Shut up, inner voice

Yesterday I gave a lesson to a person I consider a peer. He is a pianist, singer, voice teacher, and music director in Baltimore, extremely well-respected. (Basically, he is the Baltimore equivalent of Milwaukee’s Donna Kummer, right down to the law degree.) He has asked me for lessons a couple of times, and I have to admit it made me very nervous. I cancelled the first one, nearly a year ago, because I honestly was exhausted after a morning of rehearsals for O’er the Ramparts and didn’t think I would be at my best. Since then, we just haven’t been able to make the time work. So when he called me this time, I thought, okay, fine, let’s do it. There were two reasons:

1. I am a good teacher and I have something to offer.
2. I really needed the money. It’s been a lean summer.

But my inner voice was whispering, “Who do you think you are? He’s a better pianist than you. He’s more educated than you are. He might even be a better singer than you are. If you do badly, he’ll tell everyone and then people will know that you really aren’t very good.”

For some odd reason, that voice has an Estonian accent. I don’t know why. She whispers variations of this taunt in my head frequently. Most of the time, I keep her at bay, but once in awhile, she gets in my way. (Hey, that rhymed.) She has been known to keep me from trying new things, from taking risks, from living fully. Not as often as she used to, but she tries.

So when he came over, I admitted to him that I was a little nervous. And then I sat down behind the piano and that all disappeared. Because when I’m there, the little voice – oh, let’s just call her “Renate,” shall we? – has nothing to say. This is where I’m in my element, this is where I take control. The lesson was great. I had fun, he had fun, he paid me (yay!) and scheduled another lesson (double yay!).

And today I encountered another inner voice – this one had my own voice, or maybe it was that of art teachers in the past. I decided to try adult color books as a way of meditation. I’ve never been good at art. I can visualize what I want to do, I can come up with an idea, but when it comes time to create something within the visual arts, I … suck. But the patterns, which were billed as “relaxing,” were already created for me. All I have to do is to choose which one to start with, pick out the colors and go. I’m pretty good at decorating, so this should be a piece of cake.

So I did. I actually began it a couple of days ago. I started with the outside circle and did the outer ring first, got that far and called a day. Today I picked it up and decided to do a little more. And that’s when the voice started.

“Why on earth did you choose black for the outline? That looks awful.”
“That brown in the center boxes looks like mud. Why did you pick that?”
“The outer ring looks like band aids. Turquoise and blue band-aids. You suck at this.”

I told the inner voice – we’ll call her “Kristina” – to STFU and picked up an orange colored pencil and started to work on the center. Hey, that looks kind of cool. I really like that. I think I’ll outline it with turquoise – oops, I went outside the lines. I’ll just erase…. oh. There’s no eraser. I can’t erase it. I’ll just continue. Maybe I’ll fix it later. Just go. And it struck me that this is what I’ve been told – you can’t be an artist and an editor/critic at the same time, whether that art is writing, drawing, singing, playing. You just have to create and fix what you can later, assuming it needs to be fixed.

And as I continued, Kristina shut up. I don’t own coloring. I am not a master at it. Art is definitely outside my comfort zone. But when I was done, I was proud of it. There are things I’d change. I wouldn’t use the black outline. That brown center doesn’t really work with the turquoise and blue. But it’s pretty. And maybe I’ll get better at it. Or maybe I won’t. No one will die if I don’t become a better artist.

So here’s the finished product. (Don’t look too closely, okay?)

Getting better = having more fun

I saw this on Facebook this morning and it spoke to me. As most of my friends know, I was singing very little in Milwaukee for the last ten years that I was there. There just weren’t that many opportunities for me, and it was very discouraging. When I sang at the Hal Leonard Publishers Showcase in 2012, I realized I still had something to give and really wanted to – no, I had to – give it. Plus I sang with some terrific singers, and I discovered how much I missed that. It made me step up my game so that I wouldn’t be the weak link. (I know, that’s my mom talking – “Everyone was good except you.”)

My husband got the job offer in Baltimore in the middle of a total upstairs renovation. Most people were shocked that we were doing this at this point – except the tile guy on the project. He was a British guy who had been a session bass player in London. He told me that he wasn’t all that good to begin with, but there was so much work available in the area that he got hired all the time, and as a result, he played with some people who were really good. That made him get better – so that he could keep up with people who ultimately became  his peers. (And then he fell in love with a girl in Milwaukee, had no one to play with and stopped playing the bass. So it wasn’t just me!)

