Besides singing, teaching, yoga-ing, and all of the other things I do on a daily basis, I also sometimes write! I do so enjoy talking with and learning about other artists and how/why they do what they do. Colorado has a wealth of diverse talent and I recently wrote about the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado, just one of the groups here specializing in a certain era of music. That being said, they also collaborate with modern dancers, hip-hop artists, and spoken word artists, so they are definitely out-of-the-box in terms of programming!
What happens when you realize you’ve had “write blog post” on your to-do list for about three months, and it never really happened? Nothing terrible it turns out. Other things were getting done: trips taken, tasks and projects completed, books read, music practiced, lessons and classes taught and taken, auditions sung, performances planned, meals cooked, and so much more! In the scheme of life, we are constantly shifting and juggling priorities, and it turns out updating this blog wasn’t much of a priority for me recently.
I could shame myself for this and wonder how it affects my brand and my online presence. I have definitely had those thoughts before. But then I think about all that has been done and what kind of a presence I’ve been in real life and have to think that all that is much more important. Ultimately this is the essence of the practice of life – noticing where you are at any given moment and accepting it as it is. You are free to change course at any time, to backtrack and start something over, or to enjoy the view right from where you are. I’ve been doing a little bit of all of these in different areas of my life.
So in the end I have to say “it’s all good.” Meaning not every decision has been the “right” one, but that’s ok. I haven’t always been so good at being present, but that’s ok. I’m coming to the end of 2018 with so much good work done and good work to come in 2019. But all the work and the tasks and to-do lists are besides the point. I’m ok right where I am.
Lamperti says ” ‘Know thyself’ applies to the singer more than to other professions, because to sing well, body, soul and mind are tuned together to do it” (Vocal Wisdom in the section “Know thyself”). The “self” is a complicated subject, but I tend to agree with Lamperti that having an ongoing excavation of yourself is a necessity as a singer. Science is showing us that our notion of our self is perhaps too fixed – so many cases of traumatic accidents causing personality shifts or behavioral changes are documented elsewhere. Yet we know that the “I” exists and is worthy of exploration.
One of my teachers recently commented that every thought and experience you’ve ever had comes out in the sound of your voice – just ponder the implications of that for a moment. If everything that’s a part of us and our life experience thus far comes out in the sound of the voice, then of course we should explore what exactly those thoughts and experiences are, with judging them as good or bad. This takes practice too, and a devotion to understanding how we each work. I’m reading another translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (one of the great yoga philosophy texts) right now. Sutra 1.22 is translated as “As persons are leisurely, middling, or intense in their practice, so excellence is achieved accordingly.” The translator Nicholas Sutton then goes on to comment, “success in yoga practice is dependent on the amount of dedication one is willing to give it.” Gee, sounds like that might apply to music too! And life! I can’t help but draw these connections from my yoga studies with my life as a singer….like so many, I have been scared of “excellence” or fulfilling my potential in the past. Now I have a greater ability to look at my habits/thoughts/experiences and see them as not good or bad, but rather to just “know myself” better. I can be free to dedicate myself to practicing (in yoga, singing, and yes, life itself) with less judgment or expectation.
So these two ideas of devotion to practice and “know thyself” are really linked in my experience. A butterfly flies around seeking nectar because that’s what it’s designed to do. Some flowers are dripping with the good stuff and some are duds. Like the pollinator who flies devotedly from flower to weed to tree seeking pollen, I can practice seeking myself, through the practice, and come to relish the experience for itself – no conditions or clauses in the contract.
In May, I finished my Anusara® yoga teacher training, which has been a wonderful complement to my own singing, my understanding of the body as an instrument, and how the mind/spirit interacts with the body. One of the teachings of Anusara is the idea of the 3 As: Attitude, Alignment, and Action. These correspond to how to take action in each yoga asana (pose) based in yoga philosophy, and I’ve been thinking about them in relation to my singing lately. I’ve spent the last several years intensely working on vocal technique, and it is easy to only focus on this as I open my mouth to sing. The same is true for some of the students I teach – I can see them almost checking off to-do items in the moments before they sing a phrase, and even as they are in the midst of singing. When the Attitude is one of a hurried person checking off items on a mental to-do list, the Alignment will be clunky or rigid, and the Action will be stifled or lackluster.
