History has its eyes on you

Today is Election Day here in the United States. I voted via absentee ballot several weeks ago, so I have done my civic duty. And it appears that a record number of Americans have done/will be doing the same thing.

In preparing my Musical Theater History & Performance Course: From Tin Pan Alley to Today, I discovered that twelve musicals have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 11 on Broadway, one off-Broadway (the most recent one, A Strange Loop).

The first Broadway show to win a Pulitzer Prize was George & Ira Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing, with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. It is a political satire about about the battle between political idealism and incompetency/corruption. It has kind of a reality show subtext, with the president choosing a potential FLOTUS from a nationwide competition – although he winds up choosing a nice girl instead of the beauty queen. It was a critical and box-office hit, which surprised its entire creative team. However, since the Pulitzer is a literary award, George was not included in this honor; he did receive an honorary Pulitzer in 1998, on the centenary of his birth.

The story focuses on a presidential campaign run on the “Love” platform, with one of the catchphrases (and songs) being “Love is sweeping the country.” And, ultimately, love triumphs.(What a concept, am I right?)

It was considered the Gershwins’ most musically sophisticated show. When I listened to the following promotional video from a 2004 revival at Paper Mill Playhouse, I thought, “I hear G&S….” and then when I dug into the show further, I found that, yes, G&S was a partial inspiration for the show. But the title song is all Gershwin and is absolutely lovely.

The most recent Broadway musical to win the award was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. I don’t think I need to tell anyone reading this what that’s about but in case you haven’t been paying attention, the musical tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and his role in establishing this country, from the early days of the Revolutionary War through the establishment of the Constitution, the presidency of George Washington, the elections of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and his eventual death at the hands of then-Vice President Aaron Burr. The musical also draws upon stylistic influences from traditional musical theater to British invasion pop to R&B, soul, and hip-hop.

This video, from the 2017 Tonys, is introduced by President Barack Obama and FLOTUS Michelle Obama, and they summarize what the show is about and what has kept this country going for all these years. The performance that night begins with George Washington’s song, “History has its eyes on you.” And it does.

The world will never be the same.

Vote. If you aren’t old enough to vote this year, vote as soon as you can. Study the issues and make your own decisions, and think of how your decision will impact everyone, not just yourself.

History has its eyes on all of us.

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If you want to know more about music history or vocal technique, please contact me to Ask Me Anything about lessons or courses or go ahead and book a Vocal Discovery Session

Your voice is a [fill in the blank]

I like analogies.

I don’t teach solely by analogy, though, because they’re so personal and sometimes they don’t mean anything to people. I use them to illustrate concepts that I’ve explained technically. And I use them judiciously.

For example, when we sing, we are singing on the exhalation. It’s important for that exhalation to be even and sufficient for you to get through the phrase, whether you’ve decided that it’s going to be a long phrase or a shorter one (and there is no shame in breathing when appropriate and when needed for expressive or life purposes – my teacher always said, “People don’t really notice if you breathe too often, but they sure notice when you run out!”). This is done by maintaining resistance between the intercostal (rib muscles) and oblique abdominals. This is referred as “appoggio,” which comes from the Italian verb, “appoggiare,” which means “to lean upon.”

The lower abdominals do play a part, but for myself, I find that if you focus on them, you wind up pushing too much. Other teachers focus on that more than I do, and that’s fine. I used to do it myself, but when I focused on the resistance between the ribs and obliques, it completely changed my own breath management. So I don’t do that.

When you produce sounds from your larynx, those sounds ride upon that column of air. It’s a sense of flow. So sometimes I say, “Your voice is a squirrel, and your breath is the powerline (or clothesline) it’s running across.” (This came from a lesson I was giving where I saw a squirrel running across a powerline reflected in the mirror in front of me. I said to my student, “Your voice …. is a squirrel…” and she folded her arms and said, “Let’s see where this one is going.”)

If the line is consistent, the squirrel makes it across. If there’s a sudden sag in it, the squirrel could fall off. If it’s too tight, it could snap. Either way, the squirrel could fall off.

DON’T KILL THE SQUIRREL!

Another analogy I just came up with regarding onset (initiating the tone) was volleyball (coincidentally, the only sport I was ever good at).

