Why I Audit

F0B94F0B-516E-47BF-B09C-184F9FF2CF6C_1_201_aFor those of you who aren’t Three Stooges fans (which I’m certainly not) or not of a certain age (which I certainly am), you may need to go and research the Three Stooges a bit in order to get this reference. You can start here. Knock yourselves out – nyuk nyuk nyuk (that’s also a bit of Stooges humor).

I’m pleased to announce that the Richard Carsey masterclass on August 14 has ONE MORE SPOT left, which I fully intend to fill by the end of this week. But do not despair! I still have 40 spots open for auditors (which is the point of this blogpost)!

You may ask, “Why should I audit?” [Or, to keep the Three Stooges theme going, “Why oughta I audit?”]

I have audited hundreds of masterclasses over the past 30 years. Auditing is a wonderful way of watching experts in their fields work with aspiring artists and gaining insight and wisdom without having to get up onstage yourself. It may inspire you to do something different in your own performing or teaching. It may give you a new perspective on a piece of repertoire that you have retired because you couldn’t find a way to make it fresh. It might introduce you to brand new-to-you repertoire. It might give you the courage to participate yourself the next time an opportunity becomes available.

This morning I was scanning my old notebooks from the various workshops and conference I’ve attended to see what insights I’ve gained from masterclasses. Here are just a few (see which ones of these you’ve heard me say):

NATS Intern Program, Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY, June 2000

  •  Snap your fingers against your cheek to listen to the pitch and determine how much space that pitch demands. (George Shirley, Metropolitan Opera tenor, faculty – UM-Ann Arbor)
  • “Resonance cannot make the sound better than it is in the larynx.” (Paul Kiesgen, bass, faculty – Indiana University) (RIP)
  • “People who work too hard to lift their soft palates look like dogs eating peanut butter.” (Paul Kiesgen)
  • Balancing on one foot to find the coaxial balance point, elongate the spine, and put your head in the right place. (Paul Kiesgen)
  • Practice with books in front of your ears when in a small space to perceptually focus your ears. (Paul Kiesgen)
  • “The middle voice is a treasure that, if abused, steals from the top.” (Carol Webber, soprano, faculty – Eastman School of Music)
  • “When your desire to tell [the story] overrides your fear.” (Carol Webber)

NATS National Conference, Minneapolis, MN, July 2006

  • “Don’t try to solve the audience’s problems for them; invite them up on the stage with you to solve it together.“ (Hagan Hagegord, Swedish operatic baritone)

Teaching Men to Sing, Indiana University, June 2007

  • “Breath is the raw material that we turn into voice as it passes through the throat.“(Paul Kiesgen)
  • “All that one does technically is to build an instrument that can eloquently and hopefully elegantly communicate. Because that’s what we have to do in the end.” (Dr. Robert Harrison, tenor, faculty -IU)

Wisconsin NATS Spring Meeting, March 2009?

  • “To sing correctly is to use only the muscles that are contributing and no others.“ (Paul Kiesgen)

NATS National Conference, Louisville, KY, June 2008

  • “Anything that seems honest and true is OK, movement wise.“ (Dawn Upshaw, internationally known operatic soprano, faculty – Bard College)

Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method, Shenandoah University, Winchester, VA, July 2011

  • “A song should be performed as though it’s been created on the spot.“ (Robert Marks, NYC vocal coach)

MDDC NATS Spring Meeting, Washington, DC, April 2014

  • “Walk in and let us know who you are.“ (David Sabella, NYC voice teacher and actor)

Masterclass, Loyola University, Baltimore, MD, November 2014

  • “The second the music starts – the story starts. The story needs to keep being told until the music ends.” (Jeff Blumenkrantz, composer)

(I’ve been to masterclasses since then, but I’ve been taking notes on my iPad so that I don’t have to carry around big notebooks. Which I kind of miss doing. My handwriting has really deteriorated since 2000!)

What notes will you be taking at the Richard Carsey masterclass?

Don’t be a wise guy (more Stooges humor – can’t help it – my dad loved them) – register here,

Soitanly.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt

The other day I was out for an early morning walk and I was listening to a podcast on VocalFri. This particular one, from April, featured voice scientist Christian Herbst, who was talking about the role of voice science in vocal pedagogy, and of all the tech-y, geeky, science-y things that that entails.

