Monthly Archives: August 2011

Teaching my voice to survive as a teacher

One of my newly acquired friends from BASOTI recently expressed how great her voice has been feeling and sounding since she stopped teaching and started focusing on her own learning and performing.  When we caught up with each other over the phone, school had just started and I hadn’t been doing much teaching yet.  I could see from strictly logistical and psychological perspectives why the blossoming of her voice would coincide with no longer teaching – she had more time to spend, more mental power to focus with, and fewer distractions.  Then I had my first week of teaching, and I understood her situation from a physical perspective: I lecture for a total of four hours each week, and then I have roughly three more hours of individual voice lessons to give.  Rationing my voice was going to be critical because all that talking left me almost nothing to sing with.

Ultimately, I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach.  Yes, it’s a significant time commitment and has caused me mild bouts of panic, but it’s a benefit rather than a burden.  What I have here is a year-long strengthening and conditioning program.  I want to be a singer?  Well, I’m envisioning a packed schedule with lots of singing, not just a few gigs in between long periods of rest.  So this is my time to develop strategies to protect my voice.

A strategy that quickly showed itself to be a necessity after my first two-hour lecture class was to pitch my speaking voice a little higher.  I’ve got a nasty habit of using the lower end of my speaking register, which became incredibly painful.  Other suggestions my afore-mentioned friend shared with me: be concise in explanations so you’re not speaking more than necessary, and keep modeling to a minimum so you don’t introducing bad habits to yourself.  Here’s another one I’ve come up with: get to school early to practice before teaching.  This ensures I get at least one solid practice session in.  And if I’m good about protecting my voice during the day, I’ll have the ability to squeeze in a second practice later in the evening.

Also, I really need to get to bed at a more reasonable hour.  Isn’t the idea of eight full hours of sleep charming and alluring and elusive?

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Acting with Robert Weinapple

BASOTI was the best re-introduction to the singing world I could have experienced.  With a 10 AM to 10 PM schedule, close contact with other singers, talking (and singing) shop, daily opportunities to get on stage, it was boot camp.   And one thing that BASOTI emphasized (as well as my own San Diego teacher in addition to the faculty at my new school) was acting.  As I have heard repeatedly over the past 3 months: the park-and-bark approach is out.  Now we singers are expected to show up with some new tricks in addition to a pretty voice.  So here are my notes from Acting with Robert Weinapple:

As Robert put it, singing is in the details, in use of evocative language, and in raising the stakes.  One of the first things he pointed out was the singer’s fear of losing technical control over vocal production, which invariably distances us from our character’s emotions and, therefore, undercuts our acting.  If we are thinking about our vocal technique, we are in our heads, and we are fully committed to the character and the events unfolding.  He swore he would prove to us that surrendering to the emotions would help our singing rather than harm it.  So keep reading to find out how he did it…

Accessing Emotions.  To act, you need to access the emotions of your character.  There is the school of thought that requires you to draw upon your personal memories and experiences for emotional materials.  This can be quite effective because you really did feel that way at some point for some reason.  For example, when you need to be sad, you think back to the day your friend passed away – and by recalling that experience, you are able to portray genuine sadness.

The issues with this approach?

  1. The original memory may lose it’s effectiveness as you access it repeatedly and become less sensitive.
  2. There is also the unfortunate side-effect of “cheapening” significant points in your life.
  3. How genuine are the emotions of your character if they are in actuality someone else’s emotions (yours)?

Back Story.  Robert proposed an alternative approach to accessing emotions: the use of back story.  What is back story? It’s a detailed, years-long history.  It includes the events, the other people in our character’s lives, the dominoes leading up to this particular moment. It’s full of challenges that build our character’s character.  Isn’t that a beautiful idea?  Just as we are the product of the ins and outs, the good and bad of our lives, so our the characters we portray.  The character doesn’t just show up on paper fully formed and functional; they are more likely to be disfunctional and struggling with who they are and who they want to be.  The back story is more than a summary of who the character is or what has been happening in the opera so far.

Sometimes reading the libretto or the play/poem which inspired the opera gives us enough back story to work with.  Sometimes not.  Robert then blew my mind be taking back story to the next level: if you aren’t feeling the given information, create an original back story that is rich enough in detail to bring you on board emotionally.

To make this point, Robert had me do the following exercise with a scene partner, another soprano in the program:

We both volunteered to sing arias for the class.  She sang Manon’s “Adieu, notre petite table” from Manon, and I sang Isabelle’s “Robert, toi que j’aime” from Robert le diable.  Here’s Natalie Dessay singing Manon and Anna Mofo singing Isabelle.

