Sunday, August 30, 2009

When I have sung my songs to you, I'll sing no more.

I'm sitting at work on a prematurely-autumnal Sunday morning, and as my job entails practically nothing, I thought I'd write. I have a couple of clever ideas for blog entries up my sleeve, but I'm trying to save them so I don't post all the good stuff at once. So this entry is going to be pure self-indulgence. I'm going to talk about my art song obsession.

To come right to the point, I love almost every art song (and aria, for that matter) I've ever heard. Maybe love isn't quite the right's probably more accurate to say that I can't think of a single song that I can't stand. Most people have one or two--my voice teacher can't stand "Laurie's Song," for instance. I used to find "Vergebliches Staendchen" (oh, work computer, where is thy umlaut?) pretty cloying, but somehow even that has grown on me. I'm a sucker for the sentimental--I prefer Brahms to Wolf, for example, even though Wolf's choice of poetry is perhaps more inspired. But come on, can anybody really resist a great baritone singing "Wie bist du, meine Koenigin?" I don't think so. (And if you're reading this and haven't heard that song, or "O wuesst ich doch," or "Unbewegte laue Luft," especially Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's recording, you probably should get on that, like yesterday.)

I realized just now that I can trace my love affair with the classical voice repertoire back to the summer before my senior year of high school, when I spent a week at Oberlin Conservatory, in their Vocal Academy for High School Students. It was an eye-opening week. We each had to bring eight art songs, and at that point I knew virtually no art songs, except what my teacher had given me to prepare for this program. So this was my list: Sebben crudele, Se tu m'ami, Per la gloria, When I Bring to You Coloured Toys, Will There Really be a Morning (Ricky Ian Gordon), The Lass With the Delicate Air, and, hilariously enough, Plum Pudding from Bernstein's La Bonne Cuisine (at its fastest, 45 seconds of breakneck French). There was an eighth song too, but I can't put my finger on it.

That was the week that I fell madly in love with repertoire, and also the week I realized I needed to go to music school (not just major in music at a liberal arts college, or major in English and take voice lessons for fun). All of a sudden, this became my life. It was such a heady feeling. And the people I spent that week with are my friends to this day.

What I want to do, just for a fun time-waster of a challenge, is list all of the songs that were sung in the final concert that week. So here's that list, if I can remember everything, complete with brief comments on some of my favorites. In no particular order, just as I come up with them.

Nymphs and Shepherds (stole it and sang it for college auditions)

Angels, ever bright and fair

O, had I Jubal's lyre (still trying to make this one work for me...)

Per la gloria d'adorarvi

Danza, danza, fanciulla gentile (STILL hard for me!)

Alma nel core

O cessate di piagarmi

Frondi temere...Ombra mai fu

Vedrai carino (see Nymphs and Shepherds)
Batti, batti, o bel Masetto

Vaghissima sembianza

Have You Seen But a White Lillie Grow?

Un moto di gioia

Silent Noon

The Bird, John Duke (I'd love to pick this one up again now that I can sing pianissimo!)

The Vagabond

Down Among the Dead Men (down, down, down, down...)

The Singer, Michael Head (glorious! I sang this for the SAI recital last spring and loved it)

En priere (see Vedrai carino)

Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee

Lydia (still my favorite song by Faure, even though I've never sung's kind of a guy song)

Die Forelle

Vergebliches Staendchen

The Lass from the Low Countree

Come Ready and See Me (oh my God, I could listen to this song on repeat and never get tired of it...if I'm ever in a position to make a commercial recording, this will be on it.)

Come to the Fair (hi, ho, come to the fair!)

The Daisies (awwwww)

Der Neugierige (JAAAAA heisst das eine Woertchen...)

Widmung (I sang this in Schumann class back in January, and it's a delightful sing)

The Little Irish Girl (had such a crush on the guy who sang this, and the song still makes me laugh)

Miranda, Richard Hundley (Do yooooou remember an inn?)

La pastorella al prato

The Roadside Fire

Vinto sono (I remember thinking that those melismas were the longest I'd ever heard...)

An Silvia (I now have two recordings of this song--the Bryn Terfel one I bought when I got home from Oberlin, and the John Mark Ainsley one that I bought last year. The song has staying power!)

Panis Angelicus

Will There Really Be a Morning? (this was me, and I have a recording on my computer to prove it!

I think that might be all of them. Interesting thing--recently, my friend Daniel and I tried to list all of the people in our graduating class. It took a long time, and we found that we were forgetting people we'd had classes with for years, people with whom we'd been friends and since fallen out of touch. But I can remember the sound of the voices from this program as if it were yesterday, even though I've only seen three of these people since then ("Un moto di gioia," "Batti, batti" and "Alma nel core"). I'm Facebook friends with a lot of them, but certainly not all. Musical memory is very powerful. I can remember the music I listened to in various situations (at camp, in college, at Oberlin, in Colorado) more clearly than I can remember names and faces.

