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!

Zumba is my jam

One of the things on my bucket list was to become licensed as a Zumba instructor. I think I’ve been doing Zumba for 9 years now, and from 2008-2013, especially the last year or so, I did it 4-5x/week. And was in the best shape of my life.

Last year, I finally had the time and resources to take the licensing course. And oh, I felt out of shape. I had not been taking classes because I couldn’t find any that worked with my schedule. I felt like, “What must the rest of the class think of me, tripping around here, that I could actually think I’m good at this?”

It was kind of like the recital I gave in September 2011 at Carroll University, when I had not been singing anything or anywhere for about 6 years (other than vocalises in my basement), and had just resumed regular lessons. I was out of shape. I wasn’t singing well, the pieces I picked were kind of random and not really songs that spoke to me, and I was no role model at that point. That was a butt-kicker. That’s when I started to work regularly with Connie Haas, and to work on myself, not just everyone else.

I joined a gym here in Baltimore that offered some Zumba classes, but not enough that worked with my schedule. So I just expanded my membership (much as I did with the WAC in Milwaukee) to include other classes, and I have been branching out and going to the other classes. Today I took a class in Zumba Toning, which involves light weights plus Zumba. And it was fun. I’ve mentioned my licensing, and one of the teachers told me that they were looking for subs. I demurred, saying that I’m still not up to snuff yet, and she said, “It’s okay, we’ll mentor you.” So there’s that.

In both cases, I had to expand myself. I wasn’t getting enough by doing Zumba videos at home or by going to the gym down the street. I wasn’t getting enough as a singer by demonstrating things for students in my basement and fitting in practice when I could.

Back in 2012 (a year after that horrible Carroll recital), I sang on a recital at Cardinal Stritch University, and I sang the Rossini “La Regata Veneziana.” Those pieces felt like home to me. During my preparation, a little over 5 years ago now, I posted on Facebook:

“La regata veneziana” kicking my a$$ but in a good way. Like vocal Zumba.

And it was like vocal Zumba. It was hard, it challenged me, but it was stuff I loved, stuff that felt natural (ultimately) and fulfilling. And I need to find more things like that – music that feels like home and that I want to share with others.

That’s the way I feel about Zumba, and that’s why I want to teach that too.

Singing is my jam. Zumba is my jam.

And now I want some jam.

Feast or Famine. Dammit.

Last night I auditioned for a role that would’ve fit me like a glove. It was the role of Francesca in Bridges of Madison County, originally sung by Kelli O’Hara on Broadway. A leading role for a legit soprano of a certain age (meaning older than 35). It’s being done by Dundalk Community Players at the end of October/beginning of November.

I was invited to audition for it by someone affiliated with the company who came to see me at Spotlighters in my recent cabaret show, The Not Here Cabaret (coming soon to Germano’s). My initial reaction was, “Oh, I’m sure I can’t make that work with the high holidays/trip to Wisconsin for Ryan’s wedding.” And then I saw the audition notice and realized that I was free from 10/1 on and the show opened 10/27! Plus I had a bunch of free days around which I could be scheduled. We could make that work, right?

Plus, the day I scheduled the audition, Pippin and I took a longer walk than usual and walked past one of those little lending libraries in a park and I found the photographic essay for the 1994 Bridges of Madison County movie, starring Meryl Streep (!) and Clint Eastwood. It’s a sign, right? Plus her 3 big songs (one of which is really an aria) are all in my new Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology, Soprano, volume 6. This means something. It has to.

Nope. Couldn’t make it work, and if it was a sign, it’s not for this production.

Well, I forgot about Concert Artists of Baltimore’s Gershwin concert, for which I haven’t received a contract yet, but which I’ve been told I’m doing. So I dutifully wrote up all my conflicts on the sheet, like a good little auditioner, and sang the absolute pants off of “How could I ever know.” (Which, coincidentally, was sung by the woman right before me – not quite as-pants-off as my rendition, but sung well.) And the director said, “You have a marvelous voice. But you have too many conflicts.”

DAMMIT.

For 10 years in Milwaukee, I did nothing. And now, this is the second time this year where I was engaged in too many other projects to do something I really wanted to do. And I can’t audition for Candide at the Kennedy Center because it coincides with my trip to Milwaukee for Irish Fest. Even if I could audition for it on Tuesday, before I left, the callbacks are Friday.

