Category Archives: Teach/Learn

Improving my singing and the singing of others.

Reading Dante, His Life and Poetry

Pubic libraries are magical. You walk in and pick books, scores, DVDs, and CDs off the shelf and take them home for free. My latest find was this gem, Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw:

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Color-coordinated and reading in the park. Bryant Park, 2014.

As you know, Baritone Boy and I named our puppy after this genius. Every time I come across the name Dante in this book, this is the face I picture:

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Dante the Puppy hanging out at home. Washington Heights, 2014.

Moving through a series of seven themes — Friendship, Power, Life, Love, Time, Numbers, and Words — Shaw weaves together biographical information and commentary on Divine Comedy to lead us through a journey of Dante’s life, principles, literary works, and aspirations. With this kind of introduction, I can’t wait to pick up a more traditional biography and also read the full poem, all 99 cantos.

These 99 cantos are divided into three canticles, each corresponding to a different leg of Dante’s pilgrimage through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. He began writing in 1307 (or 1308) but set the journey in the year 1300. This allowed the characters of Divine Comedy to be able to accurately forecast and allude to events of the “future,” which in the real world had already occurred. Mind-blowing.

I am so used to conceptualizing Italian words as part of music that it is startlingly impactful just to read it as poetry.

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Astoria Music Festival 2014: Friends and Music

Astoria, OR was just as quiet and friendly as I remembered it, and the Festival was as inspiring and satisfying as I could have hoped. We packed an impressive amount of singing into a short amount of time, and I came away with suggestions that made an immediate impact, ideas that I’m still working through, and words of encouragement that I’ll hold dear to my heart for a long, long time. Just yesterday I had my first voice lesson back in NYC, and my teacher was very pleased with the adjustments I’ve been making.

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The historic Liberty Theater. Astoria, 2014.

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Despina Chronicles: Words, words, words!

My teachers would be proud! I have taken their advice and am learning Despina the “right” way – text first and then notes. This approach was a success when learning Allerseelen last year, but I admit that it was the exception rather than the rule. The excitement of having new rep usually overwhelms my patience and common sense – I want to dive in, learn it all immediately, and practice until I can’t sing anymore. This really isn’t the best way to go about it, though…

It can be difficult to slow down and learn all the various elements separately. I think there are two sides to a singer: the Performer and the Musician. The Performer loves the drama, the excitement, the plot twists and turns, the gorgeous soaring lines, the orchestra, the flood of feelings. The Performer doesn’t want to wait – the Performer wants to do.

Then there’s the Musician. That’s the part of us that was listening when our teachers spoke their words of wisdom, the systematic and logical part of us that realizes the importance of establishing a solid technical foundation upon which we can then layer all the feeling and emoting and performing. By technical, I don’t just mean vocal technique (although that’s certainly one aspect of the foundation singers need); I also mean the technical details of language, diction, rhythm, pitch, and articulation — the tools through which we can effectively and honestly interpret what is printed on the page. Continue reading

Chronicles of Despina: the Journey Begins

Less than two months to go before I head to Oregon for the Astoria Music Festival this summer! Which means less than two months to learn the role of Despina in Così fan tutte!

Little did I know after singing Bastienne this past February that Despina would be my next Mozart role! Since this opportunity is a bit of a milestone for me — first full-length Mozart role, staged and with orchestra — I thought I would chronicle my progress and the process of getting to know this character and this opera.

Of course, I was absolutely thrilled when I got the news about Despina — I jumped up and down and hugged Baritone Boy (who didn’t know at the time I would be hijacking his Così Bärenreiter) — but by the next morning, the enormity of what I’d gotten myself into was settling in:

Just a week prior I had committed myself to singing Susanna in selections from Le nozze di Figaro. This concert is scheduled for mid-May, with Cornerstone Chorale’s Mozart Requiem literally the next day and the Musical Merit Auditions three weeks later. A week and half after that, Vocal Apprentices for the Festival are to arrive in Astoria.

A partial role, a requiem, a competition, and my first full-length Mozart role — what have I gotten myself into?!

