Mind the Gap

This morning’s meditation again asked me to draw attention to the momentary gap between inhalation and exhalation (and vice versa). Although I reject the concept of suspension when it comes to teaching breath management, as I have discussed before, I do understand the value of taking a moment to reflect.

In England, there is an announcement at the underground (subway) for travelers to “mind the gap.” This pertains to the space between the edge of the platform and the train.

In the phrase shown above, the late composer Truman Fisher says that “the pause is as important as the note.” This goes along with the concept that I teach – the high note is only as good as the note before it. You have to be grounded on that note in order for the one after it to be successful – and if there is no note, you have to be grounded in the rest. A musical rest can be significant for expression’s sake (much can be said when nothing is said), for grammatical purposes, or for preparation.

Sometimes I am so busy, particularly at the end of the semester (which always seems to involve academic, musical and personal commitments), that I don’t take any time to breathe. I’m hoping that my newfound commitment to daily meditation will help me identify when I can find those moments, no matter how insignificant an amount of time they may be, and use them accordingly to find the time to reflect, to refresh, and to re-engage.

This semester, I’m going to try to

Home should be where the heart is

I am sitting on my bed in the Journeyman Hotel (a Kimpton Hotel) in The Third Ward of Milwaukee. Bill is on his computer and Pippin is between us. It’s pretty much like any other morning except that we are in Milwaukee. Again.

We’re here for Milwaukee Irish Fest, the world’s largest Irish Music Festival. We are staying at a brand new hotel that is blocks from the festival grounds, so that we can walk to and from, take Pippin for walks as needed, eat non-festival food at one of the many decent restaurants in the area, and not have to worry about logistics. The hotel is a little pricey, but it’s dog-friendly, so I didn’t have to worry about boarding Pippin or getting a housesitter, so it balances out.
Last night we sat in the rooftop bar and had drinks with anyone who wanted to come by. I had created an event and invited people. There were about 10 people there, one former neighbor, one fellow teacher, one fellow singer and 4 people from HS. No other musical colleagues. No students. 
I think this is my last trip to Milwaukee. I don’t feel anything when I come here. There are so many places I haven’t seen – the Pacific Northwest, New England, South Carolina – and I’d like to go back to Ireland. I think it’s time to cut all my ties with this city.  
I have a lesson scheduled with Connie today, and I’m singing at the Unity Church on Sunday. I’m supposed to have another lesson with her on Saturday and rehearse with the band on Saturday afternoon. Not sure if I will do the Saturday lesson. I don’t think I’m going to do any more singing in this city after this point. 
It’s time. I may have been born here, but this is not, and has never been, home. 
Home should be where the heart is.
Never were words so true.
My heart’s far – far away.
Home is too.

Here’s an interesting article a fellow expat wrote upon his exit from MKE. 

Attend the Tale of Lea DeLaria

I had the great fortune of going to see Lea DeLaria at Blues Alley in DC last night.

[quick aside – why on earth are women with beautiful Italian names pronouncing them so Americanized? Lea DeL/ae/ria — Laura Ben/ae/nti? Seriously, folks, people would be able to wrap their mouths around the taller /a/ vowel without any problem; pronounce your names the way they’re intended]

I have seen Lea DeLaria on TV since the 1990s, when she started doing stand-up as the first openly lesbian comic on late night and cable TV programs. And then I saw that she was doing Broadway, doing roles like Hildy in On the Town (with Jesse Tyler Ferguson as her love interest) and Eddie/Dr. Scott in Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

But my fascination with Lea DeLaria came when she played the psychic Madame Delphina on One Life to Live. OLTL was a bizarre soap – it used a lot of New York actors (who were often doing double duty in roles on Broadway) and was much more socially conscious than your average soap. Yes, there were people returning from the dead, evil twins, multiple personalities, etc., but there were also storylines about equal marriage and antiwar sentiments. It was quirky. And then she played a drag role, Professor Del Fina (you see what they did there?). As Delphina, she would hear voices and randomly turn around and converse with them, usually in a somewhat irritated fashion.

Of course, since then I’ve seen her in things like Orange is the New Black, where she plays Boo.

It was an amazing show. She’s raunchy. Very raunchy. But her voice is capable of so much inflection. She can purr, she can growl, she can yell, she can croon.

I thought of Barbara Cook last night, even though vocally they could not be more different. Lea’s carrying on the tradition. She’s still telling the story, she’s true to the text, she’s authentic. There are still people out there who can tell the tales.

Suspending the breath – why I don’t teach it

This morning, the subject of my meditation app involved a lot of focus on the suspension/stillness between inhalation and exhalation. The momentary pause that exists both before the initiation of each. It’s infinitesimal and you really have to be aware to notice it even exists.

