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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!!!!!!!!!!! [<-for cha="" don="" emphasis="" extra="" know.="" nbsp="" p="" t="">
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 :)





BEETHOVEN'S BIRTHPLACE FROM FRONT!
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 too.....how 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!

 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Stress: It's Really a Killer (Especially for us Thespians!)

Although in the past three months I've been very busy singing at lots of different places and experiencing the joy of being able to perform and bring enjoyment (hopefully) to lots of audience members, I have been experiencing quite a lot of depressing thoughts and having trouble motivating myself to keep moving forward on this (seemingly endless) career path.

I sang the role of Konstanze in Laubach, Germany in my first-ever open-air opera performance, and I also participated in Joan Dorneman's IVAI in Virginia for the second year in a row, where I got many hours of vital coaching and lessons with the best vocal professionals from New York and around the world.  I have two other potential engagements coming up in the months ahead, and I have received positive critical feedback from more agents than ever before.  Even though it seems like I should be 'on cloud 9' right now, I am feeling more like I dropped into a labyrinth of delusion and despair.

I am guessing that these feelings of mine might have something to do with the fact that I don't necessarily admit to myself (often, if at all, really) that this career is hard.  It requires a certain amount of emotional and psychological de-cluttering and purifying, and I haven't been vigilant about doing that on a regular basis after each project/performance that I complete.  Often times I think we as performers, and I know certainly I do this all the time, only consider that we are put here 'as vessels' to touch those people in the audience with the public and non-censored self-sacrifice of our souls which will bring the 'message' of the performance clearly across.  But, if we keep going about doing such reckless things without taking the necessary precautions of cleaning up the remains of our strewn innards on the stages of this world, we run the risk (like I am currently finding out) of becoming only the parts of ourselves that we remembered to take with us and pack back into our bodies when we are finished.  So, since I know that the zombie-mauled-looking-corpse that I have become (in a figurative sense) doesn't interest anyone, least of all ME, I am going to let everyone know now, through this blog post, that I am taking a little bit of time off from being so open (at least for the next few months) and working on getting back the pieces of me that I didn't know how to clean off after the last few shows.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Vocal Rest": A Gift for Everyone to Experience!

There is a, perhaps outside of the professional singing community, little-known phenomenon called "vocal rest" which has recently made a big difference in my life.  I'd like to share how it all happened, because--a blog necessitates that sharing between me and you (the reader) goes on to ensure that you know more about me, and through writing I know more about me, and through reading my writing, perhaps you find out more about yourself, as well.

Anyway, I've been on "vocal rest" (which for a non-singer just means not talking at all for a certain period of time...literally 'resting your voice' by not using it---simple enough, right?) because I actually have been singing too much and my voice isn't sounding or working as well as it normally does.  Now, even though I actually went on "vocal rest" because I wanted to allow my singing voice to recuperate, in addition to that happening, it has also given me the time to notice a number of things in my life (strangely, not unlike the theme of the recent movie "A Thousand Words") which are unnecessary and not maybe the best for me.  For example, saying things that I don't really need to say, or saying things which I'd regret later are simply things that I can leave out of my life and not be the worse for it.  I've seemingly been spared from several embarassing or awkward moments during this period of vocal rest, and I actually quite like it.  Besides, in a community where I am normally spending the majority of my time communicating through singing words (which someone else wrote and which I have to interpret) perhaps it would be wise for me to use the words that are my own, outside of singing, more wisely.

Especially since I have come to realize through this necessary "vocal rest" time (because I was singing too much when my voice was particularly vulnerable and then it just got worse....seems like a no-brainer there but did I listen to my 'inner' voice on that one? You can guess the answer on that---otherwise I'd not need to be on "vocal rest", would I?) I've figured out now more of what I need to do for myself in order to listen to my gut when I should, and how to not let that get lost in all the other things going on in life, and let it get shouted down by life's numerous demands (or the demands of other people, for that matter!).

So, I know that I have written a pretty short summation of my feelings on the importance of some time spent actually purposely not talking, whether it be to fix vocal issues (perhaps self-imposed, as in my case) or just to become more aware of what we say or would say, which might not serve us, and how we can be more careful to choose to always use our inner voices to guide us in deciding how we represent ourselves with our words (which is, let's face it, how most people get to know or understand who and what we're about).

Therefore, hope you all will be perhaps a bit less talkative, or at least try the concept of "vocal rest" if you're feeling like maybe you could use a bit of perspective (and you singers, ..... maybe it's not such a bad thing if you have to go on "vocal rest"---look for the bit of wisdom that comes with it)!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Audition Tactics for Emerging Opera Singers?

