Friday, March 30, 2012

Truly irresistable

Writing about my vocal journey this week has made me think even more about it. It is amazing to me that I could spend more time thinking about my voice than I already do—it is constantly on my mind! Remember when I said that I was manipulating my voice to sound like what I wanted it to sound like to myself, inside my own head? It made me think about why I felt I needed to do that, and what the influences have been in life that have taken me from the pure, real, efficient sound I made as a crying baby, to the “sensitive artist” I thought I was being!

 Think about the sounds humans find irresistible, that they have a visceral response to: a a baby's cry, a belly laugh, a scream, and a gorgeous singing voice.

Then I started to think how our society reacts to noise. Since we’re on the crying baby thing, take that: from the first moment the crying starts, the parents spend all their time trying to figure out how to get the baby to stop crying. A lot of us grew up being told quite a lot to stop making so much noise. Making a lot of noise, whether it’s with happy sounds or not so happy sounds, doesn’t really go over well. Especially for women. A diminuitive tone is widely considered attractive by men, and appropriate by older women, fathers, grandmothers, you name it. People went to hear operas and paid other people to be loud for them, so that they could feel the feeling and have the catharsis with out embarrassing themselves with the impropriety of it all. Learning to sing opera, I am still in the process of retraining my thoughts about how loud and how fabulous it is actually "okay" for me to be.

The other piece of this for our generation has been recordings complete with fancy editing and mixing. Listening to any classical singer’s latest recording, you might think that she has the lung capacity of a gorilla. No one has to breathe, no one is ever out of tune, there is no way to tell if you can really hear her over the orchestra, you could make a recording of the Vier Letze Lieder with a full Strauss orchestra and be perfectly viable even if you were singing off your voice the entire time. It has introduced a whole other idea of what voices are supposed to sound like. We have less and less affordable chances to hear live singing with acoustic forces and no amplification. We rarely have the chance to stand next to a formidable phonator and really hear what that kind of singing sounds and feels and looks like. 

Electronically enhanced singing, whether in an arena with Katy Perry, or a recording with Renee Fleming is electronically enhanced nonetheless. It isn't the real thing. Since at least eighty percent of my youthful concept of what singing was comes from recordings, my ear trained itself to imitate sounds like these in my own singing. I started to think there was something wrong with me if singing required any effort at all, or if I produced a sound that was raw and primal. My idea of singing was that it was supposed to be something highly refined, highly precious. My teacher told me this: The resonant sounds we make are not refined, really, at all, although if it is being produced properly, hopefully it won't sound ugly, but slender and agile. We use our primal voices in the service of very refined music, but it is not for the voice itself to be precious in this way. Everything that is not our pure, clear, real voice is imitation and learned behavior.

Only recently have I stopped noting to myself as I practiced: “Damn, that note kind of sounded like Freni! Yes, finally!!” or “I need to get these low notes to sound more like Verrett’s.” It doesn’t dawn on me to compare myself to people, because I am not manipulating to sound like them. I know that the only healthy and resonant way is to sound like me, and there really is not much I can do about it. Freni and Verrett were singing like themselves, and that's why I love them!  They have what no one else can have: their own unique sound.

Which is why what my teacher said is so true: The journey to the voice is the journey to self. What we do when we study in this way, is to try to get back to the essential US, pre-imitation of our mothers and fathers, the recordings that we listened to, and pre-cow-towing to the pressures of societal norms. It is learning to say: Who I am and what I sound like is okay, it is impossible to be like anyone else without hurting myself.

A truly authentic voice, like a truly authentic person (and so often they exist in the same body), is truly irresistible.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Resonant Singing=True Voice

I've spent a lot of time in my career as a professional voice student :) studying vowel shapes and forward and back and laryngeal positions and tongue flexibility and support, et al. And maybe all of those things are ways of getting good resonance and efficient phonation, but I never thought of it in that way. I thought of each issue addressed by my teachers as a different rung on the ladder of vocal technique that I had to master. That when all things came together: Pow. I would be amazing. When I look back I realize that they were all right. Each teacher gave me something invaluable to carry in my vocal bag of tricks, ways of hearing myself, musicianship, sensitivity, self-confidence, and the list could really go on forever.

Maybe it is because of all this coming together in my brain (finally, I am a bit of a late bloomer) that I am starting to realize that all of these things come together perfectly with efficient phonation, and what results is resonant singing. I never knew how to consistently resonate on each note until very recently. What I was doing to get the sound I wanted on one note threw another note off, and I had what sounded like a person going on and off their sound multiple times in a single phrase. It was a painful lesson to learn, and to be confronted with this reality, (again I sometimes wonder why I am compelled to keep writing this stuff on the internet, but maybe my abject honesty will help somebody sometime beside myself), but when the light turned on, it really turned on, and I realized I had the muscle coordination already in place to do this consistently—I just hadn’t known how to use it! I was singing in a way that made me feel like I could control each note, and I manipulated them to sound like what I wanted them to sound like to me inside my own head, which we all know, is not what we really sound like! But outside of a boomy church, bathroom, or stairwell, I wouldn’t have been consistently heard. I think people could hear that maybe the innate quality of my voice, when it came through on the odd note or phrase that was efficiently produced, by accident, really, was attractive, and that was why I got some gigs.

