Leo Cornelius Nestor, 1948-2019

Leo Nestor was my choral director in Washington DC at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for one year a long time ago. He was brilliant. I made my national cable TV debut (EWTN, but hey, it’s still national) singing Barber’s “Crucifixion” from the Hermit Songs on Good Friday. The only reason I left after a year (or was it two? I don’t remember) was because I was offered a gig at St. Patrick’s in DC that didn’t involve a weeknight rehearsal, and at the time, I thought that might be a good thing for my first marriage (Spoiler: it didn’t help).

I coined the term “mezzoid” in response to Leo’s request for the “altoids” to sing something. Apparently he continued to use it after I was gone. I am so proud.

Leo was profane and devout, nurturing and harsh, humorous and deadly serious. He was also one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever worked with in my life. I’ve worked with temperamental “geniuses” before and since. None of them were people with whom I’d work again if I could avoid it. Leo was someone I wish I’d had the opportunity to work with after my return to the East Coast.

Even though I only worked with him briefly, Leo Cornelius Nestor was one of the most influential musicians I’ve ever known.

If you want to know more about Leo (and you should, especially if you are a church musician – and if you’re not now, you very well may be), please read my friend and colleague John Boulanger’s blogpost here. He knew Leo better than I did and goes into much greater depth about him as a composer, conductor, and Catholic than I ever could.

Practice Challenge – October 1-December 14, 2018

I have decided to pose a practice challenge to my students. And to myself, as well.

A year ago, I made a recording of some songs I had commissioned by local composer Garth Baxter on poetry in both English and Irish Gaelic. The date of the recording was August 10. So, beginning about 2 months before, I set myself a goal of learning the music thoroughly and getting vocally ready to perform them in a manner that I would be comfortable with having posted on YouTube for all the world to hear forever.

The first few weeks were spent working on text and notes. I didn’t really sing all that much during that time, but I did a lot of mental preparation, listening to the Irish Gaelic text as spoken  by the poets, and plunking things out at the piano. Then I went to the NATS Conference and picked up Nancy Bos’ practice journal and a collection of vocalises (something I’d never really done before) and decided this would inform my organization.

I set myself a goal of actually singing – this is hard for teachers sometimes, because we feel like we sing all the time for our students but we’re really not putting in our own practice time. I spent 20 minutes per day preparing my voice for the repertoire with basic warm-ups and selections from the vocalise books. Then I put another 40-50 minutes in on the repertoire. And I really worked it in sections, not just singing it through. (I also had a soloist audition for a local chorus which was also part of the focus, at least through the end of July.)

The result was that I felt pretty good about the audition (even though I didn’t get any work from it) and the recording session. So now it’s time to start applying myself again.

I have three things coming up:

  1. Ding-a-ling, I feel so Christmas-y! on November 30 (a cabaret with Michael Tan at Germano’s Piattini in Little Italy). I did this last year at Spots but I was sick for most of October and early November so I felt underprepared.
  2. Respighi’s Lauda per la Nativita del Signore on December 14 (Christmas oratorio in which I sing the role of Mary with the Harford Choral Society). It’s my first time singing with them, and I love the piece.
  3. WNO re-audition – date still TBD, sometime in January. I’d like to do something new this time. I have two pieces in mind, although I’m reluctant to trot out two untried songs.

113wxhI9Spe92V6hH9rz1A.jpg

So there’s a lot of work ahead and I’m going to challenge myself to practice five times a week for approximately an hour per day. I’ll probably take off on Thursdays because of church choir at night, and maybe on Sunday.

What I want my students to do is:

  • Use your vocal exercises that we do in your lessons (on the BRAAP™ vocalise sheets and any others that we throw out there)
  • Use the checklist that I’ve given you to keep track of what you’ve done
  • Write down how much time you spent each day in a journal of your choosing – either the practice journal by Nancy Bos or any kind of method that works for you
  • At the end of the week (Sunday) use the Weekly Practice Record form to record what you did and submit it to me. Those dates are:
    • October 6
    • October 13
    • October 20
    • October 27
    • November 3
    • November 10
    • November 17
    • November 24
    • December 1
    • December 8
    • December 15

I will determine who practiced the most based on these and will give out a prize at the December 18 recital, the theme of which will be music from shows about the holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, winter, whatever). The prize will be an audition/lesson binder organized for you to use in your lessons and to take out with you to auditions. (FYI, I’m exempt from the prize, so I won’t be competing, just working alongside you.)