If I’ve gotten myself into trouble, I suppose this is the best kind of trouble: too much wonderful music to sing.

Within 48 hours of getting the email from Astoria about the casting, I raided the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and started highlighting the Bärenreiter I’d gotten Baritone Boy as a Christmas gift (no time to order one — I’ll make this up to him!):

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Stocking up on Mozart and Cosi study materials. NYC, 2014.

I have a lot of work to do, but saying no never crossed my mind. Astoria is too enriching of a festival to pass by, and Despina is too amazing of a role to turn down. I just have to find a way to manage my time and get it all done (and done well).

One of the biggest contributors to the anxiety is that this is the most significant amount of music and recitative I have had to prepare. I don’t actually know how long it will take me, so the big question constantly being asked inside my head is “Can you really do this in less than two months?” With all the other music I’m learning and polishing, while working full-time, taking care of Dante, and trying to fit in yoga and quality time with Baritone Boy, I’m slightly nervous.

I definitely had mild panic attacks every two hours for the first two days. A week later, the panic attacks occur less frequently and — more significantly — I have also memorized the recit and translation for Despina’s first two scenes and have a working knowledge of both arias!

I had such a beautiful and eye-opening experience in Astoria last year, and it is an honored to have the opportunity to participate again. I’m looking forward to the fabulous masterclasses, concerts, and workshops (check out all the events and artists they have lined up!!), not to mention the breath-taking scenery and the new friends I’ll make. I need every minute of the next 49 days to prepare my music, but I also can’t wait for the Festival to get underway…

Stay tuned for more Chronicles of Despina!

iPad Mini: my new best friend

In addition to La Sonnambula at The Met and dinner at French restaurant Le Relais de Venise, my birthday also included a very special gift: my first iPad mini.

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Dante observes the iPad mini carefully. NYC, 2014.

I’ve avoided the iPad bandwagon for years and even considered purchasing a Microsoft Surface Pro for a while. Yet here I am. A convert. Deliriously happy and in love with my mini.

It’s no secret that an iPad are great for playing Candy Crush and watching videos/movies, but in a very short amount of time I’ve learned that it can be a singer’s best friend:

  • Music. Music and Apple products have been inseparable since the iPod, so throw your favorite recordings and playlists on there and listen away! There are also radio-like apps and websites that stream music. I recently discovered Opera Music Broadcast, which streams music 24/7. Their name says opera, but they also include art song, oratorio, choral pieces, motets, and more — a very respectable range spanning many time periods and styles.
  • PDFs. Load PDFs of your favorite scores and score study anywhere. I even know musicians who have foregone sheets of music all together and pianists who play directly from tablets. A tip: check out IMSLP for free access to the world’s public domain music. Download and enjoy to your heart’s content. 
  • Combine the two above points and you can listen to a recording and follow along in the score without having to juggle multiple items. This is one of my favorite things to do, and the iPad mini makes it all that much easier. The screen is smaller than most scores, but this has not been a problem for me. The regular iPad is slightly larger, though, for those who would like more screen-space. 
  • Piano apps. Learning new rep and need to pick out your notes or hear the harmony underneath you? Want to do some warm-ups? There are plenty of piano apps to pick from.
  • Research. The convenient size, wi-fi/data plan capabilities, and variety of apps in the App Store make the iPad mini a fabulous research tool. I can read just about anything and everything, from history books to biographies to reviews, to industry news. I am currently reading The Letters of Mozart and His Family, translated by Emily Anderson, which I downloaded for free from a public library. Research also includes watching video clips and movies. For this, YouTube is an absolute treasure trove. I love the interviews, the concert clips, the amateur and the professional productions, and especially the full-length operas in HD.

If anyone has other tips or tricks for getting the most out of the iPad’s capabilities, or apps that I should try out, please leave a comment and let me know!

