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Saturday, May 21, 2016

The 12 Laws of Operatic Karma

I saw a Facebook posting of the "12 Laws of Karma" and it resonated immediately with me.

Many of us might have heard about operatic Karma. It's along the lines of "say something bad about a colleague's high notes and your next high note will crack", or at least that's one way of looking at it. For many years I joked about "Carma": the wonderful moment when, in a totally packed parking lot, you find a space near the entrance of the store. Carma!

Seriously though, Karma is actually quite a different thing. It is defined various ways...

Merriam-Webster (online): 1) The force created by a person's actions that is believed in Hinduism and Buddhism to determine what that person's next life will be like; 2) The force created by a person's actions that some people believe causes good or bad things to happen to that person.

Your Dictionary (online): A force or law of nature which causes one to reap what one sows.

Wikipedia (our source for everything nowadays): What is Karma?

I boil it down to a force found throughout our world and in our lives based on Cause and Effect which makes each of our futures flexible, i.e. changeable.

A last disclaimer -- The 12 Laws of Karma are found in many different forms and verbiage throughout the world wide web. I've tried not to plagiarize, but many of these laws are listed in the exact same wording, so I think many of the translations out there are pretty standard. There's only so many ways you can write "The Law of Change". So here follows the 12 Laws of Karma with my take on their operatic permutations.

1) The Great Law: The Law of Cause and Effect
Whatever we sow we reap. What we put into the universe will come back to us. This must be understood at a very deep level. No one becomes successful in opera, whether as a singer, conductor, or administrator, without a huge amount of effort. Those that become the most successful are ones who tend to understand this notion of acting accordingly in order to get the most positive results, from themselves and from others. The asshole may, it is true, become vastly successful, but the cost is huge - not just to those around him/her but to themselves as well. Looking for supportive colleagues? Be supportive. Looking for serious students? Be a serious teacher. Looking for inspiration in your creative ideas? Be inspirational to others, be inspired in making your lunch, or in personal notes to others, or in your everyday life on as many levels as possible; let inspiration percolate around you. Send "it", whatever that "it" might be, out into the universe as much as possible. Not all of "it" returns, but you'd be surprised what does!

2) The Law of Creation: Life does not happen by itself, one must make life happen
Careers don't happen. No agent is going to call you up and say they want to represent you, sight unseen. Your voice isn't going to get higher, louder, or more flexible by magic. You must make your life happen. Creating is about being open to life and life, my friends, is about creation.

3) The Law of Humility: One must accept something in order to change it
Humility is an important factor in our operatic lives. The humility one finds in any music library -- all those scores, all those notes, all those geniuses. How can any of us be worthy when reflecting on just one composer's life struggles (like Shostakovich)? But are we humble, in a healthy way, about our shortcomings? Your work ethic, for instance, might be something that you need to accept the truth about in order to change it. Are you procrastinating or being lazy? Your vocal technique, as the most obvious example, might not be fully at the top of the form you need in order to be successful.  Are you being honest with yourself? Is your teacher? Do you like the sound of your own voice? Accept your voice, with all of its wonders and wondrous frailties as humbly as possible and then you'll be able to begin to really make change happen.

4) The Law of Growth: Change yourself, change your life
Looking to change fachs? Looking to change your self-esteem? Wanting a more beautiful or louder voice? Interested in becoming a more adept improvisor? Stop looking for answers outside of yourself, particularly where vocal technique might be concerned. Start by taking a clear look at yourself (see Law #3) and begin to recognize that answers might be found within that brain of yours already. As Gandhi said "be the change you want to see in the world", however realize that the "world" he was talking about also includes you. Some might say that the world is you.

5) The Law of Responsibility: We must take responsibility for our actions, thoughts, and efforts
A pet peeve -- people in opera blaming others for their shortcomings. Examples: The singer who didn't get enough coachings -- that's why they are ill-prepared (poor things.) Or the pianist who's never played an opera by so-and-so and therefore shouldn't be expected to know the style. Or a singer who still, after numerous years of study, can't sing that high Q or sing in tune or sing fioratura cleanly because, well, we know why: their teacher's teaching was to blame. Poppycock! Take responsibility please! Learn your own music by yourself. Learn style by listening to recordings or live singers or by sitting in rehearsals. Demand your teacher teach you what you need to know in order to affect whatever change you feel is needed (see Law #3). If that doesn't work, teach yourself to sing high notes. The basics are pretty basic here. It's not brain surgery. Stop putting the responsibility on others. Don't be a passive receiver of knowledge. Go out there and get it.

