Grateful, grateful, truly grateful I am

I am grateful that my summer schedule was so full, and that I got to enjoy working with returning students (Maureen, Julia, Elyse), and with a whole bunch of talented newbies (Grace, Grace, Rose, Joanne, Luke & Anna), as well as the rest of my wonderful students.

I am grateful for the opportunity to work with wonderful peers and learn new things about CCM at the Shendandoah Conservatory with Jeannette Lovetri and her master teachers. And to enjoy being out on the east coast again, which is ultimately where I belong (but not just yet – maybe 5-10 years).

I am grateful for the creativity of my peers and musical partners, and for their acceptance of my creativity.

I am grateful I made it through a summer schedule that crammed 5 days’ worth of singers (plus the returning ones and newbies – see above) into a 3-1/2 day schedule. A schedule that will not be repeated again next summer, I can tell you that right now!

I am grateful for a husband who prepares wonderful meals for me at the end of my teaching day, and a wonderful dinner for the party held yesterday at the end of the teaching season (the summer season, anyway). And for those who came and partook – and for those who didn’t, hey, there’s a lot of tax-deductible leftovers for us to enjoy!


When I started this blog, I intended to write once a week about singing- and studio-related things only, venturing into the personal only as it related to the main topic.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, my last blog entry was July 15…

and forgive me for self-indulgence but I want to write about other things today.

Yesterday I put my parents on a plane to Florida. They will be moving into a nursing home near my sister’s home. I may never see them again.

For those of you who know my relationship with my parents or who know my parents, you might be saying, “Congratulations!” For those of you who judge my relationship with my parents, you might be saying, “So what’s the difference? You hardly ever saw them anyway.”

My relationship with my parents has been contentious, to say the least. I returned to Milwaukee in 1996 because the family medicine residency programs were top notch and would afford Bill good training and because I had a yearning to reconnect with my parents and my hometown.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

I had done a lot of self-work in getting through my divorce. I recognized mistakes I had made in my personal and professional relationships in my 34 years of life and worked very hard at correcting them and trying not to repeat them. I thought I could apply the same concepts to my relationship with my parents and be a better daughter and have the family relationship I always wanted growing up.

It didn’t work. My attempts at reaching out were never enough – always too little, too late as far as they were concerned. Always an opportunity for comparison – “Caroline calls more than you do and she’s in Florida.” (I called more when I was in Baltimore because they were always happy to hear from me then!) – for sarcasm – “We thought you forgot our phone number.” (Two days had gone by between calls – and phones work both ways.) And after Mom’s dementia kicked in, for twisting the knife – “Yeah, she calls for you all night, and I tell her, don’t bother, Christine doesn’t care.”

And even though I distanced myself in the interest of self-protection (at the advice of professionals), making dutiful calls at least once a week, visiting on holidays, and wishing that they had listened to my sister and me when we tried to get them to move to Florida or at least to assisted living before all these health issues had surfaced, when my sister told me last Friday that she found them a spot in a nursing home in Florida and had booked them a flight for August 8, I felt … lost. (Okay, that was after the initial celebratory glass of wine.)

My husband doesn’t get it. He only knows these people as the ones who snuck out of our wedding early because they weren’t getting enough attention, who told us our wedding was “nothing to brag about” because it wasn’t Catholic, who have said dreadful things about people of other races and religions and gender identities, and whose initial response to the end of my first marriage was “What about the money you owe us?” He’s thrilled that they will be too far away to hurt me anymore.

But I remember – or at least I have pictures of – the little girl whose Daddy adored her, and was constantly whispering in her ear and laughing with her. I remember the Mother who would defend her child no matter what, sometimes going overboard, but fierce in her defense. And that went beyond childhood. I remember when the priest at my first teaching job berated me in front of the school (that job is a whole ‘nother blog entry!) and she called him and identified herself as a mother whose daughter had called her, very upset about how he had treated the music teacher, and gave him a piece of her mind. The poor old coot was racking his brain trying to figure out just which student had a mother with a foreign accent, and kept asking her, “Are you Maria’s mother? Jenny’s?” and she told him, “I won’t tell you because I don’t want you to take it out on my daughter.”

He deserved it.

So even though I haven’t known those people for years, and I never will again, those are the people for whom I feel loss. I will truly never see those people again. As far as the people who took their place, I may never see them again. And I probably will start calling them more frequently, because now that we are far apart, they will again be happy to hear from me.