I took a musicology class on American Art Song this past year, and one of our papers was a group project where we analyzed a popular song as if it were an art song. My group chose "Beauty and the Beast," and I begged to be allowed to write the paragraph on nostalgia (did I mention I was a musicology minor?). I pointed out that although "Beauty and the Beast" is specifically constructed to harken back to an earlier musical period, any art songs can also become pieces of nostalgia if you have certain memories associated with them. For the students in our group, the sound of "Beauty and the Beast" made us nostalgic for our childhoods. Many of the songs on the above list make me remember fondly the dawning of my obsession with classical voice, even if they're not intended to be nostalgic.

This is the picture of my friends from Oberlin that was on my senior yearbook page. What a week!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

My New Locker

On Thursday night, I watched Project Runway on the elliptical machine at the gym. I went to the locker room afterwards to get my purse and umbrella out of the locker, and it took me two tries to get it open. It should be easy enough: you turn it to the left for the first number, then to the right PAST the first number for the second, then back to the left for the third number. But then, combination locks, and the lockers they guard, have never been my strong suit.

I haven't thought about the sixth grade locker room at my middle school in years, but now I find that I can picture it as clearly as if it were only yesterday. Locker assignments were alphabetized, so I was in the left-hand corner right next to my friend Jen. I'm sure she doesn't read this, but I don't believe I ever properly thanked her for opening my locker every morning for the better part of a year. In seventh and eighth grade, I had a locker in the hall, and I must have managed to open it by myself, because I have no memory to suggest otherwise. I do remember decorating the inside of my locker with pictures and magnets, and of getting a wrapping paper-and-candy display on my locker for my birthday.

By high school, I had taken to carting all of my books around with me in an enormous backpack, because my locker was on an out-of-the-way hallway where I rarely had reason to be. It's a miracle that I didn't develop hideous back problems. At my new high school in Phoenix, I claimed a bench in front of my locker (which I used for about a month, then abandoned). We used to joke that I should put a plaque on the bench, because for three years it played host to my books, purse and various other accoutrements.

Now, if my vocal technique were like that bench, my life would be easy. It would just be there, and then I could dump all of my interpretation, diction and style on top of it. But unfortunately, vocal technique is more like learning to use a combination lock. It should be simple, self-explanatory--it's a combination of a few components that, when correct, open the door to a great sound. A few weeks ago, when my teacher was on vacation, I took a lesson with one of her colleagues. She told me that much of vocal instruction these days has become about what you're supposed to do when you sing, and a lot of young singers, myself very much included, tend to get in their own way by doing too much to create the sound. I am an inveterate larynx-squeezer. I tend to articulate with my jaw. I breathe loudly, feeling for the coldness of the breath on my hard palate.

There should actually be a lot fewer steps to creating sound than we think there are, she pointed out to me. Three, actually, which makes singing a lot like opening a locker. #1--breathe. #2--create a resonant space for the sound. #3--phonate. Once we've opened that locker, we can put things in it--text, rhythm, performance practice, dramatic interpretation. And eventually, the steps should become second nature. After a few years of practice, most people can open their lockers without pausing to figure it out. But I'm not at that point yet, just like I've never been able to open a combination lock without thinking, "Okay, now, which direction do I turn it first?" I still have to think to myself, breathe silently, don't engage your throat, open the pharyngeal space. Most of the time, I get it wrong.

Before surgery, my voice was like a jammed locker (I know, the similes are getting out of control). Even when I had the combination right and turned the knob the right direction in the right order, the locker wouldn't open. So I pushed and pulled and sometimes kicked it in frustration. Vocally, I was doing everything I could to improve my technique, but my instrument stood in my way. So I compensated. I squeezed my larynx and led from my throat and didn't connect the breath, because when the breath initiated the sound, the flaws in my instrument were obvious. I was faking it.

It's the beginning of a new year. I took all of my books and decorations out of my old locker, and they've assigned me a new locker. Except this one isn't jammed. It's one of the ones that were installed brand-new this year, say, and it's well-oiled and clean of any rust or dirt. It will open, exactly as it should. But I still use extra force to open it, because I'm so used to that old locker that would obstinately remain closed despite my best efforts.

I don't have nodes anymore, which means that my voice will do what I want it to do, if I can only get out of my own way. If I can initiate the sound from the breath, create the right resonating space for the sound, and muscle things less, I can control my vibrato and my whole range, not to mention discover a wide variety of dynamics and stylistic ideas that were unavailable before. It's just a matter of unlearning old habits and learning new, healthy ones.

Having a new clean locker was one of the thrills of starting a new school year, and having a newly healthy voice is no less exciting.. Now I just have to learn how to unlock it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Prayer Bus

This morning on the second leg of my bus ride to work, I witnessed something extraordinary.

What's great about riding the bus (and there are precious few things that I can think of) is that you get familiar with the faces and the drivers, and after a while you start to call it "my bus." "On my bus this morning, I witnessed something extraordinary." You all commiserate when the bus is late, or slow, you exchange pleasantries with the driver. You may even have a favorite bus driver. I have two. The first drives my early-morning bus a few days a week. He has sparse white hair and an Eastern-European accent that I can't identify, and for the first week or so that I rode the bus, I would forget what he looked like between rides. The fourth time I climbed on board and asked, "Are you going to Old Orchard Mall?", he laughed and said, "I've driven you at least four times already!" After that, he would start honking the horn at me when he drove through my station. "I know, I know," I'd reply in mock exasperation. "I was getting out my Chicago Card!" (in case anybody reading this doesn't know me and where I live, there it is.)

