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Thursday, December 3, 2015

German Lied Interpretation: Do we really have to keep digging up Fischer-Dieskau????

Okay, so I'll set the scene for you: yesterday evening I had an impromptu audition for the Sueddeutsche Schubertgesellschaft e.V. (which translates to Southern German Schubert Society, a Non-Profit, here's their website, if you're curious) which was organized only the day prior, and which I was looking forward to for a few reasons. Actually, I found out about about them through a flyer I'd seen where they were advertising for a series of concerts of Schubert's music where the profits from the performances were to go entirely to benefit the Refugees here in Munich, so that made me think, "Yeah, what a good cause! Maybe I can help by offering my singing and then they'd have more concerts and make more money and it'd be great!" You get the picture.

Then, I thought about it some more and decided to call them and see what they said. At least I'd get the chance to sing some German Lieder (aka Art Song) which I hadn't done in a while, even if I wasn't getting paid anything to do it. After all, it was for a cause which I believe in, and which I really would like to support, and considering that I have this ability, why not use it if there is the chance? (That was my train of thought, anyway. Soon to be derailed as you'll find out, but nonetheless, a pretty good one, right?)

I practiced the day before pretty intensely the two songs that I wanted to sing, and then I went there the day of being pretty positive that I'd done good work and I could offer something of value. At least I was certain that I wasn't making a fool of myself. After all, I'd had Lindsey Christiansen's German Lieder class (Westminster Choir College students will appreciate this reference to a very beloved professor) and I was no dummy! I knew all the "rules" and I was going to do what I could do adhere to them while also making my own individual artistic statement through my interpretation.

So, I get there and I'm confronted with a man probably in his late 50's or early 60's who gives the impression of a scholarly individual, surrounded with his walls and walls of Classical Literature and Art Song scores and Composers' Biographies, etc. He was the Vorsitzender (aka guy in charge) of the Schubert Society and also the Pianist who played for all of their concerts (Coincidence? I think not.). He took my coat and I told him I'd like to sing "Gretchen am Spinnrade" and "Heidenroeslein", two pretty standard pieces, which many people know and love. I have coached both of these pieces countless times with professional musicians in the USA and I know that I sing them well. It's a simple fact. I don't sing them with intonation problems, pronunciation problems, or rhythmic mistakes. Those things are objective and can be precisely determined to be correct or incorrect. Besides, technical perfection doth not a transcendent performance make! (How many times has that been proven to us as Audience Members (<--i a="" after="" because="" been="" behalf="" br="" capitalizing="" cold="" emotional="" investment="" left="" m="" missing="" of="" on="" performance="" performer="" s="" that="" the="" ve="" we="" when="">

So I sing the first piece ("Gretchen am Spinnrade", here's a link of Jessye Norman singing it, which is NOT unlike my interpretation in terms of dynamics...) and I did what I do- I painted my interpretation of Gretchen's inner turmoil by using different dynamics, emphasizing certain words in the sentences by making them louder or pronouncing them especially distinctly, and certainly altering the treatment of words that are repeated so that each restatement is different in some way. These techniques are all commonly taught to us singers to help make our performance unique, and also allow us to 'make an Artistic Statement'.

Well, you can imagine that I was then completely baffled to hear after I'd finished singing that I had done it completely and utterly wrong. First of all, I had not adhered to Schubert's dynamics (to which my brain replied "There are only dynamics written in the Piano part, not in the vocal line, so it's more of a suggestion for us singers. If Schubert had wanted the dynamics to be in the vocal line then he'd have written them there. Obviously he didn't have any issue writing them in the piano part so....."), and then he went on to tell me that I had interpreted it WAY too dramatically and that I hadn't observed the many Pianississimos which were in the score (again, in the PIANO part of the score), and that I also had some pronounciation issues with consonants and vowels (convient, since I'm not a native speaker, always an easy thing to pick on and a thing upon which I cannot defend myself, since what am I supposed to say to that?, but funnily enough when I asked him which ones he just said "Oh, all the um-lauts" which, uh specific. (NOT!)) [Let me just insert at this moment that I have worked with Brigitte Fassbaender in a week-long Masterclass on Strauss Lieder and Zerbinetta's Aria (all of which have many um-lauts in them!) and she only corrected the way that I said the the vowel in the word 'Herz' (mine was too closed) and that's it! She even went on to congratulate me, out of all the participants- some of whom were German!!- in having the cleanest diction! So, let me just say.....this guy was full of bull.]