Letting people go

Today I had to tell a long-time student’s mom that I could no longer work with that student anymore. There have been too many no-shows, examples of thoughtlessness, “forgetting” checks, breaking promises … and I haven’t been doing the student any favors by accepting excuses, rescheduling missed lessons, or accepting payment weeks late. It has to stop for my own self-preservation as well as to teach the student that there are consequences for bad behavior.

I’m sad about this. I hate letting good singers go, even if it’s for good reasons. And this student has a great deal of potential – great musician, fine young voice, and smart.

The two students that I’ve had to let go because of trust issues were both people who professed to be beyond-devout Christians… and I’ve caught both of them in lies.

Putting together the fall schedule

I just sent out an email to my students to set up the 2009-2010 schedule. I lost about 10 people at the end of this school year – 6 graduated, 4 decided to move on for various reasons. But I replaced 6 of them, and several of the current roster decided to increase their lesson times from 30 minutes to 45 minutes. I was surprised – last year I had decided to phase out the 30 minute lesson time entirely because longer lessons are so much more effective in helping the student apply the technical things we do in the first 15 minutes to actual singing. But with the economic crisis, I wasn’t going to push it. I didn’t have to. People wanted to do it.

Also, I’ll be teaching vocal pedagogy at Carroll University again this fall. I’m excited about that – I really enjoy helping people find their teaching voices so that they can help others find their singing voices. Plus I’ve decided that the income from that gig is going toward a … wait for it … cleaning woman. (Reinemachefrau!)

Heading out at the end of this week for Jeannette Lovetri’s Contemporary Commercial Music Pedagogy Institute at Shenandoah Conservatory. I’m doing the first two levels of the program and will be certified in Levels 1 and 2 of Somatic Voicework. I’ll tell you what that means when I get back!

Top Ten Things That Make Me a Happy Voice Teacher

1. When a student posts a line of a song I’ve given her or him as his/her Facebook status – “I’ll find myself at the end of the world where the earth and the sky are one.”

2. When a student tells me she’ll remember singing the Dead Nuns Chorus from Carmelites for the rest of her life.

3. When a student tells me that she loves opera – and she’s only 13 and came in to the studio a year before only liking bluegrass and boy bands and I haven’t even given her opera to sing, she’s just heard other people doing it and wants to do it too.

4. When the parent of a student who has just done her first ensemble recital tells me, “Your studio is full of really nice, supportive kids, and they made my daughter feel at home.”

5. When someone tells me her high school senior project is about vocal pedagogy.

6. When a kid who formerly only followed heavy metal headbanging tells me that he is now obsessed with Wagner. (Honestly, it’s not that much of a stretch.)

7. When a girl who formerly swooned over the Jonas Brothers now swoons over Placido Domingo – at least on recordings.

8. When a brand new student can read the IPA I’ve written on my dry-erase board.

9. When I told my students that Richard Miller died, and most of them said, “OH NO!” (Again, my base is grades 9-12.)

10. When students see a song from Street Scene or Lady in the Dark or Threepenny Opera and immediately blurt out, “I don’t mean to be curt, but give me that vial!” (See L.A. Law)

One good thing about getting older….

I can now sing the repertoire that caused people to say, “Ms. Thomas, why are you singing this aria?” back in my 20s.

I’ve started working with Connie Haas – I had a couple of lessons with her before she went to teach at Eastman a few years ago but by the time I could afford to have lessons on a regular basis again, she’d started teaching in Rochester. Now she’s back, and I want to get back on the “someone listen to me” train again.

It’s going well – she speaks in the same kind of language I speak in to my students, and it cracks me up when she’ll say “Does that make sense to you?” because I say that all the time, usually after I’ve made some bizarro request to my student that they then manage to execute with the exact outcome I wanted.

So we’ve decided to work on some heavier mezzo rep, and for the last two days I’ve sat down and sung through “O mio Fernando” and “Stride la vampa” (!!!) and man, does that feel good.

Sometimes aging doesn’t suck.

What the Skylight means to me

Last week, Skylight Opera Theater announced the elimination of its artistic director and company manager positions, and consequently, the termination of the two people filling those positions, Bill Theisen and Diana Alioto. I have worked with both Bill and Diana – Bill in the 80s, when we were both in the Skylight’s Gilbert & Sullivan choruses, and Diana when I sang Pilar in Rosina in 2001 and Dottie in Viva La Mamma in 2003. And later in the week, they also fired the music director, Jamie Johns, who is probably the best musician in the city – no, the region.

Although I haven’t done anything with Skylight since 2003, its place in my heart and in my history has never diminished. It’s the Skylight that set me on the right track as a performer.

