Monthly Archives: June 2011

Empowering Insight to Break the Nervous Cycle

Tonight, the lovely and impressive Patricia Wise led a master class as part of the BASOTI programming. I found out the day prior that I was singing in it – yikes – and decided to go with Giulietta’s “Oh! quante volte” because it had flowed so easily the past few times I worked on it. Ms. Wise complimented me on my Italian (which is amazing because I’ve never had a diction class; my first one will be here with BASOTI on Thursday!) and communication of setting and emotion (which I’ve worked hard on in order to set myself apart from the rest of the soprano population). I had to go first. Going first is great because you don’t lose the warmed-up feeling and can enjoy the rest of the show after your bit is done. Going first is less great when you can’t rely on someone else to set the tone for the evening – but someone’s gotta do it! It was my first public master class, and although Ms. Wise was friendly and not-threatening, the entire situation was intimidating.

Just this morning, we had an audition workshop with the magnetic Hector Corerra (he’s also directing an opera and several scenes, two of which are my Pamina and Miranda scenes). He shared inspiring words about staying in control in situations where we tend to become nervous: when we show up at the audition or the performance, we are the party, the main event. It’s not about the other singers or the panel; it’s about being well-prepared and confidently presenting your abilities to see if people have the good taste to like what you do! Go only if you can deliver what they are asking for (no one asks to bake the wedding cake if they don’t know how to bake or if they only know how to make one type of cake). Know the rules so you can break them intentionally. If you are knowledgeable and ready, none of their questions or expectations will throw you off. Since you are there on your own terms, then you’re the one in control. Don’t give your power away. What an amazing way to approach these situations, and I kept repeating this to myself leading up to the master class.

And what happened? There were no missing notes or words, and I was happy with my characterization and presentation. Yet, I couldn’t seem to get myself out of the unsettled, nervous feeling. I came in at all the right times, but my breath and, therefore, my voice were not fully engaged. The rounded warmth I’d enjoyed the past few weeks was missing – and I was aware of the breath issues but couldn’t find the reset button. I tried technical fixes: breathing lower in my ribcage, riding the breath through the intervals, keeping the vowels Italianate to prevent wasting the breath. I even tried non-technical things to get myself out of my head and into the character more: changing my gazing point, seeing Romeo (literally because the mezzo-soprano with who I’m singing the Romeo and Giulietta tomb scene was there tonight), focusing on the text. This second strategy helped me put on a good show, but it didn’t solve the breath issue. I wanted to sing with complete abandon, but I know I didn’t quite achieve that level of immersion: I recall thinking, “This isn’t working,” which means I was still in my head instead of Giulietta’s.

My breath was better when Ms. Wise made suggestions and I sang again. I think most singers know the second time is usually smoother, as if we need the first take to get the nerves out of the way. Why can’t we make our first opportunity our best showing? I gave up some of my power and didn’t get it back right away. What a reminder that I have a long way to go still. But in the spirit of keeping my power, I’ll say I am still fabulous but needing a little more polish. I have a one-on-one voice lesson with Ms. Wise later this week. No audience, and now that I’ve already had a chance to interact with her, there better not be nerves. My voice can come out the way it’s supposed to, and I hope to gain more insight from her regarding breathing, space, and coloratura.

Much less nervous and ready to sing tomorrow,

Joyce

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Massively Irritated with Schirmer Editors

I bought three Schirmer soprano aria anthologies and thought they would be a strong starting point for my collection.  The past few nights I’ve stayed up much too late to surf for inspirational clips on YouTube and follow along in my music.  How exciting to have all these pieces right at my fingertips!  Then, yesterday, I saw they cut the second section of “Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln.”  Not cool, man.  This aria is a bit repetitive, but uncut, the whole thing is only five minutes.

Tonight, I was going over Euridice’s “Qual vita è questa mai … Che fiero momento” and realized they cut about 1/2 of the recitative as well as the B section of the aria.  Come on, really?  Isn’t the contrast between A and B the vehicle for musical and emotional complexity?  The uncut version is also less than five munites.  Five really emotionally baring minutes… how could you cut any of this?!

The editors claim the cuts are “reasonable.”  If a mob boss had me tied up and asked me to pick between being reasonable by cutting some music or getting my knees broken, I would go with being reasonable.  But what kind of pressure where these editors under?  A page limit?  Ink budget?  In an audition context there’s a good chance you won’t get through five minutes of a piece (unless you are captivatingly good), but when did these anthologies become audition editions?  I wish they’d left the music intact and unobtrusively suggested cuts for singers who felt the need to take them.  Now I have to go out and find versions of these two pieces.  Thanks, editors.

