Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Breath of Life...

I made another "discovery" a few weeks ago whose results were made very apparent while teaching voice lessons this past week. Again, this is something I've known for a long time and even practiced on myself, but it was made evident again, when teaching one of my lovely students, Eva. She is a senior in high school and while she does not plan to study music at this point, she is very dedicated and loves to sing; not to mention, she has a beautiful voice with lots of potential.

For the past couple of months, she had been struggling with the clarity of her high notes. She has such a free sound and an extremely high range - "Queen of the Night" material. Her high tessitura requires little work, yet we were getting so much phlegm at about her high C and above. While it was not an issue all of the time, and we were getting some very clear notes about half the time, I was blaming it on allergies and her diet. Over the ensuing weeks, she cut down on dairy and told me that she wasn't having many allergy issues, yet the phlegm kept coming back. It finally occurred to me that the way in which she was inhaling was gravely affecting her onset and phonation.

I had thought about this a few times prior, but unfortunately, had just not put two and two together. (Yes, teaching, like singing, is a lot of trial and error.) Needless to say, during her lesson this past week, it hit me - like a freight train. This was something that I had struggled with for years, and had to conquer myself, and have observed that many singers deal with this problem. So, it's not surprising that the discovery was that she, too, was a "victim" of her breathing habits. The great thing, is that she decided right then (see post called "The Decision"), that she was not going to be a victim to her unhealthy breathing habits any longer. When I explained to her that the way she breathes directly determines the kind of sound she is going to get, she decided that she wanted clarity and freedom in her sound, and so she was going to breathe with clarity and freedom. Before this decision, her breathing was fast, shallow and extremely husky - almost grinding. It was very audible. And not just when she sang. She breathed that way when she spoke as well.

She determined that she was going to discontinue the unhealthy habit of husky inhalation and allow her breath to be quiet and inaudible. The results were fascinating! She did a complete 360 degree turn-around with her sound in a few short minutes. The phlegm went away and in a few short exercises, she was free of its chains. We then had a lesson this past week. Because she was getting over a cold, her sound was a little airy due to the swelling of her chords, but there was no phlegm to be found and her sound was much more healthy. She also commented to me that her speaking voice had obtained more clarity (which I also noted) and that her friends were commenting on her efforts to make the positive change.

This change did not come without mental concentration and focus, however. In order for this to count, Eva had to unlearn a very old habit so that she could re-learn a new one. She had to carefully scrutinize her every breath (literally) and make the conscious effort to slow down when she inhaled, and to release the tongue so that it would not be in the way of her breathing. This allowed her to access the complete breath, as well as prevent the collection of phlegm in her throat and on her chords that was getting in the way of the sound. (Not to mention, probably a breeding ground for bacteria that causes sickness - more on that in my next post.)

Congratulations, Eva! You're on your way to discovering the freedom that comes from healthy singing!

In my next post, I am going to discuss more about how what we eat, how we breath and how our habits outside of singing directly affect our singing. Stay tuned!!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Up and Coming...

Since my last post was along the philosophical line, I thought I would give you an update on what I have in the pike for the next couple of months. I am deep into rehearsals for Don Giovanni and really enjoying that. I love the role, Donna Elvira. I am her. (no, really, I am...) We perform that on May 15th and 17th. It will be sung in Italian as a concert version with piano accompaniment and English surtitles.

I will then be singing in a competition on May 11th in New York. Looking forward to getting away for a day and being one of the many fish in a very small and over-loaded pond. Any chance to be heard...

Shortly after that, I will be putting together an audition cd with a couple of new arias for a competition that I hope to be selected for, in June. More on that, if I make it into the competition.

Then, at the end of June, I will be traveling to San Francisco to participate in the InterHarmony summer program. I'll be singing for the famous Bay Area in concerts with my voice teacher, other singers and chamber orchestra. Can't wait for that! Voice lessons and coachings each day, performing, and perhaps a couple of auditions for some bigger houses. Again, more chances to be heard.

I'll update with pics of Giovanni when I have some to share. bye for now.
The Decision

Since changing my blog's purpose, I have come to realize that my entries before this were mostly a travel/event log about what I've been doing - not very interesting. Going forward, I plan to use this more as a writing forum or journal, if you will, about my discoveries while singing and studying the beautiful art form of opera. I hope that my entries will inspire and help other singers and students of music to be better musicians and, indeed, better people.