My second favorite bus driver was driving the bus when the Extraordinary Thing happened. He's a middle-aged black man who compliments me as I get off the bus, perhaps knowing that I could really use a self-esteem boost to get me through a mind-numbing day of clerical work. He talks to everybody as if he's known them forever, and he especially talks to the delightful Jamaican woman who rides the bus with me every morning. Actually, this particular bus is a veritable cornucopia of nationalities--there are the two Russian ladies, a few Latinas, a very tall Asian woman, me (a white Jewish American), and our Jamaican friend.

This morning I got on the bus at the mall with the Jamaican woman and two Hispanic women who appeared to be friends. The Jamaican woman was talking jovially with the bus driver before one of the Hispanic women beckoned her to sit down with them. After they exchanged delighted greetings, she explained to the Jamaican woman that her friend's husband was sick, and she was very worried about him. And indeed, her friend had barely even smiled when the Jamaican woman had sat down; even I, sitting across from them, could tell that she was preoccupied and upset.

And the Jamaican woman started to pray. Out loud. In the middle of the bus driving up Skokie Boulevard. Her voice was beautiful to listen to with its lilting accent. "Dear Lord," she prayed (and here I'm paraphrasing, since nothing could quite capture this woman's prayer and I really can't remember her exact words, which were wonderfully colorful), "look down upon this woman's husband, who is sick, and help him to feel better. And Jesus, in thy name, in thy only name, keep this woman and her husband in thy sight." And then, addressing the woman, "Keep faith in Jesus, the son of God, He will help you through this time and make your husband feel better." On it went. The other Hispanic woman was translating the prayer for her friend into rapid-fire Spanish. Periodically, the bus driver would cry, "Amen!" or "Hallelujah!"

Normally, this kind of thing would make me uncomfortable. Like those times in high school volleyball when we'd go to a Christian school for a game and they would pray before the game. I'd always wonder why they couldn't just pray in the locker room beforehand. But not this time. I was so astonished by the amazing selflessness of the Jamaican woman. Judging from appearances she barely knew the woman with the sick husband, and yet when she learned of her predicament, she immediately set about praying for her and helping her to bolster her own faith in God. Extraordinary--and something we don't see often enough.

You can't forge a career in opera without "the kindness of strangers." Of course, by the time they've guided you to operatic success (hopefully), they won't be strangers anymore. But don't we all at some point have to put ourselves and our voices in the care of somebody we don't yet know--a teacher, a coach, a director, a speech therapist, a surgeon--and hope that it works out? The Hispanic woman on the bus accepted the prayers and the good faith of the Jamaican woman to help get her through and to strengthen her belief that her husband would get well. At times, we have to believe that those in whom we place our trust have the same kind of faith in us. Faith in our untapped potential, in our unknown future.

And those aren't the only strangers. I have been doing some kind of blogging since I was thirteen or fourteen years old, connecting with people all over the world on OpenDiary, which became Free OpenDiary, and then I followed all of my friends over to Livejournal where we have settled. I've been posting on a forum for fans of Stephen Sondheim almost as long as I've been sending thoughts out into the cybervoid. They've watched me grow up, and sometimes when I'm having vocal troubles and feeling discouraged, I'll go post on "The Cold Stone Bench" for some sympathy and advice. And more recently, I discovered the New Forum for Classical Singers, where if you ask for it, you can get feedback and help from incredibly well-educated and seasoned performers and teachers. It's amazing to me sometimes that people who don't know me, who may never meet me (depending on the forum), are so willing to share what they've learned with me. Sometimes on Livejournal I'll "friend" someone because we have one or two shared interests--we both love The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or Jane Austen, for example--only to find that there is so much to learn from this anonymous person (well, not quite anonymous anymore, with the advent of Facebook). When I posted in various places about my impending surgery, the reaction I got was overwhelming. Virtual hugs, offers to talk about it any time, inspirational words of wisdom. And all from people who, in all honesty, don't know me from Adam.

But sometimes we need that kind of support. Sometimes when I'm feeling really down about my voice, I don't want to talk to anyone close to me in real life. It feels too personal, too raw, too vulnerable to confess my fears about my vocal cords to someone in person. Sometimes I'm afraid it will make me cry, or I won't like the response I get. So I send my anguish out into the void. It's comforting to know that all over the world, virtual strangers have faith in me. Isn't that bizarre?

That woman with the sick husband may never see the praying Jamaican woman again. Her husband may get better; he may not. But I don't think she'll ever forget that random act of kindness. The Jamaican woman got off the bus at the next stop, after having been on the bus for about five minutes altogether. I thought about those five minutes all day, and I'm still in awe of the selflessness and faith of that stranger.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

You could have been killed--or, worse, expelled!

Sometimes I wish I had a Time Turner.