Before I moved to NYC, I naively imagined how productive I could be while riding the subway – learning music, writing in IPA/translations, reading, blogging. Then I experienced the subway system first-hand and had my naiveté remedied by the watch-out-or-get-trampled reality of taking public transportation. Lugging around a score was not only cumbersome (those hardcover Bärenreiters are like 12 lbs!), but 85% of the time I couldn’t even use it once I got in the subway car. Holding the score open, following along, and flipping pages is impossible when there isn’t an open seat, you’re crammed in between three stranger, or holding on for dear life as you stop-and-started your way down the track.

But now I have a versatile, lightweight piece of technology that doesn’t smack other riders in the face, that I can easily hold with one hand and flip pages with a flick of a finger. I spend approximately two hours traveling each day, and now those two hours are infinitely more productive and enjoyable.

For a girl who’s short on time, this slightly expensive splurge investment is already paying off!

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Multi-tasking with the iPad mini – listening and following along in the score. NYC, 2014.

 

Lush and warm

San Diego flora

Lush and warm. Words that could be used to describe a tropical island, but in this case I’m talking about the music of Richard Strauss. If his music had a smell, I think it would be jasmine. If it had color, fuchsia, navy blue, and yellow. Anyone with synaesthesia  reading, please chime in and let me know how close I am.

I can’t remember the title or even composer of the first German song I worked on as an undergrad, but the first lieder I can recall clearly are Schlagende Herzen, Die Stern, and Ich schwebe – all Strauss. I went on a brief Wolf kick a few years ago, but I’m back on Strauss now.

Picking favorites of any kind (i.e. movies, books, actors, singers) is hard for me, but you could get me to say Strauss is currently my go-to guy for German art song. Yes, there are other really good composers out there, but they can’t get me to cry as often as Strauss does with the sheer beauty of their work. Seriously, I’ve teared up the last nine times I had to sing Morgen! and some of those times were just in a practice room. I have more Strauss in my lieder repertoire than any other composer, and it’s probably going to stay that way for a while (although my boyfriend probably wants to change that because Schumann is, without hesitation, his favorite).

Morgen! is a hit with everyone and anyone who possesses a heart and a soul. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re probably a robot. There’s a gorgeous version with violin, but this performance with Arleen Auger is probably my favorite.

Allerseelen is my latest Strauss, which is coming along very nicely and feels great to sing. (Sidebar: I actually learned the text first before working on the notes, and score-studied a few times before singing anything – and, wow, did things click into place quickly. I’m usually too impatient to work this way even though plenty of teachers have recommended learning in stages instead of all at once, but I was forced to this time because every moment in the practice room was spent on my recital rep. That left me with opportunities like waiting at the doctor’s office and the 30 minutes going to bed to make some kind of progress with Allerseelen. Here’s one of my score-studying resources, a performance by Kathleen Battle)

Strauss is so clever – the song is through-composed and each statement of  “wie einst im Mai” [like once in May], the unifying refrain at the end of each verse, is different. The contrast of different music combined with repeated text highlights the emotional complexity of the moment as someone remembers a loved one on All Soul’s’ Day, the day dedicated to the departed. The first “wie einst im Mai” is an ascending chromatic line in the upper register. The second is in the lower register, begins with a chromatic ascent that recalls the first statement, leaps up and then resolves by step. The third descends by step, simply and gently. Feel how the triplets introduced in verse three at “ein Tag im Jahr ist ja den Toten frei, komm an mein Herze” [one day of the year the dead are indeed free, come to my heart] launch into the climax at “dass ich dich wieder habe” [that I have you again]. As quickly as the outburst built over three measures, it dissipates in the same length of time. There is a brief instrumental interlude, and then “wie einst im Mai” is echoed one last time using a bittersweet ascending two-note gesture.

I’m very excited to be singing Allerseelen and the Act 1 Finale of Don Giovanni as Zerlina with MusicaNova Orchestra in the concert “And Open to All” on Thursday, April 25, 2013. Concert details and tickets are available here, and you can read Maestro Cohen’s post about Strauss’ lieder here.

Strategically deciding not to run through walls

I have been making, un-making, and re-making up my mind about this year’s Met Audition.  There’s a very good possibility I will hate myself on the evening of October 15 (the day the competition is taking place in Arizona) because I already hate myself a little now for what I’m about to say:

I’m not going to sing in the Met Audition this year.

