Practice Challenge – October 1-December 14, 2018

I have decided to pose a practice challenge to my students. And to myself, as well.

A year ago, I made a recording of some songs I had commissioned by local composer Garth Baxter on poetry in both English and Irish Gaelic. The date of the recording was August 10. So, beginning about 2 months before, I set myself a goal of learning the music thoroughly and getting vocally ready to perform them in a manner that I would be comfortable with having posted on YouTube for all the world to hear forever.

The first few weeks were spent working on text and notes. I didn’t really sing all that much during that time, but I did a lot of mental preparation, listening to the Irish Gaelic text as spoken  by the poets, and plunking things out at the piano. Then I went to the NATS Conference and picked up Nancy Bos’ practice journal and a collection of vocalises (something I’d never really done before) and decided this would inform my organization.

I set myself a goal of actually singing – this is hard for teachers sometimes, because we feel like we sing all the time for our students but we’re really not putting in our own practice time. I spent 20 minutes per day preparing my voice for the repertoire with basic warm-ups and selections from the vocalise books. Then I put another 40-50 minutes in on the repertoire. And I really worked it in sections, not just singing it through. (I also had a soloist audition for a local chorus which was also part of the focus, at least through the end of July.)

The result was that I felt pretty good about the audition (even though I didn’t get any work from it) and the recording session. So now it’s time to start applying myself again.

I have three things coming up:

  1. Ding-a-ling, I feel so Christmas-y! on November 30 (a cabaret with Michael Tan at Germano’s Piattini in Little Italy). I did this last year at Spots but I was sick for most of October and early November so I felt underprepared.
  2. Respighi’s Lauda per la Nativita del Signore on December 14 (Christmas oratorio in which I sing the role of Mary with the Harford Choral Society). It’s my first time singing with them, and I love the piece.
  3. WNO re-audition – date still TBD, sometime in January. I’d like to do something new this time. I have two pieces in mind, although I’m reluctant to trot out two untried songs.

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So there’s a lot of work ahead and I’m going to challenge myself to practice five times a week for approximately an hour per day. I’ll probably take off on Thursdays because of church choir at night, and maybe on Sunday.

What I want my students to do is:

  • Use your vocal exercises that we do in your lessons (on the BRAAP™ vocalise sheets and any others that we throw out there)
  • Use the checklist that I’ve given you to keep track of what you’ve done
  • Write down how much time you spent each day in a journal of your choosing – either the practice journal by Nancy Bos or any kind of method that works for you
  • At the end of the week (Sunday) use the Weekly Practice Record form to record what you did and submit it to me. Those dates are:
    • October 6
    • October 13
    • October 20
    • October 27
    • November 3
    • November 10
    • November 17
    • November 24
    • December 1
    • December 8
    • December 15

I will determine who practiced the most based on these and will give out a prize at the December 18 recital, the theme of which will be music from shows about the holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, winter, whatever). The prize will be an audition/lesson binder organized for you to use in your lessons and to take out with you to auditions. (FYI, I’m exempt from the prize, so I won’t be competing, just working alongside you.)

Who’s in? (Current students only)

The Performing Teacher/Teaching Artist

The biggest reason I moved back to the east coast from Milwaukee was because I was not performing at all. Or hardly at all.

On the up side, this allowed/forced me to focus on developing my teaching/business skills, and I discovered that I’m really good at this. But performing was important to me, both because I am a performer, and I’m really happy on stage, and also because I think it makes me a better teacher.

This was reinforced in an article by Brian Manternach, a tenor on the voice faculty of the University of Utah’s Theater Department, and also a former resident of Milwaukee. (I think I might have judged him at NATS at one time….) This article appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of the Journal of Singing, and is titled “The Value of Performing.”

I’d like to summarize his points (in bold and italics) about why performing informs and benefits our teaching, and draw some conclusions of my own.

  • Teachers who perform may be better able to demonstrate the techniques they are encouraging their students to build. I know a lot of teachers who don’t demonstrate, just because they don’t want to encourage imitation. And I get that. If you are 14, you shouldn’t sound like someone who is… older. But if I can show you just what chiaroscuro is supposed to sound like, I will! I will also show you what it shouldn’t sound like. (There will be another blog in a few days about imitations/accents/funny voices and how this can help you find things out about your voice.)
  • Teachers who perform must maintain a regimen of vocalization that keeps their own instruments flexible, pliable, and healthyI “joke” that during the last  or so years I was in Milwaukee, I became really good at singing in E major. Because that’s where I started a lot of exercises. Whether it was a descending 5 note scale starting on B4 or an arpeggio coming down from E5, I’d demonstrate that, my students would sing it going down, and then I’d go to the same spot and go up. (It wasn’t a very funny joke.) I had no reason to practice. I intended to, but I had so many students (30 at home, 10 at colleges, plus teaching classes at Carroll) that I just didn’t have time. And it showed when I gave a recital in September 2011 at Carroll and realized that I did not sound – or feel – like myself. I had to work with Connie Haas to find the singer I had been and would be again.
  • Teachers who perform have the ability to thoroughly learn new repertoire. Again, I had no reason to learn anything. I had worked with a pianist in the early 2000s who introduced me to a lot of pieces that were wildly out of my comfort zone. Sometimes, they were exhilarating. But he took ill, and retired from performing. And my cabaret pianist was in high demand and became too busy to work on shows with me. I had a few opportunities through the MacDowell Club, a performing group, but they were few and far between.
  • Teachers who perform can empathize with their students who experience music performance anxiety (MPA). Boy, can I relate to this. I had terrible MPA (a new term for me). And because I didn’t have performance opportunities, I didn’t have the opportunity to conquer it. Each performance I did had so much riding on it. There wasn’t necessarily a “next time.”
  • Teachers who perform can bring first hand knowledge of age related voice changes to their studios. wish I didn’t have this … but I do. I’ve done pretty well so far, except for one 3 month period that coincided with a particularly bad bout of bronchitis.
  • Teachers who perform have additional opportunities to network and build relationships with other musicians. To a certain extent, I’ve gotten this from a lot of other sources:
    • NATS
    • Social media (performance/teacher FB pages)
    • Speakeasy Cooperative