For anyone who may have been living under a rock for the last ten or eleven years, a Time Turner is a device that looks like a tiny hourglass, and true to its name, it turns back time. Hermione Granger gets special permission to have one in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban so that she can take every possible class, even the ones that overlap. Study of Ancient Runes, Charms, Potions, Transfiguration, Arithmancy (did we ever even find out what that was?), and even Muggle Studies, which Ron points out is redundant since she's Muggle-born. Throughout the book, everybody wonders why she's so snappish and tired all the time, and then finally, when Dumbledore suggests using the Time Turner to save Sirius and Buckbeak the Hippogriff, the truth comes out. Hermione has, in effect, been adding hours to the day so that she can get more done and keep her reputation as the best student at Hogwarts.

When I was in college, I certainly felt like I could use a Time Turner when two classes I wanted to take conflicted--if only I could have turned back time right after that pesky Microeconomics class and gone to Topics in 19th Century Music instead! Or when I had done something stupid, like take Ibuprofen for cramps, then had a coaching and a full music run of The Merry Widow. In retrospect, that's a day I would have liked to do over.

But now that I've graduated, a Time Turner would be even more helpful. With one nearly-full-time job and another part-time job, my time to practice, exercise, clean, do laundry, and have a social life is strictly limited. How does anybody maintain their focus on becoming an opera singer--not to mention apply to grad school and put together a senior recital--with so little time and energy to put into it? What I'd love to do is go to work, then turn my little hourglass seven times and start the day over. First I'd go back to bed. Then I'd go to the gym, or out for a run. And then I'd head to a practice room and sing. I'd probably need a nap after that, but I'd have made money, exercised, and practiced my craft. It would be amazing to be that productive.

Instead, I come home from work, try to practice, find that my cords are still swollen from lunch with a friend and a long practice session on Sunday, go shopping (the Gap, buy-one-get-one-free on shirts), eat dinner, then go to my second job for three hours in the evening (where I am sitting as I type this). By the time I get home, around 9 or 9:30 PM, I won't have accomplished anything I meant to accomplish today. Where is my drive? Where is the spark that keeps me motivated?

Here's what I've concluded--and actually, it's what Hermione concludes too. It's okay not to do everything every day. For me, especially with my sensitive vocal cords three months post-surgery, it's actually imperative that I give myself permission not to sing if it's not feeling great, or if I'm just not feeling the joy that I should be feeling. I need to remind myself, in today's case, that I worked on memorizing some Czech pieces on the bus this morning and some French pieces while waiting for the bus outside Starbucks this afternoon. I was productive in the only way I had the time and energy to be productive. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is take a break. At the end of the book, when Harry, Hermione and Ron are inevitably sitting on the grass and enjoying their post-exams leisure, Hermione tells her friends that she's dropped Muggle Studies and Divination in order to take a normal courseload the next year, and to focus on things she loves, like Arithmancy and Ancient Runes (courses that Rowling seems to have made up for Hermione to take, since there's no textual evidence that anybody else took them).

Last year, Denyce Graves came to my university to give a master class. During the question and answer session, somebody asked her what the biggest challenge of her career had been, and she told a great story that I've often thought about since. While Ms. Graves was finishing her masters degree, she encountered health problems that seriously impaired her singing voice. She eventually recovered her physical health, but her confidence was shattered, and she spent two years working in a hospital in an administrative position. She said that periodically, somebody from the Houston Grand Opera young artist program would call her and invite her to audition, but she had decided against becoming an opera singer. Finally one of her co-workers convinced her to go to the audition. She had barely sung at all in two years, but she said it was the best audition she ever had, and she was accepted into the program. The rest, as they say, is history, and if there's better evidence that breaks are good, I've yet to hear about it.

But most importantly, we need to give ourselves permission not to be perfect. We need to accept that we're going to have off days where not only will we not want to sing, but it will probably be better for our vocal health if we take a breather. Some auditions will be great, some will be not so great, but everything is valuable. If I remember correctly Prisoner of Azkaban is the book where Hermione doesn't get a perfect score on the Defense Againt the Dark Arts exam; in fact, for the first and only time, Harry beats her in an exam. And that's okay. Losing a couple of points didn't make her any less brilliant--she's only human.

I've always thought that after that insane third year, Hermione relaxes a little, at least academically. In Year Four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, she has a romance with Viktor Krum and goes on a crusade against the exploitation of house elves. We see that she has interests that aren't academic, and we like her a lot better for it because it makes her more like a normal person, more like us. As singers, we need occasionally to find fulfillment in something that isn't singing, or we'll go crazy. One of my closest friends finds it in Hitchcock and cowboy movies, and in cooking for her friends; for me, it's zumba, volleyball and epistolary novels about 18th-century English wizards that read like J.K. Rowling and Jane Austen had a biologically-impossible baby (I'm referring to Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer--delightful!). And this advice isn't only good for singers, but for anybody pursuing a career in anything at all.

So if you take anything away from yet another long and rambling entry that cleverly combines pop culture with life lessons, let it be this: give your mind and body a break from singing--or Ancient Runes, if that's what you're into--and relax.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pick a job and then become the person that does it.

I think I can safely say that most female fans of AMC's Mad Men would like to resemble either Joan Holloway or Betty Draper (a dichotomy that mirrors Sterling Cooper's own Marilyn-Jackie ad campaign). Christina Hendricks' Joan sashays confidently through the office looking impossibly curvy in her hip-defying jewel-toned dresses and high heels. Betty Draper, as played by January Jones, is the epitome of cool blond beauty, perfectly coiffed with a tiny waist in gorgeous floral prints and impeccably tailored horseback-riding clothes.

