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Friday, February 20, 2015

From the Other Side of the Opera Stage- Life as a Conductor, Coach and Collaborative Pianist: An Interview with William Hicks

All too often I find myself forgetting that there are many valuable perspectives to be examined in the world of Opera and not just that of the Singer. So today I'd like to introduce you to one such perspective from an interview that I held recently with the very talented Conductor, Coach and Pianist, Maestro William Hicks.

Although his extensive experience with many of the legends of Operatic, Classical and American Music would surely lead you to believe that he holds numerous advanced degrees from Juilliard, Mr. Hicks actually only completed two years of study as a Piano, Voice and Piano Accompanying Major at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and he did not finish high school. (This, of course, just makes his considerable achievements all the more impressive!) He grew up in Lexington, Kentucky; an only child raised by his maternal Grandparents and attended private school until his musical precociousness gained him early acceptance to CCM at age sixteen. Though he had many influential teachers at CCM (Dr. Robert Evans, Ms. Lucille Villeneuve Evans and Jeanne Kirstein), the lure of the big city was strong, and as he puts it, “The minute I turned eighteen I flew the coop!”, leaving CCM and his studies, and moving to New York City to work as a musician.
Unlike the majority of musicians nowadays who spend all of their time studying music performance at college, William chose to invest his energy in his late teens and early twenties in gaining practical work experience. This allowed him to find and build relationships with respected professional musicians who later served as his musical mentors. But I'm getting ahead of myself. In order to really understand any musician, you have to go back to the beginning, so that's where I want to start now: at the beginning of our interview where we learn about the very first experiences of Maestro William Hicks' extraordinary musical journey!

OperaAdventuress: Did your love of music begin with Opera, or was it sparked through exposure to another genre?
William Hicks: Opera was my first love! Every Saturday afternoon, beginning when I was three years old, I would tune in to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. One of my Aunts who was living with us at the time would come in and turn it off, exclaiming "I work hard all week and the last thing I want to hear is all that screaming!" I would thereupon throw such a tantrum of screaming, crying, and pounding my fists that nothing could calm me until the broadcast was restored. Finally, one year for Christmas, my Grandmother gave me my very own radio, so I could listen to Opera and all the other classical music broadcasts to my heart's content!

OA: When did you begin studying piano? How did you transition into Collaborative Piano (playing with Singers and Chamber Musicians) from Solo Piano? Was that a choice you made out of necessity or preference?
WH: I started formal piano training at age seven, and the inspiration was Chopin's Polonaise No. 6, the "Heroic." My family was not musical, but they loved music and had a wonderful collection of recordings, including this one. I adored the music of Chopin. I trained as a concert pianist, but when Helen Beiderbecke, a voice teacher, came to my school and invited me to start playing for her students, I added another love to my musical sphere: that of singing, vocal music, and making music with others. She also introduced me to some string players, with whom I formed a small chamber ensemble and conducted within the vocal recitals she presented.
In addition to classical music, my first love was also American Musical Theatre. I loved the records my family had of Kern's Show Boat, which I delighted in playing for them and their guests even before I could read! Of course, at that time, I never dreamed I would later grow up to be John McGlinn's Associate Conductor, Rehearsal Pianist, and Chorus Master for a 20-year period, as well as getting to prepare his landmark recording of Show Boat with Frederica Von Stade and Jerry Hadley! I love this music, and think of Kern as "America's Schubert".
Most of all, though, I love any form of musical collaboration with others, be they singer or instrumentalist. The life of a concert pianist was just too lonely and demanding for me, even though I had some success at it. Sometimes a pianist will accept these collaborations as a "second best" default when they cannot have a solo career, but for me it was a # 1 choice!

OA: Do you have any memory of the first time you saw an Opera performed live? What kind of impression did it make on you?
WH: When I was thirteen my maternal grandmother purchased a subscription for us to the Lexington, Kentucky Concert and Lecture Series. The first concert we saw was with Soprano Eileen Farrell, and her Pianist, George Trovillo. That concert is seared in my memory and had a tremendous impact on my wanting to continue studying music, and maybe one day play for singers like Mr. Trovillo had. [Eileen] Farrell was tremendous, and it was the first time I was hearing a real Opera Singer in person. The program was […] generous, containing Arias, Art Songs and even Christmas music! Little did I know [back then] that I would grow up to inherit Mr. Trovillo's notes on how to coach singers, [which were later] given to me [upon his death] by his assistant, or that I would be having lunch [someday] seated next to Eileen Farrell and Franco Corelli at Licia Albanese's [house]!

Helen Beiderbecke took me to my first opera when I was sixteen; it was Die Fledermaus at the Cincinnati Zoo Opera, starring Arlene Saunders and John Alexander. I saw many staged operas there in my teens, and when I was seventeen I was hired to sing in the Chorus and as an Assistant Conductor. My first assignment as a Chorister was Aida starring Martina Arroyo, and my first assignment as Assistant Conductor was The Merry Widow starring Karen Armstrong.

OA: When did you really start to get into studying Opera?
WH: When I was nine years old, I got up on Easter morning to discover that the "Easter Bunny" had left me a recording of Verdi's Il Trovatore, complete with the G. Schirmer Piano/Vocal Score; it was the Decca/London recording, featuring Renata Tebaldi, Mario Del Monaco, and Giulietta Simionato. I had always loved Opera on the radio up until then, but now I was hooked! I would play the records and follow along with the score; then I would play from the score on the piano, singing all the parts! This was the first installment in what turned out to be annual Easter, Birthday, and Christmas gifts of recordings of complete operas, so I was listening to the best singers at an early age. I grew up to later work with many of them. But listening to recordings had its disappointment as well which I learned when I was working at the Cincinnati Opera as Assistant Conductor during my first year. I went up to James de Blasis, the General Director of the Cincinnati Opera, and said "Jim! The performance is not as perfect as the recordings!" He laughed and then told me that perfect performances were very rare in the theater.

OA: Did you ever experience any discouragement from your parents or teachers in your musical pursuits?
WH: I was always encouraged by my teachers to make a career out of music, and even my immediate family reluctantly agreed to that as a career choice for me, my mother being the sole holdout. Even when I was well into my career, it was not until I played at the White House for Roberta Peters, collaborated with Luciano Pavarotti for five years, and went to London as an Associate Conductor and Conductor for a series of recordings of the stage works of Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern that she finally relented. It was when I landed a position as Assistant Conductor at New York City Opera that I finally made the choice to be a professional musician, beforehand thinking of it as just something that I did to earn money!

OA: When you first moved to New York City did it take long for you to find work? How did those first years mold your experience, as well as their impact on the ultimate trajectory of your career?
WH: I arrived in New York in September 1977 at eighteen years old [and three days later] I started working [...] A friend of a friend called me and said "Eddie Cantor's daughter is having auditions and the pianist did not show up- can you come right away?" I played for seventy-five singers, giving my business card to as many as I could. After that my phone did not stop ringing! I had to sight-read most of the songs, but sight-reading has always been one of my strong suits. [I asked one of my coaches at the time] what career choice I should make; she wisely advised "Do everything; your career will find you!" So that's what I did. While working as an Audition [and] Voice Lesson Pianist […] as well as a Proof Reader for a law firm and a Catering Waiter, I managed to study Piano, Voice, Conducting, Dance and Acting. I also trained as a Bodybuilder! As there were so many singers in need of pianists, I worked constantly. My years at New York City Opera solidified Vocal Coaching and Conducting [...] so gradually my lifelong career as a Pianist, Vocal Coach and Conductor was cemented.

OA: It's really very interesting that you studied dance and acting on top of all of the various musical disciplines. With whom did you study and how do you feel that it added to your artistry?
WH: I studied dance privately in New York City with Alberto Delgado and Reinhard Michaels. I studied acting with the great Sandy Dennis at HB Studios in New York City, and took other classes there as well. I also studied acting at The American Academy of Dramatic Art. It was there [that] I learned to project my voice. I studied conducting with David Gilbert in New York City.
My training in all [of] the other fields only served to enhance my ultimate career choices. I was fortunate [through the years] to have the very best teachers, all of whom were willing to impart their invaluable knowledge. It was this [combination of] private study, collaboration, public performing, and work with major artistic institutions that shaped me as a professional- not my brief time in music school. For me two years of music school while I was in my teens were enough for me to fly the nest!