Unsatisfied Schirmer customer,

Joyce

The (Repertoire) Matrix?

This past week I started looking at some international competitions (which I’ll wait on even though my first response was to check deadlines and jump in) and became just a tad despondent.  If I were to enter these competitions, I would need to learn so much new music to fulfill the requirements; even with all the pieces I’ve learned in the last 12 months, I still don’t have a big enough rep list to pull from.  How far off in the future is the day when I can look at a list of requirements and choose (most) pieces from my existing repertoire?  It’s exhausting and stressful to be polishing new repertoire in the days leading up to the audition or competition.  Yes, there’s always room for deeper exploration of the character; no, I don’t want to give the exact same rendition each time; and yes, I want my pieces to evolve as I challenge myself with new technical or artistic options… but it would be so nice to not feel that I’m racing to learn music just in time all the time.

BASOTI will keep me busy this next month, but I definitely plan on learning at least 3 new pieces before moving to Arizona.  I need an up-beat Italian piece, so I am working on Norina’s “Quel guardo, il cavaliere…So anch’io la virtù magica” from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.  I love it (especially this performance by Leontina Vaduva).  My rep list is heavy on the Romantic and needs more Baroque and Classical pieces, so “Un cenno leggiadretto” from Handel’s Serse is on my list.  That’s another Italian piece, so “Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail will balance it out.  Unfortunately, these last two will have to wait because I don’t have the sheet music for them yet.  So I’ll work on some art songs instead!  For a German leid: “Strauss’ Ich wollt ein Sträußlein binden” (this is going to be the tough one).  For a French mélodie: Debussy’s “Green” (which I want to revisit and memorize).  For an American art song: Copland’s floating “Pastorale.”  Three languages, two 20th century, one romantic.  It’s all music I am excited to delve into – getting a little giddy and can’t wait to start tomorrow.

Now I just need to map out a strategy for picking music once I start school in the fall.  It would be fun to devote an entire month to a specific language or time period, but I don’t think that will give me enough variety.  Hm, maybe I’ll make a matrix of time periods and languages and rotate through them:

This may have promise… I’ll try it out at the start of fall to see if it works.  My strategy may need to change once I find out specific requirements for my aria preparation and expression classes.  Plus, I’ll need to tailor my repertoire schedule to whatever competitions I find in Arizona… until then, I’ll work on these three art songs and three arias!

Overdosing on youtube videos (like this one and this one) and staying up to ungodly hours looking through scores,

Joyce

Du also bist mein Bräutigam?… When hearing voices saves a life

I made it to the Bay Area! In a way, I have traveled back in time: I’m living at home (albeit just for about two weeks) and eating my parents’ food (delicious !). I drive around this town and cannot associate any of the sites or sights with the anxiety I experienced just a week ago as an independent “grown up”, working, living on my own, running errands, and trying to avoid traffic. The past two days have consisted of eating, shopping, and spending time with my family. Summer is now synonymous with fun, sunshine, and singing. I truly feel like a college student again.

I got down with my Pamina scene to finalize the memorization. BASOTI starts in seven days, and my fear is having one of my scenes cut if I show up unprepared. It’s been a few years since I sang this in college; the notes are still there but the German needed some lovin’. Some people complain that German is harsh or ugly, but I find it remarkably satisfying to sing. Lovely vowels with an equal emphasis placed on the importance of crisp consonants. I thanked the English translation printed in the score for providing the big picture but scoffed at its in-authenticity, given the poetic license taken to make things rhyme. As always, I like having a literal translation, word for word. It’s quite embarrassing and awkward if my character completely miss the dramatic or emotional point of the scene.

A not-too-freely-altered-for-rhyming-purposes version is readily available online, but I like to painstakingly cobble my own translation together. Word by painstaking word (my fantasy: I’ll miraculously and organically learn a language using this method). Thank goodness for the internet. But I must invest in a huge library of dictionaries once I’m done with all this moving.

