The Music is the Star

The performer is not the star. The music is the star. 

The performer is the vessel, the performer is the channel through which the music passes as a prism and comes to the performer. 

                                                                                 — Leon Fleisher 

Leon Fleischer passed away this past week. He was a pianist, conductor, and teacher, who taught some of the greatest pianists of the last few generations (including my friend Michael Sheppard).

He lost the use of his right hand back in the 1960s, which resulted in his having to re-direct himself into new career paths. Although this loss was devastating to him, he said later that he enjoyed a rewarding life in career paths he never would have explored if he had continued as a concert pianist.

I saw Leon Fleischer in concert with the Baltimore Symphony in 1996, shortly before I moved away. It was an interesting concert and featured a new piece by William Bolcom, called “Gaea,” which consisted of three single movement piano concertos. The first performer was Gary Graffman, who had also lost the use of his right hand, and was playing Bolcom’s Piano Concerto #1 for left-handed pianist and half the BSO players. Fleischer then came out to play Bolcom’s Piano Concerto #2 with the other half of the BSO. They were two completely different pieces.

And then the full orchestra came out and both Graffman and Fleischer played what they just played separately, but now together in a double concerto. It just was mind-boggling – like putting together an intricate puzzle. What a wonderful gift William Bolcom gave to these two artists. I’ll never forget it.

My personal experience with Leon Fleischer was as a chorister when he was making his debut as a conductor with Washington Opera for Cosi Fan Tutte. However, he was replaced quite last-minute due to illness. When I was at Peabody, I don’t recall our paths ever crossing, unfortunately.

In the last 20 years of his life, Fleischer regained the use of his right hand and returned to concertizing with standard repertoire. I was supposed to see him play with his wife, Katherine Jacobson, in a Valentine’s Day concert at Howard Community College a couple of years ago, but unfortunately, there was an ice storm and the concert was cancelled. (Of course, we were already there, which meant we got to drive back home in the ice storm. Yay.)

Leon Fleischer was a great artist and teacher, who re-directed his life when his originally intended career path was upended. I hate the term Rest in Power – it seems contrived to me. So I guess I’ll say – Rest in Passion.

What would you do if the thing that you thought you were going to do for the rest of your life went away? How would you re-direct yourself? Many of us, in music and outside of it, are dealing with a similar kind of loss with the advent of COVID-19 – whether it’s through loss of a business, performing opportunities, or teaching opportunities.

Hopefully, it’ll come back – in one form or another. And when it does, remember that for those of us who are artists and musicians, it is not about us as performers. It is about the music, to which we are in service.

Find out more about how to serve the music in next Friday’s masterclass with Richard Carsey. One performer slot is still available – and there is plenty of room to audit.

More information on the masterclass may be found here.

Why I Audit

F0B94F0B-516E-47BF-B09C-184F9FF2CF6C_1_201_aFor those of you who aren’t Three Stooges fans (which I’m certainly not) or not of a certain age (which I certainly am), you may need to go and research the Three Stooges a bit in order to get this reference. You can start here. Knock yourselves out – nyuk nyuk nyuk (that’s also a bit of Stooges humor).

I’m pleased to announce that the Richard Carsey masterclass on August 14 has ONE MORE SPOT left, which I fully intend to fill by the end of this week. But do not despair! I still have 40 spots open for auditors (which is the point of this blogpost)!

You may ask, “Why should I audit?” [Or, to keep the Three Stooges theme going, “Why oughta I audit?”]

I have audited hundreds of masterclasses over the past 30 years. Auditing is a wonderful way of watching experts in their fields work with aspiring artists and gaining insight and wisdom without having to get up onstage yourself. It may inspire you to do something different in your own performing or teaching. It may give you a new perspective on a piece of repertoire that you have retired because you couldn’t find a way to make it fresh. It might introduce you to brand new-to-you repertoire. It might give you the courage to participate yourself the next time an opportunity becomes available.

