On this Thanksgiving afternoon in 2020, it’s hard to find a lot to be thankful for. A year ago at this time, Thanksgiving was a respite from a busy fall of performing and teaching, to be spent with family. This year, it seems like just another day. We’re still preparing wonderful food (including a new recipe for me, cranberry sauce with cherries instead of apple – anything is an improvement over sauce that plops out of a can while retaining its ridges), but it’s just for the two of us.
This quote, from Amy Rodgers Schwarzreich and the book The Ultimate Musical Theater College Audition Guide has been in my notes for awhile. While I intended to write it about preparing for auditions, I think it applies to all the challenges we’ve faced so far in 2020.
I am grateful for all my friends, family, students, colleagues, and for the gift of music in my life. Happy Thanksgiving.
Tonight, we will be exploring the “I AM” song. This is the song that defines the character and establishes:
a character’s personality
role in the plot, and/or
Like the “I want song,” it is often more effective sung than if it were done as dialogue. Also, it isn’t confined to being a song in musical theater. (The Beatles’ “I am the walrus” comes to mind.)
It can be a song specifically telling us who you are: “My name is Regina George…. and I am a massive deal” (Mean Girls) or it can be more subtle: “I miss the mountains” (Next to Normal).
Or a song telling us you are who you are despite what society thinks: “I am what I am” (coincidentally the name of the style as well as the actual song from La Cage aux Folles)
Or who you’re going to be: “Astonishing!” (The “I am becoming song” from Little Women, which, to me, is awfully close to the “I want” song, but …. )
It doesn’t have to be sung about yourself, necessarily. It can be about someone else – a “You Are” song. And it can be positive (“Gaston,” BATB) or negative (“You oughta know, Jagged Little Pill – the album AND the musical). The latter is what is referred to as “The Villain Sucks” kind of sung.
You don’t have to be the lead character. You can be the Hero, the Villain, or the Sidekick.
You just have to know who you are.
And maybe, just maybe, if you know you are in song, you can apply that to life.
If you’re interested in breaking down your songs both technically and interpretatively, contact me to see what we can work out.
This is my biggest personal flaw. Which is not a good one to have when you are in a field where rejection is a major factor more often than not. And as a singer, it is easy to take rejection as a personal affront, because after all, your instrument is a part of your body. It doesn’t sound like anyone else’s instrument.
Let’s say you’re a pianist and you’ve made it to the finals in a competition and everyone has to play a Chopin prelude in the last round. Everyone is as good as you are. And (assuming it’s an in-person audition), you’re all playing on the same instrument. Assuming that note/rhythmic accuracy isn’t an issue, since you’re all in the final round, what is different? What are you being judged on?
But the instrument’s basic tone is going to sound the same.(And pianists, if I’m full of it, call me out on it.)
As singers, we are being judged on all of the above, plus our tone quality. And assuming that we are all at the same level of ability at a competition, the feeling that “they don’t like my voice” can result in a “they don’t like me” response. And that is difficult.
When I returned to the East Coast after being gone for 17 years, I reauditioned for WNO, where I had performed steadily for 7 years – in the chorus, but also in comprimario and supporting roles. I was the mezzo soloist for two years in a row at the Kennedy Center Open House, representing the company as one of their finest singers.
It took me four years to be hired again. The first year I wasn’t offered anything. The second and third year, I was wait-listed. The fourth year, I decided that it was going to be my last audition for them. If they didn’t hire me then, I was done. I wound up getting a really bad cold the month before and wasn’t able to prepare the piece I intended and auditioned with a really old piece that I didn’t even like that much, but I knew I could sing it well, even just recovering from a cold. And I did sing it really well – I was so pleased at how it was going while I was singing.
They cut me off after the first section. “Well, that’s it,” I thought.
And then, three months later, I got a contract. And then the next year (and the year after that), I got two contracts (each year) and was asked to sing in the end of the year galas.
I thought about the experience of being cut off when I read this a few months ago:
Today I wrote to a potential student’s mom about what to expect from voice lessons. And when I wrote about what I expect from my students, I wrote:
Students are expected to practice at home to the extent they need to make progress. I don’t require proof of practice in writing or any journal – if they’re not practicing, I can tell.