We all want to be Joan or Betty, and the current Mad Men craze at stores like Banana Republic caters to those desires. But I suspect that most of us, myself included, are actually more like Peggy Olson, Sterling Cooper's slightly-less-than-stunning secretary-turned-copywriter. We began our Mad Men infatuation the day she joined the firm, and so even when it gets overshadowed by the intrigues of Jon Hamm's Don Draper, we care deeply about her journey.

When she arrived, she was pretty dowdy, with curly bangs and a bouncy ponytail. Her clothes were sensible and girlish, in drab colors. She was unassuming and eager to please. None of this was helped, of course, by her mysterious weight gain in season one. But in the season finale, she was promoted to the position of copywriter, and in season two, Peggy began to become a little more sophisticated and self-confident. She started calling Don by his first name; she asked Roger Sterling for her own office--and she got it. But the most interesting shift, and the most subtle, was the change in her wardrobe. It didn't happen all at once. Advice came from all quarters--most notably from Bobbie Barrett, who told her to embrace the power she had as a woman, not to try to be a man, and from Joan, who said, "You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl." And then there was the surprising scene when Peggy joined her male colleagues at a strip club, in a dress that we would have expected to see on Joan or even Betty.

At the end of season 2, Peggy got a haircut and a makeover from the gay German import to the art department, Kurt. The premiere of the current season saw Peggy in sleeker clothing--according to one style blog, she has a slight Katharine Hepburn edge to her style, with a hint of femininity.

Now, anybody who knows me can tell you that I love dresses, and being a singer, it can never hurt to have too many. But a few days ago, I decided to clean out my closet. I sold four dresses to a used clothing store in town, along with a couple of tops and sweaters I'll never wear again. What made this notable is that the dresses I chose to get rid of were the ones that made me look young, like a little girl. Floaty, poofy skirts, ruffles, buttons down the front, pastels, white gauzy material with bows in the back. They were good purchases at the time--one light pink dress I wore for a recital I gave freshman year, age 18, another blue polka-dotted dress I wore last summer for performances, age 20.

But now I'm going to take Joan's advice and
stop dressing young. I have a round face, rosy cheeks and curly hair--I don't need to project "young," because it's obvious. My new goal as far as audition-wear goes is sophistication--more Joan than pre-makeover Peggy. Like Peggy, I also cut my hair. When I began college, it was long, below my shoulders, and I usually wore it in a ponytail, or half-up. In April of junior year, I cut it to a chin-length bob, and a year later, I went pixie and did away with hair in my face forever. I'm ready to present myself as an adult.

As much as we'd like auditions to be entirely about the singing, they're not. They're about the whole package. I don't want to be labelled as "young" before I open my mouth to sing, or before they get to know me. I want to be seen as a grown woman, a mature and talented musician who can handle any challenge, not as a girl who thinks that wearing "cute" clothes to an audition will win her the "cute" roles, like Susanna or Zerlina. I heard in a workshop once that the clothes we wear to an audition should help the auditioners remember us, but they shouldn't be the only thing they remember. Now I choose beautifully cut dresses in rich colors that fit me perfectly; with black dresses, I wear distinctive shoes. Auditioners should turn to each other and say, "Remember that soprano in the pink shoes? What a voice!" At least, that's what I'd like them to say.

I think the reason that self-representation plays such a huge part in Peggy's professional journey is because it is in itself a kind of advertising. When we walk into an audition, we are essentially advertising a product--ourselves. As a copywriter, Peggy's wardrobe and demeanor needs to convey confidence to clients; she needs to present herself as someone who can be trusted with an account. In opera workshop this past fall, our professor criticized several of my classmates for their choice of clothing. "No one will believe you're serious if you wear sweatpants to class," he chastised them. As singers, we need to project self-confidence so that the auditioners will have confidence in our abilities. And that self-confidence starts with the perfect audition look, even before we open our mouths to sing. Believing that I am going to be taken seriously has always made me feel better about my singing.

But what's even more important than being taken seriously is taking ourselves seriously. Until Peggy could see herself as a serious copywriter, the equal of Don Draper and Pete Campbell, no one else would. We need first and foremost to believe in ourselves as opera singers--not as children playing dress-up and singing in front of the mirror.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I'm not the bride, but I'm the groom-to-be tomorrow night.

I'm going to go ahead and make another confession, which may be even more shocking than the one from my previous post: I love Yentl. Yes, that's right--the movie featuring Barbra Streisand directed by Barbra Streisand as a girl masquerading as a yeshiva boy in turn-of-the-century Russia. It's a sentimental favorite. When I was a kid (and even into college), no road trip was complete without Barbra singing Michel Legrand at the top of her lungs. I'm fairly sure that on the other side of the tape with the Funny Girl songs on it was the Yentl soundtrack. I used to watch it on video on the little sepia-tinted TV in my grandmother's bedroom on Long Island, and now I own a copy of it on DVD.