6) The Law of Connection: Everything in the Universe is connected, including the past, present, and future
Oh opera! Opera is just one of a few magical inventions that connects living human beings to the minds of long-dead geniuses like Handel. When you work, sing, direct, conduct, play, or even listen to any opera you get to swim in a living pool of music and text created by the sweat and tears of another human. You become connected to them. They live, literally, while the opera lives - from the practice room to the theatre. We live in all three time dimensions. How wonderful is that?! The past sits on our shelves, or in our brains, in the form of our opera scores, the present exists as we open those scores and recreate them, and the future exists in every rehearsal room because we are preparing for the next performance, which informs all of our next performances. Creators of new opera understand this connection. Singers understand this connection; the oral traditions of our art form truly connect us to artists from earlier centuries (like the high E-flat at the end of Violetta's act one aria). It's how we develop style, how we uncover the truth of critical editions, how we make decisions about tempi. It's an operatic superpower, this connection to the past and future. Feel it and be empowered by it!

7) The Law of Focus: One cannot think of two different things at the same time
People will strongly disagree with this statement, but I have finally accepted the truth of the matter. People think that conductors eyes see every note on a page in the full score. We don't. People might think that a conductor is hearing all 50+ orchestral players and singers at any given moment. We don't. We can't. Our attention wanders, in a very ADHD way I think, from split-second to split-second focusing on a cymbal entrance to a singer's breath to a tempo adjustment, etc. In the same way, a singer focuses on many things at one time, but their actual attention moves, like mercury, fluidly from one thing to another. From picking up that wine glass to taking an extra big breath before a long phrase, to feeling an emotional connection to the text that follows to moving their torso towards the audience before taking three steps, to their eyes picking up the conductor's upbeat via their peripheral vision to remembering to relax their tongue so that their voiced rolled r's can stay out of the way for the high note at the end of the phrase. All this can, and does, happen within a second or two. There are millions of notes played in just one opera, there are thousands of movements onstage, there are hundreds of cues given to singers by a conductor's left hand. So much goes on during an opera that it is easy for us to think that we are doing it all at the same time. But truly, we are not, it just seems that way.  So try to give yourself a break here. Understand that perhaps if there is a problem at hand, maybe a solution might be to really focus just on that one issue, instead of doing it all. This is also a good idea during rehearsals when everyone is expecting everyone to be focused on so many different things at the same time. It's okay to take a step back and say to a conductor in rehearsal "let me just focus on dealing with popping this champagne cork while standing on a table and then I'll get those dynamics you want the next time."

8) The Law of Giving and Hospitality: Our behaviour demonstrates our true thoughts and intentions
I blogged about this… Here's the link: Giving Not Taking
Give, don't take. Give in your coachings, don't take a coaching. Give to your colleagues in rehearsal. Be a host to guest artists from out of town. Make some cookies and take them to rehearsal, or bring a banana bread loaf to your voice lesson. Be a musical host as well; why not invite the composer and librettist to a soiree in your head? Talk to them, make a dialogue happen. Especially to the dead ones. You'll love it. You'll feel closer to them, and maybe you might understand their ideas more. Most importantly, watch your tongue and speech. Is gossip that fulfilling? Is disparaging a colleague, stage manager, or wardrobe mistress that important? Consider thank you notes before opening/closing night, consider compliments to singers in the chorus, thank the ASMs (actually, thank everyone all the time!). This is a wonderful and fruitful habit, not just from a karmic perspective, but from a human one.

9) The Law of Here and Now: All we have is Now
One cannot be present if they are looking backward! So true. So easy to understand, actually. The moment any of us musicians look backward we totally lose the present. Easy to understand but oh so hard to put into practice while in rehearsals or performances. How many times do we kick ourselves because we forgot to alter the phrase as planned, or forgot to move stage left one sentence earlier, or forgot to enjoy ourselves at the opera? Forgiveness, self-forgiveness, is an important element in being able to focus on your "present".

