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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

HOW-TO: Choose Music for a Solo Recital

I think it's safe to say that all of us Singers will have to sing a Solo Recital at some point or another. Which, just to be specific, is a concert where the singer performs a bunch of songs with piano accompaniment for about an hour to an hour and a half, max. That's the traditional Solo Recital, hence calling it "Solo", because the Singer is the main performer and it's basically a showcase of their singing abilities.There are, of course, other variations on the traditional Recital theme, where you collaborate with other Musicians- either Instrumentalists or Singers or both- and one singer is not the sole focus of the event. This is sometimes called a Collaborative Recital (but some people refer to a Solo Recital as a Collaborative Recital too- so just note, these terms are flexible), and is also a common type of performance which you'll see just as often as Solo Recitals.

Which brings me to the reason for this blog post, and the most exciting part of any Recital besides actually singing it: choosing the Repertoire you'll be performing!

Normally if you are singing a Solo Recital within the confines of an academic program, such as an Undergrad, Master's, Performance Certificate or Doctoral program, then you will most likely have specific guidelines as to the duration of your performance, the type of Repertoire you'll be required to perform in terms of languages and time periods they belong to, and the way that you need to format your printed-out concert programs. (Oftentimes a university likes to have all the printed materials for events that take place on its campus look the same way, so it makes sense that there'd be a standardized format for anything that the public would receive, like a concert program, for instance. And because of that, it is normally explained in your degree requirements or on the University website, how you should design and format your program, so do be sure to look for that information if you are performing this Recital for a degree requirement.)

If you are organizing and performing a Recital independently from an academic institution and not as a degree requirement, however, then you will be happy to know that you have 100% free reign to choose the Repertoire, design the program and concert posters and choose the pianist and or additional musicians with whom you'll be working. Though, this does come with a lot more responsibility because you are solely in charge of every aspect, I can assure you that it is a very rewarding endeavor.

Anyway, back to choosing your Repertoire!

I always find that it's helpful to keep a list of my entire Repertoire handy and up-to-date so that when I want to plan a Recital, I can just look at it, see what I know and then go from there. It's a lot easier than trying to remember off the top of your head which Schubert pieces that you know have "Fruehling" in the title, for instance. It's also a time-saver, since you may not always have a few months free to learn an entirely new hour's worth of music. Once you've looked at what you already know, you will be able to come up with a theme or idea around which you can focus the pieces you'll be singing. This way, even pieces from vastly different time periods, languages or moods will fit together logically and there will be a "flow" that the audience can understand and appreciate. Remember, you as a performer want to make your audience feel comfortable with you so that they remain open both emotionally and psychologically. This enables your singing to take them on a journey that will enlighten and enliven them, and most importantly- make them want to come to your next Recital!

So, for example, let's just say we choose to do a Recital based on the theme of 'Springtime'. There are various ways that you could begin choosing pieces for that theme. You could consider which pieces have the word Spring in the title or the lyrics, or which pieces were composed in the Springtime, or which pieces evoke the feeling of Springtime for you (even if they're not directly referencing Springtime in the words or title). Those are just a few of the ways you can do it. You could also examine a Theme that's a little more concrete- something like "French Melodie of the late 1800's", for example. That way you'd be focused on a certain time period, but be free to choose all sorts of pieces in terms of song text, tempo, and mood. If you choose to go with a time period for your theme you should also remember that some time periods were much more exciting compositionally than others. The more close to our modern age, the more musical diverse your program can become, simply because more modern composers have a wealth of compositional techniques and knowledge from Composers before them that they can draw on which someone like Monteverdi or Haendel didn't have. It's also possible, depending on which time period you choose, that you'll only be able to choose from certain languages- for example, Godric was the first known British composer in 1065 and Hildegard von Bingen was the first German composer in 1068, but at this time period you won't find music from French, Italian or US-American composers (especially since the USA as we know it today didn't even exist at that point). So, those are certainly things to consider when deciding to go with a time period.

And now, a quick side note, that I learned about programming music from relatively obscure Composers:
If you are interested in finding music which is lesser-known and rejuvenating it with your performances for the collective appreciation of today's audiences, you will have to do research. Oftentimes the reason that these Composers' works are not performed nowadays is because they were never published, or if they were, then only in very limited edition. If the Composer you've chosen is still alive, your best bet is to figure out how to contact her or him and ask if you could perform their piece "So-and-So" where ever you intend to perform it. I've heard of many musicians being granted permission to perform obscure pieces this way, and the Composer may even come to the concert, if you're lucky, which is totally exciting, isn't it!? Of course, if the Composer whose pieces you would like to perform is already deceased, then you'll have to figure out where their music is being kept. Many Composers had their entire Oeuvres donated to famous archives at notable libraries, for example, the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Switzerland, or the Harvard, Princeton, Yale, or Eastman University Libraries, just to name a few. It is also possible that a Composer's music is stored with their family members- whether they be recently deceased and their music is kept by their Spouse or Children, or they passed away a long time ago and the Great-Great-Great-Grandchildren are in possession of it. That's also a definite possibility- like in the case of the Wagner family- who set up an Archive of Richard Wagner's music in Bayreuth, which is also a museum, open to the public. Keep in mind, with all of this, it's quite possible that the pieces you want to perform may not have been recorded and you can't hear what they sound like until you get your hands on the sheet music and play it yourself at the piano. This isn't always the case, but it certainly is possible. And it's a risk you have to be willing to take if you want to discover pieces that are long-forgotten. You may ask yourself after reading all this how you'd even go about finding these obscure Composers in the first place? Well, you can use this handy Wikipedia article where they list a heck of a lot of Composers in various ways (chronologically, based on their nationality, and based on the period in which they composed) as a starting point. Then once you've found someone who piques your interest, you can research further to find out more about them. Thanks to the Internet, you can do much of this online and you may even be able to receive the music via email from the institutions/individuals who are in possession of it. At any rate, if you are not afraid of doing a little digging (or a lot, in some cases) to find music that speaks to you and which you want to share with others, then I certainly recommend it as a way to keep your Recital programming fresh.