My feelings on Die Zauberflöte are mixed; beautiful music but the plot is quite ridiculous and goes off on too many tangents. I find the character development flat and the pacing of the story a draaaaag. Perhaps there is just a little too much good music here? I think Mozart needed a cold-hearted editor to slash a big X through a couple measures and improve the flow. Pamina has some gorgeous music though, and I wouldn’t want any of it cut. Her almost-suicide scene is quite powerful if sung with the madness the three spirits reference several times (Wahnsinn tobt ihr im Gehirne). In my opinion, the biggest disservice a singer can do to Pamina is to sing her as a wimp. No one likes a quitter, but Pamina’s flirtation with death makes sense in light of the betrayal she experiences from both her prince, Tamino, and her mother, the Queen of the Night. I love this scene because Pamina’s vocal line jumps between short and long phrasing. Her text is straightforward, but her music alternates between emphatic statements and uncertain fragments. She isn’t thinking clearly, she is a mess.

I may have included the link before, but here is a little refresher if you need it. Pamina’s outfit takes some getting used to, but it’s a beautifully detailed production, Paris Opera in 2000.

Some back-story: Pamina is in love with Prince Tamino, who has taken a vow of silence to demonstrate his worthiness. Unfortunately, Tamino failed to mention the point of this exercise to Pamina, and she misinterprets his silence to mean his feelings for her have disappeared (this is when she sings the deceptively simple but heart-wrenchingly bleak “Ach, ich fühl’s” in Act 2). In addition to this drama in her love-life, Pamina is having some issues in her relationship with her mother. Mama is a smidgen manipulative and sees an opportunity to rid herself of a long-standing rival, Sarastro. She gives Pamina a dagger and two options: A) kill Sarastro, or B) be disowned, destroyed, and damned (alright, so the translation for the last bit is more along the lines of “cursed” but I couldn’t pass up the alliteration opportunity).

The scene. Pamina is really too nice to act as an assassin, so she comes up with option C) use the dagger to commit suicide instead. In her first line, she addresses the dagger and asks if it is to be her groom since Tamino has abandoned her (Du also bist mein Bräutigam?). The score notes that Pamina “rushes” in, and her vocal line is broken into two phrases for a breathless and frantic quality. Her second sentence carves a beautiful legato line and ends on a ringing upward swing; she exclaims that the dagger will complete her grief (Durch dich vollend’ ich meinen Gram). In these 4.5 measures, Mozart paints Pamina as unstable and alternating between crazed mutterings and manic proclamations.

Just as she is about to stab herself, the three adorable spirits take action and tear the dagger from her (Ha! Unglückliche, halt ein!). She scoffs (Was?) at the idea that Tamino, the one has turned away from her, still loves her. The score does not explicitly say whether Pamina ignores or is unaware of the spirits prior to this moment, but I like to imagine that her mental breakdown is so encompassing that she does not hear or see the spirits until they physical intervene.

This is the point where Pamina’s madness runs out of steam. After three beats, she asks why Tamino will not speak to her, a question that is also broken into two musical phrases as if she does not have the strength to finish the thought in one breath (Warum sphracher … nicht mit mir?). The three spirits say they are forbidden to answer this question (Dieses müssen wir verschweigen) but can take Pamina to see Tamino and his faithfulness (doch wir wollen ihn dir zeigen, und du wirst mit Staunen sehn, daß er dir sein Herz geweiht.) They talk her out of the dagger-ing and into finishing the scene with a quartet of love’s triumph over its enemies. Pamina is so convinced that she breaks the rhythmic unity of the quartet and leads the spirits in the final page of music (verloren ist der Feinde Müh, die Götter selbsten schützen sie.). It is a complete transformation, and Pamina’s confidence in herself and the universe is restored.

I’m ready to do this! The three spirits better be ready too – I will probably go after someone with Pamina’s dagger if this scene is cut from the BASOTI line-up.

With a head full of German,

Joyce

Parting is sweet sorrow. Packing is just torture.

Still singing about an hour a day, but my practice is limited (and distracted) by the technicalities and details of packing and moving.  Yikes. What an unpleasant experience.  It makes me long for a minimalist lifestyle.  I now also fear the day I’ll have to move an entire house rather than a townhouse shared with two roommates.

How is it my closet felt too small but is a nightmare to pack?  What shift in the Earth’s rotation leaves me with nothing to wear one day and everything to fold and find a place for the next day?  I love the concept of saying goodbye to an item if I haven’t worn, used, touched, looked at, or thought about it in more than six months – but this is hard to implement when I wonder how my tiny teaching stipend will cover the cost of replacing it if I need it in the future.  Several old t-shirts used this strategy to successfully reinvent themselves as workout gear.