The ball comes toward you and you come into contact with it. You don’t stick your hands up in the air and wait for it. You make the necessary movements just before the point of impact. You are physically prepared for it but there is movement and energy in that preparation. Again, it’s a question of flow. Your goal is to keep the ball in the air for as long as you choose to. If you smash it, you might hit it into the net. If you don’t have enough energy, you might miss it or bob at it ineffectually.

Your voice is the volleyball. Your breath is your body. Find the balance to keep the “ball” in the air for as long as it needs to be.

DON’T SPIKE THE VOLLEYBALL (UNLESS THAT’S YOUR
CHOICE FOR WHAT’S HAPPENING IN THE MOMENT, EITHER ON THE COURT OR IN THE SONG – DRAMA HAPPENS)

If these analogies don’t work for you, don’t use them. I don’t use them with everyone.

What images or analogies work for you? What don’t?

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If you would like to find your voice, whether that’s through technical explanations/explorations, visual images, or analogies, feel free to contact me for a consultation or to Ask Me Anything. Or go ahead and set up a Vocal Discovery Session!

Expectations

I read a lot of political books. If you know me, you know which way I tend to swing, politically. I generally don’t talk about them in my business, because not everyone agrees on the subject, especially in this very divided condition we’re in right now.

One of the books I read recently was James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership. I have mixed feelings about Jim Comey, but he’s an excellent writer, and there was a part in the book that I believe is applicable beyond the FBI and government. When he started as FBI Director, he laid out 5 expectations of his employees the first time he addressed them, and to every new employee that came onboard during his tenure there.

I think I can lay out these same expectations to my students. Here are Mr. Comey’s expectations as they appear on page 131 of his book – I have added modifications for my students in bold and struck through that which doesn’t pertain to what we do:

  • I expected they would find joy in their work. They were an organization devoted to doing good, protecting the weak, rescuing the taken, and catching criminals. That was work with moral content creative and expressive intent. Doing it should be a source of great joy.
  • I expected they would treat all people with respect and dignity, without regard to position or station in life.
  • I expected they would protect the institution’s studio’s reservoir of trust and credibility that makes possible all their work.
  • I expected they would work hard, because they owe that to the taxpayer themselves.
  • I expected they would fight for balance in their lives.

Other than fighting crime and working for the taxpayer, it’s pretty much the same thing.

  1. Find joy
  2. Be good to people, in and out of the studio
  3. Represent the studio accurately and fairly
  4. Do the work
  5. Don’t be a machine

What are your expectations for your musical studies? And for your teacher? Are they similar? I think they should be. I hope I’m doing the same in my studio for my students. Drop me a note in the comments and let me know what you think.

And please note: while I won’t share my political POVs with you (unless I know that we are on the same page and you start it), I most definitely will share my opinions with you on music and theater. And I am just as opinionated about those topics (possibly even more so) than I am about politics.

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Want to know why my opinions are about voice lessons for you or your child? Contact me for a free Ask Me Anything session!

Work SMARTer, not harder

At the beginning of this year, I downloaded a SMART worksheet to kick my year off as far as goal-setting.

It’s almost November, and that’s as far as it got. I downloaded it. But while I didn’t actually fill out the form, I like to think that I do set SMART goals, whether they be long-term or just ones on my daily to-do list. (They’re just not on a worksheet.)

The idea behind SMART goals is that they follow certain criteria:

5 Tips for Academic Success | Sydney Lenzotti ePortfolio
Ohio State University

What are your goals as a singer or a performer? Short-term or long-term? What short-term goals do you have to set in order to accomplish your long-term goal?

For example, if your long-term goal is to sing on Broadway, your short-term goals should include working on your singing, dancing, acting, and knowing about musical theater style, both now and as it is evolved over time. How will you accomplish those goals?

If you want to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, you’re going to have to work on your singing, your acting, and your knowledge of music theory and history.

You can be specific and say, “I want to sing on Broadway!” and you can measure that by actually having a contract. It very well might be attainable, but it’s not realistic that it’s going to happen if you just say it and don’t do anything. What can you do now to get to that point?

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If you would like to start building the skills
you need to attain your long- and short-term goals,
why not sign up for a Vocal Discovery session?

In the Service of Clarity

You may know that my favorite composer is Stephen Sondheim. My husband even gave me an autographed picture of him for my birthday (thanks to the family of Gary Lorenz, who apparently didn’t appreciate what their family member had and sold it on eBay).