I had gotten really really good at manipulating consistently. I had taken all of the wonderful lessons I’d learned from each teacher and all the different parts had never come together to make a whole voice. This teacher’s E vowel, this teacher’s concept of an AH vowel, this idea of support, this idea of how to navigate the passagio, how to strengthen this part of my range, this idea of what singing soft means, this idea of coloratura, or what rep I should sing, of what rep I shouldn’t sing. And rep choices especially were completely irrelevant in light of the fact that whether a voice sounds large, small, broad, slender, if you can’t hear them in the hall, if they don’t have squillo or core, it doesn’t matter what rep they bring to auditions.

I now know how to work towards having that efficiency of phonation on every note in my range. I now also know that my voice isn’t in parts. It’s not the low, the middle, the passaggi, the high. It’s all one thing, and that sound does not have to change to accommodate each section of my voice—I don’t have to be afraid of singing too intensely in my low or my high, and I don’t have to take monster breaths to prepare for what scares me: aka my passagio! When I am singing with efficient phonation, I don’t need to over-stuff with breath, everything automatically does what it is supposed to do. It is almost as if my passagio as I know it no longer exists.

When I am practicing in this way, it doesn’t always sound so mellifluous inside my head as I listen to myself. But I realize that what I thought I liked before inside my head wasn’t working. It didn’t sound right to the people listening to me, and when the overtones are all vibrating in there, it can be downright intense. It also turned on another light: when I stop manipulating and start phonating properly, I am no longer presenting to an audience only what I want them to hear.

They are hearing what I really sound like.

This is both horrifying and liberating all at once.

Monday, March 26, 2012


It’s official, I do believe spring has sprung. My eyes are exploding with pollen and I want a whole new wardrobe. That’s how I know for sure.

I stopped just short of doing myself a harm to avoid returning to work this morning. I am reminded of the moment in Downton Abbey Season Two when Thomas succeeds in getting himself shot in order to be sent back home from the war. I did not hurt myself, but it was tough to come back from my five day cooking-rehearsing-practicing-Downton Abbey watching party. And yes, work is not anything like a war, can understand.

At the beginning of the week I made myself a list of what I wanted to make to keep in the freezer, and I did ALL OF IT. I made Asian Chicken soup, six meals worth of meatballs and tomato sauce, spinach and ricotta ravioli, marinaded chicken ready for the grill or oven, mini quiches for breakfasts, two loaves of bread (I would have made more, but it’s been too humid for good bread making), and four two-person portions of carbonara casserole. Cooking is such a pleasure for me, it makes me feel human, and like my life is not useless after all—if all else fails I can cook something for somebody and have them like it. Also, I’ve always felt like cooking is one of the few things I really do for Joe, when he does so much for me every day. There are literally lists of tasks I never even have to think about because he wordlessly takes care of them.

Joe and I always have to plan really well for our summers—as do most of the musicians I know, because money is tighter without church and adjunct teaching. So as I look forward and try to plan for what I’ll want to save for—first on the list is a new recording, and several lessons. Second is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but in the light of all the voice lessons I need, I’d been having a hard time trying to justify it. I want to start training as a Reiki healer—something I’ve been introduced to by one of my favorite yoga teachers. But even if the only person it ever heals is me—what could possibly be a more beneficial thing to spend money on? It’s not like I’m buying a Chanel purse, although I want one of those too. I guess the idea that I would want to spend any more than 100 dollars on anything other than singing with my discretionary income scares me. It’s like this voice in my head is telling me I don’t have my priorities straight. But it’s the wrong voice, the fearful voice, the one with the guilt.

I have to stop paying any attention to that voice. I really do.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Time Off

I've been lucky enough to have a few days off from my day job, and have spent the past couple of days memorizing, practicing, cooking, and getting my taxes done. I am so proud I actually do them myself, Schedule C and all. My heart feels lighter now that it's done!

The weather has been swell too, and it's been hard to stay focused. For the first time in years, Joe and I have spring breaks that overlap. It's been great. We started off the week with a really exciting performance of some Bartok he's been working on for a long time, and in two weeks he has another concert with a violinist he works with, and since I am in staging now for DG, we both have lots to keep us occupied, not to mention the fact that the house hasn't been cleaned in about four months. Tonight, we're taking some time away from practicing and cleaning and going to dinner and the movies. YAY!

