To music

I was teaching “An die Musik” today (art song by Schubert) and in light of my most recent post, I thought I would post the original German text and its English translation. This gets to the core of what my family simply doesn’t get about me:

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden, Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt, Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb’ entzunden, Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt!

Oh gracious Art, in how many grey hours, When life’s fierce orbit ensnared me, Have you kindled my heart to warm love, Transfigured me into a better world!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf’ entflossen, Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir, Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschlossen, Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür!

How often has a sigh escaping from your harp, A sweet, a sacred harmony of yours thrown open the heaven of better times, Oh gracious Art, for that I thank you!

"All you care about is your music"

Something bothered me the other day.

My parents and sister have always referred to my career choice as “your music” with this tone that can only be described as scorn. “My music” is why I’m not a mother, why I wouldn’t be a good mother, why my first marriage failed, why I’m not rich, why people don’t like me, and why I’m not a “family person.” Now, with the exception of the ending of my first marriage and my lack of children, none of these things are true. But the music is not the reason for these two truths – there are a whole host of reasons which I’m not going to get into here.

When I have students who complain about their parents being too involved in their lives, too interested in their musical development, just too much, I always tell them that they are fortunate. (Mostly – there was the student I had many years ago whose mother’s picture could have been found in a slang dictionary to illustrate the phrase, “Stage Mom from Hell.”) When you have a parent who thinks you are talented, that your talent should be nurtured, and that you could be successful performing, embrace that. It’s a damn sight better than the parent who receives your personal triumphs with, “That’s nice. Don’t you miss being a legal secretary? Now that’s a real job.”

A few years ago I heard an interview on NPR with Alfred Lubrano of the Philadelphia Inquirer promoting his book Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams. http://www.amazon.com/Limbo-Blue-Collar-Roots-White-Collar-Dreams/dp/0471714399 He spoke of the chasm between the working class family and the child who wants something more – higher education, a career rather than a job, to live somewhere besides the old neighborhood – and also the chasm between that upwardly mobile person and the class to which she aspires. I was driving when I heard the interview and I almost drove off the road. I felt as though he was describing my life. I purchased the book immediately. After reading it, I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t feel any better about my family’s attitude toward “my music,” but at least I knew that there were others who had similar experiences. (I do wish the book had included stories about people who had gone into the arts as well as people who took more traditional paths.)

Music is the center of my life. I love to teach it, I love to perform it, I love to hear it. In that respect, my biological family has it right. But music has made me a more complete person and I do not apologize for its place in my life nor the direction in which it has taken me.

Scratching the directing itch

“To open the show, I always like to do one thing that is impossible. So right now I’m going to suck this piano into my lungs.” —Steve Martin

About 8 years ago, I decided I was going to break away from the standard park-&-bark assembly line kind of recital, at least at the end of the year. What I really wanted to do was a scenes recital, sort of like the one Richard Crittenden puts on as the final project of his Acting for Opera workshop each summer. I was going to assign middle- and high-school students scenes from musical theater and opera.

One disadvantage to being a private teacher is that I don’t have a set venue in which to do performances. Every recital involves finding a space, usually at a church. For an ordinary recital, I would need the space on the day of the program, perhaps an hour or two before so that my students could run their songs with the pianist. For a recital like this, we were going to need the space for at least one prior rehearsal. Plus my students would have to come to each other’s lessons during the weeks leading up to the performance.

We held the first recital at a nearby church, with rehearsal scheduled for all day Saturday. The first sign of trouble was when the church called me to inform me that there would be a wedding Saturday afternoon, so we wouldn’t be able to use the church past noon. That was just a few weeks before (shotgun wedding, anyone?). Then 4 days before, I was called and told that there would be a funeral in the morning, so Saturday was out. We could rehearse Wednesday night and we could rehearse Friday till 6pm, when the wedding rehearsal would begin. We had no pianist for Wednesday, and only half the cast was available on Friday. We rehearsed during those two limited times and ran the music in my studio on Sunday.

The performance came and it was rough. The room was really, really live, and the majority of my students were young beginners who had soft breathy voices and little performing experience. While the live room was a boon to those who had larger voices, it made the smaller voices sound as though they were muffled with a wet blanket thrown over their heads. =

BUT – there were a few moments that were incredible. Carl Levie & Jamie Gorman doing a scene from Susannah (I know, what was I thinking?) that took people’s breath away. Jennie Leevan, then 8 years old, singing “April Showers” while backed up by 3 seniors wearing rain slickers and holding parasols – cute, silly, but it made everyone smile. And although I can’t say the whole show was a success, it was good enough that I had to do it again. And again.