I had a voice lesson last night with my wonderful voice therapist, Carmen Balthrop. I call her my voice therapist because her teaching is therapy for my voice, as well as my soul. She teaches more than just singing technique or about the voice. She goes way beyond that to help her students understand a lot about themselves as a human being and how that affects their singing person. We re-discovered last night that unless one is going to make a decision about what they are going to do or, in this case, how they are going to sing, then they are usually unsuccessful in their singing. Carmen then applied this to our lives - if we do not make decisions about how we are going to live them - and these are every day, minute-by-minute decisions, then we are nothing more than puppets to our own "craziness." And while we look at ourselves as not crazy, others might see us as crazy, based on the decisions that we do or don't make.

I mentioned that this was a re-discovery, as opposed to a new discovery... this is because we had talked about this concept of making decisions before, but not in the way that it struck me last night. I realized last night that if we decide not to make a decision one way or the other, and are basically sitting on the fence, then our lives are in limbo. Just like if someone will not decide the career path they want to take, then they are on hold until they make that decision and move forward. Until then, they are stuck in the same place, having no progress.

It is the exact same with singing. A person either decides that he/she is going to involve him/herself with the character, therefore connecting with that character, and delivering a performance based on those human experiences and qualities, or it is going to be one long mental fight of "am I breathing right?," "am I supporting my sound enough?," "what does that translation mean again?," "I hope I look ok," "Oh no, here comes that high note that I am scared of...hopefully I'm relaxed enough to hit it," "I hope the judges will see how good a singer I am," and on and on and on. But, if we decide to be the character that we are singing about, and allow them to come alive through our own personal, real or imagined experiences, then all of that "craziness" goes away, clearing our minds and giving that clarity to the audience, which is what they paid for, and to us, which is what we have worked so hard to achieve.

Here's an example straight from my lesson that I will share. We were doing the "drill" where you sing through your audition pieces and touching on any difficult spots, or spots that need polishing. This particular piece is full of very long, legato phrases, that require a lot of breath support all the way through the phrase, etc. It also has a high D toward the end of the song that is intended to be sung at a mezzo piano, rather than a loud "bang" that so many arias tend to end on. I had just come into my lesson fighting traffic on the beltway during rush hour, with an accident, and so I was a little stressed - my muscles pretty tense.

Instead of doing warm-ups, we jumped right into the piece. This was all on purpose, I found out later. But, right from the beginning, I had trouble with the breath support and phrasing and, of course, the high notes. About 2 pages in, Carmen asked, "when are you going to decide that you are going to sing this correctly?" Meaning, you have not decided yet, that you are going to allow the character to be a part of you, and as soon as you do, let me know, so that we can move on, because right now, it's holding us up. LOL. Yes - I did laugh out loud! She then used a great technique where, as the student is singing each phrase, she calls out the inner monologue of the next phrase, helping the student to focus on staying in character. Almost immediately, all of the "craziness" that was going on in my head (the dialogue, the fears, the insecurities, the tension, etc.) went away, my body and sound were more relaxed, the breath support became easier, and I was taken to another level of singing. To an extent, I was that character.

This sensation was nothing new to me, for it had happened countless times before on the stage during rehearsals, performances, auditions, competitions and recitals. But this was the first time it had occurred so early on during a voice lesson. Carmen helped me understand that we can enjoy this new level of singing right at the start of singing, and it can be enjoyed every time we sing - whether we are warming up, or an hour into a performance. BUT, and this is a BIG but, we have to DECIDE that we are going to take ourselves to that level. Does this mean that we are going to sing each note perfectly and sing with the energy and physical strength each time? No. We are human. We may not be able to sing each time as we would in a performance, but we can be involved with the character as much - in our minds. And through that involvement, we have an indescribable enjoyment that only so few have experienced, even just a few times in their lives. So, we can hum the melody, or sing the high notes down an octave, or sing just some of the notes with the rest of the tune going on in our minds... whatever we feel we can physically handle in that moment. But, we can do it with the highest level of enjoyment... if we allow ourselves to.

I decided that I was going to live that moment at the highest level that I was capable of - at that time. As I do more of this, I believe that I will be able to raise the bar, and not for just some singing occasions, but for all of them.

I also want to point out that the times I have been most in touch with my character are the times that I have been less nervous, more focused and most relaxed. I'm not worried about forgetting the words, or being able to convey the meaning of the music. I'm not worried about the other singers, the judges, people in the audience, or what they might think of my performance. I am completely focused on what I have to offer my audience, and how my performance will compare to previous performances of my own: the healthy form of competition singing.

Lastly, here's something to consider again; imagine what would happen if we decided that we would live every aspect of our life with this type of enjoyment. I'd like to think that perhaps we may be able to live on cloud 9, or 5 or 10 - whatever cloud we want to be on... if we decide to allow ourselves to.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

This is something I'm doing for my sister-in-law... she promised to send me a wild and crazy gift by the end of the year, but in order to get it, I have to post something to my blog... so, here it is. Here's to you Trina!!