The Broke Singer’s Best Friend

March 20, 2012 - 5 Responses

Guess who’s coaching me in Czech for my upcoming recital?

The interwebs.

I’m doing a joint recital with friends in May, and I’m tackling Dvorak’s ‘Song to the Moon’ in its original language.  And before I tried to track down someone who knows Czech, before I went looking to pay someone to coach me in the intricacies of this unfamiliar language, I did a Google search.  Up came pages in information: Czech pronunciation tables, YouTube videos, and sites with audio pronunciations of Czech words.

It seems that all I need to sing the language correctly (and translate it, too) is online.  Is this a shortcut?  Maybe – it’s cheaper than paying a coach, that’s for sure.  But I’m going to spend just as much time researching and listening (and re-listening) to the sources I find on the internet as I would with two or three coaching sessions, at least.  I’m approaching this as a journalist would research a story – I’m looking for three sources to verify the pronunciation.  If an online Czech translator, a YouTube video of Anna Netrebko, and my favorite – a recording of a native Czech speaker all show ‘příbytky’ pronounced the same way, I can assume I’m on the right track.

Youtube is especially awesome for research as a singer.  What a gold mine!  There are so many live performance videos of the operatic elite performing any given aria, it’s almost as good as coaching with the stars.  To watch Renee Fleming or Kiri Te Kanawa sing in a tight camera shot is a clinic in technique and artistry.  Those women are quite different, to be sure – one artist’s performance is not going to match another’s – but to see the variety of techniques used by those who are paid millions to sing gives a starving artist like myself lots to ponder and experiment with in the practice room.

Nothing can completely replace good old fashioned, person-to-person training in something so physical an art form as singing.  It is vital to have a coach see your mechanics as you sing to correct things you cannot notice.  But as a research tool between lessons, nothing beats the world wide web, in my book.

Gotta go make sure I’m singing the word ‘postůj’ correctly!

 

 

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On the Fringe

October 16, 2011 - Leave a Response

I hate “classical music”…The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype. I wish there were another name.

Alex Ross, The New Yorker, ‘Listen To This

I read those words on a screen hanging above a stage set for five chamber musicians at last week’s Fringe concert.

For those of you who don’t know what ‘Fringe’ is, you need to go to their website.  Like, now.  I’ll wait…

You back?

Okay, so in the dark before the concert began last Saturday, a variety of fun, insightful and irreverent quotes played across the screen in the sanctuary of the Church of the Redeemer, the venue where Fringe holds all of their concerts.  Pithy statements, such as, ‘Want to know what it feels like to play with the Calgary Philharmonic at six years old?  Ask our violinist, Helen Kim.’  And, ‘We can’t believe this is Fringe’s fifth season.  Did your favorite t.v. show last that long?’

I blogged about this group last month and I was eagerly anticipating attending a performance for the first time.  I was very, very curious about how the whole event would shake out.  Fringe does more than put on a concert of nice-sounding music.  ‘Concert’ isn’t the right word for what they do – a night with Fringe is a multi-media, multi-art event.  In one night, they stage an art gallery, an open-air club, a short film screening, a music appreciation course and chamber music performance.  The whole thing works and it’s wonderful.

On this particular night, the visual art hanging in the church lobby was photos by Atlanta photographer Chris Bromley.  He was there (I noticed him when he reached out to straighten one of the pictures on display) and I got to talk to him about one shot I particularly liked – a woman in a mermaid suit, swimming with a man in a lagoon.  Turns out it was taken at a place in Florida that was big in the 60’s, and is still operating – Weeki Wachee, ‘The Only City of Live Mermaids!’

Now, as if discovering the existence of live mermaid performance wasn’t worth the price of admission alone, the lovely open-air courtyard of the church was enlivened with lanterns and glowing white umbrellas hanging from trees, while a DJ (Little Jen) wove a gentle pulse of electronic music through the air.  I grabbed a beer and perused the program for the evening…

When the time for the ‘concert’ arrived, I joined the other patrons in the sanctuary.  The screen above the stage lit up with a pleasant short film about a young, preening rock star who has to spend an evening in a pediatric hospital while on tour (Pop Star, by Nathan Scoggins).  The screen went black again, but prior to the live music, a documentary was played – a professionally crafted video with interviews of the musicians we were about to see take the stage.  One by one, the members of the quintet spoke about the piece we were about to hear them play, about their own role in it, about the particular challenges or joys of the work itself.  It was brilliant.  We learned that the clarinet quintet they would be playing was composed by Mozart for a drinking buddy, and that the buddy must have had a pretty good hand, since at that point in history the clarinet hadn’t developed into that great-sounding of an instrument.