Then he asked me where I  had studied and after I told him (Undergrad at Westminster Choir College, Master's at Hunter College, private studies with J. Dornemann and G. Martin Moore as well as working with a whole slew of other notable teachers and coaches in the USA and in Germany), he proceeded to tell me that studying German Lieder (= Art Song) was a special two-year degree program at German Music Conservatories and that in order for me to properly be able to master the discipline of singing this type of music I'd have to study AT LEAST two more years, and he kindly inserted at this point too (after I'd told him I was 31) that it may not even be possible for me to study this anymore because I'm getting too old to be accepted into the Conservatories here and that they also have a "very difficult" entrance audition exam and they don't take everyone. Of course, IF I studied with him to prepare for it, PERHAPS I'd make the cut.

It was at this point that I'd heard enough and wanted to get the hell out of there when he said "Well, perhaps I could hear your second piece" and whereupon I thought "What the heck for?!" but kindly and with as much dignity as I could muster said "Sure," thinking all the while that perhaps he just didn't like the Gretchen interpretation and he'd find this one better. Or, I could still win him over. WRONG! Oh, gosh- how wrong I was!

After singing "Heidenroeslein" for him, he just said, "Yes......hmm. Well, make sure to call the voice teacher I recommended and talk with her about all these issues that I just explained to you, because if you keep singing like you are now, you won't have a voice left in 15 years."

I was shocked. No, that's an understatement. I was mad at myself for listening to that kind of crap without calling him out on his wrongness, AND I was upset that it was bothering me so much to hear what he had to say, because who was he, anyway?! I would have never even HEARD of the Schubert Gesellschaft if it weren't for a flyer that I'd seen on the street, so it can't be a monumentally important organization. And, to top it all off, I KNEW that the Germans have this strange affinity for the "Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau" approach to Lieder singing (i.e. a very 'precious' way of singing everything with very little dynamic contrast and rather as if one was entranced, with a sort of dreamy quality), and I shouldn't have expected my interpretation to be well-recieved, since I was singing it in a more dramatic way. (Although, apparently even this was not entirely correct of me to think, because after some thorough YouTube research this morning of the most notable singers in the past decades who sung this piece (including Germans!), even they were dramatic in their interpretations! So, yeah. Take that, stupid dude.)

After a lot of feeling shitty about this whole situation (and some crying to just let out the pressure!), I thought about it and realized some important things, many of which I had already known, but which this helped me to remember. The first thing: Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. The second thing (and most important!): Next time when I'm confronted with someone of this particular level of close-mindedness (because I'd honestly never be interested in working with someone like this, whether they gave me the gig or not) I might as well tell them what I think of them, just as they did to me, and make it plain that I entirely disagree, that I will not be looking for any chance to work with them in the future, and that their kind of small-mindedness is what contributes to the stasis of their art. I mean, for crying out loud, if they want to hear a freaking Fischer-Dieskau-esque interpretation of all the Schubert Lieder forever, then why not just play a damn CD!? (Don't get me wrong, his interpretation was great, but also uniquely his!)

We don't need to train new generations of singers for that---to be machines that will simply spit out an interpretation which is exactly the same in every nuance as that which someone did 50 years ago!!!! How does that offer artistic freedom? How does that bring into the song something new and exciting? How does that help the singer make their own statement with the piece? How does it show to younger listeners the relevance of Schubert still today? It doesn't. It doesn't do any of these things, and it simply leads to people (like this dude) who think that any other way of doing it is wrong. 100% wrong. To which I say, well, I certainly wouldn't want to make music like that, and I'm not going to! AND, my conscious choice to perform these pieces differently will gain me an audience who is entirely unlike this dude, and who is instead, open-minded, looking for something fresh and new, interested in realizing all the different chances that each piece of music offers, and able to appreciate the differences for what they are- an informed Artistic Perspective that is individual and was carefully considered and lovingly crafted, and therefore worthy. Worthy in all musical and psychological and humanistic senses. Worthy to be heard.

So, I'm going to continue to look for those types of opportunities because I would never want anything less for my singing, and for myself.

And uh, yeah, fellow Singers....about the Schubert Gesellschaft e.V.- maybe steer clear of them....

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Consternation of Coloratura Cadenza Crafting

Well, hello all! Welcome to another Thursday morning, just like any other really, except for the nagging guilt of my taking time off of cadenza research and instead writing this blog post for you! Why do I write today, you ask? Does it have to do with the cacophonous collision of c's in the title of this blog post? Why yes, yes it does. My, aren't you awake this morning!

