Taking criticism

Some of the negative criticism I’ve had, professionally:

  1. “My dear, you are not a mezzo. You do not have the low notes to be a mezzo and if you don’t by your age, you never will.” (Judge at a competition – I was 30 and had just started working with my teacher a year before; the low notes came in a few months later.)
  2. “Christine Thomas, while adequate, paled in comparison with last year’s alto, the splendid Theodora Hanslowe.” (Washington Post review – Teddy Hanslowe was an awesome mezzo, but considering I had walked up my skirt and fell on my face before “He shall feed his flock,” I’ll take adequate. But still. Crappy thing to say.)
  3. “Do you really think you’re suited to American song?” (Blanche Thebom, judge at the American Traditions Competition. My response, “Yes, I do. I’m an American and I love the music and I sing it well.” And now she’s dead and I’m not, so there.)
Some of the positive criticism I’ve had:
  1. “Christine Thomas sang the role of the Cat in a way that made you want to hear her Carmen.” (Joe McLellan, Washington Post, regarding my performance in Starbird. Never did sing Carmen, but I held that close to my heart for years. First review.)
  2. “The role of Smeton is one in which to spot future stars. Christine Thomas fits the bill.” (Octavio Roca, Washington Times, regarding Anna Bolena. Really should’ve pursued an agent after that.)
  3. “Thomas’ voice, an amazing instrument” (James Auer, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, regarding my performance of Yehuda Yanny’s “Incantations.”)
  4. “The wildly randy Wanda Kazlakowski” (Elaine Schmidt, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, regarding A Cudahy Carolers Christmas.) 
  5. “The girls’ mother, Marmee, was played with quiet dignity and wisdom by Christine Thomas, who also directed the play. Thomas has an amazing voice, and small wonder as she’s performed extensively as an opera singer. Listening to her solos was one of the richest treats of the show.” (Liz Ruth-Brinegar, MD Theatre Guide, Little Women)
  6. “As Marmee March, she is a vocal powerhouse. She has a strong, clean vocal style and commands the stage with every note in her solos “Here Alone” and “Days of Plenty.” Her portrayal as the matriarch of four daughters is admirable and she seems quite comfortable in the role.” (Jason Crawford Samios-Uy, Backstage Baltimore)
  7. “Thomas has a striking voice that is perfectly suited for her solo numbers. Filling both “Days of Plenty” and “Here Alone” with mournful sorrow and deep nostalgia, Thomas emotionally connects to the songs on a deep and earnest level, creating a much revered Marmee.” (Mandy Gunther, Theater Bloom)*
*Mandy also found me somewhat aloof and frigid in the role, initially, but I blame that on the fact that I was also directing the show and there was something going on with the Christmas tree and the projections right before I went on, so I was distracted. But I clearly got over it by the time I had to sing. 
So I take the good and I throw out the bad. Or, rather I decide if the bad had any merit, and if it didn’t, move on.
As Sondheim said in Sunday in the Park with George (the video of which I posted a few weeks ago), you have to move on….
Stop worrying where you’re going
Move on
If you can know where you’re going
You’ve gone
Just keep moving on
I chose, and my world was shaken
So what?
The choice may have been mistaken
The choosing was not
You have to move on…

My Favorite "Sings"

I wrote this nearly 17 years ago (!!!) when I was in the infancy of my teaching career, and it still pretty much describes my approach to vocal technique. I may have published this before but I can’t find it, and it showed up in my FB memories this morning, so here goes:

My Favorite Sings
To the tune of (oh, you know!)

Lip trills and buzzes and breath exercises –
Whimper like a puppy to find where your sighs* is –
Expand your bottom ribs as though they were wings,
These are a few of my favorite sings!

Sing thru the “stick shift” to free the passaggio**,
Blow on your finger to feel the appoggio,
Locate your resonance with lots of “ming-mings”,
These are a few of my favorite sings!

Don’t lift your chin up, it pulls on your larynx!
A noisy breath means you’re tightening your pharynx!
Relax your shoulders and all other things,
Get ready to work on your favorite sings!

Don’t gasp or wheeze!
An incipient sneeze
Will give space to you
And don’t forget if you look
weird when you sing,
You’ll probably sound weird too!

