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.