I think I am doing sort of okay with my calorie counting-- I lost another pound. It should be more-- but every little bit helps.

I made it through Mi tradi in a run through with the whole cast in attendance, and I didn't walk away ready to hang myself, although I know it will be better as it gets more like second nature. No breaths in the runs! I took them in one breath, and it felt better than trying to take out notes to fit them in. When I did that, it was like I was stressing out suddenly about taking a breath and it sounding funny. So I have decided to simply learn to maximize my breath and phonation efficiency and make it work! I was so nervous. But it was certainly a case of mind over matter with that aria. I said to myself, "Jessica, are you going to let this crash and burn by believing that you can't sing it?" And the answer to that was hell, no.

Friday, March 16, 2012


They say that being grateful for what you have is the quickest route to getting where you want to go. Sometimes it’s easier than other times to feel grateful. In fact, sometimes my brain is just a minefield of pathetic victimhood. In that moment the only thing that can pull me out of feeling bad is feeling bad enough that it makes me not want to feel bad any more. Then I just say: I’m done with feeling bad, and I’m not going to do it any more. I’m going to change what I can change, or just decide to be okay with where I am right now. And then ten minutes later, you’re fine.

But today I am really grateful. I’m grateful for my family (Joe, Pete, Mimi, and so many friends that are family too), and for the fact that by some miracle I’ve been able to afford two coachings and two lessons in a month and feel very on top of my sh*t, I’m grateful that I currently (and this may change tomorrow) have the courage to say it’s okay to keep working really hard at being a singer, even if it may never make me any money.

Also, maybe it’s always easier to be grateful on Friday.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A really great article from Raptitude’s David

This was so wonderful to read today: Why Your Work Disappoints You. And oddly, it really correlated with a situation with a student today, too.

Also—it’s the Ides of March. Stay away from men in togas with daggers.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Singing with our truth

My life has come full circle in so many ways. Things I ran to get as far away from as I could I now find myself smack in the middle of. I'm back in Baltimore again, where I was born. I'm singing in houses of worship for a living, when, after playing for my father's church for ten years I was pretty done with that whole scene.

My beloved teacher from undergrad always told me the types of roles she saw me singing when I "grew up." I dreamed of Violetta and Lucia and bought the scores, and then I went to grad school, sang completely different things, and veered off into other territory. There was a time I looked at those scores on my shelf and thought maybe it would make sense to give them away, that they were of no use to me. I almost did! And now it seems, the closer I get to what I think my real voice really is, the more I think she was probably right all along. The high stuff is easier for me than it has ever been. I need to work a bit on my flexibility, but the idea of fioratura does not seem as impossible as it once did.

My teacher said the other day: "The journey to the voice is really the journey to self, isn't it?"

And as cheesy as that might look on the page, it wasn't at all when he said it.

The thought that what I originally (as a VERY young singer) imagined myself to be in my head may actually be what I will sing...well that just kind of blows my mind. Maybe it shouldn't, but somehow, it make me more confident in myself, my instincts, the fact that I may in fact know more about my own voice than anyone else, even on a deep subconscious level. What a concept! After all this time, all this training, everything it has taken me to get to where I am, to feel like I am singing with the real Jessica voice: I may in fact be coming full circle.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Frivolous Friday: the best things: week of March 5

1. My new J Crew silver ballet flats (courtesy of a hell of a sale on Ebay, of course)

2. Le nozze di Figaro TONIGHT at Lyric Opera Baltimore

3. Most fabulous lesson ever and great time in NYC-- more on this soon. All about singing with our own TRUTH, our real voices, one voice from top to bottom. The journey to finding your voice is really the journey to yourself.

4. My new Essie nail colors "Playdate," Tangerine, and "Tart Deco." I literally cannot stop staring at my fingers. Anything that makes you this happy should cost way more money!

5. Guacamole and Margaritas: I mean, come on. What could be better? And when you are having them with your hot husband, well...

6. I'm reading a fabulous book: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

7. Friend time: it's always so good to feel that you have people on your team

8. Our new stray kitty, Petunia

9. Daffodils. Absolute joy in a vase!

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Choir singing and the Operatic Voice

Since you (the two of you that read this blog) know almost everything about me, which is scary, you know that I’ve been doing a lot of hard vocal work lately. Not that this is really that different than any other time—I practice everyday—but right now my focus is a little different than it’s been.

Being able to sing over an orchestra requires a very specific kind of training, as I’m discovering more and more everyday. The muscles have to be worked daily to support the vocal folds for this highly athletic thing we do called creating intense resonance. It’s not something you just don’t have or just do have, period, although some people have easier access naturally. It’s something you can work to build, and I’m working on it.