We’ve had varying levels of success since – never schedule a program for the day after prom when your best singers are all juniors – but overall, the recital (now “a High School Showcase”) has been extremely rewarding for everyone involved. Last year’s program was so incredibly well done and a tough act to follow that I decided to take a break from doing scenes and incorporate my new love, cabaret, into the format.

Amanda McBroom once called cabaret “personal musical theater” and said that sometimes when you put together your songlist, a theme appears. That’s what has happened with our upcoming June 7 showcase, “Look for Me in the Songs: An American Song Centennial.” We will be celebrating the work of American composers (half of whom are actually alive), still following the mostly ensemble format of the past 8 years, but relaxing the staging component a bit to break new ground.

The show will be June 7 at 3:30 at Underwood Memorial Baptist Church in Wauwatosa. Admission is free!

Why I teach – part II

So I left Milwaukee in June 1987 for the DC area. I started to audition for anything and everything and discovered, much to my chagrin, that my sightsinging skills left a lot to be desired (and all the auditions called for sightsinging). Since my husband at the time (hereafter “HATT”) was on the road a lot and I knew only a handful of people, I spent a lot of time with hymnals practicing solfege on my own. After a few months of that, I was hired by two high-end performing groups – the Paul Hill Chorale and the Washington Bach Consort. I also found a teacher, Marianna Busching, who became a friend, a mentor and an inspiration to me. In June 1988, I auditioned for the Washington Opera chorus and was hired to sing in La forza del destino the following winter. The Kennedy Center became my home for the next 7 seasons -and Marianna’s studio.

My own home was growing increasingly tense and uncomfortable. HATT and I were having terrible marital troubles – we had since before we left for DC and it didn’t get any better once I began to grow as a singer and begin singing in more professional venues, both as a soloist and as a chorister. Since Marianna had been hired at Peabody, I found it more and more difficult to get a lesson time that would fit with my work schedule. So I decided to bite the bullet and go back to grad school – at Peabody.

I took a lot of flack for it. My parents were horrified that I would go out on my own and move up to Baltimore. When I tried to talk to Renate about how things were going, she would change the subject, saying that it made her stomach hurt. HATT alternated between being verbally supportive and passive aggressive. (So what else was new?) But ultimately it was the best thing that I could’ve done for myself. We wound up making the break permanent shortly after I graduated.

I still had a day job post-grad school and was singing with Washington Opera and in solo roles with smaller companies throughout the area. And, oh, I’d met Bill at the beginning of my second semester at Peabody, so the big move to NYC upon graduation was no longer in the cards. So —

I came back to Milwaukee. Since I had worked as singer from 8/87 through 6/96 with barely any time between rehearsals, I had no doubts that I would return to conquer my hometown. I took a job as a legal secretary and hit the audition trail. I really thought I’d only be here for the 3 years of Bill’s residency and then return to the east coast. In the meantime, I was sure that I’d be working constantly!

This is not Baltimore. This is not Washington. This is still Milwaukee. So I decided to hang out my shingle and teach, just until the gigs started pouring in. I figured it was better than filing. My initial students were castoffs from other teachers (“I don’t have room for you, but I know someone who might”) and frustrated choir directors (“you learn to sing in tune or you’re out!”). Most of them couldn’t read music, couldn’t match pitch, in some cases couldn’t speak a lot of English (I still remember the guy to whom I said, “This exercise is on the syllable, ‘ng,'” and he said, “That’s easy for me. It’s my name!”), were being forced to come by their parents, and often forgot to bring money.

But I found myself, much to my complete surprise:

1. Really good at this;
2. Determined to help anyone as long as they wanted to be helped – some didn’t;
3. Absolutely passionate about the subject of voice and wanting to learn more, not only to sing better myself but to take people further than they thought they could go.

By September 1998, word of mouth had resulted in my having to make the decision to quit the day job – my car wasn’t paid off yet, which was the criteria for pursuing teaching full-time. I had no choice. I couldn’t stand being a secretary for another day.

In 10-1/2 years, I’ve become

1. Even better at this;
2. Still determined to help anyone as long as they wanted to be helped – and some still don’t, but I don’t get castoffs anymore. At least I don’t consider them castoffs.
3. Still passionate, still wanting to learn more and still wanting my students to exceed their own expectations, if not mine. (I always feel like anyone who walks in might be the next B’way or opera diva – it’s up to them to prove me wrong!)

Even though it was the “hey, at least I’m not typing” option, teaching voice is my calling. Marianna says that you can teach for as long as your ears work – I’m hoping they work for a good long time!