But although all that science is invaluable for figuring out how to measure the data involved with singing – the acoustics, registration, anatomical – Mr. Herbst said one thing that made me stop walking and jot it down in my little “blog notes” file in my phone:

As a singer, as a performer, I am more like a politician than a scientist. There is no room for doubt. I have to convey the message.  (Christian Herbst, VocalFri4/25/2020)

This reminded me of an interview from tenor Ricky Leech from a Classical Singer article from 2003 (!!), where he likened singing to golf. When you learn to play golf, you learn all the techniques. And then once you start to play, you can’t think of them or you’ll tie yourself up in knots. You can think about it when you start (the swing thought), but once you’re on your way, you just have to trust. The same thing with singing:

“If you’ve done your homework, when you stand up and start an aria, your swing thought will be the meaning of what you’re singing, and an occasional technical issue. You never get far away from the meaning of the piece, because you’ve done your homework, and you’re out of the way.” (The Student Becomes A Master, July 2003)

You can’t have any doubt. Like a politician, you have a message to share. Hopefully, your message is more sincere than some politicians, especially this one…

Politician
And like a golfer, you have a game to play, and you have to play through.

Clip Art: Golfer Color I abcteach.com - preview 1
You must be convinced that your technique will carry you forward and that you believe in your message – beyond the shadow of a doubt.

  • Is your technique solid enough so that you can erase all doubt after you’ve taken that initial swing/breath?
  • Have you learned your piece backward and forward so that you can erase all doubt that the words and notes are going to come out in a way that serves the composer, that serves the audience, and that serves you in the way that you all deserve?
  •  If your piece is in another language (or in a style that is foreign to you), do you have it translated word for word not only into the vernacular but into your internal monologue so that you have no doubt what you are saying, not only from word to word, but from phrase to phrase?
  • Do you like your song? And if you don’t (and that happens, because sometimes you are assigned things that just don’t speak to you), can you find something you like about it? Can you fake it so that we can’t see that you don’t like it? Because if the audience doubts you, it doesn’t matter that you don’t doubt yourself.

Take that swing thought and let it go.

What is curiously strong singing?

For the last two years, I’ve used “Curiously Strong Singing” as my tagline. In the past year, I’ve established a performance coaching series called “Curiously Strong Performing.” The content on my website and in other places reflects the use of that phrase.

But other than the relationship between mezzoid and altoids, which is what triggered the whole tagline in the first place, what do I mean by this? What is “curiously strong” singing? What is “curiously strong” performing? Why am I using these phrases other than they’re catchy?

I decided that I needed to define what this means to me in order to make it more than just a phrase that looks good on my business card and website.

So what is curiously strong singing/performing? It is:

  1. Singing that is grounded in a strong sense of technique, whether that pertains to classical, pop, or musical theater (because it’s not all one size fits all);
  2. Singing and/or performing that takes risks and digs deep into the song’s text, its history, and its style.
  3. Performing that tells the truth, is authentic and embraces both standard performance practice as well as new interpretations.
  4. Singing and performing that is confident, consistent, and constantly developing.
  5. Performing that welcomes in others as collaborators, as creators, as colleagues, and as an audience.

This is what I mean by being curiously strong as a singer and as a performer, and what I want for my students, my colleagues – really anyone who is in my life.

If you want to be curiously strong as well, contact me at mezzoid@gmail.com.

A2E9A81E-1AA0-4671-BF85-15E69D180A32_1_105_c

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!

88DE1DE4-617C-43C2-B869-BE834B491577_4_5005_c

June Practice Challenge (Mine, Not Yours)

I’ve been seeing a lot of my colleagues set themselves a goal of singing through the entire 24 or 26 or 28 Italian Songs collection. They’ve taught them ad infinitum over the years, but they’ve never actually sung them themselves. So, in this time of respite from performing and in-person teaching, they’re recording themselves singing the songs.

That’s nice.

I don’t wanna.

Maybe I don’t wanna because everyone else is doing it. (I’m like that.)

Maybe I don’t wanna because there are only a handful of them that I really like.

  • Vittoria, vittoria mio core
  • O del mio dolce ardor
  • Amarilli, mia bella
  • Se miei sospiri (or Pieta, signore, depending on which book you’re using)
  • Quella fiamma (and I like the tacky version with the “Il mio bel foco” recitative from the 24/28 series, even though it’s really not authentic and very cheesy)
  • Tu lo sai

But if I commit to singing those, I’ll have to sing

  • Caro mio ben
  • Sebben crudele
  • Alma core
    AND THE WORST ONE OF ALL
  • Se tu m’ami

I hate that song with a white hot passion. Teaching that song is truly the definition of having taught something ad nauseum.

So I’m not gonna. Because I don’t wanna.