Setting the Scene.  After we sang, Robert gave us characters and a scene to play.  Be forewarned that the following is a lengthy recounting – I wavered between giving a short summary or all the juicy details.  In the end, the juicy details won out because to do otherwise would completely circumvent Robert’s point.  My scene partner’s character had fallen in love with a woman at the age of 19, and the two of them were very happy together for 10 years.  Then her lover was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was aggressive and advanced.  In the ensuing months of doctors hospitals, and treatments, she had had a difficult time coping with her lover’s condition.  She did not handle it gracefully.  She would often disappear from the hospital, leaving her lover alone and in pain.  She was filled with guilt that she was so weak, but she didn’t have the strength to do otherwise.  When her lover finally passed away, it was as if her life was over and she would never feel anything again.  After many months existing as an empty shell, she met my character.  Our relationship started slowly because she hadn’t recovered from her loss yet.  I knew what she had been through with her previous lover and how it had impacted her.  I was the type of person who believed anything was possible, and I carried a sense of hope and positivity no matter what issues I faced.  I was incredibly strong and patient, and I knew this was the person I was meant to be with.  After several months, she was finally ready to move on from her past and take another chance at life and love again.

That was our elaborate, detailed, rich back story.  These two characters have nothing to do with the actual Manon and the actual Isabelle. Robert made all of this up on the spot after hearing our arias once.

He then proceeded to give us a scene: after many happy years together as a couple, I am diagnosed with cancer.  With chemotherapy the cancer goes into remission, but we both know it could come back at any time.  Every month I go to the hospital for testing, and waiting for the results is agony.  It’s been three months of good test results, and I have just had my fourth test done.

At this point, Robert asked me to wait outside the door so he could talk with my scene partner separately.  I have no idea what they discussed.  After a few minutes, she and I switched places, and Robert gave me some additional information about the scene, information that my scene partner did not have: the test results are good.  My stage directions were to enter the scene as if I just got home and then share the news with my partner.

We improvised dialogue, and I told my partner the test results were fine and I was fine.  I suggested a celebratory dinner, and she said she couldn’t deal with the constant fear anymore and she was leaving me.  Then she sang “Adieu, notre petite table.” Then I sang “Robert, toi que j’aime.”

Now, Robert always asked us two questions, “What is the song about, with a little “a’?” and “What is the song About, with a big “A”?”  The about is the given circumstances, the literal explanation of what is happening in the plot, information provided to us by the composer, author, librettist.  The About is the added circumstances, the interpretation of the literal explanation, a character’s moment of self-discovery or struggle, an idea bigger than the boundaries of the scene or the opera.  To help make this distinction:

“Adieu, notre petite table” is about Manon making the decision to leave her lover, des Grieux, ato become de Brétigny’s mistress instead.  She says goodbye to the little table in the apartment she shared with des Grieux.  At the same time, this aria is About leaving even if it’s painful and letting go even while you want to hold on.

“Robert, toi que j’aime” is about Isabelle pleading with Robert not to abduct her.  She asks for mercy and tries to remind Robert of the love he had for her.  This aria is also About fighting for your life and appealing to someone’s sense of humanity.

Here are partial translations that gives a sense of the arias:

Manon:

I am nothing but weakness and fragility! In spite of myself, I feel the flowing of my tears.  Before these obliterated dreams! Will the future have the charms  of those beautiful days already passed? Goodbye, our little table At which we met so often! Goodbye, our little table, yet so large for us! One thinks that it’s unimaginable, so small a space…when we’re embracing… Goodbye, our little table! The same glass was ours, each of us, when it was drunk from, there searched one set of lips for the other… Ah! Poor friend that loved me! Goodbye!

Isabelle:

Robert, you who I love and who received my time, you see my fear! Mercy, mercy for yourself, and mercy for me! Mercy for yourself! What? your heart breaks the sweetest oaths? You showed me favor, I am at your knees, at your knees! O my dear, my most dear, you who I love, you see my fear! Mercy, mercy for yourself, and mercy for me!

The Results.  The combination of the music and Robert’s back story worked – I was a crying, dripping emotional fountain.  It wasn’t just tears; I’m talking about full-on weeping, a nose that didn’t stop running, and all sorts of gunk in my throat – terrible conditions for singing.  Except my singing wasn’t terrible.  In fact, my singing was better during the scene than when I sang the aria the first time in class. My middle voice was fuller, and I had less tension throughout my body even though the emotional tension was high.