Si canta come si parla

“One sings as one speaks.” This is the phrase I think of when I think of Richard Miller, who passed away last Tuesday at the age of 83.

I met Richard Miller on 3 occasions – a week in June 1999 when I attended his pedagogy workshop at Concordia University-River Forest, a master class at NATS 2002 in San Diego, and a master class on Teaching Men to Sing in 2006. The 1999 workshop changed the way I talk about singing, the way I think about singing, and the way I sing. I was singing well before, but it was more or less by sheer luck. I was doing things correctly for the most part, but despite having taken pedagogy in both undergrad and grad school, and voice lessons for 23 years up to that point, I wasn’t really able to describe what I was doing. I had some ideas but they were largely based on imagery and gut, rather than the science and technic of the process.

A few things I remember about Richard Miller…

There was no mirror in the hall at CURF and at one point, he was working with a young girl who was undulating while she sang, and he said, “I wish I had a mirror so I can show you what you’re doing,” and I raised my hand and said, “I have a full-length mirror in my car.” (I had just done a show the week before with limited dressing room facilities and hadn’t unloaded my car before heading down to Illinois.) He said, “You do? Where’s your car?” I said, “Just down the block,” and he said, “WELL, GO GET IT!” So I ran out of the hall, ran down the block, and dragged a full-length mirror down the street, up the steps and into the hall. He used the mirror in his class for the rest of the week.

I also remember singing for him in a master class at the end of the week (after taking copious notes on the previous singers and his comments to them so that I would know what not to do!) and having him say to me, “You will never sound old.” He basically told me to watch out for lifting my chin too much and gave me positive feedback. (Clearly, the man was a genius!) I felt validated, empowered, and invigorated to go back home and rethink the way I was explaining things. My studio took off after that point.

I had been intimidated by the idea of taking this workshop because I didn’t think I’d understand all the scientific jargon. I was never good in science growing up and I was afraid I’d be lost during the lectures. His books had seemed difficult to me before this workshop – I owned several of them, but they weren’t my primary sources. After the workshop, I re-read Structure of Singing and heard his voice in the narrative, awakened to the wit and intelligence behind the science. My admiration of him only grew in San Diego in 2002.

In June 2006, I saw him on the final day of the Teaching Men to Sing workshop and he looked old, small and frail, and I thought, “Oh, what is this going to be like? He’s clearly diminished from 4 years ago. Poor old guy – after all, he is 81 and he has been ill.” The impression was wrong – he was still vibrant, intuitive and as entertaining as ever. My main regret is that I didn’t bring a book for him to autograph – I didn’t want to bother him.

I had looked forward to driving down to Bloomington this June to see him in a master class and bringing my student, Maureen, who was deeply influenced by his books in doing her challenge paper on vocal pedagogy (high school!) to see him. And I was going to get that autograph!

When I read that he had died, I felt a deep loss. I had referred to him semi-seriously as my pedagogical father and that’s the kind of loss I feel.

Yes, he was 83 and lived a good long life. But there was still more he had to offer, and I’m sorry that this upcoming generation of singers will not get to hear that voice.

With that mind, I think I’ll go dig out my cassette of his 2002 master class. Perhaps if I hear him speak, I will want to sing.

Why I teach – part I

I have to confess that there have been two times in my life when teaching was something to “fall back on.” The first time was when I majored in music at Alverno College, and told my advisor that what I wanted to do was to sing professionally and teach voice privately. I had never even had a voice lesson at that point, but there was something about it that called to me. My advisor said, “You want to be a music education major,” and I said, “Well, no, not really, I don’t think I’d really like that or be that good at it.” She said, “Well, what was your favorite class in HS? Who was your favorite teacher?” I said, “Well, choir and Mr. Fox. He was an amazing choral director.” She smiled triumphantly and said, “Well, don’t you want to be just like Mr. Fox?”

That would have been nice, but Mr. Fox was primarily a pianist who loved choral music and could play anything. I was a vocalist who enjoyed choral music and could play piano – kinda. But I was raised to listen to authority figures who most certainly knew much more than a girl from the working-class sout’ side a’Muhwaukee ever could, so I majored in music ed. Throughout the 4 years, I ignored my internal voice that said, “You don’t like this. You don’t want to do this. You just want to sing.” I didn’t put any stock into that internal voice because it was my own. It did not have an Estonian accent. That internal voice was more likely to say, “You aren’t a good enough singer. You don’t sing soprano – how can you be a singer when you are an alto?”

