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Friday, March 7, 2014

March Madness #7: Questions / Why?

Questions --

Start with the word WHY...

Why’d the composer set the text that way?

Why’d the composer make those thousand decisions on that one page?

Why does my coach think I should sing darker?

Why does my voice teacher tell me to breathe into my back?

Why did I get cast in such a small role that doesn’t fit my voice in any real way?

Why do I think I need acting lessons? Or dance lessons? Or a new black dress?

Why do I have so little voice in what my voice does or how my voice sings or when its range grows or where I have to live to try to make a career?

Why? Why? Why?

There are so few real answers to these questions. Asking questions really should be the point, and prompts – usually – ever more questions. This isn’t a comforting thought for most. Certainly, one can get lost in the questions and feel overwhelmed. Questions are things on tests. Tests are stressful and if you don’t have the right answers, you fail the test.

Singing isn’t a test.

You can choose to turn your back on questions (some feel better doing this) and just seek answers and answer-givers. Answer-Givers -- You know, those folk who tell you How To Do Everything. They’re such lovely people. They’ve got “such a head for knowing”; or at least they seem to know it all.  They can tell you exactly how to breathe, exactly how to sing something, exactly what the subtextual meaning to the poetry is, exactly how to wear your hair, exactly what your five arias should be. Answers are so seemingly wonderful.

What I mean to say really is that if you only are interested in finding out the answers, you’re just not curious enough to be an artist.

Word of Warning: Those With All The Answers can do a disservice to musicians seeking questions. To seek answers is a slightly different task. Answers are best when found, not when quested after for (wow, dangling participles gods strike me now!) Questions, though, are the undiscovered country. They are where answers abide. Questions create life, create art, and create boundless connections. Questions are the source!

Socrates was a smart guy.

I love questions. 
Questions are the answer.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

March Madness #6: TBT -- My 2nd most popular blog...

My 2nd most popular blog was called "The Chalkboard". It's a good choice for TBT (aka "THROW BACK THURSDAY")

It's been viewed more than 870 times, which is nice but not one I thought would be in the top five. Also, I love that I wrote about opera and musical theatre so casually!

Here it is:
"The Chalkboard"

Well it's the end of the summer.  For my boys, it's the tragic end of their great, wonderful, summer adventure in Brevard and at Grandma and Grandpa's house in Iowa.  They've both grown over an inch, our youngest has had to get new shoes, and our oldest seems oddly mature yet still a little boy.

My summer has certainly been a wonderful adventure as well: it seems so long ago that I landed in Charlottesville to direct Camelot.  Those rehearsals were terrific, my cast was a treat and certainly a gift, and our final product was entertaining, moving, and historic -- Ash Lawn Opera finally performed in a real theatre!  

The weeks in Brevard were packed, my wife loving every minute of teaching there, terrific performances in an a seemingly un-cut Hoffmann (not my idea!), standing O's for Hello Dolly (starring many McGill students), two scenes programs, and then my surprise conducting gig for the Angelica/Schicchi with my son singing a small role.  How did we do all of that in seven weeks?!

This vacation in Iowa has been refreshing and enlightening -- I realize I want more!  Recharging the batteries is good for my bags (as in under my eyes), and it seems also good for my artistic soul. I feel as if I've had more interesting ideas pop into my head while relaxing on my in-law's back porch the last few days than I've had in the last few years.

But now it's back to my chalk board at McGill.  Hopefully my students will understand the need to erase their chalkboards so that something new can be written!  I'm looking forward to exploring Agrippina, The Rake's Progress, Trouble in Tahiti, Carmen, and Dido and Aeneas with my McGill students as well as taking on the Orpheus project for Opera Memphis (I'm staging the Gluck with a mezzo, counter-tenor, and tenor triple-cast in the title role!) as well as making my Kennedy Center debut as a stage director in November.  

But before all that hits, my family and I have two more days filled with family visits, more sweet corn, a bit more grilling, and packing the car for the two day trip home to Montreal.   

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

March Madness #5: Drinking and Singing

This is a silly little blog about a silly little subject that seems to be the cause of sometimes silly, and sometimes great concern among singers, coaches, and voice teachers.  

It's Ash Wednesday.

Lots of people are giving up things and telling all of us what they are giving up via social media.  As an ex-Catholic, I know this ritual only too well; albeit without the announcements on Facebook.

Some are giving up Twitter or Facebook, some coffee, some chocolate... Frankly, it all seems a bit boring with everyone doing it.