10) The Law of Change: History repeats itself unless changed
If we learn from history, the future can be changed. The opera business was in danger of losing its audience. Like symphonic and ballet arts organizations, opera was catering to an established audience and, up until recently, languishing in producing the same handful of operas over and over again, as the audiences aged. But that's not happening now. Just this past month we've seen dozens of world premieres all over North America. Opera Company of Philadelphia released news that the majority of their audiences are now under the age of 35. Wow! Let's keep this Law ever present in our minds.
Now from an artistic, musical, or vocal standpoint, this Law is very important. Simply repeating an aria and thinking that that means your'e practicing it, is basically just repeating history without thought for establishing new parameters, new goals. We repeat a lot in opera rehearsal, repetition is basic to how opera gets done. Just make sure your process is not just history repeating itself without any learning connection. Cognitive dissonance is about doing one thing while believing another. Repeating a phrase or a staging without believing in it, 100%, disconnects your process.

11) The Law of Patience and Reward: Everything of value requires persistence
This is hard. When to give up pursuing a singing career if it's not happening? When does success happen in this business? Those are hard questions with difficult answers.
My answer is connected to persistence. Persistence is both a long-term and a short-term focus of energy. Every morning one must wake up and persistently focus on the daily routine, the day's needs, which are normally all short-term in nature. The long-term part of persistence is much more difficult to achieve on a daily basis. It helps to have clear goals, to write them down, and to articulate them to others. Have goals for the semester, for the next audition season, for the next year, for the next five years. Look at them once a week and think about how to patiently work towards these goals.

12) The Law of Significance and Inspiration: Rewards are a direct result of the energy and effort we put into it
Successful people seem to have a few things in common. The biggest commonality is persistence. They just kept at it, with a determination to succeed. They took crappy jobs, sang for peanuts, learned music all on their own cause they couldn't afford coachings, stayed up late at night staging their audition arias in front of a bathroom mirror, pushed their way into auditions, read up on opera companies, knew who was who in the business, networked with colleagues, etc. They just worked hard, perhaps harder, than others every single day. In many cases of singers I personally know or worked with, they were not the most talented, or gifted with the greatest set of pipes, or had the best physical packaged. However, they made up for it in an uncompromising work ethic striving for excellence. Very few won big competitions, and many didn't even get into the prestigious young artist programs. Yet they are out there, making money by singing. Those of us who've been around awhile can spot them in casts at the first sing through, some can even spot it onstage in performances. Persistence requires patience. It seems that everyone, though, has a story of the super-talented yet lazy singer getting the big contract or winning the big competition. These stories make us think that there are many people out there who don't work as hard as others, yet seem more successful than most. But the reality is different. The rewards of success come from hard work. Patience requires hard work, it's not about sitting around waiting for something to come your way. I'd venture to guess that the majority of professionals in the opera business are people who've made it by being scrappy, being able to toss off rejection, and who were open to change.

More about Significance and Inspiration:
Putting in a significant amount of effort and energy into pursuing a career is extremely important. If you find your energy is generally more focused on something else, from personal relationships to social media to working out at the gym, than you should think about what - and why - you might be pursuing your career goals.

There's lots of talk about the importance of inspiration in our daily lives. Oprah has made millions on this subject. Inspiring yourself to significantly focus your energy to pursue your dreams can not be stressed enough.

And if inspiration doesn't come, it's okay. Turn to something else. Find inspiration in your life. It may not be found in singing or in opera or in music. It might be found in baking bread, designing tables, painting houses, gardening. But the order of things is Inspiration, Persistence, Patience, Flexibility, Giving, Focus, Connecting, and Being Present, Humble, and Responsible in your life. You may find then that Creation and Growth happen much more often, and/or easily. For the karmic reality is, is that what you put into your life is ultimately not what you "get" back, but what you'll be giving to yourself and to others.

Finally, one of the points about the 12 Karmic Laws is that the best Reward is one that contributes to the Whole. The end result is meaningless if it leaves little to nothing behind.

As they say: Namaste

    Fear In Opera

    I’m going to write about fear today. I feel fear and hear fear way too often nowadays in young singers, I see it in young pianists while they enter a room to play for singers, and I read about it on social media all the time now.

    Fear is permeating our world!