I feel as if I’m letting myself down or letting myself off easy by not going through the stress of competing.  So much of the past two years have been spent operating under intense pressure and dealing with scary deadlines that I almost feel lazy or uncommitted by taking this competition off the calendar.

This has been very difficult for me to accept because I spent the past year expecting myself to participate in whatever district I ended up moving to.  My experience last October in San Diego was pretty good, so why wouldn’t I sing this year? I mean, I should be a better singer now than a year ago, right? … Right?

The application form was filled out, and the envelope was addressed and stamped.  Then I caught a mysterious cold and wasn’t able to sing in my lesson.  My teacher and I had a chance to talk about new repertoire for the semester, but I wasn’t able to run any of my Met 5 by her that week.  Suddenly, there was less than a month before the competition date.  To combat my growing anxiety, I carefully outlined which arias I’d practice each day (both old and newly assigned pieces) and felt it was doable.  Nerve-wracking, but doable.  I mean, being swamped was pretty much the norm for me in San Diego.

So what happened to “doable” and the completed application in the stamped envelope?  Well, you know when you watch football and the quarter back has the ball in his hand, and he’s scanning the field looking for an open receiver, and he’s dancing around about back and forth on his feet because he knows he’s got to get this play moving, and he’s still scanning and dancing, and –Whomp!– someone takes him out with 300+ lbs of huge tackling force?

That’s what last Thursday’s voice lesson felt like. I sang an aria that I felt relatively comfortable with (one that I planned on using for the Met), and –Whomp!– in the span of ten minutes my teacher had given me about six adjustments to think about.  What?!  Wasn’t this song in relatively good shape?!  Haven’t I used this in other competitions before?!

My first 1.5 months of school have been pretty good, and I’m so thankful to be in this program.  The faculty are so knowledgeable and my peers are very talented and nice (what a relief!).  I know I’m making progress, but I definitely wish I could practice more and improve even faster.  According to a few people in the music department, it can take six months or more to get into the groove with a new teacher.  A new teacher means learning a new set of terminology to communicate about the invisible and intangibles of singing, getting comfortable enough so no nervous tension is interfering, and suddenly becoming aware of issues you didn’t know were issues (once again, no wonder it takes forever to learn how to sing because we’re constantly practicing bad things!).  My new teacher and I just need some more time together.

I’m immensely grateful to have a new set of eyes and ears assessing me and giving me knew things to think about.  In fact, I love knowing what to do differently because fixing my technique is so much better than thinking there is something wrong with me whenever I struggle with a particular passage or part of my voice.  Still, I’m disappointed in myself for not being able to take on the challenge of fixing five arias in two weeks… alright, that’s quite a big challenge.  Maybe too big of a challenge.  But I still feel disappointed and a little ashamed that I gave up trying.

Maybe it’s time for me to ease up on the challenges and get a little more strategic in what I decide to go after.  My outlook over the past few years was to push myself to the extreme; learn six new pieces for a competition- sure!  Schedule five weekends of auditions in a row – ok!  Big gambles were necessary at that time because I was trying to get myself out of one life and launched into another.  Huge momentum was necessary.  There was no time for niceties and dainty manners – I needed to be like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale where he breaks stuff and runs through walls.

The only way to maintain that level of intensity without giving in to psychological defeat or physical exhaustion was to take every opportunity as a challenge and every rejection as a dare.  It actually worked for a while, but maybe my new circumstances require a new strategy… Now that I’m in a position to really shore up my technique, maybe I need to calm down and just focus on that instead of distracting myself with looming deadlines.  To keep going with the metaphor, maybe I can build some windows and doors into my walls to make this process less blunt-force and more finely-tuned.  Plus, my classes require enough performing to keep my occupied during the semester: one operetta/musical piece, one pre-19th century aria, one 19th century or later aria, and another aria, plus an ensemble/duet – and then all the pieces my teacher assigns me.  Oh yes, plenty to do!