Truly, the main goal in choosing Repertoire for a Recital is to keep it interesting and continuously evolving- like a story. You want to have the audience just as interested at the end of the concert as they were at the beginning. And you can do that by pacing within the overarching theme that you chose. Choose groups of songs that have a common thread somehow (whether it be language, or composer, or time period, or key word in the lyrics or title, etc.) and then take these small groups of songs (6 at the maximum, I'd say) and alternate them with other small groups of interrelated songs which also somehow have something in common with the other small song groups, and voila! You've got a captivating Recital program!

So, for those visual learners out there, since it gets a bit complex at this point, it could look something like this:

Your theme could be: 'Springtime'
Your Program could look like this:  (FYI: I conceived this program for Soprano voice)

Clara Schumann, Opus 23- 6 Songs from 'Jucunde'
1. Was weinst du, Bluemlein
2. An einem lichten Morgen
3.Geheimes Fluestern
4. Auf einem gruenen Huegel
5. Das ist ein Tag der klingen mag
6. O Lust, O Lust!

1. Das Veilchen
2. Sehnsucht nach dem Fruehling
3. An Chloe
4. Abendempfindung

1. Im Fruehling
2. Fruehlingsglaube
3. Am Bach im Fruehling
4. Heidenroeslein

1. Er ist's
2. Fussreise
3. Im Fruehling
4. Auch kleine Dinge

Strauss- 'Maedchenblumen' Song Cycle
1. Kornblumen
2. Mohnblumen
3. Efeu
4. Wasserrose

So, to evaluate: the overall theme was served by the texts having something to do with Spring- either they blatantly mention Spring or Springtime, or they are about things that occur in spring- flowers, walking outside, falling in love, etc. You may have noticed that all the songs I chose in this particular program are in German; that was a conscious choice on my part. Of course, you aren't tied to creating programs in a single language. Even in keeping with the the them of Springtime you can find songs in Italian, English, French, or Spanish that would have worked. But, hopefully seeing this example helped to solidify the idea of 'smaller interrelated groups within a larger group' concept.

You also want to make sure to choose your Repertoire with your audience and the location of your performance in mind. You could perform a recital program like the example I've given above in Germany basically anywhere because it's all sung in German, but you may not want to perform it, for example, in a suburb in Kentucky. The audience there might be challenged initially because of the language barrier, but that also means they'll have a difficult time enjoying it because it would all sound relatively the same after a while and they'd have to read along with the translations to really enjoy it.  And I'm not saying that they wouldn't do that. Maybe they would- perhaps they were an audience of people who wanted to be challenged. But, perhaps they weren't. Maybe they just wanted enjoy a beautifully sung evening of songs but instead were confronted with a challenging program and were disappointed because of it.  The point is, you have to be able to evaluate your audience beforehand, so that you don't program incorrectly and either overestimate or underestimate their ability to focus on and appreciate your musical offerings. Ideally, you want to try and aim for the middle of those two extremes by challenging them with a group of pieces that might be new to them in some way, and then rewarding them with a group that is familiar to them, which they can easily enjoy because they know them already.  Repertoire that is familiar versus not familiar will be vastly different depending on the audience and the location. What is difficult to an audience in Billings, Montana might not be difficult to an audience in Chicago, Illinois, or vice versa. If you live in a very diverse metropolitan city it's probably safe to say that your audience members will be able to handle a musically challenging program, or at least a linguistically diverse one. It is your job to know what kinds of music the area where you'll be performing is exposed to regularly, and then base your Repertoire decisions off of that knowledge.

So, I tried to cover everything that you will have to consider in choosing Repertoire for a Solo Recital. I hope it was easy to understand and helpful to those of you who are looking to choose your own music for upcoming performances. Of course, I don't pretend to know everything, so if you have good advice or other ideas which you'd like to share, please feel free to comment below. Thanks so much for reading, and as always, Happy Singing!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why LA LA Land is Dystopian, and what the National Endowment for the Arts and Ending the "Gig Ecomony" can do to fix it

Like many of you, I went to the movie theaters a few months ago to see the movie "La La Land" because of all the rave reviews it was receiving from critics. As you can imagine if you've also seen the film and are a working Performing Artist, I was pretty angry at the predictability of the movie's plot, and their insensitive and narrow-minded presentation of an Artist's life and options they have. And, then coincidentally, my issues with La La Land were summed up, in a masterful blog post that I happened to stumble upon last week written by Linda Essig, who is the Director of Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Programs at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, and if you're curious to read her thoughtful words, you can click here to see her post.