So I graduated from Alverno with a Bachelor of Music Education degree and started teaching at St. Dominic’s in Brookfield. I taught there for two years, hating the administration (the priest there deserves his own blog entry), hating giving grades, writing lesson plans, getting up early, disliking everything I was doing – except when I was putting on performances with my students. That I enjoyed. Otherwise, I called in sick a lot, and way more often than the sick days allotted to me. Even though the economy was pretty much akin to what it is now, I listened to my own inner voice and did not sign the contract offered me for a 3rd year. (The Estonian accented one was screeching at me that I was an idiot to turn down work when jobs were so scarce – oh, wait a minute, that was the external voice of my mother.)

For the next few years, I worked day jobs and sang with the Skylight, Florentine and Milwaukee Opera companies, with Music under the Stars, and tried to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I took lessons with someone who really didn’t understand my voice and gave me repertoire that resulted in auditioners saying, “Miss Thomas, why are you singing this particular aria?”

So I wasn’t teaching (good!) and I was singing (also good), but not at the level to which I aspired. Something had to change.

Last night’s performance

Last night Ryan and I performed “Oh, to be a movie star” for the 2nd time, this time at the Times Cinema. We were freaking out a few days before because ticket sales were going extremely slowly. And then I decided that at the very least, this was an opportunity for us to perform the show again and get a (hopefully) decent video that we can use for future marketing of the show.

Sales picked up at the last minute and we wound up with a small but enthusiastic crowd, and the show went very well. Although we did not make enough to pay for the rent, the rent was reduced because the Times Cinema was very impressed by the entertainment value and quality of our show and offered to reduce the balance owed in exchange for a performance commitment in the future. How could we say no to that? So we wound up losing only about $25 and I can live with that. We made a profit last time and didn’t expect to. And we had a great time with the nigh-private showing of Singin‘ in the Rain afterwards. What a brilliant movie that is.

Next time I think we should consider doing a matinee and marketing it to some of the nicer retirement communities in the area – San Camillo, Hart Park Square. The Times Cinema has said that they would make a greater commitment to marketing future shows. Perhaps we have a cabaret home – and perhaps this is just the beginning!

Oh, to be a movie star!

My fascination with movies and movie stars began because I was an obnoxious child who began reading early. Or because of parental neglect. You be the judge.

I started reading at about 4 years of age and would read every chance I got. One of those chances was at the grocery store because I hated grocery shopping and pitched a fit as soon as we got there. In order to keep the peace, my mother would just drop me off at the movie magazines and let me blissfully enjoy the gossip about which stars were in a “trial marriage,” whose actual marriages were on the rocks, and who was having a secret baby. I didn’t quite understand any of those stories, but I found them exciting and could have sat there all day reading about Sandra Dee & Bobby Darin, Annette & Frankie, and Liz & Eddie (& Dick). One day I was reading a section on celebrity birthdays when I realized that that very day was the 21st birthday of my TV idol. I was so thrilled by this that I turned to the adult standing next to me and blurted out, “TODAY IS ANNETTE FUNICELLO’S BIRTHDAY!” and she just looked at this small and kind of weird child and said, “Uh…. okay….” and walked away.

Renate plunked me down in front of the TV a lot in the evenings. Those were the days of Monday Night at the Movies, Tuesday Night at the Movies, Wednesday, Thursday, etc. and I saw a wide variety of 40s and 50s films, dramas, comedies and musicals.

My cabaret show, “Oh, to be a movie star!” draws upon these early influences. I have collected songs over the years, not specifically from movies but about them and their now-legendary stars. The show features familiar music such as Elton John’s “Candle in the wind” (which Ryan is singing) and obscure songs I’ve run across over the last 20 years including “Humphrey Bogart” by Leiber & Stoller and “Poem” by Christopher Berg (which begins with the immortal line, “Lana Turner has collapsed!”).

The show will be at a wonderful old movie house, the Times Cinema at 5906 W. Vliet in Milwaukee, on Sunday, May 3 at 7pm. It will be followed by a showing of another of my favorite “X Night at the Movies” chestnuts, Singin’ in the rain. The cost is $10 in advance and $15 at the door. I will be accompanied by Ryan Cappleman, pianist and baritone.

I really hope that we have a good turn-out. Performing this show back in February was a dream come true and it’s a good show that allows me to share my love of music and my love of movies.

I did it my way

What a cliched title (how do you do accents in this format, anyone know?). Surely I could think of something better, something less obvious, something more original. But I can’t, because it’s the title of the first song I ever sang for a large audience and the song that made other people identify me as a singer.

