Thursday, April 23, 2009

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.

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