OA: Did you always see yourself going in this direction?
WH:When people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always reply "I'm going to New York City to work at the Metropolitan Opera." My dream came true in 1995 when I started working there as an Assistant Conductor and also eventually as Assistant Chorus Master. I stayed there [for] six years, and left of my own volition when I realized that I wanted to be a free-lance musician […] able to take contracts outside the MET whenever I wanted […] so I resigned under amicable circumstances.”

OA: Who do you think contributed the most to your development as a musician and artist?
WH: There are too many people to mention here from whom I learned so much, but special mention must go to the aforementioned Helen Beiderbecke, herself a performing singer, the Voice Teacher Carolina Segrera Holden, the Voice Teacher and Soprano Clarice Carson, the Conductor Julius Rudel who taught me how to play like an orchestra (for which I am eternally grateful!), and Luciano Pavarotti, from whom I learned so much about singing technique during our five-year collaboration. 
One of the first conductors with whom I worked and from whom I learned so much was Max Rudolf, who taught me to always cut the volume by half when singers where singing, and to bring it up when they were not singing, saying the "Bayreuth sound" was the ideal (orchestra recessed) so the singers could always be heard. I wish more conductors would do this today!
They all encouraged me to keep going in this tough and competitive world of professional music.

OA: Do you have any advice for younger conductors nowadays, or singers who are just starting out? What are some of the things you think that they could improve which would make a big difference?
WH: All the great conductors started out as apprentices in opera houses, leaning how to make music breathe. Today too many conductors start with Symphonic music and then conduct Opera without the proper training or background; many singers privately complain to me about how many conductors today fail to breathe with them or to provide a true artistic collaboration.
I think that singers today could benefit enormously by starting their learning of material with the text, slowly declaiming and identifying each word until they have a through grasp of just what they are saying and how they want to say it. Too many have just learned notes upon which they fit meaningless words!
What I said above about attention to text and dramatic intention will also go a long way towards remedying one of the most pervasive aspects of the vocal art today, which is either over-singing or under-singing. If a singer is blasting away at an unremitting forte, there can be no nuance; we don't go around screaming when we converse, we modulate our tones depending on our intentions, so the same holds true for great singing. (Neither do we whisper at inaudible levels.)
Another thing I've noticed many young singers lacking is a proper and efficient taking of initial and subsequent breaths. The topic of breathing is controversial, and many voice teachers will not even discuss it, but I can tell you that an improperly taken breath, divorced from the flow of the music and taken as a separate, mechanical event which usually results in the singer holding their breath, can impair the performance of even the most talented artist.
I would also add that a complete mastery of vocal technique is essential before presenting oneself in auditions or performance; it is shocking to me how many technical lapses are accepted today that would never have been tolerated even forty years ago, but that is what accounts for many shortened careers; most of the great singers of the past lasted well into their sixties, some even into their seventies.
One more thing: there has been a lot of poking fun at the singers of the past, saying they couldn't act! Anyone with a computer can see from watching YouTube videos that this is just not so; not only could they act, one could close one's eyes and hear the meaning behind every single word. Just waving one's arms and doing acrobatics, striking poses and attitudes, and looking like a professional athlete are not attributes of fine acting. There is also a certain arrogance some younger singers have who think there is nothing to learn from the past, so they avoid listening to or watching the great singers; they also tend to have no background in the arts, classical music, drama, or the theater- all of which would go far in making them into great artists and singers.

OA: You said that you believe in mentoring younger musicians. Why?
WH: I think it very important to share one's knowledge and pass it on to the next generation of performers if the standard of excellence is to remain high; so many of my teachers freely imparted their knowledge to me, and I feel a keen responsibility to impart what I learned to those coming up. I charge nothing for doing this for aspiring voice coaches, pianists, and conductors. Of course, as a voice coach, pianist, and conductor I do have my set fees that I charge, always willing to give a break to impoverished, out of work singers who show enormous potential.

OA: In the long list of impressive professional accomplishments that you've gathered over the years, which of your achievements makes you most proud?
WH: The recordings I accomplished as Pianist and Music Director of the complete Piano and Cello music of Victor Herbert, as well as 102 Collected Songs of Victor Herbert with sixteen singers for New World Records, totaling 127 pieces of music, is one of my landmark achievements.
I recorded these six CD's between September 2010 and February 2011 at Manhattan's 'The Academy', an acoustically perfect recording space, but damp and very cold (Brrrr!) at 155 Riverside Drive.

The project was initiated and paid for by John Vogel, the executor of John McGlinn's estate; John's next project was to record the complete works of Victor Herbert, but he died before accomplishing it. Mr. Vogel asked me then to undertake the mammoth task, but only 127 of his relatively unknown works were all we recorded before the funding ran out. We recorded five days per week, six hours per day, and our recording engineer was Judith Sherman. The 'Cellist was Jerry Grossman, Principal Chair of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Fun fact:Victor Herbert also served in this position! There were also sixteen solo singers, 15 Piano pieces, 10 'Cello works, and 102 Songs in all. The recordings are available in two albums: Piano/Cello works and Collected Songs, on

CURIOUS to learn more about Maestro Hicks? I've posted his Biography below, and you can also visit his website at: or purchase his Victor Herbert recordings on click here for the Piano/Cello works, or here for the Collected Songs.

WILLIAM HICKS, voice coach, conductor, and pianist recently completed a recording of 127 pieces by Victor Herbert to be issued by New World Records, including fifteen piano solos, eleven pieces for cello and piano featuring Jerry Grossman, Principal Cellist of the Metropolitan Opera, and 101 songs with fifteen solo singers.
He also recorded HAVE A HEART by Jerome Kern with the London Sinfonietta; A SIMPLE SONG: BLACKWELL SINGS BERNSTEIN and ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT with Harolyn Blackwell; and MY LIFE, MY SONG with Martha Eggerth Kiepura. He most recently conducted Puccini's LA BOHEME and Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE for the Martha Cardona Opera Theatre in Brooklyn, NY.
He made his New York conducting debut in 2003 conducting an all Mozart/Beethoven concert with members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall. From 1995 to 2001 Mr. Hicks served as Assistant Conductor for the Metropolitan Opera, and made his Metropolitan Opera stage debut as the concert pianist Lazinski in Giordano's FEDORA.
He has also served as Associate Conductor for the Santa Fe Opera, The Canadian Opera Company, the Cincinnati Opera, and the New York City Opera. He prepared the singers, conducted rehearsals, and performed as pianist in Maestro Lorin Maazel's first opera production of Britten's TURN OF THE SCREW at Castleton, Virginia.
From 1990 to 1995 he collaborated as repetiteur and pianist for Luciano Pavarotti; he has coached, appeared in recital and on television and in master classes with some of the leading singers of our time, including Luciano Pavarotti, Franco Corelli, Renata Scotto, Roberta Peters, Teresa Stratas, Anna Moffo, Regina Resnik, Deborah Voigt and Harolyn Blackwell. In 2009 he prepared Renee Fleming for her recording, VERISMO!
From 1982 to 2002 he served as Associate Conductor to John McGlinn, preparing the singers and performing on all of his concerts, broadcasts, and recordings; he was also on staff of the Israel Vocal Arts Institute for their programs in Tel Aviv, Portland, Oregon, and Montreal.
Mr. Hicks gives master classes in preparation and presentation to young singers throughout the world; he also has extensive training and professional experience as an actor and dancer.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Comparing Yourself to Others? Feelings of Inadequacy? Making no money? Don't despair- we've all been there!