After some coaching from my roommate and my boyfriend, I have six bags/boxes of clothes and shoes to be donated.  I was also able to part with roughly 14 lbs of old papers and documents.  What I wasn’t able to streamline was my music library.  Perhaps this means I’m more a musician than a shopping-addict or pack-rat!  I still have some sheet music from my high school days.  Honestly, do I really need this arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” as performed by Boyz II Men?  If I were truly, ruthlessly Zen, my future packing-and-unpacking projects would be so manageable.

I can’t wait for this move to be over.  Someone (probably a neighbor) taped a mean, albeit unofficial, note to my storage/moving container.  Despite its lack of polish and professionalism, it effectively upped my anxiety level by a factor of five: (in all caps) To whom it may concern, it is against Home Owners’ Association regulations to have a storage container on the property.  Remove this container before you are fined or ticketed.

Really?  I wonder if it was the same neighbor who disliked my rendition of “Caro nome” and yelled at me.  In any case, both my container and my singing will be gone in three days!  I hope they get a good look at my face so they’ll feel silly in about 5-10 years after my career is well underway.

Staying strong (from lifting all those heavy boxes),

Joyce

Parting gifts from a teacher

The most recent addition to my music library is a hardcover vocal score of Massenet’s Manon.  It has a green cover with gold lettering, and it was a present from my dear teacher, Enrique Toral.  Manon’s “Je marche sur tous les chemins … Obeisson quand leur voix appelle” was the first aria Enrique assigned me, and it became a go-to piece for competitions and auditions.

After a very happy partnership, we had our last lesson this week.  In the final minutes, I sang “Oh! quante volte” from I Capuleti e i Montecchi, since I’ll be using it for master classes and concerts in San Francisco.  Somehow, it was the best “Oh! quante volte” I’ve done yet despite not having touched it for three months.  All the moving notes showed up when they were supposed to, and there were no stumbling blocks weaving up and through the staff.

Over a celebratory dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant, Enrique left me with the following advice (I should have given into my urge to record our whole conversation!):

  • Search for the easier way to sing rather than the better way.  Singing should not feel like work.  If it’s hard or if it hurts, it’s not good singing.
  • Be happy about practicing instead of worried.  Don’t reinforce bad habits or negative thinking.
  • Resonance is passive – it will happen on it’s own.  Focus instead on breath, vowel, and flow – those are the active components of singing.
  • Technique doesn’t come and go, so don’t be afraid of losing it.
  • Be nice to everyone.  You never know where you will meet them again.

Needless to say it was an emotional dinner.  We both had tears in our eyes as he drank red wine and I white, reliving the mishaps that occurred along the way but didn’t stop us.  Almost exactly a year and half ago, I showed up at Enrique’s for my first lesson.  I wonder what went through his head when I told him I planned on applying for graduate school – not perplexing in and of itself but unusual because 1) my voice was still very confused, and 2) I was crying at the time.  A little embarrassing, yes, but that’s how much it meant for me to be singing again.

As  I sat across from Enrique with my new Manon score in front of me – fresh and waiting to be explored, the full opera rather than just one singular aria – it hit me that I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do; I was going to graduate school as a singer.  In the impersonal and step-by-step process of leaving my job, singing for Musical Merit, and getting ready to move, there wasn’t time to fully relish the outcome of all my preparation.  My brain understood it as factual information, but there were too many items requiring me attention for me to have an emotional response.  This wave of emotion finally crashed into me during dinner – I’m pretty sure some of the other customers probably thought it was a date-gone-wrong with me crying into my napkin.  Then our waiter came over and poured us two shots of dessert wine to celebrate, and I pulled myself together.

Enrique has been my most ardent champion during this long process.  He was more than the teacher I met with once a week.  We sat at his dinner table to discuss schools and faculty.  He suggested music for me to learn.  He lent me scores or obtained rare copies for me.  He was blunt when I needed the honesty and supportive when I needed the comfort.  He enthusiastically agreed with my ambitious goals and found ways to encourage me while watching out for my vocal (and mental) health.  I’m not sure where I would be otherwise.  Thank you, Enrique.

Surreal and Satisfying

You’ve got to get up every morning with determination if you’re going to go to bed with satisfaction. – George Horace Lorimer

I did it.  In the last weeks before leaving this city and this singing scene, I sang in the Musical Merit Foundation auditions and ROCKED my repertoire.  There was something in those 15 minuets … an inspiring and freeing combination of light and space in that beautifully calm chapel, the gentle silence before the piano started, the sense that this moment was waiting for me to unleash all I had to say.  The thoughts flew from my head and I simply inhaled and let the breath flow (my teacher will be happy to hear that).

