Did you have a grapefruit this week?

Grapefruit blogpost

My husband is somewhat hard of hearing. It comes from spending his 20s in rock bands and his 30s doing woodworking projects, both without benefit of hearing protection.

So when I said to him last week, “Online lessons are going so much better than I expected. Yesterday I had three people who had breakthroughs!”

He said, “They had grapefruits??”

Much mirth ensued.

I told that story to one of my students (who had been one of the breakers-through) at her next lesson and she said that now she wanted a grapefruit.

I have found that the advantages to online lessons include:

  • I can’t play for my students on vocalises, so they need to become more independent. Consequently, we can hear where there are intonation and registration issues that otherwise might be covered up by the piano.
  • Since I can’t play for them on repertoire, they need to sing a cappella or with an accompaniment track. I have to listen to them, during which I take notes – almost like I’m adjudicating a competition. I miss less because I’m not playing the piano and splitting my focus between them and the accompaniment. Something cool I’ve been doing is to type my observations directly into the chat while the student is singing, so that they’re there for them when they finish. If the student records their lesson, that chat is there for them to review afterwards.
  • I can look at them really closely in a way that would be frowned upon in an in-person way. I can get up to the camera and say, “What are you doing with your tongue?” and look directly into their mouths (without any fear of bio-aerosol droplet virus transmission or experiencing halitosis – on either side). Again, if I’m playing the piano, I might not notice that someone’s jaw is not releasing back and down, but rather is coming forward, but if I’m not, I can (which was the first “grapefruit” of that day).

This time has been one of experimenting with what works, and, in doing so, experiencing some growth that we might not have expected. And maybe finding a grapefruit or two.

(And yes, I am married to Emily Litella.)

We breathe to live – we breathe to sing – but can we do it together? (Part 1 of 2)

This the hardest and probably the most important (at least to me) blogpost I’ve ever written.

About a year ago, when I cleaned up my website, I changed my mission statement a bit and put the original in a blogpost so that I wouldn’t lose it because it was some important information. The part that comes to mind right now is in the penultimate paragraph:

We breathe to live. We breathe to sing. We balance our breath energy in order to create a beautiful tone.

Our bodies need breath to function and we inhale to provide that energy source. We speak and we sing on the exhalation of breath. For singing, we control and balance the exhalation.

We balance that breath energy in order to maximize:

  1. how long we can sing before having to refresh the breath;
  2. how clearly and evenly we can sing on that breath;
  3. how softly or loudly we can sing, and make that choice depending on what the composer asks for and our personal interpretation.

The latter is what a lot of people refer to as projection, although I prefer to use the term resonance.

But right now, studies are showing that breath projection is a factor in the spreading of COVID-19. A few weeks ago, I attended a webinar on the topic sponsored by National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), Chorus America, Barbershop Harmony Society, and Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA), which featured presentations by Dr. Donald Milton, a bio-aerosol specialist at the University of Maryland, and Dr. Lucinda Halstead, an otolaryngologist at the University of South Carolina and the incoming president of PAMA. The webinar is available on YouTube and you can watch it here.

A terrific summary of the findings can be found in a blogpost written by tenor Zach Finkelstein in his blog The Middleclass Artist. Please read this for more detail, but to summarize the summary, I’m just going to come out and say that:

There is no safe place for us to sing together right now. Not in a choir, not in a show, not in the studio. Dr. Halstead has estimated 18-24 months before the combination of an effective vaccine and treatment regimen will make it safe again. Others have said that’s out there and that it should be sooner. I hope the latter view is the correct one.

But in the meanwhile, I intend to continue with online lessons through the summer and consider reopening the studio for in-person lessons on September 1. I will continue to monitor the situation – my husband is an ER doc, so I have a scientific source right at my elbow. If things improve, it might be sooner. If we have another surge, it will be later.

I have to tell you that this information upset me greatly because I love working with my students in person and preparing them for performances. I also love performing, and the thought of not doing it in front of a live audience is anathema to me.

As I mentioned in my last blogpost, I intended this post to be a look at the situation as we know it today and talk about why we should sing, even when there’s nowhere we can sing. I did the first part in this post. I have a lot on my mind about the second part and I will be writing that tomorrow.

In the meantime… 55281FC2-24DB-44C8-9198-317BA071344A

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?

 

/æn Intrə’dʌkʃən tu ði Intər’næʃənəl fən’ɛtIk ‘ælfabɛt bai krI’stin ‘tɑməs o’mili/

(An introduction to the International Phonetic Alphabet by Christine Thomas-O’Meally)

4EEFD68D-BAE2-4376-9412-77516A14C402_1_201_aI love IPA (aka /ai pi ei/)! It appeals to my inner geek and my wanna-be linguist.

But I understand that not everyone does.

Why bother using it? Why not just write down something the way you hear it?

That might work just fine for you – until you come back to something and not be able to remember what the heck your notes meant. Or if someone says, “Hey, I missed choir rehearsal on Thursday and I don’t know Latin. Do you have your notes?” and you give them what you wrote down and they have no idea what “kihreeay aylayeezahn” means (plus that’s wrong anyway).