Currently I find myself in a 'Groundhog Day' of sorts. One which was created by the dreaded task that faces all singers sooner or later, and especially those of my particular voice type: Coloratura Sopranos. Ha!- as if it wasn't enough that we have to sing the dang things, someone still decided to rub it in by naming our variety of Soprano by the very thing that is currently making me look for excuses to clean the house, namely, coloratura cadenzas. Coming up with cadenzas with coloratura passages that ultimately show off your voice but also 'fit' the style of the music is something that each and every singer will either totally love or completely dread. Guess which side I'm on? That's right, the dread side.

And sadly, dread it I do. Because what's there to love? I'm not a good enough piano player to work them out on my own (like some people can do who just sit down at the piano and say, "Hmm, this is built on a dominant chord so let's see here....(and then play something totally amazing) and then be like "....yeah, that'll work." And then they don't even need to WRITE IT DOWN to remember it. Show-offs.) No, I'm certainly not one of those people. And I'm also not one of those people who just has the creativity to keep trying to make things up by ear until something sounds good (because, let's face it, what I think sounds good and what the people who know the style think sounds good, are two very different things). So, what I'm left with (Garn!) is doing research instead. In concrete terms, that means that I listen to a thousand different versions of the aria that contains the cadenza passage (which okay, there's not a thousand, but it certainly does feel like it after you've listened to every person of note singing the aria and then rewound each cadenza at least three times to listen to what they're doing, and then transcribe it (!!!) and then compare all of them side-by-side to determine which ones you like the best, or if any of them happen to lend themselves to being combined together to make something a bit old and still a bit new....) and then finally, after that long process, figure out which ones are right for me and my voice and my sense of the drama (by singing through all of them, naturally). And until that point, my friends, sometimes days have gone by! And this is just one Aria we're talking about!!! God forbid it has a da capo and then you've got to figure out all new ornaments for the second time around.

Of course there is that moment where you finally find the cadenzas that you want to use and then it seems as if the heavens have opened up and Beverly Sills and Sumi Jo and Joan Sutherland are all patting you on the back.......but that's a very short-lived moment.

So.....while you take this moment to ponder how I can improve my cadenza research so that it takes less time (please God, is there actually a way!?) and let me know your ideas in the comments below, I'm going to go vacuum the apartment. :)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Musician's Responsibility to Humanity in Times of Crisis

In light of all the things which have been happening recently (especially the most recent mass shootings and bombings in Paris carried out by ISIS) and all of the terribly violent crimes against humanity that have happened in the recent past (the Ferguson shooting, all the horrible genocides taking place throughout Africa and the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan, the silent takeover of the Krim by Russia....the list could go on and on) I feel that I need to talk about our role as Musicians in society when circumstances like these provide us the opportunity to make a real change. Not that our music making wasn't already altering the lives of those who witnessed it, but rather, in situations of less volatility, our music's message may not have been understood with as much gravitas as is possible now.

Why is it that whenever there is too much sadness in the world people look to music to give hope, provide insight, ease discomfort and affect change? (Of course there are those who would argue that music has also played a large role in wartime; there's nothing like a spirited marching song or beloved national anthem which rallies troops. This article from provides some interesting insight into that topic, if you'd like to read further.) However, today I want to talk about the positive, transformational power of music, and our responsibility as Musicians in using it thusly. (Because as I am sure you fellow Musicians can all agree, any of the world famous composers whose works were re-purposed for the sake of rallying troops into battle would be utterly horrified by the fact that their music could now be connected with giving soldiers the spirit to go out and kill other human beings. I've not found anything while reading composer's bios (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss... take your pick) which indicates that they were fans of war, and in fact, the only thing I really remember taking to heart about all of these world-famous-musical-giants was that they were all incredibly emotionally sensitive and clued-in to the subtle underpinnings of our being here on this earth, so much so that many of them were recluse. So, I guess that's my way of saying, "Take that! All you people who would try to argue that Beethoven's symphonies were practically written for war. He and his other famous contemporaries were basically pacifists, or had simply too much common sense to support anything, like war, which caused harm to the human race.")

