Listening Party #1: Sweeney Todd (1979)

Sweeney Todd Cover PhotoI’m starting a series of 5 Zoom Listening Parties, each one focusing on my favorite musicals.

The first will be Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, of which I have yet to see a bad production. Some have been better than others (including the one I was in with Skylight Opera Theater in 1997, but perhaps I’m biased). One reason I think this is true is because it’s too difficult a piece to do unless you have the forces on hand – both musical (vocal and instrumental) and dramatic.

The other thing is that it is just perfection. It’s dark. Oh, yes. It’s dark. But then there are moments of such hope and beauty (The “Kiss me/Ladies in their Sensitivities” quartet is nigh Mozartean), places of both slapstick humor (“Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir/The Contest”) and dark humor (“Have a Little Priest”), that it’s elevated beyond a tawdry story of false imprisonment, rape, murder, masturbation, and cannibalism. (Bring the kids!)

Join me Friday, May 1, at 3pm to listen to the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. We’ll be skipping a few pieces here and there, especially in the first act. I’ll be giving a little insight into the show as we go along. If you plan to come, let me know and I’ll send you the meeting ID.

While there is no charge for these listening parties, you may choose to donate to an area arts organization. The first organization to benefit from this party will be Third Wall Productions (TWP), a Baltimore-based community theater company, for whom I directed Little Women in 2017. Several of my students have also performed with the group, and their founder, Mike Zellhofer, has worked with me as well.

If you can’t make the party, but would like to contribute to TWP, their donation link may be found here.

Future parties and their beneficiaries will be as follows:

May 8: Ragtime – House of Bankerd

May 15: Assassins* – Spotlighters Theater

May 22: Bat Boy The Musical – American Visionary Arts Museum

May 29: A New Brain – VocalID (more info about that organization to come)

Hope to see you there! All parties will be at 3pm and end before 5pm.

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May Musical Challenge!

Awhile back there was a Facebook group called, “There’s more to musical theater than just Wicked, Phantom, and Les Mis.” That was about ten years ago. I think nowadays it’d be “… Hamilton, Dear Evan Hanson, and … still Phantom.” There’s a lot more out there. A lot.

So – since we’re all sitting at home, let’s listen to musicals!

  • 31 days, 31 shows – ones that are “new to you”
  • 1940-2020
  • Rate them from 1-5
  • No year repeats!

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If you’re a student of mine (or you just want to participate, feel free, but you won’t get a prize if you’re not), feel free to complete this form, either on this website or use this fillable PDF:  May Musical Challenge_ 31 Musicals in 31 Days! and discover what’s out there.

NB: This was going to be the Tony-award winning Best Musicals from 1988-2020, but there were a lot of lame musicals in the early 1990s. So – you have 80 years. I’m going to do it, too. I know a lot of musicals, but not all of them.

If you’re in my studio, there’s a prize for the person who listens to the most musicals – which my students know about.

If you’re not – well, why not?

We start May 1.

And go.

/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/!

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

Vulnerability vs. Oversharing – Part 1

NOTE: This was originally published in July 2013. In reviewing it, it’s ridiculously long, so I’m re-doing it in two parts. Here’s part 1.

Why I sing

NOTE:  This was originally published in July 2013. In reviewing it, it’s ridiculously long, so I’m re-doing it in two parts…
*****

Recently, I’ve been watching videos by psychologist Brené Brown on the topic of vulnerability. She has done extensive research on the advantages and disadvantages of making yourself vulnerable and allowing yourself to be authentic as a person.

What I love that Dr. Brown says about vulnerability is that it is “the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, [and] of love.” And also thinking about how people “surrender and walk into it.”

Most of the times when we think about not being vulnerable in a performance, we think of being stiff and unexpressive. But there’s another way that’s even more egregious (in my opinion). And that is oversharing in performance.

I’ve…

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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.

 

Musicals I don’t like that everyone else does

There’s a thing going around Facebook where people are listing the things they don’t like that everyone else does. Some make sense to me – black licorice? EW. The Kardashians? EW EW. And some – well, I’ve lost all respect for some people.

So I thought I’d make a list of the musicals I don’t like that everyone else does (not in any kind of order):

  1. Grease
    The Travolta/ON-J movie was entertaining, but really, it’s a gross musical. I simply won’t teach any of the songs from it because they’re
    trash not my cup of tea.
  2. Bye Bye Birdie
    Really, this should be #1. My personal experience of Hell on earth was sitting through a high school showcase in Milwaukee where five scenes of this
    monstrosity were presented. I only like “Put on a happy face,” and then only sung by Dick Van Dyke. Most of the music is trash not my cup of tea.
  3. Chorus Line
    I like the music out of context. I find the story very self-indulgent (as I do with a lot of 1970s musicals) and it’s uncomfortable to see HS kids doing it. 
  4. Godspell
    Admittedly, seeing this at St. Matthias Catholic Church done by an all-volunteer group may have colored my opinion of it. But again, self-indulgent 1970s pseudo-spiritual claptrap  not my cup of tea.
  5. Pippin
    I like Corner of the Sky. But other than that, self-indulgent etc. etc.
  6. Children of Eden
    This is the third Stephen Schwartz piece in a row. Huh. “Oh Noah – you go-ah – all the way back to the protozoa!” That lyric alone … ugh.
  7. Jekyll & Hyde
    Great music. Just too dark, no humor to liven up the endless death and dismemberment. A show only as good as its three principal actors. And “Confrontation” has to be sung by an acting phenom, otherwise it’s
    hilarious.
  8. Mamma Mia!
    UGH. My husband says, “But you like ABBA.” Yeah, in a club. But not an entire evening of it. Plus I kinda hate jukebox musicals. And when I saw the movie, there were a whole bunch of women from the Red Hat Society, cheering and dancing. ‘Nuff said.
  9. Rent
    Puccini did it better. I have my own personal opinion as to why it was such a success. I won’t share that here. Mimi shouldn’t live at the end. THERE ARE CONSEQUENCES.
  10. Spring Awakening
    I will say that I like the recording better than when people brought me the individual songs because the orchestration is sublime. The piano reductions are boring as hell. I don’t like the music, though. I find it too jarring with the 1800s setting. It seems… dare I say it… self-indulgent – “Look how edgy we are!”

(Dis)Honorable mention:

  • You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown 
    I don’t like shows where adults play children. I could probably handle a production at the high school level, but a 45 year old Charlie Brown is just gross.
  • 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
    I like the story, not the music. Which is weird because I 
    love William Finn’s writing in Falsettos and A New Brain. Again, adults playing children is weird and off-putting to me.
  • City of Angels
    Saw it on its national tour in DC in the 90s. Enjoyed it somewhat, I recall, but I remember nothing about it.  I couldn’t tell you anything about it 15 minutes after I saw it.

There are a lot of musicals I haven’t seen and don’t wanna see. I don’t like jukebox musicals or movicals (movies turned into musicals) as a general rule. There are exceptions.

But there’s one musical for which I cannot – no, will not – make an exception (other than the DvD reference above). Just say no.
FBFE7D38-8778-4048-9D67-99A55D728A80_4_5005_cNot that I’m opinionated or anything. It’s  just trash …. not my cup of tea.

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).