*sighs – balanced onset exercise
**a chromatic exercise for registration

Found a composer!

I am thrilled to announce that Garth Baxter has agreed to accept a commission to compose three Irish songs. Garth and I have been Facebook friends for awhile now, and he has written some pieces for a good friend of mine, soprano Annie Gill, and so I thought I’d check out some of his work on YouTube.

The first song that came up was a choral setting of “Wild Mountain Thyme,” which I posted the other day as the song that has meant a lot to my husband and me at our regular pilgrimages to Milwaukee Irish Fest. I thought that this was a sign, so I contacted Garth immediately.

I’m in the process of getting the poems pronounced for me and I’ve ordered an Irish-English dictionary from Amazon to help me do a word for word translation.

This is very exciting. I don’t know when we’ll get started, let alone finished, but I think this will be a fantastic collaboration!!

Now to decide whether the recital they’ll be on will be the originally intended “outside the box” theme or if I’ll just go with a Celtic theme and reprise some of the things that I did with MacDowell Club a few years ago….

More info to follow!

Cringeworthy wedding/funeral music

These are all songs I have sung (or heard) at weddings that made me cringe:

  • Beauty & the Beast (The Musical): Unless both the bride and groom are beautiful. Otherwise people will smirk.
  • You and Me Against the World (Helen Reddy): Seriously, what does this say about your guests? Plus there’s a line about “Remember when we went to the circus and you were scared of the clowns.” Really? 
  • O mio babbino caro (from the opera Gianni Schicchi): The text literally means “O dear daddy, let me marry my boyfriend or I will go to the highest point and jump into the Arno River. Oh god, I wish I were dead.” NO.
  • The Wedding Song: If you have a guitarist, maybe. On organ, it’s death. And really, it’s only one note. Over and over and over. I have a friend who charges an extra $100 to sing that song. I just try to talk people out of it.
  • Unforgettable (Nat King Cole): No religious reference whatsoever. Lounge lizard material. Save it for the reception.
  • The Prayer (Bocelli/Dion): It’s not a solo. If you have a tenor and mezzo, okay. But as a soloist, it doesn’t work. It’s awkward. (Honestly, even as a duet, I feel like it’s the tenor sings in Italian and then the mezzo translates…. it’s weird.)
  • Endless Love (Lionel Ritchie): The song is about teen sex. Again, if it’s a duet, you might be able to make it work. But really, ew.
  • Power of Love (Celine Dion): Yes, I sang this as the recessional at a Catholic wedding. I couldn’t believe they allowed it. The priest even structured his homily around it. The chorus was “‘Cause I am your lady – And you are my man – Whenever you reach for me – I’ll do all that I can.” NO. This is church. We’re not singing about SEX. Not that there’s anything wrong with sex. It’s just not appropriate in a church service.
Basically, if you are getting married in a church, your music needs to reference God and/or Jesus somehow. Otherwise, do a civil service. I did a wedding years ago where not a single reading or song talked about God. Then why get married in a church? Have a civil service and then have whatever music you want at the reception.
Not that I’m opinionated or anything.
I’m more liberal on funerals. If a song meant something to the deceased, great. I’ve sung “Look for the silver lining,” “Somewhere my love,” and “Every day of my life,” all songs that meant something to the deceased or the deceased’s immediate family. The worst funeral I ever sang was for a 95 year old man at which I had to sing a contemporary Christian song that (A) did not fit my voice (B) I’m sure he’d never heard, and (C) former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson was the eulogist. I felt like that funeral wasn’t authentic. If the deceased could’ve, he would’ve sat up in his coffin and said, “What the hell is that cheesy piece of music? I wanted Amazing Grace!”
Your wedding should reflect your beliefs, your hopes and your dreams. Not just pretty songs that you like. They should mean something. Your funeral should reflect things that were important in your life.
At my funeral (not the church service, but the memorial service/wake), I want this video to be played. If it’s not, I will haunt you all. (Plus I met Tommy Tune in the elevator at the Kennedy Center back in the 90s, so there’s a sentimental value besides the words meaning everything to me.)

"Just got hit by a semi. Shit."