Maybe the title of this post was enough for you to already shake your head in acknowledgement of what I mean. Perhaps you know the scenario all too well yourself: you practice your music day in and day out (mostly alone and sometimes on a rare occasion with a teacher or with colleagues/friends), and eventually you get curious or bored (whatever the case, depending on the day) and decide to see how you 'measure up' to other musicians who are in your field (singing your same genre, having your same voice type, playing your same get the picture). BAM! Before you know what's hit you, you've listened to several media samples on scarily-good-looking websites from people with whom you're kind of in direct competition (again: you are in the same genre, they have your same voice type, you play the same instrument, etc..) and you're feeling pretty bad about yourself and your musical progress in comparison to what you just heard/saw. The worst part is this: you know that you can do better than what you are doing currently, it's just that somehow you've lost momentum.

Well, if you're in this particular pickle currently, or if you've been in it before you know what to do: step away from the computer!!, (though not, of course, before finishing reading this blog post) and STOP comparing yourself to others!

I know that this sounds simple enough to do, but honestly, it's pretty challenging. If you've fallen into this trap before you know the reasons why. Perhaps you've even talked yourself into believing that this is a good thing to do. You'll get toughened up for when you have to audition against these people, having to listen to them auditioning right before you through the door, and then you don't get the job. Or, you're simply curious about who is getting the jobs that you'd like to have, and why they're being picked. Perhaps you can divine exactly what is the magical ingredient to their success simply by watching their videos/listening to their audio samples countless times, and spending a good hour on their website scouring through their bio and resume to discover who might be the 'big name' that is missing on your info which could have potentially gotten them the job and not you. Maybe you've even considered stealing their signature moves (a new cadenza that they wrote themselves, some interesting non-traditional dramatic portrayal, discovering what style clothes they wear when performing, adding dynamic contrasts where they do, or following their phrasing to a 'T') and hoping that they will work for you well-enough so that when you're auditioning people might think you're them (or as good as they are if they don't actually look physically like you) and then you can get the job too. Perhaps it's as easy as stealing that new killer cadenza. Right?

Wrong!!! My dear friend, in all of this, the one thing that you're severely overlooking and completely forgetting is that you are unique and special by just BEING WHO YOU ARE. (Sorry for yelling, but this is an intervention, no?) Even if you could impersonate someone perfectly (whom you deem at this moment to be more 'successful' or more 'talented' than you are) you would never have the same success that they do, simply because you're not being authentic. People can see through that charade a mile away. Trust me- I've been on the other side of the audition table (okay, only once, but it still gave me a lot of insight about this) and I can tell you- those singers (actors, instrumentalists, etc...) who came into the audition and were completely comfortable with who they were and their abilities were the ones whom we all liked the most (and that had nothing to do with who was the most technically skilled or performed the most 'perfectly' in terms of 'traditional expectations'- actually the funniest part about all of this was that everyone we chose was NOT technically perfect, and we turned away a lot of people who were! How about that?!). And that was also a situation where each member of the audition panel had totally varying senses of what is 'good' and what is not. So, that's something to consider, right?

The other thing which I'd like to mention is that you are most likely being too hard on yourself. You know, this morning I realized why we are supposed to talk to children in a way that builds them up- because living life is hard, and when you're learning a lot at one time, learning something difficult or brand-new, or even fine-tuning something over many consecutive years, then it becomes even harder- and you need support and encouragement in those situations! You don't need someone breathing down your neck saying stuff like this:

"Why aren't you getting more done? You've only practiced 2 hours today and you did 3 yesterday! What's the matter with you? Why aren't you more motivated? Why are you so lazy? I bet (fill in the name of the person whom you compare yourself the most to) wouldn't be acting like this! I bet they do (x, y, z) instead of taking as many breaks as you do! Get off Facebook, for crying out loud! Who would even want to hire someone like you, anyway? I mean, with an attitude like this and no follow-through how do you expect to become successful? And you had so much potential!! But alas, it's all wasted now. It's much too late for you to ever make something of yourself. Lord knows that you actually have gotten worse over the years. Maybe when you were younger there was still hope to get on the right path, but now you've hopelessly strayed and have become so screwed up with neuroses and bad habits that you'll never be able to get back to where you were, let alone where you want to be. You've squandered your time and now you'd better just get a real job that pays the bills so you don't end up starving on top of already being pathetic. I guess your (Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa, whomever...) was right when they told you not to go into music! But you were too dumb to listen to them. You believed in yourself- pah! Even then you didn't know how little talent you had and you had even more hope than you have now- how silly you were! Didn't you always know somewhere deep down that it was going to turn out this way eventually? So admit defeat. At least if you give up now you won't continue to make a fool of yourself and continue to waste money and time like you've been doing all these years. Maybe people will forget that you tried and failed. Hopefully they just won't mention it in the future."
This kind of talk does not help anyone. If it's coming from someone else (maybe you're not actually saying these things to yourself- maybe someone else is saying them to you) then you have to get away from that person's influence (physically or mentally, somehow), or if it's coming from you (your own negative self-talk) then you've internalized these things as you developed over the years through hearing them from others (teachers, parents, friends, etc..) and have finally turned them into your own beliefs about yourself.

However, there is still plenty of hope for you, so don't despair. When was it ever accurate to measure yourself by another person's standard anyway? Consider- there are two major systems of measuring things (the metric and the imperial) and both are considered 'right'. So why can't you be who you are and do your music how you see fit and that be right too? I say that you can. Because you have to. I mean, what choice have you got, really? You can't accurately assess yourself or your abilities (I mean, sure you can in a way, if you record yourself and listen back for technical perfection, or if you're doing it how you'd want yourself to do it) but that is NEVER going to be the way that other people experience your music (and consider this mind-blower: you are only able to assess yourself by the parameters with which you've been taught to by OTHER PEOPLE--which are most likely totally invalid since they were weren't tailored to evaluate YOUR UNIQUE ABILITY!). You will truly never be able to fully grasp the way that your music making affects others who listen to you or watch you perform. Therefore, why try to over-analyze your abilities and strive for your imagined perception of 'perfection'?

It's as senseless as trying to look at the middle of your own back. You'll never be able to see it in real-time (sure you can take a picture but that loses the aspect of seeing it like others can) so you can also never judge it properly or fully. Therefore, again- why bother trying? Why place value on that? It's not important. What IS important is that you have a back and that it's there doing it's thing- being your back. And it's basically the same with your music making. You just have to do it in your own authentic way, and even if it's performing a piece that thousands of other people have performed countless times and have received critical acclaim for it, your version still will be enriching the lives in an unfathomable way of those who hear it and adding to the rich legacy of music making in this world. You just have to know that that is true and hold this truth in your heart, and then make your music. Simple as that.

Don't buy into the pessimistic views of the naysayers. They only talk that way because they're also saying those same things to themselves in their heads. Why else would they try to drag you down into the mental mire of being your own worst critic? They need company in the muck. But don't join them! Rather, throw them a lifeline and pull them up into the world of people who live each day knowing that what they do-no matter or big or how small-is worthy, good and needed, and they should feel proud about doing it, and glad that they could.

That's all.

And another thing- IF YOU DO NOT GET PAID FOR WHAT YOU DO, THAT DOES NOT MEAN IT HAS NO WORTH!  This is a common error of thinking. Many people buy into believing this is an appropriate way to measure whether or not something is worthy. The logic goes like this: if a person gets paid, then what they are doing is valuable. If a person does not get paid, then what they are doing has no value. WRONG!!!!!! This is a hold-over from thinking that developed probably right at the time when money was first used. Sure, back then money was created to approximate the value of the thing that it was being traded for (a.k.a. you give me a loaf of bread, I give you a coin that's worth roughly the worth of the loaf of bread). Money was used to equal the worth of goods that people needed. Well, in today's society things have changed. With the advent of inflation and modern commerce practices oftentimes a person is paying much more for a good than it's actually worth. (Gucci clothing, for instance, is made super cheaply but is still sold for a huge mark-up.) Thus, it is senseless to equate something having value with something that earns/costs a lot of money.  We can all think of plenty of things which are worth a lot to us but don't create cash flow/aren't expensive. For example, what about hiking up a mountain to see the view at the top, seeing a baby smile, sharing things with others, waking up every morning, experiencing new things, learning for fun....? The list could go on and on. And these types of things are the sort that, I'm sure you'll agree, money could never buy. So, again--why believe that if your music isn't making money, it's worthless? That is a total and blatant falsehood.