This morning I was scanning my old notebooks from the various workshops and conference I’ve attended to see what insights I’ve gained from masterclasses. Here are just a few (see which ones of these you’ve heard me say):

NATS Intern Program, Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY, June 2000

  •  Snap your fingers against your cheek to listen to the pitch and determine how much space that pitch demands. (George Shirley, Metropolitan Opera tenor, faculty – UM-Ann Arbor)
  • “Resonance cannot make the sound better than it is in the larynx.” (Paul Kiesgen, bass, faculty – Indiana University) (RIP)
  • “People who work too hard to lift their soft palates look like dogs eating peanut butter.” (Paul Kiesgen)
  • Balancing on one foot to find the coaxial balance point, elongate the spine, and put your head in the right place. (Paul Kiesgen)
  • Practice with books in front of your ears when in a small space to perceptually focus your ears. (Paul Kiesgen)
  • “The middle voice is a treasure that, if abused, steals from the top.” (Carol Webber, soprano, faculty – Eastman School of Music)
  • “When your desire to tell [the story] overrides your fear.” (Carol Webber)

NATS National Conference, Minneapolis, MN, July 2006

  • “Don’t try to solve the audience’s problems for them; invite them up on the stage with you to solve it together.“ (Hagan Hagegord, Swedish operatic baritone)

Teaching Men to Sing, Indiana University, June 2007

  • “Breath is the raw material that we turn into voice as it passes through the throat.“(Paul Kiesgen)
  • “All that one does technically is to build an instrument that can eloquently and hopefully elegantly communicate. Because that’s what we have to do in the end.” (Dr. Robert Harrison, tenor, faculty -IU)

Wisconsin NATS Spring Meeting, March 2009?

  • “To sing correctly is to use only the muscles that are contributing and no others.“ (Paul Kiesgen)

NATS National Conference, Louisville, KY, June 2008

  • “Anything that seems honest and true is OK, movement wise.“ (Dawn Upshaw, internationally known operatic soprano, faculty – Bard College)

Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method, Shenandoah University, Winchester, VA, July 2011

  • “A song should be performed as though it’s been created on the spot.“ (Robert Marks, NYC vocal coach)

MDDC NATS Spring Meeting, Washington, DC, April 2014

  • “Walk in and let us know who you are.“ (David Sabella, NYC voice teacher and actor)

Masterclass, Loyola University, Baltimore, MD, November 2014

  • “The second the music starts – the story starts. The story needs to keep being told until the music ends.” (Jeff Blumenkrantz, composer)

(I’ve been to masterclasses since then, but I’ve been taking notes on my iPad so that I don’t have to carry around big notebooks. Which I kind of miss doing. My handwriting has really deteriorated since 2000!)

What notes will you be taking at the Richard Carsey masterclass?

Don’t be a wise guy (more Stooges humor – can’t help it – my dad loved them) – register here,

Soitanly.

Avoiding FOBO

I can hear you know: “FOBO? Christine, don’t you mean FOMO?”

Nope.

Today I was puppy-walking and listening to a new podcast called Money Girl (which I may or may not listen to again because the host has a  wicked case of vocal fry that makes my skin crawl – not to be confused with VocalFri). The guest was Patrick McGinniss, who created the term FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out.

I’ve heard of FOMO. I’ve heard of JOMO (the joy of missing out). They’ve become part of the contemporary lexicon, especially in podcasts and blogs. People are cautioned to avoid taking on too many projects out of FOMO and focus on the important things, thus embracing JOMO.

But toward the end of the interview, McGinniss mentioned that he had created another term at the same time he created FOMO, which he thought would gain even more traction: FOBO.

Fear of Better Options.

Rather than doing too many things, the victim of FOBO is paralyzed by too many choices and does none of them, out of fear that they’re going to make the wrong choice. What if they pick something now and something better comes down the pike? They’re waiting for a better option. One that may never come.

In other words, I overthink, therefore I am.

Make decisions. Take risks. Take a class in something you need to learn but don’t consider yourself very good at. Audition for a show (when we can do that again). Sing online for, oh, I don’t know, an internationally renowned conductor giving a masterclass – like this one:

Richard Carsey Insta post

And after you’ve sung for Richard (or before), maybe cut your hair. Dye your hair. If you don’t like it, don’t worry, it’ll grow back/out/you can get a wig.

#FOBOBegone #AchievementUnlocked

What is curiously strong singing?

For the last two years, I’ve used “Curiously Strong Singing” as my tagline. In the past year, I’ve established a performance coaching series called “Curiously Strong Performing.” The content on my website and in other places reflects the use of that phrase.

But other than the relationship between mezzoid and altoids, which is what triggered the whole tagline in the first place, what do I mean by this? What is “curiously strong” singing? What is “curiously strong” performing? Why am I using these phrases other than they’re catchy?

I decided that I needed to define what this means to me in order to make it more than just a phrase that looks good on my business card and website.