Every morning, I review the “On this day” feature on Facebook to see what I was thinking about and doing on this very day every since 2007. In 2013, I posted:

Just got hit by a semi. Shit.
I was driving back to Milwaukee to close out our Wauwatosa house. I was driving alone – Bill was working and really didn’t want to go back the house (he was having a very hard time with leaving it in the first place). It was a long drive, but I was making great time, and in the couple of minutes before it happened, I was just thinking, “I really like long-distance driving. I find it very Zen. Huh. Why is that semi moving into the left lane? I was going to pass him. Oh well, I’ll just hang back here till he moves back and then I’ll pass him.”
Well, he didn’t move back (and then I hit a pothole and figured that was why he had moved, because he knew it was there) and I waited. He didn’t show any signs he was going to move so I sped up a bit and then… he decided to move back. 
I don’t remember if I honked or screamed, but he saw me at the last possible second before he would’ve crushed me. His wheel had hooked into my wheel well at that point and he’d torn off its cover. The impact threw me off the road, and I nearly lost control of the car, but I was able to stop on the shoulder just short of the guardrail on the bridge – in the middle of an on-ramp.
Typing it terrifies me all over again.

The damage was strictly cosmetic (although I had a lot of car repairs over the next three years before I traded it in, and I can’t help but think that, somehow, the car was compromised by the impact). 
When I pulled over to the shoulder on the other side of the ramp, the driver of the semi stopped to see if I was okay. I looked at him and said, “You. Hit. Me.” It was the only thing I could think of to say. Someone told me once that that was such a mezzo thing to do. All I knew was that I was angry and now I was going to be late getting back to Milwaukee. I really didn’t think I’d be able to drive the car the rest of the way – but I could. And got it checked out and estimated the next morning, and after closing out the house, drove it back the following week. 
While sitting there, after I called the police to report the accident and my husband, I posted the above status to FB. And then didn’t post anything for 10 minutes, because I was on the phone with my insurance company to arrange the estimate. I scared the hell out of people for a bit. Didn’t mean to – but I sure was gratified by the outpouring of caring that my friends displayed in those ten minutes and the days that followed.
I am very lucky to be alive. I’m lucky that Mini Coopers are tiny little tanks. I’m lucky that the driver saw me in time to avoid crushing me. I’m lucky that his employer paid for all of my repairs. I’m lucky I’m a better driver than I thought I was and was able to get control of the car. 
Since this is supposed to be a singing blog, here’s Natalie Weiss interpreting the words of John Bucchino, which express what I’m feeling now, 4 years later: Grateful.

You like me! You authentically like me!

When Sally Field accepted the Academy Award for Best Actress for the movie Places in the Heart, she made a speech that has been misquoted as “You like me! You really like me!” Her actual speech was “I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time [she won the award, for Norma Rae] I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it — and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me.”

As a performer, needing to be liked often comes off as needy, as if you aren’t performing to tell the truth and to be authentic, but out of a desire to be popular. If you audition with that mindset or with the mindset of “I really need this job,” it’s often seen as desperate and inauthentic.

When I was living in Milwaukee, I didn’t feel as though I was liked. And it wasn’t just the last time I was living there. It was growing up there as well. I haven’t had that feeling living on the East Coast. And I think I know why. I think I was raised with the idea that other people’s opinions of me were paramount and that I needed to make myself likeable. And I never felt that I knew how to do that.

The last few auditions I did in Milwaukee played against that idea – I went in with a self-protective and closed-off mindset of “I don’t care if you like me. I don’t care if you hire me. You probably aren’t going to anyway. I’m just going to sing these songs. Bite me if you don’t like me.” (That last part might be a bit extreme.) And it backfired. I came off as uninvested in my music. I didn’t enjoy the audition and I didn’t get hired. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yesterday I read a blogpost by Noe Kagayama, who writes the blog The Bulletproof Musician (to which I subscribe). This article was about assuming that people like you from the get-go. Not that you have to make them like you, but that they already do.

Basically, it talked about everything that I’ve done wrong in my life – that research has shown that self-protective behaviors like impersonality or hiding your true feelings negatively impact people’s perception of you. It might seem like this study was conducted by Captain Obvious himself, but to those of us who were raised with the idea that people wouldn’t like us if we were too silly, too honest, too real, it’s eye-opening.

