An American Anthem

On September 11, 2002, I participated in a commemoration of 9/11 at my undergraduate alma mater, Alverno College. I brought a piece to sing at the ceremony that I had heard a few years earlier as the title track on an album by baritone Nathan Gunn. It was also sung by mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves at the September 14, 2001 memorial held at National Cathedral (for whom it was written by Gene Scheer in 1998 for an event at the Smithsonian Institute).

Alverno didn’t like it. They thought it was “too patriotic” and wanted me to sing “Let there be peace on earth” instead.

I told them that I felt very strongly that this song was the appropriate piece for the event and that if they really didn’t want it, I would withdraw and send one of my high school students instead because pretty much anyone can sing “Let there be peace on earth.”

Yeah, I felt strongly about it. And I got to sing it. 😀

The lyrics of this song speak to me. They speak to me about patriotism from both the perspective of those who wave flags, who fight on battlefields, who protest, who sign petitions, and who vote.

All we’ve been given by those who came before
The dream of a nation where freedom would endure
The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day
What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?

CHORUS: Let them say of me I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings I received
Let me know in my heart when my days are through
America, America, I gave my best to you

Each generation from the plains to distant shore
with the gifts they were given were determined to leave more
Valiant battles foughts together – acts of conscience fought alone
These are the seeds from which America has grown. CHORUS

For those who think they have nothing to share
Who fear in their hearts there is no hero there
Know each quiet act of dignity is that which fortifies
The soul of a nation that never dies. CHORUS

(It’s also a heckuva competition winner, for those who are looking for that kind of rep.)

On this 4th of July, I think it’s just the right song for us to hear. Here’s the recording that I first heard (pre-9/11). I hope you like it!

 

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.

Listening Party #3: Assassins

Stephen Sondheim certainly does like to write about varied subjects, doesn’t he? Here’s a few examples:

  1. A fake miracle, a corrupt mayor, and inmates from a local asylum called the Cookie Jar (Anyone can Whistle, 1964)
  2. A love story about two young people living in a department store with a subculture of residents who are afraid of being turned into mannequins if they leave (Evening Primrose, 1966)
  3. A demon barber who takes revenge on his hapless customers and his amoral landlady, who turns their corpses into meat pies for sale at her pie shop on Fleet Street (Sweeney Todd, 1979)
  4. Presidential assassins, successful and would-be (Assassins, 1990)

On Friday, May 15, at 3pm, I will be hosting the third listening party, which will feature Assassins. This is a 1991 recording of the off-Broadway version, which includes a fantastic cast of actors including Victor Garber, Debra Monk, and Terrence Mann. The show did not open on Broadway until 2004 (it was supposed to open in November 2001, but the post-9/11 atmosphere would not have been friendly for a musical about presidential assassinations).

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Much of the music in the show is reflective of the time period in which each assassin lived. “The Ballad of Booth” has strong overtones of Stephen Foster. “I am unworthy of your love” is a 70s folk-rock ballad. “The Ballad of Guiteau” is a late 1800s cakewalk (and features the only words that Sondheim has ever set to music that were not written by him). “How I saved Roosevelt” uses a Sousa march as its foundation.

None of the assassins are portrayed as heroes, or victims, or justified in their actions. It is an examination of the times in which they lived.

Yes, it’s weird. Come listen to the weirdness with me. I’ll walk you through it. Contact me if you want the PMI.

Donations will be accepted for Spotlighters Theatre, which has served Baltimore for nearly 60 years, and had to suspend their current season due to the coronavirus.

Listening Party #2: The People Called it “Ragtime!”