So, after the photos in the lobby, after the night air and the film and the insights into the music of the evening, then the musicians took their places.  And what a difference it made to hear a piece after being given so much information about the music and about the players!  I can only speak for myself, but I know that my watching, my listening was enhanced tenfold when I was given those glimpses behind the curtain.

Another great joy of the night – a Fringe audience is not afraid to applaud between movements of a piece.  I enthusiastically joined in, knowing that a big, fancy ‘classical music’ rule was being broken.

After an intermission, the film that opened the second half of the concert was Western Spaghetti (PES Films).  In the second musician documentary, the violinists mentioned that the Brahms quintet on the program was composed with a lot of doubling between their two instruments, and playing with correct intonation could pose a challenge.  I never noticed a wrong beat, but just being able to listen for those moments in the music and have some idea of what the players were working towards made me feel closer to the them and to the piece.

When the music was finished and the stage was being broken down, I returned to the courtyard and found the quintet happily downing post-performance beers.  These are my kind of people.  I’m afraid I gushed at them a bit, telling them, ‘I wish all of my recitals could look just like this!’  But I do.  This group has found a unique way to foster more intimacy, more connection with audiences – they know that the closer we can feel to each other, the better the music experience is.

There is a better name for ‘classical music’ – at least here in Atlanta.  It’s called Fringe.

A tale of two performances

September 11, 2011 - Leave a Response

Here’s a personal story of success and failure at performing the same aria at two different performances…

...flashback sound

Story #1:

The year was 2004.  I was a few weeks pregnant with my first child.  I was constantly snacking on carbohydrates to keep my hormonally-induced nausea at bay.  I got a call one Thursday – could I step in as a last-minute replacement for an opera concert in south Georgia that Saturday?

Who could say no to such a tempting offer?

I took a day off from my receptionist job and spent all day Friday memorizing ‘Sull’aria’, a sextet or octet of some sort from something and the Rosenkavalier trio.  I needed a solo piece too, so I chose my old chestnut, Micaela’s Aria from Carmen.  As long as I didn’t throw upon stage, I could probably do pretty well for a last-minute replacement.

I didn’t really have the greatest dress, or the greatest idea of what was going on in general, but Saturday arrived, and I traveled the three and a half hours to Albany, Georgia and prepared to take the stage.

I made it through the ‘Sull’aria’ just fine.  I knew I didn’t quite have the Rosenkavalier trio down, but well prior to that in the program was my aria.  I emerged from the wings, slightly nauseous, no doubt still brushing cracker crumbs from my dress, and proceeded to…

nail.

it.

I swear to god, I have no idea what happened.  I sang and it was good.  I managed to do things with that aria that I haven’t managed to do since.  When I finished, the audience gave me more than applause, they gave me cheers.  I returned to the wings, sat down, and began munching on an orange.  A friend gave me the Wayne’s World ‘We’re not worthy’ bow.  I threw a saltine at him.

Story #2:

The year is still 2004.  I am five months into the same pregnancy – I was feeling a lot less nauseous, but now I had a volleyball-sized baby lodged under my ribcage.

I traveled to Italy on tour with the Michael O’Neal Singers.  The first concert on our twelve-day trip was at the Naples Conservatory.  I was dehydrated and jet lagged.  Nonetheless, my first solo on the program was Micaela’s Aria.  I stepped forward, opened my mouth, and proceeded to…

blow.

it.

I swear to god, I have no idea what happened.  I sang and it sucked.  I managed to mangle that aria in ways I haven’t managed to do since.  When I went for the climactic high B and shanked it, I saw members of the audience being to laugh.  When I was done, I returned to my spot in the choir, and for the first time, experienced an intense bout of flop sweat.  After the concert was over, the same friend who had bowed to me months prior simply put his arm around me and asked, ‘How ya feeling?’  I told him that I had wanted the stage to swallow me up.