In other words, I’ve been thinking that the time for understanding technique must come long before we get into our “singing” or “performance” mode. I’ve been asking myself and my students, “Now, what is your attitude toward this piece?” They sometimes list all of the things they want to achieve in the piece, or perhaps places they’re worried about, or technical concepts (for instance open vowel sounds) they want to focus on. But this is not Attitude. Attitude might be something like gentleness, confidence, acceptance, etc. It’s so hard to sing from a place of gentleness when one is singing an aria or song about murder and revenge! But the Attitude of gentleness should be more about the singer being gentle with themselves and letting the music speak for itself. If I’ve done my work in the practice room, and have the notes, rhythms, words, expressive markings, etc., down, then I can let that all go when I go to actually sing. I have to trust that it is in my brain and those neural pathways will do their work. If I can do that, then I have the freedom to think about what the character’s Attitude is as they sing a particular aria.
One common thing I’ve done in the past (and notice others doing) is technique stacking – I might take a thing I did in a coaching two years ago and have highlighted in my score, add it to the breathing idea my teacher just gave me last week, subconsciously knock on some diction point a choir director harped on about 10 years ago… and voila! I’ve stacked technique on top of technique on top of technique! Lamperti advises us, “The singing voice is so subtle and demands such multitudinous activities, that it can be controlled only when used naturally and thought about in a simple way” (Vocal Wisdom, under “How do you breathe?”). This is where I’m seeing the link to the 3 As….my Attitude can’t be one of how do I solve all the problems with this phrase, or page, or song, or opera. It must be much simpler.
We can see the 3 A’s like this:
Attitude relates to Heart/intention
Alignment relates to Mind/knowledge of technique
Action relates to Body/manifestation
This past week or so, I’ve working with the Attitude of “play.” We learned about the concept of lila in my yoga training and it has been on my mind ever since….when I’m practicing, how rarely have I approached my music making with the sense of “freedom and playful creativity!” I’ve been very serious about striving to grasp and master vocal technical concepts, memorize pieces, juggle with the rest of my life and work schedule….and meanwhile I’ve been very hard on myself for not achieving more. But all of this striving lacks lila….it lacks pleasure, spontaneity, connection with the grand vibration of the world, with the inspiration of the words and notes the librettists and composers have given us, it ignores the joy of creation, and the fact that the words and notes are static marks on a page until brought to life by the unique vibration of my own voice, body, mind, and spirit. Almost all children spend the first few years of life playing. Dogs and other animals remind us of this spirit of play too. They Align and Act from an Attitude of lila. What would your music be if you really “played” it?
That phrase that you hear in fashion, or even for costumes on stage, “are you wearing the dress, or is the dress wearing you?” came to mind a few weeks ago while I was teaching a lesson in my Denver studio. It’s easy to think you know the notes, rhythms, words, markings, and everything else the librettist and composer put on the page, but until that music is really “in your voice,” I’d bet the aria is wearing you…and sometimes the fit is really, really bad.
This happens for many reasons. The most obvious is that it’s not a good aria for you – whether the wrong fach, the wrong tessitura, you’re too young or too old, it doesn’t matter – but not every composer fits every voice well, or it might just be the wrong time for you to sing that aria. A good teacher will help guide a student to find the right repertoire, but this is difficult with certain subgroups of students, like the bigger voiced singers, who can take years to mature into their instruments, and may have to sing a lot of song literature and vocalises before they are ready for the arias that really suit them. But much more commonly, you are singing something that actually is right for you, but you have doubts…about that high note at the end, about the fioratura in the middle section, about that random chest voice spot, about how to sing that umlaut in the passaggio, etc., etc. Those doubts show up in your sound and your body language even if you think you’re hiding them. And then that aria is wearing you.