Basically, what she says is what I was feeling right after seeing the film. Why does life's trajectory always get over simplified to two distinct and different choices for an Artist in people's minds (and sometimes, sadly, due to societal pressures, also in the mind of the Artist)? Those choices are either 1.) pursue your career and individual artistic goals but thereby forfeit all other things (like: a fulfilling relationship with a significant other, having your own children, keeping in touch with your family and close friends, or even keeping a handle on your individuality as an Artist) or option 2.) choose to have a "life" (in this case meaning where you do normal things like live in one place for long periods of time, get married, have children, have pets, spend time with your family and friends, and do things for fun that aren't related to your individual artistic goals) but then sacrifice something else (like the love of your life) simply because you can't have choice #1 and #2 at the same time.

Does this seem reductionist to you too?!? Well, good. That's because it is.

Why are we constantly told by society that Artists cannot have both option #1 and #2? And why do people believe that!? I'll tell you why. My theory is two pronged. One, because the majority of people who aren't Artists don't know what we do all day and can't fathom it. So they think that we Artists are just having fun all the time (because we love what we do so much) and since our work is just 100% fun, it doesn't merit the rewards that a person receives when they work a "normal job". (And why is being an Artist not considered a normal job!? More on that later....) So why should we Artists deserve to have things like full-time employment, job security, health care, pension plans, maternity leave or paid sick days? We shouldn't, in their minds. Because we're just goofing around all day creating our "Art".

News flash!!! We are working just as hard as people who have jobs which others can easily understand from their job title (HR Manager, IT-Specialist, Public Relations Coordinator, Chief Executive Officer), and oftentimes we are working harder! Why? Because we are forging new pathways. And those don't come with a road map or warnings of possible danger. We are forced to create something new and develop it all on our own (without high-tech factories and teams of Research and Development Engineers) and that takes time, full concentration and dedication and means also that you've found someone who is willing to exhibit, or hire you to perform, the art that you've created and developed.

And Two, because we Artists find ourselves in a system which was created to punish us (by not offering us adequate pay, full-time employment, health care--basically everything on the list in the previous paragraph) for choosing to pursue our Art, and eventually we become so beaten-down by struggling to create our Art in this impossible system that we are duped into accepting our fate as being a choice much like what we find in La La Land. Either create Art (which is actually a basic need for Artists, woven into the fibre of our very beings) or have a life where you can live like a normal human being with financial security and surrounded by those who love you in a safe and nurturing environment, but therefore have to sacrifice your Art and your dreams. It's kind of like a choice between having your heart in your body but being dead, or being a zombie but having no heart.

I'd like to argue that there is a third alternative. Many of you know that I've lived in Germany for 6 years now. But I've got to start at the beginning for this story to make sense.

I'm originally from Pennsylvania and went to school in Princeton, New Jersey and New York City for my Undergraduate and Master's Degrees. I grew up in a small-town in Pennsylvania and was a straight-A student all through school, as well as a successful musician, playing the Oboe, Piano and Singing. When I went to Undergrad things got more difficult because the workload increased and to help pay for school expenses I got a few part-time jobs. I also was introduced into the world of Young Artist Programs and what that all meant. (Basically applying year-round for various training programs, oftentimes taking place in the summers, which would cost anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 and which I "needed" to do in order to supplement my education with practical performance experience and networking opportunities with notable, more experienced conductors and big-name teachers.)

Then, once I was finished my Undergrad I applied for my Master's which included application fees (back then in 2006 they were $100 each for Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music and Mannes), and I didn't just apply to 3 schools, because I knew that'd be risky, so I applied to SUNY Purchase, Eastman and a few others too. Anyway, after all the traveling for the auditions and the application fees were paid, I had spent at least $1,000 total. Then once audition time rolled around I didn't get accepted to Eastman, SUNY Purchase accepted me but didn't give me any scholarship money, and then Juilliard, MSM and Mannes were all happening on 3 days back-to-back in NYC and I got Bronchitis a few days prior and had no voice. Stupidly they don't allow you to reschedule because of illness, even if you have a doctor's note, so I missed those auditions and consequently didn't get accepted to those schools either. 

At any rate, my student loans were piling up (because I was taking Federal Loans as well as Private Loans to pay for my education which was around $29,000 per year) and I couldn't take a year off until I applied again to my Master's program because I'd be swallowed alive by monthly loan payments and wouldn't be eligible for any new loans for a second degree, so I did what anyone would do, and asked around to see if there were still schools in NYC accepting applications with voice degree programs. Lo and behold, I found out that Hunter College had a Master's in Voice, and you didn't even have to study with the professor on faculty- you could find your own private teacher for your degree lessons, and they were accepting applications. So, I applied, was accepted, got a half scholarship, which was a huge help, and started my Master's the following year.

Again, I was in a financial pinch, because I needed money to live, so I found a Nannying job which was 30 hours a week which paid my rent and my food expenses just barely. But I didn't have health insurance. I couldn't. It was $237 a month and I simply didn't have the money to afford it.

To give you an idea of my schedule back then: I'd go to classes every night of the week (Hunter offers night classes for their Master's Degrees since it's a reality that many of their students have to have a job concurrently while going to school) and then I'd work all day long before that at my Nannying job, then I'd grocery shop late at night or early in the morning and do my homework on the bus or on the weekends in advance of due dates or whenever I had a spare moment. As you can imagine, I was living in a constant struggle just to survive.

I was living on Chinese take out when I didn't have time to cook, or microwaveable noodles, or street vendor hot dogs or whatever was on sale that week at the grocery store (which we all know isn't always the healthy food!), and I was working myself to the bone every day so that I could accomplish it all. At the end I managed to emerge with a 3.8 GPA and a Master's Degree. But I didn't have a singing job, and I didn't have any sort of job.