Nonetheless, I digress. (Ha- that rhymes!) Sorry.....back to the main point, which is: there is a critical amount of hatred, fear, misunderstanding and reactivity in this world we live in today, and I hope that each and every one of you takes the chance in the next few days, weeks and months, to do something about it by creating music which counteracts all this evil. We all know that there are songs which are particularly poignant and appropriate to this current climate, and we all know at least one location where we could give a concert which would reach a large audience (...whether or not you get paid! Consider- this is truly a chance to make a difference on a larger scale- and isn't THAT why we all became Musicians in the first place?!?). You could enlist your friends and colleagues to help you organize it (if you've got friends who are in advertising get them to make your posters, if you've got friends in web design get them to make you a quick, easy website, if you've got friends who are always on social media get them to spread the word about your performance, etc!) and therefore, we do not have any more excuses (about lack of time or resources, because who the heck wouldn't want to help you create something SO GOOD for the benefit of everyone?!) to not be spreading the positive energy through our performances. And then video record it and share it on YouTube and Facebook. Because one concert can go a long way nowadays thanks to recording technology.

You know, good-energy-creation is also boosted by doing more than just selecting throught-provoking repertoire. You can use the space in between pieces to talk about your own thoughts and feelings about our current global situation and how that relates directly to you and those in your community. Once you're on that stage, you've got time until the show's over. So use it- be brave and speak honestly and with compassion. Talk about how subconsciously holding onto these negative feelings lead to a stressed-out society. Or how such feelings manifest mistrust amongst people of different cultures.  Maybe you could explain how a general feeling of anxious alertness hampers your creativity? Why not remind them of the inherent artistry of each and every human being, and with the number of people dying in wars (of various kinds) nowadays, we are losing unknown riches by never allowing the voices of those who are the victims to be shared. At any rate, there are many reasons to talk to your audience members, and to help them realize that now they have the responsibility to carry the message onward.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Practical Guide To Singing While Sick

As a singer, I try to avoid getting sick. I'm not talking about life-threatening illnesses, I'm talking about your everyday colds that turn into sinus infections, Bronchitis, the Flu, Strep Throat, Laryngitis, and those sorts of sicknesses. Of course you probably try to avoid it too, since we all know that being sick and singing don't really mix well, plus it's generally not fun. In the best case your voice will sound a bit strange and it will be uncomfortable to sing, and in the worse case you won't be able to produce a proper singing tone sometimes for days or even weeks! That's why we as singers all DO NOT want to get sick.

Though, there are certainly ways to try to avoid getting sick in the first place, I'd like to use this blog post to talk about what you can do when you're already sick and have to sing (for a rehearsal or a performance) and how to make the best of a bad situation, AND what tricks of the trade can help you to recover quicker.

There are many methods one can employ, and I'd like to talk about those which are technical first. If you are experiencing phlegm that is making your voice crack ( for those of you not familiar with this term, it means that due to phlegm sitting on your vocal folds, unpredictable sounds are produced which resemble a popping or 'cracking' noise which interrupts your vocal tone. Hence your voice sounds like it's "cracking") you can make doubly sure that you are singing "above" the phlegm, by lifting your soft palate as much as physically possible while you are singing, thereby maintaining a high enough production of sound which will enable your phlegm not to be disturbed (which produces the "cracking" noise). This usually can solve the problem in most cases, which will not eliminate the phlegm, but which will allow you to sing without making strange, unwanted noises. (This advice was given to me by my teacher in my Undergraduate degree, Ms. Sharon Sweet, and she said she used this tool many times when she had to sing in her career under less than optimal health conditions.)

The second technical piece of advice I can give is to learn how to properly "mark" your singing, instead of singing full-voiced. "Marking" is a term used to refer to a way of singing which protects your voice from undue strain which it would get from singing full-voiced, or in a tessitura (range) which is particularly tiring for long periods of time (aka several hours at a time without breaks). If you are sick, you can make more frequent use of this technique (which is used for protecting the voice under normal circumstances in longer rehearsal periods like staging rehearsals, etc.), since it does really allow you to still sing, but just in a more vocally safe way. Correct marking requires the use of the same support and production of your sound as normal singing, but the difference is that you allow double or triple the air to flow through your sound, making it relatively airy, thus putting less pressure on your vocal folds by only allowing them to come together in a very loose way, and not tightly vibrating against one another as they normally would. This is helpful when you are sick because it allows any swelling in your vocal folds to heal quicker because they are not being overtaxed by the pressure that normal singing would put on them.