It was the easiest and most enjoyable singing experience I’ve had so far; there was no physical pressure in the sound production and no distracting mental dialogue prior to or during the set.  I really couldn’t tell you what I did technically because I don’t remember (which is driving the analytical and technique-obsessed side of my brain crazy), but it felt so smooth and each phrase felt so true – both in accuracy of notes and in expression of intent and meaning.  I remember the space being filled with sound and wanting to give more and more.

A year ago, after singing in this audition the first time and not making the final cut, a fiery determination descended upon me.  I was riled up.  I made an impassioned declaration to my teacher and accompanist (I was pretty worked up, and they probably saw a crazy look in my eyes) that I would show the Foundation what I was capable of.

With the organized frenzy of applications, auditions, and other competitions, I began learning repertoire for Musical Merit much later than originally hoped.  Six completely new pieces in less than two months.  Yes, there was a moment of sheer panic when I looked at a calendar and looked at all the music I had to prepare.  My boyfriend can attest to the frantic nature of my nerves as I practiced in the weeks leading up to the audition date.  I thank him for believing in me even when I wasn’t feeling confident, for walking with me from the parking lot to the check-in table, and for listening even though he’s heard this music a hundred times at home.

Sunday night was the awards concert, in which winners perform and receive their prizes.  My name was in the program.  I was there, on stage, alongside instrumentalists and vocalists who wowed me.  With less than two weeks before I move to San Francisco, I did it.

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen

I’m at home in the middle of the workday, having run three errands already while the sun is shining.  What a strange feeling to have accomplished so much in just a few hours where less than five days ago I could barely make even one move-related phone call.  How liberating, how productive!  And how not-stressed am I?  This is such a nice change, and I am savoring it here on the couch, with the light streaming through the windows and the front door open to let in the breeze.

How is this possible?  Well, Friday was my last day of work – I packed up acquired souvenirs, set my Outlook to forward all my emails to another staff member, and got my final paycheck.  It was time to say goodbye to the job that was often overwhelming and frustrating as I scrambled to get my voice back in shape while building up my music resume.  There were stretches of time when sleep was scarce and laundry neglected, but, ultimately, this job gave me the financial means to take voice lessons every week and a schedule flexible enough to audition, rehearse, and perform.  Many jobs are not as accommodating, so I am thoroughly grateful I applied for this position and hounded the HR girl until she called me back.  In fact, I even came out on top: I’m leaving with some savings (thank goodness!), good friends (yay!), and a tuition-fully-paid master’s degree (not bad!).

My lovely coworkers-turned-friends surprised me with a cake and card, and I teared up at that moment.  They represent the best of my experience working at the company, both professionally and personally.  So much of my time was spent getting really, really good at that job even though it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.  Those souvenirs I mentioned?  They’re actually about 20 lbs of awards I accumulated over two and a half years.  What am I going to do with then now?  No idea.  They are hardly relevant to my new life, which is why I am glad to be moving on and in a position to focus on music 100%.  Yet my relief at letting go of those job responsibilities was tempered by a wistfulness as I said goodbye to the people who I supported and whom supported me.  I thought I would be ecstatically happy to say goodbye, but it was more of a quiet satisfaction of a having successfully completed a project.

I drove by the building this morning while running my errands and thought, when people ask me what I do, my answer is completely different because I no longer work there.  I need a new elevator pitch (as salespeople call it), a 30-second summary with just enough juicy and enticing details.  Poor graduate student and starving musician don’t hit the right note (a pun!), but coloratura soprano pursuing graduate studies in performance and pedagogy has a nice ring to it (another pun!).

One goodbye down, about seven more to go before I make my way up to San Francisco.

The birds are chirping madly like there’s no tomorrow – but there is!

Sunnily,

Joyce

PS. A few other updates: the choral director at my new school asked me to join his top group – they are performing at the National Collegiate Choral Organization’s national conference in Colorado.  Don’t know what the concert program will consist of, so I’m very curious and excited.  I was also invited to sing Fauré’s Requiem this summer but had to decline as I would still be in San Francisco for BASOTI that week.  The invitation came from a director I deeply admire and respect, so I hope he will consider me for future pieces.  I haven’t crawled, climbed, clawed my way to the Met yet, but this is a good start!