NATS 56 – Virtually Fantastic!

NATS 56 – Virtually Fantastic!

Right now, I am the student learning on Zoom, instead of the teacher. I’ve been consumed with the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) 56th National Conference since Thursday. The conference was supposed to be in Knoxville, TN, but Corona….

The conferences are always things I look forward to – I’ve only missed 2 since I started going in 2002. One in 2004 (New Orleans – I didn’t want to go there in July – my mistake) and one in 2014 (Boston – I should’ve gone but I was told that I couldn’t because of a summer program I was teaching, but I could have). Not only do I learn new things, but I get to see old friends and make new ones, and we nerd out together on all the things we’re learning, all the things we’ve done since we saw each other last, inspire each other to do new things (possibly together!), socialize, go to performances, and … did I mention socialize?

This is a little different. I don’t like it. But it is what it is and I’m making the most of it.

So far I have been in classes on:

  • Voice and hearing health
  • Pedagogy and profession
  • Wine with Dr. Wendy (a panel discussion about contemporary musical theater’s demands with Wendy LeBorgne, the co-author of The Vocal Athlete, along with singers/teachers Mary Saunders Barton and Noah J. Ricketts)
  • Country singing (!)
  • Voice masculinization and feminization for transgender singers
  • Children will listen (working with pre-pubescent voices)
  • Teaching contemporary musical theater
  • Eat, sing and be merry
  • Singing for better lung health
  • The opening session, at which the American Spiritual Ensemble (in which I have a couple of friends) gave an amazing performance
  • An amazing cabaret show with David Sabella (who is a friend of mine), who just wrote a new book called So You Want to Sing Cabaret (which I’ve just added to my reading list)

I started in on a session on subharmonics, but I just couldn’t. Acoustic sessions always make my eyes cross, I have to admit it. If I’m going to do voice science, I prefer watching vocal folds vibrate and other nerdy anatomical stuff (the infant vocal tract is fascinating!). And I like very pragmatic solutions to things. Give me some ideas – inspire me!

Speaking of ideas and inspiration, I have finalized arrangements with Lissa deGuzman to do the studio’s first online master class. More info about this will be available tomorrow – but if you can’t wait, check out the information here.

And now I’m off to Training music majors for a 21st Century “Mosaic Career,” which seems to be geared more toward academia, but as a private teacher with budding music students, I think it might be good. After that, I’m off to a session on teacher collaboration called “With a little help from my friends” which is being presented by two of my favorite people.

Then I get to go and sing in church for the first time since March, and then come home and watch a panel discussion called The Ethics of a Profession: Creating Workplace Safety, which will involve a group of teachers, singers, music critics, and conductors.

These are not like medical conferences, where everyone’s done by 2pm. Even in person, NATS conferences are all day and well into the evening.

I LOVE IT!

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What the Actual…

What the Actual…

The word fach sounds like a bad word. It is a German word meaning “compartment” and is used in opera to describe particular voice types, often in incredibly specific detail. There’s:

  • soubrette
  • lyric soprano
    • light lyric soprano
    • full lyric soprano
    • lyric coloratura soprano
    • lyrico-spinto soprano
  • dramatic soprano
    • drammatico-spinto soprano
    • helden soprano
  • heldensoubrette (okay, that one was made up by my friend Yvonne DeChance)

And that’s just for the sopranos. It goes on for the other voice types (mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, bass). It’s not nearly as rigid as it used to be – if you were a soubrette, singing a full lyric aria would be considered “punching above your weight class.” Now, it’s a bit more relaxed (a soubrette still shouldn’t sing Wagner though – which would be the definition of the heldensoubrette).

But in English, the word “fach” is funny. And when I use it with students, their eyes widen and they say, “WHAT?” (My teacher used to describe the process of transitioning from mezzo to soprano or baritone to tenor as “faching up.” I had a student once who asked if we could call our next showcase, “Another Faching Recital.” I said no. But I’ll admit I was tempted.)