My second favorite musical is Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s Ragtime, which premiered on Broadway in 1998. On Friday, May 8 at 3pm, we’ll be listening to the original cast recording, which features some of my favorite singers:

  • Judy Kaye – Emma Goldman
  • Lea Michele – Little Girl
  • Marin Mazzie (RIP) – Mother
  • Brian Stokes Mitchell (or as I like to call him, “Stokes”) – Coalhouse Walker, Jr.
  • Audra Audra AUDRA McDonald – Sarah Brown

This musical is set in the early 1900s and is based on the style of music popular during the era, which was known as ragtime. But it addresses so many issues that still exist today:

  • Immigration
  • Racism
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Socialism
  • Sexism
  • White privilege
  • Tabloid journalism

There are three primary groups within the show:

  1. The affluent white family, known only as Father, Mother, Grandfather, Younger Brother, and Edgar, the son of Father and Mother (why he has a name and no one else does, I don’t know). Others affiliated with this group are historical figures such as J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Harry K. Thaw and his wife Evelyn Nesbit, as well as her former lover Stanford White, and Admiral Robert Peary. Less affluent, but also a face of white privilege is the fictional fire chief Willie Conklin.
  2. The African-American musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and his girlfriend, Sarah Brown; Booker T. Washington; Sarah & Coalhouse’s friends.
  3. The Jewish immigrant Tateh and his daughter, Little Girl (note that she doesn’t have a name); as well as the anarchist Emma Goldman. A more famous immigrant is magician Harry Houdini, whose life is somewhat tied to Edgar.

I saw this show on a national tour in Chicago in the early 2000s and fell in love with it. I’d already listened to the original cast recording, where I first fell in love with the amazing voices, especially those of Stokes and Audra.

Join me on Friday to hear more about this wonderful show (message me for the link or use the one from last week if you were there). Meanwhile, enjoy this performance of Audra and Stokes at the Kennedy Center in January 2019, a little over 20 years after their first performance in the Broadway production.

Vulnerability vs. Oversharing, Part 3: Songs That Overshare (on purpose)

This is the last (for now) in this series of three blogposts about the difference between vulnerability and oversharing.

Sometimes there are songs that do give a little more information than might seem necessary. Some of the ones that come to mind are:

  1. I’m not wearing underwear todayAvenue Q (well, probably 2/3 of the show qualifies as oversharing)
  2. I touch myselfThe Divinyls (1990 pop song – a cute tune but did we really need to know this?)
  3. I can’t say noOklahoma! (Ado Annie’s confession about how easily her head is turned)
  4. The love of my lifeBrigadoon (pretty much the same song as “I can’t say no”)
  5. Does this look infected? (Okay, I made that one up. And you’re welcome.)

There are pop songs that go even further, and I’m not even going to list them because they were ridiculous. And kind of gross.

In general, if a song is oversharing, at least in musical theater, it’s because it’s supposed to be funny. The character is going too far. And that’s the joke. But when we’re interpreting a song that is intended to be serious, even if the content is very personal, we aren’t oversharing.

In planning this post, I did find a really good song called Oversharing by country singer Kelsea Ballerini. And even though she’s singing about how she overshares, the song is showing her vulnerability. Part of the chorus is:

Yeah, I know, there’s moments that I’m missin’
If I’d just shut up and listen
But silence makes me scared
So then I overshare

If you are working on a song that is intended to show your vulnerable side – a song like “Your daddy’s son” or “Someone else’s story” or “Stranger” – you need to take a moment to “shut up and listen.” Listen to the spaces between the notes. Between the words. Between the verses. Listen to the harmonies, the instrumentation (even if you’re doing it with piano) – what did the composer intend to convey when s/he chose the instruments accompanying the song? How do the harmonies enhance the text? How does this help you express the message of the song?

Think but don’t overthink. Share but don’t overshare. Care but don’t overcare. Don’t miss the point. Don’t be scared of the silences.

Vulnerability vs. Oversharing, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about oversharing being the projection your emotions onto someone as opposed to being vulnerable and having those emotions resonate with them. This brings me to the topic of projection.

People often ask me to teach them how to project (i.e., be louder), and I usually counter that what I want them to learn how to do is to resonate more. It’s a common question. For example, in a master class in Milwaukee some years ago, baritone Thomas Hampson was asked how he approached projection, and he said [paraphrasing somewhat]: “I don’t like to think of projection. It seems so one-directional. Bullets project. Missiles project. Small children thrown through plate glass windows project. But voices resonate.” In addition to amusing me greatly, that resonated with me.

