Attitude, Alignment, Action

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

Cashew and Clementine
My two dogs taking a rest after playing

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?

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.