Please, please tell you have experienced something like this.  Tell me that you’ve had such moments of bliss and moments of hell, all in the name of performing.

Is there any way to be secure in one’s talent when such caprices of fate can take the very same song and make it a triumph or a failure?

At least Renee knows how I feel…

Who’s afraid of a recital?

September 10, 2011 - Leave a Response

When you think of going to a recital, do you think of a torturous event that goes something like this?

Yikes.

I would like for my next recital to have a bit more fun in the air than that.  I don’t desire to veer too far into informality (I haven’t yet learned to tread the fine line between ‘informal’ and ‘sloppy’), but haven’t we all seen enough of the soprano-in-the-piano-curve productions?  What can be done to loosen up the traditional presentation of song while maintaining high performance standards?

Seriously, do you know?  ‘Cause I’d like to try it. 

I Googled (you’ll see that I do that A LOT) ‘chamber music Atlanta’ and look what I found…Fringe.  I am in LOVE with this concept of chamber music performance.  From their website:

“…concerts feature live chamber music (classical music played by small groups of musicians), with performances of some of the most virtuosic music compositions ever written, performed by the best musicians in Atlanta and throughout the country. Unlike the iconic classical music experience of sitting, listening, yawning, and then leaving, each interactive concert is a blend of live music performances, an art gallery, a DJ spinning ambient electronica, short films, and the much-acclaimed documentaries of that evening’s performers.”

I’m not much for electronica, frankly, but I can overlook that.  Would you rather spend an evening ‘sitting, listening, yawning and then leaving’, or would you prefer to have a deeper level of engagement with a range of artists and art?  I intend to find out for myself – I’ve purchased a ticket for Fringe’s next performance.

Until then, I have a piano curve to go stand in…

Singing Handel in the shower

August 30, 2011 - Leave a Response

What’s a soprano to do when she wants to sing, but she has kids to raise and frankly, she isn’t being asked to sing anywhere?

She sings in the shower where the kids can’t find her and the acoustics are good.  I’m telling you, my soap has been hearing some quality work from me in the past few weeks…

 

Okay, okay, I have made a few moves in the right direction.

 

I got a score for Ravel’s Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarme and I long to tackle it with a chamber group.  I finally worked up enough nerve to email a director I’ve never sung with and asked him if he would listen to me – surprisingly, he responded to my request with an immediate ‘yes’.  Of course, no word from the three other directors I emailed, but  I guess a 25% success rate is pretty good for cold-calls like that.

 

With no upcoming performances on my calendar, I am fearing the revocation of my ‘Professional Singer’ card.  But I think I’m in good shape, for the shape I’m in, which for the record, is a stay-at-home-mom with a degree of talent and a desire to do quality work with whomever will have me.  The fall is arriving, new music seasons are starting, and things will come up for me.  As Emily Dickinson said, I dwell in possibility – and  sing in the shower.

Lookie, lookie, lookie!

July 7, 2011 - Leave a Response

Here’s a picture of me holding in my hot little hands a copy of a song sent to me by a British composer, Adrian Williams.

I found him on the internet (www.adrianwilliamsmusic.com) and was captivated by one of his songs,Red Kite Flying.  One brief email exchange later, and Adrian generously shared a copy of the song with me .

It’s a special joy to be in such close contact with composers, and Jackie, Allen and I have developed a taste for it.  So far in our recitals, we’ve shared unpublished works from composers Adam Burnette and Cary Radcliff, and we’re unearthing new possibilities for our next program.  Jackie’s considering some pieces from New York composer Tom Herman (you can check out some samples here), who is a massage therapist by day!

I went looking for pieces with soprano and chamber ensemble, and stumbled upon these pieces for flute and soprano.  I hadn’t heard of the composer, but a short Google search brought me…right back to Atlanta.  The composer plays for the ASO and teaches at Kennesaw State University up the road.  What are the chances?
And at least all this new music has gotten ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ out of my head!

