Thursday, April 26, 2012

Nothing like the rain to clear the air so we see again

Remember when I was in that dark place on Monday?  Well, Monday night I went to yoga, where we did lots of Kundalini style stuff and I have to tell you my abs are still killing me, but it completely shifted my mood.  

And this is a WONDERFUL article that is currently changing my life!  It talks about some of the things I've spent the last fifteen or so years fretting about, and backs up my claim that "reality" and "the odds" are irrelevant to my life as a singer.  Yes, I have a job to pay the bills while I need it, but other than that, people, you can find me taking lessons, taking buses, going to auditions, and basically following my dream.  Do what YOU want.  Do not allow the tick tock of the clock or the people who tell you what the odds are get you down.  Yes, if you had chosen being a doctor, you'd have more money...but if singing is what gives your life meaning, then, I celebrate you and your choice to do something very few people understand.  It won't be easy, but there will be moments of such utter joy and excitement that they will make up for everything else. 

Oh, and, sidebar: the next time you need a little fabulous early nineties peppy music, download Nothing Like the Rain by 2 Unlimited.  It's been a fantastically cheery addition to my ipod, and the lyrics ring oddly true.

In a weird way, the chord progression in the song reminds me of the old hymn:

There shall be showers of blessing,
Showers of blessing we need.
Mercy drops round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead.

Let it rain.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cab Karma and other New York Concerns

Well, opera rangers, I'm on the bus again. I've already texted most of the people I know and listened to Don Giovanni about six times, and gone over my lines. I tried to read, but I can't because we are at one of the very rare boring parts of the book I'm reading: Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. I've also gone over my arias in my head, and had to make a realy concerted effort not to burst out in lip trills. God, it's tough to be a singer. :) Everyone thinks you're batshit crazy. So now I'm writing because I need to vent. La Voce is not as divina as I would like this week. You put the worst allergies in recent memory in the same week with PMS and you've got a soprano with some interesting problems. My range is all there, it's just not flowing very mellifluously and my cords are slightly swollen. All you girls can relate, I'm sure. My teacher once told me that it's like trying to sing with a completely different voice than the one you're used to for a few days a month. All I can say is that I've got a pretty tight schedule today. My second audition is about a half an hour after the first and 20 blocks up town. I'm hoping my cab karma is good today. I've never had any trouble getting cabs, except this one night a few years ago, when Joe and I were first dating. We had a big weekend planned-- fun hotel, dinner at Jean-Georges, and Traviata at the Met. It was March, and the last thing anybody was expecting was snow. But while we were eating dinner in that gorgeous restaurant, we watched it begin to snow out of the huge floor-to-ceiling windows. It was way too romantic. Talk about the evening of my dreams. If I hadn't tried to eat the spoon rest by accident (that's a whole other story), it would have been the most perfectly elegant experience of my life. The snow was so beautiful, that is, until we had to get out and walk in it. All the way to the Metropolitan Opera, in our finery. There was not a cab to be had. ANYWHERE. We barely made it before curtain. That being said, we're almost there, thank god. Thanks for keeping me company.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Proper Care and Feeding of a Pianist

I used to be a pianist-- I started college as a piano major.  I was never really good, though, and it soon became evident that I was really meant to be a singer.  Because I could truly grasp the work that it takes to be that accomplished, I put amazing pianists on a bit of a pedestal, I suppose.  Which makes it all the more surprising that when I switched to singing as my major, I began to take those same pianists a bit for granted as accompanists!    I felt giving them the music a week in advance was really quite adequate-- they were such advanced musicians capable of sight-reading feats I could only imagine in my soprano fantasies.  It was precisely because I felt they were so fantastic that I didn't think they needed a lot of time to prepare my music.  My abject pedestalization of these remarkable beings is what made me inconsiderate.  While I may need weeks of prep for that set of Schubert songs, they are far superior musicians, I reasoned, and will be fine with three days.  I was wrong.

I am married to one of those pianists I put on a pedestal!  And it's taught me a lot. You have a whole new perspective on their lives as collaborators.  And it is not just students making these mistakes.  You would be surprised how disrespectful even seasoned professionals can be about things like this!