IPA is the key used in the most foreign language dictionaries and the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s specific, it’s consistent. It’s not confusing (once you know it). It’s not perfect – languages aren’t always specific and consistent, but at least it gives you a place to start.

Look at this comparison of English vowels using IPA vs. the pronunciation keys used in the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) and Merriam-Webster (MW):

IPA AHD MW Sample Words
ɑː ä ä dark, heart, park, car, hark, father
ɑ ŏ ‘ä dot, pot, hot, pop, bob, body
æ a a dad, bad, at, bat, pal, pat, add, cat, fat
ɛ ĕ e bet, pepper, desk,fetch, neck
ā ā ray, A, H, eight, take, date, bake, pain
ɪ ĭ ‘i it, dig, pig, drink
ē ē eat, pee, see, heat, beat
o ō ō pole, dole, dough, oh
ɔː ô ȯ walk, talk, saw, Paul
ɝ û ə work, were, bird, dirt, nurse, stir, courage
ə but, butt, bud
ʊ o͝o took, book, look, hook, cook, hood, foot, good, put
u o͞o ü two, spook, shoot, hoot,goose, influence,
ī ī die, kite, like, light, I, high, try
ou au̇ vow, bow

With the exception of the colon after several of vowels (which indicates they’re longer vowels), there are no mysterious extra marks to have to remember – and a lot of people leave those out, in my experience. (Okay, ɝ is a little odd, but I rarely use that because it doesn’t appear in most other languages in which I sing.)

And when it comes to consonants, there’s no confusion about when you have a hard G or a soft G. One sound, one character. If it’s a hard G, it’s /g/. If it’s a soft g, it’s /ʒ/.

So why should I use it in English? I know English!

Do you know someone whose name you can never remember how to pronounce because it’s not pronounced the way you think it’s supposed to be? Write it down for yourself in IPA and you’ll never call /’bɝ nIs/ “BerNIECE” again (honestly, I wrote it out for myself as /’bᴧr nIs/ even though the /r/ would be rolled if I were being faithful to the rules, but I know that we don’t roll Rs in American English, so it was okay).

I’d like to share the wonderful geekiness that is IPA to others – so starting on May 6, I’m going to go online and do a few Zoom classes on the topic. Totally free.

  • May 6 – overview of vowels and consonants
  • May 13 – Latin/Italian
  • May 20 – German
  • May 27 – French

Time still TBD, although I’m thinking 5pm. If you’re interested, drop me a note in the comments (or shoot me an email) and I’ll send you more info including the Zoom link.

/dʒɔɪn mi/!

Online Lessons – Choices Abound!

In the last few weeks, as I’ve made the transition to online lessons, about 1/3 of my students have come along with me and scheduled lessons. They’ve either downloaded an accompaniment app or have a prerecorded track on their end. They’ve downloaded Zoom, made sure their audio set up is in place, and made appointments on Acuity.

A few other people have contacted me to tell me that their lives are twice as busy as a result of this pandemic and they’re going to have put lessons on hold for the time being.

But quite a few people have simply… disappeared. They haven’t responded to emails and they haven’t scheduled any lessons. And I get it because this might be the most important thing in my life – it’s what I do for a living and it’s my passion – but it’s just one of many things my students do. What are the fears?

  1. It’s gonna be weird.
    Yep. It will, at first. And maybe at second. It won’t be like an in-person lesson.
  2. I don’t want to sing in front of my siblings/parents.
    Well, you can ask them to go for a walk for an hour. People can still walk outside (and that way no one will be streaming and your connection will be better).
  3. I don’t have a place to do it. 
    You won’t need a piano. You can really go anywhere (although if you go into your bedroom, it’d be best if you leave the door ajar, for propriety’s sake). I have one person singing in the basement, just because she’s right by the router.
  4. I’m freaking out and I’m not in a good place about this. Can we just wait until we can do it in person?
    That is an option. I’ve had a few bad days myself. I’m going to extend my studio calendar for two weeks, and hopefully we’ll be back in person by May. But I think it would be a really good thing to keep on track with lessons.

If you really, really don’t think you can do online lessons for whatever reason, here are some options:

  1. Make a video of yourself. Send it to me, either via email or the new Marco Polo app, which I have just downloaded onto my iPad. This allows you to record a video and send it to me. If I’m around, I can watch it right away. If I’m not, I can watch it when I get to it, and record my thoughts and comments and send it back to you.
  2. Active Listening: According to Full Voice Music educator Nikki Loney, “Active listening is when you listen to music carefully and give it your full attention.” I can assign some videos of various singers for you to watch and you can watch them and analyze the entire piece, from accompaniment, to rhythm, to harmonies, to vocal choices, to lyrics. We can focus on one or we can focus on more. We can focus on lyrics. What do the words mean? Are there any words that are new for you?
  3.  Take a break, and hopefully we’ll get back into the studio again in May and get the rest of your lessons in before the end of the semester.