So I began working as a Temp after graduating, while still taking private voice lessons once a week (which cost $150 an hour, and for NYC that's relatively reasonable. I know teachers who charge $250 an hour nowadays!) and applying for as many Young Artist Programs as I could, hoping I'd get my 'big break' and be heard by someone who would help me take the next step and become a Professional Singer. Luckily, I was able to land a full-time position through the Temp agency as an Administrative Assistant in a Law firm in Midtown NYC, in the Labor & Employment Department. I was working there about 38 hours a week and in my free time was practicing my singing and preparing for auditions which I scheduled in my lunch break and then walked or took cabs to, since most of them were also in Midtown Manhattan. Normally I'd eat the food that was leftover in the Firm's Conference Rooms for lunch and dinner and go home exhausted. And I did that for 2 years while spending thousands of dollars on application and participation fees for Young Artist Programs which inevitably always improved my singing (because let's face it, I wasn't forced to work a day job answering phones all day and sitting at a computer for 7 hours before trying to sing, which is only obvious that that would improve my singing), but career-wise they got me nowhere. So I was in a rut that I didn't know how to get out of except keep hoping that it was because I hadn't had the lucky moment where that important person heard me.

So I took a chance and quit my job in NYC and moved back home with my Mom to Pennsylvania because I was accepted to a year-long Apprentice Program with a company in Philadelphia. They didn't pay any money, but I didn't have to pay them to participate, so I figured it was at least not putting me further in debt. After that year, where I performed a ton of operas and covered a lot of roles, I also was singing better than ever, but still hadn't entered the realm of Professional Singing where I'd get paid to perform. It was a never ending cycle that all centered around money. Not having any, not making any, and never getting paid gigs.

Ah, right. Money and gigs. That brings me to the next article that I read recently in the New Yorker which made me seething mad, because it is so true and highlights a serious problem in the way we pay and treat our Artists, and I suggest you read it here so that you know what I'm talking about. It was explaining a concept that has become an everyday reality in the fabric of USA's business dealings with Artists, something known as the "gig". The article was titled "The Gig Economy celebrates Working Yourself to Death" and examined an ad released by the Internet company Fiverr which showed a woman whom they termed "a Doer" but who apparently, according to the ad, "...ate coffee for lunch...", followed through on her follow through and had sleep-deprivation as a drug of choice. She goes on to argue that Americans value self-reliance above all else and thereby see a person working themselves to death as a commendable act, rather than evidence of the system they're operating in having failed them. And I would go a step further. We haven't yet fully come to the understanding as a Society that the Arts are a vitally important part of life and that we have to support them (monetarily, in creating jobs and opportunities which are sustaining and reliable for Artists, and not just keeping them teetering above the poverty line, hanging onto their existence by a thread) and that the Art that they create is just as important as anything else in our lives. And until our entire Society comes to that conclusion, which must be encouraged through education and outreach programs and NOT continually espousing a romanticized but tortured version of their only being two options for Artists (a.k.a. "La La Land-dystopia"), then we will continue to suffer from all sorts of societal maladies like general discontentment, never being satisfied with anything, having a baseline level of stress in our lives, being overcome with greed and envy, and not fully appreciating what we have in our lives. Art gives you perspective. It allows you to examine your perceptions in a playful way and determine if they're still serving you. It gives you insight into the depths of the human soul. It urges you to be brave and gentle, understanding and open. It shows you different ways of thinking about your problems. It helps you to process your emotions in a cathartic way. It mirrors your life experience outside of yourself so that you can look objectively at how you might change for the better. It gives you a opening to give yourself a second chance. It makes you whole when you didn't know something was missing. It broadens your horizons and unlocks your imagination. It is essential.

And Germany and the German Government know this. Thus, the culmination of my Third Option for Artists- and no, it's not move to Germany- but rather, you have to fashion your life into what you want it to be and don't accept society's ideological limitations as actual limitations. Okay, what do I mean by that? Well, here in Germany I have been performing my own concerts in various venues for free. I don't get paid for my performances, but I am okay with that because I've decided that music is something that belongs to everyone and not just those who can afford to pay for it. Plus, I feel somehow that Art is not something which can be properly defined by a monetary value, so I don't want to place one on it. I know that this solution is not for everyone, but what I'm trying to say is that, I took my idea of what "success as a Professional Singer" meant to me, evaluated it, and looked at my situation (I am very lucky to have found a loving Husband who supports my Artistic goals and doesn't force me to get a job just to make money), and then tried to find a model which worked for what I wanted out of my life. I have found someone whom I love and want to share my life with. I don't like traveling all over the place for auditions, so I don't. I don't apply to programs that I know are just training programs but won't bring me to a place of fulfillment for myself. I don't sing Arias that I don't like. I don't let myself be defined by a specific 'Aria Package' of 5 pieces in 4 different languages. I sing what I want at my concerts and I choose the venues and the collaborative musical partners myself. I create the promotional materials and my website myself. I do it all myself. And I don't have a huge following of 'fans' or have made thousands of dollars with this, but I do have a deep sense of self-worth and have found a sense of calm and safety that I never before experienced when I was trying to become a "Professional Singer" in my earlier education. What I ultimately learned from my education is nothing that I was taught in a classroom. Instead, I realized that creating Art is something that needs a feeling of safety so that I can be vulnerable enough to expose my innermost yearnings and make them audible and visible to the audience members with whom I take that journey. And that feeling of safety forced me to throw out the Option #1 or #2 model and create my own Option #3, where the first two options where combined, shaken up a little, and then pared down to what I needed, individually.