A few have decided to give up alcohol, in what seems a bit of a desperate attempt to deny it has anything to do with drinking too much outside of Lent.

And, of course, singers like to give up drinking from time to time as well -- especially while preparing or rehearsing an opera.

I don't quite get it.

There is a famous, famous voice teacher who feels that singers should either NEVER drink, or drink regularly - as in having a beer a day, or a glass of wine - and STICK TO IT!  None of that giving up drinking during rehearsals, and then on opening night having one or two or five glasses of champagne and then recovering from the shock for days on end.

I have no official opinion about this.

Just thought I'd mention that.

However, now that I think of it, most singers I know drink. And they do it rather well. Some really like to drink, and enjoy it. Others, I think, drink because it's the thing to do (particularly with Artistic Administrators, that special breed of humans who are especially talented in toasting with martini glasses).

Ultimately, everything in moderation seems to be the best advice. Well, not everything in moderation. Chocolate Cake, for one, is better not in moderation. I like to eat it until I'm stuffed, then rinse with bourbon on the rocks.

Cheers! ~~~

March Madness #4: 13 Steps for Learning Music

A Quickie, but oft-requested:
Hansen's 13 Step Method for Learning Music

1) Translate Text
Word for Word
Paraphrased into your own words

2) IPA the Text (even if it's in your native tongue!)

3) Practice speaking the text
Repeat until the text sits easily in your mind and mouth
Speak the text in sentences
Speak the text with intention

4) Learn the Rhythms ONE or TWO pages at a time
Without Text
With Text
Repeat until it is Correct, then move on

5) Speak the Text with the Correct Rhythms
Is it memorized yet? It should be... If not, Repeat a few times more

6) Sit at a piano and play the notes as melody - out of rhythm
Work ONE or TWO pages only, or a small section
Repeat as often as possible until the melody seems organic and natural

7) Hum or Sing the notes on nonsense vowels - out of rhythm
First play along, then sing with less help from the piano
Repeat until pitches are more than familiar

8) Focus on All Musical Markings
Highlight or Underline all dynamic, tempo, articulation markings
Translate any markings or words you do not understand

9) Sing the Pitches in their correct rhythms - out of tempo
Work ONE or TWO pages only until learned

10) Add Text to Pitch - out of tempo
Gradually increase tempo until you get into the ballpark

11) Repeat Step #10
Working in small sections
Surely... it is memorized?!
If not, repeat and work in smaller sections

12) Sing the Section just worked on with Intention, making sure to sing sentences

Focus on any aspects that might be challenging
Focus on aspects that are NOT challenging

So – This might seem a bit tedious, or a bit of overkill.

It’s NOT!

After speaking with many, many seasoned opera singers a few patterns emerge. One is their attention to the meaning of the text, attention to details in the score, and a practice pattern of working in SMALL sections.

Too often, young singers start learning a new role or a new aria or a new song by opening the score and singing through it. This isn't all that helpful, IMHO.

They do this, for god-knows-what-reason, to see if it “fits” or if it “suits” their voice. While doing so, one risks learning, or singing in, bad habits, missed notes, fudged rhythms, etc.

The above method might seem like it would take FOREVER to learn anything. Ironically, by working so methodically – and in short sections – you will discover that instead of simply repeating ad nauseum the same mistakes, you will be able to be learned AND memorized in a fraction of the time!

I proved this method works years ago when I had students try out this method on a section of Wozzeck. I divided my students into two groups and gave them the exact same two pages of super-hard music. One group I let leave the room to work on their own for 30 minutes; the other I kept back and ran them through the 13 steps in about 20 minutes.

Guess which group learned the piece 100% accurately?

The other group came back defeated and confused.

A few still use this method.

I must say that it is a spectacular method for learning difficult music – things like Dallapiccola or Berg or Britten. 

Try it and see. I dare you!

Monday, March 3, 2014

March Madness #3: Art

I spent an afternoon at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC recently. Why do paintings move me so? Why does walking through a museum fill up my artistic soul, and leave me so inspired? Perhaps more than listening to classical music does (with the exception of piano music, that'll never change), spending time in a museum refreshes!

Artists and Art, two things that us opera and classical types talk about all the time, but seldom are we referring to actual ART (like Saint Jerome) by actual ARTISTS (like El Greco).  Strolling through the rooms of Rembrandt paintings actually made me giggle a bit. Giddy I was.

