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.

Stages of Grief (5? 7?) and Interpreting a Sad Song

I find that a lot of my students, both past and present, love to sing sad, heart-breaking songs of woe and loss. It goes with the emo-ness of youth, I think.

Personally, I gravitate toward funny (some might say nigh-ridiculous) songs, especially in programming. People say comedy is hard. I think tragedy is hard. At least, tragedy that isn’t just superficial. 

Which is often the problem with interpreting sad songs. They’re just sad sad sad from beginning to end. Come on! “I dreamed a dream” from Les Miserables starts out with “I dreamed a dream in time gone by – when hope was high and life worth living. I dreamed that love would never die. I dreamed that God would be forgiving…” Nowhere in there is the word, “DAMMIT.” The first time we get the sense that things didn’t pan out the way she wanted is at “But the tigers come at night with their voices soft as thunder – as they tear your hopes apart, as they turn your dreams to shame.” 
And even then, “He slept a summer by my side – he filled my days with endless wonder.” This is a fond memory, at least until: “Then he was gone when autumn came.” That’s where sadness comes to stay for the rest of the piece. Not earlier. But if you see the movie, the song pretty much slams you in the face with a shovel of sadness all the way through. (Which I don’t blame Anne Hathaway for – I blame the director.)

A few years ago, I asked a student to think about applying Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief to a song.  These are

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance
Not all of these stages may be present, and not all in equal amounts. I’ve used this device a lot and it seems to be helpful.

The five stages of grief have since been updated to seven in today’s psychological circles (and some say they’re completely invalid in the first place). The current stages are:

  1. Shock and denial
  2. Pain and guilt 
  3. Anger and bargaining
  4. Depression (reflection/loneliness)
  5. Upward turn
  6. Reconstruction/working through (in another site, it was called “testing”)
  7. Acceptance and hope
Clearly, these have been fleshed out a bit more. Depending on what you’re working on, the basic five may be enough for you to apply.  You might want to pick from the seven – does your song involve survivor’s guilt (“Empty chairs at empty tables”)? Shock and denial (“I’m still hurting”)? Making a choice to change your life and move on (“Astonishing”)?

If you’re singing a song of woe, especially one that is really well-known and overdone, how can you apply contrasts using these ideas? And how will you implement those contrasts? With dynamics? With a change in registration? With a change in tempo? A physical change? Where do you wail? Where are you curled up in a vocal fetal position? Where might you sing through clenched teeth (without hurting yourself, of course)?

What can you do to give life and depth to a song that might otherwise be on the “Do not sing” list? 

If you feel stuck, go through the song and see where these steps could apply.

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….

Vulnerability vs. Oversharing

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 been accused of oversharing – in my Facebook posts, in my personal interactions with people – and sometimes, my accusers are right. I  have given out too much information (hereafter TMI). Perhaps it wasn’t necessary to tweet about how cold the gel was on my body while lying on a table, waiting for an ultrasound…. 
And sometimes, I’m just being honest and it’s their problem that they can’t handle my honesty. I hope. 
So what’s the difference? When do you cross the line from opening up to others and being vulnerable into oversharing? I’ve been thinking about this as far as how it relates to performing. I strive to be an authentic performer, and to teach my students to find authenticity in their performances. 
I think the difference is intent. Vulnerability is a real expression of your feelings, telling a story, telling the truth.  It is an attempt to connect with your listener or your viewer and evoke a response that is also genuine. It is not an attempt to impress but to express. It is an attempt to resonate with your listener or viewer.
Oversharing is selfish. It is an attempt to evoke a response – of admiration, of pity, of concern, of outrage. You are putting something out there that is one-sided, not really looking for a dialogue or gaining an understanding, but just spewing it out to the world and damn the consequences. It may be truthful, but it’s not authentic. It is projecting rather than resonating.

[Which brings me to a vocal point:

Baritone Thomas Hampson was asked in a master class 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.” And now back to psychobabble]
Perhaps oversharing is the other side of the coin of being afraid to be vulnerable. It’s a way of overcompensating.
Here’s an example of vulnerability that I witnessed recently. In a recent recital, 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 – 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.”