(Interestingly enough, I never felt that way in my Milwaukee studio – only in performing circles and in my life. I think I already assumed my students would like me. Huh.)

Kagayama closes his article with the conclusion that entering a new situation (whether it be teaching or performing) with the idea that the students/audience/colleagues already like us is paramount to creating an environment that is authentic, focused, and conducive to creating music.

“Otherwise, we risk going into a situation determined to prove ourselves, and come across as defensive, stubborn, and snobbish. Or in an effort to avoid showing our cards and letting on how excited we are, end up seeming withdrawn, cold, aloof, and standoffish. And ironically, end up getting exactly the result that we were afraid of in the first place.” [Emphasis mine]

I’m tired of that result – and I’ve only had it once since I’ve been back here, and it involved a situation where I was upset and afraid to make my feelings known. And it won’t happen again. 

How Irish Music Changed (and might still be changing) My Life

When I think of Irish music, I think of calling in to the help desk for my then-new IBM PC and getting an Irish customer service rep:

Me: “Oh, you’re from Dublin! I love Irish music.”
CSR: “Around here, we just call it music.”

In 1995, my then-boyfriend/now-husband and I went to Milwaukee to visit my parents. Our visit coincided with Milwaukee Irish Fest 1995. I had been to IrishFest before with my ex-husband, probably in the first year or so of its existence, and we just didn’t have a good time. Then again, we rarely had a good time together. He was the only man I knew who could sit through a rock concert stone-faced and then claim that he was having a great time.

Bill, on the other hand, took to it right away. He loved everything about it; the music, the dancing, the cultural exhibits. And when we got back to Baltimore, and he started researching cities with family medicine residencies, Milwaukee suddenly became a place he wanted to go. And that’s where we wound up. And we went to Irish Fest every year for the next 17 years, till we moved. And we’ve been back twice since then and will be going back next month. We’ve also been to Ireland and want to go back.

There’s not a drop of Irish blood in me. I’m Slovenian and Estonian, but my parents never really introduced me to their cultures as far as music was concerned. And my ex was 100% German, and I was briefly in a German polka-rock wedding band (another story for another time), and I speak a bit of German, but I always hated German food and the music didn’t move me. (Lieder is another story.)

I coordinated two Irish themed concerts for the MacDowell Club in Milwaukee, and I was particularly proud of the second one. I did a lot of research on Irish classical composers, and coordinated pieces for clarinet, piano, piano trio, organ, and voice. Finding contemporary classical vocal pieces was particularly difficult – I could find pieces with texts by Irish composers, but not a lot of pieces by Irish composers, and nothing with Irish Gaelic texts.

About 7 years ago, I found three poems that I particularly liked by Irish poets that were written in Irish Gaelic (with translations provided by the poets). I wrote to the poets and asked for their permission to have the pieces set to music. And then I just sat on it for the last 7 years. I did contact the Irish Fest Center and Irish Cultural & Heritage Center in Milwaukee to see if someone could help me with pronunciation, but no one returned my messages.

A few weeks ago, I put the word out on the listserv Nextdoor that I was looking for help with pronunciation and got multiple offers. Today someone got back to me with the pronunciation for the first piece. Wow. I can see that my next project will be to figure out the IPA for this – I never could’ve done this on my own.

The other thing I need to do is to find a composer who will be willing to set this to music. I thought I had someone in Milwaukee lined up, but she hasn’t returned my messages. (Do we see a pattern here? Perhaps the pattern that resulted in my moving in the first place?) Ideally, I’d like someone of Irish descent, but that’s not a dealbreaker.

My goal is to have these pieces ready to perform in the 2018-2019 season, as part of the Out of The Box concert that I wrote about a week ago. And maybe, just maybe, the Irish Fest Center might be interested in sponsoring a performance of them….

Not holding my breath about that.

This is the song that closes Irish Fest every year, and why we stay till the last note is sung on the last day (which is called “The Scattering”). It ends the jam session of all the musicians on the grounds. This recording is by the late Tommy Makem, who I saw perform many times before his death in 2007. It’s a very special song to me. 

How Making Cocktails is like Practicing

When I first met my husband, I wasn’t much of a drinker. In fact, he was horrified on our first date to find that my beer tastes ran to Miller Lite and my wine tastes ran to White Zinfandel (writing that horrifies me as well). It’s amazing we went out on a second date.

