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

Vulnerability vs. Oversharing, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about oversharing being the projection your emotions onto someone as opposed to being vulnerable and having those emotions resonate with them. This brings me to the topic of projection.

People often ask me to teach them how to project (i.e., be louder), and I usually counter that what I want them to learn how to do is to resonate more. It’s a common question. For example, in a master class in Milwaukee some years ago, baritone Thomas Hampson was asked 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.” In addition to amusing me greatly, that resonated with me.

Here’s an example of vulnerability that I witnessed within my Milwaukee studio. In the penultimate studio recital there, 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 –  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.”

Projectile Vomiting

New Practice Checklist

This week, I put out a practice checklist, which was distributed to all my students as part of a welcome/welcome back packet. I had had a new student’s mom ask me about a structure of practicing, and I went back to a previous blogpost about practicing I’d written for some guidance. And I decided that, while there were some really good gems in there about how to practice, the post was, in itself, 8 years old and based on a newsletter than I sent out 20 years ago, when I was a brand new teacher. So it needed some updating, and I felt that it would be more effective if it was a little less text-driven and more to-the-point.

I went to a site called Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT and purchased a vocal practice challenge sheet that someone created, thinking that might work. But I didn’t care for some of the language (I don’t use the term “placement” in my teaching, and if I did, it wouldn’t be in the way it was used here) and I thought it might be more confusing than helpful. And it was a sticker based system and I thought that meant I’d have to look at something and I really don’t want to do that. I decided to do a checklist instead. So I knocked one out on Apple Numbers, and broke it up into:

  1. The “Warm-up” (Preparing to Sing)
  2. Repertoire (The Songs). This was done in two parts – a list of things to do when you’re first learning the song and, once it’s learned, to polish it
  3. Things You Can Do to be a little “Extra” (i.e., the Next Level). I did take some ideas from the original document that I bought on TpT in this section.

The first two sections involved a suggested breakdown of time based on the elements being worked on, using exercises from my BRAAP™ vocalises that I distribute to my students and that may be found on my website under studio portal (only available to my students). The final section was not time-driven – how much time the student wants to spend on that is entirely up to them.

I also laminated them so that the student can keep them on their piano and check them off with a dry erase, if they are so inclined. (Plus I figure they’ll stay intact longer that way.)

I’m not posting the checklist here, because, well, I just might tweak it a bit to make it a little less my personal studio-oriented and put it on TpT for sale. If you’ve received one this week and would like to ask me about it, please feel free. If you’d like to know more, let me know!

 

“From Shrill to Potato-y”: How I Got Back on the Chiaroscuro Trail

“From Shrill to Potato-y”: How I Got Back on the Chiaroscuro Trail

Nearly 8 years ago, I gave my first classical recital in a long time. I was in Milwaukee and teaching at Carroll University in Waukesha, and I had the opportunity to do a recital. So I prepared a full program, hired a fabulous pianist, and started taking lessons with Connie Haas again, after not having had regular lessons (or really done any year-round singing) for over 10 years.

During my lessons, Connie was telling me that my resonance was not as balanced as it could be. And I wasn’t really buying it, because that had never been an issue for me during the time I was at Peabody and singing in the DC metropolitan area. I knew that the recital was coming harder for me than it would have earlier, but I attributed that to my not having done one for a long time.

When the recital was over, I wasn’t pleased. I had hired the late, great sound engineer Daniel Gnader to record it, but didn’t listen to it until over 3 months later, on January 1, 2012. I listened to it with the idea that I would be able to pull something from it for a demo recording.

I was not pleased. (This is putting it mildly. I was weeping copious tears.) And then my friend Carolina got online and asked how I was, and I said, “I just listened to my recital from September and I sound like poop.” (I didn’t say poop.) She said, “Oh, come on, it can’t be that bad. Send me a clip.” I sent her one. She didn’t think it was bad. I sent her another. She said, “Oh. On that one, you run the gamut from shrill to potato-y.” I asked if by “potato-y,” she meant as though I was singing with a large serving of potatoes in my mouth. She confirmed that was, in fact, what she meant.

This meant that Connie had been right all along. My resonance was out of balance. At times my sound was too bright. At other times, it was too dark. Because I had not had an ear and someone to guide me back on the Chiaroscuro Trail (which sounds like the coolest trail in a national park), I had been too cocky to accept it. And I had not been practicing regularly.

I went back to Connie and told her I was ready to work and fix it. And I did.

I needed someone to tell me the truth about where my singing was at that point. Connie did. Carolina did. And, finally, my own ears did. So I had to do something about it.

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I won’t say that “You run the gamut from shrill to potato-y” was necessarily positive, but it sure was specific. I didn’t feel like Carolina was telling me that I sucked, but that I needed to address a resonance issue that had arisen. Connie gave me the next step – work on being mindful of where my tongue was and of the shape of my vocal tract. Work on the awareness of the tone quality and what it felt like when the sound was right.

Awareness, mindfulness, and acceptance are all things you need to have as a singer.

As a teacher, I will tell you honestly what you do well and what you need to work on. I will give you the tools to expand upon your strengths. I will not tear you down, but I will tell you what your next step should be, whether we’re going to have to focus on breath, resonance, articulation, or registration, or some combination thereof.

Your job, as a student, will be to accept and implement those steps, and to be aware of what it feels like when you’re doing the work and what it feels like when you’re not.

I’m up to that challenge. I’m confident that all my students, past, present, and future, are as well.

Cross-training – physically and vocally

Club Pilates recently opened a place near my house and man, they’ve been courting me! I’ve taken 3 free classes so far – one 30 minute introductory class, one 60 minute regular Pilates class, and one 60 minute Cardio Sculpt class (which was a birthday offer – the birthday isn’t over till the coupons are gone!). As I left today, this sign spoke to me:gyR9YKpQR6WsifROtXUipQ.jpgThese are the Pilates principles – but what other discipline does this apply to? (If you haven’t figured out that I mean singing, you don’t know me at all.)

  • Centering – this could apply to alignment or it could apply to resonance
  • Precision – learning your music thoroughly
  • Concentration – practicing!
  • Control – working through registration/range exercises
  • Flow – legato
  • Breathwork – do we really have to spell this one out?

I’m not sure if I’m going to become a member yet – we’ll see how many free classes they offer me after I come back from vacation! 😉