How did this happen?  Well, the first thing is preparation.  I knew my music, and the accumulated hours of practicing this piece gave me a foundation to default to when my brain was occupied with more dramatic matters.  Second, I got out of my own way.  Instead of judging myself, I was watching my scene partner to see if my attempts at changing her mind were working.  Third, the aria was a living thing, a symbol of the highly charged situation we were picking a path through.  It wasn’t presentational; it was real.

Keeping it Real.  I wasn’t just begging because the text said so and because I knew that’s what Isabelle was supposed to do in this scene.  I was begging because I knew how much I would lose if I failed.  The point wasn’t to show how afraid or how tender I could be, which meant I threw out all the pretending, posturing, and stereotyping we all fall victim to at some point or another.  Humans are very good at catching fakers.  At one point, our survival depended on whether we could tell someone was lying to us to steal our food or to kill us.  Acting is essentially a type of lying – convincing people that we’re feeling one way when in reality we’re not.  This is why day-time drama can be painful to watch – because we know when someone is acting.  So, to be a good actor, acting can’t be the focus of the performance.  Showing or demonstrating emotion can’t be the focus of the performance.  In our scene, the focus was the juxtaposition between my character’s determination and my partner’s uncertainty.  The emotions were a by-product of our commitment to the back story. 

Raising the Stakes.  The detailed history raised the stakes, making our decisions and actions in that moment carry bigger consequences, more powerful symbolism, and more insightful revelations about our characters.  If the stakes are low, it matters less what our characters do in the scene.  And if we don’t even care about the stakes, then why would the audience care?

This tied neatly into Hector Correa’s advice to me for the Die Zauberflöte scene where she attempts to kill herself, which I’ll never forget: Make Pamina strong and brave, don’t play her as a pathetic character.  If she’s pathetic, the audience won’t care whether she lives or dies.  Make her strong so all the little girls watching the opera look to her as a role model.  BAM – that has changed the way I approach my characters.  No matter how sad, desperate, or weak a character may seem, find the strength in them.  Make the audience question assumptions andsee the character in a new way.   Give the audience, with its worldliness and cynicism, something novel and hopeful to latch onto.

Lessons Learned.  Don’t cut corners – this goes for musical preparation, an understanding of the given circumstances (about), an interpretation of the added circumstances (About), the creation of a rich back story if the one provided doesn’t raise the stakes for you, and focusing on the stakes being played out rather than your presentation of the emotions.  Yes, there’s a line that singers can cross where they cease to function as singers, but Robert’s exercise proved the line is much, much further away than we generally believe.

The “Glorious Opportunity” according to Benjamin Zander

The story of the two salesmen who went down to Africa in the 1900s: They were sent down to find if there was any opportunity for selling shoes. And they wrote telegrams back to Manchester. And one of them wrote: “Situation hopeless. Stop. They don’t wear shoes.” And the other one wrote: “Glorious opportunity. They don’t have any shoes yet.”

– from Benjamin Zander’s presentation at TED

One of the most cringe-inducing questions you can ask a singer who has graduated from school is “What are you doing now?”  There just aren’t enough awesome singing opportunities/careers for every awesome singer, and it can take years of auditioning while working some side-job to reach a point where the side-job can go away.  Even knowing how much this question sucks, I can’t help but ask it when meeting new singers.  It’s part of the ritual.  It’s the second question singers ask each other after asking “What repertoire do you sing?”  After all, we’re curious about one another and freaking out about our own futures; we are looking for inspiration and leads.

Benjamin Zander‘s discussion about music and the human spirit is inspiration for singers and non-singers alike; in the above video from TED.com, he addresses a group of roughly 1,600 people who are not necessarily musicians, and I can’t imagine anyone remaining unmoved by the closing.  Anyone who is stuck answering the “What are you doing now” question or who worries about finding a job in a too-expensive, inaccessible art form only patronized by an aging, unsustainable crowd could use a dose of his confidence in the ability of classical music to survive.  He points out that as musicians we must create long lines rather than emphasizing each downbeat.  Similarly, as human beings striving for change we need to focus on a vision rather than mechanical plodding or insignificant distractions.  He uses the example of a bird flying over the fields, not caring about the fences – like the musician who knows to ignore the bar lines when shaping phrases.

We had the courage to pick music as our field of study; we should have the courage to follow through and create a market for ourselves and our talents.  As Benjamin Zander says, everyone loves classical music… they just don’t know about it yet.  It’s a Glorious Opportunity.