DAMMIT.

The up side is that all the things that I’m doing that are keeping me from this role are paid things. I am making a living as a musician/actor and as a teacher. And I’ll be able to go to the Maryland Renaissance Festival a few times, which I probably could not do if I were doing the show. This will make my husband happy.

I am also resolved to learn her songs. This is the first company in the area to do the show, it won’t be the last. (But please, do it soon before I age out of the role.)

And the director liked me and wants to hear me again in the future. So maybe something else will come up.

But still.

DAMMIT.

Mindfulness v. concentration

 I have been trying to meditate for years. But I’ve been plagued with lifelong monkey mind (some might call it adult ADD) and have been unable to sit still and contemplate my navel. And I figured that perhaps that’s just not my thing. After all, I have found that that kind of focus and rest immediately before a performance actually makes me wind up being more nervous once the performance begins (which was the subject of another blog entry a few years ago).

But as I get older (ugh), I find the need for stopping more to focus and to concentrate. On a whim, I purchased an app called The Daily Calm. I’ve been using it for months now for the sleep stories – stories in which someone reads to you, with the idea that you fall asleep. And I have to say – it works! It works better for me with male voices, for the most part. I don’t know why, but I can fall asleep to the sound of a man’s voice far easier than the sound of a woman’s.

And because I’m a cheapskate, I figured I had better maximize the value of this paid app, so I’ve started doing the morning meditations. They’re only ten minutes long, and each one has a different focus. Today’s was Concentration, a subject that I was worried about because, well, see monkey mind, above.

But this particular one identified the difference between concentration and focusing on a particular topic and the awareness of mindfulness. Mindfulness is not judging – it is noticing and being aware. 
So applying this to singing practice:
  • When you are vocalizing, you are mindful of what is happening. You notice that when you are doing an arpeggio, that the transition over the top may or may not be as successful as you like. You notice what is at play when it is successful and when it is not. 
  • In order to make that transition more successful, you concentrate on the technical aspect that worked and apply it in every case. 
Mindfulness alone will not advance your abilities. It must be there for you to draw awareness, but the element of concentration/focus is essential for you to make change. Concentration without awareness is equally pointless. If you set a timer to practice for 15 minutes but are not aware of what is happening during that 15 minutes, the only thing that you have accomplished at the end of that time is having sung for 15 minutes. You must practice with focus and mindfulness in order to accomplish a goal. 
Perhaps, like my app, we could experiment with vocal practice by setting a one-word goal for a particular session. Some ideas might be:
  • Legato
  • Agility
  • Resonance
How will you structure your time around that goal? What exercises will you use? What repertoire? How will you measure your accomplishment? Will this be a regular occurrence or just an experiment?

Release / Receive / Release / Resist

Someone wrote on FB today:

Let’s pretend we’re creating your mantra – three words you say to yourself when you need motivation, inspiration, courage or strength. What is YOUR three word mantra?

So I wrote what I’ve come up with as my approach to breathing, specifically for singing:
Release / Receive / Resist.
Actually, I teach it as Release / Receive / Release / Resist.
Release: The lower abdominal muscles so that you can:
Receive: The air as it enters your body
Release: The exhalation
Resist: The flow of the air
When I work with beginning singers, I ask them to consciously release (blow out) all their air and not inhale again until their body requires it. Not really hold the breath, but don’t consciously suck in the air. Let the body take it in when it needs it. They become very aware that our bodies will take in the air naturally when it is needed, without pulling it in, without gasping. The muscles release so that the air can be received. Then, as we sing (exhaling with sound), we focus on finding the point of resistance between the ribs and oblique abdominals to maintain the airflow without restricting it.
Resistance isn’t restriction. We aren’t restricting or constricting. We are managing the airflow. 
How does this apply to our lives? Pretty much the same thing.
We release our intentions so that we can receive what needs to come. And then we act (release) but we are mindful of what those actions involve and we manage the outcome so that life just doesn’t happen to us.
Singing is life. Life is singing. Rinse and repeat. 
(Ooh, that’s a good mantra, too. Never mind the other. Just rinse and repeat.)