So what is curiously strong singing/performing? It is:

  1. Singing that is grounded in a strong sense of technique, whether that pertains to classical, pop, or musical theater (because it’s not all one size fits all);
  2. Singing and/or performing that takes risks and digs deep into the song’s text, its history, and its style.
  3. Performing that tells the truth, is authentic and embraces both standard performance practice as well as new interpretations.
  4. Singing and performing that is confident, consistent, and constantly developing.
  5. Performing that welcomes in others as collaborators, as creators, as colleagues, and as an audience.

This is what I mean by being curiously strong as a singer and as a performer, and what I want for my students, my colleagues – really anyone who is in my life.

If you want to be curiously strong as well, contact me at mezzoid@gmail.com.

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Dream big and work backwards

At the NATS conference last month, I attended a session on “Training Music Majors for a 21st Century ‘Mosaic Career.'” The point of it was to prepare young singers for a career that is not either elite performer or academic, but being involved in a little bit of everything. It was geared toward the college teacher, but there was a lot of information in it that I thought was really helpful for anyone who is looking to identify what it is they do and how to get the word out there that you’re doing it.

It had a lot to do with branding and marketing, and one of the things that they talked about was the title of this blog:

Dream Big and Work Backwards

So what’s your big dream? Why do you want it? What are the steps to get there?

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To find out about Lissa deGuzman’s dream and how she manifested it in her career, don’t forget to register for Friday’s masterclass – there are still some spots available!

A New Brain – A New Voice

This Friday, May 29 (5pm), I will host the final listening party (for the time being). We will be listening to William Finn’s A New Brain, which is a semi-autobiographical story about the composer’s personal experience with a genetic vascular disorder in his brain.

WHAT? Another weird musical?

Yes. Y’all can listen to Oklahoma or South Pacific on your own (although I really enjoyed the bluegrass version of Oklahoma this past January – oh, Broadway, when will you be back?). I like to listen to stuff that just pushes the envelope a little bit without being too self-consciously, “hey, look, I’m pushing the envelope” about it (I’m looking at you, Spring Awakening).

The 1998 original Lincoln Center production of A New Brain features Malcolm Gets as the stricken composer, Gordon Schwinn (William Finn/Gordon Schwinn – see the connection). Penny Fuller is his Jewish mother, Mimi. Norm Lewis is his partner, Roger (who sings the most beautiful song of the show, “I’d rather be sailing”). Other celebrated actors in the show are Chip Zien, Mary Testa, and Kristin Chenoweth. The show was revived in 2015 with Jonathan Groff, Aaron Lazar, Ana Gasteyer, and Christian Borle. Apparently, there were some rewrites – I have not heard that version yet, and I think I need to listen to it.

Instead of selecting a local arts group to link donations to, this time I am going to put a link to a group called VocaliD, which is a group that is dedicated to digitizing sound to create new voices for people who have lost theirs (the link takes you to a TedTalk explaining the mission). My friend Ami Bouterse, a voice teacher at UW-Parkside in Kenosha, Wisconsin, turned me on to this. Her daughter, Evelyn, is doing it as a service project for school:

It’s actually free to donate – just your voice is needed. People record their voices, which are then used to create voices for those with assistive devices. You can share your voice in your own time – from the comfort of your own home to help change a life. All you need is a computer, headset with a microphone, and Google Chrome! Visit this link to create your own account and join my Voice Drive:

Join the ‘Evelyn’s Voice Drive’ Voicedrive on VocaliD

So listen to A New Brain and help someone get a new voice.

I would like to continue doing these listening parties once a month. I’m thinking we might have a better turnout on Saturday mornings. Let me know if you’re interested in continuing – and maybe suggest something I don’t know? Message me and let me know what you think.

What the Actual…

What the Actual…

The word fach sounds like a bad word. It is a German word meaning “compartment” and is used in opera to describe particular voice types, often in incredibly specific detail. There’s:

  • soubrette
  • lyric soprano
    • light lyric soprano
    • full lyric soprano
    • lyric coloratura soprano
    • lyrico-spinto soprano
  • dramatic soprano
    • drammatico-spinto soprano
    • helden soprano
  • heldensoubrette (okay, that one was made up by my friend Yvonne DeChance)

And that’s just for the sopranos. It goes on for the other voice types (mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, bass). It’s not nearly as rigid as it used to be – if you were a soubrette, singing a full lyric aria would be considered “punching above your weight class.” Now, it’s a bit more relaxed (a soubrette still shouldn’t sing Wagner though – which would be the definition of the heldensoubrette).