After my Streisand epiphany, I spent a couple of years trying to figure out how to make singing happen for me. I knew nothing about voice lessons – the attitude in my working-class neighborhood was pretty much “Either you can sing or you can’t.” In fact, when I signed up for 8th grade girls’ chorus for an elective, my father refused to sign the sheet for it: “Chorus? You don’t have the build to be a chorus girl. Take home ec.” While I tried to impress upon him that I would be less likely to perform as a Rockette at Bell Jr. High and would most likely be doing SSAA renditions of “I feel pretty,” he still told me to take home ec. In which I got a C.

Of course, this is the same person who, when I wanted a pretty red dress in first grade, said, “Red? What are you, a communist?” and I answered, “No, I’m 6.” Still didn’t get the red dress.

But I digress.

In 9th grade, I signed up for the Bell Jr. HS Annual Variety Show. I decided I was going to sing Frank Sinatra’s “My way.” I was terrified to do this on my own, so I recruited my friends Janet Weger and Sandy Whateverherlastnamewas to be my backup singers. Neither of them could actually sing but I wanted them there for moral support so that I wasn’t up on that stage completely alone.

The bridge of “My way” was a bit too high for me at that time. So Janet & Sandy had the task of singing the melody on “oo” while I spoke the text. I didn’t realize till the actual performance that this text had connotations that made 13 year boys hoot and holler (and of course, had I sung the text, I suspect it wouldn’t have been quite so evident):

“Yes, there were times, I’m sure you know
When I bit off more than I could chew,
But through it all, where there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.”

Amazingly, I managed to keep my composure through the spoken part and soared into the final line: “And did it myyyyyyy wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!” The audience cheered my performance, and afterwards, I was known as “the singer.”

Why I Sing

I sing because I can?

Maybe there’s more to it than that.

When I was very little, my parents took pictures of me doing everything. Bathing, playing, and, of course, singing. One of my favorite childhood pictures is of me standing on a “stage” (the sofa) wearing an “evening gown” (my mother’s ecru slip), Mickey Mouse ears, and singing into a “microphone” (upside down Romper Room horse).

My earliest influences were the girl singers, especially the ones on TV shows. In retrospect, none of them were really very good. Especially not Annette Funicello, but I had her album! (Wonder what happened to it – probably worth something now. Then again, probably not.) The first movie I remember seeing was Summer Magic with Hayley Mills. I came home singing the music from the show, which was written by the Sherman Brothers, who became more famous for my next and probably most significant influence:

Mary Poppins. I saw that movie at 7 with my father. My mother didn’t like movies. They made her nervous. I wonder if she might have had adult ADD – but that’s for another musing. Again, I came home singing all the Sherman Brothers tunes, which were far more memorable than those of Summer Magic. Probably because Julie Andrews was a better singer. And it had Dick van Dyke in it, on whom I had a terrible crush.

I got to take piano lessons – group lessons through MPS. I think my parents sprung for piano lessons because some Slovenian kid was taking lessons and my mother always had to compete with the Slovenian families. (Again, that’s for another musing.) We got a piano from Bob Kames Pianos on the South Side – the first piano was a mahogany upright. Beautiful instrument.

Too big and too dark, according to Renate. Back it went and in its place came a walnut spinet. Didn’t matter that it was an inferior piano – it looked better in the room.

Of course, I didn’t know that till years later. All I knew was that I had a piano and I could now pick out tunes and sing songs. All the time. I think it was beneficial that my father worked second shift during my early years because I could come home from school and play all evening.

I discovered I also had a talent for writing and for writing song parodies. (Me and Michael Scott.) So I started to write silly parodies, both prose and song, and sing and act them for my friends and classmates. In fact, for a few years, I thought I’d be a writer. I was writing stories – all of them terribly derivative and probably owing a great deal to The Diary of Anne Frank.

And then when I was 11, I saw another movie that determined my life’s path. By myself, this time. I went to the Southgate Theatre and saw Funny Girl. My parents didn’t come because they hated Barbra Streisand (and she wasn’t even political yet!) and my friends really didn’t have much interest in that movie. Or maybe they weren’t around.

I loved every minute of the movie – except the last 5, which I missed because I decided I could no longer wait to go the bathroom. But the scene that meant the most to me was the scene where Fanny Brice pursues Nicky Arnstein, and she’s on the boat singing “Don’t rain on my parade.” I sat there in the theater, a fat little girl sitting by herself in a back row, with tears running down my face, and all I could think of was “That’s what I want to do. That’s what I have to do.” I left the theater stunned with that realization. (And pissed off because I missed the end of the movie.)

So that’s why I sing.