3 Tips for Not Crying While You're Singing

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Or How Not to Cry at a Wedding. Or a Funeral.

Or at the End of Mahler's 2nd Symphony

Singing is an emotional venture. Listening to singing can be wrenching when you're emotional and it hits you right there--and it can be even harder when you're doing the singing. So imagine you're singing at an emotionally charged event like a wedding or maybe a funeral, or someone close to you has just passed away and you're on to sing Mahler's 2nd Symphony (known as the "Resurrection Symphony").

An excerpt from the German text

Sterben werd' ich, um zu leben!
Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n
wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!
 

translates roughly to:

I will die that I might live!
Rise again, yes, you will rise again,
my heart--in a heartbeat!
 

Moments like this can take your legs out from underneath you if you're already feeling emotional, that's for sure. It can also blindside you in a performance. Here are 3 few tips for creating an emotion-invoking performance without losing it yourself.

1. Lose it ahead of time.

If you have any amount of time prior to the performance, whether it's 5 weeks or 2 hours and you think it's going to be rough emotionally, allow yourself to lose it--just cry. Do it as early as you feel it. Even if it's a few tears 5 minutes before you need to stand up, shed a few tears. If you don't let it out, it will come out whenever it wants, and that will most likely be at the high point of your piece.

2. Breathe actively.

A lot of people are helped by the simple instruction "Just breathe." Frequently this is enough, however if you're having a hard time in your life and you have singing to do, it may not be enough. So breathe actively, be engaged with your own breath, and follow it in and out of your own body. Write in large notes or symbols for taking active breaths in your music.

3. Ground & Center

If you don't know yet what grounding is, click here. (It gets a little woo-woo, so just see what speaks to you and leave the rest.) Practice grounding and centering regularly before rehearsal, before and after practicing, and before concerts. The more you ground & center, the easier it gets. And during a performance, you may have an opportunity to flex and rotate your feet and ankles without anyone seeing. Or just wiggle your toes slowly and deliberately if you feel the tears come creeping up. Try to keep both feet on the floor; it will help you stay balanced emotionally and will help prevent you from getting light-headed if you have to stand up quickly.

What about you? What do you do to keep from getting too emotional in a performance? Comment below.

How Many Languages Do Singers Need to Speak? Part 2

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In Part 1 you discovered just how skilled at foreign languages singers need to become. It takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of time to pronounce a foreign language accurately or to learn to speak it. One element is vitally important:

the meaning.

The meaning of the words and their expression is of utmost importantce in any performance, whether it's a concert with thousands in the audience or a nighttime lullaby for one little child.

This is a vastly different performance philosophy than the park-and-bark methodology of previous generations of singers (which still has a lot of influence today). The focus was on the costumes and the sound, but not necessarily on the meaning of the words and the emotional communication between the performers and the audience.

Here's a bad example:

The European Football League is an American football league (not soccer but real, American football). At one of their games in Frankfurt several years ago a vocal quartet sang the National Anthem just like we do here in the States. It's a meaningful anthem for Americans and it takes on a whole new dimension when you live in a foreign country. So while I was living abroad, every time I heard our national anthem I'd cry.

Except this time.

This quartet took it upon themselves to create a new arrangement in which the actual melody could no longer be distinguished and the harmonies were so crazy, no one could sing along. And trust me, Americans know their anthem well and they sing along no matter where they are in the world. The Germans in the stadium could forget seeing how much they could understand because there was nothing to understand. The beautiful meaning of our national anthem was gone. It wasn't there for the Americans in the stadium and it most certainly wasn't there for the Germans.

In fact, it was so bad that the native German woman standing next to me turned to me and said, "This doesn't sound right."

Here's a good example:

Listen to this, the "Song to the Moon" from the opera Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák, as sung by Leontyne Price. When you're done, scroll down.

 

Did you catch the passion? the longing? Incredible, isn't it?

Read a bit of the background of this piece and read the translation to the text here.

Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about.

How Many Languages Do Singers Need to Speak? Part 1

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Singers really only need to speak one language, however the reality is that they need to be able to pronounce at least a half-dozen and should learn to speak as many as possible. Even if it's just your basic greetings and vocabulary.

  

This is not to say, however, that singers should stress themselves out about learning multiple foreign languages. Too many singers stress themselves out about their language skills being not "good enough," as it's easy to forget how much time and practice it takes to learn a foreign language.

  

What we must learn is the pronunciation of multiple languages and call it diction. We call it diction as singing is basically exaggerated speech, therefore we need to exagerate the pronunciation so it makes sense to you when you hear it with the music. We take diction courses to learn to do this. Art song, opera, and choral pieces are frequently sung in English, French, German and Italian, which are the four foundational singing languages, (in additon to Latin, which we just kind of pick up as we go along). Then there is a whole host of repertoire in Russian, Czech, Spanish, and Hungarian, as well as Vietnamese, Chinese, Polish, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch...and the list goes on.

  

Languages are living things, they change with and over time (we know this as we don't speak like Shakespeare any more). Older music frequently has different pronunciation as well as archaic words. In newer music there might be surrealist poetry with altered words or an expression that doesn't translate well. Or maybe an opera librettist may write one character's dialogue in a dialect.

  

So it's really like any other career, in that you get started with your base knowledge (in this case the singing diction for English, French, German, and Italian) and then you expand it to deeper levels (dialects, understanding foreign language idioms, languages with even more complex pronuncation, rare languages, etc.).

  

No matter what language we sing in, too, it is the singer's duty to pronounce it as accurately, as authentically as possible and to strive to portray the meaning of every single word. The pronunciation is only half the work. The other half is Part 2 of this article. Stay tuned for part 2, next Thursday!