But in English, the word “fach” is funny. And when I use it with students, their eyes widen and they say, “WHAT?” (My teacher used to describe the process of transitioning from mezzo to soprano or baritone to tenor as “faching up.” I had a student once who asked if we could call our next showcase, “Another Faching Recital.” I said no. But I’ll admit I was tempted.)

In musical theater, there are basically two fachs: belter and legit. And you’re expected to learn to do both if you want to work in the business. You might be known more for your legit singing (Kelli O’Hara, Kristin Chenoweth) or your belt (Sutton Foster, Patti Lupone) but you have to be able to do both, at least somewhat.

This still doesn’t mean that you can or even should do everything, especially as a young singer. There may be some roles that you could sing, but you might not be comfortable with them yet based on who you are as a person. Yes, as an actor, you want to stretch yourself and you have plenty of time to do that. But right now, if you’re in high school and you’re looking for the roles that you feel you can inhabit at this moment, perhaps you need to think of a few things. You need to determine your own personal fach, the one beyond the voice (which doesn’t have to be tied to your body type).

What role do you gravitate towards in the following musicals (and right now I’m focusing on female roles – sorry, boys):

  • Thoroughly Modern Millie: Millie – Miss Dorothy – Mrs. Mears
  • Little Women: Jo – Amy – Meg – Beth
  • Seussical: Gertrude – Maisie – Sour Kangaroo
  • Mary Poppins: Mary – Mrs. Banks – Miss Anderson
  • Carousel: Julie – Carrie – Nettie
  • Ragtime: Mother – Evelyn Nesbit – Emma Goldman – Sarah Brown
  • Mean Girls: Cady – Regina – Janis – Gretchen – Karen

If you see a pattern of the kind of character you feel you could play at this point in time, perhaps these are the roles you should focus on in preparing your audition book. You will – and should – evolve over time. You should work on at least one thing that is not “you,” in order to grow as an artist. But you have plenty of time for that.

So – what the actual “fach” are you?

WTAF?

 

Creating a Cabaret FAQ

Creating a Cabaret FAQ

From last night’s Curiously Stronger Performing workshop (in case you weren’t there):

  • “What is a cabaret? How is it different than a recital? Or a musical?”
    Cabaret is personal musical theater” (Amanda McBroom).

    Cabaret Traditional Recital Musical
    VENUE Place where people are seated at tables, eating or drinking (or both) Performance hall or church; audience is seated in rows or pews. Theater; audience seated in rows.
    PROGRAMS Usually none Yes Yes
    THEME Maybe Maybe A specific script
    PATTER Often scripted, but shouldn’t seem like it. None, unless it’s a lecture/recital Scripted
    REPERTOIRE Anything goes! Classical, usually in specific sets; other styles occasionally thrown in to make you seem edgy 🙂 One composer (unless it’s a jukebox musical)
    MICS Yes No Yes
  • “Isn’t cabaret singing just singing in a nightclub for a bunch of drunk people who aren’t paying attention?”
    Generally not. People who come to a cabaret know that they are coming to hear artists, not just background music while they talk.

  • “How do I pick music for a cabaret?”
    What do you want to sing? Do you want to have a specific theme? Do you just want to sing some songs and find a theme from what you’ve chosen?

  • “How many songs should I sing?” [not addressed last night]
    Generally, a minimum of 16. Maximum 24. Don’t make people feel like they got shorted but also don’t make them feel like “Is this over yet?”
  • “What is patter? Do I have to do it?”
    Patter can be introducing a song. It can be talking about what the song means to you, or why you picked it, or the history of the composer. It could be funny. It could be serious. It’s expected. It makes the experience more intimate and personal.

  • “Should I use a microphone? How do I use a microphone?”
    Short answer: YES
    Depends on what kind of a microphone you have. Omnidirectional? Unidirectional? Corded? Cordless? Body mic?
    Do you want to hold the mic? Do you want to sing into a standing mic? Do you want to sit on a stool and sing?
     
  • “Who needs to be on my team? Do I need to have someone write a script for me? Do I need to hire a director?”
    You need to have a pianist or a guitarist (unless you play piano or guitar yourself). If you want to put together a small ensemble, you or your pianist can serve as music director. As far as hiring someone write a script or direct, well, I never have, but there are a lot of people who do. It depends on what your specific skills are.

    There was a lot more discussed, but you would’ve had to be there! Come to the next one on April 29 (rescheduled from February) on Singing Expressively in “Foreign” languages.