I don’t really feel it and I don’t find it all that valuable. When I first started studying voice, I was giving vocalises that encouraged finding that suspension. Exercises that consisted of:

Inhale – 2 – 3 – 4
Suspend 2 – 3 – 4
Exhale 2 – 3 – 4

The exercise gradually increased the numbers, cautioning the singer to be aware of maintaining an open glottis rather than shutting down or being rigid during the suspension. I dutifully did this exercise, and then I taught it, when I first started teaching voice. Because that’s what you did. It was a basic vocal exercise that was included in all the pedagogy books.

But I feel as though breath is a continuous process and that to focus on what is a nearly imperceptible stopping of time creates unnecessary tension. In fact, I think that the act of extending the suspension beyond that split second reinforces the idea of “setting the breath,” as opposed to just moving through it.

I have written in the past that my approach to the breath is that of:

Release – Receive
Release – Resist

Rather than suspend time, I prefer to think of releasing it and welcoming the next moment. 
(The point of the meditation was to be aware of stillness and use it in your life to avoid unnecessary conflict. In that case, it’s a useful concept. But I’m writing a singing blog here….)
When I’m singing, I don’t want to suspend animation, to enter into some kind of momentary vocal hibernation, but to continue to be animated, which is defined as being “full of life.” 
So I’ll suspend disbelief (or judgment), I’ll keep people in suspense, I’ll do TRW suspension work at the gym, and I’ll milk a good harmonic suspension for all it’s worth. But when it comes to singing, I’m just going to keep the air flowing. 

Thank you, Barbara Cook

[To Terry Gross on FRESH AIR]“When I’m standing in the wings, waiting to go on, I kind of plant my feet and feel a kind of strength coming up from the ground into me. And then I think about giving back this gift that I have been given. And when I do that, then I get out of ego so much. And then I don’t worry so much about what people think about how I sing or how I look. And I just try to sing more deeply and more personally. And I really enjoy that. I love singing. I do. I get rid of so much stuff by singing. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.” 

Barbara Cook, 1927-2017

And here’s a recording of her at nearly 80 (picture below to the contrary). The voice stayed fresh (one may quibble about certain closed vowels sounding reedy, but my contention is that those vowels sounded reedy back in the 1950s and that’s a whole ‘nother thing).

She never learned to read music (to which I always say, “and why not?”), which makes her learning the role of Cunegonde in Candide even more mind-boggling. Her career stalled due to alcoholism and obesity, but she reinvented herself and gave back as both a performer and a clinician. 

I’ve always said I want to be Barbara Cook when I grow up. Maybe I still have a shot.

Milton Peckarsky, 1920-2017

I’m not sure exactly when I met Milton Peckarsky. It was probably around 1997, a year or so after I arrived in Milwaukee. I think I had sung on a MacDowell Club Concert, and he approached me to ask if I would be interested in exploring some contemporary music.

I had done a little contemporary music up to that point – I’d been in the world premiere of The Dream of Valentino at Washington Opera (before they added the word “National” to their name) and I had done the Elizabeth Vercoe “Jehanne de Lorraine” at a concert at Marquette University, but I didn’t really consider myself a contemporary musician. That stuff was hard.

Well, that all changed, and for the next 10 years or so, I was pretty much known as a contemporary musician because of Milton. He introduced me to composers such as Yehuda Yannay, Josh Schmidt, Sigmund Snopek III, David Bohn, Keith Carpenter, and Cornel Taranu. Because of him, I received amazing reviews for a piece that Yehuda wrote (not for me, but which I performed) as well as for pieces by Alban Berg. These were performed on a concert called Variety 2000: Expressionism and Surrealism – The Soul Turned Inside Out. THREE HOURS of music, film and theater (including pornographic puppet theater) celebrating what could be described as pre-emo navel contemplating (it was a real toe-tapper, as you can imagine). There were 6 performances of it and every single performance was sold out. These were on the Music Of Our Time series, which he had founded.

He also commissioned Schmidt, Snopek, Bohn and Carpenter to write pieces for the two of us to do together at a MacDowell Club recital at his home.

Milton also arranged for me to sing the Tzara Songs by Cornel Taranu, which were then recorded for a collection of Romanian music. The songs were based on the poetry of Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara and were not easy, either musically or interpretatively (cheminée, cheminée, les rois des poissons passé: Chimneys, chimneys, the kings of past fish). Listening to them as I write this – I am really proud of these pieces and would like to sing them again…. maybe with slightly better French….