Since I’ve been here, I’ve felt better about myself as a singer and felt that I’ve gotten more respect as one.  And for however much time I have left as a singer, I’m not going to waste it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to practice some Rossini….

Singing Mindlessly/Scaring the Dog

This reminds me of sitting in my parents’ house and doing lip trills w/o even knowing I was doing them, and my mother saying, “Are you cold? Do you need a sweater?” and I said, “No, mom, I’m fine.” A little later, I did another one (again, unconsciously) and she said, “I can turn up the heat!” and I said, “No, I’m fine.” Third time, I did it again, and she said, “I have a sweater if you’re cold,” and I said, “No, really, I’m fine.” She said, “Why are you making that noise?” and I said, “It’s a singer thing, I didn’t even know I was doing it,” and she said, “Well, stop it. You’re scaring the dog.”

It sounds like the young woman on the subway was making a conscious decision to vocalize publicly. Maybe she was on her way to an audition in a place where there were signs saying, “No vocalizing! Violators will be asked to leave!” (They exist.) Maybe she was ridiculously pleased with herself for being in NYC as a singer and wanted to share that with everyone. 

While I have made sounds publicly in inappropriate places (usually unconsciously) from time to time, they’re usually limited to lip trills and puppy whimpers. I did vocalize walking down a street once on my way to an audition because I was in a hurry, it was noisy anyway, and I figured I wasn’t standing still long enough for anyone to tell me to stop. (Kind of like why I run on the street instead of on the treadmill – because my swearing under my breath in a fixed place would be taken much less kindly than the same down a street while there’s traffic noise that could possibly drown it out. Or at least I’m going fast enough for someone to say to himself, “Did she just say what I think she said?”)

One thing I can say is that singing on the street in NYC, even if it’s just lip trills and humming, will make a lot less heads turn than if you do the same in Milwaukee. Trust me on this.

Revisiting Chiaroscuro

I just got home from Philadelphia, a city to which I had never been before. One of the highlights of our mini-vacation was a trip to the beautiful Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was featuring an impressionism exhibition. I’ve always loved impressionist art, and this exhibit was particularly gorgeous.

One painting that caught my eye was Renoir’s “Peonies.” Renoir is usually known for his nudes and for pictures of people – I haven’t seen that many of his still lifes. This painting reminded me of the blog I wrote several years ago in response to a performance given by a student of mine who had worked for months on the song “Astonishing,” a long song from Little Women that requires layers of mood and the ability to switch vocal colors to match the journey that Jo is taking. The student and I spent months on it, only to have her director tell her, the night before the performance, that she wanted her to belt it all the way through, and, in fact, if she couldn’t hit the high note (an e-flat) in a full, hard, no-mix belt, that she should just sing a different note. Which she did. It completely undermined our work together and showed a lack of respect from a colleague that, in all honestly, had a great deal to do with why I left Milwaukee. (But that’s another story.)

I feel that what we had tried to get (and had succeeded!) in the three months leading up to the performance was akin to Renoir’s painting duplicated below – a vase of flowers that are all in the same color family, but are not all one color.  Not only are there red flowers, but there are other colors, there is light, and there is shadow. The impressionists discovered that shadow was not brown or black, as had been commonly shown in paintings, but rather a reflection of the colors in the surrounding objects. A song shouldn’t be all one color, or simply black and white, but reflect what is all around it. The text, the emotion, what has happened in the story and what is yet to happen. Having that palette of colors and the ability to draw upon them is what allows the artist to create and serve his/her art.

Strive for finding the colors within as you seek the right way to sing a song.  Those colors may change, depending on your perspective. Monet and Renoir set up easels at the same location and painted the same scenes, side-by-side – but the pictures are not the same (La Grenouillère, 1869). Each found a different way to interpret the same view.

*Caveat: I do not blame the singer for her decision to throw out all the work we’d done – she was under a great deal of pressure from an extremely intimidating director – who was an excellent stage director and choreographer, but was not knowledgeable of vocal training.*

Why I – self-care

This has nothing to do with singing but it just annoyed me this morning in a post on someone else’s wall. This is my response.

If you think that I am not authentic because

  1. I wear makeup.
  2. I get my hair done. Cut and colored. 
  3. I get my eyelashes done.
  4. I may or may not have done injectables in the past and would do them again if I had the money. Assuming I’ve done them in the past. 
  5. I like clothes that fit me well, are comfortable AND make me feel attractive.
  6. I work out to feel and look better. Not as much as I’d like to or should but I do.

If you think any of these make me phony or superficial or less authentic than you are, then YOU DON’T KNOW ME.