If you look at the message board for the movie on the Internet Movie Database, you'll find numerous threads complaining that nobody would ever believe Barbra was a yeshiva boy, or any other kind of boy, for that matter. But that's exactly the point. Because she's dressed in men's clothing and she is the best pupil at the yeshiva, everyone assumes that she's a boy. Even the proprietress of the boarding house where Yentl--and Avigdor, played by a divinely bearded Mandy Patinkin--resides, upon feeling the "boy's" perpetually smooth cheek, doesn't think twice about his gender. It isn't until the very end, when she confesses her secret to Avigdor (everybody knew that was going to happen, right? If not, I apologize), that he realizes why his friend's face is so smooth, why his hands are so delicate and feminine, why he didn't want to go skinny-dipping, why he didn't want to marry Avigdor's ex-fiancée (long story...see the movie!).

In fact, it's not just Yentl that has this problem. How about Tootsie, or Some Like It Hot, or Shakespeare in Love (Gwyneth Paltrow just barely gets by because of her fake facial hair)? Victor/Victoria stars Julie Andrews as "a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman"--Andrews' Victoria Grant manages to flummox everybody with her disguise, but only because her alter-ego also sings and dances in drag for a living. One episode of Blackadder II features a woman pretending to be a man to get a job as Blackadder's servant; when asked her name, she says, unthinking, "Kate!", but swiftly corrects herself, "I mean, Bob!"

"People are blind," Yentl sings as she is being fitted for her wedding suit--"How else would everyone believe me?" In my case, people seem to be deaf. I had a coaching and an audition for a church gig today. My first coaching since February, and my first audition since last October. I sang a couple of Brahms songs in my coaching (Wir wandelten and Liebestreu) and "Piangeró la sorte mia" for my audition.

And I felt like I was shouting, pushing, muscling, working my jaw...all of those things that you're not supposed to do. I felt like my coloratura was woofy in the rather dead room where I had my audition. When I finished, my auditioner said that he loved my ornaments because they were so subtle and appropriate, and wondered if I sang the whole role of Cleopatra? Heavens, no--I'm only twenty-one and nobody would let me! He also told me that I should put my name in to sing in a Messiah downtown that a professor from my university conducts every year. After I did some sight-reading, I was ushered out of the room with a resounding, "What a great audition!" All of which led me to wonder, what on earth was the man hearing?

Sometimes, as my mom says, you just have to put yourself out there. You never know what you sound like until you are judged by people who don't know you, who are taking you at face value. Apparently, I sang a pretty darn good "Piangeró" tonight, no matter how hideous it felt in my head. I'm so used to my sound that all I can hear are the flaws, the little jaw wobbles and tensions that make this particular rendition of "Piangeró" worse than another one. But the auditioner didn't seem to have heard any of that, which makes me believe that maybe the flaws aren't as audible as I think they are.

Yentl, I'm sure, could never really see a man when she looked in the mirror--only a woman in men's clothing. She would see the smooth skin, the delicate hands, and the small stature as clues that point to her femininity. Whenever I sing, I am certain that what I'm feeling--the tension, the shaky jaw, the high breathing--will reveal to the auditioner what I perceive to be lousy technique. But it never does.

Maybe that's why I like movies about cross-dressers so much. Yentl and her cross-dressing cohorts could only have felt secure with reassurance from the unwitting public that their disguises were effective. In singing (or indeed, any performing art), that same kind of feedback is crucial. And as singers, we are generally more critical of ourselves than our listeners are of us. I think that periodically, we need to stop and realize that no matter how much we may criticize ourselves, to a pair of fresh ears, we sound just fine, sometimes even better than fine. Nobody but ourselves is going to point a finger and say, "She's a fraud!" What shines through, in spite of our own misgivings, is the natural beauty of our voices, and our future potential.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

By the way, have you read War and Peace?

Putting together a list of prospective grad schools is distressingly similar to internet dating.

Now, I realize that to make a statement like that, I have to admit to having some, albeit scant, experience with the internet dating phenomenon (and thus open myself up to awkward questions from members of my family who may or may not read this). And I find it hilarious. How on earth can you possibly "know" that a person will be right for you just by exchanging coy e-mails or even talking on the phone? How do you know that you'll be attracted to this person when you meet, even if you are great over instant messager? There's no guarantee.

Not to mention that people's profiles are engineered to be as attractive as possible to exactly the kinds of people they are looking for. My own profile, for example, features my headshots and a picture of me in a blonde wig as Valencienne in The Merry Widow (a great ice-breaker!). My "About Me" blurb describes me as a "rabid Anglophile" and a "library enthusiast." This is how we narrow the playing field; only a certain sliver of the online dating population will find this description even remotely attractive. I'm looking for someone who speaks my language, someone who thinks as quickly as I do, someone who isn't perplexed by what I want to do with my life.

And yet even matching interests do not a couple make. There are, to quote Sheldon Harnick's lyric in She Loves Me (a musical about love through anonymous letters), "personal habits" to be reckoned with. I went on a date with a guy who looked great on paper, but as we left the coffee shop, he said, "Do you mind if I smoke?" Why, yes. Yes, I do. I went back that night to look at his profile and under "Smokes" it said "Occasionally." If you can't go an hour without a cigarette, and then have to explain to me how you've tried, but you just can't quit, then "occasionally" might be shading the truth just a tad. And what if you just plain don't like the way a person looks when you meet them? Mr. Smoker didn't look much like his very hip, cowboy-hat-wearing profile picture. What would have happened to Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail if they hadn't turned out to be writing to each other, but to other people to whom they weren't in the least physically attracted? What about Cyrano de Bergerac? Neither man could deliver the whole enchilada--good looks and good poetry--so they tag-teamed to win the love of Roxanne.