That’s not what I’ve said before. I’ve always told people that they should practice a specific amount of time – 30 minutes a day, 5 days minimum, break it up into appropriate increments if you don’t have a 30 minute stretch of time, keep a journal of your practicing, etc., etc., etc.,
I don’t always do that myself. And I listened to my friend Megan Ihnen’s Studio Class podcast awhile back and she admitted that she doesn’t do that either. She practices when she has time for a good chunk of time; more leading up to a gig or audition. And that’s pretty much what I do as well. I have journaled leading up to a specific event (and I still recommend Nancy Bos’s journal highly for those who want to journal).
But if that’s not your thing, and it actually makes you rebel against practicing – “eww I have to write things down” – then don’t. Find your own way to make progress.
I’m not telling you not to practice. I’m telling you that you need to figure out the best strategy for you. I’m still figuring that out for myself (see book purchase above). Because, ultimately, talent isn’t enough.
I promise I’ll finish the book by the end of 2020 (which will be soon, dank sei Gott) and I will report any new insights in the new year!
Looking to find your path to progress, vocally and dramatically? Touch base with me to set up a Vocal Discovery Session, observe a current student, or just talk about what your goals are.
I wrote this down the other day and I can’t remember where I got it from, so I’m sorry that I can’t credit the original author of this definition. (I know it’s not Seth Godin, because I looked it up.)
It can feel discouraging to be rejected by a college or a company after an audition, and possibly disrespectful or disapproving if they didn’t do it properly (example: “Thank you so much for your recent audition – ultimately, we decided to go with a NYC artist”).
“Disavowing” is defined as denying or repudiating something or someone. That’s really hurtful. I don’t think I’ve been “disavowed” by anyone – at least if I have, I don’t know about it, and it’s probably better that way.
If someone routinely disses you, cut that toxicity out of your life. There are enough people out there who will support you and appreciate you. Don’t waste time on people who don’t. Don’t give in to other people’s negativity – or your own, for that matter.
If you are looking for a community that will respect and appreciate you, contact Mezzoid Voice Studio to set up an Ask Me Anything chat or book a Vocal Discovery Session!
Today I attended a masterclass hosted by Susan Hanlon, a voice teacher in Dallas, and Izzie Baumann, a voice teacher and performance coach in Mainz, Germany. The clinician was Christian Borle, Broadway star and Tony award winner (Peter and the Starcatcher, Something Rotten). He worked with six singers from the US to Germany.
He was an engaged and engaging clinician, and offered some terrific insights. It was the fastest 90 minutes I’ve experienced in a while. Here are a few takeaways (in my own words, mostly, because that’s how I take notes):
Focus on the “but” and “so” — transitional terms that give you some direction .
Take your time! Space is good!
Furrowing your eyebrows indicates a place of self-pity. That’s not to say you can’t furrow your eyebrows, but save it!
Toxic people are a dealbreaker (not an audition/performance tip, just a life one).
If the people behind the table don’t make you feel comfortable, know how to make yourself feel comfortable.
Unless you’re given a specific time/measure limit, think about telling the story and let them cut you off when they’ve heard enough.
It’s okay to use physical cues to indicate a change between sections.
“Make some goofy, ebullient physical choice that you have to recover from because you just made a full of yourself.” – which leads me to –
“Make a fool out of yourself! Make a big choice right out of the gate!”
I really want to focus on the making fools of ourselves part (with goofy, ebullient physical choices and physical cues) going forward, especially as we approach audition season (NATS, college, Hal Leonard, etc.).
While I was writing this, Izzie sent me the screenshot from the class. (Why do I look like I have an overbite?)
The great Kelli O’Hara went to the same school as Kristin Chenoweth, and studied with same voice teacher, force of nature Florence Birdwell. Obviously, Ms. Birdwell knew her stuff (she was still alive last I heard, so I should say, “knows” her stuff), since both of them are Tony-award winning artists.
Kristin Chenoweth is known for being able to sing anything and the song “The Girl in 14G” was written for her multiple strengths by Jeanine Tesori. That song allowed her to sing in a character voice, operatically, in a jazz style, and finally a belt.
Kelli O’Hara decided that she was not to be outdone and commissioned Dan Lipton & David Rossmer to write her a song that showed off her country roots as well as her operatic training. The result was “They don’t let you in the opera when you’re a country star.”
While the song is hysterical, and beautifully sung, it also has a message that resonated with me. The lyrics that really spoke to me in this song came toward the end:
“When you hear no, don’t get upset
It means yes, but just not yet.
Fight the most when folks say you’re absurd
In the end, I believe we all get heard.”
Pasek & Paul said in Dear Evan Hansen, “You will be found.”
