Know thyself

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.

Staying motivated in slow periods

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!Success-is-like-an-iceberg

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.