Okay, I hope that this has given you somewhat of a different perspective on your situation and empowered you. Maybe it will even help you to show others who are having similar problems the way out of the downward spiral. I know that once I realized how futile and untrue these beliefs were, it was easy for me to get out. I hope that you can too. So, keep on making your music and thanks for reading! And make sure to share if you know someone whose outlook might be brightened by reading this-we're all in it together! :)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Opera Is NOT A Tool for Rich People to Look Good

The title of this post may have already resonated with you, but I was so moved by reading another article that I found in Opera America's Newsletter (yes, again!), that I felt I needed to share more details.  Perhaps you yourself have read the article (called "Amid Choruses of Despair, An Aria of Hope" in the New York Times) already?

At any rate, it might have been obvious to you too that this article was a good one, though it brought up a practice that is all too common among Opera fans who mean to do something good for the art form.  For those of you who haven't read the article, it basically talks about the great resurrection of the San Diego Opera, which is back up and running and indeed hasn't been sucked into the abyss with other opera companies that are no longer existing. To this I say- wonderful! A triumph! Another established and important cultural bastion is saved! However, the author goes on to examine some of the problems that were contributing to the SDO's near death, such as having 57 board members, offices which were $400,000 more than they needed to cost because of a nice view, and 13 Staff Members who weren't absolutely essential to daily operations.  Needless to say that now with a board of only 26 people, offices in a less swanky part of town, 13 less people in the office and one expensive production cut from the upcoming season (Tannhaeuser), they are saving a lot of money and operating more efficiently than ever before. So, I applaud them and agree that these measures were necessary to keep an important opera house alive.  The funny part is, you'd think that those people who left, Opera fans as they are, would be equally happy that the company found a solution to staying afloat and will not have to close its doors. Well, you will be shocked then to note that the woman who was the president of the board, Karen S. Cohn, (who resigned, conveniently) was quoted in the article saying: 
"I cannot support what is going on. This is a group of people who are not focusing on going forward. They are focusing on ruining people who spent 31 years doing wonderful things for San Diego. I don't want to ruin their chance of going forward, but I don't appreciate how they have handled this."
Ironically then, in contrast to her sentiment that she doesn't "...want to ruin their chance of going forward...", she goes on to say the following when asked whether or not she'll be in attendance for the coming season at San Diego Opera:
"I'm going to Los Angeles, or I'm going to New York. Not here."
Pretty hypocritical, right? It sounds to me like the only thing she's saving is face. But, it's not the first time that I've witnessed so-called Opera fans who have become board members or donors simply to look good and push their private agendas. Though, we all know that if they were truly interested in the health and well-being of these institutions they'd have sucked up their pride, admitted their mistakes, and still done everything they could to help.  However, thus you can see the benefits of dire financial circumstances and poor management forcing companies to the brink of extinction and thereby flushing out these phonies to make room for more flexible and selfless stewards. Let's face it, if she had remained President of the Board at San Diego Opera, they'd be permanently closed by now. So I say let her go see operas in Los Angeles or New York- but whatever you do, don't let her, or people like her, on any more boards!

The Hard Reality of What It 'Takes' to Become an Opera Singer in Today's Business

So earlier today I read this article titled "So You Want to Be An Opera Singer" on Huffington Post, which I saw advertised in Opera America's Newsletter.  Even though I had never heard of the article's author, I thought to myself, "That's no big deal- this field is huge! Maybe he has something really helpful to say." Well, I was way off!  And utterly disappointed after reading the article, I might add.

The reason why I am taking up your time and mine right now to write a post about said article must make you wonder though, right? Of course. The answer as to why I'd choose to examine such a generalized piece of journalism such as this is because I simply can no longer stand idly by and do nothing as I have in the past. Previously I may have believed that because I was "still a student" or "hadn't gotten my first meaningful and noteworthy professional gig yet" meant that I wasn't qualified to talk about these subjects with any sort of authority nor express my opinion because surely someone else more knowledgeable and more experienced would take up the task of doing that when it came to refuting the obvious garbage that you sometimes come across on the Internet having to do with Opera singing.

Much to my dismay, however, this person many times did not appear wielding the divining rod of operatic justice and set the record straight with their honesty and transparency. No, oftentimes ill-informed authors were free to disseminate their opinions about the profession without any negative repercussions (except for people like me thinking things like "What a load of crap that was!" or something similar). So, if you had also fallen prey to reading that article and thinking something like what I said in the previous sentence, you're not alone. In fact, I'd like to write a small rebuttal to that article, so that we can all know what is really helpful to "Be An Opera Singer" and what is just basically leading more unaware lambs to the slaughter.

First off, I'm not sure in what world of privilege the author lives, but I know that many of my colleagues who decided to pursue vocal studies did so with the understanding that they would need college loans, and many of them, and that those students whose education was paid for outright were very few indeed.  This leads us to observe that students who must take loans cannot take one to two years off after finishing their undergraduate degree because their school loans would swallow them alive after they come out of deferment. That of course makes the likelihood of being able to work to pay off these loans as well as simultaneously get accepted, enroll and complete a graduate studies program very slim indeed. So that means that most of us, myself included, whether or not we wanted it, had to go from one degree straight into the next simply because there was no financially feasible alternative.  To clarify: I'm not saying that the Huff Post Author's take is wrong, it's just not realistic for most students. And make no mistake, any of the top-tier music conservatories are going to cost you: $29,000 to $45,000 per year are the prices that I remember from my degree days. These are not public university in-state tuition prices we're talking about! Tuition has probably even gone up in the past few years- so be prepared for a huge blow to you or your parents' savings account when investing in a music degree program.

The other thing that the author neglects to mention, though he does a good job in the final paragraph of noting that there are a lot of other things to mention (how ironic- the last paragraph of the entire article is basically the only time in which he really gives some useful advice to the reader, though he doesn't elaborate on it at all) is that there is no barometer which you or anyone else can use to determine whether or not all the money and time that you invest into this profession will ever pay off. And that it's incredibly risky and nearly impossible to try and make a living from singing.  Basically the only way that you can be guaranteed a career is if you devote your entire life to singing, sort of like a nun or monk, but somehow while still maintaining a good network of influential connections, keeping your audition arias polished at all times, managing to keep your physical appearance at 100% as often as humanly possible, somehow have or make money to live on, and develop stalker-like habits in regards to your application-material-sending-strategy. This is, of course, predicated on your ability to stay sane and be a nice person like you were before all that sacrifice, too. This may sound grim, and that's because it is, but do not despair- there will always be some masochistic nutcase out there who is more possessed than you about getting hired for the role, so spare no expense and don't be afraid to shed your morals when trying to jockey for your next gig.

But seriously, isn't that what the author is trying to say in a more politically correct way at the very end?  I mean, he could have spared himself all that blunder about which school to attend and what to do when you get there because he basically negates all that in the last paragraph of his article! Those of us who are currently trying to eke out a living in this field have all realized slowly (while lying to ourselves over the last few years as it got worse and we noticed it) that this business as it exists today and has existed in years past is quite extraordinarily broken, and it must be radically revamped in order to be fixed. Or, we abandon the ship and all make our own boats. That's the other option. Because let's face it, if I were the one who was asked by the mother of someone interested in studying to become an opera singer, I would have said to her "Lady, have your kid study business administration (or marketing, or anything for that matter!) and languages, take lessons and coach privately with amazing people, and then just apply for every summer and pay-to-sing program known to man. Because there is certainly no guarantee that if they go to Juilliard or MSM or Mannes or Curtis that they'll have a professional career and studying privately with the teachers who teach at those schools is a much cheaper way of getting the same knowledge. And, they will most likely be happier too at the end of their studies and not burned out about the ugly side of the 'business of singing'. That way, if this industry collapses completely (which, if it keeps going the way it has been, is certainly likely) your child at least has some marketable skills which will enable them to earn a decent middle-class wage, instead of being stuck working boring temp jobs in various offices for the rest of their adult lives and feeling unfulfilled while just scraping by monetarily."