Are there such things as audition tactics for Emerging Opera Singers to use to their advantage in order to be the one chosen for an engagement?  That's exactly what I've been asking myself these past few months in order to figure out how I can improve my number of successful auditions completed, and in this case, successful means that I got chosen to sing the role.  So, I've read a LOT of industry publications, Classical Singer, for example, and every interview I could get my hands on with someone who is right beyond where I currently am (a.k.a. working consistently at reputable opera houeses and not just intermittently) and, I have come to the sad, but perhaps logical conclusion in this very fickle business of mine and yours, that there is no straight forward way to systematically improve yourself in order to get hired.  Everyone is looking for something different (in terms of things that you can change outside of having a good voice and being a believeable actress/actor).

Though, along the way I have definitely learned a few things which help me, and which I would now like to share with you below (it's a short list of things, actually).

1. Always get there at least an hour early.  It ensures that you can find a place to warm up (especially if you have to share rooms with the other singers who are also auditioning) and that you won't be stressed running around the opera house looking for a bathroom, a place to change clothes, the pianist, the audition location, etc.

2. Wear something in which you feel comfortable AND fancy.  I know that may seem like a contradictory statement, but, let's face it, all auditioning committees want to see someone who is clean-looking, wearing something that fits adequately (not too tight, too short, or too baggy), who can project self-confidence (a.k.a. don't wear something that you don't like the way it makes you feel or how it looks on you), and who can perform in their outfit as if they were 100% at ease.  It should be that the clothing you're wearing doesn't draw any attention away from your wonderful performance, but only adds to your success when the audition committee notices what you're wearing when you walk into the room, and when you leave (in the middle they should be mesmerized by your singing if all goes according to plan).

3. Bring extra copies of your press materials (headshots, resumes, repertoire lists, press reviews) and have them paperclipped together in organized packets- approximately 3-5 sets- so that in case they have people on the jury who didn't see your materials, you can provide them with a copy.

4. Make sure to greet the members of the jury upon entering the room AS WELL AS the pianist!  Most people forget them, and you know, they're important- perhaps that's the assistant conductor who's playing for you, or the main coach.  Don't forget- the first impression is an important one- so make sure to be relaxed, be confident and be cheerful in how you greet everyone.

5. Begin your audition with your most secure piece (aria or art song- whatever's required) and if there is anything to talk about with the pianist beforehand make sure to do that and take your time explaining any musical changes or tempo changes or dynamic changes, etc...  They will appreciate you pointing it out, it looks professional to the jury, and you will be able to perform better and feel more secure.  Then, make sure that the pieces that you brought to the audition (regardless of whether or not they're the arias from the pieces the company will be doing in the coming season) are things which you feel vocally comfortable with and which you could also sing at a moment's notice well.

6. Be kind to your colleagues who are also there to audition- you would be surprised who knows whom, and if you aren't nice, it could get around and might hurt your chances of being hired for a future gig, or hey...maybe one of those singers already knows the conductor, or whoever, and anyway....you see where I'm going with this.  It ALWAYS pays to be nice.  So, get over your psychological issues (or your shyness!) and try to open yourself up to meeting new people and being friendly to them.  I mean, if everyone is sitting in the room staring at the wall until they sing and looking nervous it's not going to make it any easier for anyone if that environment continues that way.  Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is thankful when they receive a compliment or can talk about something to get their minds off of the audition coming up, or at least break up their negative self-talk going on in their minds.

7. Make sure to honestly evaluate the circumstances of the audition and what happened after you've sung.  If you really did your best, then you should let it be and hope for the best.  If there were things that you could have improved which you want to do better int he next audition- take note of them and work on them in the practice room in the coming days/weeks/months.  It rarely pays to berate yourself (unless that sort of thing is necessary to get your butt in motion but...considering you're even trying to make it in such a difficult profession I highly doubt this possitility) and the main result you'll get from doing that is depression and frustration.  So, let's not go down that road, shall we?

8.  This is really the most important thing for me and which I make sure to do EVERY time I sing somewhere- is: perform and communicate to your audience!!!!!!!  I don't care if it's a group of hard-of-hearing old folks at a senior citizens home, your Aunt Nellie, your dog, three famous jury members who aren't even looking at you, sportsfans in the audience at the Superbowl, etc....  The most important thing you can do is to always communicate your characters' story (and also YOUR story) every time that you sing.  If you don't....you're not doing your job- plain and simple.  So, don't let those jury members psych you out who don't look at you- then tell the wall behind their heads your story- but tell it truthfully and well.  And you know, you'd be surprised how that makes them look at you after a few well-sung bars.  Trust me!