    It must stop.

    So – first a few quotes, then a personal story, and then my thoughts on Operatic Fear!

    A few of my favorite quotes on Fear:

    We have nothing to fear, but fear itself – FDR
                (Yes, everyone knows this one, but it is TRUE!)

    Fear keeps us focused on the past and worried about the future – Thich Nhat Hanh

    We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when man is afraid of the light – Plato
                (This is so true in today’s political climate)

    I say I am stronger than fear – Malala Yousafzai
                (Really, knowing her story, how can ANY of us be afraid?!)

    Always do what you are afraid to do – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    I must not fear.
    Fear is the mind killer.
    Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
    I will face my fear.
    I will permit it to pass over and through me.
    And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
    Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
    Only I will remain.
    -       Frank Herbert

    I remember reading Dune in Jr. High School and re-reading the above Litany that appears often in the first section of Frank Herbert’s classis sci-fi book. I memorized it.

    I had much to fear and this Litany became my friend; my weapon against my fear. It sat in my brain and was turned over and over, both consciously and unconsciously, until it became something second nature in me.

    My fear? Fear of death, specifically my death. I was brilliantly misdiagnosed when I was a wee lad of eight; being told, while I was in the room, that I would most likely go blind, or blind and deaf, and that the skin disease would move inward into my neck and perhaps my brain resulting in death by the time I was 18 years old.

    That takes a toll on a young child, as one might imagine.

    My mother took my hand, said something amazingly rude, and walked out of the office with me in tow saying – very loudly – “we will find another doctor who knows what he’s doing!”

    I remember being taken to a Dairy Queen afterwards. I ate a large hot fudge sundae while my mother cried hysterically in front of me in the car, cigarette smoke swirling all around us.

    Even though we found another doctor (a much younger, fresh-from-the-Mayo-clinic doctor), and my skin disease was treated successfully (obviously I’ve made it past 18), being told you might die before you reach college does something to you. I was formed by this event.

    At exactly the same time, I started playing the piano.

    I was fearless at the piano. My amazing piano teacher, Berneil Hanson (still teaching in Council Bluffs, Iowa!) was also fearless. She tossed Bach, Beethoven sonatas, Ravel and Chopin onto the piano and we conquered difficult, college-level pieces when I was in Jr. High. I had no fear of them. I didn’t blink walking into a concerto contest in Omaha with the Beethoven #2 barely learned that morning. I made up the ends of Bach fugues, improvising my way out of them, during state piano contests. I never practiced, because I had no motivation to do so. That motivating fear in most of us – to prepare so we won’t fail – was lacking in me, profoundly so.

    I failed. All the time! And I triumphed as well! But failing did not alter my lack of fear.  Fear had no place in my mind, and therefore had no place in my music making. Those pieces I learned in the late 70s and early 80s are still mostly in my hands. When I play them, I youthen as a musician. Time turns backwards and I’m once again 14 years old.

    But all that changed in college.

    I initially studied with a piano teacher who thought the reason I missed notes was because I had a memory problem. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth, which was somewhere between my secret of never practicing and that I had little respect for the notes on the page (still do – I respect the composer’s intentions, but I don’t think the notes are the point). So in just one semester I was pretty miserable, I was having nerves – for the first time – playing publicly, I doubted myself and my talent, I was discombobulated in one semester by a well-meaning piano teacher.

    This happens to many, as we all know.

    My dropping out of college was a two-fold event: I turned 18 and hadn’t died, but had subconsciously expected to, and my love for playing the piano had died. So I dropped out, had what I’d now describe as a nervous breakdown, and listened to a lot of Tears For Fears, Sting, U2, and Billy Joel.

    Dropping out of college was the second most important formational event of my life. It is one of the huge motivations in my teaching:
                Allow for failure.
                Don’t jump to conclusions about a student.
                Think about the big picture
                Today is just a snapshot of the student, not a symptom of something wrong.
                It’s totally okay to fail, to drop out even.

    Too often, we bearers of the classical music tradition who teach in Universities unmake our students in order to “build their technique” or “create a new musician from their raw materials”. Too often coaches and voice teachers “fix” singers. Like they’re broken or need some sort of hole filled.