You will be heard.
Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow.
But you will be heard.
If you want to be heard, be assured that I will listen. Reach out here to set up a Vocal Discovery Session or to chat about what you’re looking for.
The late Bob Fosse said that there were three kinds of songs that mattered to the director of a musical:
The “I am” song – defining who the singer is
The “I want” song – defining what the singer wants
The “New” song – doesn’t fit the other two categories; could take things into a new direction; might be a breather from heavy drama
Disney musicals are known for following the formula of having the lead character sing an “I want” song roughly about 15 minutes into the show, usually as the second or third song after the overture. But this isn’t exclusive to Disney musicals and sometimes it’s a “I am” song.
This Wednesday, my studio class will be focusing on the “I want” song, and I’ve come up with a list of questions that singers need to ask themselves when figuring out how to best interpret those songs.
What is your “I want” song title?
Who are you in the show?
What is it you want?
How specific are you being? Literal or symbolic?
Why is singing it a better way of expressing it than just telling us in dialogue?
How will getting what you want change your life?
What do you need to do to go get it?
What has to change for you to get it?
What triggered this realization or at least this outburst?
What don’t you have and why not?
What do you need to have to get what you want?
What (or who) is standing in your way?
Are you going to get what you want?
Is what you want now what you’ll want at the end of the show?
(Yes, this means that you have to know everything that came before and after the song – that’s part of being an artist!)
The next studio class, 11/24, will be about the “I AM” song. I’ll come up with questions about that in two weeks (class will be on Tuesday that week because of the Thanksgiving holiday).
If you’d like to be a part of Mezzoid Voice Studio and explore curiously strong performing, contact me and we’ll set up a session to talk or to have a Vocal Discovery Session.
For those of us who have identified as performers for most of our lives, 2020 has made us question our very identities.
For those of us who have dreamt of a life on the stage and have done everything in service of that goal, 2020 has made us question our goals.
For those of us who draw inspiration and spirit from watching and supporting live performances, 2020 has made us question our priorities and values.
We have had to pivot to keep ourselves relevant, valued, and employed. And in many ways, we have learned much that we would not have if we had continued along the same path we had been on pre-COVID. About what we were capable of, about what our clients and audiences needed and what they didn’t need right now, and about what they will need, going forward.
For some people, the pivot has involved a career change.
For some, a redirection.
2020 is almost over (thank g-d) and I have hope that things will change for the better.
The ground may not have been stable under us for these past 8+ months, but we are still artists. Even if we’re currently not making a living at it or that living has been diminished, our identity is still that of artist (or arts supporter).
This has not changed and will not change.
If you want to explore your own artistic identity, touch base with me here and we’ll talk. Whether your goals are to perform professionally or for fun, I’ll be happy to help you reach your goals.
So I like creative, smart people. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many in my life, both as a performer and as a teacher, and to be friends with quite a few as well. I saw this quote by Albert Einstein, and I couldn’t agree more:
Right now I am working on Sunday’s presentation for my musical theater history/performance course, From Tin Pan Alley to Today. This is week 4, and my focus is on the 1970s-1980s, and what is referred to as the “Concept Musical,” as well as on the “Mega Musical.”
The former is linked to my favorite composer, Stephen Sondheim. As I discussed in a recent blogpost, Sondheim has a very specific approach to composition from which I think most of us could benefit in areas other than art. His concepts for shows are specific and often a little unusual. I think most of his shows would make excellent fodder for the Facebook game, “Explain the story of a musical badly.”
Man turns 30, can’t decide who to marry
Old showgirls never die, they just cheat on their husbands
Vengeful barber kills unsuspecting clients while his practical landlady cuts them up for pies (gives a whole new twist to the idea of mincemeat)
Unattractive woman becomes obsessed with hot soldier
You have to be both intelligent and creative to make musicals like these work, and work beautifully.
Honestly, I could spend the entire class on Sondheim alone (I could spend the entire course on Sondheim alone), but I suppose I should give some time to Claude-Michel Schönberg, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Maury Yeston, because they wrote a few things during this time period as well as well (and they pretty much embody the idea of the “mega-musical”).
What composer or writer or actor (or non-arts person – creativity is not only to be found in the arts) inspires you the most? Feel free to comment below!
If you want to have fun and find your voice while being smart & creative, there are a few openings in Mezzoid Voice Studio, either as a voice studio or in one of my upcoming courses. Touch base with me here to get more information.