In musical theater, there are basically two fachs: belter and legit. And you’re expected to learn to do both if you want to work in the business. You might be known more for your legit singing (Kelli O’Hara, Kristin Chenoweth) or your belt (Sutton Foster, Patti Lupone) but you have to be able to do both, at least somewhat.

This still doesn’t mean that you can or even should do everything, especially as a young singer. There may be some roles that you could sing, but you might not be comfortable with them yet based on who you are as a person. Yes, as an actor, you want to stretch yourself and you have plenty of time to do that. But right now, if you’re in high school and you’re looking for the roles that you feel you can inhabit at this moment, perhaps you need to think of a few things. You need to determine your own personal fach, the one beyond the voice (which doesn’t have to be tied to your body type).

What role do you gravitate towards in the following musicals (and right now I’m focusing on female roles – sorry, boys):

  • Thoroughly Modern Millie: Millie – Miss Dorothy – Mrs. Mears
  • Little Women: Jo – Amy – Meg – Beth
  • Seussical: Gertrude – Maisie – Sour Kangaroo
  • Mary Poppins: Mary – Mrs. Banks – Miss Anderson
  • Carousel: Julie – Carrie – Nettie
  • Ragtime: Mother – Evelyn Nesbit – Emma Goldman – Sarah Brown
  • Mean Girls: Cady – Regina – Janis – Gretchen – Karen

If you see a pattern of the kind of character you feel you could play at this point in time, perhaps these are the roles you should focus on in preparing your audition book. You will – and should – evolve over time. You should work on at least one thing that is not “you,” in order to grow as an artist. But you have plenty of time for that.

So – what the actual “fach” are you?

WTAF?

 

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)

Who takes voice lessons?

My mother never understood how I had so many students. She would say, “So many people want to be professional singers?” and I’d say, “No, mom, some want to be professional performers, but some just want to get into the musical at school, or into a special ensemble in choir, or some just want to be better.” That blew her mind. She couldn’t understand why anyone would spend money on something if they weren’t planning to make money at it. (And why they’d give it to ME, of all people.)

But my mother issues are a whole ‘nother story. And ones only hinted at in this blog.

This summer, I read Seth Godin’s This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See.  In the chapter, “In search of ‘better,'” he creates an X-Y graph showing elements that people care about. From a business perspective, one element might be convenience, and another one price. What kind of clients fall within these parameters? Who is willing to pay for both? Who wants one but doesn’t care so much about the other?

I decided that, from a voice teacher’s perspective, my parameters would be technique and performance. What kind of client/student wants to be a better singer, but doesn’t really want to perform? What kind doesn’t really care about developing strong technique, but just wants to be able to perform with a band or at open mic? Who wants to understand technique better so they can help their classroom students, but doesn’t really want to perform themselves? Who wants to perform at the highest possible level of ability? This is what I came up with, based on the students I’ve worked with over 20 years:

Types of Voice Students (click here for bigger version)Image 9-19-19 at 9.44 AM

By “professional performer,” I mean opera/musical theater, because that’s what I do. CCM performer means contemporary commercial music such as rock, pop, jazz. And please don’t feel that I’m judging any kind of singing here – except maybe “shower.”

This doesn’t mean that students are forever relegated to these arbitrary quadrants. The “always wanted to sing” dabbler might start out not wanting to perform (and, in fact, be terrified of doing so), but then dip their toe into karaoke, and maybe later, community theater. Or start out in the church choir, and then decide to try auditioning for a symphonic chorus. A community theater ensemble singer might go for a lead role – and get it!

As a teacher, who do you want to work with? I have to be honest – I prefer working with people who want to perform and who want to develop their technique to the highest extent possible. That’s my “ideal client.” I have friends who enjoy working with adults who have no intention of performing and who do not want to work with high-strung high school students with tons of rehearsal conflicts (in other words, my people). Knowing who you click with might mean that you don’t market yourself as “all ages, all styles,” because that might not be the best way you can serve yourself and your client. It’s not for me. But some people are happy to serve all markets, and good for them!

As a student, where do you fall? Does your teacher recognize what’s important to you? Are they helping you get to where you want to be? Are they pushing you hard enough or too hard? Are you their ideal client? Are they your ideal teacher?