russert was alive, I identified myself as a member of Our Lady of Meet the Press. But that hasn’t held my interest since then (sorry, David Gregory).  For awhile, Comedy Central was running Dogma on Sunday mornings and any movie in which Alanis Morrissette is the Divine Creator has to have some spiritual value. Lately, I’ve taken to going to the gym for Sunday Zumba classes so I have changed my status to Zumbafarian, which has some interesting Rastafarian implications that I rather enjoy. Maybe I should wear dreads.

I hope my participation as a church soloist/section leader has given people some comfort, hope and enhanced their worship, however they practice that. Right now, I don’t really feel as though I have it to give – for money or for my own spiritual expression. Perhaps I will again. I hope that for now, how I’m choosing to live my life as a teacher, as a wife, as a puppy mama, as a friend, as a writer, and as a singer will offer some kind of benefit to someone somewhere.

You need something to fall back on….

There’s a phrase I have always hated. “Something to fall back on.” As if what you’re doing with your life is unreliable, frivolous, unimportant, and worst of all, something that you’re really not that good at so don’t even bother to pursue it, no matter now passionate you feel about it.

But I’ve given that phrase a bit of thought this last week. I attended Lynn Eustis’ sessions at the NATS conference on Mental Health and the Singer. Lynn is on the faculty at University of North Texas and is the author or a book called The Singer’s Ego. She is writing a follow-up book called The Teacher’s Ego, which I will be ordering when it comes out. Her sessions were largely discussions between her and the attendees about why singers are as crazy as they are. A singer’s instrument is so personal. If three singers get up and sing “Caro nome” and each sings it with the same technical ability – hits all the right notes at the right times and with the right diction – and with the same amount of emotional investment (see previous blog entry on honesty), they will still all sound different. And someone is not going to like one of them for whatever reason, valid or not. It is hard to separate someone not liking your voice from someone not liking you. No wonder singers are neurotic.

If you as a singer invest yourself so fully in your craft and artistry to the detriment of your other interests, you are not a well-rounded person and you do not having something to “fall back on.” Not in case singing doesn’t work out for you. But in your life. Knowing what is going on in the world, participating in things that aren’t necessarily about networking and auditioning, having fun, being interesting.

I’m guilty of this. My husband was really into Showtime’s The Tudors while it was on, and we were talking about Catherine Howard’s final words at her execution, and I quoted them to him. Now, he is very interested in all things Renaissance and has read many well-researched books on the subject and he looked at me and said, “How do you know that?” and I said, “It’s the final page of Libby Larsen’s song cycle, Try me, good King.” He laughed and said “Everything you know is because of a piece of music.”

Lots of things are hitting me lately, and that was one of them. My life is not balanced. I’m probably 90/10 about the music. I can’t guarantee that I’ll make the switch to 50/50 or even 60/40, but if I could get 65/35, I think I could live with that.

Honesty … is such a lonely word….

Holy Serendipity, Batman.

I decided that these Billy Joel lyrics were going to be the title of today’s blog – and it’s been awhile since I wrote – and then I decided to lie by the pool and just let thoughts roll over me. Suddenly, I hear that very song as I lay in the sun. I haven’t heard this song for years. So – this was meant to be.

I haven’t written for awhile because my last blog entry – around Easter weekend – was negative, filled with vitriol, and it wasn’t what I want this blog to be. I want to inspire people to sing, to facilitate their singing, and not to make them feel guilty for making me feel bad. If I feel bad, it’s my own fault, not someone else’s. So I deleted that post, because I was embarrassed that I even posted it. It wasn’t honest.

A lot of the talk at the NATS Conference in Salt Lake City this past weekend had to do with singers being honest in their performances. Teachers being honest with their students. Students being honest with their teachers. This is what sets us apart as performers and as teachers – telling the truth in each and every communication we have, whether that is one-to-one in a lesson, one-to-two or more in an audition, or one to 100-10,000 in a performance setting.

The best example of a performer who tells the truth with her every gesture, with her every sound is Audra MacDonald. I had the privilege of seeing her perform in 110 in the Shade this past Friday at the Hale Center Theater in Orem, Utah.  It was a small theater (320 square foot stage) in an area that I can only describe as the Armpit of Utah. (Sorry to anyone who may be from Orem.) But she inhabited the role. She told the truth. She was present.  The same with Kelli O’Hara in her recital this past Saturday and in her masterclass on Sunday.

I want to be that kind of performer and teacher. I want my students to be those kinds of performers and students. And I want to do what it takes for us all to get there.

This message in the various sessions reminded me of a video I posted a few months ago on my studio FB account. Acting coach Patsy Rodenburg spoke at a TED conference on the subject of “Why I do theater.” How appropriate in a blog called “Why I sing.”

I will be honest with my students and with people for whom I sing, with whom I speak, and those who I love. A recent FB status of mine was “I have decided that I will no longer use my FB statuses for evil.” This means I will not be passive-aggressive; I will not seek to shame people for wrongs (perceived correctly or not) they have done me; I will not write cryptic messages with veiled innuendo where the clear message is “You know who you are.” I will be honest and I will be present with them in their lessons, on my Facebook pages, both personal and studio, and in this blog. If I have offended you with any of this negativity, I do apologize and I will try for it never to happen again. I may backslide, but hopefully I will catch myself.

I will be posting a lot more videos on the studio FB page. You may also check out my You Tube channel, Mezzoid01, in order to see what it is I like.

Have a great summer. I’ll try to write more regularly.