“From Shrill to Potato-y”: How I Got Back on the Chiaroscuro Trail

Nearly 8 years ago, I gave my first classical recital in a long time. I was in Milwaukee and teaching at Carroll University in Waukesha, and I had the opportunity to do a recital. So I prepared a full program, hired a fabulous pianist, and started taking lessons with Connie Haas again, after not having had regular lessons (or really done any year-round singing) for over 10 years.

During my lessons, Connie was telling me that my resonance was not as balanced as it could be. And I wasn’t really buying it, because that had never been an issue for me during the time I was at Peabody and singing in the DC metropolitan area. I knew that the recital was coming harder for me than it would have earlier, but I attributed that to my not having done one for a long time.

When the recital was over, I wasn’t pleased. I had hired the late, great sound engineer Daniel Gnader to record it, but didn’t listen to it until over 3 months later, on January 1, 2012. I listened to it with the idea that I would be able to pull something from it for a demo recording.

I was not pleased. (This is putting it mildly. I was weeping copious tears.) And then my friend Carolina got online and asked how I was, and I said, “I just listened to my recital from September and I sound like poop.” (I didn’t say poop.) She said, “Oh, come on, it can’t be that bad. Send me a clip.” I sent her one. She didn’t think it was bad. I sent her another. She said, “Oh. On that one, you run the gamut from shrill to potato-y.” I asked if by “potato-y,” she meant as though I was singing with a large serving of potatoes in my mouth. She confirmed that was, in fact, what she meant.

This meant that Connie had been right all along. My resonance was out of balance. At times my sound was too bright. At other times, it was too dark. Because I had not had an ear and someone to guide me back on the Chiaroscuro Trail (which sounds like the coolest trail in a national park), I had been too cocky to accept it. And I had not been practicing regularly.

I went back to Connie and told her I was ready to work and fix it. And I did.

I needed someone to tell me the truth about where my singing was at that point. Connie did. Carolina did. And, finally, my own ears did. So I had to do something about it.

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I won’t say that “You run the gamut from shrill to potato-y” was necessarily positive, but it sure was specific. I didn’t feel like Carolina was telling me that I sucked, but that I needed to address a resonance issue that had arisen. Connie gave me the next step – work on being mindful of where my tongue was and of the shape of my vocal tract. Work on the awareness of the tone quality and what it felt like when the sound was right.

Awareness, mindfulness, and acceptance are all things you need to have as a singer.

As a teacher, I will tell you honestly what you do well and what you need to work on. I will give you the tools to expand upon your strengths. I will not tear you down, but I will tell you what your next step should be, whether we’re going to have to focus on breath, resonance, articulation, or registration, or some combination thereof.

Your job, as a student, will be to accept and implement those steps, and to be aware of what it feels like when you’re doing the work and what it feels like when you’re not.

I’m up to that challenge. I’m confident that all my students, past, present, and future, are as well.

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