Oh, and apropos- education and outreach programs- let me introduce you to the National Endowment for the Arts (or the NEA, for short)! Here's a cool article that tells you about just a few of the many projects that the NEA has helped to realize which have made a large positive impact on our culture and society and helped to build a cultural legacy that we can look back upon and be proud to have future generations discover.

Let's look at this idea of Education and Outreach and what it can do. For example, let's take Major League Soccer. They didn't leave it to chance that soccer fans would just automatically appear in the USA so that they'd have people coming to their games, buying their merchandise, paying for their players' salaries, and ultimately loving Soccer. No, Sir! What they did was started putting their marketing efforts and money into sponsoring teams for school-age children all over the nation so that once those kids grow up, they automatically become life-long soccer fans. Voila! They actually have developed 6 Official MLS Youth Soccer Partners (America SCORES, AYSO, NSCAA, SAY Soccer, US Youth Soccer, US Club Soccer), and there are programs organized by these partners throughout the entire USA. Talk about a successful outreach program!!

And the National Endowment for the Arts does that too- the only difference is that it takes Taxpayer money to finance this outreach effort. However, when you consider that it is only $0.46 cents per person that it costs to continue the NEA's important work, I think you will admit that that is a minuscule amount of money to pay in exchange for something so worthwhile. In fact, the USA spends only a small fraction of its money on supporting the Arts in comparison to other countries like Germany, Northern Ireland and France, like this article explains.

So perhaps next time you see any one of these complex facets of the issue of understanding the Arts and Artists who create it, please keep in mind that in order to change our society into a place where the Arts are appreciated and available for all we have to continue to financially support individual artists and their projects through organizations like the NEA. This way, the outcome of these projects and educational efforts will be rewarded with a Society that is more humane and generous in its understanding and acceptance of itself as a whole and also of the billions of unique individuals that it comprises.

A Trip to the ENT Doctor's Office, a la Opera Singer!

So I was lucky enough to recently have had vocal troubles. I know, I know- sounds not so lucky. But, behold! It was. Because my vocal troubles were really minimal, actually. It started rather slowly and then got worse; I was often a bit hoarse after singing (either after an hour-long coaching of Opera Arias, or after 2 hours of private practice at home) and I knew that that wasn't normal. So off to the ENT Doctor (Ear, Nose and Throat, or in Germany they are called HNO which stands for Hals, Nasen, Ohren- the same as in English, just "auf Deutsch") I went. And luckily for me, here in Munich there is a ENT that works in the Klinikum Rechts der Isar, which is run by the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (for those non-German speakers- the Hospital on the right side of the Isar [River], which is run by the Technical University of Munich) who works in a department of the hospital which was specifically designed to treat Musicians' injuries. Cool, right? They often deal with things like repetitive stress injuries for instrumentalists or, in my case, something having to do with vocal distress from singing, which is then treated by their on-staff ENT.

Anyway, I thought it was pretty darn amazing that there was a whole department of one of the hospitals here that was dedicated to musicians' medical issues, so I was definitely more excited than usual to get checked out. (Normally, I'm not all that pumped to go to the ENT. I mean, sure, it's nice to know that my vocal folds are A-okay and things are looking healthy, but the actual being scoped is not a favorite free time activity of mine. If you're not sure what a Laryngoscopy is then take a look at this comprehensive explanation of it on WebMD. What we singers usually experience when we go into the ENT's office to get checked up is either a 'Flexible Laryngoscopy' or an 'Indirect Laryngoscopy', the latter of which is what I had at this appointment because the doctor said it helps her see the Vocal Folds most clearly while I'm singing- because normally you're asked to sing a note on an "ee" vowel or "ah" vowel while they look at your vocal folds via the scope.) Firstly, and perhaps retrospectively funniest but also most depressing in the moment, was that upon my arrival at the hospital I asked the woman at the front desk where I could find the Department for Musicians' Injuries (called "Musiker Ambulanz" auf Deutsch) and she was like, "Um....what? We have one of those?". To which my brain was like, "Of course! Why didn't I expect that? Even in a hospital it seems that music gets lowest billing. Sheesh. Is there anywhere we musicians can go in society without feeling like we're forgotten about or not wanted?" Of course, you see, my brain was way too psyched to have a wonderful experience and then its hopes were dashed. So, on one hand, at least we got that out of the way first and it wasn't the doctor who was disappointing, but on the other hand.....jeez- truly- why does it seem like musicians can't get any "R.E.S.P.E.C.T."? I mean, even the doctors who dedicated themselves to treating our injuries and illnesses seem to have now unilaterally been "put in the corner" for wanting to hang out with us. Ugh. Okay, moving on.

At least after I went on a wild goose chase to find the "Musiker Ambulanz" and aggravated at least 5 more different departments within the hospital to whom I was directed to by other equally-clueless departments who thought they were the right place (Ha! The irony continues!!) I finally, by sheer determination and going out a hospital door that was clearly marked "please use other exit when raining" (and it was raining! Sorry God!!) I found my destination. Where, I noted much to my chagrin, that the buzzer on the door of the building where they were located didn't even have their department name on it. GAH!! I really tried to forget how silly it was that no one knew they existed but now THIS!? Ay carumba. Seems like they need an organizational guru around here. And preferably one who's a music lover. ;)

Anyway, here's where the story takes a distinct upturn in its trajectory.