And don’t you dare suggest that I’m deceiving myself if I can take care of myself in the way that I like and also be a vital, creative, and damn powerful force of nature.


No Autotune Necessary

Here are ten isolated vocal tracks of pop singers (the link says 11, but the one of Idina Menzel has been disabled – pity).

While we all knew (I’m using the Royal We here) that Ann Wilson and Freddie Mercury were rock gods, it’s nice to know that even contemporary artists like One Direction have chops. And that Beyoncé’s voice can stand on its own. It’s heartbreaking to hear how incredible Whitney Houston had been, knowing how her voice wound up, as well as how incredible Amy Winehouse was, knowing how she wound up – and wondering if she would’ve wound up going down the same vocal path as Whitney Houston if she’d lived as long.

And it’s nice to hear isolated vocal tracks that are good, instead of ones we can poke fun at. And with that in mind, I will not post recordings of Linda McCartney or Britney Spears.

Why I sing OPERA

Last year, I returned to the stage after a ten year break. I did three shows – Edward II, Sound of Music, and O’er the Ramparts. One was a cabaret style frame for a straight play, in which I improvised a character, Sally Fitzgerald Kelly, owner and proprietor of the Black & White Bar. The second was a classic musical, and the third a world premiere musical. And then in June of this year, I did another musical, Music Man, in which I played Mrs. Paroo. This show had a special significance to me – it was the first show I was ever in, as a chorister at Hamilton High School.

Doing musicals was what I intended to do when I went into music. I loved all the classic musicals. But when I went to college, that wasn’t the direction I was steered toward. There were no musical theater degree programs in those days. Everything was classical. So, I wound up being an opera singer, with my first professional gig right out of college with the Florentine Opera in Carmen. And I put aside musicals for the longest time – I sang for 7 seasons with Washington Opera (now Washington National Opera), I did Gilbert & Sullivan with the Young Vic in Baltimore and Victorian Lyric in DC, I sang with Wolf Trap Opera, Washington Concert Opera, Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia, and then when I came to Wisconsin, I did a couple of shows with Lyric Opera of Chicago, toured with Opera for the Young out of Madison, did a show with Dupage Opera Theater, with Chicago Opera Theater, three shows with Skylight, and then…. everything stopped.  We won’t discuss why. but it did.

But last weekend, I returned to the opera stage as Marcellina in Le Nozze di Figaro with Carroll Opera Theater. And I felt at home again. So – why do I sing opera when musical theater was my dream?

I sing opera because musical theater wasn’t an option back when I was in college. Not only because of the way education was structured in those days, but because the musicals on Broadway were dance-oriented. And in the case of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, you had to be able to skate. I was neither a dancer nor a skater. So it wasn’t an option.

I sing opera because that’s the way my voice seems to work. I don’t have a timbre that lends itself to pop-y musical theater. It works with the legit stuff, and I intend to continue to pursue those kinds of roles. But I remember buying sheet music for a Stevie Nicks song and taking it home to play on the piano. As I sang, “Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom,” I stopped and said to myself, “I sound… stupid!” And I’d never had a voice lesson at that point. It wasn’t a question of being overtrained and losing my natural sound. My natural sound IS classical.

But most of all, I sing opera because I love opera. And I’d forgotten how much I love opera. I’m waitlisted for Washington National Opera chorus and I am kicking myself up and down the block for not making myself available for Carmen. I don’t know if that would’ve made a difference in their casting decisions – but I’ve done the show twice before, and doing it again would be sheer heaven. It’s a lot of work, true. But I’d love it.

And although I identify as a voice teacher who is a musical theater specialist and I do love musical theater and want to continue having it as part of my life, I am an opera singer.

Has musical theater been a boon or a detriment to my return to the opera stage?

  • Musical theater has enhanced my performing. Having done dialogue has improved my ability to do recitative in a way that doing recitative never did for me doing dialogue.
  • Although for awhile it seemed that my operatic resonance had retreated because of all the work I’d been doing in contemporary commercial music as a teacher, I have found the balance and I don’t sound like a musical theater singer when I’m singing opera (and vice versa).
  • The staging I did for my studio showcases in Milwaukee has improved my own acting in a way that years of performing at places like the Kennedy Center never did.

I’m hoping that more of this is ahead – although my next gig is Madame Dilly in Bernstein Remembered in NYC in October. But I’m coming up with a list of roles that I can see myself doing in both genres, which may be my next blog.

Because I will be blogging more. Count on it.