Who’s in? (Current students only)

New Practice Checklist

This week, I put out a practice checklist, which was distributed to all my students as part of a welcome/welcome back packet. I had had a new student’s mom ask me about a structure of practicing, and I went back to a previous blogpost about practicing I’d written for some guidance. And I decided that, while there were some really good gems in there about how to practice, the post was, in itself, 8 years old and based on a newsletter than I sent out 20 years ago, when I was a brand new teacher. So it needed some updating, and I felt that it would be more effective if it was a little less text-driven and more to-the-point.

I went to a site called Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT and purchased a vocal practice challenge sheet that someone created, thinking that might work. But I didn’t care for some of the language (I don’t use the term “placement” in my teaching, and if I did, it wouldn’t be in the way it was used here) and I thought it might be more confusing than helpful. And it was a sticker based system and I thought that meant I’d have to look at something and I really don’t want to do that. I decided to do a checklist instead. So I knocked one out on Apple Numbers, and broke it up into:

  1. The “Warm-up” (Preparing to Sing)
  2. Repertoire (The Songs). This was done in two parts – a list of things to do when you’re first learning the song and, once it’s learned, to polish it
  3. Things You Can Do to be a little “Extra” (i.e., the Next Level). I did take some ideas from the original document that I bought on TpT in this section.

The first two sections involved a suggested breakdown of time based on the elements being worked on, using exercises from my BRAAP™ vocalises that I distribute to my students and that may be found on my website under studio portal (only available to my students). The final section was not time-driven – how much time the student wants to spend on that is entirely up to them.

I also laminated them so that the student can keep them on their piano and check them off with a dry erase, if they are so inclined. (Plus I figure they’ll stay intact longer that way.)

I’m not posting the checklist here, because, well, I just might tweak it a bit to make it a little less my personal studio-oriented and put it on TpT for sale. If you’ve received one this week and would like to ask me about it, please feel free. If you’d like to know more, let me know!

 

Success – is it a TRICK?

My choir director at the Cathedral of Mary our Queen is a new daddy, and he’s been reading a lot about parenting. He just read about an author who has written a book called How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Resultsand the author boils her methods down to the acronym TRICK, which stands for:

  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Independence
  • Collaboration
  • Kindness

He believes that this applies not only to the raising of children to be independent adults, but for teachers with their students (and choir directors for their choristers, which is why we got this lecture). The author believes that this method will allow students to become independent and creative, and that is a higher gauge of what success is than just money. (Which is a good thing in our line of work.)

I’m a big believer that our studio is a community, and one in which we need to support and nurture each other and ourselves. That’s why I ask that we all support each other and collaborate rather than compete with each other. Trust each other, trust yourself, trust me. Respect each other, respect yourself, and respect me. We can work together and we can work on our own. And be kind to yourself, be kind to each other and, above all, be kind to me. 🙂

Not all tricks are magic. Some are just common sense and decency.

Who takes voice lessons?

My mother never understood how I had so many students. She would say, “So many people want to be professional singers?” and I’d say, “No, mom, some want to be professional performers, but some just want to get into the musical at school, or into a special ensemble in choir, or some just want to be better.” That blew her mind. She couldn’t understand why anyone would spend money on something if they weren’t planning to make money at it. (And why they’d give it to ME, of all people.)

But my mother issues are a whole ‘nother story. And ones only hinted at in this blog.

This summer, I read Seth Godin’s This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See.  In the chapter, “In search of ‘better,'” he creates an X-Y graph showing elements that people care about. From a business perspective, one element might be convenience, and another one price. What kind of clients fall within these parameters? Who is willing to pay for both? Who wants one but doesn’t care so much about the other?

I decided that, from a voice teacher’s perspective, my parameters would be technique and performance. What kind of client/student wants to be a better singer, but doesn’t really want to perform? What kind doesn’t really care about developing strong technique, but just wants to be able to perform with a band or at open mic? Who wants to understand technique better so they can help their classroom students, but doesn’t really want to perform themselves? Who wants to perform at the highest possible level of ability? This is what I came up with, based on the students I’ve worked with over 20 years:

Types of Voice Students (click here for bigger version)Image 9-19-19 at 9.44 AM

By “professional performer,” I mean opera/musical theater, because that’s what I do. CCM performer means contemporary commercial music such as rock, pop, jazz. And please don’t feel that I’m judging any kind of singing here – except maybe “shower.”

This doesn’t mean that students are forever relegated to these arbitrary quadrants. The “always wanted to sing” dabbler might start out not wanting to perform (and, in fact, be terrified of doing so), but then dip their toe into karaoke, and maybe later, community theater. Or start out in the church choir, and then decide to try auditioning for a symphonic chorus. A community theater ensemble singer might go for a lead role – and get it!