I entered the non-correctly-labeled building, proceeded up to the first floor and found, at the end of a long hallway, a door labeled "Musiker Ambulanz".  Woo Hoo! Success!! And, an actually correct label. Interesting! Trying not to let my now renewed hopes get the best of me, I knocked firmly but not authoritatively. Just enough to let whomever was on the other side of that door know (which was locked, by the way, I tried the knob) that I was there and politely looking forward to my appointment and rather less politely looking forward to filling out any paperwork that would be required. (I hate paperwork. Did I mention that?)

Within seconds, the door was opened by a tall woman with brown hair who was wearing a white doctor's coat and looking smart and authoritative. I liked how this was developing. She then told me that I'd have to fill out these papers (which she handed to me on a clipboard with a pen attached) and then once I was done I should knock again and she'd tell the doctor I was there. Well, so far so good, I thought. Then I looked at the papers that were on the clipboard for me to fill out. Holy mackerel! There must have been at least 10 double-sided pages to complete. Yeesh. I better get started.

The questions on the first few pages were something that you'd expect- name, address, insurance info, any prior illnesses, allergies to medications, surgeries, et cetera. All stuff that I've seen on every medical questionnaire. Then it got much, much stranger.  I knew that they dealt solely with musicians, and thus by default mainly professional singers, when I got to the questions like "Does singing nowadays make you feel depressed?", "Are you worried about not being able to make a living with your singing because of your current vocal problems?", "Are you frustrated with how your voice sounds?"....etc. All those things were, they definitely know what singers have to go through psychologically and physically when our voice isn't working correctly! I finally felt validated that I was in a place where people really understood me for once. Even if it was in a non-correctly-labeled building that few people in the hospital even knew existed. Who cares!! At least it exists, and that's a start!

Of course, as I was only halfway through the considerable paperwork, another door opened in the middle of the hallway and it was yet another woman in a white lab coat with brown hair, this time albeit a much shorter woman, and she called my name. As I slung my book bag over my shoulder (which I was carrying because a physical therapist told me it's better than a purse since the weight is evenly distributed on both shoulders- but that's a story for another blog post) she held out her hand for the paperwork clipboard, which I gave to her while feeling totally guilty since it wasn't yet done (!!), and followed her into the examination room. She motioned for me to sit and as I took a seat she looked through the paperwork and when she reached the middle and the pages that were still empty she said "Ah, okay, no problem". Phew!! I felt better. Perhaps she knew she was jumping the gun by calling me before I'd finished the paperwork. Anyway, she said it was okay and I could fill the rest out later, but that now she'd like to hear what my symptoms were.

I explained to her that I'd been experiencing for the past few months a bit of vocal tiredness after speaking German for a long time (on the phone for example) and also feeling the same thing while speaking English after a long time too. Plus, I felt that somehow it was connected to my singing because as my voice got tired from talking my singing voice also was less available and that was making me basically avoid all conversation so that I could at least practice singing. However, when I did sing, I also noticed that my voice felt tired, so that was worrisome. To my great surprise, she actually took my description of my symptoms seriously and said it could definitely have something to do with how I was speaking, or perhaps how I was speaking either German or English, and more possibly German because it was my second language. She said it was good that I came to check out what was really going on, and that a colleague of hers would do an evaluation of my singing and speaking voice and then she'd scope me to see my vocal folds in action afterward.

Thus she sent me back out into the hallway to wait for the next evaluation by her colleague, who promptly emerged from yet another door further down the hallway, and beckoned me to follow her into the examination room. Whereupon I was introduced to another woman who was also dressed in a lab coat and who was apparently a student training to be a speech therapist or mind's foggy on what exactly she was studying now, come to think of it. Anyway, she had me sit down, then asked me to explain my problem and what I thought might be the issue. Then she asked a series of questions about my singing practice- what my warm ups are like, how often I talk during the day, which languages do I use and for how long per day, and when do I notice the most difficulty? Is it consistently a problem or only after certain difficult rehearsals or long phone calls? Anyway, her barrage of questions ended and she asked me to do a few things so that they could measure my voice's response to gauge if it was normal or not and also to evaluate the effectiveness of my breathing. I had to sing a sustained tone, as soft and loud as possible, shout (as if I were trying to get someone's attention far away), a chromatic scale ascending and descending to the extremities of my range, blow into a breath-measuring device and a bunch of other things. She then explained to me that I was speaking English at a relatively high pitch (normally healthy women speak naturally at a pitch around middle C, regardless of whether they're high Sopranos or not, she said--important to note, fellow women singers!!) and that I was speaking somewhere around an E, a few notes right above middle C.