Okay, so.....I guess that all there is left to say now is: GO OUT THERE AND NAIL THOSE AUDITIONS!!! :)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Audition for Operklosterneuburg, an Austrian Summer Opera Festival

In January of this year, I auditioned for the Operklosterneuburg, a very important summer opera festival in a town called Klosterneuburg, which is approximately twenty minutes outside of Vienna in a northerly direction with the regional train.  They were looking for singers for the Donizetti opera, Don Pasquale and I thought that the role of Norina would be well-suited to my voice (though perhaps not quite fully yet to sing it in a large opera house- therefore I auditioned for this program which serves also as a sort of a 'final-step' for emerging opera singers).

I have nothing but wonderful things to say about the entire experience actually, although in the end I was not chosen for the role.  Therefore I will bore you with details of how my own audition went since you already know the result (ha!) but instead I'll give you a brief synopsis of how it was for me to travel there, so that you too can get an idea of what might be awaiting you if you plan on auditioning.

I took the train actually from Dortmund to Vienna (which took approximately 10 hours) and stayed overnight in Vienna.  Then I woke up the next morning (I can recommend the A&O Hostel near the Westbahnhof, for those of you who were wondering where I stayed), ate a wonderful breakfast (courtesy of the A&O- yay them!) warmed up in my room a teensy bit (aka- hummed for 20 minutes) and then took the regional transit train to the town of Klosterneuburg, where the Kloster (Convent) is located and where the audition was being held.

Upon arriving in town it's easy enough to spot the convent hanging on the side of a large hill, sort of precariously it seems, when viewed from the angle of the train tracks, and I made my way by foot in that direction.  It took me only about 10 minutes to walk there from the train platform, via a steep inclined path which led me through a huge wrought-iron door and an old archway onto the Kloster grounds.  There was no one really around outside (it was a super cold day- of course! lol...) and so I walked around a bit admiring the buildings' grand statuesque gothic architecture while trying to find someone to ask for directions to the building where the audition was taking place.

I finally ran into someone who looked like he was in a hurry to get somewhere (a.k.a.- "He knows where he's going, therefore he must know where I should be going too", was my reasoning) and I asked him for directions.  He pointed me in the direction of a town square which was adjacent and abutted the Kloster property toward the east, and I exited the official Kloster grounds and entered the town square approaching the building he showed me.  Upon entering, it reminded me instantly of a high school auditiorium lobby: low ceilings, pseudo-1960's-esque wood paneling on the walls, stone floors.... and I made my way to the office and found one of the coordinators of the program and the auditions and he informed me that there were rooms to warm up in downstairs.  I had arrived there approximately an hour early (because I was in the habit of doing that since I had learned it was better than being rushed for me psychologically) and so I proceeded in a leisurely way to go to the practice rooms downstairs (which turned out to be two huge halls, actually, so that was awesome!) and warm up and change my clothes for the audition.

After about 40 minutes I was finished warming up, and I went upstairs because I was technically (according to the email invitation I received) due to be singing in 10 minutes.  So, I found out that the audition room was directly next to the entrance through which I came earlier that morning (with the wood paneling) and so I waited there, with a Baritone colleague who had also showed up around the time I had, and who was also there to audition.

He was called into the audition room first, so I waited in an adjoining room off of the opposite side of the entrance lobby so that I didn't have to listen to his singing through the door (which I really don't like to do when I'm mentally preparing for an audition and am about to go on--it psychs me out somehow and I can't focus as well...).  He was in there for about 15 minutes and then they called me in to sing.  There were only two people in the Jury- one was the Intendant of the program and the other I'm still not sure of (drat! darn you Google for not having a photo of everyone and their mother available to me to search through....) and the pianist actually upon seeing him I felt that I had seen him before somewhere but couldn't quite place his face (sadly).  I began with the aria I always begin with (I unfortunately did not have time to prepare Norina's aria "Quel guardo il cavaliere" for the audition even though I knew that they were auditioning for Don Pasquale, so although they asked if I had brought it with me I said that I hadn't and said I'd be offering something else and they seemed okay with it) and I think it went really well.  The pianist was terrific (who was he!? Man oh man that's going to kill me....) and I felt as if I was really totally free to interpret my aria like I wanted to acting-wise and vocally-speaking, and not have to concede to less-than-stellar piano playing (like is often the case here in Europe, I've found) and I was really glad.  So, after the audition was finished (I only sang my one aria- it's relatively long so they didn't ask for a second) they asked me what drew me to apply for the program, and then that was it.  Although I was heartened by the one nameless Jury member who ushered me out of the room and assured me that I sang "really very well" (said in German, of course) and I thought to myself "you know, for being on a train 10 hours a day ago, it's really awesome that I did so well today".