Yes, perhaps that is a bit bleak, and perhaps that may scare the poor woman off entirely from allowing her child to pursue music at all as a career, but that may just be the most sound advice that a person can be given nowadays, due to the drastic surplus of singers who are being churned out each year from conservatories and universities all across the country into an industry where there are less and less spots to fill. At least I certainly wish someone had been that honest with me while I was studying, because we singers aren't dumb. In fact, I'm convinced that most of us still could have studied something completely different and managed the singing thing pretty amazingly on the side until we got that 'breakthrough' gig. (Or have you had a different experience? Please, I'm all ears!)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

WHAT'S YOUR (Audition Sung:Hired for Performance) RATIO?

So, to start this off, a small ironic anecdote for your enjoyment!

I was recently reading an interview with Joyce Di Donato in the September Issue of Concerti (I think it's solely a German publication-not sure- don't shoot me if I'm wrong) where she said something akin to it being tough for her when she first got to Europe because she did 13 auditions and only got hired for 1 of them. It was at this point where I laid the magazine down and thought "Sheesh! If only that were my ratio!!! It would be a heck of a lot better than only 2 auditions in this past year's time and 0 hires." I picked the magazine back up, read a bit further and found surprisingly that my reaction was incorrect (apparently) because Joyce was seriously distressed about this 13:1/failure:success ratio. It even made her stop and completely re-evaluate her approach to discover what she could do better.

Now, does this all seem a bit silly to you? Do you find yourself thinking the same thing that I was? Does it seem like a success to you to be invited to 13 auditions in the first place, let alone get hired for 1 of them? Yeah. Join the club. Though apparently that's not the right attitude, because if we were Joyce, we'd have been re-tooling our entire approach to things by now.

But let's face it- who knows how many years ago poor Joyce had her distressing experience of 13:1? We all know how hard it is though, nowadays to even be invited to audition for an agent, let alone an Opera house (especially if you're any variety of 'Soprano'- God help us), and so when I hear people (even if they are as wonderful and nice and shiny as Joyce Di Donato, don't get me wrong, I truly admire who this woman is and and her achievements) saying that a 13:1 ratio is really bad, it makes me laugh. Sorry, but I just can't help it! To me, a person who has been doing everything possible (okay not everything, but ...EW! No.) to get in the faces (and ears) of as many agents and Opera houses as possible in Germany, Joyce's downheartedness seems a bit premature. I can't help but ask myself what would she have done if she had been faced with the things I (as well as most of my colleagues) have had to push through? Would she have quit a long time ago already? Would she have wrung her hands at the heavens and cursed her existence? Would she have bought a farm back in Kansas and sung only to her cows?

Who knows. But my point is, even though she was very well-meaning with her honesty in that she didn't get the red carpet rolled out by European houses back in the day when she wasn't as popular as she is now, it doesn't necessarily paint an accurate picture for the person who is reading her interview of the struggles and difficulties that an Opera career is laden with today. No, in fact, these sorts of interesting tidbits only make it harder for those of us out there now trying to achieve our goals (for many of us that means a paying job singing Opera, and for others of us that means any job singing Opera in a role that's appropriate, for crying out loud) and I can only say that I wish there was a way for more of us real-life, everyday Opera singers to explain what the daily grind is like. To give those inquisitive Opera Fans what they want: the truth about the sacrifices and the constant wondering when you'll get that one gig that will finally allow those people in hiring positions to know you, and understand you, and appreciate your artistry, and ultimately want to enable you to share that artistry with the world!!!!!!!!!!!

Yeah, that's right- I DO NOT HAVE a 13:1 ratio like Joyce. In fact, if I added up all the auditions that I've ever done professionally (including YAPS) versus those that I actually was chosen for, I'd say my ratio is more like 300:10. So, according to Joyce I guess I'm in a place where I should throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, and re-design my approach. But you know what? The other, even more ironic part of that article was that during her re-tooling she realized that her problem was trying to be the kind of performer that others wanted her to be, and therefore she couldn't be authentic, but of course once she stopped that, she was super successful. Huh. Perhaps on second thought I'll keep doing what I feel is best, and see where that gets me. (Even if my ratio might reach 400: 11 soon.) Maybe I have more in common with Joyce than I think.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Musical Christmas Cheer: Seeing the Hannover Knabenchor at the Essener Philharmonie

Did you ever wonder what sorts of things make the holidays cheerful and bright? Perhaps you have a favorite tea, or cookie, or evening ritual which is sacred to you that brings just the right amount of coziness to your Advent season.  Though, I'd bet anything that music is one aspect of your holiday atmosphere that you simply couldn't go without.  I mean, at the first sound of "Jingle Bells" on the radio most people get in the Christmas spirit.

Now, I'm certainly not a classical music snob, and I thoroughly appreciate all of the popular secular Christmas songs that are out there, but the sound of a Christmas Carol sung by a children's choir is, to me, the pinnacle of all of Christmas' musical incarnations.  Therefore it was only fitting that my well-informed Boyfriend purchased tickets for us to attend the recent Christmas concert performed at the Essener Philharmonie (Philharmonic in Essen, Germany) by the Hannover Knabenchor (Hannover Boys Choir) and the London Brass.  What a spectacular experience for my ears and thereby, my soul!  I'll wager these boys could sing anything and make it sound angelic.  But all kidding aside, their performance was utterly professional: not one chorister was inattentive and they all looked as if they were thrilled to pieces to be singing this music, which I can understand since their program was so varied in style and language.

They first sang four pieces written before 1650 (the first by William Byrd, "Sing joyfully unto God our strength", the second by Anonymous, "Angelus ad Virginem", the third also by Anonymous, "The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors", and the fourth by Thomas Weelkes, "Hosanna to the son of David") which were all very beautiful but also quite austere, as many pieces were that were written in that time period.  Then they continued with "A spotless rose" by Herbert Howells which was particularly beautiful, followed by "In dulci jubilo" arranged by Robert Pearsall, which featured different sections sung in Latin and German, as well as English. Then they sung "Wexford Carol" arranged by John Rutter (one of my personal favorites simply because I love everything that John Rutter has ever written), and then a piece by Benjamin Britten called "A Hymn to the Virgin", which was also very beautiful since it utilized the excellent acoustics in the hall by its being written for two smaller choirs singing antiphonally to one another. It was quite an audience favorite because of that surprise.  Then the intermission came, and already I could feel that the whole audience had the impression that the time flew by and they'd have gladly sat there another 30 minutes before they needed a break.

Whatever the case, the second half held other treasures, so it was perhaps good that we could clear our auditory palette in order to appreciate them fully. It began with a sacred favorite, "O come all ye faithful" arranged by David Willcocks, which was followed by a piece arranged by Roger Harvey, "Gabriel's Message", featuring a wonderful Baritone soloist chosen from amongst the choir members. "Away in a manger" was next, also arranged by Roger Harvey, and then a piece that is new to me and has become one of my favorites through their performance of it, "Shepherd's Carol" by Bob Chilcott. What a truly stunning use of dynamics and color couple with excellent storytelling, poetic text!  It was just beautiful! Another John Rutter arrangement of a popular classic "Deck the hall" followed, with another Roger Harvey arrangement, "The Holly and the Ivy" (another favorite of mine) just introducing the truly famous next four songs.  Those being: "Joy to the world", arranged by Richard Bissill, "The First Nowell" arranged by David Willcocks, "We wish you a merry Christmas" arranged by Arthur Warrell and finally "Hark! the hearald-angels sing" arranged by David Willcocks.  The children, the conductor (Joerg Breiding- who did an absolutely exquisite job handling the musical nuances and colors of the pieces while not allowing the choristers' voices to be overtaxed but simply flowing and beautiful and healthy- BRAVO!) and the London Brass players were certainly in a bit of a mischievous mood since they all donned Santa Claus hats before singing these final four pieces, which only added to the joyful spirit emanating from their music-making. It was truly a delight to be in the audience for such a special experience.

I think, though, I was not the only audience member who was happy to realize that they had prepared several encore pieces, since they also received two standing ovations which they most certainly deserved!  For their encore they simply repeated "O come, all ye faithful", "Deck the hall", and "We wish you a merry Christmas" which was just a perfect ending to a perfect concert.