Okay, now music must wait, the Breaking Bad season premier is on…

Searching…

July 6, 2011 - Leave a Response
So, I have been doing just as I predicted I would do in preparation for Recital 3.0 – spending lots and lots and lots of time online , sifting through hours of aural material.  This is what I have looked like this week:
listening
Charming, no?  I’ve stumbled upon songs ranging from unpublished, recently created works to songs from older masters that I hadn’t heard before.  What would I do without Google, YouTube and Amazon.com?  Jackie and Allen will likely be sick of me and my constant emails in about another week.  So many possibilities…
I’m working ‘Non mi dir’ from Don Giovanni a little bit, which doesn’t exactly fit in to my recital repertoire, but as my college voice teacher told me, ‘Mozart is wonderful for the voice.’  What a powerhouse of a piece – it’s not bombastic, it just takes incredible technique.

Today I had a lesson with my favorite coach, Marina (www.voice-movement.com).  She’s an invaluable help to me in my continued growth a a singer.  Today we worked on evening out the quality in my upper and lower ranges and freeing my sustained tones in the upper range.  We did some good work today – thank you, Marina!

After learning (as a lot of you maybe already know) that most of Emily Dickinson’s poems can be sung to the tune of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’, I’ve got that running through my head…  Sing it with me!  ‘I felt a funeral in my brain/and mourners to and fro/kept treading, treading till it seemed/that sense was breaking through…’

Recital 3.0

June 27, 2011 - Leave a Response
Well, we’re at it again.  I met with my musical partners-in-crime, Allen and Jackie, and we spent several hours listening, playing, singing, and searching for the right rep for our next recital (tentatively scheduled for Feb. 2012, I believe).  I could have stayed all night, and nearly did, as I always lose track of time when I’m with those two.  I brought some pieces by Rebecca Clarke, a few Tom Cipullo songs, some Lee Hoiby, and for fun, the de Falla Seven Popular Spanish Songs.  The de Falla is a bit too low, but it has such a great flavor, I couldn’t resist.  The Clarke won’t work at all, but watch out for that Cipullo!
Jackie and Allen know a good many instrumentalists, and so far, we’ve done pieces with cello, clarinet and oboe on our recitals.  We would love to try to put together a small ensemble for this next recital – we’ll see how that continues to evolve.  It’s great to dream it up and work things through and make things happen for ourselves.  I really have Allen and Jackie to thank for bringing me in on the music making – it was their idea to put on a joint recital a few years ago, and here we are, still going.  If left to my own devices, I’d still be wishing for the day when I could sing my own art song recital.

As I was searching the internet for more music, I said to Jackie, ‘I can’t believe how much music is out there, if you look.’  I can’t pretend to like all of it, but thanks to the internet (hooray for the interwebs!) there is almost no end to the amount of music to hear and explore.  I honestly can spend hours sitting at my laptop, combing through websites, looking for great music for the three of us to tackle.  For the next month or so, you’ll know where to find me…

And if that wasn’t enough, a storm came through the area while we were rehearsing and afterwards the largest rainbow I’ve ever seen in my life was stretched across the sky.  An auspicious beginning, I think.

Somewhere over the rainbow...

Singing our sadness

June 26, 2011 - Leave a Response

Yesterday morning, I had the honor to participate in something awe-inspiring.  About 100 singers from three different Atlanta area choirs sang at the funeral of Mark Arnold.  Mark was a member of each of the three choirs represented, and it was a privilege to participate in the service for him.

I’ve sung at funerals before, but never as a member of a choir, and never at a service where I knew the deceased.  As one of a hundred or so voices singing to honor the life of a friend, I could feel our united energy fill the sanctuary.  Our music was made up of beauty, grief, memory, and the miraculous collaboration that makes choral singing so special.  In my mind, I felt our song was a glowing light that every voice made glow brighter, even as it was the outpouring of our sadness.  I can only hope that Mark’s widow, Judy, felt some measure of comfort from our offering.  I know I was uplifted by the communion of the singers in a way I couldn’t have imagined.

It’s just this sort of thing that makes me very happy to be a human.  It’s humbling and I am grateful to have shared in Mark’s life of music making and to have shared in music-making at his passing.