But there’s a special bond between people who make music together. They inspire each other to do better, to take it to the next level.

Teachers who don’t perform aren’t lesser teachers than teachers who do. But, for me, I need to have both. Right now, I feel like I have a good balance of teaching and performing. Perhaps later, I’ll change the ratio (or have it changed for me).

I consider myself a teaching artist, and even when the day comes that I perform less, I will still consider myself that.

What’s Next? – It’s BIG

The other day I wrote a blog called A Year In Review about all the things that happened that were studio-related since about this time a year ago. Today I’m going to write about the things that I see on the horizon. This is what I’ve got planned for 2019-2020:

  • Write articles for the Roland Park News about music/arts related activities in the North Baltimore area (first one due August 1)
  • Start taking credit cards both online (Acuity) and in the studio (Square)
  • Organize a December holiday recital (date/place TBD) and a June studio showcase (6/7 at Springwell)
  • Start using Mailchimp to coordinate studio communications
  • Offer an online lesson option for people who live further away or for days when you just can’t get here and you want a lesson
  • Monthly (or more) Facebook Lives on various areas of technique
  • Offering master classes/workshops outside the studio
  • Hoping to get one of my former students now working in the professional MT world to come in and do a master class (if I can get them between gigs)
  • Going to the NATS National Conference in Knoxville, TN next June, possibly as a presenter (fingers crossed)
  • Continue working on using Appcompanist to its full potential for myself and in the studio
  • Work on increasing my knowledge of more recent musicals (I was up on them all when I was in Milwaukee because I had so many students that I couldn’t help but be up on them – less so now)
  • Coordinate a studio cabaret show at Germano’s Piattini in Little Italy (3/30)
  • Create a video library of vocalises based on BRAAP (breath/resonance/articulation/alignment/phonation) that will be included in studio membership and available for an extra fee to non-studio members
  • Switch to a tuition-based system and have studio packages for students based on their needs and availability and my own performing (and life) schedule

This last one is a big one. Rather than paying per lesson or for four at a time, as I have been doing, I am going to go toward a full-year (September-June) program and offer packages that allow for flexibility while still allowing continuity. There will be payment options offered that will allow you to choose what works for your circumstances.  This will go into effect on September 3, when the fall semester starts.

I will be sending out specifics to my current students by July 3 at the latest, and the package options will be shown on the website.

She’s the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – with something to say

I am a huge fan of the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the fourth (and final) season of which I’m watching on Netflix right now. The star and creator and producer and writer of the show is the multi-talented (as well as multi-tasking) Rachel Bloom, who plays the title character, Rebecca Bunch.

Each episode of the show features one to two musical numbers (also co-written by Ms. Bloom). They can be about mistakes Rebecca has made in her relationships (which are legion), about the men in her life and their reactions to her, her friends, her family, etc. They vary greatly in style, from

  • big, showy musical theater numbers, complete with Broadway-level choreography; 
  • intimate cabaret-style solo performances
  • dance music videos
I just happened upon this video of an interview Rachel Bloom did with Seth Meyers about a year and a half ago, and in it, he asks her about using songs to tackle some pretty significant issues, particularly regarding mental health. I loved the way that she describes how a song is structured (this comes in nearly 4 minutes in). She refers to them as musical essays, with the thesis statement the chorus, and the supporting paragraphs the verses and bridges.  She says, “It’s a great way to distill something down,  to be like, ‘this is what we’re trying to say.'”

What are you trying to say in your songs? What is the main point? What is in the supporting material? 

Let’s take the song “Someone like you” from Jekyll & Hyde. It’s very clear what the point is: If I had someone like you in my life, it would be better. That’s the chorus. You sing it three times (and the last time, higher).

The supporting material:
The beginning: I’m an outsider. Nothing has ever worked for me. I’ve never had any hope.
The second verse: I’m feeling things I never felt before and I think there might be a way out. I know what that is now.

Watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix, if you haven’t seen it already (caveat: adult content). 

Spring Forward!

UGH, it’s Daylight Savings Time. I hate the transitions both in and out of DST. I feel like I gain nothing in the fall because I wake up too early, and I definitely feel the loss of the hour in the spring. (Spring? It’s spring?)

