Feel the Grief and Do it Anyway

Back on March 4, I had a conversation with a friend on how overwhelmed I felt because I had taken on too many projects. In the upcoming weeks, my schedule included:

  1. Six more performances of Don Giovanni at the Kennedy Center in DC;
  2. The world premiere of a concert of music with texts by Irish poets, three songs of which I had commissioned area composer Garth Baxter to write for me, four more songs which he wrote on his own, and five songs by other composers;
  3. Teaching;
  4. Preparing students for their upcoming trip to Columbia, SC for the regional finals at Mid-Atlantic NATS;
  5. A Curiously Stronger Performing workshop on creating a cabaret;
  6. Preparing a studio cabaret at Germano’s featuring music by women composers;
  7. My church job, leading up to Holy Week (Chrism Mass, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday), with a wedding along the way;
  8. Preparing to go on vacation to the UK on Easter Sunday night.

My friend said, “Good lord, that’s so much! Such cool stuff, though!”

I got as far as three more performances of DG, the workshop, and a week of teaching before the world shut down. NATS went to an online format for the competition (which I submitted on Tuesday); the recital was postponed to June; the Kennedy Center closed; church closed; Germano’s (and other restaurants) closed; and my vacation is cancelled.

And now I’m home, making the transition to online lessons. And the process of trying to make this a valuable experience for my students is more overwhelming – and right now, less satisfying – than the plethora of things I had to do less than a month ago.

A friend of mine shared an article on the reaction we’re having to this new abnormal. It’s by David Kessler, who collaborated with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on her sequel to her groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying. This one is called On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. He’s written his own book on the subject, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of GriefSince I recently wrote a blog on the topic of applying the five stages of grief in interpreting a sad song, this piqued my interest.

Back in the early 1990s, a popular self-help book was Feel the Fear … and Do It Anyway by the late Susan Jeffers. It was a very pragmatic book about taking the next step in life, no matter how it might terrify you. It was really helpful for me when I made the decision to completely up-end my life, leave my first marriage, and move to Baltimore for graduate school. I was terrified. And it’s very easy, when you’re frightened, to simply do nothing. I chose to do something. And I’ve chosen to do something over and over again since then.

I’m not frightened now, despite the pandemic. I am grieving for the loss of my performing life, I am grieving for the loss of my upcoming vacation (and the trips I’d planned to take later this spring and summer, which are now up in the air), I am grieving over not seeing in my students in person, where I feel the most in my element. And I just want to go to brunch. Or out with friends for a drink and a bite. I’m also pretty angry, come to think of it.

I am grieving, but I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to find the meaning of this grief and let it take me to the next level in my virtual teaching and in my planning performances. And maybe I’ll add to that blog about using those stages of grief and finding the meaning.

But not today. Today I think I’m just going to cry.

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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What if I had just stayed “comfortable”?

If I never did anything new, I’d still be:

  1. Working at Fleet Mortgage Corp. as a customer service rep
  2. Living in Waukesha in a townhouse I didn’t really want to buy in the first place with my first husband
  3. Singing in the Florentine Opera chorus
  4. Dreaming of doing more with my life

I wouldn’t have:

  1. Moved to DC in the first place
  2. Sung with Washington Opera
  3. Moved to Baltimore to go to Peabody (which involved leaving my first husband)
  4. Met and married my second husband
  5. Moved back to Milwaukee (there are some quibbles about that but…)
  6. Sung in Chicago with Lyric and other groups
  7. Become a voice teacher
  8. Started my blog
  9. Run a 5K (twice)
  10. Started singing cabaret
  11. Moved back to Baltimore
  12. Sung in New York
  13. Opened Mezzoid Voice Studio
  14. Started the Curiously Stronger Performing series of workshops
  15. Met an incredible number of phenomenal friends, colleagues, and students (and students who became colleagues, colleagues who became friends, etc.)

I would have been:

  1. Unhappy
  2. Unfulfilled
  3. Incurious

I am now:

  1. Happy
  2. Fulfilled but looking for more ways to branch out
  3. Still curious

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    What are you afraid to try?

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!

2020 – A new vision

Today is the first day of a new decade. The last decade began with me recovering from laser eye surgery – not LASIK, but something much more traumatic. My vision, pre-surgery, had been quite horrible – approximately 20/800. Meaning I couldn’t see my hand clearly if it was in front of my face. It took a few weeks to get to a place where I could function, and even then, my vision wasn’t perfect; probably about 20/35, which is within the range to function without correction. It was a heady experience – to wake up and see the clock across the room and be able to read the numbers instead of it being a red blur. I wish I’d done it sooner.

I feel as though that was the beginning of my eyes being opened in many ways – that year, I decided to run a 5K (up to that point, the only thing I’d ever run for was the bus). I switched from PC to Mac. I bought my dream car, after settling for a practical car in the past.

And in the two years after that, I decided to work on my own voice and wound up singing on the Hal Leonard Publishers Showcase at the NATS 2012 Conference – which changed my life. People told me that I still had something to offer as a singer – and I told my husband that I wanted to move back to the East Coast. And in 2013, I did.

My East Coast performing career has gone from community theater (something I pooh-poohed in Milwaukee) to professional solo gigs (choral and cabaret) to Washington National Opera chorister. My teaching has gone from dabblers to community theater performers to budding young professionals.  All of whom are valuable to me, in different ways.

Today is 2020. It is the beginning of a new decade. 20/20 is the symbol of clarity and seeing things for what they are. And what I’m clear about is that I want to help people perform and communicate.

This year will be the year for people to explore a variety of performances. How to audition effectively. How to communicate in languages they might not understand. How to create personal musical theater through cabaret. How to re-create a piece that you might be tired of or that you might consider old-fashioned. And I have more ideas about future workshops.

Whether you do this through your lessons, through the Curiously Strong Performing Workshops, through NATS auditions, solo-ensemble, or performing in school or community theaters – that’s up to you. Open your eyes, open your mind – see what is ahead for you. Make this decade matter.

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.

 

 

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.