Better men than I have written about the great painters, and their timeless portraits and landscapes and fruit bowls and cubist thingies. I won't try.

But I do wonder about the connection between putting paint to canvas, physically creating life on a lifeless flat surface and putting pen to paper, physically creating a sonic world on a silent flat surface. Both paint and pen are nothing without the artist who handles them. Yet once the artist has painted and the frame hangs on the wall, that art is done. It's there. Timeless, hopefully. Forever, at least for the lucky few.

Composers' works, once bound, sit mostly mute and silent. Unless a musician is looking upon the notes, or unless the composer's music has entered the mind enough to warrant the memory being able to recreate those sounds in your head, or unless one gets the required ensemble together to play it live, or unless it gets recorded and re-played, or downloaded, or it comes into your earbuds by happenstance through one's shuffle moded iPhone.  Slightly different eternity for these scores of music. Books are more similar in that way.

Yet, there's a physicality to writing music (at least there used to be before the terrible invention of computers and software like Sibelius.) There's a penmanship, a craft with pencils, erasers, pens, ink, staff paper, scissors, tape and glue. It all is part of the making of a musical score.  I don't think that artists who create art via software that anybody can download is in the same category as what Van Gogh did. Certainly the same might be argued for composers. I don't know.

What I do know is that in those rooms, in that one museum called the NGA in DC, I spent an afternoon looking at example after example of humanity's genius. From the Flemish masters to the Impressionists to the unknown artists who made Byzantine icons, there was genius in almost every stroke, every pigment, in the forms and structures of the figures, and in the emotions on the faces and in the leaves of the trees. I was transported into these artists' minds and was a better mind for it afterwards.

I didn't want to leave.

Us musicians can travel around with the world's great music in our heads, if we so choose. Do artists do the same? Can they close their eyes and recreate the visual splendor of a Manet like we can open our ears with our minds to recreate the aural splendor of a Rachmaninoff etude?  For me, I need these museums filled with paintings.

And that's why, friends, others need music recreated for them in the most visceral way!

March Madness #2: Travel

And I'm already posting late!!

Yesterday was a whirl-wind of travel to the airport to change a flight, back to the hotel to pack, off to the Kennedy Center to meet up with Becky Henry and catch up with her post-McGill life (doing really well!), then backstage to wish the cast TOI TOI TOI, then to my seat to watch the concert, then off IMMEDIATELY afterwards with Othalie to DCA to try to catch our respective planes since SuperStorm Titan was barrelling down upon Washington, DC, and finally a bit before midnight -- boarding my plane to Montreal.

I got in around 1am and was asleep around 2am.

That was my day. Moving about, except the 2 hours in the seat at the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center for the "Essential Verdi" concert given by Maestro Wachner, his wonderful Washington Chorus, and the National Symphony Orchestra.  Hearing Rigoletto, Nabucco, Trovatore, Traviata, and Aida (plus some Requiem excerpts) was a great way to spend a rainy afternoon in DC.

DC is a great city. I think, if I had millions, I'd want to live there. My hotel - the Hotel Rouge, about 8 blocks from the White House -- was perfectly situated near the Logan and Dupont neighborhoods. Great places for brunching, walking around, shopping (bought a great pair of Italian dress shoes in honor of Verdi and two pairs of pants at Brooks Brothers), and people watching.

Loved the people as well. Great people!  Nobody ran into me (like happens here everyday in Montreal), everyone was SUPER polite (I mean, like they were being filmed or something) and that certainly doesn't happen here in Montreal, either; but mostly, I didn't smell any cigarette smoke for the five days I was walking around DC.

It's one of my pet peeves about downtown Montreal. It stinks of cigarette smoke. I wonder what the rate of smoking here is, but it seems extraordinarily high. When I think about other downtown cities I frequent (Chicago and NYC), it strikes me that I don't have to walk through blocks of 2nd hand smoke like I do from the Metro stop to my studio at McGill.  And the weather was lovely in DC, you'd think everyone would've been out smoking. But I just don't think that's what is happening much down in certain parts of the U.S.

Travelling back to my homeland of America also reminded me about what an amazing country the U.S. is, and what a fantastic place DC is for tourism. I took Saturday afternoon to stroll through the National Gallery of Art and just kept smiling at every room: Rembrandts, Rubens, Monets, Manets, etc., etc.

Just. Wow.

I also picked up a cool book. Once read, I'll blog about it. I also bought home tons of Hershey's Chocolate bars for the boys cause the Hershey bars up here suck.