So I won’t be singing in the Met audition on the 15th.  But who am I kidding – I haven’t totally given up my old ways yet!  Here’s what I have added to the calendar as replacements:

  • Singing in Kevin Ames‘ Canción de Otoño en Primavera for chorus, piano, and strings – October 15 (haha, yes, the same day as the Met!)
  • Italian repertoire Masterclass with Elio Boncompagni – October 18/20
  • California competition – November 19

Leaving some walls in tact but sorely tempted to demolish others,

Joyce

Finding and embracing my “schlanke” voice

My voice lesson today housed one of my bigger technique ah-HAH moments since the semester began.  In the weeks leading up to this, my new teacher (I wonder at what point I’ll think of her as just my teacher and not my new one) has identified my technical hiccups and begun making suggestions for ways to smooth out my registers, strengthen my low and middle voice, release my top voice, and access my extension.  As is almost always the case for singers, I get what she’s saying during the lesson but am not sure if I’m doing things right as I practice during the week.  Most singers are extremists: if you tell us to do something. we grab onto the idea like a new toy and practice so hard with it that it’s almost unrecognizable the following week… then you have to tell us to do the opposite of what you told us last week.  So it’s very possible that we spend a lot of time practicing the wrong thing.   No wonder it takes 15 years to learn how to sing.

Today’s ah-HAH was that I was singing too much from my throat and thereby creating a thicker sound.  I know we’re not supposed to sing from the throat, and I wasn’t doing it intentionally – but I admit I was trying to sing with a full voice.  This throatiness probably grew out of a breakthrough I experienced about six months ago, a breakthrough that I may have taken just a tad too far (we’re all extremists, I tell you!).  Back then, I had a method of cheating up during an ascending interval where I would drop my breath energy and have my voice pop up into my head.  This gave me some cool floating high notes, but it ruined my phrasing and my breath support.  The breakthrough came when I finally sang through the note changes.  I’d always taken that phrase to mean having a legato line, but that day I understood it was also a reference to energy and texture.  This continuation from one note to the next gave a new uniformity to my sound where before my high voice seemed disconnected from my middle.

Looking back now, I can see a correlation between the discovery of this sense of continuation with a struggle to get on top of my high notes.  Notes that I’d never had trouble getting up to in the past became more of a struggle, and I would be slightly under pitch.  I didn’t know exactly why, and I actually attributed it to a hole in my technique rather than extra baggage in my technique.  After today’s lesson, I see how I morphed the idea of continuation into vocal weight, which is what has been making those high notes more difficult.

To combat this, my teacher had me bend over at the waist with knees unlocked, neck released, and arms dangling so I could feel the blood rushing to my eyes, nasal passage, and forehead – where I felt the pounding was where my voice should be vibrating.  She had me sing through a few phrases from “Willow Song” in this position: I expected to have more difficulty singing with half my body upside down, but beyond having to take a little more energy to initiate my onset of the phrase, the high notes were easier to sing.  My throat didn’t have to act as a resonator anymore because I was sending my voice to the areas where the blood was pounding.  That throbbing in my head from the upside-down position combined with vocal vibrations is unmistakable.  Usually I worry about being able to access the technique in my practicing without having a teacher to guide and prompt me, but this was so visceral that I don’t think reproducing it will be a problem.

Yes, I used to suffer from a slight complex about having a “small voice,” as if this meant I couldn’t have a successful career as a singer, but this is mostly behind me now.  My technique has filled out enough that I don’t think my voice is small, although it is on the side of “lighter” compared to anything full lyric and bigger.  I’m just happy to know that it’s possible for me to sing with the core of my voice without sacrificing accuracy and ease in my upper register.   I didn’t “lose” my high notes; I just had to accept the nature of my voice in order to access the high notes properly, letting the core ring in my head rather than generating mass in my throat.  As my teacher said to me today, the Germans call it schlanke and it’s a good thing.  I can’t wait to practice tomorrow.

Schlanke [‘ʃlaŋkǝ] – adj, German: slender, slim, neat