Weather – specifically precipitation – has been the bane of my existence. I’ve had shows sabotaged by blizzards and ice storms. Birthdays rained on for 6 years in a row, including my graduation from high school on my 18th birthday. And I held a graduation party three days later. It rained then too. It’s enough to give you a complex.
However, some of my favorite songs have been about rain.
Just noticed that both of those songs are by the same composer, Harvey Schmidt.
The song that started me on my journey as a singer was about avoiding rain. Metaphorical rain, but rain, nevertheless.
Tomorrow afternoon, the Mezzoid Voice Studio is scheduled to hold a semi-live, semi-virtual recital out in my backyard. And there is an 80% chance of thunderstorms. Not just rain, but thunderstorms. My plan was to have people sing live, interspersed with videos sent to me by some of my past students and ones who weren’t comfortable singing live in public during the pandemic.
JUST THIS ONCE.
But if it does, I will ask my students who were scheduled to sing to self-tape themselves (it’ll be a good exercise!) and submit the videos to me. I will then create a playlist of videos from those and the people who had submitted them for the live recital and then send them out to my studio.
These are good traits as a singer. And a teacher.
But still. Let’s hope it doesn’t rain.
What are your favorite songs about rain? Or weather in general?
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.
I’ve been seeing a lot of my colleagues set themselves a goal of singing through the entire 24 or 26 or 28 Italian Songs collection. They’ve taught them ad infinitum over the years, but they’ve never actually sung them themselves. So, in this time of respite from performing and in-person teaching, they’re recording themselves singing the songs.
I don’t wanna.
Maybe I don’t wanna because everyone else is doing it. (I’m like that.)
Maybe I don’t wanna because there are only a handful of them that I really like.
Vittoria, vittoria mio core
O del mio dolce ardor
Amarilli, mia bella
Se miei sospiri (or Pieta, signore, depending on which book you’re using)
Quella fiamma (and I like the tacky version with the “Il mio bel foco” recitative from the 24/28 series, even though it’s really not authentic and very cheesy)
Tu lo sai
But if I commit to singing those, I’ll have to sing
Caro mio ben
Alma core AND THE WORST ONE OF ALL
Se tu m’ami
I hate that song with a white hot passion. Teaching that song is truly the definition of having taught something ad nauseum.
So I’m not gonna. Because I don’t wanna.
But what I do want to try is singing through a technique book of vocalises – which I never did in my undergrad or grad school studies, and which I’ve never used in my own teaching. I’ve always done ones I’ve gotten from books, or teachers, or workshops, or made up myself. But a lot of my colleagues teach from the technique books – mainly Vaccai. So a couple of years ago, I picked up a book of Collected Vocalises: Concone, Lutgen, Sieber, & Vaccai (medium key).
I really like the Concone and the Lutgen. Vaccai leaves me as cold as Caro mio ben. (But not as bad as that which shall not be named again.)
Appcompanist has all of the Concone accompaniments, although they’re in the high key, so I have to adjust them a bit. They also have the Vaccai, but, unfortunately, neither the Lutgen nor the Sieber.
So my June challenge is that I’m going to read through all of the Concone this month. Maybe I’ll put them on FB – maybe on my personal page, maybe the studio page, maybe on Insta, maybe all three. And maybe if I feel like it, I’ll throw in one of the Vaccai.
If you’d like to try this, you can pick them up on Amazon. (Note: I do have an Associate Affiliate account, so if you purchase from one of these links, I will receive a small pittance.)
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:
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.
This Friday, I’ll be holding Listening Party #4, which will focus on the musical Bat Boy The Musical by Laurence O’Keefe. You may know Laurence O’Keefe from Legally Blonde The Musical and Heathers The Musical. The latter two of which are based on movies of the same name, and, consequently, are pretty commercial.
(What is up with shows post-1995 having “The Musical” after them? Would we not know they’re musicals as soon as people start singing? And yes, I’m watching the Jerry Seinfeld special on Netflix while I write this.)
Bat Boy, on the other hand, is a 2001 off-Broadway rock musical based on the now-defunct tabloid Weekly World News 1992 cover story about a fictional creature found in a cave who is half-bat, half-boy.
Yep. It’s a musical about a mutant. I don’t know Heathers (yet). From what I’ve heard of it, I think Bat Boy is more like it than Legally Blonde.
I’ve only seen one production of Bat Boy, as part of the 2005 summer theater program at Divine Savior Holy Angels HS in Milwaukee.