Think about the most skilled piano and string players – they painstakingly examine the relationship between every note in a piece, exploring how to create legato or make an interval really meaningful. We’re lucky in opera – we have words to create meaning and our breath (when used well) creates legato naturally. But do we as singers take the time to really sing each pitch and its neighbor on the page? Rarely. Or if we do take the time to learn the notes thoroughly, do we trust that our brain has accurately relayed that information to our instrument, hidden there in our throat? Most of my students learn their music faster than they think they do, and it is only doubt that holds them back from really wearing the aria themselves. When you hear great singers, even if you don’t like something about their interpretation, you know they have for sure made each note their own, in their own instrument. They don’t mimic what they’ve heard someone else do, or do something only because a teacher or coach told them to. They’ve considered it for themselves, made decisions about how the notes and words relate to each other, sung phrases individually a number of different ways, and then they JUST DO IT. They wear those glorious notes and words, and for that 5-minute aria, you’d swear it was written just for them, because they inhabit the music so well.
One of the biggest struggles an aspiring or active performer faces is staying motivated in “fallow” periods. It happens to everyone – one minute, your schedule is totally booked for three months, and then you wake up one day to blank pages. Sometimes these rest periods are by choice (to give yourself a vacation or to prepare for an upcoming audition or gig), and sometimes they occur simply because you don’t have anything to prepare for on the horizon.
Following a busy period or a particularly climactic performance, it’s easy to feel that familiar sense of let down or even depression. Try to actively relax for a few days – watch movies or TV you’ve been wanting to get to, finally finish a book that’s been on your bedside table for weeks, take an exercise class, or indulge in the coloring book trend. Meanwhile, take the time to brainstorm what goals you’d like to work on next, or what maybe got shoved to the side while you were so busy. Re-prioritize your goals so that you have a refreshed outlook as you move into a time of slowness.
These times are ideal for getting done the things that you wouldn’t have time to do when you’re in a production: updating your PR materials (website, blog, CV, headshots, recordings, etc.), studying a language, learning a full role that you’d like to sing in the near future, creating a recital program, taking acting classes, popping in for some voice lessons or coaching sessions, etc. Focusing on these VERY productive tasks will engage you in the future of your career, rather than making you feel stuck in a rut or slow period. And you’ll find that out of nowhere, little performance opportunities may emerge and you’ll feel empowered to say “no” to them so you can focus on what you’re doing for you, or say “yes” because they’ll work in tandem with your existing goals.
Staying motivated by constantly assessing and reassessing your goals and what you’re doing on a daily basis to achieve them sounds difficult, but like anything else, it’s a habit. When you’re about to wrap up a busy period of performing, go ahead and see what the next few months hold – imagine an ideal vacation or way of relaxing and what you’d do if you had hours of time on your hands. The ebb and flow of the performing life is one of its greatest challenges but can also be its greatest gift. These times are a chance to hit pause, reassess, and refocus on what you need to get done to make your singing career work for you. This is all that stuff below the surface that goes into making your next performance dazzle!
…It’s one of the most wonderful and hardest things to do. I sometimes have students come into a voice lesson, and maybe they’ve had a hard day, but they really can’t sing. We’ve all felt that tell-tale tightening of the throat when we’re about to cry, or trying not to cry. That sensation could not be further from the “open throat” that voice teachers through the ages have taught.
Yet, when we’re in times of personal grief, communal grief, or even national grief, singing can be a very special way of honoring that emotion. I’ve had advice from several professors over the years about how to approach this problem. One director, as we were working on an especially emotional opera (The Dialogues of the Carmelites – in which almost the entire cast of nuns are guillotined), advised us to just go ahead and cry while we were singing, since if we tried to hold it in, our throats would definitely get tight. I think I know what she was going for – but if you’ve ever tried to carry a pitch or legato phrase while you’re actually crying, you know that’s pretty impossible to do. What I think she meant was to acknowledge the emotion and rather than try to stifle it, let it come out in the sound of the voice. This goes hand in hand with the idea of having an open Throat Chakra – if you feel free to express yourself and use your voice, your throat will stay physically open. If you are trying to stifle your thoughts or emotions, it will tighten, and even fractional tightness will effect your core sound as you sing.