In the meantime, you can see us implement these elements in our upcoming cabaret show at Germano’s Piattini in Little Italy, “Dames in C – and D – and Other Keys,” which will feature music by female composers. We have a great program put together, and the cost is only $5!

Dames in C

Making a list … and checking it …

No, I’m not writing a blog to the tune of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” (But don’t tempt me.)

Last weekend I judged the MDDC NATS auditions and saw some people sing with little or no expression in their eyes. Their eyes were fixed on a spot slightly above the judges’ heads, and it never varied. Sometimes, they smiled or gestured, but it never reached their eyes. It wasn’t natural – it wasn’t comforting as an audience member (judging or just watching) because I didn’t believe the song meant anything to the singer. I didn’t believe the singer. No matter how good the voice was, I didn’t believe him or her.

When you’re singing a solo that’s not intended to be sung to another person on stage or when you’re singing an art song, you are doing a soliloquy. You’re talking to yourself (a monologue, on the other hand, is usually a speech intended for someone else to hear).

When are times that you talk to yourself? The main time that I can think of is when you’re making a list of things you have to do.

Think about it: you’re making a to-do list. The majority of the time, you don’t just write without stopping and looking up. You think of what you have to do. You look up. You look around. You see something that reminds you of the next item you have to do. And then that reminds you of something else that you have to do. Try writing a list and be aware of what you’re doing. What’s the process?

Another example of “talking to yourself” is when you’re reflecting on something. Say you’re writing in your journal and thinking of your hopes and your dreams. You stop and reflect as you’re writing. You might write a bunch of stuff in a burst of creativity. You might feel stuck and pace around. What do you do when you’re reflecting?

Maybe your song is a list of things, like “You gotta die sometime” from Falsettos. A list of all the things you’ve done up to this time. Of what death will be like. How to handle it.

Maybe it’s a realization and awareness, like “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (although the chorus is a list – “your swagger, your bearing… short hair and your dungarees”). It’s a realization of who Small Allison is.

Another time I talk to myself is in the shower. Or when I’m driving a long distance. I try out all sorts of scenarios, usually regarding how I should’ve handled something differently.

So take a song you’re working on and write it out as a list. Or as if you were journaling. What do you do? Where do your eyes go? Are you looking out? Are you looking in? (Just don’t look down too much, because you’ll lose your audience.)

We’ll work on things like this in the Curiously Stronger Performing Series, Our next workshop is at 7pm on Tuesday, March 10. Come. Bring a song. Make a list and check it twice. Or three times.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”

The phrase that is the title of this blogpost is attributed to Oscar Wilde. Actually, it was first written by a British writer named Charles Caleb Colton. Wilde’s version of it, written nearly 100 years later, added the phrase:

“that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”

Well, that’s quite different.

We have heard tons of amateur singers channeling famous singers at auditions. “Wow, she sounds a lot like Idina Menzel/Sutton Foster/Laura Osnes! But not quite.” They haven’t found their own voice. They might not be mediocre, but they’re not great.

I think imitation has its place as a pedagogical tool. As a child, I found my upper register by imitating Julie Andrews. I found my chest voice by imitating Karen Carpenter. I found my mix by imitating Barbra Streisand. But I don’t think I sound like any one of them (except when I go full Julie as a comedic choice).

If you are imitating someone, you are rearranging your vocal tract in the way that they do to produce a particular sound. Perhaps your tongue is forward and the sound is very bright and head-dominant. Perhaps your mouth is open wider or taller. Perhaps your lips are more rounded.  What if you try one of those things when you’re singing something you’re having a problem with (WWJD – what would Julie do?) How can you make that work with your own voice?

It’s not limited to celebrity imitations. What about character voices? If you made a baby sound, or a little girl sound, or a gruff Santa sound? Or a witch? What do you find when you make those sounds?

Or accents! If you’re good at them, which I am (she said, immodestly). How does singing something with an RP British accent feel versus singing something with a Cockney accent? (Did you know there are 30 different accents associated with the UK?) A French accent versus a Russian accent? A midwestern accent or a southern accent? What happens inside your mouth? What is the sound like? What can you learn from making that sound?

Check out the amazing Christine Pedi in this video. She’s made a career out of doing imitations, especially switching between them rapid-fire – but I don’t know what her own voice sounds like.

So imitate away – but examine what you’re doing. What’s healthy about it? What’s not? How can you use imitation as a tool to find your own voice?