    Musicians aren’t doughnuts. They don’t have a hole in the middle of them that needs to be covered up somehow by sweetened frosting in order to make them more palatable to the outside world. No one is a doughnut.

    Too often, young singers and young pianists who enter the world of opera around their late teen years, become overwhelmed by the pretentiousness of the art form, or the sheer amount of repertoire built up over the centuries that they are expected to dive into, or the mystery of what communicating in other languages while embodying a character from ancient Greece means to their emotional makeup as a human being, or they get caught between the entertainment factor and the artistic factor inherent in opera. But most often, they simply stifle themselves as performers because they fear being wrong.

    Being incorrect.

    Making some stylistic, linguistic, musical, dramatic, or vocal mistake that someone – usually behind a table – will notice and take off points, put into their jury comments, or not hire them because they choose to place an appoggiatura in a Mozart recitative, or some other egregious what-the-f-do-you-think-you’re-doing choice that fills the panelist with profound loathing because they are way too pretentious.

    More importantly, fear also affects the sounds singers and pianists make.

    Pianists slam on the soft pedal while playing for singers. All the time now. Why do this? What are they afraid of? That they’ll overwhelm the singer? That someone will hear them play a wrong note, or leave out (rightly so) many of the notes in the piano reduction? They are playing an orchestral reduction. Most often opera orchestras have between 30 and 50 players in the pit. Twenty string players all playing pianissimo is LOUDER than one pianist playing softly with the soft pedal on.  Stop this immediately! You’re not playing a Debussy song (and one should only use the soft pedal where he specifies una corda!) The meek pianist is a sonic bore, and your musicality can’t be heard if it is way too subtle.

    As we say in musical theatre land: Sing Out Louise!

    Looking to the singer side of the aisle, I think fear really permeates decisions about what to add onto a score – for instance, ornaments. Nowadays, it is the rare singer who presents their own ornaments in an aria. I’m talking about Handel, Mozart, and Rossini in particular. It’s as if their whole education as a singer has missed one of the big important lessons: ornamentation is a part of being a singer. Finding ornamentation that works for each unique voice is something that singers, their teachers, and coaches should all be working on during their time in school.

    The way to becoming an artist is to clarify for yourself what your voice can do that is unique and special, as well as what you can do as a musician that is unique and special. One of those things is ornamentation.

    It’s not brain surgery, either. There’s no mystery here. Too often I hear young singers give the excuse that they’ve “never been taught” how to ornament. Or they’ll say they didn’t want to add any ornaments because “they don’t know how to do it” or that they are “afraid of doing it themselves.” Or worse yet, that some important coach told them that if they ornamented, say a Mozart aria, that “they would kill me”.

    That sort of nonsense infantilizes a singer and moves the responsibility from creating their own artistry onto others, sometimes onto people who have had only a few hours of contact with them in some Masterclass, summer program, or production.

    Look at your own fears and walk towards them.

    Are you afraid to learn a new piece on your own and make it your own without any outside help for fear you might be doing something wrong, or it might cause some sort of harm? Run towards that fear and learn a new aria this week!

    Are you afraid to play Verdi because you’ve never been taught or coached or had any experiences with Verdi outside of playing a few arias? Well run to the library and pull out Aida or Ballo or Otello and play through the score!

    Are you afraid to study with another teacher during the summer for fear that your teacher might find out? Who is the employer here? You employ your teachers and coaches, they do not employ – or control – your freedom to learn from whomever you deem important. Take control of your life. Take responsibility for your own learning, your own process. It is literally your business to do so!

    Finally, there is nothing to fear from opera. Opera lives and breathes humanity. You’re creating sounds that only a few hundred thousand people, out of billions, can make. How cool is that?

    Celebrate your courage. Celebrate your unique gifts.

    One way to step away from fear is to step towards something else. I recommend yoga, or mediation, or walking in the woods, or strolling through a museum once a month, or reading a piece of literature that you can’t find displayed in the front half of the local bookstore. Get to a play, go see “Deadpool” and relish the breaking of the 4th wall, binge on Netflix. Then return to your piano, your scores, your practice room and SANG!!

    And then, after drawing courage from your art, empower others to do so in creative, positive ways to help them acknowledges in themselves that when someone takes a chance,  when someone turns their back on being correct, exciting things can, and do, happen!