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

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?

Making a list … and checking it …

No, I’m not writing a blog to the tune of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” (But don’t tempt me.)

Last weekend I judged the MDDC NATS auditions and saw some people sing with little or no expression in their eyes. Their eyes were fixed on a spot slightly above the judges’ heads, and it never varied. Sometimes, they smiled or gestured, but it never reached their eyes. It wasn’t natural – it wasn’t comforting as an audience member (judging or just watching) because I didn’t believe the song meant anything to the singer. I didn’t believe the singer. No matter how good the voice was, I didn’t believe him or her.

When you’re singing a solo that’s not intended to be sung to another person on stage or when you’re singing an art song, you are doing a soliloquy. You’re talking to yourself (a monologue, on the other hand, is usually a speech intended for someone else to hear).

When are times that you talk to yourself? The main time that I can think of is when you’re making a list of things you have to do.

Think about it: you’re making a to-do list. The majority of the time, you don’t just write without stopping and looking up. You think of what you have to do. You look up. You look around. You see something that reminds you of the next item you have to do. And then that reminds you of something else that you have to do. Try writing a list and be aware of what you’re doing. What’s the process?

Another example of “talking to yourself” is when you’re reflecting on something. Say you’re writing in your journal and thinking of your hopes and your dreams. You stop and reflect as you’re writing. You might write a bunch of stuff in a burst of creativity. You might feel stuck and pace around. What do you do when you’re reflecting?

Maybe your song is a list of things, like “You gotta die sometime” from Falsettos. A list of all the things you’ve done up to this time. Of what death will be like. How to handle it.

Maybe it’s a realization and awareness, like “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (although the chorus is a list – “your swagger, your bearing… short hair and your dungarees”). It’s a realization of who Small Allison is.

Another time I talk to myself is in the shower. Or when I’m driving a long distance. I try out all sorts of scenarios, usually regarding how I should’ve handled something differently.

So take a song you’re working on and write it out as a list. Or as if you were journaling. What do you do? Where do your eyes go? Are you looking out? Are you looking in? (Just don’t look down too much, because you’ll lose your audience.)

We’ll work on things like this in the Curiously Stronger Performing Series, Our next workshop is at 7pm on Tuesday, March 10. Come. Bring a song. Make a list and check it twice. Or three times.

Curiously Stronger Performing – Feb 12 Workshop – RESCHEDULED

Due to multiple commitments and scheduling issues, I’ve decided to reschedule the “Singing in ‘Foreign’ Languages” workshop to another date. I’m thinking April 29 – hopefully, this will be enough time for everyone to have gotten and gotten over the flu and whatever other respiratory viruses are making the rounds. (See Vocal Health post from the other day.)

Hopefully we will be able to do this at Roland Park Community Center on that day. If not, I have a couple of other ideas as well.

Stay tuned.

Curiously Stronger Performing

It is my passion to help people perform to their highest level.

To interpret music in a way that realizes the intent of the composer and lyricist while still maintaining a connection to the artist performing it.

To re-create old material to have a fresher feeling and to be able to play with it.

If you want to know more about how do this, please contact me about performing in or auditing an upcoming session of my Curiously Stronger Performing series (next session: 2/12/2020). I’d also be happy to discuss any questions you might have about private lessons, either in person or online.

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Scattergories/Categories

Scattergories is a creative-thinking category-based party game originally published by Parker Brothers.

Why I Sing is a creative-thinking but currently somewhat unfocused blog currently published by Christine Thomas-O’Meally (why, that’s me!).

Recently, I established the Curiously Stronger Performing series, which focuses on specific elements of performance:

  • The functional (how to present your music, how to walk into the room, how to talk to the pianist);
  • The creative (selecting music, creating themes);
  • The expressive (interpreting text, whether in English or another language; developing an inner monologue; physicalizing a song in the most efficient way).

And that’s what this blog needs to do. So a project I’m setting out to do over the next few months is to go through my blogposts and assign them a category.

Blogposts that are specifically about practical things like vocal technique, audition techniques, translating, and diction will go under the area of function.

Blogposts that are about finding new ways to look at things will be about creativity (and possibly about expressivity as well).

Blogposts about interpretation and physicality will be categorized under expressivity.

Announcements will either go under general or will be uncategorized.

Hopefully, this will help organize things so that they’re more easily found.

This will take awhile. Some might go under multiple things. Some of the older blogs might get reworked and updated.

Stay tuned!

Making Your Case in Auditions

Seth Godin wrote a blog a few weeks ago about the conventional wisdom of making your case vs. how it actually works. This was from a business/marketing perspective, but when I read this, I thought, “Wow, this could apply to auditioning!” My notes are in brackets.

