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Monday, May 27, 2013

How Chicken Catching is a Metaphor for Singing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Opera in Concert: How Much Staging Is Really Enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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