After college, I studied with Judith Erickson for a couple of years. During that time, she suggested that I audition for the Skylight. I hadn’t heard of the company – my very sheltered Sout‘ side upbringing and Alverno education had limited me quite a bit (when your parents don’t let you go east of 27th Street, you don’t do much). I was really only familiar with the Florentine Opera, with whom I was singing chorus. So Judy gave me comps to see A little night music, which was being performed in Wehr Hall. I loved it and wanted to audition – so Judy set something up. (Judy was not the teacher who gave me the wrong rep, as referred to in an earlier post.)

I auditioned for Colin Cabot and Donald St. Pierre – I had no idea that this was a big deal audition, so I wasn’t particularly nervous. I sang “Una voce poco fa” and “Memory” (back in the days when “Memory” was a viable audition piece) and at the end of the audition, Colin said, “Christine, did Judy misrepresent you?” and I said, “I… I don’t know… what do you mean?” And he said, “Well, she said you just wanted to be in the chorus.” Again, I stammered out a response. I had no thoughts of doing anything other than chorus – I had no idea of what else I could do.

I sang 6 shows with Skylight over the next few years – Pinafore, Patience, Pirates & Mikado (the latter of which broke the alliteration cycle) as well as The Student Prince and Desert Song. It was Skylight that offered me my first role – Pitti-Sing in The Mikado. Going on tour with Skylight for Pirates and Mikado exposed me to other singers who had career aspirations and showed me that my current direction was limited and that I needed to learn more, do more, find more.

It was also Skylight’s co-artistic director, Stephen Wadsworth, who asked me the question, “Why are you singing this aria?” and more importantly, told me why I shouldn’t be singing it, which resulted in my re-educating myself about fach and context. It also made me leave my then-teacher and seek out someone who could give me what I needed.

I left Milwaukee the June after the 1986-87 season but whenever I came home, I tried to catch a show at the Skylight. When I came back in 1996, I auditioned for Skylight and was cast the ensemble in Sweeney Todd, which was a magical experience. My role in Rosina resulted in my first and only review in Opera News, which was thankfully positive (and that issue arrived on my birthday, to boot!) and my 2003 performance in Viva la Mamma resulted in my meeting Matt Flynn, who performed my wedding to Bill.

The Skylight’s cabaret series also opened my eyes to a venue in which I have found myself at home – through the inspiration of performers such as Becky Spice, Joel Kopischke, Carolynne Warren, Linda Stephens, Jack Forbes Wilson, and always, always, the incomparable Jamie Johns.

The Skylight has given me a great deal, personally and professionally. The short-sighted and knee-jerk reaction of TPTB at the Skylight, ostensibly to save money, has resulted in an outcry of artists and patrons alike. No one wants to see the Skylight fail – but no one wants to see the Skylight become a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all kind of company with no passion, that takes no risks, that brooks no challenges to its authority.

I hope to work at the Skylight again someday – I hope there will be a Skylight at which to work. I think things need to change in order to grow, but that change needs to be organic and well-thought-out, not the result of what some have called a coup.

Auditioning students

I just read an article at the music teachers helper website about auditioning students for acceptance in your studio. http://www.musicteachershelper.com/blog/?p=693&pg=blog&action=taking-on-new-students-developing-an-audition-process#comment-104851

I’ve thought about doing this from time to time. On the one hand, it ensures that you are going to have students who are serious and who can read music, who can hold a part, who can stay in tune. All of your students will be coming in with a basic level of ability on which you can build without needing to spend time working on matching pitch and plunking through parts for them to learn. What a luxury!

On the other hand – it seems kind of elitist to me, especially at the high school level. High school kids are insecure enough without having someone judge whether or not they are worthy of being taught. No matter how kind you may be in telling them that they didn’t make the cut, their emotional response is going to be that they are not worthy of your time. It’s part of the high school mindset. I don’t want to be a factor in someone deciding “I guess I can’t sing — so why bother?”

I have never dismissed a student for not being able to sing. I have dismissed students for poor attitude, for no-showing, for non-payment, for vocal health issues that they didn’t want to address (e.g., nodes caused by poor vocal practices outside singing such as yelling in soccer), because I felt someone else might be of more use to them in the style they wanted to learn, but never because I didn’t think they had any talent. Who am I to tell someone he can’t sing? Isn’t that my job, to facilitate his singing the best he can?

If I turned down people who couldn’t match pitch at their initial lessons, I would never have gotten to work with one of my favorite students, who is now a wonderful young basso. Working with him has been a joy, and not only because he can sing better now but because he’s a great kid with whom I’ve enjoyed working! How many great people would I not have gotten to know because I decided in the first half hour that I didn’t want to make the effort to take them from non-singers to singers?

