I learned something today…

The phrase, “I learned something today,” is one that is associated with the incredibly and self-consciously earnest sitcoms of the 1990s where there were always very special episodes. As soon as you heard that there was going to be a very special episode of a TV show, you knew that someone was about to learn a valuable lesson. And that there’d be a lot of hugging.

Two shows responded to that in completely different ways. Larry David, creator of the show Seinfeld, said that the show’s mantra was “no hugging, no learning.”

South Park, on the other hand, embraced the absurdity of finding meaning no matter how ridiculous the premise of the episode, and nearly episode ended with, “You know, I learned something today.”

Have you learned Something from South Park? : southpark

They might still do that. I haven’t watched the show for a number of years (is it still on?).

This week I finished up the NATS Virtual National Conference and attended quite a few live and pre-recorded sessions (and still have a few more pre-recorded sessions I want to attend). Some things I learned included (title of the session in parentheses):

  • The infant’s vocal tract is primarily designed for suckling and attracting attention. An infant’s soft palate overlaps the epiglottis in order to make suckling more efficient. (Children will listen)
  • Maggie Wheeler, who played Janice on Friends (a show which also was an exception to the earnestness of most 90s sitcoms), is now a singer/songwriter and very woke choral director. (NATS Singalong)
  • There are a bunch of new technologies in the hopper to facilitate more immediate playing and singing together (Solutions for teaching: From a distance)
  • Some excellent new vocalises (Teaching musical theater voice: Cis-gendered female)
  • Trans-men seem to have an easier time with vocal transition (Voice masculinization and voice feminization: Vocalises for trans and gender expansive singers)
  • The arts accounts for 2% of the US gross national product (GNP), more than either construction or tourism (Training music majors for a 21st century “mosaic career”)
  • The primary difference between golden age and contemporary belt is not range, but tessitura – which I kinda knew – plus a lot of new repertoire (Teaching contemporary musical theatre)
  • Different mouth shapes and vocalises (Country singing 101)
  • Laryngeal massage can be a very beneficial part of vocal health but avoid massaging the carotid artery or you will black out (Voice and hearing health: Anatomy & physiology of the singing voice)
    and my favorite —
  • My favorite childhood actor, Alan Alda, wrote a book about communication called If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, in which he says, “Unless I’m willing to be changed by you, I’m probably not really listening.” (Lifting the curse of knowledge in vocal pedagogy)

I also learned about a lot of new technology that I’m going to have to get for the studio to facilitate the dual modality of teaching online and in person. And that technology is going to have a learning curve of its own.

My dad once asked me on the phone, when I told him I had just come home from a class, “Class? When ya gone stop learning?”

My answer, then and now: NEVER.

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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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

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.

The first rule about vocal health is…

… don’t talk about vocal health.

In a way, I see that to be true. It’s the fear that as soon as you say, “I have been freakishly healthy this year!” BAM, you’re going to be hit with the Mother of All Bronchitis.

Well, I’m going to take my chances right now <peering up at the sky anxiously for the thunderclap>:

I have been freakishly healthy this year. 

As someone who has succumbed to several bouts of the Mother of All Bronchitis over the past few years, this is huge for me. I lost thousands of dollars in teaching and performing income in 2017-18 because of upper respiratory illnesses that left me voiceless for weeks on end. For me to not have had so much as a cold (for more than a day or so) – well, it’s huge.

I think there are several reasons for this.

  1. I’m eating right (thank you, WW!)
  2. I’m working out several times a week (thank you, Brick Bodies!)
  3. I’m pretty happy right now (thank you, world!)
    and the most important reason, IMO

  4. I have been rinsing out my sinuses 2x/daily ever since the school year started (thank you, Arm & Hammer Saline Rinse). More often if I feel anything coming on.

You can do this with a neti pot, or with saline squeeze bottles/irrigators – this one vibrates, which I find somewhat disconcerting – although I have used a vibrator on my sinuses to relieve pressure in the past, which I’ve also found helpful. (This is also a technique used in vocal training, although I haven’t quite had the guts to introduce it in my studio.)

I personally like the convenience of the Arm & Hammer Saline Spray, which I purchase in a three-pack from Costco (and no, I haven’t monetlzed this blog – yet – so I’m getting no kickbacks from either A&H or Costco, dammit). The spray sits on my counter, I put a cap on it after I use it, and I don’t have to heat up water, wait for the water to cool down so I don’t scald my nose, forget the water in the microwave, and have to start all over. I do it in the morning after I shower, when everything’s loosened up a bit from the steam anyway, and at night after i take off my makeup.

Here’s a video. I look like Bill the Cat when I do it, but oh well. I usually don’t put on makeup before i do this but I am a child of vanity.


[I wrote this on Sunday, and then went off to my church job, where I found out that February 3 is the feast of Saint Blaise, who is the patron saint of throat maladies (and wool combers, for what that is worth). Since I’ve scheduled this to publish on February 3, I had to come back and edit this to say that if all else fails…..]

Make a healthy choice to use your voice

“Every single thing you do with your voice is a choice, not a default.”

Someone said this the other day, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out where I heard it. When I figure it out, I’ll update this and give her credit.

As singers, we have to make to choices that are healthy. Because if we don’t, we can cause damage which could be easy to recover from or could cause major problems.

Nearly 2 weeks ago, I was heading downtown and, as I approached the on-ramp to the freeway, there was an accident ahead and all traffic was moving from the right to the center lane. I put on my signal, like a person does, and started to move over. The person in the SUV in the center lane would not let me over.  And a car was coming in from my right from the cross street, and I very nearly got hit by both of them. In my new car.

I screamed. I screamed loud and I screamed hard.

Fortunately, my car and I were both all right, and once I got onto the freeway, I realized that … my throat hurt. It felt squeezed and pressured, and just … not good. I had a wedding to sing the next day, I had Mass to cantor the next evening, and Choir Mass at the Cathedral was starting up on Sunday. Was I going to be all right?

The wedding went well (there wasn’t a lot to sing). Cantoring was a bit rough – I had a lot of phlegm, and my stamina wasn’t great. Choir Mass was okay. I just sang when there were parts on the hymns, and I sang the anthem, and then I shut up for the rest of the weekend. I couldn’t put myself on full vocal rest, because I had teaching to do that week and a couple of rehearsals, but I wasn’t able to get on top of the practicing I needed to do for the concert I’m doing in December.

I was fine by the time church choir rehearsal rolled around on Thursday. The ache lasted that long. I’m still taking it easy – I’ve started practicing again, but judiciously.

I could’ve given myself a vocal fold hemorrhage (example below).fullsizeoutput_1e02

I could have done some serious and long-lasting damage. Fortunately, it just seems to have been a strain. I think I strained the muscles around my larynx rather than the vocal folds themselves, because the discomfort felt external.

Screaming is not my default. It was a choice, and it was a really bad choice.

What choices are you making when you use your voice? Are all of them wise choices?