As a teacher, who do you want to work with? I have to be honest – I prefer working with people who want to perform and who want to develop their technique to the highest extent possible. That’s my “ideal client.” I have friends who enjoy working with adults who have no intention of performing and who do not want to work with high-strung high school students with tons of rehearsal conflicts (in other words, my people). Knowing who you click with might mean that you don’t market yourself as “all ages, all styles,” because that might not be the best way you can serve yourself and your client. It’s not for me. But some people are happy to serve all markets, and good for them!

As a student, where do you fall? Does your teacher recognize what’s important to you? Are they helping you get to where you want to be? Are they pushing you hard enough or too hard? Are you their ideal client? Are they your ideal teacher?

Make a healthy choice to use your voice

“Every single thing you do with your voice is a choice, not a default.”

Someone said this the other day, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out where I heard it. When I figure it out, I’ll update this and give her credit.

As singers, we have to make to choices that are healthy. Because if we don’t, we can cause damage which could be easy to recover from or could cause major problems.

Nearly 2 weeks ago, I was heading downtown and, as I approached the on-ramp to the freeway, there was an accident ahead and all traffic was moving from the right to the center lane. I put on my signal, like a person does, and started to move over. The person in the SUV in the center lane would not let me over.  And a car was coming in from my right from the cross street, and I very nearly got hit by both of them. In my new car.

I screamed. I screamed loud and I screamed hard.

Fortunately, my car and I were both all right, and once I got onto the freeway, I realized that … my throat hurt. It felt squeezed and pressured, and just … not good. I had a wedding to sing the next day, I had Mass to cantor the next evening, and Choir Mass at the Cathedral was starting up on Sunday. Was I going to be all right?

The wedding went well (there wasn’t a lot to sing). Cantoring was a bit rough – I had a lot of phlegm, and my stamina wasn’t great. Choir Mass was okay. I just sang when there were parts on the hymns, and I sang the anthem, and then I shut up for the rest of the weekend. I couldn’t put myself on full vocal rest, because I had teaching to do that week and a couple of rehearsals, but I wasn’t able to get on top of the practicing I needed to do for the concert I’m doing in December.

I was fine by the time church choir rehearsal rolled around on Thursday. The ache lasted that long. I’m still taking it easy – I’ve started practicing again, but judiciously.

I could’ve given myself a vocal fold hemorrhage (example below).fullsizeoutput_1e02

I could have done some serious and long-lasting damage. Fortunately, it just seems to have been a strain. I think I strained the muscles around my larynx rather than the vocal folds themselves, because the discomfort felt external.

Screaming is not my default. It was a choice, and it was a really bad choice.

What choices are you making when you use your voice? Are all of them wise choices?

“Breath is welcome here”

“Breath is welcome here”

A few months ago, I was talking to one of my students, Erin McManus, about allowing the abdominal muscles to release on inhalation to receive the breath, and I believe that I used the term “welcome the breath.” Erin then smiled beatifically, as she is wont to do, and indicated her abdominal area with a gentle motion and said, “Breath is welcome here.”

Of course, you don’t breathe into the belly. The diaphragm is the dividing line between the respiratory and the digestive system, or, as the late Jean Westerman Gregg said, “between the vitals and the vittles.” (I have used that line ever since I first heard it in 1997, at my very first NATS workshop.) You breathe into your lungs, and as a result of the descent of the diaphragm, your viscera (i.e., guts) are pushed down and your stomach expands outward somewhat. More importantly, your ribs expand. If you are freakishly long-waisted, as am I, you may not find that there’s a great deal of outward expansion. If you are short-waisted, you may find that there’s a LOT of outward expansion.

But you can’t just push out your belly and expect the air to come in. You have to allow the air to enter your body by inhaling quietly, through your nose or mouth, depending on the circumstances, by aligning yourself efficiently so that you aren’t compressing your innards, and by allowing your abdominal muscles, particularly the abdominal floor, to release. Whether it is a sip of air or a deep intake of air, the key element is that of release. A noisy inhalation is inherently high and tense and is distracting. It’s not efficient.

An exercise I do frequently with beginning students is to have them blow out all the air and wait until their bodies need air. And when that moment comes, inhale – but just allow it to happen voluntarily, rather than consciously suck in air. What happens? Is there sound? Where do you feel expansion? Where do you feel release? Is it weird? (Someone said it was weird once, so now I ask.)

Enjoy this video of Nathan Gunn and William Burden singing the famous duet from Pearlfishers and notice how they receive the breath. (It helps that they’re shirtless. In so many ways.)

“Welcome the breath.” Indeed.