I encourage my students (and myself) to stay in the moment and not get too emotional while singing. Emotions are tied up in past regrets, future worries, and all kinds of other distractions from being in the now. When we come together to sing in honor of a tragedy, part of the power is the sheer force of sound coming from a group of people singing, and you can only truly experience that if you are in the moment. These group expressions of grief are needed to collectively share the emotion – a kind of congregational open throat. And if it’s a lone solo voice, at a funeral for instance, maintaining the integrity of your sound is essential to letting the listeners have an emotional experience, while you remain calm. It takes practice to find out how to honor your own emotions without letting them get into your vocal tract, but it is totally possible – and may even lead you to get more out of the power of your singing.
Last time, I revisited a blog post I wrote about four years ago. Here is part 2 of that post, focusing on how to practice. Mostly, this is about the practical side of practicing – I am the queen of coming up with excuses, but I find those very things I somehow resisted doing for many years, are the most worth pursuing. I still work on my fear of success everyday, and establishing patterns and a physical environment that supports your desire to practice go a long way in overcoming fear.
Here’s that original post, part 2:
As I mentioned in the teaser to Part 2, you should make every attempt relieve yourself of the burden of expectations when it comes to practicing. It’s true that practicing is meant to engage and improve your skill set, and that without doing some daily practice, you probably won’t achieve your goals. But why expect every day to be filled with some amazing technical revelation or new insight? Have reasonable goals for yourself each day. If you know that Mondays are really busy, try to spend 10-15 minutes in the morning speaking through your text, or something equally simple. If you have time to sing through it later on Monday, well, great! But if not, then at least you’ve already accomplished some small bit of work on your piece. Baby steps will help your overall progress and also make you feel better about getting something done (no matter how small) each day.
Practicing comes in many forms, especially for singers. You can simply speak through your lyrics or text, and that’s practicing. You can then speak it in rhythm. Listening to other examples (on YouTube, Spotify, or Classical Archives, for example) of your piece also counts! Reviewing several other performances of your piece will exercise your ears, and give you plenty of ideas of how to interpret a song or aria. You can also just do some of your warm ups or vocalises. Spending one practice session concentrating solely on technique will help you get to know your own voice. This sounds obvious, but sometimes when you strip away text, melodies, or composers’ rhythms, your voice will reveal itself in a totally different way.
Learning to practice well takes time, thought, realism, and above all, persistence. Stick with it!
Four years ago, I shared some thoughts on how to practice with another blog. I’d like to revisit those for a moment here.
Here’s the original post:
Practicing Fearlessness – Fearlessly
Practice, practice, practice… often the bane of any music student’s existence!
I have to work at this too- instead of saying, “Ugh, I need to practice,” or “I’m supposed to practice later,” try turning it into a positive: “I want to practice that awesome piece,” or “I love singing in Italian- I’ll go practice now!” It sounds cheesy, but using positive reinforcement and encouragement with yourself will really change how you look not just at practicing music, but in other daily activities.
An old conductor of mine used to say “Practice Makes Permanent.” This applies not just to specific patterns or music you’ll practice, but your mental involvement in music. Your mind should be actively listening, engaging your vocal mechanism, stopping when you need to check something, but not using constant negative language to beat yourself up. Regardless of where you are in your studies, there is always room for nuance and improvement, but no one singer is 100% perfect at any given time. I find if I focus on the things I’m screwing up, rather than on the things I know I can improve, my practice session will be short and unproductive. I hope if you too start working now on practicing positively, practicing your vocal music will become a permanent joy rather than a chore.
These thoughts were inspired by a teacher I worked with for a short time, who pointed out that every time I approached a high note, I told myself “no.” For many years, I relied on my intelligence to learn notes and just get through a piece, but was almost afraid of practicing in case I actually got really good. I was afraid not just of failure, but also success! It’s amazing what the ego mind, or what my mentor calls the Brat, can do – it’s that voice in your head setting you up to fail or always have an escape route ready.
It’s taken me years to understand that practicing is part of my job, and that I really do just need to do it. One of my voice students here in Denver often wears a cap with the Nike logo, and when he struggles, I simply point at his cap and say “Just do it!” Taking that leap, sometimes once, sometimes many, many times will eventually prove to you and the Brat that you are capable. Failure or success really have nothing to do with singing. If you have two working vocal folds, you too can just do it.