This was written specifically for my students so that my email about the subject won’t be ridiculously long, but if you’re a voice teacher or a voice student, you’re probably dealing with the same things.

TL:DR – There are so many choices – what will be yours?

Appcompanist for Android is AVAILABLE!

From my friend, fellow voice teacher and music director/studio pianist Michael Tan, on the studio FB page this morning:

FYI: The free prerelease version of Appcompanist for Android is now live on the Google Play Store! (Just search Appcompanist) [The rest is Appcompanist’s blurb]

The free prerelease version includes access to all 550+ Vocal Exercises and 50 Sample Songs chosen by NATS from their list of most auditioned repertoire (all found in Playlists). The purpose of this prerelease version is to at least rush something into the hands of teachers and singers who have been forced to transition to online lessons, distance learning, and practice in isolation. As a prerelease version, you may experience some instability and technical issues, but our testing has found it to work well enough to be a help at this time. We would appreciate it if you would report any bugs or problems you encounter to info@appcompanist.com so we can work those fixes it into our ongoing development. We are working hard to make the subscription version with the full library of 5,000+ titles available by May.

Please feel free to visit our website www.appcompanist.com for information and helpful tutorial videos to make the most of this great learning and rehearsal tool. Keep in mind, however, that not all of the features highlighted in the videos from the Apple version will be immediately available in Android. We will keep working to get every great feature into the hands of our Android users as soon as possible.

If you choose not to keep Appcompanist, you will still have access to the vocalises. I took the liberty of going through the vocalises curated by them and writing them out, so that you’ll know what to do with them, and am attaching them here: Accompanist_Vocalises.

Some of these are vocalises we do in the studio. Others are new and I might be adding them to the rotation and will introduce them in online lessons in the coming weeks (hopefully not months). I have included suggested vowels/syllables and have written out based on where I probably would start them in your lesson and have included a couple of them going down (mostly).

The vocalises on the app default to C major and go up. You can change that. I prefer to start in E or Eb (for the most part) and go down, and then return to the original note and go up. I’ll make a video of myself doing that, as well as other fancy things you can do in Appcompanist, and post it later.

At the very least, this will allow you to have some vocalises that you can use, in addition to the ones I have posted for my private students on the website (the portal access is being worked on by my webmaster as we speak).

Online lessons – can this work?

YES.

But there are some things we have to know first (well, first of all, that’s a screenshot below, so don’t try to click play on it because it won’t play).FFA15FA0-862A-455B-8268-9632BC759C52You need to have a few things on your end:

  1. We’re using Zoom as the platform. Not only is it really trendy in this weird dystopian life we’re all living right now, there was a study that was just released that shows it to be the best in terms of doing music lessons. FaceTime can also work for people on iOS, but it’s not as authentic in capturing sound.
  2. You need a laptop or a tablet. And ideally, you need an external mic. Whether that is a USB plug-in, like the Blue Snowball mic, or a lightning plug-in if you’re using an iPad, or your earbuds (wired or wireless) with a mic on it, that’s up to you. But your sound quality will be better if you have an external mic of some kind.
  3. It would be ideal if no one else is streaming in the house. Your connection will be better.
  4. I can’t accompany you. There’s too much of a lag. You can use a variety of platforms for accompaniments. I have created an overview of the different platforms for you. I like Appcompanist, and it’s offering a 30 day free trial. It offers you the most creative options for personalizing the music to your individual needs. I’ll be creating another blog/video to explain that further. But there are other options, as well. Check them out and see what works for you. Accompaniment overview
  5. Your accompaniment, whatever the format, needs to be on a separate device from Zoom. And honestly, it doesn’t matter if I can hear it. It matters if you can. I just need to hear you.
  6. Your settings on Zoom should be optimized to allow original sound. This is especially important in vocal music to avoid cutting out. This is available only on the desktop/laptop platform, and is under advanced settings on audio. Zoom settings - Audio Advanced

So, if you didn’t see this video on Facebook (from which the screen shot came), take a look here. This is the video that explains how to set up lessons, for those of you who need to set up lessons. Plus you get to see me dance a little.

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

No Autotune Necessary

Going back looking at some old posts. Short but sweet.

Why I sing

Here are ten isolated vocal tracks of pop singers (the link says 11, but the one of Idina Menzel has been disabled – pity).

While we all knew (I’m using the Royal We here) that Ann Wilson and Freddie Mercury were rock gods, it’s nice to know that even contemporary artists like One Direction have chops. And that Beyoncé’s voice can stand on its own. It’s heartbreaking to hear how incredible Whitney Houston had been, knowing how her voice wound up, as well as how incredible Amy Winehouse was, knowing how she wound up – and wondering if she would’ve wound up going down the same vocal path as Whitney Houston if she’d lived as long.

And it’s nice to hear isolated vocal tracks that are good, instead of ones we can poke fun at. And with that in mind, I will not post recordings of Linda McCartney or Britney…

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“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?