“Something appealing…”

Sondheim has written two books on his lyrics (he meant to write one, but realized that it would be so heavy that people wouldn’t be able to pick it up, let alone put it down). They are Finishing the Hat (2010) and Look, I Made a Hat (2011). Both titles are from the song “Finishing the hat” from the musical Sunday in the Park with George (1984).

I admit that I haven’t gotten to the second one yet. They’re both on my coffee table right now. They’re nearly as big as my coffee table. That’s probably why they’re called “coffee table books.”

In these books, Sondheim analyzes the lyric he wrote for his own musicals, as well as those written by other composers (Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers). The first one also delves into an analysis of lyricists who came before him and are now all dead. Sometimes they’re a bit critical. Sometimes I don’t agree with him.

His analyses of a lyric’s efficacy (his own and others) is through the prism of three qualities:

  1. Less is more
  2. God is in the details
  3. Content dictates form

“And all of these are in the service of one thing: Clarity.”

I also read another book called You are a Badass at Making Money: Master the Mindset of Wealth by Jen Sincero (the book is better than its title), which approaches making a [good] living while being a creative person. At one point, she refers to a “Cocktail of Creation,” which has these characteristics:

  • Belief
  • Clarity [that sounds familiar]
  • Focus
  • Faith
  • Urgency
  • Decisive action
  • Tenacity
  • Gratitude

I thought there was a certain similarity in these thoughts, particularly as they involve clarity as part of creation. And I’m striving for all of this in my own performing and my teaching, and the way I live my life. And I do it with Stephen smiling over my shoulder on my Zoom calls.

What’s in your cocktail of creation? Are you in the service of clarity? If not, how can you get there?

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If you’d like to find clarity in your own
singing and performing, contact me here
or set up a Vocal Discovery Session.

International Stuttering Awareness Day and Singing

Today is International Stuttering Awareness Day.

Famous stutterers include:

  • Marilyn Monroe, actor
  • James Earl Jones, actor
  • Mel Tillis, country singer
  • Samuel L. Jackson, actor
  • Bruce Willis, actor
  • Nicole Kidman, actor
  • Emily Blunt, actor
  • Chris Martin, singer
  • Carly Simon, singer
  • Lazaro Arbos, singer/American Idol finalist
  • Joe Biden, presidential candidate (interesting that, as of this writing, there is a debate scheduled for tonight)

Singing has long been considered a viable therapy for stuttering. There are people who do not stutter at all when they sing. Why is this?

As much as we want singing to seem conversational, particularly in musical theater, the fact is that it does have elements that are not found in actual conversation:

  1. Intonation
  2. Rhythm
  3. Sostenuto / duration
  4. Breath management
  5. Continuity of text and pitches – even though our goal is to make our songs seem like spontaneous responses to a stimulus (“I’m in love with a wonderful guy,” “Du bist die Ruh,” “O mio babbino caro”), the fact is that there are words and music on a page that stay the same, unlike a back-and-forth conversation.
  6. Memorization – and this would be something that would be involved in making a speech as well. I particularly liked this article for the idea of how Winston Churchill memorized his speeches – it gives another meaning to the phrase, “I know this backwards and forwards.”

Speech language pathology is a subject that is fascinating to me. I think that, if I hadn’t become a singer/singing teacher, I’d be very happy to be an SLP with an emphasis on becoming a singing voice specialist (that’s a thing!). It is so fascinating to me to see how the brain processes singing and speech. Take a look at this graphic.

If you want to know more about the topic, you can learn more about stuttering and singing therapy here.

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If you want to know more about finding your voice (and finding out how it works),
contact me for a Vocal Discovery Session!

Say Yes to Music

A few months ago, I watched a series of videos by Elly Ameling on art song, and jotted down my notes on them. Here they are (and I’ve added a few notes today, in italics):