The London Brass was also truly marvelous and in good form in this performance, and although this was actually their concert in which the Hannover Knabenchor was simply their guest, the choristers definitely stole the show.  However, I'm sure the London Brass didn't mind since they obviously couldn't help but enjoying themselves making music with the choir members- you could tell how much fun they had in this performance- a wonderful example of how collaboration is just as rewarding and potentially more so than performing solo.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Psychology of Music Infographic: Why This Matters to You and Your Children, Your Family and The World

Okay, this particular infographic got a lot of facebook shares about a month ago, and I'm just getting around to breaking it down for you all.  I'm not sure if looking at it once (though they say that a picture's worth a thousand words) really communicates the concepts, for those of you who aren't visual learners, and because I think it's very important to grasp the information that this graphic presents, I'm going to talk about it a bit in this blog post, so that we can fully appreciate all the wonderful benefits of music, be thankful for them, and share them with others as often as possible! :) But first, if you haven't already- look at the infographic below (my commentary follows at the end).The Psychology of Music   

First of all, the most important message that is contained in this infographic isn't found at the top- it's found in the middle- where the two graphs show the importance of music in education.  These two graphs are relevant to you, even if you're not a musician, because it explains how much of a positive influence music has in life outside of music.  That's right, music is good just for the fact that you have it in your life (as evidenced by the high SAT scores of the kids who just simply took a music appreciation course- which normally consists of learning a bit of music history, but also a lot of listening to different kids of music- in fact, if it's a good course- a whole lot of music- with a whole lot of different influences), which means that you don't have to be directly making music yourself for it to have a huge positive impact in your life.  That, right there, is a fact that many lawmakers need to consider when they make choices like cutting out the music programs in schools (ahem, the state of KANSAS: enemy # 1!!), which they feel they are doing for the benefit of the students so they can do better in their other, more important subjects.  (Hello! That graph clearly shows that students who simply learn about music (not even play it!) do SO much better in their other subjects BECAUSE of their music knowledge---so, how the lawmakers can consider cutting music to be a good idea, I cannot understand.  Nonetheless, I digress. (Ha...that rhymes!)

Besides this being an ad (sort of backhandedly) for the University of Florida's music program (okay, you can't really blame them for lauding the positive aspects of the field in which they're involved!), who might have ever thought that being a Music Teacher could be characterized as 'making a difference in the world'?  I mean, okay, all of you musicians and music teachers and music lovers aside, who already know what I'm getting at, how many people do you know in your communities who would never dream of putting a Music Teacher into the same category as a UN Delegate, or a President, or a billionaire Philanthropist, or even on a smaller scale, a Doctor?  Those people are typically the sorts that come to mind when someone mentions 'making a difference in the WORLD'....., so it's pretty colossal that Music Teachers are now, because of this recent evidence presented in the graphic, able to be welcomed into that category.  In fact, I would wager to say that because of the information presented above (the fact that music positively affects a person's abstract reasoning, anger management, overall success, and ability to be compassionate and conquer difficult challenges-aka the medical student statistic), a Music Teacher has the ability, unlike the types of people I mentioned in the previous sentence, to change a person's life in not just one area, but in many important ones.

The portion about brain waves and their effect on the body and a person's psychological state isn't so well explained, so I'll try to take that apart a little now, so you can understand what they were going for there.  For instance, have you ever had the experience of listening to a guided meditation which had music in the background?  That music was specifically chosen because it helped to create more Theta waves in your brain, thereby deepening your meditation practice.  Or, how many times have we listened to Mozart's instrumental works when trying to focus?  That is because his music increases Gamma waves. Alpha waves can be produced by listening to music that relaxes you, for instance: Debussy or even something more modern like Terry Riley.  Beta waves may be created when listening to music that makes you anxious, perhaps something scary like Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, or highly atonal and discordant like Berio, or creepy like Carmina Burana (think of all the scary film music out there). You could also argue that Delta waves are produced by music since there are a number of people who listen to music to fall asleep by, and claim that it is some of their deepest sleep- so, regardless of the music (but perhaps it's something like 'smooth' jazz), it does have the ability to reach us even in sleep in a positive way.  And, these are all the subconscious effects that music has on a person's mind and mood- how wonderful that it this happens even when we might not consciously be realizing it- less mental work, and more reward, I say!  Then the graphic goes on to relate the brain wave activity to the fact that when we hear music, our brains are alerted and working in more areas than when we take part in any other activity.  It goes without saying then, that listening to music is a highly important pastime, especially if you plan on living a long life with healthy brain activity.

Finally the part of the graphic that is presented first and third, and may be the most obvious and difficult to argue with- simply because so many people have experienced firsthand the positive physical results, is the one which describes how the ear processes music (and sound in general) and transports it to the brain, and then what sorts of positive effects that music has on the brain in the realms of skills, neurological disorders improved, and healing powers- both physically and emotionally.  Haven't we all, at some time or another, noticed that when we're running or exercising we like to listen to a certain kind of music that keeps us motivated and happy?  Or, when we hear a certain piece it brings back memories of the past?  Or, how about when we have a headache and put on something soothing and the headache pain is gone or has greatly decreased after listening?  You can probably name a few pieces that you listen to when you're feeling down which always cheer you up, or conversely, when you're looking to dwell in your sorrows, a piece that always bring out the melancholy, even on a sunny day? All of these firsthand experiences plainly show us that music has direct positive effects on us in many different ways.  However, most of you knew all of this already, and those of you who didn't- well, get out there and listen to more music- and you'll soon be able to experience all of these things for yourself (I'm even excited for you! So go!!).

And, congratulations to all of you who make it a priority to involve music in your lives and the lives of those you love, as well as champion its cause in your communities on a daily basis- you are the ones who are truly changing the world- and now you've got an arsenal of facts to prove it, should anyone think otherwise! :)


Friday, August 23, 2013

Bonn Trip: Beethoven's True Identity Unveiled!

This past Saturday, a combination of nice weather and guilt (we've not been there once yet as 'tourists') inspired my boyfriend and I to take the train to Bonn and look around with inquisitive attitudes and wide-open eyes.  Well, in case you were worried, fear not- we certainly liked what we saw!  Bonn is a beautiful city located on the banks of the Rhein river, about a half an hour's train ride from Cologne (also known as "Koeln" when speaking German).  The charm and beauty of Bonn lies in the architecture of its buildings and their color palette.  I'd wager that 98% of the buildings were painted in pastel hues (light yellows, pinks, blues, greens, oranges, and various shades of ivory) and looked as if NYC's Greenwich Village was relocated to Germany- I kid you not!  Nearly all of the buildings in the center of the old part of the city ("Altstadtkern" in German) had large multi-pane windows, which were sometimes also arched or in the shape of small circles that resembled portholes, and the facades of these buildings were decorated with all the love and care that romanticism could lend to classicism.  (You'll understand hopefully what I mean when you see the photos below.)

Bonn's most famous citizen :)

the Town Hall/"Rathaus" and myself

Painted on an underpass wall! :)
Me in front of the University- formerly the palace

Although the city of Bonn was a pleasant and welcome ocular surprise to both my boyfriend and myself (we don't live in such a pretty city), we had our most meaningful experience of the day when we visited the house in which Beethoven was born and lived as a child.  We were lucky to have gotten there just 10 minutes before the next guided tour (with a human being) began, and because it didn't cost anything extra, and saved us from having to hold those annoying audio guides up to our ears, we decided to do it.  Of course, we didn't realize it at the time, but it was a great choice to make- since our tour guide, a petite and sprightly older woman, possessed insider knowledge about the museum, as well as Beethoven himself.  She possessed said knowledge because she was one of the members of the organization (the "Beethoven-Haus Verein") that founded the museum and  monetarily provides for its ongoing operation. So, our tour was quite the glimpse into Beethoven as a person, as well as his musical ascent to greatness (the first half of which was quite a bit more interesting than the second half. Just wait- you'll soon agree!).