As a lover of choral music and the Anglican tradition specifically, I am in awe of those singers who have devoted their musical lives to developing the technique to sing this genre of music well. While I believe that what I am best suited for is probably opera, I think that I, like most singers, if we focused on developing our voices for the requirements of the music of this era/genre, we could be at least not horrible/even proficient at it. The reverse is also probably true—the people who chose high-level ensemble singing/early music could have chosen to train differently and build voices to sing opera in big houses. Often, these singers have the natural resonance to sing over orchestras without doing the muscle building but find it difficult to sustain without doing damage. The difference is not who is more resonant, it’s who can sustain it in large houses over large orchestras in a healthy way, something that even “small” voices can do if the foundation is there. If you are singing a capella, or with smaller forces almost exclusively, it makes more sense to spend time on other aspects of technique more relevant to the repertoire. I think of operatic technique as being about making very primal sound, not about blending at all, really. Many may disagree with me, but I guess what I’m getting at is that we make decisions to train in specific ways to do different things, from pop, to opera to choral and early music, and Broadway.

The thing is, for those of us with slightly larger voices, singing in choirs without being obnoxious requires a lot of off-the-voice singing. Resulting in me, of course, wearing my voice out in half the usual time and undoing all the practice I’d done working to build my musculature earlier in the day. Essentially, I am reinforcing the opposite of what I am working on in voice lessons every time I sing in my choral gigs. It would be the same if I were singing in the chorus of Cats, or as back up for Celine Dion. Even if I ever get the elusive choral job where you are encouraged to sing with your full-voiced operatic technique, I still don’t think I really would—there is something about choir-singing (deeply ingrained from college, I’m sure) that makes me feel like I need to blend.

I struggle with this continually.

I enjoy singing in choirs, and I love the repertoire, both for the Jewish and Anglican liturgies. It is really fantastic stuff. I like the social aspect, and the camaraderie, and the fact that, well, it’s just less stressful singing with a whole section of sopranos than by yourself! Also—the most important reason of them all: it pays the bills. Each job I have is for a very specific reason—one is my car payment, one is my voice lessons and coachings, etc. I can’t really spare them.

You’ve heard it said: Leap and the net will appear. But at what point is leaping out of your choral gigs to continue solidifying your operatic technique a really bad financial decision?

Friday, March 02, 2012

Frivolous Friday

Stuff I absolutely love, not that you care, but nevertheless:

- The blog “A Girl, A Style.” A singularly positive and wonderfully feminine outlook on life—there is absolutely nothing wrong with looking at the world through rose-colored glasses

- Brianna’s Monday night yoga class, although now it is getting so crowded because everyone figured out how amazing it is

- Finding a fun accessory I’ve been admiring on the blogs for a fraction of its original price on Ebay, then that fabulous moment when you “win” your item!

- Cooking a good dinner, and Joe loving it, which he almost always does, but I have had some disasters…at least enough never to take a dish coming out well for granted

- Eating the leftovers of said dinner for lunch the next day

- Midi skirts, despite the fact that they may or may not be responsible (along with leggings, of course) for my putting on a few pounds and never even realizing it…sigh

- Big necklaces that deflect attention from my hips

- Looking forward to things like happy hour or lunch with a good friend, luckily, I have made these things an important part of my schedule—brilliant, yes I am!

- Bach: need I say more

- Brightly colored ballet flats

- The moment in the third act of La bohème when Marcello sings the piercing “Mimí!” I always sing it to my cat in a dorky fake baritone voice

- Spaghetti Cacio e pepe: the simplest and most delicious thing you could eat at the end of a weird day—my new directive: no matter what, must perpetually keep ingredients for this dish in pantry

- Seltzer water, with lemon, lime, and/or especially a splash of cranberry—it’s the glamorous nearly calorie-free drink—it looks so pretty in the glass

- Whorish nail polish: whatever that means

- Red Zinfandel

- When you buy a bunch of tulips and their stems begin to bend over the edge of the vase into the most gorgeous architectural looking shape

- Working on Mozart: it never gets easy and it never gets old

- Working on Puccini: it always makes you feel like a really sensitive musician

- Baking bread, rather like I imagine giving birth would be, less painful, but takes almost as long, but the little finished loaf makes me feel so proud

- My precious jewels: Cats extraordinaire Pete and Mimi. Just them being there when I get home heals me

- Vanilla pannacotta

- Non vos relinquam orphanos, a motet by William Byrd—listen to it

- Google calendars

- Having a clean house—walking in, seeing everything in its place, and with the pillows especially fluffy looking

- Peonies, daffodils, and big bunches of grape hyacinths

- Having doors opened for me—especially car doors

Happy Weekend, warriors! Oh, and follow me on PINTEREST!!!