  1. LEARN YOUR MUSIC “BY HEART” – so much more than just memorizing it. By heart.
    By heart – not only in your head, not only in your voice, but in your heart. The song has to inhabit you emotionally as well as technically.
  2. Connecting with your audience in a song recital
    I’ve talked about this before. I think a song recital should be as personal as a cabaret show. Again, it goes back to learning the music by heart.
  3. Being in the zone
    I think this is the same as being in character – I have had a few times in my life when I was so deeply in character that I responded to something that happened on stage as the character would; and once in a way that was kind of embarrassing when the scene was over. You have to ask me. I won’t write it here.
  4. Fame is ephemeral but music lives on forever. “The importance of you is relative. The importance of your task, however, is absolute.””
    If your goal is to be famous, you have the wrong motivation.
  5. “Breathing is a necessity. Phrasing is an ever-present possibility.”
    You breathe to live — and to sing. But you are singing phrases – how to make them mean something is the artistry.
  6. Loud singing is boring. Like belting, save it for when you need it!! Piano takes artistry, forte comes by itself. Vary from ppp to ff based on what the text and music asks for.
    Motivate your dynamics. But remember that ppp-ff is unique to you. Don’t sing breathy in the service of singing soft and don’t push in the service of singing loud.
  7. Diction vs. pronunciation
    Funny thing, I just talked about this in my new IGTV series, Warmup Wednesdays (also on YouTube):
  8. Using chant to create phrasing – recitative – legato
    When I was still singing in choir at church, the women started doing Communion chants – and I fought it hard at first (maybe because it didn’t use standard notation and maybe because I was being a brat). I’ve grown to love it and find that there is a real artistry to make it sound expressive and not like an endless syllabic drone. Here’s an example. (Note: You don’t need to watch all two hours of this to get the idea.)
  9. I think that music came my way, and fortunately, I said “Yes” to it.
    The best answer I ever gave.
  10. Imagination – Message – Research
    Trying to remember what this means. What I’m thinking is that you start with imagination (inspiration?) and then determine what your message was and research how to best get it across.

If you’d like to check out the series, here’s the first episode. There are 14 of them but none of them are longer than 10 minutes, about half of which are recordings of her singing from her heyday. She’s 87 now, and these videos were made earlier this year. Music keeps you young!!

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If you want to say “Yes” to music,
contact me for a Vocal Discovery Session

Hobby, Job, Career, or Vocation?

I am taking Seth Godin’s The Creative’s Workshop, a 100 day course on focusing my creative energies. Hence all the Seth Godin quotes that have informed my blogs recently.

As part of the course, we listen to thrice-weekly videos from Seth Godin – and sometimes he has special guests talk about specific topics. Early on, it was Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic and Eat, Pray, Love. She spoke about the difference between:

  • Hobbies
  • Jobs
  • Careers
  • Vocations

These are my notes from listening to her:

Hobby: done purely for pleasure; “I’m not a robot producing, consuming, paying bills and waiting to die.” Don’t need to share it with anyone. Not a requirement to live.

Job: necessary to live. It doesn’t have to be fulfilling, it just has to pay you. You can enjoy it, you don’t have to enjoy it, but you do have to put in the effort to get the $. It’s okay to have a job. You can still be an artist.

Career: Something you’re passionate about and you love. You believe in the mission and are willing to make sacrifices. You can’t HATE your career. If you do, go get a job. 

Vocation: Calling. Divine invocation. The universe calls you to do it. Highest and most sacred pursuit. No one can take it from you. No one can give it to you. “If you have the voice, you have no choice.” [that last part is my own interpretation based on a quote from Marianna Busching]

If you are an artist, where on this spectrum does your art fall for you?

My hobbies are, among others, hanging out on Facebook, watching TV, wine and beer tasting.

Jobs I’ve had include customer service, legal secretary, waitress, cashier, opera chorus (yes, that is a job, not a career – it might have been a career when I was younger, but now it’s a job).

Careers I’ve had:

  • Classroom music teaching K-8 (hated it – that’s why I went to work in customer service)
  • Teaching voice

The second one is a vocation, as is singing. How I view performing is evolving right now. Especially since I haven’t been able to do it recently. It’s still very important to me, but in what form?

Stay tuned while I figure it out.

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If you would like to explore curiously strong singing (and performing!), please set up
an appointment to chat with me at a mutually convenient time or drop a message in the comments!

Choosing College

If you are majoring in music or musical theater, there are several things you need to consider:

  1. Who are the teachers with whom I’ll be working?
  2. What are the on-campus performance opportunities available to undergrads?
  3. What off-campus performance opportunities are available and allowed for undergrad participation? (This might not be a factor for you.)
  4. Will I be in major debt when I get out of school that I won’t be able to pay off within 10 years of graduation?

A consideration should not be “is this school famous?” It should be, “is this school good?”

Going to a school for its name alone is not a good idea.

Yes, I went to Peabody, which is famous. But it was also good for me. I went to Peabody because the teacher I was already working with had joined the faculty, and I wanted to continue working with her, and her time for private students was limited. Plus I needed to make a move for personal reasons. I was able to perform both on- and off-campus.