Here's what I've learned:

1. If a pianist asks for your music right away, they mean right away.  
They are not kidding.  They mean no later than tomorrow.  If you've told them what you're singing and they say they need it right away, it's because they've never played it before, because they know it but consider it to be challenging, or because they have a crazy schedule of playing coming up and need time to look over it and prioritize their practice time.   They want to play well for you and for themselves, and if they have not already played your exact line-up of pieces ten times before (and I bet they haven't), they need time to work through your music.  There are lots of ways to make this happen, with the advent of technology.  I have downloaded my audition arias and recital music to my i-pad, and can send them to anyone who needs them.  Pianists are now even playing, rehearsing, performing using their i-pads instead of binders!  Most, still, I would wager, however, just want real paper copies.  Clear copies, nothing cut-off at the bottom, top or sides.  Organized, double-sided, with paper clips to separate each song, and notes about your tempi are very helpful.

2. If a pianist says they want your music two weeks before, they mean it.
Right about this time every year, my husband (and all the other pianists you know) has no free time.  None to practice the music that you gave him ten minutes ago for your rehearsal tomorrow.  He has a musical pedigree you wouldn't believe, and can trace his lineage through his teachers back to Beethoven, in case you care.  But he will not be able to support you the way he wants to and the way you want to be supported if he is sight-reading.  Bottom-line.

3. It is not fair to expect a pianist to drop everything to practice your music. 
And whether or not you know it, if you give the pianist your music after the deadline they gave you, that is literally what they will have to do.  Pianists who are also teachers and who perform themselves, or, pianists who are in school working on a degree live incredibly tightly- scheduled lives.  They have to work a lot to make enough money to live, and if they are in school, their practice and study time for their own music is precious.  If they are too nice a person to throw the music back in your face and tell you it's too late and that you missed the deadline, they will rearrange their lives to make time to practice your music.  After a long day of teaching or class, they will have to practice your music instead of what they had originally planned for that time so that the performance will be up to their high standards.  Do you really want to be the singer who does that?

4. But they sight-read my music in auditions! 
Now, we all go to opera auditions all the time where pianists sight-read our music with great success.  But please bear in mind they are often pianists who have degrees in collaborative playing, or play for singers exclusively, and have spent a good deal of time getting to know all the standard audition arias like the back of their hand.  This is a special subset of pianists we couldn't live without who, for the most part, have chosen to do this for their career.  They might even be coaches who work with singers all day every day.  I would wager that even these special people would probably want a little time to look at your entire recital of Hugo Wolf lieder, or your impossible to count aria from Postcards from Morocco before having to play it in front of an audience.

5. Gifts don't hurt if you screwed up.
If you're afraid you've already made one of these mistakes, and are working with a pianist who you may or may not have pissed off with your thoughtlessness, apologize, present them with a batch of freshly baked cookies, and then never do it again.  They'll forgive you.  I've found that gifts of coffee, Reese's Pieces/Peanut M&Ms, or Dunhill cigarettes also work wonders.  Just kidding about the cigarettes.  :)  

To summarize: 
I think at the end of the day, all of this is about being a considerate colleague.  Do not assume that just because they are amazing they will not want to play though your pieces.  Think about how you feel when you have to sight-read.  Even if you are good at it, you would admit you can't be at your very best while doing so.  If they are very good, they have very high standards, and will want to give a detailed performance with musicality and not just right notes.

When you are working with someone and they ask you to give them the tools they need to do a good job, you follow through with that.  Being a good colleague in this way makes you the kind of singer they will look forward to working with again.  Believe me, pianists remember people who take advantage of their good nature, and they also remember people who are respectful of their time.

We want people to smile when they think of us, not grind and gnash their teeth.