Conventional wisdom:

Find a large group of people [audition for as many people as possible]

Explain why you’re better. [show off your technique]

Prove that you are the right answer. [sing better than anyone else]

Done. [get cast]

How it actually works:

Earn attention from precisely the right people. [audition for groups for which you’re the ideal candidate]

Gain trust. [be reliable – show up on time, be prepared]

Tell a story. [tell the truth – get into more than just the notes]

Create tension. [find a point of view that no one else has found before]

Relieve the tension by gaining commitment. [again, tell the truth]

Deliver work that’s remarkable. [go the extra mile in your interpretation]

They spread the word. [word of mouth – even if you don’t get the role this time, they might tell someone about you]

***

What would happen if you approach auditions this way, instead of just focusing on getting the part? Try it!

What are you singing? Do you know?

One thing that annoys me is mandated recitals where people are assigned music to which they have no affinity. And, consequently, they sing it with no connection to the text, to the music, to the history of the song or the poet, or to the style of the period. They’re singing the right words, and often, according to the diction rules of the language. They’re singing the right notes. They’re singing with technique appropriate to where they are in their vocal development. But it’s not interpreting the song, or expressing anything. It’s just duplicating what they were told to do. And as soon as it’s done, it’s forgotten. It’s like a school uniform that they’re required to wear, and soon as they can take it off, it’s off.

Whose fault is that? Is it the fault of the student? Of the person who assigned the song?

Sometimes, you are assigned songs that fit a requirement and may or may not be songs you really want to sing. If you are an artist, it is your job to find something in the song that speaks to you. If your song is in a foreign language, translate it. Whether it’s in English or not, create a vernacular translation/inner monologue for yourself. Know the history of the poem, of the composer, know what its performance practice (style) is, know how the accompaniment enhances the text, and what you can do to bring that out.

This post was inspired by Seth Godin in a post called memorization and learning. In it, he says, “memorizing anything that you’ll need to build upon, improvise on or improve is foolish. You’ll need to do the work of understanding it instead.”

You need to do the work to understand that which you sing. And you need to make it your own.

Stay tuned for more information about the Curiously Strong Performing series of performance workshops I’ll be presenting in 2020. We’ll be doing the work.

 

 

What’s Your Intention?

As I recently wrote in an earlier blogpost, I’ve set up a fall practice challenge. Beginning this Sunday through December 15, my students (hopefully) will submit an online practice record regarding their practice habits for the week. (Please note that I’ve amended the form to correspond to the practice challenge.) The person who submits the most amount of practice time will receive a lovely binder that can be used for lessons or as an audition book. I will set it up and present it to the lucky recipient at the studio recital at Springwell Retirement Community on December 18 (6:30pm).

But what is the point of doing this, other than a valuable prize? Why should you practice regularly? And what do you want to accomplish this semester, in your lessons and in your practicing?

In yoga, in mindfulness, and even in entrepreneurship, it is very trendy to speak of setting an intention rather than a goal. Goals tend to be in the future, general or specific, short-term or long-term. Your goals might be:

  1. A role in the musical
  2. A solo in choir
  3. To be a star!
  4. To connect to my breath more consistently
  5. To open up my upper register at F5, where I tend to pinch
  6. To be more expressive, no matter what language in which I sing
  7. To win that binder at the December recital

But your intention has to do with today. What is your intention? What is it that you’re going to accomplish today, in your practice session?

  • Perhaps your intention for this particular practice session will be openness. Perhaps you’ll choose to manifest this by singing all your exercises and repertoire with a released and quiet inhalation.
  • Perhaps your intention will be freedom. And perhaps you’ll choose to manifest that intention by drawing awareness to your jaw and tongue.
  • Perhaps your intention will be communication. Maybe your manifestation of that will be to analyze the words and poetry, to create an inner monologue, and to take some risks with interpretation.

Intention can help you set goals. Maybe you’re going to set a goal for that day, but first you might want to try an intention.

On or about November 7, I will write another blog to address what to do if you’re practicing regularly and you don’t feel like anything is changing.

“Tools, not Rules”

I follow a fashion blogger whose site is called une femme d’un certain âge and recently, she had her colors and style done and it turned out she was wearing all the wrong colors and styles for her “type.” (I have to admit that the company who did her analysis was right – her clothes are much more flattering than they were before, and I thought she looked good before.) Someone asked her if that means she’s thrown everything out, even some of her favorite things, and she said, in today’s blog: “No. I still believe in ‘tools, not rules.'”

That phrase resonated with me. There are so many rules that we think we have to follow as singers. We have to avoid certain foods, we have to stand a certain way, align ourselves just so, sing only one kind of repertoire or one kind of style, and never do anything that might be considered “wrong.”

Yeah. Right.

What we work in lessons is collecting a series of tools that you can use for learning and performing your music. For example, we work on having a silent inhalation and a balanced onset, and releasing into the breath, rather than gasping for air or sighing at the end of a phrase. And for the most part, those tools are the rules.

Except when they’re not.

What if your character is upset? Would they have a clean onset? Would they have a balanced release? Would they be standing with their head balanced upon their spine and thinking of their feet as tripods with their weight evenly distributed between the big and little toes and the heel?

What if breathy was better, just for a particular phrase? What if a hard release was better, just to convey an emotion? What if the head was thrown back to the sky, just for that one line?

You can’t do it all the time, but sometimes, you have to break the rules.