To make that decision at an initial lesson, when people are nervous and feeling so vulnerable, just seems to me to be counter-intuitive. It takes several lessons for us to get to know each other and figure out where we’re going on this journey.

My high school students pay for five lessons at a time. This is for two reasons – to guarantee that they show up after the first week (the practical reason), and to allow them to become more comfortable with me. I can be intimidating, and not because I am on a high lofty perch but because I’m so intense about singing and because, frankly, I’m a little weird. (In a good way.)

I do like ideas in this article about structuring that first lesson and I’d like to implement them, but not because I want to determine if this student is worthy of acceptance to my studio. I think some of these ideas will allow me to determine what I need to do for new students more quickly and become more efficient in helping them progress and realize their potential.

A good week: Two performances – one for them, one for me!

This past Sunday was the annual high school showcase. This year I had decided to focus primarily on my juniors and seniors and go with more of a cabaret format. I wound up including a few sophomores after all but we still kept the program at 20 people total, which allowed us to go with a more intimate format and not have to pad the program in order to include everyone in enough numbers to warrant their recital fee.

It went really, really well. I wasn’t overwhelmed the way I was last year but I don’t think it was because of the performances. It was because the rep I chose was good, solid music that was entertaining and pleasant. We didn’t have “The ballad of Sweeney Todd” or the final chorus of Dialogues of the Carmelites (aka “The dead nuns’ chorus”) or any soaring opera arias, because that wasn’t the kind of show we did this year. We did a show that focused on American composers and allowed the singers to just sing without worrying too much about staging. There was some staging because we had to have some pretty pictures up there, but it was very simple and specific and consequently, very effective.

On Wednesday night, I sang with the newly formed “Trio con Brio” at the Italian Community Center. We did a 2-1/2 hour program (!!!!) of arias and show tunes. The soprano was Wendelin Lockett, the mezzo was ME, and the bass was Tom Weis, with whom I worked in Cosi 10 years ago. We were supported by the amazing Amanda Carnahan on piano – a lovely young woman who is doing her masters in the collaborative piano program at UWM. (Collaborative piano is the preferred term these days instead of “accompanying,” which relegates the pianist to a subordinate position instead of being an equal partner – which is what the pianist should be.) I definitely want to work with Amanda more often – perhaps on future studio recitals when Ryan is not available?

The program was great – it was wonderful to sing with 3 fantastic people who were not only fun to work with (which I knew would be the case going in) but with whom I could make some really beautiful music. We all blended well with each other and we were able to stimulate each other to make wonderful interpretive choices. The audience was small but enthusiastic and stayed for the entire show (which did include a 20 minute intermission). We have another show tentatively scheduled for August 8 on the Delafield Summerstage program, and I got a name from a friend of a contact to call for a high-end retirement community.

As far my performance – I still have issues with using reading glasses for ensemble numbers, which we chose not to memorize, at least not for this initial performance. I find it very difficult to emote wearing glasses. I memorized my solos although “I can cook” tripped me up at rehearsal (who’d have thought that not having sung a song for 10+ years would result in my forgetting the words?). So I typed up the words in a big font so that I wouldn’t have to wear the reading glasses. I did the same thing for our closing number, “Together wherever we go,” since I didn’t really need the music for that number. I may do that for the future, at least for a few pieces. I think I might look into progressive contact lenses later this year – like my glasses, which allow me to read and drive and function without having to change glasses. I think the time has passed for me to do Lasik – because I would STILL need to use reading glasses (unless they’ve developed a Lasik format that corrects presbyopia). Aging doth suck.

I’m on a break post-recital – I feel inspired to return to teaching and performing next week – and to start learning some new rep for myself!

Showcase today!

Today is our Showcase, which this year will meld two of my great loves – cabaret and American Song. I’m excited about the program, which will open with the title song, “Look for me in the songs” by Craig Carnelia. The final solo is John Bucchino’s “Grateful,” which pretty much sums up how I feel about working with these great kids. We close with the song “Joy” by Ricky Ian Gordon as a big group number, which sounded GREAT yesterday.

Too much to do to write much more, but if you are in the vicinity of Underwood Memorial Baptist Church (76th & Hillside) at 3:30pm, please come on in! Admission is free and you will hear wonderful high school age singers from the entire Milwaukee area (and I’m going to sing “What a movie!” from Trouble in Tahiti, which seems to be my new signature piece).

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