And my very best piece of married-to-a-pianist advice:

Just remember:  your pianist is the one person in the room who can save you if something goes wrong in the performance.  Make them want to save you.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Yes, I'm alive

What a week it has been. My trip to New York was good, and not just because my audition was in the part of midtown that has an awesome TJ Maxx. The other reason is because the Cosmic Diner is there. I have been soooo good these past weeks, really committed to losing ten pounds before Donna Elvira, and so far I've lost nine. I've been under my calorie goal almost every day, so I decided to treat myself to real diner food when I was starving and nervous and things before my audition. I had grilled cheese with bacon and curly fries. I didn't finish it, because wow. They gave me a ton. It's surprising how much more you appreciate the occaisional splurge when you don't have them much. The bus trip was not great, but then, I wasn't expecting it to be. You know how they tell yopu to find an audition dress that doesn't wrinkle?? Yes, well, I have two of those, but I don't like them as well as I like the one that does wrinkle. I always get compliments on the one that wrinkles. It's a gorgeous color and looks great on my figure, so, I was like: "Screw it. There's a million drug stores in Manhattan, I'll buy some of that wrinkle spray." When I finally found wrinkle spray, and finally got to my practice room, and got the dress out and sprayed it, well...the fumes were exceedingly powerful. I think it might have actually hampered my ability to sing. So that's another lesson learned. I guess pollen plus chemicals are just a lot to handle. But there were no noticeable wrinkles and I felt great in the dress. The panel chatted a bit with me, asking about things on my resume, which I was glad of. It meant they weren't just hoping I would leave as quickly as possible. I answered their questions, and then suddenly, I was outside wondering what had happened. Did I sound like a complete idiot? Was what I said okay?? I was overtaken with concern that I may not have sounded smart, with it, hip, talented, etc. I asked my wonderful pianist, just outside the door, with all the other sopranos (there were a bajillion in the hallway, and really no men at all... ugh...)looking on: "Did I sound obnoxious in there?" "Nope," she said, "You sounded like you. It was the real Jessica. You were being yourself." "Yes," I replied, with a grin, "I guess I was." And that is never a bad thing. So then I quickly changed back to my normal person clothes, and practically ran twenty blocks to the bus where I would sit next to a person who talked loudly on the phone for two straight hours, and I seethed all the way back to Baltimore.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Alive. But barely.

So comparatively, this year, I was not as busy for Easter as last, but somehow, I am just as tired.  Yipes.  Perhaps I really am getting old.

This week, in betwixt the rehearsals, I am bussing it up to NYC for an audition, and I think that is making me more tired.  The thought has entered my mind that perhaps instead of going to yoga tonight to detox my spirit I should be practicing and brushing up those arias.  But, intuitively, I know I am wrong.  You have to take care of your whole self sometimes, and based on the current hamburger-like texture of my vocal cords, I am quite certain that practicing would be rather counter-productive. 

Joe has the day off, and is making me a delicious dinner and homemade raspberry sorbet!  Until the audition was confirmed today, I was silly with bleary-eyed excitement at the thought of an evening filled with yoga and wine and a dinner I didn’t have to cook myself!  And now here I am worrying about singing again. 

But that is our life.  And singing really is fun. 

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Holy Week

Holy week begins for me tonight with Maundy Thursday service.  I love this time of year, even though it's murder for the cords.  It's kind of a gigantic Handel fest for me this year, which makes it even more lovely.  I just can't love Handel more than I already do.

In preparation for your working weekend of insanity, singers, I give you this exceptional blog post:
15 things you should give up to be happy.

Now make peace with the fact that your vocal cords are probably going to hate you after this is all over, and just go be fabulous.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

More discoveries

So, I consider myself stretched musically coming to you today from sunny Baltimore.  Last night Stu brought over the original cast dvd of Into the Woods, which I had never seen, and mightily enjoyed.  Can I just say: those lyrics...Sondheim is brilliant.

This morning, while the car window was being repaired and I was getting ready, I listened to Beethoven's String Quartet No. 12, and the adagio of No. 14.  It's some pretty complex stuff-- so beautiful, but you couldn't exactly call late Beethoven cheery.  The poor guy couldn't hear.