The third thing which I can recommend, which is less of a technical tool and more of a practice structuring method, is to practice only in 15 minute increments when you are recovering from an illness. This shortened amount of vocalizing allows for your voice to rebuild stamina that it had lost from the break in practicing while you were sick, without over exerting it and causing damage which would lengthen your recovery time.

All of these things are great, but it's perhaps most important to recognize too when you should STOP singing if you're sick (or simply if you've practiced too much- being vocally tired can also happen), so that you don't cause yourself undue vocal damage. The main sign is: losing the ability to phonate. If you are singing and at any time during your sound production you have a delay in the sound (for example, you want to sing a note and nothing comes out, or it comes out very delayed- more so than you had intended) then that's a sign that you need to rest your voice and stop all singing and talking for the rest of the day, and even better if it were for a day (or two, depending) following. This is a sign that your vocal chords are very swollen and that they are not coming together fully, and this is not something that you can simply "sing through" and it will go away. No. It's a sign to stop making any noise whatsoever and take a "vocal rest" for a while. Normally this happens in conjunction with laryngitis, but if it persists for more than a few days, I'd recommend going to see your ENT.  You also should not, of course, sing when you are too physically exhausted to support properly. When you aren't singing on your supported air, you are running the risk of causing damage to your vocal folds, especially if you do this for hours on end. You also should not sing if you have taken over the counter medicine (or some antibiotics- check with your doctor or pharmacist) which prevents the proper circulation of blood, like Ibuprofen, and some decongestants are also a problem, because they dry out your mucous membranes (of which your vocal folds are a part- remember!- they always need to have a mucosal film on them to vibrate against one another properly without causing nodules, which are basically a sort of blister on the point where the vibration occurs without proper moisture or wrong technique). Be sure you are allowed to sing while on medicine, in other words.

Finally, here's the advice I have for those of you who are sick and looking to aid your body in recovering in a quick and healthy manner: (I can only tell you about what I've tried and how it's worked for me, so keep in mind that everyone's body is different.)

1.) Emergen-C: a packet of powdered Vitamin C in a high dose which is supposed to prevent you from getting fully sick if you're on the cusp of being sick, or should help you recover quicker if you're sick. (It's worked well for me in helping me not to get fully sick, but never seemed to make my recovery quicker.)

2. Fresh Ginger Root Tea with fresh lemon juice and honey: this is literally the most organic way to fight a cold, and has minimal side effects, since all the ingredients are natural. (This always works for me 100%- whether I'm sick or feeling like I'm getting sick, it helps prevent me from getting sick, and it also helps speed recovery). What I do is take a piece of fresh ginger root, make sure the skin is smooth- that signifies freshness, and then scrape the skin off with a spoon (it prevents you from removing too much actual ginger along with the skin), and then cut it into very thin slices. Submerge the slices in a pot of water- I usually use a 3 inch piece of ginger for 1.5 liters of water- and then let it sit, covered with a lid for at least 2 hours (the longer you let it sit, the better). Afterwards bring it to a boil, and then turn off the heat and let it sit on the burner as it cools down, so as to make the cooling of the "tea" also gradual. You can drink the tea once it's reached a golden color, either hot or warm, so the honey you add can melt. Only add 1 tsp of honey and 1 tsp of lemon juice per mug of tea. It WILL be spicy, so you may need to add more honey to lessen that, but it's supposed to be- it helps break stuff up. So, learn to like it! :)

3. Neti pot: this is a small ceramic pot (often) which is filled with room temperature distilled water and then into that is mixed a solution that you can usually buy in the drugstore or at your natural food store (or make yourself with high-grade sea salt) until it dissolves and then you use this solution to rinse out your sinuses by pouring it into each nostril alternatively. (This seems to work well when I'm not sick to maintain the condition of my sinus passages and rinse out the gunk that builds up there on a daily basis, but once I'm sick and my sinuses are stuffed up it has never been a match for that congestion. Normally I cannot even get it to rinse back out once it's up there, if I can even get it to enter my sinuses in the first place when I'm stuffy.)

4. Massage of the face: this is a technique that I recently found out about thanks to a colleague on Facebook who shared a link to a video of an ENT doing a technique of massage that is supposed to help drain unwanted sinus congestion and thereby ease singing. (I've tried this only recently, but it does seem to work well to combat spring allergy congestion, so that's something!) Basically you massage with the tips of your fingers in a pulling sort of motion, aiming the release of the pulling towards your ears- which allows for the fluid to drain,  starting at the inner corner below your eye socket (at the top of your cheekbones), above your eyebrows beginning at the center of your forehead, from the middle of your upper lip, and from the center of the bottom of chin towards your ears. This has proven to give nearly immediate relief of congestion every time I do it.