Well, all that changed. He was a homebrewer and had worked as a vintner’s apprentice, and taught me all about good quality beers and wines, and I expanded my tastes. He was a good teacher. Perhaps too good.

This is not to say I spend nights dancing on bar tops with a lampshade on my head, yelling “Woo!” as I swig from a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. (At least not often.) But I do enjoy my wine, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed it hitting me harder. And it’s been harder to lose weight. It’s not so much that I eat more when I have a glass or two of wine – it’s just the calories in the glass or two of wine are sticking to me much more than they used to.

Many years ago, I started getting Real Simple magazine, and I have vowed to keep getting the magazine until the day I opened an issue and said, “Huh, nothing new here.” But every month, I find something new, whether it’s a new use for binder clips (you can hold a sponge with them!) or an article a month or so ago on mindful drinking.

As a result, I’ve gotten into making classic and craft cocktails (although supposedly the craft cocktail movement is dead) and I have noticed several things:

  1. It takes longer to make a cocktail than it does to pour a glass of wine.
  2. I sip at it over a longer period than either wine or beer.
  3. I keep the hard liquor and mixers upstairs, so making a second one would involve my going upstairs (if I’m downstairs watching TV) or back in the house (if I’m sitting on the porch) or downstairs (if I’m upstairs reading). This is not to say that I never have a second one, but it’s more unlikely. The wine and beer, on the other hand, are kept in the basement and access is too easy.
  4. I feel greater satisfaction, like I created something all by myself. I seek new recipes to try to see what else is out there.
  5. Consequently, I have less to drink.
  6. I feel more clear-eyed and sleep better.
  7. I’m more productive the next day.
So what lessons can I take from this in my vocal practice?
  1. I need to have all my materials on hand so that I can access them more easily.
  2. When I practice, I need to be cognizant of how everything is working, rather than race through vocalises and pieces without thinking.
  3. I need to keep distractions out of the practice room. Phone on airplane mode or out of the room entirely.
  4. As a result, my improvements will be faster and I’ll try new things.
  5. Consequently, I will practice more.
  6. I will get even better.
  7. I will get even more singing work (which will then keep me from getting other things that I want to do …. see Feast or Famine: Dammit).
I can probably apply these to other kinds of practice, such as strength training or cardio, or yoga practice (assuming I ever do yoga again). But since this is a singing blog, and I strayed pretty far from singing with this topic (note: I can make anything about singing if I try hard enough), I’ll just stick to that.

Vocalise Project

Years ago, I was invited to present a vocal technique workshop at the Polish National Catholic Church church musicians conference. (This is not Polish people in the Roman Catholic Church – different denomination.) That was when I organized my vocal exercise sheets around the concept of BRAAP:

B – Breath
R – Resonance
A – Articulation
A – Alignment
P – Phonation

My friend, Carolina Kipnis, said “braap” sounded like an extended belch. I said that’s what appealed to me about it. It was memorable. It’s why I used the P for Phonation as opposed to “OR” for Onset and Release. Because BRAAOR just sounded awkward. Or kind of like a Wookie.

The exercises I used were culled from things that I frequently use and supplemented with various exercises from books. In the I-don’t-know-how-many years since I created them, I have abandoned some of them completely, changed others, and found new ones that I like better. I hand these out to beginning students (at the 2nd lesson, because if I give them to people at their first, they often think they don’t need to come back a 2nd time because they have my tools).

So I’m revising and expanding my sheets. I will still follow the BRAAP format, but I also want to add a page (or two) of more advanced vocal concepts – range/registration, agility, legato, etc.

If you took or take lessons with me, and there was an exercise that particularly resonated (see what I did there?) with you, tell me what it was and I will include it.

I hope to have this done by the end of summer, so that I can give it out in the fall. The biggest hurdle I have is that I don’t have the software I used back in 200x anymore (let alone the computer I did them on), so I have to do the whole thing from scratch.

I wouldn’t mind doing some kind of private videos on YouTube for some of them as well. Or maybe a podcast about vocal exercises. Stay tuned for that.

Feel free to message me about exercises you liked – or comment here!