Why Do Musicians Always Wear Black?

on . Posted in Singing

 
O
A musician’s motto: Black is black is black is black.

Somewhere along the line, black clothing became the standard for performing musicians. It’s easy on the eyes, looks pretty much the same on different fabrics, and looks just fine on almost everyone.

 

Unity

 

An ensemble dressed completely in black looks unified. If they’re all wearing a different color it’s sometimes too much stimulation. If everyone is wearing black, then it’s easier to concentrate on the music they are making and the expressions on their faces. Not every ensemble chooses all black, and there are choirs or concerts for which people wear different colors and it can be absolutely delightful when paired with upbeat repertoire!

 

Events

 

Musicians play and perform at many different types of events and for this, we typically say the wardrobe requirement is “dress black.” This means look professional, wear nice clothing, and it must all be black. This is why musicians typically have copious amounts of black clothing in their wardrobe. It’s also easiest for an ensemble to match each other well if they are all wearing black.

 

For funerals and memorial services, musicians, like attendees, wear black. And although it may seem odd, musicians wear dress black for weddings even though it is a festive occasion (unless the wedding party has deemed otherwise). Black is black is...you get the idea?

For more informal occasions, the combination of black pants or skirt and a black shirt already looks professional without being too dressy, and it’s a way for the musicians to separate themselves from the audience or crowd without having to figure out a new outfit for every performance.

 

Special Case:  Choirs

 

Many choirs have standard dress for their singers, and most typically there is one dress for all the ladies, which they purchase themselves, plus a standard accessory (a scarf or jewelry, perhaps).  Someone from the organization chooses which color hosiery and most often the guideline is simply “black shoes.”

TIP:  Be sure to polish your shoes before any performance, whether you are a soloist up front or you are in the back of the choir. People notice if you haven't shined your shoes, and it does not leave a good impression. Do it a day or two before and you won't have a chance to forget it!

 

I’ve discovered that the more ‘serious’ the repertoire and the higher professionalism of the choir, the more likely it is that they will have ONE particular dress for the ladies. However there are plenty of choirs and ensembles that have a standard for women such as this:  long, black skirt or wide-legged dress pants, ¾- or long-sleeved top, modest neckline, subtle jewelry. This also works very well when a specific standard of dressiness is required (and enforced) but having one dress for all the women isn't a logical choice.

 

For the men, it’s often a black suit or tux with a particular color bow-tie. Often it is also black, however if there is a particular color associated with the chorus, they may choose a different color. For instance, when I sang with the Gaechinger Kantorei in Stuttgart, the men were required to purchase their own burgundy red bow-tie. Use of a vest or a cummerbund is also specified by the choir or ensemble.

 

From Day to Night

 

Musicians lead busy lives and frequently leave the house in the morning only to return late in the evening after a day of teaching, rehearsing, and performing. Black travels well and is versatile and can go from the teacher’s studio to a dressy rehearsal and can be dressed up with fun jewelry or a pair of slacks changed out for a skirt in no time for a performance.

 

Soloists

 

Check back TOMORROW for my next blogpost:  “Do Soloists Have to Wear Black?”

9.11.11 - A High Calling to Service

on . Posted in Singing

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. -Mother Teresa

  

 

On September 11, 2001 I don't think anyone thought about what the 10th Anniversary would be like. People I talk with about September 11th don't talk about the 10th Anniversary, they talk about what happened 10 years ago. We remember where we were, what happened, who we knew who was in New York or working in the Pentagon, or even whom we knew who was supposed to have been in the towers that day, or what story someone just read about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. We talk about the cloud, the dust, the stench. We tell the graphic, personal stories told amongst friends--the real stories of 9/11. We remember who in our group of friends took the first vacation or flight after 9/11, and we remember who hasn't flown since.

Sitting in rehearsal today, I noticed I'm not thinking about the future, I'm thinking about 10 years ago. I'm thinking about all the memories I haven't thought of for 10 years. I realized I have avoided thinking consciously about 9/11. And now, at the service of everyone at 9.11.11 - United We Stand tomorrow, I am forced to remember things I don't want to remember.

And that is the turning point--who am I to not want to remember? Who am I to not want to face the waves of emotions that tomorrow brings? There is work to be done. As musicians, performers, clergy, volunteers, we are at the service of those who do choose to remember. We are at the service of those who need to grieve. We are at the service of honoring the innocence that was lost, the people who are now deceased, the knowledge we have gained since, the truth that now stares us in the face. We are at the service of our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, because we are all created equal. We are at the service of grief itself, for when we've accepted our grief, we find out what wisdom is waiting for us on the other side.

This is a high calling for musicians, to be the ones who comfort those who grieve, to be the catalysts for their grieving process. We must remember first, so we can literally create the program to assist those who are grieving. We must face what needs to be faced and create the service that follows. We must lead the way to a better place. We must carry the vision for peace.

It is truly an honor to be of service to all the brothers and sisters in this world, for we must step up and be the first ones to change, to anticipate what will exist beyond grief. We must be the change we wish to see.

