Are you wearing the aria, or is the aria wearing you?

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.

Reboot part 2

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:

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!

Practicing Fearlessly – Reboot!

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

Part 1

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.