Oh, and I'm wearing bright red ballet flats.  They are making up for Beethoven's lack of cheer.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012


Well, today did not start out especially well.  Which is too bad because last night (with Ms. M) was so FANTASTIC in all caps! When Joe went out to get in the car and go to work-- it had been broken into and ransacked-- this is not the first time this has happened to us, but it's never fun, and you never get used to it.  Living in the city has it's drawbacks.  The cost of getting the window fixed is still exponentially less than living so far away from work that I have to drive and park everyday.  So, I suppose it all works out in the end.

After that little delight, I went upstairs to finish getting ready.  My usual routine is to have The Real Housewives on in the background as I do my make-up and get dressed for the day, but I thought, you know, I don't know if I can take the complaining, fighting and showing off from wealthy and entitled  Atlanta residents right now, and there's no time like the present to start filling in those holes in my classical repertoire.  We had a recording of Mendelssohn piano quartets in our library, so I started with that.

I listened to Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 1, and boy was it better than The Real Housewives.

From what I understand, Felix (I know it is very cheeky of me to call Mr. Mendelssohn by his first name) wrote this when he was a teenager, and I have to say, it is way better than I could have done.  Critics of the work say that it's too piano-heavy (Felix was really into piano at the time apparently), and not enough fun stuff for the strings, but I enjoyed it, because the pianist in the recording I have is truly wonderful.  I believe I am only just starting to understand what separates a fabulous pianist from fine ones, but it seems just having all the notes in their places is not enough to put you in the latter category.  It is about control of each note, the ability to create a unique tone and to give the phrases color.  This is very difficult to accomplish, and requires a lot of that musical soul I am talking about a lot.  So many of us are satisfied just to get the notes out there (and when it comes to playing the piano, I am thrilled if I can play most of the ones that are written-- color and control are not even part of the picture), that imagining what it takes to shape the notes the way a great pianist does kind of blows my mind.  When you hear a really good one, it's like the scales are not just scales, they become these gorgeous free-flowing agents of joy, with a solid and meaningful landing on a very particular note.

And now, after reading a few online articles about the first piano quartet, Mendelssohn's piano sextet is mentioned as a comparatively much more developed work-- maybe that will be next.

The lucky thing about our lives today is that while we may find it hard to get to live performances (we should try, of course, especially to hear singers in large halls!! Re: my post about that), we can find and listen to nearly anything on I-tunes.  Everything except, of course, that fabulous LP song on the Citibank commercial that is always stuck in my head, and that I desperately want to add to my i-pod for work collection.

Try it, singers.  Listen to some really good OTHER music!

Monday, April 02, 2012

Branching out

This weekend I was lucky enough to sing a lot, and all of it was good music-- with Palm Sunday, things start to get exciting.  I also had the chance to listen to Joe play in a recital with a violinist, which was so much fun for me.  When I was growing up, and in school, I spent so much time listening to all sorts of instrumental and orchestral music, and now it feels like I rarely do.  I pretty much only listen to music that I’m learning, with the exception of my walks to two and from work each day.  And during that time, I’ve committed to listening only to things that I won’t have to think about or consider: Fergie, Rihanna, Akon, Elton John, you get the idea.  There’s really a lot we can learn from other instruments, things we can appreciate in the way they think about and interpret music that is so different from our way of thinking.  I noted how very sensitive both pianist and violinist were with ensemble—they were perfectly together.  I guess I don’t think about this as much as I should when I am singing—I’m just expecting the pianist to follow me.  Which is kind of selfish, especially when I noticed how seriously this duo took it.  I love the opportunity, also, to hear rep that is outside my norm.  There are so many areas of the art music repertoire that I feel vastly under-educated about.  The string quartet and trio and piano trio repertoire, Shostakovich and Haydn, and the rep for woodwinds especially—I feel like I could learn a lot from a wind instrument being played well, in terms of breath management and phrasing.

I actually think I am going to make a goal for myself to hear something new every week.  If I can keep up with that I’ll be proud.  But even if I listen to a twenty minute piece while I’m getting ready in the morning, that’s got to be better for me in the long run than watching DVRed Real Housewives.  I guess it would make sense to start with the Beethoven string quartets, no?