Music doesn't lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music. -Jimi Hendrix

 

5 Tips for Taking a Gig (or Not!)

on . Posted in Singing

Simplicity is key! One of the guiding principles suggested in Ratgeber Freie* for whether or not a gig is worth your while is

"Does it make me happy? Does it make me rich? Does it make me proud?"

and if the gig in front of you meets at least 2 of those 3 guidelines, it's a good idea to take it. If the gig only meets 1, then you ought to be pretty clear on why you're taking the gig--or why you're kindly turning it down.

It's a great way to decide whether to take a gig or not and that's where I usually start; in addition to that, here are several other basics I consider from the very first conversation:

1. Money, honey! This MUST be a clear, upfront, and open topic. If not, say no! Find out if the payment will be made at the first (or final) performance or if the check will be mailed within 1 (or 2) weeks of performance; this is usually stated in the contract, and concert organizers love to get contracts settled & out of the way asap. (Please refer to #3 for more information on this important factor.)
2. Location Where do the rehearsals take place? Where is the gig? Travel time and cost may be an important factor in deciding whether or not you can even make it there. Block off all the rehearsal time in your schedule now and plan extra time to get there and have time to eat if it's around a mealtime. In New York I took a gig and the organizer remembered on Friday night to tell me the next day's rehearsal started at 9 am in Queens--an hour and a half away! Keep in mind that you always need a written commitment, which brings me to #3.

3. Committment Is there a contract? Or at the very least a confirmation letter? Frequently emailed correspondence functions in this manner, but some people just aren't that great with planning. Go ahead and ask--it's your work and you have every right to know all the details. When in doubt, send a friendly, professional email stating all the information you have and ask them to simply reply and confirm it.
TIP:  If you need to charge something like a flight on a credit card, make sure you have a committment before you make the purchase! If you haven't been clear about your expectations with paychecks and reimbursements, it's too easy for people to be late in their payments or even worse, not to pay you at all.
4. Favors Only do favors for musician friends you know, have integrity, and who will be more than happy to pay you back. Worst case scenario:  you do a 'favor' (e.g. work for free) for someone you don't know that well, the music isn't that great, you have to work hard to fit it into your schedule, it stresses you out, and afterward you find out the other singers got paid or got another gig out of it and you didn't. It's too easy to get into a lose-lose situation this way. Donations of time & talent for worthy causes and fundraisers aside, you ARE a professional and working for free devalues your work and your industry. (More to that in this blog post.)
5. Tools If you're a guest singer at a workshop, for example, will the workshop be providing a piano/electric keyboard for you? You may or may not need to provide your own music stand and/or stand light. Do you have a sturdy, travel music stand? Do you have the right size black folder for your performance or do you need a new one so the bent corners of your coffee-stained score won't stick out? It's pretty amazing how many black folders and binders one singer can collect through various gigs, and somehow I always need a different folder. If you're a harpsichordist and you bring your own harpsichord, when can you bring it in to let it acclimate and tune it? I have a harpist friend who set aside a block of hours for every wedding she plays, as she needs to be there quite early to tune her harp, and then she tunes it again before she tunes it again.
Take it from me--it's easier to ask in the beginning than to find out later when you're deeper into the process and conversations can get unnecessarily sticky. And, well, take it from me because I've learned some of these things the hard way. Make sure you're on the same page from the start and all will be well!
O
* Ratgeber Freie is a handbook for freelancers in Germany which explains laws and regulations as well as services available for artists of all kinds (think business consultations and health insurance).
 
**

To Sing is To Heal

on . Posted in Singing

There are times in life when I am absolutely certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that music, singing, movement and dancing, are how we heal ourselves. Most times it's so enjoyable to sing in a concert or to take in a performance that it's not conscious, it's not a conscious choice that you or I would go to a concert or trot off to a gig with the idea in mind, "Today I will heal people. I sing so that I may heal others." Sometimes, sure, when I know that a person who is having a hard time is attending a concert I'm singing, there is a line of thought throughout my performance that runs along...."these notes, this singing is for my friend...she shall be healed, she shall be whole..."

Most of the time, I think of the beauty of the people sitting in front of me and I wonder at their ability to take in the music, to restore their souls, to be filled by and to fill up with the music. Time gets lost and we all get lost in the music together.

 

Let's jump back in time for a moment. In August of 2001 I moved to New York to begin my Master's Degree in Classical Voice. I moved into a dorm room on the 14th floor of the dorm; I looked out my window and took in the magnificence of the George Washington Bridge every night. It was beautiful. Orientation finished, the school year began, and I signed up for my Opera Studio audition.

On September 11, 2001, while one plane crashed into one tower of the World Trade Center, I was half asleep. I got up and went to my friend's room to check my email and she told me that a building downtown was on fire. I thought of the NY Fire Department and their fine reputation and was comforted for the people in the building. From where we were, several miles away on the 14th floor, it didn't look as bad as it really was. As I wrote, emails from friends started to come in. They were short, very odd.  "Are you OK? What happened?" "What's going on in New York City?" "Are you in Manhattan?" I heard screams from the next room and naively wrote to a friend,

"I'm fine! New York is interesting but I haven't seen much of it yet. People just screamed in the next room and there's a building on fire downtown, I need to go find out what's going on. I'll write more later."