The Pug Under the Piano Bench

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My wonderful, first voice teacher, Nancy Burman, loves animals. Every animal they have ever owned, whether cat, dog, or hamster, has enjoyed an entertaining atmospher e, copious amounts of love from Nancy's numerous voice students and their own family. The Burmans' animals live the good life!

A Pug dog.

When I was in high school the Burmans had a pug named Betsy. Betsy was one of the happiest little dogs I've ever seen. She'd wave her little tail and greet you at the door every week. She loved to sit under the piano bench during lessons and was a very well-behaved dog.

 

Betsy also snorted.

A lot.

Betsy left a legacy of s(n)orts on every lesson recording we made. Because when you're serious about voice, even in high school, you listen to the recording of your lesson to help you practice during the week. Nancy recorded our lessons and song accompaniments for us and we would practice with them to get ready for a competition or a recital.

Betsy was on all of them.

Picture this:  a great voice lesson with loads of progress, and you're learning a wonderful art song like Joseph Haydn's "In the Country." You sing a bit, then the piano is by itself for a couple of measures, you sing a bit, and then the piano concludes the verse.

It's a song that creates a feeling of being out in the country on a sunny day, out in nature with trees and fields, fresh breezes and loads of sunshine...

 

Away from care and sorrow,

I gladly greet the morrow,

When I throughout the night,

Have slept till morning light.

 

 

*PUG SNORT*

 

With freedom in my heart,

When morn dispels the night,

And sorrows all depart,

My heart is ever light.

 

 

*PUG SNORT*

 

(English translation by Frank La Forge, Copyright 1938)

Cook Up Your Resonance: Drop the chicken!

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Few people have informed my singing the way Julia Child did.

 

Really.

 

Here in the Midwest, we don't speak with much resonance. Out East, moreso. But where I come from in Wisconsin, we lock our jaws, freeze our lips, sink the sound to the back of our throats, and cut off all signs of resonance. It's a vast tundra of non-resonant speaking and lack of pronunciation.

This is not helpful when you're learning Classical singing.

It's like only having months-old frozen hamburger in your freezer when you really want a nice, fresh filet mignon. Or my favorite, the New York strip. Yes, this smacks of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic." Very much so.

My first voice teacher, Nancy, tried and tried and tried to help me understand resonance:  "the mask," the "inner smile," what it felt like, what it didn't feel like. She tried one thing, then another, then another, she stayed patient. I did not. I tried, I tried, I tried some more. It didn't grow. I felt awful. I just didn't get it.

 

My next teacher, Lila, looked at me and said

"Can you breathe through your mouth and keep your nose open? Let air flow in and out of both your mouth and your nose at the same time."

What, be a mouth-breather?"

"Yes," she laughed. "Be a mouth-breather for 30 minutes today. That's half of your car-ride home."

We worked on it--it felt bizarre. "Yes, that's it!" Lila said.


Then came Julia Child--in the voice lesson.

"You know Julia Child, right?"

"Of course! She's on PBS."

"OK, do you know the famous story of when she dropped the chicken on the floor, picked it up, and went on cooking?"

I was appalled. That's disgusting. The germ-freak side of me gagged.

"She simply said, 'Oh, damn, I dropped the chicken!' and kept on cooking."

I laughed! That was insane! Someone like Julia Child--with her reputation--that's all she said?! And picked it up off the dirty floor and went on cooking?!

 

"Try it. Imitate her saying, 'Oh damn, I dropped the chicken!' "

"OH DAMN, I DROPPED THE CHICKEN!"I said in the highest, most high-falutin' half-British, half-American I could muster.

That was it! My resonance opened up, I felt the buzz, "the mask" came alive, I smiled inside my nose (without having to raise my eyebrows).

A Job for a Singer

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Finding a day job that supports you financially with the flexibility you require for a singing career is tough. Add the basic need of quality of life (e.g. eating decent food, being able to stay out of debt, and havi reasonable health care options) and it seems almost impossible. But it's not. And you might even find a job that's fun and leaves you with enough energy in the evening to practice and enjoy your free time.

1. Calculate: Find out how much you will be paid, figure out what it will cost you to work there (gas, parking, oil changes, lunch, clothing, etc.) and see if you really can afford to have that job. (See What Your Teacher Never Told Youfor more on being an entrepreneur and making it work.)

2. Location, Location, Location: Keep the job as close to your home as possible. Time commuting/sitting in traffic is wasted time.

3. Specificity: Artists tend to have crazy schedules and any kind of routine can sometimes get lost--because we simply don't have it (sometimes). Try to land a decent job with specific hours and specific duties. Let the job keep you grounded in routine and it will help shape the rest of your week. If you know you have rehearsal every Tuesday and you teach every Thursday night, knowing that your Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule is 8-5 and done, you're more likely to be able to balance out stressful times and stay on top of your practicing and marketing.

Specific duties can also help--musicians tend to juggle more balls than most and a job with enough routine activities to keep you grounded and stable at work (but not too much to be deathly boring) can help focus you.

4. Trial & Error: If you start a job and discover it's draining or you have toxic colleagues or the commute is indeed too long or the hours are constantly changing or it just doesn't suit you or whatever--dump it. You are worthy a day job that supports you and brings you a few steps forward, but not one that drains you or brings toxicity or chaos into your life. (Been there, done that, didn't even get a t-shirt.)

5. Spin It: You've gotta do what you've gotta do, so have fun and treat it as your "cover." Whenever anybody at one of my other jobs hears my music and asks, "What are you doing here?" I respond, "This is my cover."  *wink*