4. Eating fresh veggies and fruits: there is something to be said for giving your body proper nutrition while you're under the weather. It helps your immune system fight better. (Normally I eat produce which is high in vitamin C when sick- that means: Hibiscus Tea (bet you didn't know that actually has the most vitamin C out of any plant!), Green bell peppers-not cooked! (they have the second most!), Kiwis (they have a lot- they're third), and then all the normal things which most people know: citrus fruits (lemons, oranges, grapefruits), carrots, blueberries (they are good for other vitamins), bananas, garlic and onions (really great immune boosters!), and lots of green leafy vegetables (especially broccoli, kale, cucumbers, celery- did you know that celery and cucumbers are super good for cleansing your system of toxins?), apples (cooked are actually better than raw-especially if you add cinnamon- a super immune booster!, but both are better than processed foods), and last, but not least- FRESH PINEAPPLE-- a singer's best friend for reducing inflammation and easing sore vocal folds. And of course Coconut water- which helps you hydrate better than normal water.

5. Yoga: There are many poses which help to alleviate symptoms of illness. I've tried this several times while sick and have had mixed results. If I have an illness where I'm physically tired (the Flu, for example) then it doesn't help all that much to do a lot of yoga, but just 10 minutes or so makes me feel a bit more "alive", usually. On the other hand, if I have congestion in my lungs or sinuses, it certainly helps to do slow, restorative and long yoga sessions, focusing on the breathing, which slowly loosens up congestion as I go through the practice.

6. Personal Humidifier (like Vicks brand): This seems to help me only when I'm already on the upswing of getting better. Usually I put kosher salt in the water to make it a bit more breathing in friendly.

7. Eucalyptus Essential Oil in Combination with a hot shower or bath: Putting a few drops of Eucalyptus Essential Oil on the wall or floor of the shower and then taking a hot shower while breathing in the steam produced helps nearly 100% of the time when I have congestion. Actually I like the smell so much that sometimes I do it when I'm not sick just for fun.

8. Vicks Vapor Rub: (or any menthol based ointment to ease breathing when sleeping) This stuff does help if I have anything which has settled in my lungs (Bronchitis, etc..) and it helps particularly overnight, especially if I put a bit of it on my upper lip. Otherwise it's not too great during the day.

9. Lavender (either essential oil of dried flower buds in a sachet or something): This helps to lay next to my pillow during sleep, as it provides me with better breathing ability overnight if I'm stuffy, as well as a more restful sleep in general, if I'm feeling run down.

10. GeloRevoice: These are a sort of throat lozenge that you can buy in Germany (not sure where else you can get them, but you can Google it to find out) which creates a sort of synthetic protective film around your sore throat and sort vocal folds, and basically hydrates them extra, so that they can rest more effectively. It wasn't my favorite thing to use at first, but I notice that it's helpful to use these when you have a particularly sore throat or when you're experiencing swelling of your vocal folds due to your period.

11. Grether's Blackcurrant Pastilles: (Another lozenge which works similarly are Isla Moos Pastilles) These are a sort of jelly-like throat lozenge which supposedly helped the great singers of the past century and was commonly used in Europe. They taste delicious (kinda like candy) and they seem to clear up mucous build up on your vocal folds, but they do not ease sore throats.

Okay, that's literally all I can think of at the moment to say on the subject, so I hope that you get use out of this info and that you have a speedy recovery if you're reading this and are sick! :)

NOTE (12/15/15): I've just gotten directions for ANOTHER method of ginger usage from my good friend F., so here's another method to try:
Peel and thick-slice a big piece of ginger root. Boil water (start 2-3ish cups depending on ginger and if you want leftovers). Put in like half the ginger to boil. Add more ginger and water after 2ish minutes, then add water 1-2 more times, as it reduces (it'll get dark). Drink/sip a mug of it straight (strong. wipe lips, sip very warm tap water if needed!). Then gurgle a little very warm (kosher) salt water. Then eat a spoonful of honey! Et voilĂ ! (expands the tissue, astringent on allergens and mucous hiding in said condensed tissue). It's magical, especially if you have to sing.

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, learning 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. (I'm being ironic, people.)

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.