As I walked to the room next door, I didn't know the first tower had just fallen. I didn't know I would spend the entire day there, glued to the television. I didn't know our dorm would be locked down and we would be witness to the streams of thousands of people walking up Broadway, trying to get home. I didn't know I would see taxis racing up and down Broadway all day long. I didn't know we would be watching the television as the second tower fell. And when we looked out the window, that it would be gone. And the sky...empty.

 

Despite the endless, oppressive presence of fear, school opened again two days later, we were allowed to leave our dorm, we went to our Opera Studio auditions, and we began to talk, at least a little bit, about healing. Denyce Graves sang at a televised memorial service in Washington D.C. and we wondered how she could ever get through it. The group of students in Opera Studio gathered and somebody said something about being so solid in your performing that you just do it, technically, or something.

I didn't get it, and I wondered how a singer could ignore her emotions and just sing? We saw some quivers in Ms. Graves' hands, we saw the focused concentration--she was grieving and healing right along with us, and it was anything but purely technical. I wondered how she felt inside.

 

Now I don't wonder anymore. I've been asked and have accepted to sing the Mozart Requiem on September 11, 2011 and it's been running through my mind all week. Now I have no doubt about how important it is to sing in order to heal, to grieve, and to move through whatever needs to be moved through. Now I know that singing is as vital to memorializing and grieving as water is to life. Now I know that there is so much to be sung and to be expressed and healed through music itself--that hearing music puts people at peace and calms their troubles. Music holds their hearts in a sacred time and space. Singing is a way to reach out to thousands of people at one time and put my arm around all of them and say into their ears, "It's going to be OK. It will all be OK. We are in this together and we will be OK."

**

Do Singers Get Paid For Singing?

on . Posted in Singing

YES! Just like the organist at your wedding, your child's piano teacher and your high school choir teacher, singers get paid for singing.

Singers add a special emotional, spiritual element to many occasions and they may already be working in music positions you're not aware of. Did you know that many church choirs have section leaders in the different voice parts? And that many private parties hire singers and other musicians for cocktail hours and general entertainment?

Here's a sampler list of all the different work that singers do:

  1. weddings
  2. private voice lessons
  3. church & temple services - as soloists, as paid section leaders, as guest musicians, as choir conductors...the list goes on!
  4. funerals & memorial services
  5. receptions, both private & public - from jazz to pop, some singers sing it all!
  6. orchestral concerts - from symphony orchestras to chamber orchestras and from chamber ensembles to community orchestras
  7. educational outreach - many singers earn their entire living with fascinating programs in schools and libraries
  8. concerts in-the-park
  9. rock bands
  10. singing the national anthem at sporting events
  11. making recordings
  12. voice-overs & jingles
  13. ensembles - this can range from multi-voice ensembles like Cantus, to small ensembles for weddings and memorial services
  14. community choirs - conducting & administrating
  15. other instruments - many singers also play another instrument and many also accompany their own students in recitals and at competitions; you remember Solo & Ensemble, don't you?
  16. piano tunings - every piano needs a tuning at least once a year

Remember, this is just a beginning list of all the work that's out there for singers. Can you think of other work singers do? Email me and I"ll blog about it!

 

 

What's the Difference Between a Mezzo-soprano and a Soprano?

on . Posted in Singing

This is the #1 question I get asked by concert audience members and people I meet on the street.

Let's start with choir voice types. In a choir, people sit in sections:  sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. You’ll probably recognize the names soprano and alto from choir in school. This is different from an actual voice classification, as there are more of those than there are choir voice types.

There are three voice classifications for women:

  • a soprano (the highest)
  • a mezzo-soprano (in the middle) and
  • a contralto (a/k/a alto).

So think of a mezzo-soprano as being able to sing Alto I or Soprano II and fitting into that place in between.

Sopranos are typically comfortable singing higher pitches and also for longer periods of time. Mezzo-sopranos can also sing high, but not always quite as high and mezzos may find it more challenging than a soprano. Mezzo-sopranos also sing lower than a soprano and for longer periods of time. Contraltos sing even lower than mezzo-sopranos but true contraltos don’t sing nearly as high as mezzo-sopranos and sopranos.

Also, every woman’s voice ‘shifts’ differently between the lower, middle, and upper registers (think of those like the low, middle, and high gears of a car) and some singers experience their voices in two registers, or maybe just one! Just as the clutch is different on every car, each person’s voice 'drives' and ‘shifts’ differently.

Do you remember singing in choir in school and there was always that part of a song that went higher, but it wasn’t comfortable until you sang even higher? That’s the part of our voices where we need to ‘shift’ and that is called a passaggio, an Italian word meaning ‘passage.’ Singers practice a lot so these passaggi (the plural of passaggio) aren’t too obvious for the listener.