And that was it!  I wish there was more to tell, but honestly I just walked to the train station there in Klosterneuburg, arrived in Wien (Vienna) and then waited around for my train.

JUST KIDDING! There IS more to tell.  Though, if you don't want to read about my touristy experiences in Vienna, you can stop reading here.  Otherwise, proceed!

So, after getting back into the center of Wien with the regional train, I had 5 hours to kill before my train left from the Westbahnhof (West train station) and so I thought to myself "Heck! I'm not going to waste my time in Vienna waiting around in the train station! Especially when I've had such a great day thus far.  Therefore.....what can I do which I haven't done before when I was here last October?"  And that was how the plan was born to visit the Prunksaal (Showroom) of the Nationalbibliothek (Viennese National State Library)!

I actually had a heck of a time finding the place....it took me about 20 minutes of walking around downtown near the Reitschule (Riding school) of the Lippanzaner Stallions (which is located near the palace where Kaiserin Elisabeth lived, a.k.a. "Sissi") and then a few wrong turns and some direction-asking until I found out that it was located in the building attached to the Kaiserin's palace, but not connected to it via any sort of hallway, etc.  They are simply two buildings smushed onto one another with no way of entering either except for exiting both.  (Yea...tricky, huh? Ah, those Viennese!!)  So, I walked into (finally!) the building where the Prunksaal was located (it's actually not on the ground floor of the building, which surprised me, but rather on the second floor which is also kind of cool- considering it's a multi-story room itself!) and I was somewhat shocked by its rather spare white marble appearance.  For the entryway to something called the "Prunksaal", literally translated that means "Pagentry/Pomposity/Grandiosity Hall" it was rather less pageant-like and more.....nice-lawyer's-office-like.  But, ah well......I proceeded to purchase a ticket (4 Euros for students- not bad--perhaps one of the cheaper things I've done in Vienna to be honest---everything else is really quite expensive- even with a student discount, I might add) and I ascended the large (again, white marble) staircase.  There was a guard who was checking tickets at the top of the stairs right in front of the doorway to the Prunksaal, so I handed him my ticket and entered the Saal.

Man oh man!  If there was a reason why everything else in the building was so minimally decorated, I'd wager it was because nothing else could compare to the splendor, and dare I say it, "pagentry", of this room.  It was simply the most amazing and wonderful room I've ever seen (and let me tell you, I have seen some great rooms- I've been to Versailles, Schloss Belvedere, Schloss Charlottenburg, Schloss Sans Souci, Schloss Neuschwanstein, Schloss Mirabell, Schloss Schönbrunn, the Hofburg....and probably others I can't think of right now) and I really cannot remember ONE single room which I thought to be so splendid as this library/hall.  I actually wondered as I wandered (cheesy Christmas song lyric reference!) through the hall (which was actually the private library of the monarchy at the time of the Kaisers' rule in Austria) if it was the room which the Disney animators of Beauty and the Beast used as a model when they drew the library in the Beast's palace, because it was SO similar to that in terms of design and feel.  It was a two-story hall where every wall was lined with built-in bookshelves which stretched from floor to ceiling and were filled with old, precious leather-bound books containing the first editions of important literary works and the details of important discoveries of historical, biological and every other kind of significance.  Truly a collection of books fit for kings and queens, to be sure.

There was also a really cool exhibit on display of the original lithographs of an Austrian biologist who had been the first to document in drawings with color the appearance of several different species of animals- and had put together basically the first field guide to identifying these animals by sight (but, I have to say, the drawings that were on display were SO gorgeous, we'd consider them nowadays worthy of an art gallery and less-so a biology text book, even though they were also accurate depictions of these animals).

I actually found myself wishing that libraries today still looked like this (though I do have to say that Columbia University's East Asian Library does look similar to this--it's two stories and has those book ladders but is not nearly as large, has as cool books or is nearly as full of "pagentry" as this place was) and I was really starting to look around for a comfy chair to settle into and simply admire the beauty of this place, and what do you know!?  There were chairs designated for that very purpose situated at different locations all over the hall!  So.....they really did think of everything, those Austrians.  To say the least, I was impressed.

Then, after I had soaked up as much of the knowledge of the past as I could after gazing upon leather cover after leather cover of that library's treasure trove, I made my way, tired, but happy, toward the Westbahnhof and the train back to Dortmund.