But what I do want to try is singing through a technique book of vocalises – which I never did in my undergrad or grad school studies, and which I’ve never used in my own teaching. I’ve always done ones I’ve gotten from books, or teachers, or workshops, or made up myself. But a lot of my colleagues teach from the technique books – mainly Vaccai. So a couple of years ago, I picked up a book of Collected Vocalises: Concone, Lutgen, Sieber, & Vaccai (medium key).

I really like the Concone and the Lutgen. Vaccai leaves me as cold as Caro mio ben. (But not as bad as that which shall not be named again.)

Appcompanist has all of the Concone accompaniments, although they’re in the high key, so I have to adjust them a bit. They also have the Vaccai, but, unfortunately, neither the Lutgen nor the Sieber.

So my June challenge is that I’m going to read through all of the Concone this month. Maybe I’ll put them on FB – maybe on my personal page, maybe the studio page, maybe on Insta, maybe all three. And maybe if I feel like it, I’ll throw in one of the Vaccai.

If you’d like to try this, you can pick them up on Amazon. (Note: I do have an Associate Affiliate account, so if you purchase from one of these links, I will receive a small pittance.)

Why I DIDN’T Sing – For Far Too Long

When I lived in Wisconsin, I spent about 8 years in a sort of vocal quarantine. I suddenly found my private studio taking up more of my time and energy, and I chose to stop seeking work in Chicago, where I’d been doing the bulk of my singing, and reduced my performing with professional choral ensembles in Milwaukee and auditioning for local companies.

And my performing work dried up. Some of that was my choice, since I wasn’t actively pursuing gigs the way I had been, and some of it was … not. I was active with the now-defunct MacDowell Club, with which I did some performing of pieces that appealed to me, as well as programming concerts for them (which I discovered I really enjoyed!). I organized recitals for my students and did some singing on them as well. I started writing cabarets, which was fulfilling, albeit poorly attended. As I got busier and busier with the studio, I convinced myself that it was okay that I wasn’t performing that much.

But because I didn’t have regular shows to work towards, I have to admit… I didn’t practice that much. I learned the music I had to do, but I didn’t do the technical work. I didn’t keep up the chops that I had so carefully cultivated during the years before, during, and after my years at Peabody and in my first few years back in Milwaukee. And I became very aware of that when I listened to a recording of a recital I gave, as I described in a blog last year. It was a kick in the pants. I realized that I wasn’t doing any vocal self-care. For the next year that I remained in Milwaukee, I made a concerted effort to get back to where I’d been.

And when I moved back to Baltimore, it paid off! I got work as a singer.  I got work as a teacher. I left the college gigs to focus on my private studio. My studio grew and my performing grew, and I was in a place where I had the perfect balance between singing and teaching. I was practicing regularly. I was even turning down work because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to keep the balance that I’d come to appreciate. I realized my ideal clients were those who wanted to perform, whether it was at a pre-professional level, professionally, or in community theater, and I was starting to attract those people to the student. I was satisfied. I was content.

And then COVID-19 came. And all the performing was gone. Lessons moved online. Life as I’d come to know it had changed, possibly forever. It’s not comfortable.

What do I do now? What do we all do now?

This blog is called Why I Sing, and the subtitle includes the words “and why you should, too.” In my next post, I’m going to address the immediate future of singing and the path forward, based on the current information from a variety of well-informed sources. I want to talk honestly about why we should sing — even when there’s nowhere to sing.

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!

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?

What If You Were Your Own Teacher….

I just read the phrase, “as if they were their own teacher” on a FB page of independent teachers, in regards to how a student would do self-evaluation, including:

  • Finding three things they did well
  • Finding a couple of things they’d like to fix
  • Figuring out how to fix them
This was based on the idea of submitting a video to a teacher in the event that you were unable to make your lesson that week. The teacher would then review the practice video and give his/her own observations and suggestions. I thought this was a really great option. I’m thinking of making this an option in the fall.
So here’s a challenge for you this summer:

  • Video your practice session (you can use your phone) as if it were a lesson. Include:
    • Vocalises
    • Repertoire
      • Do each song all the way through without stopping
      • Stop and address the issues you need to address
  • Watch the session – either afterwards, or stop after vocalises
  • Evaluate it
    • Were your vocalises varied enough? 
    • Did you vocalize long enough?
    • Were the things you stopped and addressed the things you should have stopped and addressed? Did you leave anything out?
    • What did you do well? (There must have been something.)
    • What do you need to address the next time you practice? How are you going to address this? When?
    • Is there anything you noticed that you need to ask me about?
I’m going to try to do this too. Let’s see what happens.