DSHA was a curious choice for a show like this. It’s an all-girls, relatively-conservative Catholic school. But they did a pretty good job with it. I enjoyed it immensely (in part because I had two students in the leads). And I love the cast recording
What does it say about me that I like musicals like this? Let’s look at our listening parties so far.
Sweeney – barber kills people, landlady makes them into pies
Ragtime – well, that’s relatively traditional, but still pretty intense
Assassins – presidential assassins
Bat Boy – see above.
This will be at 5pm instead of 3pm. I’m using the same PMI as for my lessons. If you don’t know what that is, message me.
Yesterday, I wrote about the findings of medical professionals regarding singing and the safety about doing it publicly. You can read that here. Apparently, singers and loud talkers are considered “super-spreaders.” Guilty and guilty. And feeling kind of judged about it.
Like I said, I found this terribly depressing. Everything had been going so well. I was singing as much as I wanted to and where I wanted to. My studio was growing and my students were all making tremendous progress, and many of them were finding more and more performing opportunities that were satisfied and motivating.
Why should we sing at all, when there’s nowhere to sing?
The English composer William Byrd published a songbook in 1588 that was considered the first great collection of English songs, Psalms, Sonnets and Songs. Not only have the song settings survived the test of time, his forward to the book has also inspired many singers. I have it hanging on my divider as my students enter my studio – or at least when they did (and will again).
This is our time to polish our technique, to learn new things, to take some risks, to sing for fun, to sing some old songs, to sing new songs. And we can do it without having to rush from work/school, rush to rehearsal, come home and stay up late getting homework done, or laundry, or prepping for the next day’s events. We have the luxury of time.
We can practice the right way, mindfully and with intention, instead of just ripping off a few lip trills to get the voice moving and then launching into a song. (Note: Once we’re back in the studio, we probably will never do any more high-spit factor vocalises again.)
Performing will look different for awhile. It may be online. It may be outside (and I just had an idea about that). It may be in the living room with your families, like in the old days. It may be live, it may be pre-recorded. But it will go on because we need to sing. I need to sing, you need to sing, we all need to sing. It’s like ice cream (I scream, you scream….)
And when we can perform for an audience (and we will), that audience will be craving music and theater. They’ll want it so bad and –
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:
how long we can sing before having to refresh the breath;
how clearly and evenly we can sing on that breath;
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.
When I lived in Wisconsin, I spent about 8 years in a sort of vocal quarantine. I suddenly found my private studio taking up more of my time and energy, and I chose to stop seeking work in Chicago, where I’d been doing the bulk of my singing, and reduced my performing with professional choral ensembles in Milwaukee and auditioning for local companies.
And my performing work dried up. Some of that was my choice, since I wasn’t actively pursuing gigs the way I had been, and some of it was … not. I was active with the now-defunct MacDowell Club, with which I did some performing of pieces that appealed to me, as well as programming concerts for them (which I discovered I really enjoyed!). I organized recitals for my students and did some singing on them as well. I started writing cabarets, which was fulfilling, albeit poorly attended. As I got busier and busier with the studio, I convinced myself that it was okay that I wasn’t performing that much.
But because I didn’t have regular shows to work towards, I have to admit… I didn’t practice that much. I learned the music I had to do, but I didn’t do the technical work. I didn’t keep up the chops that I had so carefully cultivated during the years before, during, and after my years at Peabody and in my first few years back in Milwaukee. And I became very aware of that when I listened to a recording of a recital I gave, as I described in a blog last year. It was a kick in the pants. I realized that I wasn’t doing any vocal self-care. For the next year that I remained in Milwaukee, I made a concerted effort to get back to where I’d been.
And when I moved back to Baltimore, it paid off! I got work as a singer. I got work as a teacher. I left the college gigs to focus on my private studio. My studio grew and my performing grew, and I was in a place where I had the perfect balance between singing and teaching. I was practicing regularly. I was even turning down work because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to keep the balance that I’d come to appreciate. I realized my ideal clients were those who wanted to perform, whether it was at a pre-professional level, professionally, or in community theater, and I was starting to attract those people to the student. I was satisfied. I was content.
And then COVID-19 came. And all the performing was gone. Lessons moved online. Life as I’d come to know it had changed, possibly forever. It’s not comfortable.
What do I do now? What do we all do now?
This blog is called Why I Sing, and the subtitle includes the words “and why you should, too.” In my next post, I’m going to address the immediate future of singing and the path forward, based on the current information from a variety of well-informed sources. I want to talk honestly about why we should sing — even when there’s nowhere to sing.
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:
There are three primary groups within the show:
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.
The African-American musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and his girlfriend, Sarah Brown; Booker T. Washington; Sarah & Coalhouse’s friends.
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.
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.