To me that didn't seem so very drastically different, and I explained to her the philosophy that a few voice teachers once told me (on separate occasions, so watch out, people! Don't fall into this trap!) that if you're a "High" soprano voice, you should really place your speaking voice where your voice likes to comfortably sing (i.e. the pitch range). So I had artificially moved the pitch of my speaking voice (which speaking English, not German, because I found that affected my German accent negatively) upwards because I was told it was better.  However, now, retrospectively, it does seem that perhaps what those teachers were trying to prevent me from doing was speaking in the vocal fry. But- I only spoke sometimes in the vocal fry, so I'm not sure why I'd need to move the entire pitch of my voice upwards just in general. Anyway---that's the first lesson to be learned here---do NOT artificially alter the pitch of your speaking voice for any reason. The woman who did my voice analysis explained to me that when I was speaking artificially higher, it basically was like I was singing because I had to create in my vocal tract and mouth the conditions for me to speak higher (which only required the edges of my vocal folds to vibrate, much like what happens when I sing in my higher range) and thus my singing voice was tired when I hadn't sung- because it was like I was singing, just not supporting, and so that was the reason my voice was often hoarse or tired. Secondly, she explained that when you speak around the pitch level of middle C (which is typical for most women!), then your vocal folds naturally vibrate fully and entirely (not just the outer part of the folds, but the entire fold itself), almost like when you sing in 'chest voice', which is able to be more naturally supported by your body and thus is more suited to long time periods of use without producing vocal wear-and-tear. So that was my first issue that they helped me iron out, and I was glad for it.  Then, she examined how I was speaking German and said that although I have a very good accent (aka, you cannot immediately tell that I'm an American) it may be that because I taught myself my German pronunciation (and didn't go to a speech therapist to get the accent minimized in a professionally trained way), it could very possibly be that I created considerable undo tension in the musculature surrounding my voice production (aka in the larynx, jaw, tongue, etc.) and that this happens frequently actually with people who are trying to eliminate accents. So, her idea was that I should see a Speech Therapist who could help me with the issue of 1.) eliminating my undo tension in the vocal tract and surrounding areas, and 2.) help me to speak German with a minimal accent in a correctly trained way, and not just approximating it by ear, as I had done myself. She assured me that she was pretty confident that those were my only vocal problems, and then she sent me back out to the hallway to wait for the other doctor who'd do my laryngoscopy.

So within moments, I was called into the ENT's office and she gave me an "Indirect Laryngoscopy". She began by spraying a numbing spray into the back of my throat which strangely reminded me of the taste of cough syrup from childhood (yuck!) and then she held my tongue down with some gauze and stuck a laryngoscope into my mouth and looked at my the movement of my vocal folds while she asked me to sing a note on an "ee" vowel, on an "ah" vowel, then a scale on both vowels. Then it was over. She recorded what she saw and played it back to me on a monitor directly afterward. It was cool to see my own phonation in action. She also said that I am definitely a Soprano because my vocal folds don't fully come together in certain parts of my range (as is commonly observed in Sopranos) and that they were totally healthy and normal. Phew! My mind was eased for sure, though I did hate how my throat was feeling. Boy, that numbing agent was serious! I could barely feel myself swallow and when I did, it was totally strange. And she told me it could feel that way for up to an hour afterward and that I shouldn't drink or eat anything. Sigh.

But, at least I found out so many important things during my visit to the "Musiker Ambulanz". Which I hope is a lesson to you, dear Reader, that you should not ever manipulate the tone at which you speak, and that you should always consult a professional when seeking to eliminate any accent that you may have, whether it be in your native language or a second or third or fourth language. You can cause yourself many unnecessary problems through both of these mistakes, and can freak yourself out too when your voice starts trying to tell you that it isn't right. ;)

As always, Happy (and Healthy!!) Singing (and Speaking)!!!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Singer's Essentials: Accessories

For the New Year I wanted to offer you all some of my 'essential' products for a singer's life, so I've made a list of some things that I simply cannot live without. And no, in case you were wondering, I'm not being paid or compensated in any way to endorse these products. I merely like them enough to want to share their awesomeness with the world, and with you, dear Reader. Although I wouldn't mind having a lifetime supply of some of these things...and neither will you, once you try them! So, happy reading and happy finding new favorite go-to products for yourself or the singer who is dear to you.

1.) Burt's Bees Lozenges (

Especially when Winter is in full force and we are plagued by dry air from indoor heating on full blast, having a lozenge in my purse or coat pocket at all times is essential. I especially like these because they don't have any high fructose corn syrup in them nor do they have any artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners or preservatives- it's truly the best lozenge that I've found on the market today.

2.) Eucalyptus Essential Oil (

This picture illustrates a bottle that I purchased here in Germany (hence the German writing on the label) but it doesn't matter what brand or where you purchase this stuff- the link above shows that they have it at Whole Foods, for example- just that it's 100% pure essential oil. The reason this is one of my go-to products at all times of year is because Eucalyptus Essential Oil is excellent for getting rid of any nasal congestion that you may have. I just sprinkle a generous amount of it on the wall of the shower and then once you've created some steam the oil will evaporate slowly with the steam and you've essentially created your own gigantic vaporizer in your bathroom. It's truly the one remedy that I have used time and time again with fabulous results every time- stuffy noses beware!!

3.) Humidiflyer  (

The Humidiflyer is a nifty and useful little gadget that combats jet lag. Not seeing the direct relevancy to singing yet? Well, what if I told you that one of the main reasons that we get jet lagged is because the air on the airplane is so dry and you get slightly dehydrated because of it? Thus, enter the Humidiflyer! It was designed by a member of Air New Zeland's cabin crew, who wanted to combat the dryness he was constantly exposed to from flying, so he invented this amazing contraption. It has definitely changed my flying experience and bonus- I don't get jet lagged anymore either! Definitely a must for busy singers' schedules who don't want to worry about flying a few days early to combat jet lag. Now you just wear your Humidiflyer for the flight and Voila!-you're singing the same day or the next day without any dryness or residual flight-related vocal issues.