He and his wife Vivian (who I just found out passed away 3 years ago) were also like second parents to me. They came to my wedding (and in fact, my mother-in-law apparently thought Vivian was my mother and embraced her warmly, much to the consternation of my own mother).

The pictures above accompanied a press release for an October 2000 concert called “Journeys,” which Milton and I did at Carroll College (now Carroll University), and included songs by Hugo Hartig, Arnold Schoenberg, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, and Maurice Ravel, as well as my debut as a narrator in Theodor Ullman’s The Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke. This piece was particularly meaningful to Milton as a Jew – it was the final piece that Ullman wrote while a prisoner at the arts camp, Theresienstadt, prior to being moved to Auschwitz. As an actor, it was particularly meaningful to me, because the actor for whom it was intended had been executed on the day of its scheduled performance.

I hope I gave something back to Milton as well – one thing I did for him was to arrange for Mayor Tom Barrett to declare September 14, 2012 as Milton Peckarsky Day. Milton had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at that time, and the MacDowell Club wanted to honor him while he was still cognizant of the honor. Rest in peace, dearest Milton, dearest Vivian. I will never forget you.

Milton & Vivian Peckarsky

Annuals or perennials? Blooming where you’re planted

Competitions are a big deal in the music business, from childhood talent shows, to state school solo-ensemble festivals, to the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions, and to the big time, The Voice or America’s Got Talent.

I’ve often said that I hated doing competitions, but that’s a lie. I didn’t feel comfortable in them because of the whole being judged/comparison thing. But at the same time, there was something always a bit thrilling and challenging about preparing for one. And I find the idea of just blooming for the sake of blooming to be somewhat disingenuous. And flowers don’t think. So there’s that.

When I go to Zumba, sometimes I assign some unwitting dancer in class the role of my personal trainer. I decide that my goal is to keep up with that person (at least as well as I can given my multiple knee issues – I’m realistic, if nothing else). I don’t want to BEAT her at Zumba – I just want to keep up and not lose ground. I don’t want just to keep moving, I actually want to do the dance as it’s intended. If I didn’t, I’d just run or do an exercise bike. It’s about more than that to me.

I think it’s important to be aware of what other singers around you are doing. Are they doing things better? If so, why? Are they practicing more? Are they more mindful of their practicing efforts? Are they picking music that suits them perfectly? Are they marketing themselves more effectively and putting themselves in the right place to be heard?

Yes, “bloom where you’re planted,” as they say. But keep growing. Nourish yourself. If that’s not a good spot, move to a better one. Add a little fertilizer now and then (#InsertManureJokeHere). It’s not enough just to bloom but to flourish. Because blooms die, eventually. Unless you’re a perennial. Then you come back, every year, unless you’re ripped out of the ground by the roots. And even then, one little root might remain and you’ll come back again and again. Whether anyone likes it or not.

Be a perennial. 

Finding your umami/Balancing your flavors

This morning I saw a Forbes magazine article about why you should “let” your child major in music (the idea of a parent determining what his/her children choose to do with their lives makes me cringe a bit, but I get it). Before the article opened, this quote popped up and caught my eye.

A condiment is defined on Wikipedia as: “a spice, sauce, or preparation that is added to food to impart a particular flavor, to enhance its flavor, or in some cultures, to complement the dish.”

Sometimes, in cooking, you add something unexpected to make the dish sweeter. For example, adding salt to a sweet dish can bring out the sweetness of it. Increasing the acidity of a wine doesn’t make it more sour, but rather more alive. Adding sugar to a savory dish will balance sourness and saltiness (unfortunately, trendy restaurants often go too far with their additions of sweetness these days).

According to writer Amy Fleming, flavors balance along five different tastes: sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami (this, by the way, is supposed to be the key to the success of Heinz ketchup). Umami is a relatively recent discovery in culinary science and is described as yummy/savory and is usually associated with cooked/aged protein-laden foods like parmegiano reggiano, rich stocks, and cured meats.

A good chef experiments to find the perfect balance of a dish. It doesn’t always mean following a specific and unchanging recipe, but rather knowing your ingredients, what they do and how they work together. America’s Test Kitchen, which publishes Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, tests different dishes over and over until they find the recipe that works. They publish a bimonthly magazine featuring ten of those recipes, discussing what didn’t work as well as what, ultimately, did.

As singers, we tend to think that there is one recipe for all singers that we have to follow. And if we stumble along the way – don’t get into that YAP, aren’t hired by that opera company, haven’t done a major role by the age of 28 – well, we might as well change careers right there and then.