This is how I feel about looking for grad schools. I have only had the good fortune to visit two schools thus far in person, not including the school where I did my undergrad and the one where I spent three weeks last summer (neither of which are on my Hot List, to quote one popular dating website), so the lion's share of my research has been conducted online. There were, of course, some schools I wasn't considering--undesirable locations, too many voice majors, no money, et cetera. Then I began to do a close reading of the websites on my list.

And again, my question is, how do you know? One school I'm interested in has a large academic component to its grad school curriculum. Lothe though I am to subject myself to even more aural skills and music theory, who's to say that I might not find it more interesting, not to mention easier, the second time around? Another school posts pictures of a beautiful new facility, which is nice after four years in a pretty dilapidated building that can't be modified because it's on the historical buildings list. And yet the lived-in, worked-in feeling of that "decrepit old ruin" was part of what made me choose the school over my other top choice, which boasted a pristine, state-of-the-art music building. I walked through those doors on a blustery January afternoon, and my frozen face was greeted by the smell of coffee, stairs that dipped in at the middle from so many pairs of feet climbing them (no elevator here!), and smiling faces who were delighted to talk to me about their school. And that's how I "knew." That's the factor that makes shopping for grad schools--and dates--online so tricky.

When doing our initial research, we only learn the superficial details; we read the school's "About Me," if you will, to find out if we're compatible. How many students? How many teachers? Where is it? What does the building look like? What is the curriculum? Even in the search for the perfect teacher--and if there's anything more like dating than shopping for a voice teacher, I have yet to find it--we focus on facts. I've been advised to find out what a teacher's students are doing now, because apparently if a teacher's list of successful students is long enough, they'll be the right teacher for me. In my forays into internet dating, I've found that I ask the same basic questions to get to know everyone I encounter--where are you from? where do you work? where did you go to school and what was your major? what do you like to do on the weekends?--as if there's a prescribed set of facts that will lead me to my soulmate.

Of course, that's not so. In dating as well as in applying to schools, it's important to keep an open mind. For all I know, someone with whom I'm not compatible in the slightest online will turn out to be exactly right for me when we meet. A school that, on paper, doesn't seem like a place I want to be could turn out to be the only place I want to be. But until I walk into that building or that concert hall, and meet those students and work with that great voice teacher, I won't really know.

In She Loves Me, Ilona is incredulous that Amalia could have found her soulmate by writing letters. "Supposing he snores like a locomotive, / Supposing he grinds his teeth, / Supposing he's a knuckle-cracker, Amalia!" But Amalia assures Ilona that she doesn't need to know about those things because she has an even more important understanding of the man she's writing to, with whom she exchanges deep thoughts about artists from Shaw to Debussy. "I know he's a very successful person, and he's terribly well-educated...he's gentle and kind, soft-spoken...I know all this about him, and so much more. It's just that I never met him, that's all!" Much as I love the enduringly romantic message of the show, I'm with Ilona on this one. But I think you also need a healthy helping of Amalia's faith in her penpal; Ilona cautions her, "He could be seventy-five!", to which she responds, indignantly, "The advertisement said, 'Young Man'!"

Love and grad school both require a delicate balance between knowledge and intuition. Research as much as you can, and I'll do the same, but in the end, I'll trust the way I feel when I step onto the campus or through the doors of the conservatory.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Is a nose with deviation such a crime against the nation?

My junior year of college, I was in a pretty dark place. I was having roommate issues, the Chicago winter went on from November to April, and I was stuck in a green unitard in the fairy chorus of A Midsummer Night's Dream (but that's a story for another day, maybe). What I needed was some new showtunes, so I trudged through the snow to the public library and picked up a copy of Funny Girl. It's a show I've always sort of been familiar with--my dad sent me to summer camp with a tape containing "People," "I'm the Greatest Star" and "Don't Rain on My Parade," and I come from a long line of Barbra Streisand admirers. But there's something about that original cast recording that is so raw and spontaneous, and I was hooked. I would walk to school to the rhythm of "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat" and "I Want to Be Seen With You," heedless of kicking snow in the air with the bounce in my step. But the song that forms the inspiration for this entry is "If a Girl Isn't Pretty." The young Fanny Brice is told that a girl who isn't pretty "like a Miss Atlantic City" will never amount to anything on the stage. Her mother doesn't see the problem--"Is a nose with deviation such a crime against the nation? / Should I throw her into jail or drown the cat?" And Fanny obviously makes a huge success of herself in vaudeville, trading on the very imperfections that were supposed to have held her back.