Here’s an example of vulnerability that I witnessed within my Milwaukee studio. In the penultimate studio recital there, one of my students sang “Empty chairs at empty tables” from Les Miserables. He sang it beautifully. He was expressive, authentic, emotional, and he made people cry. He said to me a few months later, “Did you notice that I was crying?” and I told him that I didn’t, because it didn’t interfere with his singing and with his story. Often, singers and actors are told, “If you make the audience cry, you’ve done your job. If you cry, you just make the audience uncomfortable.” I generally agree with that – however, in his case, his emotion was so organic and genuine that it did not become uncomfortable. 

Then there’s the quintessential demonstration of oversharing that I came across a few years ago, when I judged lower college musical theater women at NATS. A young woman came in and sang her three pieces:

  1. Someone to watch over me,” Gershwin, Oh Kay! She decided to sing this while maintaining seductive eye contact with each of us judges. It was really uncomfortable.  And weird. She had two straight women and a gay man judging her and none of us were interested. The singing wasn’t particularly interesting – it was not as though she was coloring her voice or shaping the phrases to express a longing or a yearning – she was doing it all through contrived gestures and come-hither looks.

  2. “Honey bun,” Rodgers & Hammerstein, South Pacific. This involved a sailor hat. And interspersing her singing with shouting, “That’s mah little HONEY BUN!” Now, this song isn’t emotional – it’s a funny song. But the humor fell flat because it was inappropriate vocally and physically. And it depended on the use of a hat.

  3. And then the pièce de résistance, “Your daddy’s son,” Ahrens & Flaherty, Ragtime. For this one, she grabbed a blanket and bundled it up to look like a baby. She sang the entire song to the bundle, but as she got more and more agitated – it is a very dramatic song – the bundle started getting out of control and had there been a real baby in the blanket, it would have suffered from shaken baby syndrome. And vocally, she went out of control as well. She began to scream, “Only ANGER AND PAIN, THE BLOOD AND THE PAIN, I BURIED MY HEART IN THE GROUND –  WHEN I BURIED YOU IN THE GROUND.” The response it evoked from us was not, “That poor young woman, she feels so much grief and guilt,” but rather, “Oh my God, she’s going to have a vocal fold hemorrhage right here in front of us. Blood is going to start spurting out of her mouth.” And then it became funny. Unintentionally funny. On the final chorus, she burst into tears and could barely get the words out between sobs and when she got to the line, “You had your daddy’s hands – forgive me,” which is traditionally nearly whispered, she just screamed, “FORGIVE ME!” and I had to put my hands over my mouth so that I wouldn’t openly laugh.

It was the worst performance I’d ever seen at NATS. Or pretty much anywhere, for that matter. Worse than someone standing and doing nothing. It was not an authentic performance. It reeked of, “Look what I can do! I can be sexy, I can be funny, I can break your heart – just watch me!” What she should have been saying was: “I’m lonely and need someone to love me,” “I’m in love with a real peach of a gal – let me tell you about her,” and finally, “I hate myself for what I did, and I have no excuses – except this.”

She did not resonate with her audience. She projected her emotions – more like projectile vomited her emotions all over us. And like projectile vomit, we couldn’t wait to wash it off. (Was that too much? Probably.)

Tell a story. Tell the truth. It’s not about you as a singer/actor, it’s about the story that you have to tell. What is the core truth of it? What can telling this story offer your audience? What can it offer you as the storyteller?

Don’t hold back. Give your audience as much as you can, but make it real. Tell the truth.  Be real. Invest yourself fully and not on a superficial level of “watch ME!” or “listen to ME,” but “hear my story.”

Projectile Vomiting

World Voice Day in a Time of Silence

world_voice_day_2020_poster_s_rgb-294x434Every year, World Voice Day seems to coincide with something that prevents me from celebrating it. Last year, it was during Holy Week. The year before, I was teaching all day at Howard Community College. And the year before that it was Easter Sunday.

And this year, we have a pandemic. And all performances are on hold. Lessons, master classes, conferences, and workshops have moved online. So sometimes we have to ask ourselves:

  • If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, did it make a sound?
  • If a singer sings a song and no one is there to hear it, is s/he really a singer? What does it matter?