But I do like the idea of “spring forward.” Of finding some new things to do and thinking outside the box.

For example, at my church job today, I decided that I was going to put the emphasis on all the prepositions in the hymns and responses. At first, it was a source of amusement (which pretty much sums up how I approach almost anything new), and then I realized it was a way to be really aware of the words I was saying. Too often, responses are on autopilot, and so are hymns (if you’re just singing the melody to something you’ve known for years). But if you put the emphasis on a different word, you have to think about all the words before and after it.

“And also with you.”
“Our Father, who art in Heaven.”
“Make you to shine like the sun.”

I did something like that recently in a cabaret performance of the song, “As if we never said goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard. I have always sung the lyric, “Has there ever been a moment?” with the emphasis on “ever.” But in my last performance, it just felt right to put it on “been.”

Now, I realize that emphasis is kind of Chandler Bing-esque, but it felt right to me in that moment. It seemed like it made all the other words in the line even more important.

There’s an acting game to take a phrase and change the emphasis to get a different point across:

I didn’t say she stole my money.”
“I didn’t say she stole my money.”
“I didn’t say she stole my money.”
“I didn’t say she stole my money.”
“I didn’t say she stole my money.”
“I didn’t say she stole my money.”
“I didn’t say she stole my money.”

How would you interpret each of this lines with the different emphasis? Which one might be defensive? Sad? Evasive?

How could you apply this to a song you’re working on? Or a song you’ve known for years? How would it change the interpretation? What works? What doesn’t?

Try this and see what happens. And remember….

Cabaret as Personal Musical Theater

I was looking through my past blogs to see if I’ve defined cabaret before and couldn’t find anything.

This past Friday, I was thrilled to reunite with Ryan Cappleman to perform a revised version of my first cabaret, “Oh! To Be a Movie Star!” at Germano’s in Little Italy (the revision includes the addition of the exclamation point after “Oh!” where there had previously been a comma). We had a terrific turnout, unlike the performances that Ryan and I did back in Milwaukee, and it was extremely well-received. It’s nearly a week later and I’m still re-living moments that I felt went particularly well and not moments that went badly (this never happens).

There was one friend who had planned to come but didn’t because he said he had a hard time getting his fiancée to go to concerts on Friday night, which is their date night. I was surprised that he said that, because he’s a musician and actor as well. He thought that the performance was going to be something along the lines of a recital, rather than – well, what it was.

So I’ve done some more musings on exactly what cabaret is. And the title of this article is from something that was said to me by Amanda McBroom at a cabaret workshop I attended in Brookfield, Wisconsin, when she was asked to define cabaret. She thought a bit and said, “Cabaret is personal musical theater.” It’s taking pieces that mean something to you and developing a narrative from those pieces. It might be that you have a theme in mind, or it might be that a theme comes from the pieces you’ve selected.

In the case of this week’s show, my theme was movies and movie stars, and the songs I chose reflected that. And more important, what movies have meant in my own life.

Another definition that I came up with was that creating a cabaret was like writing a script for a jukebox musical. A jukebox musical is a bunch of songs by one artist or composer around which an often-lame script is written. Now, I generally hate that genre. My own personal idea of hell would be sitting through endless productions of Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys, and Pump Boys and Dinettes. But a cabaret is picking songs – perhaps by the same composer, perhaps based on a theme or an era – and putting them together with a narrative of some kind.

However, in a musical, there’s a full cast of characters. In cabaret, all the characters are played by a single performer (or a small group of performers) who might have some specific lines that she wants to say to introduce a song, but the songs are the script. They are what tell the story, through the singer’s interpretation.

In Oh! To Be a Movie Star!, Ryan and I told stories of wanna-be actors, both from a humorous and a tragic perspective, of fans who admire and obsess over the object of their affection, of up-and-coming stars and those fading into obscurity. It wasn’t a single narrative following one person from beginning to end. That’s a different kind of show. And maybe it’s one I’ll do someday.

All I can say right now is that cabaret continues to be one of the most rewarding and creative outlets I have as an artist these days. It’s not the only outlet, which it was in Milwaukee (and why not having an audience was so demoralizing to me), but it’s the one that makes me feel the most like myself. It’s personal. It’s musical. And it’s theater.

"A creative adult is the child who survived."

Two blogs in one day!

Last night I did a cabaret show at Germano’s Piattini in Little Italy – “The Not Here Cabaret” with Michael Tan. This was a reprise of a show we did at Spotlighters in June. It went, very, very well. I felt so at home in the format, with the audience, and with the music I’d selected.

This morning I saw this posted on Facebook:

89-Year-Old Japanese Grandma Discovers Photography, Can’t Stop Taking Hilarious Self-Portraits Now – Japan Inside

One of the comments I read (and I know, you’re not supposed to read the comments) was: “A creative adult is the child who survived.”

That’s how I feel about doing cabaret. Creative. Fulfilled. Happy.
Oh, and I made a tidy little sum doing it last night, which was even better. #MakingMoneyAsASingerFTW (do hashtags work in blogs)?