I had lunch with a friend on Friday, and as we sat in the sun and commiserated about our vocal woes--"I'm talking too much! My coloratura sucks! Where are my high notes?"--I realized that I wasn't the only one with technical issues, crises of confidence and vocational jitters. It seems like common sense, but having been through microlaryngoscopy and lots of speech therapy, it's easy for me to forget that even people whose cords are perpetually healthy have kinks to work out. And there are people (not said friend, who is extremely talented and whose coloratura is not as bad as she thinks!) for whom my technical difficulties would be blessings compared to what they have to deal with. Some benevolent god of music saw fit to bestow upon me stage presence, a gift for language study, a good ear and a quick memory. Surely perfect technique couldn't be too far behind?

Enter my grad school ambitions. Lately, every time I have an off day, a bad practice, an unproductive lesson, I become convinced that I won't be ready to apply to grad school in the fall. I don't have the high notes that my tone quality suggests, my coloratura is slow and sluggish, I have no stamina because of how comparatively little I've sung since the surgery. But on Friday, I found myself thinking, if not now, when? Voices are works in progress; even singers with international careers can find things about their own technique to improve. If I have to wait until I'm perfect to apply to grad school, I never will.

So my current plan is to embrace my imperfections, just like Fanny Brice. If Fanny Brice had waited for her figure to be perfect or to become a great dancer, she would never have become Fanny Brice who was so famous they wrote a musical about her. I may not have high notes, my coloratura may not be clean, I may still tend to muscle long notes--but that's okay. The wonderful thing about Fanny Brice (and Tigger, incidentally) is that she was the only one. Nobody was quite like her. I'm not perfect, but I'm the only one exactly like me, with my exact combination of talents and tribulations. And that's what I'm going to present to grad school auditioners and teachers in the fall. School isn't about becoming perfect--that's an impossible goal for anyone--it's about learning to make the most of your particular gifts and get out of your own way so that those gifts can shine through.

So although I may not be perfect, I know what I have to offer. And I'm the greatest star--take it or leave it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

-How functional? -How? Let me tell you...

7:30 AM. As good a time as any to blog about how much I hate swelling tests.

No, actually, that’s not really fair. The swelling tests—which comprise singing “Happy Birthday” very high and soft (so that the “to” lands on a high C# or D, if I’m lucky) and doing high pianissimo staccati—are very important and useful. The reason I hate them is because my cords are always swollen. And whose fault is that?

Mine, much as I would like to pin it on somebody else. I talk too much. I talk too quickly. I probably don’t talk properly half of the time. My practicing is inefficient. I sing in my apartment when I’m doing the dishes, and in the shower, and at barbecues while I’m waiting for the grill to heat up. I clearly haven’t figured out how to have a social life and not ravage my vocal cords.

This is not to say that my voice isn’t functional this morning (look, there’s the word that inspired the title of this entry). Actually, if I tried to sing, it would probably be just fine, and certainly clearer and easier than it ever was before the surgery. But now that I’ve tried to do swelling tests and utterly failed at producing satisfactory results, I’d feel pretty guilty if I practiced. All I can think about is what my cords looked like the last time I got scoped, and the doctor’s voice telling me that my cords were healthy, but a little swollen, so this should be a warning to me to be more careful.

This is the kind of thing that stresses me out to the point of wanting to change my career path and go into academia (I was a very passionate musicology minor in college). I know plenty of people who have never done swelling tests. Most people who have never dealt with vocal cord injuries or problems have no idea how to check to see if their cords are swollen. And I know that the fact that I had nodes probably means I’m susceptible. But it makes me nervous, and anxious about the future. If I decide to pursue opera seriously, will I be spending all of my time alone, worrying about my vocal health? Sometimes it hardly seems worth it.

All I have to remember is I can always get more toast!

This may seem like an incongruous way to start a blog that is meant to be about my vocal journey. A little background: The Birdcage has always been one of my favorite movies, and I’ve been quoting this scene for years. And yet today, something about it struck me.

ALBERT: I pierced the toast!

ARMAND: So what? The important thing to remember is not to go to pieces when something like that happens. You have to react like a man, calmly. You have to say to yourself, “Albert, you pierced the toast. So what?” It’s not the end of your life. Try another one.

ALBERT: “Albert, you pierced the toast. So what?!” Ahh, you’re right! There’s no need to get hysterical. All I have to remember is I can always get more toast!

I suddenly recognized the revelation that you can “always get more toast” as something that I need to keep in mind as I begin my journey towards a career in classical voice. If I have a bad practice one day, I need to put it behind me—I can always try again tomorrow. If I screw up an audition, there will always be the next one. And if this isn’t the career for me, in the end, it needn’t be the end of the world. I can always find another path and get another piece of toast.

Basically, I’m going to use this blog to keep myself sane, and to record my thoughts regarding this profession. I’m a soprano (which means naturally inclined to insanity and histrionics), and I’m taking a year off after finishing my undergrad in June. I also had surgery to remove nodes from my vocal cords this past May, the results of which I’m still discovering and learning to understand. This will be the first year in the last sixteen that I haven’t been in school, and as I’m hoping to apply to grad school this fall, I need to keep my voice in shape. I’m hoping to motivate myself to sing daily by forcing myself to write about it, and if I don’t sing, I won’t have anything to write about.

And I hope that these thoughts will be of use to other singers someday, especially those who are facing vocal difficulties or doubts about their vocation as I have so often.