The latter is a question I’ve asked myself in the last few weeks, since this all began. What’s the point of singing, if there’s no one to hear it? What is the point of teaching singing, if there’s nowhere for them to perform?

I love working with performers and helping them prepare for performing. Our studio cabaret was coming up on Mother’s Day (moved to September 13). Our studio recital was scheduled for June 7 (I’m going to be cancelling it or moving it online – still TBD).

What is the point? Why should we go on?

Our voices are with us all the time. Sometimes out loud, sometimes just in our heads. Sometimes we get to use them where others can hear them. Sometimes we just talk to ourselves and make plans for the future.

We still have our voices, even if performing is on hold right now. We might not be using them the way we want, but we should still continue to focus on our voices during this time so that we can use them when they can be heard again.

Because we will all have something to say once this is over. Next year, we’re going to do something big for World Voice Day. And we need to be ready.

Focus on your voice. You’re going to need it like never before.

*******

That was supposed to be the end of this blogpost, but while I was writing, I was watching The Good Fight on TV, and the cast and crew of the show was talking about how we are all still connected and it touched me so much that I had to put it here. Not all the singing is beautiful (not everyone in the cast is Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald) but all of it is heartfelt. And all of it matters.

 

Feel the Grief and Do it Anyway

Back on March 4, I had a conversation with a friend on how overwhelmed I felt because I had taken on too many projects. In the upcoming weeks, my schedule included:

  1. Six more performances of Don Giovanni at the Kennedy Center in DC;
  2. The world premiere of a concert of music with texts by Irish poets, three songs of which I had commissioned area composer Garth Baxter to write for me, four more songs which he wrote on his own, and five songs by other composers;
  3. Teaching;
  4. Preparing students for their upcoming trip to Columbia, SC for the regional finals at Mid-Atlantic NATS;
  5. A Curiously Stronger Performing workshop on creating a cabaret;
  6. Preparing a studio cabaret at Germano’s featuring music by women composers;
  7. My church job, leading up to Holy Week (Chrism Mass, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday), with a wedding along the way;
  8. Preparing to go on vacation to the UK on Easter Sunday night.

My friend said, “Good lord, that’s so much! Such cool stuff, though!”

I got as far as three more performances of DG, the workshop, and a week of teaching before the world shut down. NATS went to an online format for the competition (which I submitted on Tuesday); the recital was postponed to June; the Kennedy Center closed; church closed; Germano’s (and other restaurants) closed; and my vacation is cancelled.

And now I’m home, making the transition to online lessons. And the process of trying to make this a valuable experience for my students is more overwhelming – and right now, less satisfying – than the plethora of things I had to do less than a month ago.

A friend of mine shared an article on the reaction we’re having to this new abnormal. It’s by David Kessler, who collaborated with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on her sequel to her groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying. This one is called On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. He’s written his own book on the subject, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of GriefSince I recently wrote a blog on the topic of applying the five stages of grief in interpreting a sad song, this piqued my interest.

Back in the early 1990s, a popular self-help book was Feel the Fear … and Do It Anyway by the late Susan Jeffers. It was a very pragmatic book about taking the next step in life, no matter how it might terrify you. It was really helpful for me when I made the decision to completely up-end my life, leave my first marriage, and move to Baltimore for graduate school. I was terrified. And it’s very easy, when you’re frightened, to simply do nothing. I chose to do something. And I’ve chosen to do something over and over again since then.

I’m not frightened now, despite the pandemic. I am grieving for the loss of my performing life, I am grieving for the loss of my upcoming vacation (and the trips I’d planned to take later this spring and summer, which are now up in the air), I am grieving over not seeing in my students in person, where I feel the most in my element. And I just want to go to brunch. Or out with friends for a drink and a bite. I’m also pretty angry, come to think of it.

I am grieving, but I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to find the meaning of this grief and let it take me to the next level in my virtual teaching and in my planning performances. And maybe I’ll add to that blog about using those stages of grief and finding the meaning.

But not today. Today I think I’m just going to cry.

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.