We began our tour by finding out that Beethoven himself was born in the house where the museum is housed, for lack of a better word (ha!), and that his early years of his childhood were spent there, as well as some of his later adolescent years (as it seemed that his family moved around within the city center of Bonn, as was the fashion in those days, and they came back to this house for a period of a few years when he was older).  He was brought up in a musical family, as his Grandfather was a Tenor who sang at the home of the royal family there in Bonn, and his father was a violinist who played in the royal court orchestra.  His father, like many other musicians then and nowadays, could not make a living solely on his salary from the orchestra, so he took on private violin students.  His own little Ludwig was one of his students, and he was pleased to be able to have him perform in a public concert with another of his private students when Beethoven was 8 years old (but, much to my chagrin- his father was ever the promoter for his son- and on the flyers that announced the concert debut of the 'little musical genius' he was proclaimed to be 6 years old).  So, it is obvious that even back then it was common to do a little 'fudging of the truth' in order to make people believe that your child was a wunderkind.

Nevertheless, although he was of course pressured by his father to continue his violin playing, he still was able to remain a child by the benefit of his Grandfather's acquaintance with a more well-to-do family, the 'von Breuning's' who lived nearby. They had a daughter, Eleonore, who was close to Beethoven's age with whom he became very good friends. (She is most likely the very same Leonore he composed so many pieces for later on!) While spending time at their house, he was able to learn about the world beyond music, and he devoured their conversations on politics, language, philosophy and religion. He also learned table manners. (Ha! I'd like to know what it must have been like for him to eat dinner at home beforehand if this was judged to be necessary.) All the knowledge he learned during the time he spent with the von Breunings prepared Beethoven well for the independent and trail-blazing life he would lead later on. However, again, it was very interesting to me that Beethoven, similar to many musicians nowadays, was not able to learn all the things he needed from his family life, and learned quite a lot of what proved useful to him simply through the generosity and good will of friends.

They apparently were never quite able to squelch the jovial and childlike nature of Beethoven, however, and that proved useful to him throughout the rest of his life, as his was not one without great hardships. Our tour guide explained that his father enjoyed drinking a bit too much for his own good, and when Beethoven was still only 10 years old was made to support his family, taking over his father's seat in the court orchestra. Then, as if that weren't enough, (wearing a powdered wig and playing in fancy dress suits for hours at a time is trying for even adults, let alone a child), his greatest aspiration of being able to study composition with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Vienna was dashed because he couldn't get the money quickly together to make the trip, and then Mozart died!

It was only from sheer luck that Beethoven met Josef Haydn on the streets of Bonn while Haydn was in town on tour, and after fervent begging, he agreed to take him on as his composition student (so, at least if he didn't get to study with Mozart, he got to study with Mozart's primary teacher). Beethoven's compositional skill and piano playing was so excellent that Haydn arranged for him to travel to Vienna to perform some of his pieces there in a series of concerts, sponsored financially by some of Haydn's friends. Of course, while Beethoven was in Vienna, his mother became very sick and died, and at the age of 20 Beethoven returned home to Bonn to bury her, take care of his younger siblings and continue his composing while looking for financial means to return to Vienna.

He eventually found new sponsors, and returned to Vienna whereupon he decided that he did not want to ever work as a court musician, like his Grandfather, or Father, or even like Mozart himself, and that he wanted to be a freelancer, and earn his own money outright based solely on the merit of his musicianship. So, he didn't take the easy road, did he? I mean, we all know nowadays how difficult freelancing still is- so he certainly deserves respect for such a bold decision. Though, through his pluck, determination, and the sheer prolific nature of his composing, he managed to attract a large group of enthusiasts for his music, and moreover, for him as a person.

He moved around a lot in Vienna like many people at the time, depending on how much money he was earning, and the season, etc., and therefore, since he didn't have servants unlike other Viennese, he was able to personally interact with his fellow citizens much more often. This, in turn, gained him respect from the bourgeois, and he became a beloved son of Vienna by all who came across his path. It was only later on, through the slow deterioration of his hearing, that he was seen with a bit of pity and callousness. Though, another interesting fact about Beethoven, because he lost his hearing over a period of many years (10 or more said the tour guide), he wrote a LOT of letters. He was, after all, only trying to protect his livelihood- as our tour guide so smartly reminded us that as an independent musician, even Beethoven would have been hired only infrequently if he were to admit that he was going deaf. So, he wrote a lot instead of talking to people.

Many of his letters are still within the vaults of the museum in Bonn, and it seems he was able to hide his hearing deficiency pretty completely up until he was nearly fully deaf. Again though, as might be a sign of his indeterminable spirit, or his desire to succeed in such a great undertaking as supporting his younger siblings on a musician's income, he never lost his sense of humor. Apparently, there are even letters within the collection of his writings where he wrote things like “Mein lieber Graf, du bist ein Schaf” (My dear Duke, you are a sheep—sadly it only rhymes in German), which of course would not have been tolerated by a Duke from anyone BUT Beethoven, I am sure. However, this also underscores the fact that he didn't take life so seriously, and he always gained the respect of those with whom he associated based on his abilities and who he was as a person, therefore he didn't have to hide his true nature, even from members of the Nobility.

The most impressive thing to me, though, was that our tour guide reminded us of how Mozart died- a genius, surely, but he was buried in a pauper's grave because of his debts.  No one came to his funeral because his extravagant way of life was non-relatable to normal people of the time, and his self-assured manner estranged Noble people from him. On the other hand, Beethoven's funeral was announced by his siblings to a small circle of friends, and instead of only 20 people showing up, news spread so quickly throughout Vienna and the surrounding area, that on the day of his funeral 20,000 people showed up! And, to put that in perspective, Vienna did not even have that many inhabitants at the time, so it can be assumed that many of his funeral guests had to travel for hours in horse-drawn carriages, simply to pay their respects.

All in all, knowing now what I know about Beethoven from this visit, I feel infinitely more in awe of him as a person, and infinitely more able to aspire to his greatness as a musician, and less intimidated by him, as it is clear now that he achieved what he did through unending devotion to his music and not solely through genius.

Monday, May 27, 2013

How Chicken Catching is a Metaphor for Singing

On Saturday of this past weekend, my boyfriend and I decided to visit a local organic produce stand, which happens to have a small farm on the premises where you can see all of the animals in their stalls.  After we had finished purchasing our produce, we took a stroll around the grounds, visiting and petting the goats, pigs, ponies, horses and cows, and it was while we were looking at the cows that we witnessed a true crisis situation unfolding right in front of our eyes.  Someone had accidentally left the door to the chicken house wide open and nearly all 500 chickens were now emerging onto the grounds outside of their house, as if they did this every afternoon.  The only thing that made us realize it was an emergency was because the workers were running around screaming and waving their hands in frustration as chicken after chicken flew, hopped or ran away from them. 

It was quickly unfolding into a full-blown catastrophe when we realized that they were calling for other people from the farm to come help them, but when we looked around we couldn't see anyone within earshot.  It was then that my boyfriend said to me, "Jul, we should go help them!" and I said feebly "But, how? I don't know the first thing about chicken catching!"  Then, after an admonishing look from him, I decided it was time to put aside my fears, and walked over to ask how I could help.  Funny enough, I was better at the whole thing than I thought, though I had no previous experience with chickens in the least, and of course, like every other challenge, it proved to be a valuable learning experience. 

The woman from the farm who was in charge of the chicken corralling mission explained to me that chickens feel most comfortable in groups and that we should use large wooden boards to herd them into smaller packs and then lead them back into the building where their coops were.  It was harder than I had imagined at first, because we had to remain totally calm and move at a very steady, slow pace during the herding, otherwise they could sense that we were rushing, or anxious, and they'd immediately scatter in all directions, thus making it necessary to start all over again with the herding.  So, we tried our best.  And it was funny!  During the process there were, of course, those couple chickens that simply decided something wasn't right about this herding situation, who turned tail and flew above the boards and out of our grasp, but sure enough, we eventually got them into one of the small groups and safely into the building.  The chickens' excited and nervous state made it imperative that we remained calm and exercise patience while herding, because they reacted immediately to each change in our collective energy.  Over the course of the process, we got better and better at herding and corralling bigger and bigger groups of chickens, and also losing fewer.  It was a hard-earned victory, but after two and a half hours, we had captured them all.  When the last chicken was back in her coop, we went to the bathroom to wash the mud and dirt off of our hands and jackets, satisfied with the help that we provided.  Later on, we found out that there were no other workers on the farm that day other than the ones who were already helping, because it was a Saturday.  So, my boyfriend was definitely right when he said we should help, and I know the farm workers were glad we did too!