There isn’t one way. We have to find that blend of ingredients that work for us. Perhaps we just haven’t found that bit of umami that we need to make the whole thing work (remember, it’s usually associated with aging). Maybe we need a little of the bitterness of failure in order to find it. Maybe the recipe you need is not the same as that of the other singers you’ve come up alongside in your life experience.

In both art and singing, we use the term “chiaroscuro” to describe the balance of light/shadow (visual) or brightness/depth (vocal resonance). Too much of one or the other and you have an unbalanced outcome, just like if your culinary dish is too sweet or too bitter.

Maybe your career path (and I’m using the term “your” to include “my” as well) isn’t the traditional one. Perhaps chiaroscuro goes beyond being merely a term about resonance. Maybe it can be applied to the entire vocal art form as well. Maybe you/I need a balance of opera, musical theater, teaching, directing, church singing, and cabaret in order to find that balance of flavors that makes you/me whole.

American mezzo-soprano Joan Morris has had a terrific career that has involved diverse paths. Let’s see what her recipe has been…. and then see if you can find your own.

Watch your language!

I have been doing morning meditations using an app called The Daily Calm. At the end of each meditation, a graphic comes up summarizing the most important point of the day’s “lesson.” Today it was language.

Shortly after I finished my meditation, I went to peruse Facebook (big surprise, I know), and came across a link to an article about the enduring pain of childhood verbal abuse. I thought this was an amazing bit of serendipity and probably what I should talk about today.

I grew up in a household where praise was not easily thrown around. (Okay, it was never thrown around.) If I misbehaved, I was told that there was clearly something wrong with me – perhaps it was that fever I’d had when I was a child, perhaps I was just intrinsically bad. I was generally a well-behaved child, and any bad behavior was normal for a kid of my age, whether that age was 4 or 14. (And really, how bad could a 4 year old be that would warrant someone calling the recorded weather and saying, “Hello, police? I have a bad little girl here. Can you come and get her?” in a voice loud enough for the terrified 4-year-old to hear, resulting in said child groveling in tears at your feet???) This kind of approach led me into a cycle of shame that took me a very long time to get over. I worried that perhaps there was something wrong with me. That I was fooling everyone with my so-called “talent” and that I was a fraud.

Despite that upbringing, I grew up to make choices that my mother didn’t like – I went to college and graduate school for music, a field both parents disapproved of, I moved across country, I left a marriage that made me unhappy, I learned to drive stick shift (so unfeminine!), I dyed my hair auburn, I opened my own voice studio instead of settling for a day job – and I was and am happy. (Surprisingly, my not having children was never an issue.)

And I am very careful with my language with my students. I never want to shame anyone. Words have consequences. I’m honest with my students, but I always try to find the good in their efforts, even when I’m addressing vocal issues that need improvement. Sometimes I’ve slipped up. And often I’m not so careful with myself. But I’m working on it.

Seize the day (the hour, the minute, the second – just grab it)

I only have 4 weeks left of summer break before school starts. In that time, I have quite a few projects that I want to finish, all of which I’ve enumerated in previous posts. There’s not much time left.

And it makes me think of the passing of time and things I won’t ever get the chance to do, after all. Which is a bit disheartening. It was one of the reasons I moved – I wasn’t performing in Milwaukee, and I knew that my shelf life as an artist was, at that point, limited. La voce is still holding out, and quite well, thankyouverymuch, but the logistics are that there are others coming up and perhaps it’s their turn. I had my turn. Maybe I should have made more of it. Maybe it just was what it had to be at the time.
When I was in my mid-30s, I played the Queen of the Fairies in G&S’ Iolanthe. Now I look at that role as one that should be played by someone older. Like, perhaps, oh, I don’t know – ME. Again. I played Katisha at that age, too. I can still play those roles. I won’t be playing Pitti-Sing again, or Lady Angela, but I can still play Ruth.
I won’t be singing Dorabella or Rosina, but there are other supporting/character roles I can still do. Marcellina. Berta. Baba. Mum. Florence. Mother Abbess. Mother Superior. 
Someone spoke disparagingly of me recently to another colleague, saying that I cast myself as Marmee “out of ego.” Well, Maureen McGovern was about the same age as I am when she created the role and when she did the national tour, so I wasn’t too old for that, but I will be shortly. And besides, I sang the hell out of it and I wanted to do it. And I got great reviews for it. (And so did the person who spoke disparagingly of me, in the role in which I cast her. But that’s another story.) I can play Aunt March for another 20 years. There’s time for that. 
In the song, “Unchained melody,” the lyric goes:
“Time goes by so slowly and time can do so much”
I submit that time goes by so quickly – and we must make much of the time that we have. 
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying
And this same flower that smiles today, Tomorrow will be dying.”