4.) Hollywood Fashion Secrets Stylette (found this on ulta's website, on target's website and on the hollywood website too- so check all 3 if you're having trouble finding it)

This small cosmetic bag is great because it's filled with a ton of useful fashion-emergency items so you can just throw it in your luggage or purse and you know that you are ready for any disaster! What it actually includes is: fashion tape (to hold your clothing in place or do a last-minute hemline), bra converting clips (to make your regular bra into a halterback for a spontaneous workout class), a deodorant removing sponge (because we've all forgotten to let it dry before putting on that little black dress..whoops!), garment shields (since we don't want to dryclean our blazer every time just because the armpits stink), and nipple concealers (for those shirts that are tight or those extra cold days where you don't want to wear a bra that feels like armor), lint removing sheets (because they're so much more compact than a lint roller!), a leather wipe (since that stain will set if it's not gotten rid of pronto!), 2 makeup removing cotton swabs (to remedy the effects of those times when you're on the subway applying your eyeliner and the driver hits the brakes extra hard), and a stain-removing wipe (because when you spilled the coffee on your leather bag you also got it on your pants leg too-oops!). I've also added my own emergency things to this bag too (because they fit in, so why not!?) and they are: bobbypins (in case my hair takes a vacation day), safety pins (you never know when a button will fall off or a zipper will break), a few extra black hair elastics (since I seem to always lose them), bandaids (you never know how terribly a papercut will bleed until you don't have a band-aid on hand), and an emery board (because your nails will always break or chip just when you least want it).

5.) Hollywood Fashion Secrets Fashion Tape (

There's not much to say about this tape- it's your basic double-sided tape which helps to hold your clothing in place when you accidentally lose a button and your blouse would be popping open otherwise, or if you want to keep those bra straps in place when you're wearing a boatneck dress or things like that. You know, fashion emergencies. Hope that you'll find it as useful as I have. Oh, and this one even comes with a cute keychain so you can take it whereever you go- how cool is that!?

6.) Decibullz Custom Moldable Earplugs (here on their website)

My brilliant Husband got these for me after I complained extensively about a flight we took upon which there were 3 screaming babies for 9+ hours. Not to mention we were seated in the part of the plane right behind the engines (AND in 2 of the middle seats of a 2-4-2 seat configuration-Oy vey!) so that noise was crazy too and added to my ears' purgatory for the duration of said flight. Needless to say, after testing these babies out at a noisy club on New Year's Eve, I say bring on your crying toddlers and jet engine noise and anything else you can throw at me- I'm ready--these things work fabulously!!! And they're not nearly as expensive as noise-canceling headphones from Bose (which were the other option I was considering) and they actually work just as well. Because the downside about the ones from Bose were that they only worked fully to cancel the noise if you were playing music, and let's face it, as a musician I don't want to be forced to listen to music for a 9+ hour flight just simply to cancel noise. I don't know how you might feel, but I seem to find that because I work with music on a daily basis and have to listen so intently so very often, I normally just want silence when I'm relaxing. Of course the Bose headphones also had active noise canceling which you could turn on without playing music, but after trying them out at several of their stores, I found honestly that I could still hear things pretty well through despite the active noise-canceling system, and that it wasn't worth it to me to pay over $300 bucks for a product that didn't 100% noise cancel. So, back to the Decibullz. Of course they're not 100% noise-canceling either (but at $20-some bucks on amazon I wouldn't expect them to be) but they do drastically reduce the noise you hear, plus they come with the neat feature that you can mold them to your ear so that their effectiveness is improved through a good seal. Again, they're not perfect, but for my money and for my sensitive ears they block out a good bit of sound. They're also made in the USA, so that's cool too! :)

7.) NYX HD Concealer (found here at Ulta)

This particular product I found by chance when I was looking for some concealer that was in a wand form and was also for HD use. I actually ended up going back to the store and buying another one once I had completely used the first one I had purchased for a few shows last summer. And I am not exaggerating when I say that in the dressing room for those shows all of my female colleagues were asking to use my concealer after the first dress rehearsal had ended and they saw how my makeup looked. So, it's a win-win. The product works superbly, it's cruelty-free because their products are certified by PETA (aka never are any of them tested on animals) and it's not going to cost you a bunch of money (I paid $4.99 at Ulta last time I bought it) though since it's such a good buy you may have to go to a few stores before you find it because it's often sold-out. (First world problems,  people. Truly.)

8.) Zoom Recorder, Model # H5 (found here on and here on their website)

 So I know that everyone has their preference when it comes to recording devices for singing, but besides all the technical stuff that this thing can do (it can actually record 4 tracks at once, for example) it's also just really amazingly easy to use, requires only 2 AA Batteries to work, and is really the best recording quality I've gotten yet by using a do-it-myself device. I'll let you read the website to find out about the technical specs, but trust me, it's amazing and you won't be worry. Plus, it's under $300 on Amazon. What's to think about? That's less than a studio session right there! And is there really any reason to go into the studio for those YAP applications? I think not, especially when you can make studio-quality recordings whenever and whereever you like with this Zoom. :)

9.) Fast Scanner App (in the Google Play Store website here)

This handy app is built for both iPhone and Android (yay!) and is FREE (who doesn't like that!?) and is literally super-easy to use. It has cropping functions and allows you to change the darkness of the scan as well as scan multiple pages to be saved in a single pdf document. It's a life-saver when you need music quickly (or any other document, for that matter) and want to transport it without all the hassle of photocopying it. I've definitely saved quite a bit of time and money using this app.