Now you're probably wondering how this all ties in with some crazy metaphor about singing.  Well, I realized on Saturday that the whole process of catching, corralling and herding those chickens was very similar to learning to sing.  (Stay with me here....) At first, it seems like there's so much to do you don't even know where to start.  And, you're not sure if you should even begin, because beginning would mean that you'd open yourself up to the chance that you might fail.  Then, once you've overcome your fears about failing and have started, you realize that there are ways which make the doing of it much easier than others.  For example, when you stay calm and do things slowly and steadily more progress is made that you might have first believed.  However, once you realize which method works best for you, you keep on employing it, and eventually you gain competency and fluidity thereby increasing your pace, until you are doing things in a successful and time-efficient way every time. 

The difficulties about singing were also beautifully present in the chicken caper.  When we try to learn something too fast, or when we're not ready, normally the entire thing goes badly.  And, if you don't remain calm and concentrate solely on each task as you're completing it, you'll get lost in the details and worry about the one escaping chicken, when you should be glad that you've caught the other 7 chickens successfully.

So, when singing starts to feel like a bunch of escaping chickens, remember: they'll all get back into their coops eventually, and you can help them along by staying calm and focused!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Opera in Concert: How Much Staging Is Really Enough?

I'm writing this post today because I have seen more and more performances of Opera springing up on all sorts of stages and concert calendars, and often they are being performed 'in concert'.  I'm sure you've all seen concert performances of Opera throughout the years, and therefore I'm going to assume that you know what I'm talking about.  (If that assumption was wrong of me to make, ask me in the comments section of this post and I'll clarify.)  Anyway, I feel as a singer and budding stage director, it's important for me to examine with you the idea of performing Opera in a concert setting, so that we can find ways to make it a tad more interesting for the audience members. 

Although it could happen that most of the people in the audience are there because they just love this opera, we could also go out on a limb and suppose that there might be people in the audience who were dragged to this event by their spouse, or if they're children- by their parents, or perhaps people who just thought, "Hmm...I've got nothing to do this evening, let's see if this might be interesting."  Therefore, for those unwilling or potentially unwitting audience members, we as performers have to offer a little something more than just beautiful singing and stylistically appropriate interpretation.  Thus I give you: acting and stage direction!

Now you're probably thinking, "Wait a second! Concert opera is supposed to have no stage direction- that's why it's being performed in a concert setting! Duh!" To which I say, "Excuse me, but I beg to differ!"  Just because the singers may be performing on the edge of a symphonic stage, positioned on either side of the conductor and in front of the orchestra while sometimes holding scores, or propping them on music stands, that doesn't mean that we must divest ourselves from the dramatic action of the opera itself.  Who ever said it had to be that boring?!

It might be good for us to take this opportunity to address what's been done already in terms of 'Concert Opera' and isn't really working.  There's of course the obvious: no stage direction at all, where all the singers dutifully act as if glued to their music and stand up and sit down as if they were puppets in a marionette theater piece.  Despite what sorts of things you might find amusing as an audience member, even if the portly Tenor's chair makes a loud creaking sound each time he resumes his position in it, whereupon the Conductor gives him a death stare, over time this is surely not the most diverting form of musical enjoyment.

There's also the strange way that I've seen a lot of duets performed in concert opera settings where the Soprano and Baritone are sitting or standing next to one another in the lineup on stage and when they sing their duet together they just sort of gesture to the other person with their eyes or vaguely look as if they're going to move towards the other person but never quite manage to actually do it.  This is basically the ultimate cliffhanger for the audience because the entire time they're singing the duet you're thinking to yourself "Are they going to do something? Is he going to embrace her? Is she going to slap him? What's going to happen?!?" and after a while your brain is about to explode until, at the end, they finally do nothing at all.  How disappointing!

Then there's the possibility that we encounter the Tenor and Soprano in a semi-staged performance of a love duet.  I can hear the "Ooohs and Aaaahhs" in your brain already!  And yes, it will of course be gorgeously sung, although the one thing that it will be lacking is staging that works.  For example, there are two very beautiful and talented singers who perform together quite often in these sorts of operatic duets whom you may know and whom I won't directly mention (This link will though!).  They are obviously top-notch singers; it is clear from listening to their beautiful voices that their technique is flawless, plus they are both very beautiful people from a purely physical perspective.  At first you find yourself maybe thinking things like "Wow! He's gorgeous! And boy, she's beautiful! Sheesh! Seems like their voices are amazing come some people get all the talent?" (or something along those lines....) but, then doesn't your mind start to wonder things like "Why isn't she looking more sincere while she's singing? Why is he only convincingly acting when he's not singing? And why, when they're both singing together, do I find it hard to look at them and believe them? I want more and I want better!" (or, again, something along those lines...)  Maybe it's because they both look as if their heads are going to explode and could care less about the love they're supposedly proclaiming for one another, or maybe it's because we just want more as audience members when the singers are so vocally top-notch, but these sorts of performances somehow still leave us wanting.  Of course, some would argue that you simply can't smile while singing a high and long note, even if that's what the character in this circumstance would otherwise do, had the composer not written such complex music!  And, you would be partially right.  Though, there is more to it.  

Now, I know that to those of you who truly love classical singing, my comments might seem a tad harsh.  And truthfully enough, they are meant to be provocative in order to remind us all of the fact that we can do better as performers!  I certainly think that there are enough performers out there who are really very good, but I don't think that there are enough of them in concert settings who really go the extra mile.  I'm talking about making the experience a fabulous one for the audience members, and offering them something they wouldn't see or hear elsewhere.  After all, it's the job of an artist (even when they may have to take the reigns as stage director in these types of situations) to create art that reaches audiences in ever-changing and exciting new ways. 

I can hear already the commentary in your head saying something like "Well, I would be able to do that if I just had more time to prepare the material better!"  To which I say: "Brilliant!", but seemingly not cost-effective when we live in a world where you often have only minimal time to prepare, and are expected to provide maximum output when you perform.  This line of reasoning leads most singers to the conclusion: "So, then because I'm a singer, I better make sure the singing's the best I can do, and I can maybe not worry so much about the acting- it will come in the moment from the adrenaline."  WRONG!  So many singers have thought those very things and then when it came time to perform, their acting was sub-par or perhaps even non-existent.  I know that it's hard to perform consistently at your best because of the time crunch.  No matter who you are and what your financial situation is, as a singer you've probably been in the situation before where you've either had to work, which took up a lot of the time you'd be normally using to practice, or you simply had other life obligations (e.g. a new baby, having a family in general, moving, caring for elderly parents) and whatever the case may be, I know you simply don't have all the time in the world to practice. 

Therefore, I'd like to make the case that if you use your available practice time for incorporating world-class acting into your most-likely-already-excellent singing (let's face it, many people are simply perfectionists and obsess about silly things which no normal audience member would even notice as being 'wrong') you will have more overall success as a performer.  Think about it: if we've learned anything from the world we live in today, we're a culture where the visual aspect of things is extremely important.  So, no matter how much emphasis you personally place on your singing vs. acting (15% acting, 85% singing, for example), the average audience member will reverse that ratio in his or her mind, and if you aren't doing much of anything besides poorly improvising the acting in the moment, then what do you suppose your chances of being lauded as an excellent performer by the audience might be?  You get the picture.

Ultimately, you will have to make the decision for yourself whether or not to take a chance in testing out my theory and perhaps changing your way of preparing and performing, but I would like to wager that if you do, you won't be disappointed.  In fact, if there are any of you who are reading this and have contrary or similar thoughts or advice on this topic, I'd love to read about it in the comments section below, and I'm sure the other readers would too!