  • Was I in major debt? YES, but not as much as if I’d gone there 10 years later.
  • Was I able to pay it off within 10 years of graduation? Not quite. It took a little longer because of health/employment issues, resulting in my getting a forbearance. I was fortunate that the forbearance wasn’t too lengthy – I know people who have put their loans from the early 90s into forbearance and are still paying them off, with their balances considerably higher than what they took out in the first place.

Pick a school that will nurture your talent and fulfill your soul. And if you need a gap year to prepare yourself for it, there’s nothing wrong with that. Check out Seth Godin’s post about good colleges vs. famous ones – especially if you have a little time before you have to apply.

And by the way, this advice isn’t limited to just the arts.

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If you would like to explore curiously strong singing (and performing!), please set up
an appointment to chat with me at a mutually convenient time or drop a message in the comments!

Being a Good Colleague (Redux)

I recently read The Ultimate Musical Theater College Guide: Advice from the People Who Make the Decisions and one of the things I highlighted was this:

This should apply to all your interpersonal interactions — in school, online, at work — because:

  • You want to be a good person
  • You want to be someone people want to work with
  • You don’t know who they’re going to be someday!

About 9 years ago, I republished this from about 10 years before (hence, the formatting is all wonky). Things have gotten worse since December 2001, especially with the election coming up. And I’m guilty of it myself. I’m posting this again as a reminder to all of us (including myself). Note the part in color below. That was added today.


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[From the Winter 2001 newsletter]


As I write this, the holiday season is in full force, and the overwhelming sentiment is “good will toward men.” Unfortunately, as I write this, I’m also surfing the Net and reading discussion boards regarding my various interests. I’m finding a lot of people who are hostile and insulting, criticizing not just the content of people’s posts, but the people themselves. It’s very disturbing, because the boards I frequent are usually populated by polite people – these are “trolls” that come to stir things up and then leave (usually when they go back to college at the end of break!).

The problem is not limited to online newsgroups. Singers are notorious for gossiping about each other – when I was in grad school, the “Peabody Curse” referred to the phenomenon of someone walking into the room just when you were talking about him/her. (I witnessed this many, many times.)

Gossip is poison. It makes you look jealous, and petty, and will affect your being hired again. Even if the person you’re gossiping with seems “safe,” later on he or she may become friends with the person you’re talking about and he/she will tell that person what you said. And somehow, you will be solely to blame for the gossip, even if you weren’t.

Everyone remembers that grade school report card category, “Plays well with others.” Some of us did well in that area, others needed more work. (My problem was always “talks too much.”) The 1970s era was called the “Me Decade” by writer Tom Wolfe because of pop psychology’s encouragement to individuals to develop their own individuality and take care of their own needs, often at the expense of those around them.

Coach Phil Jackson, formerly of the six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls and five-time champion L.A. Lakers, writes of the strategy he used in building a winning team in his book, Sacred Hoops. Players used to hot-dogging and grandstanding had to “surrender the ME for WE.” It was a hard transition for many of his players, but the results were obvious. This is an excellent book for singers and sports enthusiasts alike.

Baritone Mark Delavan, in an interview with Classical Singer magazine, talked about his attitude adjustment and the subsequent change in his fortunes as a performer. The turning point was someone telling him, “I’m not gonna work with you anymore because you’re an idiot.” Although he was well respected for his vocal abilities, his life habits, which included gossip and a harsh competitive edge, lost him work. Now that he’s cleaned up his act and focused on the process rather than the outcome (which is the focus of Shirlee Emmons’ & Alma Thomas’ book, Power Performance for Singers), he is internationally recognized and sought after.

In Joan Dornemann’s book, Complete Preparation, she says, “Pay attention to basic human behavior and courtesy. Act with consideration for all the people who help you along the way.” Do not “dis” someone just because they’re “only” office staff or backstage crew. They have a voice as to whether or not you will be used again. Today’s secretary may someday be an administrator, today’s pianist is tomorrow’s conductor, today’s stage manager is tomorrow’s director.

These life lessons aren’t just for singers and actors. Substitute the words “accountant” and “programmer” for “pianist” and “stage manager” and “Chief Financial Officer” and “Chief Information Officer” for conductor/director, and you can see how this goes beyond the realm of opera/musical theater.

So don’t be a troll. Practice goodwill toward all. No matter what the season.